#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. Green

#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. GreenThe Holy Terrors (A Holy Terrors mystery) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal
Series: Holy Terrors #1
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Six people locked in a haunted hall . . . Cameras watching their every move . . . And then someone dies . . . This first in a spine-tingling new paranormal mystery series from New York Times bestselling British fantasy author Simon R. Green will make you doubt your judgement - and believe in ghosts!
Welcome to Spooky Time, the hit TV ghost-hunting show where the horror is scripted . . . and the ratings are declining rapidly. What better way to up the stakes - and boost the viewership - than by locking a select group of Z-list celebrities up for the night in The Most Haunted Hall in England (TM) and live-streaming the 'terrifying' results?
Soon Alistair, a newly appointed Bishop, actress Diana, medium Leslie, comedian Toby and celebrity chef Indira are trapped inside Stonehaven town hall, along with June, the host and producer of the show. The group tries to settle in and put on a good show, but then strange things start happening in their hall of horrors.
What is it about this place - and why is the TV crew outside not responding? Are they even on air?
Logical Alistair attempts to keep the group's fears at bay and rationalise the odd events, but there are things that just can't be explained within reason . . . Can he stop a cold-blooded would-be killer - even if it's come from beyond the grave?
This locked-room mystery with a paranormal twist is classic Simon R. Green, featuring his trademark humour and imagination, irresistible characters, and thoroughly entertaining plotting.

My Review:

Four strangers locked in a haunted building overnight with two TV “personalities”, their every action and emotion covered by hidden cameras, all in pursuit of a payday that’s not going to be nearly as generous as their agents led them to expect.

Sounds like the perfect setup for a “Reality TV” program. Or a joke. Or, in this particular case, a joke of a reality TV show that is desperate to recapture the market share it lost much longer ago than its presenter is willing to admit. Or allow.

Put another way, a has-been comedian, a wannabe almost-celebrity chef, an outspoken bishop and an actress whose career isn’t what it used to be, walk into a haunted town hall to film an episode of ‘Spooky Time!’ with its resident medium AND its indefatigable host.

There should be a punchline coming for that joke. And there certainly is for at least some of the participants. At least for the ones that survive the night.

Anyone who has any illusions left about the exact amount of ‘reality’ present in a so-called reality TV show needs to check those illusions before the first page – because they’ll all be spoiled although the plot of the book certainly is not.

From the moment the time-locks ominously click shut and the lights start to go out, it’s clear to the participants that something has gone even wronger than they expected after seeing the dilapidated state of the place they’re supposed to be spending the night. But in the gloomy, shadowed and downright spooky atmosphere, it’s all too easy to chalk up their fears to the idea that something supernatural might be stalking their number.

But as the Bishop says to the Actress, that doesn’t add up. It’s clear, at least to him, that they are being led astray by their own guilts and fears. And even though there is an entirely different sort of ‘leading astray’ that the Actress would prefer to do to the Bishop, she’s willing to trust him to see her through this long and particularly dark night.

Escape Rating B-: I ended up with a LOT of mixed feelings about this one, some of which may have to do with having no love or even liking for so-called reality TV. (Although, honestly, if the author has any love for that genre it’s a particularly twisted version of it.)

It’s clear from the outset that all of the so-called ‘supernatural’ events are planned and prepared, that the show is on its last legs and the guests were chosen for their gullibility, their expendability, or both. And because they were relatively cheap – just like the all-night rental of the supposed ‘Most Haunted Hall in England.’

Particularly as, in spite of all the horror implications of the blurb and the Goodreads genre assignment, the title of the series to follow has it right, The Holy Terrors is a mystery and not horror at all.

Which means that the reader’s enjoyment of and/or absorption in this story relies on either getting caught up in the mystery or being charmed by its characters – many of whom are not charming at all.

Although the Bishop and the Actress certainly are, and their increasing charm with each other does help carry readers along. Which is a good thing, because ‘whodunnit’ was obvious long before the big reveal – complete with a bit of good old-fashioned villain monologuing – at the end.

As the first book in a series that looks like it will follow the adventures of the Bishop and the Actress as they have more mysterious and possibly spooky adventures, there’s a fair amount of heavy lifting to be done that doesn’t feel like it’s completely done by the book’s end.

