Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke NatsukawaThe Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa, Louise Heal Kawai
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, coming of age, fantasy, magical realism
Pages: 198
Published by HarperVia on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A celebration of books, cats, and the people who love them, infused with the heartwarming spirit of The Guest Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles.
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and Tiger and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners. 
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, Tiger and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter...

My Review:

When we first meet Rintaro Natsuki, he has come to a fork in his road, at the point where he’s going to have to take it whether he wants to or not. He’s just been orphaned for the second time. When his parents died, he was still a child, and packed off to his grandfather without any choice or protest on his part.

At his grandfather’s death, Rintaro is in high school, even if he skips class a lot. He’s old enough to have a voice in his future – if he can come to terms with the reality of his loss. And if he can manage to reach out of his own social isolation to take it.

His legacy from his grandfather is a beautiful, marvelous and just barely profitable second-hand bookstore. A place that Rintaro has no desire to leave, but he seems to have no option to stay. At least not until the talking cat Tiger the Tabby swaggers out of the back of the bookstore and demands that Rintaro come with him on a journey to save books.

Rintaro loves books and reading. He also has nothing better to do and no motivation to do it. So he follows the cat through the suddenly endless book stacks and emerges into a labyrinth of wonder and danger. He’ll need not just courage and a bit of cunning, but every single drop of his love of reading to save the endangered books – and himself along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this one up for the cat and the books, in that order. Which reminds me that the cat pictured on the US cover does not do Tiger the Tabby justice. The UK cover (pictured at left) does a much better job of giving Tiger his due.

But the story, of course, isn’t really about the cat. It is, however, at least in part about the way that cats – or any companion animals – can save us even from ourselves if we just let them. And the way that books and reading can give us time and space and tools to save ourselves if we let them into our minds just as the cats do when we let them into our hearts.

It’s also a bit of magical realism that leads into a very modern type of fairy tale. Tiger leads Rintaro into a series of labyrinths where books and reading are under assault in the guise of the love of books combined with bowing and scraping to market pressures and other distractions of modern life to save books by means that will, in the end, destroy them.

I think the story does conflate the love of the container – the physical book – with the love of what it contains and the experience of reading. I’m a bit concerned about that as I’m mostly an ebook reader because the genres I read are not widely represented in large print. If I were confined to the physical artifact I’d miss out on the thing I really want out of reading – the immersion in the story that the physical AND the electronic article contain and present for my enjoyment.

I digress just a bit.

What makes The Cat Who Saved Books such a lovely little read, however, is the totality of Rintaro’s journey. Not just the thoughtfully scary labyrinths where books go to die in the name of loving them, but Rintaro’s first steps on that path to adulthood. Because the story is about Rintaro’s chance to choose his life. To stay a socially withdrawn hikikomori, always dependent on someone else to deal with the world he has retreated from, or to take up the reins of the bookstore and his own life and learn to stand on his own. And that’s the part of the story that grabs the heart in its sharp, feline claws.

Because this is a book about books and reading, I can’t resist leaving this review without including a couple of readalikes. Any reader of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld will recognize that the way the back of the bookstore opens into endless shelves means that the store connects to ‘L’ space, the liminal place where all great libraries connect. The Discworld is not at all like The Cat Who Saved Books but that love of reading certainly exists in both places. The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury is another lovely story about someone looking for a purpose who finds it in books and reading and loving them and the people she associates with them. And last but not least, more in tone than in specific, “All the World’s Treasures” by Kimberly Pauley, included in Never Too Old to Save the World, a story about a young woman inheriting a shop from her grandmother and discovering that there are connections to more places and infinitely more treasures than she ever imagined.

Review: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Review: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather FawcettEmily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries (Emily Wilde, #1) by Heather Fawcett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, fantasy romance, historical fantasy
Series: Emily Wilde #1
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on January 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love, in this heartwarming and enchanting fantasy.Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world's first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party--or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.
So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily's research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.
But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones--the most elusive of all faeries--lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she'll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all--her own heart.

My Review:

Emily Wilde is writing/compiling an encyclopedia of all the faerie species in the world. That’s not exactly a spoiler as the title does rather give it away. But what is a surprise and a delight is the story that she tells about herself and her world in the process of researching what will be a weighty reference tome.

Emily’s story isn’t weighty or tome-like at all – even if it does very nearly lead her to her own tomb as she finds herself in the midst of one of the stories of the fae that she intended to merely tell and most definitely not participate in.

Although, considering the vast amount of research she has done in her speciality, she certainly should have known better.

Emily Wilde, PhD, MPhil, BSc, DDe is an Adjunct Professor of Dryadology at Cambridge in this slightly alternate, early 20th century story of fantasy and academe. The alteration to the world is that the study of faeries and the fae has become a real academic discipline, similar in many ways to anthropology and/or sociology, because the fae are real in this world. Hidden, elusive, all-too-frequently dangerous, but entirely real.

Studying them has been Emily Wilde’s lifework for half her life, since she arrived in Cambridge at 15 and is now 30. But the academic tropes feel all too real, as Emily’s trip to remote, frozen Ljosland to add one last chapter to the Encyclopedia on the subject of the equally remote and equally frozen native fae, the Hidden Ones.

The encyclopedia is not just a labor of love, or even just labor. The whole point is for Emily to publish what will be the foundational reference work of her speciality and gain tenure in the process so that she can, in future, remain comfortably in her rooms at Cambridge and study to her heart’s content.

She’s tired of field work, she’s tired of being the lowest person on the academic ladder (adjuncts still get no respect) and she’s tired of dealing with people outside of academic circles. So she goes off to Hrafnsvik, the remotest village in remote Ljosland to finish the work. Alone.

Really alone because she offends the villagers almost as soon as she arrives. Not intentionally, but she’s just not good with people. Or small talk. Or letting anyone help her.

Which is when her best friend, chief nemesis and fellow dryadology scholar, Wendell Bambleby, appears unannounced on her rather Spartan doorstep in very chilly Hrafnsvik and proceeds to turn both her world and her research upside down.

He’s there to protect her from his kin. His dangerous and deadly fae kin. As well as, more than a bit, from herself. And does she ever need it!

Escape Rating A-: Whether readers will fall in love with Emily Wilde’s story depends a lot on whether they fall in love with the meticulous, misanthropic genius that is Emily Wilde herself. This is her diary, so we view nearly all of the events from Emily’s sometimes-blinkered point of view. So if you like her voice, you’ll like her book.

Emily seems a LOT like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series. Both in her obsessive desire to learn ALL THE THINGS, her preference for getting lost in her books and her research, and especially for her inability to even see the real-life consequences of her actions – which I fully admit may come a bit more from fanfiction than from the actual books. But still, Emily is very much a Hermione grown up and slightly oblivious about other people.

