Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

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


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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And prophecies are self-fulfilling.

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

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

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

Review: Abandoned in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Abandoned in Death by J.D. RobbAbandoned in Death (In Death, #54) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #54
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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Homicide detective Eve Dallas must untangle a twisted family history while a hostage’s life hangs in the balance—in the new In Death novel by #1 New York Times bestselling J. D. Robb.
The woman’s body was found on a bench in a New York City playground. She was clean, her hair neatly arranged, her makeup carefully applied. But other things were very wrong—like the tattoo and piercings, clearly new. The clothes, decades out of date. The fatal wound hidden beneath a ribbon around her neck. And the note: Bad Mommy, written in crayon as if by a child.
It seems clear the killer’s childhood was traumatic—a situation Eve is all too familiar with herself. Yet the clues point to a perpetrator who’d be around sixty, and there are no records of old crimes with a similar MO. What was the trigger that apparently reopened such an old wound and sent someone over the edge? When Eve learns that other young women have recently vanished, the case grows even more urgent—and to solve it she’ll need to find her way into a hidden place of dim light and concrete, into the distant past, and into the depths of a shattered mind.

My Review:

This series is a strange sort of comfort read for me, so I usually say that each entry in the series is at least a chance to visit with old friends. Sometimes it’s more, but it’s always at least that.

Abandoned in Death is one of the instances where it was also at most that. I loved seeing how Dallas, Roarke and the gang are doing, but the way this one began – and the entire case – really, seriously creeped me out.

I felt creeped enough the whole way through that I didn’t enjoy this entry in the series as much as I usually do. And I’m a bit sad about that because I was seriously looking forward to this one.

Once upon a time in Eve Dallas’ world, which is actually now in ours, a desperate and despairing young woman left her child on a church doorstep in the middle of the night. Then she drove straight into a lake and prepared to drown.

But she didn’t. Instead, she dragged herself out of the car and the water and passed out along the side of the road not too far away. She was rescued by a good Samaritan who happened to be a doctor, who took her home, treated her injuries, fell in love with her and married her.

Between the trauma of her injuries – along with the effects of her depression and her drug addiction – her life before her rescue was a complete blank. She didn’t remember the child, the drugs or the attempted suicide. She lived her life from that point forward in the here and the now and it was a good life.

In Eve Dallas’ here and now, someone dumped the corpse of a young woman in a children’s playground. The playground is just around the corner from the house that Eve’s friend Mavis is moving into, with her family. It hits MUCH too close to home, putting Eve in a bit more angst than any trip to the “angst factory” of her own.

Not that this case doesn’t have a bit of that as well.

The investigation of the case is interesting. Weird, but interesting. Weird because the body was dressed and made up to fit a certain image – that of a blonde woman in her mid-20s with a tramp stamp, a belly piercing, cheap party clothes and overdone makeup.

She’s made up to be a woman in her mid-20s in the early 2000s. All the brands, the style, the look, the colors all fit that era. Which means that if someone is getting vicarious revenge on their mother, that person is now in their 60s.

And the first thing that Dallas and company discover about the crime is that their victim isn’t the only woman taken who could be made up to fit the image. She’s just the first to die.

Escape Rating B-: So, the opening of this one weirded me out and the parts of the story that were told either from the killer’s perspective or from the mother’s distant past just didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to be inside the murderer’s head AT ALL and found myself skimming through those sections and the past bits.

Some of that may have been that the originating events were already in the past of the real world – kind of like that double-take you do when confronted with the fact that 1980 is as far away from 2020 as 1940 is from 1980. That time passes way more quickly than we like to think about.

However, whether it was because of skimming those bits quickly or because the murderer was simply very good at hiding in plain sight I had absolutely no idea who was doing it before Dallas gets there herself. I recognized that the wild goose she chased at one point was a red herring, but hadn’t figured out who the real culprit was until the investigators got there.

That there’s a clock ticking more obviously in this case from the usual made some of the normal cop shop gallows humor fall a bit flat – at least for me. No one has much of a sense of humor in this one.

At the same time the rather humorous blossoming of young love between Feeney’s intern and Nadine Furst’s intern (and their respective mentors reaction to same) was a nice little bright stop that did fit well into the story. It also points out just how huge the team ended up being on this one as Dallas needed people to investigate not just the murders happening now, not just whodunnit, but also who in the past it was being done to in proxy.

They were solving an equation for multiple unknowns, and that level of research and search and cooperation and puzzle solving was, as always, fascinating. Whatever team Dallas puts together for a case always gives a master class in competence and this time was no exception.

In spite of the mess that’s uncovered at the end.

All of this adds up to Abandoned in Death being an interesting entry in this marvelous long-running series that wasn’t quite as satisfying for me as they usually are. That’s happened before, as is expected in a series that is 54 books and counting and shows absolutely no sign of stopping. Next up is Desperation in Death, coming this fall and I’m already looking forward to it!

