Stacking the Shelves (494)

Another tall stack of books in this week’s STS, some of which look even more interesting than usual.  (Not that all books don’t inherently generate at least a tiny bit of interest!) I think the most interesting cover in this bunch probably goes to Legends & Lattes if only in the sense of “who woulda thunk it?” The book I’m most looking forward to, again, not that I’m not looking forward to all of them eventually, but looking forward to immediately as in I’m reading it this weekend, is Kiss Hard by Nalini Singh. I’ve found her Psy-Changeling series interesting but I’ve kind of lost steam with it – or possibly vice versa – with the last couple of entries. But I love her contemporaries – possibly because they’re both excellent and relatively rare. (Rock Hard, which is a precursor to the Hard Play series, is still a big favorite.) And in the “big shoes to fill” category there’s Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher whose urban fantasy protagonist Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby is going to have to live up to – or perhaps that’s down to – the reputation of Harry Dresden every bit as much as son James J. will be compared to his dad Jim Butcher.

For Review:
Aftermath by LeVar Burton
Base Notes by Lara Elena Donnelly
The Book of Sand by Theo Clare AKA Mo Hayder
Dead Man’s Hand (Unorthodox Chronicles #1) by James J. Butcher
Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Front Page Murder (Homefront News #1) by Joyce St. Anthony
Her Name is Knight (Nena Knight #1) by Yasmin Angoe
Holy Terror by Cherie Priest
Hooked by A.C. Wise
Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn
Kiss Hard (Hard Play #4) by Nalini Singh
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer
The Lunar Housewife by Caroline Woods
The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Midnight Hour by Abby L. Vandiver
The Moonday Letters by Emmi Itäranta
Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg
One-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips
A Proposal They Can’t Refuse (Vega Family Love Stories #1) by Natalie Caña
The Reunion by Meghan Quinn
The Serpent in Heaven (Gunnie Rose #4) by Charlaine Harris
The Shadow of the Empire (Judge Dee #1) by Qiu Xiaolong
They Can’t Take Your Name by Robert Justice
They Come at Knight (Nena Knight #2) by Yasmin Angoe

Borrowed from the Library:
Forging a Nightmare by Patricia A. Jackson
Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophie Cousens
The Postmistress of Paris by Meg Waite Clayton


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Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau Black

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau BlackMirror Lake by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #3
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The third novel in the Shady Hollow mystery series, in which Vera Vixen takes on her most challenging case yet: solving the murder of a rat who appears to still be alive.

Change is afoot in Shady Hollow, with an unusually tense election shaping up between long-serving Chief of Police Theodore Meade and Vera's beau, Deputy Orville Braun. But the political tension takes a back seat when resident eccentric Dorothy Springfield becomes convinced her beloved husband, Edward, is dead, and that the rat claiming to be him is actually a fraud.
While most of the town dismisses Dorothy's rants as nothing more than a delusion, Vera has her doubts. More than a few things don't add up in the Springfield household, but Vera will have to tread carefully, since, with Orville's attention on the election, she may be more exposed than ever.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

And we’re back in the very cozy, slightly twee village of Shady Hollow for one more bloody (as in there’s actual dripping blood) mystery among this (mostly) charming group of people who just happen to be animals.

Don’t let that bit fool you. All stories are about people – even if they claim they’re not. Because people are all we know how to be – and we’re the ones writing the story.

Adora Springfield is dead – but this isn’t about her. Except when it is. Adora was, all things considered, adored by pretty much everyone in Shady Hollow and the neighboring, even smaller community of Mirror Lake. She lived a long life and contributed a lot to both communities. She’ll be mourned and she’ll be missed. And she left an estate worth killing for, tied up in an estate-planning tangle that is going to require both a lawyer and an investigative journalist to unravel.

Chief of Police Theodore Meade is a deadbeat. Not exactly, as he’s earning a decent salary as the leader of Shady Hollow’s two-bear police department. But he’s not doing the job. At all. Pretty much ever. He’s too “busy” fishing, leaving all the policing in town to his deputy-bear Orville Braun.

And Orville is pretty much sick of doing all the work and not being sure whether or not he’s getting any of the credit.

The case and the campaign both revolve – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise – around the person of investigative reporter and fox-about-town Vera Vixen. As a reporter for the local newspaper, the death of one of the town’s leading lights and the first contested campaign for Police Chief in years are both juicy stories that Vera is itching to dig her way into and write all about.

But Orville and Vera are romantically involved, even as they butt heads over pretty much every case. She can’t cover his campaign – no matter how much her boss wants her to use her “inside track” to get the real scoop. Her boss is GREAT at selling newspapers but LOUSY at journalistic ethics.

It’s Vera’s search for a bit of legal cover to protect her job with that leads her into the Springfield case. A case that Orville – and the rest of the town – refuse to see as a real case at all.

Dorothy Springfield, known to all and sundry as “Dotty” for her occasional flakiness, has returned from tending to her now-late mother-in-law and taking care of the funeral arrangements to cause a very public scene by claiming that her husband is NOT her husband. That her real husband is dead and whoever this rat (literally, the Springfields are the wealthiest rats in town) may look like her beloved Edward but he is absolutely NOT her Edward.

