Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina BocciA Vineyard Valenting by Nina Bocci
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Published by Audible Studios on February 4th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

An unforgettable night of romance awaits in this funny, charming novella by USA Today best-selling author Nina Bocci!

The annual Valentine’s Day singles soiree is always a big money-maker for Eloisa Giordono’s winery. What could be more romantic than looking for love at a quaint family vineyard on the most romantic night of year? Well, just about anything as far as Eloisa is concerned. She’s a Valentine’s Day Grinch who thinks it’s the lamest, most clichéd holiday ever invented.

Fortunately, she’ll get to hang out with like-minded folks this year by hosting an Anti-Valentine’s Day party on the same night. She’ll just need to alternate between events to keep them both running and she’ll be raking in the profits. But Eloisa is thrown for a loop when a sexy, self-described hopeless romantic shows up at the singles soiree and keeps her captivated. Will he change her mind about the holiday...and about love?

My Review:

If you’ve soured on love, or romance, or simply the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, you’d probably fit right in with winery owner Eloisa Giordono’s Anti-Valentine’s Day shindig – complete with black roses, dead cupids and a much more murdery and depressing vibe than she originally intended.

As a self-proclaimed Valentine’s Day Grinch, Elo was hoping to create an alternative celebration of the holiday of all-things-love for the happily single crowd. A place to celebrate friendship, acknowledge that loving yourself can be enough, and simply a place for those who aren’t ready to jump back into the dating pool to find some like-minded people for a fun evening.

Elo’s anti-love bash – or her bash against love, take your pick – is competing with her vineyard’s annual – and more traditional – Valentine’s Day event, Love at the Vineyard, which may sound hokey and cliché but works. Especially with the planning genius of the vineyard’s PR director – and Elo’s best friend – Mac.

Speaking of planning and genius, the genius plan is for Mac to handle the traditional event while Elo hosts the bashing Valentine’s bash. It’s all going SO WELL – until Mac makes the tired and hangry mistake of eating some leftover Seafood Alfredo that is way, way, way past its “safe to eat” date.

Food poisoning ensues, and the best laid plans of mice, women and vineyard owners go very much “gang aft agley” as Mac wakes up on the day of the dueling events with a desperate need to spend the day – and probably the night – worshipping at the porcelain altar to really bad decisions.

With Mac down for the count for at least a day if not more, Elo is on her own with both events. Now she’s responsible for two things that just aren’t her thing, a traditional love fest and public hosting and event management duties, along with worrying about Mac.

It should be the worst night of Elo’s life, at least recently. But just as the “festivities” are about to begin, Elo runs into Mr. Chardonnay. Literally. With a golf cart. But figuratively, as that’s not his real name.

In between shuttling from “murder Cupid” to “love is in the air” Elo and the mysterious man she has named “Mr. Chardonnay” flirt, banter and play a game of “strangers in the night”.

As the magic of the evening wraps around them both, the two mysterious strangers both start thinking that there might be something to this Valentine’s Day magic after all.

Escape Rating A-: This is kind of an amuse-bouche of a story. A chef’s kiss of a bit of romance. One that goes perfectly with the bite-sized wine and cheese pairings that are being served at the winery’s pro-Valentine’s Day event.

But seriously, this is a short story. A VERY short story. At most 100 pages if it’s length were being measured in pages.

That’s actually the right length. Because this is a story about the possibilities of love and the thrill of discovering that this person might just be the one. It’s the opening of the romance, with all of the internal angst and flirty banter that any romance reader could want.

It’s a meet-cute. And it’s ALL ABOUT the meet-cute. At the end, we’re left with the same possibility that the characters have, that this might lead to a happy ever after. It also might not. But that’s what first meetings are all about when you just click with someone and all you can see in front of you are possibilities.

One of the things that I, as the reader/listener loved about this story was Elo’s internal voice. She’s witty, snarky, and generally honest with herself no matter what actually comes out of her mouth. But she’s marvelously gifted with snarkitude and the reader’s voice was perfect for her.

The reader also does a good job voicing Mr. Chardonnay, but…I would have liked this one more if he’d been voiced by a male reader. Although I probably would have swooned while driving, which would be bad. His dialog is not just flirty but frequently downright sexy, and a second reader would have really put it over the top.

Speaking of over the top, there is one character who, in spite of her inability to leap tall buildings – or jump at all – was the perfect sidekick for the snarky but soft-hearted Elo, and that’s her adorable dog Olive in her equally adorable little cart. Olive steals hearts and scenes every time Elo brings her ANYWHERE and it’s just really, really cute.

So come for the yummy-sounding wine-and-cheese pairings. Stay for the flirty banter that turns Valentine’s Day Grinch Elo into a match with hopeless romantic Mr. Chardonnay. And don’t leave without giving Olive a scritch or three.

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Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskyThe Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, espionage, science fiction
Pages: 640
Published by Orbit on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is an extraordinary feat of the imagination and a page-turning adventure about parallel universes and the monsters that they hide.They thought we were safe. They were wrong.Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.Lee thought she'd lost Mal, but now she's miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal's reappearance hasn't gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn't the only one with questions.Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power - and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.Dr Khan's research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through."Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale... a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse." (Booklist)

My Review:

Spy games, cryptids (Sasquatch, Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters, OH MY!) with a nod to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. PLUS a bit of Doctor Who – at least in the audiobook. These are things that absolutely should not go together, but somehow do anyway in The Doors of Eden.

It’s really all about the butterfly. You know the one. That hypothetical butterfly who flaps its wings on one side of the world and causes a tornado on the other.

