Review: Finna by Nino Cipri

Review: Finna by Nino CipriFinna by Nino Cipri
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Nino Cipri's Finna is a rambunctious, touching story that blends all the horrors the multiverse has to offer with the everyday awfulness of low-wage work. It explores queer relationships and queer feelings, capitalism and accountability, labor and love, all with a bouncing sense of humor and a commitment to the strange.

When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store -- but not that one -- slips through a portal to another dimension, it's up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company's bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

To find the missing granny, Ava and Jules will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship? In infinite dimensions, all things are possible.

My Review:

I’ve always believed that Ikea stores and shopping mall parking lots were designed on the “Hotel California” principle. As in “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

There’s something simultaneously comforting and horrifying about the maze-like sameness of Ikea stores, or in this case, their lookalike LitenVärld ™ stores. It doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to believe that those features which make it so easy to get lost inside the store would also make it much too easy for one store to bleed into another that is almost-but-not-quite the same.

At that point, a wormhole between the multiverse of oh-so-similar stores doesn’t seem all that far out of the realms of possibility. And that seems like the place where the idea behind Finna was born. Inside one of the faux-apartment layouts at Ikea – the ones you wouldn’t want to live in even in extremis. Like Edgelord Rockabilly Dorm Room, Pastel Goth Hideaway and Nihilist Bachelor Cube..

(Seriously, the names that Ava has come up with for the various stage-set arrangements are pure gold, hilarious, mocking and much too true all at the same time. Next time I’m in Ikea I’m going to be looking for all of them and trying to make up more!)

While it seems like Ava is making the best of this ultimately dead end job, her descriptions of work life and working conditions in this minimum wage corporate box let the reader feel just how soul-killing the place is. And that’s before Ava’s day descends into the worst of all possible worlds.

She has to work her shift with her ex. Her literally just-broken-up-with ex. The wounds from their breakup aren’t just still raw, they’re still bleeding.

And then a customer’s grandmother gets lost in a wormhole. Grandma Ursula has wandered into the multiverse, and it’s up to the two employees with the least seniority – of course that’s Ava and her ex – to take the FINNA device into who-knows-where and face who-knows-what in order to get her back.

Hell just got even more hellish – and so are some of those alternate LitenVärld ™ stores. The one where they discover that the Venus-flytrap chairs ate Grandma isn’t nearly the worst.

The clone swarms are the worst. Definitely the worst – and the most persistent. But they also allow Ava and Jules to find the next-best match to their search through the multiverse. And possibly to the best match for their own futures, whether separately, together or somewhere in-between.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what allows this story to work so well, and to feel so complete, at its relatively short length is the setting. We all know that this is Ikea, we all know what Ikea stores are like, and we all have opinions about their layout, their furniture and their culture. We’ve probably also all eaten the Swedish meatballs.

So the opening setting for the story doesn’t need to be described in any depth. We’ve all been there. Probably multiple times. And probably still have the furniture to prove it. In my case it’s at least a dozen Billy bookcases – with those terrible hex screwdrivers and extra bolts in random drawers all over the house. Still.

The familiarity of that setting allows us to get inside Ava’s head quickly and makes it easy for us to see what she sees because we’ve already been there. And that’s when the story really takes off for the multiverse.

A part of me wants to call this a coming-of-age story, but it isn’t really. Both Jules and Ava are adults. Except that adulting is what they are struggling with. Their jobs are soul destroying and yet they are trapped in this life and can’t see a way out. Being an adult means being responsible for yourself, and that’s something they’re both ultra-aware of and equally aware that they are failing at – or at least they feel that way.

That’s where their romantic relationship fell apart. Ava is anxious about everything and Jules needs to fix everything. Their clashing neuroses drove them apart as Jules wanted to fix what was wrong with Ava – making her feel even more broken and incapable – while Ava worried about everything Jules did that created chaos – which was often.

Their strange journey forces them to get past what happened and work together – even as Jules’ penchant for chaos creates even more of the stuff. At the same time, it’s Jules’ wanderlust and desire to see what’s over the next horizon – or through the next wormhole – that keeps them moving forward. And in a situation where ALL of Ava’s anxieties have literally been made manifest, her very real worries allow her to let her self-created worries slip to the background.

In working together they discover that they still mean something to each other – just not necessarily what their all-consuming, über-fast slide into romance thought that might be, or ought to be.