Everyone is certain that Dotty is just being dotty again. Vera has doubts. Initially little ones, as Dotty’s reputation has definitely preceded her – but doubts that are worth digging into because they’ll make an excellent story.

A story that nearly gets Vera killed. Again.

Escape Rating B+: This was not the book I originally planned to finish the week with, but that one (Last Exit) turned out to be a bit more book than I had time to chew at the end of this week. (I’m listening to the audio and it’s good but it’s also longer than I thought. The best laid plans of mice, men and book reviewers and all that.)

So I returned to Shady Hollow for one more lovely if murderous time. And it turned out to be a charming way to finish out the week.

On its surface, Mirror Lake is a typical cozy mystery set in a typical if somewhat twee small town. That all the people are animals adds to its charm for me, but may add to its twee-ness for others. YMMV but I like visiting the place.

The two cases are the bread and butter of this kind of story. A minor conflict between the townsfolk, a case of everyone in town knowing everyone else’s business and maintaining their assumptions about the people they know so well, and a twisty little bit of murder, with an amateur sleuth in the middle of entirely too many things for probability to have any bearing whatsoever.

(I always think that Cabot Cove and Midsummer County must have such a ridiculously high homicide rate that newcomers would stay far, far, away – but they never do.)

Series like Shady Hollow, whether featuring humans or animals-as-humans, are more about the town and its inhabitants than it is about the murders that take place. Which is a good thing in Mirror Lake as I figured out whodunnit long before the big reveal at the end.

The fun in the story is watching it all work itself out. Vera is both determined and dogged (whatever her species might be), but she’s also compassionate and caring and has invested herself thoroughly in her new home of Shady Hollow. As an amateur investigator, operating mostly on her own, she’s also very much a “fools rush in” type, putting herself in extreme danger in every book because she tends to figure out whodunnit by poking her nose into the killer’s business without being aware that she’s THAT close to the solution.

Which makes following Vera a lot of fun as she drops into Joe’s Mug for life-giving coffee, consults her best friend, bookstore owner Lenore for advice and crime-solving hints, and flirts and fights with her bearish beau whenever they both have a break between cases.

Unfortunately, this is the last – so far, at least – full length novel in the Shady Hollow series. There’s one very short novella, Evergreen Chase, left to go. It’s a holiday story, so I think I’ll save it for when fall starts to nip the air. Or whenever I need a bit of Vera’s animal magnetism.

Review: The Wrong Victim by Allison Brennan

Review: The Wrong Victim by Allison BrennanThe Wrong Victim (Quinn & Costa, #3) by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense, suspense, thriller
Series: Quinn & Costa #3
Pages: 464
Published by Mira Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A bomb explodes on a sunset charter cruise out of Friday Harbor at the height of tourist season and kills everyone on board. Now this fishing and boating community is in shock and asking who would commit such a heinous crime—the largest act of mass murder in the history of the San Juan Islands.
Forensic profilers know there are two types of domestic terrorists: those who use violence to instill fear for political purposes but stop at murder because it detracts from the cause, and those who crave attention and are willing to maim and murder for their own agenda.
Accused of putting profits before people after leaking fuel that caused a massive fish kill, the West End Charter company may itself have been the target. But as special agent Matt Costa, detective Kara Quinn and the rest of the FBI team begin their investigation, they discover that plenty of people might have wanted someone dead on that yacht. Now they must track down who is responsible and stop them before they strike again.

My Review:

If this book went looking for a subtitle, let me suggest ‘Game of Queens’ as an alternative. Because that’s what this one is, the contention among three women who are used to taking control of whatever sphere in which they find themselves – no matter who or what stands in their way.

And it’s a contest that is only partly resolved when The Wrong Victim wraps up the case of its final – and ultimately correct in the end – victim.

The beginning of this one is literally explosive. A charter yacht explodes in the waters around San Juan Island leaving 9 people dead and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Big questions, like whodunnit, along with why and how. And the biggie – which of the 9 people on the boat was the real target?

San Juan Island is just barely part of the U.S., one of over 400 islands in an archipelago that sits between Bellingham Washington and Victoria, British Columbia. The island has a population of 7,000, most of whom live in the town of Friday Harbor. The small police department knows everyone in town, and everyone knows them. Most issues are property crimes or tourists getting rowdy. They are neither prepared for nor objective enough to deal with a crime of this magnitude.

The FBI sends Mathias Costa and his Mobile Response Team, including LAPD Detective Kara Quinn, seconded to the MRT at the end of the second book in the series, Tell No Lies. Not that that was the first time Costa and Quinn met – that would be the case of the ‘Triple Killer’ in The Third to Die (which I have yet to read and really, really WANT to. I didn’t need to in order to have gotten into Tell No Lies, but that was great and so is this and now I want to very much indeed.)

