Review: The Summer Seekers by Sarah Morgan

Review: The Summer Seekers by Sarah MorganThe Summer Seekers by Sarah Morgan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 432
Published by Harlequin HQN on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“The ultimate road-trippin’ beach read and just what we all need after the long lockdown.”Booklist
, STARRED REVIEW
for
THE SUMMER SEEKERS

The Summer Seekers is the ultimate road trip book.”—Susan Wiggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author
Get swept into a summer of sunshine, soul-searching and shameless matchmaking with this delightfully bighearted road-trip adventure by USA TODAY bestselling author Sarah Morgan!
Kathleen is eighty years old. After she has a run-in with an intruder, her daughter wants her to move into a residential home. But she’s not having any of it. What she craves—what she needs—is adventure.
Liza is drowning in the daily stress of family life. The last thing she needs is her mother jetting off on a wild holiday, making Liza long for a solo summer of her own.
Martha is having a quarter-life crisis. Unemployed, unloved and uninspired, she just can’t get her life together. But she knows something has to change.
When Martha sees Kathleen’s advertisement for a driver and companion to share an epic road trip across America with, she decides this job might be the answer to her prayers. She's not the world's best driver, but anything has to be better than living with her parents. And traveling with a stranger? No problem. Anyway, how much trouble can one eighty-year-old woman be?
As these women embark on the journey of a lifetime, they all discover it's never too late to start over…

My Review:

We’re all the products of our families, in one way or another. For some, it’s by imitation. We learned what to do by observing the people around us. For others, it’s in opposition. We learned what not to do by observing the people around us.

It’s pretty clear at the beginning of The Summer Seekers that Liza and her mother Kathleen exist in opposition. Kathleen’s life has been filled with wanderlust, spending most of Liza’s growing up years on the road filming her travel show, titled, just as this book is, The Summer Seekers.

What Liza learned from that experience is that she absolutely did not want that life for herself. She attached herself to home and hearth pretty much as soon as she could. Kathleen craved adventure, leaving Liza to crave the security she never felt she had.

But time has marched on. Kathleen still craves adventure, but at 80 her adventures are not quite as easy to arrange. While 40ish Liza wants above all for her mother, and all of her other loved ones, to be safe. Even though “safe” is the last thing that Kathleen was EVER built for.

There’s that saying about a ship in harbor being safe, but that not being what ships are built for. Kathleen is the ship. Her daughter Liza is the harbor, attempting to keep every ship not just safe but her own definition of safe and worrying so much over every ship – meaning every member of her family and their every need – that she’s worrying herself all the way to a permanent panic attack – if not worse.

And Kathleen and Liza, no matter how much they love each other, manage to just push each other further and further away. Liza wants to keep her mother safe, and she desperately needs to talk about her feelings about her mother’s absences, both physical and emotional, as she was growing up. While Kathleen wants to live the remaining years of her life by wringing out every day until every last drop has been squeezed out – and by never talking about or touching on anything deeply emotional at all.

They are on an emotional collision course when Kathleen announces that she is planning to take the one trip she always intended to but never quite managed. She intends to fly from London to Chicago and take a ride on storied, scenic Route 66. With an unemployed former barista named Martha as her driver, personal assistant and companion.

Liza is practically out of her mind with worry. Because that’s the person she’s become.

But just as Kathleen is about to fly away, just as she did so often during Liza’s childhood, they have one of those moments when they see each other clearly. A moment that puts a shaky bridge across the emotional chasm between them.

And in that moment they throw each other an emotional lifeline. As the miles increase between them, the distance, paradoxically, closes.

But is it too late?

Escape Rating A-: The Summer Seekers begins as Kathleen and Liza are in the midst of a seemingly life-long failure to communicate. Kathleen is emotionally distant – not just with her daughter but with, generally, everyone in her life. Liza, in reaction to her mother’s emotional distance during her childhood, has turned into her mother’s opposite – a woman who has tried to be so present and so involved in the lives of everyone she loves that she does everything for them – and has lost herself in the process.

Into the middle of that gulf steps, or rather drives, Martha. Literally as well as figuratively. Because Martha has the emotional intelligence that both Kathleen and Liza lack. (It’s clearly not in their family DNA!) It’s kind of a surprise that it’s in Martha’s, because her own family can’t seem to appreciate anything she has or is or does – and it’s killing her spirit one hour at a time.

But on this journey, Martha becomes the bridge between Kathleen and Liza. At 25, she’s not quite young enough to be Liza’s daughter, but she’s definitely of an age to be Kathleen’s granddaughter. In the forced intimacy of a very long car trip in a small but fast sports car, they open up to each other in a way that neither has done with their families.

So technology-savvy Martha facilitates the smartphone, email and video chat communication that links Kathleen with her daughter Liza. They share more over the longer distance than they ever have when close.

At the point where the story becomes about Kathleen’s, Liza’s and Martha’s physical and emotional journeys forward and towards each other, it becomes an absolute delight to follow. But the beginning, when Kathleen and Liza are at such cross purposes they are not having the same conversation even when they are in the same conversation, was a painful read for me because it hit much too close to home.

What makes this story is not the physical journey but rather the emotional journey. Martha, with just a bit of Kathleen’s help, learns to listen to the voice inside herself and not all of the naysayers that surround her at home. Kathleen, with a bit of help from Martha’s emotional intelligence, opens up to her daughter about the past Kathleen left behind long ago, and the betrayal that led to the emotional distance that affected both of their lives.

While Liza, with just a bit of prodding from her mother, finally snaps under the weight of all of the worries and obligations that she has buried herself under for so long. In the resounding echo of that snap she drops everything and takes back…herself. She puts herself, her own dreams and her own needs, back near the top of her gigantic to-do list. And every single person in her life is the better for it. Including, most especially Liza.

The “kicks on Route 66” in the Mustang convertible may be the thing that push the story forward, but it’s the emotional journeys that pull very successfully at the reader’s heart.