Only in this case there are perhaps thousands, or even millions of butterflies, each flapping their wings on a slightly different version of our Earth. Or, to put it another way, “the problem with wanting things to change is that things change.” Sometimes by quite a lot and not necessarily for the better.

Depending on who, or what, is defining better, along with who, what or why the change is happening at all.

It all begins with two young women out on Bodmin Moor hunting cryptids. Let’s unpack that a bit. Lee and Mal are childhood best friends who are now in college. Their intense relationship has shifted from friends to lovers over the years they’ve been together. They’re on holiday, between semesters, doing what they do when they’re together. They’re somewhere creepy, looking but not expecting to find something even creepier. And possibly mythical or magical, or maybe even both.

It seems like their cryptid hunting (cryptids are animals whose existence is unsubstantiated, like Bigfoot, or Nessie) is mostly a manifestation of their shared nerdiness. Their admission that they are both a bit weird and might as well embrace the identity they’re going to have to live with anyway.

Neither of them believes that they are EVER going to find real evidence of cryptids. They’re just having fun looking. That is, until the cryptids, or at least one set of cryptids, find them.

And take Mal away to a place that Lee can’t follow, no matter how much she wants to. When Mal returns four years later, she brings the entire rest of this story with her, the spies, the cryptids, the criminal masterminds – and entirely too many signs and portents of the end of the world, not just as we know it, but the impending extinction of all the Earths in all of the multiverse.

Along with one single, one in a billion chance of saving them all.

Escape Rating A+: There was SO MUCH going on in this book. It went to so many fascinating places, dragged in so many interesting possibilities and ended with such a marvelous bang that it’s still an A+ story in my book even if the spies did faff around a bit in the middle.

On the other hand, anyone would flail a bit at all the strange and bizarre things going on in this absolute WOW of a story.

The elements that go into this absolutely should not work together, and yet they oh so very much do. To the point where, although I started out listening to this one – and it is an excellent listen – I got impatient with needing to know how it all managed to get itself together at the end and switched to the ebook just so I could figure things out.

But the audio is where I thought two of those disparate elements came into the mix, although in the end it turned out to be only one.

The reader of the audio is Sophie Aldred, who played Ace on Doctor Who many, many moons ago, when Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor. Although, now that I think of it, the way that the parallel worlds work in The Doors of Eden could be said to have its own parallels in Who.

But I digress.

The other element that I thought came from the audio was the resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, his fascinating and eminently readable book about the Burgess Shale. I listened to that book a LONG time ago, but it stuck with me. And it seemed like the tone of that reading was echoed in The Doors of Eden in the interstitial parts where Dr. Ruth Emerson’s treatise on “Other Edens” is read. Her work on alternate Earths had the same tone as Wonderful Life. I thought it was a coincidence, but it’s not. Wonderful Life is cited by the author as one of the inspirations for The Doors of Eden, and now that I know that it’s obvious that at least part of what it inspired was these sections of the story.

Which leads us to the story itself.

The action and the dramatic tension in this story come from Mal’s return to our own Earth, the mess that return makes of Lee’s life, and the reason for that return in the grand scheme of things.

After all, no matter how much Mal wants to return to her lover, the reason that the Nissa, just one of the so-called cryptids, bring Mal back to the Earth she calls home is a whole lot bigger and vastly more important. Mal is there to rescue mathematician and physicists Dr. Kay Amal Khan so that she can help them save ALL the Earths.

But just as Mal’s friends want to save all the Earths, there are forces that want to, not exactly prevent the rescue, but let’s say, direct that rescue. There’s a criminal mastermind who has, naturally enough, criminal plans. And there are government agencies, in this case MI5, who are tasked with protecting Kay Amal Khan from anyone who wants to either do her harm or co-opt her genius for their own purposes.

That’s where the spy games, in the persons of Julian Sabreur and Alison Matchell come in. Only to find themselves caught up in trying to save the worlds, which is way above both of their official pay grades – even if it’s all still subject to the Official Secrets Act..

There’s a saying that “Mother Nature bats last.” The quote from environmentalist Rob Watson in full goes like this:

Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

In short, that’s what this story is about, Mother Nature batting last. For select versions of Mother Nature, where she’s really a supercomputer bigger than a planet who has been trying for eons to find a way for her last “at bat” to not kill off all of everything everywhere.

Well, not exactly that either. Mother Nature doesn’t care, as the quote says so succinctly. But in this story that supercomputer does. It’s trying to help the beings on various versions of Earth, of which it is one of the few, who have developed enough sentience to not only figure out that the end is coming, but who are working to prevent it.

Which drags in Dr. Khan, and all kinds of cryptids, including the Nissa and the rat people, and Lee and Mal and the spies and the criminal masterminds. This is a story whose plot boils and bubbles – and occasionally squeaks – until the very end.

Until it ends with an almighty bang, as well as a whole lot of whimpering on the part of many of the characters, who are left with a story that they can never, ever tell and the chance to live a life much bigger than the one they thought they had to settle for.

Unless and until Mother Nature comes to bat again. Unless she already has.

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie JennerThe Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 309
Published by St. Martin's Press on May 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

My Review:

I didn’t pick this book in any of the usual ways. A friend and I were having a discussion about the importance of the right voice for the right character in video games (yes, we both have cases of ‘voice kink’) and transferred the discussion to audiobooks and somehow ended up talking about Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit.

I decided to test her theory about being willing to listen to him read the phone book, and ended up with the audiobook of The Jane Austen Society because he’s the reader for the unabridged audiobook.

While I’m not so sure about the phone book reading, he did turn out to be a terrific reader for the story – and the story turned out to be pretty terrific too. To the point where I got impatient at the halfway point and switched from the audio to the ebook, which I just so happened to have on hand.

