Review: Uncanny Times by Laura Anne Gilman

Review: Uncanny Times by Laura Anne GilmanUncanny Times (Huntsmen #1) by Laura Anne Gilman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook,
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Huntsmen #1
Pages: 384
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Huntsmen, according to the Church, were damned, their blood unclean, unholy. Yet for Rosemary and Aaron Harker the Church was less important than being ready to stand against the Uncanny as not being prepared could lead to being dead.
The year is 1913. America—and the world—trembles on the edge of a modern age. Political and social unrest shift the foundations; technology is beginning to make its mark.
But in the shadows, things from the past still move. Things inhuman, uncanny.
And the Uncanny are no friend to humanity.
But when Aaron and Rosemary Harker go to investigate the suspicious death of a distant relative, what they discover could turn their world upside down—and change the Huntsmen forever

My Review:

Uncanny Times feels like it’s set in the ‘Weird West’, but it’s not. Still feels that way though. Rather, it’s set in a kind of alternate early-20th century New England, but the New England that grew out of Washington Irving’s creepy folklore-ish stories such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Rosemary and Aaron Harker might never have hunted a ‘headless horseman’ but whatever they’re after in tiny Brunson, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario – in November! – is certainly equally uncanny. They just don’t know exactly what it is – at least not yet.

It’s their job to find out. The Harkers are Huntsmen, from a long line of people who have the ability to deal with the uncanny. They go where they are sent, figure out the nature of the threat they have to face – and eliminate it without involving local law enforcement or putting the local populace in danger – or at least in any more danger than they already are.

But this case is different from the beginning. They are summoned, not by one of their superiors in the Huntsmen but rather by an old family friend who always knew about the uncanny and those who are tasked with fighting it.

Or rather, by the man’s widow, who makes it clear that his death was as uncanny as the creatures that Rosemary and Aaron usually hunt. One of the man’s last requests was that if there was anything suspicious about his death that his wife ask the Harkers to come. There was and she has.

And the man was right – his death was at the hands of something uncanny. Something that doesn’t seem to be recorded in the rather extensive records of the Huntsmen. But whatever it is, or was, or wants to gorge itself into becoming, it’s up to Rosemary and Aaron to take it out – or go down trying.

Escape Rating B-: Uncanny Times is kind of a gothic version of historical and/or urban fantasy, with a bit of alternate history thrown in for bodies and spice. I call it gothic because the creeping horror is very slow burn, and it’s imbued in the atmosphere of the town long before we see it manifest as any sort of creature that the story can sink its teeth into – or that can sink its teeth into the characters.

This also doesn’t read like the version of 1913 that history records. Instead, it reads like the Weird West, an alternate version of the late 19th century – or what followed in this case – where the things that go bump in the night are real and history has gone down a different – and much creepier – leg of the trousers of time.

So this may be pre-World War I by our calendar, and Woodrow Wilson is President – but he’s no pacifist in this version of history. So it’s 1913 by way of something like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker – we just haven’t seen what the equivalent of the massive earthquake was. At least not yet. The world of the Huntsmen reads more like that of Charlaine Harris’ Gunnie Rose, or Lindsay Schopfer’s Keltin Moore than it does the pre-WW1 world we’re familiar with. While the Huntmen organization and what it fights reads as very similar to the Circuit Riders of The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley’s alternate world.

The story in Uncanny Times is a slow build of creeping horror mixed with more than a bit of confused investigation. It takes quite a while to get itself going, but that feels like its a necessary part of the entire story. Not only is this the first book in a projected series, but the creature that the Harkers are hunting for isn’t something that is supposed to exist even in their version of the world.

Added to that, they have to operate in plain sight while concealing pretty much everything they really are and really do. Most people don’t believe, and the ones that do mostly can’t be trusted. They even have to hide the true nature of their dog, because he isn’t just a dog. Botheration (best name ever!), besides being a VERY good boy, is also a hellhound and an expert tracker of both ordinary humans AND the creatures that the Huntsmen hunt.

And he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. Botheration is an awesome dog. (Don’t worry about Botheration, he’s bigger and stronger than most things that he hunts – and he comes out of this story every bit as fine as he went into it. I promise!)

I recognize that I’m a bit all over the map about Uncanny Times. I picked this up because I loved the author’s Retrievers series, which still has a place in my heart and on my physical bookshelf even 20 years later. But I have to confess that the lightning hasn’t struck again in that I’ve tried some of her later series but haven’t gotten hooked.

And I have to say that I liked Uncanny Times but didn’t love it as much as I hoped. It takes a long time to get itself going, and its two points of view characters are very private people. We don’t get to see nearly enough of what makes either of them tick. A lot of their investigation is obscured by fogs of various kinds and it makes the story murky as well.

But I loved Botheration. And the setting is fascinating because it feels like alternate history but the reviews don’t make it sound like it actually is – which really makes me wonder if I read the same thing everyone else did. So I’m torn, but whole in my conviction that I’ll pick up the next book in the series, whenever it comes out, at least to see what Botheration is bothering next!

Review: Extra Witchy by Ann Aguirre

Review: Extra Witchy by Ann AguirreExtra Witchy (Fix-It Witches, #3) by Ann Aguirre
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance, romantic comedy
Series: Fix-It Witches #3
Pages: 368
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After two failed marriages, Leanne Vanderpol is here for a good time, not for a long time. She only loves the witches in her coven, and she cares more about her career than happily ever after. A difficult past makes her skittish, and she doesn't trust relationships to stick. But when she decides to run for city council instead of wasting her talents cleaning up messes for the mayor's office, she fears her past could be used against her.
Unless she can find the right husband to shore up her political career...
Trevor Montgomery might have peaked in high school. He was popular then, and in college as well, but he partied away his future, met the wrong person, and everything fell apart. Now he's jobless, dateless, and hopeless, at least according to his toxic family. Then a chance meeting with the redhead of his dreams offers an unexpected ray of light just when he needs it most.
Can a woman who doesn't believe in forever find true love with a man who's stopped believing in anything at all?
The third in an adorable witchy rom-com series by New York Times bestselling author Ann Aguirre, perfect for fans of:The bonds of sisterhoodA career-driven heroine who thinks she isn't marriage materialA pan hero who struggles with depressionAnd a shocking family secret

My Review:

I picked this up because this is the third book in the Fix-It Witches series and in spite of my very mixed reaction to the first two books, Witch Please and Boss Witch, I was determined to finish the series. Even if I had to rage read my way through this final book.

Which I pretty much did. At least right up until the halfway point – when it got better. And kept on getting better from there until the end.

But that first 50% was one hell of a slog.

