Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellanIn the Shadow of Lightning (Glass Immortals, #1) by Brian McClellan
Narrator: Damian Lynch
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Glass Immortals #1
Pages: 576
Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From Brian McClellan, author of The Powder Mage trilogy, comes the first novel in the Glass Immortals series, In the Shadow of Lightning, an epic fantasy where magic is a finite resource—and it’s running out.
"Excellent worldbuilding and a truly epic narrative combine into Brian's finest work to date. Heartily recommended to anyone who wants a new favorite fantasy series to read."—Brandon Sanderson

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out.
Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.
"Powerful rival families, murderous conspiracies, epic battles, larger-than-life characters, and magic."—Fonda Lee, author of The Green Bone Saga
"Engaging, fast-paced and epic."—James Islington, author of In The Shadow of What Was Lost
"Clever, fun, and by turns beautifully bloody, In the Shadow of Lightning hits like a bolt through a stained glass window."—Megan E. O'Keefe, author of Chaos Vector

My Review:

As the story opens, Demir Grappo is Icarus, and we see him in the moment of his spectacular fall. A cocky young genius both in politics and on the battlefield, we catch him just at the moment when he learns that someone has decided that he has flown too close to the sun – and that it is time to clip his wings. Or burn them.

It’s a broken man who slinks away from that battlefield, covered in disgrace where there should have been glory. To say that Demir plans to hide in the lowest and meanest places he can find is a bit of an overstatement. We’d call it a psychotic break. He just runs away from his shame and his responsibilities.

Nine years later the young man is a bit older, even sadder, and doesn’t see himself as any wiser at all. He is doing a better job of getting through the days, but he has no plans, no hopes, no dreams beyond doing that for another day.

Until an old friend finds him in the back of beyond, to tell Demir that has mother Adriana Grappo, the Matriarch of the Grappo guild family, has been assassinated. And that Demir is now Patriarch, if he is willing to take up the mantle, the reins, and the responsibility he left behind.

He’ll go home to protect his guild family and hunt down his mother’s killers. Even on his worst day – and he’s had plenty of them in the intervening years – he’d be able to smell the stink of a coverup no matter how far away he was from the seething cesspit of politics and corruption that is the capital of the Ossan Empire.

Demir is willing to tear the Empire down to get the truth. Little does he know that the plot he plans to uncover will require him to save it – whether it deserves it or not.

Escape Rating A+: “Glassdamn.” It rolls easily through the mind, or trippingly off the tongue, as though it’s an epithet that we’ve always used – or at least could have if we’d had a mind to. And glassdamnit but this is a terrific story.

It’s “glassdamn” because the scientific sorcery that powers the story and the world it explores is based on the use of specifically tuned, resonating glass to provide its power. While there are multiple religions in the world none of the deities or pantheons rule much of anything. Glass is king, queen and knave and everyone swears by it and at it and about it all day long.

Glassdamn, indeed.

The title is a bit of a pun. Our protagonist, if not necessarily or always our hero, Demir Grappo, spends the entire story living in the shadow of the political and glass dancer prodigy “The Lightning Prince” – his own former self, the self that he has been running from for all these years. Demir and the man he once was are going to have to come to some kind of resolution if he is going to have even half a chance at fixing everything that’s wrong with Ossa, with his guild family, with sorcery and especially with himself. It’s difficult to tell which will be the hardest job.

The story is told from several perspectives, so that the reader is able to see what’s happening over the vast sprawling canvas that is this first book in a protected trilogy. While we follow Demir, we also have a chance to see the Ossan empire from other points of view, including the childhood friends he brings back to the capital to help him in both his quest and his more mundane work, the master craftswoman he partners with in order to carry out his mother’s last request, and his uncle Tadeus, an officer in Ossa’s much vaunted Foreign Legion, an army that takes nearly as big a fall as Demir once did.

They may rise together – or they may discover that the game is beyond them all. It’s a question that is not yet answered when the story concludes. Which is utterly fitting for the first book in a trilogy. I just wish I had an inkling of when the second book is going to be available, because this is a story that left me with a terrible book hangover. I can’t wait to go back.

One of the things that both sucked me in and drove me crazy about In the Shadow of Lightning, but which also explains why I liked it so glassdamn much, is the sheer number of recent stories it reminded me of, as well as one long-loved classic and, surprisingly, a videogame.

Throwing Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham, Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford, and Isolate by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. into an industrial-strength book blender will get you close to the feel of In the Shadow of Lightning. All are stories of empires that have already rotted from the head down. All have ‘magic’ that is treated scientifically, to the point where their worlds are all much closer to steampunk than to epic fantasy – which doesn’t stop all of them from BEING epic fantasy anyway. None of them are about classic contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’; instead all are about people attempting to turn back the tide of the type of evil that results from power corrupting. These series starters are not exactly like each other, but they all ‘feel’ very similar and if you like one you’ll probably get equally immersed in one of the others.

The individual character of Demir Grappo, that mercurial broken genius, appearing as antihero considerably more often than hero, trying to save as much as he can and willing to sacrifice whatever it takes into the bargain, recalled a character from a much different time and place, but whose story was still conducted over a sprawling canvas. If you’ve ever read the Lymond Chronicles (start with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett, Demir is very much in Lymond’s mold – and it was a bit heartbreaking to watch Demir making entirely too many of the same mistakes and sacrifices. I’m also wondering if he’s going to face some of Lymond’s desperate compromises and am trepidatiously looking forward to finding out.

And for anyone who has played the Dragon Age series of videogames, the corrupt guild family political power brokering – as well as the open use of assassination as a political tool – bears a surprisingly sharp resemblance to the Antivan Crows. I half expected someone to leave a message that “the Crows send their regards,” because they most certainly would, with respect upfront and a knife in the back.