Emily is also a bit of Regan Merritt from yesterday’s book, in that she’s not traditionally feminine and for the most part is totally okay with that. She’s used to taking care of herself and finding solutions for herself and most importantly, rescuing herself. She doesn’t fit into any of her society’s boxes that are labeled “female” and she’s at peace with that – if not always with her inability to deal with the unwritten social rules that provide a whole lot of lubrication in dealing with other humans.

It’s obvious from the beginning that Wendell is following Emily because he loves her – even if it’s not obvious to her. At all. On that other hand, it’s been obvious to Emily for quite some time that Wendell is probably fae and in hiding. What makes their interactions so much fun to watch is that he charms everyone – and she resents just how easily people fall for his charm – but he never attempts to charm her. Their relationship, in all its push-pull banter, mutual annoyances and attraction to the opposite, is grounded in who they each really are and not a charmed or better version of themselves.

I particularly loved that this is an academic fantasy that isn’t about dark academe the way that The Atlas Six and Babel are – even though Emily would probably make an excellent ‘Babbler’. At the same time, the story is rooted in some of the darker things about academia in the real world, that place where the politics are so vicious because the stakes can be so damn small. That her world’s academia feels rooted in the real even though the world is not grounds the whole story and lets the reader fully get aboard its flight of dark fantasy.

Because there is darkness here. Not in academia, but in the way that the fae intrude upon and exploit Emily’s real world and the real people within it. What makes Emily’s journey into dark places drag us along with her is that the mistakes she makes that get her into so much trouble are so very human and so much a part of her personality.

So many characters in fiction literally seem ‘Too Stupid to Live’. That’s never Emily. What makes her so easy to empathize with, at least for this reader, is that she believes she’s too smart to be taken in. And she’s almost, but not quite, right.

I adored this as I was reading it. I was charmed from the very beginning and that charm didn’t leave me when I turned the final page. Howsomever, now that I’ve had some time to think about it I’m wondering a bit about exactly how Emily’s and Wendell’s relationship is going to work in the future. He’s essentially immortal and she’s absolutely not. Whether he’s remotely capable of being faithful is a seriously open question. There’s a significant power imbalance just on the academic side even without him being fae. So I’m left with a whole encyclopedia full of questions.

Which means that I’m very pleased that this is billed as the first book in an Emily Wilde series. Hopefully I’ll get to find out the answers to those questions in the not too distant future.

Review: Don’t Open the Door by Allison Brennan

Review: Don’t Open the Door by Allison BrennanDon't Open the Door (Regan Merritt, #2) by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Regan Merritt #2
Pages: 384
Published by Mira on January 24, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“Downright spectacular. A riveting page turner as prescient as it is purposeful.” —Providence Journal on Tell No Lies
A child is shot while playing video games at home. His mother will stop at nothing to find out who did it—and why.
After their ten-year-old son, Chase, was senselessly murdered, Regan's life unraveled. Her corporate lawyer husband, Grant, blamed the death on Regan’s work as a US marshal. Unable to reconcile their grief, they divorced, and Regan quit her job and moved away.
Now she's back after a voice mail from her former boss Tommy said he had important news to share about Chase’s killing. Regan is stunned to learn Tommy is dead too. When she reaches out to Grant, his panicked reaction raises her suspicions. Then a lawyer with ties to her ex also turns up murdered, and the police make Grant their top suspect.
Unsure of his guilt or innocence, Regan risks everything to find Grant before the police do so she can finally get the answers to all that has haunted her since losing Chase. But the truth is not even close to what she imagines—and now she fears she has no one to trust.

My Review:

Former U.S. Marshall Regan Merritt seems to have turned “making lazy and/or corrupt investigators look bad” as her new life’s work. It’s a pity that the cases that bring her skills to bear on her former colleagues come from being much too close to a victim that someone has paid to have whisked under a rug.

Like her 10-year-old son Chase. And now her dead former partner, still a U.S. Marshall, who was looking into her son’s murder. A little too closely for someone else’s comfort.

When we first met Regan Merritt in The Sorority Murder it was a way of easing the reader into the recent tragedies of her life, just as she was easing herself out of the blackest depths of her grief after her little boy’s murder and her subsequent divorce. (Although, honestly, there are PLENTY of reasons why Regan Merritt’s marriage to Grant Warwick was over long before the death of their son – and every single one of them is on display in Don’t Open the Door. OMG the man is a douche. And for once I’m not digressing much at all. Although…my reading group has a metaphorical vat of acid we throw especially asshole-ish characters into on a regular basis. This jerk belongs in that vat!)

We got to know Regan over a case that didn’t have anything to do with her son’s death or the way that the F.B.I. closed it, in her mind very prematurely and with a TON of questions still unanswered. The same thing happened with The Sorority Murder – but as a private citizen Regan is able to turn over rocks and tilt at seeming windmills that finally result in seeing justice done.

So when Regan’s friend and mentor Tommy Granger is murdered after unofficially reopening the case of little Chase Merritt’s murder, Regan is certain – very nearly dead certain, in fact – that Tommy’s death is related to Chase’s, and that she’s not going to let the same damned F.B.I. agents take the easy way out yet again. She’ll just have to retrace Tommy’s steps and rerun his entire search to discover just which rock he turned over and exactly who and what crawled out from under it.

Even if – or perhaps a bit of especially because – it might turn out that her ex-husband is in this mess up to his neck. That perhaps when he blamed Regan’s job for their son’s killing that he already had a sneaking suspicion that it was really all about his own.

Escape Rating A: I read Don’t Open the Door in a single evening for the very same reason I got caught up in The Sorority Murder. I loved following Regan Merritt in her methodical but still compelling investigation. She’s careful, she’s even cautious to a certain extent, but she goes where the evidence takes her – even if she’s not supposed to be the one collecting it and even if it hurts.

I also empathized with the way that she painstakingly processes situations and presents solutions with logic and without much emotion interjected. And I found most people’s – read that as men’s – reactions to that all too realistic. Especially her ex-husband, who always wants everything to be all about him and expects her to have asked for his inclusion at every turn – even in situations where she has all the expertise and he has none. This is just the icing on the shit cake of reasons why their marriage failed.

The other thing that makes Regan such a terrific investigator is that while she trusts her gut instincts, she also verifies those instincts with solid technique. Trust, but verify applies in all sorts of situations, including situations where the person you need to trust is yourself.

The case Regan is attempting to piece together from scattered fragments keeps the reader’s attention – and not just because Regan’s whole heart is in it. It’s clear that Tommy died because he uncovered someone’s dirty secrets. More to the point, he was on the trail of exposing the kind of dirty secrets that are worth killing a U.S. Marshall over – which means they are very dirty, very costly, or more likely both.

