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.

A- #AudioBookReview: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed

A- #AudioBookReview: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee MohamedThe Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed
Narrator: Eva Tavares
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 158
Length: 4 hours and 49 minutes
Published by ECW Press on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In post-climate disaster Alberta, a woman infected with a mysterious parasite must choose whether to pursue a rare opportunity far from home or stay and help rebuild her community.
The world is nothing like it once was: climate disasters have wracked the continent, causing food shortages, ending industry, and leaving little behind. Then came Cad, mysterious mind-altering fungi that invade the bodies of the now scattered citizenry. Reid, a young woman who carries this parasite, has been given a chance to get away - to move to one of the last remnants of pre-disaster society - but she can't bring herself to abandon her mother and the community that relies on her.
When she's offered a coveted place on a dangerous and profitable mission, she jumps at the opportunity to set her family up for life, but how can Reid ask people to put their trust in her when she can't even trust her own mind?

My Review:

There’s a deep, dark chasm between “the end of the world as they know it” and “the end of the world”. It’s a badly carved gorge where the steps going down are slippery, steep and riddled with stretches that have been completely washed out and strewn with sharp rocks and trail-obstructing boulders. The steps going up the other side are much too far away to see – and might not even exist at all.

In movies – one of the many, many things from the “Before Times” that no longer exist in Reid’s broken world – and books – of which there are some but not nearly enough – the end of the world is a catastrophic EVENT, a thing that happens or more likely that the brave heroes of the fictional narrative manage to stave off by luck, by ingenuity, by miracle, or all of the above.

But that’s not what happened in the world that Reid lives in. There was no singular event, no one, overwhelming catastrophe, no nuclear or meteor strike. Just a long, slow slide down the side of that chasm, as birth rates fell and climate change got more extreme and power sources dried up or died out or became too remote to access as the world fell back into its constituent parts.

Reid lives in a world of scarcity, in a ‘city’ that barely hangs on from year to year and from disaster to disaster, as a parasitic ‘disease’ ravages her body and her mind and increases its hold on the dwindling population year by year.

But there’s a light at the end of Reid’s dark tunnel – a light that’s just for her. A few places, former enclaves of the rich from back in the day when money still mattered – closed the gates of their domes, their pockets of science and tech and ‘civilization’ from the ‘Before Times” and kept the barbarians and the diseases and the wildlife OUT of their pristine sanctuaries.

One of those enclaves is Howse University. Every year, Howse sends out invitations to a privileged few graduating students in the remote cities to come to Howse and enter the next class. To enter a world where electricity still functions, where books are still printed and not merely preserved, where science still happens and knowledge is passed from teacher to students in the lap of safe, well-fed, climate controlled luxury.

A place where Reid might be able to find a cure for the disease that is taking over both her mother’s body and mind – and her own.

All Reid has to do is reach the assigned meeting place in the limited time available. All she has to do is get her mother to forgive her for leaving, for possibly turning her back on everything and everyone Reid has known and loved, on the people and the place and the community that has sheltered her for her entire life.

Traveling all alone through an unknown wilderness is going to be much, much easier than getting her mother – and the parasite that lives within her – to accept that their daughter is leaving them behind.

Escape Rating A-: I picked up this book because I read the sequel to this, We Speak Through the Mountain first and it felt like half a story. A very good half, but still a half and reading the second half without the first I felt like I was missing something. Which, as it turned out, I was. Not enough to prevent me from liking the other book, but enough to keep me from getting as invested in Reid’s journey as I did this time around – although I do feel that investment in the second book now in retrospect.

In other words, don’t do what I did. If the premise of this book or We Speak Through the Mountain speaks to you, read The Annual Migration of Clouds first. They’re both novellas, so even together they are not a big read, but they are a deep one, and deeper when read together in the proper order.

I listened to most of this book, but had to finish in the ebook because as the story got closer and closer to its ending I felt compelled to discover how Reid managed to get to where we first met her in We Speak Through the Mountain – particular the disaster that her brain kept shying away from during that story.

However, the narrator for The Annual Migration of Clouds was excellent and did a terrific job of portraying Reid’s oh-so-real combination of angst and anger as she works her way through her present situation, the history she’s forced to inherit, the unfairness of the world to which she was born, her love for her mother and her community and her NEED to discover as much as she can of what’s been denied her. Even as her internal voice rants and rails at the parasite that influences her thoughts and controls her behavior to a degree that she only becomes conscious of when she fights it. Because it punishes her when she does.

The Annual Migration of Clouds is a coming-of-age story AND it’s a story about the survivors of the end of the world, making their way down that slippery slope of retreating technology and regressive knowledge, just trying to get through another day and another year in the hopes that someday it will all be better for someone – even though they all know that better day will not come for them.

If this part of the story, this description and setup of a world in decline in a way that is in no way the fault of anyone or anything mired in it grabs your imagination, if the way that Reid’s community has managed to survive, along with the many ways in which they demonstrate, as best they can, that survival is insufficient, reads as fascinating and entirely too plausible – as it did to this reader – there are other stories that take this same concept and follow it in different directions – or are nearer to or farther down the road from that initial slide – such as Lark Ascending by Silas House, The Starless Crown by James Rollins, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel may also appeal – and vice versa as well.

Reid’s experiences at Howse University, as related in We Speak Through the Mountain, ask a different set of questions, questions about what the haves owe to the have nots, and what happens when an outsider, repeatedly and often, challenges the smug elitism of their safe, secure, patronizing privilege. Now that I know how Reid came to those experiences, I may go back and experience them again for myself to see how much that story has changed now that I have more of this one.