First, there’s the pattern of the series as a whole, in that the second book in the Fix-It Witches series, Boss Witch, picked up the action in the middle of Witch Please and re-told the second half of THAT story from a new perspective. Which means that the action of this third book in the series begins in the middle of the second book and proceeds to tell some of that same story from yet another point of view – and in considerably more detail.

To make that part of the long story short, this is not a series where you really need to worry about not having read the previous books, because you will read at least half the previous book before you learn if anything truly new happens in the one you have in hand.

What made the first half of this one particularly hard to get through were the parts of Boss Witch that got repeated. We already know that Leanne Vanderpol seemed to have married Trevor Montgomery totally out of the blue because we see that event from an outside perspective in the earlier book.

But the deets…well the deets are a bit of a hot mess and so are both Leanne and Trevor. Trevor is Titus the Cinnaman’s best friend, so we met him back in Witch Please. From the outside, it seems like 30-something Trevor hasn’t figured out what he wants to do when he grows up. That would be the kind explanation.

The unkind description would be that he hasn’t grown up, and that his life resembles that of Shaggy (Scooby-Doo’s human) a bit too much. That’s certainly what his parents would say, when the truth is that Trevor has been sunk in a clinical depression for a long time and doesn’t see much of a way out even though he really would like to find one.

Which is where Leanne enters his life.

Leanne is a doormat with ambitions. She doesn’t mean to be a doormat, but she is the person everyone relies on to take care of things she shouldn’t have to take care of because that’s pretty much how her flighty, witchy mother raised her. Or truthfully didn’t raise her but left her to raise herself. Her boss, the city manager, is dumping on her and her irresponsible mother has just arrived in town and Leanne is having a bit of a meltdown because she can’t let herself let out all the crap she’s holding in.

Neither Leanne nor Trevor remotely have their shit together – no matter how much it seems like Leanne does on the surface. The first half of the story sinks under the weight of their collective inability to figure out what to do with their lives to a degree that might have worked well in their 20s but not when both are in their mid-30s.

When they get together anyway, the story doesn’t merely pick itself up. It actually starts to shine way more than I was expecting by that point. Separately, they are each a mess. Together, they make each other strong in their broken places.

Enough for both of them to finally start getting their own acts together. They just have to get out of their own ways to realize that not only have they caught feelings for each other – but that they deserve the happiness and fulfillment that comes with them.

Escape Rating B-: The rating is considerably higher than I thought it was going to be in the first half of the book. Their romantic comedy-esque marriage of convenience starts out as plenty convenient but not remotely comedy. They are both way too messed up for that.

But giving each other a truly secure foundation, something neither of them has ever had, is the making of both of them in a way that was rather delightful and completely unexpected – even if they did connect so quickly that I wondered if their insta-love was at least partly fueled by some kind of witchcraft.

Still, the second half of this one had a lightness and a verve and a witchy spark that was missing in the first half, and Leanne and Trevor turned out to be a couple whose whole was literally greater than the sum of their original parts. So I’m glad I made myself finish, but I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this witchy Midwestern town even if the series continues.

Review: The Book Haters’ Book Club by Gretchen Anthony

Review: The Book Haters’ Book Club by Gretchen AnthonyThe Book Haters' Book Club by Gretchen Anthony
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

All it takes is the right book to turn a Book Hater into a Book Lover…
That was Elliott’s belief and the reason why he started The Book Haters’ Book Club—a newsletter of reading recommendations for the self-proclaimed “nonreader.” As the beloved co-owner of Over the Rainbow Bookstore, Elliott’s passion and gift was recommending books to customers. Now, after his sudden death, his grief-ridden business partner, Irma, has agreed to sell Over the Rainbow to a developer who will turn the cozy bookstore into high-rise condos.
But others won’t give up the bookstore without a fight. When Irma breaks the news to her daughters, Bree and Laney, and Elliott’s romantic partner, Thom, they are aghast. Over the Rainbow has been Bree and Laney’s sanctuary since childhood, and Thom would do anything to preserve Elliott’s legacy. Together, Thom, Bree and Laney conspire to save the bookstore, even if it takes some snooping, gossip and minor sabotage.
Filled with humor, family hijinks and actual reading recommendations, The Book Haters' Book Club is the ideal feel-good read. It’s a celebration of found family and a love letter to the everyday heroes who run bookstores.

My Review:

Elliot Gregory is watching from somewhere over the rainbow – or somewhere in the ‘Great Beyond’ – as his business partner, her daughters and his domestic partner all flail together and separately in the aftermath of his sudden death.

Yes, this is one of those stories that starts, to paraphrase Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Elliot was dead, to begin with.

He left behind a mess. He also was a mess. And he’s left behind a whole bunch of people who all loved him in one way or another to clean it up. But first they have to find the depths of that mess.

And then they have to find the true depths within themselves and each other.

Things don’t begin auspiciously. Irma Bedford meets her daughters, Laney and Bree, along with the late Elliot’s domestic partner Thom, at the offices of a real estate development firm to inform them that she has already sold the bookstore and the land it sits on to said investment firm for a sum that does not remotely look like the true value of the business and its real estate.

And that it’s a done deal that closes in less than a month.

What Irma doesn’t tell them is why – no matter how many sneaky and not so sneaky ways they ask. As far as Irma is concerned, it’s her business and not theirs. And an argument could be made for that. (Elliot and Thom were not married, Elliot didn’t leave a will, so as the surviving business partner the bookstore is legally Irma’s to continue to operate or dispose of as she pleases. Or as she feels compelled to. Or whatever the hell is motivating her at this point.)

But it makes no sense. It’s clear from the outset that the development firm is shady AF and that they seriously lowballed the offer. Even if Irma does want to sell she’s being taken advantage of while she’s at a low place. And even if she does want to retire – and she might – she’s been grooming her younger daughter to take over the bookstore for Bree’s entire life. The change in direction is abrupt to say the least.

And the more Laney, Bree and Thom dig, the fishier the whole thing seems. So they fight back with everything they have, banding together and stepping way out of their collective comfort zones to get the developers to back off of the deal before it’s too late.

But just when they think they’ve won, they discover that they had lost the war long before they began the first battle. Now they’ll have to fight on an entirely different front – before it really is too late after all. Again.

Escape Rating B-: I expected to fall in love with The Book Haters’ Club, but I left – or rather I middled – with a whole lot of mixed feelings.

I say middled because the first half of the book is all about Laney’s, Bree’s and Thom’s all-out, no-holds barred campaign to save the bookstore – no matter what Irma thinks. While what Irma thinks, feels and for that matter what in the hell she’s doing this for is all a deep, dark secret that makes absolutely no sense at all.

At the midpoint, the story turns itself around, because it’s only then that the first layer of the secret is revealed. But it kind of feels like that slog to save the store was all a waste. It is a waste for Laney, Bree and Thom, but it’s at that point where the first half of the story feels like it was pointless for the reader as well.

