A+ #AudioBookReview: Ghostdrift by Suzanne Palmer

A+ #AudioBookReview: Ghostdrift by Suzanne PalmerGhostdrift (Finder Chronicles #4) by Suzanne Palmer
Narrator: Paul Woodson
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #4
Pages: 384
Length: 13 hours and 37 minutes
Published by Blackstone Publishing, DAW on May 28, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The fourth and final installment of the Finder Chronicles, a hopepunk sci-fi caper described as Macgyver meets Firefly, by Hugo Award–winner Suzanne Palmer

Fergus Ferguson, professional finder, always knew his semi-voluntary exile wouldn’t last, but he isn’t expecting a friend to betray him. One of the galaxy’s most dangerous space pirates, Bas Belos, wants him, and what Belos wants, he gets. Belos needs help finding out what happened to his twin sister, who mysteriously disappeared at the edges of space years ago, and he makes Fergus an offer he can’t refuse.

Mysterious disappearances and impossible answers are Fergus’s specialties. After he reluctantly joins Belos and his crew aboard the pirate ship Sidewider, he discovers that Belos is being tracked by the Alliance. Seeking to stay one step ahead of the Alliance, Fergus and Belos find themselves marooned in the middle of the Gap between spiral arms of our galaxy, dangerously near hostile alien territory, and with an Alliance ship in hot pursuit.

That’s just the beginning of the complications for Fergus’ newest—and possibly last—job. The puzzle is much bigger than just Belos’s lost sister, and the question of his future, retirement or not, depends on his ability to negotiate a path between aliens, criminals, and the most powerful military force he’s ever encountered. The future of entire planets hangs in the balance, and it remains to be seen if it’s too big for one determined man and his cranky cat.

My Review:

I couldn’t resist. Even though I knew going in this was one of those situations where you don’t know whether to cry because it’s over or smile because it happened, I had to find out just what happened to Fergus Ferguson that led to Ghostdrift being the final book in the utterly awesome Finder Chronicles.

Over the course of the series (Finder, Driving the Deep, The Scavenger Door and now Ghostdrift), Fergus has proven to be the consummate survivor. Not because he’s particularly good at any one thing except finding the stuff he’s been contracted to find, but because no plan seems to survive contact with Fergus – not even his own. No matter how big and how scary the villains are, no matter how many layers within layers of plans they have to get away with whatever it is they think they’re getting away with, the minute Fergus happens to them Murphy’s Law arrives in his wake and the shit keeps hitting the fan – both theirs and his – until he emerges from the wreck of everything they expected.

It’s a gift. It’s also a curse. A judgment that does not depend on whether you are on the side of Fergus or his enemies. As I said, Fergus’s own plans don’t survive contact with him either.

But it does explain why his friend (or sometimes frenemy) Qai doesn’t feel all that terrible about kidnapping Fergus and delivering him – alive and unharmed, along with his cat Mister Feefs – into the custody of notorious space pirate Bas Belos in exchange for the safe return of Qai’s partner Maha – yet another of Fergus’s friends.

Qai knows Fergus can handle himself and knows that Belos’ plan isn’t likely to survive Fergus either. She’s basically delivering her revenge on Belos for kidnapping her partner in a Fergus Ferguson shaped form and isn’t sorry about it in the least.

She’s sure she’s brought Belos more trouble than even an interstellar space pirate can handle. And she’s right. It’s the way in which she’s right and the places that right takes the pirate, his ship, his crew, Fergus AND Mister Feefs, that makes the whole entire story.

Fergus’s story. Belos’s story. And quite possibly the whole damn universe’s story – again – if Fergus doesn’t manage to pull off one more doggedly determined find.

Escape Rating A+: June is Audiobook Month, and this final book in the Finder Chronicles was the perfect audiobook to listen to this month, particularly as I listened to the first book in the series, Finder, in June of 2019.

Even though I didn’t want this story to end – I desperately needed to know how it ended, so I started alternating between audio and text just past halfway – as much as I hated to miss out on the totality of narrator Paul Woodson’s perfect read of Fergus Ferguson’s universe-weary, ‘been there, done that, got all the t-shirts’ voice.

(Fergus really does have all the t-shirts – and he wears them throughout the series. The man has definitely been around.)

The series as a whole rides or dies on that voice, to the point that if you like Fergus you’ll love the series but if he drives you as insane as he does the people he runs up AGAINST you probably won’t. Also, if you like a universe-weary, first-person or first-person focused protagonist, you’ll probably also love Michael Mammay’s Carl Butler in his Planetside series. (I digress, just a bit.)

What about this particular entry in the series? It combines some really classic tropes into one single terrific story.

First there’s the whole ‘White Whale’ angle. Actually, it’s two of those angles. On the one hand, pirate captain Bas Belos just wants to find out what happened to his twin sister and her crew. It’s been ten years since she disappeared, he knows that the ‘Alliance’s’ claim that they killed her and hers was a lie. He’s kidnapped/hired Fergus to lead him towards closure – no matter what it takes.

And then there’s the real Captain Ahab of this story, an Alliance captain for whom Bas Belos is his white whale, and he’ll trail the pirate literally past the end of the galaxy to catch him – even if he’s leading his crew straight to their demise. And wasn’t that Ahab all over?

But then there’s the third corner of this delicious story, the one where Belos and his crew, the Alliance captain and his, all end up stranded in the gap between galaxies, on a little tiny planet that threatens to be their own ‘Gilligan’s Island’ – because it already has.

Together, those three plots, Belos’ need for closure, Captain Ahab – actually Captain Todd – following Belos where no one REALLY should have gone before, or again, and all the crews stuck on their very own tiny Gilligan’s Island planetoid, doing their best – or worst – to get along well enough to get back home.

With Fergus in the middle, knowing his personal goose is cooked either way. Unless he can find a really, truly, seriously out-of-the-box solution for his own dilemma as well as theirs.

I loved this last adventure in the Finder Chronicles. On top of this beautiful layer cake of a story, there was also a bit of marvelous icing in Fergus’ relationship with Mister Feefs that will add extra feels for anyone who has ever loved a companion animal and grounded their very existence on that love. (Don’t worry about Mister Feefs, he comes out of this adventure just fine – it’s Fergus we have to worry about. As usual.)

The only sour note in this whole thing is in the author’s note at the end, where she declares that this really is Fergus’ last recorded adventure. And it could be, she left him in a good place – WITH MISTER FEEFS – and they’ll be just fine. But she also left them in a place where it’s clear that Fergus will manage to make his way back to his own galaxy, one way or another, given enough time and supplies. And he has the supplies. So he could come back. We could come back at some point in the future to see whose plans Fergus is destroying at that point in his life. I don’t expect we will, but I can still hope.

#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X Chang

#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X ChangTo Gaze Upon Wicked Gods (Gods Beyond the Skies, #1) by Molly X. Chang
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, dystopian, epic fantasy, historical fantasy, science fiction, space opera
Series: Gods Beyond the Skies #1
Pages: 368
Length: 10 hours and 41 minutes
Published by Del Rey, Random House Audio on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

She has power over death. He has power over her. When two enemies strike a dangerous bargain, will they end a war . . . or ignite one?
Heroes die, cowards live. Daughter of a conquered world, Ruying hates the invaders who descended from the heavens long before she was born and defeated the magic of her people with technologies unlike anything her world had ever seen.
Blessed by Death, born with the ability to pull the life right out of mortal bodies, Ruying shouldn’t have to fear these foreign invaders, but she does. Especially because she wants to keep herself and her family safe.
When Ruying’s Gift is discovered by an enemy prince, he offers her an impossible deal: If she becomes his private assassin and eliminates his political rivals—whose deaths he swears would be for the good of both their worlds and would protect her people from further brutalization—her family will never starve or suffer harm again. But to accept this bargain, she must use the powers she has always feared, powers that will shave years off her own existence.
Can Ruying trust this prince, whose promises of a better world make her heart ache and whose smiles make her pulse beat faster? Are the evils of this agreement really in the service of a much greater good? Or will she betray her entire nation by protecting those she loves the most?