So I may have gotten here for the audiobook reader, but I stayed for the story. And what a lovely story it turned out to be.

First, I have to confess that I am not a big Jane Austen fan the way that most of the characters – and nearly all of the sympathetic ones – are in this book. I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility when I listened to them, but I never got bitten by the Jane Austen bug like so many readers do.

In other words, if this story was just all about the Austen I probably wouldn’t like it nearly as much.

Instead, it reminds me of The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. That story extends the Austen classic past the end of the original by focusing on one of the secondary characters. The Jane Austen Society extends the Austen oeuvre by telling an Austen-like story that is focused, not on Jane herself as so many such stories are, but rather on the place she left behind and the people who have chosen to carry on her legacy.

Escape Rating A-: Thinking about this one after finishing, I realized that this reads very much like the type of story that Austen herself would have told. Ostensibly, it’s about the attempt to create a place for the study of Austen in her final home, but instead, just like so much of Austen’s own work, it’s a story about a group of disparate people and the complex relationships they have woven between them.

At the outset, they are all quite separate individuals, loosely linked by one small village. A village that just happens to be Chawton, the place where Austen spent her final decade.

But as the story wends its way, the group weaves itself into a whole, into, in fact, the Jane Austen Society. It’s definitely a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but its parts feel like familiar updates to Austen’s own characters.

The village doctor, the village lawyer, the farmer, the widowed teacher, the maid at the “great house”, the daughter of that same great house and the villain of the piece, the dying patriarch of the great house. Then we add the people that would not have been part of Austen’s world, the auctioneer from Sotheby’s, the American actress, and the secondary villain, the actress’ fiancé.

But what makes up this story are the relationships that develop, like the one between the doctor and the teacher, a relationship that brims with just the kind of unacknowledged romantic and sexual tension that drives so many of Austen’s own stories. As well as the textbook example of how a cad woos a woman who is much too good for him, as exemplified in so many of Austen’s stories, particularly Mansfield Park, and in the relationship between the actress and the Hollywood producer she almost but not quite marries.

The Jane Austen Society is a kind of a quiet little story, as it begins slowly – perhaps just a touch too slowly – to set up the village and the relationships there before introducing those outside influences. The story speeds up as those outsiders become part of it, just as the outside world moves a bit faster – perhaps more than a bit – than tiny little Chawton.

And it all ends on a lovely high note, with happy ever afters all around – even the ones that the reader as well as the characters – never anticipated at the beginning.

One final note. While there is something like the Jane Austen Society, and it did develop a center for the study of Austen in Chawton, the way that it came about bears no resemblance to the events in this story.

However, life does still imitate art. Just as, during the setting of this story, there was no established center for the study of Jane Austen’s works and none of the places where she lived had been preserved for that purpose, as of this writing the same can be said for another English writer, J.R.R. Tolkien (and circling back to The Hobbit). An effort is underway, established by many of the actors who have portrayed characters in the movies based on his work, to purchase Tolkien’s house in Oxford and create a cultural center for the study of his work.

Like many whose lives have been enriched by reading this author’s work, I wish them well in their endeavor.

Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Review: Murder by Other Means by John ScalziMurder by Other Means (The Dispatcher #2) by John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, thriller, urban fantasy
Series: Dispatcher #2
Published by Audible Studios on September 10th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense...and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

My Review:

The character of Tony Valdez and the world he inhabits was introduced in the first Dispatcher story, fittingly titled The Dispatcher. And unlike this second entry in the series, The Dispatcher is available as a hardcover and an ebook, so if the premise sounds intriguing but audiobooks aren’t your thing, you can get a taste for the story that way. (Also, I don’t think anyone will be surprised when a book version of Murder by Other Means turns up. Eventually. But patience is not one of my virtues so I was haunting Audible as soon as I heard this was coming up so I could get a pre-order in.)

The world that Tony Valdez inhabits – or that produced him, take your pick – is fascinating. And weird. And yet, not all that different from our own. Except in one, rather singular, particular. One day, in the not distant at all future, murder becomes theoretically impossible. Suicide and accidents both still happen, but murder, not so much. 999 times out of a 1000 not so much.

Which doesn’t mean that killing people for a living isn’t still kind of a soul-destroying way to pay the rent. Even if it is legal. The person still dies. They still spray their blood and bone matter all over the killer. Then they vanish – along with the mess you made of them, only to reappear, whole and intact and alive, someplace they considered safe. Usually home. Always naked.

So dispatching people has become a job. A licensed, regulated and controlled job. And Tony Valdez is a dispatcher. Someone who dispatches people for a living.

As this story opens, it’s become a poor living. The legal and ethical markets for dispatching, mostly hospitals, have dried up due to budget cuts. Leaving Tony behind on his rent and his bills, and willing to do some dispatching that isn’t exactly on the up and up.

After all, dispatching business people so they can beat a competitor to a lucrative deal isn’t remotely covered by Tony’s license to kill. But it does pay a lot of cash money. And it comes with more headaches than Tony ever imagined.

Because someone has figured out a way around that whole people can’t be murdered anymore thing. And Tony has to prove it before he gets taken out the same way, murdered by other means.

Escape Rating A: John Scalzi has a very fine line in snark. In fact, his snarkitude is a good chunk of what I read him – or in this case listen to him – FOR. His characters generally do a marvelous chuckle-with-a-grimace job at making me chuckle with that grimace, because they manage to say all the clever things that most of us figure out long after a conversation is done while said conversation is still going on – when that smart-aleck-ness can be delivered with full force – even if it’s just within the confines of the characters own head.

Which is where we spend the entirety of Murder by Other Means. In Tony Valdez’ head.