#AudioBookReview: The Mystery Writer by Sulari Gentill

#AudioBookReview: The Mystery Writer by Sulari GentillThe Mystery Writer by Sulari Gentill
Narrator: Katherine Littrell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 400
Length: 10 hrs 52 mins
Published by Dreamscape Media, Poisoned Pen Press on March 19, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

There's nothing easier to dismiss than a conspiracy theory―until it turns out to be true.
When Theodosia Benton abandons her career path as an attorney and shows up on her brother's doorstep with two suitcases and an unfinished novel, she expects to face a few challenges. Will her brother support her ambition or send her back to finish her degree? What will her parents say when they learn of her decision? Does she even have what it takes to be a successful writer? What Theo never expects is to be drawn into a hidden literary world in which identity is something that can be lost and remade for the sake of an audience.
When her mentor, a highly successful author, is brutally murdered, Theo wants the killer to be found and justice to be served. Then the police begin looking at her brother, Gus, as their prime suspect, and Theo does the unthinkable in order to protect him. But the writer has left a trail, a thread out of the labyrinth in the form of a story. Gus finds that thread and follows it, and in his attempt to save his sister he inadvertently threatens the foundations of the labyrinth itself. To protect the carefully constructed narrative, Theo Benton, and everyone looking for her, will have to die. 
USA Today bestselling author Sulari Gentill takes readers on a rollercoaster ride in The Mystery Writer, a literary thriller that turns the world of books and authors upside down and where a writer's voice is a thing to be controlled and weaponized, to the peril of everyone who loves a good story.

My Review:

The mystery – and the mystery writer herself – both kick off when a bedraggled, desperate Theodosia Benton knocks on her big brother’s door. Theo is uncertain of her welcome, but when her flight from Canberra fetches her up in Lawrence Kansas, she’s hoping against hope that the one person who has never failed her will rescue her one more time. Even if she and Gus haven’t seen each other in years.

Her hope in her brother is not misplaced. But her arrival pushes a small stone down a long, steep hill that gathers more than enough moss, snow and really big rocks to crush the lives that they are trying to build. And sweeps entirely too many people around them into its destructive path.

Depositing Theo – along with poor Gus and his ginormous dog Horse  – and the heart of the deepest and darkest conspiracy theory that neither of them could have possibly seen coming. Not even their best friend’s family of obsessive, true believing conspiracy nuts.

Escape Rating B-: I picked this up because I LOVED the author’s previous book, The Woman in the Library, and was hoping for more of the same. That isn’t what I got – emphasis on the “I” because I think that the reasons this book didn’t work for me until the very end were a “me” thing that may not be a “you” thing. Before I explain, let me state for the record that the dog is a VERY GOOD BOY and he’s doing FINE at the end of the story.

Even though I loved Horse nearly as much as Theo did, this book drove me bonkers. I was listening to it and it turned into a rage listen, but as much as the whole thing frustrated me no end, I couldn’t stop even though I couldn’t stand another minute. So I switched to text just to find out who done what and how and why a whole lot faster.

The audio was fine, and the narrator did a terrific job of dealing with Gus’ deliberately strong Aussie accent and Theo’s less pronounced one among all their American friends and neighbors. It was the story itself that was making me crazy, to the point where I tried thumbing to the end of the book just so I would know – but it didn’t make sense because things get very, very twisty at the end.

However, that twistiness did manage to redeem a great deal of my frustration, because the macguffin that powers this whole twisted mess that Theo has been dropped into was definitely a WOW to the point where it’s entirely too easy to fall down the rabbit hole of it being real. Really plausible anyway, in spite of itself. Or myself. Or both.

But it definitely middled in a place where it seemed obvious to this reader that there was a malign agency of some kind behind the way that Theo’s life goes so far down the road to hell in that handcart so fast. (Like Wednesday’s audiobook, people just aren’t THAT unlucky unless someone really is out to get them.) So I had a pretty good guess fairly on who was doing the dirty deeds – I just didn’t have the whys, the hows or the wherefores.

Which also frustrated me because I thought that at least one of the main characters, probably not Theo herself but either her older brother Gus or his friend Mac.

And that’s the point where I worked out that the part of the story that was not working out for this reader was that the entire house of cards relies on the protagonist’s innocence and naivete in order to work at all. And since the story is told from her perspective we get a lot of that naivete to the point where I just wanted to shake some sense into her. It’s not that she’s too stupid to live, it’s that she’s young and has led a rather peculiarly sheltered life in the remoter parts of an entirely different country.

Gus or Mac should have had a better perspective on just how high the terrible coincidences were piling up, and just how unlikely that was, as they are both a decade older than Theo and have, particularly in Mac’s case, considerably more knowledge of the way the world really does and doesn’t work. But the way the story works means that they are dealing with most of the events through what Theo tells them, and her naivete bleeds all over everything.

Plus, they are both trying really, really hard to protect her – even from her frequently misguided self.

In the end, I think the whole story and the way that it works can be summed up by the tagline that the most prominent group of conspiracy aficionados uses in their messaging, “We know what we know.”

The full quote, from Nicolaus Copernicus, feels like it’s a key to understanding the conspiracy theorists in the book as well as the book itself and how it hides its real mystery in plain sight.

