A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin Chupeco

A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin ChupecoCourt of Wanderers (Silver Under Nightfall, #2) by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Series: Reaper #2
Pages: 448
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Remy Pendergast and his royal vampire companions return to face an enemy that is terrifyingly close to home in Rin Chupeco’s queer, bloody Gothic epic fantasy series for fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast, the vampire hunter, and his unexpected companions, Lord Zidan Malekh and Lady Xiaodan Song, are on the road through the kingdom of Aluria again after a hard-won first battle against the formidable Night Empress, who threatens to undo a fragile peace between humans and vampires. Xiaodan, severely injured, has lost her powers to vanquish the enemy’s new super breed of vampire, but if the trio can make it to Fata Morgana, the seat of Malehk’s court—dubbed “the Court of Wanderers”—there is hope of nursing her and bringing them back.
En-route to the Third Court, Remy crosses paths with his father, the arrogant, oftentimes cruel Lord of Valenbonne. He also begins to suffer strange dreams of the Night Empress, whom he has long suspected to be Ligaya Pendergast, his own mother. As his family history unfolds during these episodes, which are too realistic to be coincidence, he realizes that she is no ordinary vampire—and that he may end up having to choose between the respective legacies of his parents.
Posing as Malek and Xiaodan’s human familiar, Remy contends with Aluria’s intimidating vampire courts and a series of gruesome murders with their help—and more, as the three navigate their relationship. But those feelings and even their extraordinary collective strength will be put to the test as each of them unleashes new powers in combat at what may be proven to be the ultimate cost.

My Review:

I loved this second book in the Reaper duology even more than I loved the first book, Silver Under Nightfall. Which means that it is going to be damn near impossible to keep my SQUEE under enough control to write this review.

But then again, I loved this so hard that I have literally nothing truly serious to say, except to tell people to go out and read this duology and to start with Silver Under Nightfall and be prepared to forgo sleep until you’ve finished the set.

The story in Court of Wanderers picks up right after the ending of Silver Under Nightfall, and everything that happened in that first book is part of the setup for this second. So my one very serious thing to say is to start with Silver Under Nightfall to get acclimated to this intricately designed and convoluted world where the good humans are working with the good vampires, the bad vampires are killing the bad humans and someone or something is maneuvering behind the scenes on both sides for dastardly reasons of their own.

Because divide and conquer has been a sound strategy since the dawn of, well, strategy.

At the heart of this truly epic dark fantasy are Malekh, Xiodan and especially Remy. Malekh and Xiodan are vampires at the center of seemingly ALL the power plays among their people. A people who are distrustful of each other and seem to hold humans in contempt. But are forced to or hopeful of or a bit of both regarding an alliance with at least some humans in order to fight a common enemy that is targeting them both with armies of infectious, unkillable monsters.

(And yes, anything that a vampire thinks is a monster is pretty damn monstrous – as are the people (for loose definitions of ‘people’) controlling them.)

Remy Pendergast, the point of view character for the story, is a garden-variety human. Or so he believes, in spite of all the rumors to the contrary he grew up with and was constantly reviled for. His father leads the human armies on behalf of the Alurian Queen Ophelia.

His father, quite frankly, is also a bastard – the marital status of HIS parents notwithstanding.

Remy was supposed to be his father’s spy among the vampire courts. Instead, Remy has found the first place he could ever call home. A place where he is respected, appreciated, and most definitely loved. By Malekh and Xiodan, the leaders of the third and fourth vampire courts, who want to make him their acknowledged third, whether he remains human or lets himself be turned.

But Remy isn’t quite the mere human that he believed himself to. Then again, quite a few of the things he believed and the people he believed in are not exactly what he believed them to be, either.

The war that Remy is at the forefront of, on both sides at the same time, will test his courage, his mettle, his resolve – and most especially, his heart.

What comes out the other side – intact or otherwise – is for Remy to discover. If he survives – and if his world survives with or without him.

Escape Rating A++: The SQUEE is strong with this review. Let’s get into at least a bit of the why of that fact.

The comparison that keeps being made in the blurbs is to Castlevania. I’ve never played the game, so I can’t say if that’s on point or not. What is very much on point – and not just the pointy fangs of the vampires themselves, is that the Reaper duology does a fantastic – no pun intended – job of combining the battle of good vs. evil that so often lies at the heart of epic fantasy with epic fantasy’s complex worldbuilding AND its underlying thread of very long, downright historical forces teeing up to fight the same battles over and over again.

At the same time, and I think this is where the Castlevania reference comes in, some of the prime movers and shakers in this world are vampires. And it has been observed, at least by this reader, that vampire politics tend to run towards exceedingly long games and even longer grudges because those original movers and shakers are still doing the moving and the shaking down through the millennia. It’s difficult to get a fresh start when the people who need it are battling not against institutional memory or country-founding ethos but against actual memory – usually in worlds where therapy is not remotely a thing.

A big part of what is ultimately uncovered, the evil at the heart of this world, is that the forces arrayed have been maneuvering on the down low for longer than the short-lived humans could possibly imagine – not that plenty of them haven’t either been caught up in it or killed by it or both over the centuries.