There’s also usually at least one character in each of this author’s stories that feels like it’s the voice of the author’s public persona, and in this particular series, it’s definitely Tony. Meaning that if you like Tony’s “voice” in this story there’s a very good chance you’ll like the author’s other work as well, including his blog, Whatever. If Tony’s too snarky for your taste than probably Scalzi is too. I digress.

As I said, the snarkitude is what I read this author for.

Something that I wasn’t expecting, but loved all the same, was Tony’s Chicago. Even more so than the first book in this series, Tony’s Chicago sounded and felt like the Chicago I remember, to the point where I’m pretty sure that at one point I lived in the same neighborhood that Tony does.

Even the “L” stops are the same. So when Tony described buildings and places, it was more than just seeing them in my head. I remembered them in a way that invoked a profound familiarity as well as nostalgia. I was just there in a way that doesn’t happen often but was utterly wonderful.

This week has turned out to be bookended by stories set in Chi-Town, and that trip down memory lane – however twisted into fiction – has been lovely.

But this is, primarily, a mystery story – even if it does have a futuristic and/or urban fantasy type vibe. It honestly feels more like urban fantasy, as Tony’s Chicago doesn’t feel all that far away in time from the now. And there’s no science. No one knows why people stopped dying by murder. It could be science. It could be magic. It could be a deus ex machina. And it doesn’t matter.

What matters is the human response to the change. And that is something that we get a terrific perspective on through Tony’s eyes and in Tony’s voice. The fascination in the story is that the circumstances may change, but human beings are still totally screwed up.

And the way that they are – that we are – screwed up leads both to the crime and its solution in a way that keeps the reader in Tony’s head long after his voice (marvelously brought to life by Zachary Quinto) fades away.

Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

Review: The Last Emperox by John ScalziThe Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Interdependency #3
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on April 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction… and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people from impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization… or the last emperox to wear the crown?

My Review:

It is impossible, reading this now in the midst of the COVID19 crisis, not to see just how much the situation that the people of the Interdependency are in parallels life as we currently know it. The degree of resonance alternates between astonishing and appalling, depending on where in the story one is and what one thinks about current conditions.

Making it all the more amazing that when this story began, with the writing of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, probably sometime in the fall of 2016 for its March 2017 release. Not that, from certain perspectives, the world wasn’t already headed for a dumpster fire in the fall of 2016.

But just as no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects a worldwide pandemic, and no one in the Interdependency expected the basis of their entire, interdependent (hence the name), galaxy-spanning civilization to collapse relatively suddenly and without nearly enough warning to re-shape said civilization in time to save all that much of it.

If they can manage to overcome the sheer, unadulterated self-centered selfishness of the so-called elites and do the right thing – if anyone can figure out what that is – in time. They might manage to save civilization. But they don’t have a prayer of saving all of the people in it.

This is one of those cases where the needs of the many really, really, seriously outweigh the needs of the few. And, like so many of those cases, so much is dependent on who gets to decide who constitutes those “many”.

For Nadashe Nohamapeton, the many are the members of the Interdependency’s ruling families and mercantile guilds, who are frequently one and the same. She has a plan to save them – or at least those of them that haven’t pissed her off or done her wrong or gotten in her way. Of course, anyone who falls into any of those three categories can be eliminated, even if they are members of her own family.

As for the billions of people who make up the Interdepency, in Nadashe’s worldview they are all expendable. They are to be lied to, placated if possible, subjugated if necessary and left behind to die in isolation while the important parts of the Interdepency leave Hub for End, the only planet in the entire system capable of supporting human life all by itself without the resources of the Interdepency to fill in the gaps.

Among the people standing in Nadashe’s way is the Emperox. She’ll need to be taken out of Nadashe’s way so that those who Nadashe believes are the important parts of the Interdepency can survive. So from Nadashe’s perspective the Emperox has to go. After all, she’s sitting in the seat that Nadashe plans to occupy.

To Emperox Grayland II, the many are the people of the Interdepency. All of those billions that Nadashe plans to leave behind to die in the dark and the cold. Or whatever terrible fate befalls them. Nadashe may not care but Grayland certainly does. What she doesn’t have is a plan. Not exactly. But with the help of Marce Claremont, her scientific advisor – and lover – they might have just enough time to discover a way to save, maybe not everyone, but an awful, awful lot of the people who, in Grayland’s mind, are the Interdependency.

But if the population as a whole constitute the many, then Grayland, and Marce, are the few – and the one.

Escape Rating A+: I had a terrible approach/avoidance issue with this book. A part of that was because I had originally intended to listen to it, as I have to the entire rest of the series. The walking profanity explosion that is Kiva Lagos is best appreciated in audio. She just doesn’t have the same impact when reading the book yourself. Also, Wil Wheaton has done a fantastic job with the series, including this entry. But I normally listen while driving, or while on a treadmill at the gym, and everything has been closed. I had more time for reading but fewer opportunities for listening. In the end I mostly played Solitaire and just let the audio wash over me. It was marvelous.

Also, and probably more importantly, this is the last book in the trilogy, and I knew that going in. So I was going to have to say goodbye to all of these wonderful characters and this fascinating world, and I was NOT looking forward to that – at all.

By the nature of the setup of the series, it was also pretty clear that there could not possibly be a happy ending. The end of their civilization is coming, it’s not their fault, but there isn’t anything they can do to stop it, either. By a whole lot of definitions, this is a no-win scenario. In order to have an unequivocal happy ending for these characters, there would have to occur an unbelievable amount of deus ex machina. Possibly even dei ex machina, a whole damn pantheon of dei.

And it would have been a cheat. So I was expecting a butcher’s bill at the end. I had no illusions about that, but it did mean that I wanted to know how it all worked out – but didn’t exactly WANT to know who got worked out of the story to make it wrap up.

