A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green

A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. GreenThe House on Widows Hill (Ishmael Jones #9) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #9
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on July 2, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


Ishmael Jones investigates a haunted house . . . but is haunted by his own past in the latest of this quirky paranormal mystery series.

"That house is a bad place. Bad things happen there . . ."
Set high on top of Widows Hill, Harrow House has remained empty for years. Now, on behalf of an anonymous prospective buyer, Ishmael and Penny are spending a night there in order to investigate the rumours of strange lights, mysterious voices, unexplained disappearances, and establish whether the house is really haunted.
What really happened at Harrow House all those years ago? Joined by a celebrity psychic, a professional ghost-hunter, a local historian and a newspaper reporter, it becomes clear that each member of 'Team Ghost' has their own pet theory as to the cause of the alleged haunting. But when one of the group suddenly drops dead with no obvious cause, Ishmael realizes that if he can find out how and why the victim died, he will have the key to solving the mystery.

My Review:

The House on Widows Hill is more of a twist on the typical English country house mystery than even Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt usually have to contend with.

And that’s definitely saying something about the cases that the mysterious “Organization” usually assigns to this unconventional pair – even after the case in the previous book, Night Train to Murder, that has literally just dropped them off in Bath when this investigation begins.

Someone high up in that secretive, blacker-than-black-ops ‘Organization’ wants Ishmael and Penny to spend the night at that house on Widows Hill overlooking the city, a house with a reputation so dark that not only has no one lived there since the Victorian Era, but no one even goes near the place.

The place is so creepy that not even the local kids go there on dares, and haven’t for decades. Probably because of the overwhelming sense of impending doom and dread that comes over anyone and everyone who approaches the outer gates.

Someone in the ‘Organization’ is considering buying the place – or that’s what Ishmael and Penny are told, anyway. That night is a ‘one-night-only’ invitation to not just Ishmael and Penny as representatives of the potential buyer, but also to a whole team of “ghost botherers” (as Ishmael calls them) who have been begging – for years it seems – to get inside the old haunt. Along with one intrepid reporter who represents the family that owns the creepy pile – and really would like to get shed of the place once and for all.

The rumor is that the house is haunted – but there have never been any reports of actual ghost sightings. At least not until the first member of the little group of wannabe ghost hunters dies in the midst of what Ishmael is sure is a fraudulent séance. Then again, Ishmael believes that all séances are fraudulent so he’s not disappointed that this one is all a wheeze – although he is peeved that he let himself get caught up in the distraction.

He just wasn’t expecting this particular bit of shenanigans to be a way of covering up murder. But he should have been, even if he’s a bit off his usual game. Because while there may not be any ghosts in the house, there certainly is a real something. Something that’s speaking to Ishmael himself in ways that seem entirely too familiar – even if they are speaking of a past that he can no longer claim as his own.

Escape Rating A-: I normally save this series for around Halloween, but I’m in the midst of a reading quandary that I hoped this book would solve – or at least beat back for a couple of days. I’m in the middle of listening to Erik Larson’s No One Goes Alone, and it reminds me A LOT of the Ishmael Jones series – at least so far. The thing about the Larson ‘book’ is that it’s audio only – there’s no actual book. If there were I’d have finished the damn thing by now, because I’m desperate to find out not just whodunnit but also how and why it was done. ‘Thumbing’ to the end of an audio is just damnably awkward – but I’ve been sorely tempted all the same. (I’ll finish the damn thing this week one way or another! And in case you can’t tell, I’m really, REALLY frustrated by the lack of a text.)

Once the resemblance between the two became clear to me, I picked up The House on Widows Hill, which is the next book in my catchup on this series, in the hopes of getting a bit of resolution by proxy for the book I can’t quite carve out enough time to finish.

It even worked, sorta/kinda. Which is awesomely relieving in a peculiar, reading obsessive kind of way.

So this book was pretty much the right book at the right time, even if my reading did start out as a search for a catharsis by substitution.

The House on Widows Hill very much has the classic haunted house vibe going on – even though with Ishmael and Penny involved the reader begins the story aware that it just isn’t going to go to any of the places that haunted houses normally go. That Ishmael gets shaken out of some of his internal certainties and securities added a bit to the ongoing arc of the series while at the same time ramping up the tension of both this book and the books in the series yet to come.

As I’ve already read the final book in the series so far, Haunted by the Past, I have one more book left in my catchup of this series, and that’s Buried Memories. Which I’ll probably get around to THIS coming Halloween, unless the urge for some of this author’s trademark line in snark hits me sooner and isn’t satisfied by the next book in his Gideon Sable series, Where is Anybody?, scheduled for publication in August.

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Dance Hall by Marty Wingate + #Giveaway

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Dance Hall by Marty Wingate + #GiveawayA Body at the Dance Hall (London Ladies' Murder Club #3) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: London Ladies' Murder Club #3
Pages: 304
Published by Bookouture on April 8, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.org
Goodreads

1922. Amateur sleuth Mabel Canning is surrounded by the bright lights of London as she chaperones a young American woman to a dance. But when someone is murdered, a deadly tango begins…Meet plucky woman-about-town Mabel Canning, leader of the London Ladies’ Murder Club and trusted assistant to gentlewomen. When she is tasked with accompanying Roxy, a fun-loving heiress, on a glamorous night out, Mabel can’t wait to sip champagne and practice the foxtrot. But just as Roxy sashays out of sight, a mysterious man warns Mabel that the feisty young redhead is in danger. And someone is dead before the music stops...Roxy was the last person to see the victim alive, and she stumbles into Mabel’s arms with her daffodil-yellow dress splashed with blood. Determined to protect her ward, Mabel gathers her dashing beau Winstone and her pals from the murder club. Together they trace the weapon back to the ballroom, but when its twin goes missing, it is clear time is running out to prevent another murder on the dance floor…The police conclude the killer is in Roxy’s family, but Mabel finds herself spinning between a motley troupe of suspects. Mr Bryars, the anxious ballroom manager, is constantly tripping over himself to hide his secrets. But would he kill to protect his reputation? And young Ned Kettle may have looked dashing while waltzing around with Roxy, but he was once a notorious thief. Is the sticky-fingered rogue also a dab hand at murder?Just as Mabel and her murder club friends quickstep closer to the truth, Roxy is kidnapped, and Mabel comes cheek to cheek with the killer. Can she save poor Roxy and herself? Or has she danced her last dance?A delightfully witty and utterly addictive whodunnit absolutely bursting with 1920s sparkle, from USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Richard Osman, Verity Bright and T.E. Kinsey.

My Review:

As a member of Miss Kerr’s Useful Women Agency, Mabel Canning has taken on all kinds of jobs and been useful to many different people, from helping someone decide on wallpaper to delivering packages to making sure that certain young scamps really do board their trains back to school.

It’s not at all outside the bounds of the services offered by the Useful Women Agency for Mabel to accompany a young American woman on outings and excursions, to be her tour guide while keeping an eye on her, and doing her best to keep Roxanne Arkwright out of trouble.