Kara isn’t sure exactly where she fits in Costa’s team. Being a cop is her core identity, and the mess in LA that has forced her to leave her city to outrun the people – and contracts – that are after her. Her tenuous situation has made her question a lot about herself and how well she’s doing her job. Along with what happens next depending on how everything works out.

In Tell No Lies, the one thing that Kara was sure about was that Matt Costa trusted her judgment and was in her corner, that he respected her skills and opinions as an experienced cop and undercover detective. But all of that confidence is shaken with the return of FBI profiler Catherine Jones, who has profiled Kara and believes that she is a loose cannon who is insubordinate, takes unnecessary risks, makes snap judgments and is sure to endanger both the case and the team.

Catherine and Matt are old and dear friends, he’s even the godfather of her daughter. Kara and Matt, at least in their off-duty hours, have become friends with benefits, although Matt wants more. The conflict between the two women, who are both important to his life but in totally different ways, is messing with his head and his heart, making him a less than effective leader of a team that must produce results and solve the explosion before anyone else gets killed.

Which leads back to the question of who the real target among the 9 victims was. There are plenty of possibilities. With environmentalists making trouble for the charter company, the bomb might not have been meant for anyone in particular, but to make trouble for the ship’s owners.

Too many victims, too many possible motives, and too many ways for Kara and Catherine to butt heads. But as much as Catherine believes that Kara’s lack of formal education makes her less capable and her skills less trustworthy, it’s Kara’s instinct for people’s behavior, rather than Catherine’s careful analysis, that ultimately leads to whodunnit.

And it’s Catherine’s lack of trust in Kara that nearly gets both of them killed.

Escape Rating A+: I made a terrible mistake with this book. I started reading it when I went to bed, and absolutely could not put it down until I finished at 3:30 in the morning. I cursed my alarm when it woke me in the morning, but it was SO worth it. I needed a book to suck me into its pages, and The Wrong Victim did a fantastic job of taking me to the San Juan Islands and spinning me all around this compelling story.

This book, and this series, seem to sit at the crossroads between mystery, thriller and romantic suspense. Although again, there’s more suspense than romance – and that’s probably a good thing. The relationship between Quinn and Costa is not really healthy for either of them or their careers – a fact that profiler Catherine weaponizes during this entry in the series. They can’t be openly together as long as Kara is part of Matt’s team, no matter how temporary that might be. And yet they can’t manage to stay away from each other no matter how much of a mess it might make in the long term. I expect the horns of this particular dilemma are going to be sharp and pointy for much of the series. We’ll see.

But what makes this story so compelling is the combination of the sheer number of possible motives and the determined way that the team works through them. Out of the 9 people on the boat, there’s a wealthy man whose much younger wife left the boat just before it left the dock, a retired FBI agent still investigating a cold case he can’t let go of, a man dating one of the owners of the charter company, a slimy businessman and his equally slimy wife and four tech geniuses. All that’s needed is a partridge in a pear tree to make a very bad song.

And it could have been none of them. It could be a strike against the charter company. It could even have been an accident, the result of negligence, or even pilot error, but those possibilities get nixed very early on. As does terrorism.

So it’s murder. The FBI team are outsiders that no one trusts, but the local P.D. are much too close to every single possible suspect to be remotely objective.

For this reader, it was the investigation that fascinated. Not just looking into each of the victims, but also the town, the environmentalists, the charter company, and then the intricate work of fitting all the puzzle pieces together.

Also that the story breaks one of the unwritten rules of mystery, in that this is a rare occasion where there is more than one perpetrator, and more than one set of linkages to the crimes committed.

The team hasn’t quite gelled yet, although the process is ongoing. The way that the team is working – and occasionally not – reminded me a lot of Andrea Kane’s Forensic Instincts series, which gets involved in the same types of crimes and had the same feel of being competence porn conducted as a high-wire act.

So in addition to throwing that first book in the Quinn & Costa series, The Third to Die, onto the upper and more accessible reaches of the towering TBR pile, I need to go pick up where I left off with Forensic Instincts. So many books, so little time.

In spite of just how tall that towering TBR pile is, I’ll be looking for the next Quinn & Costa book whenever it appears – hopefully this time next year if not sooner.

Review: Boss Witch by Ann Aguirre

Review: Boss Witch by Ann AguirreBoss Witch (Fix-It Witches #2) by Ann Aguirre
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance
Series: Fit-It Witches #2
Pages: 368
Published by Sourcecbooks Casablanca on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The second in an adorable witchy rom-com series by New York Times bestselling author Ann Aguirre, perfect for fans of:
Ride-or-die female friendshipsA bisexual heroine who stubbornly refuses to accept helpA hero with an incredibly pesky moral conscienceA mouse named Benson who may or may not have all the answers to life, magic, and love (Spoiler: he does!)
Clementine Waterhouse is a perfectly logical witch. She doesn't tumble headlong into love. Rather she weighs the pros and cons and decides if a relationship is worth pursuing. At least that's always been her modus operandi before. Clem prefers being the one in charge, always the first to walk away when the time is right. Attraction has never struck her like lightning.
Until the witch hunter comes to town.
Gavin Rhys hates being a witch hunter, but his family honor is on the line, and he needs to prove he's nothing like his grandfather, a traitor who let everyone down. But things in St. Claire aren't what they seem, and Gavin is distracted from the job immediately by a bewitching brunette with a sexy smile and haunting secrets in her eyes.
Can the bossiest witch in town find a happy ending with the last person she should ever love?

