The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 7-31-22

I saw Luna on the stairs just now, went to pet her, calling her “pretty girl”, because she is – and Hecate came running from out of nowhere. Hecate is still in the “leaky teakettle” phase of acceptance of the newcomers. Lucifer has totally adopted them – or perhaps vice versa, while George is still very concerned about it all.

I realized that I have not yet posted a good picture of Miss Luna (the dark of under the bed does not count as “good”), so here she is in all her glory.

We’ve learned this week that both Luna AND Tuna have tiny, squeaky voices. It is still hilarious that the big bruiser that is Tuna has a voice like a very tiny mouse. Not that Luna is small by any means, just that she’s less large than her brother!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Summer 2022 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

A Review: 1632 by Eric Flint
A Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison Montclair
B- Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates
A- Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis
B+ Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
Stacking the Shelves (507)

Coming This Week:

Apple a Day Giveaway Hop
The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman (blog tour review)
The Courier by Ernest Dempsey (review)
The Fossil Hunter by Tea Cooper (review)
Back to School Giveaway Hop

Stacking the Shelves (507)

I had to go an look at the covers together before I could figure out anything to write about this week’s stack. Because seriously, this bunch couldn’t be more random if I’d tried. Which I didn’t.

The prettiest covers are The Terraformers and Violeta, although they aren’t pretty in remotely the same way. But still, temptingly pretty. The one I’m looking forward to the most is Untethered Sky, because Fonda Lee. Even though it’s not Jade City, I still can’t resist. If you’re surprised I’m not saying Encore in Death, that’s because as much as the In Death series are comfort reads for me, I do pretty much know what I’m going to get when I pick one up. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be a comfort read. Fonda Lee, on the other hand, whatever I get will be both fascinating and unexpected.

For Review:
Alone with You in the Ether by Olivie Blake
The Boys by Katie Hafner
Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah
Encore in Death (In Death #56) by J.D. Robb
The Golden Enclaves (Scholomance #3) by Naomi Novik
It Rides a Pale Horse by Andy Marino
Light on Bone (Georgia O’Keeffe Mystery #1) by Kathryn Lasky
A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker
The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
Nona the Ninth (Locked Tomb #3) by Tamsyn Muir
The Return of the Duke (Once Upon a Dukedom #3) by Lorraine Heath
Sinister Graves (Cash Blackbear #3) by Marcie R. Rendon
Sister Mother Warrior by Vanessa Riley
The Sleepless by Victor Manibo
The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters
The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz
Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier
Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee
Violeta by Isabel Allende
Wingwalkers by Taylor Brown


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

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Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea AbdullahThe Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
Narrator: Nikki Massoud, Sean Rohani, Rasha Zamamiri
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Sandsea Trilogy #1
Pages: 480
Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Hachette Audio, Orbit Books on May 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
Neither here nor there, but long ago . . . 
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan's oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie's past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

My Review:

“Neither here nor there, but long ago…” or so the storytellers begin their best tales. Of which The Stardust Thief is most definitely one.

Loulie al-Nazari is the legendary Midnight Merchant, an infamous smuggler of magic relics left behind in the world of humans by the powerful, dangerous and deadly jinn. But she has a secret – of course she does. She finds the jinn relics that she sells to discerning buyers at extravagant prices with the help of a jinn relic of her own – along with the able assistance of her taciturn bodyguard, Qadir. Who is one of the hated and feared jinn, hiding in very plain sight. Only Loulie knows Qadir’s true identity – not that she knows even as much of that identity as she believes she does.

Mazen bin Malik is the second son of the Sultan. He’s been sheltered to the point of imprisonment for most of his life, while his older brother Omar has become their father’s heir, not just to the throne in the hazy future, but even now to their father’s position as the leader of the infamous ‘Forty Thieves’ – jinn killers who steal and murder on behalf of their leader, the prince they call ‘King’.

Mazen would rather be one of the storytellers in the souk. At least that way he’d have some freedom – and some purpose.

They shouldn’t have anything in common – a smuggler and a prince. But they are both people who hide their real selves behind masks; the Midnight Merchant is a persona Loulie puts on, while Mazen bribes the palace guard so he can escape the confining safety of his palace prison.

They meet in the souk, where Loulie is wandering incognito as Layla, while Mazen is pretending to be Yusuf the storyteller. Where Mazen is ensorcelled by a jinn, and Loulie can’t resist following their trail where it leads.

It leads to the palace. Not directly, and certainly not in a way that either expects. But the Sultan coerces the Midnight Merchant into finding a jinn king’s relic for him, deep in the desert, and sends his older son, Omar along to ‘protect’ her – and ensure she comes back with the prize.

But Omar has schemes of his own, so he trades places with Mazen, using a relic to switch their identities. He sends one of his ‘Forty Thieves’, Aisha bint Louas with the disguised prince as a bodyguard.