But trouble finds Mabel, as it has in her previous adventures, A Body on the Doorstep and A Body at the Séance, in the form of, well, a dead body – this time on the floor of the Hammersmith Palais de Danse.

(Yes, it’s a new face on the ballroom floor, which is how I always heard the phrase, “new face on the BARroom floor” as a child. I’m both tickled at the reference and chagrined at how long it took me to figure it out – albeit not THIS long.)

Scotland Yard, in the person of Detective Inspector Tollerton isn’t nearly as surprised as he’d like to be to discover Mabel on the scene of yet another murder – but Mabel has been useful to Scotland Yard in two previous cases, so Tollerton seems to have reached a position of tolerance, at least, on the subject of Mabel and her penchant for being on the scene when a body drops at someone’s feet – whether those feet are her own or not.

At least this time around Mabel can’t possibly be a suspect, as she was locked in the Palais’ larder at the time. And neither can her charge, Roxanne Arkwright, be in this particular frame. Although Roxanne’s father certainly could be. And briefly is as the case unfolds.

That the murder victim, Oswald Deuchar, was a private investigator in the employ of Roxanne’s father, Rupert Arkwright, for the purpose of watching over Roxanne – along with Mabel but without her knowledge – adds both to the confusion and to the potential motives for his death. After all, private investigators, even ones as quirky and eccentric as Deuchar often accumulate enemies.

Unless the poor man’s death wasn’t about Oswald the investigator and protector, but instead had everything to do with his protectee – and Mabel’s – Roxanne Arkwright.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve already reached the point in Mabel’s adventures where I’m here specifically for her, and the particular case she’s working on is just extra. A compelling extra in the case of A Body at the Dance Hall, but still extra. I’m here to see how Mabel and her friends are doing, and to watch as she learns more about London, her assigned jobs for the Useful Women Agency, and the progress of her romance with her neighbor, Park Winstone. I’m especially here for the way that she keeps learning how to be a good investigator as well as an independent woman, a good worker and a good friend.

What I really like about Mabel and her adventures is that Mabel comes into the story both by agency and with agency and that it doesn’t feel anachronistic that she does.

In the first book in the series, A Body on the Doorstep, Mabel comes to London from the tiny village of Peasmarsh. She’s in her early 30s, never married, and has always dreamed of being on her own. She loves her father dearly, but Peasmarsh is a small, insular town and she’s not ready to settle into the plans it has for her.

Mabel’s comes to London after both the Great War and the Spanish Flu epidemic. An entire generation of young British men died in the trenches, to the point where Mabel is one of many women who may have to make their own ways in the world because of those losses. The idea that she might be on her own, that her father may worry about her – he does – that the doorman at her building looks out for her on his behalf and sends back reports – which he does – does not mean that Mabel isn’t completely independent. It just means that he loves her and wants to know someone is looking out for her, but even that doorman abides by the principle that what her dad doesn’t know won’t hurt anyone. No one is supporting Mabel except herself and she answers to no one except Miss Kerr at the Useful Women Agency.

Mabel’s life is a far cry – and a delightful one – from women in quite a lot of historical mysteries (including the one I bailed on last week in a rage). Mabel’s world isn’t fair to women – the world STILL isn’t – but her times and her circumstances allow her to be in a position to answer to herself alone and not be forced to kowtow to the men in her life for every second of her existence. Which was a true experience but isn’t any fun to read and too many female-fronted historical mysteries spend the first third of the book if not more showing all the ways that the world forces them to conform and how they, in turn, are forced to work around all those restrictions.

This series is a breath of fresh air because Mabel doesn’t have to do all of that heavy lifting just to be about her business. And I’m so very happy that is so and honestly relieved to start another of her cases.

And I’ll get down from my soapbox now.

The thing about this particular case is that both Roxanne and the villain have daddy issues. Their fathers have been missing from their lives from about the same age – but the reasons for their absence are quite different, and the results, well, the results are about as diametrically opposed as they could get – very few of which have to do with their positions at nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder.

Because I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, let’s talk about Roxanne’s issues because, well, her issues have issues and not a one of them is her fault. Her parents are divorced, her mother left England for America eight years ago, when Roxy was just ten years old. And her mother has been gaslighting her ever since about pretty much everything to do with her father, to the point of outright parental alienation so severe as to constitute emotional abuse while demonstrating EXACTLY why parental alienation is considered emotional abuse at the same time. Roxanne comes to London expecting to find a monster, only to discover a father who loves her very much and has missed her terribly, and a stepmother who can help Roxy heal from her mother’s treatment and build up faith in herself and her own judgment – because that’s exactly what her own mother has been tearing down all these years.

All of which means that in the middle of her assignment to show Roxanne the sights of London, Mabel also has a ringside seat on the behavior of Roxy, her father and stepmother, her mother when she arrives from America very much like the avatar of DOOM in T. Kingfisher’s A Sorceress Comes to Call – albeit one without any actual magic but plenty of the same malice.

The closer Mabel gets to Roxy, the more she treats her as a bit of a ‘little sister’, the much harder it is to detach herself as the plot closes in and traps Roxy in its jaws. From that point, it’s a race to the finish, to save the young woman from an enemy that no one saw coming because there was so much enmity already floating around.

I had a ball with A Body at the Dance Hall, so I’m thrilled to say that there is a FOURTH book coming in December, Murder of a Suffragette. I’m already looking forward to it.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because I really enjoy Mabel’s adventures, as I did the author’s Birds of a Feather and Potting Shed series, I chose this book for my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week, so that I could share that enjoyment with the lucky winner of today’s giveaway.

On this second day of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, today’s giveaway is the winner’s choice of ANY one of Marty Wingate’s books, in any format, up to $20 (US).

Good luck with today’s giveaway and remember that there’s more to come!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

A- #AudioBookReview: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed

A- #AudioBookReview: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee MohamedThe Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed
Narrator: Eva Tavares
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 158
Length: 4 hours and 49 minutes
Published by ECW Press on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In post-climate disaster Alberta, a woman infected with a mysterious parasite must choose whether to pursue a rare opportunity far from home or stay and help rebuild her community.
The world is nothing like it once was: climate disasters have wracked the continent, causing food shortages, ending industry, and leaving little behind. Then came Cad, mysterious mind-altering fungi that invade the bodies of the now scattered citizenry. Reid, a young woman who carries this parasite, has been given a chance to get away - to move to one of the last remnants of pre-disaster society - but she can't bring herself to abandon her mother and the community that relies on her.
When she's offered a coveted place on a dangerous and profitable mission, she jumps at the opportunity to set her family up for life, but how can Reid ask people to put their trust in her when she can't even trust her own mind?

My Review:

There’s a deep, dark chasm between “the end of the world as they know it” and “the end of the world”. It’s a badly carved gorge where the steps going down are slippery, steep and riddled with stretches that have been completely washed out and strewn with sharp rocks and trail-obstructing boulders. The steps going up the other side are much too far away to see – and might not even exist at all.