My Review:

I picked this up because I had the opportunity to get the audiobook from Libro.fm, saw that the narrator, Natalie Naudus, is one of my faves, looked at the summary and thought to myself that this had terrific possibilities and figured I’d be in for a decent if not outright excellent listening/reading time.

It was not to be. It was not to be so hard that I bailed on the audio at the 30% mark and it’s not the narrator’s fault. Really, truly, seriously, it’s not her fault. Natalie Naudus, as always, does a great job with the first person perspective of a protagonist who is expected to be kickass or at least grow into that role. (In this case, it may have been a bit too good of a job, as it felt like I was right there with her in a story where I’d have much preferred to be at a remove or ten.)

That decent to excellent time is not what I got. What I got for that first 30% felt like torture porn, and experiencing that neverending torment from inside the character’s own head was literally more than I could take. To the point where, if you’ve followed my comments about the book I flailed and bailed on that set nearly a whole week of reviews off-kilter, you’ve found it. This was it.

And damn was I surprised about that.

So I flailed, and bailed – also ranted and raved (not in a good way) – but in the end I finished in text. Because when I looked at the text to see where I stopped the audio, to figure out if the situation got redeemed at all, I learned that in the very next sentence – which of course I couldn’t see in the audio – the thing that nearly made me turn this book into a wallbanger in spite of a) the potential for having to replace my iphone and b) I was driving – didn’t actually happen.

Not that the character and I hadn’t already been tortured plenty at that point. But it was enough to bring me back if only to find out whether the situation got better – or worse.

The answer, as it turned out, was both.

Escape Rating D: If The Poppy War and Babel had an ugly, squalling bookbaby, To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods would be it. I loved The Poppy War, but had deeply serious issues with Babel which pretty much sums up my feelings about To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods in a desicated, unsightly, possibly even poisonous nutshell.

And that requires some explanation. Possibly a whole lot of it.

This story sits uneasily on a whole lot of crossing points. It’s right on the border between YA and Adult AND it’s at the intersection of historical fantasy with science fiction as well as at least hinting at being a romantasy – which it absolutely is not in spite of those hints in the blurb – even as it turns out to be post-apocalyptic and utterly dystopian in ways that are not hinted at anywhere at all.

And it’s torture porn. By that I mean that the entire first third of the story focuses on a protagonist whose entire life seems to be made of various axes on which she is ground, tortured and punished.

She’s female in a society that makes her property of the male head of household – in a line where those men squandered the family fortune on gambling and drugs one after another. She has magic powers that make her a target for people who want to use her gifts until those gifts use her up – and people who want to destroy her where she stands for a gift that many deem anathema.

Her entire world is under the boot heel of an overwhelming empire – in this I believe the story is intended to reference the Opium Wars and their oppressors are intended to stand in for the British Empire even if they are called Romans.

That her sister is addicted to a substance named “Opian”, provided by the Romans and engineered by the Romans to bring their society down even faster adds to that resemblance as well as to the protagonist’s torture.

That she’s 19, her sister’s and her grandmother’s only real support, and that her cultural conditioning has her blaming herself for everything wrong in their lives – including the invasion by the Romans before she was even born – is just terrible icing on an already unsightly cake overflowing with oppression and self-flagellation.

Ruying, her family and her whole entire world are in deep, deep trouble with no way out that anyone can see. I got that. I got that LONG before the story didn’t so much come out of the mire as it did finally start sloshing through the muck to the even more epically fucked up political shenanigans that are at the heart of everything that’s gone wrong for Ruying’s people.

Once the story finally, FINALLY started to reveal what was really happening and why and how, the situation got more interesting even as Ruying wallowed even more deeply in her personal angst and kept right on torturing herself every literally bloody step of the way.

At the very, very end, after all the blood and gore and guts and not very much plot movement forward, the story finally shows a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, reveals that the light is an oncoming train, and at least displays a glimmer of a hint of action in this book’s sequel, titled either Immortal the Blood or  To Kill a Monstrous Prince, which will be coming out this time net year.

This reader, at least, has no plans to be there for it. I’ve been tormented enough. Your reading mileage (and/or listening mileage) may vary.

#AudioBookReview: The Bodies in the Library by Marty Wingate

#AudioBookReview: The Bodies in the Library by Marty WingateThe Bodies in the Library (First Edition Library Mystery, #1) by Marty Wingate
Narrator: Fiona Hardingham
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: First Edition Library Mystery #1
Pages: 315
Length: 9 hours and 23 minutes
Published by Berkley on October 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Hayley Burke has landed a dream job. She is the new curator of Lady Georgiana Fowling's First Edition library. The library is kept at Middlebank House, a lovely Georgian home in Bath, England. Hayley lives on the premises and works with the finicky Glynis Woolgar, Lady Fowling's former secretary.
Mrs. Woolgar does not like Hayley's ideas to modernize The First Edition Society and bring in fresh blood. And she is not even aware of the fact that Hayley does not know the first thing about the Golden Age of Mysteries. Hayley is faking it till she makes it, and one of her plans to breathe new life into the Society is actually taking flight--an Agatha Christie fan fiction writers group is paying dues to meet up at Middlebank House.
But when one of the group is found dead in the venerable stacks of the library, Hayley has to catch the killer to save the Society and her new job.

My Review:

I have never been so happy to see a dead body in all of my reading life as I was when Tristram Cummins’ corpse was discovered in the library of Middlebank House, the home of the late Lady Georgiana Fowling’s First Edition Society.

Lady Georgiana Fowling died of natural causes – after all the woman was 92! – four years before this story begins. She was a collector of works written by the female authors of the Golden Age of Mystery, particularly Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, among others. Daphne du Maurier’s works are also included in the library, not because she wrote mysteries – not exactly – but because she was a personal favorite of the late Lady Fowling.

Lady Fowling may be dead, but the Board of the charitable society that inherited her house and its contents – along with Lady Fowling’s secretary and personal assistant, Mrs. Glynis Woolgar – seem determined to preserve the library, the house, and its contents like a fly trapped in amber. Even if that is far from what Lady Fowling would have ever desired.

Hayley Burke, the newly appointed curator of the library, is determined to move the Society and its Library into the 21st century. She sees her job as placing the Library as prominently on the list of Bath’s literary-related attractions, such as the nearby Jane Austen Centre, as can possibly be arranged as quickly as can be managed. Or can be gotten past the Board and the Society’s Secretary.

Even though Hayley doesn’t know a thing about the Golden Age of Mystery – she knows plenty about ways that a literary site can put itself on the map, having previously worked – albeit in a rather junior position – at the Jane Austen Centre which has done an excellent job of just that.

The discovery of a body in the Society’s library, the morning after a contentious meeting of a local writers’ group, seems a bit too much like it’s straight out of the pages of one of the Agatha Christie novels sitting on a nearby shelf, The Body in the Library.

