Review: Castle Shade by Laurie R. King

Review: Castle Shade by Laurie R. KingCastle Shade (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #17) by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #17
Pages: 384
Published by Bantam on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A queen, a castle, a dark and ageless threat--all await Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes in this chilling new adventure.
The queen is Marie of Roumania: the doubly royal granddaughter to Victoria, Empress of the British Empire, and Alexander II, Tsar of Russia. A famous beauty who was married at seventeen into Roumania's young dynasty, Marie had beguiled the Paris Peace Conference into returning her adopted country's long-lost provinces, single-handedly transforming Roumania from a backwater into a force.
The castle is Bran: a tall, quirky, ancient structure perched on high rocks overlooking the border between Roumania and its newly regained territory of Transylvania. The castle was a gift to Queen Marie, a thanks from her people, and she loves it as she loves her own children.
The threat is...now, that is less clear. Shadowy figures, vague whispers, the fears of girls, dangers that may only be accidents. But this is a land of long memory and hidden corners, a land that had known Vlad the Impaler, a land from whose churchyards the shades creep.
When Queen Marie calls, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are as dubious as they are reluctant. But a young girl is involved, and a beautiful queen. Surely it won't take long to shine light on this unlikely case of what would seem to be strigoi?
Or, as they are known in the West...vampires.

My Review:

As this one opens, Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes, are leaving the sunny Riviera, the scene of their previous adventure, Riviera Gold, for the chillier and considerably more forbidding Carpathian Mountains. For the very scene of Count Dracula’s fictional adventures.

But Castle Bran, unlike the fictional residence of Dracula that was based on it, is the real life retreat of Queen Marie of Roumania.

There is a bit of Dorothy Parker doggerel that I memorized a long time ago, that goes:

“Life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea.
Love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.”

I had no idea that Marie of Roumania was a real person. I thought it was something Parker made up in order to make the thing rhyme and scan correctly. Color me chagrined.

Holmes is on his way to Castle Bran and the town of Bran that it overlooks at the behest of Queen Marie herself. Someone is threatening the Queen’s young daughter, Princess Ireana and Her Majesty wants Holmes to find the culprit and stop them. That Holmes is also in the area at the suggestion, at least, of his brother Mycroft turns out to be a source of irritation for both Holmes and Russell.

Mycroft, the eminence grise of the British government, has a habit of commanding and commandeering the services of his brother for political purposes and occasionally downright espionage, in ways that give Russell serious qualms.

Qualms that are quite serious, a situation that has been developing since Russell learned the full scope of Mycroft’s government remit during The God of the Hive. Qualms that are compelling Holmes to, effectively, pick a side. He can either continue to serve his brother whenever and wherever called upon, at a moment’s notice for purposes that he may or may not strictly agree with and may or may not be for the so-called “greater good” – or he can remain married and in full partnership with his wife Mary Russell.

Because Mary requires honesty and Mycroft requires secrecy, and those requirements cannot both be met. (The fallout, when it finally comes in a later book in the series, is going to be EPIC.)

But at the moment, Holmes and Russell have a case. A case that has entirely too many shades of The Sussex Vampire, while potentially covered in all the blood that the infamous Roumanian countess Erzsebet (AKA Elizabeth) Bathory, ever bathed in.

There’s someone running around Bran and its neighboring villages trying to convince the locals that Queen Marie is as evil as Bathory and Dracula combined, and that no one in Bran will be safe until she’s been evicted from her castle.

Or, until Russell and Holmes figure out who is really behind this local reign of attempted terror.

Escape Rating A-: Castle Shade was good fun. Not quite as much good fun as Riviera Gold, but still absolutely worth the read for anyone who has followed the adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes since The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Speaking of which, while I don’t think you have to have read Mary Russell’s entire opus to get into Castle Shade, you do have to have read some, if only to make sure you can get past the astonishing premise, that when Holmes retired to Sussex to keep bees he took on a 15-year-old apprentice who later – after she attained her majority – became both his investigative partner and his spouse.

But the case, with its echoes of Holmes’ earlier investigation, The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, is, in its way, a kind of a callback to Holmes’ earlier adventures.

In spite of the potential political overtones, the brush with real-life royalty and the unresolved issue of Brother Mycroft, among other things, the case that the Queen has asked Holmes to investigate and that Holmes has, in turn, requested Russell’s assistance with, winds its way around and about until it resolves into something classic.

When Holmes rules out any political motivations, the heart of the mystery turns into one of the basic questions in mystery. “Qui bono?” or more familiarly, “Who benefits?”

Because it’s all about Queen Marie and her ownership of Bran Castle. The whole point of the strange happenings and rumor mongering and attempts at raising unbridled hysteria among the local population are all aimed at Queen Marie.

Someone wants her out of Castle Bran. Someone believes they benefit from driving Marie out of her castle. It’s up to Holmes and Russell to see through all the misdirection swirling around them, find a way clear of all the many and various secrets that the locals are obviously keeping that may or may not have anything to do with what’s really going on, to determine exactly who it is who is up to no good.

And stop them.

One of the other lovely things about this particular entry in the series is that, unlike Riviera Gold and other recent stories, the focus is equally split between Holmes and Russell. They have equal but separate parts to play in this mystery and I’m happy to see that, at the moment of this story at least, their partnership is still working for both of them.