Review: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles

Review: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ CharlesThe Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by K.J. Charles
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, M/M romance, regency romance
Pages: 276
Published by KJC Books on February 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonKoboBook Depository
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Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces.
Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes.
Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible.
But Robin's cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after?

My Review:

Like their namesakes, Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne (from Nottinghamshire, no less!) have entered the ton’s Marriage Mart to steal from the rich and give to the poor. The difference all lies with who the later Robin and his sister have put in the positions of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ and just how they intend to accomplish that ‘steal’.

That’s also where all the tropes, along with everything we ever thought about Regency romance, get turned on their heads.

Because Robin and Marianne, in spite of their carefully constructed appearances and personas, know themselves to be the poor – especially in comparison with the high-flyers and high-sticklers of the ton’s elite. Who are, in this scenario, the rich that the Loxleighs are planning to steal from.

Not directly. They are not pickpockets or jewel thieves – although Robin does cheat more than a bit at cards in order to help keep their precarious gamble afloat. What they plan to steal is not so much a thing but rather a place – each – among the upper crust who would spit on them – quite possibly literally – if they managed to see behind the pair’s carefully constructed facade.

They are well on their way to using their exceptional good looks and exceptional well-crafted images to find themselves rich – and if possible titled – spouses to provide them with the financial security they’ve craved.

It all seems to be going entirely too well. Marianne has a marquess well in hand while Robin has been making steady progress with an awkward but intelligent young woman eager to marry and finally gain access to the money her father left for her.

And that’s where the carriage of their intentions comes to a screeching halt, as a protector comes to town to save the young lady that Robin has been pursuing from any designs on her fortune.

At first, Sir John Hartlebury casts himself as the enemy that no plan survives contact with. But all is not as it seems. Not Robin’s plans to marry, not John’s plans to interfere, and not even the young lady’s plans to marry.

It’s damnably difficult for Robin to continue his pursuit of the young lady’s fortune when what he’d really rather chase are her protector’s muscled thighs!

Escape Rating A: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting is an absolutely delightful Regency romp, if not exactly the kind that Georgette Heyer made so much her own.

There’s so much that gets completely turned on its head – and that’s what makes the whole thing such an absolute pleasure to read.

At first Robin and Marianne seem like grifters, out to take what they can get. But as the layers peel back we see that what they really are is fairly young and desperate for security. Money and position buy a lot of security so that’s what they are hunting for when they hunt those fortunes.

The story also exposes the darkness underneath the glitter of the ton. As long as they pretend to be impoverished but well-born, they can be accepted. Any exposure of who and what they really are will get them kicked out the door. But they are the same people either way.

While it’s Robin’s enemies-to-lovers romance with Sir John that strikes all the romantic sparks in this story – and are they ever explosive together! – the character I really felt for was young Alice, the bride that Robin initially pursues.

Because Alice has her own plans. She wants to be a mathematician. She has the capability, the capacity and the talent. What she doesn’t have is the money to pursue her studies, at least not without marrying so she can get the money set aside for her. She’s looking for a deal, or a steal, every bit as much as Robin is and is just as willing to use him to get what she wants as he initially was willing to use her.

In the end, there are a whole lot of witty and intelligent characters who finally discover ways to reach towards their own happiness by learning to ignore all the voices that tell them they shouldn’t have it.

This is one of those times when I know I’m not quite conveying it well. My words feel about as awkward as the brusque and blunt Sir John. Describing what I liked about this book so much feels like trying to capture the effervescence of champagne.

A dry champagne, a bit tart, but with plenty of sparkle and lots of bubbles – of happiness and joy. So if you’re looking for a romance filled with heat, bubbling with laughter and having just a bit of a bite, this one is a winner.

Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl GregoryThe Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Daryl Gregory's The Album of Dr. Moreau combines the science fiction premise of the famous novel by H. G. Wells with the panache of a classic murder mystery and the spectacle of a beloved boy band.
It’s 2001, and the WyldBoyZ are the world’s hottest boy band, and definitely the world’s only genetically engineered human-animal hybrid vocal group. When their producer, Dr. M, is found murdered in his hotel room, the “boyz” become the prime suspects. Was it Bobby the ocelot (“the cute one”), Matt the megabat (“the funny one”), Tim the Pangolin (“the shy one”), Devin the bonobo (“the romantic one”), or Tusk the elephant (“the smart one”)?
Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has only twenty-four hours to solve a case that goes all the way back to the secret science barge where the WyldBoyZ’ journey first began—a place they used to call home.

My Review:

It’s not a surprise to say that this story ties back to The Island of Dr. Moreau, a classic mixture of SF and horror by H.G. Wells. The punch in the gut at the end is the WAY in which it reaches back and grabs the reader by the heart – and the throat.

But that’s all the way at the end. Along the way it’s pretty easy to lose sight of that past while being completely immersed in the book’s very wild and extremely woolly present.

And I’m not just talking about the WildBoyZ themselves – as wild and definitely woolly – or at least furry – as some of them are. I’m not even talking about their “rabid fans” who are, in their own ways, even stranger than the Boyz they follow.

Oh no, I’m talking about the world of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and boy bands. If you’ve ever wondered whether the members of boy bands are cloned instead of merely born and nipped and tucked and botoxed and trained. Or however else it might actually happen that may honestly be weirder than this story.

In the middle of all of the sheer WTF’ery of a boy band on tour, there’s a murder mystery. A real, honest-to-goodness police procedural in a case and a place where all of the police’s normal procedures have been kicked out a penthouse window because 1) the victim is the evil, grasping manager of the above mentioned boy band, and every single one of the WildBoyZ is a suspect; and 2) the murder happens in Las Vegas, which isn’t a place where real world rules apply anyway – even if those rules applied to the hottest band EVAR. Which they don’t.

It’s the police, especially Detectives Luce Delgado and her partner, who hold this story together, even as they attempt to hold the WildBoyZ in Sin City long enough to figure out whodunnit and how.