Whether inspired by Christie or not, that discovery, and the police investigation that ensues, certainly does put the First Edition Society on the map and at the top of mind of a whole lot of people who would otherwise never have heard of the place – in spite of Hayley’s best efforts.

But it’s not the kind of attention either Hayler or the Society actually wants. Because with all of the amateur and professional sleuths on the premises, someone will eventually deduce that the one person who should be an expert, the curator herself, doesn’t have a clue.

Escape Rating B: As much as I usually enjoy this author – and I’m particularly loving her London Ladies’ Murder Club (starting with A Body on the Doorstep) these days – I remember that I bounced off of this particular book really hard but didn’t remember exactly why.

So when I hit a hard flail and bail last week, in conjunction with a 2-for-1 sale at Audible, I picked this up in audio out of a bit of desperation. I knew that whatever had made me set this book aside when it came out, it couldn’t possibly be the same thing that was driving me away from the book I had just stopped listening to – with extreme prejudice – in the present.

I started the audio of The Bodies in the Library and figured out pretty quickly what drove me away the first time. OMG but Hayley Burke begins this story as a complete and utter doormat, and her doormat persona has invaded every part of her life.

This story is told in the first person, so we’re inside Hayley’s head – and it’s kind of a boring place to be, quite possibly because it seems like there’s no spine holding it up. Her long-distance boyfriend, her adult daughter, and her repressive, stick-up-her-bum colleague all walk all over her at every turn.

I could rant, but I’ll refrain. The work parts of this exhibition of lack of backbone are the one part of Hayley’s situation that make sense, as these two women share both the job and the house and making an actual enemy out of her recalcitrant colleague is the recipe for a very quick job change that Hayley can’t afford to make.

Howsomever, on top of the more personal aspects of her spinelessness it drove me round the twist. At least until Trist, the leader of that writers’ group, is found dead on the floor of the library and the pace of the story picks up while Hayley picks up her big girl panties and finally starts dealing with her life as well as the mystery that has been literally dropped in her lap.

One of the more, let’s call it awkward, parts of Hayley’s character at the beginning is that she doesn’t merely have impostor syndrome – don’t we all on occasion – but that she IS an actual impostor. She’s not REALLY qualified for the well-compensated job she lucked into. Hayley knows nothing about the Golden Age of Mystery as she specialized in 19th century literature for her degree. For a lot of the story, we see her flailing about in an attempt to hide her lack of knowledge – what we don’t see is her actually rectifying that lack until after the body drops. It’s clear that her continuing forays into the world of Golden Age mystery is going to be part of her journey – and will hopefully induce readers to do the same – but early on I found myself wondering, repeatedly and OFTEN, why she didn’t just stream a whole lot of video because they’ve ALL been done. It wouldn’t have been the same as reading the books, but it would certainly have given her a leg up that she desperately needed.

Speaking of media, however, the audio was fine, and it certainly got me over the rough first third of the book that drove me away the first time around. So I’m glad I picked it up – even though once the story finally got started I got more than caught up in it enough to want to find out whodunnit a whole lot faster than audio would allow.

The advent of that body in the library (all due apologies to Agatha Christie because the cases aren’t much the same after all) turns out to be the making of both Hayley and the story as a whole, which is the reason I ended up at a ‘B’ grade in spite of the character’s and the story’s frustrating and glacially paced opening. By the end, the whole thing shows a LOT of promise, to the point where I’m sure I’ll pick up the next book in the series, Murder is a Must, the next time I’m in the mood for a very cozy and gentle mystery.

Or I want to see how the Library’s cat Bunter is doing with the new visitors that Hayley is hopefully bringing to the place!

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica Roth

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica RothWhen Among Crows by Veronica Roth
Narrator: Helen Laser, James Fouhey, Tim Campbell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 176
Length: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When Among Crows is swift and striking, drawing from the deep well of Slavic folklore and asking if redemption and atonement can be found in embracing what we most fear.
We bear the sword, and we bear the pain of the sword.
Pain is Dymitr’s calling. His family is one in a long line of hunters who sacrifice their souls to slay monsters. Now he’s tasked with a deadly mission: find the legendary witch Baba Jaga. To reach her, Dymitr must ally with the ones he’s sworn to kill.
Pain is Ala’s inheritance. A fear-eating zmora with little left to lose, Ala awaits death from the curse she carries. When Dymitr offers her a cure in exchange for her help, she has no choice but to agree.
Together they must fight against time and the wrath of the Chicago underworld. But Dymitr’s secrets—and his true motives—may be the thing that actually destroys them.

My Review:

There’s an old Polish saying – not the one you’re thinking of, at least not yet – that translates as “Not my circus, not my monkeys” Which pretty much sums up the attitude of the first zmora that Dymitr approaches in regards to the very dangerous trade he wants to make.

The second zmora comes to him, because what he’s offering IS her cursed circus and those are her damned monkeys. Or, to be a bit more on the nose about the whole thing, it is her murder – or at least it will be – and those are her crows, who are already flocking to the scene.

Dymitr has acquired a legendary magical artifact that holds the possibility of a cure for the curse that Ala suffers from. A curse that killed her mother, her aunt, and her cousin, and is now killing her. A curse that will pass down her bloodline to the next female relative in line – no matter how distant – until the whole line is wiped out.

In return, Dymitr wants an introduction to another legendary ‘artifact’, the powerful witch Baba Jaga [that’s how her name is spelled in the book]. As merely a human, Dymitr does not have access to the places and people that will get him to his goal. As a zmora, while Ala does not know Baba Jaga at all, she does have contacts who can at least get Dymitr a few steps further along on the quest that he refuses to either name or explain.

Their journey proves to be a very different “magical mystery tour” than the one that the Beatles sang about, observing the different magical populations that have migrated to Chicago from his native Poland, and how each group abides by the proverb, “When among crows, caw as the crows do.”

The zmora, who feed on fear, operate movie theaters that feature horror movies, the strzygi, who live on anger and aggression, run underground fight clubs, while the llorona, who collect sorrow, own a chain of hospice centers. It’s all perfectly legal, or at least most of it is. And the parts that aren’t, the strzygi fight clubs, fit right in with the rest of the organized crime and corruption that operates in Chicago.

The supernatural have learned to caw like the crows do, the better to hide from the powerful so-called ‘Holy Order’ that hunts down anyone and anything it deems to be ‘not human enough’. And isn’t that the most human impulse of all?

An impulse, and a life, that Dmitry is willing to cut himself off from – literally as well as figuratively – at any and all cost. Even the cost of the humanity that his family has held so dear over the centuries.

All he needs to do is find Baba Jaga – and pay whatever price she demands in order to cut the sword out of his back once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve frequently said that a story has to be just about perfect to make the leap from an A- to an A. This one absolutely did, and listening to the audio put it over the top into A+. With bells on. To the point where I have to restrain myself from just squeeing all over the place.

The tone of When Among Crows felt very much like ‘old school’ urban fantasy before it left its horror with mystery roots behind to fall down the paranormal romance rabbit hole. Not that I don’t love a good paranormal with a kickass heroine posed on the cover in an utterly impossible position, but those got to dominating the genre and that’s not all I wanted from it.

(The blurb implies a romantic relationship between Dymitr and Ala. Don’t be fooled, that is absolutely not what is going on here – and it shouldn’t be. The relationship they are scrabbling towards is family, that the pain they have both suffered, and from the same source, can lead to them finding the family ties that pain has cost them with each other.)