In movies – one of the many, many things from the “Before Times” that no longer exist in Reid’s broken world – and books – of which there are some but not nearly enough – the end of the world is a catastrophic EVENT, a thing that happens or more likely that the brave heroes of the fictional narrative manage to stave off by luck, by ingenuity, by miracle, or all of the above.

But that’s not what happened in the world that Reid lives in. There was no singular event, no one, overwhelming catastrophe, no nuclear or meteor strike. Just a long, slow slide down the side of that chasm, as birth rates fell and climate change got more extreme and power sources dried up or died out or became too remote to access as the world fell back into its constituent parts.

Reid lives in a world of scarcity, in a ‘city’ that barely hangs on from year to year and from disaster to disaster, as a parasitic ‘disease’ ravages her body and her mind and increases its hold on the dwindling population year by year.

But there’s a light at the end of Reid’s dark tunnel – a light that’s just for her. A few places, former enclaves of the rich from back in the day when money still mattered – closed the gates of their domes, their pockets of science and tech and ‘civilization’ from the ‘Before Times” and kept the barbarians and the diseases and the wildlife OUT of their pristine sanctuaries.

One of those enclaves is Howse University. Every year, Howse sends out invitations to a privileged few graduating students in the remote cities to come to Howse and enter the next class. To enter a world where electricity still functions, where books are still printed and not merely preserved, where science still happens and knowledge is passed from teacher to students in the lap of safe, well-fed, climate controlled luxury.

A place where Reid might be able to find a cure for the disease that is taking over both her mother’s body and mind – and her own.

All Reid has to do is reach the assigned meeting place in the limited time available. All she has to do is get her mother to forgive her for leaving, for possibly turning her back on everything and everyone Reid has known and loved, on the people and the place and the community that has sheltered her for her entire life.

Traveling all alone through an unknown wilderness is going to be much, much easier than getting her mother – and the parasite that lives within her – to accept that their daughter is leaving them behind.

Escape Rating A-: I picked up this book because I read the sequel to this, We Speak Through the Mountain first and it felt like half a story. A very good half, but still a half and reading the second half without the first I felt like I was missing something. Which, as it turned out, I was. Not enough to prevent me from liking the other book, but enough to keep me from getting as invested in Reid’s journey as I did this time around – although I do feel that investment in the second book now in retrospect.

In other words, don’t do what I did. If the premise of this book or We Speak Through the Mountain speaks to you, read The Annual Migration of Clouds first. They’re both novellas, so even together they are not a big read, but they are a deep one, and deeper when read together in the proper order.

I listened to most of this book, but had to finish in the ebook because as the story got closer and closer to its ending I felt compelled to discover how Reid managed to get to where we first met her in We Speak Through the Mountain – particular the disaster that her brain kept shying away from during that story.

However, the narrator for The Annual Migration of Clouds was excellent and did a terrific job of portraying Reid’s oh-so-real combination of angst and anger as she works her way through her present situation, the history she’s forced to inherit, the unfairness of the world to which she was born, her love for her mother and her community and her NEED to discover as much as she can of what’s been denied her. Even as her internal voice rants and rails at the parasite that influences her thoughts and controls her behavior to a degree that she only becomes conscious of when she fights it. Because it punishes her when she does.

The Annual Migration of Clouds is a coming-of-age story AND it’s a story about the survivors of the end of the world, making their way down that slippery slope of retreating technology and regressive knowledge, just trying to get through another day and another year in the hopes that someday it will all be better for someone – even though they all know that better day will not come for them.

If this part of the story, this description and setup of a world in decline in a way that is in no way the fault of anyone or anything mired in it grabs your imagination, if the way that Reid’s community has managed to survive, along with the many ways in which they demonstrate, as best they can, that survival is insufficient, reads as fascinating and entirely too plausible – as it did to this reader – there are other stories that take this same concept and follow it in different directions – or are nearer to or farther down the road from that initial slide – such as Lark Ascending by Silas House, The Starless Crown by James Rollins, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel may also appeal – and vice versa as well.

Reid’s experiences at Howse University, as related in We Speak Through the Mountain, ask a different set of questions, questions about what the haves owe to the have nots, and what happens when an outsider, repeatedly and often, challenges the smug elitism of their safe, secure, patronizing privilege. Now that I know how Reid came to those experiences, I may go back and experience them again for myself to see how much that story has changed now that I have more of this one.

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian HuangThe Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, historical fantasy, M/M romance, magical realism, romantasy
Pages: 312
Published by Mira on March 26, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

“What if I told you that the feeling we call love is actually the feeling of metaphysical recognition, when your soul remembers someone from a previous life?”
In the year 4 BCE, an ambitious courtier is called upon to seduce the young emperor—but quickly discovers they are both ruled by blood, sex and intrigue.
In 1740, a lonely innkeeper agrees to help a mysterious visitor procure a rare medicine, only to unleash an otherworldly terror instead.

And in present-day Los Angeles, a college student meets a beautiful stranger and cannot shake the feeling they’ve met before.
Across these seemingly unrelated timelines woven together only by the twists and turns of fate, two men are reborn, lifetime after lifetime. Within the treacherous walls of an ancient palace and the boundless forests of the Asian wilderness to the heart-pounding cement floors of underground rave scenes, our lovers are inexplicably drawn to each other, constantly tested by the worlds around them.
As their many lives intertwine, they begin to realize the power of their undying love—a power that transcends time itself…but one that might consume them both.
An unpredictable roller coaster of a debut novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace is a genre-bending romantasy that challenges everything we think we know about true love.

My Review:

Three roads converge in the midst of a labyrinth. Three fates collide in never ending repetition. No matter where or when the tragedy recurs, nothing ever makes a difference in the ultimate outcome.

In other words, no matter where you go, there you are.

An emperor and a clerk in 4 BCE, an innkeeper and a mysterious stranger in 1740, a medical student and an artist in the now. Three times, three places, three romances, three tragedies.

Different incarnations, different times, different lives but the same results. Because this isn’t just a story of love lost and found, but a story of love lost because it has been betrayed, over and over again. An eternal triangle that hinges on the heart of the one who always remembers everything, and yet can’t stop himself from repeating the same old mistakes. Over and over and over again.

Because even death seems incapable of doing their spirits apart. Perhaps next time, because even if nothing else is certain, there will certainly be one.

Escape Rating A-: This story walks three paths, and at first it doesn’t seem like one has much to do with the other. It reminded me of stories about walking a maze of trials that leads to a central point, a trail of trials that no matter which path is walked that ultimately leads to the same place – and all too frequently the same goal or battle or contest or tragedy. A progression that, as the path is walked and the spiral gets tighter, allows brief glimpses into the spirals on either side.

But at the beginning, the relationship between Dong Xian’s precarious climb up the ladder in Imperial China, He Shican’s nighttime wanderings in the woods around his remote inn in the mid-18th century, and River’s drug-induced hallucinations of the circuit party scene in today’s Los Angeles don’t have a connection that the reader can see.

