Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky

Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel PolanskyThe Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Daniel Polansky returns with The Seventh Perfection, an innovative, mind-bending fantasy mystery
When a woman with perfect memory sets out to solve a riddle, the threads she tugs on could bring a whole city crashing down. The God-King who made her is at risk, and his other servants will do anything to stop her.
To become the God-King's Amanuensis, Manet had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and mind to the peak of human performance. She remembers everything that has happened to her, in absolute clarity, a gift that will surely drive her mad. But before she goes, Manet must unravel a secret which threatens not only the carefully prepared myths of the God-King's ascent, but her own identity and the nature of truth itself.

My Review:

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this book, but I don’t believe this was it. Actually I don’t believe I would ever have expected this – particularly as I’m still not exactly sure what this was.

Somewhere in the middle I thought it was a story about history being written by the victors. In the middle, it certainly seems that way.

As Manet searches the country for the secret of the holographic locket she mysteriously received, we observe that her country seems to have deliberately expunged its past in favor of the present moment. And that her search digs into a past that few remember and fewer even want to.

The act of remembering the time before the Revolution that overthrew the Divine Empress – now referred to as the Anathema – and raised up the God-King Ba’l Melqart – seems to have become an act of defiance. Even for Ba’l Melqart himself.

Which led me to my second thought about what this story is, a story about the circle of life turning into a cycle of death, as the entire country embodies the saying about those who don’t remember the past being condemned to repeat it.

Ba’l Melqart doesn’t remember his own past, not even why he had the locket sent to Manet.

Manet, on the other hand, can do nothing but remember. Everything. Always. Forever. It’s what the seventh perfection has trained her to do. She’s been trained to be both slave and memory for the God-King who can no longer remember much of anything.

Because that’s what the ascension to the throne costs. The loss of who he once was.

He was once Manet’s father, even if his memories of her mother, their legendary romance, and Manet’s own birth are just a hazy dream. When he remembers at all.

Manet was set on a search for a truth that costs her dear, and that no one seems to want her to find. But what is truth in a land where everyone but Manet herself, seems to be trained to forget?

Escape Rating B-: In the end, The Seventh Perfection reads more like an experiment than a story. The problem for this reader is that I read for the story, and in this book the story is more teased than realized.

Part of that is due to the nature of the experiment itself. This is an experiment in voice, specifically that the entire thing is written in the second person. Manet is never “I”, we never hear her words or delve into her thoughts.

Manet is a vessel of memory. She remembers every single thing she sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels. Someday it will drive her mad. If she survives – which is questionable at many points in the story.

The story, such as it is, is Manet conducting a series of interviews with people – and occasionally not-exactly-people – who are supposed to know something about the image in the locket and the person it might represent. The legendary revolutionary Amata. The God-King’s one true love. And seemingly Manet’s mother.

But we don’t hear Manet ask questions. Or know what she thinks about what she hears. Instead, we read the responses that people make to her questions, and are left to assume what Manet must have asked and said. We could be wrong.

In the end, I’m left with the feeling that I was looking for a tiny epic (it’s a short book) but am left with hints of a tragedy. Not necessarily Manet’s tragedy, as she embarked on her quixotic quest willingly. Or at least her quest wasn’t a tragedy, although its result may turn out to be one.

But Manet might not think so. We’ll never know. But I wish I knew more about Manet’s world. The hints that I got were tantalizing.

Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass

Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna GlassQueen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Women's War #2
Pages: 592
Published by Del Rey Books on May 12, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this feminist fantasy series, the ability to do magic has given women control over their own bodies. But as the patriarchy starts to fall, they must now learn to rule as women, not men.
Alys may be the acknowledged queen of Women's Well—the fledgling colony where women hold equal status with men—but she cares little for politics in the wake of an appalling personal tragedy. It is grief that rules her now. But the world continues to turn.
In a distant realm unused to female rulers, Ellin struggles to maintain control. Meanwhile, the king of the island nation of Khalpar recruits an abbess whom he thinks holds the key to reversing the spell that Alys's mother gave her life to create. And back in Women's Well, Alys's own half-brother is determined to bring her to heel. Unless these women can all come together and embrace the true nature of female power, everything they have struggled to achieve may be at risk.

My Review:

I picked up this book because for the most part I enjoyed the starting book in this series, The Women’s War. But I have to say that I found the message of that first book to sometimes be heavy-handed. Not enough to spoil my enjoyment, but more than enough to make me wonder what would happen next.

Queen of the Unwanted certainly carries on directly from the events in The Women’s War, making it impossible for any reader to start here and make any sense of current events. Or, honestly, to care about what happens to the characters.

This is definitely a middle book, with all the inherent problems therein. Which means not only that you can’t start here, but that it fulfills the sense at the end of the first book, that the situation our heroines, Princess Alysoon of Women’s Well and Queen Ellinsoltah of Rhozinolm are at a point in both of their stories where things are dark and turning darker – quite possibly as a prelude to turning completely black.

So this is a story where more gets revealed but little gets resolved, setting the stage for the third book in the series at some future date. Hopefully not too far in our future, as this is a complicated series which makes picking up the action after a long hiatus a rather daunting affair for the reader.

Although I’ll certainly be back, if only to find out what happens next!

Escape Rating B-: I have to say that this book drove me absolutely bananas – and not always in a good way. I really did want to find out what happened after the earth-shaking events of the first book. But that means I wanted things to actually happen. This entry in the series, being a middle book, means that lots of people are maneuvering, and there is tons of political wrangling and shenanigans, but that in the end, not much happens.

