Top 10(ish) of 2021: Most Anticipated Books for 2022

Welcome to my last and final post for 2021! It’s hard to believe that today is the last day of 2021, yet another year where I plan to stay up to make sure it’s over.

This is also my annual post looking forward at the books I’m anticipating the most in the New Year. Although this post is part of @KimberlyFayeReads Top 10 of 2021 I’ve never pretended to only be looking forward to 10 specific books in a coming year. I’m not even embarrassed at having the number inch up every year, although I’ll have to stop eventually as it’s starting to get unwieldy to say the least!

So this is my “22 for 2022” post, along with a bit of a look back at what I thought I was looking forward to this time last year vs. what I actually ended up reading. It turns out that out of last year’s list of 21 books, I didn’t quite get the “round tuit” for 5. There’s one I know I’ll get back to for certain, it just wasn’t quite the right book at the right time when I picked it up. Two of the others are possible but I’d have to be in the right mood and I clearly wasn’t. Some of 2020’s doldrums continue. And two I started and they just weren’t my jam and probably won’t rise back up the virtually towering TBR pile. So many books, so little time, c’est la reading vie and all that.

And now we turn to the year that begins, OMG, tomorrow. Or in the wee hours of tonight.

The books on this list are from series I’m in the middle of, authors I’m familiar with, or both. Because that is the way. I’m already invested and I want more of the same. Or in one case, I’m still dealing with the book hangover from the last book in the series so I’m clinging to that world by my reading fingernails. (I’m looking at you, Jade Setter of Janloon.) Not that I won’t read plenty of new-to-me series and authors as 2022 goes on its merry way. I’m just not anticipating those books nearly as much.

Drumroll please!

Aspects by John M. Ford
Babel : Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of The Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang
Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King
Councilor (Grand Illusion #2) by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
The Discord of Gods (Chorus of Dragons #5) by Jenn Lyons
Fevered Star (Between Earth and Sky #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Fires of Edo (Shinobi Mystery #8) by Susan Spann
The Grief of Stones (Cemeteries of Amalo #2, Goblin Emperor #3) by Katherine Addison
Hiss Me Deadly (Cat in the Stacks #15) by Miranda James
The Jade Setter of Janloon (Green Bone Saga #0.5) by Fonda Lee
The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Last Exit by Max Gladstone
Lightning in a Mirror (Fogg Lake #3) by Jayne Ann Krentz
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments (Edinburgh Nights #2) by T. L. Huchu
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot #2) by Becky Chambers
The Sacred Bridge (Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito #25) by Anne Hillerman
A Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
The Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge #4) by Allison Montclair
Warrior of the Wind (Nameless Republic #2) by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
When Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr #17) by C.S. Harris
When She Dreams (Burning Cove #6) by Amanda Quick

Top 10(ish) of 2021: Best of 2021

Welcome to my best books list for 2021, on this next to the last day of the year. As part of @KimberlyFayeReads Top 10 of 2021 this is supposed to be a list of my 10 favorite books of the previous year.  I have NEVER had any luck at reducing this list to 10. Not ever in 10 years of trying. So this isn’t my Top 10. Instead, it’s every book this year I gave either an A++ or A+ rating to over the course of the year, plus one I gave a Starred Review to in Library Journal but made the mistake of not writing up for Reading Reality.

There are some trends in this list over the years. There’s more SF and Fantasy than any other genre, has been for a while, and the trend looks likely to continue. (Yes, I’ve already read ahead. A bit. Just a bit.) The rest of the list is a mix of mystery/thriller – whether historical or contemporary- and one lone work of women’s/relationship fiction that was utterly awesome and even more so when considering it was the author’s debut novel. She’s set a high bar for herself and I’m looking forward to her future work. But that’s tomorrow’s post!

The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory
The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman
Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill
Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee
The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson
Junkyard Bargain by Faith Hunter
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
The Last Daughter of York by Nicola Cornick
A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark
Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow
The Taste of Ginger by Mansi Shah
A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein
What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris
White Top by M.L. Buchman
The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda LeeJade Legacy (The Green Bone Saga, #3) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #3
Pages: 713
Published by Orbit on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.
The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.
The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

My Review:

As the final book in the epic – but not necessarily epic fantasy – Green Bone Saga, the story here deals with resolving the past and turning towards the future. In other words, the legacy of the two rival Green Bone clans in Kekon; The Mountain and No Peak.

A legacy that both clans continue jockeying over and for every step of the way – until the bitter end of not one but two old tigers that we’ve watched fight for control through three marvelous books.

The story that began in Jade City centered on the hot war for the city of Janloon between the Mountain clan led by the master strategist Ayt Madashi and the Mountain’s former allies turned bitter enemies, the No Peak clan founded by the Kaul family and led in its current generation by the wartime chief, or Pillar as they are termed in Asian-inspired Kekon, Kaul Hilo with his sister Kaul Shae at his side as the business leader or Weather Man of the clan.

That Ayt Mada is the first female Pillar, while Kaul Shae is the first female Weather Man is part of the long struggle between the clans.