But it’s the why of the whole thing that kicks the reader in the teeth at the end.

Escape Rating A+: I haven’t read a mashup between SF and Mystery that was this much fun since Bimbos of the Death Sun, and that’s a very long time ago indeed. But where Bimbos uses SF, or rather an SF convention, as the setting for an otherwise traditional murder mystery so it can poke fun at the genre, The Album of Dr. Moreau is SF after all, just with a murder on top rather like a 200 proof cherry on top of a drugged and drunken sundae.

The SF is in the boyz themselves. However they came to exist – which isn’t revealed until the end – the kind of genetic manipulation required to blend animal and human DNA into a person with traits from both sides of that equation is science gone in a direction we haven’t managed yet. (And this is what this story takes from its progenitor. You don’t have to read The Island of Dr. Moreau to get into the Album. If you’re not familiar with the barebones of the older story, the summary in Wikipedia is more than enough to get a reader up to speed.)

So Dolly the cloned sheep carried out to the nth degree – who does get referred to – absolutely does science fiction make.

It also raises, begs, explores and twists the question of exactly what is required to consider someone human. Or self-aware and sentient and eligible for all the rights and responsibilities generally conferred thereunto. It’s a question we still seem to suck at answering – or rather that some people don’t like the answers that science makes clear.

On the one hand, this story is both amazingly fun and incredibly funny. It lampoons boy bands, fandom and fan culture and the cult of celebrity and what it takes to enter that rarefied atmosphere and maintain a place there. The humor is black and deadpan and spot on at every turn.

On the other, there’s the dark underbelly about youth and innocence and exploitation. And hidden below that cesspit, there are alphabet agencies and conspiracy theories. It’s mucky and murky all the way down, and all the laughs turn out to be gallows humor – sometimes complete with actual gallows.

But the question of whether anyone deserves to hang for the murder – well, that answer was both perfectly surprising and absolutely perfect in its fine application of justice.

I think that The Album of Dr. Moreau deserves to go platinum. I hope you’ll think so too.

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli ClarkA Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Pages: 400
Published by Tordotcom on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city - or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems....

My Review:

From a certain perspective, A Master of Djinn is urban fantasy of the old alternate history school of urban fantasy. Urban fantasy so often revolves around one of two premises, either that magic has always been here, and most of us just haven’t noticed – or the other side of that coin, that once upon a time there was magic that either slowly or quickly left, but that something or someone has made the magic return. Usually with world shaking or world shattering results.

A Master of Djinn is definitely one of those stories where the magic has returned. But it isn’t a story about what happens when that magic returned. Instead, and more interestingly, this is a story that takes place about 50 years later, when the magic has more or less become part of the new fabric of the world and history has adapted around it – whether people have or not.

This story takes place in Cairo – Egypt and definitely not Illinois (a tip of the hat to American Gods which is surprisingly apropos in the end) – in an alternate 1912. The re-introduction of magic has changed the world in a whole lot of ways while at the same time the great forces of history that brought about World War I in our history are still very much in train. A train that might still be forced off the metaphorical rails – but might not. And will certainly cause worldwide destruction either way.

At the same time, also very much a part of urban fantasy, there’s a mystery to solve. And someone to solve it, in this case Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fatma is one of the few women in an agency that is still mostly male dominated, and a native Egyptian in a world where Egypt has thrown off the yoke of British colonial power – no matter how reluctant the British are to accept that the Raj is dying and that the new world order looks like it will push the countries with old magic – the countries they once colonized – into the forefront.

The case that Fatma has to solve very much intertwines the new world and the old. From the very outset, it seems like it’s a crime of magic. And so it is. But like all the best of urban fantasy, which A Master of Djinn very much is, magic may be the modus operandi but it is not the reason behind any or all of the crimes involved.

Someone in Cairo wants to become the master of all the djinn that have become part of the city’s rise to power, and part of the brave new world that they brought with them. And they don’t care how much of the city – or the world – they have to destroy in order to get their way.

After all, the aphorism about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, is entirely, completely and utterly about humans. Especially the human at the heart of this case.

Escape Rating A++: Honestly, I want to just sit here and squee. A lot. This was amazingly awesome from beginning to end and I don’t say that lightly. This is one of those stories that made me think pretty much all the thoughts and I’m still reeling a bit from the absolutely epic book hangover.

I also think the 400 page count is a bit of an underestimate. This is a lot of book, in scope, in depth and in size. If It sounds interesting but you’re wondering whether you will like it or not, there are three very short reads set in the same universe but not direct prequels to this story. So if this universe sounds like fun, The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is only 32 pages and is available free at Tor.com,  A Dead Djinn in Cairo is only 45 pages and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is 116 pages. Long enough to give you a taste without devoting the weekend that A Master of Djinn really, really consumes.

And I’m telling you that because I loved this book and just want to shove it at people to read. I’m not above using ANY of the short works in this universe as a gateway drug in order to accomplish that.

Speaking of gateway drugs, two books that A Master of Djinn reminded me of A LOT are Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone and Snake Agent by Liz Williams. In combination, they represent two of the elements of the Dead Djinn Universe, that mix of the cities powered by magic and worlds where the divine and the supernatural walk among humans as ordinary citizens. Three Parts Dead has a similar steampunk “feel” as A Master of Djinn while Snake Agent is also urban fantasy in that the continuing character is a government agent who solves crimes involving the supernatural and the other-than or more-than human.

One more digression, probably not the last. The way that the world has been pushed onto a new axis has endless possibilities and not just in Agent Fatma’s Cairo. This is a world where the colonizers have all been pushed hard off their thrones and dominions because they either don’t have old magic in their history and/or have deliberately pushed aside and suppressed old magic in the places they thought they “conquered”. It’s not all djinn. We already know it’s not djinn in Germany because we meet Kaiser Wilhelm and his goblin advisor. It’s not going to be djinn in the Americas, either. But whoever and whatever comes back wherever, the colonizers are already the ones finding themselves ground under someone else’s bootheel – and they don’t like it and are going to fight back. All of which has the potential to be totally epic.

