The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 1-16-22

The cat picture below is the state of the Lucifer this weekend. And continuing through Tuesday. He’s not happy. I’ve put myself in ‘kitten jail’, otherwise known as my office, because I’m tied up in a four day zoom meeting. Galen said he’s planning on me being, and I most definitely quote, “a delicate zombie” for the entire thing.

It’s a committee meeting to discuss the books we’ve all been reading and make determinations. It’s great fun, and wonderful to discuss books with a bunch of passionate book people. But…four days on zoom is a lot of zoom. I do let the cats in at least some of the time because we all need the break, but they can be distracting as well. During last year’s meeting, there was a point where Hecate decided no one was paying enough attention to her so she stood on my desk and waved her ass in front of the camera.

This is why I have cats.

Don’t feel too sorry for Lucifer. The door pushes inwards and it doesn’t latch. He could stand and push it open if he wanted. He just likes to sit out there and pout. He makes sure I can see him through the glass so I know he’s pouting at me.

Blog Recap:

A- Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey
A- Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick
A+ Review: Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark
B Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher
A- Review: The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev + Spotlight + Giveaway
Stacking the Shelves (479)

Coming This Week:

Servant Mage by Kate Elliott (review)
Emperor by Anna Hackett (review)
Lightning in a Mirror by Jayne Ann Krentz (review)
Shady Hollow by Juneau Black (review)

Stacking the Shelves (479)

There are BOOKS again on NetGalley and Edelweiss. Seriously. Wonderfully. And they all look bright and shiny and I want to read every single one of them. Which is impossible and yes my virtually towering TBR pile is ginormous. As addictions go, reading is much safer than a whole lot of other possibilities. Thank goodness!

Just to leave you with a laugh, when I was looking up all the cover pictures in Amazon, my search for A Strange and Stubborn Endurance (wonderful title BTW) included in the results – above the book I was searching for – was a “Yodeling Pickle”. I swear. Why? I have no idea whatsoever. Nor do I honestly have any idea what one would do with a yodeling pickle. But they exist!

For Review:
The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Eddie Robson
Emperor (Galactic Kings #2) by Anna Hackett
Fires of Edo (Shinobi Mystery #8) by Susan Spann
The First Binding (Tales of Tremaine #1) by R.R. Virdi
Haven by Emma Donoghue
The Hunger of the Gods (Bloodsworn Trilogy #2) by John Gwynne
The Littlest Library by Poppy Alexander
Lost Worlds & Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph Adams
The Messy Lives of Book People by Phaedra Patrick
Mirror Lake (Shady Hollow #3) by Juneau Black
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
The Raven Spell (Conspiracy of Magic #1) by Luanne G. Smith


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

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Review: The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev + Spotlight + Giveaway

Review: The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev + Spotlight + GiveawayThe Wedding Setup: A Short Story by Sonali Dev
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, short stories
Pages: 67
Published by Amazon Original Stories on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author Sonali Dev comes a heartfelt short story about one woman’s journey of self-discovery and what it means to be happy.
Ayesha Shetty lost her brother seven years ago, the same time she lost everything else important to her: her dreams, her fierce independence, and the man she loved. Not wanting to see her mother hurt anymore, she put her wild self away and became the dutiful daughter her mother needed and took on her brother’s role in the family business.
Now her best friend’s big, fat Indian wedding is a chance to get away from her endless duties at the restaurant and maybe even have some fun (if she remembers how). But a setup arranged by her mother, with a doctor no less, is the last thing she needs. The fact that he checks all her mother’s boxes just makes everything better…and worse.
Then Emmitt Hughes shows up. Her brother’s best friend. The love she once chose over family duties and her responsibilities. The one she asked to leave, and who did. The one who knows the real Ayesha. Torn between a love from the past that could cost her the only person she has left and her sense of obligation to her mother, will Ayesha find the strength to stop thinking about what everyone else wants and finally put herself first? Or is the old Ayesha truly gone for good?

My Review:

The Wedding Setup is a short story, so I’m going to try to do it justice in a short review. Especially since this is a jam-packed post with an interview with the author, an excerpt from the story AND a giveaway!

From a certain perspective, this is a story about handling grief – or rather NOT handling grief. Ayesha has put herself in a box in her attempt to be the perfect daughter that she never was – and it’s a straitjacket. But so is the reason for that attempt, the death of her brother and her desperate need to hold onto her mother in the ultimately vain hope of preventing either of them from suffering any more losses. Ayesha’s father died when she was ten, and her mother was the rock that sheltered both her and her brother through the rest of her childhood. When her brother died, they were all each other had left. That and the depth of their grief and the fear of another loss.

But they lost each other along the way – even as they spent 16 hours a day together keeping the family’s restaurant afloat. Hanging onto the last remaining bit of her brother’s dream.

As this story opens, it’s been seven years since Ajay died, and Ayesha’s mother has had enough of living with Ayesha’s obedient ghost – because that’s who it seems has been trudging through the world in Ayesha’s place.

But that is far, far, far from what the story seems to be for most of its length. As Amma does her level best to bring back the old, vibrant, downright combative Ayesha by poking that sleeping tiger with every single stick she can find.

In the hopes that her daughter will come back to life and reach out for her own happy ever after.

