Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah WolfeRobots vs. Fairies by Dominik Parisien, Navah Wolfe, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Liu, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Annalee Newitz, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, Lavie Tidhar, Catherynne M. Valente, Alyssa Wong, Madeline Ashby, Lila Bowen, Jeffrey Ford, Sarah Gailey, Max Gladstone, Maria Dahvana Headley, Jim C. Hines, Kat Howard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, science fiction, short stories, urban fantasy
Pages: 373
Published by Saga Press on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A unique anthology of all-new stories that challenges authors to throw down the gauntlet in an epic genre battle and demands an answer to the age-old question: Who is more awesome—robots or fairies?

Rampaging robots! Tricksy fairies! Facing off for the first time in an epic genre death match!

People love pitting two awesome things against each other. Robots vs. Fairies is an anthology that pitches genre against genre, science fiction against fantasy, through an epic battle of two icons.

On one side, robots continue to be the classic sci-fi phenomenon in literature and media, from Asimov to WALL-E, from Philip K. Dick to Terminator. On the other, fairies are the beloved icons and unquestionable rulers of fantastic fiction, from Tinkerbell to Tam Lin, from True Blood to Once Upon a Time. Both have proven to be infinitely fun, flexible, and challenging. But when you pit them against each other, which side will triumph as the greatest genre symbol of all time?

There can only be one…or can there?

My Review:

Are you Team Robot or Team Fairy? After reading this collection, I’m definitely Team Fairy, but your mileage will definitely vary. And it may depend a bit on where you start from.

The introduction to the collection sets up the premise. Either robots or fairies are going to end up as our eventual overlords. So half of the stories in this collection are fairy stories, and half are robot stories. All of the introductions and afterwords to all of the stories play on the theme that half the writers will be vindicated and the other half were misguided.

Personally, I think that they are all misguided and cats will be our ultimate overlords – not that they aren’t already. But that’s an entirely different collection that I hope someone writes someday.

About this collection, half the stories, the fairy stories, fall into urban fantasy, more or less, and the other half, the robotic arm, so to speak, are science fiction.

Overall, it was the fairy stories that moved me the most. My taste for fairies in contemporary fiction was set long ago, by the magically wonderful War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, and quite a few of the fairy stories in this collection fit into that vein, with fairies hidden in plain sight of our contemporary world.

The thing about robots is that they are only interesting, at least to this reader, if they reflect us in some way – where fairies already are OTHER. The one robot story in this collection I really enjoyed felt like space opera – which I definitely do love. The robot in this particular story was a prop and not the centerpiece.

That being said, the stories that I really liked in this collection were the fairy stories.

Build Me A Wonderland by Seanan McGuire surprised me in a good way. I’ve bounced off her work, both as McGuire and as Grant, multiple times, but this story was just lovely. It was also one of the few upbeat stories in the collection. The fairies are hiding in plain sight by being the miracle workers in a contemporary magic factory. In other words, they work for an amusement park. And the elves want in!

Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt combined two things I love – fairies and libraries – into something super-awesome. This story is one that I would have loved to see expanded into a novel because this world is so interesting. It’s all about the magic in books, and both the power and the joy of being a “master” librarian.

Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey is a great story for Halloween, as is Just Another Love Song by Kat Howard. Both stories deal in the dark side of magic, with a heaping helping of revenge served at the appropriate temperature and evil getting the desserts it has so richly deserved. Read with the lights on.

The one robot story that I really enjoyed was Sound and Fury by Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked this one because it didn’t feel like a robot story at all. There’s a robot in it, and the robot does play a big part in the story, but the robot is not remotely self aware. It’s a tool. It’s technically a tool for one of the characters who is also a tool, but it becomes a tool in the hands of the spaceship crew and it’s really about them. In other words, this story felt like space opera.

And one robot story got me in the feels. That was Ironheart by Jonathan Maberry. But again, this doesn’t feel like a robot story. It feels like a very, very human story. A heartbreaking one.

A Fall Counts Anywhere by Catherynne M. Valente is the perfect ending for this collection. It takes the premise literally, with a robot and a fae commentating on a sports match up between the two sides in an epic free-for-all melee-style brawl. Their commentating is a laugh a minute – until it suddenly isn’t. They say that Mother Nature bats last – but who bats for Mother Nature?

Escape Rating B-: Like all short story collections, this one was a bit uneven. Overall I found the fairy stories more interesting and absorbing than the robot stories, with those two very notable exceptions. I’m sure that those on Team Robot think the exact opposite.

Review: The Silver Shoes by Jill G. Hall

Review: The Silver Shoes by Jill G. HallThe Silver Shoes: A Novel by Jill G. Hall
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by She Writes Press on June 19th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In her second novel, Jill G. Hall, author of The Black Velvet Coat, brings readers another dual tale of two dynamic women from two very different eras searching for fulfillment.

San Francisco artist Anne McFarland has been distracted by a cross-country romance with sexy Sergio and has veered from her creative path. While visiting him in New York, she buys a pair of rhinestone shoes in an antique shop that spark her imagination and lead her on a quest to learn more about the shoes’ original owner.

Almost ninety years earlier, Clair Deveraux, a sheltered 1929 New York debutante, tries to reside within the bounds of polite society and please her father. But when she meets Winnie, a carefree Macy’s shop girl, Clair is lured into the steamy side of Manhattan—a place filled with speakeasies, flappers, and the beat of “that devil music”—and her true desires explode wide open. Secrets and lies heap up until her father loses everything in the stock market crash and Clair becomes entangled in the burlesque world in an effort to save her family and herself.

Ultimately, both Anne and Clair—two very different women living in very different eras—attain true fulfillment . . . with some help from their silver shoes.

My Review:

I want to call this one a timeslip book, but it really isn’t. The only thing that exists in both 1929 and today are those titular silver shoes. But the action does alternate between those two eras, with Clair back in the age of Prohibition, flappers, speakeasies and the Great Depression, and Anne today.

Their lives should seem far apart. And they kind of are – but they mostly aren’t.

Besides the shoes, they are linked by two things. They are both constrained by the familial and societal expectations placed on them because they are women. And in the end, they both break free in order to pursue their own needs for self-fulfillment – and live their own dreams.