But those are stories for another day. Today we have Agent Fatma, her Cairo, and the would-be master of the djinn. Who don’t want a master at all – thankyouverymuch.

The story is mostly told from Fatma’s perspective, although not in the first-person. It’s more that she’s the character we follow rather than seeing the story from inside her head. Still, I think the reader needs to like her and feel for her as she does her best to work the case that has the powers-that-be so upset. As I most definitely did.

She’s caught between frustrations and multiple nexus (nexi?) of power. She’s a woman in what is still a man’s world, constantly needing to prove herself by being better than the best. At which she mostly succeeds.

At the same time, she’s part of a world that is, in its entirety, in the midst of change. Not just the change that women are slowly but steadily invading what were formerly all-male preserves, but also a world where the political status quo has turned upside down. While the political and economic power in Egypt and elsewhere around the world has been taken out of the hands of the British and other colonizers and returned to the citizens and residents – and their own elected or hereditary leadership – who are part of the once-colonies – there is still plenty of residual feeling, both reverence and resentment – for individuals who used to be part of the colonial power structure.

And money always talks. The rich are still different from you and me, as that saying goes. The wealthy, in any time and place and of any origin, are able to buy their own version of justice.

We follow Fatma as she navigates those waters, balancing her need to investigate the case, her necessity of not pissing off her bosses and getting herself demoted or fired, her desire to protect her city and those she loves, and the absolute necessity of exposing a criminal who is trying not just to reach the sky and touch the sun, but to bring it down to earth and make it work at her command.

Fatma will need all of her wits and all of her friends in both high and low places in order to bring justice and save not just her city but her world from utter destruction. As we follow her on her quest, we learn exactly why she’s the right woman – and the right agent – for the job.

I sincerely hope we get to read more of her adventures, because she’s awesome and so is her story.

Review: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Review: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuireAcross the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children, #6) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Wayward Children #6
Pages: 174
Published by Tordotcom on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire's Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.
“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”
Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.
When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to "Be Sure" before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.
But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

My Review:

Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth book in the multi-award-winning Wayward Children series. It also seems to be the first book in the series that does not somehow center around Miss West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Not that the ending of this one doesn’t lead the reader to wonder if Regan, the central figure of this particular story, isn’t going to wind up at Miss West’s sometime after the book ends. Not after the story ends, because like the best of stories, this doesn’t feel like it ended so much as it feels like the author has moved her gaze away from Regan onto the next child and more importantly, the next doorway.

If the first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, read as post-Narnia, a look at the lives of children much like the Pevensie children AFTER they came back from Narnia and had to adjust to being children and commoners and depressingly normal again. Or whatever normal they each managed to approximate.

Because you have to wonder just how hard that “normal” was to fake. Based on what happens to the children who have come to Miss West’s, that faking is NOT EASY very much in all caps.

But Across the Green Grass Fields is Regan’s story, but not Regan’s story of re-adjustment. Instead, it’s the story of Regan as she finds her own special doorway, the one that leads her to the place her heart calls home.

Regan’s doorway leads to the Hooflands, a place filled with centaurs and unicorns and kelpies and every other kind of mythical creature that has hooves – with or without unicorn horns. The Hooflands are Regan’s special place because Regan, like many young girls, loves horses.

But the reason that the doorway between our world and the Hooflands has opened at all is because the Hooflands need a human at this moment in their history as much as Regan wants a place to escape to.

The Hooflands need a human to rescue them from something terrible, even if the centaur herd that adopts Regan doesn’t yet know what that terrible something is. And Regan needs time to come to terms with being, not so much perfect in itself as no human is perfect, but with being perfectly Regan – no matter what anyone else, not even her ultra-conformist and uber-bitchy former best friend has to say about it.

Escape Rating A: One of the things that the beginning of this story conveys extremely well is just how vicious and cutthroat playground “politics” can be among grade school children – especially girls. And just how parents seem to forget that fact when they reach adulthood.

I know that’s a strange place to start but then this was a bit of a strange book at the start for me. I loved it but also found the opening a bit hard of a read. When Regan first learns just how truly vicious her best friend Laurel can be, after Laurel rejects and ostracizes their former friend Heather for violating Laurel’s rigid rules about what constitutes girlhood, I was right there for all of it. I was a Heather, someone who colored outside those lines when I was 5 or 6 and spent the following years in virtual isolation because there was a Queen Bee just like Laurel who determined that I was less than nothing and enforced that over the whole playground and classroom. And I know I’m not the only person who went through that experience. It happens, it happens a lot and it still happens as this book clearly shows.

So that part was so hard and so real.

We can all see Regan’s coming falling out – or rather her being pushed away – from Laurel long before it does. There’s already a part of her that wants to do more things and different things from her controlling “best friend”, an impulse that’s only going to get stronger as the girls get older and develop separate interests.

But puberty arrives first, and brings Regan’s world crashing down. Because in the competitive race to maturity among those little girls, Regan is not merely losing, but is being left behind. And every one of those little girls makes her feel it.

When Regan learns that she is intersex, it answers her questions but leaves her feeling deceived by her parents – they’ve always known that she had XY chromosomes instead of the expected XX – and needing to vent to her best friend about the injustice of it all.

Only to face utter, humiliating rejection. Followed by that desperate run towards the door that will take her to the Hooflands, a place where she’ll be the only human anyone has ever seen. Where she’ll have time to deal with her feelings about being different from other humans without having to deal with other humans.

At least not until she has to meet her destiny and save the Hooflands.

There’s so much that ends up packed into this story. And all of it ends up being pretty much awesome.