But once that first, brittle, outer skin of that onion of secrets gets cracked and peels away, the story finally starts getting somewhere. Because, while Elliot may have left them all with his big, untidy mess of secrets, they all have plenty that they need to reveal, not just to each other, but to themselves.

So the first half of the story was a whole lot of frenetic action that led nowhere, The second half is a whole lot of introspection and grief and the work of opening up and letting friends in to help with your mess.

While turning a group of people who were once a roiling mass of resentment at each other – and honestly for good reason – into a surprisingly cohesive found family.

The biggest part of the charm of this story is in the characters, once we’re finally able to start getting to know them – and they’re back to getting to know each other. One of the odder things about this story is the way that dear, dead Elliot breaks the fourth wall from on high (presumably) to inject himself into both the storytelling and the proceedings in a way that just didn’t work for me. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

So there’s plenty to love in this story about secrets, partnerships, quirky neighborhoods and found families. And if you love books about books and reading filled with terrific book recommendations, there are plenty of those here to savor. I just wish the whole thing had gotten to its point a whole lot sooner.

Review: Would You Rather by Allison Ashley

Review: Would You Rather by Allison AshleyWould You Rather by Allison Ashley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Mira on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Noah and Mia have always been best friends, and their friendship is the most important thing to them. Life is going great for Noah and he’s up for a promotion in a job he loves. But Mia’s life is on hold as she awaits a kidney transplant. She’s stuck in a dead-end job and, never wanting to be a burden, has sworn off all romance. So when the chance of a lifetime comes to go back to school and pursue her dream, it’s especially painful to pass up. She can’t quit her job or she’ll lose the medical insurance she so desperately needs.
To support her, Noah suggests they get married—in name only—so she can study full-time and still keep the insurance. It’s a risk to both of them, with jobs, health and hearts on the line, and they’ll need to convince suspicious coworkers and nosy roommates that they’re the real deal. But if they can let go of all the baggage holding them back, they might realize that they would rather be together forever.

My Review:

The United States is the ONLY wealthy, industrialized nation on this planet that does not provide universal health care. And that is what honestly makes the U.S. health insurance industry the big, scary, and all too real villain in this romance.

Noah and Mia have been the bestest of best friends since they were seven years old. They absolutely do love each other, whatever form that love might take – and whatever feelings about the form that love might take they are hiding from each other and the rest of the world. Especially from themselves.

But Mia has a life-threatening chronic illness. Her kidneys are slowly but inexorably failing. Her condition is currently managed by expensive medications and occasional hospital admissions for flare-ups, but it’s manageable. At least so far.

She does need a kidney transplant, and her life has in many ways been on hold since she was diagnosed. Two of the specific things that she has put on hold are her career aspirations and any possibility of romance.

Mia does not want to kill anyone else’s hopes and dreams the way she did her parents’. Not that they see it that way. At all. But when she was diagnosed in her late teens, their savings were pretty much completely wiped out by the cost of her care that wasn’t covered by insurance. She just isn’t willing to do that to any potential romantic partner.

She dropped out of college when she was diagnosed – not surprisingly as it was a LOT to deal with. She’s stuck in a dead-end job because she needs the excellent health insurance the company provides. Without it, she will, quite literally, die.

The job has several good points and one really bad one. She is the administrative assistant at the architectural firm owned by Noah’s dad where Noah himself works. BUUUUT, one of the other architects is a douche who seems determined to make her miserable and puts her down at every turn. (There’s a bubbling vat of acid waiting in the wings for him, I swear.)

So, when she gets a scholarship for mid-career learners to return to college and finish the degrees they abandoned, she wants to take it. But she can’t. Because (insert evil villain music here) she needs the insurance from her job.

And that’s where this story both kicks off and goes just a teensy bit off the rails.

Noah offers to marry her so she can stay on his insurance and chase her dream of becoming a pediatric nutritionist, a job that will also pay at least twice what she’s making now and undoubtedly come with its own excellent insurance. Or, she’ll get a transplant which will automatically qualify her for Medicare – again solving the insurance problem. (The real crime in this story is that SO MUCH is caused by the evil insurance companies!)

What they are planning is a marriage of convenience, 21st century American style. Or so it seems. What they actually get turns out to be anything but.

Escape Rating B-: There’s so much of this book that is so good. It’s a terrific friends-into-lovers and fake relationship romance rolled into a lovely story, and those tropes are classics for a reason.

Noah and Mia have been besties for-literally-ever. Their deep friendship is the foundation on which both of their lives are built. They are each other’s person in some seriously profound ways. That they both want more but are too afraid to admit it because of the consequences if it doesn’t work out feels real. They know they belong together, but they have both made the decision that being together as friends is enough – or at least that it’s not worth the risk of trying for more because neither of them can face the thought of ending up with less.

Where the story sent me into a ranting internal monologue was in the nature of the “fake” of their fake relationship. They’re not the first or the last people, undoubtedly in real life as much as in fiction, to have married out of something other than romantic love. The problem in the story is that it conflates the issues involved in faking a Green Card marriage with marrying to get insurance.

Their marriage isn’t fake or a con. It’s a real marriage, with real legal documentation. They share a real house and a real life. Whether or not they ever plan to have sex or romance is not the insurance company’s problem and they are NOT committing fraud. They ARE married with all the legal consequences and legal responsibilities thereunto.

The real, true issue in the story is the lies they tell to their friends, their families and most importantly, Noah’s employer. Who is also his dad and they do have a good relationship which means that Noah could have been upfront about this mess from the beginning. But the story treats the reason for their marriage and their intention to dissolve it after Mia completes her education as the big bad sin, when it isn’t. It’s the lying that is both the sin and the thing that’s going to trip them up over and over until it’s dealt with.

So the blurb and at least the first third of the story make it seem as if their so-called “fake” marriage is the problem when the real, true problem is that they lied about it. And that they’ve been doing a whole metric ton of lying about a whole lot of very real issues – to themselves and each other most of all.

Where the story gets both very, very good and in many ways very, very sad is that once the first lie gets exposed, all the cats claw their way out of all the bags and they both have to deal with all the issues they’ve been hiding from themselves. And papering over by being so invested in their friendship that they let each other bury some real and serious shit that is painful to deal with and is only going to be more painful for being hidden.

So there’s a LOT to unpack in this story. It’s not nearly as bright and breezy as the blurb might lead you to believe. It is seriously NOT a rom-com. And it would have been a lot better – and a lot less frustrating (and this review would be a lot less ranty) if it had started out by focusing on the real culprits in the mess.