Or at least, not until the very end, when the action suddenly proceeds apace, only to leave readers with multiple terrible book hangovers as they wait for the next book. Whenever it appears. I listened to 80% of this and then read the rest. The audio was interesting enough to keep me occupied while driving, but when things picked up I couldn’t stand to continue at that slow pace.

So, the story is slow going for a lot of its length. Of which there is rather a lot. And there are oodles of political machinations, but they don’t seem to go anywhere for much of the story.

The big message in this one is that old saw about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The history of this place is that men have had all the power, all the time, and now that women have carved out their own, tiny piece of it the men will do anything to get their absolute domination back.

The message is extremely heavy handed, to the point where it gets overdone. The reader feels a bit bludgeoned by it – as many of the female characters are beaten and degraded on a frequent basis. The treatment of women in this entire world is utterly appalling.

At the same time, the stakes are so high, and yet, particularly in Women’s Well, the behavior of both Princess Alys and her brother Tynthanal feels so petty and selfish. Neither of them seems to be thinking of the greater good of their beleaguered kingdom, but rather railing against all the things that are just not going their way in their personal lives.

And the major villain of the piece does tip into over-the-top-ness and reaches villain fail. Not just that he is so inept he can’t possibly succeed at anything, but that it is amazing that his own country doesn’t depose him early on. He’s not just evil, he’s a bad king and it’s OBVIOUS. He is neither respected nor feared and that should be a short trip to a headsman’s axe.

Instead, he becomes a figure of ridicule, not just to his court but to the reader. He has no self-control; neither over his temper nor his overindulgence in food and drink. His steadily increasing girth is meant to evoke the figure of Henry VIII, but Henry, for all his petulance, was an effective king which Delnamal NEVER is. Instead, the villain’s increasing weight becomes a vehicle for mockery and it just feels wrong.

Speaking of things that feel wrong, one of the points I mentioned in my review of The Women’s War was the utter lack of same-sex relationships. This feels like a world where such relationships would have been frowned upon if not banned, but human nature happens. There’s a whole spectrum of it that isn’t happening here in circumstances like the all-male army barracks and the all-female abbeys for unwanted women where it feels like it would have.

I know I’m complaining a lot about a book that I gave a B- rating to. I liked this story. I liked the first book better but I’m still very interested in seeing what happens. Even if it drives me crazy yet again.

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey Yates

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey YatesThe Hero of Hope Springs (Gold Valley, #10) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Gold Valley #10
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Will Gold Valley’s most honorable cowboy finally claim the woman he’s always wanted?
For as long as brooding cowboy Ryder Daniels has known Sammy Marshall, she has been his sunshine. Her free spirit and bright smile saved him after the devastating loss of his parents and gave him the strength to care for his orphaned family. Only Ryder knows how vulnerable Sammy is, so he’s kept his attraction for his best friend under wraps for years. But what Sammy’s asking for now might be a step too far…
Something has been missing from Sammy’s life, and she thinks she knows what it is. Deciding she wants a baby is easy; realizing she wants her best friend to be the father is…complicated. Especially when a new heat between them sparks to life! When Sammy discovers she’s pregnant, Ryder makes it clear he wants it all. But having suffered the fallout of her parents’ disastrous relationship, Sammy is wary of letting Ryder too close. This cowboy will have to prove he’s proposing out of more than just honor…

My Review:

There’s a big part of me that wants to call this a “friends to lovers” romance. And that’s kind of true. As the story opens – actually, as the entire Gold Valley series opens, Ryder Daniels and Sammy Marshall have been friends, but never lovers. Not for the 17 years that they’ve known each other. And not that Ryder, at least, hasn’t had thoughts in that direction.

Thoughts that he has ruthlessly if not completely suppressed, every time they’ve, well, come up.

That’s something Ryder has had lots of practice with. By that I mean suppressing any thoughts he doesn’t think he can afford to let fester inside his skull – and that he can’t let out of his mouth, either.

But Sammy and Ryder are more than just friends. They’re best friends. They are deep inside each other’s lives, and occupy a whole lot of space inside each other’s hearts. So it feels more like this is a story about two people finally acknowledging a relationship that’s been there all along.

There are, however, a few problems with changing what they are to each other. As it turns out, more than a few. Lots and bunches.

The biggest one being that any attempt to change what they are to each other has the strong possibility of wrecking everything that they are to each other. A risk that neither of them is willing to take.

Until there’s no choice at all.

Escape Rating B-: This is a mixed feelings review in multiple directions. So let’s get right to it.

One of the reasons that I love this author is that she creates tension in romantic situations that feels REAL. The problems between Ryder and Sammy, and there are lots of them, feel organic to their lives and aren’t silly misunderstandammits that could be resolved with a single conversation.

The problem for the reader, or at least this reader, is that a huge chunk of their mutual problem, as much as they are definitely a case of opposites attracting, is that for entirely different reasons both of these people live a lot of their lives inside their own heads.

Ryder’s stuck inside his head because his parents died when he was 18 and about to go off to college on a football scholarship. He had big plans far away from the family ranch. But Ryder was the oldest of several children, and the only way for them all to stay together and keep the ranch was for Ryder to give up his dreams and become a surrogate father to his siblings and his cousins who also lived with them.

