Grade A #BookReview: Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen Cambridge

Grade A #BookReview: Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen CambridgeMastering the Art of French Murder (An American In Paris, #1) by Colleen Cambridge
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: culinary mystery, foodie fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: American in Paris Mystery #1
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on April 25, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Marie Benedict, Nita Prose, and of course, Julia Child, will adore this magnifique new mystery set in Paris and starring Julia Child’s (fictional) best friend, confidante, and fellow American. From the acclaimed author of Murder at Mallowan Hall , this delightful new book provides a fresh perspective on the iconic chef’s years in post-WWII Paris.
“Enchanting…Cambridge captures Child’s distinct voice and energy so perfectly. Expect to leave this vacation hoping for a return trip.” – Publishers Weekly
As Paris rediscovers its joie de vivre, Tabitha Knight, recently arrived from Detroit for an extended stay with her French grandfather, is on her own journey of discovery. Paris isn’t just the City of Light; it’s the city of history, romance, stunning architecture . . . and food. Thanks to her neighbor and friend Julia Child, another ex-pat who’s fallen head over heels for Paris, Tabitha is learning how to cook for her Grandpère and Oncle Rafe.
Between tutoring Americans in French, visiting the market, and eagerly sampling the results of Julia’s studies at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, Tabitha’s sojourn is proving thoroughly delightful. That is, until the cold December day they return to Julia’s building and learn that a body has been found in the cellar. Tabitha recognizes the victim as a woman she’d met only the night before, at a party given by Julia’s sister, Dort. The murder weapon found nearby is recognizable too—a knife from Julia’s kitchen.
Tabitha is eager to help the investigation, but is shocked when Inspector Merveille reveals that a note, in Tabitha’s handwriting, was found in the dead woman’s pocket. Is this murder a case of international intrigue, or something far more personal? From the shadows of the Tour Eiffel at midnight, to the tiny third-floor Child kitchen, to the grungy streets of Montmartre, Tabitha navigates through the city hoping to find the real killer before she or one of her friends ends up in prison . . . or worse.
“Part historical fiction, part mystery, Mastering the Art of French Murder is totally delectable entertainment.” – The Washington Post
“Certain to appeal to a broad readership, especially fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, and Cambridge’s own Phyllida Bright series.” –First Clue, STARRED REVIEW

My Review:

‘Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it’s done right. Even a pancake.” So said the real Julia Child, whose larger-than-life fictional persona has barged into the life of her neighbor in Paris, fellow expat Tabitha Knight, just a few months before a murder in Julia’s building bangs into both of their lives.

It’s the murder of a very recent guest in the apartment shared by Julia, her husband Paul Child, her sister Dorothy (Dort) McWilliams on the “Roo de Loo” as Julia called it. A murder committed with one of Julia’s distinctive chef’s knives, making Julia, at least initially, the prime suspect in this tragedy.

But Julia is not the amateur sleuth – she was too busy with what became her lifelong obsession, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” as evidenced by the title of her first cookbook.

The amateur sleuthing is left to Tabitha Knight, a former “Rosie the Riveter” living across the street with her elderly French grandfather and her honorary “oncle”, his equally elderly best friend (and probably lover).

Tabitha and Julia have already bonded over their shared infatuation with French food and French cooking – the difference being that Julia is already extremely capable at that art while Tabitha is lucky not to burn or otherwise ruin the meals she attempts to make for her elderly ‘messieurs’ and their two spoiled pets, Oscar Wilde the tiny papillon dog and Madame X the slinky cat.

But the murder isn’t merely a curiosity for either of the women. The victim died just after leaving a party in Julia’s apartment, a guest of Julia’s sister Dort, killed by one of Julia’s knives. Tabitha rode down in the elevator with the woman, and was the last to speak with her other than her killer.

The police, in the steely-eyed persona of Inspecteur Merveille, seem convinced that either Julia or Tabitha committed the foul deed. Or so it seems to Tabitha, who grew up on a steady reading diet of Nancy Drew and other mystery stories as well as her police detective father brought home. Julia is just certain – and Julia was always certain if she was anything at all – that Tabitha will be able to solve the murder ahead of the police – and pushes her into trying.

Not that it takes much arm twisting to get Tabitha on the case. A case that leads from one murder, to a second, and a third – and even a first before the one that dragged Tabitha and Julia into the mess. A mess that, surprising to everyone but the two old men yearning for Julia’s cooking rather than Tabitha’s, leads back to the war late war in which they all, in their own way, served.

And the colder war that has just begun.

Escape Rating A: First, and most important, this was an absolutely charming, utterly lovely read as well as a captivating mystery. The way that evokes post-World War II Paris, just as the lights came back on in the City of Light draws the reader and keeps them mesmerized every step of Tabitha’s way.

And I could hear Julia Child’s voice in my head in every single bit of her dialog. She was such an iconic figure in the 60s and 70s, and so ubiquitous in seemingly EVERY promo that PBS broadcast during those decades, that even though I never watched any of her programs I STILL heard her distinctive voice every single time she barged into a scene. The character as fictionalized sounded and behaved very much as at least her public persona did and swept the reader along in her wake.

But Julia was not the star of this show, no matter how often she seemed to hold center stage in any individual scene. That honor – even if she didn’t always see it as an honor – was reserved for Julia’s fictional friend and neighbor, Tabitha Knight.

And Tabitha turned out to be a terrific point-of-view character for this story. She’s impish, impulsive and intelligent, and can’t resist being the fool who rushes into a crime scene where police have barred the way and angels rightfully fear to tread.

As much as the blurbs for this book invoke Jacqueline Winspear and her Maisie Dobbs, the character that Tabitha reminds this reader of is Mabel Canning in her first outing, A Body on the Doorstep. Both Tabitha and Mabel’s stories are set just after the ending of a World War, although not the same war, at a point where their worlds are changing and new possibilities are opening up even as others close down. Both young women choose to uproot themselves from the familiar and chart a new course for their lives, and are still in the exploratory stage of that new life and new opportunities.

And both have a fortunate knack – one that often seems unfortunate as it occurs – of tripping over murder victims and being unable to resist poking their own noses into investigations that should be left to the police.

At the same time, Tabitha’s post-war Paris is a place that, if given the opportunity at the right time, It’s almost impossible not to imagine taking that opportunity and running with it to a new life in a storied city just as it is coming back into its own after the darkness of war.

The secondary characters introduced in this first book do an excellent job of drawing the reader into and filling out the corners or Tabitha’s Paris, from her charming, elderly messieurs, their equally idiosyncratic pets, the even more idiosyncratic members of the Child household, to the implacable, unreadable Inspecteur Étienne Merveille, who looks like he will become both a thorn in Tabitha’s side – and vice versa – in the books ahead.

If not, perhaps, something more.

And then there’s Julia Child herself, much too boisterous to ever be considered merely a secondary character and certainly not a sidekick, who draws readers in with her true-to-life mannerism, her real, documented history working for the OSS in the war, and her larger-than-life presence on so many wonderful pages of this story.

The alchemy of all of the above makes this reader so very glad that a second book in this An American in Paris series, A Murder Most French, will be coming out in April. I’m anticipating its arrival with nearly as much pleasure as Tabitha’s messieurs look forward to their next delicious repast from the kitchen of Madame Child.