Once it finally gets on the path it should have been on in the first place, the story of two people who have loved each other nearly all their lives who have been living a pretense that suddenly becomes real, the story has a whole lot of charm along with a marvelously cathartic resolution and a solidly earned HEA.

 

Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor

Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley ScrivenorDirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor
Narrator: Sophie Loughran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Flatiron Books, Macmillan Audio on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When twelve-year-old Esther disappears on the way home from school in a small town in rural Australia, the community is thrown into a maelstrom of suspicion and grief. As Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels arrives in town during the hottest spring in decades and begins her investigation, Esther’s tenacious best friend, Ronnie, is determined to find Esther and bring her home.
When schoolfriend Lewis tells Ronnie that he saw Esther with a strange man at the creek the afternoon she went missing, Ronnie feels she is one step closer to finding her. But why is Lewis refusing to speak to the police? And who else is lying about how much they know about what has happened to Esther?
Punctuated by a Greek chorus, which gives voice to the remaining children of the small, dying town, this novel explores the ties that bind, what we try and leave behind us, and what we can never outrun, while never losing sight of the question of what happened to Esther, and what her loss does to a whole town.
In Hayley Scrivenor's Dirt Creek, a small-town debut mystery described as The Dry meets Everything I Never Told You, a girl goes missing and a community falls apart and comes together.

My Review:

Dirt Creek is a “For Want of a Nail” story in the guise of a mystery/thriller plot. “For Want of a Nail” is a proverb that starts out with losing a horseshoe because the protagonist needs a nail to keep the horseshoe on the horse. And it results in the loss of a kingdom because of the chain of events that follows.

Dirt Creek is that kind of book. It begins with a then-unknown person discovering the corpse of a young girl buried in a shallow grave on a remote property outside of the tiny, dying town of Durton not too far outside of Sydney, Australia.

Most of the residents of Durton call it “Dirt Town”, and the creek that runs near town is “Dirt Creek”. (Dirt Town seems to have been the title of the original Australian edition of the book.)

While the book kicks off with the finding of that body, witnessed by a couple of unnamed – at least at that point – children, that event is actually the final nail in the killer’s coffin. The story, the story of how so many things fell apart in Durton, begins the Friday before, when 12-year-old Esther Bianchi doesn’t come home from school. On time. Or at all.

The story, over a long, hot weekend and part of the next week, follows the unfolding events from multiple perspectives. The police detectives who come out from Sydney to investigate Esther’s disappearance, Esther’s mother, Constance. Constance’s best friend Shelly. Esther’s best friend Veronica – who everyone calls Ronnie. And Esther and Veronica’s mutual friend, Lewis, an 11-year-old boy who is being bullied at school and beaten at home.

Everyone in Durton knows everyone else, their friends, their families, their secrets – and their lies. Sooner or later, all the truths are going to bubble to the surface. Nothing ever stays buried for long – not even poor Esther Bianchi.

But by the time Esther’s body is found, the weight of the secrets, both big and small, that are being hidden from both the police and the entire community, have already broken at least one marriage, rescued at least one mother and her children, caused one child to be savagely attacked – and torn an entire town apart.

Because at the very beginning of Esther’s story, two children saw something very suspicious. Something they were much too afraid to tell. And because they didn’t, for want of that telling at a time when it would have done the most good, one event led to another – until all the pieces came together at the quietly chilling end.

Escape Rating B-: This is going to be one of those “mixed-feelings” kinds of reviews. You have been warned.

Before I start on the things that drove me bananas, one thing that most definitely did not was the narrator, Sophie Loughran. I listened to about half the book and read the rest because I was pressed for time. I wish I could have continued with the audio because the reader was excellent and did a terrific job with the Australian and English accents. She made each of the characters sound distinctive, which would have been particularly challenging because all of them, with the exception of 11-year-old Lewis whose voice hasn’t dropped yet, were female. And yet, I always knew who was speaking by accent, by intonation, by vocal patterns. She also did an excellent job of keeping to the slow, deliberate pace of the story, particularly when voicing Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels who both spoke and thought in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.

Howsomever, Detective Sergeant Michaels’ thoughtful deliberation pointed out an issue that I had with the story. For a thriller, it moves quite slowly. It takes half the book to set itself up – and to set Michaels and her detective partner up in Durton. As a thriller, this needed to move a bit faster. The descriptions of everything and everyone were meticulous to a point close to monotony.

There’s also a lot of foreshadowing. Not necessarily the obvious foreshadowing – because the reader is pretty sure that little Esther is not going to be found alive at the end of this story. The story, and the town it is set in, are both so bleak that there’s just no way to eke a happy ending out of this one.

What gets foreshadowed is the “For Want of a Nail” nature of the story. Every time someone fails to inform someone, anyone, else about an important clue, it gets foreshadowed that this lack of information might have changed things before all of the other terrible things that happened were too far along to prevent.

Those omissions do all turn out to be important, because they send the police on wild goose chases that waste time and personnel – both of which are in short supply. But it’s also a truth that everybody lies, so there’s nothing unexpected or exceptional about people lying to the police. It’s just humans being human.

As many red herrings and half-baked clues and misdirections there were in this story, there was plenty going on and oodles of directions for the case and the reader to follow. There were two elements of the various internal monologue that felt like one-too-many. One was that Detective Sergeant Michaels is keeping a secret from the reader and in some ways from herself about the reasons behind the breakup of her recent relationship. The other was that the children of the town who were not directly involved in the plot had chapters as a kind of Greek chorus. Either element might have been fine, but together they distracted from the progress of the mystery without adding enough to offset the time and attention they took.

So very much a mixed bag. I loved the narration. I liked that the small-town mystery was set in a small town somewhere VERY far away. I thought the mystery plot and the way that the police were stuck chasing their own tails a lot of the time was as fascinating as it was frustrating. I did not figure out whodunnit as far as the child’s death was concerned, while the various villains who were exposed during the course of the investigation did receive their just desserts – which is always the best part of a mystery.

But Durton turned out to be a seriously bleak place, and in the end this was an equally bleak story. I seriously needed to visit my happy place when I left there. I’m probably not the only reader who did.

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine CenterThe Bodyguard by Katherine Center
Narrator: Patti Murin
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 44 minutes
Published by St. Martin's Press on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


She’s got his back.
Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindergarten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka "bodyguard"), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.
Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.
When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???
Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done.

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise that this a bodyguard romance. After all, the title does pretty much give it away. But before your head starts playing “I Will Always Love You” on endless repeats, this book’s version of that popular trope would have Whitney Houston guarding Kevin Costner. Which is more than a bit of a twist, at least if that’s the picture you have in your head.