“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” Clinging to what they know, the conspiracy theorists have no clue about all the many, many things they don’t know. Neither does Theo. And neither, as the book takes us on a not-so-magical mystery tour of the way that Theo’s, Gus’ and Mac’s lives go so very, very wrong, does the reader – at least not until the bitterly climactic end.

#AudioBookReview: A Midnight Puzzle by Gigi Pandian

#AudioBookReview: A Midnight Puzzle by Gigi PandianA Midnight Puzzle (Secret Staircase Mystery, #3) by Gigi Pandian
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase Mystery #3
Pages: 342
Length: 10 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Minotaur Books on March 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In heroine Tempest Raj, modern-day queen of the locked room mystery Gigi Pandian has created a brilliant homage to the greats of classic detective fiction. Secret Staircase Construction is under attack, and Tempest Raj feels helpless. After former client Julian Rhodes tried to kill his wife, he blamed her "accident" on the home renovation company’s craftsmanship. Now the family business—known for bringing magic into homes through hidden doors, floating staircases, and architectural puzzle walls—is at a breaking point. No amount of Scottish and Indian meals from her grandfather can distract Tempest from the truth: they’re being framed.
When Tempest receives an urgent midnight phone call from Julian, she decides to meet him at the historic Whispering Creek Theater—only to find his dead body, a sword through his chest. After a blade appears from thin air to claim another victim, Tempest is certain they’re dealing with a booby trap… something Secret Staircase Construction could easily build. Tempest refuses to wait for the investigation to turn to her or her loved ones. She knows the pieces of the puzzle are right in front of her, she just has to put them together correctly before more disaster strikes.
Multiple award-winning author Gigi Pandian and her heroine Tempest Raj return in A Midnight Puzzle, where an old theater reveals a deadly booby trap, secrets, and one puzzle of a mystery.

My Review:

A Midnight Puzzle is all about the Raj Family Curse – and the sin of hubris that allows it to last so long and makes it so damn difficult to put to rest.

After her adventures – and misadventures – in the first two books in the Secret Staircase Mystery series, Under Lock and Skeleton Key and The Raven Thief, stage illusionist turned construction illusionist Tempest Raj believes that she is on the verge of solving the mystery that has cast a shadow over her family and her life for the past decade – if not considerably longer.

Long, long ago, the Raj family were illusionists and court magicians in their native India. Way back then, it was believed that a curse had been laid on the family – or the family business. It was said that the Raj family’s firstborn child in each generation would “die by magic”. Of course, over the centuries, it did happen sometimes. Just enough to keep the curse – or the belief in it – going for another century or so.

Tempest’s beloved grandfather Ash is the second child of his generation, because his older brother died “by magic”. Ash left India for Scotland and its renowned medical colleges, married a local artist and never looked back. Or at least tried very hard not to.

But the magic skipped a generation as well as a continent. Ash’s daughters, Elspeth and Emma, became stage illusionists as “The Selkie Sisters” until an accident and an argument broke their trust in each other. Working alone, Elspeth, the older of the two, did indeed “die by magic”, keeping the talk of the curse alive for another generation.

However, Emma died by magic as well – or at least disappeared in the middle of her own magic show, on the boards – or at least in the wings – of their hometown’s Whispering Creek Theater ten years ago.

Tempest has rented the haunted and haunting little theater in order to stage one final performance, a one night “Farewell” to her own ill-starred career as a stage illusionist. Of course, being in temporary possession of the place her mother vanished, Tempest is also determined to comb the theater for clues.

At least until disaster strikes – from without and from within. But in solving the current mystery, Tempest may have the opportunity she needs to lay that old mystery to rest. If her family’s construction company, Secret Staircase Construction, can survive just one more public disaster.

And if Tempest and her ‘Scooby gang’ can manage to unmask a killer before their curse sweeps Tempest AND her friends into yet another example of the Raj Family curse.

Escape Rating B: I have to admit that I went into this third entry in the series with a bit of trepidation after the muddle of The Raven Thief. Particularly as A Midnight Puzzle opened with Tempest, her family and the construction company being in the midst of what seemed like rather pointedly aimed chaos on all fronts – only because it was.

(I started this one in audio, as I figured it would get me over the hump of those trepidations. And it did. I switched to text once it got going because there were so many potential clues and delicious red herrings that I needed to find out who actually ‘dunnit’ FASTER.)

But at the beginning I was still a bit stuck in thinking this series was inflicted with Cabot Cove Syndrome, or perhaps Midsommer-itis. By which I mean that all of the mysteries so far have been a bit too intimate and her family and their business have been much too personally involved – not as the investigators, or even as the direct victims – but as the suspects.

No one’s luck is THAT bad. Unless, of course, they really are cursed.

Which means that I was very pleased to see the mystery of the Raj Family Curse – at least in its modern iteration – laid to rest at the end of A Midnight Puzzle, along with a promise of more mysteries but somewhat less personal ones in future entries in the series.

But first, there’s the mystery in THIS outing. Or rather, the two mysteries that are both squarely aimed at the Raj Family.

What makes this story work better than The Raven Thief is that the story keeps its eyes – and Tempest’s – on the prize of solving the mystery of her mother’s disappearance – no matter how many distractions and misdirections get thrown in Tempest’s way.

And no matter how much the police seem to be bungling their investigation into the deadliest of those distractions.