So Ryder’s always had LOTS of thoughts about what might have been, what he wished was, and just getting through being a parent when he wasn’t quite done with being a child himself.

Sammy lives inside her own head because it was the only place she could be free. She learned to distance herself emotionally when she couldn’t do it physically while her angry and violent father was taking out all of his disappointments on Sammy – with his fists. While her mother looked on. She left her parents and moved into a tiny camper on the grounds of Ryder’s ranch when she was 16 and he was 18, because he made her feel safe.

He still does.

While the reasons that both Ryder and Sammy live inside their own heads a lot – and with a lot of internal angst – feels like an entirely real response to the situations in their lives. It makes for hard reading. Because they also have their heads inside their own asses a lot, unable to get out of their own ways.

So this is a story where it reads like there’s more internal dialog than external dialog – or action. And that’s right for these characters but drove this reader a bit bananas. Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

As I said, I finished this book with mixed feelings. While there was more internal angst than worked for me in a romance, the reason for that angst felt real and true to life. I liked these characters and wanted them to achieve their HEA, but admit to being kind of surprised that they actually managed to do it! But I do enjoy the Gold Valley series so I’m looking forward to seeing Ryder and Sammy again as secondary characters in later books. Especially as it looks like some of Ryder’s siblings are up next!

Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter SwansonEight Perfect Murders (Malcolm Kershaw, #1) by Peter Swanson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 270
Published by William Morrow on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.
Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne's Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox's Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald's The Drowner, and Donna Tartt's A Secret History.
But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.
To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

My Review:

There are reliable narrators, there are unreliable narrators, and then there’s Malcolm Kershaw, who is such an unreliable narrator that by the end of the story it feels like the only thing he told us at the beginning that is still true at the end is that Nero the store cat is a cat.

After all, even the CAT’S role in the story changes at least twice over the course of the narrative. But at least he’s still the same species. It’s hard to be sure that anything else we thought we knew at the beginning is true at the end.

The story begins, or at least we think it begins, when an FBI agent visits bookseller Malcolm Kershaw at his mystery-specializing bookstore, Old Devils, on a snowy Boston winter’s day.

She’s following a thin lead that’s really more of a hunch. Actually, calling it a hunch may even be dignifying it slightly. She’s grasping at straws in a series of unsolved murders that may not even be a series – as much as she wants it to be.

It’s possible, just barely, that someone is following a template accidentally laid out by Kershaw many years ago in a blog post he called “Eight Perfect Murders”. It was a list of books – well, that’s not a surprise. But it’s a list of books that he thought at the time, rather pretentiously, narrated tales of murders that should have managed to fool the police. In other words, perfect murders where the murder is never even suspected, let alone caught.

Kershaw agrees to help her investigate her hunch. He’s a bit flattered to be contacted by the FBI, and a bit worried that it’s going to bring up his wife’s death five years before. His wife died on another winter’s night, on a remote and snowy road, on her way back from her lover’s house, while drunk or high on cocaine or a bit of both. Her death, and the death of her lover a year or so later, were both suspicious. But Malcolm just-so-happened to be out of town at bookseller conventions at the time of both deaths, so he’s in the clear.

And he’s intrigued by the possibilities of someone using his old list as a template for serial killing. Or so we believe.

As the story unravels, we get a tour through some of the classics of the murder mystery genre as seen through the eyes of an aficionado of that genre. Only to discover, in the end, that we’ve been reading one all along.

Escape Rating B-: There have been a few complaints that the story in Eight Perfect Murders, in addition to being told by the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, spoils the plots of the eight stories that might be what the murderer uses to carry out his or her murder spree. While on the one hand that’s true, very much on the other the most recent book of the bunch was published in 1992 and the others are much older. There has GOT TO BE a limit on spoiler warnings somewhere, and 28 years is definitely past it.

The story is being told from inside Malcolm Kershaw’s head. He’s our narrator, he’s our point of view of the action, and he’s also telling the story from a perspective that ALSO mimics a classic in the genre, but we don’t discover that until the end. So I’m not saying what or which one.

But the thing about unreliable narrators, and it is clear very early on that Kershaw is at least somewhat unreliable about his own past, is that they lie. They lie to everyone around them. And in the very best/worst of cases, meaning the very epitome of unreliability, they lie to themselves. So even though he seems to be relating events as he really sees them, he’s still filtering everything through a lens of the lies he’s told himself and the lies he’s told the world.

It’s only as he gets deeper into the puzzle that we begin to realize that either we never had all the pieces or that the picture we think we’re solving doesn’t match the box. It doesn’t, in the end, even match the picture on the box that Kershaw thought he was working on.

In the end, Eight Perfect Murders as a story feels more like a thought experiment than an actual murder mystery. The problem for me as a reader is that I didn’t find Kershaw all that sympathetic as a character. He starts out bland and boring, and while the things that happen in the story are anything but, he’s still bland and boring at the end.

This is in sharp contrast to another mystery thriller with an unreliable narrator that I read this year, This is How I Lied. Even though she both lied and was lied to, as Kershaw is, I felt for her and felt like I understood where she was coming from and how she got that way. She felt for herself in a way that Kershaw does not. So her story kept me glued to it until the end, while his just made me want to find out whodunnit and what it was they’d actually done so I could close the book.

One final comment. The Goodreads entry leads the reader to believe that this is the first of a series. Admittedly the ending could just be another piece of misdirection on Kershaw’s part. But if it ends the way it seems to, the way that the mystery it’s mimicking does, then a sequel is impossible. Or Kershaw is lying again. He could very well be THAT unreliable.

