Guest Review: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

Guest Review: Last Light by Alex ScarrowLast Light (Last Light, #1) by Alex Scarrow
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: action adventure, dystopian, thriller
Series: Last Light #1
Pages: 402
Published by Orion on July 25th 2007
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

It begins on a very normal Monday morning. But in the space of only a few days, the world's oil supplies have been severed and at a horrifying pace things begin to unravel everywhere. This is no natural disaster; someone is behind this.

Oil engineer Andy Sutherland is stranded in Iraq with a company of British soldiers, desperate to find a way home, trapped as the very infrastructure of daily life begins to collapse around him. Back in Britain, his wife Jenny is stuck in Manchester, fighting desperately against the rising chaos to get back to their children; London as events begin to spiral out of control -- riots, raging fires, looting, rape, and murder. In the space of a week, London is transformed into an anarchic vision of hell.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tracking Andy's family. He'll silence anyone who can reveal the identities of those behind this global disaster. The people with a stranglehold on the future of civilization have flexed their muscles at other significant tipping points in history, and they are prepared to do anything to keep their secret -- and their power -- safe.

Guest Review by Amy:

What would happen to our lives if the flow of oil suddenly got chopped off? Alex Scarrow gives us one possible answer: chaos. One family, Andy and Jennifer Sutherland and their children, college-age Leona and young Jacob, is separated by their circumstances when things go to pieces: Andy is in Iraq with his consulting work as an engineer, Jennifer is in Manchester applying for a job, Leona is at college, and Jake is at his boarding school. As the family struggles to reunite safely at their London home while their world collapses around them, it becomes clear that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Escape Rating: A-: I’ll be honest here; I don’t read a lot of “thrillers,” really, but this one seemed interesting after its title appeared in a discussion I was reading about theories around the end of our oil-dependent civilization. The premise here is that things would get crazy in a big, big hurry, if oil production were disrupted at a few key places; the “Peak Oil” theory, as opposed to one of many “depletion” theories. The story was written in 2007, and the situation has changed since then – for one thing, the largest oil-producing country in the world is no longer Saudi Arabia, but the United States. So, the story feels a little dated in that respect.

Taken purely as an adventure-thriller, though, it’s got a lot of solid points. There is a deep conspiracy which has been orchestrating a lot of the chaos, and they’re certain that young Leona knows who at least one of the conspirators is, thanks to a random occurrence ten years before, so an assassin is dispatched to “clean up.” Meanwhile, Andy is struggling, with the help of another foreign contractor and some British troops, to escape Iraq and get home, and Jenny finds herself far to the north of her home, aided by a stranger.

All four members of the Sutherland family are quickly exposed to the fact that we humans turn into savages very, very quickly when things get weird. There’s much made of the fact that “We British are better than this,” and even the Prime Minister, in his press conference, tries to appeal to the Churchillian spirit of his people, to buck up and be strong, we’re Brits, we can handle this. (Pro-tip for Prime Ministers: That was then, this is now, and that appeal probably won’t work today. It sure didn’t for this poor man.)

The action is fast, and lots of people don’t make it, so as readers, we must be careful which characters we get interested in, lest they leave us too soon. The book is stark and shocking, and certainly thought-provoking in light of more-recent events. As I say, thrillers aren’t necessarily my everyday read, but this one had a lot of interesting things going on, plenty of suspense, and enough thought-provoking commentary on the situation to get me thinking and reading more about those matters elsewhere. It’s a quick read, so if you like high-speed thrillers, give this one a look.

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith HunterJunkyard Cats by Faith Hunter
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, military science fiction, post apocalyptic
Series: Junkyard Cats #1
Published by Audible Studios on January 2nd 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

After the Final War, after the appearance of the Bug aliens and their enforced peace, Shining Smith is still alive, still doing business from the old scrapyard bequeathed to her by her father. But Shining is now something more than human. And the scrapyard is no longer just a scrapyard, but a place full of secrets that she has guarded for years.

This life she has built, while empty, is predictable and safe. Until the only friend left from her previous life shows up, dead, in the back of a scrapped Tesla warplane, a note to her clutched in his fingers - a note warning her of a coming attack.

Someone knows who she is. Someone knows what she is guarding. Will she be able to protect the scrapyard? Will she even survive? Or will she have to destroy everything she loves to keep her secrets out of the wrong hands?

My Review:

I picked up Junkyard Cats because it was one of the monthly freebies for Audible members. It looked like interesting SF, had “Cats” in the title, and I was looking for something shorter after spending a whole lot of hours sucked into an excellent but long story and needed a bit of a break.

And did I ever get one. Although Shining Smith doesn’t seem to get many. Ever. At all.

The setting for Junkyard Cats is a remote bit of post-apocalyptic West Virginia in a future that doesn’t seem that far away in time from our present. But it’s clearly one hell of distance down the road to hell.

This is not remotely one of the fun post-apocalypses. Shining Smith’s world is more like Mad Max – possibly Mad Max on steroids. Or on Devil Milk, which actually seems to be worse. Or both.

The sheer bleakness of this post-climate-seriously-changed world reminds me a bit of the world of American War. Only a whole lot worse on the environmental front. But less…awful…in a different way as this wasn’t kicked off by a civil war. At least not so far as we know – yet. And not that it hasn’t become one along the way.

But the story of Junkyard Cats is the story of how Shining’s remote, lonely and seemingly safe little junkyard gets invaded – disrupting her hard-won peace and exposing all of her many, many secrets.

Including the crashed spaceship buried in her backyard. Especially the spaceship buried in her backyard. And the secret hidden in Shining’s radically altered DNA. Her enemies have found her – and so have her friends. Shining’s biggest problem is figuring out which are which.

And letting the cats, her Cats, have the rest. After all, in a world where everything that supports life is very, very scarce, a protein source is much too good to let go to waste.

Escape Rating A-: I really, really wish there was more of this available already, because this first story is a teaser with a lot of worldbuilding, a crew of absolutely fascinating characters – whether organic, partly organic, or artificially intelligent – and a pride of sentient, semi-telepathic warrior cats with an agenda of their own. But then, don’t cats always have an agenda of their own?