My Review:

I often begin the review of a second book in a series by speaking about how it picked up where the story left off, but that’s not even accurate here.

Boss Witch picks up in the middle of Witch, Please, showing the reader the events of the second half of that first book from a different perspective in the first half of this one.

So, on the one hand, new readers won’t feel like they’ve missed much by starting here. Howsomever, readers of the previous book may start out wondering WTF is going on and whether we’re going to learn anything new about this charming (in multiple senses of the word) little Midwestern town and the witches who live there, hiding in plain sight among the mundanes.

The switch in perspective from Danica to Clementine Waterhouse, cousins and sisters-of-the-heart, as they deal with the crisis that cropped up in Witch, Please in their very separate ways.

Danica’s magic spiked out of control in that first book, spiking high enough to draw the attention of one of the dreaded – and dreadful – witch hunters. But Clementine has a plan to deal with Witch Hunter Gavin Rhys. (Clementine ALWAYS has a plan, that’s part of her function in the excruciatingly dysfunctional Waterhouse family.)

While Danica is off ‘billing and cooing’ with the love of her life, her magically mundane ‘Cinnaman’, Clementine will do what she’s done all of their lives and clean up her cousin’s mess.

But Clem is tired of being the person who gets ALL the jobs done ALL the time in their family. It’s not about work, the ‘Fix-It Witches’ shop that the cousins share. Well, it isn’t ALL about the work. It’s about Clem being the fixer-upper in their family who has taken charge and gotten the shit that needs doing done since her mother started dumping too many of her adult emotions and woes on her then-teenaged daughter.

As I said, this family is not functional, and they have never put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional in any way, shape or form. Clem is tired, and stressed, and tired of batting clean-up all the time and then getting blamed for ‘hurting’ someone by mentioning that she’s tired of cleaning up after them. She’s a bit blunt and abrasive but she’s earned it. But she sucks it up to keep the peace – and to keep her family from having a meltdown which she will, again, have to soothe and fix.

I feel her pain. (I like Clem. Her family, on the other hand, drives me up a wall.)

So, when Clem volunteers to distract Gavin Rhys from hunting for all the witches in town, starting with her cousin Danica, it starts out as just another thing she has to take care of for everyone else.

When Clem distracting Gavin turns into Clem and Gavin distracting each other, in bed and out, Clem realizes that however it started, her relationship that shouldn’t be has become something that she’s doing just for herself – and just for him. At least until all the secrets start coming out of the woodwork to take down Clem, her coven sisters – and Gavin.

Escape Rating C+: I really need to start picking books this week where I like the characters a whole lot more than I did yesterday and today.

The Waterhouse family of witches absolutely does not put the fun in dysfunctional. The real problem at the core of the family is that Gram is more toxic than the Wicked Witch of the West, and unfortunately a big chunk of the story that repeats between Witch, Please and Boss Witch is the revelation of just how toxic and manipulative Gram really is, and just how much and how often she reaches out to damage and demean every other woman in the family – meaning her daughters and her granddaughters. She’s honestly a greater force for evil than the witch hunters – and is that EVER saying something!

One of the problems I had with Witch, Please is that even after Gram’s lies and manipulations are uncovered, she doesn’t get the comeuppance she deserves. So the story has to deal with it all again in this book, and she still doesn’t take delivery of the message. That left this reader unsatisfied with that part of the story. Again.

OTOH, the witch hunter saga does manage to get surprisingly neatly tied up with a big bow in a way that gives Gavin’s crisis of both conscience and the heart a lot of emotional weight. The way that Gavin’s situation is resolved, both as a witch hunter AND with his own uber-toxic father, was wonderfully cathartic. (If only Gavin’s dad and Clem’s Gram could share a prison cell for a while…)

But on my third hand – the one belonging to my familiar, perhaps – resolving the witch hunter danger at the end of this book, does make the thought of the third book in the series, Extra Witchy, feel more than a bit anticlimactic (no matter how many climaxes the characters manage to experience) – particularly as it looks like the first half of that story runs parallel to the second half of this one.

So, color me curious about how this all works out into HEAs all around. We’ll see when Extra Witchy drops in October.