Review: The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Review: The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn SolomonThe Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 338
Published by Berkley on January 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Shay Goldstein has been a producer at her Seattle public radio station for nearly a decade, and she can't imagine working anywhere else. But lately it's been a constant clash between her and her newest colleague, Dominic Yun, who's fresh off a journalism master's program and convinced he knows everything about public radio.
When the struggling station needs a new concept, Shay proposes a show that her boss green-lights with excitement. On The Ex Talk, two exes will deliver relationship advice live, on air. Their boss decides Shay and Dominic are the perfect co-hosts, given how much they already despise each other. Neither loves the idea of lying to listeners, but it's this or unemployment. Their audience gets invested fast, and it's not long before The Ex Talk becomes a must-listen in Seattle and climbs podcast charts.
As the show gets bigger, so does their deception, especially when Shay and Dominic start to fall for each other. In an industry that values truth, getting caught could mean the end of more than just their careers.

My Review:

I went into this book predisposed to love it, because the description reminded me so much of a book with a very similar premise that I utterly adored, Turn It Up by Inez Kelley. (It’s been ten years since I read Turn It Up and I still remember it fondly. It was delightful and it’s still available in ebook.)

And I did enjoy reading The Ex Talk. I had a great time with the reading of it and the characters. But I also didn’t like it, because part of the underlying premise doesn’t hold up to even a cursory examination.

This dichotomy results in the following very mixed feelings review.

The best parts of the story revolve around the “insider baseball” aspects of Public Radio, as seen through the eyes of Shay Goldstein. Shay has her dream job of being a producer on her hometown Seattle station, and has been there for a decade when the story begins.

Shay loves her job, she loves the station, she loves working in public radio. It’s been her dream since childhood, when she and her dad bonded over listening to and acting out programs like Car Talk as they did all sorts of wonderful things together. Those memories are the golden parts of Shay’s childhood.

When her dad died suddenly, those memories got trapped in amber, until working in public radio became her dream. And once she achieved that dream, it became her life. Or swallowed her life. Shay’s not very good at downtime, so she’s perfectly suited to being in a job that won’t let her have any.

But, as we know in real life, public radio lives on pledge drives and ratings and grants and sponsors that aren’t exactly called sponsors. And that radio isn’t the media powerhouse it used to be and public radio in particular often has a tough time with ratings and dollars.

That’s where the plot of this story really kicks in – and also where it kicks out a bit.

In the race for ratings, Shay’s slimy boss concocts a scheme that Shay isn’t on board with at all. Or wouldn’t be if her job, any job at the station, wasn’t directly on the line.

Because the scheme is wrapped around a big fat lie – a lie that gets harder and harder to tell with each passing day and each download and each encouraging tweet. The lie is a huge hit for the station – and a huge mess for Shay and her partner-in-not-exactly-a-crime, Dominic Yun.

And thereby hangs a tale, as the saying goes. Also, thereby ends up hanging Shay and Dominic.

Escape Rating B-: The lie that Shay and Dominic end up telling is a doozy. That they are exes who parted in a friendly enough fashion that they are able to co-host a radio talk show about relationships that banks on their supposed status as exes.

As a romance, this is an enemies to lovers story. When we first meet Shay and Dominic, they are rivals. Dominic is the new “golden child” because their station manager is a misogynistic douchecanoe.

Shay, naturally, resents that Dominic has walked into a privilege and status that she’s worked ten hard years for and not managed to achieve. Not because she’s any less good at the job, but because he has one bit of anatomical equipment that she lacks.

Their relationship is prickly (pun slightly intended) because Shay resents Dominic for his easy access to privilege and he envies her for her in-depth knowledge of public radio in general, the station in specific, and just how to get things done and where the bodies are buried.

But they have chemistry that comes through even over the radio, which is what hatches the scheme to lie to the entire city of Seattle and anyone listening to the podcast of the program.

And that’s the part that makes the story fall down. Not that their romance in spite of themselves isn’t a whole lot of fun, but the way that they got there. Specifically the way that Dominic gets there.

Dominic is all about becoming an investigative reporter and ethics in journalism. Seriously. All about it – at least until he lets himself be talked into this program with Shay. The fundamental lie at the heart of their success is something he doesn’t even seem to interrogate himself about much, as he’s spending much more energy dealing with his feelings for Shay – feelings that he’s not supposed to have because in public their relationship is supposed to have already been there and done that.

There’s so much going for this book. Really. So much. But its central premise based on that big lie took it from “willing suspension of disbelief” to “unwilling to suspend disbelief” for this reader just as much as it did for their audience. It’s not so much that I can’t imagine it happening as that I’m not on board with it happening with this particular character. If Dominic weren’t such a stand-up, straight-arrow kind of guy, we wouldn’t understand what Shay sees in him. But the person he’s represented as at the beginning wouldn’t be part of this mess without a whole lot more guilt and angst than we get to see.