Actually, she had me at the cats, but in the end I was equally beguiled by Shining Smith’s world-weary voice. The narrator does an excellent job conveying Shining’s loneliness, her hopes, her fears and especially her desperate need to keep her very motley crew safe and to keep the rest of the world safe from her.

And her complete, total and utter annoyance that the world has come to get her because she couldn’t let go of her past – no matter how much she seriously needed to.

The biggest part of this story is a gigantic battle, conducted all over the junkyard with the help of her friends – including a few that Shining didn’t even know she had – or that some of them even existed in a state that could truly help. And that’s her fault too.

But this is a battle that’s not over when it’s over. The only question is where the next front will be – and who and what Shining can bring to the fight.

As teasers go, Junkyard Cats is one hell of a tease. I just wish I could find some info on where Shining Smith and the Cats go from here. Because they are awesome.

Review: Sweep with Me by Ilona Andrews

Review: Sweep with Me by Ilona AndrewsSweep with Me (Innkeeper Chronicles, #4.5) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #5
Pages: 144
Published by Ilona Andrews on January 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A charming, short novella in the Innkeeper Chronicles, from #1 New York Times bestselling author, Ilona Andrews.

Thank you for joining us at Gertrude Hunt, the nicest Bed and Breakfast in Red Deer, Texas, during the Treaty Stay. As you know, we are honor-bound to accept all guests during this oldest of innkeeper holidays and we are expecting a dangerous guest. Or several. But have no fear. Your safety and comfort is our first priority. The inn and your hosts, Dina Demille and Sean Evans, will defend you at all costs. [But we hope we don’t have to.]

Every winter, Innkeepers look forward to celebrating their own special holiday, which commemorates the ancient treaty that united the very first Inns and established the rules that protect them, their intergalactic guests, and the very unaware/oblivious people of [planet] Earth. By tradition, the Innkeepers welcomed three guests: a warrior, a sage, and a pilgrim, but during the holiday, Innkeepers must open their doors to anyone who seeks lodging. Anyone.

My Review:

I’ve just realized that this is a holiday story. And that the guests at the Gertrude Hunt for this particular holiday match the traditional guests for this season as far as the Innkeepers are concerned.

The traditional guests are a warrior, a sage and a pilgrim, to celebrate the guests that were present with the Treaty was signed that established the rules for inns, innkeepers and their intergalactic guests.

But this is the Gertrude Hunt, on Earth, in Red Deer Texas. The pilgrim is also a warrior, the warrior is also a human from Earth, and the sage – well the sage is an overgrown chicken. All in all, that’s kind of a typical guest list for Gertrude Hunt – especially when you include the epic beat-down that the warrior has to deliver to her evil uncle. Who is just as human as she is – or isn’t.

The story in Sweep with Me goes directly back to the main line of the series that began with Clean Sweep, following Innkeeper Dina Demille, her Inn, Gertrude Hunt, and her “adventures” on Earth trying to juggle the needs of her inn, the rules of the Innkeepers’ Guild, and the needs of her guests without bringing the intergalactic equivalent of World War III to her door – again.

The events of this book, although they come after Sweep of the Blade, aren’t really dependent on what happens in that story. But they are a direct extension of the story in the previous three books, Clean Sweep, Sweep in Peace and One Fell Sweep. To the point where this story feels like one continuous story with one sidebar (Sweep of the Blade) and you really need to read all of it to get into it. The series is awesome, the individual entries are relatively short, so reading the whole thing is no hardship at all.

Sweep with Me feels like a sweep back, to get the reader back into Gertrude Hunt and to deal with the fallout, of which there was plenty, from previous events.

It also sets up a new dynamic, with intergalactic alpha werewolf Sean Taylor finally joining Dina as an Innkeeper. Mostly in charge of taking care of the security of the inn, because past events have proven that her damaged but impressive security might not be enough.

And it’s a holiday story. The specific holiday is not an Earth holiday, but Treaty Stay, the holiday that marks the official start of the Innkeeper system. Dina has “welcomed” for select values of welcome, a variety of potentially contentious guests to the inn to add to the already motley crew that inhabits the place.

One uber-dangerous planetary warlord has come for a terrible hamburger and an even worse meeting. One warrior-turned-pilgrim has come to figure out how to survive the unsurvivable. And a whole flock of philosophic chickens has come to debate the origins of their species – until the feathers fly.

It’s all a typically atypical day for Gertrude Hunt. Dina and her inn will survive. Again. Hopefully with no additional damage – this time.

Escape Rating A-: This was terrific and a fun addition to the series. It’s also a bit short – even in comparison to the previous books in the series. It feels a bit like a reset after the off-world adventures in Sweep of the Blade.

As with all the entries in this series, there’s always plenty of comic relief mixed in with a surprising amount of serious stuff – either serious events for Dina and Gertrude Hunt or serious stuff for the reader to think about. Or both.

The comic relief this time around is provided by the Koo-ko, who are, yes, the chickens. Intelligent chickens. Philosophical chickens. Beings who will debate anything and everything, and get so wrapped up in their “discussions” that no method of making their side’s point is too far – not even mass murder. At the same time, there’s really no deliberate harm in any of them – they just tend to get carried away – very far away. It’s up to Dina to let them have their debate without actually killing each other – or any of the Inn’s other guests – when they take things much, much too far. As they do.

And Dina’s methods for dealing with their increasing extremes is ingenious. Also taxing. And frequently hilarious.

But the series, with just a touch of this series’ trademark tongue-in-cheek asides, is the story of the warlord. Her very evil uncle. And just a touch of nostalgia in the form of an objectively tasteless fast-food burger. The tastelessness of the burger drives Dina’s resident alien chef beyond crazy and straight into depression. But the heart of that story, and what turns out to be the heart of the entire book, is all about greed and selfishness and the willingness to set aside one’s personal wants and desires in order to serve one’s people. And about the quality of mercy.

So this one is fun and marvelous all the way through, but as is so wonderfully typical, the ending zings.

