#BookReview: In Our Stars by Jack Campbell

#BookReview: In Our Stars by Jack CampbellIn Our Stars (The Doomed Earth, #1) by Jack Campbell
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Doomed Earth #1
Pages: 400
Published by Ace on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Lieutenant Selene Genji has one last chance to save the Earth from destruction in this pulse-pounding science fiction adventure, from the author of the New York Times bestselling Lost Fleet series.
Earth, 2180
Genetically engineered with partly alien DNA, Lieutenant Selene Genji is different from ordinary humans. And they hate her for it. Still, she’s spent her life trying to overcome society’s prejudice by serving in the Unified Fleet while Earth’s international order collapses into war.
Genji is stationed on a ship in orbit when humanity’s factional extremism on the planet reaches a boiling point, and she witnesses the utter annihilation of Earth. When the massive forces unleashed by Earth’s death warp space and time to hurl her forty years into the past, Genji is given a chance to try to change the future and save Earth—starting with the alien first contact only she knows will soon occur.
Earth, 2140
Lieutenant Kayl Owen’s ship is on a routine patrol when a piece of spacecraft wreckage appears out of nowhere. To his shock, there is a survivor on Selene Genji. Once her strange heritage is discovered, though, it becomes clear that Genji is a problem Earth Guard command wants to dispose of—quietly. After learning the horrifying truth, Owen helps her escape and joins her mission.
Together, they have a chance to change the fate of an Earth doomed to die in 2180. But altering history could put Genji’s very existence in danger, and Owen wonders if a world without her is one worth saving. . . .

My Review:

From the opening pages, In Our Stars read an awful damn lot like a Star Trek episode. Actually, several of them. Because this is a time travel story, of just the kind that Star Trek in ALL of its various iterations, has played with – A LOT.

It’s the year 2180, and Lieutenant Selene Genji of Earth’s United Fleet is just close enough to the event horizon to watch in horror as Earth is destroyed. Not by aliens, not by the Borg, not by accident.

But deliberately, by its own people. Not even in an attempt to throw off an alien invasion as in the first Avengers movie. In Lieutenant Genji’s 2180, Earth bombs itself out of existence in a fit of xenophobia directed at people just like her.

People who are ‘alloys’, who have a portion of alien DNA. Because after ‘First Contact’ with the Tramontine in 2140, genetic manipulation made that possible – and briefly – desirable.

But humans are gonna human, and some humans are just looking for an excuse to declare that other people aren’t people, and charismatic tyrants and despots are always available and all-too-willing to latch onto any stupid excuse to grab power.

To make a long story short, there was a large, influential group of people who believed that destroying Earth to purge it of alien influences would cause a new, pure Earth to emerge from the inevitable dust cloud.

The wrongness of that belief and her wish to change history to make sure this doesn’t happen again are Selene Genji’s last conscious thoughts before she’s rescued by Lieutenant Kayl Owen of Earth Guard, the only survivor aboard her derelict ship, in 2140, just months before First Contact.

Selene Genji has that barely conscious wish within her sights. She is in the right place – or at least at the right time – to prevent the destruction of Earth she witnessed 40 years in the future.

Whether she’s in the right place is an entirely different question, as Kayl Owen inherited his father’s disgrace to his service, and no one has any compunctions about making them both disappear in order to keep the secret of her existence from everyone who might care.

Which is way more people and forces than she expected, as the mysterious powers that took over Earth so quickly in her own time are considerably more active in her new here and now than Selene – or history – told her to expect.

It’s going to be an even longer road, NOT getting from there to here, than even a woman from the future could possibly have imagined.

Escape Rating B: I couldn’t get the resemblance to Trek out of my head, and that affected my reading of this book a lot because it felt just a bit too familiar. To the point where even though I didn’t know what was coming, I sorta/kinda knew what was coming. Also, to the point where I couldn’t resist falling down a Trek time travel rabbit hole. Or should I say, a time travel black hole, because that device was used frequently and often, even if that’s not quite what happened here.