It’s impossible to leave this story behind without one final word from that famous chef. Fortunately for the fictional Julia Child, this quote postdates her post-War years by a considerable margin. If this had been attributed to her at the time, Tabitha might have had considerably more difficulty convincing the Inspecteur that Julia was not guilty of the murder.

According to Julia Child, “The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded, and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit.”

TLC

TLC tour schedule:

Monday, February 19th: @books_old_and_new

Tuesday, February 20th: @diveintoagoodbook

Tuesday, February 20th: @suethebookie

Wednesday, February 21st: @mrsj_readsbooks

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Friday, March 1st: @whatkarinareads

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Sunday, March 3rd: @lyon.brit.andthebookshelf

A- #BookReview: Always Remember by Mary Balogh

A- #BookReview: Always Remember by Mary BaloghAlways Remember (Ravenswood #3) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Ravenswood #3
Pages: 366
Published by Berkley on January 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Lady Jennifer Arden and Ben Ellis know that a match between them is out of the question. Yet their hearts yearn for the impossible. Discover a new heartwarming story from New York Times bestselling author and beloved “queen of Regency romance” Mary Balogh.Left unable to walk by a childhood illness, Lady Jennifer, sister of the Duke of Wilby, has grown up to make a happy place for herself in society. Outgoing and cheerful, she has many friends and enjoys the pleasures of high society—even if she cannot dance at balls or stroll in Hyde Park. She is blessed with a large, loving, and protective family. But she secretly dreams of marriage and children, and of walking—and dancing.When Ben Ellis comes across Lady Jennifer as she struggles to walk with the aid of primitive crutches, he instantly understands her yearning. He is a fixer. It is often said of him that he never saw a practical problem he did not have to solve. He wants to help her discover independence and motion—driving a carriage, swimming, even walking a different way. But he must be careful. He is the bastard son of the late Earl of Stratton. Though he was raised with the earl’s family, he knows he does not really belong in the world of the ton.Jennifer is shocked—and intrigued—by Ben’s ideas, and both families are alarmed by the growing friendship and perhaps more that they sense developing between the two. A duke’s sister certainly cannot marry the bastard son of an earl. Except sometimes, love can find a way.

My Review:

At the beginning of the Ravenswood series, back in Remember Love, I compared the late and more or less lamented Earl of Stratton, Caleb Ware, with the late and entirely unlamented Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, the discovery of whose marital perfidy kicked off that series, and found both of them wanting in only slightly different ways and degrees.

As that earlier series continued through the stories of all the family members impacted by the lies that were shockingly revealed upon Westcott’s death, the man was never redeemed – not even in memory. In fact, as the impacts of his lies rippled out in the years after his death, the worse a character he became.

Therefore, one of the fascinating things about Caleb Ware, Earl of Stratton, is the way that his memory has been redeemed in the years after his death. Not that he wasn’t unfaithful to his wife from the very beginning of their marriage, and not that he didn’t constantly seek love, approval and attention wherever he went, but the reasons behind his actions become clearer with each book – even though that book is centered around another character entirely.

That is especially true of this third book in the series, after Remember Love and Remember Me, because the male protagonist of this story is Ware’s illegitimate oldest son Ben, whose mother was, as it turns out, truly, the love of Ware’s life.

A woman of his own class who he would have married if he could have, but that would have made her guilty of the same sin as Humphrey Westcott. It would have made Lady Janette Kelliston, who her son only knew as plain ‘Jane Ellis’, a bigamist.

But this is, after all, Ben’s story and not the story of his parents, although his discovery of the truth about that relationship and so much more is a central part of his story. While he does not discover those truths until well into this story, it does set the stage for the things he already does know about himself.

That in spite of his complete and thoroughgoing acceptance by Caleb Ware’s legal family for all of Ben’s life, he is, and always will be, the Earl’s bastard. And therefore, not eligible to marry any of the girls – and now women – he meets as part of his membership in the Ware family.

Which means that when widowed Ben and his three-year-old daughter Joy come to Ravenswood Hall to celebrate the revival of the annual Summer Fete, even though he has marriage on his mind he does not expect to find anyone who would consider him suitable among his family’s aristocratic guests.

Because he is NOT suitable, as the rest of the world is all too willing to remind him. The question is whether he, and the woman with whom he falls in love in spite of all the whispers against it, are willing to damn the consequences and the social opprobrium likely to follow in their wake.

Escape Rating A-: I came into Always Remember with high hopes after a bit of disappointment with Remember Me. I liked the characters of that book well enough, but Lady Philippa Ware was a bit TOO perfect and too privileged to identify with and that affected my reading of her story quite a lot.

The heroine of this entry in the series, Pippa’s now sister-in-law Lady Jennifer Arden, is far from perfect – although she fakes it well. Not the perfect beauty that Pippa absolutely does have, but rather, a perfect amiability – or at least the appearance of it – that allows her to find as much happiness and fulfillment in the life that the lifelong disability that remains after a childhood illness (most likely polio) has left her with as is possible. Which is quite a lot if one puts their mind to it, which Lady Jennifer absolutely does.

So this is a romance between an unconventional hero – at least for a Regency romance – and an equally unusual heroine – for any romance at all. That it is their differences from the others around them that brings them together – even as their differences in social position pulls them apart – that made even the possibilities of this story something I was definitely looking forward to.

Ben Ellis and Lady Jennifer Arden find a bond because they are able to see behind each other’s masks to find the real person within. Both are in positions where they ‘should’ be grateful. He because his father’s family took him in and made him their own – as much as they could and considerably more than he knew he had any right to expect. Lady Jennifer’s entire family has rearranged itself, and continues to do so, in order to make sure that she is taken care of, has as much freedom and opportunity as they believe is safe for her, and in general has a good, well-privileged life with friends and opportunities and someone always available to take care of her.

But they are both in pursuit of the missing pieces in their lives. Ben needs to know about his mother’s family, for the sake of his own identity as well as that of his daughter. Lady Jennifer is twenty-five years old, she needs to find out what her OWN limits are. From her perspective, she has one blighted leg but the rest of her, including most definitely her heart and her brain, are just fine. She is an adult and needs to forge her own path – even if that path is navigated on crutches or in a wheelchair.

Ben sees possibilities for her. She sees answers for him. Together, they forge a path that no one expected, and that some would have preferred they not even begin to try. I half expected the author to contrive a solution that would make Ben legally legitimate no matter the actual circumstances of his birth in order to clear that path, but it made for a much better story that the easy solution was not taken after all, making this a deeply earned HEA that kept me up late because I had to find out how it ended.

Speaking of endings, this could be the ending of the Ravenswood series, but I sincerely hope that it is not. The late – and now reasonably lamented – Earl of Stratton and his Countess had several more children who have yet to find their own HEAs. I’d LOVE to see their stories added to this series!