As the adventure bleeds into one danger after another, and their journey comes to feel more like a trap than a quest, they begin to learn the hidden truths about themselves and each other. Only to discover that not a single one of them is what they seemed, or what they thought they were, when they set out.

And that as many times as each of them promises themselves and each other that they will not run away – at least not this time – they are forced to accept the truth that “he (or she) who runs away lives to fight another day.” If only because they must in order to prevail against the powerful forces, both human and jinn, who stand in their way.

Escape Rating B+: I’m having the same kind of mixed reaction to writing this review as I did to reading this book. Which doesn’t explain anything at all, does it? The dilemma I’m having is that I loved the story, but did like or empathize with many of the characters, and it’s a real conundrum.

The story is utterly fascinating. The jinn (or djinn or genies) are such powerful mythical and mystical creatures. This story posits a much more nuanced interpretation of the jinn, and much of what happens is based on a fundamental dichotomy in that interpretation. Humans have been taught that jinn are dangerous and evil and hate humanity. Jinn, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of myths and legends about the first encounters between themselves and humans. Encounters in which the humans coveted the jinn’s powers and murdered them indiscriminately, as they still do. Some jinn do kill humans, but it’s more often in self-defense than outright murder.

As the story continues, it certainly seems like the jinn perspective is more likely the true one – particularly based on the behavior of the humans that Loulie and Mazen meet along the way.

But the story is a nearly endless ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ kind of story, as one near-death adventure – and escaping therefrom – leads directly into another. Much as the tales that Shafia – who we know as Scheherazade – told to the Sultan to keep him from killing her. This adventure is clearly intended to remind readers of One Thousand and One Nights, as it should. Shafia was Mazen’s mother, and the Sultan of the famous story was his father.

It’s the truth of that tale, as well as so many other truths, that Mazen, Loulie and their companions must discover on their dangerous quest.

Speaking of the party, that’s where I felt conflicted. The story is told in the first person, from three different points of view; Loulie, Mazen and Aisha. I listened to the audio for about 90% of the book, and the three narrators made the differences in their perspectives quite clear. They all did an excellent job of portraying their respective characters. The problem I had was that I found that both Loulie and Mazen spent a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, self-flagellation and adolescent angst. Not that their situations weren’t more than worthy of some considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth – because they are in deep sand up to their necks. It’s more that because the story is told from inside their heads, it got repetitive. If I’d been reading instead of listening I’d have skimmed through those bits.

So I loved the adventure. This story is a thrill-a-minute ride with plenty of fascinating exploration of this world. The way that the legends come to life was absolutely riveting. But the one character I really liked and wished I had more of was Qadir, and he’s the one really important perspective we don’t have in the first person – or nearly enough of at all.

But I have hope – in a slightly twisted way. The Stardust Thief is the first book in a trilogy, although the second book doesn’t even have a title yet, let alone a publication date. It can’t come nearly soon enough because this first book doesn’t exactly end. Like the other adventures in this book, like the adventures Shafira told the Sultan, this one ends just as our heroes have jumped out of yet another frying pan but are still in freefall before they land in the inevitable fire.

It’s going to be a long, nail-biting wait to find out how hot things get in the next installment!

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey DavisDeadly Election (Flavia Albia Mystery, #3) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #3
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the blazing July heat of imperial Rome, Flavia Albia inspects a decomposing corpse. It has been discovered in lots to be auctioned by her family business, so she's determined to identify the dead man and learn how he met his gruesome end.
The investigation will give her a chance to work with the magistrate, Manlius Faustus, the friend she sadly knows to be the last chaste man in Rome. But he's got other concerns than her anonymous corpse. It's election time and with democracy for sale at Domitian's court, tension has come to a head. Faustus is acting as an agent for a 'good husband and father', whose traditional family values are being called into question. Even more disreputable are his rivals, whom Faustus wants Albia to discredit.
As Albia's and Faustus' professional and personal partnership deepens they have to accept that, for others, obsession can turn sour, and become a deadly strain that leads, tragically, to murder.

My Review:

I want to start this with “Once upon a time” but I’m not sure whether that’s once upon a time, in 1989, the author published the first book in a historical mystery series featuring a hard-boiled rapscallion of a private inquiry agent named Marcus Didius Falco. The series ran for 20 books, until Falco passed the investigative torch to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. Deadly Election is the third book in her series, which is now at ten books and continuing.

It could be “once upon a time”, back when audiobooks were still on actual tape, I listened to that first book, The Silver Pigs, and picked up all the subsequent books I could get my hands on in any form.

At the time, the series was a bit like the bear dancing, in that you are not surprised it’s done well, you’re surprised it’s done AT ALL. But in the end, it was done and done very well indeed, in spite of the seeming implausibility of the protagonist.

Once you’ve read the fortunes and misfortunes of the father, it seems natural to continue the adventure with the daughter who brings her own version of wry intelligence mixed with utter cynicism to her own investigations – following in her father’s often self-indulgent footsteps.