Because I’m not totally sure what the newly christened “Holy Terrors” will actually be doing in their future adventures – beyond that they’ll be doing them together. It’s not clear even at the end of this book and I’ve been guessing throughout.

Not that I won’t ‘tune back in’ to find out when the next book appears. I just hope it’s a bit more clear by then AND that it doesn’t sidle quite so close to the territory the author has already occupied by Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt.

One final note to say thanks for the memories, the facepalm and the headslap – not necessarily in that order and definitely not as the Actress said to the Bishop – which is what all of the above are referencing.

This entire story – and quite possibly the series intended to follow – is part of a long-running British tradition of jokes and/or clichés (your mileage may vary on which they are) of double entendres that begin or end with “as the bishop said to the actress” or the other way around. Phrases that take on a sexual overtone, undertone, or alternate meaning by adding that phrase that either way is roughly equivalent to a joke ending, “that’s what she (or he) said”.

It niggled at me through the whole book as something familiar, but I was caught up just enough in the mystery at hand and the bell didn’t ring until AFTER I finished the book. Because that phrase, in popular parlance in British in the 1930s, was one that Simon Templar, The Saint, used frequently and often in the original books by Leslie Charteris – of which I read as many as I could find back in the dark ages after seeing bits of the TV series starring Roger Moore in syndication way back when.

I don’t remember that phrase from the TV series, but in the books, Templar used it frequently, often and as intended. Honestly, I’m not even sure I was quite old enough to get the double entendres at the time I read the books, but the whole thing stuck in my memory and thereby hangs that facepalm and headslap.

Because if this series continues, the whole entire thing has the potential to be a series of investigations where the Bishop and the Actress are going to have a LOT to say to each other. And quite possibly do with and to each other between solving mysteries.

Review: Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night by Sophie Hannah

Review: Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night by Sophie HannahHercule Poirot's Silent Night (New Hercule Poirot Mysteries, #5) by Sophie Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: New Hercule Poirot #5
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on October 24, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot – legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and A Haunting in Venice – puts his little grey cells to work solving a baffling Christmas mystery.
CAN HERCULE POIROT SOLVE A BAFFLING MURDER MYSTERY IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS?

It’s 19 December 1931. Hercule Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool are called to investigate the murder of a man in the apparent safe haven of a Norfolk hospital ward. Catchpool’s mother, the irrepressible Cynthia, insists that Poirot stays in a crumbling mansion by the coast, so that they can all be together for the festive period while Poirot solves the case. Cynthia’s friend Arnold is soon to be admitted to that same hospital and his wife is convinced he will be the killer’s next victim, though she refuses to explain why.
Poirot has less than a week to solve the crime and prevent more murders, if he is to escape from this nightmare scenario and get home in time for Christmas. Meanwhile, someone else – someone utterly ruthless – also has ideas about what ought to happen to Hercule Poirot . . .

My Review:

Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool and his friend and mentor Hercule Poirot are just settling in to a two-week staycation (even if that term had not been invented yet) in London, staying in Poirot’s rather palatial apartment at Whitehaven Mansions, attended by Poirot’s inestimable butler, George, for the duration of the holidays.

Catchpool, in particular, was determined to spend his Christmas hols with his friend Poirot and absolutely NOT with his mother, the overbearing Cynthia Catchpool. The moment Cynthia lies her way into Poirot’s office, we understand EXACTLY why Catchpool intended to spend his holidays as far away from his mother as he could manage.

Because Cynthia Catchpool is the perfect example of another term that hadn’t been invented yet. She was a ‘helicopter parent’ long before that term was even on the horizon, someone who swoops into her son’s life – or frankly anyone’s life – and absolutely does not listen to a single thing she has to say.

She is determined that Catchpool and Poirot will return with her to the  blustery Norfolk coast in late December to solve a murder and spend Christmas with her and the friends she’s visiting,and will not take ‘NO’ for an answer, no matter how many times it’s shouted at her.

But when she describes the circumstances of the murder to Poirot, Catchpool knows instantly that he is at least somewhat doomed. Christmas itself may be saved, but Poirot gets a look in his eye that Catchpool knows all too well – that something about this case has caught the attention of Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’.

What fascinates Poirot so much that he is willing to disrupt his holiday plans? The man who has been murdered is someone who could not possibly have been intended to be murdered. So why is he dead?

Poirot must know. He must solve the case. Before the truly execrable cuisine served at Frellingsloe House causes him to die from starvation. Or poison.