In the end, they manage to reach out for a future that might include each other, or it might not. It’s Schrödinger’s relationship, with all of the possibilities still there in the box. All possibilities exist simultaneously – they just have to pick one.

Just not the one with the swarm of bloodthirsty clones.

Review: Children of the Stars by Mario Escobar

Review: Children of the Stars by Mario EscobarChildren of the Stars by Mario Escobar
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, Holocaust, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Thomas Nelson on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

From international bestseller Mario Escobar comes a story of escape, sacrifice, and hope amid the perils of the second World War.

Jacob and Moses Stein live with their aunt in Paris until the great raid against foreign Jews is unleashed in August 1942. Their parents, well-known German playwrights, have been hiding in France, but before their aunt manages to send them south, the gendarmes stop the boys and take them to the Velodromo de Invierno, where more than 4,000 children, 5,000 women, and 3,000 men had to subsist without food or water. Jacob and Moses manage to flee, but the road will not be safe or easy. This novel by internationally bestselling author Mario Escobar follows two brave young Jewish boys as they seek refuge in the French town of Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon and eventually Argentina.

My Review:

The English title of this book, Children of the Stars, sounds bright and hopeful. And most of the time when that title has been used, it is just that. This book certainly does have its bright and shiny bits as well, although there’s plenty of parts that are not remotely so.

Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France

The thing is that the title is also a kind of a pun. At least in the gallows humor sense. Because the stars that Jacob and Moses Stein are the children of are the yellow Stars of David that the Nazis and their French collaborators, forced all Jews to sew on their clothing.

The title of this book in the original Spanish is Los Niños de la Estrella AmarillaThe Children of the Yellow Star, and so they were.

Children of the Stars takes place during the Nazi occupation of France, and Jacob and Moses begin the story wearing those yellow badges – and being rounded up and sent to horrific conditions in the Velodromo de Invierno outside Paris. A place where those same Nazis expected as many Jews as possible to die, before rounding the survivors up and sending them to concentration camps inside the Reich, where they were expected to die or be killed in the gas chambers.

Instead, these boys, 13-year-old Jacob and 9-year-old Moses, escaped the Velodrome and began a trek across France that was hopeful and heartbreaking in equal turns, hunting for their missing parents. Parents they believe are somewhere south of Lyon, but are actually much, much further away.

Across the Atlantic Ocean. In Argentina.

It will be a challenge for two young boys, alone in the world, to hide from the Nazis, the gendarmes, and the collaborators, all while making their way across hostile territory to an unknown future.

They find help along the way, as well as betrayal, along with more than their share of both good and bad luck. There are enough setbacks to challenge anyone, let alone two children.

And at the end, there is triumph.

Escape Rating A-: There is more than one way to look at this story. On the one hand, it is a story about the triumph of not just the human spirit, but of humanity itself over, under and around the bootheel of oppression and tyranny. And that’s a hopeful story, celebrating those who stand up to be counted even at the cost of their own lives.

But it is also a story about those who, as one of the characters in the story says, surrendered their souls and looked the other way.” Those who gave into the lies. The ones who kept their heads down and hoped that the ax would fall on someone else.

As that same character continued, “The worst friend of the truth is silence. The worst lie in the world is that ordinary people are powerless against tyranny.” The Stein boys, and those who helped them along their perilous journey, are the ones who stood up. But it is also the story of a world gone, not mad, but silent, allowing the evil to happen – even participating in that evil out of either cowardice or complicity.

The Stein brothers are fictional. But they are also a composite of many children who undertook the same journey, or similar. Thousands of children who managed to escape and find shelter, sometimes temporarily, sometimes long enough to outlast the war, and sometimes to escape it outright, as they did. And just as many who failed.

While the details of this journey are the product of the author’s imagination, the historical events that underlie it happened in history; both the horrors of the Velodromo de Invierno and the heroism of the town of Le Chambon Sur Lignon.

In the end, Children of the Stars is both a triumph of the human spirit, and a condemnation of the conditions that required it. And it is a story guaranteed to haunt any reader who lets it into their heart.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Orchid Throne by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Orchid Throne by Jeffe KennedyThe Orchid Throne (Forgotten Empires, #1) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Forgotten Empires #1
Pages: 362
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon

"The Orchid Throne is a captivating and sensual fantasy romance you won’t want to miss! High stakes. Remarkable worldbuilding. Unique and compelling characters. A slow-burn romance that’ll make you combust.” — Amanda Bouchet, USA Today bestselling author of The Kingmaker Chronicles

"The Orchid Throne captures from the first page and doesn't let go as Jeffe Kennedy weaves a timeless tale of love and survival amidst a lush backdrop teeming greed and deceit. You will fall for Lia and Con and root for them with every breath you take. This is a book that will linger in your thoughts for a very long time."- Darynda Jones, New York Times bestselling author

Welcome to the world of Forgotten Empires from award winning author Jeffe Kennedy that begins with The Orchid Throne.