While this mystery comes to a satisfactory conclusion, it is equally clear that the adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes still have many more stories yet to tell. And I’m looking forward to each and every one.

Review: Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

Review: Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa AfiaDead Dead Girls (Harlem Renaissance Mystery #1) by Nekesa Afia
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Harlem Renaissance #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on June 1, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The start of an exciting new historical mystery series set in 1920s Harlem featuring Louise Lloyd, a young black woman caught up in a series of murders way too close to home...
Harlem, 1926. Young black girls like Louise Lloyd are ending up dead.
Following a harrowing kidnapping ordeal when she was in her teens, Louise is doing everything she can to maintain a normal life. She's succeeding, too. She spends her days working at Maggie's Café and her nights at the Zodiac, Manhattan's hottest speakeasy. Louise's friends might say she's running from her past and the notoriety that still stalks her, but don't tell her that.
When a girl turns up dead in front of the café, Louise is forced to confront something she's been trying to ignore--several local black girls have been murdered over the past few weeks. After an altercation with a local police officer gets her arrested, Louise is given an ultimatum: She can either help solve the case or let a judge make an example of her.
Louise has no choice but to take the case and soon finds herself toe-to-toe with a murderous mastermind. She'll have to tackle her own fears and the prejudices of New York City society if she wants to catch a killer and save her own life in the process.

My Review:

It’s 1926. The Roaring 20’s. The period of the “lost generation” post-WW1 and pre-Depression. In Britain, Lord Peter Wimsey is dealing, sometimes badly, with his PTSD and solving crimes. In Australia, Phryne Fisher is seducing young men, solving crimes, and proving to anyone who even thinks to criticize her for doing a man’s job that she’s doing it better than anyone else, including the police, thankyouverymuch and please keep your opinions to yourself.

Dead Dead Girls takes place in the same time period, following the same avocation, but not exactly the same world.

Louise Lloyd, a black woman in her late 20s, is caught up in a seemingly endless round of late nights dancing at speakeasies, waitressing during the day to pay for those late nights, and living in a single women’s boarding house with-and-not-with her best friend and lover, Rosa. Louise is trying to outrun her demons by dancing and drinking her nights away.

But those demons reach out for her in a way she can’t ignore. Young black women are turning up dead in Harlem, and Louise has just discovered the latest victim on the front step of the diner where she works.

So many girls have been killed, so close together, that even the white powers-that-be of the NYPD can’t ignore the serial killings any longer – no matter how much they’d rather sweep it all under the rug.

When Louise’ anger and frustration at the situation, along with the way that the cops seem to be using the murder investigation as an excuse to harrass as many Harlem residents with no pretext whatsoever rather than solve the crime, bubbles over, she hits a cop, ends up in jail and facing the kind of offer that it isn’t safe to refuse.

Help the cops find the killer, or go to jail and let herself be further abused by the system that is designed to keep her people down.

At first both reluctant and amateur in all her investigation and interrogation techniques, as the body count rises and the cops make no progress whatsoever, Louise finds herself drawn deeper into a web of hatred, lies and a determined desire on the part of officialdom to look the other way as long as all of the victims are black.

Louise can’t look away. She’s frightened at every turn, knowing that she, or someone she loves, could be next. And that no one except her own community will care. But when she stares into the abyss, she discovers that the abyss has been staring back at her all along.

Escape Rating B: I have to say that in the end this story hits like a hammer. And I’m still reeling from the blow. But that needs a bit of explanation. Perhaps more than that, because this is one of those stories that made me think – and I’m still thinking.

As a historical mystery, Dead Dead Girls manages to hit the sweet spot – or in this case the bittersweet spot – of being both firmly fixed in its time and place while being utterly relevant to the present, to the point where the reader, as much as they know it’s there and then, is certain that it could just as easily be here and now with entirely too few changes.

The consequence is that the mystery has a bit of a slow start, because it takes a while for the time machine to transport us back to Harlem in the 1920s. It’s definitely worth the trip, but it takes a few chapters to get us there.

At the same time, OMG but this is a hard read after this past year. Because of the way that it feels both historical and all too plausible in the present day. Particularly as I’m writing this review on June 1, the 100th anniversary of the second day of the Tulsa race massacre. Which Louise would have known all about – but which entirely too many of us did not and do not to this day.

Just as the murder spree in Harlem that touches Louise’ life much too closely would have been reported on extensively in the Black newspapers of the day like The Defender but would have been totally ignored by the white papers.

As a character, at first I found Louise a bit difficult to get close to, because so much of her behavior seems so deliberately reckless. It took me quite a while to get it through my head that her irresponsible behavior doesn’t really matter. She’s in a no-win scenario and nothing that she does or doesn’t do will make it any better. Like all of the things that we women are taught not to do because we might get raped, when the fact of the matter is that rape is about power and not about sex, and there’s little we can do to prevent it – and that we’ll be blamed for it anyway.

Louise’ situation is that only multiplied. Exhibiting different behavior, while it might have made her life in her father’s house more tolerable, doesn’t change the way the world perceives her and treats her. She has the power to make things worse, but not to make them better. At least not on her own. Lashing out however and whenever she can is a reasonable response. But I admit that I had to work my way towards that reaction.

