Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia Dade

Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia DadeShip Wrecked (Spoiler Alert, #3) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Spoiler Alert #3
Pages: 416
Published by Avon Books on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After All the Feels and Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade once again delivers a warm and wonderful romantic comedy about two co-stars who once had an incredible one-night stand--and after years of filming on the same remote island, are finally ready to yield to temptation again...
Maria's one-night-stand--the thick-thighed, sexy Viking of a man she left without a word or a note--just reappeared. Apparently, Peter's her surly Gods of the Gates co-star, and they're about to spend the next six years filming on a desolate Irish island together. She still wants him...but he now wants nothing to do with her.
Peter knows this role could finally transform him from a forgettable character actor into a leading man. He also knows a failed relationship with Maria could poison the set, and he won't sabotage his career for a woman who's already walked away from him once. Given time, maybe they can be cooperative colleagues or friends--possibly even best friends--but not lovers again. No matter how much he aches for her.
For years, they don't touch off-camera. But on their last night of filming, their mutual restraint finally shatters, and all their pent-up desire explodes into renewed passion. Too bad they still don't have a future together, since Peter's going back to Hollywood, while Maria's returning to her native Sweden. She thinks she needs more than he can give her, but he's determined to change her mind, and he's spent the last six years waiting. Watching. Wanting.
His shipwrecked Swede doesn't stand a chance.

My Review:

This third book in the Spoiler Alert series may seem a bit detached from the previous books, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels. Which makes total sense as all of Peter and Maria’s scenes in the infamous (and fictional) God of the Gates TV series (all resemblances to the final seasons of Game of Thrones indubitably intended) were filmed on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Ireland.

The Aran Islands substitute for the remote island where the characters they play in the series, Cyprian and Cassia, were literally shipwrecked early in the book series that was adapted – sometimes very badly indeed – for the hit TV series. An island where their characters spend six long and frustrating years pining for each other, transforming from enemies into lovers.

Into dead. Because it’s that kind of series. As we know even if we never watched the thing.

Life has imitated art more than a bit, as Peter and Maria also spent their six years filming the series pining for each other every bit as much as their characters did. Only to give in to temptation after the cameras film their final scene – just before they are scheduled to leave the island and go their separate ways.

While they don’t immediately end up dead in real life – because they haven’t really been guarding a hellmouth for six years that has finally opened to bring their doom – their much longed-for relationship keeps tolling its own death knell even as they find ways to spend yet more glorious days and nights together.

Both Peter and Maria came to that deserted island with some serious abandonment issues, and not just in romantic relationships. They may love each other, they certainly want each other, but they can’t seem to get past the trauma in their pasts to realize that they both want the same things – but are no good at expressing what they need and want to the most important person either of them will ever find.

Their characters were shipwrecked, and the real-life (relation)ship that fans have been shipping throughout the entire run of the series looks like it’s wrecked as well. Unless they can find a way to turn it into an HEA with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of the one thing that Peter is bad at – communication.

Escape Rating A-: The beginning of this was just a bit jarring – not their one-night stand, not at ALL – but that the story went all the way back to the early days of the series, back when the showrunners were still adapting the author’s work. When the scripts were still more than halfway decent even if the two showrunners were already scum.

The earlier books in the series, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, started during the final seasons of the series, at the point where the showrunners had gone past the author’s work and were, well, winging it. Badly. Destroying all the character arcs and most of the characters along with them. Both of those earlier stories center around stars of the series behaving badly because they so desperately want to reveal that the final season is AWFUL with a capital AWE and they fall in love either while behaving very badly (All the Feels) or while violating their NDA (non-disclosure agreement) in new and creative – literally and literarily – ways (Spoiler Alert and All the Feels).

Peter and Maria and their film crew, while not exactly shipwrecked themselves, are isolated from the rest of the cast and crew except via group chats and off-season convention appearances. Their story arc was completely separated from everyone else’s and so are they.

Which doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with the shittiness of the showrunners every bit as much as the rest of the cast – or maybe even a bit more because the showrunners think their physical isolation gives them some sort of psychological advantage. Or simply because they are asshats. Which they most definitely are.

And that’s where one of the more interesting threads of the (book) series in general and this entry in it in particular comes in. Peter and Maria are playing shipwrecked Vikings. They are both big people – which is appropriate for the characters they play. So, while the books don’t specify that they are bigger than the usual Hollywood actors, it seems like good casting.

But the showrunners, being slimeballs, have a plan to make Maria – and by extension Peter, but honestly it’s aimed at Maria – go on a crash diet before her second season because they’re supposed to be starving on the island. And she refuses and makes it stick – even in the face of being fired and re-cast. Maria is righteously all about body positivity, and not wrecking her body for life for anyone or anything, and she’s very aware that her body positivity campaign has played extremely well in the media. AND that the slimy showrunners are already in trouble on every side and need her way more than she needs them.

Those showrunners pulled similar shitty stunts on the plus-sized heroines of both Spoiler Alert and All the Feels and got their heads handed to them both times, but it was terrific to see it happen again – with bells on – this time around.

Oh yeah, there’s a romance in here too. And it’s a bit of a heartbreaker – not that it doesn’t come around to an HEA in the end. As it should. Because ALL the best shipping fics do – no matter how much angst the characters have to go through along the way.

But it’s a heartbreaker both because they nearly break each other’s AND because they’ve had both of theirs broken so many times in ways that have nothing to do with romance but still rear their ugly heads when they might just manage to reach that HEA. Because they’re both afraid of getting left – again – and think they’d rather walk away than have it happen. Again.

Not that they’re both equally stubborn and clueless about it or anything like that.

Last but not least, and speaking of things coming around again, the book series as a whole is rooted both in fanfiction as a labor of love and in the complaints and gossip about the final seasons of the real TV series, Game of Thrones. Which also ran two seasons beyond the last published book in its series and also did “interesting” things with its characters and their arcs. Earlier in the book series I wondered whether Spoiler Alert  would lose the pointedness of some of its inside jokes after Game of Thrones finished.

But then House of the Dragon came along, a prequel series based on the same author’s work that is equally unfinished in book form. So we might have more of Spoiler Alert  to look forward to no matter how, if, or whether House of the Dragon ever floats your shipping boat.

