Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis

Review: Deadly Election by Lindsey DavisDeadly Election (Flavia Albia Mystery, #3) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #3
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the blazing July heat of imperial Rome, Flavia Albia inspects a decomposing corpse. It has been discovered in lots to be auctioned by her family business, so she's determined to identify the dead man and learn how he met his gruesome end.
The investigation will give her a chance to work with the magistrate, Manlius Faustus, the friend she sadly knows to be the last chaste man in Rome. But he's got other concerns than her anonymous corpse. It's election time and with democracy for sale at Domitian's court, tension has come to a head. Faustus is acting as an agent for a 'good husband and father', whose traditional family values are being called into question. Even more disreputable are his rivals, whom Faustus wants Albia to discredit.
As Albia's and Faustus' professional and personal partnership deepens they have to accept that, for others, obsession can turn sour, and become a deadly strain that leads, tragically, to murder.

My Review:

I want to start this with “Once upon a time” but I’m not sure whether that’s once upon a time, in 1989, the author published the first book in a historical mystery series featuring a hard-boiled rapscallion of a private inquiry agent named Marcus Didius Falco. The series ran for 20 books, until Falco passed the investigative torch to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. Deadly Election is the third book in her series, which is now at ten books and continuing.

It could be “once upon a time”, back when audiobooks were still on actual tape, I listened to that first book, The Silver Pigs, and picked up all the subsequent books I could get my hands on in any form.

At the time, the series was a bit like the bear dancing, in that you are not surprised it’s done well, you’re surprised it’s done AT ALL. But in the end, it was done and done very well indeed, in spite of the seeming implausibility of the protagonist.

Once you’ve read the fortunes and misfortunes of the father, it seems natural to continue the adventure with the daughter who brings her own version of wry intelligence mixed with utter cynicism to her own investigations – following in her father’s often self-indulgent footsteps.

Flavia Albia is a different kind of investigator altogether. Not that she doesn’t find herself in trouble as often as her father did. It’s just that many of the times Falco had to be broken out of jail it was his own fault due to some of that self-indulgence. When Flavia Albia gets into trouble it’s usually because she’s working too hard or following too closely in a case. The former at least was something her father was seldom accused of.

And if it seems like I’m meandering a bit or giving a lot of background, that’s actually kind of how both series work. Because there is generally a lot of background, all to the purpose of immersing the reader in the world inhabited by Flavia Albia and her frequently disreputable family – with her “dear old dad” as the head disreputable. Without his redoubtable wife, Helena Justina, he would never have managed to stay any course long enough to have enough to retire on – as he has.

But as we walk the streets of Imperial Rome with Flavia Albia, we are able to immerse ourselves in her world. It’s a fascinating view of a time and place long subsumed by history, made all the more absorbing because as much as many things are different, human beings don’t seem to have changed a bit.

For good and for ill. Considering Albia’s profession, she’s better off if a few more people are doing ill – as then they might need her services as an “informer” – otherwise known as a private inquiry agent or, as anachronistic as the term would be – private detective.

In Deadly Election, she has two cases to wrangle with. One comes to her through her friend – and possibly her eventual lover, Manlius Faustus. He’s already been elected to public office, but he’s now mentoring his childhood friend into the business. They’re using Albia’s services to investigate their rivals to see if some dirt can be found to foul up their campaigns – while trying to keep ahead of whatever dirt their opponents might dig up on them.

But the election has already turned deadly, as Albia’s other work, assisting with the family auction house, has turned up a dead body locked in a storage crate scheduled for auction. At first, Albia has no clue to the corpse’s identity, but as she investigates she discovers that the late lamented may not have had an enemy in the world, but he certainly had a relative in that race for public office.

It’s up to Albia to figure out who done it and why at a time and place where forensics were non-existence, women officially had no public role (unofficially was an entirely other matter) and where everyone is afraid to talk because the emperor’s agents are everywhere – looking for possible – or potential traitors.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what makes these series fun is that each book begins with what almost seems like a lot of extraneous information. Information that turns out not to have been extraneous at all by the time the story ends. But it does feel like an immersion process, that it takes time to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with Albia’s Rome as she experiences it.

And to get used to her first-person voice, because she’s an intelligent outsider who has learned to be whoever and whatever she needs to be to get the job done and get paid by her client. But behind her mask of professional politeness she’s wry and snarky and frequently wishes she could let loose with a cutting remark or ten – because so many of her clients deserve it. Her thoughts can feel very modern, just as her adopted father’s did, but it works surprisingly well.

As Flavia goes on with her business and takes us through her Rome, we start to feel the cobbles under our feet, the mud between our toes, and even smell the overwhelming decay of the liquefying corpse the auction house’s staff find locked in a chest.

At first we’re watching her, and then we’re with her, in a way that wouldn’t work nearly as well if the story didn’t circle around to the case the way it does.

A lot of this particular story is about family ties and nepotism in politics. (Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?) Also it takes place in the middle of a very long, very hot summer, and that seems familiar as well. Forensics are non-existent. She has to solve her cases by painstakingly asking questions of everyone involved and piecing together the parts of the answers that might be true.

It’s easy for both Albia and the reader to get lost in the cover ups and lies, and isn’t that just politics all over.

At the same time, Albia’s relationship with Faustus is driving her crazy. He seems to be the only man in Rome immune to her charms. He’s divorced, she’s a widow, there’s no reason they can’t embark on an affair. Except that they are not of the same class. How much social opprobrium he’s willing to endure is not something she’s willing to risk her heart on.

But this case throws them together at every turn. Which makes it a lot of fun for the reader to wonder whether they’re going to get together or even if they should, while Albia takes a hard look at all the candidates for office and all the murder suspects for that poor corpse and begins to think they might be one and the same.

The heart wants what the heart wants, the cases aren’t going to be easy to solve, and the emperor is insanely paranoid – adding a level of unpredictable danger to a situation that no one except Flavia Albia wants to cope with in the first place!

But it’s all a lot of fun for any reader, like this one, who loves historical mysteries set in unusual times and places. And for any reader who likes their protagonists to have an inner asshole voice that isn’t always as inner as it should be.

In other words, I had a ball with this book, even if Albia wasn’t always having one herself. I’ll be back sometime with the next book in the series, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, the next time I’m in the right mood, if only to see how Albia’s romance is – or isn’t – going!

Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips

Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary PhillipsOne-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 274
Published by Soho Crime on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Race and civil rights in 1963 Los Angeles provide a powerful backdrop in Gary Phillips’s riveting historical crime novel about an African American forensic photographer seeking justice for a friend—perfect for fans of Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and George Pelecanos.
LOS ANGELES, 1963: African American Korean War veteran Harry Ingram earns a living as a news photographer and occasional process server: chasing police radio calls and dodging baseball bats. With racial tensions running high on the eve of Martin Luther King’s Freedom Rally, Ingram risks becoming a victim at every crime scene he photographs.
When Ingram hears about a deadly automobile accident on his police scanner, he recognizes the vehicle described as belonging to his good friend and old army buddy, a white jazz trumpeter. The LAPD declares the car crash an accident, but when Ingram develops his photos, he sees signs of foul play. Ingram feels compelled to play detective, even if it means putting his own life on the line. Armed with his wits, his camera, and occasionally his Colt .45, “One-Shot” Harry plunges headfirst into the seamy underbelly of LA society, tangling with racists, leftists, gangsters, zealots, and lovers, all in the hope of finding something resembling justice for a friend.
Master storyteller and crime fiction legend Gary Phillips has filled the pages of One-Shot Harry with fascinating historical cameos, wise-cracks, tenderness, and an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a plot with consequences far beyond one dead body.

My Review:

One-Shot Harry is a fast-paced, noir-flavored, tautly written historical mystery set amid the turmoil of the summer of 1963 as Los Angeles was gearing up for Martin Luther King Jr.’s impending visit to the city.

Harry Ingram, a black Korean War vet who manages to keep his PTSD at bay by viewing life distanced through the lens of a camera, makes his living covering the crime beat for whoever will pay for his pictures – and occasional reporting – in LA’s black community. Which means that he mostly sells to the local black daily newspapers and the various magazines that served the community – back in a day when people still mostly got their news in print.

Between the pictures, and his side hustles as a process server and occasional fill-in member of one or more local jazz bands, Harry manages to pay the rent and not wonder too hard about where his next meal is coming from – but it’s a precarious living.

A livelihood that Harry puts at risk – along with his life – when an old army buddy returns to town, returns to the local jazz scene – and gets himself killed in an accident that might have been anything but.

Harry just can’t let it go. He and Leo had each other’s backs in Korea – in spite of the color line – and Harry feels like he has to have his old friend’s back one last time even if Leo isn’t around to see it. Because Leo isn’t around to see it.

Which gets Harry in way over his head – nearly six feet over his head. If the men hunting him even leave enough of him to get either identified or buried. Unless he gets them first.

Escape Rating A-: The description of the book doesn’t do this one justice. But it gives me a starting point to use to talk about the book and why it worked so well for me – especially after yesterday!

This is the kind of story that would have fit in extremely well with the male-centered, noirish thrillers that were very much in vogue in the 1960s when this story takes place. Series like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, among many others. But Harry’s story would have gone unpublished in his own time just as crimes against the black community would have been shoved under the carpet – hard – as Harry himself nearly is.

But what makes this story so compellingly readable is the combination of Harry’s character and the way that his pursuit of just a sliver of justice for his friend drives him forward. He’s every doggedly determined lone wolf blundering through an investigation that he’s not trained for, faces repeated roadblocks but just can’t let go. At the same time, his constant – and sometimes painfully reinforced – acknowledgement that the forces of law and order are arrayed against him because of his color, and that even if he’s technically right he’ll be judged wrong, feels real and true and unfortunately not all that historical at all.

The historical part of this mystery reads like it sits on the splintered crossroads between “the past is another country” and “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The institutionalized racism that Harry faces and has to work around is just as entrenched today as it was then – and all too frequently just as overt as well.

So the historical setting feels real and presents a clear and present danger, but what drives the story is Harry’s dogged determination. What makes it so compelling to follow, is that it isn’t just a cracking good mystery, it’s also well told and tightly edited in all the best ways to make the pace unrelenting.

(Upon reflection, part of what made yesterday’s book such a slog is that it sincerely needed someone to perform exactly this service. The bones of a good thriller were hidden under a lot of verbal flabbiness. I digress.)

The one thing keeping One-Shot Harry from being a sure shot at a full A grade is the ending. For a mystery to end satisfactorily, good needs to triumph and evil needs to get its just desserts. The perpetrator(s) need to be punished. Harry doesn’t exactly triumph at the end of this book – although from his perspective it could be said that his survival is triumph enough under the circumstances.

The men who committed his friend’s murder get exactly what they deserved. But it feels like punishing the puppets for what the hands up their asses did. They were tools, literally as well as figuratively. The owner of those hands walks away unscathed, because he’s white and rich and powerful and he has all the friends in high places to make sure nothing ever sticks to him. Harry doesn’t have a chance to bring him down and they both know it.

But there’s no catharsis for the reader in that acknowledgement or that ending. Very much on the other hand, that ending may not be satisfying but it is a whole hell of a lot more historically plausible. Harry really doesn’t have a chance to bring this bigwig down – at least not yet.

Harry’s “one-shot” at Mr. Big in this story doesn’t have to be his last. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger, but it isn’t closure either. It feels like Harry will be back and that this is just the start of what will hopefully be a long and eventually successful vendetta.

I certainly hope so because I can’t wait to read it.

Review: This Place of Wonder by Barbara O’Neal

Review: This Place of Wonder by Barbara O’NealThis Place of Wonder by Barbara O'Neal
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 316
Published by Lake Union Publishing on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the wake of a personal tragedy, four women face the past, their futures, and each other in a novel of broken ties and healing by the Amazon Charts bestselling author of When We Believed in Mermaids.
When famed chef Augustus Beauvais dies, he leaves behind a celebrated reputation―and four women grappling with loss, anger, pain, and the question of how the world will turn without him…
Meadow, the ex-wife with whom Augustus built an empire―and a family―still holds a place for him in her heart, even as she continues to struggle with his infidelities, which ended their twenty-year marriage. More unforgiving is Maya, his estranged daughter, who’s recently out of rehab but finally ready to reclaim her life. Norah, his latest girlfriend, sidelined her own career for unexpected love and a life of luxury, both of which are now gone with Augustus. And then there’s Rory, Meadow’s daughter, the voice of calm and reason in a chorus of discontent.
As Meadow, Maya, Norah, and Rory are flung together by tragedy, grief, and secrets yet to be revealed, they must accept―or turn away from―the legacy of great intentions and bad decisions Augustus left them. And when the circumstances around his death are called into question, their conflicted feelings become even more complicated. But moving forward is the only choice they have, and to do so, they’ll need to rely on family, friendship, and inner strength.
Set on the stunning, rugged California coastline, This Place of Wonder is an emotional, lush, and empowering story of four women finding their way in a changed world―and what a wondrous journey it will be.