The thing is, Star Trek played with time travel frequently and often. There’s at least one time travel episode in every Trek series to date, taking them in Trek’s chronological order, from the entire first season of Enterprise with its Temporal Cold War arc, through “What is Past is Prologue” (Discovery), “A Quality of Mercy” (Strange New Worlds), “Tomorrow is Yesterday” (The Original Series), “Yesteryear” (The Animated Series), “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (Next Gen), “Past Tense” (DS9), “Future’s End” (Voyager) and last but certainly not least, “The Star Gazer” from Star Trek: Picard’s second season. As well as one of Trek’s most famous and storied episodes, “The City on the Edge of Forever” from TOS, and two of its best and most popular movies, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, otherwise known as ‘the one with the whales’ and Star Trek: First Contact – the one with Steppenwolf’s marvelously apropos “Magic Carpet Ride”.

(The above list is ONLY a sampling. There are multiple time travel episodes and/or arcs in every Trek series. If you’re really curious check out the Memory Alpha wiki.)

The difference between most but not all of the Trek examples and In Our Stars is that in Trek it’s usually someone else who has mucked with the time stream and it’s the job of whatever series is running at the time to make things right. Although there have been exceptions.

The plot in In Our Stars is to prevent the worst from happening by mucking with the 2140 time stream as soon and as much as possible. The story is that neither of those things, fast or soon, are going to be as easy as Selene – and her soon-to-be life-partner Kayl Owen – either expect or even hope.

Which is clearly what is going to push the plot of The Doomed Earth series, of which In Our Stars is the first book, through the years from 2140 to 2180 and hopefully past that original disastrous day. Something that we’ll get to see in the months and years ahead, both theirs and ours.

I picked this up because Jack Campbell is an author who has been recommended to me multiple times, but by the time that happened his best known series, now called The Lost Fleet, with its follow up Lost Fleet Universe series, was already well past a dozen books in. I wasn’t in the mood to start from the beginning and don’t like picking things up in the middle if at all possible.

In Our Stars solved that problem, as it’s the opening book in a new series, so no catch up and no need to jump in the middle with both feet and hope for an informative landing. One of these days the ‘round tuit’ for reading Lost Fleet will emerge, as they do. But today is not that day.

In the meantime In Our Stars turned out to be a great place to get into a new-to-me author. The familiarity of the setup was a comfort that also made the plotting of the political craziness – because that’s definitely a feature – the touch of romance and the constant drive of our heroes on the run while building support – just that much easier to get into.

So if you’re looking for a new space opera type adventure with more than a hint of the familiar in all the best places, take a ride to 2180, or 2140, or both, In Our Stars.

#AudioBookReview: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Natalie Jenner

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

 

#BookReview: My Dearest Mackenzie by Rachel Blaufeld

#BookReview: My Dearest Mackenzie by Rachel BlaufeldMy Dearest Mackenzie by Rachel Blaufeld
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: 40s Love and Romance #3
Pages: 217
Published by Rachel Blaufeld Publishing on April 25, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Frankie Burns, brash and bold on the outside, divorced and scarred on the inside, is determined to figure out what really happened with her Paps and his long-lost love, Rosie. Understanding why the duo didn’t find their happily-ever-after is her biggest mission. With every inch of her five-foot-two frame, she’s determined to discover why they were separated and forced to live a life without one another, convinced it will fix her own unhappiness.
Mackenzie Miller, handsome, rich, and one of New York’s most eligible bachelors, keeps everyone at an arm’s length and believes the only barometer to happiness is how wealthy and powerful he becomes. Shoving back his grandmother Milly’s wishes for him to find an everlasting love, he is successful in every other area of life. Abandoned by his mother, fairy tales are not part of Mack’s world, but running his makeup and perfume empire is paramount.
That is… until a feisty blond woman blasts into his life and won’t accept no for an answer when it comes to looking for a connection between his beloved Milly and her beloved Paps. He doesn’t understand the severity of her search. She needs to know the story to fill a gap in her own life.
The twist neither of them expects is falling for one another in the process…

My Review:

It’s not exactly a meet-cute, although Mackenzie Miller thinks that Frances Burns is plenty cute – also feisty and ferocious – which is how she managed to barge her 5 foot nothing self into his usually well-guarded office.