And that is an EXCELLENT thing!

Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl

Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurlThe Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Collins on November 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A country rebelling
It’s 1916 and, as war rages in Europe, Gráinne leaves her job in a department store to join Countess Markiewicz’s revolutionary efforts. It is a decision which will change her life forever. A rebellion is brewing, and as Dublin’s streets become a battleground, Gráinne soon discovers the personal cost of fighting for what you believe in…
A forgotten sacrifice
Decades on, student Nicky is recovering from a break-up when a research project leads her to her great-grandmother’s experiences in revolutionary Ireland. When Nicky finds a long-forgotten handkerchief amongst her great-grandmother’s things, it leads to the revelation of a heartbreaking story of tragedy and courage, and those who sacrificed everything for their country.
Inspired by a heartbreaking true story, this emotional historical novel will sweep you away to the Emerald Isle. Perfect for fans of Jean Grainger, Sandy Taylor and Fiona Valpy.

My Review:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” or so claimed both Winston Churchill and Nicky Waters, the late 20th century protagonist of this dual-timeline story about Ireland’s Easter Rising. But another quote about history, from another continent is equally apropos. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The early 20th century heroine of this story, that girl with the emerald flag herself, Gráinne MacDowd, witnessed the bending of that arc from its beginning in the Eastern Rising to what seems like its right, proper and fitting ending in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing peace – more or less – between the Republic of Ireland and a Northern Ireland still controlled by Britain.

But it all begins, or at least this version of it, with a college student both being rebellious and studying rebellions, and her great-grandmother – who she calls Supergran (best name for a great-grandmother EVER) – who was in the rooms where a lot of a real and significant 20th century rebellion happened.

And has a story that she has been waiting nearly a century for someone to finally want to hear.

Escape Rating A-: Nicky Waters and Gráinne MacDowd are the same age at the opposite ends of their century. It’s only Gráinne’s long life and continued good health and mental acuity that allows this story to happen.

(It’s more plausible than one might think. A friend’s grandmother, not even his ‘Supergran’, crossed the US in a covered wagon with one of the last of the wagon trains and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.)

I digress.

This story is told in two timelines. In 1998, the year that the Good Friday Agreement was, well, agreed to, Nicky Waters is a bit spoiled, a bit selfish, a lot self-indulgent, and trying to stretch her wings at uni. It’s her need for a project on historic rebellions that kicks things off – even though she resents her mother’s suggestion that Supergran’s experiences would make a fantastic springboard for her project.

But then, she resents her mother a lot at this point in her life. They love each other but don’t seem to be sympatico at all. Some mother-daughter relationships just go that way.

The heart of the book, both literally and figuratively, is Gráinne telling her story to Nicky. And telling it to the reader as she does.

Gráinne’s story takes place over an intense period of time from the fall of 1915 when she becomes the right-hand-woman of Countess Constance Markiewicz (see quote and picture above) through the Rising itself in its glory and its inevitable defeat. And its immediate aftermath, the nights when the survivors huddled together in Kilmainham Gaol and the mornings when they heard but could not see their leaders facing one firing squad after another.

Gráinne’s story brings Nicky up short, letting her see that rebellion without good purpose has no meaning. Nicky’s turnaround was a bit abrupt, but the harrowing events that her Supergran lived through make the story shine – even if sometimes with tears.

What makes this story so touching – although that’s nearly a big enough word – is the way that it allows the reader to experience this history making and in some ways history shattering event in a way that brings the Rising and the people who gave their lives for it to vivid life.

Gráinne and her beau Emmett are the only important characters in the story who are fictional. All of the leaders of the Rising are presented as they were, and this event is more than close enough in history that documentation exists for much of what Gráinne saw, heard and felt. Including the heartbreaking jailhouse wedding between Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford. (I honestly expected that to be a bit of literary license but it was NOT.)

Gráinne as a character reads as both plausible and aspirational. Women really did all the jobs she performed during the Rising, and she makes the reader hope that they would have done as well in the same cause. At the same time, her example leads her great-granddaughter to do and be better, by example and not by exhortation.

Any reader who loves historical fiction, or has any interest at all in Irish history and the Easter Rising will fall in love with The Girl with the Emerald Flag as much as I did. This story is terrific, and it’s told in way that both tugs at the heartstrings and practically compels the reader to look for more.

One final note. That arc of history is still bending. In the Good Friday Agreement, the politicians on both sides basically finessed some of long-standing issues through both countries’ membership in the European Union. Brexit brought many of those issues, particularly the economic ones – as well as questions about how to deal with the border – back to life. While this is not exactly part of this story, considering that it ends when it does as a way of attempting to close the circle, it’s difficult not to point out that the circle keeps on turning.

About the Author:

Kathleen McGurl lives near the coast in Christchurch, England. She writes dual timeline novels in which a historical mystery is uncovered and resolved in the present day. She is married to an Irishman and has two adult sons. She enjoys travelling, especially in her motorhome around Europe and has of course visited Ireland many times.

Social Media Links – 

https://kathleenmcgurl.com/

https://www.facebook.com/KathleenMcGurl

https://twitter.com/KathMcGurl 

 

Review: Conqueror by Anna Hackett

Review: Conqueror by Anna HackettConqueror (Galactic Kings #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Kings #4
Pages: 276
Published by Anna Hackett on November 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

After two years of alien captivity, Evie is free, but her captors have changed her. Now struggling to control a terrifying new power, her only hope is one formidable, dangerous alien king.

Logistics manager Evie Mason is no longer a prisoner on an alien space station, but she’s far from Earth, suffering nightmares, and fighting to ignore the growing power inside her. She just wants to be normal, but when she comes face to face with the intoxicating ruler of the planet Taln, normal isn’t an option. He speaks to the power inside her, and ignites a fierce desire she’s never felt before.

Conqueror Graylan Taln Sarkany is the king of Taln and its people, who can control the geological forces of their planet. He’s dedicated to protecting Talnians from his evil father and uses his immense power to command the rocks, soil, and earthquakes. But Gray must always keep a part of his power leashed. The part that’s too volatile, too enormous, too dangerous. Then one small, tough woman from Earth threatens all his control.