Escape Rating A-: I have only one complaint about this story – it’s too damn short. It’s beautiful, it’s marvelous, and all the characters are fascinating – even the ones who only exist in memory. I would have loved this story even more if it had been novel length. But it isn’t so I’ll make do with what I have.

Part of the fun of The Wedding Setup is that the setup of Ayesha is not what either Ayesha or the reader think it is. The story is a gem of misdirection, and the reveal at the end forces both Ayesha and the reader to rethink everything that has happened. And rejoice at the ending.

Also laugh uproariously at the mental picture of a rat in scrubs administering a pap smear. Which is the only way to laugh at one of those necessary evils. Read The Wedding Setup to find out just how that comes to pass. The mental picture, that is.


Interview with Sonali Dev + Excerpt from The Wedding Setup

The Wedding Setup may be a short story, but it is tremendously powerful. How would you describe it to readers?

Thank you. It’s the story of a girl who used to be a rebel who followed her heart and fought for what she wanted, and then her brother’s death leaves her responsible for her widowed mother. It’s about being knocked off your feet and getting stuck, and learning how to stand back up and reclaim yourself.

The story invites us to take an intimate look into a mother-daughter relationship. This is a universal theme, however, you also steep the plot in your own Indian heritage. Can you tell readers what this story means to you as a daughter? What it means to you as an Indian woman?

There is so much of my own relationship with my mother in this book. We’ve always been incredibly close. She’s outspoken and confident and she modeled some powerful behaviors for me growing up about owning her own body and her voice. But there were the other parts where she was a product of her time and culture, believing in absolute terms that it is a woman’s duty to nurture her family, to marry ‘at the right time,’ to be a certain kind of mother. These are things she pushed hard. Things I internalized but also fought to do on my own terms and not hers. Ayesha’s relationship with her mother used to be this way, and then a tragedy changes their dynamic. So, it’s an exploration of how battles for identity get derailed by tragedy and grief and what it takes to heal.

Ayesha’s mom describes her as obedient, responsible, and “always putting everyone else before her own needs.” After hearing this Ayesha (internally) feels hypothermic. Can you explain how these seemingly sweet compliments completely destroy your heroine?

The mother-child bond comes with a kind of intuitive understanding of each other that’s unique to that relationship. So, while Ayesha has lost her fiery spirit and both she and her mother have lost years to their grief and struggle to survive, her mother knows who her daughter is deep down and how much she’s buried. So there’s a very nuanced intent to these ‘compliments’ and they hit the nerve they’re meant to hit. Ayesha’s reaction to these words is her dead parts coming back to life.

It only takes a moment—one second—for Ayesha to break free from her ice…a single word from Emmitt has her coming back to life. Why does she have such a powerful reaction to someone she hasn’t seen in seven years?

Ayesha had a crush on Emmitt for many years before they got together. She’s always had a strong reaction to him. The years they spent together as young adults were years when she came into herself, and felt seen and cherished. Then she loses all of that when her brother dies and they break up. So, it’s a combination of things that come together when Ayesha meets Emmitt again. They have a natural connection, but also, with his return come all the memories of who she used to be and how much she used to let herself feel.

Ayesha has never forgotten how Emmitt turns “her messy, impulsive, unfettered emotion into something beautiful.” But she has forgotten the effect that she has on him. What buried memories are uncovered as she watches Emmitt react to their reunion?

Emmitt has always dealt with the world and the pain it causes him by keeping everyone at arm’s length. But Ayesha destroys his defenses with her ability to love (and do everything else) so fiercely. So, when he loses her he’s already lost his ability to protect himself. Their joint grief is what separated them, so, while they understand each other’s pain they both also understand the loneliness of not having each other to lean on. They’ve had to make the journey to healing individually, but meeting each other again brings up the piece that needs the other to heal.

How did you get to know your couple? How were you able to understand what was needed to heal their broken hearts?

The one theme that threads through all my books is finding yourself on the tightrope between personal freedom and responsibility to family and community. Healing is always about finding or rediscovering your love for yourself. So, I understand my characters through that lens: how have they lost themselves? What about themselves do they need to reclaim and fall in love with? A truly connected couple is one who aids this journey in each other, recognizes it, and supports it.

In a limited number of pages you not only give readers a living, breathing couple, but also an avalanche of equally interesting characters like Ayesha’s best friend, suitor, aunties…and you even create depth with characters that are no longer living. Why was it so important to spend time with these secondary characters? What do they reveal about your hero and heroine?

I believe that as humans we are a sum total of our relationships and the world we live in and build for ourselves. How someone treats other people and how they respond to how they are treated is what constitutes character.

At its heart, every story is about a person who is somehow at odds with the world they live in or with themselves because of the expectations of their world, and the journey they make to resolve that conflict. Ayesha wouldn’t be Ayesha without her mother and Bela, her best friend and the community she was raised in. Bela has been her wild other half growing up, then their paths diverged, but they continued to be each other’s support. Her mother has become a crutch she uses to hold on to her grief. Emmitt’s grief over his friend has run his life for seven years too. So the secondary characters are just as integral to the story as the protagonists.

While the plot focuses on grief, there is also great joy to be found. After all, the backdrop of the story is a giant wedding. What do you personally find the most fun at a traditional Indian wedding celebration?