I’ll admit that there was a point near the end where the whole thing gave me the weepies. It reminded me very much of Delenn’s absolute tearjerker scene in the Babylon 5 finale “Sleeping in Light”. I cried then, too.

But what I think will stick in the mind about this series has a lot more to do with Kiva Lagos’ observation that, “whenever selfish humans encountered a wrenching, life-altering crisis, they embarked on a journey of five distinct stages:

1. Denial.
2. Denial.
3. Denial
4. Fucking Denial.
5. Oh shit everything is terrible grab what you can and run.”

This trilogy as a whole is about the response to stage five. Whether it is possible, or not, to draw back from that brink or get past that impulse and figure out a way to not just “rage against the dying of the light” but to finesse a way around it. In spite of all the people saying it can’t be done, as well as more than a few – like Nadashe – saying it shouldn’t be done.

It’s a great story about the indomitability of the human spirit. Also about the corruptibility of the human spirit, and the conflict between the two. With an ending that is an absolute punch to the gut.

One final note. The ending of the series as a whole had one last twist to throw at everyone. A twist that turns out kind of like the ending of the joke about a German Shepherd, a Doberman and a cat who have died and gone to heaven. I’ll leave you to discover who plays the part of the cat.

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. HamiltonDragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #1
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Author of one of BuzzFeed 's Greatest Fantasy Books of 2013

In his magnificent, heroic, adventure fantasy, Dragonslayer, Duncan M. Hamilton debuts the first book in a fast-moving trilogy: a dangerous tale of lost magics, unlikely heroes, and reawakened dragons.

Once a member of the King's personal guard, Guillot dal Villevauvais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished—and wary—when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capital in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?

On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacingthe young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead. Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solene’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?

My Review:

Dragonslayer turned out to be surprisingly – and epically – marvelous. I’m saying this because I picked up the ARC last year and it got buried under the weight of the towering TBR pile. I always meant to get to it, but just didn’t quite. Then I got the audiobook last month. Audible was having a sale and I got the first two books in the series for cheap. Or cheaper anyway. I’ve discovered that epic fantasy and SF work really well in audio – it’s easy to get caught up in the action and forget I’m walking a treadmill or stuck in traffic.

So when I bailed on an audio I just couldn’t tolerate, I remembered I had Dragonslayer. And that, surprising for an epic fantasy, it was only about 10ish hours long. That’s amazeballs. For an epic fantasy that truly is epic in scope, the series as a whole is blissfully NOT epic in length. The entire trilogy clocks in at just a shade over 900 pages, or just a hair over 30 hours in audio. Most epic fantasy in audio hovers around the 24 hour mark.

Dragonslayer is proof positive, very positive, that an epic fantasy can be told without turning into a tall pile of many thousand page doorstops. So if you know someone who is interested in epic fantasy but daunted by the length, Dragonslayer is terrific.

Part of what made it so good, at least from my perspective, is that it didn’t turn out to be any of the things I thought it was going to be at the beginning. Except that it claims to be epic fantasy, and it certainly is that, albeit of the sword and sorcery variety – something that we don’t see nearly enough of these days.

It all begins with Gill, technically Guillot dal Villerauvais. Gill is the drunken has-been who used to be the best swordsman in the kingdom. Now he’s the town drunk in the town where he’s supposed to be seigneur, the local squire.

We get the impression that he’s old and washed-up. That he’s pissed away his skill and his glory. But we think he’s Falstaff, a fat buffoon, when he’s really more like Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion. He used to be a hero. It’s both a pain and a purpose when he discovers that he’s STILL the hero, even if he doesn’t want to be, or feels that he’s no longer remotely capable of being.

He’s also not half so old as his world-weary voice (expertly acted by Simon Vance in the audio) makes him appear to be. Discovering late in the story that Gill is, at most, 40 years old is a bit of a shock. Gill is a heartbroken, heartbreaking lesson in what happens to a person when they realize that all their dreams are behind them.

The classic story about dragonslaying usually features the dragon as a rampaging beast out to slay all it encounters, whether for eating or just for the joy of slaughter. Here we have a thinking creature, woken from a long slumber by a troupe of pillaging humans intent on ransacking his cave in search of magical treasure. The dragon in this story may be the force that starts the action, but he’s not, even in the worst of his depredations, the villain of the piece.

That place is reserved for the Prince-Bishop Amaury, the power behind the Mirabayan throne and at the head of the newly formed – and illegally magical – Order of the Golden Spur, whose purpose is to hunt out magic and turn it to their own use. Or rather, to Amaury’s own use.

It’s been said that people whose titles are longer than their names are always complete arseholes. That’s certainly true in Amaury’s case. He also seems to be an object lesson about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Not that he has ABSOLUTE power – at least not yet. But he’s working on it.

Amaury believes that Gill stands in his way. Because Gill has always stood in his way – at least according to Amaury. This time, he’s going to get what he wants out of Gill and then Gill is going to get what’s coming to him.

Unless, of course, Gill manages to stand in his way – again. If Gill can manage to stand at all.

Escape Rating A+: There is so much going on in this book, and all of it is fascinating. Or at least it was to me. This was one where I got so into it I started switching back and forth between the audio and the ebook. Because I just wasn’t listening fast enough – but the reading was so very good.

There are reasons why narrator Simon Vance is in the Narrator Hall of Fame, and plenty of hours of those reasons are in Dragonslayer.

There were so many elements to this story, and the more I think about it the more I believe I’ve found – or at least seen glimpses of.