As a final, violent showdown with Graylan’s father draws closer, Gray and Evie are swept into a whirlwind of power and passion, their powers connecting them in ways neither of them understand. With Gray’s brothers, their mates, and allies by their side, they will fight, and Gray will unleash everything he has to protect his planet, his people, and Evie.

My Review:

There is clearly something very wrong with King Zavir Sarkany, but his four sons are all very, very fine indeed. And they’ve banded together to do something about ‘not-so-dear and not-so-old dad’. They’re going to pay him back for all the damage he’s done to their solar system, their individual planets, their people, their families and themselves.

Unlike their tyrannical father, the Sarkany brothers all put themselves last behind the needs of their respective peoples. Their joint problem is that the one thing all of their planets’ peoples need most is to eliminate the man who fathered their respective rulers. Preferably before he manages to destroy all of their worlds so he can ‘get his sons back’. Zavir is delusional. And narcissistic. But unfortunately, quite charismatic when he want to be and extremely powerful all of the damn time.

Nevertheless, his sons have managed to beat back Zavir’s seriously overclocked, over-enhanced and over-genetically-engineered constructs on Zhalto (Overlord), Damar (Emperor) and even on Zavir’s space station based experimental monstrosity lab (Captain of the Guard). Now it’s time for the Sarkany brothers to get together and kick him off Taln and out of their lives for good.

No matter what it takes.

But in his quest to rule his planetary system and his sons, Zavir managed to sow the seeds of his own destruction. There’s something about the women from Earth that both enhances his horrific experiments AND makes them easy to genetically engineer. He intended to create weapons, and they are. But the moment they get free of his scientists’ clutches, each one of them has bonded with one of his sons, giving them yet one more reason to fight him with everything they have.

In this final story in the Galactic Kings series, Conqueror Graylan Taln Sarkany is juggling the protection of his world, the plot to destroy his father, the healing of Earth-refugee Evie Mason (her rescue is part of Captain of the Guard) and fighting his attraction to this woman who is still in mourning for the ‘normal’ person she used to be.

It’s a lot for any person to handle, but Graylan eventually gets the message that he’s capable of conquering anything and anyone – as long as he has Evie by his side.

Escape Rating A-: As Conqueror is the final book in the Galactic Kings series – and a marvelously cathartic one at that – this is not the place to start the series. Start with Overlord because the whole thing is just a terrific science fiction romance read from beginning to end.

Or, if you’re in the mood for a big reading binge, you can always start with Gladiator, the first book in the Galactic Gladiators series. Why? Because the wormhole that brought so many Terrans from the Jupiter outpost to their system all the way across the galaxy is just a gift that has kept on giving, with Conqueror just the latest in a long and wonderful line of interstellar romances.

A line which seems to be continuing in the Oronis Knights series early next year. But we’re not there yet.

The story in Conqueror has all the captivating elements of the previous books in the series. Evie Mason was rescued from the clutches of Zavir’s evil scientists – who honestly make the Nazis look like fluffy bunnies by comparison.

Her blood was used to make Zavir’s experimental creatures even more powerful, and she was genetically engineered to have the same capabilities as the people of one of the planets in the Sarkan system – in this case Gray’s planet Taln. She’s not ‘normal’ anymore by Earth standards and she can’t go home – even if she could.

She wants payback. She also, surprising even herself, wants Gray, although she knows that it can’t possibly lead anywhere. He’s a king and she’s basically a refugee. Also, he’s being an idiot and pursuing an arranged marriage because he thinks it will be easier if he doesn’t love his spouse. For…reasons. As I said, idiot.

So their reluctant romance is a big part of this story, but what makes this one so much fun is that it’s all about finding a final solution for Zavir – and the conflict that Gray and his brothers all have about plotting to kill their father. Who really, really needs it but is still their father. Who can be very, very charming and very, very twisted, sometimes even at the same time.

Their solution is not the one that I was expecting. At all. Which is terrific. That it’s a take on events in Star Trek: Next Gen brought a smile to my face even as I breathed a huge sigh of relief that all was well that ended well. (Although the solution in STNG is about to be undone in the final season of Picard, so who knows? Zavir could be back, too…)

If you are looking for kickass, action-adventure romance in a science fiction setting, where all the protagonists take charge, take names and definitely get the hardest and most heartbreaking jobs done with style and sass, the Galactic Kings – and their queens! – are all winners in love and war and every single one of their stories is a fantastic read!

Review: Mission: Uncovered by Anna Hackett

Review: Mission: Uncovered by Anna HackettMission: Uncovered by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Treasure Hunter Security, Team 52, Norcross Security
Pages: 150
Published by Anna Hackett on 11-1-2022
Purchasing Info: Author's Website
Goodreads

Amber Butler is out to prove herself: to her sister, herself, and especially to her bosses at Treasure Hunter Security. If her mission involves trekking into the desert with someone from the covert black ops Team 52, she’ll do it.

But what she doesn’t expect is for that someone to be her smoking hot Vegas one-night stand.

My Review:

Amber Butler is good at what she does – she just believes she has a difficult time making good choices. She’s having a difficult time letting go of the fact that one of her choices went so very wrong that her sister Peri had to hire Treasure Hunter Security (that story is in Unmapped) to rescue her from the deadly black-market antiquities ring, Silk Road.

Amber believed the job they hired her for, to trek to Antarctica to locate a buried treasure that was a lot more than it seemed – even as her current employers turned out to be a lot worse than they seemed.

Amber took a few hits to her confidence, but in the end Treasure Hunter Security saved the day, Peri met the love of her life, and Amber got herself a new job with people she can trust – that very same Treasure Hunter Security.

After all, she’s an accomplished wilderness guide and occasional treasure hunter. She’s a perfect fit for their organization. Not to mention her about-to-be brother-in-law wants to keep an eye on his future sister-in-law, and her sister wants her working with people who can be trusted.