Frankie has a quest that Mack doesn’t even believe in – and he’s not remotely willing to hear her out. He’s pretty sure that her quest is for his money – and he’s been there and done that and is way, way over any further attempts.

But Frankie doesn’t care about his money – or the cosmetics and perfume empire he inherited from his beloved grandmother Milly.

Although that’s not quite right. Frankie is interested in one product and one only. A perfume that is now considered old fashioned and was discontinued long ago. Frankie only cares about “Rose’s Lily” because it was named for the love of her late grandfather’s life.

Frankie found the letters that Milly wrote to James Burns during the year that they fell in love – back when her grandfather and Mack’s grandmother were seventeen. Milly’s father – Mack’s great-grandfather – dragged the young lovers apart and got Milly married off before she even turned eighteen because Milly was Jewish and James Burns was not – and in those days that mattered and it mattered a lot.

But neither James nor Milly EVER forgot the person who was their “One” – not over the course of their long and relatively successful, but separate, lives.

Frankie, whose own tilt at the “Happy Ever After” windmill went down in flames, feels like she needs to learn what happened to that young woman her grandfather loved and lost in order to get some closure on the loss of the person who meant the most to her in this world.

At first, Mack doesn’t believe her. Then again, his mother’s abandonment of him to his grandmother’s waiting arms left him with a whole trunk of emotional baggage that he mostly deals with by running away, including a belief that romantic love doesn’t really exist.

But the irresistible force has met the immovable object – and sparks have been struck no matter how much both Frankie and Mack deny it – and each other – at every turn.

Escape Rating B: This isn’t exactly a dual-timelines story. It is a bit, but not really. Mack and Frankie’s tempestuous relationship – whatever it might be at the time – is always front and center in the story. What they discover about the past really doesn’t change things for them – although it does change some of the dynamics in their present-day relationships with others.

Their journey of discovery, both of their grandparents’ past and of their mutual present, is a story of two steps forward and one step back for multiple reasons – although the biggest reason is that every time they get close emotionally Mack runs away. Often literally. Once leaving Frankie behind in the Hamptons with no transportation.

(Not that ride-sharing isn’t a thing, and not that she doesn’t call one, but really, that’s a douche move. Or at least the move of a man who’s scared of touching his own emotions – let alone anyone else’s. And his behavior dovetails all too well and very badly with Frankie’s fears of abandonment.)

Each time they discover something about the past – it temporarily derails their present. Not because the revelations are so terrible, but because each one peels back a layer of reserve and self-protection and neither of them is really all that great at handling any of THAT.

Even though they should be as both are well into adulthood – and for the most part are doing a decently successful job of adulting. But that also means that their emotional scar tissue is many layers deep – and that scraping at it hurts rather a lot.

I really enjoyed that this was a romance between two people at midlife – and not fresh and dewy 20somethings. Their baggage is real and heavy, but the rewards feel that much sweeter because they were much harder to earn.

At the same time, the story they are searching for, Paps and Milly’s blighted young love, had a lot of resonance for this reader. Not because there’s something like their story in my own family’s history, but because the idea of it, that young lovers could be forcibly separated by a difference in religion – to the point of disownment or declaring the one who married out to be deceased – was very real in my own family. It’s a practice that has changed over time, but there were a few cousins of my parents’ generation who disappeared from family gatherings only to reappear decades later with non-Jewish spouses after the immigrant generation of the family had passed on.

Also, Milly’s real name was Rose and so was my own grandmother’s. So there’s that.

Returning to Frankie and Mack – as the story itself does frequently and often. I liked their midlife romance. I felt that their emotional baggage had weight and heft and made a huge difference both in what brought them together and what kept them apart. I really did enjoy their journey, but as a reader I felt like the book should have ended a bit sooner. The last few chapters dragged a bit because it felt like everything had been resolved and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And it finally did, but when it dropped it was more of a whimper than a thud and didn’t seem to quite justify those last “slice of new life” chapters. Not that it wasn’t nice to see their HEA get firmly planted, but the lingering last bits did, well, linger a bit too long.