It’s only in the dreams, nightmares and drug-induced ecstasy that the characters experience in each of the timelines that the stories begin, hazily at first, to reach out for each other – even as the contemporary characters in this never-ending story, River and Joey and Winston, come together and ultimately drive each other away.

Each of the stories begins slowly, but as they draw towards their individual conclusions that are all the same tragic ending, the inward spirals get faster and faster and tighter and tighter – like the loop of a noose closing around the throats of ALL the stories, leaving the reader breathless at the end.

An ending which may not be one at all.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started this book, although a friend’s absolute rave about it induced me to give this debut novel a try. And I’m glad I did because in the end I was completely blown away by this sexy, queer romantasy AND that it’s the author’s first.

I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore!

A- #BookReview: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard

A- #BookReview: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de BodardThe Citadel of Weeping Pearls (Xuya Universe) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction mystery, space opera
Series: Universe of Xuya
Pages: 164
Published by Jabberwocky Literary Agency on September 12, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls was a great wonder; a perfect meld between cutting edge technology and esoteric sciences-its inhabitants capable of teleporting themselves anywhere, its weapons small and undetectable and deadly. Thirty years ago, threatened by an invading fleet from the Dai Viet Empire, the Citadel disappeared and was never seen again. But now the Dai Viet Empire itself is under siege, on the verge of a war against an enemy that turns their own mindships against them; and the Empress, who once gave the order to raze the Citadel, is in desperate needs of its weapons. Meanwhile, on a small isolated space station, an engineer obsessed with the past works on a machine that will send her thirty years back, to the height of the Citadel's power. But the Citadel's disappearance still extends chains of grief and regrets all the way into the fraught atmosphere of the Imperial Court; and this casual summoning of the past might have world-shattering consequences... A new book set in the award-winning, critically acclaimed Xuya universe.

My Review:

I wasn’t expecting to go down the “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey” rabbit hole again after yesterday’s book, but here we are all the same. Only further back and further forward, with MUCH bigger consequences, even though the motives for the time travel are every single bit as personal and emotional as they were in before.

I’ve been nibbling at the vast, sprawling Universe of Xuya ever since I read The Tea Master and the Detective and fell hard for the way that the author dips in and out of a vast history and galaxy-spanning empire that takes root in a version of Earth’s history that simply managed to go down a different leg of the trousers of time.

If China founded a colony on the west coast of North America in the 15th century and started growing both eastwards and southwards, shoring up the Aztec, Maya and Incan regimes in Central and South America, bringing the scourge of smallpox to the continent early enough that immunity has developed before the conquistadors and the pilgrims invaded, the world changes. A lot.

As with all alternate history SF, once the butterfly has flapped its wings in a different direction, the changes ripple out in all directions, resulting in the universe we find in this amazing saga. A universe where human expansion from Earth is based on Chinese and Viet traditions – because they became different types of world powers than they did – or did not – in our history. (The author goes into the history and how it changed in quite a bit of helpful and fascinating detail on her website. An explanation I’ve been staring at for several days that probably had more than a little bit to do with my picking this book up now instead of the other things I had planned.)

But human is as human does, which ties back to those “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey bits” and the all too human regrets of an Empress who faces the threat of war and wishes she had not exiled her brilliant, untraditional, defiant heir many years ago, a daughter who has carried on sailing the same sea of regrets and recriminations, and a young girl grown up without the mother who was lost in that same explosion of fear, love and war.

In this SFnal universe, however, lost does not necessarily mean dead, and advanced engineering makes entirely too many things possible – including some that it quite possibly should not. Like time travel, even if, as in yesterday’s book, it’s not possible to change the past – only to visit.

And perhaps, just a little bit more.

Escape Rating A-: The more times I dip into this series and to the author’s work in general, the more I realize that all her stories are SF mysteries to some extent, and that most of them were published ahead of the current trend for that fascinating blend.

In Citadel, the mystery begins when a famed scientist and engineer disappears just as she is getting results in her greatest and most speculative experiment. She was searching for the Empress’ heir, Bright Princess Ngoc Minh, who disappeared into deep time, or the space between the stars, or somewhere believed to be utterly mythical – and took her entire rebellious colony of ships and orbital stations, collectively known as the Citadel of Weeping Pearls, along with everyone aboard them with her wherever it is she went.

With war on the horizon, the Empress needs her daughter’s genius and the weapons and technologies it created. But the promising trail has winked out of existence along with the missing engineer, only to reappear in the hands of a pair of amateurs on a far distant orbital station.

A station that seems to be in the process of going to join the Citadel though a time portal – with someone trapped on the other side.

But nothing is quite as it seems, as the possibility of going back and bringing the Citadel forward forces everyone who has been touched by its disappearance to rethink what they did then, what they’ve felt in the absence of the shooting star that is/was Bright Princess Ngoc Minh, and what they might do with a second chance.

Whether that’s a chance for closure, a chance to say goodbye, the possibility of reconciliation or the question of whether a miracle will be enough to save an empire rests in the minds, and the hearts, of every compelling character in this glimpse into the workings of the Universe of Xuya.

I’ll certainly be back the next time I have a flail and bail week like this one. Either with On a Red Station, Drifting which looks like it might be a bit of a direct prequel to The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, or Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight because it gathers together so many of the early stories in the series that were published in a scattered array over the years.

A- #BookReview: The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis

A- #BookReview: The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey DavisThe Graveyard of the Hesperides (Flavia Albia Mystery, #4) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #4
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on April 14, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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In first century Rome, Flavia Albia, the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, has taken up her father's former profession as an informer. On a typical day, it's small cases—cheating spouses, employees dipping into the till—but this isn't a typical day.
Her beloved, the plebeian Manlius Faustus, has recently moved in and decided that they should get married in a big, showy ceremony as part of beginning a proper domestic life together. Also, his contracting firm has been renovating a rundown dive bar called The Garden of the Hesperides, only to uncover human remains buried in the backyard. There have been rumors for years that the previous owner of the bar, now deceased, killed a bar maid and these are presumably her remains. In the choice between planning a wedding and looking into a crime from long ago, Albia would much rather investigate a possible murder. Or murders, as more and more remains are uncovered, revealing that something truly horrible has been going on at the Hesperides.
As she gets closer to the truth behind the bodies in the backyard, Albia's investigation has put her in the cross-hairs—which might be the only way she'll get out of the wedding and away from all her relatives who are desperate to 'help.'

My Review:

No matter how much technology advances, human nature remains pretty much the same, and that’s a big part of what makes historical mysteries so much fun AND so absorbing. That’s especially true in the Marcus Didius Falco series and its literal daughter-series, Flavia Albia, of which this book, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, is the fourth.

The setting is the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., often, but not always, in Rome itself, as this book is. Flavia Albia is a private informer – read that as private investigator – following in the footsteps of her very much alive but only occasionally meddling adopted father, Marcus Didius Falco, the protagonist of the earlier series.