It should be a win-win-win, but Amber’s still not quite trusting herself. She wants to be seen as a responsible adult and earn her place at THS. But as Amber isn’t currently trusting her judgment or her choices, her plan is to put her nose to the proverbial grindstone, keep her eyes on that prize, and swear off relationships until she feels like she has her act together.

A set of resolutions that flies out the window at escape velocity when THS sends her on THE perfect job for her with the man she never expected to see again. Her last wild one-night stand before she started her new job and made all those oh-so-responsible resolutions.

Treasure Hunter Security has teamed up with their friendly rivals at Team 52 to hunt down a deadly ancient relic in the desert surrounding Lake Mead. Team 52 has brought their newest recruit to team up with Amber and reach Montezuma’s real – and really toxic – revenge before the villains can reverse engineer the old formula and create a weapon of bioterrorism like the world has never seen.

All Amber has to do is guide the hottest man she’s ever slept with to find a relic that’s been lost for centuries in a cave that’s been underwater for decades while resisting every impulse in her body to jump him again. And again.

But Team 52 agent Garrett Webb has plans of his own. His resolution is to tempt Amber to break every single one of hers. Before, during and after they get the villains put down.

Escape Rating A-: If you’ve followed Anna Hackett’s interconnected series, or at least her contemporary action adventure romances, Mission: Uncovered is a terrific coda for all of them. It’s not just that the mission is a joint operation between Team 52 and Treasure Hunter Security, but the Norcross Security folks get to mix in a bit as well. So for fans, this novella is a real treat.

For readers new to the author, Mission: Uncovered is a terrific introduction. While the references to the previous series are fun, the main story is completely new. Amber and Garrett are both new to their respective organizations, still trying to find their places.

Including, they each secretly hope, with each other.

The relic they have to retrieve is itself both old and new. On the one hand, yes, it’s THAT Montezuma. On the other, the cave in which the relic has been hiding all these centuries was at least partially submerged by the construction of Hoover Dam. Falling lake levels may have revealed the formerly hidden entrance.

What makes the story so much fun – in addition to the historical references which I always love – is the romance between Amber and Garrett. They’re both emotionally wounded and neither completely trusts their own judgment when they first meet. It takes them both time and trust to realize that they’re better together than either would be separately, and then they have to be able to trust themselves to decide to give it a go.

So a lovely romance where two people rescue each other into an HEA that is very much earned.

If the author’s work intrigues you, and I hope it does, there are plenty to choose from and all of them are terrific. If you’re specifically interested in Mission: Uncovered, there’s a lovely little bit of a dilemma to get it. This story was written specifically to be a free offering from the Protector Romance Book Club, and if you want it RIGHT NOW you’ll need to join the Book Club to get it – along with the December introductory novellas from another author contributing to the club. Which does sound like a whole lot of win. If you are willing to wait and/or work your binge reading way through Treasure Hunter Security and Team 52 and Norcross Security first, Mission: Uncovered will probably be available at some point in the future. But why wait?

Review: Lute by Jennifer Thorne

Review: Lute by Jennifer ThorneLute by Jennifer Marie Thorne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 274
Published by Tor Nightfire on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Wicker Man meets Final Destination in Jennifer Thorne's atmospheric, unsettling folk horror novel about love, duty, and community.
On the idyllic island of Lute, every seventh summer, seven people die. No more, no less.
Lute and its inhabitants are blessed, year after year, with good weather, good health, and good fortune. They live a happy, superior life, untouched by the war that rages all around them. So it’s only fair that every seven years, on the day of the tithe, the island’s gift is honored.
Nina Treadway is new to The Day. A Florida girl by birth, she became a Lady through her marriage to Lord Treadway, whose family has long protected the island. Nina’s heard about The Day, of course. Heard about the horrific tragedies, the lives lost, but she doesn’t believe in it. It's all superstitious nonsense. Stories told to keep newcomers at bay and youngsters in line.
Then The Day begins. And it's a day of nightmares, of grief, of reckoning. But it is also a day of community. Of survival and strength. Of love, at its most pure and untamed. When The Day ends, Nina―and Lute―will never be the same.

My Review:

Hugh Treadway has every intention of going right on and having his cake and eating it, too. As this story begins, Hugh plans to continue having all the privileges and reaping all the benefits of being the Lord of Lute island, just as he always has, but Lute has other plans.

Which means that this is not his story – even though it should have been. Because Lute seems to have had enough of him dancing the dance but unwilling to take the chance of having to pay the piper.

Every seven years, on the longest day, the day of the summer solstice, the island of Lute takes seven people. They die. It’s not necessarily a gruesome death – or even a painful one. Often it’s an accident. But the island, or the spirits that dwell within, choose who will pay that piper among those present on the island on The Day.

And in return, Lute enjoys prosperity – no matter how well or how poorly the economy of Britain, or even the entire world, happens to be doing. The weather is milder and even sunnier than anyone has a right to expect. There’s always enough food and no one goes hungry. Lute takes care of its own and its people take care of each other. And there’s peace – even in the midst of war.

Lute has the only war memorial in Britain with no names on it. No Lute resident has ever died in any war her country has fought. EVER.

But in return, she takes seven people every seven years – one for each of those years of peace and prosperity. Long, long ago, the people of Lute made a bargain with the Shining Ones, the Tuatha dé Danann, and that bargain is kept. Or so the legend goes.

American-born Nina Treadway, the Lady of Lute, doesn’t believe in The Day. She’s sure it’s just superstitious nonsense. That the very specific death toll on that very particular day is either chance or confirmation bias – that the deaths have been recorded on that day to keep the legend alive.

But she’s never experienced The Day, either. She met Hugh Treadway on a cruise, seven years ago on The Day. Hugh thinks he’s going to take them all to the mainland for an anniversary trip so that he can avoid, yet again, the potential consequences of The Day. When Lute keeps them home, Nina gets to experience The Day for herself – as she and her children are held hostage to a potential fate that she refused to believe in – until it was too late.

Escape Rating A-: I usually say that I prefer to sidle up to horror, rather than hitting it head-on, and that’s so very true of the story in Lute. It’s easy to believe, right along with Nina, that whatever happens in Lute on The Day isn’t quite what actually occurs, so the dread creeps up on the reader just as it does on Nina.