In this version, it’s Executive Protection Agent Hannah Brooks guarding the uber-famous actor Jack Stapleton. (In my head, I was picturing Jack as an amalgam of the superhero movie Chris brigade, so combine the features – and the careers – of Chris Evans, Hemsworth, Pine and Pratt to get sorta/kinda the picture in my head. And now, quite possibly, yours.)

The explanation of exactly why Hannah Brooks does not look like the beefy, burly, able to bench press a Hummer, stereotype is pretty much on point. Having that kind of bodyguard advertises that something is up and someone or something needs protection. It’s not exactly discreet, The company that Hannah works for is all about protection and discretion – even if some of the agents, including Hannah, seem to have a problem with the latter in their personal lives. Hannah and her team plan and prepare for every detail and contingency so that threats are eliminated before they happen.

Even if the biggest threat that Jack Stapleton seems to face is a middle-aged stalker who keeps Corgis and knits sweaters with Jack’s face in the center. Or at least the Corgi stalker is the reason that Jack’s team at the movie studio hires the protection agency.

Once Hannah is embedded in Jack’s life and his world, it starts to seem like Jack’s older brother Hank is a much bigger threat – but not as big or as difficult to fight as his mother’s cancer.

And that’s where things go really, really pear-shaped – especially for Hannah. Jack doesn’t want to worry his mom while she’s undergoing treatment, so he wants to hide the fact that he needs protection at all. Which puts Hannah in a really tough spot, as Jack’s plan requires that Hannah pretend she’s his girlfriend and not his bodyguard.

The longer it goes on, the realer the ruse seems to be – and not just to Hannah. Unless Jack is a much, much better actor than even Hannah thinks he is.

Unless the stalker is even better than that.

Escape Rating B-: This is a story where I had both the audiobook and the ebook, which means I started by listening to the audiobook. I switched to the ebook at less than a third of the way through – not because I was impatient to see what happened next but because the audio was driving me utterly bonkers.

So many people have loved this book, and it sounded like it would be so much fun, but the audio just about had me screaming in the car. I switched to the ebook because I was determined to finish the damn thing.

The story is told in the first person singular, so we’re in Hannah’s head listening to her voice and all of her many, many, many anxious thoughts and feelings, nearly all of which are negative and are flying by at what seems like a million miles per hour. The narrator’s delivery of the rapid-fire cacophony inside Hannah’s head was spot-on, but the overwhelming mass of negativity the character was projecting – well, I just wasn’t there for it. At all.

Hannah is a person who is afraid to sit still or even to slow down. Even if she’s not moving in the physical sense, her brain is whirling at a million miles per minute. And it seems like most of those miles and minutes are negative. She’s not happy with herself, she’s not happy with her life – particularly when the story opens – and she’s doing her level best to keep in motion so she doesn’t have to deal with ANY of her issues.

That her mother just died and her boyfriend dumped her the morning after her mother’s funeral is just the tip of the rock-filled iceberg that is Hannah’s emotional state. (Her boyfriend is a douche and she’s WAY better off without him, but it takes her awhile to figure that out – as it does.)

And her boss is a complete asshole. Even when he’s right, he goes about it the worst way possible – because he admits he enjoys torturing his employees. He’d call it “tough love” if he was willing to use the word “love” at all. But it comes off as just being an abusive asshole who enjoys his assholishness.

In short, Hannah has a metric buttload of issues that she is burying under her workaholism. All of her issues feel justified, but she’s not dealing with pretty much ANYTHING that needs to be dealt with. And her mother’s death provides the straw that is breaking the camel’s back of Hannah’s coping mechanisms.

Not that Jack Stapleton is in much better shape emotionally – he just hides it better. After all, he is an actor. The irony of their situation is that as fake as their relationship is supposed to be, Hannah is a much more real person than anyone Jack has ever associated with in Hollywood – including his supposed “real” girlfriend.

The relationship that develops between Hannah and Jack, as bizarre as its starting point, is the most real thing in his life – except for his older brother’s animosity and his mother’s cancer. He’s not coping well either – and he has just as much to cope with as Hannah does.

And that’s one of the places where the story is shortchanged by its cute sweetness. Because it certainly is both of those things. The issue that I had with the story in the end is that there is too much going on with both of these people for a romance that ends up being this light and fluffy.

Not that both Hannah and Jack don’t deserve a happy ending – because they both certainly do. But the way they achieve it, and the way that their happy ever after is presented, completely glosses over everything that is really, truly not cute or sweet at all. In the end, the story shores up the fallacy that love conquers all, including learning disabilities, impostor syndrome, feelings of total inadequacy, childhood trauma, and unprocessed grief.

It ends on the note that love doesn’t just conquer all, but that it cures everything that ails a person. Which just isn’t true. And this would have been a much better story, if not nearly as fluffy, if their very important issues had been dealt – or at least showed that they would BE dealt with – instead of swept under the carpet.

In the end, this wasn’t bad – and it’s a surprisingly clean romance if you’re looking for one. But it wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates

Review: The Lost and Found Girl by Maisey YatesThe Lost and Found Girl by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Hqn on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"Yates packs an emotional punch with this masterful, multilayered contemporary…pitch-perfect plotting and carefully crafted characters make for a story that’s sure to linger in readers’ minds.” —Publishers Weekly
New York Times bestselling author Maisey Yates dazzles with this powerful novel of sisterhood, secrets and how far you’d go to protect someone you love…
Ruby McKee is a miracle. Found abandoned on a bridge as a newborn baby by the McKee sisters, she’s become the unofficial mascot of Pear Blossom, Oregon, a symbol of hope in the wake of a devastating loss. Ruby has lived a charmed life, and when she returns home after traveling abroad, she’s expecting to settle into that charm. But an encounter with the town’s black sheep makes her question the truth about her mysterious past.
Dahlia McKee knows it’s not right to resent Ruby for being special. But uncovering the truth about Ruby’s origins could allow Dahlia to carve her own place in Pear Blossom history.
Recently widowed Lydia McKee has enough on her plate without taking on Ruby’s quest for answers. Especially when her husband’s best friend, Chase, is beginning to become a complication she doesn’t want or need.
Marianne Martin is glad her youngest sister is back in town, but it’s hard to support Ruby’s crusade when her own life is imploding.
When the quest for the truth about Ruby’s origins uncovers a devastating secret, will the McKee sisters fall apart or band together? 

My Review:

This story about the importance of stories is wrapped around the four McKee sisters, Marianne, Lydia, Dahlia and Ruby. They are all adults as the story opens, and for the first time as adults, all four of them now live in the tiny town of Pear Blossom, Oregon. It’s Ruby’s return home that precipitates all the crises in the story.

And are there ever plenty of those!

There are also four themes or plot threads running through the story, but not, as you might expect, one per sister. Rather they are all being put through the same set of wringers at the same time. It can be a lot. And it frequently is for one or more of them.

