Review: The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Review: The Friendship List by Susan MalleryThe Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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[ ] Dance till dawn

[ ] Go skydiving

[ ] Wear a bikini in public

[ ] Start living


Two best friends jump-start their lives in a summer that will change them forever…
Single mom Ellen Fox couldn’t be more content—until she overhears her son saying he can’t go to his dream college because she needs him too much. If she wants him to live his best life, she has to convince him she’s living hers.
So Unity Leandre, her best friend since forever, creates a list of challenges to push Ellen out of her comfort zone. Unity will complete the list, too, but not because she needs to change. What’s wrong with a thirtysomething widow still sleeping in her late husband’s childhood bed?
The Friendship List begins as a way to make others believe they’re just fine. But somewhere between “wear three-inch heels” and “have sex with a gorgeous guy,” Ellen and Unity discover that life is meant to be lived with joy and abandon, in a story filled with humor, heartache and regrettable tattoos.

My Review:

There’s an old saying that the only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions. And that’s where this story begins, with best friend Ellen Fox and Unity Leandre both stuck in very long ruts. Very, very long.

The problem with ruts is that they can be surprisingly comfortable down there at the bottom. There’s nothing challenging a person out of their comfort zone. Ruts are easy and change is hard – and frequently painful.

Ellen had sex once, 17 years ago, found herself pregnant and unenthused about the process that got her there and settled into life as a single mother with a tiny bit of help and a whole lot of grief and attitude from her disapproving parents. Now she’s in her mid-30s, her son is at the end of his junior year in high school, and the kid is unwilling to apply to the colleges he really wants to go to because he’s afraid of leaving his poor mother all by herself because she doesn’t have a life outside of her teaching job, her two best friends, and him.

The worst part is that he’s not wrong.

Unity is even more stuck than her bestie. Her young husband died serving his country, but Unity seems to have thrown herself at least partway in that grave with him. She lives in his childhood home, sleeps in his childhood room, and has kept all of his things right where he – and his late parents – left them. She’s either living with his ghost or waiting to die. Or both. All of her friends except Ellen live in the age-restricted community where she does a lot of her home handyman work, and it’s a good thing the place is age-restricted or she’d have moved right in. If she could bring herself to move, that is.

Even Unity’s grief group has had enough of the way that Unity seems to feed her grief instead of letting it heal.

So they challenge each other to step out of their oh-so-comfortable ruts. To stretch their horizons and find out who they still have plenty of time to be before it’s too late. Before the dimensions of their ruts close off at the ends into graves.

Because they are both still young and have way too much life ahead of them to spend it waiting for the end. They’ll just have to make that hard climb over the sides of those ruts.

Escape Rating A-: Ellen and Unity may need to step out of their comfort zones, but in picking up this book I stepped right into mine. This was just the kind of friendship story that this author does so well, and reading it was a terrific pick-me-up for these troubled times.

What was great was that I felt for the situations of both of these women, in spite of both of their experiences being so far outside my own. Sometimes I wanted to beat them both with a clue-by-four, but in the way one does with long-term friends. As in I may think you’re way off base and I’ll tell you that in private while in public I’ll defend you from all comers.

Ellen and Unity have that kind of friendship and it’s an enviable one. It’s also easy to empathize with the way that they are both just trying to get through this thing called life and doing the best they can at it, even if from the outside it’s clear that they’re not really doing all that well at all. They are sabotaging themselves in ways that are easy to recognize and understand.

I also loved that they were able to finally figure out that many of their issues were sourced in the same place – Ellen’s rule-bound, disapproving parents – and that they both started figuring out ways to remove themselves from those naysaying voices.

One of the highlights of the story was Unity’s friendship with the larger-than-life Dagmar, and the contrast between Dagmar’s 70-something joie de vivre and eagerness to live each day to the absolute fullest, while Unity seems to be counting down the days, weeks, months and years until she can move into the senior village. Dagmar is clearly refusing to go gentle into that good night, in stark contrast to Unity who seems to have already went even though she’s still alive.

I loved the way that they each managed to work their way out of their respective ruts. It also felt very real that they had to be separate for a few weeks in order to make that happen. They were clearly enabling each other to stay stuck, whether intentionally or not.

But as much as I enjoyed this story, and I very much did, there’s a niggle that kept it from being an A. I think I’d have enjoyed the whole thing more if the solution to both women’s issues hadn’t been a romance. Or if it hadn’t felt like the romance and the healing were tied in a bit too strongly together. These women both needed to heal themselves first, and that’s not quite how it felt, particularly in Unity’s case. That Unity was healed enough at the end for an actual HEA doesn’t feel right, although Ellen certainly earned hers.

Still, this was a lovely read and I’m very glad I read it. I just picked up the ARC for Susan Mallery’s next standalone book, The Vineyard at Painted Moon, and I’m already looking forward to it.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking about picking up The Friendship List, I posted an excerpt from the first chapter last week as part of a tour. You can still follow the tour entries to get a taste of this delicious story.

Review: Hearts and Stones by Robin D. Owens

Review: Hearts and Stones by Robin D. OwensHearts and Stones: Stories of Celta (Celta HeartMates) by Robin D. Owens
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Celta's HeartMates
Pages: 286
Published by Faery Cat Press on July 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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BEFORE CELTA … Passage Through Stone: In the UStates Colorado Area, Levona Martinez is determined to find a berth on the starship, Lugh’s Spear, and escape the psi mutant ghetto for a new life on a new planet. But she’s missed her chance and the ship is full. The leaders might not consider her worth taking, but what about Pizi, her prodigy cat? CELTA, A PLACE OF MAGIC, TELEPATHIC ANIMAL COMPANIONS, AND ADVENTURE! Five stories highlighting some fan favorite characters: Homing Stone: As his magic emerges through fever fugues, nobleman Holm Holly fights death duels in the Downwind slums … and catches the attention of blacksmith Rand Ash, who needs a noble to help him with his revenge on an equally noble family …Fractured Stone: Struggling with his disinheritance and the loss of his identity, Holm Apple strives to make a new life in a new city with his HeartMate and their Fams. Hidden Stone: Garrett Primross didn't expect to be hired by a Cat, let alone two of them, and their idea of payment doesn't match his. When a GreatLord appeals for Garrett's help, he's reluctant to take the case, but finds that solving the mystery unexpectedly leads him to inner answers. HeartStones: Losing his sight and psychic power, treasure hunter Zane Aster wants to make one more score. He discovers a House on the cusp of sentience, but missteps might trigger their deaths. Stone in Zanth’s Paw: It’s time for the best FamCat on the world of Celta to return the irritating sea turtles to their mother in the ocean. Perhaps time to learn a big lesson, too.