I’m always only there for the food and dancing! Fine, and getting to dress up. And the wine. Also, maybe the chance to hang out with family and friends I only see at weddings. And the drunk aunties and uncles.

After readers devour The Wedding Setup, which of your other books would you recommend they read next?

First, thank you so much for devouring The Wedding Setup! I’m incredibly proud of my Rajes series, a set of retellings of my four favorite Jane Austen novels set in a politically ambitious Indian American family from Northern California. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is a gender flipped Pride and Prejudice. Recipe for Persuasion is a two-generational homage to Persuasion set on a Food Network show. Incense and Sensibility, the love story between a gubernatorial candidate and a yoga therapist who can save him but also destroy his campaign, pays tribute to Sense and Sensibility. And the upcoming The Emma Project (May 17th 2022), which is a gender flipped Emma that explores what it means when a person with tremendous privilege offers charity to someone who has much less.

The Wedding Setup Excerpt

Goose bumps rose across Ayesha’s skin, one sharp dot at a time.

“Ayesha.”

That was it. Just that one word. Her name. In a voice that was its own ghost.

She squeezed her eyes shut. One tight squeeze. Tight enough to hurt, tight enough to almost dislodge the false eyelashes Andre had pressed into her lash line one by one with the precision of a surgeon. Then boom! she was in control again and back to Ayesha on Ice.

Eyes blank, face set, she turned toward the voice.

Emmitt.

The impact of him was a body blow.

The entire universe stilled. Words weren’t a thing. Or sound. Breath? What was that?

Ayesha! Get a grip.

No grip. That’s how it had always been. She’d had no grip when it came to Emmitt Hughes. Not even a little bit. Not when she’d spied on him and Ajay playing Mario Kart and Minecraft and GTA for hours, for years. Not when she’d yearned and dreamed and spun stories with him at the center.

I’ve made my love for you, my god.

It was the cheesiest of lines from one of those Bollywood songs her parents had played on repeat at the restaurant. Amma had loved translating the over-the-top lyrics and explaining their nuances.

Back when Amma was full of stories and songs and laughter. Before Ajay.

Ajay.

Her brother’s unspoken name fell between them like a glass bauble and shattered.

“You remember Emmitt,” Edward had the gall to say.

Bela shot him a glare.

You didn’t tell me he would be here. Ayesha threw the silent accusation at her traitorous best friend, who gave her nothing more than another worried look.

No, Eddie. Remind me again who he is? The snarky words stuck in Ayesha’s throat. Old Ayesha would have said them. Old Ayesha said everything.

“Emmitt,” New Ayesha said, every feeling buried under her customer-is-king voice from the restaurant. “Nice to see you again.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed in the long column of his throat. How was he still so darned beautiful?

One swallow, and then he smiled back. Banking feelings where no one saw them had been his thing. Emmitt the Wall. That’s what Ajay had called him. Her brother had been best friends with him since Emmitt had moved to Naperville in fifth grade after his parents’ divorce. Years of friendship, and he’d still held Ajay at that slight distance he’d been so good at. Something she would always wish she hadn’t cured him of.

You broke me, Ayesha.You broke every defense I’ve ever had against the world.

She, Ayesha Shetty—too tall, too dark, too outspoken, too intense, too ambitious, too everything for everyone else had been just enough to break through Emmitt the Wall.

“It’s nice to see you too,” he said gently, sounding . . . she dug through her brain to come up with the right word. Grown-up? Contained?

Good. Because Ayesha was all those things now too. Not a grenade with its fuse pulled, ready to blow up the world.

Author Biography

USA Today bestselling author Sonali Dev writes Bollywood-style love stories that explore universal issues. Her novels have been named best books of the year by Library Journal, NPR, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews. She has won numerous accolades, including the American Library Association’s award for best romance, the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for best contemporary romance, and multiple RT Seals of Excellence; has been a RITA finalist; and has been listed for the Dublin Literary Award. Shelf Awareness calls her “not only one of the best but one of the bravest romance novelists working today.” She lives in Chicagoland with her husband, two visiting adult children, and the world’s most perfect dog.

Buy Link: https://amzn.to/3pWDqM8

Social Media Links

Website: https://sonalidev.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SonaliDev.author

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Sonali_Dev

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sonali.dev/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7025918.Sonali_Dev

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri MaherThe Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The dramatic story of how a humble bookseller fought against incredible odds to bring one of the most important books of the 20th century to the world in this new novel from the author of The Girl in White Gloves.
When bookish young American Sylvia Beach opens Shakespeare and Company on a quiet street in Paris in 1919, she has no idea that she and her new bookstore will change the course of literature itself.
Shakespeare and Company is more than a bookstore and lending library: Many of the prominent writers of the Lost Generation, like Ernest Hemingway, consider it a second home. It's where some of the most important literary friendships of the twentieth century are forged--none more so than the one between Irish writer James Joyce and Sylvia herself. When Joyce's controversial novel Ulysses is banned, Beach takes a massive risk and publishes it under the auspices of Shakespeare and Company.
But the success and notoriety of publishing the most infamous and influential book of the century comes with steep costs. The future of her beloved store itself is threatened when Ulysses' success brings other publishers to woo Joyce away. Her most cherished relationships are put to the test as Paris is plunged deeper into the Depression and many expatriate friends return to America. As she faces painful personal and financial crises, Sylvia--a woman who has made it her mission to honor the life-changing impact of books--must decide what Shakespeare and Company truly means to her.