Neither story ends up being a romance. This is not a book about finding your happy ever after in the traditional romantic sense. As much of both of these women eventually manage to break tradition, it shouldn’t be. In the end, it’s about reaching deep and finding the courage to make your own happiness your own way, whether romantic love comes with it or not.

Escape Rating B-: It is really difficult to talk about this book without giving some of the game away, so the rating comes a bit early in this one.

I loved the way that the theme finally comes out, that both of these women find self-fulfillment through their art rather than love and marriage. Not that I don’t love a good romance, but I also don’t believe that every story with female central characters needs to be a romance. This one is better for not reaching that traditional ending.

On that other hand, a big part of both women’s stories is just how much they knuckle under to the pressures and expectations that constrain women’s lives.

Clair in 1929 is a poor little rich girl. Her businessman father tries to arrange her life so that she will be “taken care of” instead of asking her what she wants. She wants to go to Juilliard to study music, she’s been accepted, but he wants to marry her off. That he chooses badly is icing on a pretty ugly cake in that he never takes her own wants and needs into consideration and doesn’t see why he should until it is almost too late.

Clair takes her freedom at first in teeny, tiny and very secret doses, because she knows he won’t approve and can make her life miserable – as very nearly happens. In the end, it is only when his own pretty awful secrets are exposed AND when the true depth of wrongness of his choices for her is revealed that she is finally able to completely break free.

Reading about how completely circumscribed Clair’s life is may be accurate, but it doesn’t make for easy reading – particularly when it is held up to Anne’s life in comparison. Because Anne’s life doesn’t feel all that much better.

I know that objectively it is, but it didn’t feel that way. I just didn’t buy into her romance with Sergio. That’s possibly because by the time the story begins the romance is in the middle, but they didn’t work for me.

Instead it felt like she was caught up in the romance of a romance with a well-off sexy Italian who lived in New York. They didn’t seem to have enough in common, and she spent way too much time placating him or pretending to be different than she was in order to make things easier for him.

It also felt like she was giving in to pressure much more subtle than the pressure on Clair, but still present, to be involved with a man and get married (and give up her art) because she was 30 and it was time to stop being “foolish” or “childish” or “self-indulgent” or whatever. That she seemed to have no ability to manage her own finances just added to that picture as well as making it seem like she needed Sergio more than she loved him.

Both relationships fall into crises. In Clair’s case part of the crisis was very real and beyond everyone’s control – the Great Depression was called “Great” for a reason. Her father, though misguided, was attempting to do right by her by the lights of their time – admittedly badly.

I liked that she finally rescued herself, even if it took a bit too long and a bit too much melodrama. And Anne, in the end, finally figured out her best course – but in her case only after ignoring a whole bunch of signs that she was heading down the wrong path. And in Anne’s case, the only thing making her ignore that still small voice was herself.

Although I was glad she finally listened to it.

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Review: Bayside Heat by Melissa Foster / Sweet Heat at Bayside by Addison Cole

Bayside Heat (Bayside Summers #3) by Melissa Foster
Format read: eARC
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: contemporary romance
Series: Bayside Summers #3
Length: 342
Publisher: World Literary Press
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Sweet Heat at Bayside (Sweet with Heat: Bayside Summers #3) by Addison Cole
Format read: eARC
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: contemporary romance
Series: Sweet with Heat: Bayside Summer #3)
Length: 324
Publisher: World Literary Press
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Fall in love at Bayside, where sandy beaches, good friends, and true love come together in the sweet small towns of Cape Cod. Bayside Summers is a series of standalone steamy romance novels featuring alpha male heroes and sexy, empowered women. They’re fun, flirty, flawed, deeply emotional, always passionate, and easy to relate to.

Drake Savage has always done the right thing, especially where beautiful and fiercely determined Serena Mallery is concerned-even when it means keeping his feelings for her to himself. Serena has always wanted more than what their small town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts has to offer, and Drake’s roots are so deeply entrenched in the Cape, it’s all he can do to watch her pack up her life and move away.

Serena has always had big dreams. As a teenager she dreamed of becoming an interior designer and marrying smart, musically inclined, sexy-as-sin Drake Savage. Now she’s finally landed a killer job with a top interior design firm, but though she has spent the last four years working side by side with Drake, he’s never made a move. Four years is long enough for her to accept reality, and her new job in Boston is the perfect way to move on.

A weak moment leads to sizzling, sensual kisses, opening a door through which they’ve both been aching to walk. But Serena’s determined not to give up her shot at the career she’s always dreamed of, and Drake has loved her for too many years to stand in her way. With true love at their fingertips and a world of unstoppable passion igniting between them, can the two star-crossed lovers find their way to their happily ever after?

My Review:

This is going to be a bit different – which is kind of ironic because I’m going to be talking about two books that are pretty much the same – but are different in some crucial ways.

Sweet Heat at Bayside by Addison Cole and Bayside Heat by Melissa Foster are the same book. Except when they’re not.

Let me explain…

Sweet Heat at Bayside, and the entire Sweet with Heat: Bayside Summers series, is the “sweet and clean” version of the story. Bayside Heat, and the entire Bayside Summers series, are the steamier and naughtier versions of the very same stories.

So first the story…

This is a really good take on the classic “friends to lovers” trope. Drake and Serena grew up together (along with all of their friends and siblings!) in the tiny town of Bayside on Cape Cod.

But not only was Drake Serena’s first crush, it seems like she never really got over it. Drake is about three years older than Serena, a gap that looms large in grade school and even high school, but now that they are in their late 20s/early 30s it no longer matters.

What does matter is that Serena has always dreamed of taking her interior design talents from tiny Bayside to the big city, meaning Boston. But when Drake started opening his chain of music shops four years ago, Serena came to help out. She’s not only designed the look and feel of all the stories, but helped Drake run both his whole operation as well as the inn that his family owns in Bayside.

She was clear from the very beginning that her work in Bayside was only temporary. And now its time for her to move on. Partly because the stores, the inn and even the local design firm that she’s been working at have all reached a point where the trail has been blazed and now it’s all just keeping on keeping on. But it’s also because as much as she wishes it were otherwise, her relationship with Drake has never moved out of the dreaded “friend zone”.