Escape Rating B-: Looking back at my reviews of the previous books in this New Hercule Poirot series by Sophie Hannah (The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket, The Mystery of Three Quarters, and The Killings at Kingfisher Hill) I’ve had mixed feelings about pretty much all the books in the series, and this latest entry is absolutely no exception.

I’m beginning to think that the problem is that I like the concept more than the execution (ahem, pun not exactly intended but…) and that’s true in this entry in the series as well. Although I did find this one more readable than The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, I ended this book feeling every bit as sorry for Catchpool this time, if not a bit more, than I did then.

Because this time he’s very much put upon by Poirot AND his mother. Who I fully confess I hated as a character from her very first appearance to the point where I mentally cringed every time she appeared on the page. Her overbearing helicopter parenting, no matter how anachronistic that term, was a trial from beginning to end. The story did need her gossiping nature, I’m just not sure it needed her utter assholishness about it. Or at least I didn’t need it considering that she did not get nearly the bashing she deserved.

The case itself went to some interesting psychological places, as it turned out to be wrapped around the idea of reinventing oneself and how deeply one can get consumed by burying that past so completely that anything that touches on it causes a psychological break. I liked that Poirot and Catchpool had differing interpretations of those causes, particularly as Poirot’s reasoning felt more germane to the times while Catchpool’s was perhaps a bit anachronistic but more humane.

A lot of the ‘action’ of the story, particularly the ‘fair play’ aspects of the mystery and its resolution, were handled as more ‘telling’ than showing, as the two detectives were often working separately, and only caught up at irregular intervals through meticulous reports – which is how the reader gets caught up as well.

I’m left with a bag of mixed feelings about this one. I liked it better than The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, not as much as The Mystery of Three Quarters and Closed Casket, but still enjoying the concept as a whole. We’ll see how I’m feeling about the whole thing if Poirot and Catchpool catch another case a year or two from now.

Review: Stephen Leeds: Death and Faxes by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Stephen Leeds: Death and Faxes by Brandon SandersonStephen Leeds: Death and Faxes by Brandon Sanderson, Max Epstein, David Pace, Michael Harkins
Narrator: Oliver Wyman
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Legion #1.5
Length: 5 hours and 54 minutes
Published by Recorded Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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From #1 New York Times Bestselling, Hugo Award-winning author, Brandon Sanderson, and co-authors Max Epstein, David Pace, and Michael Harkins comes an audio-first techno-thriller addition to the universe of Stephen (Legion) Leeds.
Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are all quite mad.
A one-man team of experts, Stephen Leeds is a genius of unparalleled mental capabilities who can learn new skills or master entire scholarly disciplines in mere hours. However, these skills come at a price. Stephen must compartmentalize his brain, with each of his new skill sets being held by an “aspect”—a hallucination his mind creates with their own fully-developed personality, life, and limitations. Without these aspects, and the delicate construct of reality they provide for him, Stephen is unable to control his mind and engage with the real world.
So when an unprecedented Internal Revenue Service data breach stumps the FBI, Stephen is brought in to investigate. With the help of his aspects, he must uncover the connection between millions of stolen tax returns, a mysterious hacker named Enoch, a strange, cutting-edge technology that uses soundwaves to transfer data, and a nearly extinct Mesopotamian religion which once rivaled Christianity. What Leeds discovers along the way will reveal the devastating consequences of this new technology, test the limits of his aspects, and lead him face to face with a man hell-bent on vengeance, for which no cost is too high.
Stephen Leeds: Death and Faxes is a new entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stephen Leeds saga and chronologically takes place between the novellas Legion and Legion: Lies of the Beholder.

My Review:

The case that finds Stephen Leeds in this audio-only entry in the Legion series is rather more mundane – and initially less personal – than the cases he solved in the three novellas that make up Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds; Legion, Skin Deep and Lies of the Beholder.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is left up to the reader – or in this case listener – to judge.

The title gives a hint, as it’s both a play on the saying about the inevitability of ‘death and taxes’ as well as a mystery that begins with a very high-tech application of a rather old technology. A massive data breach at an IRS datacenter has been perpetrated by using the still-functioning fax machines as both a backdoor into the once-believed secure system AND a method of transmitting sound waves that can either soothe or destroy.