My Review:

One of the things that keeps bringing me back to Celta, over and over and over again, is that it feels like a nice place to visit and a place that I would actually want to live in. Not that it doesn’t have its share of problems, if only because it was settled by humans and, well, humans gonna human in all sorts of ways both terrible and wonderful. But also because the place is more or less functional, with occasional hiccups because, again, humans.

So it’s a place where people can, do and will screw up their own lives and the lives of those nearest and dearest to them. A place where sometimes evil flourishes, and occasionally stupid holds sway, but for the most part things generally work. And that’s kind of a refreshing change from a lot of SF and Fantasy worlds where the story generally starts with everything going totally off the rails into situations where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black.

Celta is an SF world that reads like a fantasy world. It’s part of a tradition that includes Pern, Darkover and Harmony. These are all worlds that were settled by breakaway groups of humans that left Earth and were then lost or abandoned or a bit of both.

Celta is particularly similar to Darkover and Harmony in that the people who left Earth all had psi powers and were all persecuted for those powers.

But the first story in Hearts and Stones reminds me of a bit of science fiction romance I read years ago, Trancehack by Sonya Clark. In Trancehack, and in Passage Through Stone, we get to see conditions on Earth for psis before the migration, as opposed to the post-landfall stories we have for both Darkover and Harmony. And the conditions on Earth for psis are pretty bleak and generally awful. Conditions on Earth in general suck in this post-apocalyptic world, but it looks like the psis are getting all the blame for events they had no part of, as a way for the Earth governments to point fingers at someone else. Or to put it the way it was said in a different world, “the humans kill what they do not understand”. So this opening story to the collection, and to Celta as a whole, is downright bleak. It’s kind of a hard read, especially in the plausibility of the terrible treatment of those who are ‘different’, but that plausibility is what makes it sear.

The rest of the stories in the collection take place on Celta throughout its history as we’ve seen it through the course of the marvelous Celta’s HeartMates series. Most of the stories either provide insight into events that happened either before or after the books, or they provide further exploration into characters that we’ve otherwise seen only glimpses of through the main narratives.

The two stories that stand out in this regard are Homing Stone and Fractured Stone, as they serve as bookends on the life of Holm Holly, a character who appears multiple times through the course of the series.

But the first of those stories, Homing Stone, is also a prequel for the first book in the series as they were originally published. It’s the story of a young Rand Ash, the hero of Heart Mate, setting out to befriend Holm, the heir to one of the great families of Celta, in order to enlist Holm’s, and his powerful family’s, help in righting all the wrongs that were done to Rand and his family when he was a child. Now that he’s an adult, Rand is ready to deliver a cold serving of revenge and a hot slice of justice to the people who murdered his family and stole his birthright. This story serves as both the portrait of the beginning of a life-long friendship and an introduction to characters that series readers have long loved.

Fractured Stone, on the other end of the spectrum, shows Holm Holly, now Holm Apple, forced to make his own way for himself and his heartmate in a new city after having been disowned by his birth family as a result of the events in Heart Duel. Although there are, of necessity, references to events that occurred in that previous book, the heart of this story is wrapped up in its portrait of a man making his way in a direction he never expected to have to take, without the love and support he expected to have all of his life. Holm has lost a great deal of status, and now has to make a name for himself based solely on his own accomplishments. It’s a hard lesson in letting go, but very well done.

Last, but not least – if only because Zanth would NEVER allow himself to be the least of anything, there’s Stone in Zanth’s Paw. One of the loveliest things about Celta are its Fams, the psychically powerful familiar companion animals that provide so much of the heart – and comic relief – that imbues this series. Zanth is the FamCat of Rand Ash, the Fam of all Fams of the entire series. He’s also a great, big, egotistical cat who will remind catservants that as much as we wish we understood what our cats are trying to tell us that it would not be an unmitigated blessing. Zanth is not merely every bit as demanding as any cat you’ve ever met, he’s capable of expounding upon his demands and his rights and his status and his deserved privileges at every opportunity.

The story about the Stone in Zanth’s Paw is a slight story that might have been better served up in a previous Celta collection, Celta Cats, but it still serves as a terrific reminder of the wonder, occasional majestic and frequent sheer hubris of these telepathic animal companions.

Escape Rating A-: Hearts and Stones is a terrific collection for anyone who has already been to Celta and is just itching for an excuse to return. If you’ve never been to Celta, but are interested in taking the trip, start with Heart Mate.

Review: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Review: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard OsmanThe Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Viking on September 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Four septuagenarians with a few tricks up their sleeves
A female cop with her first big case
A brutal murder
Welcome to...
THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved killings.
But when a local property developer shows up dead, 'The Thursday Murder Club' find themselves in the middle of their first live case.
The four friends, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it's too late?

My Review:

At first, The Thursday Murder Club seemed like an amateur version of the British TV series New Tricks. The title of that series comes from the old cliche about not teaching an old dog new tricks, as the “cops” in that series are all retired, and their job is to solve cold cases. Which occasionally turn rather hot. It’s quirky and it’s fun but it often has a serious tone underneath. Because they can indeed learn when they want to, and their old skills in investigation and detection are still extremely useful.

But as the story goes on, the reader learns that the leader of the Thursday Murder Club probably walked a lot of mean streets in a lot of dark places with Henrietta Lange, the old Cold Warrior in charge at NCIS: Los Angeles. Hetty and Elizabeth would certainly have a lot to talk about, and probably knew a lot of the same people. Elizabeth may be old, but she’s no amateur at looking into dirty deeds done in dark places.

As the story continued, I began to wonder if it wasn’t going to end up somewhere near An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten, which is wry and marvelous and certainly lives up to its title. In the end, it sort of does and sort of doesn’t, which hopefully tells you so little that it’s not a spoiler.

There is clearly at least one someone, and probably more, up to no good in and around the luxury retirement village of Cooper’s Chase. While the Thursday Murder Club may have begun by looking at cold cases provided by the retired DCI in their midst, they’ve always wanted to sink their investigative teeth into something new.

That’s just what they have, two fresh corpses – plus a newly discovered body that isn’t fresh at all. Along with the sure and certain knowledge that at least one of their neighbors is a murderer. Possibly even one of the members of the Thursday Murder Club.

Escape Rating A-: This was a lovely, twisty, turny mystery, that I picked up way too early but simply couldn’t put down. We begin by knowing nothing, but we think we know so much. As readers, we make all kinds of assumptions about the members of the Thursday Murder Club, just as PC Donna De Freitas does when she arrives in Cooper’s Chase thinking that she’ll be giving her standard, utterly canned talk to senior citizens about personal security.