Review: Love, Hate and Clickbait by Liz Bowery

Review: Love, Hate and Clickbait by Liz BoweryLove, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, M/M romance
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Politics is shaking hands and kissing coworkers
Cutthroat political consultant Thom Morgan is thriving, working on the governor of California’s presidential campaign. If only he didn’t have to deal with Clay Parker, the infuriatingly smug data analyst who gets under Thom’s skin like it’s his job. In the midst of one of their heated and very public arguments, a journalist snaps a photo, but the image makes it look like they’re kissing. As if that weren’t already worst-nightmare territory, the photo goes viral—and in a bid to secure the liberal vote, the governor asks them to lean into it. Hard.
Thom knows all about damage control—he practically invented it. Ever the professional, he’ll grin and bear this challenge as he does all others. But as the loyal staffers push the boundaries of “giving the people what they want,” the animosity between them blooms into something deeper and far more dangerous: desire. Soon their fake relationship is hurtling toward something very real, which could derail the campaign and cost them both their jobs…and their hearts.

My Review:

“Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much” as he’s tripping over that infinitely (and infamously) fine line between love and hate. Pardon me for mangling Shakespeare and mixing metaphors in the same sentence, but if the shoe fits – or in this case both shoes fit – I’m wearing them.

All three of the titular events happen in this enemies-to-lovers in a fake relationship romance. As the story begins, campaign operative Thom Morgan and pro-level geek Clay Parker are office enemies working on California governor Lennie Westwood’s pre-campaign campaign to become the next president of these United States.

Thom and Clay are office rivals because they are completely opposites. Not that either of them start out exactly likable, but they’re on totally different ends of pretty much any workplace spectrum, and they rub each other the wrong way pretty much just by breathing in each other’s vicinity.

Clay pretty much lets his geek flag fly all the time. He’s a refugee from Silicon Valley and is used to that kind of workstyle – meaning one that may be “working” 24/7 but sometimes that work looks like play and everyone is out to be the biggest nerd.. But he’s also the child of a family that loves him unconditionally and celebrated ALL of his accomplishments ALL the time. So he toots his own horn a lot. Too much. To the point of cringing absurdity – at least as far as Thom is concerned.

Thom, on the other hand, is a shark. Every relationship is calculated for the maximum benefit to him. He’s always dressed to the nines in a style appropriate to the event. He’s all about making his candidate look good so that he can make himself look good. But he’s from a family that treated him like a cuckoo in their cozy suburban nest. It’s not that anyone hated him, it’s that no one truly saw him or was there for him because he was just so different. He’s a version of Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties, but one that was neither supported nor even accepted by his family. He’s used to taking on protective coloration, not to blend in but just to get by.

The campaign that Thom and Clay are working on is in trouble, seemingly constantly, by huge gaffes committed by both the governor/candidate and her dysfunctional family. When Lennie is recorded making an off-the-cuff remark that the reason her hair isn’t properly styled is because there are no gays on her campaign staff, the liberal voters that her campaign is courting are up in arms.

The campaign’s answer is to have Thom and Clay pose as a gay couple working for the campaign. A candid video of them has been posted having an ugly argument that looks like it’s about to morph into throwing each other on the ground for sex instead of the kicking and punching that nearly happened for real. Twitter and Insta are both loving the picture, to the point where OMG fanfic is starting up.

With their jobs on the line, the enemies reluctantly agree to not just a temporary truce, but a fake relationship for the inevitable cameras. From both their perspectives, the whole thing is so implausible they can’t imagine it will work.

But it has to. And surprisingly, it does – at least as far as social media is concerned. Whether it can possibly save the campaign is an entirely other matter…

Escape Rating C+: This is a story that threatens to go completely off the rails at multiple points. It never quite does, but it toes that line awfully, awfully hard in multiple ways and multiple directions.

As unlikable as both Thom and Clay are in the beginning, once I got into the story it became clear that Clay’s behavior was a result of not knowing the work culture and feeling out of his depth and a bit insecure. Once he got a bit more settled the things that made him annoying smoothed out quite a bit. So I ended up feeling FOR him considerably more than I did Thom – not that in the beginning Thom seems to have any feelings whatsoever.

OTOH, Thom is both cold-blooded and narcissistic from jump, and it takes a long time for him to change and for the reader to see what is really motivating his shark-like behavior. While it was easy to see that Clay, for all his faults, was the kind of person who could give themselves in a relationship. With Thom I had to wonder if he was capable of having a real relationship of any kind with anyone but himself. He starts out with no real friends, no family (either birth or found) and no real romantic interests.

That the campaign required them to fake a romantic relationship, and that they agreed to do so, may be the trope that powers the story, but it crossed so far over so many lines that it was hard to take even though agreeing to the pretense felt very much in Thom’s wheelhouse if not Clay’s. Even though Thom is the one that has ALL the objections, mostly because he isn’t shy about pointing out that he’s “lowering his standards” to date someone like Clay.

I could see Clay falling for Thom if he was willing to let his heart sliced into bloody chunks, but that happens. People fall in love with all sorts of people who they either know or refuse to admit are either bad for them or just plain terrible.

What was harder to believe was the way that Thom slowly – very slowly – let some of his walls down. Even if he couldn’t admit to himself he was doing it. Thom’s in denial until the very end, and even then he’s more than a bit of a douche about it. Which fits his personality to a T. Even as much as Thom is dragged, kicking and screaming, into being a real human being, his redemption was a bit too pat.