The mystery that Louise has to solve is as dark and mesmerizing, twisty and turny as any mystery reader could possibly desire. But the circumstances in which Louise has to solve it are weighted with the baggage of racism and sexism in a way that fill much of the story with the darkness of the evil that men do and the inexorable weight of power corrupting – even just the power of small-minded people with little authority – and absolute power corrupting absolutely and inciting more of the same.

Dead Dead Girls is the author’s first novel – and what a searing debut it is. I’m looking forward to great, great things in her future work – particularly the second projected book in this series!

Berry Good Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Berry Good Giveaway Hop, hosted by Mama the Fox!

Berries, fresh berries, still feel like the taste of summer, don’t they? Not just the freshness, but the juiciness and the sweetness and the stickiness running down your chin when you bite into a really good one. Or any fresh fruit, honestly. They just taste wonderful and sweet and summery – no matter when you get them.

Because I just read a book about going to summer camp, I can’t help but think of the camp I went to – Camp Ross Trails near Cincinnati, which has been closed for decades and replaced by a subdivision! There were a lot of either blackberry or black raspberry bushes (I think black raspberry) growing all along the trails and roads, and if you happened to go at just the right part of the summer (there were 5-ish two-week sessions each summer) you could pick the ripe berries as you walked along to meals and activities.

Those berries were delicious. Possibly even more delicious in memory than in real life – isn’t that always the way – but they were wonderful.

These days, most of my berries are definitely blackberries – and from the grocery story. They may not taste quite as good as those long ago berries, but they are available fresh all year round. So every morning – even in the dead of winter – I get a little taste of summer sweetness in my morning.

What about you? What’s your favorite flavor of berry, and how do you like them best? Or most? Answer in the rafflecopter for your chance at the usual Reading Reality blog hop prize, the winner’s choice of a $10 Amazon Gift Card or $10 in books. This giveaway is open to all!

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And for more “berry good” prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on this hop!

MamatheFox and all participating blogs are not held responsible for sponsors who fail to fulfill their prize obligations.

Review: Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayHer Scottish Scoundrel (Diamonds in the Rough, #7) by Sophie Barnes
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #7
Pages: 424
Published by Sophie Barnes on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Destined for the hangman's noose, love is a dream he cannot afford to have...
When Blayne MacNeil agrees to be Miss Charlotte Russell's bodyguard, he doesn't expect her to expand the job description to fake fiancé. After twenty years in hiding, announcing his engagement to a viscount's daughter could prove fatal. For if anyone were to recognize him, he'd be charged with murder.
Determined to keep her independence in order to safeguard her writing career, Charlotte must avoid marriage. After all, no respectable gentleman would ever permit his wife to pen outrageous adventure novels. But when her most recent manuscript disappears, the roguish Scotsman posing as her fiancé becomes her closest ally—and the greatest threat to her freedom.

My Review:

I picked this up because I fell in love with this series all the way back at its very beginning, with A Most Unlikely Duke. Because he was, and because the way that story worked was just lovely.

I’ve stuck with the series because I’ve enjoyed every single one of these unsuitable romances, admittedly some more than others as is generally the case with a series that is 8 books and happily counting.

Or at least I’m happily counting, and I’m sure that other readers are too.

What makes this series so much fun in general, and this entry in particular, is that all of the matches that occur are not just unlikely, but are completely unsuitable and generally downright scandalous into the bargain. And that the reason for the unlikeliness, unsuitability and scandalousness shifts and changes from one story to the next and from the spear side (male) to the distaff side (female) and back again as the series continues.

(I had to look up just what the opposite of “distaff” actually was.)

The other thing that makes these so fascinating, and something that was a big part of this particular story, is that the women have agency in an era when we didn’t used to expect that in a romance, and, even better, that their agency feels at least plausible – if not necessarily likely – for their time and place.

BUT, and this is a huge but that provides a lot of both realism and tension, their agency is always precarious, even if they aren’t necessarily aware of it. They have agency at the sufferance, benign neglect or downright absence of their fathers. And that agency can be taken away at any point.

That’s what happens in this particular story. Now in her late – very late – 20s, Charlotte Russell is very firmly on the shelf. She’s happy with that fate, and believes that her parents are resigned to it. Charlotte, because of her on-the-shelf designation, has a fair bit of freedom, and she has used that freedom to become a best-selling author of the slightly scandalous adventures of a rakehell spy.

Of course, those stories are written under a male nom-de-plume, and published by a friend who owns a small publishing company. Keeping her secret is of paramount importance to Charlotte, as the scandal that would result from her exposure would taint not just her own non-existent chances of marriage but also her parents’ reputation in society as well as that of her two sisters and their husbands.

And it would absolutely kill sales of her books, which she is counting on to secure her own freedom.

But everything Charlotte believes about her life and her parents’ acceptance of it all goes down the drain when her father announces that he’s invited an American businessman to London to not just meet her but to marry her, will she or nil.

In response to being essentially bought and sold, Charlotte makes an arrangement with the entirely unsuitable owner of a dangerous pub and boxing establishment in the East End to be her bodyguard and fake fiance. Not that she’s consulted him about the second part of the arrangement before she springs it on him in front of her parents!