Falco married above himself in the earlier series, the son of a relatively poor and constantly scheming plebeian family who married a Senator’s daughter. As The Graveyard of the Hesperides opens – both literally and figuratively – Flavia Albia is about to do the same.

Which is where the domestic half of the story kicks in, as the wedding is approaching quickly – as are her soon-to-be in-laws. Flavia loves her fiance – but his family, well, not so much. And very much vice-versa.

In other words, she’s happy to be marrying HIM, but not at all sure about ‘THEM’. A set of conflicted feelings that many feel on the eve of their wedding to someone who seems like the one sane person in a family of crackpots. And not that her intended wouldn’t feel justified having the exact same trepidations about Flavia’s family, as readers already know that Falco takes a bit of getting used to at the best of times!

But that’s the domestic half of the story, the part that in any mystery series centers on the life of the investigator and the gang of helpers and hinderers that coalesce around them as they poke their noses into places that someone inevitably believes they don’t belong.

And that’s where the opening of the graveyard of the Hesperides comes in. The Garden of the Hesperides is the open-air backside of a down-at-heels bar in an equally insalubrious neighborhood. Fiance Tiberius Manlius Faustus owns the construction company that is renovating the place, specifically that back garden.

There have been rumors for years that one of the barmaids is buried back there, so when the construction crew finds human bones, no one is all that surprised. But they don’t just find one set of bones – they find six. Now that is a surprise!

Even more surprising, it looks like all six bodies were buried at the same time and in the exact same way – very neatly and tidily at that. Almost as if all those deaths were planned. And executed.

And yet, after the night that barmaid disappeared, the place opened up the next morning and no one noticed anything amiss except that one missing employee that no one missed all that much. But there are suddenly a whole lot of people really eager for Flavia Albia to forget all those bones and mind her own business. They obviously don’t know the woman, because figuring out whodunnit absolutely IS her business.

One that she is determined to carry out no matter how many ‘frighteners’ stand in her way.

Escape Rating A-: I first met Flavia Albia’s adopted father, Marcus Didius Falco, in the book The Silver Pigs,, over 30 years ago. This was back in the days when I had a long commute to work, audiobooks were still books on actual tape, and the selection was pretty slim. Mystery was the one category there were already lots of – quite possibly because it’s damn hard to thumb to the end of a book on tape.

At the time, the concept behind the Falco series was a bit like the bear dancing; you’re not surprised it’s done well, you’re surprised it’s done AT ALL. Much like one of my other favorite historical mystery series that began around the same time, the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series that started with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Flavia Albia’s investigations also remind me of two other long-running mystery series, one historical and one not, at least as it was written. The Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series by Jeri Westerson, beginning with Veil of Lies, is similar to Falco and his daughter in that it posits a noir-type gumshoe in an era that probably didn’t have anyone who fit that description, and yet still manages to immerse its character and the reader in that unexpected time and place to the point where you feels the broken cobblestones under your own feet as you read.

Last but not least, although the series is contemporary and not historical (sorta/kinda, as the first book, The Blessing Way, came out in 1970). Anne Hillerman’s continuation of her father’s long-running Leaphorn and Chee series into her Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito series changes its focus and updates its perspective by moving the original father-figure protagonist to the sidelines and introducing a female perspective in the form of a new daughter or daughter-like investigator.

In other words, I came into this book with a whole lot of nostalgia and more than a bit of mystery reading background and baggage crowding my thoughts and falling out a bit willy-nilly all over the place. After all, it’s been nearly two years since I last visited Flavia Albia and her family in Deadly Election.

And I’m struck again that what makes this series work – and what made the previous serious work as well – is the singular voice of its protagonist. We view Flavia Albia’s Rome through her eyes and hear her voice, filled with her reflections on her world and her place in it. She’s probably even more cynical and hard-bitten than her father, because she’s been through a school of much harder knocks and is both grateful for the safety, privilege and freedom that her adoption by Falco and Helena Justina affords her AND still conscience of just how desperate her situation was before and how easy it would be for her to fall back to the bottom.

So this case, which is wrapped around the death of a woman who was probably a prostitute and/or a procurer and supplier of sex workers, taking her as it does into the lives of many still living that life – most of them slaves who have no hope and no choice – hits her hard and reminds her of the fragility of life and her own current happiness in it.

Even as she is in the midst of her own wedding and the hope of future happiness that it brings. If she can just manage to solve this case and get her in-laws out of her own and her formidable mother’s hair before someone’s face gets shoved into fist. Quite possibly her father’s.

So come for the historical setting. Or the portrait of life in a time and place that manages to be both long ago and far away but feels just the right amount of familiar. Stay for the family shenanigans – or just for Flavia Albia’s wry, cynical commentary upon them. Either way, you’ll get caught up in the mystery and its resolution, leading right back into the opening of this review; that technology, in this case forensic science, may have changed a lot in the past two millennia, but human nature hasn’t changed a bit.

I know that I’ll be back for the next book in this series, The Third Nero, if only to learn how Tiberius Manlius and Flavia Albia manage to recover from the shocking conclusion to both the case and their wedding festivities.

A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein

A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy WassersteinThese Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, science fiction mystery, technothriller
Pages: 176
Published by Tachyon Publications on March 12, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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In a queer, noir technothriller of fractured identity and corporate intrigue, a trans woman faces her fear of losing her community as her past chases after her. This bold, thought-provoking debut science-fiction novella from a Lambda Award finalist is an exciting and unpredictable look at the fluid nature of our former and present selves.
In mid-21st-century Kansas City, Dora hasn’t been back to her old commune in years. But when Dora’s ex-girlfriend Kay is killed, and everyone at the commune is a potential suspect, Dora knows she’s the only person who can solve the murder.
As Dora is dragged back into her old community and begins her investigations, she discovers that Kay’s death is only one of several terrible incidents. A strange new drug is circulating. People are disappearing. And Dora is being attacked by assailants from her pre-transition past.
Meanwhile, It seems like a war between two nefarious corporations is looming, and Dora’s old neighborhood is their battleground. Now she must uncover a twisted conspiracy, all while navigating a deeply meaningful new relationship.

Amy and Marlene’s Joint Review:

Amy: After the downfall of most governments in the US, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has gotten even bigger. In a time not too far past our own, in a mostly-dead downtown Kansas City, a young transwoman named Dora gets a visit from an old friend. Her former lover, who still lived in the commune Dora left, is dead. She goes to see, to say goodbye, and discovers that it wasn’t just an overdose — it was a murder. She’s determined to figure it all out, but while she’s walking around her old neighborhood, looking for clues and thinking things over, she gets jumped by a stranger who looks an awful lot like she used to…

From the Department of Fair Warnings: This book has a non-zero amount of bloody murders in it. It’s a murder mystery, yanno? You know to expect that. Also one brief sex scene, that I did not expect, and that might catch some readers by surprise by its strangeness.

Marlene: SF mystery is seriously becoming a ‘thing’, and I’m very much here for it in general – both because I love genre blends AND because SF mystery in particular gets to use its blending to query both sides of its equation. The SF pokes at the mystery elements and the mystery elements poke at the SF.