As much and as often as Tempest is tempted (and so is the reader!) to hare off after the many distractions and misdirections, in the end A Midnight Puzzle is a very satisfying wrap up to what looks to be the opening setup trilogy for this series. And the way that the whole thing was strung out over three books feels like it was the right length after all, because this mystery has been decades in the making, so it’s only fitting that it take a year or more to wrap up in a way that leads back around to a beginning that Tempest barely knew about, as well as a reminder that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

But Tempest is not the one who falls, even though the resulting thud breaks her heart, and it clears the way for new, and hopefully less personal mysteries and adventures. I’m looking forward to see what Tempest stirs up next.

A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. Kingfisher

A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. KingfisherWhat Feasts at Night (Sworn Soldier, #2) by T. Kingfisher
Narrator: Avi Roque
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Series: Sworn Soldier #2
Pages: 160
Length: 5 hours and 2 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The follow-up to T. Kingfisher’s bestselling gothic novella, What Moves the Dead .

Retired soldier Alex Easton returns in a horrifying new adventure.

After their terrifying ordeal at the Usher manor, Alex Easton feels as if they just survived another war. All they crave is rest, routine, and sunshine, but instead, as a favor to Angus and Miss Potter, they find themself heading to their family hunting lodge, deep in the cold, damp forests of their home country, Gallacia.

In theory, one can find relaxation in even the coldest and dampest of Gallacian autumns, but when Easton arrives, they find the caretaker dead, the lodge in disarray, and the grounds troubled by a strange, uncanny silence. The villagers whisper that a breath-stealing monster from folklore has taken up residence in Easton’s home. Easton knows better than to put too much stock in local superstitions, but they can tell that something is not quite right in their home. . . or in their dreams.

My Review:

It’s not mushrooms this time. Not that there isn’t something creeping around the old hunting lodge that retired soldier Alex Easton inherited from their family in the remoter parts of their native Gallacia. And not that Easton isn’t still experiencing PTSD and a whole, entire and entirely justified case of the collywobbles at even the thought of anything that might possibly have to do with mushrooms after the fungus-powered monstrosities in Easton’s first outing, What Moves the Dead.

In fact, after the events in What Moves the Dead, it’s not at all surprising that Easton is searching for a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just a surprise that they’ve gone home to Gallacia to find either of those things. Because it is clear from Easton’s opening remarks regarding this trip to their homeland, the whys and wherefores of the whole thing, and their thoughts and feelings about Gallacia and anything to do with it that they would much rather have stayed in Paris.

As Easton makes VERY clear on the way to that hunting lodge they haven’t visited in the past ten years, at least in the conversation they are having with themselves inside the confines of their own head, they are feeling very put upon by this whole trip. Their reluctance, at least, is apparent in the conversation they are having aloud, the one between themselves, their very good horse Hob, their batman and general factotum Angus, and Angus’ mustache, which seems to convey rather strong opinions of its own in spite of not actually being able to say a word.

Besides, it’s all Angus’ fault. Well, Angus’ fault as well as Easton’s own sense of propriety – no matter how much they’d like to let THAT go hang itself at the moment. Because Eugenia Potter, that redoubtable English mycologist who so ably assisted them with the fungal infestation in the House of Usher in What Moves the Dead, has been invited to Gallacia to observe the local fungi, with Easton as her ostensible host.

Honestly, it’s to further Miss Potter’s romance with Angus, but no one is admitting that. It wouldn’t be proper.

Easton planned to arrive at the lodge a few days ahead of Miss Potter, expecting to find the place in reasonable shape, just needing a bit of restocking and tidying up. That’s how Easton remembers it from the last time they were there. But Easton also remembers a caretaker taking care of the place, a caretaker that Easton has been paying a salary to for years and years, and as recently as the preceding month.

So, it’s obvious when Easton and Angus arrive that things are not quite what they expected. The house is a mess, the caretaker is a few months dead, and no one seems to be willing to be employed to help Easton and Angus get the place cleaned up and cleaned out, in spite of the good wages in hard currency that Easton is more than willing to pay in this poverty-stricken village where those things are seldom seen or even heard of.

Which is the point where Easton should have rescinded the invitation to Miss Potter and run back to Paris as fast as their horse’s legs could carry them. Because there’s something uncanny about the caretaker’s death, and there’s something dangerous haunting the old hunting lodge.

At least, this time, it’s not mushrooms.

Escape Rating A-: I’m not sure whether to say that What Feasts at Night isn’t quite as creepy as What Moves the Dead, or to say that it is even creepier. Let’s say I’m creeping along that fence and not sure which side I’ll fall off onto.

What Moves the Dead was a creepy story that turned out to be a bit more scientifically inclined than anything that happens within it might lead the reader to expect.

What Feasts at Night, very much on the other hand, reads much more like a fever dream story about pneumonia and PTSD. Or a ghost story about PTSD. Or a nightmare about a ghost that’s strangely cured or killed through PTSD that only masquerades as being about pneumonia. Or all of the above.

The fever dream aspects of the story, particularly as the pneumonia, or the wandering local vampire/ghost creeps its way into the dreams of both Alex Easton and the grandson of the bitter old woman they finally manage to hire to take care of the house, manage to both make the story even creepier AND slow it down at the same time. Because for the longest time not much happens except in dreams and that’s not a quick process until the end. Not helped at all by the fact that no one local will really EXPLAIN anything about what might be happened, and Easton clearly didn’t get told the right stories when they were growing up.