So Charlotte Russell finds that she was always much less free than she thought. She has no idea that Blayne MacNeil is much more unsuitable than she believed.

And neither of them expects to fall in love.

Escape Rating B+: What made this story for me was, honestly, Charlotte. Because she wants the same two things that many of us still want – love and purpose. And she’s honest enough with herself to understand that those two desires may lie in opposition to each other.

Not that fulfillment through marriage and children is not a noble or worthwhile purpose, but it isn’t Charlotte’s purpose. Her dream is to write, and she is aware that in order to be free to achieve that dream she’ll most likely have to be a spinster. And she’s okay with that choice.

Her parents don’t know about her writing, because it’s too scandalous to reveal, and don’t understand or don’t care that she is willing to quietly flout societal expectations in order to make her own way in the world.

Her mother, honestly, just wants what’s best for her and isn’t able to make that leap that what most people think is best just isn’t what is best for Charlotte. But her father doesn’t care what Charlotte wants and further doesn’t care that he initially treated her as a son because he didn’t have any, and his expectation that she will now be obedient like a daughter is supposed to be is more than a bit shortsighted.

And he needs the money that her marriage to the American businessman will bring – because he screwed up the family finances – and can’t bring himself to give a damn about any dissenting voices from anyone.

Charlotte’s crisis is that she just didn’t see how easily all of her freedom could be taken away if she didn’t tow the line. That diminishing of freedom diminishes her spirit and in turn, herself.

Where Blayne gets himself in trouble is that he can’t bear to watch that diminishment, no matter how dangerous it makes his own situation. And it IS dangerous. Because he is not what he seems.

This is a big part of the reason that this entire series reminds me of the Maiden Lane series by Elizabeth Hoyt, in that many of the characters either live and work on the wrong side of the law abiding fence or are caught in criminal circumstances not of their own making. In Blayne’s case it’s both.

And the resolution of that part of the scenario was a bit of a surprise. It’s not a surprise that Blayne and Charlotte manage, in spite of several rather desperate circumstances, their HEA, because this is after all a romance and they’re supposed to reach it. What’s surprising is the way it’s achieved.

Blayne has to choose between being right and being happy. In real life that can be a harder choice than it ought to be, and it’s not easy here, either. But it makes that ending very much earned.

Diamonds in the Rough will be back later this year when The Dishonored Viscount (of course through no fault of his own!) makes his own way to his own kind of honor – and falls in love along the way.

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

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RABT Book Tours & PR

 

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-30-21

I miscalculated when I was putting together the calendar and scheduled a tour for tomorrow. Which is Memorial Day. A day I don’t usually post a review, and when I do it’s at least somewhat relevant to the day. But I messed up so there’s a review. It’s a good book, I didn’t mess that part up!

There are no current giveaways or recent winners, which always feels slightly weird, so it’s a good thing that there’s a very good, Berry Good blog hop starting on Tuesday, June 1. It’s hard to believe it’s June already, but the weather is certainly heading towards summer!

I may not be giving away books or gift cards this week, but I always have a cat picture to give you. Freddie will probably never be the king of all he surveys, but at this particular moment he was the prince of quite a lot of paper products!

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Beyond by Mercedes Lackey
A- Review: The Clover Girls by Viola Shipman
B+ Review: Stealing from Mr. Rich by Anna Hackett
C+ Review: Rabbits by Terry Miles
A- Review: Slough House by Mick Herron
Stacking the Shelves (446)

Coming This Week:

Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes (blog tour review)
Berry Good Giveaway Hop
Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia (blog tour review)
West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge (review)
Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long (review)

Stacking the Shelves (446)

Audible had a sale a little bit ago, and the results are splashed at the bottom of this page. I can never resist.

The award for “Most Intriguing Title” on this week’s stack goes to A Blizzard of Polar Bears because seriously, isn’t that about the worst thing you can imagine? I’m wondering if the story is the “Before” for which the print Bad Boys of the Arctic is the “After” shot. We’ll see, eventually.

For Review:
A Blizzard of Polar Bears (Alex Carter #2) by Alice Henderson
The Bloodless Boy (Harry Hunt #1) by Robert J. Lloyd
Cackle by Rachel Harrison
The French Gift by Kirsty Manning
Horseman by Christina Henry
If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier
The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson
Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes by Alexa Martin
The Next Ship Home by Heather Webb
Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North
Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan
Over My Dead Body (William Warwick #4) by Jeffrey Archer
Portrait of a Scotsman (League of Extraordinary Women #3) by Evie Dunmore
Pretty Little Lion (Third Shift #2) by Suleikha Snyder
The Royals Next Door by Karina Halle
The Secret in the Wall (Silver Rush #8) by Ann Parker
Slough House (Slough House #7) by Mick Herron
These Bones by Kayla Chenault

Purchased from Amazon/Audible/Kickstarter:
Down Among the Dead (Farian War #2) by K.B. Wagers (audio)
Out Past the Stars (Farian War #3) by K.B. Wagers (audio)
The Society of the Sword Trilogy by Duncan M. Hamilton (audio)
The Squire (Blood of Kings #1) by Duncan M. Hamilton (audio)
There Before the Chaos (Farian War #1) by K.B. Wagers (audio)
The Wolf of the North (Wolf of the North #1) by Duncan M. Hamilton (audio)
The Year of the Cat: A Cat of Romantic Soul edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch & Dean Wesley Smith