The audio made that last bit even more evocative because the narrator did one hell of a job with all the accents. He also told a damn good story, giving the feeling that we were in each character’s head when it was their turn “on stage”, and making each and every voice distinct. AND he managed to put me so completely inside both Demir’s and Tessa’s heads that I would have to stop for a few minutes because I could tell that whatever was coming next was going to be awful, and I cared so much that I almost couldn’t bear to experience it so closely with them.

So, if you enjoy big sprawling epics, whether fantasy or SF, In the Shadow of Lightning is just the kind of world-spanning, world-shattering, monsterful and wonderful binge read just waiting to happen!

I can’t wait for that glassdamned second book in the trilogy. I really, really can’t.

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie BlakeThe Atlas Six (The Atlas, #1) by Olivie Blake
Narrator: Andy Ingalls, Caitlin Kelly, Damian Lynch, David Monteith, James Patrick Cronin, Munirih Grace, Siho Ellsmore, Steve West
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, fantasy
Series: Atlas #1
Pages: 384
Length: 16 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alexandrian Society is a secret society of magical academicians, the best in the world. Their members are caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity. And those who earn a place among their number will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams. Each decade, the world’s six most uniquely talented magicians are selected for initiation – and here are the chosen few...

- Libby Rhodes and Nicolás Ferrer de Varona: inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds.
- Reina Mori: a naturalist who can speak the language of life itself.
- Parisa Kamali: a mind reader whose powers of seduction are unmatched.
- Tristan Caine: the son of a crime kingpin who can see the secrets of the universe.
- Callum Nova: an insanely rich pretty boy who could bring about the end of the world. He need only ask.

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they must spend one year together to qualify for initiation. During this time, they will be permitted access to the Society’s archives and judged on their contributions to arcane areas of knowledge. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. If they can prove themselves to be the best, they will survive. Most of them.

My Review:

This dive into the inner workings of a very dark academia begins with Atlas Blakely, Caretaker of the Alexandrian Society, visiting the six most powerful mages of their generation and making each of them an offer that they can refuse – although he knows that none of them will.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and they all know it. Even if, at the beginning, they don’t realize that it will absolutely be the end of at least one of theirs.

In this alternate version of our world, magic has taken the place of science, and is treated, studied, and advanced much as science is in the world we know. Magic has created the equivalent, if not the better, of the technologies that power our world. Magic is known, it is respected, and it is feared.

Magic is power every bit as much, if in a somewhat different way, as power is magic.

Those six powerful mages are being recruited to join the Alexandrian Society, the secret inheritors of the knowledge and power that was once held in and by the Great Library of Alexandria. Membership in the Society confers prestige, which, on top of their already considerable magical power, is certain to bring them wealth and yet more earthly power as well.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every powerful and secret society, there is at least one, if not two or six, rivals searching for a way to take that power and add it to their own.

The six mages who have been recruited by Atlas Blakely have one year to suss out all the secrets held by the Society, by its enigmatic caretaker, and by each other. It’s not enough time to even scratch the surface of that labyrinth.

But it’s all that one of them has left.

Escape Rating B: I have extremely mixed feelings about The Atlas Six. So mixed that the blender of my feelings hasn’t stopped whirling even a week after I finished the damn thing.

At the top of the column labeled ‘good’ feelings, the book is compelling as hell. Once the story gets past Libby and Nico’s barely post-adolescent sniping and swiping at each other, the whole thing is off to the races in a way that both commands and demands the reader’s attention.

I finished at 4 o’clock in the damn morning because I just couldn’t put it down – and when I tried it gnawed at me until I picked it back up again. Over and over until finally I fell out at the end, as exhausted and spent as the characters.

Howsomever, at the top of the column labeled ‘bad’ feelings is the fact that not a single one of these characters is on the side of the angels. There ARE NO angels here. There are no innocents to serve as heartbreaking collateral damage. Saying that no one is any better than they ought to be doesn’t nearly cover it. More like they are all worse than each other in a Möbius strip of turning their backs on anything that could be classified as “light” and diving straight for the bottom.

If you need to like at least one character to follow a story, even if that character is an anti-hero rather than a hero or a lovable or even just a redeemable rogue, there is absolutely no one in this story who remotely qualifies. Every single character, even the ones that at the beginning you might think will turn out to be a bit corrupt but not too awful, seems to have had their moral compass surgically removed at birth or shortly thereafter.

At the same time, for most of its length The Atlas Six seems to sit squarely on the intersection between “power corrupts” and “some gifts come at just too high a price.” And those certainly are elements of the story. But, just as we think we know what’s going on, the centrality of those two tropes is knocked off that center. Or rather, we learn that believing that those are the central tenets also centers characters who may not actually be IN that center.

Which admittedly does ramp up the tension VERY dramatically for the second book in the series, The Atlas Paradox. Which, thank goodness – or more likely badness in this case – is already out so I’ll be starting it as soon as I recuperate from the first book.

The thing is that I’m not sure there’s anything honestly new in The Atlas Six. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, it’s stomach turning at points, but the whole corruption of dark academia thing is not exactly new under the sun. (Recent examples include Babel by R.F. Kuang, and The Scholomance by Naomi Novik to name just a couple). For this reader, the way that all the arcs, at least so far, are trending so deeply downwards means that I’ll be diving into the second book more to see just how far down into hell these people and this situation can go. I suspect it’s pretty damn far. I don’t actually care about ANY of the characters.

So, if you need to like someone, anyone in a story to want to make your way to its end, The Atlas Six may not do it for you as a reader. I’m very much of two minds about the whole thing.