At the same time, the way this story drew in so many Slavic myths and legends that I itched for a mythopedia (I was driving, that would have had terrible consequences) reminded me, a lot and very fondly, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, because that book gave me the same vibes – along with the same dilemma – and I listened to it well before the Annotated Edition was published. I won’t say that When Among Crows was better, because American Gods had a much larger scope, but for the smaller size of the package of Crows, it still managed to evoke that same sense of memory and wonder, that so much that is old and weird still walks among us hidden in plain sight – made all that much more poignant in that the place the weird is hiding is the darker corners of Chicago – a city that has always had plenty.

When Among Crows was utterly enchanting, and I was totally enchanted by it, staying up entirely too late to finish the audio because it was just that good. While the story was relatively short, it also went surprisingly deep, and then came around full circle in a way that surprised and delighted even as it led to a delicious sort of closure that I wasn’t expecting but utterly loved.

#AudioBookReview: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Natalie Jenner

#AudioBookReview: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Natalie JennerEvery Time We Say Goodbye (Jane Austen Society, #3) by Natalie Jenner
Narrator: Juliet Aubrey
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Series: Jane Austen Society #3
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 37 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, St. Martin's Press on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls returns with a brilliant novel of love and art, of grief and memory, of confronting the past and facing the future.
In 1955, Vivien Lowry is facing the greatest challenge of her life. Her latest play, the only female-authored play on the London stage that season, has opened in the West End to rapturous applause from the audience. The reviewers, however, are not as impressed as the playgoers and their savage notices not only shut down the play but ruin Lowry's last chance for a dramatic career. With her future in London not looking bright, at the suggestion of her friend, Peggy Guggenheim, Vivien takes a job in as a script doctor on a major film shooting in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. There she finds a vibrant movie making scene filled with rising stars, acclaimed directors, and famous actors in a country that is torn between its past and its potentially bright future, between the liberation of the post-war cinema and the restrictions of the Catholic Church that permeates the very soul of Italy.
As Vivien tries to forge a new future for herself, she also must face the long-buried truth of the recent World War and the mystery of what really happened to her deceased fiancé. Every Time We Say Goodbye is a brilliant exploration of trauma and tragedy, hope and renewal, filled with dazzling characters both real and imaginary, from the incomparable author who charmed the world with her novels The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls.

My Review:

I picked this up because I loved the author’s earlier book, The Jane Austen Society, and hoped for more of the same. Which I got in a couple of surprising ways. First, part of my love for that first book was in the audiobook narrator, Richard Armitage (yes, Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit movies). Second, that this book is loosely connected to both that book and to her second book, Bloomsbury Girls, but it’s a loose connection and you absolutely do not need to have read either of the others to get into this one.

The first goodbye in Every Time We Say Goodbye takes place in 1943, in Occupied Italy during the midst of World War II. It’s the final goodbye between the infamous ‘La Scolaretta’, AKA the ‘Schoolgirl Assassin’, and her lover after she has committed the assassination that both ensures her immediate death and her eternal ‘life’ as a martyr to the cause..

The rest of the story spirals out from that first/last goodbye – and moves forward to 1955 even as it circles back to Rome, the scene of La Scolaretta’s last and most dangerous assignment. It’s a world that is doing its best to move on and forget – even as entirely too many people’s lives seem to be frozen in that moment – or in moments much too much like it.

On the surface of this story, there’s glitz and glamour, the escape of the movie industry and the films it produces – along with the kind of frenetic partying that drove the Jazz Age of the 1920s – another post-war era.

Vivien Lowry has brought herself and her heavy emotional baggage from London to Rome, to escape the failure of her latest play on the London stage by taking a job as a ‘script doctor’ to American ex-pats filming in Italy to escape the political witch hunts back home.

She is also in Italy to say her own final goodbyes – if she can find a place to actually do that. Her fiance was presumed killed in action in the war, but late news has reached her that he was transported to Italy as a POW and died in a POW camp or escaping from it and not on the battlefield as was originally supposed. Or maybe he didn’t.

Vivien is tracking down the shattered remnants of her heart, so she can bury them along with the hopes and dreams of the future that they represent. Along the way, she meets the glitterati of the heyday of Italian movie making, while dropping a whole lot of very real names of the rich and famous.

And she falls in love. Or maybe she doesn’t. She certainly gets caught up in a relationship that is going absolutely nowhere – only to discover that her lover isn’t the man he pretended to be. Then again, she pretended that her heart was open, when it’s still buried in a past that never was – and never will be again, now matter how hard she chases after it.

But it just might manage to catch up with her if she stops running long enough to let it.

Escape Rating B: Before I get to the story of the book, I absolutely need to say something about the audiobook. Specifically, that the audiobook is excellent. The reader, Juliet Aubrey, was a perfect choice and she made the whole thing better and carried me through even at points where I wondered how the parts of the story connected to each other because she was just awesome.

Which circles back to the story itself, which sometimes felt as if it, well, didn’t exactly circle back and connect up. So the TL;DR version of this review is that, as a story, its reach very much exceeded its grasp.

There is, of course, a much longer version of that, because there is a tremendous amount going on in this story with a corresponding large cast of characters.

There are two timelines, and the reader keeps wondering how they’re going to come together in the end – only for this reader, at least, to wish they hadn’t.

Yes, I know my flailing is getting worse. But it fits.

The through story, the one we’re following, takes place in Rome in 1955 at what may have been the height of the Italian film industry. The story that they, the characters in the story, are following is the 1943 story about the famous and/or infamous guerilla fighter, La Scolaretta – the schoolgirl assassin.

The characters in 1955 are living their current lives following that story because they are writing it, filming it, still affected by it, still suffering from it, still mourning it, unable to get past it and/or absolutely all of the above.

La Scolaretta’s last target, and her subsequent capture, torture and execution, is a fixed point in time that no one can walk past or turn away from. Both for itself and as a symbol of the war and the acts that people were driven to during it.

As a consequence, the story has a LOT to say about war in general, World War II in particular, the evils that humans generally and specifically did as a result of both of them, as well as guilt, grief, escape, survival, life, death and how all of those things are impacted by survival.

It’s a lot of weight for one story to carry, and these characters, especially Vivien Lowry as the point-of-view character, have a lot to say about all of them, which leads to a lot of justified angst and downright philosophizing on her part that suffuses the whole story.

But the philosophizing also got in the way of the story – possibly as intended because Vivien, as a writer herself, doesn’t so much experience her own emotions as she does explain them or distance them through her writing.

(In addition to Vivien’s personal angsting and philosophizing, the story also had a TON of things to say about the conflict between the need of certain institutions to rug-sweep their activities during the war, the desire of governments and individuals to put the war behind them as quickly as possible, the human desire to leave the tragedy behind vs the need to record and remember everything that happened in the hopes of staving the tragedy off earlier the next time around, AND, on top of all that, foreshadowing the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. It was a LOT and the story was already a LOT and we’re back to the reach exceeding the grasp again. All of the issues the story touched on were important but maybe they didn’t need to all be in the same book. Or the book needed to be an actual trilogy – at least.)

So as much as I felt compelled to finish the story (and I was absolutely riveted most of the way through) to see if the past directly connected to their present – or if it just exposed it or talked around it. Which it didn’t quite in either direction. But it did seem like it came to a kind of a satisfactory conclusion even if Vivien’s happy ever after came a bit out of the blue. She still found closure for as much of her past as was possible.