But Drake is so protective of her that even when she does date in order to try to get over her crush he doesn’t really let any other man get close. It’s obvious to Serena that in order to move on with her life on every front, she really needs to move away.

No matter how much she’s going to miss her friends, her sister, and especially Drake.

But the idea of Serena moving away finally hits Drake with the clue by four. Or another way of putting it is that now that she’s leaving, now that each dinner and each meeting is nearly the last, he discovers that he’s no longer able to hide his feelings for Serena.

No matter how “noble” he’s trying to be, and he thinks he is, he’s always loved her. He’s just never let himself show it.

At first it was because of their age gap. When he was a senior in high school, she was just a freshman. That gap is huge. When she was a senior in high school, he was in college – and away. Also a gap. The timing wasn’t right. When she came back to Bayside to work with him, they were both adults and both in the same place at the same time.

But her declaration that it was only temporary held him back. He didn’t want to get between her and her dreams. What he didn’t know was something important that Serena’s mother told her, that “what you wish for today may not be what you truly want tomorrow.”

So he never asks if she still wants that big city career more than anything else. And he never tells her how he feels. So when they finally begin breaking down the barriers between the friendship they have and the romance they both want, there’s more than a bit of confusion and anger on Serena’s side. It does feel like he’s messing with her.

But she’s committed to Boston and her new job. Over time both she and Drake become committed to figuring out how to make a long-distance relationship work. And then a miracle occurs, and they find a way to move forward so that they both get not just what they want, but what they need – and each other.

Escape Rating for Sweet Heat at Bayside: B-
Escape Rating for Bayside Heat: B+

Even though the story is the same, I think it does matter which version you read. And the steamier version just reads better. It’s not just about the sex. Actually, it’s not about the sex, per se, at all.

The series is about a group of 20- and 30- something who have mostly known each other forever, some of whom are siblings, who have met and/or recognized the love of their lives and have found their happy ever afters. Most of the ones who have paired off by the third book in the series are still newlyweds. They are all adults and there’s a fair amount of sexy talk and sexual teasing among the entire group. Both about who is and isn’t getting any, and how little anyone’s brother or sister wants to hear any details about their sibling’s sex life. It’s frequently funny and often a bit dirty and it all loses something in the translation when it has to all be toned down.

Also, one of the characters just has a potty mouth. Every time she means to drop an “f-bomb” and it’s changed to “frick” it drops me out of the story.

Part of Drake and Serena’s mutual seduction uses a lot of hot, steamy, dirty talk as foreplay. It’s as intelligent and as much fun as the eventual sex. At the point they are in their relationship, convincing themselves as well as each other that they are all in for whatever their relationship might become, seduction by words is every bit as hot as when they finally touch. It needs to be suggestive and naughty and dirty and the need to keep it sweet lets too much of the steam out of the room.

There is also one sexual encounter early in their relationship that is very sexy but does not include actual sex. It’s a scene where exactly what they did, and exactly what they didn’t, is a part of the emotional confusion between the two of them. Because the clean version can’t detail what happened, the entire scene is reduced to a single sentence – one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you go back and read the steamy version.

As a friends into lovers story, Drake and Serena’s romance is a whole lot of fun to read. While they do have a lot of baggage that makes the arc of their relationship finally make sense, it’s not so heavy that it can’t be lifted with a little help from their friends. The gang as a whole has really great chemistry, so even though this is Drake and Serena’s story and we don’t see how everyone else got together, they are still a fun bunch to be with and we do get a good view of how our hero and heroine for this story fit into the whole.

And even though I haven’t read either version of the previous books in the series, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything – except that I wouldn’t mind hanging out with these folks myself. We’d all like to have a circle of friends this tight.

In summary (I know I can’t say “in short” at this point) it feels like Bayside Heat is the better and more authentic version of the story. But for those who feel like they have already read enough “f-bombs” for their lifetime the sweet version does a credible job of telling this “friends to lovers” tale with plenty of love but a bit less lust.

For this reader, the next time I’m faced with this particular dilemma, I know I’ll choose the “full Monty” version for my reading…pleasure.

Review: Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

Review: Hope Never Dies by Andrew ShafferHope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 304
Published by Quirk Books on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This mystery thriller reunites Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama for a political mashup full of suspense, intrigue, and laugh out loud bromance.

Vice President Joe Biden is fresh out of the Obama White House and feeling adrift when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident, leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues. To unravel the mystery, “Amtrak Joe” re-teams with the only man he’s ever fully trusted—the 44th president of the United States. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Delaware, traveling from cheap motels to biker bars and beyond, as they uncover the sinister forces advancing America’s opioid epidemic.

Part noir thriller and part bromance novel, Hope Never Dies is essentially the first published work of Obama/Biden fanfiction—and a cathartic read for anyone distressed by the current state of affairs.

My Review:

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

While I will not judge this book by its cover, I will say that I absolutely did pick this book up for its cover. Which I absolutely could not believe when I saw it, and couldn’t resist once I read the blurb.

Which is completely insane – but all too hilarious – both at the same time.

There is no doubt that this is a terrific piece of what is called “real person fanfic”, which is a thing in fanfiction circles. While fanfiction is usually written about fictional characters, no matter the source, just as there is fanfiction about movie and TV characters there is also fanfiction about the actors who play those characters. When it’s romance fanfic, that can seem a bit creepy and/or stalkerish and is frowned upon in some circles.

One thing that is common in fanfiction in general is the way that the stories often go places that the creator of the original work never intended, and generally the further afield those places are the more it adds to the fun.

This is the kind of story where you don’t so much willingly suspend your disbelief as throw it out the window of a speeding muscle car, like oh, say, the Trans Am that Joe and Barack end up powering through the streets of Wilmington Delaware in the course of this case.

Because this piece of real person fanfiction is a noir-ish murder mystery. And a fairly complicated one – with comic relief provided by this extremely amateur pair of occasionally bumbling wannabe detectives.

Admittedly “Amtrak Joe” Biden does most of the bumbling, while Barack Obama provides even more “cool” than he displays in real life.

The scene of Obama rescuing Biden from a motorcycle gang by casually firing a sawed-off shotgun while lying about Seal Team 6 waiting in the wings was absolutely priceless.