But I still did enjoy My Dearest Mackenzie with its dip into the past and its exploration of midlife romance in the present. I didn’t learn that this is might be part in a series until I finished, so I’ll be looking for the author’s loosely connected 40s, Love and Romance series that starts with The Back Nine, the next time I’m in the mood for a bit of romance.

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#BookReview: Knightqueen by Anna Hackett

#BookReview: Knightqueen by Anna HackettKnightqueen by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Oronis Knights #3
Pages: 221
Published by Anna Hackett on May 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A queen and her battle-scarred guard are on the run on an alien planet…with a relentless enemy hunting them.
Knightqueen Carys of Oron lives a life of duty to her people and planet. After the murder of her parents, she worked hard to become a fair and dedicated leader. She never expected to be abducted by the vicious Gek’Dragar and locked in a mountain prison, but having her head knightguard at her side makes it bearable. Older, scarred Sten is duty personified, the one man she’s always been able to trust.
He’s also the only man she’s ever loved, not that she’s ever told him that.
Knightguard Thorsten Carahan has sworn to protect his knightqueen, and lives and breathes her safety. He works hard to keep his mind on his duty, and not on the too young, too beautiful, and too kind queen who is way out of his league. But now they’ve escaped their enemy’s prison and are on the run on a dangerous planet. When they learn that the Gek’Dragar have created a lethal weapon to use against the Oronis, Sten knows he must get Carys home. But with danger at every turn, lines get blurred.
With only each other to depend on, Carys and Sten’s bond of duty and respect tangles with forbidden desire and need. As passion flares, they can no longer deny their connection, and they will discover just how far they are willing to go for their people…and each other.

My Review:

When last we left our heroes – actually, in this particular case, it’s more like “when first we met our heroes” back in the first book in the Oronis Knights series, Knightmaster. In the first story, the Oronis had just welcomed a delegation from Terra, our very own Earth, in the hopes of forging an alliance to fight the rapacious Gek’Dragar.

The Terrans had already formed a similar alliance with the Eons, in spite of a somewhat rocky beginning, as part of the stories told in the marvelous Eon Warriors series. The Eons are long-standing allies of the Oronis, and now all three planets face the same enemy, the Gek’Dragar.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” as that saying goes. Not that this alliance was EVER smooth sailing, as it began back in Knightmaster with the Gek’Dragar kidnapping the Oronis Knightqueen and her Knightguard, and framing the Terrans for the crime.

But once that misdirection got straightened out, the Oronis and the Terrans have been on a joint mission to rescue the Knightqueen – assuming that she and her Knightguard don’t manage to rescue themselves, first.

Which is where we left those heroes at the end of the second book in the series, Knighthunter. That hunter team blew open and blew up the prison where the queen and her bodyguard, were being held, and Carys and Sten escaped in the chaos.

Meaning that they unknowingly ran away from their rescuers, jumped out of the frying pan into the fire – sometimes literally – and have spent the past several days outrunning their Gek’Dragar pursuers, throwing off the effects of the drugs they were injected with that suppressed their normally formidable powers, and generally running themselves into the ground.

Because the monsters on this hellhole planet are just as deadly as the Gek’Dragar – if not maybe a bit worse – and Carys and Sten have no weapons or armor until their powers return.

All they have is each other. Which has always been more than enough – even if neither of them has ever admitted that to themselves – let alone each other.

It’s not right, it’s not proper, for a Knightqueen to fall in love with her Knightguard. But this time, it’s inevitable.

Escape Rating B+: Knightqueen is the culmination of the whole, entire Oronis Knights series – which is only three books long. Meaning that, on the one hand, you really do kind of need to start at the beginning with Knightmaster, while on the other hand, three novellas is just a lovely amount of reading for a rainy spring weekend – of which there are PLENTY this time of year!