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

Please link your STS post in the linky below:


Review: Slough House by Mick Herron

Review: Slough House by Mick HerronSlough House (Slough House, #7) by Mick Herron
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, mystery, thriller
Series: Slough House #7
Pages: 312
Published by Soho Crime on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Brexit is in full swing. And due to mysterious accidents, the Slough Houses ranks continue to thin. The seventh entry to the Slough House series is as thrilling and bleeding-edge relevant as ever.
A year after a calamitous blunder by the Russian secret service left a British citizen dead from novichok poisoning, Diana Taverner is on the warpath. What seems a gutless response from the government has pushed the Service's First Desk into mounting her own counter-offensive—but she's had to make a deal with the devil first. And given that the devil in question is arch-manipulator Peter Judd, she could be about to lose control of everything she's fought for.
Meanwhile, still reeling from recent losses, the slow horses are worried they've been pushed further into the cold. Slough House has been wiped from Service records, and fatal accidents keep happening. No wonder Jackson Lamb's crew are feeling paranoid. But have they actually been targeted? With a new populist movement taking a grip on London's streets, and the old order ensuring that everything's for sale to the highest bidder, the world's an uncomfortable place for those deemed surplus to requirements. The wise move would be to find a safe place and wait for the troubles to pass.
But the slow horses aren't famed for making wise decisions. And with enemies on all sides, not even Jackson Lamb can keep his crew from harm.

My Review:

In case you’re wondering, “Slough” should be pronounced the same as “Slow” – even though it technically isn’t. Because the “slow horses” that used to race in the spy games at Regent’s Park – home of Britain’s security services – now plod along at Slough House, still on the payroll but just marking time. Until they retire, or die. Or just fade away.

As this story opens, they’re dying. Alone. One by one. In accidents. Or in circumstances made to look like accidents.

But, as an old master of the spy game, Ian Fleming, once said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” Jackson Lamb, while he’s not nearly as suave as Fleming or the character he created, is definitely a master of the spy game and well aware of this dictum – even if he doesn’t always show it. Or show much of anything except contempt for the entire human race – himself included.

He’s also the manager, or the general factotum, or the head inmate, or all of the above, of Slough House. He knows, even if neither the reader nor the ranks of his slow horses do, that some enemy is taking out his agents.

He just needs to figure out who the enemy is who is authorizing these actions – and make them stop. Even if the enemy is someone who is supposed to be on the same side. Especially if that person is supposed to be on the same side, because that makes it treason.

Escape Rating A-: Slough House is an ironically slow-building thriller – but that situation is also utterly fitting for the title and especially for the characters and set up.

A set up which at first seems like a combination of the TV series New Tricks and the movie RED, but upon reading doesn’t quite fit into the mold of either, although there are elements of both.

The slow horses of Slough House aren’t so much retired as they are exiled. Slough House is kind of a “last chance saloon” for agents who have screwed up badly but who are too young to retire and perhaps know too much to be let go of, but are safe enough to keep corralled together and just might, occasionally uncover something real out of the busywork they usually end up doing. After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And as far as Regent’s Park is concerned, the slow horses are consigned to the same scrap heap as those relics would be.

From the perspective of the racers at Regent’s Park, the situation is designed to keep those slow horses docile and dreaming of a potential return to Regent’s Park and “real” spywork – a return that will never happen.

Jackson Lamb, on the other hand, is far from docile. Or, frankly, even domesticated. Instead, he reads like a variation of Daniel Hawthorne from The Word is Murder, only even more egotistical and enigmatic and considerably less savory or salubrious. It’s pretty clear that he’s been assigned to run Slough House not because he’s not good at the spy game but because he’s really, really bad at making nice or playing office politics.

I suspect that there is a lot more about Jackson Lamb, the denizens of Slough House, the relationship between Slough House and Regent’s Park and the entire setup in the previous books in the series. But I haven’t read them and didn’t feel the lack. I mean, I’m intensely curious about the whole thing but didn’t feel like I was missing anything I needed in order to get firmly stuck into this story.

As much as the setup intrigued me, and as ill assorted as Lamb and his band of misfits are, I picked this up because I was very interested in just how the whole concept of a 21st century spy thriller would even work without the 20th century staple of Cold War maneuvering to underpin the whole structure.

The answer turned out to be really, really well, but not in a direction that I was expecting – which made it even better.

Because this turned out to be a kind of “who watches the watchers” story that plays into 21st century realities when too many of the watchers are much too busy watching the people on their own side to pay attention to operatives and operations preying on them from without.

It’s also a story about just how greasy the skids are at the top of the slippery slope of corruption, and how easy it is for even people with the most honorable of intentions to find themselves halfway down that slide before they are even aware of the incline. Something that is clearly going to be the fodder for future books in the series.

Not that there weren’t plenty of “bad actors” (for plenty of definitions of “bad” and “actors” and absolutely for “bad actors”) in this book, but Bad Actors is also the title of the next book in the series. And I’m more than curious enough to see what happens to the “slow horses” next!