Regan’s ex is a high-powered corporate attorney. It is WAY more likely that he saw or heard something that made somebody very important very nervous than that their son’s killer acted alone out of revenge. Somebody paid someone to make a problem go away and that’s not anything of what the F.B.I. decided to believe in order to close a messy case.

Unless someone at the local office is in on it too. Which just means more money and an even messier trail to follow.

So this case starts out personal for Regan, and only gets more so as it goes along. But what keeps us reading is her dogged determination to look out for herself and keep looking for the truth – no matter how many people try to get in her way – or try to get her out of theirs.

In the end, this was a compelling mystery thriller that also had a huge, heaping helping of closure embedded within it. Regan gets her answers – even if they’re not always the answers she wants. She doesn’t get over her son’s death – because one just can’t. (She’s already way past over her divorce.) But she’s turned a HUGE corner, and is looking forward and not just back. It feels like her story is done. I would love to see her in another mystery, because I enjoy the character. But if that never happens, her journey does feel like it has come to an appropriate conclusion and I’m happy with that ending for her.

My first introduction to this author was through Tell No Lies, the second book in her Quinn & Costa series. While we may, or may not, see Regan Merritt again, I’m really looking forward to the next Quinn & Costa thriller, Seven Girls Gone, coming this April.

Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott

Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate ElliottThe Keeper's Six by Kate Elliott
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on January 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Kate Elliott's action-packed The Keeper's Six features a world-hopping, bad-ass, spell-slinging mother who sets out to rescue her kidnapped son from a dragon lord with everything to lose.
There are terrors that dwell in the space between worlds.
It’s been a year since Esther set foot in the Beyond, the alien landscape stretching between worlds, crossing boundaries of space and time. She and her magical travelling party, her Hex, haven’t spoken since the Concilium banned them from the Beyond. But when she wakes in the middle of the night to her son’s cry for help, the members of her Hex are the only ones she can trust to help her bring him back from wherever he has been taken.
Esther will have to risk everything to find him. Undercover and hidden from the Concilium, she and her Hex will be tested by dragon lords, a darkness so dense it can suffocate, and the bones of an old crime come back to haunt her.

My Review:

There’s a popular image in science fiction – fostered by pretty much all of Star Trek (apropos of yesterday’s book) where Earth and Earth humans seem to be the center of the galaxy no matter how many other races and species might populate it.

(And now I’m wondering if that attitude might have been at least part of the reason why Star Trek: Enterprise didn’t do so well. Because it showed us being on the back foot and under someone else’s thumb. I seriously digress.)

But in fantasy, when Earth gets connected to the rest of the ‘verse, whatever that ‘verse might be, we’re often considered a backward place whose population can’t be trusted to accept that we’re not alone, we’re not on top, and we don’t have anything like a manifest destiny at all.

We’re a protectorate – or at least a protected world of some kind. Because most of us can’t handle the truth that is out there and that we’re not in charge of it and never would be.

That’s the situation in the Wayward Children series, particularly in its most recent entry, Lost in the Moment and Found. And it’s very much the case in Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper Chronicles, which the universe of The Keeper’s Six rather strongly resembles – and not just for that.

Daniel Green is a Keeper. Certainly his mother Esther and his spouse Kai would both agree. But in the context of this universe, being a Keeper is a specific and rather uncommon thing to be. Keepers maintain Keeps, and Keeps are the structures that straddle the line between the realm of that place’s “real” world and the dangerous and limitless Beyond that links the worlds together.

The Keeps and their Keepers are essential to maintaining trade routes between the worlds. But Keepers themselves don’t generally travel. Trade is conducted by special groups of talented magic users called Hexes because there are six specific talents required to navigate the Beyond. More than six in any single group invites death and destruction. Less is theoretically possible but likely to get itself killed because the group doesn’t have the necessary when the feces hits the oscillating device.

Esther Green is the Lantern, or light maker, of the freelance Hex that operates out of Daniel’s Keep. But she’s also Daniel’s mother. So when she gets a call that he’s been kidnapped, she drops everything – including the restriction against her Hex returning to the Beyond for ten years – to ride to his rescue.

A rescue that is going to be fraught with even more danger than Esther initially imagined – and she imagined a LOT.

But as Esther and the rest of her Hex get back together to storm the one place they’re not supposed to return to, we get to see just how this world does and doesn’t work, we get introduced to a fascinating group of people and an even more fascinating kind of magic.

While Esther has to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with obstreperous bureaucrats, nefarious smugglers and villainous slave traders while chasing down old clues and new betrayals on her quest to rescue her son from the dragon who thinks that he’s running the show AND Esther.

He’s not. He just doesn’t know it – yet.

Escape Rating A-: Like the author’s previous novella, Servant Mage, The Keeper’s Six introduces us to a world that is much larger than the relatively small slice we get. Howsomever, very much unlike that previous book, The Keeper’s Six feels like it is just the right length for this story. It would be fantastic to have more, and there are certainly hints in what we have that there could be a more at some future point – but we don’t need that more to feel like this story doesn’t come to a lovely and satisfactory conclusion – because it absolutely does.

But this universe is fascinating and seems to have so much more to explore and I’d love to go back. To the point where this is my second reading of the book. I read this for a Library Journal review during the summer and liked it so much that I wanted to visit the world again and liked it even more on the second trip.

Part of what made me pick this back up again was that Esther would fit right into Never Too Old To Save the World, a collection of stories about people in midlife – or a bit later – who get called to be the ‘Chosen One’ for fantasy or SFnal worlds and how their change in fate melds and conflicts – sometimes at the same time – with the life they have already built.

(Never Too Old To Save the World will be out next month. I’ve already read it and it’s wonderful. Review to come!)

Esther is in her mid-60s in The Keeper’s Six. She’s been part of a Hex for most of her adult life, leading expeditions into untracked places, facing untold dangers, never knowing whether she’ll make it back or not. She’s addicted to the adrenaline of the work but aware that her days at it are numbered. The mind and spirit may be willing but time is taking its toll. Her quest has her between the proverbial rock and the opposing hard place. A dragon has kidnapped her son, and what that dragon wants in return is her son’s spouse and the co-parent of their four children.

This dragon eats books – literally not figuratively. But when he does, people – not necessarily humans but people – arise out of nowhere in the midst of his hoard as living representations of the books he’s consumed. I’m amazed and appalled in equal measure – and so is Esther.

There’s just so much going on in The Keeper’s Six. The way the Beyond is stable and unstable at the same time, keeps the Hex on their toes and the reader guessing what will come next. The juxtaposition of the Hex’ utter trust in each other with their interpersonal conflicts makes every situation precarious.