Howsomever, while I may have had a ton of mixed feelings about the story, but absolutely none whatsoever about the full cast narration. The way the book was narrated was truly what both made it possible for me to read and compelled me to finish. The perspective on the events is batted around between seven first person narrators, the Atlas Six themselves plus Libby Rhodes’ boyfriend Ezra Fowler. In the narration, the actor changed when the perspective did, and the actors did a fantastic job of making each other their characters distinct and easy to recognize.

Because voice acting fascinates me, and this group did such a damn good job of it (and because I had to do a fair bit of digging and listening to figure out who played who), here’s almost the full cast list: (I think I got this right but if I didn’t or if someone knows who Damien Lynch voiced PLEASE let me know)

-Libby Rhodes voiced by Caitlin Kelly
-Nico de Varona voiced by James Patrick Cronin
-Reina Mori voiced by Siho Ellsmore
-Parisa Kamali voiced by Munirih Grace
-Tristan Caine voiced by David Monteith
-Callum Nova voiced by Steve West
-Ezra Fowler voiced by Andy Ingalls

One of the reasons that I plan to listen to the second book, The Atlas Paradox, just as I did The Atlas Six is because this stellar cast is returning for the second book, along with three additional players whose identities I have yet to discover.

However I end up feeling about the second book, even if those feelings turn out to be as mixed as they were for this one, I already know the performance is going to be riveting.

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex JenningsThe Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings
Narrator: Gralen Bryant Banks
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 456
Length: 17 hours and 15 minutes
Published by Redhook on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Music is magic in this novel set in a fantastical version of New Orleans where a battle for the city's soul brews between two young mages, a vengeful wraith, and one powerful song.
Nola is a city full of wonders. A place of sky trolleys and dead cabs, where haints dance the night away and Wise Women help keep the order. To those from Away, Nola might seem strange. To Perilous Graves, it’s simply home.
In a world of everyday miracles, Perry might not have a talent for magic, but he does know Nola’s rhythm as intimately as his own heartbeat. So when the city’s Great Magician starts appearing in odd places and essential songs are forgotten, Perry realizes trouble is afoot.
Nine songs of power have escaped from the piano that maintains the city’s beat, and without them, Nola will fail. Unwilling to watch his home be destroyed, Perry will sacrifice everything to save it. But a storm is brewing, and the Haint of All Haints is awake. Nola’s time might be coming to an end.

My Review:

While it seems likely that every city whose biggest industry is attracting tourists has two sides, the carefully curated tourist destination and the place where real people live, there is something about New Orleans that has made it a liminal place in more ways than that usual, particularly in fantasy and magical realism.

After all, New Orleans, with its historical transformations from French to Spanish to American, and its equally subversive retentions of everything it wants to hold dear from each iteration, whether on the literal surface, the figurative underground, or its signature combination of the two in its haunting but necessary above ground cities of the dead is just ripe – if not a bit too much so – for stories where the past and present collide, where the dead visit the living and where one version of the city lies on top of, underneath, or side by side any or all of the others.

In other words, the concept that New Orleans has either managed to split itself or has been split into two cities, the “real” New Orleans we know and the “realer than real” Nola is not so farfetched. At least not when it comes to this particular city.

What makes The Ballad of Perilous Graves both fascinating and fun is the way that it teases the reader with its two perspective that combine into one epic coming-of-age and coming-into-power quest, led by two characters who may or may not exactly be separate and may or may not be seeing the same – or even similar – cities.

But who must find their way somehow into the same quest to save the same place, the city that they both love – no matter who or what they have to sacrifice along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I am a sucker for stories about New Orleans so I was all set to love The Ballad of Perilous Graves. Which in the end I did, although it took awhile to get me there. This is one of those books where the audiobook, as read by Gralen Bryant Banks, carried me over to the point where the story got its hooks into me and didn’t let go.

At first, there’s just a lot of setup to get the reader into this version/vision of the city. Part of the reason it took me a bit to get there was that the initial point-of-view character is rising sixth grader Perilous (Perry) Graves. The Graves family, Perry, his little sister Brendy and his parents, Deacon and Yvette, live across the street from Peaches Lavelle, who seems to be 12 or so and seems to be the strongest person in the world – or at least in Nola. Peaches and her VERY magical adventures at first made me wonder if Perry was dreaming this whole thing, whether he was making it up, or whether he was seeing what he wanted to see instead of what actually was. Because his Nola didn’t quite match up to reality and Peaches was kind of the icing on that particular cake.

It was only when the perspective switched to the adult Casey Ravel that I figured out that whatever was happening was “real” for the story’s own version of reality. Also, Casey’s reality matched up to real reality considerably more than Perry’s did. Which should have clued me in that their realities were not exactly the same reality – at least not at first – but it took me an embarrassingly long time to get there.

The quest is really Perry’s quest, and it begins in Nola. Someone is killing the songs that are the foundation of the city’s identity, and havoc is being wrecked on both sides of that divide. So the overarching story is Perry’s hero’s journey, his coming of age as he takes on the mantle of his family’s inherited magic to save his friends and family, and his city.

It is, of course, a journey that leads him through some very dark places, to versions of Nola that are even more magical than his own and to places that exist on no map that has ever been printed. Because New Orleans is that liminal place where all versions of the city link, from the magical to the mundane, from the living to the dead, and everywhere in between.

It’s also a quest to find his grandfather, who was kidnapped at the beginning of the story by a haunted man – or ghost, or song – on a mission to retrieve something that Daddy Deke doesn’t even remember that he has.