But once it’s there, it’s really, really there. Particularly as, just as in the Final Destination movies, the cause of the horror isn’t a specific villain or monster. Not that there doesn’t turn out to be a villain in Lute – just that the villain isn’t the cause of The Day. More like its result.

More than anything else, though, the thing that Lute kept reminding me of was Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery”. Not that anyone gets stoned, and certainly not that there’s any overtones of scapegoating that many readers see in “The Lottery”, but the impersonal nature of the choosing, that for once the game is not rigged, and that the sacrifice seems to be made for a real benefit and not just superstition.

Howsomever, the way that Lute works kept me riveted not just because of the way the horror creeps up on Nina and the reader but because of the way that the creeping horror forces Nina to reckon with herself and her own issues.

In the end, Lute is Nina’s story in a way that it never was Hugh’s, even though it should have been. The sacrifices and the responsibilities of being the Lady of Lute make Nina even as they break her husband and their marriage. And the story worked for me, even as horror, because in spite of just how serious and in the end terrible the situation gets to be, there still manages to be a bit of sweet and a sort of happy ending mixed in with the bitter.

Lute turned out to be the perfect book to read – and review – this Halloween season.

Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah BakerInto the Windwracked Wilds (The Up-and-Under, #3) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #3
Pages: 224
Published by Tordotcom on October 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Adventurous readers of Kelly Barnhill and Cat Valente's Fairyland books will be sure to soar among the dark marvels that can be found in Into the Windwracked Wilds, by Seanan McGuire's latest open pseudonym, A. Deborah Baker.
When the improbable road leaves Avery and Zib in the land of Air and at the mercy of the Queen of Swords, escape without becoming monsters may be impossible. But with the aid of the Queen's son, the unpredictable Jack Daw, they may emerge with enough of their humanity to someday make it home. Their journey is not yet over; the dangers are no less great.

My Review:

Looking back at my review of the first book in the Up-and-Under series, Over the Woodward Wall, I discovered that one of my early guesses was wrong. One of Zib and Avery’s companions does need to find a heart – a particular heart – after all.

They all need to find more than a bit of ‘the nerve’ by the time the Improbable Road whisks them off again, further away from who they were when they first climbed that wall but hopefully closer to getting home. Or deciding that they are already there.

Into the Windwracked Wilds makes no bones (although there are bones) about the fact that it is a middle book, with pretty much all of the darkness such books generally hold. A darkness that is not toned down all that much in spite of the series being theoretically aimed at middle grade and young adult readers.

Don’t let that fool you. The trappings of the story may make it seem like a book for younger readers – and it certainly can be read that way. BUT, like a more overtly dark version of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the seriousness of its story appeals equally, if not perhaps a bit more, to adults.

Well, certainly to this adult. Although adulting is both in the eye of the beholder and can be seriously overrated.

Howsomever, the lovely thing about the book acknowledging that it’s in the middle of a much longer story is that it does an equally lovely job of explaining why middle books are important for the journey of the protagonists – as well as giving the reader enough details about what came before to be going on with.

After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and traveling Along the Saltwise Sea with the pirates, Zib, Avery, Niamh the Drowned Girl and the Crow Girl with no name begin their journey Into the Windwracked Wilds by making the Improbable Road angry enough to dump them back into the Sea. And disappear – at least until they manage to do something improbable enough to bring it back.

Which is how they find themselves blown towards the Queen of Swords’ castle in the Land of Air. Doing their level best not to get turned into monsters. Or at least, Avery and Zib need to do their best, because monsterization has already happened to both Niamh and the Crow Girl.

In fact, the Crow Girl, whatever her name used to be, was turned into a monster by the very same Queen of Swords who has just swept them into her castle. And wants to keep them there.

This is the story of how this ragtag band of lost souls were forced into a castle of nightmares – and managed to find their way out again. With just a little bit of help from a new friend – by finding the one thing that none of them had thought to look for – the Crow Girl’s missing heart.

Escape Rating A-: From the beginning, it has seemed as if the direct progenitors of the Up-and-Under were Oz and Narnia. The similarities between the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and the ‘Improbable Road’ are a bit hard to miss, after all.

But this particular entry in the series makes me think of Narnia. A lot. Not the Narnia of the great lion and Aslan saving the day, but the Narnia of choices of consequence made by uninformed children, and the lesson that adults are often cruel and that words and actions may have terrible consequences even if the words are said or the deeds are committed in ignorance of those consequences. The world where the kindly Mr. Tumnus plans to betray the children, refuses to do so, and is tortured for it. The island where dreams come true – and the realization that it does NOT refer to daydreams, but rather the monsters summoned from deep in the subconscious.

A place where children have to pay their own debts and forfeits – no matter how much they hurt or how often the adults cheat. The Up-and-Under feels like it’s filled with those same kinds of hard lessons – no matter how magical and even beautiful it might sometimes be.

But I think the return from the Up-and-Under to Zib and Avery’s ‘real’ world is going to be a lot more difficult than what the Pevensies encountered. Because the point of Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under seems as if the entire point of it is change, not just for the Up-and-Under to impact them, but for them to impact it, as well.

Unlike Along the Saltwise Sea, which felt very much like a rest stop along their journey, Into the Windwracked Wilds reads like they are really getting somewhere – even if that somewhere is not the return home that Zib and Avery were originally seeking. This may eventually turn out to be a ‘There and Back Again’ story, but at this middle point it’s starting to feel like their journey and the changes it brings is infinitely more important than the destination.

As much as their travels have been clearly changing Avery and Zib all along, Avery and Zib are also changing the people and even the structure of the Up-and-Under in ways that we’ll probably only see the full picture of at the end. Which was originally planned to be the fourth book, which was originally planned to be published in October 2023. I hope that all holds true. At least that the next book comes out this time next year. If we get a bit more story in this world than was originally intended, this reader, for one, would not be in the least disappointed.