As Queen of the island kingdom of Calanthe, Euthalia will do anything to keep her people free—and her secrets safe—from the mad tyrant who rules the mainland. Guided by a magic ring of her father’s, Lia plays the political game with the cronies the emperor sends to her island. In her heart, she knows that it’s up to her to save herself from her fate as the emperor’s bride. But in her dreams, she sees a man, one with the power to build a better world—a man whose spirit is as strong, and whose passion is as fierce as her own…


Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, has built an army to overthrow the emperor. But he needs the fabled Abiding Ring to succeed. The ring that Euthalia holds so dear to her heart. When the two banished rulers meet face to face, neither can deny the flames of rebellion that flicker in their eyes—nor the fires of desire that draw them together. But in this broken world of shattered kingdoms, can they ever really trust each other? Can their fiery alliance defeat the shadows of evil that threaten to engulf their hearts and souls?

My Review:

A couple of weeks ago I finished The Fate of the Tala, this author’s marvelous wrap-up of her long-running epic fantasy romance series, The Twelve Kingdoms and it’s followup, The Uncharted Realms. I loved every minute of it, and was seriously sorry to see the whole thing end.

Then I remembered that the author had just started another epic fantasy romance series, that I had the first book and hadn’t read it, yet. And wondered what I’d been thinking that I hadn’t gotten around to it.

That oversight had to be rectified, and here we are, at the very beginning of the Forgotten Empires series, with The Orchid Throne. And what a beginning it is!

As the story opens, our hero and heroine are far apart – in position, in outlook and in distance. But not in purpose. Both Euthalia, Queen of Calanthe and Conri, King of Slaves have one driving motivation in common. They will, separately if not together, do whatever they believe is necessary to throw down the usurper Anure.

Anure sent Conri to the deadly vurgsten mines as a slave, and trapped Euthalia in a betrothal that will bring legitimacy to his usurpation of all the kingdoms while most likely sending Euthalia to her death – if not a fate worse than that.

The action and the perspective in The Orchid Throne moves back and forth from Euthalia, trapped in a gilded cage as the Virgin Queen in a court otherwise dedicated to hedonistic pleasures of all types – to Conri, leading his army of slaves and rebels on a collision course to the capital – with Euthalia’s kingdom the last stop on his way.

Each of them has fought the long defeat against the seemingly unstoppable emperor, Conri with battle after battle, Euthalia with spies, honeyed words and the magic that the emperor claims is a fraud.

She’s supposed to capture Conri and present him to the emperor as proof of her loyalty – and as one more delaying tactic in her underground strategy. Conri’s wizard, on the other hand, believes that Con and Euthalia are prophesied to marry and defeat the emperor – but only if they work together for that defeat.

He is the irresistible force, and she is the immovable object. Together they can topple an empire.

Apart, they will smother the last hope of victory. Or they will smother each other and destroy pretty much everything.

Escape Rating A-: There are two ways of looking at this book, depending on whether you picked this up as epic fantasy that included a romance or thought you were getting a fantasy romance in an epic fantasy setting.

The story so far reminds me of a lot of recent fantasy, particularly the Crown of Shards series by Jennifer Estep, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and of course the author’s own Sorcerous Moons series. All of those are fantasies that are epic in scope and just so happen to include a romance as part of the story. And that’s what I was looking for, a fantasy, chock full of battles and politics, with a romance as part of the story but not necessarily the central story. So I loved The Orchid Throne. It had all the scope and worldbuilding of an absorbing epic fantasy.

That it looks like the hero and heroine are going to find something like an HEA by the end is icing on the cake for me. But if you’re looking for that eventual HEA to be at the center of this story you might want to wait until the rest of the series (projected to be a trilogy) comes out. Because the romance so far is a very slow build. I think this will eventually be enemies-to-lovers, but as this installment comes to a close we’re at reluctant-allies-with-benefits. So we’re not there yet and certainly neither are they.