Elizabeth and her friends, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, are well past any need for that particular lecture. Elizabeth could probably GIVE that lecture in way more depth and with more personal experience than Donna, not that we’re aware of that at the beginning any more than Donna is.

Their little club really just wants to sink their investigative teeth into another cold case to solve, if not to police satisfaction, at least to their own. Donna finds herself involved and even swept away by Elizabeth’s rather implacable charm.

Still, it all seems like fun and games until the owner of their retirement development is found dead in his lavish, garish house with an old photo pinned to his corpse. Not that Ian Ventham will be missed – more like the opposite. But it’s a fresh murder right on their patch and the Thursday Murder Club wants in.

And Elizabeth, who seems to have an endless number of fascinating people owing her favors all over the world, has a way about her. A way that gets Donna assigned to the case, and gets her and her fellow club members a ringside seat to the investigation. And occasionally the other way around.

Ventham was so detested and detestable that at first the entire thing feels like a bit of a lark. The story has all the trappings of a cozy mystery, with its eccentric crew of amateur detectives, the police who are more-or-less willing to go along, and a corpse that no one will miss. Ever.

But then it starts to get its hooks into the reader as the secrets that everyone is desperately hiding begin to ooze into the light. And the bodies start piling up.

Part of the charm of this story, and it is charming, is the way that it shows readers that these seemingly doddering and certainly quirky pensioners are all more than they appear. And that just because they are all old and rightfully worried about what comes next, they are also living very much in the here and now and aware of what powers they still have and what they are still capable of, even as they mourn those people and those capabilities that they have lost.

And that they all have long-past misdeeds that they have yet to atone for. Still, there is compassion in that revelation and in the atonement that follows.

So come for the murders. Stay for the portrait of a group of people that refuse to go gentle into that good night – and who plan to care for each other at every step of the journey. While they dispense their own brand of justice.

Review: Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Party of Two by Jasmine GuilloryParty of Two (The Wedding Date #5) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Wedding Date #5
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A chance meeting with a handsome stranger turns into a whirlwind affair that gets everyone talking.
Dating is the last thing on Olivia Monroe's mind when she moves to LA to start her own law firm. But when she meets a gorgeous man at a hotel bar and they spend the entire night flirting, she discovers too late that he is none other than hotshot junior senator Max Powell. Olivia has zero interest in dating a politician, but when a cake arrives at her office with the cutest message, she can't resist--it is chocolate cake, after all.
Olivia is surprised to find that Max is sweet, funny, and noble--not just some privileged white politician she assumed him to be. Because of Max's high-profile job, they start seeing each other secretly, which leads to clandestine dates and silly disguises. But when they finally go public, the intense media scrutiny means people are now digging up her rocky past and criticizing her job, even her suitability as a trophy girlfriend. Olivia knows what she has with Max is something special, but is it strong enough to survive the heat of the spotlight?

My Review:

Once upon a time, a guy and a girl got stuck in an elevator together. He needed a fake date to his ex’s wedding, and she wasn’t interested in dating but thought he’d be fun for a fling, so “why not?” But the chemistry that began in that elevator led to their very own HEA – and four more lovely books – at least so far.

That was The Wedding Date, the author’s debut novel, which I still can’t believe. But when Alexa Monroe and Drew Nichols tied the knot, they started a chain reaction, one that is still going strong.

After stories about his best friend (The Proposal), her two best friends (The Wedding Party) and one of those same best friends and her mother (Royal Holiday), the series has come back around again.

Not to Alexa, but to her sister Olivia, meeting and clicking with a guy in a hotel bar in LA. He has a house in LA, but he has also had a plumbing disaster, hence the temporary hotel stay. She doesn’t have a house yet, but she’s looking for one. Olivia and her best friend Ellie are in the process of setting up their own law firm together because they’re both tired of working for big law firms, having no say in their work and no life outside it.

Ellie wants to have time for her husband and kids while still being able to do work that she loves. Olivia has been too busy climbing the ladder to partner to even have a life, and she’s ready for a life outside it – once the firm is off the ground, that is.

There is definitely a “meet cute” between Olivia and Max, that guy she meets in the hotel bar. But they don’t exchange last names, phone numbers or bodily fluids during that one meeting, so Olivia chalks it up to experience, albeit a good one, and gets on with her life.

Only to discover that the terrific guy she exchanged banter and chemistry with was the seriously hot junior senator from California, Max Powell. She never expects to see him again, but their meeting makes for a really EXCELLENT story.

Until they meet again, almost as accidentally as the first time. She knows she’s coming to hear him speak, but he has no idea she’ll be in the audience. She has little expectation that he’ll recognize her, and none that anything will come of this second meeting, but she’s just as surprised as he is when he finds her in the crowd.

This time they do exchange enough information to find each other. Or at least enough for Max to send Olivia cake instead of flowers, because that’s one of the many (many, many) things they talked about in that bar.

Cake leads to flowers, both lead to dates, dates lead to more dates lead to weekends spent in each other’s houses and outings with Max in a fairly lame disguise. But it’s enough. Until it’s not – at least for Max. Until Max wants to go public, and Olivia lets herself get pulled along for the ride.

While dating Max was fun, dating a famous senator is something else all together. And as much as Olivia loves him, it’s not something she can live with. She could live with Max just fine, but the reporters following them around and digging into every tiny detail of her past push her way outside her comfort zone.

To the point where she pushes Max out the door.

Escape Rating A-: The story of Party of Two feels a bit like the movie The American President crossed with the real-life story of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry (which was sorta/kinda touched on in Royal Holiday). Complete with all of the racist overtones and thinly veiled threats and insults that Princess Meghan has had to deal with. The stories do parallel more than a bit – at least on the surface.

But this felt like a story about opposites attracting, and as is wonderfully usually for this author, the ways in which they are opposite and the difficulties those differences lead them to felt organic and real. This is a romcom without a heinous misunderstandammit. Yes, they did need to work on their communication, but the problem isn’t simple and the fix isn’t either.

Max is rich, white and very, very privileged. While he has become aware of his privilege and is doing his best to both make up for some of the dudebro assholish things he did before he knew better and use his position to do some good in the community and in the world, he is still privileged in the way that only a white, rich, heterosexual man can be in America. And that perspective has shaped his personality in ways that, while not bad in and of themselves, clash directly with Olivia’s perspective of the world.

Basically, Max’s whole outlook is to leap and assume that the net will appear. Because in his life, at least so far, it always has. So he can be very impulsive, even in public situations, because so far at least his mouth hasn’t written any checks that his body can’t cash – or at least can’t cash with the help of his staff, his money, or both. This doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does make him speak or act before he thinks things through. Fairly often.