My Review:

Sylvia Beach is one of those people who, if she hadn’t existed, someone would have had to invent her. Her story reads like one of those that, if it were truly fictional, would be a bit too over-the-top to be believed.

But, as happens more often than we think, it’s only fiction that has to be plausible. History just has to be true. And this story, or at least the big, important, supporting bones of this story, are that. Or close enough. (Beach herself wrote a memoir of this period, titled, of course, Shakespeare and Company. There is also a well-known biography of Beach by Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, that was published in 1983.)

So what we have in The Paris Bookseller is a fascinating, fictionalized version of an equally fascinating life in a time and place that was spectacular when it happened and has taken on a storied life of its own in the century that followed.

The story in The Paris Bookseller is kind of a “portrait of the bookseller as a young woman”. Although the book begins at with Sylvia’s service at the end of World War I, the story really begins in 1919, with Sylvia looking for a way to be a part of the fomenting new art and literature scene in Paris, a place that her heart has already come to call home.

She falls in love with Adrienne Monnier, a Parisienne bookseller, as well as Adrienne’s shop and the warm, homey but intellectual atmosphere it embodies. While Sylvia’s surprisingly accepting parents have always encouraged her to write, Sylvia doesn’t find writing literature to be her calling.

She decides to do her bit – and it turns out to be a VERY big bit indeed – in the rising tide of new and challenging arts and letters by promoting literature instead. She opens the doors of the first English-language bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company.

And through those doors walks the cream of literary ex-patriots, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and, to Beach’s delight but eventual financial ruin, James Joyce. An author on the road to immortal fame, infamy and Ulysses.

Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co. (Paris, 1920)

Escape Rating B: The absolute best thing about this book is the way that it brings the Paris of the “Lost Generation”, the Paris of the 1920s to life. Sylvia Beach and her iconic bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, were at the center of a great deal of at least the literary life of Paris during those storied years. And that’s the part of this book that really grabbed me.

(Also reminded me a bit of Laurie R. King’s The Bones of Paris, which also brings those years and those people to vivid life – just in a much different kind of story.)

But the thing about putting fictional meat on the bones of a real life story reminds me a bit of the rules about time-turners in Harry Potter, in that the author can’t change things that they know to be true. It’s possible to shift minor events around a bit, drop a few characters and amalgamate a few more, but the broad outline of the story is set in the real life history of the person being fictionalized.

What that means in The Paris Bookseller is that I frequently wanted to reach through the pages and shake some sense into Sylvia Beach, at least in regards to her working relationship with James Joyce.

She reads as rather young and a bit naïve – particularly in matters of business. (She was 32 in 1919) And Joyce, as portrayed in both this book and as happened in real life, was focused on his art to the exclusion of practical matters. Or he was a user. Or both. It feels like both. And Beach is certainly one of the people that he used in order to both fund his life as he worked and to get his work published.

At the same time, from our point looking backward into history, that great flourishing of new styles of writing is still being felt today, and it was important and necessary that someone tilt at the windmills of U.S. censorship, just as it was important in the 1950s that someone get Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago out from under Soviet censorship.

To put the quote into its original French, apropos considering the location of Shakespeare and Company, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose “ (the more that changes, the more it’s the same thing).

The 1920s in the U.S. may have “roared” with bathtub gin, but that was because of the repression of Prohibition. There was plenty of repression to go around in that decade. Ulysses was censored under the Comstock Act that prohibited the distribution of obscenity through the mail. Meanwhile Hollywood faced mounting pressure to censor itself by increasingly stringent rules – a pressure that eventually resulted in the Hays Code.

Sylvia Beach’s Paris suffered from no such restrictions, which was a big part of the reason that the ex-pat community was filled with so many luminaries of arts and letters. (That legal discrimination against same-sex relationships had been eliminated during the Revolution didn’t hurt either, and was certainly part of the reason that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as well as Beach herself, found Paris such a congenial place to live.) The painters could paint what and how they wanted, the growing cadre of photographers could take pictures of whatever and however they could manage, and the writers could write as realistically and shockingly – often those were the same thing – as they pleased and get their work published.

And the cost of living was relatively low.

The story of The Paris Bookseller is the story of Sylvia Beach at the center of so very much of this. She was neither a writer nor an artist, but she provided the room where much of it happened. And she brought James Joyce’s Ulysses into the world – even though it nearly broke her and her store.

In the end, I liked The Paris Bookseller but didn’t love it as much as I hoped I would. I loved the way that Paris in the 1920s came to life. There was such a strong sense of “being there” at Shakespeare and Company as the store flourished, as the salons and discussions happened, as Ezra Pound came in to fix the chairs. (Seriously, he does, and it’s such a marvelous little detail that makes so much feel real.)

I found Beach’s business relationship with Joyce frustrating in the extreme. It really happened that way, but, as I said, I wanted to shake her for not protecting herself and her business better. But it happened.

As a character, the author’s interpretation of Beach reads as a bit young and naïve. Some of that is the reflection of time, as these events are a century ago and we know how history played out. The hope of the 1920s covered the post-war despair of the same era and led to the Great Depression and eventually – and inevitably in retrospect – World War II.