That there are wheels within wheels spinning around their suspension, this quest, the dragon’s questionable motives and their own group dynamics keeps all the plates spinning in their air in a way that kept me riveted through both readings.

The icing on this lovely little cake was that Esther is Jewish and that it wasn’t just window dressing. Her religion and her practice of it mattered both to the story and to the way she conducted herself within it. (That representation also mattered to me on a personal level.) That there is just a touch of romantic possibility between Esther and the dragon’s lieutenant, a man who seems to be the embodiment of the 14th Century Judeo-Persian poet Shahin who wrote about Queen Esther, the biblical queen for whom Esther Green was named provided just the right amount of rueful sweetness in the midst of all the danger and the necessary and important derring do required to fix it.

On top of everything else that made The Keeper’s Six so much fun was the way that it seemed to link to so many other wonderful books. Not just the previously mentioned Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews, Never Too Old to Save the World and Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire, but also Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune and even a bit of The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross. Portal fantasy seems to be having a moment these days, and I’m absolutely here for it. Because I still want my own door to open.

In the end The Keeper’s Six was a terrific story set in a world that I’d love to visit again. But if that never happens I’ll still be very satisfied with the trip I did get to take.

Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings

Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren HutchingsUnder Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 480
Published by Solaris on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven's freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue—until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.
The Gallion's chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five's legendary ship—and the Five's famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.
But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake.

My Review:

When we first encounter the crew of the corporate-owned research ship, The Gallion, they are in the midst of the kind of dilemma that featured on just about every iteration of Star Trek. They’ve lost propulsion and communication, not flying blind because they’re not flying at all, all alone in the black of space.

The ship’s engineers, led by their chief Uma Ozakka, are desperately searching for the cause of their engines’ refusal to restart, reset or just re-anything. Something is suppressing their core power and the ship doesn’t have the equivalent of impulse engines – although their shuttles do.

But they are not alone. They pick up a distress signal from another, much smaller ship. And that’s where the adventure really begins.

The battered cargo ship they rescue, along with its motley-at-best crew, is a legend. But the legendary ship does not seem to contain its legendary crew. It’s also 152 years past its date with destiny. Or the Gallion is the same amount of time early for its normal anything.

Everyone aboard the Gallion believes it’s all a hoax. Buuuut engineer Uma knows all the history – along with most of the conspiracy theories – about the cargo ship Jonah and its crew. Because her dad was fascinated, and as a little girl she followed him everywhere.

And because the Jonah’s story was larger than life. After all, the Jonah and her crew, the Fortunate Five, came out of nowhere and negotiated a lasting peace between the human-centric Union and the alien Felen. A peace that came just in the nick of time to save both races.

Uma is fairly sure that the ship the Gallion has rescued is the real, historical Jonah. Which does not explain why the crew of the Jonah is only about half right at best. Nor does it even begin to explain the series of extremely fortunate coincidences that put the right people in the right place at the right time to save history.

It’s a story that proves that the heroes whose stories can NEVER be told are every bit as necessary as those whom history literally sings about.

Escape Rating A+: I loved Under Fortunate Stars, but then again, I also loved all the TV shows it pays homage to. OTOH, opinion in general seems to be a bit mixed depending on how the reader feels about what seems like an extremely long string of coincidences lining up perfectly to achieve the necessary outcome.

It does seem like an awful lot of surprisingly good luck after both ships have had the awfully bad luck to end up in this situation in the first place. But this is a story about causality and fulfilling the destiny that has been yours all along, and in the end turns into a Möbius strip of a story.

A lot of readers have compared the story to the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, where a ship comes out of a temporal rift in front of Picard’s Enterprise and time suddenly slips sideways. The story of the episode is putting the correct timeline back into place – and it’s a great story.

But it didn’t have to be the Enterprise-D that met the mysterious ship from the temporal rift. A purist is going to come back at me about Tasha Yar, but she didn’t HAVE to go back. The only thing that HAD to happen to restore the timeline was for the Enterprise-C (because of course it was another Enterprise – it’s ALWAYS the Enterprise) to return to its own time to sacrifice itself for a Klingon colony to prevent the war that would otherwise have happened and that the Federation was about to lose.

Under Fortunate Stars is much more about what history records, what it hides, and how the sausage gets made to create heroes out of some very real and extremely flawed people. It’s also a deterministic story as everything that happens has to happen because it’s already happened, ad infinitum if very much not ad nauseum. The closing of this 152-year time loop also contains its opening.

What makes the story so much fun to read are not the ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey’ bits, but, of course, the characters. Uma Ozakka, the one who knows the history best, is expecting to meet bright, shiny heroes just like the images of the Fortunate Five that seem to be everywhere – including in multiple places aboard the Gallion. Who she meets, however, are people with some very dark pasts and some very big regrets, coming from a time when the aliens that have since made peace with humanity are a bitter enemy. They don’t want to become the ‘Fortunate Five’. Initially they want to take back any future technology they can pick up and destroy the hated, dreaded Felen.

The central characters of the whole thing turn out to be Jereth Keeven, the captain of the Jonah, who first of all isn’t the captain that history recorded and secondly is a con man on an epic scale. But he’s also Han Solo, complete with Han’s marshmallow heart under that tough, mercenary exterior. Eldric Leesongronski, the man who should be captain – at least according to history – is a mathematical genius filled with angst and far from the shining example of pretty much everything that Uma expects. Then there’s Uma herself, overqualified for her job, battling corporate bureaucracy as much as the temporal anomaly they have found themselves in, watching in real-time as her lifelong heroes display feet of clay up to their knees.

The way that the story bounces around in both time and point of view lets the reader see just how all the pieces get put together, leading to a finish that should be in the history books – and kinda is but also very much kinda isn’t. Just as it was. Just as it should be.

Under Fortunate Stars is the author’s debut novel, and it’s a surprise and a delight. I’m so very glad I read it, and I expect great things from her in her future work.

Reviewer’s Note: The popular comparison is between Under Fortunate Stars and ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, but IMHO the true comparison is between Under Fortunate Stars and the first three seasons of Babylon 5. There’s something set up in the PILOT of B5 that picks up weight and intention in the middle of the first season, at the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, and then finally pays off in the middle of the third season showing that all the history of the universe that we’ve seen so far was set up a millennia ago by someone who travels back in time with a stolen space station and a device that lets him change from a human into the founding leader and philosopher of another race entirely. Now that’s causality and a really BIG time loop!)