Our point of view on those discoveries, and on those centuries of underhanded and underground dealings, is Remy Pendergast. In Silver Under Nightfall, we’re with Remy as he’s used and abused by everyone around him in the human world, and we follow his perspective as he learns that the vampire courts are not much like he’s always been taught. And that he has considerably more value as a person than the human courts – particularly his own father – have ever led him to believe.

As Court of Wanderers begins to unravel the plots and counterplots that have set up the epic confrontation, Remy learns that so much of what he’s been taught to believe just ain’t so. We feel for him as his illusions are destroyed, as some of them get rebuilt, and as the layers of the whole onion of his life peel back with tears every step of the way. We get caught up in his journey as well as the battle yet to come and its multiple horns of dilemma consequences.

I got caught up in this story for Remy, because it was impossible not to feel for him, and because the way that his continual discoveries of how the world REALLY works as opposed to how he thought it did gave me a captivating and compelling ‘in’ to this complex world.

I stuck around because as the romance – and it is absolutely a romance – between Malekh, Xiodan and Remy gets deeper I found myself feeling for them, both in the romance AND for the centuries of trauma they had experienced and the way that their world was damaged and how desperately they wanted to fix it in spite of the forces arrayed against them.

I was fascinated with the way that the good vs. evil battle that has been fought through the whole story wasn’t reduced in any way to the easy fixes. Although many people at the beginning believed it was vampires vs. humans, and the villains were trying hard to make that point stick, in the end there was good among both and evil among both and deception on all sides. And redemption as well.

When I closed the final page of Court of Wanderers, I left this world with a deeply conflicted reaction. The ending of this book, and this duology, is utterly right for the story that was told within. The mix of the bitter of loss with the sweet of possibilities was, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, ‘just right’. But I’m deeply sad that this marvelous story is over, and that I won’t get to see the outcome of the life-altering choices that Remy has before him – and I desperately want to know.

Maybe I’ll find out in some future story by this author. I hope so. I KNOW that I’ll be all in on their next adult fantasy, whenever it appears, because Silver Under Nightfall and Court of Wanderers constitute a tale that I’m going to remember for a long, long time.

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas WesterbekeA Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, literary fiction
Pages: 399
Published by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue meets Life of Pi in this dazzlingly epic debut that charts the incredible, adventurous life of one woman as she journeys the globe trying to outrun a mysterious curse that will destroy her if she stops moving.
Paris, 1885: Aubry Tourvel, a spoiled and stubborn nine-year-old girl, comes across a wooden puzzle ball on her walk home from school. She tosses it over the fence, only to find it in her backpack that evening. Days later, at the family dinner table, she starts to bleed to death.
When medical treatment only makes her worse, she flees to the outskirts of the city, where she realizes that it is this very act of movement that keeps her alive. So begins her lifelong journey on the run from her condition, which won’t allow her to stay anywhere for longer than a few days nor return to a place where she’s already been.
From the scorched dunes of the Calashino Sand Sea to the snow-packed peaks of the Himalayas; from a bottomless well in a Parisian courtyard, to the shelves of an infinite underground library, we follow Aubry as she learns what it takes to survive and ultimately, to truly live. But the longer Aubry wanders and the more desperate she is to share her life with others, the clearer it becomes that the world she travels through may not be quite the same as everyone else’s...
Fiercely independent and hopeful, yet full of longing, Aubry Tourvel is an unforgettable character fighting her way through a world of wonders to find a place she can call home. A spellbinding and inspiring story about discovering meaning in a life that seems otherwise impossible, A Short Walk Through a Wide World reminds us that it’s not the destination, but rather the journey—no matter how long it lasts—that makes us who we are.

My Review:

The title is only half right. The world that Aubry Tourvel walks through is indeed wide, but her walk is far, far from short – especially from her own perspective.

That walk begins in 1885, when Aubry is all of 9 years old, the protected and spoiled youngest child of middle-class parents in Paris, France. Whether her condition is caused by a mysterious puzzle ball, her unwillingness to sacrifice it, or merely the whims of fate is never 100% certain – and it doesn’t need to be.

However the malady, or perhaps curse is a better term, was visited upon her, nevertheless one evening Aubry sits down at the dinner table and starts bleeding from seemingly every orifice while going into convulsions that wrack her entire body.

Medical science has neither diagnosis nor cure. All Aubry has to go by, on, for, and with, is her meager experience that when she changes location she immediately starts to heal, but when she stays in the same place for too long, the blood starts dripping out of her nose and her condition takes over.

Fast, hard and with extreme pain in every limb.

So Aubry is off, and so is the story. At first, with her whole family, moving from hôtel to hôtel in the suburbs of Paris, but then, as she runs out of places she hasn’t been yet, out into the countryside with her mother, Aubry’s knowledge of her mother’s utter exhaustion and total depression, and her awareness of her family’s dwindling finances.

Aubry runs away and leaves her mother behind. She’s all alone, walking that wide, wide world, at the age of twelve.

This is her story. It’s not exactly an adventure, although there are certainly adventures within it. It’s absolutely a story about the journey and not the destination, because as far as Aubry can discover, the only destination is death.

But along the way, for as many steps and as much time as Aubry has, there’s an ever-changing, always moving, and utterly fascinating life.

Escape Rating A: If you could put Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days, both by Jules Verne and both still fairly new when Aubry begins her walk, into a book blender, you’d get at least the basic broth of Aubry’s long journey. A broth spiced with a bit of Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control.

