Review: No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

Review: No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell TurnbullNo Gods, No Monsters (The Convergence Saga, #1) by Cadwell Turnbull
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Convergence Saga #1
Pages: 387
Published by Blackstone Publishing on September 7, 2021
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One October morning, Laina gets the news that her brother was shot and killed by Boston cops. But what looks like a case of police brutality soon reveals something much stranger. Monsters are real. And they want everyone to know it.
As creatures from myth and legend come out of the shadows, seeking safety through visibility, their emergence sets off a chain of seemingly unrelated events. Members of a local werewolf pack are threatened into silence. A professor follows a missing friend’s trail of bread crumbs to a mysterious secret society. And a young boy with unique abilities seeks refuge in a pro-monster organization with secrets of its own. Meanwhile, more people start disappearing, suicides and hate crimes increase, and protests erupt globally, both for and against the monsters.
At the center is a mystery no one thinks to ask: Why now? What has frightened the monsters out of the dark?
The world will soon find out.

My Review:

The title of this book is a play on the old anarchist slogan, “No Gods, No Masters.” It’s a reference to the belief that no one should be above anyone else and no one should be below anyone else. That all humans should be equal

The “monsters” that have suddenly come out of wherever they’ve been hiding themselves have adopted the old slogan to put forward the idea that monsters aren’t separate from the rest of the population, that neither humans nor monsters should be above or below each other, that all should be equal.

It’s a question that has come to the forefront in the wake of an event that the amorphous, unreliable narrator of this story refers to as the “Fracture”, when a group of shifters – werewolves and their kith and kin – staged a peaceful demonstration of their ability to shift from wolf to human. A demonstration that took place in front of a bunch of cops and other bystanders, and was filmed in its entirety.

The video of the demonstration appeared very briefly on the internet, showing the full change from a line of wolves to a line of humans. The video went viral. Everybody saw it. People were debating the existence of monsters and what it meant.

At least until all the copies of the video were edited to eliminate the parts that showed the change. And the debate shifted, from people discussing what they saw to people arguing about whether or not they’d really seen it. About whether or not monsters really exist at all.

But even with and beside and under the debate, the world is changing. The “Fracture” has had an effect on everyone, whether believer or skeptic, monster or human. Even for those who have chosen not to rock their familiar world by admitting that there might be more things on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, nothing and no one will ever be the same.

Escape Rating B: There are multiple ways of looking at this story, because it feels like it says different things depending on how the reader approaches it, beginning with the debate about whether this is science fiction or fantasy. To which the answer is probably “Yes”.

The point of view characters, whether monster or human, focus the story on the perspective of the “other”, where being a monster is just one additional axis upon which a person can be considered “other”.

The story opens with the death of Laina’s brother Lincoln, where Laina is looking for the truth about why the cops shot him. Laina expects to find yet another police cover up of cops killing a black man for no particular reason. What she finds is a video of really, truly, seriously frightened cops shooting an out-of-control werewolf who only turns into her brother after he’s dead. That the video is left for her by an invisible woman adds to Laina’s desire for answers to questions she hadn’t even known were possible.

The story spins out from there. Laina releases the video. Mysterious forces edit the video. More monsters reveal themselves to their friends and family. More people have questions and search for answers – only to find that those answers are more dangerous than they ever imagined.

The story doesn’t so much proceed as it spirals outward in ever increasing circles and greater and greater number of perspectives, from the members of a co-op who learn that one of the members is a techno-mage and that factions of monsters are hunting all of them to a young politician and secret weredog and who is still desperate to learn what happened to the parents who disappeared when she was a child – only to discover that the forces that broke them want to take and break her as well.

Conspiracy theorists learn the lesson about being careful what you wish for because you might get it. Or it might get you. That it takes a monster to catch a monster – as one of last week’s books explored much less seriously  and considerably less well – and that the only ones capable of really damaging creatures who are seriously at the top of the food chain are others who are just the same.

The switches in perspective and narration made it a bit difficult to follow the story. They give a strong sense of the story being much bigger than what we see, but also make it harder to put everything in any kind of order. At the same time, because this is also a story of the multiverse, those hints that the situation is bigger than we imagine make a certain kind of sense.

Even if I occasionally wished we stuck with one perspective so we could figure out a bit more of what’s really going on.

One of the things that I kept coming back to in my own head was that we all know that there ARE gods and there ARE monsters, even if the gods are the kind that man creates in his own image and the monsters all walk on two legs all of the time. The certainty of both of those things does not prohibit the possibility that there are also gods or pantheons of gods of the omniscient and omnipotent variety, nor that some of the monsters that go bump in the night in fiction don’t also do it for real.

It becomes clear over the course of this story that the humans are capable of being way more monstrous than the actual monsters, and that the ones who believe they are godlike are the worst of all.

The end of the blurb leads readers to questions that the story itself doesn’t raise – at least not yet in the series. Why is this happening now? (At least for certain perspectives on exactly what “now” means.)

Speaking of perspectives, at least in the audiobook that I listened to they blurred into each other just a bit. The reader was good, and if his voice was intended to represent the unreliable narrator we begin and end the story with, he does a good job of representing that particular voice. But this story has a LOT of voices, all of whom are unreliable to one degree or another – some because they don’t know what they don’t know, and some because they don’t want to know what they don’t know – and the audio might have worked a bit better if there had been a few more narrators to help the listener keep track.

In the end, which is not an end but really just a pause, I’m intrigued. It feels like this book opens a tiny window into a much wider and deeper catalog of worlds and stories and possibilities and what ifs. This first book felt like a whole bunch of teasers and I want to see where they ALL lead.

Review: Forgotten in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Forgotten in Death by J.D. RobbForgotten in Death (In Death, #53) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, eboook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #53
Pages: 384
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the latest novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series, homicide detective Eve Dallas sifts through the wreckage of the past to find a killer.

The body was left in a dumpster like so much trash, the victim a woman of no fixed address, known for offering paper flowers in return for spare change―and for keeping the cops informed of any infractions she witnessed on the street. But the notebook where she scribbled her intel on litterers and other such offenders is nowhere to be found.

Then Eve is summoned away to a nearby building site to view more remains―in this case decades old, adorned with gold jewelry and fine clothing―unearthed by recent construction work. She isn’t happy when she realizes that the scene of the crime belongs to her husband, Roarke―not that it should surprise her, since the Irish billionaire owns a good chunk of New York. Now Eve must enter a complex world of real estate development, family history, shady deals, and shocking secrets to find justice for two women whose lives were thrown away…

My Review:

While I fully admit that I’ve been planning to read this since the minute I finished the previous book in the series (Faithless in Death, which was one of the truly EXCELLENT entries in the series), I picked this up over the Labor Day weekend because I was having a difficult time getting stuck into a book and I knew that, even if this was just an average book in the series – which I have to say that it was – I would still have no difficulties whatsoever getting immersed (again) in this world and these characters. Which turned out to be completely, totally and utterly true, as it always does.