But at that point, where the dream and the ghost and Easton’s PTSD all emerge on the same battlefield, it’s chilling and riveting and every frightening thing the reader has been expecting all along. It just feels like it takes a while to get there. But then, that’s what dreams do.

One thing that does kick the story along, frequently, often, and with more than a bit of a rueful laugh, is that it’s clear from the volume of conversations that Easton has with themself that the author has never met a Fourth Wall she wasn’t more than willing to batter her way through head first, whether using her protagonist’s head or even her own.

Which is one of the things that made listening to What Feasts at Night so much creepy fun, as the narrator, Avi Roque, has a rough, smoky voice that is perfect for Easton as it lets us inside their wry, sarcastic, self-deprecating head even as they tell both themselves and us that they realize that they should have known better at so many points along the way of the story they are now telling, if only they hadn’t let their logic get in the way of observing what was actually happening around them.

I enjoy Alex Easton’s voice, even when I’m not nearly so certain about the story they are telling. Horror is not my jam, but in this case I’m here for the characters, and Easton’s perspective is compelling even when the story they are in the middle of is creeping me right the hell out.

A+ #AudioBookReview: The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC Rosen

A+ #AudioBookReview: The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC RosenThe Bell in the Fog (Evander Mills, #2) by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Series: Evander Mills #2
Pages: 261
Length: 9 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Forge Books, Macmillan Audio on October 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Bell in the Fog, a dazzling historical mystery by Lev AC Rosen, asks―once you have finally found a family, how far would you go to prove yourself to them?
San Francisco, 1952. Detective Evander “Andy” Mills has started a new life for himself as a private detective―but his business hasn’t exactly taken off. It turns out that word spreads fast when you have a bad reputation, and no one in the queer community trusts him enough to ask an ex-cop for help.
When James, an old flame from the war who had mysteriously disappeared, arrives in his offices above the Ruby, Andy wants to kick him out. But the job seems to be a simple case of blackmail, and Andy’s debts are piling up. He agrees to investigate, despite everything it stirs up.
The case will take him back to the shadowy, closeted world of the Navy, and then out into the gay bars of the city, where the past rises up to meet him, like the swell of the ocean under a warship. Missing people, violent strangers, and scandalous photos that could destroy lives are a whirlpool around him, and Andy better make sense of it all before someone pulls him under for good.

My Review:

The typical San Francisco fog hides a lot in this historical mystery set in the early 1950s, and gay ex-cop turned private investigator Andy Mills is caught in the thick of it.

It all begins with a case, as most noir-ish detective stories do. A case told from Andy’s often anguished, confused and frequently pained point of view. Because whatever the actual case is, the thing it investigates most is the past that Andy has done his best to get, well, passed.

And failed.

A former lover is being blackmailed. Someone has pictures of the man in a ‘compromising position’ with another man in a hotel room. Pictures that will scuttle Andy’s ex James’ promotion to Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and send him straight to the stockade with a dishonorable discharge.

Andy needs the case because he needs the money. Business for an ex-cop turned P.I. isn’t good when EVERYONE remembers that he used to be a cop – the people who hassle and roust and beat up guys just like them Just like him, which makes the betrayal that much worse.

But more than the business, Andy needs closure. About James. About what happened to the lover who disappeared from his shipboard bunk one night at the end of the war and didn’t even bother to say goodbye. A disappearance that left Andy desperately afraid that they were caught and he was next. A disappearance that caused Andy to nearly blow up his entire life to get away from.

Andy has four days to find the blackmailer and the evidence – or James’ life goes up in smoke. He has no leads and no clues and no certainty that he doesn’t want James to go down for all the agony he left behind when he disappeared to catch the promotions ladder.

It’s only when Andy solves THAT case that he learns that his nostalgia-washed memories of the war and his relationship with James were a lie, and that the real search for identity is the one that Andy has just begun – a search for who he will be and what life he will live now that he has at least caught all the edges he can of living his own truth instead of hiding behind a scrim of lies.

Unless it gets him killed first.

Escape Rating A+: I initially picked up this series in audio for the voice actor, Vikas Adam, who was one of several fantastic narrators of Jenn Lyons’ A Chorus of Dragons series. The funny thing is that when he’s narrating Andy Mills, the picture I see in my head is Oscar Isaac, but that’s not at all who I see when he’s Kihrin in A Chorus of Dragons and CERTAINLY not the image in my head from when he was Pounce in Day Zero. That’s the alchemy of story for you.

It’s also ironic that, as much as I loved the voice narration, this is one where I flipped to text halfway through because I absolutely HAD to learn whodunnit – and that just wasn’t happening fast enough in audio and I didn’t want to spoil the narration by increasing the speed.

C’est la reading – or listening – vie.

What I loved about this second entry in the Evander “Andy” Mills series – after 2022’s marvelous Lavender House – was that it combines a typical noir case of searching for an unknown person – actually several missing and/or unknown persons – with a search for identity. And the way that both of those searches are wrapped in fog, smoke and mirrors. Sometimes all at the same time.

Then, wrapped around that mystery like an even denser fog are the questions raised by the historical setting and the damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t problems of living while gay at a time and place where being real was illegal and pretending was illegal and seemingly everyone and everything was peering at every life through a microscope for anyone and anything that could be labeled different from any and every norm.

And what that means for anyone trying to just live their life the best they can where that life has already been declared a criminal act.