The difference is that both of those classic stories are ‘there and back again’ adventures. The protagonists set out with every expectation that they will return home at the end, more or less safe and sound.

Aubry can neither go home, nor can she make a new one. She’s a human turtle, carrying her home on her back. And it’s HARD. It’s a hardness that both does and does not define her, and that’s what makes her journey so compelling to follow.

On the one hand, she has to be as self-sufficient as possible, because she knows that she will often be utterly alone, not because she wants to be, but because she travels through many of the empty places of the world, frequently on paths that no one else can see. At the same time, she learns that when she does find companions, the only thing she has to trade is her ability to use her self-sufficiency to help others.

But what keeps the reader with her is the emotional journey. She goes from spoiled to über capable. She goes from being done for to doing for others when possible and whatever is necessary to survive all the time.

And she goes from child to young woman to middle-aged and to elderly – one step at a time and always with the monkey of her condition on her back. She makes friends and loses them and drinks from all the springs of the world – but only to the shallowness of a teaspoon.

She samples but never stays. And we’re right there with her.

This is a story that grabbed me from the first page with the sheer puzzle of it. The idea of her endless journey, and even more fascinating still, the progress of it in a world where all the corners had not yet been filled in.

And that it was a woman’s journey and not a man’s. There were (and are) plenty of such journeys undertaken by men in fiction. When Aubry sets out, it was the age of such stories, often written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Their tales often told stories of ‘big’ adventures of one sort or another.

Instead, Aubry’s journey is long rather than ‘big’. She’s not trying to become famous – although she does. She’s trying to survive and that gives her story a much different flavor and leads it towards a more authentic conclusion. In the end, as much as we may envy her ability to pick up stakes and travel, to make herself comfortable wherever she goes, we feel for her inability to ever take a break from it.

So, if you’re ever feeling like home is a bit too comfortable to ever leave, take A Short Walk Through a Wide World with Aubry Tourvel and travel by armchair with gratitude for the ability to take that walk with her without having to leave everything behind, and see the world from the perspective of someone else’s aching feet.

#BookReview: Space Holes: First Transmission by B.R. Louis

#BookReview: Space Holes: First Transmission by B.R. LouisSpace Holes (First Transmission, #1) by B.R. Louis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: farce, humor, parody, satire, science fiction, space opera
Series: Space Holes #1
Pages: 302
Published by CamCat Books on March 26, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Saving an alien planet is nothing compared to meeting your sales quota. Marcus Aimond, untrained tag-along aboard humanity's first intergalactic exploratory commerce vessel, has a singular sell off-brand misprinted merchandise. When the rookie and his crew encounter the Nerelkor, a frog-like civilization, he is thrust head-first into an alien civil war. The opposing factions, Rejault and Dinasc, are stuck in an ill-fated feud driven by deep-rooted ineptitude. To avoid the planet’s total annihilation and establish a local sales office, Aimond and the crew must survive arena combat, reshape the very structure of the planet, establish world peace, and stay alive―for the sake of positive branding, of course.

My Review:

I’m writing this review because I desperately need to get this book out of my head. Which means that, fair warning and abandon all hope ye who enter here, this is going to be an absolute RANT of a review.

Which is really too bad because it had a lot of potential. It’s just that all that potential turned out to be added cereal filler.

I mean that literally. You’ll see.

At first, I thought the title was a pun, that ‘Space Holes’ was meant to be a play on ‘Ass Holes’ without literally giving the book the title ‘Ass Holes’. Having read it, I think that would have been a better book.

Instead, the ‘Space Holes’ of the title are wormholes, or at least one stable wormhole near Jupiter. The reason that those wormholes are not officially called wormholes in any of the promotional or merchandising brochures created by the company that owns the trademark on the term ‘Space Holes’ is that ‘wormhole’ is a word in common parlance that can’t be trademarked.

At that point, the joke was still funny but was starting to wear a bit thin. You’re wondering what the joke was, right?

The joke was that this is set in a not-too-far-distant future where a cereal company that makes really bad but ridiculously addictive cereal has taken over the entire world (except for Florida which is also part of the joke) and is desperate to find new markets for their terrible cereal and all of the cheap tchotchkes they use to market their terrible cereal and that the terrible cereal is intended to market. Yes, it’s the circle of advertising life, and yes, it really happens and yes it can be funny.

Which leads to the building of a spaceship intended to traverse that ‘Space Hole’ to another galaxy in order to set up new branch offices and sell yet more cereal and all of the many, many toys and other cheap products that fund the company’s executive offices and, at this point, the entire world government.

And it kind of was, up to a point of saturation.

Where the joke started to get thin, at least for this reader, was the point where the crew of the ship got trained, not even in simulators, but through a limited series of a mere EIGHT 45-minute point-and-click web-based training videos. It’s not a surprise that they crash-land on the first planet they find, it’s more of a surprise that they don’t crash into the sides of the wormhole.

Don’t even think that the ship has safety protocols designed to prevent such an occurrence, because it doesn’t. Have safety protocols, that is. Safety was sacrificed for cost-cutting and/or greater merchandising opportunities at every single instance. It’s both amazing that the GP Gallant flies at all AND that anyone on its crew is capable of flying her.

The whole thing lost me when a promotional advertisement interrupted the middle of a red-alert klaxon, not just once but every 30 seconds or so. Once was sorta/kinda funny. Multiple iterations wore the joke of the whole entire thing down to a nubbin and yeeted it into a black hole. Not a space hole, but a black hole of utter destruction.