I even finished this before yesterday’s book, but that left me so sad that I didn’t want to end the week on such a down note. So here we are with Forgotten in Death. Not that Eve Dallas ever forgets any of the murder victims that she stands for, even after she gets the justice they are due.

As usual with this series, the story begins with a body. A dead body poorly concealed in a dumpster near a construction site. It seems that, in death as well as in life, someone saw Alva Quirk as trash and threw her away.

But this site isn’t through with Eve Dallas yet, as she gets called to another body in the midst of New York City cleaning up the shoddy construction hastily erected in the aftermath of the Urban Wars that are not that many years from now in the alternate timeline of Eve’s world.

Or at least we hope it’s an alternate timeline. Because if it isn’t, the bad years are coming up really fast.

The second body is the opposite of the first. This victim was at least upper middle-class based on the items found with her. She was at least 20 years younger than the first victim, probably more. And she was very, very pregnant at the time of her death.

Which was nearly 40 years ago, just at the time that all of the buildings now being demolished were first and hastily built. And the site that she was found in now belongs to, of course, Eve’s mega-rich husband Roarke.

But he didn’t, and couldn’t have, owned it when that young woman and her viable baby were entombed. He would have been all of 2 years old or thereabouts, and in Ireland at the time. Roarke may be an overachiever in a whole lot of ways, but not THAT much.

Because the long arm of coincidence isn’t nearly that long, at the time each murder happened, and it was definitely murder in both cases, what are now two building sites were one, both owned by the same company, Singer Family Developers. Singer still owns the site where Quirk was found, and the main players in the company from the earlier murder are all still alive and more or less active in it.

And entirely too involved and interested in covering up whatever happened all those years ago.

Escape Rating B: Forgotten in Death is a solid – and solidly enjoyable – entry in this long-running series. As plenty of reviewers have said, one of the things I look forward to every year are the Spring and Fall updates to the world of Dallas and Roarke. So even when the story doesn’t break any new ground – and this one doesn’t – it’s always a good reading time and it’s always great to see what the gang is up to.

One of the things I love about this series is the way that the world is set up. The first book in the series, Naked in Death, was published in 1995, when I was also in my 30s, just as Eve and Roarke were at the time. In 1995, the 2058 setting of the series seemed an impossibly long time away.

And yet it isn’t. Eve’s world doesn’t move as fast as ours, so 50+ books in Eve’s world have only moved the time needle three years forward to 2061. Her world is still far enough in the future that many things are different, while close enough to our time that many things are still the same. Also 2021 is near enough in their rear-view mirror that plenty of people actually remember the time we’re living in right now.

Part of the charm of this series, in addition to the ever-present romance between Dallas and Roarke, is the cop shop vibe of Eve’s Homicide Division of NYPSD. Over the books in the series we’ve gotten to know all the people in Eve’s ever-growing circle of friends, colleagues and frenemies so it’s always fun to see how everyone is doing. And how everyone pulls together when the chips are down.

So even when the case isn’t all that fascinating, I still love this peek into Eve’s world.

Speaking of the case, this one is all about real estate chicanery and family legacies – and just how a family that thinks it’s cut from a finer bit of silk than the rest of us covers up it’s less than savory shenanigans – and shenanigators.

Because all of the real estate, let’s call them irregularities, go back a century – in other words to the 1960s – and because some of the scions of the family have been less than stellar representatives of it, I kind of got the feeling that the author might have been venting some spleen at the long term shady dealings of a family of former high-level government officials. Or at least I got that vibe and enjoyed that vibe very much. I’m totally speculating about the author’s feelings on the matter. Plenty of New York City real estate history – and other history – is filled with people and families who dealt on both sides of the law.

So that part was fun but not deep. But speaking of deep, I really enjoyed the research and historical digging involved both in determining the identity of the long-buried victim and in getting some much overdue justice for the circumstances that eventually put Alva Quirk into that dumpster.

And it’s always great to catch up with the gang. Including Eve’s word-salad descriptions of Detective Jenkinson’s horrendously clashing ties. They always give me a giggle. So I’ll be back in the spring for the next book in this series, Abandoned in Death. I already can’t wait!

Review: King of Eon by Anna Hackett

Review: King of Eon by Anna HackettKing of Eon (Eon Warriors #9) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Eon Warriors #9
Pages: 284
Published by Anna Hackett on September 5th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The King of the Eon Warriors has decided to take a Terran as his bride…but finds himself shockingly attracted to the tough, beautiful Space Corps officer in charge of his potential brides’ security.

King Gayel Solann-Eon is dedicated to his people and empire. His father was a hard man and a rigid king, but Gayel is doing things his own way. That includes working with his allies to defeat the ravenous insectoid Kantos. To strengthen the alliance with Earth, he’ll put his own wants and needs aside and take a Terran bride. But as the group of bridal candidates arrive on the Eon homeworld, he’s shocked by a stunning attraction to the Space Corps officer in charge of their security.
Captain Alea Rodriguez has worked hard to escape her awful childhood and make something of herself. Space Corps is her family and her work is her life. Escorting a group of women to an alien planet so a king can pick a bride has left her feeling like she’s on a reality television show. But she takes her job seriously and will keep them safe. What she never expected was her own powerful reaction to the alien warrior king.

Stealth attacks by the Kantos make it clear that no one is safe. Alea is sure that the aliens want to assassinate Gayel, and she’ll do anything to protect him, even as she fights to safeguard her heart. But Gayel is a king and a warrior, and as the two of them fight side by side, he will also convince Alea to risk everything: for their people, for their hearts, and for a bond that won’t be denied.

My Review:

The story in King of Eon reminded me very much of the immortal words of the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. You know the quote, even if you don’t remember who said it. It’s that old saying about the best laid plans of mice and men going oft astray – or variations thereof. The original words went as follows, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” A truism that applies every bit as much to kings and Kantos as it does to mice and men.

Readers have been watching the growth of the alliance between the Eon Warriors and Earth, against the swarming, insectoid Kantos since its rocky beginning in the first book in this series, Edge of Eon. (That’s a big hint to start there at the beginning and not here at the end.)