There is a LOT going on in this story. So much. I’m sure there are parts I didn’t quite get, or parts that I thought I did because this isn’t my first trip to a magical version of New Orleans BUT that I got completely wrong but got enough to keep me in the story. And that’s both fine and fantastic. Not every book has to be for me (and shouldn’t be) for me to enjoy the hell out of it.

This is a magical, mystery tour of the city. It’s a hero’s journey both for Perry and for Casey, and both young men – because Casey is still young and Perry may be very young but is a man by the end of the book – it’s a coming into power story. For Perry it’s a coming of age story as well. For Casey it also feels like an acceptance story, but we don’t get nearly as much of Casey as we do of Perry, as much as Casey serves to ground the story in a bit of the real in its early stages.

But it’s also such a wild ride to so many wild and diverse visions of New Orleans that, as unique as the author’s voice is – and it most definitely is – the ingredients in this gumbo reminded me of other urban fantasies and especially other New Orleans stories. So if you’re looking for something that recalls bits of The Ballad of Perilous Graves, here’s my list of books it made me go looking for: The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp, The Sentinels of New Orleans by Suzanne Johnson, Chasing the Devil’s Tail by David Fulmer, with a bit of The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Edinburgh Nights by T.L. Huchu, Last Exit by Max Gladstone and No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull for embodied cities, extra dead bodies and talking thereto, ways to get into alternate worlds and hiding monsters in plain sight.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is the author’s debut novel, which I had to look up because OMG it’s wonderful and crazy and I’m expecting more marvelously wild and great things. And hopefully more New Orleans.

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha LambWhen the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
Narrator: Donald Corren
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Length: 9 hours
Published by Levine Querido on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of “Good Omens”—a queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn't have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
P R A I S E
“Liars, lovers, grifters, a good angel and a wicked one—all held together with the bright red thread of unexpected romance, enduring friendship and America’s history. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Sacha Lamb—you only have to read.”New York Times Bestseller, Amy Bloom
★ “Steeped in Ashkenazi lore, custom, and faith, this beautifully written story deftly tackles questions of identity, good and evil, obligation, and the many forms love can take. Queerness and gender fluidity thread through both the human and supernatural characters, clearly depicted without feeling anachronistic. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun.”Kirkus (starred)
★ “Richly imagined and plotted, this inspired book has the timeless feeling of Jewish folklore, which is further enhanced by the presence of two magical protagonists, and not one but two dybbuks! In the end, of course, it’s the author who has performed the mitzvah by giving their readers this terrific debut novel.”—Booklist (starred)
“I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!!! I read it in two days and then I spent the next two weeks thinking about it. Literally forgot to take my lunch break at work because I was busy thinking about it. This book is SO fun and funny and beautiful. Inherently, inextricably deeply queer-and-Jewish in a way that makes my brain buzz. I am obsessed.”—Piera Varela, Porter Square Books
“I love this book more than I can say (but I’ll try!) I was delighted by the wry narrative voice of this book from the first paragraph. The author perfectly captures the voice of a Jewish folk tale within an impeccably researched early 20th century setting that includes Yiddish, striking factory workers, and revolutionary coffee houses. It gave me so many feelings about identity, love, and their obligations to the world, themselves, and each other. This story will forever have a place in my heart and in my canon of favorite books. I can’t wait to have it on my shelves!”— Marianne Wald, East City Bookshop
“A beautiful story of an angel and demon set on helping an emigrant from their shtetl, and the fierce girl that joins them on the way... A must read for all ages—one filled to the brim with heart.”—Mo Huffman, Changing Hands Bookstore

My Review:

This is utterly lovely, but I’m not sure any description could do it justice. It’s just such a surprising mélange of fantasy, historical fiction and magical realism set in a time and place that manages to be both far away and very close, all at the same time.

It’s also steeped in the experiences of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe to the new, exciting, strange and sometimes dangerous “golden land” of America. And in this particular case, all the ways they got fleeced and all the ways they fought back and endured along the way.

What makes the story so much fun and works so very well is that the story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash the demon and his study partner – an angel who begins the story with no name at all. Little Ash is a very small demon with very little magic, while his friend the angel hears the voice of heaven and lets it guide him into good deeds. Which, most of the time, consists of keeping his friend the demon busy studying the Torah and the Talmud.

But Little Ash is getting bored in their tiny shtetl, so small it doesn’t even have a name. The demon wants to follow all the young people from their shtetl who have left for America, because they were all the interesting people he enjoyed following while they made a bit of mischief. Which Little Ash likes very much.

Little Ash searches for a way of convincing the angel to go to America with him. When they learn that Simon the baker’s daughter Essie arrived in America but hasn’t written since, they have a mission. A mitzvah, or good deed, that the angel can undertake, and a whole lot of mischief that Little Ash can make along the way.

Neither of them is remotely prepared for what they find, not along the way, and certainly not after they arrive in America.

Escape Rating A+: In the foreword, the publisher claims that they’ve been referring to this book as the “queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholem Aleichem” – which is a lot to live up to. I think it read as Good Omens and Fiddler on the Roof (the original story for which was written by Sholem Aleichem) had a book baby midwifed by The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (which I wish I popped up every time there was a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase that I don’t remember – but don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end) resulting in When the Angels Left the Old Country. Up to and including the ineffable relationship that is finally acknowledged at the end.

The story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash and the angel, who initially does not have a name and never takes on a gender no matter what its identity papers say. And the story is significantly the angel’s journey from being an entity that exists mostly as a vessel to serve the purposes of heaven to a person in its own right. Without a name, it doesn’t have an identity of its own to hang its memories on, to help it retain any purpose of its own. It’s easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and missions.

Little Ash likes that his friend is a bit forgetful and easily manipulated. He’s able to get away with rather a lot. But Little Ash is a small demon with little magic and small sins. He likes causing trouble but even that is a bit childlike. As childlike as the angel’s innocence.