Review: St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

Review: St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England NoblinSt. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on January 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

If you love Susan Mallery and Jill Shalvis, you won’t want to miss this new novel of second chances, dogs, and knitting, from the author of Pupcakes and Sit! Stay! Speak!

Laid off, cheated on, mugged: what else can go wrong in Maeve Stephens’ life? So when she learns her birth mother has left her a house, a vintage VW Beetle, and a marauding cat, in the small town of Timber Creek, Washington, she packs up to discover the truth about her past.

She arrives to the sight of a cheerful bulldog abandoned on her front porch, a reclusive but tempting author living next door, and a set of ready-made friends at the St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets, where women knit colorful sweaters for the dogs and cats in their care. But there’s also an undercurrent of something that doesn’t sit right with Maeve. What’s the secret (besides her!) that her mother had hidden?

If Maeve is going to make Timber Creek her home, she must figure out where she fits in and unravel the truth about her past. But is she ready to be adopted again—this time, by an entire town…?

My Review:

This isn’t quite the book I was expecting from the blurb. It was much better than that.

On the surface, this looked like a story about second chances. And it is. But not all of those second chances belong to Maeve, the main character of this story. And some of those second chances are in the past and not the present. Or they are an unexpected and unknown present, in the other sense of the word. The present that doesn’t look like a present, the gift that Annabelle gave her daughter when she gave Maeve up for adoption.

A chance for a better life than Annabelle expected for herself – and a much better life than she could have given her daughter if she’d kept her.

But Maeve knows nothing of that past when she comes to tiny Timber Creek to attend her birth mother’s funeral. All she knows is that the woman gave her up as an infant, never answered the letters Maeve sent as a teenager, and has died leaving her everything she owned. Including a small house, a wandering cat and a fully-restored classic VW Beetle.

Along with an empty hole where the truth needs to be.

But Annabelle also left her daughter a circle of good friends, a reputation as a rescuer of last-chance animals, and just enough clues to figure out the secrets of Maeve’s origins – and the seeds that truth sowed all those years ago.

Maeve is 36, and at a crossroads in her life. More than one. Her childhood was relatively idyllic but the present is a whole other matter. Not anything terrible, but she’s just not adulting the way she expected to be in her mid-30s. She’s just lost her job – journalism is not a great career choice these days – and she discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her along with the entire rest of the world – on YouTube. Ugh.

So the trip to her birth mother’s funeral comes as Maeve has reached a big fork in her road – and doesn’t know how, or which way, to take it. There seems to be a place ready-made for her in Timber Creek – the place left achingly vacant by the sudden death of Annabelle – the mother she never knew.

Flailing at the current mess of her own life, Maeve steps hesitatingly, and sometimes more than a bit angrily, into Annabelle’s. Everyone loved the mother who gave her up. It’s awkward and sometimes even painful to feel just how much the entire town loved the woman who didn’t love her enough to keep her. It makes no sense. And it hurts.

But as Maeve gingerly becomes part of Timber Creek, she discovers the truths that lie hidden. The truth about the town, the truth about her birth mother, the truth about herself – and just how much her mother’s love and pain bound those truths together.

Escape Rating A-: I was expecting a small-town feel-good women’s fiction-type story. And it has elements of that, but the St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets isn’t just that – no matter how cute the dog and cat sweaters knitted by the society are.

Instead, this book, like last year’s The Oysterville Sewing Circle, is about a group of women who are doing their best to rescue victims of domestic abuse. It’s the dark and barely hidden underbelly of life in Timber Creek – and everywhere else.

But these women, Annabelle and her friends, are doing something about it. Whenever they can. Whenever a girl or woman is willing to ask for help. Because there was no one to help them when they were abused. Because Annabelle knew that when she became pregnant that if she kept Maeve both she and Maeve would be abused by Maeve’s grandfather – and that they’d have no weapons to fight back and no support.

So Annabelle gave Maeve up for adoption, for a better life than she knew she could give her, and spent the rest of her life rescuing as many girls and women as possible from the situation she had faced – along with rescuing a few “wayward pets” along the way.

The story is told on two levels. The main story is Maeve’s story as she comes to Timber Creek, decides to stick around rather than go back to Seattle to live with her adopted parents – again – and try to figure out where her future lies. The longer she stays in Timber Creek, the more she falls in love with the place – and the more it reaches out and enfolds her in its arms.

And the more she discovers its secrets – and her own.

But we also see bits and pieces of Annabelle’s life. I’ll admit that at first it looked like Annabelle’s story was going to be different – and even more cruel – than it actually turned out to be. Just how Annabelle became pregnant and why she gave Maeve up hung like a Sword of Damocles over much of the story. I actually read those bits ahead because I couldn’t stand the suspense and didn’t want it to turn out to be the worser of two evils. Which it was not – and was a better story for it.

The St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets has a similar storyline to The Oysterville Sewing Circle, at least in the important bits. Meaning that if you liked one you’ll like the other and vice versa. Considering that the issue that underlies both stories is an important one that needs to be dealt with, more such stories, told well, are an excellent thing.

And both of these stories are told very well indeed.

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Review: The Name of All Things by Jenn Lyons

Review: The Name of All Things by Jenn LyonsThe Name of All Things (A Chorus of Dragons, #2) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #2
Pages: 589
Published by Tor Books on October 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

You can have everything you want if you sacrifice everything you believe.

Kihrin D'Mon is a wanted man.

Since he destroyed the Stone of Shackles and set demons free across Quur, he has been on the run from the wrath of an entire empire. His attempt to escape brings him into the path of Janel Theranon, a mysterious Joratese woman who claims to know Kihrin.

Janel's plea for help pits Kihrin against all manner of dangers: a secret rebellion, a dragon capable of destroying an entire city, and Kihrin's old enemy, the wizard Relos Var.

Janel believes that Relos Var possesses one of the most powerful artifacts in the world―the Cornerstone called the Name of All Things. And if Janel is right, then there may be nothing in the world that can stop Relos Var from getting what he wants.

And what he wants is Kihrin D'Mon.

Jenn Lyons continues the Chorus of Dragons series with The Name of All Things, the epic sequel to The Ruin of Kings.