But the world that is built so far is big and desperate and dangerous and awesome. Anure the usurper emperor conquered all the kingdoms with engineering instead of magic – and then wiped out all the wizards so that no one could try and take their kingdoms back. The world we enter is the world his conquest has made – tyranny and fear with only two bright spots – the rebellious King of Slaves and the pleasure kingdom of Calanthe. And Anure already has his hooks deep into Calanthe. The situation looks extremely bleak – only because it is.

A lot of the politics of this story is displayed through Euthalia’s rule of Calanthe, and her ever more desperate attempts to keep Anure at bay. If you like stories of court politics, this part of the story is intricate, fascinating and chilling by turns. There are secrets within secrets and wheels within wheels, to the point where even when this story ends we know little of what Euthalia is really hiding – only that there is a LOT of it.

Conri’s campaign is much more straightforward. His is a brute force conquest because he feels that’s all that’s left to him after the mines. He’s not hiding either his goals or his methods. Instead, he’s hiding his heart.

And we have a meddler in the wizard Ambrose. He’s trying to create the future he wants by manipulating the players of the game – in this case Conri and Euthalia. Players who are stubborn and have minds and motives of their own.

The one point where The Orchid Throne left me grasping at storytelling straws, just a bit, was in the character of its villain, Anure. That Anure is evil is unequivocally true. But why? And, for that matter, how? At the moment he’s like Supreme Leader Snoke in The Force Awakens. We don’t know where he came from or what motivates him into being the evil bastard he so obviously is. I hope his character picks up a little more nuance before he gets his much deserved comeuppance at the end of the series.

But I’m all in for the Forgotten Empires. I already have an eARC for the second book in the series, The Fiery Crown, and I can’t wait to read it!

Review: Hell Squad Survivors by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad Survivors by Anna HackettHell Squad: Survivors (Hell Squad #19) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #19
Pages: 222
Published by Anna Hackett on February 11th, 2010
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon

In the aftermath of a deadly alien invasion, a band of survivors fights on…

Survivors contains three action-packed novellas in the Hell Squad series.


Nate – Long before the aliens invaded, former Marine Nate Caldwell came home a broken man. Going off-grid in a cabin he inherited in Australia’s Blue Mountains, he survived the invasion with only his dog Blue for company. For two years, he’s avoided the aliens and any survivors – he’s done his fighting and can’t go into battle again. But when a young woman crashes into his lonely existence, with the aliens hot on her heels, she changes everything…

Dak – Captain Dak Vaughn only has room for his job as head of security for Groom Lake Base. His focus has to be on keeping all the survivors alive, and not on the tough, attractive new recruit who gets under his skin. But when a dangerous mission requires them to go deep into alien territory, Dak finds himself up close and personal with a woman who is pure temptation.

Alexander – Marine engineer turned base leader, Alexander Erickson, leads a tiny base of survivors in the snowy climes of Norway. Balancing the needs and safety of his group keeps him busy, and he longs for someone to share the load, someone to call his own. The one independent woman he wants refuses to see him as anything more than a leader and a younger man. But when mysterious alien activity encroaches on their safety, they will join forces to investigate and Alexander might finally have his chance.

My Review:

Survivors is, OMG thank you Anna so much, the next-to-last book in the Hell Squad series, which began all the way back with Marcus back in 2015. I think more real world time has elapsed since that first book than has world time within the series.

Although the world of Hell Squad has certainly had one hell of a worse time than the real world has, in spite of everything awful that has happened since 2015.

Why? Because we haven’t been invaded by rapacious alien insectoids intent on stripping the Earth of its resources and converting the entire population, both human and animal, into more of their kind.

The Gizzida are basically space locusts with much too high an IQ. They are unfortunately way too good at conquering and consuming their way across the galaxy. And now they’re here.

The Hell Squad series has been a race against time from the very beginning. The Gizzida plan to strip the planet and move on, leaving nothing behind them. The remaining human population has been waging a constant guerrilla war to slow the aliens down long enough to either kill them all, shove them back into space, or preferably both.

That race is now down to the wire, as the Gizzida are building three superbombs filled with their DNA. They plan to deploy those bombs in a coordinated strike, blanketing Earth in their genetic material and converting the remaining population in one exceedingly fell swoop.

The story in Survivors is all about the human survivors plan to thwart them.

But those bombs are distributed around the globe, and so are the novellas in this collection, giving readers a chance to finally see some of the action happening in the human enclaves outside of Australia where the series so far has been set.