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. BeagleThe Last Unicorn (The Last Unicorn, #1) by Peter S. Beagle
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Last Unicorn #1
Pages: 320
Published by Ace Books on June 26, 2022 (first published January 1, 1968)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

She was magical, beautiful beyond belief—and completely alone...
The unicorn had lived since before memory in a forest where death could touch nothing. Maidens who caught a glimpse of her glory were blessed by enchantment they would never forget. But outside her wondrous realm, dark whispers and rumours carried a message she could not ignore: "Unicorns are gone from the world."
Aided by a bumbling magician and an indomitable spinster, she set out to learn the truth. but she feared even her immortal wisdom meant nothing in a world where a mad king's curse and terror incarnate lived only to stalk the last unicorn to her doom...

My Review:

The story of The Last Unicorn can be summed up simply. A unicorn, happy alone in her special forest, hears from a passing human that all the unicorns are gone, and she realizes that she’s the last one left. So she goes out to find them.

In other words, the short and bittersweet summation is that The Last Unicorn is a quest story. But saying that is like saying that The Princess Bride is a romance. It’s a completely true statement that manages to leave out all the important bits as well as all the things that make the story so great and wonderful and so much worth reading and/or seeing. The whole is so very much greater than the short summary of its parts.

There is something about The Last Unicorn that does remind me of The Princess Bride that I can’t quite put into words, but is still true. They use language and fantasy in similar ways and both are awesome. If you loved one I think you’ll love the other. But I digress a bit.

Howsomever, The Princess Bride, in all of its wonderfulness, has a happy ending – no matter how much it middles in some very dark places.

The Last Unicorn, so very much on my other hand, ends on the bitter side of that sweet. Good does conquer evil, but in that triumph there are so very many regrets. It’s an ending that is very fitting while leaving both the reader and the characters looking back at what might have been with sadness and more than a bit of longing.

It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, and it’s as perfect a story in its own way as The Princess Bride is in its. Read it and quite possibly weep, but read it all the same.

Escape Rating A+: The Last Unicorn is a fantasy classic. Seriously. It’s on every single list of fantasy canon for the 20th century and probably for all time. To the point where I assumed I must have read it back in the day, because it came out in 1968 and I read a hella lotta fantasy in the 1970s. I KNOW I read the author’s first novel, A Fine and Private Place, back then, but it turns out that I hadn’t read The Last Unicorn until now.

And oh what a wonderful story I’ve been missing all these years!

While the unicorn starts out her quest alone, she doesn’t remain that way. In her travels she picks up two companions, Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue. Schmendrick is a wizard looking for his magic, while Molly is searching for the woman she might have been.

They run headlong, or are herded into, or a bit of both, a king who has spent a life searching for something to interest him – but has never found it because the fault, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” He is the rock on which all their quests crash and very nearly burn.

There is just so much in The Last Unicorn. It’s the kind of story that sinks deep into the reader’s soul and doesn’t leave. I’m so glad I finally read it and hope that you will be intrigued enough to do so as well.

It’s also the kind of story that isn’t quite done, no matter how many years pass between visits. There are two followup novellas set in the world of The Last Unicorn, “Two Hearts” and “Sooz”. “Two Hearts” has been previously published but “Sooz” is brand new. The two have been gathered together in a single volume, The Way Home, which will be out in early April, just in time for my birthday. And a better birthday book present I couldn’t possibly imagine.

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellanIn the Shadow of Lightning (Glass Immortals, #1) by Brian McClellan
Narrator: Damian Lynch
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Glass Immortals #1
Pages: 576
Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From Brian McClellan, author of The Powder Mage trilogy, comes the first novel in the Glass Immortals series, In the Shadow of Lightning, an epic fantasy where magic is a finite resource—and it’s running out.
"Excellent worldbuilding and a truly epic narrative combine into Brian's finest work to date. Heartily recommended to anyone who wants a new favorite fantasy series to read."—Brandon Sanderson

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out.
Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.
"Powerful rival families, murderous conspiracies, epic battles, larger-than-life characters, and magic."—Fonda Lee, author of The Green Bone Saga
"Engaging, fast-paced and epic."—James Islington, author of In The Shadow of What Was Lost
"Clever, fun, and by turns beautifully bloody, In the Shadow of Lightning hits like a bolt through a stained glass window."—Megan E. O'Keefe, author of Chaos Vector

My Review:

As the story opens, Demir Grappo is Icarus, and we see him in the moment of his spectacular fall. A cocky young genius both in politics and on the battlefield, we catch him just at the moment when he learns that someone has decided that he has flown too close to the sun – and that it is time to clip his wings. Or burn them.

It’s a broken man who slinks away from that battlefield, covered in disgrace where there should have been glory. To say that Demir plans to hide in the lowest and meanest places he can find is a bit of an overstatement. We’d call it a psychotic break. He just runs away from his shame and his responsibilities.

Nine years later the young man is a bit older, even sadder, and doesn’t see himself as any wiser at all. He is doing a better job of getting through the days, but he has no plans, no hopes, no dreams beyond doing that for another day.

Until an old friend finds him in the back of beyond, to tell Demir that has mother Adriana Grappo, the Matriarch of the Grappo guild family, has been assassinated. And that Demir is now Patriarch, if he is willing to take up the mantle, the reins, and the responsibility he left behind.

He’ll go home to protect his guild family and hunt down his mother’s killers. Even on his worst day – and he’s had plenty of them in the intervening years – he’d be able to smell the stink of a coverup no matter how far away he was from the seething cesspit of politics and corruption that is the capital of the Ossan Empire.

Demir is willing to tear the Empire down to get the truth. Little does he know that the plot he plans to uncover will require him to save it – whether it deserves it or not.

Escape Rating A+: “Glassdamn.” It rolls easily through the mind, or trippingly off the tongue, as though it’s an epithet that we’ve always used – or at least could have if we’d had a mind to. And glassdamnit but this is a terrific story.

It’s “glassdamn” because the scientific sorcery that powers the story and the world it explores is based on the use of specifically tuned, resonating glass to provide its power. While there are multiple religions in the world none of the deities or pantheons rule much of anything. Glass is king, queen and knave and everyone swears by it and at it and about it all day long.

Glassdamn, indeed.

The title is a bit of a pun. Our protagonist, if not necessarily or always our hero, Demir Grappo, spends the entire story living in the shadow of the political and glass dancer prodigy “The Lightning Prince” – his own former self, the self that he has been running from for all these years. Demir and the man he once was are going to have to come to some kind of resolution if he is going to have even half a chance at fixing everything that’s wrong with Ossa, with his guild family, with sorcery and especially with himself. It’s difficult to tell which will be the hardest job.