One of the things they lose on the trip to America is their naivete. The angel, now calling himself Uriel, still tries to see the good in everyone – but now it can see the evil as well even if it doesn’t want to. Little Ash, who always looked for people’s sins, can see more of the good and feel more duty towards fostering that good than he ever imagined.

When they arrive in America they become deeply involved with the Jewish immigrant community on Hester Street, taking on the cheats who keep people nearly enslaved to the garment shops, getting caught in the middle of a strike – and doing their best to exorcise not just one but two dybbuks – malicious spirits who haunt evildoers hunting for revenge.

With the help of their friend Rose, a young immigrant they met in steerage on the way to America, with more than a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of seeing the best while preparing for the worst, they manage to rescue Essie and make a new life for themselves in America.

Still studying Torah and Talmud, and always together.

Personally, I found this book to be utterly enchanting. An enchantment that was multiplied by listening to the audiobook as narrated by Donald Corren. My grandparents were part of the same immigrant generation as the characters in When the Angels Left the Old Country. My mom’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement just as everyone in this story did. (My dad’s parents came from a bit further south and west.) Everyone in my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish as well as English – and generally used Yiddish as a way of hiding what they were talking about from child-me. The rhythms of their speech, whether in Yiddish or in English, sounded just the way that the narrator reads this book. It was a bit like sitting in the room when they spoke with my great-aunts and uncles, hearing the sounds of all their voices and the way that the ‘mother tongue’ of Yiddish influenced not just their accents but the way they phrased things, even in English.

In other words, I loved this book for the story it told, and I loved the narration for the nostalgia it invoked. For this listener, the entire experience was made of win. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC RosenLavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Pages: 288
Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes
Published by Forge Books on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen's Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.
Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.
Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.
Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.
When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

My Review:

When Andy Mills meets Pearl Velez in a bar that’s just on the edge of seedy, they need each other – just not in any of the ways that one might expect at the opening of this dark, very noir-ish historical mystery.

Andy needs a purpose, and Pearl needs to give him one. Pearl needs an experienced detective that she can trust to investigate the recent death of her wife. And she knows that Andy is both experienced and trustworthy because he just got fired from the SFPD for being caught with his pants down, literally, in a police raid on a gay bar. His career is over. His life feels like it’s over, because all he’s been doing for the past 10 years is living his job and doing his best to keep his secrets. Now he has no secrets, no job, no apartment, no friends and nothing to fall back on.

He’s planning to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge once it gets dark enough – and once he gets drunk enough. At least that’s the plan until Pearl steps into his life with something that looks like it might BE purpose. And might give him the opportunity to help someone one more time.

Or hurt them worse than he ever imagined – depending on whether the case Pearl wants him to investigate turns out to really be a case. And depending, of course, on whodunnit.

So Pearl whisks Andy off to Lavender House, the beautiful home that the late soap magnate Irene Lamontaine and her wife Pearl created for themselves and their entirely queer family. A place where all of them can safely be themselves – as long as no one reveals their secret to the outside world.

Irene’s death might have been an accident. She might have lost her balance and fallen over the railing she was found under. But the fall wasn’t that far and Irene was healthy and energetic in spite of her years. The fall shouldn’t have killed her.

Between her family’s secrets and her family’s money there are plenty of motives for murder. It’s up to Andy to navigate the family’s murky relationships while not letting himself be seduced by living in the first place he’s ever known where he can finally be his authentic self.

Because Lavender House is a kind of paradise, and it’s up to Andy to find the snake in the garden.

Escape Rating A+: There are so many ways to approach this story, and all of them work. Frankly, the story just works. It had me from that opening scene in the bar and didn’t let go until the bittersweet end. To the point where, as much as I LOVED the audiobook, I read the last third as text because I simply had to find out how it ALL worked out.

I was pretty certain I knew whodunnit – and I did – but that wasn’t the most important part of the story. Still, I was glad to be vindicated.

But I did absolutely adore the narrator, Vikas Adam, whose performance definitely added the plus in that A+ Rating. I’ve fallen under his spell before, as he is one of the primary readers for Jenn Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons series, and he’s every bit as good here. To the point where I had to triple-check the credits for the audio. I expected him to do a terrific job with voicing Andy – and he certainly does – but he managed to not sound like himself AT ALL while voicing most of the female characters. I did that triple check because I kept thinking there was a female narrator working with him. But it was all him and it was fantastic.

The story is both a mystery and a heartbreaker, and the hard parts were that much harder to listen to because the narration was just so good.

Lavender House is being promoted as a gay Knives Out – and it certainly is that from the mystery perspective. (The comparison works even better now that it’s been revealed that private investigator Benoit Blanc is also gay.) At least on the surface, it seems as if the Lamontaine family is every bit as wealthy as the Thrombeys, and just as dysfunctional and eccentric. It’s just that the causes of some of the dysfunction at Lavender House can be laid directly at the feet of the 1950s and the circumstances they are forced to live under.

The mystery in Lavender House is fascinating, but it feels like the bleeding heart – sometimes literally – of this story is Andy’s journey. And in some ways the two parallel each other more than I expected.

At the heart of the murder – and at the heart of Andy’s journey, is a story about finding a purpose for one’s life. Andy begins at his lowest ebb because he’s just lost his and doesn’t know how to replace it. He’s lived for his job and now it’s turned on him because of an innate part of his being. Investigating Irene’s death gives him that purpose – even as it forces him to confront all the ways that he stifled himself in order to hang onto that job.