My Review:

As wonderful as this story is, its protagonists are not exactly in a place of wonder as it opens. Unless that wonder is wondering WTF happens now that Augustus Beauvais is dead.

Not in the way that stories like this used to be written, with all of the late man’s “relicts” desperate to figure out how they are going to survive in the literal sense now that their financial support is gone. Thankfully, women’s stories don’t work that way anymore.

But Beauvais was a towering figure (literally as he was 6’4”) in the American culinary scene of the 1990s and early 2000s. And even though his best days may have been behind him, he was still a huge personality and an outsized influence on everyone whose life he touched.

Especially the four women he, in various ways, tried to save. Because he needed to be needed. And because he couldn’t save the one woman who mattered the most.

Meadow was the love of his life, something that was as true on the day he died as it was on the day he met her, even though they had been divorced for eight years because the two things he seems to have been incapable of being were faithful in marriage or alone either inside or outside of it.

Rory, the daughter he adopted and Maya, the daughter he abandoned. And last, but surprisingly not least in the end, Norah, the much, much younger woman he thought needed saving, but who, in the end, turned out to be strong enough to help his family save themselves.

In the aftermath of Beauvais death, in the midst of the suspicious questioning of police who are adding two plus two and reaching a number that might be getting a bit too close to four, Maya learns that the father she never forgave left her everything except one final opportunity to get him to accept the blame for so many things he did that were so very wrong. And Meadow accepts that just because she built a life more or less without him it doesn’t mean that she will ever be ready to let him go – no matter how much she needs to.

Escape Rating A-: Like several of the author’s previous books that I have enjoyed, When We Believed in Mermaids, The Art of Inheriting Secrets and Write My Name Across the Sky, This Place of Wonder is about a multi-generational group of women who share a tragedy in the past that has come crashing down in the present.

What links all four of these women, besides their obvious links to Augustus Beauvais, is that they all see – or at least saw – themselves as damaged. Or perhaps it’s that Beauvais saw them all that way and that’s how he drew them into his orbit – because he needed their damage to fix his own.

Only Meadow – and by extension Augustus, are old enough to even have a past – or at least one far enough in the past for it to be hidden. For good or for ill, Rory’s and Maya’s lives have been lived in the public eye – because of their relationships with August and Meadow.

Who isn’t actually Meadow at all. Or at least wasn’t, back in the days before the internet made all the salacious details of everyone’s life available at the press of a few keys.

Which is what Norah came to California to discover, once upon a not very long ago time, before she got caught up by Augustus’ magnetic pull. And with the loss of his overwhelming presence, its a search she picks back up again. Because Norah is a whole lot stronger, and a whole lot less damaged, than anyone thought.

The stories are on a collision course from the opening of the book. Augustus is dead, in the arms of yet another damaged young woman. His death was sudden, the tests are inconclusive and the stories told by the women in his life almost but not quite match up. At least not until the other half of the story is revealed, and Norah’s probe into Meadow’s past reveals exactly how the past connects to the present.

But for a lot of the book, that investigation is in the background. In the foreground is the way that this strange and damaged family stitches itself together and learns that the hole in their center is something that has always been there. That, in some ways, it’s easier to deal with now that they know it will never be filled. And that they have a way forward without it, and without him, both together and separately.

And it’s that part of the story that gives this its heart. In spite of where they came from. In spite of what was done to them – and in spite of what he did to them as well. That they are, each of them, the legacy of a flawed and fascinating man. And that they are all, together and separately, so much more than that.

And they always have been, even if they haven’t always been able to see it.

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Review: Remember Love by Mary Balogh

Review: Remember Love by Mary BaloghRemember Love (Ravenswood, #1) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Ravenswood #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The undisputed queen of Regency romance is back with a brand-new story perfect for fans of Bridgerton.
The handsome and charismatic Earl of Stratton, Caleb Ware, has been exposed to the ton for his clandestine affairs—by his own son.
As a child, Devlin Ware thought his family stood for all that was right and good in the world. They were kind, gracious, and shared the beauty of Ravenwood, their grand country estate, by hosting lavish parties for the entire countryside. But at twenty-two, he discovered his whole world was an elaborate illusion, and when Devlin publicly called his family to account for it, he was exiled as a traitor.
So be it. He enlisted in the fight against Napoleon and didn’t look back for six years. But now his father is dead, the Ware family is broken, and as the heir he is being called home. It’s only when Gwyneth Rhys—the woman he loved and then lost after his family banished him—holds out her hand to help him that he is able make the difficult journey and try to piece together his fractured family.
It is Gwyneth’s loyalty, patience, and love that he needs. But is Devlin’s war-hardened heart even capable of offering her love in return?

My Review:

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale and Caleb Ware, Earl of Stratton must have been bosom buddies. Possibly literally. Certainly they seem to have been cut from the same despicable cloth. Both were wealthy aristocrats who lived a lie and expected everyone around them to go along with that lie rather than face up to the uncomfortable truth.

Westcott hid his perfidy until after his death, which makes the shocking opening of the Westcott series, Someone to Love, all that much more upsetting. But at least Westcott didn’t require that others go along with his false front because he kept his secret very well hidden indeed.

Caleb Ware, very much on the other hand, needed admiration, approval and even applause from all those who surrounded him. He projected the image of a loving husband and father with a perfect family because he needed people to love him at every turn. Not that there weren’t plenty of men in his position who lived lives completely separate from the wives and families and didn’t care about the winks and nods that followed in their wake.

But Ware needed to have it all. A perfect family at his country home, and a mistress or two, or three, in London. When he brought his current mistress to his country estate and flaunted his affair in front of his friends and family he expected everyone to turn the same blind eye that they always had. And when one member of his family refused to turn that blind eye, and refused to sweep the entire tawdry incident under the rug for the sake of peace and not rocking the family boat – he likewise refused to take responsibility for his actions. And the rest of the family punished the young man who could not stand idly by after learning that his oh-so-perfect father, his hero, had feet of clay up to the knees – or perhaps a bit higher.

And that’s what kicks this story into a higher gear – that the expected pattern of the lives of not just the Earl and his heir are knocked off course – but that the entire family’s future is irrevocably altered over the course of one disastrous night.

The aftermath of which makes for a much more fascinating – and occasionally dangerous – life than anyone would have expected for the heir to an earldom – and for the woman he once expected to be his bride.

Escape Rating A-: The Ravenswood series is off to a heartbreaking but eventually heartwarming and redemptive start in this opening entry in the series. It has the potential for all the elements that made the Westcott series so fascinating, with Devlin Ware’s condemnation of his father’s behavior and his family’s complicity drastically altering ALL their lives.