But we didn’t. The conclusion we thought we had got pulled out from under the reader in the end – and I was left wishing it hadn’t. OTOH, war doesn’t really have any neat and tidy endings either, and perhaps that was the point after all.

.

 

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Funny Story by Emily Henry

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Funny Story by Emily HenryFunny Story by Emily Henry
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Length: 11 hours and 23 minutes
Published by Berkley, Random House Audio on April 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A shimmering, joyful new novel about a pair of opposites with the wrong thing in common.
Daphne always loved the way her fiancé Peter told their story. How they met (on a blustery day), fell in love (over an errant hat), and moved back to his lakeside hometown to begin their life together. He really was good at telling it…right up until the moment he realized he was actually in love with his childhood best friend Petra.
Which is how Daphne begins her new story: Stranded in beautiful Waning Bay, Michigan, without friends or family but with a dream job as a children’s librarian (that barely pays the bills), and proposing to be roommates with the only person who could possibly understand her predicament: Petra’s ex, Miles Nowak.
Scruffy and chaotic—with a penchant for taking solace in the sounds of heart break love ballads—Miles is exactly the opposite of practical, buttoned up Daphne, whose coworkers know so little about her they have a running bet that she’s either FBI or in witness protection. The roommates mainly avoid one another, until one day, while drowning their sorrows, they form a tenuous friendship and a plan. If said plan also involves posting deliberately misleading photos of their summer adventures together, well, who could blame them?
But it’s all just for show, of course, because there’s no way Daphne would actually start her new chapter by falling in love with her ex-fiancé’s new fiancée’s ex…right?

My Review:

This is not a meet-cute, it’s more like a meet-really-really-ugly. But it starts with a meet-cute. It’s just that the meet-cute is NOT between our protagonists Daphne and Miles. It’s between Daphne and her very suddenly ex-fiancé Peter. There may, or may not, have been another meet-cute between Miles and his equally suddenly ex-girlfriend Petra – but that really doesn’t matter by the time we meet all of the above.

Because of all of that VERY sudden ex-ing that happened. In the wee hours after Peter’s bachelor party, between Peter and his childhood bestie, the beautiful Petra. The woman he claimed had always been a platonic friend. Always.

At least until Petra confessed to Peter, when they were alone in the aftermath of that bachelor party, which of course Petra attended because she was, after all, his bestie, that she was in love with him and couldn’t watch him marry someone else without letting him know that.

The resulting mess – and was it ever a mess – left Daphne with one week to move out of the house that she and Peter were supposed to share, alone in the small town she’d moved to because that’s what HE wanted, with no support network because all of “their” friends were really his friends – and a job she loved and didn’t want to leave in a place she could no longer bear to stay.

Not too far away, in that same tiny little town, Petra’s ex Miles was left with an apartment he could only afford half the rent on, in a town that he felt like he’d made his own, with an utterly shattered heart.

Daphne, ever practical EXCEPT when it came to Peter, made Miles an offer he literally couldn’t afford to refuse. His need for a roommate dovetailed heartbreakingly and conveniently with her need for a place to live.

They may have agreed to be roommates out of their shared tragedy but they are definitely respectful of each other’s space and each other’s brokenness. At least until they both receive invitations to – you guessed it! – Peter and Petra’s upcoming nuptials. After a long and very drunken night of shared drinking, ranting and more than occasional sobbing, Daphne and Miles decide that living well – or at least the appearance of it – will be their revenge on their exes.

They RSVP to the wedding of the people they each once believed to be the love of their lives, together. And to back that up, they post a selfie that gives the unmistakable impression that they’ve found the new loves of their own lives – with each other.

Miles is certain that they can keep up the pretense of dating each other for the summer – just long enough to get past that dreadful wedding. Daphne isn’t nearly so sure – but she’s willing to try. She certainly expects it all to go terribly, terribly wrong long before they reach that Labor Day weekend disaster-ganza. And it very nearly does.

At least until it all starts going terribly, terribly right.

Escape Rating A: I started out listening to this one, and that’s probably what got me over the hump of the early chapters. This is one of those stories that, of necessity, has a very hard start. We meet Daphne just after very nearly the entire life she had planned crashed and burned. She’s wallowing in a whole lot of angst and regret and self-recrimination, nearly buried by the weight of her emotional baggage piling up all around her. Listening to the excellent narrator makes the listener feel like they are literally inside Daphne’s mostly despairing head and it’s a realistically well-portrayed terrible place to be.

Fortunately for the reader/listener and Daphne, it really does get better – mostly thanks to Miles – who very nearly crashes and burns it all around her again.

The thing that keeps the whole meet-ugly/meet-cute of the thing from going over the top is that Peter in particular may be the villain of this piece – which he definitely turns out to be – but he isn’t evil. He’s certainly awful, and he displays all of his awful bits over the course of the story – but he’s not actually, technically, evil. He’s just selfish and self-centered and more than a bit spoiled.

Daphne was willing to continue spoiling him because he represented something she’d never had – stability. Her dad was mostly absent and generally in the midst of his next big score that never materialized. Her mother was the very best in Daphne’s eyes, but they moved a LOT in pursuit of financial security and Daphne stopped bothering to make connections because she knew they’d never survive a move. Peter, his large, loving family and his wide circle of lifelong friends is a situation she wants to be adopted into wholesale so she lets herself be surrounded and subsumed into it.

Only to be confronted with the fact that it was never really hers – and neither was Peter. (Although that turns out to have been dodging a bullet she never would have seen coming.)

The fun part of this story – and it mostly is fun after that first long, deep and totally justified wallow – is watching the way that Miles courts Daphne by getting her to fall in love with tiny, slightly touristy, totally scenic, Waning Bay Michigan. He loves the town that he’s adopted and been adopted by, and does his damndest to share that love with Daphne. That he makes the town irresistible makes him irresistible and their hesitant steps toward a relationship turn this story into a marvelous kind of dance of a romance.

That, at the very same time, Daphne uses the foundation of having a job that she totally loves – even if it barely pays the bills – to put herself out there in the sense of opening herself up to the possibilities of deep and true friendship and fellowship – is what makes this story so much her journey to happiness and fulfillment. Whether or not, in the end, either of those things includes Miles, or Waning Bay, or both, or neither.

That Peter ultimately gets the shaft all the way around turned out to be merely the icing on a very tasty cake of a book – or perhaps that should be the slathering of cheese and jalapenos on a fresh, hot serving of Petoskey fries. The part that makes a good thing just that much better.

My favorite of Emily Henry’s books is still Book Lovers, but Funny Story definitely moved into the runner-up slot. I loved that Daphne was a librarian, and she definitely read like “one of us” while her Waning Bay Library read as both realistic and on the good side of places to work – except for the poor salary which was equally realistic – dammit.

I’ve read all of the author’s adult books except for People We Meet on Vacation, which I can feel climbing the virtually towering TBR pile as I type this. It looks like a perfect book to pick up later this summer – when we’re on vacation!