The Eon Warriors and the Terran Space Corps have united against their common enemy, the Kantos. The big bug-like creatures who are nipping at both species’ heels – along with any other body parts they can reach. The Kantos want to swarm, consume and destroy, while the Eons and the Terrans are hoping to live and let live once the threat is eliminated.

As long as the threat doesn’t eliminate them first.

Gayel, the king of the Eon Warriors, has observed as the ties between his people and the Terrans have gotten stronger – and more intimate – as the series has progressed. Several of his warriors have found their mates among the Terrans. Gayel sees the future of his people going from strength to strength as part of this alliance, and decides, for the future of his own people, that he should set an example by finding his future queen among the Terrans.

It’s not actually a bad idea, but his plan for accomplishing that goal is doomed to fall prey to the old saying about mice and men. Gayel determines that he will find his bride through a process that sounds a bit too much like the reality TV series The Bachelor. And with the same odds of long-term happiness as the show.

That Gayel falls for the Space Corps officer assigned as security for his prospective brides instead of one of the actual prospective brides isn’t much of a surprise – not even to his friends and family. He was never going to fall for, or make a successful match with, a pampered princess – and he didn’t.

But Captain Alea Rodriguez, as much as she may want the man who occupies the throne, has no interest in becoming a queen – as well as zero belief that she might be worthy of the honor.

While the course of true love is running far from smoothly, the Kantos are hatching plans of their own. They need to break the alliance between Eon and Earth before the alliance wrecks their plans to destroy both their enemies and gobble up the remains.

Literally.

Escape Rating B+: King of Eon is a fittingly epic wrap-up to this series, and there is plenty that needs wrapping up to get all of the previous relationships – along with the people of both races – to move from “happy for now but still seriously worried about the future” to happy ever after.

It’s a wild ride and a thrilling read from beginning to end – especially because there is so much left to get wrapped up when this final entry in the series begins!

Gayel’s idea to cement the alliance with Earth by marrying a Terran woman is a solid political decision. It’s been done for centuries on Earth, marrying for alliance instead of love. The problems with the execution of said idea are obvious from the start, because Gayel also wants some kind of real marriage, if not of love than at least of mutual respect and duty. He does not want to marry someone whose ambition is to be queen. He needs someone who will see it as the duty and responsibility that it is and share that duty with him.

And that’s not the scenario he’s set up, as everyone around him realizes long before he does.

At the same time, he’s the linchpin for the alliance with Earth, not because he’s planning to marry a Terran but because Eon is much the stronger partner in the alliance. If he falls, especially if it can be made to seem as if his death is somehow the fault of the Terrans, the alliance will fall apart and the separated allies will be easier to pick off one by one.

So in between the various events that are scheduled for Gayel to choose a bride, the Kantos have scheduled a series of assassination attempts and stealth attacks that get more desperate, more dangerous and more relentless each time they are thwarted.

In the end, the Eon Warriors and the Terrans are going to have to bring the fight to the Kantos – who have already brought the fight to Eon territory with devastating results. The climactic battle is, of course, climactic in more ways than one as the Terran Captain and the Eon King make one final push – with more than a little help from all their friends – to end the conflict once and for all.

The romance in this story, with its backdrop of the bachelor king seeking a bride, was a lot of fun. While it’s obvious early on that Gayel and Alea belong together, their reasons for resisting the attraction feel right for the story. That they can’t resist is what puts the icing on the romantic part of this particular book-cake.

The war with the Kantos felt like it needed a bit of help, not just from all their friends but from more than a touch of deus ex machina. For a species that has been such a big and long-running threat, the denouement of their people as a conquering race was exciting but felt a little too fast and the moral dilemmas of their potential genocide dealt with a bit too easily.

Not that I wasn’t glad to see that problem resolved!

In summary, I loved the romance, thought the Kantos got eliminated a bit too easily, and saw plenty of possibilities for a followup to this series at some not-so-far-future date! Meanwhile I’m looking forward to more science fiction romance from this author when the first book in her Galactic Kings series (loosely linked to the awesome Galactic Gladiators) arrives at the end of the year!

Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera KurianNever Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 400
Published by Park Row on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Meet Chloe Sevre. She’s a freshman honor student, a leggings-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. Her hobbies include yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her.
Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study for psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smart watches that track their moods and movements.
When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.
Never Saw Me Coming is a compulsive, voice-driven thriller by an exciting new voice in fiction, that will keep you pinned to the page and rooting for a would-be killer.

My Review:

The collective noun for a group of psychopaths is a sling. It’s a necessary bit of trivia for this story, because the fictional DC-based John Adams University has given full-ride scholarships to seven students who have been officially diagnosed as psychopaths.

In other words, there’s a sling of psychopaths at John Adams, and it looks like one of them is bent on killing the other six. Because, after all, that’s what psychopaths are best known for in the popular imagination – being serial killers. So just as the saying goes that it takes a thief to catch a thief, it seems as if it takes a psychopath to knock off a sling of psychopaths.

But just as psychopaths are lacking empathy for others, it would seem like a story about one psychopath killing several others would not contain many, well, empathetic characters. So it’s more than a bit of a surprise for the reader to find themselves not just following the point of view of several members of the group, but feeling for them, more than they feel for each other, if not for themselves.

That is part of why they are there, or at least why they got those full-rides. They are part of a study, conducted by a respected psychologist who studies, naturally, psychopaths, to see if there are ways that psychopaths can work their way around their lack of empathy, compassion and even conscience in order to live relatively normal lives.

Something that obviously won’t happen if one of their number bumps off the rest in this multidimensional cat and mouse game where ALL the participants believe that they are the cats – only to discover they were the mice after all.

Escape Rating B+: This book, like Local Woman Missing a few months ago, is a book I picked up because it was recommended by someone in my reading group. I don’t read a ton of thrillers and this sounded interesting.

I’ll admit to having a strange reaction to this one as compared to Local Woman Missing, in that I liked this book more even though I recognize that Local Woman Missing was a better book of this type. There was just a bit too much domestic in that domestic thriller to really wow me, even though I’m pretty certain that domestic thriller readers – who are legion – will probably adore it.

What made this work for me is that in spite of all the main characters being psychopaths, they still turned out to be sympathetic characters in their own slightly twisted ways.

We follow three of the students in the study, Andre, Charles and Chloe. They are all unreliable narrators, some of which is down to their diagnoses, but quite a bit of which is simply because they are young and still a bit naïve and filled with a bit too much bravado. While it’s possible that time will fix some of those issues and turn them into more successful psychopaths, at the moment they are still young and still have some seriously dumb moments in spite of their intelligence.