Grade A #BookReview: The Lantern’s Dance by Laurie R. King

Grade A #BookReview: The Lantern’s Dance by Laurie R. KingThe Lantern's Dance (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, #18) 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 #18
Pages: 300
Published by Bantam on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, hoping for a respite in the French countryside, are instead caught up in a case that turns both bewildering and intensely personal.
After their recent adventures in Transylvania, Russell and Holmes look forward to spending time with Holmes' son, the famous artist Damian Adler, and his family. But when they arrive at Damian’s house, they discover that the Adlers have fled from a mysterious threat.
Holmes rushes after Damian while Russell, slowed down by a recent injury, stays behind to search the empty house. In Damian’s studio, she discovers four crates packed with memorabilia related to Holmes’ grand-uncle, the artist Horace Vernet. It’s an odd mix of treasures and clutter, including a tarnished silver lamp with a rotating an antique yet sophisticated form of zoetrope, fitted with strips of paper whose images dance with the lantern’s spin.
In the same crate is an old journal written in a nearly impenetrable code. Intrigued, Russell sets about deciphering the intricate cryptograph, slowly realizing that each entry is built around an image—the first of which is a child, bundled into a carriage by an abductor, watching her mother recede from view.
Russell is troubled, then entranced, but each entry she decodes brings more questions. Who is the young woman who created this elaborate puzzle? What does she have to do with Damian, or the Vernets—or the threat hovering over the house?
The secrets of the past appear to be reaching into the present. And it seems increasingly urgent that Russell figure out how the journal and lantern are related to Damian—and possibly to Sherlock Holmes himself.
Could there be things about his own history that even the master detective does not perceive?

My Review:

As Holmes himself once said, “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms,” but as this 18th book in the continuing chronicles of Sherlock Holmes and his apprentice-turned-wife Mary Russell opens, Holmes is considerably more worried about the form that blood might take spilled from his son’s veins on the floor of the French cottage where Holmes adult son, Damien Adler, his young daughter Estelle and his wife-to-be Dr. Aileen Henning have set up house and home in Damien’s inheritance from his mother Irene Adler.

Someone, a man Adler described as a ‘lascar’ broke into his home in the middle of the night, kukri in hand, to do who knows what damage or cause who knows what type of mayhem.

Adler does his best to convince himself it was all a prank gone wrong. But Holmes, with too many enemies still lurking in his shady past and even his more circumspect present, is not nearly so sanguine about the whole thing. There are, after all, plenty of criminals who would like to put the squeeze on Sherlock Holmes by threatening his son and his granddaughter, and most likely even more powers and potentates who would be interested in having some leverage against that puller of the British Empire’s strings and minder of its webs, Mycroft Holmes, by kidnapping his nephew and great-niece.

Holmes’ primary concern, desire and dilemma, all in one gordian knot of emotions he is reluctant in the extreme to untangle, is to get Damien, Aileen and Estelle somewhere safe so that he can run the meager clues about the break in and its elusive perpetrator to ground. Possibly to put them in that ground if necessary.

Damien wants to continue his work as an up-and-coming surrealist artist – AND he wants his father to explain what the hell is going on. In other words, Damien Adler wants to be treated as the adult he is as well as protect his family.

While Russell is, at least at the outset, a bit of a ‘fifth wheel’ in this family drama of which she is more of an appendage that a central part. Unfortunately for her, an appendage with a sprained ankle, hobbling around on crutches, in the house where her predecessor, the famous and famously beautiful Irene Adler, once ruled. If her ankle wasn’t already making her miserable enough, this entire situation has more than enough undercurrents to discomfit even Russell.

So the dust on the initial break in settles with Damien in Paris, Holmes following behind to check for traps, tagalongs and any possible gathering of confederates, while Russell is left behind in Irene Adler’s old house, going through the detritus of codes long left unbroken and old family secrets. Only to discover that the reason for the break in has been hidden in plain sight, and that too many of the truths that Sherlock Holmes has believed all his life were lies all along.

And that more of that art in the blood that his son received in full measure from his mother’s well-known artistic family bore other, more mysterious fruit much closer to its source.

Escape Rating A: This one begins slowly, as Russell languishes – a bit – alone in the countryside while Holmes hares off to Paris and points beyond. At first, it felt like the story was creeping along, much as Russell is doing with her crutches. But Russell’s temporary infirmity forces her to sit still – something that chafes at her no end.

But that stillness – and the lack of ability to rush about after Holmes – forces her to take the time to explore her briefly confined circumstances. And thereby, quite literally, hangs this tale.

Also, and fascinatingly so, as Russell’s leg gets better, as she graduates from crutches to a cane to walking unaided, as she picks up her pace the story increases its pace in tandem. By the time she is able to unravel all of the mysteries, she is searching Paris on foot, chasing down leads and putting the pieces together at her – and her story’s – usual brisk pace.

So initially, while Holmes is the active partner and Russell is stuck in place, he’s actually spinning his wheels, trying to safeguard someone who refuses to obey orders, looking over his shoulder at every moment, and always operating at an information deficit as he’s forced to react to circumstances rather than think first and then act.

Russell has that luxury. She’s stuck, she has time to think, and plenty to think about. While Holmes and the rest of the family are running, she’s questioning the locals and exploring the house, where she finds clues that lead her to the true heart of the mystery – and to its bittersweet conclusion.

In the end, I did love this entry in the series, although it took me a bit to get there because of that slow start. But now that I’ve finished, I’m left with the impression that this is more of a family story than it is the kind of mystery that has more often been featured in this series, and in the Holmes canon and Russell Kanon in general. On this, the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – the story where Russell nearly tripped over Holmes on the Sussex Downs – it feels right that we go back to, not their beginning, but rather to Holmes’ own beginning, and get a much clearer picture of where he came from and the forces that made him – and Mycroft for that matter – the men they became.

In other words, The Lantern’s Dance feels like a story that will be utterly riveting for fans of the series, but would not make a good place for a newcomer to start. If you have not yet had the pleasure of Mary Russell’s acquaintance, I highly recommend that you begin at the beginning, with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and settle in for a long and delightful read.

A- #BookReview: The Kamogawa Food Detectives by Hisashi Kashiwai, translated by Jesse Kirkwood

A- #BookReview: The Kamogawa Food Detectives by Hisashi Kashiwai, translated by Jesse KirkwoodThe Kamogawa Food Detectives (The Kamogawa Food Detectives, #1) by Hisashi Kashiwai, Jesse Kirkwood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, foodie fiction
Series: Kamogawa Food Detectives #1
Pages: 208
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Kamogawa Food Detectives is the first book in the bestselling, mouth-watering Japanese series for fans of Before the Coffee Gets Cold.
What’s the one dish you’d do anything to taste just one more time?
Down a quiet backstreet in Kyoto exists a very special restaurant. Run by Koishi Kamogawa and her father Nagare, the Kamogawa Diner serves up deliciously extravagant meals. But that’s not the main reason customers stop by . . .
The father-daughter duo are ‘food detectives’. Through ingenious investigations, they are able to recreate dishes from a person’s treasured memories – dishes that may well hold the keys to their forgotten past and future happiness. The restaurant of lost recipes provides a link to vanished moments, creating a present full of possibility.
A bestseller in Japan, The Kamogawa Food Detectives is a celebration of good company and the power of a delicious meal.

My Review: 

“We find your food” is all the advertisement that the Kamogawa Diner – and the office of the Kamogawa Food Detectives located in the back of the tiny restaurant – either needs or wants.

Because that combination of slogan, motto and raison d’être says all that this father-daughter duo needs to say, either about the food they serve or the unique service they provide.

Taste and smell are inextricably linked to memory in ways that we all know, but are hard to articulate. It’s why the right perfume is so evocative, and why dishes we loved when we were children evoke such powerful memories.

Nagare Kamogawa and his adult daughter Koishi own, operate and investigate the dishes served at their diner. When someone comes in needing their special services, Koishi asks the questions and her father, a police detective turned masterchef, provides the answers in the form of a dish that brings back the memory that their client has been chasing down so hard, to no avail. At least until now.