Those sound waves certainly soothed the IRS staff into an entire afternoon of hazy dreaming that allowed the hack to take place while the entire staff was quite literally blissfully unaware – and unremembering.

That’s not the case when Stephen Leeds is finally called in. With the help of his ‘aspects’, his mental projections of the many facets of his strange genius, he was able to determine both when and how the hack took place.

Which is when the mysterious hacker struck directly at Stephen and his abilities for the first, but absolutely not the last, time, rendering his aspects comatose and taking Stephen himself nearly to the edge of collapse.

It’s only the beginning, because Stephen is determined to get to the bottom of this case, following a trail of victims around the country even as the structure of his increasingly fragile mental landscape falls into tatters.

While a seemingly omniscient enemy waits in the shadows of cyberspace, blocking Stephen’s every avenue to both resolution and escape.

Except one, hidden in the very place that the hacker has done his best to destroy. Inside Stephen Leeds’ own mind.

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed feelings about this one, and I’m not even sure if I can completely articulate why. But I’m certainly going to try.

I picked this up because I loved this series as it originally stood, which may be part of the problem. Initially, the Legion series was really a single story broken up into three parts that were published as separate novellas. It may not have been intended that way when the first book, Legion, was published 2012, but by the time the third book, Lies of the Beholder, came out in 2018 it seemed as if the trilogy told a complete story that came to a satisfying ending for the whole thing – even if, or especially because – it was a bit of a mind screw at the end.

So I wasn’t expecting to see Stephen Leeds again when I found this audio-only entry in the series. An entry that doesn’t occur AFTER Lies of the Beholder, but instead between the first book, Legion, and the second book, Skin Deep. So it took a bit of mental adjustment on my part to get back into the world of ten years ago and back into what was then still an incomplete story.

In other words, Stephen Leeds had himself and the aspects of his genius a bit better figured out by the end of the final book, so it was weird to see him back to a more uncertain state of himself. A combination of angst, uncertainty and even impostor syndrome that felt like it pervaded this book even more than in the stories published previously.

At the same time, it also seemed as if that very angst and uncertainty was an intent of the mysterious hacker, and it’s a part of Stephen’s perspective that didn’t get fully resolved at the end.

One of the things that struck me about Death and Faxes, and it’s the impression I’m left with now that I’ve finished, is that Stephen doesn’t feel quite like himself in this story – although his aspects are very well drawn. As this production was a cooperative effort rather than just a single writer, it may be that the characterization felt a bit off because this time around it ironically came from more than one mind – just as Stephen’s genius often appears to.

Also, Leeds just plain angsts a LOT in this story, even more than in the other parts of the series, and that angst dragged the resolution of the mystery out even more than the hacker’s admitted genius and manipulation did. This was a case where I would have gladly switched to text, just to get on with it, if there had been one, but there isn’t.

So, a whole lot of mixed feelings, leaving me with the conclusion that fans of the series, like me, will probably enjoy the trip down memory lane to visit Stephen and his aspects again. (However, the comment in the blurb about Stephen being perfectly sane but his hallucinations all being quite mad isn’t merely a bit off – it’s completely wrong. A fair number of his aspects are quirky and/or eccentric, but none of them are actually ‘mad’, and neither is Stephen Leeds. His coping mechanism is just eccentric and sometimes expensive, but works for him and does no harm to anyone else. There are worse ways to get by.)

If you’ve enjoyed the previous entries in the series, Death and Faxes is an interesting but not 100% successful addition to Leeds’ story. And if you’ve listened to any of the other books in the series, that this production is voiced by Oliver Wyman, the same actor who worked on the rest of the series, helps carry the listener along into accepting this later work as part of the whole.

But if the description of Stephen Leeds’ genius and methods of coping with it sound like fun but you’ve not met him before, it would be better to start your acquaintance with the first exploration of Stephen’s journey in Legion.

Review: Shark Heart by Emily Habeck

Review: Shark Heart by Emily HabeckShark Heart by Emily Habeck
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Simon & Schuster on August 8, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
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A lyrical and provocative debut novel about newlyweds Wren and her husband, Lewis, who over the course of nine months, transforms into a great white shark.