It probably helps that the only murder we see committed by the three students we are following is Chloe’s murder of the guy who raped her when she was 12, while his friend recorded the rape on his cellphone. She wants the cellphone, and she wants her rapist dead. She knows she’ll get no justice any other way. And even if the reader decries her methods, it’s hard to dispute that the dude earned some serious punishments. (After all, there are a lot of books where delivering just this kind of justice to a rapist would be the entire book.)

As meticulous as Chloe’s plan is to get her revenge, she gets thrown more than a bit off the tracks when first one student and then a second one in their tiny group of seven are murdered. That’s when Andre, Charles and Chloe form their little circle of untrusting trust. Because they know that people like them lie like they’re breathing. They can’t trust each other.

So they maneuver, and lie, and scheme. Whatever they tell each other, they’re always holding something back. And even when they do reveal some of the truth, it’s filtered through their flawed ability to read and empathize with other people.

And that’s just as true of Andre as it is of Chloe and Charles, even though Andre faked his diagnosis to keep the scholarship. Because he’s maintaining that lie at all costs. Which may make his diagnosis as true as either of theirs.

The other thing that made this story work is that the reader can empathize with the characters without necessarily liking them. Because they’re not all that likeable. Andre is gaming the system, Chloe reads as if she’s likely to become a version of Harley Quinn, and Charles is on his way to becoming the kind of amoral conservative politician that we see all too often these days.

(Would it surprise anyone if entirely too many politicians were secretly psychopaths? Really?)

In the end, they’re all scared and young and dumb, because they all believed they were smarter than the hunter they thought they were hunting, and because none of them could get past the lies they told themselves to uncover the killer they never did see coming – even if the reader does. Watching the trap tighten around them all makes for one hell of a thrill-ride of a story.

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn Ross

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn RossThe Inheritance by JoAnn Ross
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With a dramatic WWII love story woven throughout, JoAnn Ross's women’s fiction debut is a generational saga full of sisterly affection and rivalry, perfect for fans of Susan Wiggs, Mary Alice Monroe and Lisa Wingate.
When conflict photographer Jackson Swann dies, he leaves behind a conflict of his own making when his three daughters, each born to a different mother, discover that they’re now responsible for the family’s Oregon vineyard—and for a family they didn’t ask for.
After a successful career as a child TV star, Tess is, for the first time in her life, suffering from a serious identity crisis, and renewed resentment around losing her father all over again.
Charlotte, brought up to be a proper Southern wife, gave up her own career to support her husband's political ambitions. On the worst day of her life, she discovers her beloved father has died, she has two sisters she never knew about, and her husband has fallen in love with another woman.
Natalie, daughter of Jack’s longtime mistress, has always known about her half sisters. And she can’t help feeling that when Tess and Charlotte find out, they’ll resent her for being the daughter their father kept.
As the sisters reluctantly gather at the Maison de Madeleine to deal with their father's final wishes, they become enchanted by the legacy they've inherited, and by their grandmother’s rich stories of life in WWII France and the wounded American soldier who would ultimately influence all their lives.

My Review:

When Pulitzer Prize winning conflict photographer Jackson Swann died, the most important thing that he left to his three daughters was not the award-winning Oregon winery that had been handed down in his family for generations, but each other.

The problem, the one that he left to his lawyer and his winery manager, was to get them to accept. Not just the winery – although certainly that, too – but mostly each other.

Tess Swann, Charlotte Aldredge and Natalie Seurat are all adults, all have – or have at least the shreds of – artistic careers of their own. But they’ve never met. They haven’t necessarily known that the others even existed.

These three women have been gathered together, not so much to celebrate the life of the man who links them, but rather to pick up the pieces of their own.

Tess, after a successful career as a child actress, a spectacular failure as a pop singer, and another successful career as a best-selling novelist, is looking for a third act in a life that has already seen plenty. She comes to the winery to recharge and search for a story idea that will get her past her writer’s block.

Her career sacrificed to her controlling husband’s political ambitions, her supposedly perfect marriage in tatters, Charlotte comes to the winery in search of respite and a place to call home – because her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s over-gilded and over-decorated faux antebellum McMansion certainly wasn’t it.

While Natalie returns to the winery to mourn the father that she knew best of all the sisters, and to make sure that her beloved, 96-year-old grandmother is doing as well as she can in the wake of her only son’s death.

Whether they will find what they are each looking for, or something more, or merely closure, they have one growing season at the winery to figure it all out together – or to tear themselves apart.

Escape Rating B: Like yesterday’s book (and a fair number of books in the chick lit/women’s fiction/relationship fiction genre), this is a story about three women, all of whom, coincidentally or otherwise, are at a crossroads in their lives or that face a crossroads because of the events of the story that bring them together.

In this case, the death of their larger-than-life father, no matter how much (Natalie) or how little (Tess) he participated in their lives. Jack Swann, who never seemed to quite know what to do with any of them when he could, manipulates them all after his death in a way that could have been horrible, but isn’t.

He provided an opportunity for all of them that he couldn’t have managed in life, for them to meet, be obligated to spend time together, get to know the grandmother that only Natalie was allowed to know about, and discover the legacy of the family they share.

The story of The Inheritance is, in a word, charming. Just as Jack Swann himself was, even if he couldn’t ever manage to stick around. The sisters are different enough from each other to stand as individuals, while at the same time sharing just enough characteristics to seem like they might make their initially tenuous connection work.

Their father turns out not to be the glue that ultimately binds them. That position is reserved for their grandmother Madeleine, who tells them the story of how she met and married their grandfather in France fighting for the Resistance in WW2. A story which inspires Tess’s writing, Charlotte’s realization that the life she has is not the one she wants or needs, and Natalie throwing caution to the winds in order to pursue the man she’s loved all her life.

I was charmed by this story, and thought that the way that the lives of the sisters finally mingled was lovely even if it was a bit contrived in the service of the story. There were a couple of bits that niggled at me.

Tess never met her father. That he didn’t raise her was one thing, but they never seem to have met at all in her conscious memory, and we never do find out why. As many family secrets as get revealed – and there are PLENTY – that omission felt like it just…dangled. Even after his marriage to Charlotte’s mother fell apart he was still a real if occasional presence in her life. But not Tess.

Second, there’s the show/tell repetition of Madeleine’s fascinating story about meeting, falling for and marrying her American pilot, Robert Swann. It’s a lovely and romantic story, and it serves as inspiration to all three sisters even though Tess is the one who plans to turn it into a novel. But we read Madeleine’s account as she remembers it and then it is repeated as she tells it to her granddaughters. While it’s normally better to show instead of tell, by the way the story works the telling feels like the better option. But one or the other would have been sufficient.