We’ll see.

Review: Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

Review: Flyaway by Kathleen JenningsFlyaway by Kathleen Jennings
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure.
A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles.
In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.
Holly Black describes as “half mystery, half fairy tale, all exquisitely rendered and full of teeth.” Flyaway enchants you with the sly, beautiful darkness of Karen Russell and a world utterly its own.

My Review:

Flyaway is seriously creepy and extremely weird. It also proves that a place doesn’t need to be dark, gloomy and cold in order to generate plenty of shivers and chills. There’s plenty to be scared of in the hot, dry and sun parched, and there are just as many lonely places in the Australian Bush as there are in the dark castles of Europe or the ghost towns of the American West.

And family is everywhere. If most people are killed by someone they know, and most accidents occur in or near the home, it makes entirely too much creeptastic sense that your relatives are the ones you need to be afraid of the most, especially in an isolated place like Inglewell. Because Bettina Scott has more reasons to be afraid of her entire family than any one young woman ever should.

At first I thought Inglewell was going to turn out to be a kind of Brigadoon. Was I ever wrong!

Also at first, I thought the problem was that Bettina Scott was being drugged by her mother. There was certainly something wrong with Bettina and that relationship. And in the end there definitely was – just not exactly what I thought at the beginning.

Actually nothing about this story was exactly what I thought. Flyaway is as grim as any of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the original versions, without the moralizing lesson at the end.

There’s a saying that the world is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine. But the world this author has imagined is way stranger than anywhere I’d ever want to be. Maybe that’s the point of that saying after all.

Escape Rating B-: This was weird. I know, I’ve said that already. But it was – very creepy and extremely weird. It’s also the darkest of dark fantasy, the kind that falls right over the border into horror.

It’s also the kind of horror that sort of, I think spirals out might be the best phrase, from a beginning that doesn’t seem too outre. Not that Bettina’s relationship with her mother doesn’t feel wrong from the very beginning, but at first it’s the kind of wrong that could have a logical explanation – or at least as logical as brainwashing, or drugs, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy. All horrible but not supernatural.

But as the story goes on, the story of Bettina breaking away from her mother, it’s interspersed with stories of supernatural horror that all take place in Inglewell, in the not too distant past. At first those stories don’t seem related, but as those stories catch up to Bettina’s “now’ we learn just how isolated, insular and downright creepy the area really is.

It’s like the isolation distilled the creep factor into something that really, really shouldn’t be running around in this world – but is. A something that every once in a while sucks in a new victim, and that entirely too many residents seem to accept as just part of life there.

But I left this book extremely glad that I don’t have to. I’m still creeped out. I really need a cocoa and a lie down after this one. This is not a way I ever want to pass again.

Review: Careless Whiskers by Miranda James

Review: Careless Whiskers by Miranda JamesCareless Whiskers (Cat in the Stacks #12) by Miranda James
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #12
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on January 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When librarian Charlie Harris' daughter is falsely accused of murder, he and his faithful feline Diesel must leap forward to crack the case in this all-new installment in the New York Times bestselling series.

Charlie Harris has sworn off investigating murder and mayhem after a recent close call. Instead, he's delighted to cheer on his daughter, Laura, who's starring in a production of Careless Whispers. The theater department at Athena College is debuting the play written by a fledgling playwright with local connections and Charlie's son-in-law, Frank Salisbury, will be calling the directorial shots.

Laura is upset to learn that Luke Lombardi, an overbearing actor she knew from her time in Hollywood will also be taking part in the production as a guest artist. Lombardi arrives with an entourage in tow and promptly proceeds to annoy everyone involved with the production. When he collapses and dies on stage, after drinking from a glass Laura handed him, she becomes the chief suspect in his murder.

Charlie knows his daughter is innocent, and he's not going to let anyone railroad his little girl. So, despite his intentions to put his amateur sleuthing days behind him, Charlie has to take center stage, and with Diesel's help, shine a spotlight on the real killer.

My Review:

I’ve generally enjoyed the whole Cat in the Stacks series, starting with Murder Past Due. And I’ve always felt that the amateur detective around whom this series is based, Charlie Harris, is very much, “one of us” librarians. Which seems totally right, because his creator is also a real-life librarian.

So it seemed particularly appropriate to pick up Careless Whiskers while I was attending the recent American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia, as I’ve also always said that Charlie is someone I’d love to catch a drink or a cup of coffee with at a conference.

I also picked this book because of Charlie’s “large and in charge” sidekick, his 35-pound Maine Coon cat named Diesel. I always miss our kitties when we are away, so I felt the urge to settle in with a feline book baby as my own were too far away too snuggle.

There are plenty of hints dropped at the end of the previous book in this series, The Pawful Truth, to let the reader know that this story would be focused on Charlie’s daughter Laura and son-in-law Frank and the next production of the college’s theater department.

And so it proves, with Frank directing and Laura co-starring in Careless Whispers by Finnegan Zwake. This particular production is a big part of the department’s annual fundraiser, an event where they get a relatively big name star to come to tiny Athena Mississippi for a couple of weeks to star in a play in the usually correct assumption that the big name star will draw big donor fans.

This year is not going to be their best year. Possibly their most dramatic, but even though some of that drama does occur onstage it is not of the type that contributes to a long run of any play.