The stories in this delightful little collection are the stories of their clients, each with a particular sharp need for something like closure of a loss that happened yesterday or long ago. They are pursuing a chance to commune one more time with someone they lost, someone they left behind, or someone they need to let go of.

Each comes to the diner with a vague memory of a time, a place, a person, and a dish upon which it all hangs together in a faded memory. Through recreating the dish, the Kamogawa Food Detectives give their clients one more chance to reconcile, or mourn, the person in that memory, whether it’s someone they lost or merely a part of themselves they left behind.

Like the cuisine that is mouth-wateringly described in each and every story, the memories are, for the most part, not sweet unless that sweetness is tinged with the bitterness of loss. Rather, each story is one to be savored, as is this whole, entirely delicious, slice of life at the home of the Kamogawa Food Detectives.

Escape Rating A-: This was absolutely the right book at the right time. In spite of being a loosely linked collection of short stories, it hung together MUCH better than yesterday’s book, to the point where I finished this little volume in one – admittedly hungry – sitting. At the end, my only negative thought about the book was that it wasn’t nearly enough.

Don’t go into this one hungry, because the descriptions of the food are every bit as tantalizing as the stories are savory – even the ones that describe something that might not be to one’s own taste. If these dishes are half as good as the descriptions in the book make them, I’d be willing to try them all.

I also couldn’t help but think of similar dishes, not in cuisine but in my own memory. Dishes that my grandmother made that neither my mother nor I were ever able to replicate. Love and nostalgia are seasonings that are difficult to duplicate, no matter how many times one has tried. (If you’re wondering, I can replicate my favorite dishes that my mother made. But my grandmother’s, no.)

I want to say this was sweet but based on the utterly tantalizing descriptions of the food, it would be more accurate to say that this was wonderfully umami, in other words, marvelously savory and absolutely delicious.

This is, honestly, a book that kind of defies description. You have to be there, within its magic, to get the full flavor of just how lovely it is. All I can say is that it is absolutely, delightfully, worth the read.

Speaking of magic, however, if the taste of The Kamogawa Food Detectives is as appealing to you as it was to me, if you would like to try something similar with a more overt hint of magic (I say more overt because it could easily be claimed that what these food detectives do IS magic) you might want to try The Nameless Detective by Tao Wong. The Kamogawa Food Detectives is also frequently cited as a readalike for Before the Coffee Gets Cold. Which I have not read YET, but certainly plan to in the months ahead.

The above recommendations will hopefully tide you over until your next delicious visit to The Kamogawa Food Detectives. This book is the first in a series of seven in the original Japanese, and the second book, The Restaurant of Lost Recipes, will be published in English in October.

I’m already salivating for another taste!

A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. Kingfisher

A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. KingfisherWhat Feasts at Night (Sworn Soldier, #2) by T. Kingfisher
Narrator: Avi Roque
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Series: Sworn Soldier #2
Pages: 160
Length: 5 hours and 2 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The follow-up to T. Kingfisher’s bestselling gothic novella, What Moves the Dead .

Retired soldier Alex Easton returns in a horrifying new adventure.

After their terrifying ordeal at the Usher manor, Alex Easton feels as if they just survived another war. All they crave is rest, routine, and sunshine, but instead, as a favor to Angus and Miss Potter, they find themself heading to their family hunting lodge, deep in the cold, damp forests of their home country, Gallacia.

In theory, one can find relaxation in even the coldest and dampest of Gallacian autumns, but when Easton arrives, they find the caretaker dead, the lodge in disarray, and the grounds troubled by a strange, uncanny silence. The villagers whisper that a breath-stealing monster from folklore has taken up residence in Easton’s home. Easton knows better than to put too much stock in local superstitions, but they can tell that something is not quite right in their home. . . or in their dreams.

My Review:

It’s not mushrooms this time. Not that there isn’t something creeping around the old hunting lodge that retired soldier Alex Easton inherited from their family in the remoter parts of their native Gallacia. And not that Easton isn’t still experiencing PTSD and a whole, entire and entirely justified case of the collywobbles at even the thought of anything that might possibly have to do with mushrooms after the fungus-powered monstrosities in Easton’s first outing, What Moves the Dead.

In fact, after the events in What Moves the Dead, it’s not at all surprising that Easton is searching for a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just a surprise that they’ve gone home to Gallacia to find either of those things. Because it is clear from Easton’s opening remarks regarding this trip to their homeland, the whys and wherefores of the whole thing, and their thoughts and feelings about Gallacia and anything to do with it that they would much rather have stayed in Paris.

As Easton makes VERY clear on the way to that hunting lodge they haven’t visited in the past ten years, at least in the conversation they are having with themselves inside the confines of their own head, they are feeling very put upon by this whole trip. Their reluctance, at least, is apparent in the conversation they are having aloud, the one between themselves, their very good horse Hob, their batman and general factotum Angus, and Angus’ mustache, which seems to convey rather strong opinions of its own in spite of not actually being able to say a word.

Besides, it’s all Angus’ fault. Well, Angus’ fault as well as Easton’s own sense of propriety – no matter how much they’d like to let THAT go hang itself at the moment. Because Eugenia Potter, that redoubtable English mycologist who so ably assisted them with the fungal infestation in the House of Usher in What Moves the Dead, has been invited to Gallacia to observe the local fungi, with Easton as her ostensible host.

Honestly, it’s to further Miss Potter’s romance with Angus, but no one is admitting that. It wouldn’t be proper.

Easton planned to arrive at the lodge a few days ahead of Miss Potter, expecting to find the place in reasonable shape, just needing a bit of restocking and tidying up. That’s how Easton remembers it from the last time they were there. But Easton also remembers a caretaker taking care of the place, a caretaker that Easton has been paying a salary to for years and years, and as recently as the preceding month.

So, it’s obvious when Easton and Angus arrive that things are not quite what they expected. The house is a mess, the caretaker is a few months dead, and no one seems to be willing to be employed to help Easton and Angus get the place cleaned up and cleaned out, in spite of the good wages in hard currency that Easton is more than willing to pay in this poverty-stricken village where those things are seldom seen or even heard of.

Which is the point where Easton should have rescinded the invitation to Miss Potter and run back to Paris as fast as their horse’s legs could carry them. Because there’s something uncanny about the caretaker’s death, and there’s something dangerous haunting the old hunting lodge.

At least, this time, it’s not mushrooms.

Escape Rating A-: I’m not sure whether to say that What Feasts at Night isn’t quite as creepy as What Moves the Dead, or to say that it is even creepier. Let’s say I’m creeping along that fence and not sure which side I’ll fall off onto.

What Moves the Dead was a creepy story that turned out to be a bit more scientifically inclined than anything that happens within it might lead the reader to expect.

What Feasts at Night, very much on the other hand, reads much more like a fever dream story about pneumonia and PTSD. Or a ghost story about PTSD. Or a nightmare about a ghost that’s strangely cured or killed through PTSD that only masquerades as being about pneumonia. Or all of the above.

The fever dream aspects of the story, particularly as the pneumonia, or the wandering local vampire/ghost creeps its way into the dreams of both Alex Easton and the grandson of the bitter old woman they finally manage to hire to take care of the house, manage to both make the story even creepier AND slow it down at the same time. Because for the longest time not much happens except in dreams and that’s not a quick process until the end. Not helped at all by the fact that no one local will really EXPLAIN anything about what might be happened, and Easton clearly didn’t get told the right stories when they were growing up.