And yet, in spite of everything, surprising everyone including this reader, the crew of the GP Gallant managed to find a planet filled with beings who seemed to be even less capable then they were, and saved them from their own inability to make any sense by ending their civil war.

Escape Rating D: That’s a misnomer, because I didn’t escape at all and still haven’t, dammit. I can’t get this thing out of my head no matter how much I try.

The worst part is that the ideas at the heart of this thing aren’t bad. There’s the germ of a good story here, possibly more than one, that might have worked IF this had been a series of short stories instead.

Howsomever, what this book turned out to be is a bad combination of the awesome book Redshirts and the movie Office Space. Possibly with a bit of the book Mickey7 thrown in if Mickey had less assigned functionality and no ability to acquire any.

(The erstwhile protagonist of this farce is the child of one of the corporate bigwigs who gets literally thrown onto the ship at the last minute because daddy dearest is certain the boy is useless. He isn’t really, but he sort of is, and he wants to be useful and a hero so bad, and he’s very earnest but completely unqualified and again, this had potential, but by that point the joke had been stretched way too thin and kept getting, well, thinner to the point of utter transparency.)

Leading to my ultimate conclusion that those seeming progenitors of Space Holes, all of which were very good of their type – absolutely do not belong together. Well, maybe Mickey7 and Redshirts together might be good, but the dysfunctionality of Office Space just doesn’t belong here – particularly not with added corporate shills, obsessive rule-pushers and over-the-top merchandising shenanigans.

There’s plenty of room for satire, parody and even outright farce in all of the above. But all at once just proves the rule that too much of a good thing is often NOT wonderful at all.

#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik Larson

#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik LarsonNo One Goes Alone by Erik Larson
Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, suspense
Length: 7 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Random House Audio Publishing Group on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From New York Times best-selling author Erik Larson comes his first venture into fiction, an otherworldly tale of intrigue and the impossible that marshals his trademark approach to nonfiction to create something new: a ghost story thoroughly grounded in history.
Pioneering psychologist William James leads an expedition to a remote isle in search of answers after a family inexplicably vanishes. Was the cause rooted in the physical world...or were there forces more paranormal and sinister at work? Available only on audio, because as Larson says, ghost stories are best told aloud.
A group of researchers sets sail for the Isle of Dorn in the North Atlantic in 1905 to explore the cause of several mysterious disappearances, most notably a family of four who vanished without a trace after a week-long holiday on the island. Led by Professor James, a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research, they begin to explore the island’s sole cottage and surrounding landscape in search of a logical explanation.
The idyllic setting belies an undercurrent of danger and treachery, with raging storms and unnerving discoveries adding to the sense of menace. As increasingly unexplainable events unfold, the now-stranded investigators are unsure whether they can trust their own eyes, their instincts, one another - or even themselves.
Erik Larson has written a terrifying tale of suspense, underpinned with actual people and events. Created specifically to entertain audio listeners, this eerie blend of the ghostly and the real will keep listeners captivated till the blood-chilling end.
Featuring Erik Larson reading his Notes for a Narrator.

My Review:

This is a ghost story. Actually, it’s not, because there’s no ghost. No one has ever reported seeing an actual ghost on spooky, creepy, isolated Dorn Island. Oodles of disappearances and other strange phenomena have been recorded, but there has been a singular lack of actual ghosties in a place that even the Society for Psychical Research has flagged as being haunted.

Maybe it’s the humans who occasionally visit who bring the hauntings with them. After all, they certainly bring enough emotional baggage along to conceal any number of ghosts.

That learned society, however, isn’t interested in mere speculation – although they certainly have plenty of that documented in their archives. The Society is looking for proof, for scientific evidence obtained by scientific methods, that will either prove beyond most shadows of doubt that psychic phenomena – including ghosts – are real, or that they are unequivocally not.

A party of researchers, led by pioneering psychologist William James, embarked for the tiny Island of Dorn off the coast of England in 1905. The reader, or in this case listener, follows along in their wake through the eyes of Julian Frost, an up-and-coming engineer in the British Post Office for his expertise with the new wireless telegraphy pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi. The party and the Society entertain some hopes that the sensitive apparatus that pulls telegraph signals from thin air might also manage to record psychic emanations the same way.

As we listen to Frost reading his diary long after the events chronicled within have come to their eerie, deadly, fever dream of a conclusion, we’re right there with this eccentric and increasingly fractious group of confirmed skeptics, reluctant believers, and as it turns out, unwitting experimental subjects and eventual signers of the Official Secrets Act regarding the tale that Frost is telling us much, much later – even though he knows he shouldn’t be revealing anything at all.

Whether this story tells a truth still behind lock and key, or is merely the fevered imaginings of a young man thwarted in love by not one but two beautiful women while the rest of the company looks on and laughs at his frequent humiliation is a question that will haunt the reader long after Frost’s furtive account has come to its surprising end.

Escape Rating B: I need to get this part out of the way because it’s the thing that drove me utterly BANANAS while I was listening to this story. No One Goes Alone was an audio original when it was published three years ago, because the author believes that ghost stories are best when told rather than read. YMMV may vary on that.