Flavia Albia is a different kind of investigator altogether. Not that she doesn’t find herself in trouble as often as her father did. It’s just that many of the times Falco had to be broken out of jail it was his own fault due to some of that self-indulgence. When Flavia Albia gets into trouble it’s usually because she’s working too hard or following too closely in a case. The former at least was something her father was seldom accused of.

And if it seems like I’m meandering a bit or giving a lot of background, that’s actually kind of how both series work. Because there is generally a lot of background, all to the purpose of immersing the reader in the world inhabited by Flavia Albia and her frequently disreputable family – with her “dear old dad” as the head disreputable. Without his redoubtable wife, Helena Justina, he would never have managed to stay any course long enough to have enough to retire on – as he has.

But as we walk the streets of Imperial Rome with Flavia Albia, we are able to immerse ourselves in her world. It’s a fascinating view of a time and place long subsumed by history, made all the more absorbing because as much as many things are different, human beings don’t seem to have changed a bit.

For good and for ill. Considering Albia’s profession, she’s better off if a few more people are doing ill – as then they might need her services as an “informer” – otherwise known as a private inquiry agent or, as anachronistic as the term would be – private detective.

In Deadly Election, she has two cases to wrangle with. One comes to her through her friend – and possibly her eventual lover, Manlius Faustus. He’s already been elected to public office, but he’s now mentoring his childhood friend into the business. They’re using Albia’s services to investigate their rivals to see if some dirt can be found to foul up their campaigns – while trying to keep ahead of whatever dirt their opponents might dig up on them.

But the election has already turned deadly, as Albia’s other work, assisting with the family auction house, has turned up a dead body locked in a storage crate scheduled for auction. At first, Albia has no clue to the corpse’s identity, but as she investigates she discovers that the late lamented may not have had an enemy in the world, but he certainly had a relative in that race for public office.

It’s up to Albia to figure out who done it and why at a time and place where forensics were non-existence, women officially had no public role (unofficially was an entirely other matter) and where everyone is afraid to talk because the emperor’s agents are everywhere – looking for possible – or potential traitors.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what makes these series fun is that each book begins with what almost seems like a lot of extraneous information. Information that turns out not to have been extraneous at all by the time the story ends. But it does feel like an immersion process, that it takes time to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with Albia’s Rome as she experiences it.

And to get used to her first-person voice, because she’s an intelligent outsider who has learned to be whoever and whatever she needs to be to get the job done and get paid by her client. But behind her mask of professional politeness she’s wry and snarky and frequently wishes she could let loose with a cutting remark or ten – because so many of her clients deserve it. Her thoughts can feel very modern, just as her adopted father’s did, but it works surprisingly well.

As Flavia goes on with her business and takes us through her Rome, we start to feel the cobbles under our feet, the mud between our toes, and even smell the overwhelming decay of the liquefying corpse the auction house’s staff find locked in a chest.

At first we’re watching her, and then we’re with her, in a way that wouldn’t work nearly as well if the story didn’t circle around to the case the way it does.

A lot of this particular story is about family ties and nepotism in politics. (Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?) Also it takes place in the middle of a very long, very hot summer, and that seems familiar as well. Forensics are non-existent. She has to solve her cases by painstakingly asking questions of everyone involved and piecing together the parts of the answers that might be true.

It’s easy for both Albia and the reader to get lost in the cover ups and lies, and isn’t that just politics all over.

At the same time, Albia’s relationship with Faustus is driving her crazy. He seems to be the only man in Rome immune to her charms. He’s divorced, she’s a widow, there’s no reason they can’t embark on an affair. Except that they are not of the same class. How much social opprobrium he’s willing to endure is not something she’s willing to risk her heart on.

But this case throws them together at every turn. Which makes it a lot of fun for the reader to wonder whether they’re going to get together or even if they should, while Albia takes a hard look at all the candidates for office and all the murder suspects for that poor corpse and begins to think they might be one and the same.

The heart wants what the heart wants, the cases aren’t going to be easy to solve, and the emperor is insanely paranoid – adding a level of unpredictable danger to a situation that no one except Flavia Albia wants to cope with in the first place!

But it’s all a lot of fun for any reader, like this one, who loves historical mysteries set in unusual times and places. And for any reader who likes their protagonists to have an inner asshole voice that isn’t always as inner as it should be.

In other words, I had a ball with this book, even if Albia wasn’t always having one herself. I’ll be back sometime with the next book in the series, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, the next time I’m in the right mood, if only to see how Albia’s romance is – or isn’t – going!