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel AllendeLovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende
Narrator: Nicholas Boulton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, short stories
Pages: 25
Length: 38 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories on April 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Wind Knows My Name comes a mesmerizing tale of two passionate souls who share one magical night that defies all rational explanation.
Love, be it wild or tender, often defies logic. In fact, at times, the only rationale behind the instant connection of two souls is plain magic.
Bibiña Aranda, runaway bride, wakes up in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao still wearing her wedding dress, draped in the loving arms of a naked man whose name she doesn’t know. She and the man with no clothes, Indar Zubieta, attempt to explain to the authorities how they got there. It’s a story of love at first sight and experience beyond compare, one that involves a dreamlike journey through the museum.
But the lovers’ transcendent night bears no resemblance to the crude one Detective Larramendi attempts to reconstruct. And no amount of fantastical descriptions can convince the irritated inspector of the truth.
Allende’s dreamy short story has the power to transport readers in any language, leaving them to ponder the wonders of love long after the story’s over.

My Review:

Lovers at the Museum caught my eye primarily for the audiobook. The narrator, Nicholas Boulton, is the voice of one of my favorite characters in the video game Mass Effect Andromeda. (A game that is much better than the reviews would lead one to believe, but that is not the topic of this review.)

Back on topic, at least a bit more on topic, I have to say that he didn’t sound much like that character in this narration, which I should have expected because they’re not remotely alike nor should they be and that’s just plain good acting.

Which leads me back, again, by a meandering path, to this lovely little short story about, well, love, and magic, and the magic of love.

Although it starts out with the evidence of a whole lot of lust – as that’s a much easier thing to get a handle on – particularly when one of the protagonists is still presenting a handle. So to speak.

Ahem.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of modern and contemporary art in Spain’s Basque region (pictured at left) is already a magical place, both for its bulky, blocky and some would even say Brutalist, design, and in this story, at least, for the strange and weird things that happen within its walls.

This incident would add to that legend.

The morning staff of the museum discovered two disheveled, entwined, partially nude lovers in one of the galleries sleeping off a night of lustful debauchery that shouldn’t have happened at all. Not for particularly nefarious reasons but simply because they entered while the museum was closed – and should have triggered alarms in every single room they came into – which seems to have been all of them.

They say the door opened for them. They claim that they weren’t really in the museum, but in a magical pleasure palace.

The local police inspector, with a reputation for finding hidden clues, eliciting damning confessions, and a dogged determination to punish the guilty, is frustrated that he can’t break their ridiculous stories and isn’t sure what crime, if any, they actually committed.

It seems as if the magic of the Guggenheim claimed the lovers that incredible night, and it’s taking away the inspector’s will to punish them in the cold light of day.

Escape Rating B: This is short and very, very sweet – even though the inspector is downright salty for a lot of the story.

There’s a lot of salt to be had – at least from his perspective. He’s sure that someone HAS to be guilty of something prosecutable, and that someone is lying to him.

(I was betting on the museum officials lying to cover up less than attentive guards and not so secure security. It seemed like the obvious solution. Which it is logically but then again, this is about magic.)

The inspector wants to punish the lovers for their vice and their disrespect of the museum. But mostly because he envies them the magic of their love – something that is clearly lacking in his own life in spite of his decades long marriage – or perhaps because of it. That’s a bit hard to tell, but it’s sad no matter how one looks at it. Unless one is the inspector, in which case it’s downright tragic.

In the end, it all boils down to magic, the kind of magical realism that takes a story out of the everyday and sprinkles a bit of fairy dust over the proceedings. So short, sweet and utterly charming – including the inspector’s bluster.

Even better, if Isabel Allende is an author you’ve heard about but haven’t ever actually read – as was true for this reader – or if you’re not sure whether or not magical realism could be a flavor in your jam – this delightful short is the perfect way to stick your reading toe into magical realism with an author who is considered a master of the genre.

#AudioBookReview: Close to Death by Anthony Horowitz

#AudioBookReview: Close to Death by Anthony HorowitzClose to Death (Hawthorne & Horowitz, #5) by Anthony Horowitz
Narrator: Rory Kinnear
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Hawthorne and Horowitz #5
Pages: 419
Length: 9 hours and 12 minutes
Published by Harper, HarperAudio on April 11, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In New York Times–bestselling author Anthony Horowitz’s ingenious fifth literary whodunit in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, Detective Hawthorne is once again called upon to solve an unsolvable case—a gruesome murder in an idyllic gated community in which suspects abound
Riverside Close is a picture-perfect community. The six exclusive and attractive houses are tucked far away from the noise and grime of city life, allowing the residents to enjoy beautiful gardens, pleasant birdsong and tranquility from behind the security of a locked gate.
It is the perfect idyll until the Kentworthy family arrives, with their four giant, gas-guzzling cars, a gaggle of shrieking children and plans for a garish swimming pool in the backyard. Obvious outsiders, the Kentworthys do not belong in Riverside Close, and they quickly offend every last one of their neighbours.
When Giles Kentworthy is found dead on his own doorstep, a crossbow bolt sticking out of his chest, Detective Hawthorne is the only investigator that can be called on to solve the case.
Because how do you solve a murder when everyone is a suspect?

My Review:

There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of Giles Kenworthy and the other residents of Riverview Close it seems as if the contempt came pre-installed – at least on his side and well before he actually got to know any of his neighbors. If indeed he ever bothered to try.

Kenworthy seems to be one of those smug, self-involved, ultra-privileged individuals who go through life completely unable to see other people as, well, people. Meaning that he simply doesn’t notice how much the noise and smoke from his backyard barbecues affects the neighbors he can’t be bothered to invite, he doesn’t care that the loud music he plays on his convertible wakes up the entire neighborhood when he comes home in the middle of the night and parks the damn car in the middle of a shared driveway and blocks the neighbors in.

It seems as if Kenworthy’s inconsideration knows no bounds. He’s certainly brought utter disharmony to what was formerly seemed to be a close-knit and completely harmonious little community.

But is being a boor – even to the point of being a total arsehole (it’s arse, they’re English) – enough of a reason to actually murder someone?

That’s the problem that confronted Detective Superintendent Tariq Khan five years ago when he began his investigation of the murder of Giles Kenworthy, in the foyer of his expensive home, with a crossbow bolt through his throat.

And it’s the exact same question confronting Tony Horowitz – along with the ridiculously short deadline his editor has given him for the fifth book in the series following the investigations of former Metropolitan Police Detective Daniel Hawthorne as Tony follows literally behind the man as his bumbling sidekick.

But not this time, not exactly. Because Hawthorne can’t exactly call up an interesting murder to order. So instead of following the detective as he works a case, Tony is stuck with following Hawthorne on a past case through the extensive notes left by Hawthorne’s previous assistant, the considerably less bumbling John Dudley.

Tony is even more curious about the man who preceded him than he is about whodunnit. By this point in his association with Hawthorne he knows that he’s not going to get even close to the solution until Hawthorne leads him there – most likely by the nose at that.

Which leaves Tony doing a bit of snooping on his own – not into Giles Kenworthy’s murder – but into John Dudley’s exit from Daniel Hawthorne’s life. Something that it looks like no one wants him to look into – but that might just lead him back to an entirely different whodunnit.

Escape Rating B+: Hawthorne drives Tony crazy. This series generally drives me crazy. This particular entry drove me so crazy I switched from the audio – which was, as always in this series, and with this narrator, marvelous – to the ebook at the halfway point because I was going nuts trying to figure out anything at all. My luck is no better than Tony’s usually is because the cases Hawthorne ends up investigating are so bizarre AND the man dribbles out clues like a miser drops pennies.

But by that point I was so caught up in the thing that I didn’t thumb to the end to find out whodunnit – I just read faster to get there in one hour instead of five for the audio.