But at that point, where the dream and the ghost and Easton’s PTSD all emerge on the same battlefield, it’s chilling and riveting and every frightening thing the reader has been expecting all along. It just feels like it takes a while to get there. But then, that’s what dreams do.

One thing that does kick the story along, frequently, often, and with more than a bit of a rueful laugh, is that it’s clear from the volume of conversations that Easton has with themself that the author has never met a Fourth Wall she wasn’t more than willing to batter her way through head first, whether using her protagonist’s head or even her own.

Which is one of the things that made listening to What Feasts at Night so much creepy fun, as the narrator, Avi Roque, has a rough, smoky voice that is perfect for Easton as it lets us inside their wry, sarcastic, self-deprecating head even as they tell both themselves and us that they realize that they should have known better at so many points along the way of the story they are now telling, if only they hadn’t let their logic get in the way of observing what was actually happening around them.

I enjoy Alex Easton’s voice, even when I’m not nearly so certain about the story they are telling. Horror is not my jam, but in this case I’m here for the characters, and Easton’s perspective is compelling even when the story they are in the middle of is creeping me right the hell out.

A- #BookReview: At First Spite by Olivia Dade

A- #BookReview: At First Spite by Olivia DadeAt First Spite (Harlot's Bay #1) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Harlot's Bay #1
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Bestselling author Olivia Dade welcomes you to Harlot's Bay in this delightfully sexy rom-com about a woman who buys the town's famous Spite House, only to realize the infuriating man she can't stand lives right next door--and their unwilling proximity might spark something neither can ignore.
When Athena Greydon's fiancé ends their engagement, she has no choice but to move into the Spite House she recklessly bought him as a wedding gift. This is a problem, for several reasons: The house, originally built as a brick middle finger to the neighbors, is only ten feet wide. Her ex's home is attached to hers. And Dr. Matthew Vine the Freaking Third (aka the uptight, judgmental jerk who convinced his younger brother to leave her) is living on the other side, only a four-foot alley away.
If she has to see Matthew every time she looks out her windows, she might as well have some fun with the situation--by, say, playing erotic audiobooks at top volume with the windows open. A woman living in a Spite House is basically obligated to get petty payback however she can, right?
Unfortunately, loathing Matthew proves more difficult than anticipated. He helps her move. He listens. And he's kind of...hot? Dammit.

My Review:

Today is Valentine’s Day, which means that today’s review absolutely had to be a romance.

So when At First Spite sashayed its way to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile, with a come-hither look and a sassy come-on, I didn’t even try to resist its siren song.

Welcome to Harlot’s Bay, Maryland, a place that really, truly, seriously – if laughably – leans into its salacious name – and history.

Athena Greydon thought she’d be moving in with her new husband, Dr. Johnny Vine, tanned, rested and refreshed after their picture-perfect, one month Hawaiian dream vacation, meticulously crafted and created by Athena herself and her innate desire to learn and experience ALL THE THINGS.

Instead, Johnny is off on that vacation alone, after he left her just about at the altar because his brother Matthew convinced him to dump her, while Athena is moving into Spite House, the tiny slice of house attached like a limpet to the side of Johnny’s row house in ‘downtown’ Harlot’s Bay. In the pouring rain, alone with a 10 foot-wide, four-story house that is now all she has left to her name.

It was supposed to have been a wedding present to her new husband, because he wanted to tear out the wall and expand his own house. Now it’s a refuge for Athena’s pride, sailing all alone on a sea of regret.

Athena needs help to get herself moved in, and the only person offering is the last person Athena wants to ever see again. Johnny’s older brother, Dr. Matthew Vine, the man with the stick up his ass and the endless number of reasons why Athena would make a terrible wife for Johnny.

And he’s absolutely right, as the story eventually proves, but not from the perspective through which Athena originally sees – or actually hears – the argument. It’s not so much that Athena would make a terrible wife for Johnny as it is that Johnny would make a terrible husband for Athena. Or honestly, that they are just so wrong for each other that Matthew can’t even articulate it – if only because he’s spent nearly all his life parenting his younger brother and can’t even let himself think that he doesn’t have enough spoons left to parent them both.

Even though it looks like that’s exactly what will happen if they make it to the altar. And Hawaii. And the not so happy ever after that would inevitably come after.

For all three of them. Because, as much as Athena and Johnny are wrong for each other, Athena is entirely too right for Matthew – and vice versa. Even if no one will ever forgive anyone if THAT scenario comes to pass. So, of course, Matthew can’t let that happen, either.

Until it does.

Escape Rating A-: It’s clear early in At First Spite that the narrow confines of Spite House aren’t nearly wide enough to handle ALL of the emotional baggage that Athena, Johnny, and Matthew have deposited there, in spite of Athena being the only person actually living within its walls.

Because they are all hot messes – but not the same kind of hot mess.

As often as the author’s trademark sassy humor and snarky banter trip the light fantastic across the pages of this romance, the story in At First Spite is absolutely NOT all fun and games. (If that’s what you’re looking for, I highly recommend Spoiler Alert and its sequels because WOW what a terrific ride that series is!) Which leads right back into the hot messes that the three – and yes, really, it’s all three of them and it is, sorta/kinda, just the type of romantic triangle that should have landed them all in a session with Dr. Phil – or even the late Jerry Springer.

The heart and the heartbreak of the story in At First Spite lives at the corner of parentification and depression, and it’s not a pretty place – but it certainly is a real one. Not that any of the characters are all that great at communicating what’s going on inside their heads.

I want to be glib and snarky here myself, and that is utterly the wrong mood to strike. This is serious stuff, and stuff that all of us at least brush against at some points in our lives – no matter how much we’re taught not to, well, talk about it.

Athena’s situation – and Matthew’s contributions thereto – cause her to finally hit an emotional bottom she’s been tap-dancing over the top of for most of her life. At the same time, Matthew’s reluctant acceptance that everything he’s said about Athena is way more about his relationship with his younger brother than it has anything directly to do with Athena herself is a struggle that he keeps losing – which is where the parentification part of the story comes in – and very nearly does them all in along with it.

While Johnny’s charmed life of charming everyone around him, getting mostly what he wants while knowing that Matthew will pick up the pieces has to come to an end – he has to figure that shit out for himself while Athena and Matthew are concentrating – as they should be – on each other.

So, on the one hand – possibly the hand with a whoopie-cushion in it – this first book in the Harlot’s Bay series (and YAY about THAT!) introduces us to this charming, quirky town and the equally charming and quirky people in it. Along with their seemingly endless love for broadcasting salacious audiobooks of monster porn from the literal rooftops.

And on the other, much more serious hand, there’s a beautiful story about two people helping each other stand on their own two feet, discover their own worth in their own selves and learn to stick to their own guns about it, and learn to grovel appropriately when necessary with the help of grand gestures that also involve – you guessed it – rooftop audiobook broadcasts of anatomically impossible monster porn.

Along with the beginning of the story of one irresponsible man-child finally manning up and getting out from under his brother’s overprotective shadow. The rest of which story will hopefully be told later in the series, but in the meantime the next book is titled Dearly Departed, a story which will somehow, both heartbreakingly and hilariously in equal measure, manage to lead to a happy ever after for the local supplier of all audiobooks monster porn. Because I can’t wait to find out the who, what, when, where and why of that whole, entire thing.