So we know that Sylvia’s bright hopes and dreams of change are not going to come true. Even scarier, it feels like the forces of censorship and thought repression that she left behind in the U.S. in the 1920s have come around again. Which had me reading more than a bit of today into a story set a century ago.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.“ Indeed.

Review: Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark

Review: Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip ClarkUnder Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Trevor Finnegan #1
Pages: 304
Published by Thomas & Mercer on October 1, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The murder of a police recruit pins a black LAPD detective in a deadly web where race, corruption, violence, and cover-ups intersect in this relevant, razor-sharp novel of suspense.

Black rookie cop Trevor “Finn” Finnegan aspires to become a top-ranking officer in the Los Angeles Police Department and fix a broken department. A fast-track promotion to detective in the coveted Robbery-Homicide Division puts him closer to achieving his goal.

Four years later, calls for police accountability rule the headlines. The city is teeming with protests for racial justice. When the body of a murdered black academy recruit is found in the Angeles National Forest, Finn is tasked to investigate.

As pressure mounts to solve the crime and avoid a PR nightmare, Finn scours the underbelly of a volatile city where power, violence, and race intersect. But it’s Finn’s past experience as a beat cop that may hold the key to solving the recruit’s murder. The price? The end of Finn’s career…or his life.

My Review:

Depending on how you look at it, Under Color of Law is either a mystery thriller about a young LAPD officer who finds himself a witness to a terrible act of police brutality and decides to go along with the coverup in trade for being fast tracked from uniform to detective. Only for karma to come back and bite him in the ass in a way that may be nothing less than he deserves, but endangers not just his career but his life.

Alternatively, this story is a searing indictment of the “thin blue line” and the culture that not merely allows but actually encourages bad cops to stay bad and get worse – because they know that their brothers and sisters in uniform – and even the brass that gives the orders – are more interested in covering up misconduct than investigating it. Because investigations lead to exposure, and exposure leads to questions, and questions cause the people that pay the taxes and support the police to lose even more faith and confidence in the ones who are supposed to serve and protect them than they already have.

It’s about controlling public perception much more than it is about the public good. And if both of the above interpretations don’t sound familiar, you haven’t read much crime fiction – and you haven’t been paying much attention to the news, how it’s delivered, and who nearly always ends up getting the short end of the stick.

Escape Rating A+: Under Cover of Law is compelling as hell. That’s it in a nutshell. This is an absolute breakneck page-turner of a book. I could not put it down and I could not stop reading until the bittersweet, heartbreaking but surprisingly hopeful end.

Although I have to admit that I can’t quite figure out how this could be a series starter. On the other hand, I don’t care. This was beautifully and thrillingly complete in and of itself. If there are more, I’d be thrilled. If there are not, this was marvelously enough.

(The second book in the series has been announced with the title Blue Like Me and will be published in November. I can’t wait to see how this story continues, because it felt like it ended and ended well. We’ll see.)

The, I want to call it the frame but that isn’t quite right, let’s say the opening mystery and its aftermath in the life of Detective Trevor Finnegan is one that has been used plenty of times in police-based mysteries. The story of the young cop who gets caught up in something beyond his control and chooses to go along to get along instead of risking the career he’s just begun has been used before. Sometimes the young cop goes bad. Sometimes he or she tries to blot out the memory and things go wrong that way. Sometimes they just hide it and karma comes around to be her bitchy self by the end.

The most recent series I’ve read that uses this plot device is TA Moore’s Night Shift series that starts with Shift Work. Even in that series’ paranormal setting, the plot device still works. And I’m sure there are others that just aren’t coming to the top of my mind at the moment.

What sets Under Color Of Law apart from other mystery/thrillers that use that same setup to get themselves set up is the way that it uses Finnegan’s experience as a rookie cop and his bargain with the brass to shine a light on the way that entrenched corruption rots even those who start out with the intent of reforming the system from the inside. Then it takes THAT story and contrasts it with a second story that begins with the same intentions, and interweaves it into a contemporary setting where we have all too much knowledge of how bad things really are because we’ve seen it splashed across the news following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – among entirely too many others – in police custody under suspicious circumstances that would result in murder convictions for anyone not a cop.

We see that story unfold through the experience of Trevor Finnegan, a black police detective in LA, the son of a black police officer, as he is forced to reckon with the crimes that he committed, he allowed to be committed, and their impact on the life he’s dragging himself through instead of living.

And as we read and watch, we can’t turn our eyes away. And we shouldn’t.

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda QuickGarden of Lies by Amanda Quick, Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Pages: 359
Published by Berkley on April 21, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Kern Secretarial Agency provides reliable professional services to its wealthy clientele, and Anne Clifton was one of the finest women in Ursula Kern’s employ. But Miss Clifton has met an untimely end—and Ursula is convinced it was not due to natural causes.   Archaeologist and adventurer Slater Roxton thinks Mrs. Kern is off her head to meddle in such dangerous business. Nevertheless, he seems sensible enough to Ursula, though she does find herself unnerved by his self-possession and unreadable green-gold eyes…   If this mysterious widowed beauty insists on stirring the pot, Slater intends to remain close by as they venture into the dark side of polite society. Together they must reveal the identity of a killer—and to achieve their goal they may need to reveal their deepest secrets to each other as well…

My Review:

The popular perception of heroines in historical romance is that their lives were restricted and that they were supposed to be innocent even into adulthood and as a consequence were naïve and/or ripe to become damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by the hero.