This particular combination of the two is very much of the Earth-bound, scientific laboratory wing of the SF genre, to the point where it would probably make a great intro to SF for someone who is primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader, as the SFnal elements are familiar in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian sort of way. It’s not that far from now in either time or circumstances and that makes the story easy to slip into.

Dora’s world is pretty much fucked, and that’s pretty clear from the get-go. She may have thrown her own set of torches into the conflagration, but her Kansas City – particularly her part of it – is very much on its way down towards a clearly yawning abyss.

She’s burned her bridges behind her, one righteously, and the other maybe not so much. Her dad wanted the boy she was assigned to be at birth – and she couldn’t be that. He’s also a douche in general which makes him REAL easy to hate. OTOH, she’s also cut herself off from the commune community that represented both family and safety. A split that had a lot of hurt and betrayal in it then – and still does when the story begins.

The mystery that Dora is compelled to solve is the same thing that caused her split from the community in the first place, and it’s a question as old as time – or at least as old as this quote from Benjamin Franklin, the one about the willingness to give up “essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The commune has a habit of trusting people and letting people in who arguably should have been vetted a bit better first. They were, and are, unwilling to make that trade off of liberty for safety – even though it has bitten them in the ass before and quite likely has again.

But this time, the threat came from a direction none of them would ever have expected, and it’s up to Dora to unravel the mystery that has been festering – both under the city and in her own past – all along.

Amy’s Rating A: Dora has a lot to figure out, and she gets right to it. This story rocks along fast; if you’re like me, you’ll start reading, and not stop until you’re done, which won’t take terribly long. The first unfriendly stranger startled her, but when the second one shows up, and also looks rather like she would have if she had not transitioned, she starts putting the pieces together. Like all good mysteries, she’s got to sort out the who, the what, the where, and the why; the where comes first, and the remaining pieces fall into place in quick order thereafter. On its face, it’s a fine high-speed murder mystery, complete with a deeply flawed hero and a somewhat unsurprising, even more-flawed villain.

But Izzy Wasserstein has buried something deeper to think about in this tale. When presented with her clone, Dora looks at and interacts with — and even gets intimate with — someone who might have been her, if her father had gotten his way, and she’d been the son he always wanted. The interaction between this imperfect clone of her pre-transition body, and her own traumatized persona, gives me (as a queer transwoman myself) a great deal to think about: How would things have been different if I were not who I am? And how crucial to the person I have become was my transition, and my life experiences since then? It hearkens back to the whole “nature or nurture” question that mankind has pondered for a long, long time. Are we, in fact, born this way, destined to be who we are?

Obviously, it’s not an either-or question; there are shades and nuances throughout, and Wasserstein shows us some of that in her portrayal of the clone. They are imperfect, programmed from the time they came out of the tanks to be a violent killer and think of Dora as a “traitor.” Yet they don’t kill her, and they discuss with Dora at some length their “fighting their instincts” to become their own person.

So, really, there are two stories hidden in this short book: a straightforward, well-crafted cyberpunk whodunnit, and the story of a transperson squaring off with a clone of herself. Two good, thought-provoking stories under one cover…what’s not to like?

Marlene’s Rating A-: I tend to rate novellas at the A- level a LOT of the time and this book is no exception. I love the novella length because it’s fast to read, but that length means that a lot of backstory gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor because there isn’t space for it. In other words, as much as I totally got where Dora was personally coming from, how our world got fucked up into hers that fast needed a couple more steps for me to buy into it.

I also would have loved a bit more about the anarchist and commune movement as it applied to this particular story, because I was basing all of my knowledge and acceptance of the way that part of their world worked on Cadwell Turnbull’s fantastic Convergence Saga; No Gods, No Monsters and We Are the Crisis, because that near-future SF tale is also rooted a bit in the coop/commune movement – although with a completely different crisis and in an entirely different way.

The mystery part of this mystery wasn’t quite as mysterious as it might have been. Once the cadres of poorly programmed almost-Theodores started chasing after Dora it was really obvious that they were clones AND that her dad was the mad scientist (and he so was!) creating them. No matter what his employer or moneybags might have intended them to do or be.

Howsomever, the questions that Dora asks herself are the part of the story that sticks in the mind after the last page is turned – and they turned out to be considerably more fascinating than merely ‘whodunnit’.

As Amy said, it’s that age-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ along with a heaping helping of what does it mean to be ‘born that way’ – whatever way that may be in the mind of the person, and whether the answer to that question is based on innate characteristics or parental or societal expectations or fate or destiny.

Dora confronts those questions, not just in her own mind, but in her relationship with one of her almost-clones and that clone’s willingness to throw off their own programming. And that’s the fragile grace that gives this story its heart.

A- #BookReview: The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

A- #BookReview: The Fox Wife by Yangsze ChooThe Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy mystery, historical fantasy, magical realism
Pages: 390
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Some people think foxes are similar to ghosts because we go around collecting qi, or life force, but nothing could be further than the truth. We are living creatures, just like you, only usually better looking . . .
Manchuria, 1908.
A young woman is found frozen in the snow. Her death is clouded by rumors of foxes involved, which are believed to lure people by transforming themselves into beautiful women and men. Bao, a detective with a reputation for sniffing out the truth, is hired to uncover the dead woman’s identity. Since childhood, Bao has been intrigued by the fox gods, yet they’ve remained tantalizingly out of reach. Until, perhaps, now.
Meanwhile, a family that owns a famous Chinese medicine shop can cure ailments, but not the curse that afflicts them―their eldest sons die before their twenty-fourth birthdays. Now the only grandson of the family is twenty-three. When a mysterious woman enters their household, their luck seems to change. Or does it? Is their new servant a simple young woman from the north or a fox spirit bent on her own revenge?
New York Times bestselling author Yangsze Choo brilliantly explores a world of mortals and spirits, humans and beasts, and their dazzling intersection. The Fox Wife is a stunning novel about a winter full of mysterious deaths, a mother seeking revenge, and old folktales that may very well be true.

My Review:

A hint of historical fantasy, a touch of magical realism, more than a soupçon of fantasy mystery, wrapped in a surprisingly lovely tissue of love lost and found. I wasn’t expecting all of those elements in The Fox Wife, but the twists and turns from one to another and back again kept me enthralled every step of this journey’s way.

The fox spirit Snow is searching for the man responsible for the death of her cub. Bao, a detective/fixer/spy, is looking for foxes. Or rather, he’s hunting for fox spirits around the edges of the other, more practical things and people he generally looks for. In this particular case, the identity of a nameless young courtesan frozen to death behind a popular eatery. And the location of a young would-be concubine missing from a rich man’s keeping, a woman he claims is his wife-to-be, who he also claims to be possessed by a fox.

Although much of the story is told from Snow’s perspective, as a fox she’s more than a bit of an unreliable narrator. Which isn’t helped at all by the fact that she’s lying to herself even more than she is to the reader. There are things she doesn’t want to face, so she’s not – not even when they are right in her face.