That the douchecanoe station manager doesn’t get nearly as much of a comeuppance as he deserved is kind of the scraped off icing on this not quite properly baked cake. But it’s still a fun read. As I said at the top, mixed feelings. Very.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: Witch, Please by Ann Aguirre

Review: Witch, Please by Ann AguirreWitch Please (Fix-It Witches, #1) by Ann Aguirre
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance
Series: Fix-It Witches #1
Pages: 363
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Practical Magic meets Gilmore Girls in this adorable witchy rom-com with:
• A bisexual virgin baker with a curse• A witch looking to avoid romantic entanglements• And a chemistry between them that causes literal sparks

Danica Waterhouse is a fully modern witch—daughter, granddaughter, cousin, and co-owner of the Fix-It Witches, a magical tech repair shop. After a messy breakup that included way too much family “feedback,” Danica made a pact with her cousin: they’ll keep their hearts protected and have fun, without involving any of the overly opinionated Waterhouse matriarchs. Danica is more than a little exhausted navigating a long-standing family feud where Gram thinks the only good mundane is a dead one and Danica’s mother weaves floral crowns for anyone who crosses her path.
Three blocks down from the Fix-It Witches, Titus Winnaker, owner of Sugar Daddy’s bakery, has family trouble of his own. After a tragic loss, all he’s got left is his sister, the bakery, and a lifetime of terrible luck in love. Sure, business is sweet, but he can’t seem to shake the romantic curse that’s left him past thirty and still a virgin. He’s decided he’s doomed to be forever alone.
Until he meets Danica Waterhouse. The sparks are instant, their attraction irresistible. For him, she’s the one. To her, he’s a firebomb thrown in the middle of a family war. Can a modern witch find love with an old-fashioned mundane who refuses to settle for anything less than forever?

My Review:

Happy families may be all alike, and every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but there should be an exception for intrusive families, which are more alike in their unhappiness than the paraphrase from Tolstoy would lead one to expect.

Certainly Danica Waterhouse’s family of witches has plenty of intrusiveness to go around, between her cousin Clementine who is determined that both Danica and Clementine will remain single and unattached forever, her mother Minerva who married a mundane and lost her powers, and her beloved Gram who is determined that Danica will marry someone with an impeccable witch lineage and pass on the Waterhouse legacy.

Minerva wants her daughter to follow her heart. Gram doesn’t care about Danica’s heart as long as her ovaries are dedicated to making pure witch babies, while Danica just wants a chance to live her own life on her own terms. Something that seems impossible as long as she’s the chew toy in the family squabble between her laid back mother and her bulldozer grandmother.

A grandmother who is an expert at wielding guilt like a knife and isn’t either ashamed or afraid to use that knife and any other weapon that comes to hand in order to keep her granddaughter on what she perceives as the straight and narrow.

Danica lets herself be stuck in permanent peacemaker mode, caught between those opposing viewpoints, until she’s broken out of her paralysis by the smell of sinful cinnamon rolls wafting through her life.

Danica and her cousin Clem are the owners of Fix-It Witches repair shop, because that’s literally what they are and what they do. Their witch talent lies in coaxing machinery that is broken into a state of repair. And one of the ovens at Sugar Daddy’s bakery is in desperate need of repair.

Which leads the Sugar Daddy himself, Titus Wannaker, the baker-in-chief, to stop at Fix-It Witches to ask if they can come over and repair his recalcitrant oven before he starts losing business.

But when Titus opens the door at Fix-It Witches, Danica loses control of her magic, her blender sprays a pineapple smoothie everywhere, and Titus loses his heart to the sweet, snarky, sexy witch who looks like she bathed in pineapple chunks.

And the feeling is very, very mutual.

There’s only one hitch in Titus’ instantaneous plan to get as close to Danica as possible for as long as possible – at least once she gets the pineapple chunks out of the way.

Danica is a witch, Titus is a mundane, there’s a Statute of Secrecy that makes the one in the Potterverse look like a mildly worded suggestion – and there’s Danica’s Gram lurking around town, determined to keep Danica on the only path that Gram will EVER approve of.

A future that does not include delectable interludes with a mundane – not even the Cinnaman of Danica’s dreams.

Escape Rating B-: I am of two minds on this book in so many ways!

First, foremost, and most important, the romance between Danica and Titus is lovely, sweet, sexy, delicious and every kind of wonderful. I loved them together so much and wanted Danica to find a solution to her family and witchy dilemmas so badly so that they could have a chance. The author did a great job of conveying that this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love and that they belonged together in spite of everything.

I stuck with the book because I wanted to see them get their HEA so much.

At the same time, at the literal halfway point I switched from the audio to the ebook in spite of how much I was enjoying the narrator because Danica’s intrusive family, her almost pathological need to keep everyone happy – except herself – combined with the need to keep witches and witchcraft secret on pain of death or at least an extreme memory wipe were downright painful and I wanted to get through them as quickly as possible. By judicious skimming if necessary.

Not that Titus’ family doesn’t have problems of its own, but the crap he was dealing with all made sense.