That hot war switches to a cold war in Jade War, as the two clans have become so large and control so much of their country that neither can manage to swallow the other. Instead they fight through foreign subsidiaries, mercenaries, and proxies.

By the time that Jade Legacy begins, that cold war has turned into a “slow war” with the Ayt and Kaul families on opposite sides of both local and international conflicts. They cooperate in small ways while backing up their international proxies with money, jade, and in the case of the Mountain, the drugs that allow non-Kekonese to master the Jade disciplines. The larger countries, the Republic of Espenia and Ygutan, believe that the Ayts and the Kauls are tributaries in their wars, when from the Kekonese and clan perspectives, both clans of Green Bones are using their allies instead.

The story of Jade Legacy takes place over a span of 20+ years, as Kaul Hilo and Ayt Mada mature and even begin to grow old as both adversaries and jade warriors. As the saying goes, “Jade warriors are young, and then they are ancient.” When the story began in Jade City, they were young, barely into adulthood, newly and unexpectedly the Pillars of their respective clans, still under the long shadow cast by their predecessors, the Spear and Torch of Kekon who threw out an attempted colonization by powers who thought they could not be defeated by barbarian savages.

Jade War is the story of both in their prime, while Jade Legacy is about the long, slow progression of Kekon in their wider world, and of the transition from their generation to the next as we see Hilo’s children and the children of his family and friends grow to take their places in the clan.

It’s an epic, uplifting and heartbreaking by turns. It’s a sprawling family saga, in the same way that The Godfather was a family saga. A story about multiple generations of a family, of people who do some very bad things for what they perceive or believe are good reasons. People who are often thought of as criminals by outsiders, and whom we feel for anyway. Deeply.

Escape Rating A++: This book, and this entire series, deserve all the stars. I picked this to be the last review of the year because I wanted to finish this year’s reading with a real bang of a winner, and Jade Legacy delivered all the highs and lows I could possibly have ever wanted.

I started with the audio on this, which was ,as usual, excellent. But I read a lot faster than I listen, and I desperately needed to know how this one ended so I finished in one epic, 5-hour reading binge. I still have the epic book hangover to go with that long binge followed by that bang of an ending.

As I look back on the whole thing, the Green Bone Saga feels like it’s Shae’s story. At the beginning, she’s on her way home from exile in Espenia to pay her respects to her dying grandfather, the old hero once known as the Torch of Kekon. In the wake of his passing, Kekon explodes, eventually leaving Shae as the first female Weather Man of her clan to her brother Hilo’s Pillar.

Shae is at the center of the whole saga. Hilo and Ayt Mada may grab all the attention in the foreground of the story as much of the action centers on the more active aspects of their feud, but Shae is always in the room where it happens – and is the cause of much of it happening. And in the end, Shae is the last one of her generation still standing. Even the formidable Ayt Mada has been brought low. Only Shae is left to tell their story. And I grieved with her at the ending of it all.

It began as a story about what happens to a family and a society after the revolution has been won. How do you keep the ideals alive in the second and third generations as the memory fades and the wider world seduces with new temptations and new shortcuts?

It ends as a story about moving forward into the future by setting aside the old grievances without leaving behind the old virtues.

Ultimately, the contest between the Mountain and No Peak was a war of differing perspectives on how to accomplish that feat. And the difference between them came down, not to a specific strategy or even a specific individual, but rather a contest between a leader who relied only on herself and accepted no vision and trusted no word other than her own – and a leader who was not afraid to gather the best and the brightest around himself, listen to them even when they disagreed with him, and let them do their damn jobs. One person’s vision of “the greater good” vs. the squabbling but ultimately unified vision of an entire family.

Watching them rise, and fall, and rise again is a journey very worth taking. If you have not yet had the pleasure, start with Jade City and be prepared for a wild, satisfying and heartbreaking ride. I envy you the journey.

Although the story of the Kaul family and the No Peak clan has come to a fittingly bittersweet ending, there is still one brief visit to Janloon to look forward to. The Jade Setter of Janloon, a prequel novella for the trilogy, will be out in the spring of 2022. And I’m glad because I’m not at all ready to let this family and this world go.

Review: Cry Wolf by Hans Rosenfeldt

Review: Cry Wolf by Hans RosenfeldtCry Wolf: A Novel by Hans Rosenfeldt
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, Nordic noir, suspense, thriller
Series: Hannah Webster #1
Pages: 400
Published by Hanover Square Press on December 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A DEAD WOLF
A DRUG DEAL GONE WRONG
A LETHAL FEMALE ASSASSIN

The first book in a new series by Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of the TV series The Bridge as well as Netflix’s Emmy Award–winning Marcella.
Hannah Wester, a policewoman in the remote northern town of Haparanda, Sweden, finds herself on the precipice of chaos.
When human remains are found in the stomach of a dead wolf, Hannah knows that this summer won’t be like any other. The remains are linked to a bloody drug deal across the border in Finland. But how did the victim end up in the woods outside of Haparanda? And where have the drugs and money gone?
Hannah and her colleagues leave no stone unturned. But time is scarce and they aren’t the only ones looking. When the secretive and deadly Katja arrives, unexpected and brutal events start to pile up. In just a few days, life in Haparanda is turned upside down. Not least for Hannah, who is finally forced to confront her own past. 