Bao, on the other hand, has reached a point in his life where he’s mostly honest with himself, about both his past AND his present. At least the parts of his past where other people have been honest with him.

Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t a blank spot in his narrative as well, but where Snow knows what happened and doesn’t want to even think about it, Bao doesn’t know all of the foundational elements of his story, so keeps poking at a void that he doesn’t have the filling for.

From one perspective, this is a revenge story – or at least Snow thinks it is. Her cub is dead because a photographer was paying for a fox cub to photograph. She’s following the trail of the photographer as all sorts of roadblocks, past and present, internal and external, get in her somewhat meandering way.

Bao is following the trail of a missing person. He’s doing his job. That his job is to find Snow is something he circles towards even as Snow herself gets closer to him and to her own quest. But neither of them is in pursuit of what they believed they were. And once they figure THAT out, they each find what they were truly seeking all along.

Which was never, ever, truly each other.

Escape Rating A-: The Fox Wife is a story at an inflection point, and it manages to blend in aspects of so many genres because it takes place on the cusps of so many changes – not just for its characters but for the world in which it is set.

The story itself is at the crossroads between the numinous and the mundane, as embodied in the two narratives, the literal ‘fox wife’ Snow and the pragmatic detective, who is old enough to have a foot in both camps, as his life was influenced by magic in his childhood, at a time when beliefs in the other were still very much present.

A time that has passed, as the story takes place in China at the end of the Qing Dynasty, just as the last emperor was crowned in 1908 and World War I is looming on the horizon. The remoter places where magic still had sway, such as the places where the foxes lived, are diminishing as technology conquers magic or at least the belief in it, whether literally or figuratively.

Part of that inflection is that the two narratives, Snow’s and Bao’s, follow different paths and operate at different paces. Snow meanders, where Bao mostly follows mystery conventions – at least in his actions – even if his thoughts occasionally wander to his own past.

Which gave this reader a bit of a conflicting reaction, as I was both absolutely riveted AND wished there’d been a bit more editing to cut down on the meandering. I loved the story but I’d have loved it a bit more if it had been about 50 pages shorter. Your reading mileage may vary.

(Honestly, I know which character I’d cut to get those 50 pages down.)

What brought the whole story full circle, for all of its many, many circles, was the way that Snow’s past and Bao’s past eventually intersected in the present, but not in any of the ways that these kinds of quasi-myths often do.

Instead, they intersect in a way that fits them both into the present they are actually living in, in ways that would work with magic or without. Because just as Snow owns her own past and her own responsibility for the tragedies she has tried so hard not to face, Bao finds his way back to the best of his, in the present that he has, and finds his way to the future that he’s always desired but was never able to admit.

Which resolved the two halves of this story into one surprisingly harmonious whole.

A- #BookReview: Murder at the Merton Library by Andrea Penrose

A- #BookReview: Murder at the Merton Library by Andrea PenroseMurder at the Merton Library (Wrexford & Sloane, #7) by Andrea Penrose
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, regency mystery
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #7
Pages: 361
Published by Kensington Books on September 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Responding to an urgent plea from a troubled family friend, the Earl of Wrexford journeys to Oxford only to find the reclusive university librarian has been murdered and a rare manuscript has gone missing. The only clue is that someone overheard an argument in which Wrexford’s name was mentioned. At the same time, Charlotte—working under her pen name, A. J. Quill—must determine whether a laboratory fire was arson and if it’s connected to the race between competing consortiums to build a new type of ship—one that can cross the ocean powered by steam rather than sails—with the potential to revolutionize military power and world commerce. That the race involves new innovations in finance and entrepreneurship only adds to the high stakes—especially as their good friend Kit Sheffield may be an investor in one of the competitors. As they delve deeper into the baffling clues, Wrexford and Charlotte begin to realize that things are not what they seem. An evil conspiracy is lurking in the shadows and threatens all they hold dear—unless they can tie the loose threads together before it’s too late . . .

My Review:

As is usual in the Wrexford & Sloane series, the titular murder is only the beginning of the mystery. Also, as usual, the reader both is and is not a witness to said murder. We hear what is said, and done, but we get few, if any clues about who the perpetrator might be. At least, not until Wrex and his wife Charlotte discover that the deed was done – and that it hits a little too close to home.

No matter how much, or how sincerely, they promised each other that they wanted a bit of peace and quiet with no murder investigations at the end of the previous book in the series, Murder at the Serpentine Bridge.

(They promise each other the same at the end of this entry in the series. I’m getting the impression that THAT is going to be a recurring theme of the series – one of the VERY few things they promise each other and the rest of their family that is doomed to lay unfulfilled. On that other hand, if their lives were that peaceful, this marvelous series wouldn’t exist!)

The mystery in this particular entry in the series hits both close to home and reaches back into the past. It’s also a case of woulda, coulda, shoulda in more ways than one.

One of the regrets of Wrex’ life before he met Charlotte is related to the death of his younger brother, Thomas, during the recently concluded, or at least paused, Napoleonic Wars. (Napoleon is in exile on Elba in the process of becoming less “able” as that old palindrome had it, “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”

Wrex’ brother and his cohort died by treachery, as someone on the British side sold their location to the French for gold. But the identity of the traitor was never uncovered. Eight years later, the only survivor of Thomas’ unit finally figures out that identity – right before the man kills him in ice-cold blood.

Wrex owes it to his brother, owes it to his own past, that the traitor be unmasked and brought to justice. Meanwhile, his wife Charlotte, AKA the satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill, is mired in an investigation of her own in London, looking into the possibilities of corporate espionage that surround the race to solve an engineering problem that will, quite literally, change the world.

Several inventors say they are on the cusp of building a steam engine capable of powering a ship out of sight of land and out of the reach of fuel – across the vast oceans.

If Britain owns the solution, their naval power will be assured for centuries. If the newly-fledged United States figures it out first, the century will be theirs. If Russia manages to steal either the plans or the engineers who make them – or better yet both – they will become a superpower the likes of which they have not yet dreamed of.

The two cases, a murder in Oxford – at Merton Library, hence the title of the book – and theft, arson and fraud in London, shouldn’t REALLY have any relationship to each other. But there are few if any clues in either case, leading Wrex, Charlotte and their ever-growing found family to cast about for the tiniest of threads that might point them in the right direction.

Or any.

As those threads are gathered, they do point somewhere, but not anywhere that either Wrex or Charlotte imagined. Because those clues all point towards their two cases becoming one – even though neither of them believes that makes any sense at all.

But as another famous detective will have said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Escape Rating A-: I discovered this series last summer – another time when I was hunting for a good mystery series – and it has been an absolute delight every single time I’ve picked the series back up. But I held onto this entry because I’ve learned that no matter how great a series is – and this absolutely is – it just isn’t a good idea to read the series books too closely together no matter how much I’m tempted.

But when I picked up the eARC for the next book, Murder at King’s Crossing, last week, I decided it was time to get caught up, so here we are. Also, I just can’t resist a murder set in a library – even if the story doesn’t stay in the library quite as long as I might have liked.