Danica, on the one hand, was being a doormat in the face of her family’s conflicting expectations and demands. On the other hand, her relationship with Titus, their ever-increasing chemistry and every time they managed to find a tiny slice of time together were utterly adorable. And on the third hand – hey, witchcraft, why not three hands (or more) in a pinch? – there was too much about this world’s version of witchcraft that wasn’t explained as well as it could have been.

Because there’s a terrific story of sisterhood and found family hidden within the dynamics of Danica’s coven. While a bit too much of the coven’s business in this opening entry in the series was focused on the way that Danica’s powers were spiking out of control because of her relationship with Titus that she didn’t feel free to actually have, there was still a lot there to unpack and revel in about the way that this group of multiple generations of women got together, supported each other both personally and professionally, gave each other space to vent and room to grow, and occasionally discussed books in between major magical workings.

I was also fairly convinced early on that Gram was pretty much the Wicked Witch of the (Mid)West, so I wasn’t exactly surprised to discover that my conviction was close to the actual mark and not just my own feelings about just how toxic her manipulations really were. And I’ll admit that I really needed to see an epic takedown of Gram over this and did not get the catharsis I was looking for.

So there’s a thread in this story about Danica being forced to learn that her hero has feet of clay up to the knees and it felt like that reveal and its effects were minimized. It’s entirely possible that we’ll get to see the fallout of that situation in the next book in the series, Boss Witch, in April 2022. I need to make sure that Danica and her Cinnaman are still living their sweetly happy ever after.

Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda James

Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda JamesDead with the Wind (Southern Ladies Mystery, #2) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #2
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on September 29, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of Bless Her Dead Little Heart and the Cats in the Stacks mysteries brings back the Ducote sisters, two spry Southern sleuths.
An’gel and Dickce Ducote tend to stay put in Athena, Mississippi, but a wedding is a good reason to say a temporary farewell to Charlie Harris’s cat Diesel and go visit relatives. But while their stay in Louisiana is scorching hot, the atmosphere at the wedding is downright cold, with bride-to-be Sondra Delevan putting her trust fund above little things like love and loyalty.
When a violent storm supposedly sweeps Sondra off a balcony to her death, the sisters discover that many of the guests attending the wedding had major reasons to object to Sondra’s marriage. Now, it’s up to An’gel and Dickce to use their down-home instincts to expose dubious alibis, silver-plated secrets, and one relentless murderer who lives for “till death do us part.”

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Inside Man by K.J. Parker

Review: Inside Man by K.J. ParkerInside Man by K.J. Parker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror
Series: Prosper's Demon #2
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

K.J. Parker returns to the amoral world of
Prosper's Demon
with a wry, sardonic novella that flips the eternal, rule-governed battle between men and demons on its head.
An anonymous representative of the Devil, once a high-ranking Duke of Hell and now a committed underachiever, has spent the last forever of an eternity leading a perfectly tedious existence distracting monks from their liturgical devotions. It’s interminable, but he prefers it that way, now that he’s been officially designated by Downstairs as “fragile.” No, he won’t elaborate.
All that changes when he finds himself ensnared, along with a sadistic exorcist, in a labyrinthine plot to subvert the very nature of Good and Evil. In such a circumstance, sympathy for the Devil is practically inevitable.

My Review:

I picked up Inside Man because I was tempted by Prosper’s Demon.

No seriously. I wanted to read this book because I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the first book in what I really didn’t expect to be a series that seems to have begun anyway with Prosper’s Demon.

This series is set in an alternate universe to our own, in an era that is more-or-less like our Renaissance but isn’t exactly – because it isn’t exactly our world.

It is, however, a world where the angels and demons that people believed in during the Renaissance in our own world – and that many still believe in to this day – are quite, quite real. And are competing for the souls of, well, pretty much everyone.

The story in Prosper’s Demon turned out to be a kind of “greater good” story, where the definition of “good” and “evil” really did depend on where you happened to be sitting. Particularly on whether you happened to be the demon living inside Prosper giving him the genius to be his world’s da Vinci, or whether you happened to be the demon-extractor who was supposed to remove the demon if it killed Prosper. And especially even if removing the demon removed Prosper’s genius, which it certainly would, making him normal and depriving his world of everything their da Vinci equivalent would produce in his lifetime.

The story in Inside Man is quite a bit different, and it didn’t work quite as well, at least not for this reader. Even though its combination of Good Omens with The Screwtape Letters was kind of inspired.

There were points where I had to double check to be sure that I hadn’t accidentally downloaded The Screwtape Letters instead. If you’re not familiar, Screwtape is a senior demon straight out of the mind of C.S. Lewis – and dedicated to his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, which I how I first made Screwtape’s acquaintance.

The book consists of a series of letters from Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter. Screwtape is giving Wormwood pointers on the best methods for tempting humans to sell their souls to the devil. While the whole thing addresses the Christian theological issues that Lewis wrestled with for a significant chunk of his life, the letters themselves are wry, frequently humorous, and have a lot of very true things to say about human nature.