But the hardest part of this story is the political shark tank they operate in. We all know that politics is a dirty business and is the epitome of the old joke about not wanting to see how the sausage is made. In fiction, especially in a romance, I think we want to see a few less of the warts that surround the process. Or more consequences for those warts. Or we want our heroes to be heroes and our villains to be villains and that’s not what happens here. Or, perhaps, all of the above.

Lennie Westwood is a piece of work, for all the negative connotations of that phrase. Thom’s colleague Felicia seems to still think that politics can do some good for people, but she’s generally a realist and a pragmatist. That Felicia sees the excesses of Westwood’s behavior and STILL thinks that getting the woman elected POTUS is her best chance at making a positive difference in people’s lives feels disingenuous at best and self-sabotage at worst. Or Felicia is playing everyone for a fool, including, quite possibly, herself.

To make a rather long story short, I ended up with extremely mixed feelings about Love, Hate & Clickbait. As much as I love both enemies-to-lovers and fake relationship romances, this one didn’t quite gel for me. As always, your reading mileage may vary.

Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda Lee

Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda LeeThe Jade Setter of Janloon (Green Bone Saga #0.5) by Fonda Lee
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #0.5
Pages: 112
Published by Subterranean Press on April 30, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Fonda Lee returns to the world of the Green Bone Saga with a new standalone novella.

The rapidly changing city of Janloon is ruled by jade, the rare and ancient substance that enhances the abilities and status of the trained Green Bone warriors who run the island’s powerful clans.

Pulo Oritono is not one of those warriors. He’s simply an apprentice jade setter with dreams of securing clan patronage and establishing a successful business. His hopes are dashed, however, when a priceless jade weapon is stolen from the shop where he works.

Now, Pulo has three days to hunt down the thief, find the jade, and return it to its rightful owner if he wants to save his future prospects, the people he cares about, and his very life. The desperate mission will lead Pulo to old vendettas, vast corruption, and questions about everything and everyone he thought he knew.

My Review:

When I finished Jade Legacy at the end of the year, as much as it felt like the appropriately bittersweet ending to the epic Green Bone Saga, I was far from ready to let Janloon go. Settling into the opening pages of this book felt like a return to a place well-loved, and I sunk beneath its pages without even a ripple of wondering where or how things were. I was just glad to be back.

Even better, this little story, which combines a bit of the “Portrait of the Pillar as a young man” with a bit of mystery and features not the doings of the high and mighty but rather gives the reader a glimpse into the life of an average person in Janloon just two years before the events that open the awesome Jade City and kick off that saga.

So for readers who loved the Green Bone Saga, this is a great way to visit those old friends and see what they were like before they became old. But for readers who have heard how terrific the series is, but aren’t quite ready to tackle all 2,000 pages of it, The Jade Setter of Janloon is a great way to dip a toe into these deep waters to see if you’ll enjoy the swim.

It begins simply enough, through the eyes of the apprentice to the most respected jade setter in Janloon. Pulo Oritono is in his mid-20s, full of both ideas and disappointments. He wanted to be a jade warrior, but didn’t have the required ability to wear and master the quantity of jade necessary for even the middling ranks of the discipline. But he has a paradoxically and usefully high tolerance for being around jade – even if he can’t control the use of it. It’s the perfect combination for someone to be a jade setter – which is emphatically NOT what Pulo wanted. But it’s turning out to be something he can be good at, and Isin Nakokun is an excellent master.

But Pulo is in his mid-20s, and still thinks he knows everything. He has all sorts of ideas for expanding the shop – among other things. This story is about Pulo learning just how much he REALLY doesn’t know.

The shop is emphatically neutral, belonging to neither the Mountain nor the No Peak clans. Which allows the shop to cater to discerning jade warriors on both sides of the clan divide that is already beginning to roil the city.

The trouble begins when the Mountain clan brings the ceremonial blade of its leader, Pillar Ayt Madashi, to Isin for repair. That sets off a chain reaction that tears the lives of Pulo, Isin, and Isin’s assistant Malla into pieces. The knife is stolen. Malla is accused and jailed for the crime during an investigation that seems to run into nothing but roadblocks. Isin disappears, and a desperate Pulo calls on the No Peak clan for help.

And uncovers a tragedy of blood and honor that can only be answered with blood.

Escape Rating A+: The Jade Setter of Janloon is an absolute chef’s kiss of a coda to the marvelous Green Bone Saga. One that paradoxically will give readers who already loved the epic a taste to start all over again in Jade City.

And if this is your first exposure to this rich, tasty reading treat, it’s more than meaty enough to serve as an appetizer to get new readers to devour the complete, three-course, utterly delicious meal. I meant series.

My metaphors are mixed because it feels like I’m still there, at a table at the Twice Lucky restaurant watching it all begin again. I just wish I didn’t have to leave.

 

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 4-24-22

WHEW! I made all my deadlines both here and at Library Journal but it was certainly a bit of a mad dash to get all the books read and written up this week! The novellas I reviewed here turned out to be a VERY interesting bunch! Spear was utterly wonderful – especially in the audio – and Detroit Kiss was just plain fun. An excellent week all in all.