Howsomever, it’s been three years. I confess that I fully expected that at some point in those intervening years a text would have been published. My expectation was in error. There is no text. Still. Hence the bananas.

When I began the story, I was sucked right in and couldn’t wait to find out not just whodunnit but how and why it was done. The dramatic tension began on a very low simmer but kept building bit by bit as the water got hotter – so to speak – and an entire, literal rain of frogs started to overheat.

BUUUUT, there’s no text. So I couldn’t just read it quickly – it’s not that long even in audio – and I absolutely could not thumb to the end to get my curiosity assuaged. I got VERY frustrated with the whole thing but I HAD to know. (Now that I do know, I know that if I had flipped to the end it wouldn’t have made sense – but even that would have been informative in its way.)

Which doesn’t mean that I had to enjoy every scrap of that journey towards that knowing.

The story of No One Goes Alone is a very slow-building story, both because of the ponderousness of the early 20th century manners of polite speech and because it’s a story mostly told rather than shown, possibly because of the nature of the way it is told, through the reading of a diary rather than as it is happening before the diary writer’s eyes.

Also, while the narrator did a good job mimicking those slow speech patterns and differentiating between the members of this mixed party, American and British, male and female, young and middle-aged, the narration itself was a bit ponderous. To the point where, even though I normally listen to audiobooks specifically FOR the voice acting, this was a rare audiobook that worked better at 1.1x speed.

At first, the story had a bit of the flavor of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even though the cast of characters didn’t have anything like the right mix of seething resentments and hatreds to make that plot work without an outside force.

When the penny finally dropped, I realized what this story reminded me of very much was the Ishmael Jones series by Simon R. Green – hence yesterday’s review. Obviously not in the tone of the characters, as Green’s snark would not have played well or fit AT ALL coming from Julian Frost’s pen, but rather in the way that the story worked and the way that the ending came out of a deep left field that subverts the haunted house genre, pulls in elements that are totally unexpected, and does its damndest to make the story part of something bigger, more horrific and considerably more complicated all the way around.

In the Ishmael Jones series, that sharp turn into the even weirder works because the premise of the entire series comes out of that weird – that Jones is an alien masquerading as human and therefore has some superhuman talents and outside of the box enemies.

In No One Goes Alone, this claustrophobic haunted house story is connected instead to a greater, but more amorphous and less defined evil in a way that I’m not sure worked – at least not for this reader – leaving the conclusion to the story plenty chilling but not nearly as cathartic or as much of a resolution as I expected.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green

A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. GreenThe House on Widows Hill (Ishmael Jones #9) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #9
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on July 2, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Ishmael Jones investigates a haunted house . . . but is haunted by his own past in the latest of this quirky paranormal mystery series.

"That house is a bad place. Bad things happen there . . ."
Set high on top of Widows Hill, Harrow House has remained empty for years. Now, on behalf of an anonymous prospective buyer, Ishmael and Penny are spending a night there in order to investigate the rumours of strange lights, mysterious voices, unexplained disappearances, and establish whether the house is really haunted.
What really happened at Harrow House all those years ago? Joined by a celebrity psychic, a professional ghost-hunter, a local historian and a newspaper reporter, it becomes clear that each member of 'Team Ghost' has their own pet theory as to the cause of the alleged haunting. But when one of the group suddenly drops dead with no obvious cause, Ishmael realizes that if he can find out how and why the victim died, he will have the key to solving the mystery.

My Review:

The House on Widows Hill is more of a twist on the typical English country house mystery than even Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt usually have to contend with.

And that’s definitely saying something about the cases that the mysterious “Organization” usually assigns to this unconventional pair – even after the case in the previous book, Night Train to Murder, that has literally just dropped them off in Bath when this investigation begins.

Someone high up in that secretive, blacker-than-black-ops ‘Organization’ wants Ishmael and Penny to spend the night at that house on Widows Hill overlooking the city, a house with a reputation so dark that not only has no one lived there since the Victorian Era, but no one even goes near the place.

The place is so creepy that not even the local kids go there on dares, and haven’t for decades. Probably because of the overwhelming sense of impending doom and dread that comes over anyone and everyone who approaches the outer gates.

Someone in the ‘Organization’ is considering buying the place – or that’s what Ishmael and Penny are told, anyway. That night is a ‘one-night-only’ invitation to not just Ishmael and Penny as representatives of the potential buyer, but also to a whole team of “ghost botherers” (as Ishmael calls them) who have been begging – for years it seems – to get inside the old haunt. Along with one intrepid reporter who represents the family that owns the creepy pile – and really would like to get shed of the place once and for all.

The rumor is that the house is haunted – but there have never been any reports of actual ghost sightings. At least not until the first member of the little group of wannabe ghost hunters dies in the midst of what Ishmael is sure is a fraudulent séance. Then again, Ishmael believes that all séances are fraudulent so he’s not disappointed that this one is all a wheeze – although he is peeved that he let himself get caught up in the distraction.

He just wasn’t expecting this particular bit of shenanigans to be a way of covering up murder. But he should have been, even if he’s a bit off his usual game. Because while there may not be any ghosts in the house, there certainly is a real something. Something that’s speaking to Ishmael himself in ways that seem entirely too familiar – even if they are speaking of a past that he can no longer claim as his own.