As a black woman, Olivia’s experience is very different. She’s never impulsive, because her entire life experience is that if she leaps, she will fall. The net will not appear for her and she will never get the benefit of the doubt. (This is true for women in general and is doubly or triply true – if not more – for her) Olivia goes through life with a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C and all the way up to Plan Z. She tries her best to never act before she thinks things through. She did that once in high school with what could have been catastrophic results. The results weren’t exactly catastrophic, but they were plenty disastrous and it took her years to get past them.

It’s not that Olivia and Max can’t have a relationship, in spite of Olivia being certain from the get-go that it can’t work. It’s not that they don’t love each other enough to make a relationship work. But they have a fundamental difference in how they see the world, and while they can work past that difference, it’s going to take compromise on both their parts. And it’s going to take talking about it openly and honestly to get there.

And that’s where they stumble. And it felt real and true to the characters and the story. Which goes back to why I love this series so much.

If you want to read a romcom that works deliciously for readers who don’t generally fall for romcoms, this entire series is a delight. You could start with this book, because it doesn’t rely on knowledge of the previous books in the series, but they’re wonderful and if you love one you’ll love them ALL!

Review: Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry GreenwoodDead Man's Chest (Phryne Fisher, #18) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #18
Pages: 259
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on November 9, 2010
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Dot unfolded the note. "He says that his married couple will look after the divine Miss Fisher...I'll leave out a bit...their name is Johnson and they seem very reliable." Phryne got the door open at last. She stepped into the hall. "I think he was mistaken about that," she commented.
Traveling at high speed in her beloved Hispano-Suiza accompanied by her maid and trusted companion Dot, her two adoptive daughters Jane and Ruth, and their dog Molly, The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher is off to Queenscliff. She'd promised everyone a nice holiday by the sea with absolutely no murders, but when they arrive at their rented accommodation that doesn't seem likely at all.
An empty house, a gang of teenage louts, a fisherboy saved, and the mystery of a missing butler and his wife seem to lead inexorably toward a hunt for buried treasure by the sea. But what information might the curious Surrealists be able to contribute? Phryne knows to what depths people will sink for greed, but with a glass of champagne in one hand and a pearl-handled Beretta in the other, no one is getting past her.

My Review:

“Miss Fisher was about to happen to someone again.” That’s according to Dot, Phryne Fisher’s companion/lady’s maid, when Miss Fisher, Dot, Phryne’s adopted daughters Jane and Ruth, and their dog Molly, arrive in Queenscliff, a lovely little holiday-by-the-sea town in Australia.

But Dot’s bit of internal monologue could easily serve as the opening for every book in the series, as well as every episode of the TV series that was based on it. Because the gist of pretty much everything is that Miss Fisher happens to someone, shenanigans ensue, and one or two bodies turn up.

A good time is had by all, including the reader and/or viewer as Phryne saves the day – or several days – in her own inimitable fashion, and then she swans off to happen to someone else.

That would be the very short version of the story. The details in the slightly longer version are what make this entry in the book series so much fun.

At first, the mystery in this entry is uncomfortably on the domestic side. Phryne has rented a house in Queenscliff from a casual acquaintance, expecting to arrive and find the house fully staffed and ready to welcome her and her entourage.

Instead, the house is empty, and not merely the staff are absent but so is all their furniture, the cupboard is completely bare and the back door is swinging open along with the back gate. But there’s no blood, no bodies, and it seems like nothing missing that didn’t belong to the staff, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson.

But there is one thing extra. The Johnson’s little dog, Gaston, is piteously searching through garbage trying to find enough scraps to survive on. The Johnsons doted on the tiny terrier as if he were their child, but somehow he got left behind. It doesn’t add up.

And the local constabulary doesn’t want to even attempt to make it add up. The Johnsons are gone, their effects are gone, the bitter old gossip at the end of the street witnessed the removal van come and take away all their furniture. Case closed.

But not for Phryne. Even before she gets her household organized, she’s on the trail of the missing couple. Along the way she finds a new member for her eclectic household, a scrum of unruly boys, a smuggling ring – and a surprisingly well-guarded pirate’s treasure.

Escape Rating A-: Just like yesterday, this was simply a case of the right book at the right time. I was looking for comfort reads so dipped into two series that I know will reliably pull me into their worlds and out of my own with a sigh of relief.

Phryne always delivers – a mystery, a bit of derring-do, a dead body – and a surprising amount of commentary on the world in which she lives – along with her honest contempt for a fair number of people in it.

I said in my review of Riviera Gold a few weeks ago that I’d love to be a fly on the wall at a meeting between Phryne and Mary Russell. They are contemporaries, both operating during the pre-Depression 1920s, both living in the same upper class circles – when they are not undercover on one mystery or another – and both women who are seldom shy about saying what they think, operating independently and not caring beyond the minimum necessary about what most other people think.

This particular entry in the series feels very domestic, for lack of a better word. Phryne and her family are on their own in Queenscliff, without the support of the redoubtable Butlers, the able assistance and occasional guard duty provided by Bert and Cec, or the sometimes reluctant assistance of the Melbourne CIB in the persons of Jack Robinson and Hugh Collins.

Not that Hugh doesn’t turn up before the end. But he’s not the one who saves the day – or as it turns out, night. That’s Phryne. That’s always Phryne. It’s her series, after all.

But in spite of the “walk on” role of the pirate’s treasure, most of what happens in this one is wrapped around the various households involved.

Not just Phryne’s, where they take to being on their own without any staff with a great deal of fun. It’s easy to forget that none of these women, Phryne, Dot, Jane or Ruth, began their lives in easy circumstances. Phryne may have money now, but she spent a lot of years dirt poor and has never forgotten. So, while it’s a lark to be on their own, it’s still streets above where any of them started.

And it does give Ruth a chance to try out her skills as a cook, something she wants to make a career out of. She does so well that the reader will salivate at the description of all the things she makes. There are even recipes in the back for those who want to try it for themselves.

But all of the households have a toehold in this particular mystery, from the Mason family next door, where a gang of upper class bullying hooligans is running around cutting girls’ ponytails and selling the hair, to the Greens at the end, where the local doctor’s house is ruled by the iron fist and screeching voice of his nasty, busybody mother-in-law – at least until she drops dead.

And then there’s the disorganized house of Surrealists, who may or may not know something about the various crime sprees in Queenscliff, but certainly know plenty about all the other goings on.

But no one expects that the local legend that the pirate Benito dropped a load of gold in the harbor is really true. And Phryne is certainly not planning to tell. After all, part of her scheme to find the missing Johnsons and out the smugglers involves faking the discovery of the pirate’s hoard. Letting out the secret that it’s real after all would mess up all of her plans.