So I enjoyed reading The Inheritance, but it didn’t quite hit the spot as well as yesterday’s book. That’s possibly because this one reminded me a bit of Rhys Bowen’s World War II books, particularly In Farleigh Field, one of the subplots in Pardonable Lies, part of  the Maisie Dobbs series and a third book I can’t put my finger on and it’s driving me bananas. It could be just because it’s a bit too similar to yesterday’s book and would have been a better read not quite so close.

But if you’re looking for a charming read that touches on a few dark places but doesn’t go too deeply, includes not one but four happy endings, and tells a lovely story of a surprising sisterhood, The Inheritance is a great way to while away some cozy reading hours.

Review: Murder in the Dark by Simon R. Green

Review: Murder in the Dark by Simon R. GreenMurder in the Dark (Ishmael Jones, #6) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #6
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House Publishers on December 1, 2018
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The sudden appearance of a sinister black hole in the English countryside leads to a baffling murder investigation for Ishmael Jones.

"The past is England's dreaming, and not all of it sleeps soundly..."
Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny have been despatched to assist a group of scientists who are investigating a mysterious black hole which has appeared on a Somerset hillside. Could it really be a doorway to another dimension, an opening into another world?
When one of the scientists disappears into the hole — with fatal consequences — Ishmael must prove whether it was an accident — or murder. But with no clues, no witnesses and no apparent motive, he has little to go on. Is there an alien predator at large, or is an all-too-human killer responsible? Only one thing is certain: if Ishmael does not uncover the truth in time, more deaths will follow...

My Review:

There’s an uncanny, unnatural hole in the fabric of the universe, and it’s up to an almost-but-not-quite-completely human to close this extremely dangerous door in the space-time continuum.

In a nutshell, that’s the premise of Murder in the Dark, this sixth book in the Ishmael Jones urban fantasy/paranormal/SF series.

What’s even weirder is that, at least so far, it’s also the plot of The Scavenger Door, the book I’m currently listening to. Considering that I started Murder in the Dark because I wanted to keep on reading Scavenger Door but couldn’t for a variety of reasons, I was really surprised to discover that I sorta/kinda was anyway.

The Ishmael Jones series exists at an uncanny crossroads between urban fantasy, paranormal and science fiction. The SFnal element is Ishmael himself. He’s an alien who crash landed his spaceship on Earth in the early 1960s. His ship did its level best to transform him into a human, but it glitched a few of the details. He hasn’t aged a day since he crashed. And he doesn’t remember a thing about his life before the crash. Both of these “glitches” come into play a bit in this story.

The stories in this series, for the most part, have been a play on the old country house murders. Ishmael met his romantic and investigative partner Penny Belcourt in the first book in the series, The Dark Side of the Road, when Ishmael was sent by his mysterious and secretive employers, The Organization, to look into the eerie and uncanny goings on at the country house where Penny lived with her parents. Penny was the sole survivor of that investigation.

In fact, most of Ishmael and Penny’s investigations turn out that way, the way that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None turned out. Ishmael and Penny manage to walk away, but seldom do many – or sometimes any – of the people they are sent in to save. Even though they always manage to solve the original mystery.

Ishmael is starting to get a bit of survivor’s guilt over that fact.

But this story is a bit off of Ishmael and Penny’s beaten path, as they are sent in to secure a hole in the side of a hill in a seriously remote bit of countryside. No country houses in sight. Just a hole that swallows up everything that gets a bit too close – including one of the archaeologists that found it in the first place.

The Organization has sent a team of crackerjack scientists to investigate the unnatural hole, and sent Ishmael and Penny to keep the scientists safe while they investigate. When they arrive, both Ishmael and Penny believe that they are there to keep the scientists safe from the hole, and the hole safe from the scientists – along with anyone else who might happen to wander by.

It doesn’t take long for both of them to figure out that their real job is keeping the scientists safe from themselves – and each other.

Escape Rating B+: This was the right book at the right time, and not just for its surprising resemblance to The Scavenger Door. After yesterday’s terrific book, I was looking for something that also had a high snark quotient, and this author has always been good for that, no matter which of his many, many sandboxes he happens to be playing in at the time. And I was looking forward to swiftly sinking into a world that I already knew, and the Ishmael Jones series certainly has that box ticked off as well.

Last but not least, because I love this series and this author, I was hoping that this entry in the series would redeem the previous book, Into the Thinnest of Air, because that one didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But Murder in the Dark, even though it went to a different locale than the series usually does, was just a much better book.

All of the above being said, this is the sixth book in an ongoing series. I’m not certain that you need to have read them ALL to get stuck into this one, but reading at least the series opener, The Dark Side of the Road, would probably help a lot. Also it’s very good if you like creepy country house mysteries with even creepier monsters hiding in the shadows.

There are three mysteries in the dark in this story. One is the mystery that brings Ishmael and Penny into the picture, the mystery of the mystery of the unnatural hole. Who or what created it? What is it? Where does it go? What is its purpose?

The second mystery seems like it’s part of the first, at least at first. Who or what is killing the scientists?

And then there’s that third mystery, the one that lies behind the entire series. Who was Ishmael Jones before he became Ishmael Jones? Where did he come from? Why was he near Earth? How did he crash?

Ishmael has learned very few answers to those questions about himself. But he has learned that he really doesn’t want to know. Whoever he was and wherever he came from, right here and right now he’s exactly where he belongs, with Penny.

What’s surprising about those three mysteries is that they are not neatly tied up with a single bow. Rather, they are individually tied with separate bows, no matter how much someone tries to make it seem like the hole is responsible for the murders, possibly via the agency of someone who is a blast from Ishmael’s unremembered past.

The thing that makes this series work is that in spite of any supernatural or extraterrestrial red herrings that may appear while Ishmael and Penny are desperately trying to figure out who’s bumping off the people they’re supposed to save, the reality turns out to be that the biggest, baddest and deadliest monsters in any setting are human. The evil that people are capable of doing to each other is much, much scarier than any mythical beast or raygun toting alien. That in the end the most horrible monsters are just people doing bad things because they’re selfish and greedy. And it’s that grounding in human monsters and human evil that keep the whole thing from flying over the top, jumping the shark, and landing in a cesspit full of slime monsters.

This is a series that when I’m in the mood for it, I’m really in the mood for it and nothing else will do. So I’ll be back with Ishamel Jones and Penny Belcourt in Till Sudden Death Do Us Part the next time I need a story with the creep factor on high and the snark turned up to eleven.

Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda James

Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda JamesDead with the Wind (Southern Ladies Mystery, #2) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #2
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on September 29, 2015
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The New York Times bestselling author of Bless Her Dead Little Heart and the Cats in the Stacks mysteries brings back the Ducote sisters, two spry Southern sleuths.
An’gel and Dickce Ducote tend to stay put in Athena, Mississippi, but a wedding is a good reason to say a temporary farewell to Charlie Harris’s cat Diesel and go visit relatives. But while their stay in Louisiana is scorching hot, the atmosphere at the wedding is downright cold, with bride-to-be Sondra Delevan putting her trust fund above little things like love and loyalty.
When a violent storm supposedly sweeps Sondra off a balcony to her death, the sisters discover that many of the guests attending the wedding had major reasons to object to Sondra’s marriage. Now, it’s up to An’gel and Dickce to use their down-home instincts to expose dubious alibis, silver-plated secrets, and one relentless murderer who lives for “till death do us part.”

My Review:

On what was feeling that Mondayest Monday ever, I needed a comfort read. Since I’m currently caught up with the Cat in the Stacks series, I turned to the same author’s Southern Ladies Mystery series to sink into a whole lot of cozy, with animal companions both around me and between the pages – along with just a couple of dead bodies to add a bit of excitement. But not too much.

Dead with the Wind is a story about family ties. The ones that bind get the Ducote Sisters into this situation, but it’s the ties that strangle that lead to the murder. Not that someone shouldn’t have strangled Sondra Delevan a long time ago.

The Ducote Sisters are in St. Ignatiusville, Louisiana at their cousin Mireille’s antebellum city mansion for Sondra’s wedding. An occasion that does not get off to an auspicious start when An’gel Ducote righteously dumps a vase filled with water on Sondra’s overreacting head.

I’d say Sondra was a bridezilla, but that implies that she’s normally a halfway reasonable human being and is only being such a demanding bitch because of the wedding, and that’s not remotely the case. Sondra is demanding bitch 100% of the time and always has been. She’s one of those adults that people other than her immediate family look at and think that the universe would have been better off if she’d been disciplined instead of indulged a few – possibly a lot – of times in her childhood when it would have done some good.

So when Sondra is murdered, it’s not so much that the reader is surprised that someone killed her as amazed that it didn’t happen a whole lot sooner.

But the circumstances of Sondra’s death are rather suspicious, because her death and the manner of it fall all too closely on the heels of the housekeeper proclaiming that the wedding is ill-omened as it resembles a long-ago tragedy much too much. There’s a long arm of coincidence here that is way too long to convince either of the Ducote Sisters.

That before her death Sondra was such a heartless little bitch as to stage a scene that drove her grandmother, the Ducotes’ Cousin Mireille, into a heart attack and her grave does not help anyone to think well of the recently and spectacularly departed Sondra, but it does make the Sisters wonder just who benefits from both of those deaths.

There’s something rotten in Cousin Mireille’s beautiful mansion. It looks like there’s someone close to the family circle determined to bump off everyone in their way. But in the way of what, exactly?

The Sisters – along with the local police – follow that first rule of investigation. They follow the money, and it leads them straight to the killer. Or does it?

Escape Rating B-: I went into this because I wanted something familiar but not quite so familiar that I’d know every single thing before it happened. And that is kind of what I got. The Ducote Sisters of Athena, Mississippi, introduced in the author’s Cat in the Stacks series, are the power behind nearly everything going on in Athena, and have been for decades. An’gel is 84 and Dickce is 80. They live in a palatial family mansion, they’re the last of their direct family, never married, never had kids, and pretty much keep Athena running, sometimes it seems all by themselves.

So it was fun to see them out of their element in this story, which is kind of a locked-room mystery. Not that the room or the house is literally locked, but rather that everything that happens seems to happen in the house and inside the rather tight family circle. Even if all the members of the family aren’t related by blood.

What made this story a bit less fun than I usually find this author, or even the first book in this series, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, is that no one involved is all that likeable except for Sondra’s little girl Tippy and the family butler and general factotum, Grayson. All the rest of them are pieces of work, from Sondra the spoiled sociopath to her on-again-off-again fiancé to her stepfather and unfortunately but definitely including her mother and grandmother (Cousin Mireille). The mansion seems to be a veritable hothouse of all sorts of -pathy. Except sympathy as there really isn’t a whole lot of that going around.

Also, a big part of the story is that Sondra is marrying Lance because, frankly, Sondra is looking for someone she can control, getting married gets her control of the substantial fortune she inherited from her father, and there’s something not quite right about Lance. There are multiple things about Lance that aren’t quite right, but his maturity level and that of Sondra’s three-year-old daughter are about on a par. The family treats it as an open joke, but are still allowing the marriage because no one wants to cross Sondra. The situation did not sit well, or rather the way everyone treated did not sit well.

This turned out to be one of those stories about families that pretend everything is fine but where things are really, really wrong. Like Sondra’s extremes of behavior and self-centeredness. And Lance’s undiagnosed but joked about issues.

So I felt a bit more discomfort than desired for something I picked up as a comfort read. Even though Sondra’s death was very cathartic. Some characters just need to be let out of a story at the very first opportunity. By the time the killer’s identity was revealed it wasn’t much of a surprise – nor was I expecting it to be as this is not that kind of book.

But the way it got revealed – now that was a surprise. And it made a wonderful ending for a story that had a few more downs than ups.

I’m glad that the next book in this series, Digging Up the Dirt, places the Sisters back home in Athena where they belong!

Review: Wait For It by Jenn McKinlay

Review: Wait For It by Jenn McKinlayWait for It by Jenn McKinlay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on August 10, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A woman looking for a new lease on life moves to Arizona where she rents a guest house on a gorgeous property with a mysterious owner--a man who teaches her about resilience, courage, and ultimately true love, in this funny, bighearted novel about hope and healing from New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay. Stuck in a dreary Boston winter, Annabelle Martin would like nothing more than to run away from her current life. She's not even thirty years old, twice-divorced, and has just dodged a marriage proposal... from her ex-husband. When she's offered her dream job as creative director at a cutting-edge graphic design studio in Phoenix, she jumps at the opportunity to start over.
When she arrives in the Valley of the Sun, Annabelle is instantly intrigued by her anonymous landlord. Based on the cranky, handwritten notes Nick Daire leaves her, she assumes he is an old, rich curmudgeon. Annabelle is shocked when she finally meets Nick and discovers that he's her age and uses a wheelchair. Nick suffered from a stroke a year ago, and while there's no physical reason for him not to recover, he is struggling to overcome the paralyzing fear that has kept him a prisoner in his own home.
Despite her promise to herself not to get involved, Annabelle finds herself irresistibly drawn to Nick. And soon she wonders if she and Nick might help each other find the courage to embrace life, happiness, and true love.