My Review:

The mystery in Cry Wolf and the solving of it read like they sit at the crossroads between “For want of a nail” and “This is the house that Jack built.” The former being the first line of a quote from Benjamin Franklin, and the latter being an English nursery rhyme. Both are cumulative stories, where one thing leads to another and another. Not necessarily in a straightforward or even competent fashion.

No one comes out of this story exactly smelling of roses. There’s plenty of blame, misunderstanding, misdirection and downright incompetence involved along the way.

At the same time, Cry Wolf also reads like a non-superhero based origin story for Black Widow, one in which she continues to put more red in her ledger until the day she dies, still doing the work of the “Red Room” – or in the case of Katja in Cry Wolf, “The Academy”.

But those perspectives are long views of Cry Wolf, the latter of which seems most plausible at the ending. At the beginning there are two dead wolves with human remains in their bellies on the Swedish side of the border between Sweden and Finland outside the remote, fading town of Haparanda.

The local cops, including Hannah Wester and her boss – and illicit lover – Gordon, start out worrying about how the discovery of the man-eating wolves is going to exacerbate local, regional and even national tensions over whether wolves should be protected or hunted to elimination in the region.

But of course the case isn’t that simple. And this is where we get into the whole “For want of a nail” scenario. The wolves, a mother and cub, did not bring down human prey. They found a murder victim. It’s not that wolves are incapable of killing humans with enough motivation or desperation – it’s that wolves aren’t capable of shooting a gun.

That lets the wolves off the hook, but the situation only expands from there. The murder victim was the sole survivor of a drug deal that went wrong on the other side of the border in Finland. He left the half dozen victims behind riddled with gunshots while he walked away with bags of drugs and money – and with a bullet in his ass.

Only to be struck down by a hit and run driver who seems to have made off with the drugs and the money. Drugs and money that belong to the Russian mafia – who want their property back and intend to make an example of whoever got in their way.

And that’s the point at which everyone’s competence goes more than a bit out of whack. The local police are out of their depth. Their liaison from the Finnish side is on the take from the Russians. The hit and run driver and his accomplice are locals who desperately need the money but only have vague dreams about how to handle things. And the agent the Russians send to Haparanda, a graduate of the legendary Academy that trains abused children to become assassins, isn’t able to overcome her initial overestimation of just how capable her opposition might be. She’s left floundering in professionalism as she’s overcome by sheer, dumb luck.

While policewomen Hannah Wester tries to put her best into the investigation as her entire life falls apart.

Escape Rating B+: Cry Wolf very much falls into the category of “Nordic noir”. In fact, the author of Cry Wolf is also the creative mind behind one of the more popular Nordic noir TV series, The Bridge. So readers who either like the series or like this branch of the mystery genre are going to feel right at home in Haparanda and Cry Wolf.

The setting of this story is bleak and the lives of the principal characters seem even bleaker. That’s not criticism, as the bleakness is a hallmark of the genre. But, and a huge but here, this probably isn’t a book to read if you’re already depressed unless you’re the kind of person who really gets off on schadenfreude.

There’s no one happy in this story. It’s not that kind of story. This also isn’t a story where anyone seems to display much in the way of competence, which is one of the things I often read mysteries for. In this particular case, it’s more like a series of accidents looking for places to happen – and then for someone to happen upon them.

But I have to say that it’s compelling to read. I was hooked from the very first page, even if I never did figure out where it was going until near the end. Which, come to think of it, isn’t a surprise as none of the perpetrators seemed to know where they were going, either. And the few who thought they did ended up being surprised by where they ended up – and usually dead shortly thereafter.

So the spooling and unspooling of this mystery reads more like a series of stumbles, rather than the usual breakneck race towards a finish.

The part that’s sticking with me is that mirror darkly reflection of Black Widow. At first, we’ve got a policewoman whose life is falling apart and a mafia assassin and no relationship between them. But as the story progresses, in its kaleidoscope of first person perspectives, we learn more about the mysterious Katja and her abusive childhood and miraculous rescue by her equally mysterious “Uncle”. The more of Katja’s history we see, the more it looks like her life was rigged. That it might – and still might not – intersect with Hannah’s own tragedy looks like it’s going to power the next book in the series, whenever that might be.

And I’m more than curious enough to want to see what happens next!