Not that either Frank or Laura is all that eager to see once-upon-a-time Tony nominee Luke Lombardi “grace” their stage or their town. Laura has worked with the overacting thespian before and has no real desire to deal with him again – ever.

But as much as she can’t wait to see the back of him – she doesn’t want to see him dead. For real. On stage. On opening night.

Especially not when it looks like she’s either the prime suspect – or the next victim.

Escape Rating B-: I really, really, really wanted to get into this and love it because this series is such a comfort read for me. I adore Diesel, especially because he’s so himself and so cat at the same time – and he’s just a sweet boy and a smart cat at the cat level of smart. Not that I don’t love Joe Grey in his series, but Joe is human-smart and sometimes human-confused and human-conflicted and it’s a different experience.

Diesel is just big and perfectly cat. He’s not ordinary, but he’s not extraordinary in any way that is outside his species norms. And he’s adorable with it.

And, as I said at the top, Charlie just seems like “one of us” librarians in ways that writers don’t always get right. So when I settled in to read I thought I’d be all in – and I just wasn’t.

This entry in the series fell a bit flat for me. As I look back I’m not quite sure why, either, but it just didn’t zing or gel or any of the things that usually happen when I visit Athena.

I think that a lot of that was the theater setting. If I wanted a murder mystery crossed with Noises Off, I’d have found one. I wanted Athena and got locked in a playhouse instead. Another way I keep looking at it is that there was too much show business and not enough murder business. Or it went too far over the top in more than one direction.

First there was the business with Lombardi’s dresser and his mistress, who happened to be married to each other. And were both French and seemed more like characters from one of Moliere’s farces than even half-real people.

Especially when combined with the two men pretending to be the playwright Finnegan Zwake – accompanied by the equally farcical goings-on surrounding that red herring. Their rivalry, at least, made more sense than the French farce, but it added more comic relief than this particular story needed.

Although, now that I think about it, the real reason this didn’t work for me was its lack of dramatic tension. The blurb lures you in, as I did above, with the idea that Charlie’s daughter Laura is going to be the prime suspect in the murder. But she never really is. Even the police detective admits that she doesn’t actually suspect Laura – just that she has to investigate her enough to cross her off her list. And, while Charlie torments himself with the possibility that Laura could have been the next victim, by the time his brain starts going down that path the possibility is already over.

So color me disappointed with this entry in the series. But I’ll still be back for Diesel’s next adventure, Cat Me if You Can. I just hope that 13 turns out to be a luckier number for the series!

Review: The Wicked Redhead by Beatriz Williams

Review: The Wicked Redhead by Beatriz WilliamsThe Wicked Redhead: A Wicked City Novel by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Series: Wicked City #2
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this follow-up to The Wicked City, New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams combines past and present in this delicious Jazz Age adventure featuring a saucy redheaded flapper, the square-jawed Prohibition agent who loves her, and a beautiful divorcee trying to remake her life in contemporary New York.

New York City, 1998: When Ella Gilbert discovers her banker husband is cheating on her, she loses both her marriage and the life she knew. In her new apartment in an old Greenwich Village building, she’s found unexpected second love with Hector, a musician who lives upstairs. And she’s discovered something else, just as surprising—a connection to the mesmerizing woman scandalously posed in a vintage photograph titled Redhead Beside Herself.

Florida, 1924: Geneva “Gin” Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from Appalachia, barely survived a run-in with her notorious bootlegger stepfather. She and Oliver Anson, a Prohibition agent she has inconveniently fallen in love with, take shelter in Cocoa Beach, a rum-running haven. But the turmoil she tried to leave behind won’t be so easily outrun. Anson’s mother, the formidable Mrs. Marshall, descends on Florida with a proposition that propels Gin back to the family’s opulent New York home, and into a reluctant alliance. Then Anson disappears during an investigation, and Gin must use all her guile and courage to find him.

Two very different women, separated by decades. Yet as Ella tries to free herself from her ex, she is also hunting down the truth about the captivating, wicked Redhead in her photograph—a woman who loved and lived fearlessly. And as their link grows, she feels Gin urging her on, daring her to forge her own path, wherever it leads.

My Review:

I picked up The Wicked Redhead because I absolutely loved this author’s A Certain Age, and liked the predecessor to this, The Wicked City well enough. So I signed up to see what happened next.

Unlike most of this author’s books, which are loosely connected with some of the same people slipping in and out of the story, The Wicked Redhead is a direct sequel to The Wicked City. The action in this book picks up immediately where the other left off – broken bones, bruises and all.

Meaning that while most of this author’s books seem to stand well alone – the connections between them are quite loose – it feels really necessary to have read The Wicked City before The Wicked Redhead – and possibly recently at that – otherwise the story feels very much like it starts in the middle. It took me a bit to feel like I had caught up – or back – to where this story begins as I read The Wicked City almost three years ago..

But one of the other differences between the Wicked City series and the author’s other books is that the connection all the others share – along with these two, is a setting among the glitterati of New York City during the Roaring 20s. A period that roared because of all the illegal booze coming into the city and being fought over both in and out of it.

In other words, during Prohibition. (BTW there is an absolutely fantastic Prohibition Museum in Savannah – but I seriously digress.)

What makes this series different is that unlike the author’s other works, this is a time slip story. In both books, the framing story revolves around Ella in the late 1990s, about to divorce her seriously slimy soon-to-be-ex and living in the building next door to the Speakeasy where the 1920s action of that first book takes place.