My Review:

I could say that this is an opposites attract story – and it sort of is. I could also say it’s a story about two people who have some really serious issues learning to deal with their own shit because no one else can fix your crap for you – no matter how much they might want to. Or need to because of their own crap. And both of those things would certainly be true, but they are not the whole story. Even if perhaps they should have been.

The thing about Annabelle Martin is that she’s impulsive in the extreme. It may have something to do with her being artistic, but mostly that’s just the way she is. She’s open about pretty much everything, including her need to please the people around her – even when she hurts herself in the process.

Her impulsiveness and need to avoid conflict have led her to some pretty strange places. Two marriages and two divorces before she’s even turned 30. A friends-with-benefits relationship with her first ex-husband, along with an engagement ring that she’s just swallowed.

And a desperate need to escape that situation leading her to impulsively accept her best friend’s offer to move from Boston to Phoenix in order to become the Creative Director for her best friend’s PR firm. That’ it’s winter in Boston probably explains the rest of Annabelle’s surprising acceptance. Winters in Boston are cold. And ugly. And did I mention bloody damn cold?

Annabelle’s impulsive move, along with giving up her successful freelance design work – she must be really successful as Boston is an expensive city to live in! – runs her headlong into way more problems than she left behind.

There is something wrong at her friend’s PR firm, and possibly her friend’s marriage. And the place that same friend arranged for her to live in comes with its own set of issues in the form of Annabelle’s mysterious landlord. The one who has presented her with a 10-page list of supplemental rules for her six-month rental of the guest house on his property but who can’t be bothered to meet her in person.

Annabelle is intrigued and annoyed by turns. The rules are ridiculous and have a strong whiff of “get off my lawn”, making her think her landlord is an old curmudgeon. She’s only half right.

Escape Rating B: First, the title of this book gave me a terrible earworm. Actually, I think I picked it up for the earworm, and now I can’t get Wait for It from Hamilton out of my head. The song from the play is only applicable in bits, especially the part that goes “I am the one thing in life I can control” but I still can’t get the damn thing out of my head. Again.

Annabelle’s landlord, Nicholas Daire, is the one who is trying to control a life that went completely out of his control less than a year before, when the 35-year-old property mogul had a stroke. By the time Annabelle moves into his guest house and starts driving him crazy, he’s mostly recovered from the stroke.

Except that he’s stuck in an endless loop of panic, afraid that he’ll have another one. Panic that is so acute that it mimics another stroke. In his fear, he’s become a hermit, retiring from his business, refusing to leave the house except for doctor’s appointments, and relentlessly training his body, when it works, with the idea that he can make himself strong enough to recover completely.

And refusing to even entertain the notion that what’s causing his current problems isn’t his body – it’s his head.

Annabelle, with the help of a tiny cat she names “Sir”, throws Daire’s carefully ordered life and his ten pages of rules out the window the moment she sets foot in the guest house. He’s order, she’s chaos, and they need each other to deal with all the baggage they’ve carted along to the point where they meet. And combust.

For me it felt like there were multiple things going on in this story, any one or two of which would have made for either a terrific romance or a great bit of relationship fiction, but that all together couldn’t devote the necessary time to make the whole feel satisfying.

Annabelle’s work situation was painful but oh-so-real, as the inside candidate for the job she took does his worst to use office politics and his long-time friendship with one boss in order to trump Annabelle’s qualifications, capability and long-time friendship with the other boss. That inside candidate is a user and a douchecanoe, but like many such people in real life and fiction (honestly he’s Spender from Mass Effect Andromeda), Carter West is terrible at doing the job but very effective at keeping it by sabotaging everyone around him. Dealing with this asshole, along with getting her friend to own up to having brought her to Phoenix with ulterior motives in this direction would have made an excellent story of female friendship and empowerment and I wish we’d gotten more of that.

While Annabelle has her own issues, the story on Daire’s side is about falling into a relationship with Annabelle in order to avoid dealing with his own. That they call each other on not dealing with their shit was terrific, because they both have lots. But the romantic relationship between them felt like instalove. Something that Annabelle has been known for but Daire is infamous for keeping people at arm’s length and refusing to admit that he cares no matter how much he does. I bought that they loved each other by the end but didn’t really feel them, or particularly him, falling. Although the relationship he manages to re-establish with his sister felt hard-fought and hard-won every step of the way.

Hence the good but not fantastic rating. Each part was good, but they didn’t quite make a whole for me. Your reading mileage may vary.

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah BakerOver the Woodward Wall (The Up-and-Under, #1) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #1
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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If you trust her you’ll never make it home…
Avery is an exceptional child. Everything he does is precise, from the way he washes his face in the morning, to the way he completes his homework – without complaint, without fuss, without prompt.
Zib is also an exceptional child, because all children are, in their own way. But where everything Avery does and is can be measured, nothing Zib does can possibly be predicted, except for the fact that she can always be relied upon to be unpredictable.
They live on the same street.They live in different worlds.
On an unplanned detour from home to school one morning, Avery and Zib find themselves climbing over a stone wall into the Up and Under – an impossible land filled with mystery, adventure and the strangest creatures.
And they must find themselves and each other if they are to also find their way out and back to their own lives.

My Review:

If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the grandparent book, and Narnia and Oz were the parent books – but wait, there’s another generation in there. If Alice was the great-grandparent, Narnia and Oz were the grandparents and Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame was the parent – perhaps with her Wayward Children series as the aunts and uncles – you’d get something like Over the Woodward Wall, and hopefully the following books in The Up-and-Under series, as the book-children.

Not that Over the Woodward Wall isn’t perfectly understandable and enjoyable without having read any of the above. But if you’re familiar with any of them, you can kind of see them looking on with pride and possibly a bit of chagrin, as all progenitors sometimes do, at the actions of their new and often unruly and less than well behaved descendent.

At least Zib is poorly behaved, according to some lights. Including her fellow adventurer Avery when this story begins.

It’s hard to get the comparisons to Wonderland, Narnia and Oz out of your head while reading Over the Woodward Wall. If Wonderland had physically reached out and grabbed Alice, instead of just grabbing her emotionally or psychologically, and if she’d been operating on the buddy system, the beginning of her story might be even closer to Woodward Wall.

Like Wonderland and Narnia, there are four kings and queens – or there are supposed to be four kings and queens. But the royals currently in office are all rather like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the White Witch in Narnia. While the road that Zib and Avery are traveling on, like the Yellow Brick Road of Oz, is neither as straight nor as without danger as the locals claim it to be. Although Zib and Avery’s companions, the Crow Girl and the Drowning Girl, while they are certainly missing something essentially it’s nothing so straightforward as brains, a heart or even the nerve, nor is it going to be as simple to discover how to get them back.