My Review:

This is going to be one of those times when I talk around the book as much as I talk about the book. Because this is one hell of a story – one that is still rolling around uneasily in my head – and it’s not done yet. Either the story or in my head.

And I’ll probably say this multiple times in the course of this review, but I want the third book in the trilogy, The Memory of Souls, now. RIGHT NOW. It’s due out in August and that’s just not soon enough. Not nearly.

This series began early in 2019 with The Ruin of Kings. Which was awesome and marvelous and terrific and The Name of All Things is actually better – something that is seldom said either about a sequel or about book two in a trilogy. This is a middle book that does not SUFFER from middle-book syndrome. More like it revels in the parts of that syndrome that it bothers to deal with.

The Ruin of Kings was a sword. The Name of All Things is a stone. I suspect that the Memory of All Things will also turn out to be a stone – but I wouldn’t bet my own money on that.

This is a twisty story where nothing is as it seems. And while it seamlessly blends a whole bunch of elements that shouldn’t be within spitting distance of each other, the resulting wild ride holds the reader’s attention marvelously – and possibly also props the reader’s eyeballs wide open long after they should be closed.

(I couldn’t bear to wait to finish this and spent five hours listening, still wasn’t done and carried the hardcover to bed. I never read hardcovers anymore but I couldn’t stop.)

Like the previous book, The Ruin of Kings, this is an experiment in voice. The way it is told is almost as important as what is being told. The first book was Kihrin’s story, but we’ve already heard Kihrin’s story. This one is Janel’s story, and it takes place simultaneously with that first book. (That’s a huge hint that you need to read both and in order.) But it also takes place three days after the end of that first book as the sometimes hilarious but always trenchant chapter titles make clear.

Kihrin and Janel have finally met, as they are fated to in all sorts of demonic prophecies, and Janel is telling Kihrin and her assembled company of heroes, followers, betrayers and hangers on just what happened to her. But Janel is not the only one telling that story, her narrative alternates with that of her friend, the healer priest Brother Qown. Off in the background, the story is framed by a third party and participant in these events, the mage Senera. She is reporting the story to her master Relos Var. Who may be the villain of the entire piece. Or may in fact be the actual hero. He certainly thinks he is. But then, many villains do.

So the story being told within the story being told makes this an excellent choice for audio, especially as the three in-story narrators are voiced by three different voice actors.

But the story itself is an epic about gods and monsters. Except that neither are exactly that.

The gods in this story, or rather the exceedingly powerful beings who are worshiped as gods, aren’t really gods. (That this parallels the Elven Gods in the world of Dragon Age was rather a surprise.)

At the same time, this is also the story of what appears to be a very long con. Those so-called gods are conning their worshipers into treating them as gods, yes. But they are also doing their best to keep the monster who used to be one of them chained. And failing. Over and over and over again. They may be doing the right thing – or at least the best thing they can under the circumstances. Or they may just be preserving the status quo.

Relos Var wants to tear it all down and start over. He’s trying to set up something like Ragnarok, because he seems to think the best answer is to finally have that ultimate battle and deal with the consequences. He may be right. Or it may just be a very long two-person grift like American Gods. We just don’t know – yet.

But at this point in the story, Relos Var’s help keeps coming at just too high a price. Whether the result is triumph or his head on pike for everyone to wave at is still up in the air. (And that’s a reference from Babylon 5 because Relos Var really, really reminds me of Morden, which means he’s working for the Shadows of ultimate Chaos. Which is entirely possible.)

And in the middle of all of this, we have Janel’s story of her country of Jorat, a place whose social mores and politics are absolutely fascinating, more than a bit subversive, and worthy of an epic all of their own. It’s also the story of someone who thinks they are, or at least can be, the one who is running all the games, only to discover at the end that they are probably one of the suckers who bought the con.

In the end, well, it isn’t the end. This chapter of the story concludes, but the story itself is far from over. And this reader at least didn’t want it to be. I just wanted the next book. Immediately if not sooner.

Escape Rating A++: OK this is the first time I’m officially using this rating. The Name of All Things is epically epic in all the best ways. It’s so good that I added it to my Best of 2019 post even though I was only halfway through at the time. I already knew it was just that damn good. It’s everything that epic fantasy is supposed to be; rich, lush, decadent, other-worldly, beautiful, strange, corrupt and compelling, all at the same time.

This was a rare book where, while I mostly listened to it, I also read the ebook and the hardcover as appropriate. Or necessary. Like at the end where I had 1.5 hours left of listening but under half an hour if I just read the damn thing. Patience is not one of my virtues.

That being said, if you have the time and the inclination, the audio of this is marvelous. Partly that’s because of the way that the story is told, and partly that’s because the voice actors are just that damn good. This is also a rare case where I have to admit that if you run out of time or patience, get the book in print and not ebook. Senera’s commentary in her framing report of the story is footnoted. In audio her comments are inserted as asides. In print, they are footnotes at the bottom of the page. In ebook, they are footnotes at the end of each chapter. Flipping back and forth to the chapter end just to get her commentary is worth it but ANNOYING.

However you get to it, one of the things that is absolutely marvelous in this story is the social commentary that is an integral part of the way that things work in Janel’s country, Jorat. While there’s a whole lot of fascinating stuff about the way that pretty much everything was developed around intelligent “horse” herds and their behavior, what makes it all sing is the separation of sexuality and gender roles. So much of what happens to Janel, and has happened to her, is rooted in the fact that she while she may physically be female, she is a stallion – a leader of the herd. That she is a woman and that she is a leader are not contradictory – although some people want it to be. Women can be stallions, and men can be mares. And it’s completely separate from what genitalia they have as well as utterly separate from what genitalia they prefer for their sexual partners. It’s political and it’s baked into the culture, as are the concepts of edora and thudaje, whether someone is the ruler or the ruled, how that is determined – and how that can be changed.

One of the other things that makes this series so mesmerizing is that it is never a simple contest of good vs. evil. Everything in this world is in shades of gray. The gods are not really gods. However, the demons, for the most part, at least so far, seem to really be demonic. But the characters who commit evil acts, like Relos Var and Senera, may have the best of motives. And may still be evil at the same time. Nothing is clear but everything is compelling.