One final note. I’ve had an absolute ball reading this series. I also loved the TV show. But by this point in the books it’s excruciatingly clear that the one has very little to do with the other when it comes to even the broadest details of any story. Readers will enjoy the books more if they keep them firmly separated in their minds from the TV series. They’re each marvelous, but in their own, very separate ways. Even if they both do start with the same story, Cocaine Blues.

Review: No Cats Allowed by Miranda James

Review: No Cats Allowed by Miranda JamesNo Cats Allowed (Cat in the Stacks, #7) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #7
Pages: 275
Published by Berkley on February 23, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Springtime in Mississippi is abloom with beauty, but the library’s employees are too busy worrying to stop and smell the flowers. The new library director, Oscar Reilly, is a brash, unfriendly Yankee who’s on a mission to cut costs—and his first targets are the archive and the rare book collection.   As annoying as a long-overdue book, Reilly quickly raises the hackles of everyone on staff, including Charlie’s fiery friend Melba—whom Reilly wants to replace with someone younger. But his biggest offense is declaring all four-legged creatures banned from the stacks.   With enemies aplenty, the suspect list is long when Reilly's body is discovered in the library. But things take a turn for the worse when a threatening e-mail throws suspicion on Melba.   Charlie is convinced that his friend is no murderer, especially when he catches sight of a menacing stranger lurking around the library. Now he and Diesel will have to read between the lines, before Melba is shelved under “G” for guilty…

My Review:

I pulled this out of somewhere deep in the virtually towering TBR pile because I was looking for a comfort read. I needed a book I could get into instantly. I just got the latest book in the series from Netgalley, and was sorely tempted to start it. Then I remembered that there was one of the earlier books I hadn’t read, so here we are, back in Athena Mississippi with Librarian Charlie Harris and his large and in charge Maine Coon cat Diesel.

And I dove right into this story with a sigh of relief – in spite of the murders – and didn’t emerge until I finished, feeling like my reading mojo was refreshed and that, if all is not right with the world, at least I could dive back into the reading pool from here.

One of the things I really liked about No Cats Allowed is just how true-to-life Charlie’s situation is in this book. Charlie Harris is a 50-something librarian in tiny Athena. After a career at the Houston Public Library, Charlie inherited a sprawling house in his home town and returned to his roots.

Between his inheritance and his pension, Charlie doesn’t need to work for a living. But he certainly does need to keep himself – and Diesel – mentally occupied. And that’s where his work for Athena College comes in, where he serves as the Rare Books Cataloger and maintains the archives. And also how he seems to find himself involved in solving murders.

But this particular case is absolutely steeped in the atmosphere of working in a library, and everything about solving this case is very much involved with the way that libraries work, and the way that they go wrong when they don’t.

In other words, the situation at the library and the college rang very true-to-life, even though the resulting murders were definitely fictional.

Not that the victim didn’t deserve it – although maybe not quite the way it happened.

When the bastard of an interim library director’s dead body is discovered crushed between the compact shelving in the library’s basement, it’s easier for Charlie to determine who didn’t want to kill the man than who did, because it seems like the entire library staff, and possibly a significant number of staff in the college as a whole, wanted him dead. And with good reason.

But nothing about the crime seems to add up. And neither do the library’s accounts – which may just be the motive after all.

Escape Rating A-: I had too much fun with this. It was just the right book at the right time, so I was all in from the first page and stayed in to the end. This was the only book in the series I hadn’t read, so it also answers a bunch of questions about situations that came up later, like the biggie about just how and why Charlie ended up as the interim library director, a job he definitely did not want, while the search for a new director was ongoing. And why they needed a new director in the first place.

Athena, like Cabot Cove and Midsomer County, has a terribly high murder rate for its population. It might be a very nice place to live but it seems like visiting can be a bit too deadly.

What was fun for this reader was the insight into the way that the library worked. All of Charlie’s colleagues reminded me very much of people that I worked with over my own career – including, I have to admit, both the murderer and the victim. As Charlie points out, neither management nor budgeting are skills taught in library school, so there’s a lot of “winging it” on both counts. Sometimes on VERY stubby wings.

The author of this series is a real-life librarian, and that experience certainly shows in Charlie’s working life in every book. He’s “one of us” and it reads as accurate. I’ve always said that Charlie is someone I’d love to have coffee with at a conference – when we get back to having in person conferences, that is.

As is usual with a cozy mystery series, part of what makes reading this so much fun is seeing where Charlie’s team is at in their lives. What’s lovely about Charlie’s team is that they are also his family, whether they are family by blood or family of choice. They’re just a lovely bunch of people, and that definitely includes Diesel.

Unlike some other felines in cozies, Diesel is just a cat. A very big cat, and an extremely well-behaved cat, but definitely a cat. (Diesel weights 36 pounds, approximately the weight of all four of our cats combined!) He’s a comfort – and a comfortable – animal. And in spite of being very chatty, as cats can sometimes be, he doesn’t speak in English. Not that he can’t make himself perfectly understood by his human, but that’s a talent that all cats have.

But Diesel is utterly adorable in his very cat-ness, and the series, as well as the life of its protagonist, is richer for his presence. He’s a scene-stealer in the best possible way.

This is a series I love, and turn to whenever I need a comfort read. I’ll be back when the urge strikes, probably sooner rather than later considering just how uncomfortable 2020 has been so far, when Cat Me If You Can comes out later this summer.

Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper

Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea CooperThe Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on June 16, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A cursed opal, a gnarled family tree, and a sinister woman in a green dress emerge in the aftermath of World War I.
After a whirlwind romance, London teashop waitress Fleur Richards can’t wait for her new husband, Hugh, to return from the Great War. But when word of his death arrives on Armistice Day, Fleur learns he has left her a sizable family fortune. Refusing to accept the inheritance, she heads to his beloved home country of Australia in search of the relatives who deserve it more.
In spite of her reluctance, she soon finds herself the sole owner of a remote farm and a dilapidated curio shop full of long-forgotten artifacts, remarkable preserved creatures, and a mystery that began more than sixty-five years ago. With the help of Kip, a repatriated soldier dealing with the sobering aftereffects of war, Fleur finds herself unable to resist pulling on the threads of the past. What she finds is a shocking story surrounding an opal and a woman in a green dress. . . a story that, nevertheless, offers hope and healing for the future.
This romantic mystery from award-winning Australian novelist Tea Cooper will keep readers guessing until the astonishing conclusion.
“Readers of Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams will be dazzled. The Woman in the Green Dress spins readers into an evocative world of mystery and romance in this deeply researched book by Tea Cooper. There is a Dickensian flair to Cooper’s carefully constructed world of lost inheritances and found treasures as two indomitable women stretched across centuries work to reconcile their pasts while reclaiming love, identity and belonging against two richly moving historical settings. As soon as you turn the last page you want to start again just to see how every last thread is sewn in anticipation of its thrilling conclusion. One of the most intelligent, visceral and vibrant historical reads I have had the privilege of visiting in an age.” —Rachel McMillan, author of The London Restoration 
“Refreshing and unique, The Woman in the Green Dress sweeps you across the wild lands of Australia in a thrilling whirl of mystery, romance, and danger. This magical tale weaves together two storylines with a heart-pounding finish that is drop-dead gorgeous.” —J’nell Ciesielski, author of The Socialite
Full-length historical story with both romance and mysteryStand-alone novelIncludes Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