There is a mystery at the heart of this wild and crazy road novel, and it’s all about a good man gone wrong and a bad man hiding in plain sight finally brought low by a couple of past and possibly future politicians who are searching for a third act in their lives.

And who discover that their enduring friendship is the greatest gift of all.

Escape Rating B-: As mysteries go, this is no Murder on the Orient Express or even The Word is Murder. The red herrings are plenty tasty, but our amateur detectives do fumble and bumble a lot, even more than Inspector Clouseau.

And I can’t deny that the whole effort has a very strong whiff of the bear dancing, in that you are not surprised that it is done well, you are surprised that it is done AT ALL.

But it is done considerably better than the outrageous premise might lead one to believe.

What makes the mystery part of this work is that we see this fictional version of Joe Biden as an essentially honest man who wants to see justice done for a good friend – and who admittedly is uncertain where he goes next in his life.

His dilemma about what happens after you’ve been to the top, or at least to your own personal top, is pretty easy to identify with. We all get there sooner or later.

What makes the story work, and makes the reader willing to go along for the ride, is the combination of the sometimes over-the-top but occasionally spot on banter between Obama and Biden, and the first-person perspective of the story through fictional Joe Biden’s eyes.

If you are looking for an antidote to the political insanity in every newspaper and on every newscast, Hope Never Dies is a somewhat rueful, slightly nostalgic, always engaging treat.

Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Review: Warlight by Michael OndaatjeWarlight by Michael Ondaatje
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction, World War II
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on May 8, 2018
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once--we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings' mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know and understand in that time, and it is this journey--through facts, recollection, and imagination--that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

My Review:

I picked this one up because of the World War II angle. It sounded like a combination of coming-of-age and voyage of discovery. At least it sounded like a boy with a murky past grows up and discovers what the murk was all about.

But it isn’t. Or he doesn’t. Perhaps a little bit of both.

The beginning is certainly promising. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are left in the guardianship of someone who begins as a temporary lodger in their house – at least as far as the children know. It is 1945 and the war is over. But for Nathaniel and Rachel, it seems as if the peace is going to be even more dangerous than the war.

Warlight is the semi-luminous shadowed darkness that existed at night, in Britain, under the blackout of World War II. Things were only seen in shadow, and people acted in that shadow.

In this story, the shadowy deeds conducted in that warlight continue to haunt the post-war period, and it is the warlight of his memory that Nathaniel attempts to navigate.

The first part of the book takes place during that immediate post-war period, when Nathaniel and Rachel are abandoned in the care of a man they nickname ‘The Moth’. They believe he might be a criminal. Certainly the lives that Nathaniel and Rachel lead while under his care are highly irregular, as are the characters that come to inhabit that life.

Those post-war, post-Blitz years are highly chaotic, and so is everything that surrounds them. But our perspective of those years is through Nathaniel’s memories, viewed through the lens of his adulthood in the 1950s, and his work with an unnamed secret agency, probably MI5 or MI6. His job is to sanitize the parts of the war that were conducted in a grey area. Probably in very deep shades of grey. Shades that seemed as if they were conducted ‘for the greater good’ in wartime, but that in peacetime are going to appear pretty damning. If they ever come to light.

It’s part of Nathaniel’s job to see that they don’t.

But his real purpose in the depths of that nameless agency is to hunt for traces of his mother. Because during the war, she was one of those people who operated in that grey. And during the peace, the results of those actions eventually came for her.

Nathaniel wants to learn why. Not just that why, but all the whys. And his search leads him back into his memories – and back into the grey warlight.

Escape Rating B-: I’m not actually sure I escaped anywhere with this one. It’s a weird book. From the description, I expected something more definitive, at least in the part of the book where Nathaniel is an adult and is searching for the past and the truth about that past.

But it doesn’t feel like there are any truly definitive events, at least until the very end when Nathaniel reconstructs what he thinks happened. But even then, he doesn’t really know, he’s only guessing.

And he is a very unreliable narrator. He doesn’t find much in the way of names and dates and places and documentation of any of the above. He finds bits and pieces and suppositions and suggestive blank spaces, both because his mother deliberately tried to erase her past and because the agency she worked for has erased anything murky in its past, and a lot of that murk is wrapped around his mother and her colleagues – many of whom were people that Nathaniel knew and didn’t know, both at the same time.

This is a book that I think people are either going to love or hate, but not much in the middle. It is very much literary fiction, in that it meanders a lot and not a lot clearly happens. But underneath that it says a lot of interesting things about what is condoned in war and condemned in peace, and the lengths that people and governments will go to in order to make sure that certain truths don’t ever see the full light of day.

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg WolitzerThe Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 454
Published by Riverhead Books on April 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women's movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer--madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can't quite place--feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she'd always imagined.

My Review:

There was just so much buzz about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up. But now that I’ve finished it, I have a whole boatload of mixed feelings.

I started this book in the morning, and kept returning to it. In the end, I finished it in one day, all 454 pages of it. It is extremely readable – at least after the first chapter. But once I finished, it just didn’t feel like there was all that much there, there.

As I said, mixed feelings.

The story feels like it sits right on the border between literary fiction and women’s fiction. If it wasn’t for the heaping helpings of feminism and feminist history, I’d be certain it was women’s fiction, because the focus isn’t just on the women in the story, but primarily on their relationships with each other. The few men who feature in the story are very much secondary characters.

Not that the women are not themselves interesting, because they certainly are.

The protagonist of the story is Greer Kadetsky, who is a college freshman when the story begins. Shy, awkward, withdrawn and miserable, at first it seems as if Greer is a character who will not be much fun to follow. That first chapter is all Greer’s perspective, and it is pretty shallow and self-absorbed. She’s eighteen, so while it may be forgivable, it doesn’t make particularly thrilling reading.

But her story really begins when she meets Faith Frank, an icon of second-wave feminism. (If Faith seems modeled on Gloria Steinem, that’s probably close to the mark.) When Greer meets Faith, she is inspired to do more, to be more, to step outside her comfort zone and finally begin speaking up for herself.

There’s no question it’s the making of her.

Fast forward to Greer’s graduation. Her arrival at the offices of Faith’s feminist magazine for an interview occurs on the day the magazine closes. But again, that event galvanizes Greer, and when Faith starts up a new venture, Greer is one of the first people she calls.