What makes the initial break in the story such a huge change is that it encompasses both Devlin’s sharply learned lesson that his father is not worthy of being anyone’s hero, and that the rest of his family would rather keep lying to themselves and each other than try to fix what’s broken. That Caleb Ware is the one who behaved so very badly but Devlin Ware is the one who gets punished for it puts the hypocrisy of the whole mess on disgusting display.

But Caleb eventually does get his just desserts, while Devlin immediately gets a commission in the infantry. During the worst of the fighting of the bitter Napoleonic Wars. From one perspective, it’s the making of him, while in the other it represents the shattering of his heart into pieces so tiny that Devlin is no longer certain he even possesses such an organ.

The heartbreak for Devlin’s family is that the only way he can survive the hell of his war is to compartmentalize his feelings for his family and reject all contact with any of them – except for his father’s bastard son who is serving as his batman. It’s a cold, hard, bitter road that he walks – but he does survive it.

Only to return home after Napoleon’s surrender, two years after his father’s death, to do his duty yet again and pick up the reins of the earldom that he has inherited. He has done his best to cut his family out of his heart, but Devlin Ware is a man who has always done his duty – and taking up the mantle of the Earl of Stratton is his duty.

Once Devlin is back in the place he once called home, doing his best to fit himself into the place that is his duty, he tries to convince himself that it is out of duty alone and not the emotions he swears he’s no longer capable of feeling. He eventually learns that duty does not have to mean burden, and that if he allows himself to feel all the things that he locked away during his war, his peace can be filled with not just true peace, but also real love and belonging.

In the end I enjoyed Remember Love because it is a story where the life that’s supposed to happen gets pushed aside for a life that is harder and darker but in the end much more real, and that’s the same thing that made the Westcott series so fascinating. Young Devlin, before he left, was a bit of a prig. He meant well and generally did well but could really be a self-righteous young man. He’s much more interesting when he’s much less sure of things – as well as a whole lot more approachable and loveable.

Gwyneth Rhys, the heroine of this romance, doesn’t pine. She doesn’t wallow. But what she does is know herself, her strengths, her weaknesses and those situations up with which she will not put. She is not going to change to suit a man, but she does deal pragmatically with the life she has.

The character who turned out to be a complete surprise was Devlin’s mother, the Dowager Countess. The woman who did her best not to know about her husband’s frequent infidelities until he brought them to her very door. At first, she seems weak in that she didn’t protest her husband’s affairs and actually participated in her son’s banishment. It’s only when she acknowledges to Devlin that she did the best she could with the cards she was dealt because women were forced to lie all the time to survive. She lied to herself because that is what she and women like her were trained to do practically from the cradle.

It makes Devlin think. It makes the reader think. And it makes the reader wonder – or at least this reader wonder – whether or not all that much has really changed.

Remember Love is the first book in the Ravenswood series. Now that Devlin is back home and has found his own HEA, I wonder what will happen next in the slightly altered lives of his family and friends in the coming entries in the series. Hopefully we’ll see sometime next year!

Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen

Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa ArlenA Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, historical fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on July 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of Belle Epoque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, a woman determined to shatter the boundaries of the fashion world and support herself and her young daughter with her magnificent designs.
Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, fabric, and texture in ways few other people do. But is the world ready for her? A world dominated by men who would try to control her and use her art for their own gain?
After being deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is desperate to survive. She turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her courageous innovations in Belle Époque fashion to support her own little girl. Lucile knows it is an uphill battle, and a single woman is not supposed to succeed on her own, but she refuses to give up. She will claim her place in the fashion world; failure simply is not an option.
Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her career, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucile will live on as a trailblazing and fearless fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.

My Review:

In historical fiction it seems as if behind every successful woman there’s either a rotten first husband, a harridan of a mother, or both. In A Dress of Violet Taffeta, this fictionalized biography of groundbreaking British couturier Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, there’s both.

(Historically, we’re certain about the rotten first husband. She divorced him for multiple infidelities and her divorce was granted in 1895. Whether her mother was quite the harridan portrayed in this fictional account of her life is not so certain – but it makes for an even better story.)

What made Lucy special, and fascinating enough for her to be portrayed more than once in both fiction and biography, are the choices she made and the life that she led. She’s famous, not for who she married or who she knew – although she absolutely married better the second time around and certainly knew the rich and famous of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but because of what she did.

She had a dream, and she worked for decades to achieve it. And succeed – which she certainly did. To support herself, her daughter, and her widowed mother (see harridan above) Lucy took her talent for not just dressmaking but dress designing and turned it into a worldwide brand of haute couture at a time when all the famous fashion houses were headed by men.

Lucile dress designed by Lucy Duff-Gordon

Her company, her brand, Lucile, Ltd, was an innovator both as a business and as a design studio, inventing trends that became the foundation of the modern fashion industry. She was the first to train models and use shows to display her creations. And that was only one of her “firsts”.

She was a pioneer and a trailblazer in a world that may have been changing but still expected women like her to sit and look pretty. She chose to make a life, a business and a career out of making other women look pretty instead.

In some ways, her story is a “rags to riches” tale. Lucy pulled herself up – and as many women as she could take with her – by her own shoebuttons if not bootstraps – going from wondering whether she could pay the rent and feed her family to opening shops in Paris and New York in addition to her signature London shop and studio.

But that wealth and fame bought her – along with her second husband, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, a first-class cabin on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Both Lucy and Cosmo survived their harrowing ordeal – only for them to lose their reputations in the relentless search for scapegoats in the aftermath.

Whatever the ratio of facts to conjecture in this particular fictionalized biography, the life of Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon makes for a fascinating read.

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon

Escape Rating A-: Lucy Duff-Gordon led a great big huge storied life. Hers would have been a larger-than-life story even without the misadventure of the Titanic. With it, she becomes an English version of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”, another famous female entrepreneur – albeit American – who survived that disaster. (And they did meet afterwards!)

Lucy’s story as written here is utterly compelling. She starts with nothing but a dream and the barebones of a plan. With a bit of help from her sister (who also became famous as the novelist Elinor Glyn and creator of the concept of the “It girl”) Lucy turned that dream into, a somewhat more realistic plan that was going to take all of her time, effort and attention for years to turn into a success. Which she eventually did.

This was the part of the story I loved best, where Lucy is working flat-out all the hours of the day and entirely too many of the hours of the night to turn her dream into something that will keep them all afloat. This was also the part of the story where the second perspective, that of Celia Franklin, her once scullery maid turned right hand woman was best presented alongside Lucy’s own. We see what Lucy is thinking and feeling but also get a glimpse into what an opportunity it was and how many opportunities it, in turn, provided to others.