At first, I have to say that I only hung in because of the audio. Because the first section is all set up and it takes more than long enough that the reader is downright grateful when the body finally drops – particularly as the body that drops seems like it couldn’t have belonged to a more deserving fellow.

At that point, the story switches from third person – which just felt WRONG for this series because it is – back to Tony’s first person perspective where he proceeds to hang a lampshade over just how trite and boring that long set up is.

After all, Giles Kenworthy was a seriously deserving murder victim and all of the issues among the residents of Riverview Close – except for the woman suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and the death of that poor dog – are very much first world problems and rich people’s first world problems at that. Which does lead back to the question of whether the man deserved to be murdered.

(Maybe for the dog, but not the rest. For the rest, maybe some slashed tires, or a thorough egging of both the house AND the open convertible. Or some maybe not-so-petty vandalism. But not murder.)

Normally this series works by following Tony as he follows Hawthorne and bumbles his way through the man’s genius and misanthropy to a solution. This time was a bit different, and I don’t think it entirely worked.

Because Hawthorne is reluctant to have Tony look into this case, parsimonious with clues and information, and doing his damndest to micromanage Tony’s writing process to the point of obstruction, the story is on two tracks.

The first is, obviously, the murder. Which is as twisty as ever and Tony is as lost as always but doggedly pursuing a solution even though he can’t see it because he knows Hawthorne can. At least until that thread of the story goes temporarily – and deliberately – pear-shaped.

But it’s the other track that gave me some pause, because part of the point of the series is that Tony knows little or nothing about Hawthorne and Hawthorne does his best to make sure it stays that way. His mystery is part of, I don’t want to say charm because let’s just say that’s not Hawthorne’s strongest suit, but rather it’s part of the way he works AND what keeps Tony following him. This entry in the series pulled that curtain back a bit in ways that I really hope pay off later because it seemed like some of them belonged more to the author’s James Bond novels than Hawthorne and Horowitz.

In the end, I have to admit that I’m every bit as hooked on this series, as Tony is hooked on following after Hawthorne, sometimes in spite of himself. The books certainly drive me every bit as crazy as Hawthorne does Tony.

Which means that, as differently crazed as this entry was from some of the previous books in the series, I’m still riveted – sometimes in spite of myself. So I’ll be back for the next – whenever either Hawthorne manages to run across a conveniently timed twisted murder – or Tony gets faced with an urgent deadline for book six!

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ RozanThe Murder of Mr. Ma (Dee & Lao, #1) by John Shen Yen Nee, S.J. Rozan
Narrator: Daniel York Loh
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Dee & Lao #1
Pages: 312
Length: 8 hours and 24 minutes
Published by Recorded Books, Soho Crime on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, this stunning, swashbuckling series opener by a powerhouse duo of authors is at once comfortingly familiar and tantalizingly new.
Two unlikely allies race through the cobbled streets of 1920s London in search of a killer targeting Chinese immigrants.
London, 1924. When shy academic Lao She meets larger-than-life Judge Dee Ren Jie, his life abruptly turns from books and lectures to daring chases and narrow escapes. Dee has come to London to investigate the murder of a man he’d known during World War I when serving with the Chinese Labour Corps. No sooner has Dee interviewed the grieving widow than another dead body turns up. Then another. All stabbed to death withg a butterfly sword. Will Dee and Lao be able to connect the threads of the murders—or are they next in line as victims?
John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan’s groundbreaking collaboration blends traditional gong'an crime fiction and the most iconic aspects of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Dee and Lao encounter the aristocracy and the street-child telegraph, churchmen and thieves in this clever, cinematic mystery that’s as thrilling and visual as an action film, as imaginative and transporting as a timeless classic.

My Review:

It can be considered both sad and ironic that Ma Ze Ren had left his native China in pursuit of fortune and adventure among the Chinese Labour Corps in the trenches of World War I, survived, immigrated to London and opened a successful shop dealing in Chinese antiquities – having seemingly attained all that he had originally sought – only to be killed in the midst of his shop by means of one of those self-same antiquities he intended to sell.

When they both served in the Labour Corps, Ma Ze Ren and several of his compatriots had come to an agreement with the man who served as the liaison between the Chinese Labour Corps members and the British officers who used them as cannon fodder, Judge Dee Ren Jie, that Dee would make arrangements to send their bodies back home if the chances of war required such service.

The war may be long over when this story opens in 1924, but that contract still holds Judge Dee, so he has come to London to take care of Ma’s final arrangements. But before he can even begin, Dee is taken up in the midst of a labor riot along with other Chinese men protesting for fair wages and treatment in a city that considers them something less than fully human.

Which is where the chronicler of this tale, scholar and author Lao She, comes into the tale. Dee needs to be out of jail before an enemy realizes that he has this nemesis in his clutches. Bertrand Russell wishes to help his friend Dee without getting his own name attached to this scandalous business.

And Lao She is bored out of his mind – even if he is unwilling to admit it to himself – spending his days teaching Chinese language and literature to students who have no love or care for the language or the people who speak it, merely a desire to get a leg up on their fellows in the commercial opportunities opening up in a modernized China.

Lao is supposed to be clandestinely exchanged for Dee – but Lao gives away the game with every move he makes and every word he’s not supposed to be uttering. So a prison break it is, with Lao, Dee and Russell scattering along with the rest of the prisoners.

But Dee still has a mission, Lao has acquitted himself well in the melee and has acquired a taste for danger and adventure he never realized blazed within him. Reluctant partners, resistant friends, together they will uncover not one but two murder plots in a fascinating tale that takes readers from the homes of the intelligentsia to the alleys of Limehouse – with a stop among the pioneers of the silver screen along the heights and depths of its way – only to arrive frantic and breathless at one of the first principles in any investigation:

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Escape Rating A-: The Murder of Mr. Ma was the highlighted review in the online mystery/crime review newsletter First Clue several months ago, and something about that review caught my attention and held it more than long enough for me to mark the title in Edelweiss as “Highly Anticipated” and immediately grab it when my anticipation was rewarded with the availability of an eARC and later an early audiobook.

(The above is a hint. If you love mysteries, subscribe to First Clue!)

The comparison in many reviews of this book are to Holmes and Watson, particularly the Holmes played by Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie movies – because that particular version of Holmes is considerably more active than most.

As has been confessed before, I am a sucker for a Holmes pastiche, so I would have been interested in this book on that basis alone, but I think that quick comparison sells Dee and Lao and The Murder of Mr. Ma a bit short in this particular instance.

There is a surface resemblance in that Dee is the more active and experienced investigator – with or without resorting to the martial arts – while Lao, like Watson, is the newbie at this particular game and is tasked with creating a record of the adventure rather than necessarily figuring out the solution on his own. And if this combination appeals, Barker & Llewelyn are a bit closer analog than Holmes and Watson in more ways than the initially obvious.

What takes this story up another notch or ten is that both Dee and Lao were real historical figures – who never met due to having lived centuries apart. But Lao was a Chinese scholar in London during this period in real life, while Dee was a figure out of legend whose adventures were popularized by Robert van Gulik in the mid-20th century. (So if you think Dee’s name sounds familiar, that’s most likely the reason.)

Of course, what makes any mystery is the way the case itself is laid out and investigated, and that’s where this one draws the reader in its whirlwind every bit as much as Dee pulls Lao along in his wake. Because at first it seems as if the murder was a result of the prejudice and anti-Chinese sentiment that Dee, Lao and their countrymen face on every side in London in 1924, not helped at all by the popular “Yellow Peril” movies that play on and sensationalize the British fear of “the other”.