Review: Rabbits by Terry Miles

Review: Rabbits by Terry MilesRabbits by Terry Miles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, technothriller, thriller
Pages: 448
Published by Del Rey Books on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Conspiracies abound in this surreal and yet all-too-real technothriller in which a deadly underground alternate reality game might just be altering reality itself, set in the same world as the popular Rabbits podcast.
It's an average work day. You've been wrapped up in a task, and you check the clock when you come up for air--4:44 pm. You go to check your email, and 44 unread messages have built up. With a shock, you realize it is April 4th--4/4. And when you get in your car to drive home, your odometer reads 44,444. Coincidence? Or have you just seen the edge of a rabbit hole?
Rabbits is a mysterious alternate reality game so vast it uses our global reality as its canvas. Since the game first started in 1959, ten iterations have appeared and nine winners have been declared. Their identities are unknown. So is their reward, which is whispered to be NSA or CIA recruitment, vast wealth, immortality, or perhaps even the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe itself. But the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes. Players have died in the past--and the body count is rising.
And now the eleventh round is about to begin. Enter K--a Rabbits obsessive who has been trying to find a way into the game for years. That path opens when K is approached by billionaire Alan Scarpio, the alleged winner of the sixth iteration. Scarpio says that something has gone wrong with the game and that K needs to fix it before Eleven starts or the whole world will pay the price.
Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing. Two weeks after that, K blows the deadline and Eleven begins. And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.

My Review:

R U playing? That’s the question that runs through the entire book. Are you playing Rabbits?

There’s a quote attributed to Mary Kay Ash – yes, the cosmetics queen – that goes, “If you think you can. And if you think you can’t, you’re right.” (There are also variations attributed to Henry Ford, but I like her version better.) With Rabbits, it’s more that if you think you’re playing, you might be, but if you think you’re not, you’re probably right. But whether or not you are playing Rabbits, Rabbits is definitely playing you. You just don’t know it. By the time you do know, it’s too late. Too late for you, and possibly too late for the rest of us as well.

If you’re a bit confused by the above, you’re not alone. And you’re not supposed to be. That’s Rabbits.

What is certain, for select, certain, Rabbits-induced values of certainty, is that when the story opens, our protagonist K is not playing Rabbits. At least at the moment. Because the eleventh round of the long-running game – just how long its been running is a matter for serious debate – is about to begin but hasn’t – yet.

So K is in the middle of giving a somewhat roundabout introductory lecture into the world of Rabbits, being extremely circumlocutory because the first rule of Rabbits is that no one ever talks either directly or straightforwardly about Rabbits. He’s also passing the hat because being a Rabbits player isn’t exactly a way to make a living.

Winning is even better than winning the lottery, but the odds of winning are probably equal to the odds of winning the lottery if not, honestly, a bit worse. Very much on that infamous other hand, playing the lottery won’t get you killed. Playing Rabbits just might.

Especially if, like K and his friends, you’re asked to investigate why Rabbits players are dropping dead at even greater than normal rates. There’s something rotten in the current state of Rabbits, and K has to fix it before it’s too late.

If he can figure out what it is. Or where it is. Or even IF it really is. Without revealing much, if anything about what he’s really doing. Because the game might be out to get him. Or it might not. After all, it’s Rabbits.

Escape Rating C+: Rabbits (the book) is, honestly, fairly confusing. The book is supposed to stand alone from the podcast of the same name by the same author, and I’m not 100% sure that it does. I’m also not sure it doesn’t, but that’s Rabbits for you.

I think part of my confusion with the story was that it was presented to me as science fiction, so I was expecting it to be more SFnal than it turned out to be. There is a bit of true SF, but that felt like handwavium rather than being part of the meat of the story.

The story, at its heart, reads like a thriller. K and his friends are tasked with fixing the game before it starts its next iteration and even more terrible things happen. They are under a tremendous amount of pressure and absolutely do not know what they’re doing.

They are paranoid, but there really does seem to be someone out to get them. And paranoia as a state of mind feels like it’s a requirement for playing Rabbits in the first place. Which does a terrific job of ratcheting up the slow building tension of the entire story.

There were plenty of points where the book reminded me of Ready Player One, but that’s also a bit of a misdirection. The stakes turn out to actually be higher in Rabbits, but the game itself is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. Ready Player One, after all, is a game where the players know they are participating, and where, while they may not share tips and tricks with their competitors, discussion of the game is going on pretty much everywhere.

Rabbits is a real-world game, where obsessed people find patterns everywhere in everything (like noticing that once you buy a car you start seeing that make and model of car EVERYWHERE). Some of the patterns that Rabbits players see are part of the game, but some are just the mind playing tricks and some are simply coincidence and the players seem to have very few ways of figuring out which witch is which or even if there are any witches at all. (Mixing metaphors to the point of absurdity.)

So I finished Rabbits feeling not exactly satisfied. As a thriller the SFnal handwavium didn’t quite work for me. As SF, there just wasn’t nearly enough SF there. I liked the characters, but the story didn’t gel because of the handwavium.