Faith’s new venture, Loci, a combination speaker’s bureau, event management company and charitable foundation, all focusing on women, seems too good to be true. When Greer finally discovers that truth, it nearly breaks her. It certainly breaks her relationship with Faith.

And it’s the making of her, all over again.

Escape Rating B-: As I said, a whole boatload of mixed feelings. A boat the size of a container barge might be about right. Or an oil tanker.

While the first chapter almost threw me out of the book, once I got past that point – in other words once Greer stops being so inward-turning and actually starts doing things, she gets less self-absorbed and the story becomes difficult to put down.

At the same time, this is very much in the literary fiction tradition that not a lot happens and when it does it happens offstage. While traumatic events definitely do occur, we see them through the characters chewing them over (and over) and dealing with the aftermaths – with one notable exception, we’re not actually present for the event itself. So the book feels more like its about how the characters feel than about what they do.

For a book that purports to be about feminism, or at least about a feminist icon, or even about said feminist icon passing the torch to a new generation, it still seems very much rooted in second-wave feminism, which was mostly about middle and upper class cisgender white women and didn’t have a whole lot of intersectionality. And while the fact is that Faith’s new foundation definitely has a problem in this regard, that the problem gets lampshaded repeatedly does not actually solve the problem. And while it may not be intended to solve the problem for Faith’s foundation, it remains a problem with the book as a whole, and adds to the ultimate sense of shallowness. At least for this reader.

In the end, The Female Persuasion doesn’t feel so much like a book about feminism as it does feminist-adjacent airport fiction. But it will probably make an excellent movie.

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara CleverlyFall of Angels (An Inspector Redfyre Mystery) by Barbara Cleverly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Redfyre #1
Pages: 384
Published by Soho Crime on May 15th 2018
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Great Britain, 1923: Detective Inspector John Redfyre is a godsend to the Cambridge CID. A handsome young veteran bred among the city’s educated elite, he is no stranger to the set running its esteemed colleges and universities—a society that previously seemed impenetrable to even those at the top of local law enforcement, especially with the force plagued by its own history of corruption.

When Redfyre is invited to attend the annual St. Barnabas College Christmas concert in his Aunt Henrietta’s stead, he is expecting a quiet evening, though perhaps a bit of matchmaking mischief on his aunt’s part. But he arrives to witness a minor scandal: Juno Proudfoot, the trumpeter of the headlining musical duo, is a woman, and a young one at that—practically unheard of in conservative academic circles. When she suffers a near-fatal fall after the close of the show, Redfyre must consider whether someone was trying to kill her. Has her musical talent, her beauty, or perhaps most importantly, her gender, provoked a dangerous criminal to act? Redfyre must both seek advice from and keep an eye on old friends to catch his man before more innocents fall victim.

My Review:

I keep wanting the author’s name to be Beverly Cleverly, but it’s not. Fall of Angels, however, is a very clever little mystery, filled with interesting characters and tempting red herrings – and a few flaws.

I picked this book up because I was looking for something a bit less weighty than the rest of my books this week. But while it is a bit shorter, after finishing it I’m not so sure that it was actually lighter, at least not in the end.

It feels as if there are two books in one in Fall of Angels, one a rather lightweight between-the-wars mystery, and the other an exploration of the suffragist movement in England in the post-WWI era counterpointed by the rise of misogyny as backlash to that same movement – with a few other even darker things thrown into the not completely well-stirred soup.

I’ve mixed my metaphors. Let me explain.

This is the first book in a new mystery series featuring Detective Inspector John Redfyre of the Cambridge CID. That part of the story feels like an homage to the classic mysteries of the era, with the attitudes of the principals updated a bit to appeal to 21st century readers. Redfyre feels like a combination of Lord Peter Wimsey and the TV version of Jack Robinson from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Like Wimsey, Redfyre is from the upper-crust, although exactly how is not specified. So throw in a bit of Campion for spice on that score. Likewise, Redfyre is university educated, but Cambridge rather than Wimsey’s Oxford – although Campion was also a Cambridge man. Also like Wimsey, Redfyre served as an officer in the Great War, but seems to have come out relatively unscathed, at least in comparison with Wimsey’s horrific bouts of PTSD.

In his actions, Redfyre reminds me of Phryne’s Jack Robinson – the TV version and not the one in the books. They are both police officers, and even both have the same rank. And they are about the same age, somewhere in their 30s, and both came out of the war relatively unscarred. They are also both methodical investigators, and they are both above reproach as officers. And they are both rather handsome – but handsome is as handsome does, and they both do quite well.

The investigation that Redfyre finds himself in the middle of is dark and deadly. A young female trumpet player is receiving deadly poison pen letters, and an attempt is made on her life after a Christmas concert at the college – an attempt that Redfyre witnesses due to machinations on the part of his redoubtable Aunt Hetty.

As he investigates, he finds himself following a trail of bodies, all of young women who in one way or another challenged the status quo. A status quo that kept most women on their Victorian pedestals and subservient to or chattels of the men in their lives – even after all the changes wrought by the war.

Redfyre discovers that all the victims are members of an unnamed group of women’s suffragists who want universal female suffrage and so much more, and are willing to use rather underhanded means to reach their goals.

While those underhanded means fall short of murder, someone is willing to murder them to stop them from taking what he sees as places that are rightfully and properly reserved for men.

It’s up to Redfyre to figure out whodunnit before the killer gets to his Aunt Hetty’s name on his murder list.

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed feelings about Fall of Angels. I liked John Redfyre, his “beat” in Cambridge, and what looks to be his cast of regulars.

The between-the-wars period is always interesting. The way things used to be was the first casualty of the Great War, and most people are aware that whatever happens next is going to be very different. It is also the period called the “Roaring 20s” when everyone was celebrating hard to forget the war. That it all comes crashing down at the end of the decade is not yet on the horizon in 1923 when this series begins.

University towns, and Cambridge is certainly that, are also hotbeds for mysteries. The college brings in lots of outsiders, and the town vs. gown conflict is ever ready to produce criminal activities, whether violent or not. And the faction rivalry results in a lot of conflicting pointing fingers once the deed has been done.