And I’m compelled. The Memory of Souls can’t come out fast enough.

Review: The Vanishing by Jayne Ann Krentz

Review: The Vanishing by Jayne Ann KrentzThe Vanishing (Fogg Lake #1) by Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Fogg Lake #1
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz comes a new gripping romantic suspense trilogy fraught with danger and enigma.

Forty years ago in the small town of Fogg Lake, "The Incident" occurred: an explosion in the cave system that released unknown gases, causing peculiar effects on its residents, such as strange visions and ominous voices. Not wanting the government to get involved, they chalked it up to the hallucinogenic effects of mushrooms. Little did they know these effects would linger through the generations....

Residents Catalina Lark and Olivia Dayton have been best friends for years and own an investigation firm together, using what they call the "other sight" to help with their business. When Olivia goes missing, Cat frantically begins the search for her alone when the town does nothing about it. When scientist Slate Trevelyan shows up, she has no choice but to accept his help even though there's something about him she just can't trust. The duo discovers someone is hunting the two witnesses of a murder in Fogg Lake fourteen years ago—the very one Cat and Olivia witnessed as teens, one that they couldn't prove happened. Cat and Slate's search for Olivia takes them down a rabbit hole that is far more dangerous and mysterious than they ever expected, and with a killer in their midst, neither of them can foresee who will come out alive.

My Review:

This was the book I felt compelled to read this week – no matter what I put in my Sunday Post. I expected to be swept away by Krentz/Quick/Castle’s unique blend of romantic suspense and parapsychological woo-woo and that’s exactly what happened.

I also expect that Fogg Lake will somehow turn out to be just down the road from Scargill Cove, that the Bluestone Project will somehow turn out to be related to “Mad Scientist” Jones’ research or that The Foundation will be outed as a precursor agency to the Arcane Society. Or all of the above.

But in the meantime, The Vanishing stands on its own as the first book in a new series. And it stands proud.

The story does begin a bit in the middle, but not because there have been previous mentions of Fogg Lake. But because by the time that Catalina and Olivia are teenage girls, whatever happened to make Fogg Lake the place it is occurred decades in the past. There was a Fogg Lake Incident that turned the town more than a bit insular. An incident that gave all the residents – and their descendants – paranormal powers of one kind or another. The kind of powers that the so-called normal world treats as a one-way ticket to drugged institutionalization.

Not that The Foundation doesn’t have its own facilities for that sort of thing. It’s one of the reasons that their reputation in the paranormal community is more than a bit tattered. But people with paranormal powers do go off the rails. It’s just that The Foundation is well aware that they are not off those rails merely because they think have those powers.

Catalina and Olivia left Fogg Lake to go to college. After they learned to keep their powers hidden and appear normal. Long after they witnessed a murder in the Fogg Lake caves that everyone else was convinced was a hallucination – even them.

But that long ago incident in their own personal past reaches out to grab them, or at least to grab Olivia, from the streets of Seattle. Just as The Foundation, in the person of Slater Arganbright, shows up at their private investigations agency to hire them. The Foundation needs their help in investigating a couple of crime scenes that just might connect back to Fogg Lake’s incident.

Catalina and Slater join reluctant forces to find the missing Olivia and determine whether their two cases connect.

Coincidences aren’t in either of their worlds. Slater’s crime scenes are all too related to Olivia’s disappearance. And everything ties back to that incident at Fogg Lake. Both the one in the town’s past and the later one in Cat’s and Olivia’s.

And Cat and Slater definitely connect with each other. More than either of them expected – or even thought might be possible.

Escape Rating A-: I got completely lost in this one, which seems appropriate for a story set in a place called Fogg Lake. I was grabbed by the story at the very beginning, with teenaged Cat and Olivia witnessing a murder in the caves – and not being believed.

But that was just a teaser to set up part of the main story. And it so worked.

Because it gives the reader a glimpse of the way that Fogg Lake is while not revealing how it got that way. In the end, that revelation is part of the main story – and it’s clear that we don’t know nearly enough – yet.

The biggest part of this one is the investigation. We follow along with Slater and Cat as they search for the missing Olivia, investigate Slater’s mysterious crime scenes and attempt to discover what the one has to do with the other. All the while, the true history of Fogg Lake hovers just out of reach – until they begin stumbling over its very messy pieces.

Along the way, several fascinating things happen. One is the dive into the paranormal world that Slater and Cat inhabit every bit as much as they do the normal world – if not sometimes a bit more. The whole thing about the secret world existing alongside of the one we know is done well and is very cool as well as a bit creepy in all the right ways.

At the same time we get to know Cat, her abilities and her powers. Part of the fun of that part of the story is discovering just how many people Cat distrusts and has run afoul of, as well as her snarky attitude towards all of the above. Cat’s a woman I’d love to have drinks with – and she’d know if anyone spiked them.

And then there’s the growing tension between Cat and Slater. They don’t trust each other. To be more accurate, Cat doesn’t trust anyone from The Foundation as Cat’s last job for them left her holding the bag on a big mess courtesy of Slater’s uncle. A mess that seems to follow her around throughout the story and with which she has zero patience – and for good reason.

But the same powers that have made both of these people fear relationships with normals have given them an instant and intense awareness of each other that can only lead to one place – if they are willing to take the risk.

And if they can get this case wrapped up before it kills them.

I don’t know when the second book in the Fogg Lake series will be coming out – but I can’t wait to find out more!

Review: The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Secret Chapter by Genevieve CogmanThe Secret Chapter (The Invisible Library #6) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fantasy, mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #6
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the latest novel in Genevieve Cogman’s historical fantasy series, Irene and Kai have to team up with an unlikely band of misfits to pull off an amazing art heist—or risk the wrath of the dangerous villain with a secret island lair.

A Librarian’s work is never done, and once Irene has a quick rest after their latest adventure, she is summoned to the Library. The world where she grew up is in danger of veering deep into chaos, and she needs to obtain a particular book to stop this from happening. No copies of the book are available in the Library, so her only choice is to contact a mysterious Fae information broker and trader of rare objects: Mr. Nemo.