The story is told from several perspectives, so that the reader is able to see what’s happening over the vast sprawling canvas that is this first book in a protected trilogy. While we follow Demir, we also have a chance to see the Ossan empire from other points of view, including the childhood friends he brings back to the capital to help him in both his quest and his more mundane work, the master craftswoman he partners with in order to carry out his mother’s last request, and his uncle Tadeus, an officer in Ossa’s much vaunted Foreign Legion, an army that takes nearly as big a fall as Demir once did.

They may rise together – or they may discover that the game is beyond them all. It’s a question that is not yet answered when the story concludes. Which is utterly fitting for the first book in a trilogy. I just wish I had an inkling of when the second book is going to be available, because this is a story that left me with a terrible book hangover. I can’t wait to go back.

One of the things that both sucked me in and drove me crazy about In the Shadow of Lightning, but which also explains why I liked it so glassdamn much, is the sheer number of recent stories it reminded me of, as well as one long-loved classic and, surprisingly, a videogame.

Throwing Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham, Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford, and Isolate by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. into an industrial-strength book blender will get you close to the feel of In the Shadow of Lightning. All are stories of empires that have already rotted from the head down. All have ‘magic’ that is treated scientifically, to the point where their worlds are all much closer to steampunk than to epic fantasy – which doesn’t stop all of them from BEING epic fantasy anyway. None of them are about classic contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’; instead all are about people attempting to turn back the tide of the type of evil that results from power corrupting. These series starters are not exactly like each other, but they all ‘feel’ very similar and if you like one you’ll probably get equally immersed in one of the others.

The individual character of Demir Grappo, that mercurial broken genius, appearing as antihero considerably more often than hero, trying to save as much as he can and willing to sacrifice whatever it takes into the bargain, recalled a character from a much different time and place, but whose story was still conducted over a sprawling canvas. If you’ve ever read the Lymond Chronicles (start with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett, Demir is very much in Lymond’s mold – and it was a bit heartbreaking to watch Demir making entirely too many of the same mistakes and sacrifices. I’m also wondering if he’s going to face some of Lymond’s desperate compromises and am trepidatiously looking forward to finding out.

And for anyone who has played the Dragon Age series of videogames, the corrupt guild family political power brokering – as well as the open use of assassination as a political tool – bears a surprisingly sharp resemblance to the Antivan Crows. I half expected someone to leave a message that “the Crows send their regards,” because they most certainly would, with respect upfront and a knife in the back.

The audio made that last bit even more evocative because the narrator did one hell of a job with all the accents. He also told a damn good story, giving the feeling that we were in each character’s head when it was their turn “on stage”, and making each and every voice distinct. AND he managed to put me so completely inside both Demir’s and Tessa’s heads that I would have to stop for a few minutes because I could tell that whatever was coming next was going to be awful, and I cared so much that I almost couldn’t bear to experience it so closely with them.

So, if you enjoy big sprawling epics, whether fantasy or SF, In the Shadow of Lightning is just the kind of world-spanning, world-shattering, monsterful and wonderful binge read just waiting to happen!

I can’t wait for that glassdamned second book in the trilogy. I really, really can’t.

Review: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan

Review: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel MonaghanNora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 272
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Nora's life is about to get a rewrite...
Nora Hamilton knows the formula for love better than anyone. As a romance channel screenwriter, it's her job. But when her too-good-to work husband leaves her and their two kids, Nora turns her marriage's collapse into cash and writes the best script of her life. No one is more surprised than her when it's picked up for the big screen and set to film on location at her 100-year-old-home. When former Sexiest Man Alive, Leo Vance, is cast as her ne'er do well husband Nora's life will never be the same.
The morning after shooting wraps and the crew leaves, Nora finds Leo on her porch with a half-empty bottle of tequila and a proposition. He'll pay a thousand dollars a day to stay for a week. The extra seven grand would give Nora breathing room, but it's the need in his eyes that makes her say yes. Seven days: it's the blink of an eye or an eternity depending on how you look at it. Enough time to fall in love. Enough time to break your heart.
Filled with warmth, wit, and wisdom, Nora Goes Off Script is the best kind of love story--the real kind where love is complicated by work, kids, and the emotional baggage that comes with life. For Nora and Leo, this kind of love is bigger than the big screen.

My Review:

This initially anti-romantic Nora actually writes those made-for-TV-sponsored-greeting-card-company romances that the Nora in yesterday’s book initially believed cast her as an unfeeling villain in every single outing. Unlike the romances that either of them reads, writes, agents or even watches, the particular script that this Nora is dealing with when this story begins is the story of her own life, and it’s about to be filmed in her very own picturesque but slightly run down home.

Or rather, it’s about to be filmed on her lawn and in “The Tea House” on the grounds where she does her writing. It’s a bit of art imitates life imitates art, as that Tea House was her emotional escape from an emotionally abusive but otherwise absent husband. It was the place where she wrote the scripts that literally kept their life afloat – because the asshole was just too “good” – at least by his own definition – to go out and get a damn job to contribute to the household.

Which also wasn’t good enough for him in any way, shape or form. Not Nora, and not their two kids. So he upped and left and she was actually pretty damn happy about it. She chose not to be a victim of any of her circumstances, and that’s her story and it sold and it’s being filmed and just the fees from using her house for part of the movie shoot is going to get her out of the debt the asshat left her in.

But her asshat ex is being played by the Sexiest Man Alive, and Nora is just a bit smitten. Or at least her fantasy life has suddenly taken on some new dimensions. Still, Leo Vance’s invasion of her life and occasionally her house is just a bit of excitement in her otherwise pretty ordinary and pretty contented life.

And she can’t wait for the film crew to be gone so she can get back to writing. But when the film crew leaves, Leo decides to stay. And stay. And STAY.

That’s where what was merely a blip – although a pretty damn big blip – of excitement turns into a whole lot more. Leo doesn’t just camp out in her tea house, he becomes part of her life and the lives of her two kids, Arthur and Bernadette. In a few short weeks, they become a family.

It’s easy for all of them to fall for him. He’s more involved in all their lives than the asshat EVER was. And it’s not an act. He’s not playing a part. So when Nora and Leo finally give in to the simmering tension between them, it seems like something that shouldn’t be possible might be possible after all. They might, just maybe and possibly, have some kind of future. No matter how much that seems like a fairytale.

But just when they do – they don’t. Leo gets a call, jets off to LA and then to Asia to film a big movie, and he ghosts the whole family. He misses all the things he promised he’d come back for and just disappears out of their lives if not out of their hearts.

Howsomever, this isn’t Nora’s first time on this particular merry-go-round. She wasn’t a victim before, and she isn’t going to be one now. She knows what to do. She writes her pain. She picks up the pieces and moves on. She survives.

It’s then, and only then, that the truths finally come out. The only question is whether or not it’s too late.