Ruby’s return home sets all the wheels in motion, just as Ruby’s original advent set Pear Blossom on its current trajectory as a well-known tourist destination. Because Ruby wasn’t born to the McKee family, she was found by them. A tiny baby, abandoned on the historic, picturesque Sentinel footbridge, on a cold December evening. The young McKee sisters found Ruby as they walked home from Christmas choir practice. Nothing about her origins was ever discovered and she was adopted by the McKee family as the youngest sister.

The town saw her as a miracle, and she kind of was. But her miraculous appearance provided a weird sense of catharsis for a tragic event the winter before. A young woman went missing and was never found. She was presumed dead, but with no body and very little evidence of any kind, the boy who was assumed to be her killer was charged – and imprisoned – but the state had to eventually drop the case.

He became the town bogeyman – at all of 15 – just as Ruby became the town’s savior – at least in an emotional sense. Those reputations remain tied to both of their lives, deserved or not, in both cases.

So one thread of this story is about some of the less-lovable aspects of small town living, that everyone knows everyone’s business, and that lives and reputations can be made or ruined by the sins of the parents – because everyone knows just what they are. Ruby can’t step out of her role as the sunshine bringer, while Nathan Brewer was condemned because his father was a violent drunk with a mean streak and the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. But sometimes Miss Mary Sunshine has rain clouds in her life, and sometimes the apple throws itself as far from that parent tree as it can get.

The second thread is the driving power of stories, and the power of the past to impact the present. Because of the great mystery around Ruby’s origins and the way her adoption affected the McKee family, both Ruby and her sister Dahlia have made careers out of questioning and investigating the past.

Ruby is a historian, and the job she has just taken in Pear Blossom is to serve as the local museum’s archivist. Dahlia is a newspaper reporter. Together, they decide to do a series of newspaper stories and museum exhibits about the history of Pear Blossom. And it’s impossible to look back at the history of the town without taking a hard look at its two biggest stories; the disappearance and presumed death of Caitlin Groves, and the mysterious arrival of Ruby the following year.

But those events are just over 20 years in the past. There are plenty of people in town who remember what happened. And among those memories might be the key to unlocking one or both mysteries.

All four sisters are going through romantic crises, all at the same time. Marianne fears her husband is having an affair, Lydia is recently widowed and is still trying to figure out what happens next for herself and her children, Dahlia’s self-imposed inferiority complex is keeping her from pursuing the man she’s always loved. And Ruby herself, Miss Mary Sunshine, has fallen for the town’s biggest villain – because she realizes that he’s not the villain after all.

Which means that someone else is – and that they might still be around.

And that leads inexorably to the power of telling the truth, whether in big ways or small ones, and how the lies we tell ourselves are the hardest ones to let go of. Even if they are destroying not just ourselves but all those we love.

Escape Rating B-: One of the things I like about this author’s contemporary romances is that the situations that her protagonists are in tend to be fairly plausible. The dramatic tension in the romance is never a misunderstandammit, but rather two people honestly coming from different places that are, in real life, hard to resolve. (My personal favorite of hers is last year’s Confessions from the Quilting Circle.)

That plausibility was a bit lacking in The Lost and Found Girl. Any of the individual situations could easily happen, but all of them at once in the same family was a bit over the top. Honestly, more than a bit. Out of four sisters it seems like the odds would be that one of them would be doing okay – and not just think she was only to have the rug pulled out from under her.

And I have to say that the surprising conclusion to the more suspenseful elements of this story, particularly as there were two of them, seriously tested my willing suspension of disbelief. One felt plausible if barely. The second headed towards paranormal – which was both surprising and heading towards unbelievable.

Howsomever, I did like the overall concept of the story, about the importance of history and keeping it alive. That the stories we tell about ourselves and about who we came from matter and should be preserved. I loved the idea that Ruby and Dahlia were working together, from their entirely different angles, to create a living history for the town that everyone could enjoy.

That turning over rocks in the not-so-distant past uncovered some snakes in the grass pushed the story forwards and brought the sisters together. But the combination of that suspenseful part of the plot with all of the various forms of romantic angst went a bit over the top for me.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Review: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle ZevinTomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, relationship fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on July 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this exhilarating novel by the best-selling author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry two friends--often in love, but never lovers--come together as creative partners in the world of video game design, where success brings them fame, joy, tragedy, duplicity, and, ultimately, a kind of immortality.
On a bitter-cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn't heard him, but then, she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom. These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favors, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even twenty-five years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won't protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts.
Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a dazzling and intricately imagined novel that examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love. Yes, it is a love story, but it is not one you have read before.

My Review:

That “Love is all there is, is all we know of Love” is from the pen of Emily Dickinson, a poet who was near and dear to Sadie Green’s heart. But Dickinson’s poem, as ineffably true as it is, does not specify the type of love to which it refers. It’s often taken to mean romantic love. In this story, while there is plenty of love to go around, the form of love at its heart is not Eros but Philia, the love of friends and equals.

The relationship that stars, and sings, and occasionally weeps with grief or is frozen by neglect and misunderstanding in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is the 30 year friendship and partnership between Sam Masur and Sadie Green, who meet at a children’s hospital in New York when they are on the cusp of adolescence.

They are both stuck at that hospital. Sam is about to undergo yet another surgery to stabilize the damage to his foot that he incurred during the accident that killed his mother. Sadie has been shuffled out of her sister’s room because Alice, who has leukemia, is also being a temperamental bitch to her younger sister – and their parents are indulging Alice because, after all, she has cancer and Sadie is healthy.

Sam and Sadie discover that they both LOVE computer games. Love to play them, love to talk about them, love to share them with anyone who will listen – which mostly means each other.

But Sam thinks Sadie is his friend – and he’s not wrong. But Sadie starts out thinking that helping Sam while away the hours is her public service project for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. The revelation of her deception breaks them in two.

Until they meet again in Boston, where Sadie is now going to Harvard while Sam is at MIT. And their friendship knits itself and them back together as though they had never parted – although the faultline created in that first and biggest deception lies deeply buried and waiting to erupt again.

The friendship between Sam and Sadie, in all its depth and all its incipient heartbreak, is rooted in their shared love of gaming. It’s the mid-1990s, and computer and video gaming is at that golden age where it has become a big business but the games can still be built by just a few dedicated people who are willing to eat, sleep and breathe the game until it comes out or they burnout – whichever comes first.

Sam and Sadie, with the help of Sam’s roommate Marx, decide to make a game. They sacrifice their senior year in college to do it. And the rest, as they say, is history. Just not the one anyone would expect.

Escape Rating B-: Everyone seems to love this book. The ratings on both Goodreads and Amazon are at 4.4 out of 5. I’m saying this up front because I have to say that I’m just not seeing it – or at least not seeing it the way that so many people seem to.