I said at the top that this was a ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ kind of story. What I meant by that is that there are elements of both mysteries that were on the cusp of going a different way, or rather, in one case a character should have made a different choice, and in another, an invention would have happened IF real, historical circumstances had been just a bit different.

The macguffin that drives much of this story is almost real. Or rather, is in the process of becoming real but isn’t quite there yet. As this story takes place in 1814, steam power has been proven to work and is already revolutionizing transportation. Ocean-going vessels are the next big – really, really big – step. It’s a problem that is absolutely going to be solved and certainly was solved within the decade.

All of which means that the developments were oh-so-close and the stakes were oh-so-high, so it’s not surprising that the competition was equally as fierce, that corporate and government espionage was a very real factor, and that the possibilities for financial fraud were ridiculously high, giving that side of the mystery equation an air of plausibility, near-certainty, and hope triumphing over experience that felt very real.

At the same time, Wrex’ side of the mystery, the part that revolved around the death of his brother, was equally familiar but for different reasons. There have been other Regency-set mystery series where exactly this type of treason led to just this manner of death for someone close to the protagonist – with just the same desire for revenge and retribution motivating the investigator, whether amateur or professions, to bend more of the rules than is comfortable for either the character or the reader. (I know I’ve read at least one such book relatively recently, so if this plot sounds familiar to you and you recall what it was, please let me know!)

And on my third hand, one of the people caught up in this farrago clearly wasn’t onboard with all the deviltry involved, and could have had made much different choices, and we are confused by and feel for that character almost as much as Charlotte does.

Overall and absolutely positively, I had a grand time with this entry in the series, as it tells two mysteries very well, feels marvelously steeped in its time and place, AND allows for character growth on the part of most of the members of the family. It certainly had this reader on the edge of their seat as everything built to an explosive crisis.

So now I’m twice as eager as I was before to start Murder at King’s Crossing, and am glad that I only have a few months to wait!

A- #BookReview: Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

A- #BookReview: Feed Them Silence by Lee MandeloFeed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: climate fiction, science fiction
Pages: 105
Published by Tordotcom on March 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Lee Mandelo dives into the minds of wolves in Feed Them Silence, a novella of the near future.What does it mean to "be-in-kind" with a nonhuman animal? Or in Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon’s case, to be in-kind with one of the last remaining wild wolves? Using a neurological interface to translate her animal subject’s perception through her own mind, Sean intends to chase both her scientific curiosity and her secret, lifelong desire to experience the intimacy and freedom of wolfishness. To see the world through animal eyes; smell the forest, thick with olfactory messages; even taste the blood and viscera of a fresh kill. And, above all, to feel the belonging of the pack.
Sean’s tireless research gives her a chance to fulfill that dream, but pursuing it has a terrible cost. Her obsession with work endangers her fraying relationship with her wife. Her research methods threaten her mind and body. And the attention of her VC funders could destroy her subject, the beautiful wild wolf whose mental world she’s invading.

My Review:

Considering that it’s recommended that doctors not treat themselves or their loved ones because they lose their objectivity, while lawyers are told that any who represent themselves have a fool for a client, then what should be said about scientific researchers who go into their supposedly objective study fully intending to use themselves as one of their subjects? There was that strange case regarding Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…

Not that Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon actually becomes a monster – or even turns into the wolf her experiment intentionally bonds her with. And not that, occasionally, her wife doesn’t think that Sean’s being more than a bit of a monster to her.

When Sean manages to tear herself away from her research to be physically, intellectually and emotionally present in their marriage. The one that’s falling apart around her. Just as it turns out, she is.

The year is 2031, and between climate change, coastal erosion and habitat encroachment, species are going extinct at an alarming rate. To the point where, for entirely too many species, it’s a tide that can no longer be turned – merely documented.

That’s particularly true for the charismatic megafauna, not just the really big animals like elephants and lions, but species much, much closer to home, like the gray wolves of Minnesota and neighboring states. Today.

Sean and her research team have submitted a controversial proposal to enmesh the brain of a member of one of the few surviving wolf packs in Minnesota with the brain of one of the scientists on her team. From Sean’s honest perspective, the one that she does her damndest never to display to her academic colleagues, this entire project is a dressed-up, scientific gobbledygook-filled last chance for her to live out one of her childhood dreams – to run with the wolves – before its too late.

For the wolves, that is. And, quite possibly, for Sean herself.

However, just as her research was proposed with ulterior motives on Sean’s part, the cutting-edge technology company that has chosen to fund it AND to provide the equipment that will make it possible, has a hidden agenda of their own.

An agenda that puts both Sean, and her wolf, in crosshairs that neither of them knew existed.

Escape Rating A-: I admit it, I had a bail and flail this week because yesterday’s book just wasn’t working and I didn’t get out early enough. But that cloud absolutely had a silver lining, because I bounced straight into this book and it was terrific.

To the point that I’m wondering what took me so long, but I’m quite happy to have gotten here in the end – even if this is a far from happy story. Which is exactly the way it should be, because species extinction is tragic, the fate of the wolves and other wildlife species is awful and Sean’s marriage isn’t doing well either.

But that’s what happens when one partner eats, sleeps and breathes their work to the point of obsession. Sean is entirely too realistic in that regard – as is the fate of the wolves and the corporate greed that condemns Sean’s one and only chance at fulfilling her lifelong dream.

Feed Them Silence had me hooked from the first time Sean interfaced with her wolf, Kate, through a machine that was intended to give her an inside track on the wolf’s thoughts and feelings, even if it unintentionally did quite a bit more on both sides.

The process of becoming one with her wolf sounded exactly like the process portrayed in the Assassin’s Creed game series that allows someone to live through the day to day memories of one of their ancestors at a pivotal point in history. But the result, that Sean sees and experiences Kate’s world through Kate’s eyes and mind and heart and memory, felt even more like the mammoth experiment in the awesome – and awesomely bittersweet – The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler. That the experiments in the two books are markedly different in design and purpose doesn’t stop them from being more in dialog with each other than expected – because the experiments have become necessary for the same set of all-too-real reasons of climate change, habitat shrinkage, and humans so greedy they are willing to ignore the laws designed to protect the animals they are hunting for sport.

So the entry points for this story literally pulled me in, as I adored The Tusks of Extinction and the Assassin’s Creed series makes GREAT television – meaning that I get to watch the action while someone else plays.

But what really made this story work for me was how plausibly its science fiction encompassed so very much of the real world. Not just the present and predictable future of species elimination, but also the grind of academia, the damage that one partner’s obsessive hyper-focus on work can do to ANY relationship, the way that the entire world feels like that mythical frog in the pan of heating water – and then the complete immersion and identification of Sean’s identity with that of her wolf.

We see it all happening and are with her as she can’t help herself and we understand exactly why – even as the rest of her world falls apart. And it’s awesome and captivating and heartbreaking every step of the way.

Especially because even though the exact story isn’t happening right now – it really is.