Review: Guild Boss by Jayne Castle

Review: Guild Boss by Jayne CastleGuild Boss (Harmony, #14) by Jayne Castle
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, futuristic, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, science fiction romance
Series: Harmony #14, Ghost Hunters #14
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to Illusion Town on the colony world of Harmony—like Las Vegas on Earth, but way more weird.
Living in this new, alien world doesn’t stop the settlers from trying to re-create what they’ve left behind. Case in point—weddings are still the highlight of any social calendar. But it’s the after-party that turns disastrous for Lucy Bell. Kidnapped and drugged as she leaves the party, she manages to escape—only to find herself lost in the mysterious, alien underground maze of glowing green tunnels beneath Illusion Town. She’s been surviving on determination and cold pizza, scavenged for her by a special dust bunny, when help finally shows up.
Gabriel Jones is the Guild Hunter sent to rescue her, but escaping the underground ruins isn’t the end of her troubles—it’s only the beginning. With no rational reason for her abduction, and her sole witness gone on another assignment for the Guild, whispers start circulating that Lucy made it all up. Soon her life unravels until she has nothing left but her pride. The last thing she expects is for Gabriel Jones to come back to town for her.
The Lucy that Gabriel finds is not the same woman he rescued, the one who looked at him as if he were her hero. This Lucy is sharp, angry, and more than a little cynical—instead of awe, she treats him with extreme caution. But a killer is still hunting her, and there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to heroes. Despite her wariness, Gabriel is also the one person who believes Lucy—after all, he was there. He’s determined to help clear her reputation, no matter what it takes. And as the new Guild Boss, his word is law, even in the lawlessness of Illusion Town.

My Review:

This entry in the Harmony series has one of the best opening lines in pretty much ever, “The Lord of the Underworld showed up with the dust bunny and a pizza.” Not that Gabriel Jones is actually Hades – even if he does go along with the somewhat macabre joke.

The pizza is a small cheese and olive from Ollie’s House of Pizza. The dust bunny’s name is Otis, and a small is all he can manage to carry. He gets a slice and Persephone, otherwise known as Lucy Bell, gets dinner in the underground chamber she’s been trapped in for the past several, hazily counted days.

Gabriel Jones is there to rescue her – with the help of the dust bunny. After all, Otis has been helping Lucy all along, and Gabriel is just carrying out yet another mission for the sometimes famous, sometimes infamous Ghost Hunters’ Guild.

Welcome to Harmony, a planet in the human diaspora that lost contact with the homeworld a couple of centuries back, and has been not just surviving but thriving ever since. With the help of the dust bunnies and the boost in psychic power that comes from living on this planet with a murky alien past and a wealth of finely tuned resonating amber.

No one knows why the aliens left, only that they left their ruins behind both above and below ground. And that the colonists from Earth discovered that their psychic powers were enhanced by the amber – and that they needed to hone those enhancements to survive on this planet where so much of the weather and everything else could be deadly to those without protection from the psychic phenomena that permeate the place.

But the colonists were part of Earth’s Arcane Society, so they had what it took to make a go of Harmony when their Earth tech began failing after they were cut off.

Two centuries later, everyone on Harmony has at least a bit of talent. Guild members have a lot as they handle security in the most ghost-ridden and psychic phenomena rich areas – and are both celebrated and envied as a result. And occasionally good guild members, like good cops, go bad or get seduced to the dark side by the power and adulation.

But Lucy Bell isn’t a guild member – she’s a weather channeler. She’s able to direct and redirect the deadly power-storms that Harmony regularly throws up. When this story begins, she’s trapped underground among the storms and the phenomena without her amber while recovering from Harmony’s equivalent of a “Mickey Finn”. Even when he locates her, Gabriel doesn’t believe she was drugged by ‘person or persons unknown’. He’s sure, just as everyone else seems to be, that she got herself drunk, took the drugs voluntarily and got herself lost in a blackout. That she’s unstable and damaged.

Even her parents believe it.

That her rescue results in another forced round of hallucinogenic injections only makes her situation worse – but by that time Gabriel Jones is off on his next mission leaving Lucy to suffer the fallout.

He expects her to fall straight into his arms when he returns to Illusion Town as the new Guild Boss. She just wants to give him a piece of her mind over the downturn her life has taken since he carried her out of the Underground and left her in the hands of the men she saw as demons.

It’s only when they combine forces, he looking for a lost Old Earth artifact with still deadly powers and she attempting to revive her reputation and her business by assisting him, that they discover that her kidnapping and his hunt are all part of the same deadly game.

Just because you’re paranoid does not preclude someone being out to get you – and there’s definitely someone, or perhaps more than one – out to get them both.

Escape Rating B: All of the Arcane Society’s chicken have come to roost on Harmony to lay some VERY bad eggs. Some, but not all, are Easter Eggs in this book for anyone who has ever read any of the author’s interconnected series, her historical Arcane Society (written as Amanda Quick), her contemporary Arcane Society (written as Jayne Ann Krentz) and her futuristic Harmony (sometimes referred to as Ghost Hunters) books, of which Guild Boss is the 14th, written as Jayne Castle. (The author referred to it as the “Jayneverse” although I personally prefer “Arcaneverse” as a collective title).

I actually read this back in May when I first picked up the eARC. I have to admit that it didn’t grab me at the time the way that this author’s books usually do, no matter what pen name they are written under. And because I didn’t get into it the way I usually do, I didn’t write it up.

Having reread it over the holiday weekend, I’m not sure what happened the first time that it didn’t work for me, because it certainly did this time. Whether it was the right book at the right time now when it wasn’t then, or I’m just in the mood for an action/adventure type romance, I don’t know. But I did like Guild Boss the second time around quite a lot so I’m glad I went back to it.

One of my favorite things about the Harmony series are the dust bunnies. Every single one of them has a personality that is just so huge compared to their size. And they are, every last one of them, inveterate scene stealers. Otis is no exception. In fact, he loves to be in front of the camera. Any camera. All the cameras. For a dust bunny he’s kind of a ham.