Escape Rating A-: I normally save this series for around Halloween, but I’m in the midst of a reading quandary that I hoped this book would solve – or at least beat back for a couple of days. I’m in the middle of listening to Erik Larson’s No One Goes Alone, and it reminds me A LOT of the Ishmael Jones series – at least so far. The thing about the Larson ‘book’ is that it’s audio only – there’s no actual book. If there were I’d have finished the damn thing by now, because I’m desperate to find out not just whodunnit but also how and why it was done. ‘Thumbing’ to the end of an audio is just damnably awkward – but I’ve been sorely tempted all the same. (I’ll finish the damn thing this week one way or another! And in case you can’t tell, I’m really, REALLY frustrated by the lack of a text.)

Once the resemblance between the two became clear to me, I picked up The House on Widows Hill, which is the next book in my catchup on this series, in the hopes of getting a bit of resolution by proxy for the book I can’t quite carve out enough time to finish.

It even worked, sorta/kinda. Which is awesomely relieving in a peculiar, reading obsessive kind of way.

So this book was pretty much the right book at the right time, even if my reading did start out as a search for a catharsis by substitution.

The House on Widows Hill very much has the classic haunted house vibe going on – even though with Ishmael and Penny involved the reader begins the story aware that it just isn’t going to go to any of the places that haunted houses normally go. That Ishmael gets shaken out of some of his internal certainties and securities added a bit to the ongoing arc of the series while at the same time ramping up the tension of both this book and the books in the series yet to come.

As I’ve already read the final book in the series so far, Haunted by the Past, I have one more book left in my catchup of this series, and that’s Buried Memories. Which I’ll probably get around to THIS coming Halloween, unless the urge for some of this author’s trademark line in snark hits me sooner and isn’t satisfied by the next book in his Gideon Sable series, Where is Anybody?, scheduled for publication in August.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 4-7-24

Today is the start of National Library Week. As a part of this commemorative week, tomorrow is Right to Read Day, when the list of the 10 most challenged books of 2023 will be released. For most book lists, I would say I’m looking forward to the list – but not in this case, because there is nothing to look forward to in a list of books that have been challenged – especially in a year when challenges have risen so much and are so obviously pointed at books by or about people of color and LGBTQIA+ people.

On a lighter note, my annual Blogo-Birthday Celebration took place last week. The giveaways will be open until this Friday, April 12 and the winners will be announced in next Sunday’s Sunday Post. And again, my deepest and sincerest thanks to all who participated and everyone who has followed along on this journey.

Last but certainly not least, this week’s cat picture features a brightly orange George on a brightly colored comforter playing ‘pawsies’ with Galen.

Current Giveaways:

Any book by Marty Wingate in the Blogo-Birthday Celebration
Any book in the Barker & Llewelyn series by Will Thomas in the Blogo-Birthday Celebration
Any book from the list of Best Books of 2024 so far in the Blogo-Birthday Celebration
(1) $25 Amazon Gift Card and (4) $25 Barnes & Noble Gift Cards in the Lucky 13 Blogo-Birthday Giveaway
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Honey Bunny Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Spring 2024 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

Honey Bunny Giveaway Hop
A- #BookReview: A Body at the Dance Hall by Marty Wingate + #Giveaway
A+ #BookReview: The Black Hand by Will Thomas + #Giveaway
LUCKY THIRTEENTH Annual Blogo-Birthday Celebration and #Giveaway!
Blogo-Birthday Birthday Book Celebration and #Giveaway!
Stacking the Shelves (595)

Coming This Week:

The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green (#BookReview)
In the Shadow of the Greenbrier by Emily Matchar (#BookReview)
Space Holes: First Transmission by B.R. Louis (#BookReview)
A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke (#BookReview)
Court of Wanderers by Rin Chupeco (#BookReview)

Stacking the Shelves (595)

It’s a lot. I know it’s a lot. It’s so many that they won’t all fit into the Instagram post because no one would be able to read it without a TON of magnification. That being said, the book I’ve been looking forward to the most and the longest is one of the shortest books in the stack – Chaotic Aperitifs. I ADORED the first Hidden Dishes book, The Nameless Restaurant and have been itching for this second book for MONTHS.

The book I’m really, really curious about is The Author’s Guide to Murder by Team W (that’s Williams, Willig and White). The authors are three great tastes that really go great together, and the blurb sounds like it might be a bit of Magpie Murders and I’m certainly here for THAT!

There are several very pretty covers this time around. My personal faves are In the Shadow of the Ship, Somewhere Beyond the Sea, The Summer Swap and To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods. The titles that have me shaking my head, at least when seen together, are Things That Cause Inappropriate Happiness and Your Presence is Mandatory because I think they’re sending utterly opposed messages.

We’ll certainly see in the months ahead.