But speaking of fun – here’s George basically Georging. He normally has such a serious expression on his little face, but once in a while, he’s just a total clown. And this was definitely one of those whiles!

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the first April Showers Giveaway Hop is Sharon B.
The winner of the second April Showers Giveaway Hop is Angela H.

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys Ford
B+ Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
A- Review: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson
A- Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
A Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith
Stacking the Shelves (493)

Coming This Week:

The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda Lee (review)
Love, Hate and Clickbait by Liz Bowery (blog tour review)
Boss Witch by Ann Aguirre (review)
The Wrong Victim by Allison Brennan (blog tour review)
Last Exit by Max Gladstone (audiobook review)

Stacking the Shelves (493)

This week’s ginormous stack has more than a few interesting books in it, but there are some I want to point out particularly. First, I’ve already read and reviewed Detroit Kiss and it was just terrific urban fantasy so I’m really glad I picked it up. Two of the titles on this list I think I got just for the title; Saint Death’s Daughter and The Middling Affliction. Come to think of it, The Middling Affliction is also urban fantasy, so I’m sensing a trend. If urban fantasy really is back I’d be delighted. And speaking of delighted, isn’t the cover of In a Garden Burning Gold absolutely gorgeous?

For Review:
Beach House Summer by Sarah Morgan
Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti
Drop Dead Gorgeous by Rachel Gibson
Good Intentions by Kasim Ali
The Honeymoon Cottage by Lori Foster
In a Garden Burning Gold by Rory Power
Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc by Katherine J. Chen
The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates
Metropolis by B.A. Shapiro
Misrule (Malice #2) by Heather Walter
The Middling Affliction (Conradverse Chronicles #1) by Alex Shvartsman
The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka
The Orchard by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry
Quantum Girl Theory by Erin Kate Ryan
Queerly Beloved by Susie Dumond
Saint Death’s Daughter (Saint Death #1) by C.S.E. Cooney
Something Wilder by Christina Lauren
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
Tripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist
True Biz by Sara Novic
Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
Vicious Creatures by Ashton Noone
The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb
What Happened to the Bennetts by Lisa Scottoline

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Detroit Kiss by Rhys Ford (REVIEW!!!)


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

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Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

Review: Spear by Nicola GriffithSpear by Nicola Griffith
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Arthurian legends, historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 192
Length: 5 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on April 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.
And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

My Review:

The stories of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table are myths that we seem to absorb by osmosis, as the stories are told and retold – and have been for centuries. King Arthur is one of those legends that seems to reinvent itself for each new generation, and Spear, with its heroine Peredur, is a fine addition to that long and proud tradition.

As this story opens, Peredur doesn’t even know her own name. She is growing up in complete isolation, with only her mother for company, in a remote valley in Wales. Her mother has two names for the girl, one meaning gift which she uses on good days, while on bad days, she calls her “payment”. Whichever the girl might be, her mother tells her stories of the Tuath Dé, their great treasures and their terrible use of the humans they see as beneath them. Humans like her powerful but broken mother, who has isolated herself and her child out of fear that the Tuath, or at least one of them, will hunt her down in order to take back what she stole from him.

Peredur, like all children, grows up. She finds the valley small and her mother’s paranoia, however righteous, constricting. And she wants to fight. So she leaves the valley and her mother behind and goes out in search of the King and his companions – who she saved once when they wandered into her mother’s secluded valley and found themselves facing more bandits than they planned.

Peredur is searching for a place to belong and a cause to serve. But she has had dreams all of her life of a magical mystical lake and a woman who lives by its side. This is the story of her quest to learn who she really is, what is the true nature of her power, and to find a place where she can belong and can bring her skills to fight on the side of right. To make something, not just of herself but of the place to which she joins herself.

In the court of Arturus at Caer Lyon, Peredur finds a place she wants to call her own. And a king who is reluctant to let her claim it.

Escape Rating A: This is lovely. The language is beautiful, and the reading of it by the author gave it just the right air of mystery and myth. It felt like a tale of another world, as all the best variations on the Arthurian legends do in one way or another.

From one perspective, Spear stands on the shoulders of many giants, previous retellings of the “Matter of Britain”, from Monmouth to Mallory to T.H. White to Mary Stewart. In particular, it reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy (beginning with The Crystal Cave), not for its focus on Merlin but for its attempt to set the story in a more likely historical period, in both cases sometime in the 5th Century AD, after the Romans abandoned Britain and left a vacuum of power which Arthur did his best to fill.

By setting the story in 5th Century Wales, the author is also able to loop in the stories of the Tuath Dé, or Tuatha Dé Danann, and weave one set of legends with the other, to give Peredur both her origin and the source of her power. That she was then able to link the whole thing back to Arthur through his mad quest for the Holy Grail made for a delightful twist in the story – albeit one with an ultimately sad ending. (If the Tuath Dé sound familiar, it may be from The Iron Druid Chronicles where they play an important part even to the present.)