Grade A #BookReview: The Bezzle by Cory Doctorow

Grade A #BookReview: The Bezzle by Cory DoctorowThe Bezzle (Martin Hench #2) by Cory Doctorow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: financial thriller, mystery, thriller
Series: Martin Hench #2
Pages: 240
Published by Tor Books on February 20, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

New York Times bestseller Cory Doctorow's The Bezzle is a high stakes thriller where the lives of the hundreds of thousands of inmates in California’s prisons are traded like stock shares.
The year is 2006. Martin Hench is at the top of his game as a self-employed forensic accountant, a veteran of the long guerrilla war between people who want to hide money, and people who want to find it. He spends his downtime on Catalina Island, where scenic, imported bison wander the bluffs and frozen, reheated fast food burgers cost 25$. Wait, what? When Marty disrupts a seemingly innocuous scheme during a vacation on Catalina Island, he has no idea he’s kicked off a chain of events that will overtake the next decade of his life.
Martin has made his most dangerous mistake trespassed into the playgrounds of the ultra-wealthy and spoiled their fun. To them, money is a tool, a game, and a way to keep score, and they’ve found their newest mark―California’s Department of Corrections. Secure in the knowledge that they’re living behind far too many firewalls of shell companies and investors ever to be identified, they are interested not in the lives they ruin, but only in how much money they can extract from the government and the hundreds of thousands of prisoners they have at their mercy.
A seething rebuke of the privatized prison system that delves deeply into the arcane and baroque financial chicanery involved in the 2008 financial crash, The Bezzle is a sizzling follow-up to Red Team Blues .

My Review:

When we met Martin Hench in the first book in his series, Red Team Blues, the ‘scam’ of the day that Marty needed to unravel – before it unraveled him – was all wrapped in the cryptocurrency shenanigans of its – and our – present day.

I say our present-day because Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial for his cryptocurrency-based fraudulent shenanigans had not yet come to pass when The Bezzle was written, but has between the point when The Bezzle was written and when it is being published next week.

So Red Team Blues was a story about now – or at least now-ish. The Bezzle is a story about then. Particularly the early 2000s, when the scam of the day was yet to be uncovered in the dot com boom that has not yet busted when we go back in time with Marty and whoever he is telling this story to. Which we never do find out and I surely wish we did.

Bezzle is a real term in economics that has never gotten the study it deserves. It’s related to the crime of embezzlement, but isn’t the embezzlement itself. Instead, it’s the time between two events; the commission of the crime and its discovery. It’s a weird sort of net-positive financial limbo, or an even stranger Schrödinger’s cat situation, where both the embezzler and their victim believe they have the money and act accordingly, only for one or the other or both to suffer a rude awakening when the crime is discovered.

Now that I’ve thought about it a bit, the story in The Bezzle is a bezzle within a bezzle in a kind of möbius strip of bezzling that doesn’t so much end as shift into a state of mutually assured destruction. A state that Marty, fortunately for him, is finally able to observe from the outside looking in, instead of either from the inside of a jail cell looking out the way that his friend Scott ends up, or up from six feet under, as the villain of this story certainly intended.

Very much like Red Team Blues, The Bezzle is a story about leverage. Not just in the financial sense, but mostly in the sense of who has power over whom, and how much they are willing to pay to exercise it.

Escape Rating A: The Bezzle is a LOT of things, all of which are fascinating and make for a compelling read, but absolutely none of which are remotely science fiction, whether it is marketed as such or not. And not that SF readers won’t enjoy The Bezzle, because they certainly will and I absolutely did.

On the surface, The Bezzle is a combination of 2000 aughts’ nostalgia, a metric buttload of social commentary about the state of the State of California and its seemingly deliberately FUBAR’d penal system, some surprisingly deep analysis of the socio-economic conditions in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, all wrapped inside a crunchy thriller coating, making it a tasty read from beginning to end.

It starts out deceptively simple, in what looks like a small time con on an equally small island. It’s even a bit silly, as no one in their right mind would think that trading in hamburgers could bring down an entire island’s economy. At least not until Marty Hench figures out that cornering the underground fast-food market on Santa Catalina Island – where fast food franchises were illegal – is more than just a small scale attempt to make a few bucks off the local craving for forbidden fruit. It’s the public front for a Ponzi scheme that is going to bankrupt the local economy. At least until Marty gives the intended suckers some hints about leverage.

And puts a price on the heads of both Marty and the friend who brought him to Catalina in the first place.

From there, the story is off to the races. And it continues racing at a breakneck pace, even through places that might bring other stories and other writers to a screeching halt – but instead detail the long and painful process of bringing a villain to his knees while still exposing and eviscerating the system that made his villainy possible.

What makes the whole thing fly – and it absolutely does fly by – is the charm of its storyteller, Martin Hench himself. Because Marty is really, really good at three things; figuring out which way the books have been cooked, making friends, and storytelling. If you are drawn in by Marty’s world-weary, wry, sarcastic but ultimately caring voice, he’ll carry you through this trip down his memory lane. And if you enjoy caper stories, Marty is a terrific companion for this madcap thrill-ride of a tale.

If Marty manages to dig another story of good friends, filthy lucre, and tech wizards behaving badly out of his capacious memory, this reader will definitely be there for it!

A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles  by Malka OlderThe Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles (Mossa & Pleiti, #2) by Malka Ann Older
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, mystery, science fiction, science fiction mystery, space opera, steampunk
Series: Investigations of Mossa & Pleiti #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Investigator Mossa and Scholar Pleiti reunite to solve a brand-new mystery in the follow-up to the fan-favorite cozy space opera detective mystery The Mimicking of Known Successes that Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders called “an utter triumph.”
Mossa has returned to Valdegeld on a missing person’s case, for which she’ll once again need Pleiti’s insight.
Seventeen students and staff members have disappeared from Valdegeld University—yet no one has noticed. The answers to this case could be found in the outer reaches of the Jovian system—Mossa’s home—and the history of Jupiter’s original settlements. But Pleiti’s faith in her life’s work as scholar of the past has grown precarious, and this new case threatens to further destabilize her dreams for humanity’s future, as well as her own.

My Review:

Like the opening of the first book, The Mimicking of Known Successes, in this delightful steampunk-y, space opera-ish, not-exactly-dark academic mystery series, this second entry begins not with the discovery of a dead body as most mysteries do, but rather with the disappearance and presumed deaths of a whole bunch of bodies.

But presumption, like assumption, involves drawing conclusions that may or may not be born out by evidence. Evidence that the still mysterious Investigator Mossa is determined to collect. Possibly, she’s driven to go that extra bit as an excuse to visit with her now on-again lover Scholar Pleiti at the University at Valdegeld.

Entirely too many of those missing bodies are/were students at the University, and Mossa isn’t above using that connection as an excuse to visit Pleiti AND involve her in her work. Again. Just as she did in their first adventure.

A lot of people DO go missing on Giant – otherwise known as Jupiter. The architecture of the colony, which is made up by rings of platforms stationed around the gas giant, leaves a lot of room for both accidental and on-purpose plummets to death and destruction, whether self-induced or pushed. Searching for missing persons is consequently the raison d’être of the Investigators, of whom Mossa is a part.