In the end, this is a story about friendship, and about being true to yourself above all, and about loyalty. It’s also a story about learning that even as a child, the world is neither as safe nor protected as you might want it to be, and that you need to learn to take care of yourself and your choices – with a little bit of help from the friends you find along the way.

Escape Rating B+: A. Deborah Baker is Seanan McGuire writing not so much under a pen name but rather under the name of a character she created in Middlegame. Bits and pieces of the stories in The Up-and Under were introduced in Middlegame as stories written by a character in the book named A. Deborah Baker, all of which serves to explain where this series comes from and why it’s under a new pseudonym for the author who already writes as Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire.

The irony for this reader is that I liked this story – maybe not quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway and Across the Green Grass Fields, but still quite a lot – even though I bounced hard off Middlegame and never went back to it. I’m starting to believe that the answer is that I like this author in smaller chunks, possibly because her style of fairy tale feeling stories for adults works better for me in the shorter form.

While this story reminds me a lot of its antecedents, it’s also different from all of them in a way that feels more interesting and more realistic. Oz and Wonderland both turned out to be dreams rather than reality. Narnia was real, for select definitions of real, but even though the Pevensie children spent decades in Narnia and reached adulthood there, when they returned to the real world they remembered Narnia and all their experiences there BUT they returned to being children as if no time had passed at all. Even odder, they returned seemingly unaffected and unchanged by their decades of extra life experience.

Zib and Avery are changing all the time, and as we learn at the end of the story, real time is passing both for them and for their parents back home. While on the one hand this feels like a fairy tale, on the other it definitely reads like a journey with consequences. Zib and Avery have an important mission to complete in the Up-and-Under, and their experiences in that world have already changed them from who they were – and who they would have become as a result. They already see the world differently, and it feels like those changes are going to have long-term effects, just as the children’s journeys do in Wayward Children.

We’ll certainly have time to find out, as Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under continues in Along the Saltwise Sea later this year. They’re going to sail with a pirate queen!

Review: Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

Review: Clark and Division by Naomi HiraharaClark and Division by Naomi Hirahara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Pages: 312
Published by Soho Crime on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Set in 1944 Chicago, Edgar Award-winner Naomi Hirahara’s eye-opening and poignant new mystery, the story of a young woman searching for the truth about her revered older sister’s death, brings to focus the struggles of one Japanese American family released from mass incarceration at Manzanar during World War II.
Twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manzanar, where they have been detained by the US government since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, together with thousands of other Japanese Americans. The life in California the Itos were forced to leave behind is gone; instead, they are being resettled two thousand miles away in Chicago, where Aki’s older sister, Rose, was sent months earlier and moved to the new Japanese American neighborhood near Clark and Division streets. But on the eve of the Ito family’s reunion, Rose is killed by a subway train.
Aki, who worshipped her sister, is stunned. Officials are ruling Rose’s death a suicide. Aki cannot believe her perfect, polished, and optimistic sister would end her life. Her instinct tells her there is much more to the story, and she knows she is the only person who could ever learn the truth.
Inspired by historical events, Clark and Division infuses an atmospheric and heartbreakingly real crime fiction plot with rich period details and delicately wrought personal stories Naomi Hirahara has gleaned from thirty years of research and archival work in Japanese American history.

My Review:

This story is a reminder that, for all its midwestern friendliness, Chicago is still as Carl Sandburg so famously put it, the “City of the Big Shoulders”, and it can turn a cold, cold heart towards anyone it deems an outsider. It’s why Chicago, to this day, is considered one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., along with the New York City/North Jersey/Long Island metroplex, Milwaukee (which is close to becoming part of greater Chicagoland every day) and Detroit.

The biggest part of this story is about the Japanese-American experience in Chicago during World War II, as seen through the eyes of Aki Ito, a young Nisei woman from California by way of the Manzanar Relocation Center (read as political double-speak for concentration camp) who arrives in Chicago in 1944 with her parents to discover that her older sister Rose died the day before, crushed under the wheels of one of Chicago’s famous “El” trains. Rose’s death is ruled as a suicide, but Aki is determined to prove that her idolized older sister was murdered.

But Clark and Division is not a murder mystery, although it is being promoted that way. And not that there isn’t something to investigate in Rose Ito’s death. But Aki doesn’t so much investigate as obsess and flail around. Rose’s death drives Aki, but the investigation of it does not drive the story.

What does drive this story is Aki’s exploration of and adaptation to a city that does not want either her or her people to become part of it. Except that they are and they have, and Aki’s journey is to discover herself and how she fits into both her own community and this strange and unwelcoming place as she learns to live her life out from under her sister’s long and rather brilliant shadow.

Escape Rating B: It’s hard to figure out where to start with this one, because there were so many interesting parts to this story, but none of them quite gelled into a whole. Or at least not into the whole that I was expecting. Which means I ended up with a ton of mixed feelings about this book, because I wanted to like it and get wrapped up in it way more than I did.

One of the reasons the whole is not greater than the sum of its interesting parts is that there is so much that happens before Aki gets to Chicago, and there’s not enough time or space to go into any of it in nearly enough detail. That the story begins with Aki’s childhood in Tropico, California, where her father is successful and respected is a necessary grounding because it makes the transition to Manzanar and the later move north to Chicago and down the socioeconomic scale all that much more traumatic. But we don’t get enough depth in either of those parts of the story so it compresses the time we have with Aki in Chicago where the mystery is.

Also, the story is told from Aki’s first person perspective and it all feels a bit shallow. Not that she’s shallow – or at least no more shallow than any other woman her age – but rather that we only skim the surface of her thoughts and feelings. Too much of what happens to her in Chicago reads like more of a recitation of what she did than an in-depth exploration of what she thought and felt. Although I certainly enjoyed Aki’s description of working for Chicago’s famous Newberry Library in the 1940s.

The portrait drawn of the Japanese-American community in Chicago during the war years, along with the crimes, both to her sister and to her community, that Aki looks into/flails around at are based on historical events, but the story isn’t enough about those crimes to fit this into the true crime genre, either. Although the parts of the story that wrapped around the history of Chicago were fascinating and I wish the story had gotten into more depth there.

And that may sum up my feelings about this book the best. I wish there had been more depth to the fascinating parts. There are clearly entire libraries of stories that could flesh out this piece of forgotten (willfully forgotten in the case of the “relocation centers”) history. I just wish this had one of them.