We do start “down under” with the kind of person we know must have existed but haven’t seen much of. Most of the survivors have banded together in The Enclave, under the protection of as many of the United Coalition Armed Forces as could make their way to the base. But some lone wolves would have managed to survive in remote locations far away from either the aliens or the protective squads.

Nate’s story is that of one of those isolated survivors, a man who left his war behind before the aliens invaded, and stayed on his own because he felt too damaged to return to any fight. His peace is invaded by a courageous woman escaping from an alien experimentation lab with the Gizzida hot on her heels. But Ali has seen one of those terrible bombs, and its location has to reach The Enclave at any cost.

Speculation has placed the second bomb in North America, and it’s up to the security forces at Groom Lake (that’s Area 51) to locate its hiding place. Meanwhile, the third bomb is hidden by the snow and ice of Norway, and it’s the job of the their base leader to dig up its location so the humans can enact their plans before the Gizzida can complete theirs.

Escape Rating A-: I liked Survivors a lot, more than many of the recent entries in the series, for a whole bunch of reasons.

One reason is that we got to see some things we haven’t seen before. While both Groom Lake and Setermoen Base have been mentioned before in the series, we hadn’t had a chance to go there until now.

Second, I loved that the romances were different from each other, and that two of them were different from the usual pattern in this series. Nate, as mentioned above, is a lone wolf survivor. While he’s very much the kind of damaged, scarred soldier as the men who make up the squads, the shattering of his fragile peace by Ari allows him to reconnect with the rest of humanity.

Liv, in the third story, is a solitary who visits the Setermoen Base for supplies but prefers to live on her own. So not as lone wolf as Nate but also not as “part of the tribe” as the protagonists of the other story. I liked that the leader of her base was an engineer, not a soldier, and that he had managed to save most of his extended family, so he has connections to parents and siblings that most people in the other bases no longer have. And I always love an older women/younger man romance when it is done well, and this one is.

Also, both Nate and Liv have marvelous canine companion animals.

While Dak and Naomi’s romance in the Groom Lake story did follow a similar pattern to many of the romances in this series, their high-stakes, high-wire exploration of and escape from Hoover Dam was terrific.

And in all three cases, the stories moved the overall series plot forward by leaps and bounds. They’ve found all the bombs. They have allies to work with, and time to finalize their plans and kick the Gizzida off Earth once and for all.

That’s a story I’ve been waiting for since 2015, and it’s finally here. The next book in the series, Tane’s story, will be the last. The human survivors will get to celebrate their very own Independence Day this summer. And I can’t wait.

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah GaileyUpright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, LGBT, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.

"That girl's got more wrong notions than a barn owl's got mean looks."

Esther is a stowaway. She's hidden herself away in the Librarian's book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her--a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

My Review:

I was expecting this to remind me of the stories of the Pack Horse Library Project, stories like The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars. And it certainly feels like Upright Women Wanted was at least partially inspired by that history.

What I wasn’t expecting was the crossing with The Handmaid’s Tale (which I confess I STILL have not read) or a reversal of The Gate to Women’s Country, especially in a setting that reminds me of even more surprisingly American War and Junkyard Cats. A future that is so FUBAR that the means and standards of living have gone backwards, because war is hell and the entire country is being sacrificed to it one bit at a time.

There’s also a heaping helping of George Orwell’s 1984 to add to the mix, but in a really subversive way. In the world of the Upright Women, Big Brother doesn’t actually need to watch everyone all the time. The propaganda of the ubiquitous and extremely carefully curated “Approved Materials” has created a society where “Big Brother” has been more or less successfully uploaded into each individual’s own brain without them being consciously aware of it.

What makes this story so fascinating is the way that its protagonist, Esther, is such a marvelously conflicted example of all of the ways in which those Approved Materials both have and have not taken – and what she does about it.

Esther is queer in a world where the only stories she sees about women like herself are stories where people like her, or people who are in any way different from the accepted world order, are punished or dead or mostly punished and dead.

She’s fled her town after being on the sharply pointed receiving end of one such object lesson. Her best friend and lover has been hung, by Esther’s own father – the local sheriff – for having been caught in possession of Unapproved Materials. Reading anything not approved by the state is a hanging offense.

While Esther is still “safe” for certain select values of safe, she is all too aware of the writing on her wall. She can hide what she is and pretend to be subservient to the man her father has picked out for her – or she can run. Everything she has read has led her to believe that she will come to a bad end no matter what she does, but at least if she runs she might not bring the consequences of her supposed evil to her town.