Review: Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty

Review: Station Eternity by Mur LaffertyStation Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1) by Mur Lafferty
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Midsolar Murders #1
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From idyllic small towns to claustrophobic urban landscapes, Mallory Viridian is constantly embroiled in murder cases that only she has the insight to solve. But outside of a classic mystery novel, being surrounded by death doesn’t make you a charming amateur detective, it makes you a suspect and a social pariah. So when Mallory gets the opportunity to take refuge on a sentient space station, she thinks she has the solution. Surely the murders will stop if her only company is alien beings. At first her new existence is peacefully quiet…and markedly devoid of homicide.
But when the station agrees to allow additional human guests, Mallory knows the break from her peculiar reality is over. After the first Earth shuttle arrives, and aliens and humans alike begin to die, the station is thrown into peril. Stuck smack-dab in the middle of an extraterrestrial whodunit, and wondering how in the world this keeps happening to her anyway, Mallory has to solve the crime—and fast—or the list of victims could grow to include everyone on board….

My Review:

Mallory Viridian is a murder magnet. Wherever she goes, whenever she is in a group long enough, big enough, or both, somebody ends up dead. She’s never been the intended victim, and she’s never been the perpetrator, either. No matter how many times any number of different law enforcement agencies have tried to pin the murder on her. Because she nearly always solves the case. In fact, she has a downright preternatural ability to solve crimes. She’d be perfect as a cop or a private investigator, but law enforcement is so perturbed by her ability to be in the room where it happens AND figure out whodunnit when they can’t that she’s been blackballed from any possibility of using her weird talent where it will do some good.

She’s also tired of being in the midst of all the carnage as well as the suspicion that goes along with it.

Which has led her to Station Eternity, one of only three humans permitted on the alien, self-aware, sentient station. In the hopes that, with only three humans aboard her gift – or curse – won’t kick in. As long as she doesn’t let herself get too close to either of her fellow exiles.

So when she learns that an entire shuttle full of humans is already on its way to the station, she starts to panic. A panic she manages to pass along to her fellow exiles; an AWOL US Army soldier with a whole lot of military secrets, along with the human ambassador who is sure the shuttle contains his replacement. The soldier is sure that someone is coming to get him, while Mallory is dead certain that when the shuttle arrives, somebody is going to end up dead.

They’re all equally correct. And equally screwed.

When the shuttle approaches the station, chaos erupts. Mallory expected a murder – but not on the scale she is forced to confront. Or the people she’s forced to confront along with it.

The station lashes out at the shuttle, killing half the humans aboard, along with all of the non-human crew. Why? Because someone attacked the station’s very own symbiotic partner, setting off a chain of catastrophes, evolutions, and revelations that no one aboard is prepared to deal with.

Especially Mallory.

Escape Rating A-: This delightfully bonkers story combines a locked-room – or at least locked station – mystery with a fascinating premise and a species-diverse post-First Contact setting to create a puzzle that will drive its readers every single bit as panic-stricken as its protagonists.

The world of Station Eternity isn’t all that hard to fathom – from a certain point of view. The concept that someday – possibly even someday soon as in this story – beings from the galaxy at large will visit Earth. And most likely decide that we aren’t nearly as impressive as we think we are.

We don’t impress the rest of the galaxy because we’re so…singular. Isolated. Unable to form symbiotic bonds with other species, which those other species believe are required for higher development.

While humans – at least those of certain mindsets – see threats to our existence in what are most likely just threats to their own sense of self-importance and manifest destiny.

So what begins as a seemingly simple crash turns into a life-threatening crisis that places Mallory and her uncanny talent for solving murders at its center. And very nearly out its airlock.

What holds the story together is the way that everyone involved, including the non-humans, is linked to Mallory. In spite of her fear of becoming linked to much of anyone. The station has permitted her sanctuary, one species of insect-type aliens is studying human biology through her, several of the rock-type aliens are her friends, the camouflage-type aliens respect her ability to help solve problems, and the officious administrative-type (both human and alien) want her off the station.

Even what seems like a grab-bag of assorted humans aboard the shuttle are all connected to her – or connected to the other human-granted-sanctuary aboard, that AWOL soldier Xan. Who is also connected to Mallory – not just because of their time on the station but as a result of all the times they interacted on Earth.

It’s the connections to Mallory, those things she has avoided much of her life, that glue both the reader and Mallory into the story. Some of that holding together peeks back at how they all got there, and occasionally that peering into the past puts a bit of a hitch in the narrative – but that always manages to stutter back around.

So it’s bonkers. And weird. And fascinating. And a bit too on the nose at some points. It’s also perfect that in the end Mallory finally has the three things she’s been looking for. A purpose she can really sink her teeth into. A place where she can have friends and a real life for herself. Best of all, she finally has answers to all the puzzles of her life – and a way to move forward. With hope.

It’s not surprising that Station Eternity is the first book in a series. The premise of the uncanny detective on the alien station just seems perfect for continuing. And it will be, sometime next year.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to tide you over, I can recommend two recent books that are also wrapped around solving mysteries on spaceships or colonies which have put different but still fascinating spins of their own onto their SFnal mystery. So if you like the sound of Station Eternity, or are looking for more after you finish it, check out The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal and the upcoming To Each This World by Julie Czerneda. They are both excellent and will make the wait for the (so far untitled) next book in The Midsolar Murders series go just a little bit faster.

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace Robb

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace RobbA Fox in the Fold (Owen Archer #14) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Owen Archer #14
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Owen Archer suspects an old adversary is on his tail as he seeks to solve the mystery surrounding a dead body found on the road to York.
October, 1376. Owen Archer is summoned by sheriff Sir Ralph Hastings regarding a stripped and bloodied body discovered on the road north to York. Could it be connected to an attack on a carter and his labourers who were transporting stone destined for St Clement's Priory? The carter fled, but his men stayed to fight and are now missing. Is the victim one of them?
At first Owen believes the catalyst for murder and menace in York is the arrival of the political pariah William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. But he soon suspects that a formidable and skillful adversary from his past has arrived in the city, thrusting him and his family into grave danger, and his investigation becomes a race to uncover the truth before his old nemesis destroys all he holds dear.

My Review:

This latest entry in the Owen Archer series is wrapped around Archer’s past. The past when he was a captain of archers for the Duke of Lancaster and was betrayed by one of his own men. A betrayal which resulted in the loss of his left eye and set him on the path readers’ found him on in the first book in the series, The Apothecary Rose.