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey YatesThe Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Hqn on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"Yates packs an emotional punch with this masterful, multilayered contemporary…pitch-perfect plotting and carefully crafted characters make for a story that’s sure to linger in readers’ minds.” —Publishers Weekly
New York Times bestselling author Maisey Yates dazzles with this powerful novel of sisterhood, secrets and how far you’d go to protect someone you love…
Ruby McKee is a miracle. Found abandoned on a bridge as a newborn baby by the McKee sisters, she’s become the unofficial mascot of Pear Blossom, Oregon, a symbol of hope in the wake of a devastating loss. Ruby has lived a charmed life, and when she returns home after traveling abroad, she’s expecting to settle into that charm. But an encounter with the town’s black sheep makes her question the truth about her mysterious past.
Dahlia McKee knows it’s not right to resent Ruby for being special. But uncovering the truth about Ruby’s origins could allow Dahlia to carve her own place in Pear Blossom history.
Recently widowed Lydia McKee has enough on her plate without taking on Ruby’s quest for answers. Especially when her husband’s best friend, Chase, is beginning to become a complication she doesn’t want or need.
Marianne Martin is glad her youngest sister is back in town, but it’s hard to support Ruby’s crusade when her own life is imploding.
When the quest for the truth about Ruby’s origins uncovers a devastating secret, will the McKee sisters fall apart or band together? 

My Review:

This story about the importance of stories is wrapped around the four McKee sisters, Marianne, Lydia, Dahlia and Ruby. They are all adults as the story opens, and for the first time as adults, all four of them now live in the tiny town of Pear Blossom, Oregon. It’s Ruby’s return home that precipitates all the crises in the story.

And are there ever plenty of those!

There are also four themes or plot threads running through the story, but not, as you might expect, one per sister. Rather they are all being put through the same set of wringers at the same time. It can be a lot. And it frequently is for one or more of them.

Ruby’s return home sets all the wheels in motion, just as Ruby’s original advent set Pear Blossom on its current trajectory as a well-known tourist destination. Because Ruby wasn’t born to the McKee family, she was found by them. A tiny baby, abandoned on the historic, picturesque Sentinel footbridge, on a cold December evening. The young McKee sisters found Ruby as they walked home from Christmas choir practice. Nothing about her origins was ever discovered and she was adopted by the McKee family as the youngest sister.

The town saw her as a miracle, and she kind of was. But her miraculous appearance provided a weird sense of catharsis for a tragic event the winter before. A young woman went missing and was never found. She was presumed dead, but with no body and very little evidence of any kind, the boy who was assumed to be her killer was charged – and imprisoned – but the state had to eventually drop the case.

He became the town bogeyman – at all of 15 – just as Ruby became the town’s savior – at least in an emotional sense. Those reputations remain tied to both of their lives, deserved or not, in both cases.

So one thread of this story is about some of the less-lovable aspects of small town living, that everyone knows everyone’s business, and that lives and reputations can be made or ruined by the sins of the parents – because everyone knows just what they are. Ruby can’t step out of her role as the sunshine bringer, while Nathan Brewer was condemned because his father was a violent drunk with a mean streak and the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. But sometimes Miss Mary Sunshine has rain clouds in her life, and sometimes the apple throws itself as far from that parent tree as it can get.

The second thread is the driving power of stories, and the power of the past to impact the present. Because of the great mystery around Ruby’s origins and the way her adoption affected the McKee family, both Ruby and her sister Dahlia have made careers out of questioning and investigating the past.

Ruby is a historian, and the job she has just taken in Pear Blossom is to serve as the local museum’s archivist. Dahlia is a newspaper reporter. Together, they decide to do a series of newspaper stories and museum exhibits about the history of Pear Blossom. And it’s impossible to look back at the history of the town without taking a hard look at its two biggest stories; the disappearance and presumed death of Caitlin Groves, and the mysterious arrival of Ruby the following year.

But those events are just over 20 years in the past. There are plenty of people in town who remember what happened. And among those memories might be the key to unlocking one or both mysteries.

All four sisters are going through romantic crises, all at the same time. Marianne fears her husband is having an affair, Lydia is recently widowed and is still trying to figure out what happens next for herself and her children, Dahlia’s self-imposed inferiority complex is keeping her from pursuing the man she’s always loved. And Ruby herself, Miss Mary Sunshine, has fallen for the town’s biggest villain – because she realizes that he’s not the villain after all.

Which means that someone else is – and that they might still be around.

And that leads inexorably to the power of telling the truth, whether in big ways or small ones, and how the lies we tell ourselves are the hardest ones to let go of. Even if they are destroying not just ourselves but all those we love.

Escape Rating B-: One of the things I like about this author’s contemporary romances is that the situations that her protagonists are in tend to be fairly plausible. The dramatic tension in the romance is never a misunderstandammit, but rather two people honestly coming from different places that are, in real life, hard to resolve. (My personal favorite of hers is last year’s Confessions from the Quilting Circle.)

That plausibility was a bit lacking in The Lost and Found Girl. Any of the individual situations could easily happen, but all of them at once in the same family was a bit over the top. Honestly, more than a bit. Out of four sisters it seems like the odds would be that one of them would be doing okay – and not just think she was only to have the rug pulled out from under her.