On the one hand – or hoof – there’s Regan who, in spite of her constant trying is not going to be able to shoehorn herself into Laurel’s tiny box of girlhood. A fact that actually has little to do with chromosomes and everything to do with Laurel’s box in specific and society’s box in general being too tight and too constraining and too restrictive to fit lots of humans who are born female or appear female – and for that matter lots of humans who are born male or appear male. Strict gender roles are a straitjacket for everyone.

On top of that – or on another hoof – in addition to the whole concept about gender being destiny being complete BS – while Regan is in the Hooflands she also has to deal with the local concept of species being destiny. Or at least the local myths, legends and history that all say that a human comes through a door because the Hooflands needs someone to fight some great evil. And that the fight with evil somehow requires not just opposable but downright flexible thumbs.

Regan, being the human who has just walked through their door, is therefore destined to save the Hooflands and then leave everyone she has come to love behind. Whether she wants to or not.

It’s not just that species is destiny with a capital D. Regan is still a child. Even if the local people – and they are all people who just happen to have hooves instead of or in addition to hands – believe she must save them from whatever, Regan knows she’s not ready to save anyone, at least not yet.

Very much like the young protagonist of the utterly awesome A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Regan can’t help but question why the hell the adults in the Hooflands are not taking matters into their own hooves and hands and saving themselves. It should not be up to her just because she’s human. It should be up to them, not just because it’s their world but because dammit they are GROWNUPS!

On top of, and underneath and woven all through, there’s an adventure story about a girl who loves horses getting to live in a place that’s all horses all the time. She gets to find a family and become part of a community and discover the best of friendship and the worst of people all at the same time. And it’s lovely.

It also makes Regan’s ultimate sacrifice all that much more heartbreaking.

Excuse me, there seems to be a bit of dust in this post.

Review: Confessions from the Quilting Circle by Maisey Yates

Review: Confessions from the Quilting Circle by Maisey YatesConfessions from the Quilting Circle: A Novel by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin HQN on May 4, 2021
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"Yates weaves surprises and vivid descriptions into this moving tale about strong and nurturing female family bonds."—Booklist on Confessions from the Quilting Circle  
The Ashwood women don’t have much in common...except their ability to keep secrets.
When Lark Ashwood’s beloved grandmother dies, she and her sisters discover an unfinished quilt. Finishing it could be the reason Lark’s been looking for to stop running from the past, but is she ever going to be brave enough to share her biggest secret with the people she ought to be closest to?
Hannah can’t believe she’s back in Bear Creek, the tiny town she sacrificed everything to escape from. The plan? Help her sisters renovate her grandmother’s house and leave as fast as humanly possible. Until she comes face-to-face with a man from her past. But getting close to him again might mean confessing what really drove her away...
Stay-at-home mom Avery has built a perfect life, but at a cost. She’ll need all her family around her, and all her strength, to decide if the price of perfection is one she can afford to keep paying.
This summer, the Ashwood women must lean on each other like never before, if they are to stitch their family back together, one truth at a time...

My Review:

I usually say there are two variations on stories about home. One is the Thomas Wolfe version in the title of the book, You Can’t Go Home Again. One is the Robert Frost version, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Now I have a third version, Addie Dowell’s combination of hope, prayer and hard-lived experience, that “you can never go so far that you can’t come back home.”

This is a story about coming home. Not just about Mary Ashwood and her three daughters, Avery, Hannah and Lark, but also the journey of Mary’s mother, Addie, and all of the Dowell women that came before her, starting with Anabeth Snow Dowell, the widow who boarded a Conestoga wagon to make the long and arduous journey from Boston to Bear Creek Oregon after the loss of the husband who planned it – and who found love and hope along the way.

It’s also a story about starting over in the place where you began, whether you ever left it or not. Because as much as we all sometimes want to leave our pasts behind, we carry them with us wherever we go, with the weight of the things left unsaid and undone dragging us back at every turn.

Escape Rating A: I don’t often have a playlist for books, but I do this time. It’s Stevie Nicks’ Landslide on endless loop, because it feels like her story reflects all the journeys in this book. And now the damn thing is an earworm and I can’t get it out of my head.

The story here is on two tracks, although it isn’t time slip. It’s not about seeing the whole of the lives of the characters in the past, rather about the Ashwood women seeing the way that, in spite of how much the trappings of life have changed over the centuries, the experiences of the women who came before them have profound resonances in their lives in the present.

Which is a long way of saying that history repeats, specifically that history has repeated through the generations of the Dowell/Ashwood family. And that a big part of the history that keeps repeating is the way that each generation of the family – at least on the distaff side – does their best to keep what each believes are damning secrets to themselves. Even at times and places where the reveal would be the best thing for everyone involved.

It’s a lot of women hiding away their hurts and disappointments and sins in order to keep what is often a very dubious – and sometimes destructive – peace.

So Mary pretends to be stoic and Avery pretends to be perfect and Hannah pretends to be obsessed with her career while Lark pretends to be an irresponsible drifter. But even though there are aspects of truth in those pretenses, at the heart of them is a very big secret that each of them is forced to reveal to the others believing that the cost of stepping out of each other’s comfort zones will be too high to pay.

But none of them have gone so far that they can’t come back home to each other. Which is what makes this story such a lovely read.

Review: The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R Green

Review: The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R GreenThe Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Gideon Sable #1
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House Publishers on April 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Welcome to London, but not as you know it. A place where magics and horror run free, wonders and miracles are everyday things, and the dark streets are full of very shadowy people . . .

Gideon Sable is a thief and a con man. He specializes in stealing the kind of things that can't normally be stolen. Like a ghost's clothes, or a photo from a country that never existed. He even stole his current identity. Who was he originally? Now, that would be telling. One thing's for sure though, he's not the bad guy. The people he steals from always have it coming. Gideon's planning a heist, to steal the only thing that matters from the worst man in the world. To get past his security, he's going to need a crew who can do the impossible . . . but luckily, he has the right people in mind. The Damned, the Ghost, the Wild Card . . . and his ex-girlfriend, Annie Anybody. A woman who can be anyone, with the power to make technology fall in love with her. If things go well, they'll all get what they want. And if they're lucky, they might not even die trying . . .