An image that probably wasn’t true even among the aristocracy, and certainly couldn’t have been outside it. Which doesn’t prevent it from still being a popular perception. But readers aren’t looking for innocent damsels in distress nearly as much as they used to. We’re looking for women we can manage to identify with.

In that sense, Ursula Kern is a fascinating choice as a heroine. She’s a widow. She’s permitted to no longer be innocent or naïve. She’s on her own, and she owns her own business – not as a member of the demimonde – but a respectable business employing respectable women who are able to earn respectable incomes.

Whatever hopes and dreams she may have, she is expected to present herself as a responsible, respectable, professional adult person. She’s been through enough to know that the only person who will take care of her is her. As a woman with neither a husband nor living parents nor male siblings, there is no one to gainsay her determination to make a living for herself and to provide good livings for as many women as possible in her employ.

Ursula may not have family, but she does have friends as well as colleagues and employees. The late Anne Clifton was all of the above; an employee who became a colleague and friend. Ursula Kern is certain that Anne Clifton was murdered. Finding her killer is the last thing that Ursula can do for her friend – and she’s determined to do it.

She just needs a bit of help. Or at least she hopes for it. And that’s where Slater Roxton comes in. Slater, a man with a mysterious incident in his past that has fueled the gossip rags and gutter press for years, is an expert on finding lost artifacts and tombs – where he once got trapped.

(Come to think of it, he’d probably be a contemporary of Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Sr., the father of archeologist, treasure hunter and troubleshooter Indiana Jones. If there turned out to be some influence there I wouldn’t be at all surprised.)

Slater, for reasons of his own, some more obvious than others, can’t let Ursula go off on her investigation all alone. It’s not that he doesn’t believe she quite capable as an adult and as a businesswoman, but ferreting out the truth about dastardly murderers who have so far been successful at making their crimes look like accidents is a dangerous business.

A business with many more dangerous tentacles – or should I say twisted roots and entangling vines – than either Slater or Ursula ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I read this for fun. I was bouncing hard off of everything and went looking for a story that I knew would be instantly absorbing. I was highly tempted to read this author’s Lightning in a Mirror which is out next week, but then I remembered that Garden of Lies was STILL on my “Highly Anticipating” Shelf on Edelweiss. In fact, it was the oldest book on that shelf. So here we are.

Garden of Lies was every bit as instantly absorbing and fun as I hoped, even if I didn’t completely buy the inevitable romance between Slater and Ursula. The rest of the story, especially the uncovering of the full scope of the criminal plotting AND the nefarious dealings on both sides of the pond, was absolutely riveting.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the way that all the women in the story, including the secondary characters, dealt with their world in a way that seemed realistically sensible. Not just that Ursula and the women she employs have made their own way independently, but the way that Slater’s mother, the actress who was the lifelong paramour of a titled noble, knew exactly what she was letting herself in for and moved through the world as she found it and not as anyone dreamed or hoped it would be. That his late father was sanguine enough to not merely acknowledge Slater was his but to trust his illegitimate son to protect his legal widow and legitimate heirs from her abusive father.

Their approaches to their world make sense in a way that isn’t always true in historical romance.

The mystery plot was marvelously convoluted and the reveal of it was appropriately painstaking. Ursula starts with the death of her friend, finds evidence that her death was murder, and then begins to dig. The solution is revealed in layers, as each new bit of information leads to a place that no one had foreseen from the opening. The web was woven very tightly, and it takes and appropriate amount of time and effort to unravel it fully.

As Ursula and Slater eventually manage to do. I liked them as partners, I just didn’t see enough of them “falling” in love to buy that they really were in love. But I’m still glad they found their slightly unconventional HEA.

There was no paranormal woo-woo in this standalone book, as there so often is in the author’s Arcane Society series, yet it still had some of the same feel with its nefarious plot, double-dealing, wheels within wheels criminal organization, and the investigation into dirty deeds done in very dark places for both evil and mercenary ends.

But the author has two books with some of that paranormal vibe coming soon, Lightning in a Mirror next week and When She Dreams in April. My reading appetite for both has certainly been whetted!

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes LackeyThe Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (Elemental Masters, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk
Series: Elemental Masters #16
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The sixteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series follows sharpshooter Annie Oakley as she tours Europe and discovers untapped powers.
Annie Oakley has always suspected there is something "uncanny" about herself, but has never been able to put a name to it. But when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show goes on tour through Germany, Bill temporarily hires a new sharpshooter to be part of his "World Wide Congress of Rough Riders": a woman named Giselle, who also happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. Alongside this new performer, Annie discovers that she and her husband, Frank, are not simply master marksman, but also magicians of rare ability.
As they travel and perform, Annie must use her newfound knowledge and rare skill to combat creatures of the night scattered across the countryside, who threaten both the performers and the locals. Annie's got her gun, and it's filled with silver bullets.

My Review:

When I read the first few books in the Elemental Masters series – as they came out back in the early 2000s – I loved these retellings of classic fairy tales set in an alternate, slightly steampunkish late Victorian/early Edwardian era for the way that they mixed a bit of magic with a bit of alternate history to put a fresh face on a tale that was oh-so-familiar.