My Review:

Particularly large and/or valuable gems often have legends attached to them. Or curses. Or both. Generally both. Based on its history, the Hope Diamond is probably safest in the Smithsonian, rather than around the neck of someone who might be the victim of its curse. Although its owner during the 1920s seems to have made a habit of letting her Great Dane wear it!

The gem at the heart of this intricate work of timeslip fiction would have been a magnet for myths, curses and thieves had it ever existed; a great, big, beautiful opal, the first of its kind to be discovered in Australia, at a time when Queen Victoria had made the wearing of opals all the rage. In spite of their previous reputation as unlucky.

Or cursed.

But the opal, cursed or otherwise, kind of acts like a brooch that pins this story together. A story that takes place in two separate time periods, 1853 and 1919. This is, after all, a timeslip story, so it’s the past that is unveiled in the 1853 timeline that needs to be resolved in the 1919 “present”.

And it’s a doozy.

Australia in 1853 is not too distant from its penal colony roots. Just distant enough that the emancipationists – the deported convicts, while still looked down upon, do have a chance of making a new life for themselves. Equally, they have a chance of getting up to their old tricks. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Australia is also a vast country much like the American West, where the white “settlers” were doing their level best – or should that be absolute worst – to push the continent’s original owners out of their ancestral lands – and even to the brink of extinction if it can be managed. But at the same time, it’s a big place and there are still, at least in 1853, places where the whites have not encroached much – at least not yet – and where the unique native flora and fauna still thrive. Although all are under threat.

And that’s where the earlier portions of this story begin. With a young woman who does her best to protect the native people she views as friends and fellow stewards of the lands around her. A woman whose job, whose art, is to preserve the native fauna at least through expert taxidermy, as her father did before her.

At least until her home and her life are invaded by a young man from Austria, on a journey to visit the sites that his mentor visited 20 years before. Together they find themselves caught up in a search for that fabulous missing opal, only to dig up way more than they bargained for in family secrets – and murder.

In 1919, Fleur Richards learns that her husband of just a few months has been killed in action in the closing days of the Great War, and that he has left his grief-stricken wife an inheritance she never knew he had. She thought that the dashing Australian soldier, Hugh Richards, was a young man with an eye to the future, but no more or greater financial prospects than her orphaned and impoverished self.

But the inheritance she does not want spurs her to travel halfway around the world to discover just who her husband really was, in the hopes of finding someone more deserving of his fortune than she believes herself to be.

She finds more than she bargained for. A cursed gem, a locked and abandoned shop of curios and wonders, the solution to a long-ago mystery. And a home.

Escape Rating A-: I have to say that The Woman in the Green Dress gets off to a bit of a slow start, hence the A- rating. Somewhere past the first third of the book the story takes off and develops all sorts of lovely twisty-turny plot threads that keep the story zipping along from there to the end.

But it takes a while to get there, approximately the amount of story it takes for Fleur to get to Australia and get fed up with the runaround she’s getting in Sydney. And on the historic side, the amount of time for Della to meet Stefan and decide to take her life back in her own hands by returning to Sydney to discover what changes her Aunt Cordelia has made in the shop that Della owns.

And I’ve just realized the juxtaposition, that Della’s story takes off when she gets to Sydney, and Fleur’s gets its wings when she leaves it. Not that Fleur doesn’t return fairly quickly, but as the two heroines start moving – so does the story.

Both the past and the present stories are wrapped around secrets. Della has to uncover the secrets that her Aunt is keeping – before those secrets get her killed. Not that they haven’t already left a trail of bodies in their wake. Fleur needs to uncover the secret of who her husband really was, and to learn the truth about the legacy he left behind for her to unravel and resolve.

In the end, it’s a story about the truth setting them both free. And about a beautiful, captivating opal that was both lost and found.

But that woman in the green dress – she’s pure poison. Her story, however, is as delicious as her tonic is deadly.

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Review: An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner

Review: An Unnatural Life by Erin K. WagnerAn Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 192
Published by Tor.com on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Murderbot meets To Kill a Mockingbird in Erin K. Wagner's An Unnatural Life, an interplanetary tale of identity and responsibility.
The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, Aiya Ritsehrer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case.
But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon.
Aiya must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it's too late.

My Review:

I picked this up as early as I did because it was teasing me. Specifically, the recommendations I received from a friend listed some readalikes for this book and I was just sure that something was missing – actually I was positive that at least two somethings were missing – and I had to read it to see if I was right.

You know how it is, there’s something on the tip of your tongue, or just out of reach in your memory but you can’t quite grasp it. It was driving me nuts that I just couldn’t remember what one of the books I KNEW this reminded me of was, so I had to read it and find out.

In case you’re wondering, the recommendation said Murderbot, which, well, of course, yes. Because Murderbot is so ‘top of mind’ after the recent release of Network Effect. And there is something to be said for the correlation, although strictly speaking Murderbot isn’t exactly a self-aware AI. Self-aware, absolutely, an AI,  not exactly. But the concept of humans creating an enslavable and exploitable underclass is certainly a match. The other readalike was the classic The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, which I have not read. The ‘so many books, so little time’ conundrum rears its ugly head yet again.

I was thinking of Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport for both the self-aware AI and the specifically created underclass, even though in Medusa they are not exactly embodied in the same person – or at least not all of the time.

But those references felt fairly obvious. The one lurking in the back of my mind turned out to be the steampunk world created in Ian Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars series, starting with The Mechanical. While the ‘mechanicals’ of that series were created through alchemy rather than science, the situation they find themselves in is much the same as it is in An Unnatural Life. They are created to be slaves and they seem to have no recourse towards freedom. But they are self-aware, and they strike out for freedom anyway, in spite of the odds, the laws, and their own programming.