My Review:

Speaking of having the snark turned up to 11 – or at least something turned up to 11, so far this week we’re one for tension and two for snark with two books left to go – the snark is absolutely turned up to 11 and even past it in The Best Thing You Can Steal.

Even if snark isn’t exactly what this crew is out to nab. Then again, they don’t need any extra as they all have PLENTY of their own.

Considering the title, it’s not going to surprise anyone that this is a heist story. As the first book in a projected series, it’s the story of a man with a plan, in this case con man Gideon Sable, putting together a crew of “experts” to steal from the biggest and baddest collector who ever lived.

If that description sounds kind of familiar, it should. It’s the TV series Leverage, just set in a version of our world that’s hiding more than a few of the things that go bump in the night – even if none of them, so far, are any of the usual suspects.

So it’s Leverage, crossed with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – or really, definitely, mostly the author’s own Nightside. And possibly, eventually, every single other series Green has ever written.

Because he does that. Brings bits and pieces from everywhere and everywhen his imagination has ever been and cross-pollinates his other worlds with them. So even though this is the first book in a new series, there’s more than a bit of deja vu for anyone who has ever read any of the author’s previous work.

After all, Gideon Sable used to be someone else. So even though all of the author’s previous series except one all crashed, burned and ended together in a smoking pile at the close of Night Fall, the official last book of his Secret Histories, Nightside and Ghost Finders series, it’s entirely possible that Gideon Sable – and his on again/off again girlfriend Annie Anybody – used to be someone we used to know.

I can’t wait to find out.

Escape Rating A-: I’m inclined to believe that Simon R Green is an acquired taste. It’s just that it’s a taste I acquired a long time ago and never even tried to get over.

So even though this is the first book in this series – to the point where a reader who loves urban fantasy but has never read this author could start here and not feel like they missed anything. At the same time, it also FEELS like it could be dropped into any of his previous series. And quite possibly will be if it goes on long enough.

So this book is both different from his previous work and very much a piece of it all at the same time.

Like the protagonists in many, I think most of Green’s previous series, Gideon Sable isn’t so much telling the story from his first person perspective as he is narrating the story of his own life. Which in this case makes perfect sense, because he’s clearly playing a role rather than actually living a life.

Sable is as much an archetype as he is a character, but then so are all the members of his crew. The woman who is always pretending to be someone else because she can’t face herself, the man who has committed an act so evil that neither heaven nor hell will have him, the one who has taken the red pill but still lives in a blue pill world, and the ghost who can’t let go of his unfinished business.

And all of that is part of the way that this author creates and fills in the colors of his worlds. Where some series, like Murderbot for example, are so much fun because of the voice of a particular character, Green’s worlds all reflect the voice of the author himself. No matter who or what his characters are, all of Green’s protagonists speak in his very singular voice.

Although, while this story is filled to the brim and overflowing with the author’s trademark snark, I found the ending to be a bit more hopeful than his usual – along with the even lovelier promise of more to come.

So if you like the idea of a snark-sparked team coming together in order to pull off the caper of the century, Gideon Sable might just be your jam. It certainly is mine. At least until he steals it.

Review: Havoc by M.L. Buchman

Review: Havoc by M.L. BuchmanHavoc (Miranda Chase NTSB #7) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #7
Pages: 374
Published by Buchman Bookworks on April 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When one of their own is threatened—the nation’s #1 air-crash investigation team enters a race to survive.

An airliner downed on a Pacific atoll. A CIA covert strike team sent in to “clean it up.” An old enemy seeks revenge. This time, the NTSB’s autistic air-crash investigator, Miranda Chase, and her team are in the crosshairs. The action races around the globe as US military airbases become shooting galleries and their lives are placed on the line.

And hidden from sight? A treacherous plan to grab political power and start a new war with Russia in the Middle East. Only Miranda’s team stands in their way, if they can survive.

My Review:

As Miranda Chase’s team has pulled together over the course of this marvelous series, each person that has joined has occupied a specific and necessary niche.

Necessary for the team to function at its incredibly high peak of capability, and necessary for Miranda to be able to manage her world. She needs every person in their proper place so that she can concentrate on why the downed aircraft in front of her abruptly stopped being in its proper place – flying safely through the sky.

But in Havoc, the seventh book in this awesome series, one of the key members of Miranda’s team has gone, not exactly walkabout, as much as Australian Holly Hunter wishes she truly were.

Holly was on her way to tie up the loose ends left by the deaths of her parents in remote Tenant Creek, a tiny town in the middle of Australia’s Northern Territory. The place that Holly left at 16, half a lifetime ago, and tried never to look back at through her military career in her country’s special forces and her secondment from the Australian TSB to Miranda’s team in the US NTSB.

Holly has always occupied the “lancer” position in Miranda’s now-larger-than-5-man band. Holly’s the muscle and she handles security. She’s also Miranda’s truest friend in a way that neither woman has much experience with.

So the team is off-kilter and a bit off their game when Holly is away. An absence that gets extended when Holly’s flight “home” is forced to crash on a remote Pacific atoll. That crash scene is barely squared away when a high-profile crash drags Miranda and the rest of the team to Syria. It’s only after she finally reaches Australia that Holly discovers the reason for both crashes.

It’s not paranoia if someone really is out to get you. When that someone is a pissed-off, psychotic Russian elite operative who has been locked in a box for a year and is willing to start a real honest-to-badness war in order to make sure you go down, even Holly’s extreme paranoia isn’t nearly enough.

But Holly is. No matter what it takes to save Miranda and the rest of the team she calls “home”.

Escape Rating A: The plot of Havoc is a story where all of the chickens from a previous adventure in this series, Condor, all come home to roost. I’m not sure you need to have read the ENTIRE series to get into Havoc as much as I did – although it’s awesome and I don’t know why you wouldn’t – but I don’t think it would work at all to start with Havoc. In this case, to get up to speed quickly you’d need to read both the first book, Drone, and Condor before Havoc.