And I have to say that the surprising conclusion to the more suspenseful elements of this story, particularly as there were two of them, seriously tested my willing suspension of disbelief. One felt plausible if barely. The second headed towards paranormal – which was both surprising and heading towards unbelievable.

Howsomever, I did like the overall concept of the story, about the importance of history and keeping it alive. That the stories we tell about ourselves and about who we came from matter and should be preserved. I loved the idea that Ruby and Dahlia were working together, from their entirely different angles, to create a living history for the town that everyone could enjoy.

That turning over rocks in the not-so-distant past uncovered some snakes in the grass pushed the story forwards and brought the sisters together. But the combination of that suspenseful part of the plot with all of the various forms of romantic angst went a bit over the top for me.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison Montclair

Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison MontclairThe Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge, #4) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #4
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Allison Montclair returns with the fourth Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, The Unkept Woman: London, 1946, Miss Iris Sparks--currently co-proprietor of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau--has to deal with aspects of her past exploits during the recent war that have come back around to haunt her.
The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals - Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris's past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son - a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.
Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

My Review:

The title of this one, just like the previous book in the series, A Rogue’s Company, is a bit of a pun. Because neither Iris nor Gwen are “kept women” in the traditional sense that phrase is usually meant.

But they both have been, in rather nontraditional meanings of the phrase. And the circumstances under which each of them placed themselves under some man’s thumb have come back to bite them in this fourth entry in the Sparks & Bainbridge series.

Gwen Bainbridge is currently under the thumb of her father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge. When her husband was killed late in the war, Gwen attempted suicide. Twice. And Harold had her declared a lunatic and committed to a sanatorium. She’s been out for quite some time now, she and Iris started their business together, and Gwen is ready to take back the reins of her own life – only to realize that those reins are something she has never really had.

And that the doctors and lawyers who will help her present her case that she is no longer a lunatic are all telling her that getting kidnapped and solving murders is not going to make the Lunacy Court look kindly on her pleas.

Meanwhile, Iris’ ex-lover, the spy who rented her apartment for her under one of his many false names, has barged back into her life and left a corpse in her apartment. The police believe that Iris is the killer, and are not taking kindly to the way that Iris continues to dodge both their questions and the plain-clothes detectives they send to tail her.

All the things that Iris can’t say are wrapped up in her own spy work during the war – and are covered by the Official Secrets Act. She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she tells the cops what she knows, she’ll be killed for violating those official secrets. And if she doesn’t talk – and can’t find out what really happened – there’s all too likely a chance that she’ll be convicted of a capital crime with the resulting capital sentence.

In order to solve the murder and get herself out from under the cops’ accusing eyes, Iris will need all the help she can get. It’s too bad for her that her old spymaster has cut her off, her gangster boyfriend has decided she’s too hot to handle – and not in a fun way, and that her best friend and partner Gwen is too worried about her chances in the courts to take a chance on helping Iris.

Or is she?

Escape Rating A: This entry in the series isn’t really about the marriage bureau at all. This one is all about the two women who own it, and their separate but parallel determination to stand on their own two feet (four feet altogether) without expecting to be helped or rescued or taken care of by anyone except, when the occasion requires it, each other.

It’s a story about letting the past go, for Iris to stop paying penance for the things she didn’t do during the war, and for Gwen to fight her corner and take care of herself for the first time in her life – making the best decisions for herself and her son.

The sense of the historical setting is particularly strong in this one. The war is over, but the recovery has just barely begun. The old war may be over, but another war, a cold war of spies and intelligence gathering, has taken its place. And neither Sparks’ nor Bainbridge’s war has really been dealt with. Iris is still punishing herself for her actions – or rather for her inactions – while Gwen has been so caught up in fighting her in-laws that she’s just now realizing that she hasn’t determined what form her independence will take – because she’s never really had any in her life.

So one side of this story is very much a spy thriller, as Iris has to use all of her old tradecraft to hunt down who really done it and why. Meanwhile, Gwen is demonstrating that she’s learned more from Iris than even she expected, and that she’s more than capable of fighting any corner she has to – even if she has to assault the police to get them to listen to her.

The Unkept Woman is a terrific combination of history, mystery and women’s friendship. I’m really glad I was introduced to Sparks and Bainbridge back in The Right Sort of Man. But dammit we still don’t know exactly what Sparks did during the war – although we sure do learn a lot more about it in this entry in the series. She’s still talking around what she did but the circle around that truth is getting a lot closer. Hopefully we will find out more in the next book in the series – whenever it comes.