Escape Rating A: I fell into this one nearly as hard as I did Book Lovers, and that’s saying a lot. The two romances have a lot in common, particularly in the way that they both mix in a lot of relationship elements. Because this isn’t just a romance between the scriptwriter and the actor, it’s also a love story about the actor and the scriptwriter’s kids. They have to be able to become, not just a couple but actually a family in order for this to even possibly work.

And Nora is as surprised as anyone – if not a bit more so – that it might possibly work. So she’s not surprised at all when it doesn’t. Heartbroken this time around, but not surprised.

One of the things that makes celebrity romances so much fun – especially when they work as well as this one does, is that we’ve probably all had that daydream at least once or twice – if not a whole lot more times. It’s not remotely likely or even plausible, but it’s fun to dream.

But to make it work as in a novel that dream has to at least seem like it might possibly come true in this one particular case. (Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, both by Olivia Dade, also play with this idea but in a completely different way.) And it does seem to be working in Nora Goes Off Script – at least from Nora’s perspective.

Howsomever, because the story is told entirely from Nora’s point of view, we get why it works but we also see exactly how much she questions whether the relationship has ANY long term potential whatsoever. She knows she wants it to, but she’s realistic about wondering whether it can. That we don’t see things from Leo’s point of view means that we share her doubts and totally get why, when he disappears it’s disappointing but not as surprising as either she – or we – want it to be.

(Some of the folks in my reading circle saw these events as a giant misunderstandammit. While it’s true that the mess might have been cleared up by a conversation or a series of texts in their particular case, because of the agency in the middle of things it was easy to see that that conversation actually couldn’t happen. YMMV, as theirs obviously did.)

That all of Nora’s justified angst does lead to both another big money script sold to Hollywood AND to an HEA without her having to compromise a thing – because she shouldn’t – was a surprise and a delight. The ending fed the fantasy in a way that made this reader end the book with a big smile on my face – although probably not as big a smile as the one on Nora’s daughter Bernadette’s face.

Nora Goes Off Script is the author’s debut adult novel, although she has previously published both YA fiction and grown-up nonfiction. I’m so very happy that there is more where this one came from, and I’m looking forward to reading her sophomore adult romance, Same Time Next Summer, coming out THIS summer!

Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Review: Book Lovers by Emily HenryBook Lovers by Emily Henry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 377
Published by Berkley on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn't see coming....
Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.
Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.
If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

My Review:

When it comes to Happy Ever Afters, one size definitely doesn’t fit all – even if a certain ubiquitous type of romance movie leads you to believe it does.

You know the ones I mean, on the channel created by the equally ubiquitous greeting card company, where a City Person™ is forced by circumstance to spend a month (or two) in a (very) small town and discovers true love, happiness and fulfillment in the welcoming embrace of that small town and particularly in the arms of one of the handsomest or most beautiful people who loves the place and everyone in it that all that love converts the City Person into a country person.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about the city people that former City Person left behind back in the big city. Because there’s always someone in that city who they were supposed to marry as soon as they got back – which they never do. Whether that other City Person just doesn’t really understand or love them after all, or whether that person is the reincarnation of Cruella de Vil (whether male or female, doesn’t matter), that person who thought they knew where their life was going and who it was going with is left in the lurch, scrambling to put things back together.

Nora Stephens has been that ‘left behind’ person four times now. She’s a highly respected, perhaps just a teensy bit cutthroat book editor who will do anything and everything for her clients – but doesn’t leave much time, energy or effort for herself. She’s been left behind in love so many times that she’s given up on the idea.

The one person in her life that she always makes time for – even if not nearly fast enough or often enough – the one person she loves without reservation is her younger sister Libby. So when Libby entreats, inveigles and somewhat emotionally manipulates Nora into taking a vacation, together, just the two of them, away from Nora’s all-consuming job and Libby’s beloved husband and two little girls, Nora caves. Pretty much instantly. Libby has that effect on her.

Nora can sense there’s something that Libby’s not telling her. And whatever it is, she needs to get to the bottom of it so she can fix it for her sister. Because that’s what Nora always does, one way or another.

Because she can’t fix the one thing that both of them want more than anything. She can’t bring back the mother who died and left her girls behind. So she’ll give everything else instead. Including her own dreams of a Happy Ever After.

Unless, just this once, Libby can fix things so that it’s Nora who finally gets to have it all. While still managing to remain that City Person> But finally a City Person with her very own, fitted just for her, HEA.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one for all the reasons that made Nora’s HEA seem so impossible to her at the beginning. Because her HEA fits her and doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold. And I loved her for it every bit as her sometimes-nemesis (but not really) does. So there’s a reason Book Lovers won so many plaudits and was on so many “Best of the Year” lists and I’m there for every single one of them.

The story is a bit meta, but in a terrific way. It’s a book about romance tropes and a romance between two people who love books, fall for each other, and have a romance that appears to be casting against all those romance tropes, only to learn that they’ve been happening while they haven’t been looking at anything but each other.

There’s also a bit of a relationship fiction/women’s fiction/chick lit story going on very much in the foreground of the story, as the only long-term relationship in Nora Stephens’ life isn’t a romance – because she’s been avoiding those or failing at them (or a bit of both) – right, left and center.

The sustaining relationship in Nora’s life is her love for her younger sister Libby. Normally, I don’t like misunderstandammits, but it’s fascinating in this book because the misunderstandammit in Book Lovers isn’t in Nora’s very slowing brewing romance with Charlie Lastra, but rather with her sister Libby.

There’s something wrong between them, and Nora knows it but doesn’t know what it is. Libby’s keeping something important from her, but she doesn’t know what that is, either. It’s only when the blowup actually happens that we – and Nora – finally understand why it needed to happen. AND why it had to reach such a huge boiling point so that Nora could finally hear it instead of trying to fix it. That what it’s about is so very real was a big part of why this book was just so damn good.

This is a story with not just one beating heart for the romance, but actually two – one for the romance and one for their sisterhood. It gives the story the kind of balance that it needs to make it work. Because Nora can’t be truly happy unless things are alright with Libby, which can’t happen until Nora stops playing “mom” so she can just live being “sister”.

And then there’s the romance. As much as the romance in this story doesn’t fit a lot of the usual tropes as Nora describes them early on, it does fall very nicely into the enemies to lovers trope. Not that Nora and Charlie Lastra ever were truly enemies. They’re not rivals or competitors in any way. They just met on what turned out to be a terrible day for each of them. Every single word of their entire conversation wasn’t heard without being filtered through their respective miseries. They gave each other good snark but just couldn’t get past their own admittedly terrible crap to see the person on the other side of the table.