At the same time, all of the tensions at Lavender House, along with most of the motives and dysfunction, also have to do with purpose. For the staff, it’s a VERY safe place to work. But for the family it can sometimes be a gilded cage. Not because they can’t actually leave, but because they have to hide their real selves from the world when they do. And if they have no purpose within the house, as is true for two members of that family, they also have no way of making one outside it.

In the end, the solution to the mystery of Irene Lamontaine’s death was a catharsis but not a surprise. The case does come together just a bit suddenly at the end after a lot of often fruitless digging into scant clues and overabundant motives. But the investigation does hold the reader’s interest well, even when it delves into the angst in Andy’s head as much as it does the death that kicked things off.

But Andy’s journey from pretending to be ‘one of the boys’ at the cop shop through closed doors and literal beatings from his former colleagues to the realization that even if he can’t remain in the paradise of Lavender House that he can have a good and fulfilling life – if not always a totally free or completely safe one – as a gay man in 1950s San Francisco, with all the potential for pain and heartbreak and joy, is one that will haunt me for a long time.

Reviewer’s Note: Also that cover is just really, really cool. It’s almost like that damn dress that was either blue and black or white and gold. The more I look at it the more I see. Not just that it’s a silhouette, but there’s a face. And the rabbits. And eyes. So many facets – just like the story it represents.

 

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Naylor

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray NaylorThe Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
Narrator: Eunice Wong
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 464
Length: 11 hours and 5 minutes
Published by MCD on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.
Rumors begin to spread of a species of hyperintelligent, dangerous octopus that may have developed its own language and culture. Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has spent her life researching cephalopod intelligence, will do anything for the chance to study them.
The transnational tech corporation DIANIMA has sealed the remote Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses were discovered, off from the world. Dr. Nguyen joins DIANIMA’s team on the islands: a battle-scarred security agent and the world’s first android.
The octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence. The stakes are high: there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of the octopuses’ advancements, and as Dr. Nguyen struggles to communicate with the newly discovered species, forces larger than DIANIMA close in to seize the octopuses for themselves.
But no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.
A near-future thriller about the nature of consciousness, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling literary debut and a mind-blowing dive into the treasure and wreckage of humankind’s legacy.

My Review:

This turned out to be an utterly lovely book. It is very much in the vein of the science fiction of ideas and making them come to life and it just completely sucked me in as though one of the octopuses had just wrapped me in its tentacles and pulled. Hard.

I loved this one a lot more than I expected, which means I’ll probably squee a bit. You have been warned.

It’s clear from the beginning that this takes place on a near-future Earth. The setting isn’t quite dystopian, and it isn’t quite not either. Whether it seems dystopian or not at any given point in the story depends on which of the three point of view characters the story is following at that moment.

Eiko’s perspective is definitely dystopian. He was kidnapped from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and is a slave on an automated fishing trawler, hunting the world’s depleted oceans for any source of protein that can still be processed into food. His story is tragic and his situation is bleak and getting bleaker by the minute.

Whether Rustem’s situation is dystopian or not depends on whether one thinks that the mostly terrible and generally criminal clients he works with are representative of the way his world works or whether he’s bottom-fishing because he’s an infamous black-hat hacker who conducts assassinations by AI proxy. His current clients do seem to be worse than most, but they’ve given him a more complex and intriguing puzzle than average – and threatened his life if he doesn’t deliver.

If one wonders how those two characters intersect – and this reader certainly did – the glue that holds this story together is the perspective of Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has been whisked away to the remote Con Dao Archipelago by a transnational tech company to fulfill the dream of her life’s work.

In the waters off Con Dau, DIANIMA Corporation has discovered a pod of octopuses that might, just possibly, have achieved not just a similar level of intelligence to humans, but have also independently developed the skills that vaulted humans to the top of the food chain. DIANIMA has brought Dr. Ha Nguyen to Con Dau because she quite literally wrote the book on the possibility of intelligent, communicating life developing in the world’s oceans.

If she determines that the pod of octopuses is just a pod of ordinary octopuses – who are plenty intelligent but have no way to pass it on – well, probably not much happens to her and there wouldn’t have been much of a book, either.

But if she finds enough evidence that the octopuses off Con Dau can do what we do, if they have developed language that conveys abstract concepts and have methods of speaking and especially writing that language, then they may hold the key to humans learning to communicate with other species. Or it may be possible to weaponize their abilities through threats, intimidation and superior firepower – assuming that humans actually have superior firepower.

Or they could be a threat. If humans threaten them, they will likely become a threat regardless. So the human sharks and vultures are gathering around Con Dau, whether to protect, to save – or to kill.

Escape Rating A+: If Remarkably Bright Creatures and Three Miles Down had a book baby, it would be The Mountain in the Sea. Which is a fairly strange thought because as much as I loved both those books, they really shouldn’t have any relationship to each other.

But here they do. And it’s surprising and awesome.

As I said at the top, this book is an example, a stellar example in fact, of science fiction of ideas. This is a near-future world, there are no spaceships or extraterrestrials here. It could be said to be a climatological disaster, but if so it’s one that we can see from here.

The heart of that mountain in the sea is the idea of just how damn difficult communication is. It’s an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough play in space opera type SF, and it should. Other species who don’t share our frames of reference probably don’t communicate the way we do – at all.

So what this story does, and does well, is to convey just the smallest sliver of how difficult it will be to find common ground with a species that doesn’t communicate the way we do, doesn’t have the same species imperatives, doesn’t move through its world the way we do, doesn’t use any body language we recognize. There’s not going to be the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It’s Dr. Ha Nguyen’s job to create one from scratch, while never being certain that her interpretation is anywhere near the correct target – let alone hitting a ‘bull’s eye’. If her base assumptions are off base, everything that follows after will be gibberish – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

That the author manages to make what could have been a fairly dry story about communication difficulties into a compelling story of relationships between people, octopuses and artificial intelligences turned the whole thing into an utter delight with a surprising ending that mixed more sweet than I expected into a situation that could have turned out so very bitter. That the story managed to bring those three extremely disparate and seemingly disconnected perspectives into a connected whole that brought the whole story full circle made for delicious icing on top of a very yummy story-cake.