(Celia was not a real historical person, but rather a combination of two separate people. Her perspective on Lucy sheds a lot of light, but certainly made me wonder how much of that perspective was fabricated rather than based on history. Lucy’s insistence on bringing other women up in her studio by providing them with good jobs at decent wages under excellent working conditions reads well in 21st century terms but may or may not reflect her actual views. I wish we knew.)

But as much as I loved the part about building her business, once it was built the story shifted to her second marriage (a bit, as much as Lucy seems to have) and to her higher and higher rise into the upper echelons of society – at least in New York City. The parts about the business are a case of the journey being more interesting than the destination, but if her relationship with Cosmo was meant to portray a grand romance I’ll admit that I wasn’t feeling it.

Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t an excellent choice for Lucy. As her husband, he could have forced her back into the kind of life that women were expected to have. Instead, he was as much of an iconoclast as she was and they were a good match. I bought that their marriage was successful but not the romance of it. And that may have been an accurate impression after all.

There are things in Lucy’s life that are either left out or elided over, and the biggest of these was in the manner and timing of its ending. The aftermath of the Titanic disaster was disastrous in an entirely different way for Cosmo Duff-Gordon. He was one of the scapegoats of the inquiries and his reputation was ruined in the press. While he was eventually exonerated, the public and the press never forgot, and the loss of his reputation cast a pall over his remaining years. That the author chose to end Lucy’s story on a note of recovery made sense fictionally – we want stories to end happily, after all – but probably didn’t reflect the reality of the rest of their lives.

I’ve written a LOT about this particular book. Obviously I was caught up in it and it gave me a lot to think about. Also, there always seem to be two issues in historical fiction that is based this closely on real history. One is the question of how it reads, while the other is the question about how much it does or does not match the historical facts that are known.

In the case of A Dress of Violet Taffeta, it reads very well indeed. And most of the variations from history make sense in the course of the story’s narrative, even though they niggle a bit as the amateur historian in this reader. All in all, a compelling read about a woman whose achievements made her larger-than-life.

Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de BodardOf Charms, Ghosts and Grievances (Dragons and Blades #2) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Series: Dragons and Blades #2, Dominion of the Fallen #3.6
Pages: 110
on June 28th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

From the author of the critically acclaimed Dominion of the Fallen trilogy comes a sparkling new romantic adventure full of kissing, sarcasm and stabbing.

It was supposed to be a holiday, with nothing more challenging than babysitting, navigating familial politics and arguing about the proper way to brew tea.

But when dragon prince Thuan and his ruthless husband Asmodeus find a corpse in a ruined shrine and a hungry ghost who is the only witness to the crime, their holiday goes from restful to high-pressure. Someone is trying to silence the ghost and everyone involved. Asmodeus wants revenge for the murder; Thuan would like everyone, including Asmodeus, to stay alive.

Chased by bloodthirsty paper charms and struggling to protect their family, Thuan and Asmodeus are going to need all the allies they can—and, as the cracks in their relationship widen, they'll have to face the scariest challenge of all: how to bring together their two vastly different ideas of their future...

A heartwarming standalone book set in a world of dark intrigue.

My Review:

I still need to read the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, of which the Dragons and Blades series is an offshoot. But I really enjoyed the first Dragons and Blades book, Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, so this followup has been whispering my name for a month now and I decided to listen to that whisper.

Little did I know that it was the whisper of blades dragging across silk and piercing the hearts of everything they touched.

This charming little story starts out as a bit of a family tale. A dragon prince and his fallen angel spouse take their adopted children on a bit of a picnic. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to quell the restlessness that both the children and the fallen angel are all too frequently subject to.

It’s supposed to keep the children from wrecking any further destruction on the dragon palace that is destroying itself with rot and mold entirely too quickly as it is.

It’s supposed to keep the fallen angel from threatening, maiming or killing any of his husband’s imperial relatives. Or anyone else who might or might not deserve it.

It’s not supposed to turn into a ghost story. But then, Asmodeus the fallen angel isn’t supposed to adopt a ghost child, either.

The dragon prince Thuan sees a hungry ghost who might (most probably, will beyond a shadow of a doubt) either kill his husband or get his husband killed or both. Not that it will matter after the fact either way.

Asmodeus sees a child who died terribly and alone for reasons that should never have happened in the first place. The ghost child starved to death in an empire that is supposed to at least feed all of its people.

But when it comes to Thuan and Asmodeus, not even a ghost story is simply about a ghost. Because Asmodeus sees a child who witnessed a murder, even if that murder happened after the child became a ghost. And Asmodeus can’t let either the murder or the ghost child go.

Not even if he has to tether the ghost child to his own life. Not even if his husband is scared to death that the ghost child is either going to kill him or get him killed before any of them can figure out the mystery that started it all.

Escape Rating A-: As I said I still haven’t read Dominion of the Fallen, so I know I’m missing some stuff, but after Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders I figured I had enough background to be going on with. Not that I wouldn’t love more – because I always love more backstory – but this read like it followed directly from Of Dragons and that the original trilogy was a bit more distant both in time and place.

Or I was just looking forward to this and didn’t care about the backstory for a change.

One of the bits that fascinates me about this subseries is the setting. The imperial court that dragon prince Thuan came from is underwater and his people all seem to be shapeshifters – or shapeshifter-ish. Thuan is a dragon who appears human – except for the horns. That’s Thuan on the cover of Of Charms, which makes me even more certain that it’s Asmodeus on the cover of Of Dragons – even though Asmodeus is not the dragon of the pair.

I’m wandering because this story does so much in its rather short length.

What I started with was the underwater nature of the dragon’s imperial capital. One of the pervasive elements of the capital is that everything is rotting. Water, even water kept back by powerful magic, still manages to do the damage that water naturally does all the time and everywhere. It’s constantly somewhat damp and damp causes mold and rot and rotting things eventually disintegrate.

But the story of the ghost and the murder and the reasons why those things happened are also about rot. The child should not have died of starvation. The shrine where the child became that ghost and witnessed the murder is a shrine that should never have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. The worship that was supposed to occur at the shrine should not have fallen into dust and rumor. It’s all rot.

And the story here is about something rotten, and it’s not really about the ghost. It’s about the murder and the reasons for it. The resolution of that part of the story was all the more chilling because underneath all of the fantasy setting and characters, the reasons for the murder were all too human, much too possible, and entirely too familiar – not from fantasy but from real life and real tragedy and unfortunately, dammit, the real news.