The mystery in this one is big and convoluted and it’s a bit easy to get lost in it. There are a lot of moving pieces and it doesn’t quite all tie up neatly. Likewise, the romance is hot and electric, but a bit on the instalove side of that equation.

I think I felt like a couple of issues were a bit unresolved or got swept under the carpet. When Gabriel comes back to Illusion Town, Lucy, well, I want to say she didn’t make him grovel enough but her situation wasn’t his fault. At the same time, it’s understandable that she blamed him for it. That internal conflict, and it is mostly internal, got wrapped up a bit too easily, especially considering how often she chided him throughout the book about her being just another mission to him and how focused he was on climbing the Guild ladder.

It also seemed like her conflict with her parents was left hanging. Not that life’s conflicts generally get wrapped up with a tidy bow, but their disappointment and disapproval was a bit Chekhov’s Gun, even if the only possible resolution would be inside her head.

All of that being said, my re-read of Ghost Boss was much more fun than my original read, so I’m very glad I took the trip back to Harmony. While it looks like it’s going to be awhile before the author returns to Harmony, I still have two books with her signature blend of romance, adventure and psychic phenomena to look forward to this year, Lightning In a Mirror next month and When She Dreams in May. I expect them both to be marvelous reading treats, just as Guild Boss turned out to be!

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 12-26-21

Today is the first day of Kwanzaa. It’s also Boxing Day, at least sorta/kinda, in the U.K. and many current and former Commonwealth countries. It’s primarily known as a shopping holiday. Not exactly like the U.S. Black Friday but not totally different, either.

But there’s Boxing and then there’s BOXING, with or without any Marquess of Queensberry rules. And, there’s kitty-boxing, as pictured below. I want to say that both Hecate and George would be middleweights for cats, but she’s more roly-poly and he would be a lean, mean fighting machine – if he were at all capable of being mean, that is. They’re playing of course, but the expression on Hecate’s face is mighty fierce!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Dashing December Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Winter is Coming Giveaway Hop is Monique

Blog Recap:

A Review: The Untold Story by Genevieve Cogman
A- Review: Ghost of the Bamboo Road by Susan Spann
A+ Review: The Last Daughter of York by Nicola Cornick
A+ Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood
B+ Review: Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet
Stacking the Shelves (476)

Coming This Week:

Guild Boss by Jayne Castle (review)
Cry Wolf by Hans Rosenfeldt (blog tour review)
Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee (review)
Top 10 of 2021: Best of the Best (feature)
Top 10 of 2021: Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2022 (feature)

Stacking the Shelves (476)

In the immortal words of John Lennon, “So this is Christmas…” So Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas to those of you who celebrate this holiday, and Happy Holidays to everyone!

Not a lot of books came in this week, and I expect next week to be just as sparse. A lot of people have the holidays off in one way or another.  They’re still not real to me, it’s supposed to hit 70°F here in Atlanta, and pretty much stay that way until at least New Year’s Eve.

This is also the first day of the Top 10 of 2021, hosted by @KimberlyFayeReads. Today’s theme is “Books I Wish I’d Made Time to Read in 2021” and the answer, honestly, is ALL OF THEM. Maybe not the ones in genres and subjects I don’t normally read, but that still leaves all the Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mysteries, Romance, etc., etc., etc. So many books, so little time, and more books and less time EVERY YEAR!

For Review:
Escape from Yokai Land (Laundry Files #12) by Charles Stross
Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet (REVIEW!!!)
Quarter to Midnight (New Orleans #1) by Karen Rose
Screams from the Dark edited by Ellen Datlow
The Summer Place by Jennifer Weiner
Wake of War by Zac Topping
The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

Please link your STS post in the linky below:


Review: Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet

Review: Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda BouchetFire of the Frost: A midwinter holiday fantasy romance anthology by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy romance, holiday romance, short stories
Pages: 368
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on December 22nd 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A midwinter holiday fantasy romance anthology…

From Darynda Jones, A Wynter Fyre a standalone novella set in a world where vampyres are hunted for sport. The only thing standing between them and total annihilation is Winter, a warrior bred to save them from extinction. Forbidden to fall in love, Winter cares only about her oaths… until she meets the devilish prince of the underworld.

Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet
The Kingmaker Chronicles meets modern-day New York City! Piers, an exiled warrior from Thalyria, finds himself in the Big Apple just before the holidays. The world and everything in it might be utterly foreign to him, but that won't stop Piers from helping to complete a vital mission for Athena and protect Sophie, a French teacher from Connecticut who's suddenly knee-deep in inexplicable phenomena, danger, and henchmen after an Olympian treasure that should never have ended up in her hands—or remained on Earth after the Greek gods abandoned it.

The King of Hel by Grace Draven
A novella-length expansion of a stand-alone short story in which a cursed mage-king from a frozen kingdom is obligated to marry a woman of high-ranking nobility but meets his soulmate in a lowly scribe.

Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy
It’s holiday time at Convocation Academy, but best friends Han and Iliana are finding it hard to celebrate. As a familiar, Iliana is facing her assignment to a life of servitude to a wizard, very soon. And Han… despite being tested by the oracle daily, he is still uncategorized. As Iliana and Han face being separated forever, they at last find the courage—or desperation—to break the rules and acknowledge their deeper feelings for each other. But it will take more than true love to save them from the laws of the Convocation…

My Review:

This holiday treat dropped into my lap this week and I couldn’t resist starting it immediately! Isn’t that what holiday treats are for? Immediate consumption for the yes! Especially as I’ve received earlier versions of this confection of a collection (Under a Winter Sky, Seasons of Sorcery and Amid the Winter Snow) and they’ve all been wonderful reading treats.

For the most part, this year’s collection of winter fantasy romances was a very sweet treat indeed – with just enough naughty in the mix to give Santa a blush or four.

My absolute favorite story this year was Grace Draven’s The King of Hel, and not just because it’s a standalone story that isn’t set in one of her other worlds. It’s the kind of fantasy romance that didn’t really have to be a fantasy romance. In fact, its real world inspiration was not. Inspired by the real life romance between Madame de Maintenon and Louis XIV of France, this is the story of Doranis, the magic-touched king of Helenrisia and his queen’s best friend, the modestly born Castil il Veras. What made this story so beautiful is the way that Castil’s deep, life-long friendship with Doranis’ queen is not broken by the romance. Rather, Castil is heartbroken when her best friend dies in childbirth yet still honors that friendship. But life goes on, and the queen’s death gives Doranis the freedom to marry the woman who is suited to him in all ways but birth, and lets Castil acknowledge her love for a man who was otherwise twice beyond her touch.

This was just a beautiful winter romance between two strong and surprisingly equal partners and I loved every page of it.

On the other hand, my least favorite story in this collection was Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy. It’s not that it’s not a good story, because it is, and it’s not that it’s not well done, because it is that as well. It’s that the protagonists of the story are fundamentally, by law and custom, absolutely powerless and their powerlessness gets rubbed like salt into their wounds and the reader’s psyche at every turn. This is just one of those cases where I know it’s good and I know there’s an audience for it and I’m just not it.

Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet was just plain fun, kind of in the way that the first Thor movie was fun. At points, literally in the way that the first Thor movie was fun, a fact that the heroine references more than once during the course of her whirlwind romance while running from bad guys story plays out. Although Piers of Thalyria, an exile from the world of the author’s Kingmaker Chronicles, has no godlike powers, it turns out that his heroine does and he’s been jerked across time and space in order to protect her while she figures out how to either use them or give them back. The story here is kind of a lighthearted romp – in spite of being chased down by evil entrepreneurs and their henchmen at every turn.

Last but not least, my second favorite story in the collection, Darynda Jones’ A Wynter Fyre. The beginning had a bit of an “aliens made them do it” start – not that any of the characters in this story are actually alien to this world. But there’s a common fanfiction trope for series like Stargate and its spinoffs where the characters are compelled by unbridled libidos to have sex because of “alien sex pollen”. The way this story begins, with vampyres biting Wynter in order to infect her with the equivalent of “vampyre sex pollen” had a very similar feel. Particular when the hero fends off the bad vamps in order to woo her for himself, once he’s helped her take the edge off, so to speak.

After that hot, heavy, creepy and slightly rapey beginning the story itself takes a surprising turn. Wynter has been awakened from 70+ years as a statue because her mother the demon (yes, the being she believes is her mother is an actual demon) needs her to rescue a kidnapped vampyre princess.

But it’s all a setup. Not that the princess hasn’t been kidnapped, but it’s all part of the plot to give Wynter the chance to do her job of protecting the vampyres properly – by killing the greatest threat to their existence – her demon mother. That the setup also manages to change the romance from a sex into love story into a second chance at love story is all part of its charm – something this one had absolutely oodles of.

Escape Rating B+: This collection is always a lovely holiday treat. But like any collection, some stories hit the mark with this reader – or any other – while others aren’t quite as close to the bullseye.

If I were giving individual ratings, A Wynter Fyre would get an A; Of Fate and Fire would receive a B; The King of Hel hits the high spot at A+ while Familiar Winter Magic just didn’t work for me at all. Your reading mileage – even through the snowy landscape of these winter tales – will definitely vary.

No matter which stories in the collection tickle your holiday reading fancy, the collection is definitely worth curling up with some hot chocolate and a cozy blanket for a delicious holiday read!

Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen Spotswood

Review: Murder Under Her Skin by Stephen SpotswoodMurder Under Her Skin (Pentecost and Parker, #2) by Stephen Spotswood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Pentecost and Parker #2
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday Books on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Someone's put a blade in the back of the Amazing Tattooed Woman, and Willowjean "Will" Parker's former knife-throwing mentor has been stitched up for the crime. To uncover the truth, Will and her boss, world-famous detective Lillian Pentecost, travel south into a snakepit of old grudges, small-town crime, and secrets worth killing for.