Irene and Kai make their way to Mr. Nemo’s remote Caribbean island and are invited to dinner, which includes unlikely company. Mr. Nemo has an offer for everyone there: he wants them to steal a specific painting from a specific world. He swears that he will give each of them an item from his collection if they bring him the painting within the week.

Everyone takes the deal. But to get their reward, they will have to form a team, including a dragon techie, a Fae thief, a gambler, a driver, and the muscle. Their goal? The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, in a early twenty-first century world, where their toughest challenge might be each other.

My Review:

This series is pretty much frying pans and fires all the way down, but this entry has an added fillip of archetypal James Bond movie villains to put a bit of extra zing into this increasingly wild ride of a story.

And there are dragons. There are definitely dragons. In this particular entry in the series, there are dragons on all sides. Irene is, of course, accompanied by her own personal dragon, her apprentice-turned-lover Kai.

While dragons in this universe are creatures of order, and Kai is an actual prince among his kind, the side that Kai is generally on – as well as nearly always at – is Irene’s.

But he’s not the only dragon in this one. And not all of them are exactly on the side of the angels. Or even all on the same side. In fact, it could be said that one of the dragons is more than a bit chaotic – at least insofar as anarchy generally equates to chaos – even if the dragon in question doesn’t see it that way.

The Secret Chapter is both a caper story and a followup to the previous entry in the series, The Mortal Word, without being directly dependent on its predecessor. Well, Irene’s and Kai’s actions are influenced by those previous events, but the caper they find themselves in the middle of doesn’t directly relate to the treaty between Dragons and Fae squabbled over during that story and finally signed at the end.

Instead, this one at first hearkens back to earlier books in the series – and earlier escapades in Irene’s past. Irene is sent to the lair of an archetypal fae collector and information broker – cue the James Bond music – to negotiate the acquisition of a book from Mr. Nemo’s collection that will stabilize the world where Irene went to school.

And that’s where the caper comes in. Mr. Nemo collects lots of interesting things – and people. As a powerful fae, it’s both who he is and what he does. He gets and keeps his power from embodying that archetype.

In return for the book that Irene and the Library desperately want, Mr. Nemo requires that they, along with a motley crew that he has previously assembled, steal a particular painting from a specified world and bring it back to his lair.

The caper, the theft, and the way it works – and doesn’t – may remind readers a bit of the TV series Leverage. It’s the old story of taking a thief to catch a thief, but with multiple twists – not always expected.

This is one of those stories where things are far from what they seem. The thug isn’t a thug, the prisoner isn’t a prisoner, the painting isn’t just a painting. It’s also the “secret chapter” of the book’s title. It’s a secret chapter in the history of the dragons – a secret that no dragon should ever want to let out.

But then there’s that anarchist…

Escape Rating A-: If the pattern for the previous book in this series was that of a murder mystery, the pattern for The Secret Chapter is the caper movie crossed with James Bond-type villainy. It’s the motley crew carrying off the heist for the best of all possible reasons, like Leverage. With a villain like Blofeld or Goldfinger pulling the strings behind the scenes. (I’m pretty sure I remember a Bond movie or two that included that scene with the sharks…)

But underneath that set up, there are more interesting games afoot. Or a-wing in the case of the dragon members of the barely together party.

There is more than one “secret chapter” in this story. Come to think of it, both Irene and Kai are dealing with secret chapters of their lives and histories that have all the impact of a bomb in this entry in the series.

(Take that as a hint, don’t start the series here. Begin your journey at The Invisible Library and be prepared to get lost in the stacks.)

The secrets that Irene exposes – or feels exposed by – are all personal. She and her parents have to resolve Irene’s discovery that she was adopted – and that they never told her. Her sense of herself is still reeling a bit. That the book she needs to retrieve will prevent the world where she went to school, one of the few stable places in her chaotic history, from falling into absolute chaos gives the story a personal stake for her.

At the same time, one of the many, many things in this caper that are not what they seem is the painting that they have to steal. It IS a painting – but it isn’t the painting that they think it is. Or not just that painting. Hidden underneath the masterpiece is something else altogether – a half-finished painting that is intended to undermine every so-called history that the eternal, immortal dragon rulers have ever told about themselves. Whether the revisionist history of the painting is a truth that they’ve been covering for millennia or propaganda created for the purpose of destabilizing the dragons is anyone’s guess.

From Irene’s perspective the truth doesn’t matter. Destabilizing the dragons will cause chaos throughout the multiverse that the Library protects. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, of the one – or of the truth.

I can’t wait for further truths to be revealed – or concealed – in future books in this series. Book 7 is already in the works!

Review: The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Review: The Governess Affair by Courtney MilanThe Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Brothers Sinister #0.5
Pages: 96
Published by Courtney Milan on April 21st 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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She will not give up. Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position. Unable to find new work, she's demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked: a petty, selfish, swinish duke. But it's not the duke she fears. It's his merciless man of business -- the man known as the Wolf of Clermont. The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke's dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn't stand a chance. But she can't stop trying -- not with her entire future at stake.He cannot give in.Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition -- a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner's son to the right hand man of a duke. When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it's just another day at the office. Unfortunately, fair means don't work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can't bear to use foul ones. But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone. He'll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love... The Governess Affair is a novella of about 32,500 words.

My Review:

Courtney Milan is an author who has been highly recommended to me on multiple occasions. After reading The Governess Affair I certainly understand why.

This wasn’t quite what I expected based on the blurb – but in a good way. I haven’t been reading as much romance as I used to, particularly historical romance, because the characters and the situation have become increasingly difficult to identify with. Love may conquer a lot, but it doesn’t conquer ALL.

Heroines with agency often feel anachronistic, while heroines without agency just aren’t worth bothering with.

But The Governess Affair was an extremely pleasant surprise. Heroine Serena Barton has grabbed her agency with both hands and is hanging onto it as if it is her only hope – because it is. Even though the deck is stacked high against her from the very beginning, she never lets go. At the same time the way that she takes that agency feels like it fits into her time and place. Because what she is demanding is her due in that time and place – no more and no less.