In other words, in a peculiar way Owen owes everything he has to this betrayal and the man who arranged it. Owen has succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams, becoming a respected officer and landowner, the confidant of kings and princes, with a beautiful and intelligent wife and several wonderful children by birth and adoption.

Owen has it all – just as it seemed he did, in an entirely different way back when he was still a soldier. And the same man who tried to take it all away – along with Owen’s life – back then has followed him to York to try again.

But this time Owen has hostages to fortune. It’s not just his own life on the line, but the lives of his wife, his children, his friends and his colleagues. He has a lot to live for, and a lot to fight for.

All he has to do is finally get the fox Reynard out of his fold of the city of York without losing anyone he holds dear along the way.

But the case is complicated – as nearly all of Owen’s cases are complicated – by the machinations of the high and mighty. Reynard may be acting on his own, determined to finally best the man he has both envied and hated for all these years.

Or he might be in the pay of someone determined to bring disaster on Owen and on the city of York for political reasons of their own. If Reynard has an influential patron, Owen’s case may be much, much harder to solve.

And possibly even more deadly, and with even more dire consequences than he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: Owen Archer is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas when this story opens, and he barks up more than a few of the wrong trees before he finally realizes that not just all of the cases that confront him are one but that the instigator of those cases is not at all who he thought it was.

And his confusion and split attention does lead to a bit of the same on the part of the reader until Owen finally manages to focus his one eye on the true threat to his city and to everyone that he holds dear.

What makes the Owen Archer series so fascinating, at least to this reader, is the way that the mysteries he faces touch on both the big and the small. By big, I mean the roiling politics of his time, and by small, I mean the everyday crimes that are the bread and butter of all mystery stories.

This particular mystery at first looks small, a dead cart driver and a missing load of building stones. At first, the biggest part of the mystery seems to be where the stones might have gone. How, exactly does one “fence” or whatever the medieval term might have been, a load of building stones?

But, as with so many of Owen’s cases, the simple opening leads to some dark and twisty alleys – in the streets of York, in Owen’s past, and in the political upheaval yet to come.

King Edward III is going to die in less than a year, after 50 years of ruling England. His Prince of Wales has predeceased him, and his country is going to be left in the hands of a child who will rule (badly) as Richard II. As the old king falters, the jockeying for position on a regency council has already begun – and friends and advisors of the dying Edward are in danger of losing their places and perhaps even their lives in the coming storm.

Owen believes that King Edward’s former Chancellor has brought bad luck to York when he arrives in the midst of what seems to be a pilgrimage of atonement. And he has, but not in the way that Owen thinks. But Owen saw the man as a ‘bird of ill omen’ in A Choir of Crows and is reluctant to change his mind – especially as death has followed in the man’s wake yet again.

Instead, someone from Owen’s past has taken advantage of the visit to strike Owen down one more time. But this fox operates in the shadows, and Owen doesn’t sense the true nature of the threat for almost too long.

So, as with other entries in the series, this mystery begins small but unfolds large – while forcing Owen to look back at who he was and who he is. It gives him the chance to understand that what he once thought would break him was the making of him after all.

One of the things that I love about this entry in the series is the way that it both reflects back on earlier books in the series, particularly the first book, The Apothecary Rose, and the more recent A Choir of Crows while also casting a reflection on events in its period that reflect the present. If historical mystery is your thing, and you haven’t yet walked the streets of Owen Archer’s medieval York, I highly recommend starting this series from the beginning with The Apothecary Rose.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, whenever it may appear, because I expect it to cover an event that we’ve just experienced – in pomp and circumstance but diluted actual impact. In our own time, the Queen is dead, long live the King. In Owen’s time, the King will be dead, and the realm will be in for one hell of a mess.

Review: Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle

Review: Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne CastleSweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, futuristic, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, science fiction romance
Series: Harmony #15
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Welcome to the world of Harmony, where--despite its name, things are anything but--danger lurks just beneath the surface in this new novel by New York Times bestselling author, Jayne Castle.
If there's something Ravenna Chastain knows, it's when to end things. And after she almost winds up the victim of a cult that believes she's a witch, it's easy to walk away from her dead-end career, ready for a new start. But where to find a job that would allow her to use her very specialized skill set? The answer is clear: she becomes a matchmaker.
But even a successful matchmaker can't find someone for everyone, and Ravenna considers Ethan Sweetwater her first professional failure. After nine failed dates, Ravenna knows it's time to cut Ethan loose. But Ethan refuses to be fired as a client--he needs one final date to a business function. Since Ravenna needs a date herself to a family event, they agree to a deal: she will be his (business) date if he will be her (fake) date to her grandparents' anniversary celebration.
What Ethan fails to mention is that attending the business function is a cover for some industrial espionage that he's doing as a favor to the new Illusion Town Guild boss. Ravenna is happy to help, but their relationship gets even more complicated when things heat up--the chemistry between them is explosive, as explosive as the danger that's stalking Ravenna. Lucky for her, Ethan isn't just an engineer--he's also a Sweetwater, and Sweetwaters are known for hunting down monsters...

My Review:

When I originally saw the title of this latest entry in the Harmony series, at first I thought it was going to be a Western – or at least a Weird West – kind of story. (The rhythm of the words in the title keeps taking me back to the movie McCabe & Mrs .Miller which was a sort of Western. I digress. Again. I know.) Harmony is absolutely wild enough and definitely weird enough to resemble the Weird West, but it’s a far-future lost colony world that presented some unique challenges to the first settlers and still does to their descendants even two centuries later.

The planet of Harmony – which doesn’t generally exhibit all that much harmony or we wouldn’t have this marvelous series – was settled by a group of human colonists that included members of the Arcane Society and their allies back on Earth. Who were people with psi powers as portrayed in the Victorian and contemporary set Arcane Society series and its offshoots, which were published under the author’s Amanda Quick and Jayne Ann Krentz pen names.

(If the setup sounds a bit familiar, it’s also the setup for the Celta series by Robin D. Owens, so if you like one you’ll like the other.)