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint1632 (Ring of Fire #1) by Eric Flint
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, time travel
Series: Ring of Fire #1
Pages: 597
Published by Baen Books on 2-1-2000
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

FREEDOM AND JUSTICE -- AMERICAN STYLE 1632 And in northern Germany things couldn't get much worse. Famine. Disease. Religous war laying waste the cities. Only the aristocrats remained relatively unscathed; for the peasants, death was a mercy. 2000 Things are going OK in Grantville, West Virginia, and everybody attending the wedding of Mike Stearn's sister (including the entire local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, which Mike leads) is having a good time. THEN, EVERYTHING CHANGED.... When the dust settles, Mike leads a group of armed miners to find out what happened and finds the road into town is cut, as with a sword. On the other side, a scene out of Hell: a man nailed to a farmhouse door, his wife and daughter attacked by men in steel vests. Faced with this, Mike and his friends don't have to ask who to shoot. At that moment Freedom and Justice, American style, are introduced to the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

My Review:

What if? That’s often the central question in science fiction. In the case of alternate history, as 1632 most definitely is, the question is just a bit more specific. What if history went down a different leg of the trousers of time than it did in the world we know?

When this book and this series, 1632, opens, it’s the year 2000 in Grantville, West Virginia. The entire town has turned out, along with quite a few selected and/or important guests, to see Rita Stearns, hometown hero Mike Stearns’ sister, get married to an out-of-towner whose parents most definitely do not approve.

Time and history, at least as far as the residents of Grantville knew it, gets knocked off the rails during the wedding reception, when what they later refer to as “The Ring of Fire” slices a 6 mile wide – and deep – circle in the earth with Grantville at its center, picks up that slice of the just barely 21st century U.S. and switches it with a corresponding slice of earth in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire in 1632 during the height of the mess that history refers to as the Thirty Years’ War.

The story in this book and the series that grew out of it, is not about the aliens. Nor is it about the mechanism of that time travel. It’s about what happens next. In 1632. Where a complete town of 3,000 people with late 20th century ideas and ideals has suddenly dropped into the midst of chaos.

No one even thinks about Star Trek’s Prime Directive. They can’t reverse what happened. They don’t even know how it happened. They can’t leave. And there are far, far too many of them to either hide that they are there or attempt to blend into the local population. Where they are, which turns out to be the middle of the Thuringian Forest, is where they are staying. And where their children, and grandchildren, etc., will be born and raised.

This is the story of who they decide to be and how they decide to make that happen in a world that isn’t ready for either what they think or what they know. They see two options laid out before them. The first is to batten down the hatches and fend off anyone from the outside who tries to get in. The second is to throw open the doors and let everyone in – as long as they are willing to abide by the conditions laid out in documents that won’t be written for another century and a half.

Can the United States of Europe get enough people to accept democracy, civil rights and American-style prosperity fast enough to change enough history to make a new, good life for themselves and everyone willing to join them?

Or will the powers-that-be of 17th century Europe wipe them out and grind them under before they have firm enough ground to stand on?

Escape Rating A: I read 1632 way back when it was originally published in 2000 and absolutely fell in love with it – and several of the subsequent volumes of the Ring of Fire series. The author and originator, Eric Flint, passed away last week and it reminded me just how much I loved this at the time. I decided to see if it held up over the intervening decades – and here we are. The answer is pretty obvious from the rating. I loved it then and I love it still and I’ll probably read more of the series – again or for the first time – as time permits.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws along with its terrific points – but I still loved it. For one thing, this is very much competence porn. The group of folks who end up as the “Founding Fathers and Mothers” are all utterly excellent at doing the jobs that have been thrust upon them.

Probably more excellent – and more cohesively – than would happen if this were real. Or if it happened now. It did feel like they came together much faster in 2000 than might occur today after the last two decades of extreme political divisiveness in the U.S.

The wedding reception also created a rather convenient excuse for a lot of people to be in this small and already dying town than would have been true on a typical Sunday. It is particularly notable that the only black people in town – a much needed doctor and his paramedic daughter – are only there for the wedding. Otherwise the town would be almost entirely monochromatic.

If there are any LGBTQ+ folks in Grantville – we certainly don’t meet them in this first book. (That being said, this was not atypical of publishing at the time this book came out. The series kept on going, 32 books and counting, with the most recent, 1636: The China Venture, published in 2019. I imagine the books got more diverse in all ways as the series continued, but I can’t prove it from here.)

What fascinated me the first time I read this, and continues to do so, was the history and the directions that the author – and his later collaborators – chose to take that history. Their initial decisions in this first book seem reasonable, especially that all-important decision to gear their technology down to the level of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a level they can reach and maintain with the knowledge they have and the level of technology they can get their neighbors to reach. And it’s still way ahead of where central Europe is when they “landed”.

This book doesn’t so much end as it does lead immediately to the next book in the series, 1633. But it still feels like it stops on a triumphant note. Not because they just won an important military victory – although they certainly did. It’s what that victory is in service of that makes the ending a high note.

First, the victory is a victory of alliance – not of Grantville using its technical superiority to turn itself into a fortress nation. They form an alliance with King Gustav II Adolphus of Sweden, who in the history that was but will not be, a very forward thinking monarch who might have changed real history – if he hadn’t died in late 1632.