But the number of missing has jumped to a degree that is statistically implausible, leading Mossa to an in-person search for those missing. Some of them will be found perfectly safe, because that happens all-too-frequently.

The question in Mossa’s inquisitive mind is whether those findings will bring the number down to something reasonable. She doesn’t believe so. And she’s right.

While Mossa is looking into missing bodies, Pleiti is dealing with a body that has been found. The mad scholar/scientist that Mossa and Pleiti pursued in that first book, the man who pointed out that all of the busy research of the university was merely the ‘mimicking of known successes’ and had little chance of ever coming to fruition, the once respected rector of the university who may have derailed the university’s entire reason for being for centuries, has been found. Or at least his corpse has been.

But the effects of that death, and the events that led up to it, still chase our intrepid investigators. And may have more to do with all those missing bodies than anyone imagined.

Escape Rating A+: There’s something supremely comforting about this series – and I’m oh-so-happy it IS a series because The Mimicking of Known Successes could easily have been a one-off.

I think it’s the combination of the outlandish and exotic with the comforting and familiar. At first it seems pretty far out there, literally as well as figuratively. Jupiter is far away and seemingly totally inhospitable. And it kind of is. But still, humanity has adapted – at least physically. We’ve made it work.

At the same time, the way it works is so very human. They are still close enough in both time and space, relatively speaking, to see their lost home as something they might return to while also romanticizing the past and the possible future.

And the university is so very much academe in a nutshell, to the point where both books’ titles absolutely ring with the sense of academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so small, caught up so tightly in the petty grievances of scholars that are more invested in scoring off against each other and/or proving their superiority than they are about real problems and practical solutions.

Which comes right back around to the whole story of the first book AND the motivations that lead to all those missing persons that Mossa is hunting for in this second one. Hunting, in fact, all the way around the train tracks that ring the planet to a hidden platform as far away from the University as it can get – and back around again to the place where both stories began.

To the University, and ultimately to the Earth it claims it wants to return them to – even as it settles into its comforts and grievances in a way that makes the reader wonder if anyone really, truly does.

What carries the story along, what holds it up around those rings and over that gas giant, is the relationship between Mossa and Pleiti. They live in different worlds, and approach those worlds from opposing perspectives. Mossa, the Investigator, the ultimate pragmatist, always on the hunt for a new mystery, and Pleiti, the scholar and dreamer ensconced within the comforts and comfortable stability of the university. Their relationship didn’t work the first time, because they couldn’t meet in the middle and let each other in.

This time around they’re a bit older, sometimes sadder, occasionally wiser. Or at least wise enough to know that they are better together than they are apart, even if that togetherness has and even requires more space that one or the other might desire.

Watching them try, following them as they attempt to join two worlds and two perspectives that aren’t intended to meet in any middle, adds something very special to this delightfully charming science fiction mystery that will keep readers coming back for more.

Particularly this reader, left desperately hoping for a third book in the series.

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson BennettThe Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Shadow of the Leviathan #2
Pages: 432
Published by Del Rey on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.
Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.
At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.
Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.
As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.
Featuring an unforgettable Holmes-and-Watson style pairing, a gloriously labyrinthine plot, and a haunting and wholly original fantasy world, The Tainted Cup brilliantly reinvents the classic mystery tale.

My Review:

Just like winter in Westeros, the wet season is coming to the Empire of Khanum. There are monsters massing outside the fortifications that guard the border, and there are humans behaving monstrously within the walls, jockeying for political advantage without a care in the world for the amount of collateral damage they might cause in their quest for power.

Young, newly fledged, still probationary, assistant investigator Dinios Kol has been tasked with visiting his very first death scene on behalf of senior investigator Ana Dolabra. Din has been genetically engineered to remember everything, whether at a crime scene or not, and it’s his literal job to serve as Ana’s eyes and ears.

It’s her preference to never leave her house. If Din’s observations lead her to desiring an interview with a witness or a suspect, she’ll subpoena them to come to her. She has that right and that privilege.

Which doesn’t stop the privileged servants who maintain this particular murder scene for their highly ranked gentry masters from treating Din like dirt when he shows up at their door. In spite of pretty much everyone’s strong desire to get the corpse out of the house as soon as the evidence has been collected and the scene is released.

Even if they will need to cut the dead man out of both the floor and the ceiling of the room his body is occupying. It’s not every day that someone dies because a tree took root in their lungs and rapidly grew through their body to implant its roots in the room’s floor and interweave its branches in the ceiling.

As sensational as the murder appears on the surface (or rather, all the surfaces in the room), it’s only the beginning of the story, the case, and Din’s career as an investigator. Because the plot is thicker than Din imagines, the world is much darker and dirtier than his limited experience has led him to believe – and his mentor, the eccentric and seemingly disgraced Ana Dolabra, is considerably more than she appears.

The vast intellectual light that Dolabra is hiding in Din’s tiny, backwater village is enough to burn out a whole lot of the rot. It’s up to Din to learn enough on the job to keep himself from being caught in the flames.

Escape Rating A+: There’s been a rise in science fiction mysteries in the last couple of years, with books like Mur Lafferty’s Station Eternity, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man, and Eddie Robson’s Drunk On All Your Strange New Words leading the way. There’s also been a resurgence of urban fantasy, a genre which was always the bastard child of the paranormal (with or without romance) and mystery (If you’re interested, take a look at T.L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights (starting with The Library of the Dead) and James J. Butcher’s Unorthodox Chronicles that begin with Dead Man’s Hand). But there’s never been a LOT of purely fantasy mystery – at least not since Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy, which was also, come to think of it, every bit as much of a play on Sherlock Holmes as The Tainted Cup turned out to be.

The Tainted Cup, however, is very much an epic fantasy world, but a story whose plot is wrapped around the conventions of a mystery – albeit a mystery that is not in the least cozy. The only way you’d get something cozy out of this one would be if you chopped up the tree that grew through the first body and used it to build a cozy – if somewhat gruesome – fire.

The pairing of Ana Dolabra with Dinios Kol owes a lot to Holmes and Watson – but it will also remind readers of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – or possibly their more recent reincarnations as Pentecost and Parker in Stephen Spotswood’s series that begins with Fortune Favors the Dead. Din is young, naive and untried pretty much all the way around. He’s a small town boy who is about to be thrust into a wider and more dangerous world than he ever imagined. The Tainted Cup is just the beginning of his coming-of-age story, making him considerably more like Goodwin and Parker than Watson, although Goodwin and Parker were both more worldly wise than Din at the beginnings of their respective stories.

Dolabra, on the other hand, is very much Holmesian in her eccentricities, her extreme intolerance for boredom and consequent bad behavior in regards to alleviating it, but above all in her sheer genius for resolving the mysteries put before her. On all the other hands, her unwillingness to leave her residence to seek out the clues for herself is all Wolfe and to a limited extent, Pentecost.

But the setting of The Tainted Cup, and the epically FUBAR political situation therein, is very much fantasy of both the grimdark and steampunk varieties. The world, with its mixture of science and magic and scientifically based magic is similar to the setting of L.E. Modesitt’s Grand Illusion series that kicks off with Isolate. Din shows promise of becoming Steffan Dekkard someday, but he absolutely is not there yet. Part of the fascination of The Tainted Cup is watching Din grow into his job – especially the gray areas within it – without betraying his core principles.