Just as the motives for murder and even god-killing (would that be “deicide” or deity-cide?) were entirely familiar, the heart of the conflict that arises between Thuan and Asmodeus, feels equally familiar. What shakes their marriage is fear of losing each other’s respect, regard and affection. Some of the reasons it occurs may be fantasy, but the emotions at the heart of the story, and in their hearts, felt equally real.

A slice of life story that seems like it’s going to be eaten by a hungry ghost, but in the end is almost consumed by someone entirely human and all the more dangerous for that.

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat RamboYou Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Farscape meets The Great British Bake Off in this fantastic space opera You Sexy Thing from former SFWA President, Cat Rambo.
Just when they thought they were out...
TwiceFar station is at the edge of the known universe, and that's just how Niko Larson, former Admiral in the Grand Military of the Hive Mind, likes it.
Retired and finally free of the continual war of conquest, Niko and the remnants of her former unit are content to spend the rest of their days working at the restaurant they built together, The Last Chance.
But, some wars can't ever be escaped, and unlike the Hive Mind, some enemies aren't content to let old soldiers go. Niko and her crew are forced onto a sentient ship convinced that it is being stolen and must survive the machinations of a sadistic pirate king if they even hope to keep the dream of The Last Chance alive.

My Review:

This one gave me an earworm. And as a song from just two years later proclaimed, “It’s my own damn fault.” (I’m also experiencing one of those terrible moments when it slaps you upside the head that the 1970s weren’t 20 or 30 years ago but 40 going on 50 years ago.)

“I believe in miracles” is the first line from a 1975 hit by the British band Hot Chocolate. The title of the song is, you guessed it, “You Sexy Thing”. In this particular story, it’s also the name of a self-aware, sentient, sapient bioship.

A ship that thinks it’s being stolen because of that “I believe in miracles” password, given to retired Admiral Niko Larson by the ship’s once-and-future owner. A man who will hopefully be a bit less of a douchecanoe in his next incarnation.

No, he’s not King Arthur, or any kind of hero whatsoever. He’s just a rich, self-indulgent asshat who has paid for the kind of quasi immortality you can buy in an SFnal universe where cloning and downloading one’s consciousness is a thing. Not a sexy thing, but an expensive thing. The kind of thing that is very do-able with enough money.

Niko and her crew are on the run. Not because they’re criminals, but because TwiceFar Station, where they have been operating The Last Chance Restaurant since they managed to leave the military service of the Holy Hive Mind, has just been destroyed as collateral damage in the neverending game played by a race called the Arranti.

It’s what the Arranti do. And it has set Niko’s plans back by years if not decades as the crew scrambles to grab what they can and get off the station while they can. Along with everyone else who isn’t dead yet.

Once aboard the Thing, things start happening. Or rather, things are revealed. The ship is taking them to a prison planet, where their stories will be officially judged. They’re not actually worried, because they’re telling the truth about how they acquired the ship. Not that they don’t have plenty of secrets – just that THAT isn’t one of them.

But there are plenty of secrets aboard just the same. Secrets that are about to bite Niko and her crew in the ass. Because the hijacked ship is being hijacked again, this time for real. And it’s taking Niko and her crew back to the site of her greatest failure, in the domain of her greatest enemy.

A man with a long reach, and an obsessive desire to make Niko pay for even attempting to “steal” something that he had declared was his. Even if he had to twist it beyond almost all recognition to make it so.

Escape Rating A-: There are two stories aboard the Thing. One is an adrenaline-inducing tale of torture and death with little chance of escape, and the other is a sort of Great British Bake Off in space where everyone aboard has the opportunity to learn to cook – including the ship! – while they all figure out who they want to be – and who they want to be with – when they “grow up”.

Not that they are not all adults – more or less – but as a group of people who have spent most of their adult lives either in military service or on the run or both there haven’t been many opportunities for any of them to figure out what they want in life when they’re not either chasing an impossible goal or running from an enemy.

Or both, all too frequently, both.

The heartwarming parts of this story, the bits about figuring out their places in the universe and with each other, are lovely and sweet and a whole lot of fun. One of the best parts is the way that they all treat the ship as another member of their crew and the Thing gets to experience quite a bit of self-actualization along with everyone else. The ship’s perspectives on events – including their thoughts about their own journey, are terrific. I could have been immersed in those parts of the story forever.

The other part of the narrative is what happens after their arrival in the den of that sadistic pirate. The circumstances were obviously terrible. The reason for all that terribleness was even more terrible. What happens there is yet more terrible again.

The danger there is ramped up to 11 and the torment of envisioning how much worse it’s going to get is even, well, worse. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as the parts of the story about all of them cooking together is heartwarming.

I have to say that something about the villainy of the villain didn’t quite work for me. Not in the sense that I didn’t feel their danger, not even in the sense that I didn’t get his motivations – or not exactly. After all, even villains believe that they are the heroes of their own stories.

He just didn’t feel like a person. He was more of a cartoon villain, a supervillain who was consumed with his revenge obsession. He tipped over the top of the villain scale into bwahaha territory. It’s not that he wasn’t a real threat – because he most definitely was – but that he didn’t feel like a real character.

The ship read as more of a real character than the villain did. Also as more of a real character than the ship Moya does in Farscape, I think because we hear the Thing’s comments directly and not through an interpreter.

In the end, as much as the two parts of this story didn’t quite gel, I did enjoy reading about Niko and her crew and I’m terribly curious about what happens next as they jump out of the frying pan and into the fire yet again. So I’ll be back next summer when their (mis)adventures continue in Devil’s Gun. I have a feeling that’s just what they’re going to find – and that it will probably be aimed straight at them.

Review: Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

Review: Road of Bones by Christopher GoldenRoad of Bones by Christopher Golden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Pages: 240
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin's gulag.
Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.
Felix Teigland, or "Teig," is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he's stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.
A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

My Review:

The “Road of Bones” really does exist, and it really does go through some of the coldest places on Earth. And there really are bones buried under the road – the remains of the slave laborers and political prisoners who were forced to work on the road and in the mines and other extractive industries that it traveled between.

The history of this road is filled with tragedy. Whether it also harbors spirits like the ones that haunt this story – it probably depends on what you believe about ghosts, myths, legends and the supernatural.

With the knowledge that whether or not you believe in them, they still might believe in you. Or at least, might believe in killing you.

Or, more to the point that begins this story, there are plenty of people around the world who want to believe – or at least want to be titillated by the supernatural. And there are even more people who want to watch intrepid explorers venture into dangerous occupations and places from the comfort of their own cozy living rooms.