In the end, the story this reminded me of the most was the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man“, where Data is on trial. Not for a crime as the AI here is, but for his right to be a self-determining being in his own right, and not property as has occurred in the world posited in this story. Picard’s speech in Data’s defense echoes many of the abuses that are highlighted in this story, as it is all too clear from humanity’s history that if Data is not considered an autonomous being in his own right that he and others like him will be declared to be ‘property’ and abused as happened in the backstory for this book. Also as did happen in the later history of the universe of Star Trek, as represented in the events of its latest series, Star Trek: Picard.

The story in An Unnatural Life, just like the story in The Measure of a Man, isn’t really about the android, the AI, the ‘grunt’, after all. It’s a story about humans, and about humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. It’s about just how very easy we find it to believe that anyone we define as ‘them’ can be treated as inhumanely as we want, because we’ve decided that the only ones worthy of being considered ‘human’ are ‘us’.

But Walt Kelly’s Pogo had it right all along when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. And he still is.

Escape Rating A-: There are actually two stories in this slim little volume. One is the obvious, the story of Aiya Ritsehrer’s appeal on behalf of the AI 812-3 due to the obvious fact that the AI did not face a jury of his peers, but rather a jury that was utterly prejudiced against the AI, as was the judge and the prosecution. Aiya is convinced the AI did not receive a fair trial, and it’s oh-so-clear that she is correct.

There is also a story tucked in-between the chapters about Aiya, the trial and its result. I think that it was about an expedition to discover whether or not there was already life on Europa when it was settled by humans. But that story is more tantalizing than realized. Which is possibly intended, but left me a bit frustrated by its ambiguity, hence the A- rating.

Back to the story I’m entirely too sure of. One of the things that so frequently gets lost in the gee-whiz sensawunda that science fiction and fantasy often provoke is that no matter who or what is at the center of the story, no matter where or when it is set, all stories are about human beings. Because human beings are the only creatures that we really know. Writers may do their very best to guesstimate what androids or aliens in the far future or the mythic past might think and feel and say and do, but the fact is that the perspective from which all of those ‘otherworldly’ characters are written is the human one in the here and now of the author.

So from one perspective this is a story about a self-aware AI in search of justice on one of Jupiter’s moons. But on the other, the story underneath that, is a story about prejudice and justice. It’s a story about the lengths and depths that humans, following their worser instincts and not their better ones, will go to in order to preserve the status quo that makes them feel safe and comfortable.

It is also a story about one woman fighting, not just for justice for an underdog, but for what is right instead of what is easy, in spite of all of her own prejudices, and in spite of the very real fear that her pursuit of justice will bring her into deadly danger in a situation where no one will stand by her, no one will protect her, and no one will seek justice on her behalf.

Because all of those humans believe that their hatred of ‘the other’ and their willingness, even eagerness to destroy anyone who shines a light on that hatred, is not human either and therefore deserves whatever happens to them. That they brought it on themselves, and that their fate is not the fault of anyone but themselves for standing up for ‘the other’.

And if you don’t see any parallels between the story and both history and current events, you’re not paying attention.

Review: The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie Vaughn

Review: The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie VaughnThe Heirs of Locksley (The Robin Hood Stories, #2) by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Series: Robin Hood Stories #2
Pages: 128
Published by Tor.com on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Carrie Vaughn follows up The Ghosts of Sherwood with the charming, fast-paced The Heirs of Locksley, continuing the story of Robin Hood's children.

"We will hold an archery contest. A simple affair, all in fun, on the tournament grounds. Tomorrow. We will see you there."

The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III.

The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley―son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian―only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man's life, and carrying out daring escapes.

All in a day's work for the Locksley children...

My Review:

I picked this up, admittedly rather early, because it combines two of my great reading loves, English history and fanfiction. And I really, truly was NOT expecting the second part of that equation.

I fell in love with English history at age 12, after seeing the movie Anne of a Thousand Days. I have no idea what drew me in so strongly. Certainly not any direct relationship to the history portrayed as I have zero English ancestry. Whether it was the pageantry, the politics or the power, I was absolutely hooked, leading to a life-long interest in British history, whether fictionalized or not.

Not that some of what grabbed me, like the Robin Hood and King Arthur, aren’t of dubious historical accuracy – at best.

But this particular novella duology – at least it’s a duology so far – does a terrific job of setting Robin Hood, Robin of Locksley, into a reasonably historical version of the time in which he was supposed to have lived, and skirts around the issues of exactly which, if any, of the tales about him might be true by making him a secondary character in these stories.

In these stories, Robin is no longer the outlaw of Sherwood. And he’s no longer a young man. Instead, he’s well into middle age, still powerful, still feared and hated and loved in equal measure, but also someone who recognizes that his time will inevitably draw to a close, sooner rather than later.

These stories focus on his children with Marian; his oldest daughter Mary, his son and heir John, and his slightly fey child Eleanor as they take their first steps into adulthood.

They also do a good job of giving bits of long-ago English history a face that makes them still feel relevant. The first book, The Ghosts of Sherwood, was a story about reckoning. About the nobles who favored King John still trying to eliminate Robin as a threat or a power, while the political maneuvering brought the negotiations surrounding the Magna Carta becomes personalized through his enemies attempt to kidnap his children – and his children manage to rescue themselves using the lessons their father and life on the edge of Sherwood have taught them.

In The Heirs of Locksley, the times have changed and the story has moved on a bit. It is 1220, and King John is dead. His 13-year-old son sits uneasily on the throne that he will occupy for the rest of his life. But Henry of Winchester, Henry III, is still a boy. A boy who never knew his father, but still stands in his shadow. The shadow of a man who seems to have pissed off everyone he ever knew.

Robin’s son John knows all about standing in a father’s long shadow. The two boys make a surprising common cause that leads them on an adventure that neither expected – to the consternation of all of the adults that surround them.

Escape Rating A-: I said at the beginning that this combined my loves of English history and fanfiction. The setting of these tales is between two of my favorite historical mystery series, both set in England and both occurring at times of great upheavals in history – as this series does.

I’m speaking of the Brother Cadfael series, by the late Ellis Peters, set in Shrewsbury, English between 1135 and 1145, at a time when the country was in the midst of a civil war. This series was also one of the first historical mystery series I have read, and the foundation of the popularity of the genre to this day.

The other series is the Owen Archer series, set in York in the late 1300s during the events that would eventually lead to yet another civil war, the Wars of the Roses. Both of these series, like these Robin Hood stories, do a fantastic job of drawing the reader directly into their time and place while still managing to comment on either our own, the immutability of human nature, or both.

(And now I’m missing Owen and will be moving the latest book in that series all the way up the virtually towering TBR pile!)

But I also referred to the Robin Hood stories as fanfiction – as the author does in the afterword to this book. It’s a concept that now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it – and it resonates.