In the case of this particular mystery, it leads to a situation where the mystery gets solved but its not possible for good to totally triumph or for evil to get any full measure of its just desserts – and yet it still manages to satisfy as a mystery because Andy has done the best he can and he lives to solve another case another day and that’s all the triumph possible.

Speaking of living to solve another case another day, one of the advantages of waiting a few months to listen/read The Bell in the Fog is that I already know when Andy gets to start on his next case. He’ll be returning to the scene of the crimes and the punishments of his first case in Rough Pages, coming in October. I can’t wait!

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Seanan McGuire
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #5
Pages: 189
Length: 3 hours and 52 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.
But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.
Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.
Again.

My Review:

I’ve been winding my way through Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series for nearly three years now, since I first read Every Heart a Doorway back in early 2021. I’ve skipped around through the series and had both a grand and a thoughtful time each and every time I’ve returned to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Clearly, you don’t have to read the series in order to get into it. Although it probably does help to read that first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. And possibly, in this particular case, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before this one. But now I’m caught up with the whole thing, even though this particular book happens very much in the middle of the series.

All of that is to say that some of this review is bound to reflect my thoughts on the series as a whole because it’s just now whole for me, as well as this entry in the series in particular.

You have been warned.

Much as Jacqueline Wolcott warns her friends at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children just before they follow her through the lightning-keyed door back to her home, the horror-movie hellscape called ‘The Moors’.

A place where EVERYTHING is ruled by science and powered by lightning, where vampires contend with mad scientists and resurrection is as commonplace as blood, where Frankenstein’s monster would be seen as just another citizen – and quite possibly was.

Jack is in dire straits when she returns to the school, and she needs the help of the only friends she can trust to see that, in spite of appearances, she’s still Jack even though she’s in her twin sister Jill’s body. They are the only people who know her well enough to understand that her OCD will not allow her to just adapt to living her life in the unclean thing that murdered her mentor – even if Jill’s full, entire, complete and utterly nefarious plot is to destroy both her sister Jack and the balance that keeps The Moors relatively safe and functional for the human population that was born to a world where vampires contend with mad scientists and drowned gods prey upon ships and shorelines, where the sun only rises behind thick clouds and lightning storms happen whenever the Moon wills it so.

Jack needs help, so she’s gone to the one place where she knows she can get it. Even if it’s the one place she hoped never to return to, because it means that she’ll have to do the one thing she hoped she’d never have to do.

She’ll have to kill her twin sister. Again. She already did it once to save the world she was born to. She’ll have to do it again so that she can save the world that her heart calls home.

Escape Rating A-: The Wayward Children series winds itself around and around and back and forth and over and under and all over again. We first met the Wolcott twins in the very first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, but we don’t get their full story until the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, while book three, Beneath the Sugar Sky, deals with the effects of their actions in Every Heart a Doorway.

(After listening to the latest book in this series, Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, and liking it very much, I decided to grab this middle book in audio as well – although the readers are very different. The author herself narrates this story, as she did the previous books that featured the Wolcott sisters. McGuire has a formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense delivery that is utterly fitting for the formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense Jack Wolcott. Audiobooks just work better when the narrator fits the primary character’s voice and the author/narrator fit Jack to a ‘T’, even when Jack felt like she wasn’t fitting her own self very well at all.)

Come Tumbling Down is still dealing with the effects of Jill’s actions. Which have been the kind of actions that make her behavior and her very nature in this book make all that much more sense. As much as anything that happens in any of the worlds that the doors lead to make sense from the perspective of this world.

From the perspective of their own worlds, they are completely logical. Unless of course they are nonsense worlds to begin with.

One of the core tenets of the whole, entire, Wayward Children series, something that is said by one character or another over the course of the series, is that “actions have consequences”. This particular entry in the series is the story of the consequences of Jill’s actions in The Moors, which were the consequences of Jill’s actions in our world and Jack’s response to those actions, which were, in their turn, a consequence of both of their reactions when they found their door to The Moors. All of which were the consequences of their parents’ treatment and conditioning of them when they were still under their parents’ thumbs and had never gone through a doorway at all.

But that’s EXACTLY the kind of cause and effect that underpins this whole series. Which feels like it is set as a counterpoint to Narnia, where the Pevensie children went through the back of a wardrobe and lived an entire life to adulthood without their actions seeming to have had any consequences at all when they returned to the world they were born to.

As a result of their trips through the doors, the children return ill-adapted to the world where they were born. But that’s in the story. In reality – for certain select definitions of the word – what they exhibit upon their returns are psychological disorders that people are all too frequently misdiagnosed or not diagnosed as having for reasons that have more to do with either parental or medical or societal assumptions and/or expectations than they do with what the people coping or not coping are coping or not coping with.

Which is a long way around to say that there’s more to this series than initially meets either the eye or the reader’s mind. Now that I’ve finished the whole thing – at least so far – the whole thing gets deeper and more meaningful the further you get into it, no matter the order that you get into it in.

So, on the surface there’s a story about vampires and mad scientists set in a place that the great horror movies might have used for their inspiration – if not their actual setting. Underneath that there’s a deeper story about balances of power and how devastating it can be when those balances become unbalanced. And the story of one heroine who is willing to throw her own body into the breach – along with her sister’s corpse – to preserve that balance at truly any and every cost.

At its heart – beating with the power of unbridled electricity – there’s a love story about a young woman who fell so much in love with a monster and the world that created her that she was willing to do anything at all to preserve that happy ever after – even to become a monster herself.