While the biggest part of the story wraps around Gill’s quest to pull himself back together, slay the dragon and avenge the people it’s killed, his is not the only story and he’s not the only hero in this tale.

Solène, the young mage, has her own story to tell, and her own journey to reach her destiny. It just so happens that her journey and Gill’s keep intersecting – from the beginning when he saves her from burning at the stake, to the end of this installment where she saves him from an assassin. In between, while he takes the direct path to the dragon, Solene takes herself to learn magic, only to be forced to choose between a place she can be safe – and the right thing to do.

One refreshing element of the story is that while Gill and Solène come to rely on each other and care about each other, it’s a relationship that does not fall into any neat pigeonholes. Gill doesn’t have himself together enough to feel capable of the kind of mentorship that even an ersatz parental relationship would require, and there is blissfully NO HINT WHATSOEVER that this will ever turn romantic. It’s lovely to show that not all close relationships, particularly close opposite sex relationships, HAVE to end in romance.

Last but not least, while this book was published in mid-2019 and probably finished sometime the previous year, finishing it today showed some striking parallels between the way that towns and villages were emptying out in hopes of getting away from the dragon and the response to the current COVID-19 pandemic in real life. In both cases, public spaces are empty and people are fearful. A virus is even harder to outrun than a flying, fire-breathing dragon.

The hints about the past of this world, the long ago time of great magic, great mages and even greater dragons give tantalizing clues to the journey that Gill and Solene will have to undertake in the remaining books of the trilogy, Knight of the Silver Circle and Servant of the Crown.

I’ll be listening to Knight of the Silver Circle in the morning, possibly as you are reading this review. I can’t wait!

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa ColeThe A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Published by Audible Audio on December 3rd 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A captivating romantic comedy with a thrilling sci-fi twist by award-winning author Alyssa Cole!

Trinity Jordan leads a quiet, normal life: working from home for the Hive, a multifunctional government research center, and recovering from the incident that sent her into a tailspin. But the life she’s trying to rebuild is plagued by mishaps when Li Wei, her neighbor’s super sexy and super strange nephew, moves in and turns things upside down. Li Wei’s behavior is downright odd—and the attraction building between them is even more so. When an emergency pulls his aunt away from the apartment complex, Trinity decides to keep an eye on him…and slowly discovers that nothing is what it seems. For one thing, Li Wei isn’t just the hot guy next door—he’s the hot A.I. next door. In fact, he’s so advanced that he blurs the line between man and machine. It’s up to Trinity to help him achieve his objective of learning to be human, but danger is mounting as they figure out whether he’s capable of the most illogical human behavior of all…falling in love.

My Review:

I thought I knew where this was going. Since I was enjoying where it was going, I was happy to be along for the ride. But then, it went in a direction I wasn’t expecting – and it got even better.

What I expected after the first chapter or so was something like the classic A.I. romance The Silver Metal Lover – or perhaps Data proclaiming that he was “fully functional” in the Star Trek Next Gen episode The Naked Now, but set in a world that felt like a slice of Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow from his Radicalized collection.

Instead, I got a terrific science fiction romance set in a near-future dystopian U.S. crossed with a spy thriller. And I loved every minute of it – especially after I got surprised by the turn.

So, at first we have Trinity Jordan, working from home while recovering from an accident. But this is the future. Her home is a tiny apartment and all of her appliances are way too smart for Trinity’s own good – especially Penny, her home monitoring app – and secret therapist.

But it’s obvious from the beginning that things aren’t quite what they appear.  A suspicion that only gets deeper when Trinity meets her neighbor’s visiting nephew, Li Wei. (Actually, it turns out that nothing and no one are quite what they appear to be.)

Something isn’t right about Li Wei. Her neighbor passes off his strangeness as memory issues due to recovering from an accident – not a dissimilar case to Trinity’s. While Li Wei’s social skills may be so lacking as to be non-existent, he’s so damn good-looking that Trinity’s libido wakes up from an extremely long nap to sit up and take notice. And notice. And notice.

The more time they spend together, the better Li Wei gets at communicating – and the more obvious it becomes that something is wrong with both Li Wei and Trinity. And that it’s the same kind of wrong – and the same kind of right.

Escape Rating A: First of all, I absolutely loved this. It was short and sweet and went in directions I wasn’t expecting and it was all just marvelous.

Second of all, this is the first romance audiobook I’ve ever reviewed. I read plenty of romance, but those are ebooks. Listening to romance is a bit different. It felt weird listening to the sex scenes. They were well done – they definitely were – but there’s a psychological difference between having those scenes go through my eyes vs through my ears.

Third, this is a full-cast recording. Most audiobook narrators are good at differentiating the voices of the different characters, but full-cast recordings are always extra special.

The one downside of this being an audiobook and only an audiobook is that I have no idea how to spell the name of any character who isn’t mentioned in the Goodreads blurb. For most of the time I was listening to this story, I thought that “Li Wei” was “Leeway”. This does not change my enjoyment of the whole thing one little bit, but it makes me wary of mentioning any character whose name I have no idea how to spell. Like Trinity’s neighbor who claims that Li Wei is her nephew. Or Trinity’s two girlfriends. I’m pretty sure that Tim the cat is just “Tim”. And he’s an adorable cat even though he does turn out to be 50 pounds of bio-synthetic feline.

What I loved about this story was the ever-deepening layers of subversion. At first it feels like a robot romance – and those have been around at least since 1981. So there’s nothing new about the romance between Trinity and Li Wei. But then things get deeper – and darker. The more that Li Wei falls in love with Trinity, the more he realizes that there is something wrong – even more wrong than what is obvious on the surface.

The deeper he digs, the more he uncovers, and the deeper they fall. Until the story finally breaks open – and it changes everything.