For Review:
The Author’s Guide to Murder by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White
A Brutal Design by Zachary C. Solomon
Chaotic Aperitifs (Hidden Dishes #2) by Tao Wong
A Cold War Exodus by Shaul Kelner
Cracking the Nazi Code by Jason Bell
Crypt of the Moon Spider (Lunar Gothic Trilogy #1) by Nathan Ballingrud
Deluge edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner
The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo (audio)
Ghost Station by S.A. Barnes (eARC and audio)
Graveyard Shift by M.L. Rio
Hugging My Father’s Ghost by Zack Rogow
In the Shadow of the Ship (Xuya Universe) by Aliette de Bodard
Liberty Street by Jason K. Friedman
Love You a Latke by Amanda Elliot
My Thirty-Minute Bar Mitzvah by Denis Hirson
New Adventures in Space Opera edited by Jonathan Strahan
A Plague of Cholera and Other Stories by Jonah Rosenfeld, translated by Rachel Mines
The Rulebreaker by Susan Page
The Secret Mind of Bertha Pappenheim by Gabriel Brownstein
Shylock’s Venice by Harry Freedman
Somewhere Beyond the Sea (Cerulean Chronicles #2) by TJ Klune
The Summer Swap by Sarah Morgan
Tap Dancing on Everest by Mimi Zieman
Things That Cause Inappropriate Happiness by Danila Botha
To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X. Chang (eARC and audio)
Victory Parade by Leela Corman
Your Presence is Mandatory by Sasha Vasilyuk

Purchased from Amazon/Audible/Etc.:
Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes


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

Please link your STS post in the linky below:

Blogo-Birthday Birthday Book Celebration and #Giveaway!

It’s snuck up on my again. Today is my 67th birthday.

Today is also “First Contact Day” in the Star Trek Universe, which is fitting as I’ve been a fan since I first watched the show with my dad as it was originally broadcast. To paraphrase another ‘verse, that’s a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The past is another country, and they do things differently there.

Referring to another fandom I fell into at about the same time, I’m having a Hobbit birthday, meaning that I’m giving away presents instead of getting them. (Galen and I aren’t doing presents this year, as we’re rolling all of this year’s presents into a later trip, but I did finally get myself a set of AirPods.)

Spring has officially sprung, and 2024 is one quarter over. Meaning that enough reading has happened here at Chez Reading Reality to make a giveaway of my favorite books of the year so far a VERY reasonable possibility.

So I’ll be giving the winner’s choice of one of my favorite books this year so far to one lucky commenter on this post. I’m going to be a bit loosey-goosey about it this time around, because 1)all the books in the Barker & Llewelyn series have been Grade A books so far, so this is another bite at that apple, and 2)two of this year’s bests are book two in their respective series so if you haven’t read the first book yet it will also be available.

This giveaway is open internationally. If the winner is in the US, the books will be shipped from Amazon or your local bookshop if you have one that can handle this business over the interwebs. But if the winner is outside the U.S. and not in one of the other countries where there’s a ‘zon outpost, books will be sent from Wordery, which ships worldwide for free.

The list to choose from is (drumroll, please):

The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC Rosen
The Bezzle by Cory Doctorow
The Black Hand by Will Thomas
Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire
Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster Bujold
Gryphon by M.L. Buchman
The Hellfire Conspiracy by Will Thomas
Holmes, Marple & Poe by James Patterson and Brian Sitts
The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older
The Lantern’s Dance by Laurie R. King
Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen
The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi
Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen Cambridge
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
Mislaid in Parts Half-Known by Seanan McGuire
The Missing Witness by Allison Brennan
Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow
The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett
These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein
The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose Utomi
What You Are Looking For Is In the Library by Michiko Aoyama

I went diving a bit deeper in order to pick multiple genres to make sure there’s something on this list for everyone, but clearly it’s been a very murder-y, fantasy, SF-y year so far. So if I’ve missed your favorite genre and there’s a book you’re dying to read, I’d be happy to share that with you (up to $25 US) instead.

Just let me know in the rafflecopter what book you’d most like to have your very own copy of, from my list or yours, in whatever format suits you best. Someone is going to get very lucky, at least reading-wise!

This post ends this Lucky 13th Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week. If you haven’t checked out the rest of this week’s posts, there’s been a giveaway every day, so be sure to enter any and all that look like your jam.

Next year – OMG it’s wild to be talking about NEXT year when it seems like this year has barely begun – the Celebration will take place the week of March 31-April 5. Come one, come all, and be sure to come back over the year between to see what fabulous books and fantastic giveaways happen in all the months between now and then!

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LUCKY THIRTEENTH Annual Blogo-Birthday Celebration and #Giveaway!

Today is the LUCKY 13th anniversary of the very first post on Reading Reality, then called “Escape Reality, Read Fiction.” I think the t-shirt that inspired that name is still hanging in the back of my closet.

I’ve been referring to this as the “Lucky 13th” anniversary because I do feel lucky to have lit on the idea of a blog thirteen years ago, and even though blogs are not the force that they were back then, I still feel very lucky every day to have meaningful work to do – even if I had to invent the job myself!

I feel especially lucky this year to be a recipient of the ALA RUSA CODES Louis Shores Award for “excellence in book reviewing”. The award is in recognition of my work here at Reading Reality, my contributions to Library Journal, and my service on several of the Reference and User Services Division’s adult book awards committees over the past 11 years and counting.

 

And I always feel lucky, that all of you who read my reviews and comment on my posts – and participate in the giveaways! – are out there making this whole thing worthwhile. I appreciate all of you more than I can say.

Which is why Reading Reality’s blogoversary, my own birthday tomorrow, and this whole entire week, are Hobbit birthdays. Meaning that I’m giving away presents every single day as part of the celebration.