So there’s a lot to like. But the crime that Redfyre has to solve in his initial outing feels anachronistic, or at least his attitudes do. Or both.

Not that there were not plenty of women agitating for universal suffrage after the war. They were eventually successful in 1928. But much of what this nameless group is proposing feels too serious for the story, while their actions to achieve their ends seem almost farcical. It felt like it should either be melodrama or drama, but not both at the same time. Other readers may feel differently.

So for me, the blend did not quite work. But I liked Redfyre enough that I’ll probably come back for the next book in the series, just to see how things turn out.

Review: Surrender My Heart by L.G. O’Connor + Giveaway

Review: Surrender My Heart by L.G. O’Connor + GiveawaySurrender My Heart: A Second Chance Romance (Caught Up in Love, #3) by L.G. O'Connor
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Caught Up in Love #3
Pages: 384
Published by Collins-Young Publishing LLC on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Do you remember your first love in high school? What if you never stopped?

For decades, Katherine "Kitty" McNally has secretly loved John Henshaw, the man lying shot and unconscious in the hospital bed next to her. Then again, maybe not so secretly. Those closest to her, including her soon-to-be ex-husband, have suspected it for years. Their story ended with a gunshot wound the last time, too. Life seems to have taken her full circle, but only the dead know the secrets she still keeps.

Detective John Henshaw fell in love with his "Kat" the moment she became his geometry tutor in high school. When they graduated, he thought their future was sealed. Wrong. Enter life's nonstop curveballs. The worst two moments of his life were the two times he lost Kat. After thirty-five years and one failed marriage trying to forget her, he can't escape the fact that he's never stopped loving her. Maybe it's just his ego, but he could swear he sees a spark of love in her eyes every time she looks at him. That's what keeps him in the New Jersey town that holds his most painful memories. That's why he accepted his place decades ago as a family friend to the McNally sisters.

As John recovers from his hospital stay in Kitty's care, they slowly rediscover each other. This is Kitty's last chance to confront her past and rekindle their love--if John can forgive her once he learns the truth.

My Review:

Just as with all of the books in the Caught Up in Love series, be sure to bring tissues when you read this one. If you can get a cat to curl up in your lap for the extra comfort and snuggles, that would probably be good, too.

Like the previous books in this series, Caught Up in Raine and Shelter My Heart, the romance in this book is definitely a three-hankie special, as is all the drama that surrounds Kitty and John and the romance that was meant to be – but mostly never was.

In ancient history, when John Henshaw and Katherine McNally were in juniors in high school in the late 1970s, Katherine was one of the geeks and John was on the football team. Their worlds should never have collided, but John needed math tutoring to stay on the team, and Kat needed the money.

It was either a match made in heaven, a scenario out of Romeo and Juliet, or a little bit of both. It was certainly love at first sight. But John lived in what passed for the barrio in Summit, and Kat’s family owned a house where the rich folks lived.

Nothing about that situation was exactly as it seemed. John’s mother was Cuban, and even though he looks “white” he’s Hispanic and proud of it. Also not a dumb jock – he just missed a lot of school because of a family crisis and needed a bit of help getting back up to speed in trigonometry – and who wouldn’t?

Kat’s family may live on the rich side of town, and her mother certainly postures as if the family can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower, but the fact is that they are barely keeping their heads above water because one of Kat’s aunts is in a lovely but expensive care facility, and most of their income goes for her upkeep. Kat really does need the money.

What she doesn’t need is the way that her mother treats John, as if he weren’t worth scraping her shoes. Her mother does everything she can to push them apart, while her other aunt, Vera, does everything she can to help them together.

It all goes smash at graduation, not that it hasn’t been heading there for a while. Their relationship ends but it is never really over, and in spite of failed marriages on both sides, neither of them really moves on.

Their 35th high school reunion is coming up. It feels like they have one last chance to grab the happy ever after they denied themselves all those years ago. But only if they can finally let out all the truths they’ve both been holding back. Truths that will either bring them together, or tear them apart forever.

Kat can’t keep herself from betting on the latter – and she might be right.

Escape Rating B-: I loved Caught Up in Raine, and really enjoyed Shelter My Heart, but while in the end I liked Surrender My Heart, I also have some mixed feelings.

It may be that I felt some of this book a bit too deeply. When I read Caught Up in Raine, I got caught up in the older woman/younger man romance because the author did it so very right. I was Jillian’s age when I met my husband, and we have a similar age gap. Much of Jillian’s situation, minus the baby, felt real and right.

On the other hand, Kat and I are contemporaries. I was in college when Kat was a junior and senior in high school, so my memories of that time are very similar to hers, albeit in much different circumstances. The way that the late 1970s WAS felt so familiar.

But the romance between John and Kat, and the sheer level of angst and melodrama in their on again, off again relationship and history, sometimes seemed a bit over the top. John’s situation, while it had some pretty sucky aspects, was relatively straightforward. Kat’s on the other hand, had so much going on under the surface that it could have fueled several soap operas for months.

While the story is set in the here and now, we see their past in long flashbacks from both of their perspectives. John certainly has his own issues, but he mostly seems like a young man with his head on straight, in love with a marvelous girl whose mother is a complete bitch.

Kat’s side of the story is heavy with foreshadowing, to the point where there’s so much shadow that everything drags a bit. The reader knows the hits are coming, and is even able to guess what at least some of those hits are, so there are points where the reader, or at least this reader, was just waiting for her to get on with it already.

Kat’s big secret was obvious fairly early on, and it’s not one of my favorite tropes. To say anything else would be a huge spoiler – or maybe not if you figure it out as quickly as I did.

The contemporary parts of the story worked better for me. And I loved reading a hot romance between two adults who are in mid-life. Just because someone is over 50 (or 60) doesn’t meant they are dead and/or uninterested in sex or undeserving of love. A part of me wishes that the entire story had all been told from the contemporary perspective, without so much heavy foreshadowing in the flashbacks. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The sheer staying power of their romance is amazing, or perhaps it’s the power of unfinished business. That they never got over each other felt right. They never got to finish what was between them, so they never got past their shared past. That their families mostly stayed in touch provided a level of torture that most people wouldn’t go through, but John’s presence in their extended family over the course of the series has made this particular story highly anticipated.