Knightqueen is a bodyguard romance. Maybe not exactly like the movie – certainly the SFnal setting if Knightqueen is literally light years away from the movie – but the trope is the trope is the trope – and it’s ALL here in Knightqueen.

Except the music, so you’ll just have to bring your own. I kept hearing Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” in the back of my mind as I read – and it took the longest time to figure out why.

Unlike the movie, the ending of Knightqueen results in a resounding HEA. That may seem like a bit of a spoiler, but all of this author’s stories end in either an HEA or an HFN depending on just how FUBAR the world they are set on happens to be.

It is part of why I enjoy her work so much.

But this particular entry in the series hit one of my less than favorite tropes pretty hard. The relationship between Carys and Sten does have its questionable aspects, she’s queen, he’s her bodyguard, he’s over a decade older which isn’t itself enough to make things squicky but he watched her grow up which is at least on the border of questionable.

As it’s usually not so much the years as the mileage, it’s not the age difference per se so much as it is that Carys is inexperienced with romantic relationships – which is not a surprise as she’s been queen from a very young age and it would never have been politically safe for her to go on dates or experiment with either love or sex.

Nevertheless, the trope that this fell into that put me off a bit was that Sten had a really bad case of the “I’m not worthy’s” that was a whole lot more personal and ingrained in his psyche than just the difference in their respective stations. This is a “me” thing and may not be a “you” thing.

Putting it another way – I did love the bodyguard romance but wasn’t thrilled with how little the bodyguard thought of himself in it. Your reading mileage obviously may vary.

That being said, I still had a grand time with the entire Oronis Knights series and am a bit sorry to see it come to end even though I’m happy to see the Gek’Dragar put in their place – a grave.

As this series has come to a close – and doesn’t end with teasers for a spinoff, it looks like the author will be turning back to contemporary action adventure romances for most of this year. Leaving this reader looking forward to the next book in her Unbroken Heroes series, The Hero She Craves, coming next month!

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

Ahem.

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

This incident would add to that legend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie Tidhar

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie TidharJudge Dee and the Limits of the Law (Judge Dee, #1) by Lavie Tidhar
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal, short stories, vampires
Series: Judge Dee #1
Pages: 32
Published by Tor Books on November 11, 2020
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No vampire is ever innocent…
The wandering Judge Dee serves as judge, jury, and executioner for any vampire who breaks the laws designed to safeguard their kind’s survival. This new case in particular puts his mandate to the test.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked this up, but what I got was kind of interesting and sorta cute and blissfully short yet still told a good story and somehow managed to fit – albeit weirdly and oddly – into the whole Judge Dee rabbit hole I fell down last week.

Like many vampire stories, it needs a human touch. And it has one in this case, as it is told by vampire Judge Dee’s current human assistant, Jonathan. Who is often just a bit hard done by the Judge, as poor Jonathan needs the occasional meal of real food, and the occasional break to catch his labored breath, while the vampire clearly does not. And sometimes forgets to care.

That the human is a considerably messier eater than the average vampire, let alone the rather fastidious Judge Dee, is just part of the byplay between these two unequal companions.

The story here still manages to display Judge Dee’s much vaunted ability to, well, judge evildoers within the limits of the law and render a fit punishment – when punishment is what’s due.

The case that introduces this pair to readers is just such a case – more convoluted that one might expect leading to a rather elegant ending – and not the one the reader expects when Judge Dee first knocks on the door.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up this week for two reasons. The first is part of the reason I grabbed this at all, that I fell down a reading rabbit hole about Judge Dee and discovered this series and simply couldn’t resist. A lack of resistance that may have had something to do with the cover art which is just this side of comic but bizarre in a way that pulled me in.

The second reason, and the why right now reason, is that these are blissfully short. I’ve overcommitted myself this week and needed that really, really badly.

But I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting a lot, because there is literally not a lot here. Howsomever, I got more than I expected.