It’s the story of Din learning how to bend without breaking OR breaking the truly important rules. Especially when presented with incontrovertible evidence that entirely too many people already have.

That all being said, the way that this fantasy empire works – and doesn’t – especially the alchemy of corruption and power that holds the empire back and pushes the story forward, brought both Age of Ash and In the Shadow of Lightning to my mind and might to yours as well. (A hint that if you liked either of those or The Grand Illusion you might like this as well.)

I’m writing a LOT about this book and what it reminds me of because I really, really loved it and hope others do as well, leading to what may seem like an epic number of readalikes because I’m hoping to drag people in by hook or by crook.

So, The Tainted Cup reads like a murder mystery, because it absolutely is. The story progresses because Din, sometimes at Dolabra’s request but sometimes on his own, unravels the puzzle of whodunnit, how it was done and most importantly why it was done in bits and pieces, one clue and one pull of the thread at a time.

But, while Din is pulling those threads, the tapestry of this crime and the tapestry of the empire are getting bigger and broader all around him, while at the same time fraying at the edges. Din can’t see the whole picture – he doesn’t know enough to see the whole picture. And neither do we.

Watching him work his way through lets us see the vast scope of everything, both the crime he’s uncovered and the empire that’s falling apart around it, and makes for a compelling page-turner of a story.

A story that is clearly not done when the reader turns the last page. Not that this particular case isn’t solved – because it is and satisfactorily at that – but because this case is just the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

There are at least two more books planned for the Shadow of the Leviathan series. Which is a terrific thing because Din’s journey is far from complete and the depths of this empire have not yet been plumbed – and they surely need plumbing. Surely we’ll find out whether Dolabra and Din are up for THAT dirty job in those books yet to come.

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Seance by Marty Wingate

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Seance by Marty WingateA Body at the Séance (London Ladies' Murder Club, #2) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Pages: 332
Published by Bookouture on January 11, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBetter World Books
Goodreads

When a body turns up at a glamorous séance, Mabel Canning’s sleuthing skills are put to the test. Because it appears the victim died twice…
London, 1921: As a winter wind blows through the streets of London, Mabel Canning is hired by the Useful Women’s Agency to attend a séance at the home of famous medium Madame Pushkana. But when Mabel hears a choking noise and a loud thud, she quickly turns on the lights to find herself at the scene of a murder.
The victim is none other than Stamford Plomley, whose widow arranged the séance after he died in a fire eight months ago. How did he come back from the dead without a scorch mark on him? And could one of their assembled party of gentlewomen have killed him… again?
When Scotland Yard arrive, the police try to stop Mabel from interfering. But having just formed the London Ladies’ Murder Club, Mabel isn’t going anywhere. And with the help of former detective Park Winstone, she begins to piece together what really happened at the ghostly gathering.
But when Mabel receives a threatening letter warning her to stay away from the case, she realises the murderer may have another victim in mind. With time running out, will she hit a dead end? Or can she keep herself from becoming the next one to be sent to an early grave?
A totally gripping, witty and warm Golden Age cozy murder mystery from USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Richard Osman, Verity Bright and T.E. Kinsey.

My Review:

Whether or not one is a believer in spiritualism, the best one can hope for at a séance is a ‘message from the other side’ from the dearly departed. But no matter how much one believes, one absolutely does not expect the dearly departed to appear in the flesh. Even more miraculously, in the whole and entirely not desiccated or decomposing flesh – in spite of the dearly departed’s departure having taken place eight months previously.

However, one could not exactly say that reports of Stamford Plomley’s death had been greatly exaggerated – more that they were clearly premature eight months ago. Because the man is certainly dead now, strangled with the rope generally used to tie back the curtains that had so recently concealed his quite living body until the advent of the rope and whoever used it to bring about his delayed – or at least erroneously reported – demise.

And not that the world – and certainly Stamford Plomley’s widow Ivy – aren’t both better off with him firmly and finally deceased. However, that leaves both Scotland Yard and Mabel Canning, the head of the Useful Women’s Agency’s private investigations division with cases to solve.

Mrs. Plomley hires Mabel to investigate the circumstances of Stamford Plomley’s ‘first’ death, while Inspector Tollerton of Scotland Yard must look into the case of his second and more permanent one.

They will both have their hands full looking into the cult of believers who attended the séance conducted by the mysterious Madame Pushkana. A séance that was intended to bring Mrs. Plomley a message from the perhaps not-so-dearly departed – a message that was providentially – for someone – interrupted by a bit of flash paper and that rope around Mr. Plomley’s neck.

But if the late and not-so-lamented-as-was-originally-believed Stamford Plomley was killed with a rope in the séance room, when Madame Pushkana, the medium herself, is murdered by a knife in the back, backstage before one of her public ‘spiritual evenings’, both Inspector Tollerton and Mabel are forced to the realization that their cases have become uncannily close – and that someone is stalking their list of potential suspects.

Escape Rating A-: I couldn’t resist diving almost straight into A Body at the Séance so soon after the first book in the London Ladies’ Murder Club series, the charmingly murderous A Body on the Doorstep, because that book was just so much cozy mystery fun that I had to find out if the author managed to capture that lightning in the bottle a second time – even if said lightning jumped out of the bottle and killed someone new.

Which it did – in all the ways that the above can be taken as a pun. A Body at the Séance was every bit as much fun as the first book – if not just a teeny bit more because of the many ways that Mabel managed to hang onto her skepticism even as she found herself investigating an all-too-real murder that was just a bit over the top because of both setting and circumstances.

Watching Mabel unravel the murder while exploring her post-World War I London was just as charming as the first book – even if I did figure out whodunnit well before the final reveal.

What carried this second entry in the series, at least for this reader, was the intelligence and yes, charm, of Mabel herself. She’s easy for contemporary readers to identify with because, in spite of an entire century between her world and ours, her situation is so very similar to that of any independent woman determined to stretch her wings and make a place for herself on her own merits for the very first time in her life.

So Mabel is finding her way in what, for her, is intended to be a brave, new world, and it is. She’s got to earn a living, watch her expenses, find a new set of friends, new familiar places, and generally make her own way. She’s not rich, she’s not poor, she’s not in service, she’s from a comfortably middle-class background and has been given strong roots by her upbringing and wings from being finally able to make her own life.

And that’s a circumstance that many of us can identify with – with or without the ubiquity of social media.

That Mabel may have found an unexpected romance is just icing on a cake that she’s not sure she’s ready to eat. Because her independence is precious to her, she’s worked hard to reach it, and she’s not willing to fall back into the expected female role. She just isn’t sure yet whether the man she stumbled across in her first investigation will be able to accept her as an equal and not just as a wife.

She’s not willing to settle. And she doesn’t have to. Which makes her the kind of role model the world could still use more of.

So, as much as I came for the cozy murder mystery setting so reminiscent of the Golden Age of detective fiction, I’m absolutely sticking for Mabel Canning, her London Ladies’ Murder Club and the wonderful doggy assistance of the rather intelligent Gladys, because I’m loving every page.

Mabel, and her growing ‘Scooby Gang’, especially Gladys, will be back in April in A Body at the Dance Hall. As a child, I thought the old saying was “a new face on the BALLroom floor”, instead of what it really is. It looks like this time I’ll get to see my version come to life. Or, more likely, death, in just a couple of months.

Either way, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how Mabel and her friends get to the bottom of their next case!