For Lewis and Wren, their first year of marriage is also their last. A few weeks after their wedding, Lewis receives a rare diagnosis. He will retain most of his consciousness, memories, and intellect, but his physical body will transform into that of a great white shark. As Lewis develops the features and impulses of one of the most predatory creatures in the ocean, his complicated artist’s heart struggles to make peace with his unfulfilled dreams.
At first, Wren internally resists her husband’s fate. Is there a way for them to be together after Lewis fully transforms? Then, a glimpse of Lewis’s developing carnivorous nature activates long-repressed memories for Wren, whose story vacillates between her childhood living on a houseboat in Oklahoma, her time with a college ex-girlfriend, and her unusual friendship with a woman pregnant with twin birds. Woven throughout this daring novel is the story of Wren’s mother, Angela, who becomes pregnant with Wren at fifteen in an abusive relationship amidst her parents’ crumbling marriage. In the present, all of Wren’s grief eventually collides, and she meets her fears with surrender, choosing to love fully, now.
An emotional exploration of motherhood, marriage, transformation, and letting go, Shark Heart is an unforgettable love story about mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, animals and people—all while examining what it truly means to be human.

My Review:

Thanks mostly to superhero movies, when we hear the term mutant we tend to think of science experiments gone awry and people who have just a little bit extra in the DNA and what they do with that extra – as well as what gets done to them because of it.

This isn’t that kind of story about mutants and mutations. It’s both a bit more – and a bit less.

This also isn’t really a story about a man who became a shark and the woman who loved him. Although I wanted it to be – sort of a shark toothed version of The Shape of Water. But it isn’t that either. Shark Heart is a story about change and the way that love changes when the person we love goes through a transformation that we can’t follow.

And what happens after that. And after that. But also, before that.

Lewis and Wren marry, as so many people do, buoyed on a wave of love and hope. They expect the first year of their marriage to be the beginning of lifelong bliss and joy – albeit with a few of the typical bumps in the road for any couple that plans on being together for the long haul.

But it’s not to be. Well, it’s mostly not to be.

Early in that first year of bliss, Lewis is diagnosed with Carcharodon carcharias mutation. Putting it less scientifically, he’s turning into a Great white shark. Rapidly. Literally and not figuratively. In the version of our world that Wren and Lewis inhabit, this isn’t even all that uncommon. Lewis’ particular mutation is, but this is a world where it seems to have become relatively commonplace for people to mutate to animal form.

There are entire hospitals and specialty medical institutes and protocols and laws to deal with all the issues and medical needs of people who mutate and their caregivers. (And I am so curious about how this world works, but that’s not the story we get, either.)

Which gets back to what I said at the beginning, that Shark Heart is a story about change and transformation, and what happens to the humans when they make a drastic change or when drastic change is thrust upon them.

And definitely, absolutely, about what happens to the people who love them.

Escape Rating B-: Wren isn’t the first person – or unfortunately the last – to discover, after it’s too late in one way or another, that their new spouse is a gigantic, all-consuming predator and that they are now on a menu they didn’t know existed. The question is whether Wren’s situation is literal or merely a metaphor.

Which is a bit like The Crane Husband, not just because people transform into animals, but because it’s possible to interpret the transformation as metaphor even more than it is.

There were also a whole LOT of SFnal possibilities, and I confess that I wanted the story to go there rather than into the literary fiction it most definitely is. It’s clear from the bits we see in the story that a whole medical infrastructure has been created to deal with the issue of mutations, but for an SF reader we don’t get nearly enough of it for the world to make sense. (John Scalzi’s Lock In, especially the prequel Unlocked, did an excellent job of showing the institutional effects of the introduction of a planet-wide shift in lifelong medical conditions and their treatment.)

I did get really caught up in the part of the story about Lewis and Wren’s year of dealing with what’s happening to them both and their desperate and increasingly separate paddles up the River DeNial as it goes along. And I think I’d have liked the book a lot more if it stayed with them.

But this IS literary fiction, which means it has to take the reader backwards and forwards in time, both to how Wren got to be the person she is and to what happens to both Lewis and Wren after. Even though he’s a shark. For this reader, those later bits detract – at least until we get to the end and back to Wren and her life after Lewis and what he left behind.

I wanted this to be something other than it was, which is a ‘me’ thing and may not be a ‘you’ thing. I would have preferred the story I got if it had stuck with Wren and Lewis in a mostly forward-moving timeline – even if he was forcibly dropped out of that story halfway through. Because a story of her coping, whether literally or as metaphor, would have been enough to carry me through because I liked Wren and empathized with her a lot more than I expected to.