Felix Teigland produces just those kinds of “reality” TV shows – and he needs a hit to keep his company from going under. He’s decided that a TV series following the travels of a couple of intrepid explorers along the haunted and ice-bound “Road of Bones” has the potential of combining the deadly driving conditions of Ice Road Truckers with the spooky chills of Ghost Hunters into a megahit.

And Teig is all about selling the potential of things. He’s good at it – even if he’s not always good at bringing his ideas fully to profitable fruition. He always means well and he always plans to pay back all the people who believe in him.

Which is what brings his cameraman Jack Prentiss along on this journey. Jack says he’s just protecting his investment – meaning he’s watching out for Teig in the interests of getting back all the money he’s lent the man over the years.

But they are also pretty much each other’s only friend – so who else would either of them take on what will be, at best, a five day trek through a frozen hellscape that will kill them if anything happens to their vehicle or themselves.

They hoped for a great story. They expected long, dark nights and killing cold. What they found was the embodiment of the dark heart of the frozen land following behind them and picking them off – one by one in a reign of blood and terror.

And a saint blessing the dead but who had no power to save the living.

Escape Rating A-: I was willing to take this chilling drive into horror because of the author. Christopher Golden, along with Tim Lebbon, wrote one of the most haunting post-Katrina New Orleans stories to ever ride that slippery line between fantasy, history, myth and horror in The Map of Moments. I loved that book. So every once in a while I dip back into something else by either of its authors in the hopes of hitting that ‘just right’ level of chill.

Road of Bones hit that spot in a different way than I expected, but very definitely hit it. At first it reminded me of the more chilling Alaska stories that I’ve read. Fairbanks doesn’t get quite as cold as the place that Teig and Prentiss travel through, but it gets entirely too damn close – with even longer nights.

But the real chill in Road of Bones is what Teig and Prentiss experience as the darkest parts of the history of the place come to life all around them – with deadly consequences. An ancient myth, a battle between good and evil, rises up and gathers them into its grip. A myth that does not seem to care about humanity at all.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anne Bishop’s World of the Others, in that primal forces much vaster and wilder than anything humans could ever imagine are what is really in control of this world and everything in it.

All the spirits know on this Road of Bones is that something has awoken a malevolent spirit and it is their sacred duty to imprison it again – no matter who or what stands in their way. Because they are off and running.

At first, those ancient spirits of the land seem evil – at least from the perspective of the humans attempting to outrun them. All that the Teig and Prentiss initially understand is that the spirits are transforming every person they find into either a shadowy wolf or a reindeer with a rack of deadly antlers and relentlessly hunting them down.

It’s only at the end when they have a glimmer of understanding. And when it finally comes, it chills the reader to the bone.

This still isn’t my usual cup of reading tea – although I certainly needed a hot cup of something as I read it. I like to sidle up to horror rather than approaching it head on, and between the Alaska vibes, the history and the dark fantasy-type myths coming to life I was just about able to get there. I still wouldn’t want to read it alone or in a dark room – or too late at night. But I would recommend it to anyone who likes to get their chills from stories where something supernatural is very definitely out to get us.

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearA Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #17
Pages: 358
Published by Harper on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear's beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire--the fastest fighter aircraft in the world--to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing.
Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo's plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Meanwhile, Maisie's husband, a high-ranking political attach� based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There's already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.
To guarantee the safety of the First Lady--and of the soldier being held in police custody--Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own.

My Review:

I love the Maisie Dobbs series, so I had been saving this book for a time when I needed a reading treat. As yesterday was Memorial Day, I was looking for a book about war and what comes after. Considering the origins of Memorial Day, I probably should have been looking for a book set during the U.S. Civil War, but I remembered I’d been saving this one and today seemed like a perfect time. So here we are.

Part of what makes this series so compelling is the way that Maisie Dobbs as an investigator turns some of the mystery conventions on their pointy little heads. A lot of fictional detectives don’t believe in coincidence, so when there are multiple crimes it usually turns out that there’s a single cause or perpetrator at their roots.

Maisie, as trained by the late and often lamented Maurice Blanche, sees coincidences as guideposts – not necessarily to the crime she’s investigating, but to something in her own life that needs looking into. Which means that in addition to the usual questioning of witnesses and suspects, Maisie is quite often questioning herself. Not that she doubts herself, but that she’s always looking for the lesson that the universe is trying to teach her.

The cases and incidents that she undertakes to resolve in A Sunlit Weapon have huge, potentially world-shattering consequences. They will also change the life of one little girl. And all the aspects of that tangled investigation are wrapped around war. Not just this war, but also the one before. And not just the fighting, but the grief that inevitably follows in its wake.

Maisie begins with one case. A young aviatrix, a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary tasked with repositioning planes from one airbase to another, is nearly shot down over Kent by someone on the ground. When Jo Hardy goes back to check out the scene on the ground, she finds, not the shooter, but Mattias Crittenden, a young black American soldier bound and gagged in a deserted barn. She is determined to make sure that the black GI gets justice and not a lynching, so she turns to Maisie for help.

Maisie also has a much more personal case of her own. Her adopted daughter Anna is being bullied at school because Anna is slightly darker skinned than the typical “English Rose” complexion. The children at her school have suddenly started harassing her and referring to her as an enemy Italian, when in fact she’s English. (Her father was a Maltese sailor. Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.)

What has Maisie perplexed is that Anna was happy in school and eager to learn – up until the past few weeks. Something at the school has changed – and not for the better.

These two “cases” shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Or to the third case that falls into Maisie’s lap. Her new husband, Mark Scott, is an American attached to the U.S. Embassy. His current task is to handle security for Eleanor Roosevelt’s imminent visit to Britain. Scott has learned that there are plans to assassinate the First Lady while she’s in Britain.

Maisie’s search of the barn where Private Crittenden was discovered turned up two items. The dog tags of Crittenden’s friend Private Stone, who is missing – and coded plans that reference the First Lady’s codename while she’s traveling.

Somehow, Jo Hardy’s mysterious ground shooter and the plot to assassinate Mrs. Roosevelt are linked – even if Maisie doesn’t yet know how. And all of it, along with the mystery at little Anna’s school, may not all be part of the same series of crimes, but are all part of the same thing – the terrible consequences of war.

Escape Rating A-: We’ve followed Maisie from her childhood apprenticeship with Maurice Blanche through her nursing service in WW1, through her grief at the loss of her fiancé, her eventual wedding and subsequent tragic widowhood, her recovery and now her second marriage to the American Mark Scott who she met in a previous book in this series, The American Agent. What we haven’t seen until now is Maisie as a married woman, as the period in her life when she was married happened between Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Dangerous Place. So for those of us who have followed Maisie through her career, this is the first time we’ve seen her in the position where she’s going to have to negotiate how to balance her work life and personal life in a way that she hasn’t had to before.