But it’s fascinating if you enjoy stories that are chock-full of conspiracy theories, where the stakes are high and the characters are never sure which way is up. Or even if there is an “up” at all. If you threw Ready Player One, The Matrix and and the TV series Lost into an extremely high-tech blender fueled by whatever was fueling the Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you might get something like Rabbits. Play if you dare.

Review: Stealing from Mr. Rich by Anna Hackett

Review: Stealing from Mr. Rich by Anna HackettStealing from Mr. Rich (Billionaire Heists #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Billionaire Heists #1
Pages: 286
Published by Anna Hackett on May 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
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To save my brother, all I have to do is steal from a billionaire.
My brother is in trouble. Again. But this time he’s in debt to some really bad people, and I’ll do anything to save him. Even be blackmailed into cracking an unbreakable safe belonging to the most gorgeous man in New York. And one of the richest.
Steal from Zane Roth—King of Wall Street and one of the famous billionaire bachelors of New York—sure thing, piece of cake.
You see, some people can play the piano, but I can play safes. My father is a thief, safecracker extraordinaire, and a criminal. He also taught me everything he knows. I’ve spent my entire life trying not to be him. I own my own business, pay my taxes, and I don’t break the law. Ever.
Now I have to smash every one of my rules, break into a billionaire’s penthouse, and steal a million-dollar necklace.
What I never expected was to find myself face to face with Zane. Tall, dark, handsome, and oh-so-rich Zane. He’s also smart, and he knows I’m up to something.
And he’s vowed to find out.

My Review:

On the surface, the first meeting between billionaire Zane Roth and “Lady Locksmith” Monroe O’Connor reads like a slapstick version of a meet-hot-and-cute with more than a touch of the movie Maid in Manhattan.

Unlike the movie, Monroe is only pretending to be a maid, while Zane is a bit too naked to be on his way out to walk anybody’s dog. (And I’m so tempted to keep this joke going, but it’s going to hit the gutter really fast. Sorry, not sorry)

Monroe is in Zane’s apartment to “case the joint” so that she can steal a priceless piece of jewelry as ransom for her not-as-mature-as-he-ought-to-be younger brother, who made the mistake of gambling with the Russian Mafia. Literally. Stupidly. And entirely too typically for Maguire O’Connor.

So Monroe is going to have to break into an unbreakable safe that’s hidden in the penthouse of one of the richest men in New York, break every vow she’s made to herself to stay on the straight and narrow and not follow in her daddy’s criminal footsteps in order to save Mags. Again. From his own idiocy.

But those moments of slippery slapstick on the floor of Zane’s penthouse shower are the most fun and the best sexytimes that either of them have had in weeks, months, possibly even years. Which means that even though Zane learns that Monroe shouldn’t be trusted, and even though Monroe knows that the only ending to their instant flirtation is either a pair of broken hearts or her brother’s broken body, she can’t resist trying to have the little bit of Zane that she thinks she can have.

Neither Zane nor Monroe figure out that they’re playing for even higher stakes than the Russian Mafia. And that they are both already all in.

Escape Rating B+: I enjoyed Stealing from Mr. Rich more than I expected after reading the blurb. That’s partly because there were parts of the description that reminded me a bit too much of the parts of the Norcross Security series that I had some trouble with. In that series, it seemed like the heroines were much too re-active and didn’t have nearly enough agency. There was often a creeptastic element in that series where the villains were sexual predators who intended to add the heroines to their “collections”, whether that was part of the initial evil plot or not.

One of the things I liked about Monroe and her story is that it was all strictly business from the villains’ point of view. Not that there weren’t some disgusting dudes along the way, but the big bads are strictly business. Mags owes them money, Monroe has a skill that they can use to get her to do their dirty work for them, and there’s nothing about their deal that expects Monroe to do any of her work for them on her back. So I enjoyed Monroe’s story – and Monroe’s first person perspective – all the more because she’s actively pursuing a solution to her problem that doesn’t require a rescue and she never loses her agency while she works – however reluctantly – to win her brother’s freedom.

Something else that happened in this story is wrapped around the way that books often remind me of, of course, other books. Like the way that The Specialist, my favorite book in the Norcross Security series, reminded me of Rock Hard, another big favorite.

So it’s not actually a surprise that another interesting thing I realized about this story has to do with my love of J.D. Robb’s In Death series. Whenever a romance features a billionaire, I kind of expect to see someone either very like Roarke or his direct opposite. Like him if it’s the hero, the opposite if it’s the villain.

I am not digressing, I swear.

Zane and Monroe are both Roarke, or Roarke if he’s split into two characters. Zane is the self-made billionaire who gives megabucks to charity, plays the part he has to play while keeping his real self separate, has created a circle of real friends to rely on, knows how to take care of himself in a fight – and is, of course, devilishly handsome.

Monroe is the child of a thief and a conman who has done her best to distance herself from her dad’s criminal ways, but has used the skills he taught her to create a business and make both a living and a difference. People keep trying to drag her back into the muck, but she keeps right on fighting to get out. And has also created a circle of real friends she can rely on – even if she has a difficult time trusting that other people will be there for her.

And all of that is also Roarke, so it’s inevitable that these two parts of a whole will find each other and be drawn together like iron filings to a magnet.