For me, at least, this one sits on the border between relationship fiction and literary fiction, with a bit too much of a tilt towards the litfic side – which is not my personal preference.

At the same time, I loved the parts about the video game industry. I played many of the games referred to in the story, and still play video games. The way their company starts out, how it develops, the fights, the ups and the downs, reminded me fondly of the reporting on the industry at the time.

But the video game industry is used more as a vehicle than anything else. It’s about the work of being an entrepreneur at a time when the work can be done by a small, intimate group who live for each other, die for each other, and breathe each other’s air, day in and day out until the work is done.

And then they start all over again because the work is an integral part of the love they have for each other. And it’s also the central point of gaming as a whole, that there’s always another game, another life, and that endings are never permanent. Until they are.

More than anything else, Tomorrow is the story of a 30-year friendship between two very scared and flawed people who love each other and more importantly know each other more and better than anyone else in their lives. Even though they grow apart as often as they grow together, they’re still in reference to each other no matter what.

So I loved the video game parts, both the playing of them and the discussion of them and especially the creation of them. And the way their friendship ebbed and flowed turned these characters into real people. Almost as if they were the player characters in a game that I was playing rather than a book I was reading.

But the last third of the book felt rather more literary fiction than relationship as the situation got bleaker and bleaker and it seemed as if there was no light at the end of that tunnel that the story was dragging towards. It read like the full quote from Macbeth that the title is taken from was a bit too much of a metaphor for the entire book.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Clearly, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing, and probably will for quite some time. There is one thing about the story, or at least about something that is often said about it, about which I have no mixed feelings at all.

There have been quite a few comparisons drawn between Tomorrow and Ready Player One, including among my reading group which probably led me astray. It seems like an easy choice, as both stories are imbued with nostalgia for what are now classic games. But Ready Player One is an action-packed adventure story. It has a pace and a verve that keep the reader compulsively following the action. Tomorrow is a much quieter, slower-paced story. Obviously, both of them have massive audiences. And there will be some overlap between those audiences. But readers coming into Tomorrow thinking it will be like Ready Player One are going to be in for one hell of a disappointing shock and probably vice versa. An opinion which is very much my 2 cents and your reading mileage may vary.

Review: The Yeoman’s Tale by M.J. Trow

Review: The Yeoman’s Tale by M.J. TrowThe Yeoman's Tale (Geoffrey Chaucer #2) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Geoffrey Chaucer #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on July 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Poet-sleuth Geoffrey Chaucer is caught up in the chaos of the Peasants' Revolt as he attempts to track down a brutal killer.

June, 1381. Embarking on his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury, Geoffrey Chaucer and his fellow travellers are forced to turn back when confronted with a horde of armed and angry peasants, intent on marching to London. Returning to the city to warn the authorities of the approaching danger, the pilgrims hole up at the Tabard Inn and prepare for the coming invasion.
That same night, a woman's body is fished out of the River Thames, her throat cut. When he discovers that the victim was the wife of one of his fellow pilgrims, Chaucer determines to investigate. Could the woman's henpecked husband be responsible for her death? A jealous business rival? Or was she murdered by one of the pilgrims? Does a cold-hearted killer lurk within the Tabard?
As the army of rebellious peasants approaches, Chaucer finds himself in a race against time to uncover the truth before anarchy descends.

My Review:

Just as in the first book in this historical mystery series featuring the very real and historical Geoffrey Chaucer as a fictional and very amateur detective (The Knight’s Tale), this year’s story begins with Chaucer setting out on his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury. The one that inspired his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.

As Chaucer and the group of assorted pilgrims set off on their journey from London, we’re introduced to Chaucer’s fellow travelers as they start telling each other stories to pass the time. It begins to seem like we’re going to be following along as Chaucer experiences the inspiration for his Tales much more directly than he – or we – ever imagined.

But that’s where this much-anticipated and well-planned pilgrimage goes completely off the rails. Again. Last year the pilgrimage went on but Chaucer himself did not embark upon it as he was forced to remain in London due to the events of the earlier book.

This year, this spring of 1381, the entire company is forced to turn back by events that are much larger and more encompassing than anything Chaucer ever imagined in his poetry. The pilgrims on the road to Canterbury run headlong into the massed Commons of England as they march toward London and their date with doom and destiny in what history records as the Peasants’ Revolt.

They return to a city that is about to be besieged, even if none of the powers that be are willing to acknowledge that the ragtag army heading their way is any kind of a threat to the small but well-armed and well-trained militia that guards the city and especially the palace and person of the king, Richard II.

Only to find that the death they fled on the road has preceded them into London. One of the members of their party chanced upon a dead woman floating in the Thames, a not uncommon occurrence at the time. Upon discovering that the poor unfortunate had her throat expertly slit, the yeoman who found her concluded that she had been murdered and couldn’t let the matter rest. So he brought the corpse to the inn where the pilgrims were gathering – and about to be surrounded by the invading rebel army.

There’s more than one situation stinking up The Tabard Inn as the guests prepare to impatiently wait for either rescue or death. But even in the face of all the death and destruction about to overcome them, Geoffrey Chaucer can’t let this one, seemingly unrelated murder go without trying to discover whodunnit.

Escape Rating B-: The thing about historical mystery, just like other hybrid genres, is that it has to satisfy both sides of its equation in order to satisfy its readers. In this particular case, that means that the historical setting and characters need to be well-researched, fully-fleshed out, and seem at least plausible for their time and place, while the mystery still has to encompass the elements that readers expect of that genre, a crime to solve, an investigator, whether amateur or professional, and a solution that gives the reader the satisfaction of learning the motive, the means, the opportunity and the perpetrator of the crime – while seeing justice served upon that perpetrator in one way or another.

Whether historical mystery readers are going to find their reading of The Yeoman’s Tale satisfying is going to depend a great deal on whether they prefer their historical mysteries to emphasize the historical side of that blending or the mystery side.

Just as in The Knight’s Tale, while the author plays a bit fast and loose with the recorded events of history, the situation is plausible and the characters do fit very well into their time and place. But to say that the mystery part of The Yeoman’s Tale plays second fiddle to the historical tale of the Peasants’ Revolt, the sacking of London by the rebel army, and conditions in London and the (most likely fictional) siege of The Tabard Inn doesn’t go quite far enough. There’s an entire string section playing between the history and the mystery, with the mystery being the last, lonely instrument in that orchestra.

Not that the mystery doesn’t also get resolved in the end. But it just isn’t the story here, so calling this a historical mystery does not give the reader the true flavor of what they are about to read. And not that the story that is told here doesn’t have its fascinating and compelling moments. Chaucer the character is an up-close and personal witness to history in a way that the real man likely was not in this particular instance.