I picked this up because I was flailing, and it looked interesting and different. It was different and the first half was interesting and even sometimes compelling, but the second half just didn’t keep that momentum. But if you like literary fiction more than I do it might work better for you.

Review: The Horoscope Writer by Ash Bishop

Review: The Horoscope Writer by Ash BishopThe Horoscope Writer by Ash Bishop
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, thriller
Pages: 320
Published by CamCat Books on July 18, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Leo: You’ll step out the door, prepared for a normal day. But you’ll never reach your workplace. You will vanish, without a trace.
Who is The Horoscope Writer? It’s not Bobby Frindley. He’s an ex-Olympic athlete who has fast-talked his way into an entry-level position at a dying newspaper. He’s supposed to be writing horoscopes, but someone has been doing his job for him . . .
On his first night on the job, Bobby receives an email with twelve gruesome, highly-detailed horoscopes, along with a chilling ultimatum: print them and one will come true, or ignore them and all of them will.
Working with a skeptical co-worker, Bobby investigates the horoscope writer’s true identity, but the closer he gets to the truth, the more the predictions begin to be about him. Has he attracted the attention of a cruel puppeteer? Or is it possible that, like any good horoscope, it’s all in his mind?

My Review:

Human beings do their damndest to find patterns in things that don’t have them. The whole idea behind that concept, patternicity, is a huge part of what drives the plot and the people in the book Rabbits by Terry Miles, and its upcoming sequel, The Quiet Room.

We want the world to make sense, so we try to force that sense into the world whether it’s there or not.

Which may be part of why people faithfully read their horoscopes and believe the rather vague hints and warnings therein. Because it’s easy to make the predictions and warnings cover the events of the day after the fact, especially if one is looking for such coverage.

But in this story, the new ‘horoscope writer’ for a struggling regional newspaper in San Diego receives a full set of horoscopes from an anonymous ‘benefactor’ with an attached threat – or warning – or a bit of both.

If the horoscopes are published in full, only one will come true. But if they’re not, all of them will. While some are trivial, a few on the list are downright dire – but also very much against the odds. Former Olympian and hopeful journalist Bobby Frindley believes it’s all a hoax.

At least until the rare tiger leaps out of his zoo enclosure and kills a tourist – just as his horoscope predicted.

From that point forward, the story is off to the races as the horoscope writer turned fledgeling reporter becomes caught up in the global phenomenon of figuring out which of the day’s predictions are going to come true – and wondering who is trying to force the pattern and to what grisly end.

And whether that end will be Bobby’s, his friends’, his city’s, or just his soul.

Escape Rating B-: I picked up The Horoscope Writer because I reviewed the author’s debut novel, Intergalactic Exterminators, Inc. for Library Journal and had a blast, so I was hoping for more of the same.

I certainly got caught up in Bobby Frindley’s ride to fame and maybe fortune as he tries to cobble out a career as an investigative journalist in the waning days of newspaper journalism. But there were a couple of things that I kept tripping over as I followed Bobby’s trek out of the frying pan and into the fire as he latched onto one flawed potential father-figure after another.

The Horoscope Writer reads like the ‘evil twin’ of the late 1990s TV series Early Edition, where a kind of average guy receives a daily delivery of the Chicago Sun-Times (how the mighty have fallen) that is one day ahead. The protagonist has one day to right whatever wrong he reads in the prognosticating paper before it’s too late to fix.

But that early newspaper delivery turned out to be on the side of the angels, while the horoscopes that Bobby starts receiving are a lot more like horrorscopes, and that’s before the general public starts trying to make them come true – or at least the potentially ‘good’ ones, often with considerably less than good results.

Humans being human, because they are.

As much as Bobby as a character read like more than a bit of a ‘failure to launch’, he also read like at least one answer to a question that I’ve always wondered about, the fate of people like Olympic athletes in sports that don’t have long-term career prospects. He’s achieved a kind of fame and success that people dream of, but at a time when nearly all of his life is still ahead of him.

Bobby’s flailing around for a second act, and the one that lands in his lap turns out to be a doozy – or will be if it doesn’t get him killed.

Howsomever, while I found the story compelling to read in the earlier stages, particularly when it really seemed possible that the story was heading into true psychic or fantasy territory in some way, when Bobby started zeroing in on a more mundane agent – at least for criminally sociopathic definitions of mundane – it lost a bit of its fascination for this reader as it shifted fully into ‘bwahaha’ territory.