In the end, I was glad to see them let all the poor cats out of all the suffocating bags, and finally get the HEA they deserved.

In my review of Shelter My Heart, there was one character I mentioned as deserving her own HEA, and my hope that she would get one in some future book in the series. I’m very happy to say that Lettie Soames will get her own HEA in Caught Up in Raven, later this year. I’m definitely looking forward to it!

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Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + Giveaway

Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + GiveawayThe Bloodprint (The Khorasan Archives #1) by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Khorasan Archives #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A dark power called the Talisman has risen in the land, born of ignorance and persecution. Led by a man known only known as the One-eyed Preacher, it is a cruel and terrifying movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and subjugates women. And it is growing.

But there are those who fight the Talisman's spread, including the Companions of Hira, a diverse group of influential women whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. Foremost among them is Arian and her apprentice, Sinnia, skilled warriors who are knowledgeable in the Claim. This daring pair have long stalked Talisman slave-chains, searching for clues and weapons to help them battle their enemy’s oppressive ways. Now, they may have discovered a miraculous symbol of hope that can destroy the One-eyed Preacher and his fervid followers: The Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world.

Finding a copy of The Bloodprint promises to be their most dangerous undertaking yet, an arduous journey that will lead them deep into Talisman territory. Though they will be helped by allies—a loyal ex-slave and Arian’s former confidante and sword master—both Arian and Sinnia know that this mission may well be their last.

My Review:

If the Taliban and The Handmaid’s Tale had a hate child, it would be The Bloodprint. Yes, I mixed my metaphors, but it feels correct. And if after reading The Bloodprint there is anyone who does not mentally link the Talisman of the book with the Taliban of real life, I’ll eat my virtual hat.

The Bloodprint is an epic fantasy that feels very definitely part of the grimdark movement. It’s a very grim story, and the world that it portrays is in that terrible place where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black.

And although our protagonists are pursuing that one last ray of hope and light before all is extinguished, by the end it just feels as if all is lost.

The interesting thing about The Bloodprint is that it is, for the most part, a heroine’s story. The characters with agency are all female, and the defenders of the light are a female order of wise women and warriors. The story passes the Bechdel-Wallace test within the first page.

And that seems fitting, because so many of the victims of the darkness that has taken over this world are also female. Women without husbands or children are automatically sold into slavery. And the slave trade is so lucrative (or something even more nefarious) that the men of entire villages are wiped out just so that their surviving wives and daughters can be sold into slavery.

That’s not all that’s wrong. The Talisman, the villainous empire of our story, are systematically wiping out all books, all writing, and anyone who has the ability to write. Our heroes refer to the time that they live in as the “Age of Ignorance” because of this systematic erasure. And the parallels to the real-world Taliban, both in their treatment of the historical record and their treatment of women, feels screamingly obvious.

One of the foundations of the side of the light are its scriptoriums. And its relentless need to pass on any and all knowledge by oral as well as written tradition. Because there’s a reason for all of this erasure of history.

Writing, or at least a particular piece of writing called the “Claim”, is magic. And those who can wield the magic of the claim are extremely powerful. And rare.

Arian is our heroine, and one of the women who can wield the magic of the Claim for both offense and defense. She is a leading member of a legendary sisterhood, and she is tasked with the duty of retrieving a mythical original manuscript of the Claim, in order to bring about the end of the Talisman.

No such quest is ever conducted alone. Arian has companions on her journey, a guardian from her sisterhood, the man who loves her but whom she of course cannot have, and a child she rescues who will probably turn out to be the key to the whole thing at some future point. (I do not know this at all, I merely speculate.)

But equally, no such quest is ever undertaken without grave risk. Arian’s problems begin within the walls of her own sanctuary, as the leader of her order seems to be pursuing a separate, and possibly inimical, political end of her own.

Arian is uncertain whether or not she has been betrayed before she even begins. But as her journey continues through the devastated lands, she discovers that there are more forces arrayed against her than even she imagined in her darkest hours.

And that things are indeed always darkest just before they turn completely black.

Escape Rating B-: I have some mixed feelings about this book. There are some parts of the story that I really liked, and some that left me completely puzzled.

I love the idea of this in a whole bunch of ways. I really liked that the story begins as a buddy-story, with both of those buddies being women. And that our initial antagonist is a woman as well. There is absolutely no reason that any story can’t have women taking on a whole bunch of the roles that men regularly do. Hero, savior, villain, companion.

I also found it interesting that the male character in the story, while he is powerful in his own right, also takes on some of the roles that usually fall to women. This is Arian’s story and Arian’s quest and Daniyar is the one following her while she leads both the party and the story.

I was also fascinated by the way that this story is rooted in an entirely different mythical background than the Norse and/or Celtic mythologies that so often dominate epic fantasy.

But it was difficult to get into the story. At the beginning, it felt like a lot had already happened, and that somehow I’d missed. It. In the end, the impression I’m left with is that The Bloodprint felt like the middle book of a trilogy, even though it isn’t. When the story begins, we’re in the middle of action that has been going on for years. The situation is already desperate. And there’s positively oodles of backstory between not just Arian and her companion Sinnia, but between Arian and Daniyar, and especially between Arian and Ilea, the leader of her order. Backstory and context which readers scramble to assemble from the clues left by the characters’ thoughts and actions.

And the world has already gone completely to hell in that handbasket and it doesn’t look salvageable. Arian’s quest has the feel of a “Hail, Mary” pass, one of those million-to-one shots that only succeed in epic fantasy and the Discworld.

But it also feels like a middle book because the narrative trajectory heads downward. Things start out bad, get steadily worse, and we end on a horrible cliffhanger with the fingers being stomped on. Things began grim and ended grimmer.

On my other hand, the final 25% is absolutely compelling page-turning reading. I could see the end coming, I knew it was probably going to be horrifying, and I could not stop myself from racing to get there as fast as I could.

In the end, The Bloodprint is compelling but very, very dark epic fantasy. I’m very curious to see how our heroines get out of the very hot frying pan they’ve landed in, and how much hotter the fire underneath will turn out to be.