But Spear is an interpretation for the 21st century, in that Peredur, better known as Percival in many versions of the Arthurian Tales, is a woman who has wants to fight like a man and has chosen to present herself as a man because she lives in an era when women do not become knights, much like Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.

This is also a queer interpretation of the Arthur tales, not just because Peredur is lesbian, but because she moves through a world where same-sex relationships and poly-relationships are simply part of the way things are. That includes Peredur’s love of the sorceress Nimüe, but also changes the eternal triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot into a quietly acknowledged triad as a normal part of the way things are. Just as quietly acknowledged that the Lance of this Arthurian legend was born with one leg malformed. He’s still a capable fighter, and a veritable centaur on horseback. The world and its heroes are not now, nor have they ever been, made up entirely of straight, 100% able-bodied, white men, and this story acknowledges that heroes are everywhere, everywhen and everyone. As they, and we, have always been.

Spear turned out to be a lovely, lyrical, magical extension of the Arthurian legends that borrows rightfully and righteously, as all Arthurian tales do, from what has come before, from what fantasy writers have added to the period and the interpretation, from the time in which it is set, the time in which it is written, and the author’s magical stirring of that pot into a heady brew.

One of these days I need to pick up the author’s Hild, because it sounds like it will be just as fantastic (in both senses of that word) as Spear turned out to be.

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air--in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

My Review:

There is just something about New Orleans that makes it seem, not just possible but downright plausible, that there is magic on those streets and always has been. Whether the version of the city is the one we know from history, or some other New Orleans out there in the multiverse of parallel universes and alternate histories.

The U.S. Civil War has its own magic – not that magic with a capital “M” happened, but rather the magic of possibility, that so many never weres and might have beens hinge on the events that occurred during those few years that must have felt like they lasted forever.

It’s not just that the history and meaning of that conflict have been reinterpreted, re-imagined and re-written in the century and a half that followed, but that the entire enterprise balanced on a knife edge and could have tipped in pretty much any bloody direction.

That particular “might have been” has been the stuff of much alt-history science fiction. One very readable toe in that water is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but he needed time-travel to make it work. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and her saga of the grim, steampunk Clockwork Century posits a U.S. Civil War that never ended as collateral damage of a catastrophic event in Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush that created zombies.

The Black God’s Drums takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans in a world where the U.S. Civil War tipped off the knife edge in the direction of a negotiated almost-peace, into an armistice between the Union and the Confederacy. An armistice that left the crucial port of New Orleans as an independent neutral city-state, governed by its citizens – ALL its citizens, black and white.

The Union counts this New Orleans as an ally, if not officially, while the Confederacy views it as a repudiation of all they hold dear. Under the armistice, the city may not be an open battleground, but it is sometimes a covert one. Which is what takes place in this story.

Right alongside the coming-of-age story of Creeper, a girl on the cusp of adulthood (Creeper’s OK with creeping up to adulthood, but she’s much less sanguine about approaching womanhood in any way, shape, or form) who wants more than anything to find a way out of the city she has lived in all of her life. She thinks her accidental discovery of a plot to drown the city in magically created storms can be traded for a berth on a smuggler’s airship.

But Creeper has magic of her own, a magic that leads her to be in the right place at the right time to save her city. And the knowledge that this place is hers to love and hers to defend – for as long as she has the favor of her goddess.

Escape Rating A-: The Black God’s Drums was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novella back in 2019 – and I meant to read it then but it got swallowed by the “so many books, so little time” event horizon and it didn’t happen. Then I read the author’s A Master of Djinn last year and this popped back up to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile. So when I went hunting for novellas for this week, there it was near the top of the heap.

And am I ever glad that it was – even though this is nothing like A Master of Djinn. Instead, it reads like a combination of every book of magical New Orleans from the Sentinels of New Orleans to The City of Lost Fortunes to The Map of Moments combined then tossed in with steampunk like Boneshaker but stirred with the perspective of the author’s Ring Shout in the way that magic of the African diaspora is interwoven into the story and to the events of the alternate history.

So Creeper’s New Orleans feels like New Orleans even if it isn’t exactly the one that history records. Even though the work (and misuse of the work) of those gods, the orishas, have produced effects that both remind the reader of Katrina and make the hurricane seem tame in comparison.

And on top of all that, we have not just the coming-of-age story, but a pulse-pounding adventure with deadly danger both in the immediate term and in the consequences if things go wrong. As they very nearly do. Along with the possibility of a daring rescue by pirate airship – or an ignominious crash of defeat.

The thing about novellas is that even when they are complete in and of themselves, and The Black God’s Drums does tell its story beautifully in the length it has, I’m left wanting more. This adventure does come, rightly and properly, to its end. But what happens next? And what happened before? There’s so much of this alternate version of the city – and the country – to explore.

So, just as the author’s short works, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 embiggened their Dead Djinn Universe into the utterly captivating A Master of Djinn, I hope that someday the New Orleans of the orisha and the pirate airships will embiggen into something bigger, bolder and even more grand.