The story in Inside Man does invoke the same kind of “sympathy for the devil” that Screwtape did, but the story feels like it owes a lot more to Good Omens than even it’s predecessor did. Or at least to that part of Good Omens that illustrated the concept that angels and demons have more in common with each other than either of them do with their respective “head offices” back home – whether home is above or below.

Inside Man also plays, and plays hard, with another bit from Good Omens – the bit where both Crowley and Aziraphale find themselves questioning whether either Heaven or Hell really has that ineffable plan that they keep proclaiming they do. And just like in Good Omens, the demon protagonist of Inside Man figures out that they don’t. Have a plan, that is.

But he does.

Escape Rating B-: I loved Prosper’s Demon so I expected to love Inside Man and I was disappointed that I didn’t. Although Prosper borrowed bits from Good Omens, it really did take them in its own direction. It also worked well that the human whose soul is being contested, while he isn’t exactly Leonardo da Vinci, was close enough to da Vinci to ground the story in a sense of the real.

We could appreciate the consequences of the demon vs. demon-extractor debate because we had a pretty clear picture of what those consequences would be. Leonardo da Vinci, any version of da Vinci, would be sorely missed in any world where he existed.

Inside Man made the not-our-world setting more obvious and a bit harder to get past – or perhaps into – by not giving us as clear a frame of reference. Meanwhile, the whole concept of “The Plan” and the lack thereof felt like it borrowed too heavily from Good Omens without giving us Crowley and Aziraphale to root for.

On my third hand, Inside Man is really, really short. I didn’t have any problems finishing it. I just kept wishing it was as good as its predecessor.

Review: The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

Review: The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys BowenThe Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, World War II
Pages: 412
Published by Lake Union Publishing on April 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Love and secrets collide in Venice during WWII in an enthralling novel of brief encounters and lasting romance by the New York Times bestselling author of The Tuscan Child and Above the Bay of Angels.
Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a final whisper…Venice. Caroline’s quest: to scatter Juliet “Lettie” Browning’s ashes in the city she loved and to unlock the mysteries stored away for more than sixty years.
It’s 1938 when art teacher Juliet Browning arrives in romantic Venice. For her students, it’s a wealth of history, art, and beauty. For Juliet, it’s poignant memories and a chance to reconnect with Leonardo Da Rossi, the man she loves whose future is already determined by his noble family. However star-crossed, nothing can come between them. Until the threat of war closes in on Venice and they’re forced to fight, survive, and protect a secret that will bind them forever.
Key by key, Lettie’s life of impossible love, loss, and courage unfolds. It’s one that Caroline can now make right again as her own journey of self-discovery begins.

My Review:

This dual timeline story follows the adventures – and misadventures – of two women in two separate eras but in the same exact place, La Serenissima. Venice.

Their stories are linked, not just by the city, and not just by these two women’s relationship to each other, but also to a family that influences both of their lives.

They are also both at points in their lives when they are making fresh starts – and bittersweet endings.

As we meet Caroline, her marriage is ending, and so is the life of her beloved great aunt, Lettie. Lettie and her sister, Caroline’s grandmother Winnie, raised her after the death of her own parents in their tiny country town not too far from London. Caroline loves both women, but Lettie has been both her inspiration and her rock for all of her life, and now that support is gone.

Leaving behind one final request, that Caroline go to Venice, a place that Lettie seems to have loved but that Caroline never knew was such a part of her great-aunt’s life, along with enough money for Caroline to make the trip, scatter Lettie’s ashes, and perhaps figure out what made the request so important to the dying woman that she hung on long enough to make that one last request.

So Caroline goes to Venice to learn what she can, in hopes of figuring out what compelled Lettie, and to take the opportunity to figure out where her own road will lead her next.

What she discovers, or who she discovers, is the woman her staid, upright, prim, proper and utterly respectable great-aunt Lettie used to be. A young woman named Julietta, an art student trapped in Venice when Britain declared war on Italy.

A woman who became a spy, a mother, a prisoner of war and a refugee. A woman who left behind everything she loved and everything she held dear to make a new life back in her old home. A life that seemed to be a complete rejection – or a tomb – for the woman she had once been.

A woman determined, in her last moments, that it was time for someone she loved to uncover her truth.

Escape Rating B-: World War II is a rich period for historical fiction of all types and stripes. To the point where I have three books in a row that are set during the same period, Friday’s The Consequences of Fear, this book today, and tomorrow’s The Last Bookshop in London. This is also not the only book this year to be set in World War II Italy, the other being Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson, which is somewhere in my virtually towering TBR pile.

All that’s to say that it feels like parts of this story have been done before, and recently, and perhaps for this reader a bit of World War II historical fiction fatigue has set in. So I found this take on that historic conflict to be a bit too much like too many things I’ve read before, in spite of the change in setting.

And as a result of that fatigue I enjoyed Caroline’s side of the story more than I did Julietta’s. I’d rather have seen Caroline actually researching Lettie’s history rather than just reading Lettie’s diary.

I think that the issues I had with Lettie/Julietta’s part of the story was that so much of what she did has been written before, and the parts of the story that were unique to her were a bit too predictable, especially her doomed romance and its results.