So grab The A.I. Who Loved Me for the romance – and stay for the surprisingly deep science fiction surprise tucked into its gooey center. You’ll be glad you did. Meanwhile, the audiobook promises that there will be more in this series, following Trinity’s friends. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what happens next!

Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora GossThe Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #3
Pages: 416
Published by Simon Schuster Audio on October 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club...especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucina van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished—and so has Mary's employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save England? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

My Review:

Once upon a time, in the summer of 1816, a group of writers and other creatives conducted a rather famous ghost story contest. Out of that little game among friends came the foundation of modern science fiction AND the first modern modern vampire story. This is a true story. Mary Shelley wrote the beginning of Frankenstein and John Polidori wrote The Vampyre (the precursor for Dracula and every other vampire in modern fiction) during that house party.

I open with that anecdote because in it’s own way it sets the stage for the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. Just as the foundational stories for members of the group were written during that weekend, so does it seem more plausible that the ladies of the Athena Club, would find each other and band together.

Or at least as plausible as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with the potential for a cast nearly as large.

For these women are all extraordinary, each in their own way. Even more so, because none of them chose what they are. But, as the stories in this series reveal, they have chosen – even if sometimes reluctantly – to embrace what they are. To embrace their own very monstrousness – and to embrace each other in sisterhood.

The series began, back in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, with the death of Mrs. Henry Jekyll and her daughter Mary’s discovery that not only did her late father have a daughter, herself, under his Jekyll persona, but that he also had a daughter as Edward Hyde. And that both herself and Diana Hyde, along with Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini, were all the daughters of members of the secretive Societé des Alchemists, and that all of them had powers as the result of their fathers’ experiments.

During that first adventure, they met and teamed up with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, who were investigating an entirely new series of Whitechapel Murders.

However, unlike nearly every other Holmes pastiche (I’m reading two others at the moment) the presence of Holmes in the Athena Club’s adventures does not mean that he is in charge or even the central character. The singular glory of this series is that the men who appear in the series are never the central characters.

This is a story of sisterhood – and even the villains are female. Not that there aren’t plenty of villainous men in the story – after all, all of these women are monsters because their fathers experimented on them or their mothers without any consent whatsoever. But that is in the past – their pasts. The cases they have to resolve in their present, especially the case in The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, present women as the central figures, both in the crime and in the resolution of it.

And that’s in spite of embarking upon this case because it looks like Sherlock Holmes has been kidnapped by Moriarty.

Escape Rating A+: I refer to Sherlock Holmes because that’s how I initially got into this series. I love Holmes pastiches and they are often my go-to stories when I’m in a slump. In the case of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, while I may have come for Holmes I stayed for this incredible story of sisterhood – and also for the seemingly endless number of drop ins by the heroes and villains of 19th century literature and the teasing of my brain thereby.

This one has what initially appears to be a cameo by a Dr. Gray who looks like a fallen angel and has the world-weary affect of someone who has lived entirely too long and seen entirely too much for his apparent 20ish age. And who turns out to be Dorian Gray. And may be part of the next book, if there is a next book. I hope there is a next book. Sincerely.

When I describe this book to people, it’s by way of the characters. Think about it. Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, Mr. Hyde’s daughter, Dr. Moreau’s daughter, Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter, the Poisonous Girl (from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne if you’re wondering), Dr. Van Helsing’s daughter, the Mesmerizing Girl of the title (I’m not sure what story she is from but I bet there’s one somewhere – unless she’s Alice as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but the backgrounds don’t match), along with a few contributions from Irene Adler Norton and Mina Murray Harker as well as a cross country automobile trip courtesy of Bertha Benz.

The mixture of the real with the fantastical continues to enthrall, at least this reader – or listener as the case may be – in this third volume of the adventures. It helps that this is a series I listen to rather than read, and that the reader (the awesome Kate Reading) does a particularly excellent job of distinguishing the voices of the women who make up the cast.

This is also a series where it feels like a requirement to have read the whole series from the beginning – and reasonably recently as well. The heroines of these adventures are all the women who were forgotten or glossed over in the original works so one isn’t familiar with them without having had the pleasure of meeting them here.

I’m aware that I’m squeeing over this one. In fact, I’m still squeeing and I finished the book a week ago. I delayed writing this review in order to tone down the squee a bit, and it didn’t work. At all. Very much sorry not sorry.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of a wild and crazy romp through 19th century Gothic literature in the company of the most wonderful and monstrous sisterhood you’ll ever want to meet, go forth and grab a copy of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, available at your nearest bookseller. (This plug is made in the spirit of Catherine Moreau, who inserts such advertisements throughout the narrative of all three books – to the complete consternation of Mary Jekyll – at every marvelous and even tangentially appropriate turn.)

I loved every single one of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, and sincerely hope that there will be more. And soon.

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Pages: 431
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

My Review:

This was one of those times when I had to put off writing my review for a few days after finishing the book so that I could tone down the squeeing and be halfway coherent. And I’m still not sure I’m going to manage it.

The Calculating Stars is enthralling, exhilarating and infuriating, sometimes in equal measure. And those are three things that are just not meant to go together. But this time they absolutely do.

There are three, let’s call them prongs, to this story. Or themes. Or threads. They happen simultaneously and are completely interwoven, but there are three of them just the same.

The first is the very big bang that sets off the entire story. It’s 1952 and Drs. Nathaniel and Elma York are vacationing in the Poconos when they witness, from a barely safe enough distance, a meteor crashing into the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. Somewhere near DC.

It turns out to be the Chesapeake Bay, or thereabouts. And thereby lies the crux of the matter. Because the meteor strikes water and not land. Which initially is thought to be better – for extremely select definitions of better – but is actually much, much worse than a land strike.