Because being an investigator is very much core to who Maisie is as a person. It wasn’t easy giving it up to marry the first time around, but she was younger and less well established. At this point in her life she knows she can’t give up being who she is to become a traditional wife and mother – something that the Headmistress of her daughter’s school throws in her face in their first confrontation.

At the same time, a part of the undercurrent of this story is that Maisie’s job is dangerous, and that no matter what she promises she’s not going to stop doing it. And that her new husband hates the danger she throws herself into – even though that kind of danger is the reason they met in the first place.

But the case, or rather cases, that Maisie looks into exemplify the way that Maisie works. She pulls on one thread because it’s part of her initial remit from her client. The more she pulls, the more she investigates, the more complicated and interwoven the threads seem to be – until they send out branches and tentacles into people and places she never thought they’d go.

It’s not a quick process, so Maisie’s stories aren’t page-turners in a thriller sense. And yet they’re compelling because Maisie makes them so. She’s intelligent and complicated, and the way she works through her cases is the same – no matter where they lead her.

In this case they lead her from a black GI accused of killing his white friend even though no corpse has been found. It’s all too clear that this is a rush to judgment or that he’s a convenient scapegoat because of the color of his skin. There is no part of the way that the US military treats its black soldiers, particularly in the persons of its MPs, that does not grate – not just on 21st century readers but on the British public at large at the time. Because racial segregation doesn’t make sense and that’s all too easy to see through the eyes of people who don’t employ it. (That’s not to say that Britain didn’t and doesn’t have plenty of its own problems in regards to class separation, elitism, etc., just that it didn’t run that way at the time.)

But in doing her best to ensure that Pvt. Crittenden isn’t rushed to a hangman’s noose or the electric chair for the murder of a man who might not even be dead Maisie opens up more cans of worms. As she does.

And in the middle of investigating how Crittenden got to be in that barn – no matter how many roadblocks, literal and figurative, get thrown in her way – Maisie links the barn to the shooting, the shooting to a damaged young man, and the young man all the way back to the Headmistress of her daughter’s school. Not because they have the same beliefs or commit any of the same actions, but because they were all, every single one, damaged by the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

Not because it didn’t, but because war is hell – both for the ones who fight it and the ones who wait behind.

I am already looking forward to Maisie’s next adventure, and not just because I’m wondering how hard (or if) she’s going to have to hit her husband with a clue-by-four to get it through his head that she’s never going to turn away from doing the right thing no matter how dangerous it might be. As this book took place in the autumn of 1943, I expect the next book to cover some of 1944. If Maisie ends up being involved in the planning of or the misdirection wrapped around D-Day I will not be at all surprised. Riveted, but not surprised. And I can’t wait to read it!

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnonNever Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

First comes love. Then comes murder. Lucas Forester didn't hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits and that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably, wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.
For years, Lucas had been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involved taking a hit out on her.
Every track was covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.
Someone is onto him. And they’re closing in.
Told with dark wit and a sharply feminist sensibility, Never Coming Home is a terrifying tale of duplicity that will have you side-eyeing your spouse as you dash to the breathtaking end.

My Review:

Lucas Forester probably wasn’t the only person to have more than a few idle thoughts about killing their spouse during the long months of COVID induced lockdowns. He probably wasn’t even the only one to come up with more than a few not-so-hypothetical scenarios to accomplish it. Hopefully there weren’t too many that actually contracted to get the job done once things went back to normal.

Then again, part of Lucas’ normal was that he didn’t like his wife all that much. He married her for her money, and has been playing a long game since the day they met, successfully pretending to be a loving, doting spouse. He’d planned to divorce her and take her to the cleaners in the settlement. It’s not his fault she made him sign an iron-clad prenup, leaving her demise as his only option to collect all the money she was just throwing away anyway.

Lucas thought that he had tied up all the loose ends. He used the darkweb not just to find a contract killer but even to vet the qualifications of the contractor he found. He paid in cryptocurrency. He only used burner phones for the rare contacts. He made sure to have an ironclad alibi for when the hit took place. It was his brilliant idea to make the whole thing look like kidnapping for ransom, because his wife’s family had plenty of money for ransom.

It was supposed to be a flawless performance. A perfect murder. All he had to do was wait until someone else – the police, her mother, the insurance company – declared her dead. He was prepared to play the long game of being the grieving almost-widower for as long as it would take.

Then it all started falling apart – and so did he.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this story surprisingly compelling is that we see it from inside Lucas’ head – which is an honestly funny place to be. Because Lucas is right, there is a little bit of evil in all of us. So as we follow along with him as his plans come apart around his ears, we’re a bit him and we do kind of feel for him as well as with him.

Because he did have a pretty hard-knock life that he’s done his best to leave behind. Unfortunately the way that he’s left it behind is by hiding his true origins and conning pretty much the entire world.

(The idea of being inside the head of the murderer can be squicky, but Lucas isn’t insane and isn’t a serial killer. He’s not interested in blood and gore for their own sake and doesn’t dwell on them at all even in the privacy of his own head. Lucas is all about getting the job done. If it weren’t for the fact that the job that needs doing – at least from his perspective – is murder he’d be an interesting guy to be around. And he’s got such a snarky and wry perspective on life that his observations often ring true.)

It helps a lot that he’s intelligent and brutally honest inside his own skull. His running commentary about everything he does and everyone he interacts with along the way generates a TON of rueful chuckles. His wife was a bit of a Karen. She was an over privileged trust-fund baby who never grew up and never even saw the people she stepped on and over along her self-indulgent way.

And he really, really loves his dog.

This is not the story of Lucas’ original plan to have his wife murdered. When we first meet Lucas that event is already in the past. Instead, this is a story about Lucas’ chickens all coming home to roost. Not just about the bad karma from his recent actions, but going all the way back to all the bad eggs that Lucas has hatched over his entire, never above board life.

At the beginning, it really, really looks like Lucas is going to get away with it all. And he’s pretty proud of himself about it. As the story gets going, we start to get an inkling that maybe it isn’t going to go his way after all, but we’re not sure why or how it’s going to fall apart. Or even how we feel about it because we do feel for him a bit more than might be comfortable.

And his story gets even more compelling as we watch him crash and burn. We’re even with him as he figures out just how he got done in.

As the old saying goes, those best laid plans of mice and men often going astray – and Lucas’ plans certainly have. That saying makes absolutely no mention of the best laid plans of women – and maybe that’s something Lucas should have thought of before he ever got the idea to murder his wife.