And she might have a chance to atone for her “sins”. So she smuggles herself aboard the Librarians’ wagon, believing that in their service she will find a way to live and serve the state without being put in the way of the temptation she can’t make herself resist.

But the Librarians are nothing like what she thought they were, nothing like what all the Approved Materials that she has read, that the Librarians themselves have brought to her town, have led her to believe.

They say that the truth will set you free. The truth certainly sets Esther free. But first she has to learn to recognize it for herself.

Escape Rating A-: There’s a part of me that found this story to be just a bit of a tease. This is a novella, so it is relatively short. The points of the story are sharp, laser-focused even, but we don’t ever find out how this future version of our world got to be the way it is, or even much in the way of details of exactly how it is – even though it feels like a not-too-far-out-there possibility from where we’re standing. But I always want to know more about how things ended up this way. I’d love to revisit this world to learn more.

But even though I didn’t get to learn the history lessons of this place, the story still has plenty to teach.

The first lesson of this story is never to mess with librarians. And that’s a fantastic lesson to learn – or so says this librarian. I’m also terribly glad that this lesson about librarians is all about the subversive nature of information. And the way that these librarians are using the appearance of conforming to participate in a revolution. Or at least a rebellion.

So yes, this is a story about a plucky resistance versus at least a repressive empire if not a completely evil one. As far as we know, there’s no Palpatine here, just a whole lot of people going along to get along to keep themselves safe. There’s just no place for anyone who can’t move in the proper lockstep and the punishment for not marching in step is death.

The second lesson is about not believing what you read. Instead of “trust, then verify” the lesson is “verify, then trust”. And to always examine everything you see and hear and read to figure out why you’re being told what you’re being told and who benefits from you believing it. Because it usually isn’t you. And no one can say that this particular lesson doesn’t have a hell of a lot of applicability in the here and now.

The most important lesson is the one about self-acceptance. Esther goes from believing that she must be evil because that’s what she’s always been taught, to accepting that she is who she is meant to be, and that who she loves is her right. And that she has every right to fight for who and what she wants and that those horrible lessons that the state tried to install are not the truth of her – not at all.

And while that lesson of self-acceptance is explicitly about queer self-acceptance, there’s a lesson there for all of us, particularly those of us living while female. Because society has boxes for all us, and those boxes don’t fit a lot of us in all sorts of ways. Accepting that not being the kind of woman that society seems determined to force us to be is an important but necessary lesson we all need to hear – a hell of a lot more often than we do.

Review: Golden in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Golden in Death by J.D. RobbGolden in Death (In Death, #50) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense, suspense
Series: In Death #50
Pages: 400
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In the latest thriller in the #1 New York Times bestselling series, homicide detective Eve Dallas investigates a murder with a mysterious motive―and a terrifying weapon.

Pediatrician Kent Abner received the package on a beautiful April morning. Inside was a cheap trinket, a golden egg that could be opened into two halves. When he pried it apart, highly toxic airborne fumes entered his body―and killed him.

After Eve Dallas calls the hazmat team―and undergoes testing to reassure both her and her husband that she hasn’t been exposed―it’s time to look into Dr. Abner’s past and relationships. Not every victim Eve encounters is an angel, but it seems that Abner came pretty close―though he did ruffle some feathers over the years by taking stands for the weak and defenseless. While the lab tries to identify the deadly toxin, Eve hunts for the sender. But when someone else dies in the same grisly manner, it becomes clear that she’s dealing with either a madman―or someone who has a hidden and elusive connection to both victims.

My Review:

I wanted to read about someone righteously kicking ass and taking names. And that is absolutely what I got. And it was awesome.

Golden in Death was also a bit of a welcome throwback to earlier books in the series. While there is, as always, plenty of romantic action between Eve and Roarke, the focus in this OMG 50th book in the series was on the murder and the hunt for the murderer.

So, this is a compelling narrative about an experienced detective and her kick-ass team of cops and technicians on the trail of an inventive but cold-blooded killer, with an appropriately righteous takedown at the end.

In the fairy tale, the goose is supposed to lay the golden eggs – not commit murder with them. But that’s just what happens in this convoluted case that starts with the murders of seemingly unrelated people in the present, but hearkens back to a past that someone has never forgotten – or let go of.