Let’s just say it was a VERY good thing for Caroline that Lettie was her great-aunt and not her grandmother.

One piece of Caroline’s story that I felt a great deal of resonance for was the way that it intersected with 9/11 and its aftermath, both in the portrayal of how countries outside the US both viewed the tragedy and moved on, and the way that it impacted people who were not remotely close to the event. It echoed for a while for all of us, and that was captured well.

So this is a story I’m kind of on that painful fence about. I liked Caroline a lot, I ended up seeing Julietta as both heroic and  incredibly naïve at the same time, and I wanted the 21st century story more than I did the historic one. Your mileage may vary, especially if you’ve not experienced the same kind of WW2 historical fiction fatigue or you’ve not read much about that period in Italy as opposed to the more usual settings of France or Britain..

And on my other hand, I have previously enjoyed several of this author’s WW2 stories, particularly In Farleigh Field and The Victory Garden and will undoubtedly be back again the next time she returns to the period.

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Review: The Bookstore on the Beach by Brenda Novak

Review: The Bookstore on the Beach by Brenda NovakThe Bookstore on the Beach by Brenda Novak
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on April 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"A page-turner with a deep heart."—Nancy Thayer, New York Times bestselling author of
Girls of Summer

How do you start a new chapter of your life when you haven’t closed the book on the previous one?
Eighteen months ago, Autumn Divac’s husband went missing. Her desperate search has yielded no answers, and she can’t imagine moving forward without him. But for the sake of their two teenage children, she has to try.
Autumn takes her kids home for the summer to the charming beachside town where she was raised. She seeks comfort working alongside her mother and aunt at their bookshop, only to learn that her daughter is facing a huge life change and her mother has been hiding a terrible secret for years. And when she runs into the boy who stole her heart in high school, old feelings start to bubble up again. Is she free to love him, or should she hold out hope for her husband’s return? She can only trust her heart…and hope it won’t lead her astray.
"A heart-tugging romance. Readers are sure to be sucked in.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review  

My Review:

The bookstore on the beach in Sable Beach belongs to, let’s call them late-middle-aged sisters Mary and Lauren. As this tumultuous summer opens, Mary is waiting for her grown-up daughter Autumn to arrive for one last summer with her kids, her daughter Taylor and son Caden.

There’s more than a bit of bittersweetness in Mary’s anticipation, and in Autumn’s as well as she makes the drive up from her home in Tampa. Taylor will be a senior in high school in the fall, and Caden will be a junior. This is probably the last summer of their, not exactly childhood, but the last summer when they’ll all be together as a family before Taylor and Caden accelerate their inevitable pull away into adulthood, with jobs, college and relationships speeding up that separation.

But it’s also a first summer for Autumn. This is the first summer she’s come home to the beach without even the prospect of her husband dropping in for a week or two of vacation. Not because they are divorced, and not because he’s dead.

At least not as far as Autumn knows.

Autumn is stuck in a hellish limbo. Her husband went on a business trip to Ukraine, the country his family immigrated to the U.S. from. He left 18 months ago, without telling Autumn he was going. He seems to have gone at the behest, or under the aegis, or at least with the knowledge of, the CIA and/or the FBI or one (or possibly more) of the alphabet agencies.

Nick Divac disappeared somewhere in Ukraine. Or in Russia. Or into an unmarked grave. Or a prison. Or a cave. Autumn doesn’t know and hasn’t been able to get anyone at any of those alphabet agencies to give her much in the way of information. Even the private investigator she hired in Ukraine has found nothing but dead ends. But also no confirmation of Nick’s actual death.

But this isn’t just Autumn’s story. All of the women in her family, her mother Mary, her daughter Taylor, and certainly Autumn’s self, have something huge hanging over them this summer. Some of those things, most of those things, are secrets. All of them have the power to change their lives, when, and not if, they come crashing down.

They can’t go back to the way things used to be. The only question is how they go forward, and whether they can manage to hold on to each other and do it together.

Escape Rating B-: The Bookstore on the Beach is one of those stories where not a whole lot happens, while at the same time a whole lot that might happen or probably will happen is being worried over or anticipated – if not exactly eagerly. The eventual happenings are more of a relief – mostly – than the waiting.

Every woman in the family spends the entire book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not that the first shoe has actually dropped. They each have something HUGE hanging over their heads. I found myself looking for the collective noun for swords – like a murder of crows, a leap of leopards, an unkindness of ravens. Because this is story about a family walking around with their very own separate and individual Sword of Damocles hanging over their head and following them around.

A cache of Swords of Damocles? A store of Swords of Damocles? Perhaps even an Armory of Swords of Damocles?

Mary is on tenterhooks expecting someone to expose her past – a past she has never revealed to her daughter. Taylor is unsuccessfully pretending that she’s not avoiding even thinking about the secrets in her present. And Autumn lets herself start a new relationship with her biggest teenage crush, all the while caught between hoping and fearing that her missing husband will return – just when she’s given up and moved on.