As Ella can hear the music of the past – literally – her story frames that of Geneva Kelly, the redhead of the title. Also the step-daughter of one of those rumrunner kingpins and the lover of an FBI agent out to fight the trade in illicit booze – albeit mostly because of the even worse crime that surrounds it.

At the end of The Wicked City, Geneva, now former FBI agent Anson Marshall, and Geneva’s little sister Patsy are on the run after the death of her stepfather at their hands. (The two adults’ hands, not little Patsy!)

They run to Cocoa, Florida, straight to Anson’s friends Simon and Virginia, the protagonists of Cocoa Beach.

And that’s where the story really begins, as the FBI reaches out its rather dirty – at least in this instance – hands to grab Anson back again. And then proceeds to lose him.

Gin Kelly isn’t a woman for sitting around and waiting for other people to take care of her business for her. With the help of, of all people, Anson’s mother – a woman who hates Gin’s from the top of her redhead to the bottom of her low-class (at least according to Mrs. Marshall) feet, Gin sets out to find and rescue the man she loves.

While back in the 1990s, Ella works to discover who Gin really was and why the rare, beautiful and quite salacious “art” photos of “The Redhead” have landed in her lap.

Escape Rating B-: The difficulty with time slip fiction usually revolves around how to handle the two separate timelines. When the slip in time revolves around the main character moving back and forth – as in Outlander – focusing on that character takes care of the dilemma. But in most timeslip fiction the story slips between two interconnected time periods – with separate casts in each.

That’s the case here as Ella’s story in 1998 connects to Gin’s story in 1924 through that photograph of “The Redhead” and Ella’s residence in the NYC apartment building that Gin used to own, as well as a connection through a whole lot of people in 1998 whose past back in the 1920s is connected one way or another to Gin Kelly – connections that Ella uncovers – or that they uncover to her – in the course of this story.

And that’s where this one fell down for me. I found Gin’s story absolutely fascinating – as I did in The Wicked City. But Ella’s story was much less interesting – but with all of those discoveries it  was more of it than just a framing story. If we had stayed back in 1924 with Gin and her lovers, friends and enemies – as we did in the marvelous A Certain Age with Anson’s mother! – I’d have been a happy reader.

But Ella’s story – which I found unnecessary in The Wicked City – I just didn’t care for at all this time around. Having her discover that she was pregnant by the ex-husband she left in the first book seemed like just a way of screwing up her life – a life which had plenty of problems already without adding a very untimely pregnancy into the mix. Your reading mileage may vary.

Gin’s story on the other hand was a wild thrill ride complete with epic betrayals, high highs, low lows, boat chases, pirates and a desperate race against the odds. I could have followed her story all day – or at least most of a night of good reading. And I wish this story had stuck with her – because, as one of the characters says – Gin draws all eyes to her the instant she steps into the room and keeps them focused there until after she’s left.

So read this one for Gin and the rumrunners. Her story is worth a book all of its own.

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Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max GladstoneThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, time travel
Pages: 201
Published by Saga Press on July 16, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two time-traveling agents from warring futures, working their way through the past, begin to exchange letters—and fall in love in this thrilling and romantic book from award-winning authors Amal-El Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

Cowritten by two beloved and award-winning sci-fi writers, This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epic love story spanning time and space.

My Review:

If Kage Baker’s Novels of the Company and Good Omens had a book baby, it would be This Is How You Lose the Time War. Including the implied queer romance between Aziraphale and Crowley being realized and not merely implied. Just completely gender-swapped. At least, in as much as Red and Blue have gender as we understand it.

Howsomever, while I loved Kage Baker’s series, especially the first dozen books or so – start with In the Garden of Iden and be prepared to disappear for a few weeks – and Good Omens the book was even better than the TV series, which was awesome in its own way, I’m not sure I actually liked This Is How You Lose the Time War.

It’s fascinating in some ways. And it’s a quick read. But “like” is much too pale and wishy-washy a word. I feel like I’m sitting on a fence with this book, in the sense that all that sitting on a fence usually gets you is splinters up your arse.

Let me attempt an explanation.

What Time War has in common with The Company is the concept of two factions seeding themselves through time, both attempting to control the outcome of history for their own ends. And both having agents in place – or rather in time – in various successful and unsuccessful efforts to change history.

And the concepts of “good” and “evil” in both series end up being far from clear cut. From our limited 21st century perspective it is impossible to know whether history would “better” – for very undefined meanings of “good”, “evil” and “better”, whether Red’s mecha-cyber future is superior to Blue’s “Garden”.

But, even though Time War eschews any concepts of absolute good or absolute evil, even in the watered down and corrupted versions of both that are exposed in Good Omens, what this book does borrow from Gaiman and Pratchett is, in part, the same thing that they borrowed from Cold War era spy fiction – that sometimes, in the midst of a long, long war, the agents from the opposing forces have more in common with each other than either does with their respective home teams.

They have both “been in the long grass and seen the elephant” in ways that no one can understand – unless they been in there with them in a way that only their opposite number has done.

At the same time, the friendly-but-opposing protagonists of This is How You Lose the Time War do come to the same conclusion that Aziraphale and Crowley do – that they are together on their own side, and if need be, alone against the cosmos.

Escape Rating B-: I am still not sure how I feel about this book. I’m baffled and a bit confused.