This is also a case about privilege, the privilege of being rich, young, white and indulged at every turn. It’s about feeling the entitlement of revenge against anyone and everyone who interfered with that privilege and that entitlement, no matter how long ago. And it’s about believing that the rules don’t apply to you – because that’s what your privilege has encouraged you to believe.

It’s also about running your privilege straight into the sights of Eve Dallas and the Homicide Division of the NYPSD. Because once that entitlement led to murder, all of the victims were hers to stand for – until she made sure that the perpetrator marched into a cage.

Righteously – just as it should be. That she gets to serve that justice with extreme prejudice is fantastic icing on a very tasty book, and case, and cake.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve often said that I read this series just to visit with all my friends, the found family that has come to surround Eve and Roarke. This particular entry in the series also reminded me that one of the things I love about this series is that it is basically “competence porn”, which I also enjoy very much.

By “competence porn” I mean that everyone involved on the side of the angels – or at least on the side of the NYPSD, are the best of the best at their jobs. Even the ones like Chief Tech Dickie Berenski (almost always referred to as “Dickhead”), who may have horrible personalities but are fantastic at their jobs, no matter how much they complain about said jobs or how much they have to be bribed to do those jobs expeditiously.

I also read the series for Galahad, Eve and Roarke’s very large and extremely spoiled cat. Even in the future, cats are still cats, and Galahad is a perfect example of that.

But the emphasis on the case in this one, and that the case does not in any way tie back to any of the many, many traumas in either Eve’s or Roarke’s pasts made this entry a nostalgic cut above many recent books in the series.

The murderer is suitably deadly, slimy and smart but not quite smart enough. The dialog between Eve and her motley crew zips and zings along, provoking a frequent chuckle and an occasional outright laugh – just as it should. And the scene where Eve and Peabody confront that formerly smirking murderer in the interview box was perfect and deserved and perfectly deserved.

Job well done. Case closed. And I have Shadows in Death (sounding creepy and ominous) to look forward to in September.

Review: The Hollows by Jess Montgomery + Giveaway

Review: The Hollows by Jess Montgomery + GiveawayThe Hollows (Kinship #2) by Jess Montgomery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Kinship #2
Pages: 343
Published by Minotaur Books on January 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Jess Montgomery showcases her skills as a storyteller in this powerful, big-hearted and exquisitely written follow-up to her acclaimed debut The Widows.

Ohio, 1926: For many years, the underground railroad track in Moonvale Tunnel has been used as a short cut through the Appalachian hills. When an elderly woman is killed walking along the tracks, the brakeman tells tales of seeing a ghostly female figure dressed all in white.

Newly elected Sheriff Lily Ross is called on to the case to dispel the myths, but Lily does not believe that an old woman would wander out of the hills onto the tracks. In a county where everyone knows everyone, how can someone have disappeared, when nobody knew they were missing? As ghost stories and rumors settle into the consciousness of Moonvale Hollow, Lily tries to search for any real clues to the woman’s identity.

With the help of her friend Marvena Whitcomb, Lily follows the woman’s trail to The Hollows—an asylum is northern Antioch County—and they begin to expose secrets long-hidden by time and the mountains.

My Review:

I want to call this “Southern Gothic” but it isn’t really Southern and only parts of it are gothic. But still, that feeling persists.

While this isn’t truly Southern, it also kind of is. It may be set in Ohio, but it’s in the southeast corner of the state, a place that has always been more a part of Appalachia than it is the Midwest. Far away from the big cities, which would have been Cincinnati and Cleveland at the time this story is set, locked in their eternal rivalry.

I’m from Cincinnati. There are other cities in the state, but Columbus wasn’t the big city it is today, although Toledo was probably bigger than it is now. And Cincinnati was more important than it is today. Times change. But that rivalry between Cincy and Cleveland will go on forever.

The Gothic looms over this story in the form of The Hollows Asylum in not too distant Athens. The place from which the elderly, female inmate/patient walks away at the beginning of this story, only to meet her death by falling into a remote railway tunnel ahead of an oncoming train.

It’s that death, whether by misadventure or murder, that drags Sheriff Lily Ross out into the night to see the body and begin her investigation into the true cause of the poor woman’s death – whoever she might be.

But Jane Does, even poor, wandering, confused and possibly senile Jane Does, deserve justice. No matter how many people want Sheriff Ross to let the unnamed dead rest in peace. Or perhaps especially because so many people don’t seem to want the woman’s death to be properly investigated.