All of their fears are very, very real, even if the situations that both Mary and Autumn are in stretch the bounds of credulity just a bit. Not that what happened to them doesn’t happen in real life, more that it’s a stretch that both things happened in the same family.

The size of the cria herd of drama llamas (yes, I looked it up, “cria herd” is the collective noun for llamas) is so large as to stretch the pasture that holds my willing suspension of disbelief.

Because this story begins with Autumn’s husband already missing, I felt a bit like I’d been dropped midway into a series. Like I should have read the earlier parts of Autumn’s story as background in someone else’s. But this is a standalone, so no.

Also, because Autumn’s husband has been gone for quite a while at the beginning, her memories of him and their life together have been overlaid or muted by time, confusion and grief. He’s not present enough even in memory for him to really be missed. And her descriptions of their life together, while they don’t paint him in exactly a bad light, don’t give the reader enough to really buy into the romance they are supposed to have had.

Unlike her romance in her present with Quinn, which is lovely and heartfelt and heartbreaking in all of its glory – of which there is quite a lot. The combination of these elements made the ending a bit abrupt. It’s the ending the reader wants, but it’s sharp and hard and doesn’t really feel earned. It’s a situation where a true HEA doesn’t feel quite right, because it’s they are caught up in a mess where someone is bound to end up very unhappy indeed.

But I really liked all three, Mary and Autumn and Taylor. I loved the town of Sable Beach, and felt very envious of the bookstore itself even though I know it’s a much harder and more precarious way to make a living than the book can or should get into. It’s a lovely place, a beautiful haven, and I wouldn’t mind visiting again.

Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa ColeWhen No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…
Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo.
But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised.
When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?

My Review:

This is a bit of a three-legged race of a book. There are three threads to this story, all heading towards an ending, but one is going slow like a Model T, one is speeding along like it’s racing for NASCAR, and one is tootling along in a clown car.

Except that none of this story is funny.

But seriously, there are three separate plot threads to this story. While they are all heading towards the same finish, they are not racing at the same pace or with nearly the same amount of success.

When the story begins it looks kind of like we’re at the beginning of a (very) slow burn romance between Sydney and Theo, when Theo and his about-to-be-ex-girlfriend move in across the street from Sydney in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up.

Both of their lives are in turmoil. Theo because of the impending breakup, but Sydney because well, shit has happened to her and it just keeps happening. Her marriage failed, her ex was emotionally abusive and wrecked her self-esteem, she’s unemployed, her mother was scammed out of her house and Sydney’s trying to get it back AND she’s trying to pay off back taxes and huge medical bills for both of them.

In the middle of their intersecting and imploding lives – drops the second thread about the consequences of gentrification for the people who live in the area being gentrified. A euphemism that usually means moving the brown people and the marginalized people OUT by fair means or foul, mostly foul, so that the white people can move IN.

Sydney is creating a walking tour of the neighborhood for an upcoming holiday celebration, and Theo gets recruited as her research assistant. The history that they uncover is well and truly appalling and it’s hard not to see it happening all around them as they are watching and researching, because Theo’s soon-to-be-ex is right in the thick of it.

But then there’s the depth of the evil that is behind this particular wave of gentrification, and is hinted at having been behind many if not most of the previous waves. And there’s the clown car rolling in.

Not that they aren’t truly evil, because they are. But because once Sydney and Theo find their way to the center of this particular tentacle of the long-running conspiracy it seems to be run by folks who learned how to be evil from comic book villains.

They’ve been successful not because they’re intelligent, but because so many people are complicit and so few seem to have chosen to stand and fight. They represent both the mediocrity of evil and and a perfect example of the old adage about the only thing required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

Which may make this book the perfect thing to encapsulate recent events in the U.S. but caused it to fall a bit flat at the end.

Escape Rating B-: The history that underpins this story is absolutely fascinating. And it was great to see a book that managed to give the evils of gentrification not just a human face, but to make it comprehensible without becoming either a history text, an info dump, or just a boring lecture.

The way that the gentrification subplot wove into both of the other parts of the story was the best part of this book.

The romance, on the other hand, was a slow burn that didn’t really need to burn at all. I’m not sure I bought the chemistry between Sydney and Theo, and both of them were rebounding from such shitty relationships – and somewhat the same kind of shitty – that I wasn’t left with any real hope of even much of a happy for now.

And both of them were such unreliable narrators of their own lives that I’m left wondering if there really was anything there but sex and desperation – and whether or not there should have been. The first 100 pages of the book are a complete downer as both of their lives just seem to be spiraling towards the drain at an increasing rate of speed.

The thriller part of this story, discovering that this particular act of replacement, removal and rebuilding, or break and build as the book puts it, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, once that part of the story finally gets going it really gets going. The final 50+ pages move along like gangbusters.

Or like a first-person shooter type of video game. The pace is fast, the bodies are falling, the discoveries are horrific and the heroes barely manage to survive the boss battle at the end.