Judge Dee does his damndest to stick to the letter of the law while leaning over it just enough to find justice in a situation where there might not have been any to find. He’s beyond clever and yet is amused when a potential defendant before his traveling bench manages to out-clever him.

What makes the story fun – more than fun enough that I’ll be picking up the next story the next time I need something short to tide me over an overcommitted calendar – is the first person perspective of poor, put upon, Jonathan. He’s snarky, he’s both world-weary and vampire-weary, but he’s always aware of the side on which his bread is buttered – when he can get any, that is. So his commentary covers the Judge, the law he administers, his opinions and predilections, but also the companionship they provide each other.

Along with Jonathan’s constant scramble to get enough food in his belly to keep him upright for another day trudging after the indefatigable vampire Judge Dee. And one of these days soon I’ll be, not trudging but skipping along right beside him with Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels.

#AudioBookReview: Close to Death by Anthony Horowitz

#AudioBookReview: Close to Death by Anthony HorowitzClose to Death (Hawthorne & Horowitz, #5) by Anthony Horowitz
Narrator: Rory Kinnear
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Hawthorne and Horowitz #5
Pages: 419
Length: 9 hours and 12 minutes
Published by Harper, HarperAudio on April 11, 2024
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In New York Times–bestselling author Anthony Horowitz’s ingenious fifth literary whodunit in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, Detective Hawthorne is once again called upon to solve an unsolvable case—a gruesome murder in an idyllic gated community in which suspects abound
Riverside Close is a picture-perfect community. The six exclusive and attractive houses are tucked far away from the noise and grime of city life, allowing the residents to enjoy beautiful gardens, pleasant birdsong and tranquility from behind the security of a locked gate.
It is the perfect idyll until the Kentworthy family arrives, with their four giant, gas-guzzling cars, a gaggle of shrieking children and plans for a garish swimming pool in the backyard. Obvious outsiders, the Kentworthys do not belong in Riverside Close, and they quickly offend every last one of their neighbours.
When Giles Kentworthy is found dead on his own doorstep, a crossbow bolt sticking out of his chest, Detective Hawthorne is the only investigator that can be called on to solve the case.
Because how do you solve a murder when everyone is a suspect?

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BookReview: The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia Samatar

#BookReview: The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia SamatarThe Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia Samatar
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, dark academia
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on April 16, 2024
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Celebrated author Sofia Samatar presents a mystical, revolutionary space adventure for the exhausted dreamer in this brilliant science fiction novella tackling the carceral state and violence embedded in the ivory tower while embodying the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin.
"Can the University be a place of both training and transformation?"
The boy was raised as one of the Chained, condemned to toil in the bowels of a mining ship out amongst the stars.
His whole world changes―literally―when he is yanked "upstairs" to meet the woman he will come to call “professor.” The boy is no longer one of the Chained, she tells him, and he has been gifted an opportunity to be educated at the ship’s university alongside the elite.
The woman has spent her career striving for acceptance and validation from her colleagues in the hopes of reaching a brighter future, only to fall short at every turn.
Together, the boy and the woman will learn from each other to grasp the design of the chains designed to fetter them both, and are the key to breaking free. They will embark on a transformation―and redesign the entire world.

My Review:

This didn’t go any of the places I expected it to go. But the places it went and the themes it explored turned out to be much bigger than I expected – even though they conducted that exploration in the narrowest of spaces.

The space-faring fleet on which both the Hold and the University exist is part of a vast armada of interstellar leeches. This is not a generation ship, although generations of humans have certainly been born and died on its journey.

Instead, this is a human colony designed and engineered to roam the black, much as Quarians were in Mass Effect, but without their tragic, albeit self-inflicted, backstory.

Rather, the human population of this fleet represents humanity in all its dubious glory, greedy and rapacious by design, striving and hopeful in only a part of its execution. The stultifying caste system of Braking Day, Medusa Uploaded and even Battlestar Galactica, as highlighted in the first season episode “Bastille Day” (It took me forever to locate exactly which episode had this plot point but I just couldn’t get the reference out of my head) is on full and disgusting display, particularly in the context of the University.