New York, 1946: The last time Will Parker let a case get personal, she walked away with a broken face, a bruised ego, and the solemn promise never again to let her heart get in the way of her job. But she called Hart and Halloway's Travelling Circus and Sideshow home for five years, and Ruby Donner, the circus's tattooed ingenue, was her friend. To make matters worse the prime suspect is Valentin Kalishenko, the man who taught Will everything she knows about putting a knife where it needs to go. To uncover the real killer and keep Kalishenko from a date with the electric chair, Will and Ms. Pentecost join the circus in sleepy Stoppard, Virginia, where the locals like their cocktails mild, the past buried, and big-city detectives not at all. The two swiftly find themselves lost in a funhouse of lies as Will begins to realize that her former circus compatriots aren't playing it straight, and that her murdered friend might have been hiding a lot of secrets beneath all that ink. Dodging fistfights, firebombs, and flying lead, Will puts a lot more than her heart on the line in the search of the truth. Can she find it before someone stops her ticker for good? Step right up! Murder Under Her Skin is a delightfully hardboiled high-wire act starring two daring heroines dead set on justice.

My Review:

The first book in this series, Fortune Favors the Dead, opened the partnership between private investigator Lillian Pentecost and former ‘cirky girl’ Willowjean Parker with Parker throwing a knife into the back of the man attempting to assault Pentecost.

The story in Murder Under Her Skin takes Will Parker, along with Lillian Pentecost, back to the place where Will learned how to throw that knife with intent, aim and a whole lot of nerve.

Will’s former mentor, the knife thrower Valentin Kalishenko, has been accused of murdering one of Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus and Sideshow’s sideshow attractions. Ruby Donner, the circus’ “Amazing Tattooed Woman”, is dead. With one of Kalishenko’s knives in her back.

The evidence is all circumstantial, but the local townspeople would much rather that someone in the circus killed one of their own rather than one of the townspeople being accused. The circus performers, one and all, are just as certain that whatever happened, Kalishenko didn’t do it.

The man left his knives everywhere. Anyone could have picked one up to strike the fatal blow. But Kalishenko has no alibi. He doesn’t even remember where he spent the night – only that he spent it in an alcoholic blackout.

A not uncommon event – but an exceedingly inconvenient one. At least for Kalishenko.

The circus’ owner asks for Lillian Pentecost’s help in figuring out who really done it. A help that Pentecost feels duty-bound to provide after the events in the previous book. Will wants to help her former mentor, and needs to help get her friends, her former found family, out of the jam they are in. And just wants justice for Ruby.

Along the way, Will discovers that her home in the circus was the kind of home that you can’t go back to again. She can and does help, even though the discovery that she’s no longer a member of the family breaks her heart.

Escape Rating A+: The Pentecost and Parker series, or at least this particular entry in it, is one of the most satisfying but also most unexpected book babies ever. If Rex Stout’s classic Fer-de-Lance (the first Nero Wolfe book) had a book baby with Phryne Fisher, particularly Blood and Circuses, the resulting book would be Murder Under Her Skin.

The comparison with Fer-de-Lance struck me in the first book because the setup of the partnership is so similar. Will becomes the legwoman and principal “active” investigator for Lillian Pentecost in much the same way that Archie Goodwin does for Nero Wolfe. The difference is that one could claim that Wolfe’s desire not to stir from his New York brownstone feels voluntary, while Lillian Pentecost’s continuing battle against the onset of multiple sclerosis is a cup she would gladly pass if only she could.

Wolfe won’t go out and Pentecost shouldn’t go out but the result is the same. Being a private detective requires that someone go out and tail suspects, occasionally fight with evildoers, and have clandestine meetings whose location can’t be dictated or controlled. Will Parker takes care of all those things for Lillian Pentecost and whatever else her boss needs to can’t quite manage for herself no matter how much she wishes she could.

But this case takes Pentecost out of her familiar Boston home and haunts while pulling Parker back to hers. It’s not just that the circus is currently stopped in the tiny town of Stoppard, Virginia, but that the circus was Parker’s home and refuge for years. She knows these people and they know her, both for good and for bad.

The case has more facets than it first appears – which is what made it so marvelously convoluted to follow.

Ruby was murdered, Kalishenko was stitched up. It’s up to Pentecost and Parker to prove it. Then the case gets bigger and wider as it’s revealed that the failing circus was in Stoppard because it’s the place where Ruby grew up. Meaning that she knew everyone in town and everyone knew her. And that she might have left both friendships and grudges behind her.

Even that isn’t complicated enough, as the more Will digs into Ruby’s past and the circus they both once called home, the more threads and tendrils reach out to faraway places and very dangerous people.

In the end the case is considerably larger than anyone ever expected. And that’s what made the unravelling of it so much hard-boiled noir-ish fun to follow.

Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker have turned out to be a fascinating and delightful pair of hard-boiled investigators. Fortune Favors the Dead was utterly marvelous and Murder Under Her Skin continues that streak. I hope they have plenty more mysteries to solve in the future!