But the whole series is totally awesome and well worth a read. Truly.

Back to those chickens coming home to roost in this story. There are two elements of Condor that come back to haunt this time around

The first is that Miranda’s friends-with-benefits relationship with Major Jon Swift of the US Air Force Accident Investigation Board comes to an abrupt end with the shock of a Taser. Literally. Deservedly. And oh-thank-goodness finally. Back in Condor it seemed like the relationship might actually work, but Major Swift turned into Major PIA (Pain in the Ass) long before Miranda slapped him in the face early in this story. He won’t be missed by anyone. Not even Miranda.

The second, biggest and baddest of those “chickens” is the Russian Zaslon operative, Elayne Kasparak that the team beat in the earlier story. Holly turned out to be the nemesis that brought Kasparak down. Once she was captured, Holly made a deal with Miranda’s rival-turned-frenemy, CIA Director Clarissa Reese because Miranda didn’t like the idea of just killing her. No matter how much she seriously deserved it..

Kasparak was supposed to spend the rest of her life locked up in one of the CIA’s infamous Black Sites. When she learns that Kasparak has somehow managed to escape the inescapable, Holly knows that Kasparak is responsible for both recent plane crashes and that she’s gunning for Holly with everything she’s got.

Which is 10-pounds of crazy in a 5-pound sack with knives and guns pointed at everyone and everything Holly holds dear. As far as Kasparak is concerned, any collateral damage she racks up along the way is just icing on her crazycake.

As this story was going on, and the stakes just kept getting higher and higher, and I started to get a bit desperate to see what happened next, I still found myself stopping in the middle for a bit. Not because it was bad, but because it was so good and I was so caught up in it and I discovered that I cared about Holly so damn much that I couldn’t bear to read her pain.

And it just kept getting more and more painful as it goes, as we learn both about what made Holly who and what she is – and what she’ll go through to take care of everyone she has claimed as her own.

This is one where the tension just ramps up past 11 and keeps right on going. Even a bit past the end.

Not that the story of Miranda’s team has ended when the reader closes Havoc. Which left me with a terrible book hangover. I don’t merely want, I absolutely NEED to find out what happens after the end of this book. But the next book in the series, White Top, won’t be out for a month or two, and I don’t even have an ARC yet, so I’ll have to wait.

My fingernails may not survive.

Review: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Review: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha WellsFugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries, #6) by Martha Wells
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Murderbot Diaries #6
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on April 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall.
When Murderbot discovers a dead body on Preservation Station, it knows it is going to have to assist station security to determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people—who knew?)
Yes, the unthinkable is about to happen: Murderbot must voluntarily speak to humans!
Again!

My Review:

If you like characters who have their snark-o-matic turned up to 11 ALL THE TIME you’re going to love Murderbot. Because it’s snarktastic to the max and we get to spend the entire story inside its head as it thinks about just how much it would like to shove all the humans around it out the nearest airlock – or at least tie and gag them all so they stop getting in its way.

Because we’ve all felt that way from time to time. And we all come to the same conclusion that Murderbot does, that we really can’t indulge in those particular desires because the consequences would be too damn much trouble.

Not that Murderbot couldn’t handle the trouble, but then there’d be even more trouble, and it would all take time away from watching bad space opera on downloaded media. And haven’t we all been exactly there – or close enough?

What’s interesting about this particular entry in the Murderbot Diaries, at least from the perspective of a Murderbot fan (and Murderbot would be oh-so-pissed to know it had fans!), is that this is a story about Murderbot adapting to its new circumstances rather than a story about dealing with one evil corporation’s desire to get revenge for Murderbot’s favored humans’ successful scotching of their extreme version of corporate skullduggery.

Not that the result of this entry isn’t ALSO the scotching of extreme corporate skullduggery, it’s just that it’s a different corporation so the skullduggery isn’t PERSONAL. Now that Murderbot is starting to adjust – after its own fashion – to being a person. Not a human, Murderbot has no desire to be human – thank you very much.

But Murderbot is not merely an individual but is acknowledged by the powers-that-be on Preservation Station – if not most of the residents – that it is a self-willed entity responsible for its own actions. That it is not owned or fostered or infantilized by the humans it has chosen to consort with.

Most of the humans on the Station are having a bit of a problem with that. Mostly because the popular media image of SecUnits – the hybrid human/AI beings that Murderbot was programmed to be – have a bad reputation to say the least. Technically Murderbot is a “rogue SecUnit” who has hacked its own programming. From the perspective of the corporation that did the original programming and thinks it OWNS Murderbot, that perspective is kind of correct. Except that it mostly isn’t.

Everyone expects Murderbot to run around and start murdering people. Its self-selected name designation does not exactly help it counteract that image.

It also doesn’t help when it finds a dead body on a station that has such a low incidence of murder that entirely too many humans want to blame the murder on Murderbot. Murderbot just wants to do what it does best, investigate this extremely anomalous incident in case it might have something to do with the evil corporation that is still chasing the humans it has taken under its protection.

After all, it needs to deal with the possible threat so that it can return to viewing the next episode of its favorite space opera serial.

Escape Rating A: If you love Murderbot as much as I do, Fugitive Telemetry is a terrific opportunity to get back in touch with its snark. If you have not yet met Murderbot, this is not the place to begin your acquaintance. Start with All Systems Red to understand just what makes Murderbot so much deliciously snarky fun and to get an insight on just what made this series a nominee for the 2021 Hugo Award for Best Series as well as garnering nominations for last year’s Murderbot outing, Network Effect, for Best Novel in both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Fugitive Telemetry is a story about Murderbot doing the job that it was originally programmed to do, just doing it for itself and for the job’s own sake and not because someone ordered it to do so. Murderbot is a very noir detective solving a murder in a place that doesn’t even have any mean streets – although it certainly has plenty of mean people.