But the first book in this series, The Knight’s Tale, dealt with history on a much smaller scale and allowed Chaucer, as both character and amateur investigator, to take center stage. In this second outing, the events that surround the mystery are much bigger than any tale that Chaucer ever told.

The real historical events, even in this fictional perspective, take center stage in this story, pushing Chaucer, the mystery he seldom even thinks about during this crisis and pretty much everything else not just onto the margins of the stage, but frequently off the stage all together.

Consider this review “The Disappointed Reader’s Tale”. I really enjoyed The Knight’s Tale and was hoping for more, which is not what I think I got. And not that I don’t enjoy historical fiction set in the Plantagenet period, which this is, but I have to say that this is my least favorite part of that long dynasty. But I picked this up expecting a historical mystery and just was not thrilled with the story I got instead. If the series continues I’ll probably pick up the third book, but I’ll be a lot more cautious in my expectations.

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno DawsonHer Majesty's Royal Coven (Her Majesty's Royal Coven, #1) by Juno Dawson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal
Series: HRMC #1
Pages: 448
Published by Penguin Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


A Discovery of Witches meets The Craft in this the first installment of this epic fantasy trilogy about a group of childhood friends who are also witches.

If you look hard enough at old photographs, we're there in the background: healers in the trenches; Suffragettes; Bletchley Park oracles; land girls and resistance fighters. Why is it we help in times of crisis? We have a gift. We are stronger than Mundanes, plain and simple.At the dawn of their adolescence, on the eve of the summer solstice, four young girls--Helena, Leonie, Niamh and Elle--took the oath to join Her Majesty's Royal Coven, established by Queen Elizabeth I as a covert government department. Now, decades later, the witch community is still reeling from a civil war and Helena is now the reigning High Priestess of the organization. Yet Helena is the only one of her friend group still enmeshed in the stale bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is trying to pretend she's a normal housewife, and Niamh has become a country vet, using her powers to heal sick animals. In what Helena perceives as the deepest betrayal, Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven, Diaspora. And now Helena has a bigger problem. A young warlock of extraordinary capabilities has been captured by authorities and seems to threaten the very existence of HMRC. With conflicting beliefs over the best course of action, the four friends must decide where their loyalties lie: with preserving tradition, or doing what is right.
Juno Dawson explores gender and the corrupting nature of power in a delightful and provocative story of magic and matriarchy, friendship and feminism. Dealing with all the aspects of contemporary womanhood, as well as being phenomenally powerful witches, Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle may have grown apart but they will always be bound by the sisterhood of the coven.

My Review:

Most prophecies are self-fulfilling. Oedipus’ father made that whole story happen by trying his damndest to keep that whole story from happening. And don’t get me started on Harry Potter and Voldemort and bringing that whole prophecy into being by trying to cut it off at the knees when Harry was a toddler.

Or maybe do get me started on that. Because I’ll be getting back to it later.

Because while the blurb for this book compares it to A Discovery of Witches and The Craft, Harry Potter is really a LOT closer to the mark. In the Potterverse, magic is real and it works and there’s an entire hidden society devoted to training new magic users and keeping the secret that there is power and influence to be had by literally waving a magic wand.

The girls in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are inheritors of a long and grand tradition of using magic on behalf of the Crown of England in order to defend the realm from threats both foreign and domestic that use magic to make and be those threats.

They are, quite literally, the few and the proud, and the night before they make their official witch’s oaths and become part of HMRC, they are sure they will be friends forever.

That’s one prophecy that seldom works out, and so it proves when the story picks up 25 years later. Now they are all adults, and all survivors of a great magical war that scarred their bodies and their futures, freezing them into the places and positions they now hold – sometimes by their fingernails.

Helena, the leader of the girls they were and the leader of the hidebound covert government department that HMRC has been for generations, is facing the impending doom of the organization she heads. Or so she believes.

The witches who watch the future, the seeresses who prophesy on behalf of HMRC and of Britain, are all seeing the same dark future. That the end of their world is going to be brought about by a young warlock of immense power that the prophecies call “The Sullied Child”. He will be their downfall, and he has been found.

The prophecies are right. And they’re wrong. But mostly, they are completely, totally and utterly self-fulfilling to the nth degree and the entirely bitter end.

Escape Rating B-: There are so many things going on in this story, and so many of them are good. But there’s something rotten at its heart that I can’t get past, although I suspect that other readers will have less of a problem with it.

This is a story about feminism and female friendship. It’s also a story about how the ties that bind in childhood can strangle in adulthood.

The four women who are at the center of this story have all gone their different ways. Helena has taken the path of power and leadership that her considerable privilege has led her to believe is her right as well as her duty.

But the noblesse oblige that underlies that privilege has no room for any who would choose a different path – as all of her former friends have done. Helena’s HMRC has no place for intersectionality, so anyone not white, not British, not wealthy and not privileged, in other words anyone not like Helena herself, is a threat to her power.

Leonie is black, Elle has retreated into a mundane life, and Niamh has no desire to be under anyone’s thumb – and certainly not under Helena’s. They have all been, in their various ways, outcast from the HMRC.

When Niamh takes that so-called “Sullied Child” under her wing, she learns that the young warlock who is such a threat to the HMRC is actually a transgirl who wants nothing more than to be the witch she was meant to be and not the warlock that Helena continues to see as the ultimate threat.

Niamh, Elle and Leonie want to do what is right rather than what is easy. Helena wants to preserve the HMRC’s traditions and believes that those ends justify any means she might employ – no matter how heinous. Helena is certain that she is working for the “Greater Good” without ever taking a hard look at who it might be good for.

And prophecies are self-fulfilling.

But what struck me as I read Her Majesty’s Royal Coven was just how much it mirrored Harry Potter considered in context of that author’s heinous beliefs about transwomen. She used Hermione Granger as an avatar for herself in the series, to the point where she had Hermione marry Ron at the end because the author was working out issues in a romantic relationship of her own rather than taking that part of the story in the direction it had been heading from the beginning. (My 2 cents and I’ll get down off this soapbox now).

To me, Helena read like Hermione as her own author; smart, a bit stuck-up, worshipful of authority while determined to join it, and single-minded in pursuit of a goal. Also someone who seems to be doing her level best to destroy her own legacy because she can’t deal with the concept that other perspectives are as valid as her own and especially that transwomen are women. Full stop. For this reader, the obviousness of the woman behind the curtain, Helena as Hermione as her author, is the interpretation that remained fixed in my head through my entire reading and drenches my feelings about the book. I think it would have better served the story if the callback to Harry Potter’s author hadn’t been quite so obvious or so pointed.

Your reading mileage, even if by broomstick, may definitely vary.