That both Zane and Monroe have SERIOUS trust issues – with good reason – both gives them a lot in common and pulls them apart on a regular basis. After all, they meet because she’s planning to rob him. That’s not exactly a scenario that builds trust.

Neither of them is all that good at relying on others – or on anyone at all outside a tiny, trusted circle. They shouldn’t reach out to each other – and they especially shouldn’t hold on to each other. That they do it anyway, in spite of all the voices on both the inside and the outside saying that they shouldn’t, is what gives this story its zing and its spark.

Although the naked slapstick start sure didn’t hurt – AT ALL!

Review: The Clover Girls by Viola Shipman

Review: The Clover Girls by Viola ShipmanThe Clover Girls by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on May 18, 2021
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"Like a true friendship, The Clover Girls is a novel you will forever savor and treasure." —Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author
Elizabeth, Veronica, Rachel and Emily met at Camp Birchwood as girls in 1985, where over four summers they were the Clover Girls—inseparable for those magical few weeks of freedom—until the last summer that pulled them apart. Now approaching middle age, the women are facing challenges they never imagined as teens, struggles with their marriages, their children, their careers, and wondering who it is they see when they look in the mirror.
Then Liz, V and Rachel each receive a letter from Emily with devastating news. She implores the girls who were once her best friends to reunite at Camp Birchwood one last time, to spend a week together revisiting the dreams they’d put aside and repair the relationships they’d allowed to sour. But the women are not the same idealistic, confident girls who once ruled Camp Birchwood, and perhaps some friendships aren’t meant to last forever…
Bestselling author Viola Shipman is at her absolute best with The Clover Girls. Readers of all ages and backgrounds will love its powerful, redemptive nature and the empowering message at its heart.

My Review:

Actual adulting is very different from what we imagined life would be like when we were kids. Even more different than real life was from summer camp life, back in that long ago day.

Or at least that’s true for the Clover Girls of Camp Birchwood as they look back on those four golden summers more than 30 years ago, back when they were certain they were going to be best friends 4-EVER, just like their names. Back when they were 15 instead of 50. Before they broke their friendship and went their separate ways.

Back when they were all full of life and hope and dreams. Back when they were all alive.

Because none of those things are true any longer. Veronica, once a supermodel, has faded into the background of her marriage and her life. Liz is caught in the mid-life sandwich, divorced, taking care of her dying mother and coming to the harsh realization that her grown up children are selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed, and that Liz is going to be all alone in the world when her mother dies. Rachel is possibly the most hated woman in America, a former actress and conservative political handler and TV personality who lives out of a suitcase and goes on TV to spin the deeds of vile politicians into soundbites that can be all-too-easily swallowed by people looking for demons to embrace.

Emma is dead. But before she died she returned alone, to Camp Birchwood, one last time, to make the abandoned campground ready for one final visit from the Clover Girls. Emma hopes that a return to the place where they were free to be their best and most authentic selves will give the friends she loved so much one last chance to fix what they broke between them.

And what they broke inside themselves.

Escape Rating A-: The Clover Girls reads like “sad fluff”, but it’s the fluffiest, tastiest marshmallow fluff that ever fluffed, lightly toasted and nestled lovingly between two graham crackers and just the right amount of chocolate. In other words, it may be sad fluff, but it’s the quintessential s’more of sad fluff, just as messy, gooey and tasty as the s’mores we ate at summer camp way back when.

And if my read of it is any indication, it’s clear that you can take the girl out of summer camp, time can put the entire experience (far) into the rearview mirror, but you can’t really take the girl out of the woman or the s’mores out of the girl.

There is a LOT of sad in this story – and not just because Emma is dead from the beginning. But it’s a weep in the middle rather than a cry at the end kind of story. All of the remaining Clover Girls have a lot to get over, a lot to forgive each other for and an equal amount of crap to forgive themselves for, but the story ends with a smile and twinkle in its eye.

Along the way, there’s a lot about the boxes that women get shoehorned into from a very young age, and how there’s even less time than there was when the Clover Girls were girls for girls to just have a chance to be and to find out who they can be when there’s less pressure to fit into the molds that society and their parents have already laid out for them.

One thing I was grateful for is that there aren’t a ton of flashbacks. There’s just enough for the reader to understand what went right and wrong back then that led them to the lives they have now, without spending half the book reliving the past.

It’s the present that’s important. Acknowledging the past is necessary in order for them each to move forward, but rehashing the past in all of its gory detail won’t help them deal with the issues they have in the present. And I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have liked the story half as much if that was the way it had been written.

Something else that I liked about this story was the way that the author dealt with the recent past and the political strife that has occurred in the U.S. over the past few years. Not just the conflict between political parties but divisions between family members. The remaining Clover Girls seemed to run the political gamut from liberal to conservative, but with the exception of Rachel it was conservative in the way that anyone who lived through the Reagan Era would think of conservative rather than the pure factionalism that’s occurring now. I found that acknowledgement to be both real and tastefully done, although I’m sure that others’ reading mileage will vary.

There turned out to be much more to this story than I expected on any number of fronts, all of them thought provoking and in the end rather joyful. And that sad fluff was surprisingly tasty as well as nostalgic. All in all, an absolutely lovely read.