There’s a part that is fascinated by how the story is told. It doesn’t begin and the beginning, tell a story, and end at the end. Instead, the story is told through a series of letters written between Red and Blue. It’s not just the letter itself, but also the circumstances surrounding the discovery of each letter.

We get bits and pieces of who these two are, what they are, and the neverending war that they were born to fight. We’re also supposed to see them fall in love with each other through their correspondence, but I’m not sure I see how it happens. I mean, I see that it does, but without them ever meeting face to face, I’m not quite sure I buy the romance.

I’m equally fascinated by the way that the story ends, because it doesn’t. It comes full circle and then kind of fades to black. We’re left hoping that they found a way, but we don’t see it.

In the end, I found This is How You Lose the Time War to be more interesting than it was satisfying. A lot of people seem to have absolutely adored it. I think I wanted more plot to sink my teeth into.

Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Review: The Chocolate Maker’s Wife by Karen Brooks

Review: The Chocolate Maker’s Wife by Karen BrooksThe Chocolate Maker's Wife by Karen Brooks
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 608
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on August 20, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Australian bestselling novelist Karen Brooks rewrites women back into history with this breathtaking novel set in 17th century London—a lush, fascinating story of the beautiful woman who is drawn into a world of riches, power, intrigue…and chocolate.

Damnation has never been so sweet...

Rosamund Tomkins, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, spends most of her young life in drudgery at a country inn. To her, the Restoration under Charles II, is but a distant threat as she works under the watchful eye of her brutal, abusive stepfather . . . until the day she is nearly run over by the coach of Sir Everard Blithman.

Sir Everard, a canny merchant, offers Rosamund an “opportunity like no other,” allowing her to escape into a very different life, becoming the linchpin that will drive the success of his fledgling business: a luxurious London chocolate house where wealthy and well-connected men come to see and be seen, to gossip and plot, while indulging in the sweet and heady drink.

Rosamund adapts and thrives in her new surroundings, quickly becoming the most talked-about woman in society, desired and respected in equal measure.

But Sir Everard’s plans for Rosamund and the chocolate house involve family secrets that span the Atlantic Ocean, and which have already brought death and dishonor to the Blithman name. Rosamund knows nothing of the mortal peril that comes with her new title, nor of the forces spinning a web of conspiracy buried in the past, until she meets a man whose return tightens their grip upon her, threatening to destroy everything she loves and damn her to a dire fate.

As she fights for her life and those she loves through the ravages of the Plague and London’s Great Fire, Rosamund’s breathtaking tale is one marked by cruelty and revenge; passion and redemption—and the sinfully sweet temptation of chocolate.

My Review:

The story of The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is every bit as lush and decadent as the bittersweet confection that she learns to make – and most definitely promote and sell – in her role as the young, pretty wife of an older man who owns both a revolutionary chocolate house and an entire bubbling vat of deep, dark, but not so luscious secrets.

As ubiquitous as chocolate is in the present day – and as much as its taste, aroma and flavor are loved or even craved, once upon a time in Europe chocolate was very much a curious novelty imported from the “New World” – as, for that matter, were both tea and coffee, although both had their origin in other places.

The Restoration period in England, the 1660s when The Chocolate Maker’s Wife takes place, was a time of great upheaval, of which the introduction of chocolate was perhaps the least if not the tastiest. This was the period when the monarchy was restored after Cromwell’s Protectorate, and Puritanism gave way to the Church of England.

Over 10 years of habits of life and thought changed overnight when Charles II took the throne that his father had been forced from – and later beheaded for occupying. This was a time when the universe as they knew it changed. And did again during the course of this story when the Great Fire of London consumed the city in 1666.

Each of these world shaking events had an equally cataclysmic effect on the life of Rosamund Blishwick, nee Tomkins. And it is her eyes through which we see this world, and hers, as it changes. And most definitely sparks.

At first it seems as if Sir Everard Blishwick is rescuing Rosamund not merely from tiny Gravesend, but also from multiple fates worse than death.

But of course, all is not as it seems. What seems like a rescue is only the first step in a long drawn out campaign of revenge that sucks Rosamund deeply into its web – and launches her into a future she could never have dreamed of.

Escape Rating B-: This is very much a mixed feelings kind of review. There were aspects of this book that I enjoyed, and others that drove me a bit bonkers. The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is the kind of lush, overblown historical epic that they don’t make any more. And as much as I loved just this kind of story once upon a time, it also reminded me both of why they don’t make them any longer and why I don’t look for them either.

(Something about this book reminded me a lot of Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen. Which I read decades ago. I think it had to do with the lushness of the setting, the darkness of the secrets, the disposition of the heroine and the more than occasionly repetitive and slightly overblown language. But it’s been a long, long time. Still, the impression lingers. Make of that what you will.)

The strongest part of the story is the period setting. The author’s research into the Restoration period is exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting for the reader. The early years of the Restoration were a period of great change, capped off by the Great Fire which wiped out so much of London and wiped so many slates clean – except for the ashes.

It is a fascinating period in so many ways, as the parliamentary experiment failed, the monarchy was restored and everyone tried to go back to the way things were. Except that the genie never goes willingly back into the bottle, too much time had passed and too much had changed. But this story takes place during that change and we see the effects on the ground, so to speak, through Rosamund.

She begins the story as a young woman slaving away for her stepfather, ignored by her mother and routinely sexually abused by her stepfather and two adult stepbrothers. It’s a brutal life that Sir Everard rescues her from. Her “family” seem to be trying to erase their past as loyal Cromwell supporters, even her stepbrothers’ names betray their earlier loyalties.