Now that I’m thinking about this the series is an alternate version of another of Lackey’s alternate ways of telling fairy tales, her Five Hundred Kingdoms series (begin with The Fairy Godmother) where the purpose of the story was to subvert the fairy tale to keep it from subverting someone’s life.

I digress.

I stopped reading the Elemental Masters series after Reserved for the Cat as a consequence of the “so many books, so little time” conundrum that all of us who live in books are faced with so often. But I came back when the series switched from fairy tales to legendary characters with A Study in Sable and the three books that followed (A Scandal in Battersea, The Bartered Brides and The Case of the Spellbound Child) because the legendary character that was introduced and followed in this subseries of the series was none other than Sherlock Holmes.

I can never resist a Holmes pastiche, and these were no exception.

But after following the “World’s Greatest Consulting Detective”, even an alternate version thereof, through an alternate version of Holmes’ London, the series took itself across the pond to the Americas while briefly turning to its roots of retelling fairy tales with Jolene. Which I have yet to read – even though just the title is giving me an earworm of Dolly Parton’s marvelous song – which I’m sure was the intention.

I was, however, all in to read this latest book in the series, The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley, because I was wondering how the author would blend this historical character into this world where magic is hidden just beneath the surface.

It turns out that Annie Oakley herself, the real one, provided her own introduction to this world. As this story opens, we’re with Annie as she is in contracted servitude to a married couple she only refers to as “the Wolves” in her diary. Her real, historical diary.

The Wolves – whose identity has never been conclusively determined – starved her, cheated her, threatened her and physically and mentally abused her at every turn for two years, beginning when Annie was nine years old.

In this story, those two years of hell on earth become Annie’s introduction to the magic of this alternate world. Not just because the people she calls “the Wolves” turn out to be actual wolves – or rather werewolves – but because her desperate escape from the Wolves is facilitated by the magic of this alternate world – both the magic of the fairies AND magic of Annie’s very own.

After that shocking and heartbreaking beginning, the story shifts to Annie Oakley as an adult, the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, traveling in Europe.

Where she discovers that her childhood rescue by fairies was not the fever dream she tried to convince herself that it was. And that the magic she has hidden from herself all these years is hers to command – if she is willing to learn.

And that she’ll need all the training and assistance that she can get. Because the wolves are still after her.

Escape Rating A-: When I was growing up – back in the Dark Ages – there weren’t nearly enough biographies of women in my elementary school library. Honestly, there weren’t nearly enough, period. While there still aren’t, the situation has improved at least a bit.

Annie Oakley ca. 1903

One of the few that was always available was Annie Oakley. It was easy to find stuff about her, and as someone who read as much of that library as humanly possible, I found what there was. She’s a fascinating person, as a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century who was famous for what she herself DID, and not for who she married, who she killed (I’m looking at you, Lizzie Borden) or who or what she was victimized by. Nor was she famous for her beauty. (I’ve included a picture to let you judge for yourself on that score, but whether you like her looks or not they are not what made her famous.

Her ability to shoot a gun, accurately and at a distance, is what made her famous. It also put food on the table when she was young and her family was broke.

Blending her real history and real talents into this magical story, and keeping reasonably close to what is known about her while expanding it into this created world was fascinating and fun. This was also a terrific story to get new readers into this long running series, as Annie is an adult when she finds out that she has magic, and her training in her newly discovered powers helps the reader get on board with the way that this world works AND is fascinating in its own right.

So this story’s blend of history with magic just plain worked for me – even more than I expected it to. More than enough to make me not miss the Sherlock Holmes of the earlier stories in the series too much.

Obviously, I really enjoyed this particular entry in this long-running series. MORE than enough that I’ll be back the next time the author returns to it. In the meantime, I have plenty of entries in the series that I missed to dip into whenever I’m looking for this blend of magic, myth and history.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 1-9-22

I’m running behind getting this posted because I was having a hard time figuring out what the hell I’d be reading this week. So consider this post more about probabilities than certainties. Some weeks are just like that.

I was also having a difficult time getting my hands on the keyboard and mouse. Lucifer wanted LOTS of attention this morning and kept incapussitating me. He’s not demanding all the time the way Freddie is – Freddie is a VERY needy cat – but when Lucifer wants, he WANTS.

Speaking of incapussitation, this week’s picture is one of extreme incapussitation. George and Freddie decided to have a rare snuggle on top of Galen’s legs. He really can’t move, or couldn’t until I snapped the picture. Freddie gets weird when he’s approached in “camera position” with a phone obviously extended to take a picture. He’s such a handsome boy, so it’s a pity that he doesn’t appreciate getting his picture taken. George, on the other hand, is more than a bit of a ham.

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire
A- Review: Fated Blades by Ilona Andrews
B Review: The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian
B+ Review: The Sorority Murder by Allison Brennan
B Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
Stacking the Shelves (478)

Coming This Week:

The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey (review)
Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick (review)
Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark (review)
The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher (review)
The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev (blog tour review)

Stacking the Shelves (478)

It’s pretty clear that the publishing industry has woken up from its holiday doldrums. NetGalley and Edelweiss have both been chock full of excellent new books! And doesn’t the Kelly Barnhill book, When Women Were Dragons, have the best title EVER?