Not that academia doesn’t do plenty of caste stratification of its very own, and not that it can’t be both blood thirsty and bloody minded – particularly in its small-minded, impractical politics. If an exploration of that appeals and you enjoy SF mysteries, Malka Older’s Mossa and Plieti series, The Mimicking of Known Successes and The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles plumbs those depths in all their ugliness while figuring out just whodunnit in a brave new/old world, while Premee Mohamed’s forthcoming We Speak Through the Mountain is a similarly searing indictment of the way that Academe rewrites its own history to obscure its pervasive condescension.

Howsomever, as is clear from the above citations, several parts of this story have been done before – and well – if not quite in this combination.

The place I wasn’t expecting it to go was into the metaphysical, quasi-religious depths of Andrew Kelly Stewart’s We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep, which is where The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain gets both its heart and its quite literal depth.

Because the story here, in the end, is both about learning that even people who believe they are free can be conditioned – or fooled – into forgetting that they are just as chained as the obviously and literally named ‘Chained’ people that they are taught to look down upon.

And that it is only by banding together, not through violence but through perception and mindfulness and just plain finding common cause – that they can all be free.

Escape Rating B: This is a story that, at first, seems a bit disjointed. And it does have a sort of metaphysical aspect that seems foreign to its SF story – also at least at first. At the same time, as much as the obvious abuses of the Hold system resemble the contemporary carceral state, the sheer bloody-minded small-minded nastiness of academia sticks in the craw even more harshly – if only because it makes the hypocrisy of the whole, entire system that much more obvious.

This isn’t a comfortable book. It’s beautifully written, compulsively lyrical, and manages to both hit its points over the head with a hammer AND obscure any catharsis in its ending at the same time. I’m not remotely sure how I feel about the whole thing, but I’m sure I’ll be thinking about the spoken and unspoken messages it left implanted in my brain.

#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
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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.

#BookReview: A Cast of Falcons by Sarah Yarwood-Lovett

#BookReview: A Cast of Falcons by Sarah Yarwood-LovettA Cast of Falcons by Sarah Yarwood-Lovett
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Dr Nell Ward #2
Pages: 380
Published by Embla Books on October 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
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When the wedding of her oldest friend ends with a shocking murder, Dr Nell Ward is once again caught up in a web of subterfuge, secrets and lies...
When her childhood friend Percy announces she's engaged to handsome businessman Hawke McAnstruther, Dr Nell Ward rashly offers to host the wedding at Finchmere, her family's estate. But she hadn't anticipated Percy's parents' fiery disapproval of the groom.
The ceremony is barely over before Hawke's shady personal and professional life starts to unravel, and tension ripples through the assembled guests. When the wedding night ends with a shocking death, Nell, best-friend, Rav and DI James Clarke all find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery worthy of Agatha Christie.
Surviving a terrifying threat to her own life, Nell has to face up to the truth. Not just about murder at Finchmere, but about where her heart truly lies...

My Review:

It really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for whoever did the world a favor by bashing Hawke McAnstruther over the head before he could do any further damage to Nell Ward’s best friend Percy and her family.

Which is also, come to think of it, Nell Ward’s family – just at a bit of extension.

It IS too bad, however, that whoever eliminated Hawke from the gene pool before he could contaminate it further, the arsehole (they’re all Brits, only arsehole will do) did the deed at Nell’s family estate, Finchmere, just hours after the conclusion – the epically awful conclusion at that – of Percy’s wedding to the bastard.

Luckily for Percy, she wised up to her new husband’s evil ways in those few scant hours between the ceremony and his spectacular fall from grace onto the floor two or three stories below. So it’s good riddance to bad rubbish – and at that point it might really have been a drunken accident.

The wealth, influence and titles of both Percy’s AND Nell’s family are more than enough to ensure that the official verdict reads exactly that.

The only person who will really miss Hawke is his mother Linda. But not for long, as sometime in the wee hours of the morning someone savagely slit her throat and impaled the murder weapon in her chest to make sure that the job’s been done.