After all, the Robin Hood stories that we all know today weren’t written down until the late 1400s at the very earliest, three centuries after the adventures they portray. And even then, those written stories were merely printed versions of oral traditions that had arisen during the interim, sometime between Robin’s own time and the invention of the printing press.

As part of an oral tradition, the stories that were printed were the ones that were remembered, whether because they were the best stories, the most memorable ones, were just told by particularly charismatic storytellers – or all of the above. There’s no historical canon version, just a lot of stories that center around a larger-than-life character and his band of outlaws as they rebelled against an unjust authority.

It’s a “Fix-it” fic where the heroes fight wrongs and make things better in the end, as occurs when Richard the Lionhearted returns to his kingdom and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham is forced to leave Robin and his gang alone. The story conveniently ends before King Richard is killed and John takes back over, this time for good – or ill.

The Robin Hood Stories series are a kind of “next generation” fanfic where the author takes the beloved characters and tells readers what happened after the happy ever after, moving the story to the literal next generation, the earlier heroes’ children.

So she’s right. Not just that these stories feel like fanfiction but that the original Robin Hood stories were too. Complete with the “so many variations that the original canon is obscured” problem. In my review of the first book I noted that there’s a trend towards retellings going on right now. The world has gone mad and we’re all looking for the comfort of stories we know and love, in variations that may hold a few surprises but ultimately lead back to the tales that we already know.

And that’s what these Robin Hood Stories have been so far for me. A lovely comfort read with an interesting view of a historical period that I enjoy, an ultimately a visit with some old and very dear friends.

I hope there will be more.

Review: Driving the Deep by Suzanne Palmer

Review: Driving the Deep by Suzanne PalmerDriving the Deep (Finder Chronicles, #2) by Suzanne Palmer
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #2
Pages: 432
Published by DAW Books on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From a Hugo Award-winning author comes the second book in this action-packed sci-fi caper, starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder.
As a professional finder, Fergus Ferguson is hired to locate missing objects and steal them back. But it is rarely so simple, especially after his latest job in Cernee. He's been recovering from that experience in the company of friends, the Shipmakers of Pluto, experts at crafting top-of-the-line AI spaceships.
The Shipmakers have convinced Fergus to finally deal with unfinished business he's been avoiding for half his life: Earth. Fergus hasn't been back to his homeworld since he was fifteen, when he stole his cousin's motorcycle and ran away. It was his first theft, and nothing he's stolen since has been anywhere near so easy, or weighed so heavily on his conscience. Many years and many jobs later, Fergus reluctantly agrees that now is the time to return the motorcycle and face his family.
Unfortunately, someone has gotten to the motorcycle before him. And before he can figure out where it went and why the storage unit that held it is now filled with priceless, stolen art, the Shipyard is attacked. His friends are missing, presumably kidnapped.
Accompanied by an untrustworthy detective who suspects Fergus is the art thief and the sole friend who escaped the attack, Fergus must follow the tenuous clues to locate and save his friends. The trail leads them to Enceladus, where Fergus plans to go undercover to the research stations that lie beneath the moon's thick ice sheet deep in a dark, oppressive ocean.
But all movement and personnel are watched, and the limited ways through the thick ice of the moon's surface are dangerous and highly monitored. Even if Fergus can manage to find proof that his friends are there and alive, getting out again is going to be a lot more complicated than he bargained for.

My Review:

Fergus Ferguson has a gift, and not just the one that he thinks he has, his ability to put the pieces together to find things – and people – that are missing. Fergus’ more important gift is the gift of making friends wherever he goes – no matter how dangerous the situation or unlikely the friendship might be. Or how incredibly difficult the mess he makes may be to get out of.

Because Fergus Ferguson is every bit as good at making his life into a mess as he is at finding his way out of the mess he’s just made.

But this particular mess is going to be a bigger challenge than average – even for him. His friends from the Shipyards at Pluto are all missing, presumed dead. Or possibly missing, presumed kidnapped. Except for the one who isn’t dead, but is suspected of having caused the kidnapping and/or death of the others. Except she didn’t, but someone is trying awfully hard to make it look that way, in order to make everyone look the other way from whatever really happened.

Meanwhile, Fergus is stuck, deep under the ice on Enceladus, Saturn’s ice-covered moon. After all, it’s easy to hide things in a cold and dark place that damn few people want to go to in the first place. Especially dirty deeds being done, not exactly dirt cheap. Possibly on the public’s dime – or whatever passes for currency by Fergus’ time.

All Fergus has to do is figure out if his friends are down there, where they’re being held if they are, why they were kidnapped in the first place – and, of course, rescue them. Without getting them all killed.

And especially without drawing the notice of “the Bastards Above”.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I loved the first book in the Finder Chronicles. That book is named basically for Fergus, and it’s just called Finder. And it’s awesome.

Both books, in fact, are an absolute treat to listen to, as the entire story so far is told from Fergus’ first person perspective, and the narrator does an excellent job of capturing Fergus’ wry, self-deprecating and universe-weary tone.

Howsomever, as often happens, I listened to the first half of this one and read the second, because I just couldn’t wait to find out how Fergus got himself out of the mess this time. Because it’s a doozy.

This feels like a story about closure, and perversely about opening. There’s that saying that when one door closes, another one opens. For Fergus, it feels a bit like he has to close that first door before he can let himself open the second one. Fergus ran away from home on Earth in his late teens, just after his dad committed suicide by drowning. An act that certainly comes back to haunt Fergus in the deeps under the ice of Enceladus.

But this story begins with Fergus going back to Earth for the first time in two decades, because there’s that door behind him that he needs to close. When he left he stole his cousin’s motorcycle. And it’s time for him to go back and take care of that debt, because looking back is keeping him from moving forward.

No plan of Fergus’ ever seems to survive contact with, well, Fergus, so his plan to get the motorcycle out of the storage locker he’s been paying for all these years turns up, not the motorcycle, but a whole bunch of stolen paintings that seem to be the ill-gotten gains from a museum robbery not unlike the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft in Boston in 1990.

Uncovering the paintings uncovers an undercover cop looking for the thieves. An obsessed man who is convinced that Fergus was one of the thieves he’s been hunting for years. Of course, his plans don’t survive Fergus either, and eventually, after a lot of misunderstandings and a few bouts of fisticuffs, they both end up trying to free Fergus’ friends.

But all of that turns out to be setup, as fascinating as it generally was. The story is really Fergus’ story, all alone in the dark of Enceladus, desperately hanging on to hope and trying to come up with a plan, in the face of the endless night and the unrelenting dark under the water.

In the end, with the help of new friends and old, including the stray cat Mister Feefs, Fergus manages to find the heart of this mystery. After all, while Fergus’ own plans never survive contact with Fergus – neither do anybody else’s.