By the time in Harmony’s history when this story takes place, Harmony has lost all contact with Earth, and the upheavals of that loss have settled back into a history that is still well-remembered but no longer as influential as it once was. Not that there aren’t some people looking to recreate the past glories of their ancestors. Even if those so-called glories are only in the minds of past – and present – psychopaths.

Which is what this entry in the series turns out to be about. Two people who think they can do their criminal predecessors one better, and two people who stand in their way. And eventually stand together to do it.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this entry in the series so much fun is the witty banter and slowly building romance between Ethan Sweetwater and Ravenna Chastain. She’s a police profiler turned matchmaker, and he’s the client she’s supposed to find a match for but it’s not working. At all. Which he refuses to acknowledge or let the project go for reasons that Ravenna doesn’t see but the reader probably does.

It’s only when Ethan helps her take out the trash – by which I mean the comatose body of her first stalker – that Ravenna gets the idea that there’s more to Ethan than initially appeared. Which is, of course, more than true.

He presented himself as a mild-mannered, kind of dorky engineer. And he is. But underneath that unassuming persona lurks a man who knows just who to call and how to dispose of a not-quite dead body. Ravenna is worried that he might be connected to the mob.

Ethan, on the other hand, knows that she’s his match. Lucky for him – in a twisted sort of way – the deadly adventures that keep finding them give them plenty of chances to bond into a relationship where they both know they’ll have each other’s backs through thick, thin, nightmares and flame-throwers.

All they have to do is convince each other it’s for keeps. And keep fighting to make sure that they will be a “keeps” to have.

That this turns out to be a delightful romance to go with the deadly danger has to do with the personalities of the three protagonists; Ethan, Ravenna, and Ravenna’s dust bunny Harriet. They make one hell of a team where each has a crucial part to play in taking down the villains and having a bit of fun along the way.

Dust bunnies excel at finding the fun in EVERYTHING!

One final note; there is obviously a long and storied history to Harmony but each book stands pretty much on its own. The necessary parts of the background history are always explained, while the occasional mention of a particular person or incident is more in the form of an “Easter Egg” that brings a smile if you know but lack of that knowledge does not detract from enjoyment of the book in hand. The romances are always self-contained to the individual book. That being said, the books in the series are a bit like potato chips in that you won’t want to read just one.

And I guarantee you’ll wish you had your own dust bunny to chortle at your side as you read!

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van PeltRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism, relationship fiction
Pages: 360
Published by Ecco on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A novel tracing a widow's unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.
Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.
Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

My Review:

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a story about higher numbered chances than merely second and the long tentacle of coincidence that helps them happen.

Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common. A man whose prime isn’t very prime, who seems to have thrown away all his chances. An aging woman who has lost both her husband and her son, living lonely but determinedly in the house her parents built. And a giant Pacific octopus eking out his final days in the tiny Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound.

But Marcellus the octopus, whose placard outside his tank lists him as a “remarkably bright creature”, is as clever as he is bright. He’s also an intelligent observer of human behavior and a bit of an escape artist. There isn’t much else to do, all alone in his tank.

So he occasionally squeezes himself out to graze on the sea cucumbers – or even hazard a trip to the staff break room when the smell of leftover Chinese takeaway is too tempting to resist.

Which is how Tova Sullivan finds him, outside of his tank, caught in a tangle of wires and electrical cords and about to suffer what Marcellus calls “The Consequences” of being out of a tank for more than 20 minutes. Which he can calculate.

Marcellus is, after all, a remarkably bright creature.

Tova rescues him from the tangle. Not only that, but she doesn’t report Marcellus nighttime excursions to the aquarium’s director. It’s their little secret and the beginning of their unlikely friendship.

A friendship that ultimately results in both of them achieving the dreams they never admitted that they held. Not even to themselves.

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Aquarium in Washington DC

Escape Rating A-: This book turned out to be WAY more charming than I expected. It was recommended by someone in my reading group so I was expecting a decent to good read, but this turned out to be just lovely.

This is kind of a quiet story, where things happen slowly and truths emerge over time. To the point where it borders on literary fiction a bit. But instead of being dark and gloomy where nothing happens and everyone argues a lot – which is how I tend to see litfic – the situations all start out a bit gloomy but everyone gets better. Even Marcellus.

At first you kind of wonder how Cameron’s story is going to link up to Tova’s and Marcellus’. And that coming together takes a while and goes off on a couple of tangents as it meanders along. But once it does, it all fits together beautifully.

What holds the story together – besides Marcellus’ tentacles – is Tova. Her son disappeared without a trace when he was just 18. Her husband has passed away. She’s alone – and yet she’s not. She has friends, she has a job, she makes sure she has purpose. And yet she also has concerns about what will happen to her when she can’t live on her own anymore.

Being Tova, she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she takes steps to determine her own future for her own self. In her situation I’d want to be her when I grew up. She’s a character to both admire and empathize with. To the point where we want her to get a better ending than it looks like she’s headed for when the story begins.

Cameron is not initially all that likable. He’s not bad, and he’s taken some seriously rough knocks, but he’s not good at taking responsibility for himself. And at 30 it’s past time he did. He arrives in Sowell Bay searching for his sperm donor in the hopes of a big financial score. He’s doomed to be disappointed – and it’s the making of him.

Marcellus – who is much more present as a character than one might think – is an absolute gem. At the same time, his intellectual presence in the story, his perspective on the events that he helps to bring about, is both fascinating and a bit equivocal. Anyone who wants to believe that all of the thoughts and actions ascribed to Marcellus are in the minds of Tova and Cameron – in the same way that we all believe we know what our pets are thinking when we most likely don’t – the story still works – and works well.

But it’s so much better if you let yourself believe that Marcellus is helping Tova and Cameron all along – and that they are helping him as well.

I enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures a whole lot more than I ever expected to. And in that way that when you are conscious of something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere – like getting a new car and being aware of all the cars of the same make and model sharing the road with you – I liked this so much that I started seeing books with octopi characters everywhere. In addition to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus from a few years ago there’s The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler coming out in October, and Sea Change by Gina Chung next year.

I’m going to hunt me down some more octopi to read about while I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next!