As Elma York flies herself and her husband inland to someplace where there might still be “civilization” or at least safety, she begins the calculations. That’s what she does, she’s a mathematics genius who can do most of the work in her head.

And the results, eventually confirmed by climatologists and meteorologists around the world, is chilling in its results. That water strike was an extinction-level event. Like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Except that human beings are capable of figuring out what is coming. The question, throughout the book, is whether they are capable of mustering the political will to do something about it, before it is too late.

And that is the heart of this marvelous book – and where human beings show both the best and worst sides of themselves – often at the same time.

Nathaniel York is an engineer. He and Elma were both employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Nathaniel is the leading survivor of NACA’s engineering team, and finds himself the lead engineer for everything that comes next.

Elma is a computer. In the 1950s, computers were women and not machines, as has been detailed in several recent nonfiction books about the period, notably Hidden Figures and The Rise of the Rocket Girls.

But it’s the 1950s, and Elma’s mathematical genius, wartime pilot experience as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) and not just one but two Ph.Ds, is initially completely ignored by the men running the show. Even though it was her calculations that determined the scope of the disaster.

The response to the disaster is the second prong of this story. Earth is going to go through a brief but survivable mini-ice age and then the temperatures are going to start rising. The water thrown up by the meteor strike is going to kick off a runaway greenhouse effect. In a century or so, the seas are going to boil away.

The only way out is off. Human beings need to find another basket in which to put our eggs. We have to get off this rock before it’s too late. The second prong of the story is the development of the space program a decade before it happened in our history, and under much more desperate conditions.

The third prong of the story relates to the way that Elma’s contributions are ignored, because it comes back to the fact that the general population in the 1950s had terribly misogynistic views about women, and terribly racist views about anyone who wasn’t white. And that’s combined with the usual human problems of not being willing to think in the long term when current conditions seem pretty good for their individual perspective – think of current reactions to climate change to see how that part works.

The story is told from Elma’s educated, intelligent, informed perspective as she is forced to deal with a whole bunch of men who either hate her for her achievements, disbelieve her because she is female, or both, and will do anything to keep her down and out because her existence and perseverance upsets their worldview.

We are with her every step of the way as she is forced to cajole, accommodate, hope, fear, pray and scream as she pushes or sidles her way into the halls of power – and into the stars.

Escape Rating A+: In my head, I’ve labeled those three plot threads as “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” – complete with theme music. Do not mistake me, that rating is for real, this book is utterly awesome from beginning to end. And the audio is fantastic and amazing and read by the author. Which is even more amazing. The only author I’ve ever listened to who is half this good as a narrator is Neil Gaiman.

But those prongs of the story, they definitely fit the theme. The initial meteor strike is the Bad. Very, very bad. There really isn’t a way to think of an extinction-level event as good, after all. The sheer number of people who are wiped out in that instant should defy imagination – and it does. At the same time, the author does a fantastic job of personalizing all of the attendant grief through Elma’s reactions. Her family, her parents and grandparents, and pretty much everyone she knew or worked with, is gone in an instant. Her grief is heart-felt and utterly heartbreaking.

The space program is the Good part of the equation. Not that some of the details of how that sausage gets made don’t dive into the Ugly, but the concept and overall progression of the space program were very good. So good that it made me cry when we see all the emotions in Elma’s head and heart when she attends a launch with her great-aunt. (In the end Elma does discover that she has two surviving family members besides her husband. And her commingled joy and grief at those discoveries is beautiful.)

But there’s plenty of ugliness in this story, and it’s that ugliness that makes the reader want to scream. Or at least this reader.

This story takes place in an alternate 1950s. Sexism and racism were at a high-water mark during that decade, which resulted in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s in real history. In this story, it’s all on display, and it’s ugly right down to the bone. Not just in the way that Blacks are treated when they are present in the narrative – and they definitely are – but also the way that political forces try to use the terrible circumstances to literally remove them from that narrative. And the ways that they fight back. That part of the story sent chills up my spine both in its verisimilitude and its portrayal of an entire society’s callous disregard for millions of people due to the color of their skin.

And, because the story is told through Elma’s perspective, we feel every time she is ignored or set aside or deliberately blocked from achieving her dreams as a body blow. I wanted to reach through the book and knock some sense into many, many of the male characters. Most of them deserve a good swift kick where it would hurt the most.

Elma’s husband Nathaniel, however, is a complete mensch. Mensch is a Yiddish term of high compliment, implying just how truly good that person is.

It also signifies something that is a kind of underlying thread through this entire story. Elma and Nathaniel are Jewish. And it matters. To others it may not be that big of a deal, but for me it mattered so much. In Elma’s use of occasional Yiddish, the way that she sat Shiva and mourned for all of the family that she had lost, her desire to be a bit more observant in the wake of both the Holocaust and the ongoing tragedy, I more than felt for her. I felt part of her. I felt heard and represented at a very deep level.

The way that I was drawn into her story because she represented me in a way that most characters do not gave me a new appreciation for the power of representation in literature and the arts. It made me appreciate the Cuban heritage of Eva Innocente in Chilling Effect because I knew that if Elma made me feel represented in The Calculating Stars, then Eva gave those exact same feels to the LatinX women that she represents while telling her own marvelous story.

But the story of the Lady Astronaut has barely begun when The Calculating Stars ends. The Fated Sky continues Elma’s journey and is already out. A parallel story, The Relentless Moon, will be released next summer. I can’t wait to see just how far Elma goes, and how she manages to get there.

There’s a reason that The Calculating Stars won the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year. Take flight with the Lady Astronaut and see for yourself.