The hero, Hugo Marshall, is every bit as fascinating because he’s the kind of person that we know must have existed but doesn’t usually find himself the hero of a romance. He’s not particularly handsome. Not that he’s ugly either, just that he’s relatively ordinary.

He’s definitely not an aristocrat. In fact, the aristocrat is the villain of this piece and deservedly so.

Instead, Hugo Marshall works for a living. Admittedly he begins the story as the villainous aristocrat’s “fixer”, but it is definitely work. Hugo’s not striving for a life of idle luxury, just enough money and contacts to stake himself in business. He’s ambitious, hard-working and just plain hard. (Take that wherever your imagination wants to go)

But Serena has made herself a problem for Hugo’s employer. It’s Hugo’s job to eliminate his employer’s problems – one way or another.

He doesn’t resort to murder. It’s not that kind of problem elimination. Hugo’s usual methods are payoffs and ruination.

The problem is that Serena doesn’t want a small payoff because it won’t be enough to fix HER problems. And he really can’t ruin her because his employer has already done that.

And Hugo discovers that he can’t bring himself to do it again – no matter how much his own future rides on the outcome.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve had this book in my virtually towering TBR pile for almost seven years. It zoomed to the top of that rather large pile this week when the news of the dumpster fire at the Romance Writers of America broke on Xmas Eve. It’s a story of WTF’ery, of tone policing, of organizational idiocy, of having no clue about the way that social media works on the eve of 2020, and of trying to lock the barn door after the horse has gone while attempting to pretend that there was never a horse in the first place AND blaming the jockey for raising the alarm about the missing equine. A brief summary – with documents – can be found at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The TL;DR version is that RWA officially blamed an author of color for calling out racism in the industry and pretty much the entire industry except the pearl-clutchers clapped back. HARD. Courtney Milan is the author blamed for calling out her own experience. So I wanted to send love both in the form of a review of something I had already purchased and the purchase of something new.

Which led to a deep dive into that TBR stack to see what I had on tap. And this is one of the things I had, the prequel novella in her Brothers Sinister series (The entire rest of the series was the purchase of something new). And it was a lovely read.

As is obvious from my comments above the rating, I liked both Serena and Hugh very much. And I’m saying that even though Serena’s predicament isn’t one I usually have much interest in reading about. Because the story isn’t ABOUT her pregnancy. It’s about her taking her future in her own hands and standing up for her own self in a society that expects her to do neither.

And I loved her internal voice, that she’s standing up NOW because she didn’t stand up then. She gave up her own voice once and it cost her dearly. She refuses to do it again – no matter what follows.

I found the relationship between her and her sister Freddy fascinating on multiple levels, and not just because Freddy clearly has agoraphobia. The way that the sisters love each other, support each other and have absolutely no understanding of each other all at the same time feels so real. I identify with Serena’s position completely while still being able to see where Freddy is coming from – even knowing that she would drive me bonkers too.

Hugh’s aspirations and his work ethic make him a different kind of hero for a story set in England in the immediate post-Regency period. The only member of the aristocracy we really see is Hugh’s employer, who is essentially the rotter that kicks off the whole story. He doesn’t get nearly as much as he deserves. What I loved about the story is that, at least in Hugh’s internal voice, the glitter of the Regency is exposed for the sham it was – or at least the sham the “nobility” were.

The romance between Serena and Hugh is an enemies into lovers romance that sparkles with wit and banter. They fall in love by talking to each other with both of their keen intellects on display at every turn.

I also loved the way that Hugh helped Serena get past her trauma. The sensitivity of that scene reminded me very much – and very favorably – of a similar occurrence in Lady Abigail’s Perfect Match.

The end of The Governess Affair is a teaser for the first complete novel in the Brothers Sinister series, The Duchess War. And at the end of my reading of The Governess Affair, while I decry the reason I found myself hunting this book up, I’m glad that I finally did.

Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran WildeThe Jewel and Her Lapidary (Gemworld #1) by Fran Wilde
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Gem Universe #1
Pages: 96
Published by Tor.com on May 3, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From Fran Wilde, the Andre Norton and Compton Crook Award-winning author of Updraft.

The kingdom in the Valley has long sheltered under the protection of its Jewels and Lapidaries, the people bound to singing gemstones with the power to reshape hills, move rivers, and warp minds. That power has kept the peace and tranquility, and the kingdom has flourished.

Jewel Lin and her Lapidary Sima may be the last to enjoy that peace.

The Jeweled Court has been betrayed. As screaming raiders sweep down from the mountains, and Lapidary servants shatter under the pressure, the last princess of the Valley will have to summon up a strength she’s never known. If she can assume her royal dignity, and if Sima can master the most dangerous gemstone in the land, they may be able to survive.

“The central fantastical idea is pretty cool… nicely written… I suspect the world it’s set in might yield more fine stories.” – Locus

My Review:

I was looking for something with some adventure – with either a fantasy or SF bent. And I was looking for something short. Which left me trolling the Tor.com backlist because I knew I’d find something good that would take care of all my wants – at least of the brief and bookish type.

Which led to me The Jewel and Her Lapidary – along with a few other gems.

So much story gets told here. Through the dynamic between Lin and Sima, and their own internal dialogs, we get just enough background to understand why they and their kingdom has come to this terrible pass – and just how little anyone would expect them to do about it.

They are supposed to be royal, young and submissive. Coddled youngest children considered too weak and too female to do anything but submit to their fate as conquered property of a warlord. Too cowed to do anything but obey and be subjugated – along with their people.

Instead, they fight back. Not as warriors, because they are neither of them that. But with what weapons they have. Brains, cunning, the underestimation of their enemies. And love. Love for those who came before them. Love for their country. Love for each other.

This is a story of triumph not by conquest but by endurance. And it is absolutely a gem. It’s also about gems. And about power and control and love and sacrifice and a whole lot else – packed into a tiny, sparkling package. Like a gem.

Escape Rating A-: This story is probably the shortest epic fantasy ever written. And it doesn’t seem to sacrifice anything for its tiny length. Not that I wouldn’t have loved to have had more backstory and character building and setup and everything – because I always want more of all of those things. And not that I’m not hoping to get more of those things from the next book in the series, The Fire Opal Mechanism. Because I certainly am.