Second, the victory on their home ground, protects the most dangerous thing that Grantville brought back with it – the high school library and the students studying at the school. The powers-that-be, including Cardinal Richelieu of France (the villainous mastermind in The Three Musketeers) knew that the knowledge and information that Grantville brought to the 17th century was infinitely more dangerous than any of their weapons – and they wanted it destroyed at all costs.

And I have to admit that that acknowledgement, that libraries are dangerous because they expose people to knowledge and information, warmed the cockles of my librarian’s heart. Because it is and because we are. Not because of any of the specific things that are being protested today, but because libraries open people’s minds to what is possible – and that is what reactionary forces always fear above all else. Libraries, and librarians, teach people to ask questions that no tyrant, whether of government or of thought, wants to answer.

So I had fun. I had a lot of thoughts re-reading this book, but I also had a lot of fun. Even if things were a lot easier than I expect they would have been or should have been, I enjoyed watching these highly competent people doing their best to not just survive but to make a real life for themselves, their neighbors AND their posterity in a place where none of them could ever have expected to be.

I’ll be back – again or for the first time – the next time I need a competence porn pick-me-up or just want to watch a whole bunch of people play silly buggers with history. 1633 here I come!

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 7-24-22

After a couple of successful – meaning relatively quiet – supervised visits by the incumbent clowder, Luna and Tuna were officially released into the general population of household cats Thursday evening. As World War III has not yet occurred, this is considered a successful introduction.

In celebration, here’s a picture of George and Tuna comparing whatever it is cats measure when they meet. George’s tail is longer, but Tuna’s is magnificent in its own way. They are both certainly VERY big bois!

Back to books – always a popular subject at chez Reading Reality. After a couple of less than successful books – or at least books that may be popular with plenty of other readers but did not float my boat AT ALL, I decided to dive back into the virtually towering TBR pile a little more this week. The recent death of Eric Flint inspired me to take a look back at his marvelous Ring of Fire series – hence tomorrow’s review of the first book therein, 1632. And I was just in the mood for another hard-boiled mystery, which lead me back to Flavia Albia’s cynical view of Imperial Rome and Deadly Election – a title that is almost a bit too apropos in our troubled times as well as hers.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Summer 2022 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Christmas in July Giveaway Hop is Nancy

Blog Recap:

A Review: Three Miles Down by Harry Turtledove
B Review: Till Sudden Death Do Us Part by Simon R. Green
A- Review: This Place of Wonder by Barbara O’Neal
D Review: The It Girl by Ruth Ware
A- Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips
Stacking the Shelves (506)

Coming This Week:

1632 by Eric Flint (review)
The Unkept Woman by Allison Montclair (review)
The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates (blog tour review)
Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis (review)
The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah (audiobook review)

Stacking the Shelves (506)

The books I want to highlight in this stack are the two I bought, 1632 and 1633 by Eric Flint. I read them back when they came out in 2000 and absolutely loved them. The premise is just so damn much fun, that an entire town in West Virginia on the cusp of the 21st century gets transported across the Atlantic and back in time to the middle of what will eventually become Germany in the year 1632, which happens to be about the midpoint of the Thirty Years’ War. The transport mechanism isn’t dealt with seriously at all in the novel, because it’s not the point. The point is what happens next when 3,000 or so people with late 20th century ideas and attitudes get stuck in the 17th century. It’s about people mostly rising to the occasion and changing history and the ways that history changes are fascinating. Flint passed away last Sunday, so I decided to see if at least the beginning of the series I remembered so fondly still held up over 20 years later. The answer is that it does, it’s still thoughtful and it’s still an awful lot of fun. The author will be missed, but he thankfully left behind a HUGE body of work in this series alone, so I’m looking forward to comfort reads for a long time to come.

And if you’ve ever had a yen to read alternate history, or if you read this series way back when and also remember it fondly, it’s definitely worth picking up now, whether again or for the first time.

For Review:
All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews
An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi
Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado
Demon Dagger by Russell James
The Direction of the Wind by Mansi Shah
Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo
Heartbreaker (Hell’s Belles #2) by Sarah MacLean
I Remember You by Brian Freeman
Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu
The Lies of the Ajungo (Forever Desert #1) by Moses Ose Utomi
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
My Dearest Darkest by Kayla Cottingham
One for All by Lillie Lainoff
The Red Palace by June Hur
Take My Husband by Ellen Meister
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso
What She Found (Tracy Crosswhite #9) by Robert Dugoni

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
1632 (Ring of Fire #1) by Eric Flint (2nd ed.)
1633 (Ring of Fire #2) by Eric Flint & David Weber


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Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips

Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary PhillipsOne-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 274
Published by Soho Crime on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Race and civil rights in 1963 Los Angeles provide a powerful backdrop in Gary Phillips’s riveting historical crime novel about an African American forensic photographer seeking justice for a friend—perfect for fans of Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and George Pelecanos.
LOS ANGELES, 1963: African American Korean War veteran Harry Ingram earns a living as a news photographer and occasional process server: chasing police radio calls and dodging baseball bats. With racial tensions running high on the eve of Martin Luther King’s Freedom Rally, Ingram risks becoming a victim at every crime scene he photographs.
When Ingram hears about a deadly automobile accident on his police scanner, he recognizes the vehicle described as belonging to his good friend and old army buddy, a white jazz trumpeter. The LAPD declares the car crash an accident, but when Ingram develops his photos, he sees signs of foul play. Ingram feels compelled to play detective, even if it means putting his own life on the line. Armed with his wits, his camera, and occasionally his Colt .45, “One-Shot” Harry plunges headfirst into the seamy underbelly of LA society, tangling with racists, leftists, gangsters, zealots, and lovers, all in the hope of finding something resembling justice for a friend.
Master storyteller and crime fiction legend Gary Phillips has filled the pages of One-Shot Harry with fascinating historical cameos, wise-cracks, tenderness, and an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a plot with consequences far beyond one dead body.

My Review:

One-Shot Harry is a fast-paced, noir-flavored, tautly written historical mystery set amid the turmoil of the summer of 1963 as Los Angeles was gearing up for Martin Luther King Jr.’s impending visit to the city.

Harry Ingram, a black Korean War vet who manages to keep his PTSD at bay by viewing life distanced through the lens of a camera, makes his living covering the crime beat for whoever will pay for his pictures – and occasional reporting – in LA’s black community. Which means that he mostly sells to the local black daily newspapers and the various magazines that served the community – back in a day when people still mostly got their news in print.

Between the pictures, and his side hustles as a process server and occasional fill-in member of one or more local jazz bands, Harry manages to pay the rent and not wonder too hard about where his next meal is coming from – but it’s a precarious living.

A livelihood that Harry puts at risk – along with his life – when an old army buddy returns to town, returns to the local jazz scene – and gets himself killed in an accident that might have been anything but.

Harry just can’t let it go. He and Leo had each other’s backs in Korea – in spite of the color line – and Harry feels like he has to have his old friend’s back one last time even if Leo isn’t around to see it. Because Leo isn’t around to see it.

Which gets Harry in way over his head – nearly six feet over his head. If the men hunting him even leave enough of him to get either identified or buried. Unless he gets them first.

Escape Rating A-: The description of the book doesn’t do this one justice. But it gives me a starting point to use to talk about the book and why it worked so well for me – especially after yesterday!

This is the kind of story that would have fit in extremely well with the male-centered, noirish thrillers that were very much in vogue in the 1960s when this story takes place. Series like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, among many others. But Harry’s story would have gone unpublished in his own time just as crimes against the black community would have been shoved under the carpet – hard – as Harry himself nearly is.

But what makes this story so compellingly readable is the combination of Harry’s character and the way that his pursuit of just a sliver of justice for his friend drives him forward. He’s every doggedly determined lone wolf blundering through an investigation that he’s not trained for, faces repeated roadblocks but just can’t let go. At the same time, his constant – and sometimes painfully reinforced – acknowledgement that the forces of law and order are arrayed against him because of his color, and that even if he’s technically right he’ll be judged wrong, feels real and true and unfortunately not all that historical at all.

The historical part of this mystery reads like it sits on the splintered crossroads between “the past is another country” and “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The institutionalized racism that Harry faces and has to work around is just as entrenched today as it was then – and all too frequently just as overt as well.

So the historical setting feels real and presents a clear and present danger, but what drives the story is Harry’s dogged determination. What makes it so compelling to follow, is that it isn’t just a cracking good mystery, it’s also well told and tightly edited in all the best ways to make the pace unrelenting.

(Upon reflection, part of what made yesterday’s book such a slog is that it sincerely needed someone to perform exactly this service. The bones of a good thriller were hidden under a lot of verbal flabbiness. I digress.)

The one thing keeping One-Shot Harry from being a sure shot at a full A grade is the ending. For a mystery to end satisfactorily, good needs to triumph and evil needs to get its just desserts. The perpetrator(s) need to be punished. Harry doesn’t exactly triumph at the end of this book – although from his perspective it could be said that his survival is triumph enough under the circumstances.

The men who committed his friend’s murder get exactly what they deserved. But it feels like punishing the puppets for what the hands up their asses did. They were tools, literally as well as figuratively. The owner of those hands walks away unscathed, because he’s white and rich and powerful and he has all the friends in high places to make sure nothing ever sticks to him. Harry doesn’t have a chance to bring him down and they both know it.

But there’s no catharsis for the reader in that acknowledgement or that ending. Very much on the other hand, that ending may not be satisfying but it is a whole hell of a lot more historically plausible. Harry really doesn’t have a chance to bring this bigwig down – at least not yet.

Harry’s “one-shot” at Mr. Big in this story doesn’t have to be his last. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger, but it isn’t closure either. It feels like Harry will be back and that this is just the start of what will hopefully be a long and eventually successful vendetta.

I certainly hope so because I can’t wait to read it.