One of the things that makes Murderbot so fascinating is that it most explicitly has zero desire to be human. It’s not Data, it doesn’t think humans are “better” in any way and does not aspire to be one of us. It thinks we’re stupid and useless and full of shit in more ways than one – and it’s right.

So even when it’s trying to blend in, it’s not because it thinks we’re better, it’s because it thinks we’re worse but that we’ll get out of it’s way more easily if it can make us a bit more comfortable – or at least a bit less upset with it.

The only thing it seems to think we’re actually good for is producing media with which it can while away its actually copious free time.

At the same time, as much as it finds humans irksome – often in the extreme – it is also saying to itself all the things that we’ve said to ourselves about other people and never our ownselves. Murderbot thinks all the kinds of things we wish we’d said and its internal voice is wry and snarky to the point of chortles and chuckles and even the occasional LOL.

So if you like your detectives über-competent and ultra-snarky, pick up Fugitive Telemetry or any of the Murderbot Diaries and take a walk inside Murderbot’s head. It’s a fun place to spend an afternoon.

Also a much more survivable place than being the person or corporation that Murderbot has in its sights. Meanwhile, I have Murderbot – or at least its diaries – squarely in my reading sights. It’s just been announced that the author has a new contract with Tordotcom for three more books in this fantastic series. Go Murderbot!

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison EpsteinA Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 384
Published by Doubleday Books on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant aspiring playwright, is pulled into the duplicitous world of international espionage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. A many-layered historical thriller combining state secrets, intrigue, and romance.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe's last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, who has come with an unorthodox career opportunity. Her Majesty's spies are in need of new recruits, and Kit's flexible moral compass has drawn their attention. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to act as a servant in her household and keep his ear to the ground for a Catholic plot to put Mary on the throne.
While observing Mary, Kit learns more than he bargained for. The ripple effects of his service to the Crown are far-reaching and leave Kit a changed man. But there are benefits as well. The salary he earns through his spywork allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years, he becomes the toast of London's raucous theatre scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason, he realizes everything he's worked so hard to attain--including the trust of the man he loves--could vanish before his very eyes.
Pairing modern language with period detail, Allison Epstein brings Elizabeth's privy council, Marlowe's lovable theatre troupe, and the squalor of sixteenth-century London to vivid, teeming life as Kit wends his way behind the scenes of some of Tudor history's most memorable moments. At the center of the action is Kit himself--an irrepressible, irreverent force of nature. Thrillingly written, full of poetry and danger, A Tip for the Hangman brings an unforgettable protagonist to new life, and makes a centuries-old story feel utterly contemporary.

My Review:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” Whoops. Wrong book. Right concept, but very much the wrong book. Much too early.

Elizabethan England only seems like a Golden Age because we’re looking back at it. Because history is written by the victors, and in this case the victor was Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana herself.

Anonymous 16th century portrait, believed to be Christopher Marlowe

What history glosses over are the dirty deeds done, whether or not they are dirt cheap, by unscrupulous men in dark places who pretend they are working for the good of their country – even if they are just out for the main chance.

Christopher Marlowe, often referred to as Kit, was a comet blazing across the English stage just as William Shakespeare was getting his start. It’s even possible, although unlikely, that Marlowe actually was Shakespeare. He’s got the credentials for it and the timing is possible.

On the condition that Marlowe faked his own rather suspicious death in a barroom brawl. We’ll probably never know.

But this book, this story wrapped around not one but several tips for any number of hangmen, leads the reader – and Kit Marlowe – to that suspicious barroom brawl by a road that is surprising, circuitous and shrouded in secrets. The kind of secrets that brought one queen to her end and saved another’s kingdom.

Escape Rating A+: A Tip for the Hangman is the best kind of historical fiction, the kind where the reader feels the dirt under their fingernails, the grit under their own feet – and the smells in their own nostrils.

It’s also the kind that immerses the reader in the era it portrays. We’re right there with Marlowe, a poor scholarship student at Cambridge, as he becomes Doctor Faustus to his own personal Mephistopheles a decade before he wrote his most enduring play.

Depiction of Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I, Queen of England.

It’s hard to get past that image, even though we only see it in retrospect, as the Queen’s Spymaster and Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, recruits the young, impoverished and most importantly clever Marlowe into his network of agents and informants with one aim in mind.

To bring down Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

A recruitment which ultimately becomes Mary’s end. But eventually also Marlowe’s as well.

Marlowe spends the entire book dancing on the edge of a knife, trying to forget that he’ll be cut no matter which way he falls and ignoring the forces around him, along with his own increasing world-weariness, that guarantee he will fall sooner or later.

There’s something about this period, the Tudor and Stuart era of English history, that has always captivated me. This book does a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the cut and thrust not of politics so much as the skullduggery that lies underneath it.

As I was reading A Tip for the Hangman, my mind dragged up two series that I loved that feature the same period and have many characters that overlap this book. Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age puts an urban fantasy/portal twist on this period and includes both Marlowe and Shakespeare as featured characters, while Dorothy Dunnett’s marvelous Lymond series focuses on a character who spies on many of the same people that Marlowe does here, most notably Mary, Queen of Scots. Lymond’s frequent second, third and fourth thoughts about the life he has fallen into echo Marlowe in the depths of regret and even despair.

A Tip for the Hangman is a fantastic book for those looking for their history and historical fiction to be “warts and all” – to immerse the reader in life as it was lived and not just the deeds and doings of the high and mighty. Because when it comes to conveying a more nuanced version of life as a hard-scrabbling playwright living hand to mouth and fearing that the hand would get cut off this feels like an absorbing story of fiction being the lie that tells, if not THE absolute truth then absolutely a certain kind of truth.

I would also say, “Read it and weep” for Kit Marlowe and what he might have been if he’d lived. Instead, I’ll just say “READ IT!”