But the soul of the series, in each and every story, is that ‘actions have consequences’ for good and for ill, and that the most important thing, to do and to be, is to ‘Be Sure’ that your choices are the ones that you can live with – or die by.

A- #AudioBookReview: A Body on the Doorstep by Marty Wingate

A- #AudioBookReview: A Body on the Doorstep by Marty WingateA Body on the Doorstep (London Ladies' Murder Club, #1) by Marty Wingate
Narrator: Naomi Frederick
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: London Ladies' Murder Club #1
Pages: 288
Length: 9 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Bookouture on January 11, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Fiercely independent Mabel Canning can’t wait to begin working for the Useful Women’s Agency. But when she discovers a body on her client’s doorstep, it’s time to add solving murders to her job description…
London, 1921: Mabel Canning is proud to be a modern woman working for the Useful Women’s Agency, carrying out tasks for gentlewomen from flower arranging to washing muddy dogs. But when she answers the door for wealthy widow Rosalind Despard, she almost chokes on her cucumber sandwich when she finds a soldier’s body on the doorstep.
As she offers tea to the policemen of Scotland Yard, Mabel can’t resist getting drawn into the investigation. Who was the mysterious dead man? And why was he holding a letter for Rosalind, written by her husband on the day he disappeared?
As Mabel hunts for clues, she joins forces with Rosalind’s handsome brother, former detective Park Winstone, and his adorable terrier, Gladys. But when Mabel suspects she is being followed, the detective duo know that time is running out before the killer strikes again.
As she investigates, Mabel discovers dusty old photographs that help her reveal the soldier’s true identity. But as she gets closer to uncovering the young man’s murderer, she knows she’s also one step closer to danger... Can she outsmart the killer and save Park and Rosalind before they also turn up dead as doornails?
A totally unputdownable and utterly charming Golden Age cozy mystery from USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Richard Osman, Verity Bright and T.E. Kinsey.

My Review:

Miss Mabel Canning has arrived in London in 1921 after FINALLY managing to convince her father that it was no longer scandalous for an unmarried woman to live on her own and support herself in the big city. She’s also running away from her whole village’s firmly held belief that she should marry the local vicar – who is also her best friend’s widower after the ravages of the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Mabel has always dreamed of going to London and living on her own, and she sees poor, dear Ronald as a brother and absolutely NOT a potential spouse. In her mid-30s, Mabel isn’t even certain she wants one of those. She’s certain she doesn’t want any of the available men back home in Peasmarch.

We meet her on her first assignment for the Useful Women’s Agency. She’s been tasked with helping newly declared widow Rosalind Despard at the wake for her late and much lamented husband. But Rosalind isn’t even certain that her husband Guy is actually dead. He’s been missing for seven years and has been declared legally dead so that his business affairs can be taken care of. It’s all about closure – a closure that Rosalind isn’t sure she’s either ready or even eligible for.

So it’s a very strange wake, under rather unusual circumstances. Circumstances that only get stranger and even more unusual when a dead man thumps into the front door with a seven-year-old letter from Guy Despard in his pocket.

No one knows who the dead man is. No one knows what the letter has only turned up seven years after Guy’s disappearance. No one is entirely certain whether the letter is real or merely an elaborate hoax.

But the dead body is certainly real enough to bring the police to the house and open up all the questions and insinuations that Rosaline Despard has been dealing with all these years.

This is certainly not closure, not for Rosalind and not for any of her friends and family. And not for Miss Mabel Canning, who has befriended the widow and is determined to help her get that closure – one way or another – while doing her best to keep her own body and soul together along the way.

Escape Rating A-: This was lovely, very much a case of the right book at the right time, as I’ve been in a bit of a murder-y mood this week – actually this whole entire year so far.

From the beginning, Mabel Canning’s situation at the Useful Women’s Agency reminded me of something, and it’s a something that very much fits. The ‘Golden Age’ detective series about Lord Peter Wimsey, written by Dorothy Sayers, is also set in the 1920s, and the world has some of the same feel even if Mabel is seeing it from much more towards the middle of the social strata.

But during the Wimsey series, Lord Peter funds an agency for independent women, very much like the Useful Women’s Agency. He hires Miss Katharine Climpson’s agency to investigate situations in various cases where women will have entry and he does not, much like Mabel Canning uses the Useful Women’s Agency to get herself involved in a murder investigation.

Unlike Miss Climpson, Miss Kerr and the Useful Women’s Agency really existed – without Miss Canning’s particular specialty – because there was a need for independent women to make their own livings after World War I followed by the flu epidemic wiped out much of the generation of men they would otherwise have married.

The mystery in The Body on the Doorstep is quite nefarious, multi-layered and much closer to home than anyone imagined at its beginning. Well, not the police as they ALWAYS assumed that the wife did it. An erroneous assumption, of course, otherwise we wouldn’t have a mystery on our hands.

The story is cozy without being twee, and its setting in London as seen through the eyes of a woman on the verge of ‘middle-age’ gives her perspective a combination of freshness and maturity at the same time.

There are plenty of murders, and they are often all too gruesome, and yet the details are smudged just enough that the reader ‘gets’ the gruesomeness without being bathed in the blood – so to speak.

But the story works well because we’re following Mabel Canning, and her opening herself to the city and all its possibilities for independence and purpose makes her interesting to follow. We empathize with her every bit as much as she empathizes with the characters who become caught up by the ever expanding tendrils of the murder and its cover up.