Review: The Last Daughter of York by Nicola Cornick

Review: The Last Daughter of York by Nicola CornickThe Last Daughter of York by Nicola Cornick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, timeslip fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“An engaging, fast-paced read for fans of Philippa Gregory and of dual-timeline historical fiction." —Library Journal
In the winter of 1483, Francis Lovell is Richard III’s Lord Chamberlain and confidant, but the threat of Henry Tudor’s rebels has the king entrusting to Francis and his wife, Anne, his most crucial mission: protecting the young Richard of York, his brother’s surviving son and a threat to Henry’s claims to the throne.
Two years later, Richard III is dead, and Anne hides the young prince of York while Francis is hunted by agents of the new king, Henry VII. Running out of options to keep her husband and the boy safe, Anne uses the power of an ancient family relic to send them away, knowing that in doing so she will never see Francis again.
In the present day, Serena Warren has been haunted by her past ever since her twin sister, Caitlin, disappeared. But when Caitlin’s bones are discovered interred in a church vault that hasn’t been opened since the eighteenth century, the police are baffled. Piecing together local folklore that speaks of a magical relic with her own hazy memories of the day Caitlin vanished, Serena begins to uncover an impossible secret that her grandfather has kept hidden, one that connects her to Anne, Francis and the young Duke of York.
Inspired by the enduring mystery of the Princes in the Tower, Nicola Cornick cleverly interprets the events into a dazzling novel set between a present-day mystery and a country on the brink of Tudor rule.  

My Review:

Once upon a time (in 1951) there was a mystery titled The Daughter of Time written by Josephine Tey (which was named as the greatest crime novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association). In at least some versions of causality, that book is most likely responsible for this book, either directly or indirectly. It’s certainly directly responsible for my personal interest in Richard III and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, every bit as much as it was for the 21st century protagonist of the story.

And thereby hangs this tale – which actually does reference that earlier book.

The mystery of the “Princes in the Tower” has never been solved. What is known is that, as is related in the 15th century sections of this book, the two young sons of Edward IV were taken to the Tower of London – which at that time was still a royal residence in addition to being a prison – for “safekeeping”. Their father was dead and the older boy should have become Edward V. Instead their uncle Richard of Gloucester became Richard III and eventually one of Shakespeare’s more memorable villains.

It’s Richard III’s body that was discovered under a car park in Leicester in 2012.

The two boys disappeared from the Tower during Richard’s brief and tumultuous reign. Shakespeare’s account portrays Richard as a tyrant and the murderer of his nephews. Tey’s book, with its armchair investigation of the historical mystery, rather convincingly gives a different accounting of the events.

Including a persuasive reminder that history is written by the victors, and that Shakespeare’s play was based on accounts written by those victors and under the rule of a monarch who was the direct inheritor of those victors. He was hardly an authoritative historical source even if he was a memorable one.

The mystery has never been solved, and unlike that of their infamous uncle, the bodies of the two missing princes have not been verifiably found. The bodies of two boys who were purported to have been the princes were discovered in the Tower in the 17th century. But, unlike the more recent discovery of Richard III’s body, no DNA tests have ever been conducted and the identity of the bodies is in dispute.

The reason why all of this long ago history matters in this time slip story is that the slip in time takes the reader back to the last years of Edward IV’s reign and the events that followed. In that past, we follow Anne Fitzhugh and her husband Francis Lovell, a staunch supporter of Richard of Gloucester. While her life is fictionalized, the key events of her part of the story match recorded history – particularly the version of that history that Tey popularized in her novel.

Except for one singular part – the link between Anne and Francis Lovell’s past and Serena Warren and Jack Lovell’s present. A link that may remind readers a tiny bit of Outlander.

Just a tiny bit.

What was utterly fascinating about this story was the way that the historical events lead to the mystery in the present. That Serena’s twin sister Caitlin disappeared without a trace 11 years before, and that her body has just turned up in an archeological dig on the grounds of Lovell Minster.

In a tomb that has not been disturbed since 1708.

The police are baffled. Serena’s parents are not holding up at all well, but that’s neither new nor unexpected. Serena is the stalwart one in the family. But she’s had dissociative amnesia since her twin disappeared. Now she needs to remember what she forgot, in the hopes that those lost memories hold the key to her sister’s murder.

Escape Rating A+: Obviously, I loved this one for the history. Reading The Last Daughter of York made me want to go back and re-read The Daughter of Time yet again. When I read it the first time, I was convinced that Richard III was not the villain that Shakespeare painted him to be, and I remain convinced.

What fascinated me about the historical aspects of this story is the way that the author made the fiction fit the known facts while still managing to add more than a touch of magic and mystery.

While there is a bit of paranormal “woo-woo” in the way that Caitlin’s body ended up in that tomb, the 21st century part of this story, the mystery of her disappearance, was also resolved more than satisfactorily. Serena’s entire family needs closure and the story does an excellent job of making that happen while adding just a bit of something extra into the mix.

I’m far from an unbiased reviewer this time around. If the history hadn’t worked for me, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the rest. Studying this particular era was a big part of my intellectual life for a very long time. Because this did work, and beautifully so, I was all in.

One final note. In the case of The Daughter of Time, the title was a bit of a pun. As Leonardo da Vinci said in his notebooks,, “Truth alone is the daughter of time.” The title of this book is both a play on that title and, I think, a prophecy – or a legacy. The story, in the end, is literally the story of the last daughter of the House of York.

I’ll leave it to you to discover just how that happens, and I wish you joy of this excellent read.