Two years later, unbeknownst to each other, in the middle of trips that they’ve each been separately strong-armed into, they run into each other in the tiny town of Sunshine Falls, NC, to discover that their enmity isn’t really all that strong, but their bantering snarkitude is excellent.

It’s not every couple who gets to say they bonded over truly terrible Bigfoot erotica. But when you’re both book lovers, the bad ones are THE MOST FUN to giggle over. Together. (If there’s any truly great Bigfoot erotica I doubt that either of them would want to know. And neither do I.)

I loved Book Lovers very, very hard. Which means I’m now very much looking forward to the author’s next romance with relationships story, Happy Place. It’s coming in April so happily I don’t have that long to wait!

Review: City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita

Review: City Under One Roof by Iris YamashitaCity Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on January 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stranded detective tries to solve a murder in a tiny Alaskan town where everyone lives in a single high-rise building, in this gripping debut by an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter.
When a local teenager discovers a severed hand and foot washed up on the shore of the small town of Point Mettier, Alaska, Cara Kennedy is on the case. A detective from Anchorage, she has her own motives for investigating the possible murder in this isolated place, which can be accessed only by a tunnel.
After a blizzard causes the tunnel to close indefinitely, Cara is stuck among the odd and suspicious residents of the town—all 205 of whom live in the same high-rise building and are as icy as the weather. Cara teams up with Point Mettier police officer Joe Barkowski, but before long the investigation is upended by fearsome gang members from a nearby native village.
Haunted by her past, Cara soon discovers that everyone in this town has something to hide. Will she be able to unravel their secrets before she unravels?"

My Review:

When teenage resident Amy Lin finds hacked off human body parts along the shore, it’s more than a bit gruesome but it’s not exactly unusual. It is for Amy personally, but not in the grand scheme of life on the Last Frontier. “Death by Alaska” is a real phenomenon, where people die by doing stupid things that might be survivable in the Lower 48 but just are not in a place where humans are often the prey of both the wildlife and the weather.

(We lived in Anchorage for three years. Reading a newspaper story about a missing person identified through bear scat was not an uncommon occurrence.)

Amy and a group of her friends only found one hand and one foot encased in a boot. Not enough to identify or to determine cause of death. It looked like death by misadventure, part of a string of such cases washing up on shore up and down the coast.

But Anchorage PD Detective Cara Kennedy looks at the report and sees something that might be a link to the tragic deaths of her husband and young son just the year before. She heads to Point Mettier with her scene of crime investigation kit to see the actual scenes of the crime and interview the people involved in this case that everyone in Point Mettier believes is open and shut and dead and buried.

Just like the case of Cara’s family.

Cara’s investigation throws a gigantic monkey wrench into what “everybody knew”. First she finds the dead man’s head, buried in a local woman’s barn. Now the local two-man (literally) police department has something that can be identified as well as a clear cause of death. Somebody shot whoever-he-was.

Now everyone wants to see the back of Cara after she’s just reopened this truly messy can of worms (not that worms have actually gotten to the head in the middle of an Alaska winter). Cara wants to put Point Mettier in her rearview mirror, believing that this case, as terrible and terribly confusing as it might be, has no relationship to her family’s deaths.

But the tunnel has been closed by a raging storm, and Cara is forced to remain in Point Mettier with all those people she’s just seriously pissed off – and most likely a murderer as well. If not a whole damn conspiracy of people who are never going to trust the outsider stuck in their midst.

Their distrust may be justified, but in their collective desire to keep Cara in the dark it becomes clear that something, or someone, is hiding in that darkness as well – and that they are way more dangerous than anyone wants to believe.

Escape Rating A-: There’s a real “City Under One Roof” – Whittier, Alaska. Which is intended to sound a lot like Point Mettier, Alaska, the setting of the story. If it all sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because there were several stories about it on TV after one of the residents posted a series of TikTok videos about life in Whittier that went viral in 2021.

While Point Mettier is explicitly NOT Whittier, it does sit in the same geographic position as the real town, has the same weather, and the same single-point of access via a tunnel that shuts down at night and when the weather gets really awful. So it isn’t the real place exactly, but perhaps its twin. Not its evil twin, but absolutely a twin where evil happens.

Which leads back around to this mystery thriller. Just follow Denny the moose as he’s led around town on his leash.

Although Cara certainly finds a lot more clues by following Denny’s person, Lonnie – including that sawed off head that kicks the whole case into gear – frozen or otherwise.

As unusual as the Point Mettier setting is, the mystery has a lot of the hallmarks of a more typical small-town mystery even if Point Mettier is not exactly a typical small town. Because in some ways it still very much is.

The 300 permanent residents all know each other, whether they like each other or not on any given day, week, or month. They literally live in each other’s pockets, think they know of all each other’s secrets, and certainly are entirely too familiar with each other’s quirks and foibles. They are also all up in each other’s business whether they want to be or not.

So it’s not a surprise, either to Cara or to the reader, that the local residents are keeping all kinds of secrets from the outsider. It’s not implausible that there’s a coverup going on, whether of the murder, of the disposal of the corpse, of something illegal but completely unrelated, or all of the above. Cara knows there are secrets, and is sure she’s going to have to watch and wait and hope that someone will finally trust her enough to let her in on the ones she needs to know before the killer strikes again.

What she finds isn’t what she expected – but if it was there wouldn’t be much of a story. And there most definitely is a compelling story. While there is much about Point Mettier that strikes similar chords to other small town mysteries, the claustrophobic, isolated nature of Point Mettier added plenty of unique twists and turns every single shivering step of the way to whodunnit.

One of the things that I both really enjoyed about the story and that drove me a bit crazy as it was happening was just how much of the story is wrapped around Cara simply getting to know the residents. It was necessary but it was also more than a bit of the showcase of the quirky. Everyone had a personal secret, everyone seemed to be marching to the beat of a drummer who was marching out of step with the outside world but really in tune locally. It seemed like Point Mettier had become a haven for people who didn’t quite fit into even the rest of Alaska, which itself is a bit of an off the beaten path place to live.

I particularly liked the way that the mystery managed to both hinge on the kind of outsider that everyone in a small town mystery WANTS to have been the perpetrator while at the same time also feeding into the whole small town covers each other’s secrets trope. That was particularly well done.

On my other hand, I’m not totally sure the slow burn romance between Cara and one of the local cops was completely necessary. The story was plenty compelling without wondering will they/won’t they.

And very much on my third, possibly frostbitten, hand, the explosive revelation at the end leaves the door open for more mysteries featuring Cara Kennedy as the detective – even if Point Mettier isn’t the setting. There’s plenty of room for another female detective in Alaska like Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak (start with A Cold Day for Murder). I’ll be very curious to see if Cara Kennedy will be back, and in the meantime I think I’ll check out what Kate has been up to.