Without further ado, in thanks and appreciation to all of you, on this fourth day of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week I have a giveaway, just as I have every day this week and will tomorrow. Today’s giveaway is for a $25 (US) Gift Card for Amazon or to a bookstore of your choice if you have a local that sells gift cards over the interwebs. (If you live outside the US and have a local Amazon, the gift card will be the equivalent of $25 US from your country’s Amazon.)

I also have FOUR $25 Barnes and Noble Gift Cards to give away as well. These are physical cards that I’ll mail to the lucky recipients. They are a lucky find from one of my desk drawers, but they are unused and don’t expire so several people will get the benefit of them this year.

As always, from the bottom of my bookish and cat-loving heart, my heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you who has been part of this journey. There’s more to come!

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A+ #BookReview: The Black Hand by Will Thomas + #Giveaway

A+ #BookReview: The Black Hand by Will Thomas + #GiveawayThe Black Hand (Barker & Llewelyn, #5) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #5
Pages: 289
Published by Touchstone on July 1, 2008
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When an Italian assassin's body is found floating in a barrel in Victorian London's East End, enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn are called in to investigate. Soon corpses begin to appear all over London, each accompanied by a Mafia Black Hand note. As Barker and Llewelyn dig deeper, they become entangled in the vendettas of rival Italian syndicates -- and it is no longer clear who is a friend or foe.

My Review:

So far, at least, the Barker & Llewelyn series is a bit like a caper movie. Not that Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn are committing capers – their job is to either thwart or investigate such goings-on. Instead, just like a good caper movie, the story opens at a climactic moment and then rewinds to the beginning of the story we’ve just been dropped into the middle of so we can see how things came to such a desperate pass.

As those climactic moments are generally life-threatening, and specifically threatening to the life of Thomas Llewelyn, it’s a good thing that we go into that pulse-pounding scene knowing that Llewelyn must have survived. After all, part of his job as private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker’s assistant is to chronicle Barker’s cases – and dead men tell no tales.

The tale that Llewelyn has to tell this time around is the story of a brewing turf war among London’s criminal underbelly. There’s a new player in the old game of gangs and turf and money, but a new player under a very old and familiar name – the Sicilian Mafia.

Muscling for territory in wide-open London with their signature stilettos against native gangs and older immigrant groups who rely on fists, brickbats and other coshes to get their dirty work done, the incomers cut a wide swath, literally, through the forces scrambling to array against them.

Including both Scotland Yard and the Home Office, which is where Barker and Llewelyn get dragooned into the fight. A fight that Barker most certainly did not start, but is utterly determined to finish – no matter how many favors he has to call in, how many compromises he has to make, or how many of his own hostages to fortune he has to put in harm’s way.

Escape Rating A+: There are three – well, at least three – things going on in this book, and every single one of them just adds to the reader’s compulsion to keep turning the pages, starting from that chilling, riveting opening.

The first thing, of course, is the case itself. The Mafia – or at least one arm or finger of that organization – is doing its damndest to carve out a toehold for itself in London – by carving up as many as possible until they get their way.

Barker’s remit – to be handled however he sees fit – is to make London so hot for the Sicilian gangs that they go back to Sicily, before their brand of bloody assassination becomes the norm in London.

But just because Barker has carte blanche from the Home Office, that doesn’t mean they’ll provide him with anything else, and certainly not any of their own forces. They don’t even want Scotland Yard involved but have left Barker to do things as he sees best. After all, they can always blame him for whatever goes wrong after the fact.

He sees best to call in a whole lot of favors, which means that the reader, through Thomas Llewelyn’s eyes and pen, gets to learn a whole lot more about who Barker really is under the persona he has created for himself, where he comes from, and who and what he holds dear. As well as how many rules, regulations, laws and ethics he is willing to bend if not outright break to see this thing through.

Those revelations rock Llewelyn to his foundations but don’t change his mind one single bit about following the man he refers to as ‘the Guv’ anywhere he leads – even into the jaws of hell.

So, there’s the case. Then there’s the deeper dive into Barker’s secrets – a set of revelations that should continue as the series progresses.

Last but not least there’s the resonance to the now in this story that is very much steeped in the ‘then’. Because while the case may be about the Mafia, what’s behind their advent into London is a debate about immigration and immigrants and just how easy or difficult it should be and just how much enforcement is necessary and which way and upon whom the economic impacts have and will fall.

And doesn’t all of that sound bloody familiar?

I’m here for all of the above, but even if just one part of that appeals to you, the fully realized historical setting, the whodunnit, the network of ‘Irregulars’ that Barker and Llewelyn are developing, Llewelyn’s continued training, OR the way that the past links to the present, this series is utterly fan-damn-tastic every single step of the way.

The deeper I read into this series, the better it gets. Each book in the series has been tight, taut, thrilling and compelling, all at the same marvelous time. They’ve just been awesome so far, and I can’t recommend the whole thing highly enough – although I plan to keep trying. I also, of course, plan to keep reading, and suspect that it won’t be long before I pick up the next book in the series, Fatal Enquiry.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because I’ve enjoyed this series so much so far, it was an obvious choice for one of this week’s Blogo-Birthday giveaways – especially as the latest book in the series, Death and Glory, is coming out later this month!

Drumroll please! On this third day of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, today’s giveaway is the winner’s choice of ANY book in the Barker & Llewelyn series in any format, up to $25 (US) which should be enough to get even Death and Glory if you’re already caught up!

Good luck with today’s giveaway and remember that there’s more to come!

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