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Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Death Before Wicket by Kerry GreenwoodDeath Before Wicket (Phryne Fisher Mystery #10) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #10
Pages: 232
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on July 4th 2017 (first published 1999)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Phryne Fisher is on holiday. She means to take the train to Sydney (where the harbour bridge is being built), go to a few cricket matches, dine with the Chancellor of the university and perhaps go to the Arts Ball with that celebrated young modernist, Chas Nutall. She has the costume of a lifetime and she s not afraid to use it. When she arrives there, however, her maid Dot finds that her extremely respectable married sister Joan has vanished, leaving her small children to the neglectful care of a resentful husband. She rescues the children, but what has become of Joan, who would never leave her babies? Surely she hasn t run away with a lover, as gossip suggests? Phryne must trawl the nightclubs and bloodtubs of Darlinghurst to find out. And while Phryne is visiting the university, two very pretty young men, Joss and Clarence, ask her to find out who has broken into the Dean s safe and stolen a number of things, including the Dean s wife s garnets and an irreplaceable illuminated book called the Hours of Juana the Mad. An innocent student has been blamed. So there is no rest for the wicked, and Phryne girds up her loins, loads her pearl handled .32 Beretta, and sallies forth to find mayhem, murder, black magic, and perhaps a really good cocktail at the Hotel Australia."

My Review:

I’ve been reading the Phryne Fisher series, in publication order, as time permits. Meaning whenever I either need a comfort read or discover that I’ve otherwise bitten off more book than I have time to chew, as happened this week.

Most of the books in the Phryne Fisher book series were used as inspiration for episodes of the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Death Before Wicket is one of those that were not filmed. (The others, for those keeping score, seem to be Flying Too High, Urn Burial, The Castlemaine Murders, Death by Water, Murder on a A Midsummer Night and Murder and Mendelssohn.)

I’m fairly certain that the reason that Death Before Wicket wasn’t tackled is that while the crime is set in a university, where the academic politics have gotten exceedingly but recognizably vicious, the entire background revolves around cricket, specifically Test matches in Australia in the 1920s. Cricket as a sport seems to be impenetrable to those not brought up loving the thing, which would include most Americans and anyone outside the Commonwealth countries. And I’m not sure about even the Canadians on this score. No pun intended.

So while the mystery that Phryne has to solve is as much fun as ever, the background, including her reason (or excuse) for traveling from her Melbourne residence to Sydney, may leave some readers more than a bit puzzled. Including this one. I skimmed over the cricket games. As many times as I’ve seen cricket in the background of plenty of mysteries and dramas set in England, I have no clue how the game works, or why.

But as lost as I was amongst the cricket fans, the academic parts of this mystery were as convoluted as ever. The politics at the University of Sydney were as vicious as anything Kissinger intended with his famous quote, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” At this University, that viciousness leads to theft, disgrace, kidnapping, embezzlement and eventually, murder.

Someone broke into the Bursar’s safe and made off with a whole bunch of items, none of which seem to be worth all that much. The books were stolen – not the library’s books, but the college’s account books, and the poor bursar is so befuddled that he can’t recreate them. And of course there’s an audit coming. A rather pretty Book of Hours is missing, as are the professors’ exam books for the upcoming finals. At a college, that’s probably the prize worth stealing. Except that there are two other items missing. One is rather small potatoes, a set of garnet jewelry belonging to the Dean’s wife. Garnets are semi-precious, fairly common, and generally not worth a whole lot in the grand scheme of thievery.

But the prize among the missing items is a bit of papyrus from ancient Egypt, that just might contain the secret to where Cheops is really buried, since the poor pharaoh is not in his magnificent pyramid. Or it might contain the text of a potent Egyptian curse, the possibilities of which have the local occult community positively salivating. Translating the text might be the key to which professor gets his research funded. Or it might be all of the above.

It is up to Phryne to sort through all those tempting and treacherous possibilities, before someone loses their career or their life. And it’s a near-run thing, but Phryne, as always, is up for the job.

Escape Rating B-: There are lots of reviewers who will say that this is one of Phryne’s adventures that can be given a miss, unless one is either a real fan or a terrible completist. As I’m certainly the latter, and possibly the former, I picked this one up in its proper order. I’m not sorry in the least, but I found the academic setting of the mystery to be perhaps unintentionally hilarious. Academia in the 21st century is not quite as it was in the 1920s, but some of underlying insanity isn’t all that different either. Enough similar that I found enough bits reminiscent to carry me through. If you are looking to start Phryne’s series, do not, on any account, start here. Start with Cocaine Blues. There’s a reason that the TV series also opened with that one, as it introduces everyone and everything.

But speaking of Cocaine Blues, I did miss Phryne’s regular cast of irregulars. This story is set in Sydney, not Melbourne. While it was fun to watch Phryne navigate a new place and gather a new, albeit temporary, set of friends, allies and lovers, I missed her usual gang, particularly in this mystery, Bert and Cec. As did Phryne.

On the other hand, Dot, left to soldier on as Phryne’s only trusted aide in this adventure, did have her chances to operate solo a bit and to shine.

Part of the solution to the mystery involved a certain amount of involvement in the local occult community, particularly its less savory denizens. In order to get to the bottom of the morass, Phryne herself has to deal with and perpetrate a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo, some of which went a bit over the top. Belief is, as Phryne herself says, a powerful thing. That she manipulates others’ belief in the supernatural in order to find the solution is not surprising, but that she herself nearly trips over into it felt a bit unnatural for her character.

One final note. While the Phryne Fisher series is set in the 1920s, the first book was published in 1989 and the series is still ongoing. While the settings feel true to their time and place, Phryne’s attitudes feel singular for her own time, and perhaps owe more to the time in which they were written rather than their setting. This has been true across all the books so far, and also in Death Before Wicket. One part of obscuring the mystery involves a professor who is being blackmailed because of his homosexuality. Phryne does not care who anyone has sex with, and neither do at least some of the faculty. But if it ever becomes public, the scandal will at best ruin the man, and possibly land him in prison. As much as I prefer Phryne’s attitude of acceptance, and her tolerance in this and many other things, I wonder how true her attitude would have been, even to a woman in her singular position. Which doesn’t change the fact that I love Phryne and will happily read any and all of her adventures.

I’m looking forward to going Away with the Fairies, the next time I need a reading break!