I listened to The Mountain in the Sea, and the reader did an excellent job to the point where I found myself hunting for things to occupy my hands so I could listen longer to the story. Much of Dr. Ha Nguyen’s side of the story is a dialog between her written work and that of DIANIMA’s creator, Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan. The reader did a particularly good job of distinguishing these two strong, intelligent women’s writings from their personal perspectives and their frequently contentious dialog once they finally do meet in person.

In short, a wonderful performance of an excellent book. I’m looking forward to finding more work by this author. Considering that this is his debut novel, I have high hopes for his next book. And if it’s read by the same reader, that will make it even more of a treat!

Review: Riverside by Glenda Young and Ian Skillicorn + Giveaway

Review: Riverside by Glenda Young and Ian Skillicorn + GiveawayRiverside: The feel-good, life-affirming story of love, friendship, family and new beginnings by Ian Skillicorn, Glenda Young
Narrator: David McClelland, Melanie Crawley, Becky Wright, Lisa Armytage, Gerard Fletcher, Toby Laurence, Glen McCready, Penelope Rawlins, Keith Drinkel, Michael Chance
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, romantic comedy
Pages: 336
Length: 3 hours 51 minutes
Published by Wyndham Media Ltd. on July 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon

The feel-good, life-affirming story of love, friendship, family, and new beginnings!

Changes are coming to the riverside town of Ryemouth, and while some of the community are excited by new beginnings, others are finding it hard to let go of the past.

A new 14-episode audio soap with a cast of loveable characters you'll want to laugh and cry along with.

Susan and her boyfriend Dave can't wait to open their new café and deli, The Old Engine Room. But Susan's dad, George, is not so thrilled. He's never approved of Dave, who used to hang out with the wrong crowd. Can the happy young couple win George round?

Mary and Ruby have been friends since the first day of infant school, even though their lives have turned out very differently. Mary has a contented family life with husband George and daughter Susan. Poor Ruby has never been so lucky in love. Then she meets her teenage crush in surprising circumstances. Mary has her doubts about the charming Paul. Will Ruby finally get her own happy ever after?

Dave wants to put his past behind him. His dream is to make a success of the business, and one day be a good husband and father, like his own dad, Mike. Yet, he's forced to keep a secret from everyone he loves. Who should he turn to for help out of a tricky situation?

When the community comes under threat from developers, can everyone put their differences to one side to defend the town they love?

Riverside is full of romance, heartbreak and secrets, as well as gentle wit and humor.

The Riverside audiobook drama is based on the popular weekly magazine serial written and created by Glenda Young.

My Review:

A small town, a big change and two families whose reactions to that change and fortunes as a result of that change have gone in somewhat different directions. And in the middle, a young couple, not exactly Romeo and Juliet, but still caught in the tension between their two sets of parents but wanting to make a go of their own life – together.

If only they can get their parents – or at least get her acerbic, reluctant, pessimistic dad – to see that his perpetual “glass half-empty” attitude is driving a wedge between his daughter and her happiness. The one thing he wants more than anything else.

Once upon a time, Ryemouth was a shipbuilding town. A time that is not so long ago that Mike Brennan and George Dougal didn’t both spend 30 years of their working lives at the shipyard. But Mike and George are in the 50s now, both trying to figure out what happens next in their lives.

And that’s where the story gets its tensions from. It’s not that Mike and George are enemies, more that their fortunes have taken different turns afterwards. George fights change at every turn, while Mike embraces it – with the result that the Dougals have had a more difficult economic time in the aftermath of the shipyard closure, while the Brennans are doing well.

That George’s daughter Susan and Mike’s son Dave have been dating seriously for a while is just part of the simmering undercurrent. Mike is opening a new restaurant as part of the gentrification of the land that used to be that old shipyard. His son is the manager, and George’s daughter Susan is the assistant manager – putting her in constant company of a man George already doesn’t approve of.

Then again, George doesn’t approve of change much at all. And isn’t in the least shy about saying so at pretty much every opportunity. The families will need to find a way for everyone to do more than co-exist. They need to support their kids and launch them successfully into their own futures.

The parents just have to figure out how to get out of their own way. Well, at least George does.

Escape Rating B: If the premise of this sounds comfortably familiar, it should. It’s pretty much the opening scenario for every soap opera ever. And there’s a reason for that comfort, because this format is a lovely way to introduce all sorts of sometimes cozy, occasionally uncomfortable, and frequently just close enough to real situations to tug at the heartstrings.

What makes Riverside a bit different from the usual run of soaps – in addition to its small-town English setting – is that the story is told entirely in audio. But it’s not a radio play. The story is told through just the voices of the characters. There is minimal narration and very little in the way of sound effects – mostly ringing phones and doorbells.

In order for this to work, the voices have to be distinct and the actors have to be excellent at telling their part of the story through tone and inflection – because the listener doesn’t have anything else to go on.

The story that is told in Riverside is comfortably familiar. Two families, who have known each other since the parents grew up together – if not longer – have to work their way through ties of friendship and thorny knots of contention to support the next generation. While that next generation has their own issues to deal with.

But the way the story is told makes everything fresh and new, whether it’s the way that George is finally able to weaponize his hatred of change for the good of the community, Mary Dougal’s best friend Ruby and her lifelong misadventures in romance, or young Dave Brennan forced to confront the misadventures of his not so distant youth before they consume the hope of his present – and his future with Susan.