For Review:
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
Engines of Empire (Age of Uprising #1) by R.S. Ford (audio)
From Bad to Cursed (Witches of Thistle Grove #2) by Lana Harper
Hot Time by W.H. Flint
Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid
The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
A Matter of Death and Life (Gideon Sable #2) by Simon R. Green
The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes (Queer Principles of Kit Webb #2) by Cat Sebastian
The Self-Made Widow by Fabian Nicieza
When She Dreams (Burning Cove #6) by Amanda Quick
When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
The Wrong Victim (Quinn & Costa #3) by Allison Brennan

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Division One Series (14 books!) by Stephanie Osborn
The Sandman: Act 2 by Neil Gaiman (audio)

Borrowed from the Library:
The Third to Die (Quinn & Costa #1) by Allison Brennan


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page
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Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen ChoBlack Water Sister by Zen Cho
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: magical realism, paranormal, urban fantasy
Pages: 370
Published by Ace Books on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.
Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there's only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she's determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god--and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she'll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

My Review:

It may be true that happy families are all alike while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but it’s also true that, at least in fiction, all intrusive families are somewhat alike.

But Jess’ family isn’t quite like all the other intrusive families. Not that it isn’t very like them in a number of ways, but there’s one aspect that is definitely unique to them. Or one intrusion that’s unique to them, anyway.

Jess starts hearing voices. Well, specifically one voice, that of her recently deceased grandmother Ah Ma. Now that Jess and her family have moved back to Penang, her late grandmother has decided that Jess is the member of the family who can help her handle her unfinished business in this world so that she can move on to the next.

Ah Ma is living inside Jess’ head, sometimes taking over Jess’ body, and generally poking her ghostly nose into all of Jess’ business in order to make sure that Jess finishes up all of hers.

And that’s where the family secrets start, let’s call it manifesting, all over Penang and all over Jess’ currently drifting life.

Ah Ma needs to pull off one last score against a gangster – who she declares is not merely her biggest enemy but also the enemy of the god that Ah Ma was a medium for during her life. A duty she plans to pass on to Jess, whether Jess wants it or not.

But as Jess does her best to hold firm against the more extreme parts of her grandmother’s agenda – such as Ah Ma’s attempt to murder the gangster’s son using Jess’ hands as the weapon. Ah Ma knows that she herself is out of reach of Earthly justice, but her assertions that her god will protect Jess from the same don’t have nearly the same reassuring effect on Jess.

Along the way, Jess learns more than she bargained for about the real reason behind her family’s move from Malaysia to the U.S. And she comes to understand just what her mother has been trying to protect her from all these years.

And that none of it is exactly what any of them thought.

Escape Rating B: This is very much one of those mixed feelings reviews. On the one hand, there is SO MUCH to love about this story. And on the other hand, there are the trigger warnings. Some people will be disturbed by the abuse and the violence that her grandmother suffered as a young woman, and that Ah Ma enters the service of the god in order to get her revenge. A revenge that Black Water Sister is willing to grant her because she suffered the same thing in her life. Which also says important things about the utter, horrific pervasiveness of violence against women throughout history.

While those experiences were both terrible, but unfortunately all too historically plausible. The way that they are revealed to Jess, as dreams and nightmares sent by both vengeful female spirits, is also manipulative and abusive in its own way.

I also have to say that the extreme intrusiveness of Jess’ family, and what she feels as her lifelong servitude to her parents, are triggers for me, to the point where the constant overshadowing of Jess’ entire life by her family almost forces her to live in constant self-repression in order to not upset anyone about anything, is difficult for me to read.

From a certain perspective, her Ah Ma’s manipulations to force Jess into the same servitude to Black Water Sister that Ah Ma chose willingly is just a continuation of Jess’ extreme self-effacement. Almost to the point of self-erasure. That Jess has kept as much of her true self hidden as she has, and that she still demonstrably loves her family very much, makes her a compelling character who is just hard for me to read.

The author does a fantastic job of exploring and capturing the beauty of not just the place where the story is set, but also its culture and its history is marvelous. Using Jess as the outsider/insider who is remembering and rediscovering her heritage and her family’s history lets the reader immerse themselves along with her.

A part of me wants to call Black Water Sister a magical realism type of fantasy. There is magic in the world that in this particular story uses humans as its avatars to let it act on the world. Jess, when either Ah Ma or Black Water Sister is using her body to wreck their own revenge, is able to see all the gods and spirits that inhabit this place that feels familiar and yet isn’t quite the place her heart calls home.

Another perspective would be that it’s really humans doing everything all along, and yet, from Jess’ god-enhanced perspective, it’s clear that there is way more under the surface than is dreamt of in any Westernized philosophy. And that’s it’s all real, and that it all seems to want revenge.

This also reminds me more than a bit of Nothing But Blackened Teeth, not in that book’s horror aspects but in the way that the queer outsider is the person who is able to see the ghosts and spirits who move so much of the action and so many of the humans. There’s also a bit of, oddly enough, Dragon Age: Origins in the way that Ah Ma has given herself to Black Water Sister as an agent of their mutual revenge in much the same way that Flemeth merges with the goddess Mythal. And that the need for women to find supernatural assistance to avenge themselves on the men who have abused them feels universal.

In the end, the secrets that have been hidden and the revenge that is sought are all for very human reasons. But sometimes, even gods, especially gods that used to be humans, need a very human thing called closure.