And there are plenty of people who don’t believe that Sheriff Ross is the proper person to do the investigation – no matter what it might or might not uncover. Being sheriff is certainly not a suitable job for a woman – even if she “inherited” the job from her late husband.

But Lily can’t afford to listen to the naysayers. If she’s not willing to do her best for the least of her constituents then she has no business running for the job in her own right. And she is running for the job. It might not be anything she expected to be doing, but then she never expected to be a widow in her late 20s with an aging mother and two young children to take care of, either.

She does the best she can, no matter where, or how far it takes her. Even back into the long past. Or into the cells of the asylum – as an inmate.

Escape Rating A-: This wasn’t at all what I was expecting – and I mean that in the best way possible. I think I was expecting more of a historical mystery, with the emphasis on the mystery. Not that there isn’t a mystery in this story because there certainly is.

However, the book I actually got has a lot more depth than the typical historical mystery. This is more like historical fiction that has a mystery in it. There’s plenty of meaty history here, and unveiling the secrets of the past is really the heart of the story – not that plenty of dirty-deeds aren’t being done in its present.

While the individual characters in this story are fictional, there’s also a lot of excellent grounding in real history, beginning with the character of Sheriff Lily Ross. There really was a female sheriff in southeastern Ohio during this time period. Just as the main character of Girl Waits with Gun was also based on a surprising real-life example.

The deeper history that Lily uncovers, the secrets of the past and present in which this case is grounded, are also real, giving the events a resonance that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And I don’t just mean the dark roots of the case in the Underground Railroad, but also the surprising dark present of the WKKK, the Women’s Ku Klux Klan. That’s a bit of history I didn’t know and was perversely fascinated and totally disgusted by at the same time. It makes sense that it existed – unfortunately – but the popular image of the KKK is always men in white masks and robes. That their wives had a “ladies auxiliary” as so many organizations did, feels both right and chilling at the same time.

But this is also a work of fiction, and it’s a story that is wrapped around its strong female characters. Not just Lily Ross herself, but also her friends Hildy and Marvena as they each find their way after the tragic events of the previous book in this series, The Widows. While there was enough backstory provided that I was able to understand where each of these women was coming from without having read that story, I’m sure that there is plenty of nuance that I’m missing out on. So you can read The Hollows as a standalone but I’m about half-sorry that I did.

While this is Lily’s story, Marvena and Hildy each have their own character arcs and points of view in The Hollows, and they all follow different trajectories, as their lives have after those previous events. Lily has become Sheriff, and is currently in the midst of an election campaign to maintain her job. She’s still grieving for her late husband, still hurting on many levels, but has a job to do and two young children to raise. She’s also caught on the horns of a dilemma that women still face today when doing a so-called man’s job. She has to be hyper-competent while not crossing a line into imitating a man while fending off all of the many, many people who believe she can’t do her job or she shouldn’t do her job or she shouldn’t even want to do her job.

Marvena is a union organizer fighting her own battles both against the coal mine owners and the members of the union who are against integration and are raising the banner of the KKK. That part of her struggle feeds into the mystery in both the past and the present.

Then there’s Hildy, who I must admit drove me bonkers. Everyone thinks she needs protecting, that she really wants a woman’s traditional life and role. And that she should marry the local grocer because he’s her best chance. Hildy, on the other hand, is struggling against the way that everyone else sees her and the way that everyone else believes they know what’s best for her, including the lover that she can neither give up nor acknowledge. Her vacillating between the life she believes she desires and the person who makes her happy were a bit hard to take over the course of the entire story. But, and in the end it’s a very big but, she finally puts her courage to the sticking point and does what’s best for her, no matter how difficult the journey will ultimately be.

In conclusion, The Hollows was a story that took me up and swept me away. It intrigued me with its creepy mystery and gritty and all too real history. And it got me seriously invested in the lives of its strong female characters and the dilemmas they faced that were both very different and all too familiar.

And last but not least, I want to say that the atmosphere of the story reminds me quite a bit of Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad series. And that’s excellent company to be in!

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Hollows to one very lucky US winner on this tour!

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This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Guest Review: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

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

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

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

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

Guest Review by Amy:

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Sweep with Me by Ilona Andrews

Review: Sweep with Me by Ilona AndrewsSweep with Me (Innkeeper Chronicles, #4.5) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #5
Pages: 144
Published by Ilona Andrews on January 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

A charming, short novella in the Innkeeper Chronicles, from #1 New York Times bestselling author, Ilona Andrews.

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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