But Rosamund was used and abused by her family, and then used by her new husband as well. Not for sex, but in his schemes for his chocolate house and his revenge against a family he claims wronged him. That Rosamund’s advent as a woman in the public sphere invites at least attempts at abuse from every man at nearly every turn seems a bit egregious. Not that it wouldn’t have happened, but there is a point where one wearies of reading about it happening again. And again. And yet again. (Wanting to hex them all seems to be a common response.)

At the same time, Rosamund seems a bit too good to be true. Everyone who comes into her orbit either wants her, loves her, or both. The degree to which she charms nearly everyone gives her the aura of a “Mary Sue”. Her times absolutely fascinated me, but her personality just didn’t make me want to follow her through them.

In the end, as much as I loved both the concept of this book and its setting, I didn’t love the book because I didn’t find its central character compelling. Or perhaps I simply had enough of the frequent repetitive descriptions of her tinkling laugh.

Your mileage may definitely vary. Meanwhile, I’m going to have some hot chocolate.

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Review: Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn + Giveaway

Review: Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn + GiveawayRelative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Julia Kydd #1
Pages: 320
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

In 1920s New York, the price of a woman’s independence can be exorbitant—even fatal.

In 1924 Manhattan, women’s suffrage is old news. For sophisticated booklover Julia Kydd, life’s too short for politics. With her cropped hair and penchant for independent living, Julia wants only to launch her own new private press. But as a woman, Julia must fight for what’s hers—including the inheritance her estranged half brother, Philip, has challenged, putting her aspirations in jeopardy.

When her friend’s sister, Naomi Rankin, dies suddenly of an apparent suicide, Julia is shocked at the wealthy family’s indifference toward the ardent suffragist’s death. Naomi chose poverty and hardship over a submissive marriage and a husband’s control of her money. Now, her death suggests the struggle was more than she could bear.

Julia, however, is skeptical. Doubtful of her suspicions, Philip proposes a glib wager: if Julia can prove Naomi was in fact murdered, he’ll drop his claims to her wealth. Julia soon discovers Naomi’s life was as turbulent and enigmatic as her death. And as she gets closer to the truth, Julia sees there’s much more at stake than her inheritance…

My Review:

The title of this one is certainly a play on the words “relative” and “fortunes” and just how they relate to each other – with a heaping helping of the corruption of the old saying about where there’s a will, there’s a way – not that that doesn’t also apply.

But in the case of this story, the version of that cliche that I’m thinking of is the one that goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a relative” or even a bunch of relatives, all with their hands out for a piece of the estate – no matter how small.

The beginning of this story involves two different wills in two different families involving two very much alive female legatees. At least until things go completely pear-shaped.

And if you are reading this while female, the number of times that the males in this story control their female siblings’ money and their very lives, supposedly for their own good, will make you grit your teeth and want to scream.

Which doesn’t change the fact that there’s a dead body, an absolutely disgusting coverup, and a desperate need for Julia Kydd to solve the mystery – so she can protect her friend, so that she can wrest some of her own money from her half-brother’s oh-so-protective hands, and so that she can stake out her own claim on independence.

If she can just get past all the men trying to pat her on the head, tell her not to worry her pretty little self and just marry someone already so that she can become some other man’s burden. When all she really wants to do is determine her own life for her own self.

And who can blame her?

Escape Rating B-: This is a story with a lot to unpack in it. Some of which drove me absolutely bonkers.

I was expecting a historical mystery, with the emphasis on the mystery part of that equation. What I got instead was historical fiction, with the emphasis on the history, during which a murder happens to occur and get solved by the heroine.

This is also the first book in a series, and has to carry the weight of the set up of the series, the characters, and all of the worldbuilding to put it properly within its frame – the Roaring 20s in New York City – and mostly among the glitterati.

In the end, although the murder actually takes place before the story opens, the race to solve it doesn’t really kick into gear until ¾ of the way through the book. Discovering that solution is a race to the finish, but the setup is a very slow burn – and I certainly burned right along with Julia.

Julia’s reasons for being in New York, as well as the reason for Naomi Rankin’s death, are very much wrapped up in all of the ways that men can and often do subjugate women, and all the ways that the system of the patriarchy is set up to not merely allow them to do it, but actively encourages them to do so. For the women’s own good, of course.

And that particular theme is a drumbeat over that first ¾ of the book. That things really were that way isn’t up for debate. They were, it was awful, and things aren’t as much better now as we like to think they are. But I got tired of being beaten about the head with those facts over and over and over. As, no doubt, the women subject to them did.

There would have been plenty of other ways to make those same points while still getting on with the mystery, which was itself completely wrapped up in women’s rights and women’s issues. The situation was bad, and the death of Naomi Rankin and the reasons for it offered plenty of opportunities for highlighting just how bad it was without hitting the reader over the head with it at every turn in that long setup.

Particularly as there was so much setup and exposition that the identity of the murderer and at least some of their motives (although not all) became obviously fairly early on.

Your mileage may vary, particularly as the historical detail is excellent. As a reader, I would have been happier with a bit less setup and a bit more mystery. But what I did get was interesting enough that I’ll be back for the next book in the series, Passing Fancies.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Relative Fortunes to one US/CAN commenter on this tour. And I’ll be extremely interested to discover what that reader thinks of the story!

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