But the more Dee and Lao, with the able assistance and frequent succor of Dee’s friend Hoong, search for clues and motives, the less that simple but terrible conclusion feels like the entirety of the answer – not that it doesn’t underlay that answer but it’s just not the whole of the thing. Particularly as that answer is made even more elusive by Lao’s struggles with his pride and his naivete, and Dee’s ongoing attempts to extract himself from his opium addiction.

This is a mystery with layers surrounding layers, wheels within wheels, two investigators neither of whom are having their best day and criminals whose overweening pride finally gets in their way. And it’s marvelous.

The audiobook, narrated by Daniel York Loh,  was a delight, but as is so often the case, I switched to text near the end because I couldn’t figure it out either and I just HAD to know. I have two and only two quibbles with the whole thing. I REALLY wanted Lao to get over his mooning over his landlady’s daughter because it was obvious from the beginning that he was deluding himself about his prospects and almost willfully blind to the obvious. His vain hopes and how thoroughly they were going to be dashed took a lot of audio time. My other quibble – a much bigger one – is that the short story that introduced this fascinating pair “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine does not appear to be available online, and that there’s no second book firmly fixed on the horizon. Dee’s and Lao’s investigations NEED to be a series. So much. So very much.

Which means that I leave this review pleased that Lao finally let himself get hit with the clue-by-four regarding Miss Wendell, and that rumors of a second book leave me with hope on that front as well.

#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik Larson

#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik LarsonNo One Goes Alone by Erik Larson
Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, suspense
Length: 7 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Random House Audio Publishing Group on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From New York Times best-selling author Erik Larson comes his first venture into fiction, an otherworldly tale of intrigue and the impossible that marshals his trademark approach to nonfiction to create something new: a ghost story thoroughly grounded in history.
Pioneering psychologist William James leads an expedition to a remote isle in search of answers after a family inexplicably vanishes. Was the cause rooted in the physical world...or were there forces more paranormal and sinister at work? Available only on audio, because as Larson says, ghost stories are best told aloud.
A group of researchers sets sail for the Isle of Dorn in the North Atlantic in 1905 to explore the cause of several mysterious disappearances, most notably a family of four who vanished without a trace after a week-long holiday on the island. Led by Professor James, a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research, they begin to explore the island’s sole cottage and surrounding landscape in search of a logical explanation.
The idyllic setting belies an undercurrent of danger and treachery, with raging storms and unnerving discoveries adding to the sense of menace. As increasingly unexplainable events unfold, the now-stranded investigators are unsure whether they can trust their own eyes, their instincts, one another - or even themselves.
Erik Larson has written a terrifying tale of suspense, underpinned with actual people and events. Created specifically to entertain audio listeners, this eerie blend of the ghostly and the real will keep listeners captivated till the blood-chilling end.
Featuring Erik Larson reading his Notes for a Narrator.

My Review:

This is a ghost story. Actually, it’s not, because there’s no ghost. No one has ever reported seeing an actual ghost on spooky, creepy, isolated Dorn Island. Oodles of disappearances and other strange phenomena have been recorded, but there has been a singular lack of actual ghosties in a place that even the Society for Psychical Research has flagged as being haunted.

Maybe it’s the humans who occasionally visit who bring the hauntings with them. After all, they certainly bring enough emotional baggage along to conceal any number of ghosts.

That learned society, however, isn’t interested in mere speculation – although they certainly have plenty of that documented in their archives. The Society is looking for proof, for scientific evidence obtained by scientific methods, that will either prove beyond most shadows of doubt that psychic phenomena – including ghosts – are real, or that they are unequivocally not.

A party of researchers, led by pioneering psychologist William James, embarked for the tiny Island of Dorn off the coast of England in 1905. The reader, or in this case listener, follows along in their wake through the eyes of Julian Frost, an up-and-coming engineer in the British Post Office for his expertise with the new wireless telegraphy pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi. The party and the Society entertain some hopes that the sensitive apparatus that pulls telegraph signals from thin air might also manage to record psychic emanations the same way.

As we listen to Frost reading his diary long after the events chronicled within have come to their eerie, deadly, fever dream of a conclusion, we’re right there with this eccentric and increasingly fractious group of confirmed skeptics, reluctant believers, and as it turns out, unwitting experimental subjects and eventual signers of the Official Secrets Act regarding the tale that Frost is telling us much, much later – even though he knows he shouldn’t be revealing anything at all.

Whether this story tells a truth still behind lock and key, or is merely the fevered imaginings of a young man thwarted in love by not one but two beautiful women while the rest of the company looks on and laughs at his frequent humiliation is a question that will haunt the reader long after Frost’s furtive account has come to its surprising end.

Escape Rating B: I need to get this part out of the way because it’s the thing that drove me utterly BANANAS while I was listening to this story. No One Goes Alone was an audio original when it was published three years ago, because the author believes that ghost stories are best when told rather than read. YMMV may vary on that.

Howsomever, it’s been three years. I confess that I fully expected that at some point in those intervening years a text would have been published. My expectation was in error. There is no text. Still. Hence the bananas.

When I began the story, I was sucked right in and couldn’t wait to find out not just whodunnit but how and why it was done. The dramatic tension began on a very low simmer but kept building bit by bit as the water got hotter – so to speak – and an entire, literal rain of frogs started to overheat.

BUUUUT, there’s no text. So I couldn’t just read it quickly – it’s not that long even in audio – and I absolutely could not thumb to the end to get my curiosity assuaged. I got VERY frustrated with the whole thing but I HAD to know. (Now that I do know, I know that if I had flipped to the end it wouldn’t have made sense – but even that would have been informative in its way.)

Which doesn’t mean that I had to enjoy every scrap of that journey towards that knowing.

The story of No One Goes Alone is a very slow-building story, both because of the ponderousness of the early 20th century manners of polite speech and because it’s a story mostly told rather than shown, possibly because of the nature of the way it is told, through the reading of a diary rather than as it is happening before the diary writer’s eyes.

Also, while the narrator did a good job mimicking those slow speech patterns and differentiating between the members of this mixed party, American and British, male and female, young and middle-aged, the narration itself was a bit ponderous. To the point where, even though I normally listen to audiobooks specifically FOR the voice acting, this was a rare audiobook that worked better at 1.1x speed.

At first, the story had a bit of the flavor of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even though the cast of characters didn’t have anything like the right mix of seething resentments and hatreds to make that plot work without an outside force.

When the penny finally dropped, I realized what this story reminded me of very much was the Ishmael Jones series by Simon R. Green – hence yesterday’s review. Obviously not in the tone of the characters, as Green’s snark would not have played well or fit AT ALL coming from Julian Frost’s pen, but rather in the way that the story worked and the way that the ending came out of a deep left field that subverts the haunted house genre, pulls in elements that are totally unexpected, and does its damndest to make the story part of something bigger, more horrific and considerably more complicated all the way around.

In the Ishmael Jones series, that sharp turn into the even weirder works because the premise of the entire series comes out of that weird – that Jones is an alien masquerading as human and therefore has some superhuman talents and outside of the box enemies.

In No One Goes Alone, this claustrophobic haunted house story is connected instead to a greater, but more amorphous and less defined evil in a way that I’m not sure worked – at least not for this reader – leaving the conclusion to the story plenty chilling but not nearly as cathartic or as much of a resolution as I expected.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.