I listened to this one for about half its length, and the narrator gave Mabel just the right voice for her inner thoughts and outer expressions. But I got so caught up in the mystery itself that I had to see whodunnit and switched to text because it’s a)faster and b) a whole lot easier to thumb to the end. Although I resisted that temptation by simply finishing in one sitting.

I liked Mabel, I enjoyed her two steps forward, one step back, looking over her shoulder investigation through friendship and a sincere desire to help, and am happy to say that there are two more books in this series – at least!

Particularly because there’s a hint of a possibility of romance for Mabel in this first book, and I’m hoping that we’ll learn whether they will or they won’t in A Body at the Seance, which is out now, and A Body at the Dance Hall, coming in April.

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuire

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuireMislaid in Parts Half-Known (Wayward Children, #9) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Jesse Vilinsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #9
Pages: 160
Length: 4 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Dinosaurs and portals, and a girl who can find both in the latest book in the Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning series.
Antsy is the latest student to pass through the doors at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children.
When her fellow students realize that Antsy's talent for finding absolutely anything may extend to doors, she's forced to flee in the company of a small group of friends, looking for a way back to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go to be sure that Vineta and Hudson are keeping their promise.
Along the way, temptations are dangled, decisions are reinforced, and a departure to a world populated by dinosaurs brings untold dangers and one or two other surprises!
A story that reminds us that finding what you want doesn't always mean finding what you need.

My Review:

This book and certainly the Wayward Children series as a whole, feels like the perfect story to start off the new year.

Why?

Because new years are all about doors closing, doors opening, and taking the opportunity to start with a fresh slate and reinvent yourself and how you see the world, and that’s a big part of what the Wayward Children series is all about.

Beginning with Every Heart a Doorway, the series is a metaphor for finding the place where you belong, the place that your heart calls home, and then getting tossed out of that personal Eden and being forced to make a whole new start on a whole new you – whether you want to or not.

Especially when you don’t. And when you no longer belong in the place you originally came from. You really can’t go home again because it’s not the place you remember and the people who once loved you no longer see you as theirs.

The story in this particular entry in the series picks up where the previous book, Lost in the Moment and Found, left off. Antsy has returned to Earth from the Shop Where the Lost Things Go, nine-years-old in a sixteen-year-old body, still angry at the shopkeeper Vineta and terrified that someone will figure out her secret.

Which they do. Both of her secrets. Her friends figure out that she isn’t nearly as mature as her body appears to be. Her enemies figure out that Antsy left the shop with a talent for finding anything – including other people’s doors – and have absolutely no care in the world about what the doors cost and zero intention to pay for it themselves because that’s what other people are for.

But Antsy can find anything when she needs it badly enough. Including a way out when she and her friends are cornered by the magically mesmerizing head mean girl and her clique of magically reinforced sycophants.

Leading Antsy and company to break one of the School’s most sacred rules. They think they’re hunting for an escape route, but what they’re really searching for is the place that at least one of their hearts calls home. In other words, they’re going on a quest.

A quest to find the one place that Antsy literally can’t afford to return to. Unless she takes it over – for herself.

Escape Rating A: Before I get started on the book, I want to mention that I listened to this one in audio – and that feels like a bit of an afterthought, which is rare. The book was excellent, as you can tell from the rating. But this is a case where the fact I was listening to it instead of reading it didn’t impinge on my consciousness at all. The experience felt seamless, as though the narrator was downloading the story directly into my brain. Which was VERY much unlike Under the Smokestrewn Sky, where the narration detracted from the story.

I said at the top that this book was perfectly themed for the start of the year, because of its fundamental metaphor about doors opening and reinvention that just dovetails perfectly with the thoughts and feelings we all have about the old year ending and the new year beginning.

Ironically, however, this entry in the series is much more about closing doors than it is about opening them, although it definitely carries the theme of self-reflection and reinvention and finally being sure of who one needs to be in the world and their life in it.

At first, the story feels very much a part of the YA genre which the series is often pigeonholed into, as out-of-place, out-of-time Antsy is being persecuted by a powerful clique of ‘mean girls’. It’s only when she starts revealing herself for who she really is and what she really can do that we start to see her as considerably more capable and mature than either her nine-year-old head or her sixteen-year-old body would be capable of.

Because her moral compass is firmly pointed towards doing the right thing, and she’s very sure indeed what that right thing is – at least in the context of the Shop, its doors, its costs, and its purpose. It wants her back, and she wants to go, but it’s more than that. It’s that she’s ready to do the necessary for the shop and for herself. She’s grown up in the ways that matter, she just has to recognize that fact.

She has to ‘Be Sure’, and by the story’s end, she finally is.

But along Antsy’s journey we see other doors that open and close for other ‘wayward children’. Discovering that her best friend is happy and somewhat safe in the world her own heart calls home, even if it’s a world that none of the rest of the travelers would be remotely interested in staying, gives her strength and much-needed closure.

However, the series as a whole feels like it’s winding down, as it should. The young children in the first part of the series are now teenagers and their life paths are reaching out for them. One way or another, their doors are opening, giving them one last chance to be sure enough to go home.

What got me about this entry in the series was the way that the doors and the futures they represent felt like metaphors for life, for making or finding a life filled with magic and purpose. It doesn’t HAVE to be the magic of the doors – because happiness is a magic all its own. All one has to do is find it. And BE SURE.

I’m sure I’ll be back for the next book in this series, currently untitled but scheduled to be published this time next year.