HIS death COULD have been an accident. HER death absolutely could not be accidental, nor is there any scenario where it could have been self-inflicted. Even the police are able to draw the obvious conclusion that there is at least one murderer on the premises – and possibly two.

There are plenty of suspects for Hawke’s murder, as the man was a charming, conniving slimeball who left a trail of ruined companies and broken people in his wake – and clearly planned to do the same to Percy, her family, and her family’s properties.

Motives and suspects abound for HIS murder, but for HERS, not so much. Leaving the police flailing, caught between compromised crime scenes, endless possibilities for sneaking around the stately pile without being seen, and more motives than they can shake a truncheon at.

But Nell Ward, as demonstrated in her first, and all-too-personal, investigation in A Murder of Crows, just can’t keep her nose out of the investigation. She might not be in the frame this time around, but her best friend and her extended family certainly are.

Even if that puts her on the opposite side of the investigation from her current boyfriend, Detective Inspector James Clark, and pushes her straight into the arms of her work partner and best friend Rav.

Exactly the place that Rav has always wanted her to be.

Escape Rating B+: The latest book in this series, A Trace of Hares, is coming out today. I’m reading this series from the beginning, so I’m not there yet, but I wanted to mark the day so here we are. I’m enjoying this series because I really like the protagonist, Nell Ward, and her geeky love of bats and owls as well as her personal and professional advocacy for ecology in general. Although, at least so far, she does seem to have a bit of Midsomer-itis.

Admittedly, from where I’m reading, the series is only two books in and so far she’s been intimately involved with both murders. And based on the blurb for the next book, A Mischief of Rats, that streak of unbelievably bad luck is not running out any time soon. Which it really needs to, as no one’s luck is this bad.

But that’s more of an overall issue that will hopefully resolve itself later down the series. This particular entry in the series, however, was a whole lot of murder-y fun, in spite of the personal consequences for Nell. It’s pretty easy to be a bit gleeful in this one, as the first murder victim was an arsehole, the second murder victim, the arsehole’s mother, proved that his apple didn’t fall all that far from the tree, and frankly the eventual third victim wasn’t all that great an excuse for a human being either even if he was a member of Nell’s extended family.

The family of the suspects may not have been nearly as despicable as the Thrombeys in Knives Out, but comparisons could certainly be drawn.

In the first book, Nell displayed the geeky professional persona of Dr. Nell Ward, while keeping her aristocratic background – among other secrets – hidden for as long as she could. It wasn’t until the local police went so far as to actually arrest her for murder with only vague suspicions and circumstantial evidence that her alter ego of Lady Eleanor Ward-Beaumont, niece to the Duke of Aveshire, daughter of the Earl of Finchmere and his wife, Imelda Beaumont MP, and heir to Finchmere came out – along with her family’s expensive and effective legal counsel.

Not that any of the above stopped Nell from investigating her way out of a rather well-placed frame and clearing her own name. Both of them.

This time around it’s Nell’s ‘lady of the manor’ persona that’s on display – although Nell the ecologist peeks out frequently and eventually manages to solve this murder as well – to the consternation of the police. Again.

I found Nell to be a likable amateur investigator, and certainly felt for her inability to keep herself out of the investigation. After her previous experience, I wouldn’t have trusted the police either – which makes her decision to date the man who investigated her the first time around a bit questionable. While the ‘torn between two (potential) lovers’ dilemma that Nell is in the midst of isn’t my favorite, it was certainly an interesting twist on the theme to experience it more from one of those two lovers’ points of view instead of Nell’s. I’m hoping that she sticks to the choice she made in future books in the series, but we’ll see.

I’m certainly planning to see that for myself as I continue my reading of this series. I’ll be picking up A Mischief of Rats the next time I’m in the mood for a cozy-ish, Midsomer Murders-type mystery. I may not have caught up with the series in time to read and review A Trace of Hares on its publication date, but I have a chance of being ready for the following book, A Swarm of Butterflies, by the time it comes out in August!