So if you’re looking for a way to while away a few hours that will pass very swiftly, listening to the trials and triumphs of the Dougals and the Brennans in Riverside is a lovely way to make a Sunday drive go just that much faster – without breaking the speed limit!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Giveaway to Win 5 x Audio copies of Riverside (Open to UK/US)
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Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.

Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Review: Haven by Emma DonoghueHaven by Emma Donoghue
Narrator: Aidan Kelly
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 272
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Audible Audio on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three men vow to leave the world behind them. They set out in a small boat for an island their leader has seen in a dream, with only faith to guide them. What they find is the extraordinary island now known as Skellig Michael. Haven has Emma Donoghue’s trademark world-building and psychological intensity—but this story is like nothing she has ever written before.
In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find an impossibly steep, bare island inhabited by tens of thousands of birds, and claim it for God. In such a place, what will survival mean?

My Review:

Some books make me think. Some books make me feel. This book made me want to push one of the characters off of a very high cliff. And there are plenty of precipitous crags and rocky outcroppings to choose from on the Great Skellig.

Skellig Michael

(In case the location of this story sounds a bit familiar, it probably is. The Great Skellig is now known as Skellig Michael, and was the place where Luke’s Jedi retreat was filmed in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.)

There really was a monastic retreat on Skellig Michael, and it probably was founded at the time this story is set, the 7th century AD. But probably, hopefully, not like this. Because the monastery at Skellig Michael seems to have had continuous occupation – barring the occasional Viking raid – from its founding through at least the 11th century.

That record of continuous occupation requires a level of both practicality and sanity that is just not present in this story. Haven could be read as a how NOT to do it book.

The opening is not exactly a reasonable start for the 21st century, but would have been for the 7th. Brother Artt, a well-known monastic scholar, has a dream that he and two other monks found a monastery that will be isolated from the temptations of the world. Artt sees those temptations everywhere, including in the safe and well-endowed monasteries of Ireland where he travels.

Artt’s real dilemma, however, is the one that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar so eloquently described a millennium later. That the fault is not in our stars – or in this case Artt’s stars or even his dreams – but in himself.

It’s not even that Artt is a rather extreme ascetic, not merely willing but seemingly desirous of giving up even the relatively spare comforts of an established monastery because they simply aren’t spare enough for his desire to punish himself to death. It’s that he takes two men with him into his remote, deprived and in some ways even depraved exile, and that because of the rules of the church they are sworn to obey him no matter how crazy he gets.

And he gets very crazy indeed. It’s Artt’s descent into madness and Cormac’s and Trian’s diligence and obedience – to the point of their own mental and emotional breaking – that forms the rocks and crags of this thoughtful, sometimes lyrical, but also exceedingly cold story.

Escape Rating C+: One of the things about reading is the way that it gives the reader the ability to step into another’s shoes and see the world as they might have seen it. This is a book that made me wonder just how far out of ourselves we are, or even should be, able to step.

It’s not just that Artt is an arsehole – although he certainly is in the way he treats Trian and Cormac – it’s that his arseholery comes from a place that is so foreign to me that he grates on me every bit as much as Cormac’s endless stories and Trian’s burbling chatter grate on him. (And I’m saying that even though Artt’s reaction to their constant need to make verbal noise would drive me just as far round the twist as it does him.) Howsomever, while I don’t share their religious faith – let alone the almost blind way in which they practice it – I can see both reason and fellowship in Cormac’s practicality, just as I can in Trian’s youthful curiosity. I can walk a bit in their shoes – or sandals as the case may be.

Artt I’d prefer to throw off one of the rocks. But because his outlook on life is so completely foreign to me, I spent an uncomfortable half of the story caught between wondering if that’s because his perspective is so alien – or if he’s just an arsehole and he’d be one in any time and place in which he found himself. But as the situation on Skellig Michael became increasingly dire, and Artt’s response to the direness of those circumstances and his complete, total and utter unwillingness to consider ANY of the practicalities of their inevitable plight I reached the conclusion that he was just an insecure and angry arsehole and that he’d be one no matter what the situation. His arseholery would just manifest differently in other times and places.

So this is not a comfortable story and not just because of the increasing discomfort of the monks’ situation. And that is well beyond uncomfortable. But Cormac and Trian are under the rule of an emotionally and psychologically abusive master and what we witness is their increasing desperation and self-blame as they attempt to reconcile what they’ve been taught to believe with the increasing insanity of what they feel compelled to do.

One of the few shining lights of this story was that I listened to the audiobook instead of reading the text. I probably would not have continued without the audio because this story felt so brutal. But the narrator Aiden Kelly was excellent. I have to particularly call out that he did a terrific job of making the three men’s voices sound so distinct that I could easily tell one from another even when dropping back into the audio after a day or two away from it. His reading elevated the book to that plus in the rating.

In the end, I’d have to say that I’d recommend this narrator unreservedly, and I’ll look for more audiobooks he’s been part of. The book, on the other hand, I’d be guarded about who I recommended it to. The writing, as I said, is lovely to the point of being lyrical, but this story is so very cold. The author is extremely popular, but for someone looking for an introduction to her work I’d definitely choose something else, either The Pull of the Stars or Room.

And if someone is interested in historical fiction about this time period in Ireland in general and the Catholic Church in Ireland at this period in particular, I’d recommend the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne, which begins with Absolution By Murder. These are historical mysteries, featuring a central character who is both part of the church and a practicing lawyer. She’s also, I have to say, someone who Artt would detest on sight, so recommending her instead of him seems like a bit of well-deserved payback.