The problem was that the bosses we saw, the people behind it all, read like comic book villains. It felt like they succeeded in spite of their incompetence and not because of their competence. They succeeded up until that point because “the system” is set up for them to succeed.

Which may be the most evil thing of all. But it didn’t make for the best story, which was a disappointment because this was a book I really wanted to love and just didn’t.

Reviewer’s Note: I think I read the books in the wrong order this week. Because the “happy, happy, joy, joy” reaction I’m having post-Inauguration makes it difficult to get into a thriller that gets pretty dark but doesn’t get there half as successfully as I expected. It’s definitely making me wonder how books written during the mess of the last four years and especially during the pandemic are going to fare once we get further down the road to normal.

Although that journey feels like it’s already begun, leading to my fit of exuberance.

Review: In League with Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King

Review: In League with Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. KingIn League with Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon by Laurie R. King, Leslie S. Klinger
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon #5
Pages: 368
Published by Pegasus Crime on December 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The latest entry in Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger’s popular Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery series, featuring fifteen talented authors and a multitude of new cases for Arthur Conan Doyle’s most acclaimed detective.
Sherlock Holmes has not only captivated readers for more than a century and a quarter, he has fascinated writers as well. Almost immediately, the detective’s genius, mastery, and heroism became the standard by which other creators measured their creations, and the friendship between Holmes and Dr. Watson served as a brilliant model for those who followed Doyle. Not only did the Holmes tales influence the mystery genre but also tales of science-fiction, adventure, and the supernatural. It is little wonder, then, that when the renowned Sherlockians Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger invited their writer-friends and colleagues to be inspired by the Holmes canon, a cornucopia of stories sprang forth, with more than sixty of the greatest modern writers participating in four acclaimed anthologies.
Now, King and Klinger have invited another fifteen masters to become In League with Sherlock Holmes. The contributors to the pair’s next volume, due out in December 2020, include award-winning authors of horror, thrillers, mysteries, westerns, and science-fiction, all bound together in admiration and affection for the original stories. Past tales have spanned the Victorian era, World War I, World War II, the post-war era, and contemporary America and England. They have featured familiar figures from literature and history, children, master sleuths, official police, unassuming amateurs, unlikely protagonists, even ghosts and robots. Some were new tales about Holmes and Watson; others were about people from Holmes’s world or admirers of Holmes and his methods. The resulting stories are funny, haunting, thrilling, and surprising. All are unforgettable. The new collection promises more of the same!

My Review:

Because I’m a sucker for a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and in the right mood even for a bad one, I’ve eagerly anticipated each of these collections as they’ve appeared and I’ve read every single one of them, beginning with the very first, A Study in Sherlock back in 2011. This first entry in the series includes what is still my favorite story across the entire five volumes, The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman

It’s hard to believe that this current volume is the fifth in the series, after A Study in Sherlock, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, Echoes of Sherlock Holmes and For the Sake of the Game.

Like most such collections, this one is just a bit uneven. The stories that work, really, really work. The ones that don’t fall flatter than the proverbial pancake.

I think I’ve read every single one of these collections as they have come out, and my favorite is still the very first one, A Study in Sherlock, although I have certainly discovered favorite stories in many of the later volumes.

I have to say that this entry in the series did not live up to its predecessors. As the series has gone on, the stories have ranged further and further from their original inspiration, in ways that, at least in this particular volume, feel like they owe more to cleverness than detection.

To put it another way, I like my Sherlock to more or less be a kind of Sherlock. It’s not necessary that the stories feel like the original canon – unless that’s done well it can be terribly off-putting. But when I hear the name Sherlock Holmes I expect a detective story of some kind, and too many of the stories in this entry in the series seemed to be showing off how ‘twee’ they could be rather than how well they could solve a case.

But I still have two favorites even in this somewhat motley crew.

James W. Ziskin’s The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement is a classic pastiche, featuring the original Holmes and Watson solving a case that was so old and so cold no one even knew it was a case. It’s not the first time, that the unexpected return of a person long-though deceased has provided new clues to an old murder for the Great Detective, and this one shows the deft hand of both the investigator and the writer in constructing – and solving – such a conundrum.

The Strange Juju Affair at the Gacy Mansion by Kwei Quartey was a classic of a completely different kind. It is the kind of Holmesian homage where, rather than Holmes himself serving as the detective, the investigator is someone who uses Holmes’ methods and applies them with Holmes’ genius at a time and place that Holmes never visited, in this particular case Kasoa, Ghana at an unspecified time period that feels like it is much later in the 20th century – if not the 21st – than Holmes would have lived to see. The detective is a retired police superintendent who never visits the crime scene, but with a few questions to his younger – and rather desperate – colleague still manages to solve a classic locked-room mystery.

Escape Rating B-: Too much of this entry in this long-running series went too far afield for this reader. But those two stories were right on the mark as lovely but totally different Holmes pastiches. Your reading mileage will, of course, vary. That is the point of these collections, that there is something for every reader looking for a taste, in this case a taste of Sherlock Holmes.