However, we learn what we need to learn about the Jewel Lin, her Lapidary Sima, how they found themselves and their kingdom in the terrible situation that they are in – and just how much they will have to sacrifice to save what they can. This is one of those stories where there really is a fate worse than death – and it’s a fate that these two young women are determined to prevent at all costs.

This is an epic where the victory is not in a big battle with brave warriors – but instead won by quiet sacrifice – all alone in the dark.

This story, short thought it may be, still manages to be complete and heart wrenching in and of its tiny little self. And that’s pretty awesome.

Review: A Trace of Deceit by Karen Odden

Review: A Trace of Deceit by Karen OddenA Trace of Deceit (Victorian Mystery #2) by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Victorian Mystery #2
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of A Dangerous Duet comes the next book in her Victorian mystery series, this time following a daring female painter and the Scotland Yard detective who is investigating her brother’s suspicious death.

A young painter digs beneath the veneer of Victorian London’s art world to learn the truth behind her brother’s murder...

Edwin is dead. That’s what Inspector Matthew Hallam of Scotland Yard tells Annabel Rowe when she discovers him searching her brother’s flat for clues. While the news is shocking, Annabel can’t say it’s wholly unexpected, given Edwin’s past as a dissolute risk-taker and art forger, although he swore he’d reformed. After years spent blaming his reckless behavior for their parents’ deaths, Annabel is now faced with the question of who murdered him—because Edwin’s death was both violent and deliberate. A valuable French painting he’d been restoring for an auction house is missing from his studio: find the painting, find the murderer. But the owner of the artwork claims it was destroyed in a warehouse fire years ago.

As a painter at the prestigious Slade School of Art and as Edwin’s closest relative, Annabel makes the case that she is crucial to Matthew’s investigation. But in their search for the painting, Matthew and Annabel trace a path of deceit and viciousness that reaches far beyond the elegant rooms of the auction house, into an underworld of politics, corruption, and secrets someone will kill to keep.  

My Review:

“I think all our memories have a trace of deceit in them,” at least according to Inspector Matthew Hallam, the hero of our story – and of the previous book in this series, A Dangerous Duet.

He’s not wrong, not in the context of the story, and not in real life, either. It’s been said that looking at a memory is like opening a page in a book, and that every time we do so, we change it just a little bit – blur the edges, smudge a section, make it sound better – or worse – until the original memory has been altered into the memory of the story we tell ourselves – and everyone else.

Sometimes we remember things, situations, people being better or happier than they really were. And sometimes we remember them as worse. It all depends on whatever story we want – or need – to tell ourselves.

Annabel Rowe has spent most of her adult years telling herself the story of how her brother Edwin abandoned her. And he did. Edwin fell into drink and eventually drugs at school, and didn’t quite manage to fall out until after a prison sentence made him rethink his life. It probably helped that the man Edwin was rebelling against, their father, was dead.

But Edwin and Annabel had been best friends and close companions as children. And when Edwin was sent off to boarding school, things changed – and not for the better. He did more than leave her behind – as was inevitable. He stopped communicating. And then, like so many addicts, he started making promises he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – keep.

He seemed to have turned over a new leaf after prison. Now Annabel and Edwin, both artists, both living on their own in London, had begun a tentative friendship. Annabel was beginning to trust again – but just couldn’t let go of her old hurts. Hurts which were real and legion. She feared, reasonably so, that Edwin would slide back into his old habits and abandon her again.

They were both young, there was plenty of time to get back to where they used to be – or at least an adult approximation of it.

Until the day that Annabel went to Edwin’s flat and found the police, in the person of Inspector Matthew Hallam, inspecting the scene of his death.

Time has run out for Annabel and Edwin to repair their relationship. But it has just begun on Annabel’s opportunity to provide justice for the brother she still loved. If she and Hallam can manage to figure out exactly why Edwin was killed.

At the heart of this case lies yet another deceit of memory.

Escape Rating A-: I liked A Trace of Deceit better than its predecessor, A Dangerous Duet. The first story was very plot driven, and it felt like the characters, particularly its central character Nell Hallam (Matthew’s sister) was a vehicle for the plot rather than a fully-fleshed out person. (That all being said, it feels like the link between the two books is fairly loose, and this book can definitely be read as a stand-alone.)

A Trace of Deceit, on the other hand, was very much Annabel’s story. She feels like a more rounded person as we explore not just where she is now, but her childhood, her relationship with her brother, with their parents, and her conflicted feelings about who she is and where she’s been.

While I did figure out what happened to Edwin in the past, what made him change, fairly early in the investigation, this is not after all Edwin’s story. And I understood and empathized with Annabel’s need to finally figure out the person her brother had been and what made him that person – and what led to his death.

The title of the story is ironic in a way. Annabel had remembered her childhood with Edwin as being less bright than it was in order to sustain her caution and mistrust. In her investigation of his murder she reclaims the brighter memories of their childhood. Even as she wonders whether they have only become so bright because she needs them to be, or whether she suppressed them because they only made Edwin’s frequent betrayals sharper.

But Edwin’s death is the result of someone else’s deceitful memories. Someone who has cast Edwin as the villain of their story rather than tarnish the image of someone they held dear.

So, I enjoyed the story and found the mystery fascinating. But what made the book for me was the character of Annabel and the way that she fit into her setting. One of the things that can be difficult about female protagonists in historical fiction is the need for the character to have agency and yet not seem out of her time in either attitudes or opportunities. Annabel feels like she belongs. Her story was set at a time when women could just manage to have an independent life if circumstances aligned. She has just enough income to keep herself, but has to be frugal about her expenses. She lives on her own and that’s accepted and acceptable. She doesn’t expect anyone to rescue her or take care of her – and she’s right not to do so. Nothing is easy for her as a woman alone – but it is possible in a way that feels right.

I read this one in a single day and felt like the story closed properly and yet I was a bit sad to see it end. Not that I wanted Annabel’s travails to go on a moment longer – more that I was hoping there would be an opportunity to visit her again.

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