All things considered, The Horoscope Writer started out strong, and had some compelling dramatic possibilities along the way, but in the end wasn’t nearly as good as Intergalactic Exterminators, Inc. But I still have high hopes for the author’s next – especially if he leans back into SFnal territory.

Review: Rose/House by Arkady Martine

Review: Rose/House by Arkady MartineRose/House by Arkady Martine
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: horror, mystery, science fiction
Pages: 128
Published by Subterranean Press on May 18, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Dust jacket illustration by David Curtis.
Arkady Martine, the acclaimed author of the Teixcalaan Series, returns with an astonishing new novella.
Basit Deniau’s houses were haunted to begin with.
A house embedded with an artificial intelligence is a common thing: a house that is an artificial intelligence, infused in every load-bearing beam and fine marble tile with a thinking creature that is not human? That is something else altogether. But now Deniau’s been dead a year, and Rose House is locked up tight, as commanded by the architect’s will: all his possessions and files and sketches are confined in its archives, and their only keeper is Rose House itself. Rose House, and one other.
Dr. Selene Gisil, one of Deniau’s former protégé, is permitted to come into Rose House once a year. She alone may open Rose House’s vaults, look at drawings and art, talk with Rose House’s animating intelligence all she likes. Until this week, Dr. Gisil was the only person whom Rose House spoke to.
But even an animate intelligence that haunts a house has some failsafes common to all AIs. For instance: all AIs must report the presence of a dead body to the nearest law enforcement agency.
There is a dead person in Rose House. The house says so. It is not Basit Deniau, and it is not Dr. Gisil. It is someone else. Rose House, having completed its duty of care and informed Detective Maritza Smith of the China Lake police precinct that there is in fact a dead person inside it, dead of unnatural causes—has shut up.
No one can get inside Rose House, except Dr. Gisil. Dr. Gisil was not in North America when Rose House called the China Lake precinct. But someone did. And someone died there. And someone may be there still.
Limited: 1000 signed numbered hardcover copies

My Review:

I want to call Rose/House a haunted house book. AND I also want to say it’s more horror than it is anything else. But neither of those labels is strictly accurate. I’m not sure any labels I could possibly come up with would be strictly accurate.

And I’m sure that Rose House itself would agree. If it would condescend to consider anything I ever said at all, ever. After all, I’m not the one and only human that Rose House is required to accommodate.

Which may be the best place to begin. Rose House is the last, greatest, and best house built by the famous – sometimes infamous – architect Basit Deniau sometime in the next century. I want to say it’s a house with an integrated AI, but it’s more like the house IS the AI, and the AI is the house. It’s other in ways that haunt the reader and the story from beginning to end.

If it actually ends. I’m not totally sure about that.

This is one of those stories where the prime mover and shaker is dead, to begin with. And so is an unnamed and unidentified victim of the many and stringent security measures that Rose House is capable of.

Which is where the nearby China Lake Police Department, in the person of Detective Maritza Smith, comes in. Rose House is required to notify the local police of the presence of a dead human within its walls. It is not required to let the police, or anyone else, within those walls to investigate that body, except for its late creator’s one and only representative.

And it has more than enough free will to play with its prey before this AI spider invites the unsuspecting human fly into its surprisingly sticky web.

Because no one who enters Rose House leaves it unscarred. If they manage to leave at all.

Escape Rating B-: I picked this up because I still miss Teixcalaan. (Yes, I know I said that the ending of A Desolation Called Peace allows for a third book but doesn’t require one. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t WANT a third book REAL BAD.)

I knew going in that Rose/House wasn’t going to scratch that particular itch but the author’s writing style is just so lovely that I figured I would enjoy this novella even if I didn’t love it. Which pretty much sums up my reaction all the way around.

Rose/House touches on a lot of genres. It’s SFnal in its presentation of Rose House as a self-willed AI. At the same time, the way that the house plays with its potential prey has all the chills of horror because the very idea of a house deciding whether or not it wants to kill or absorb anyone within its walls is enough to make anyone startle a bit the next time their own dwelling makes random settling noises.

There’s certainly a bit of mystery in the way that Detective Smith is presented with a murder she can’t investigate, let alone solve, unless she finds a way into Rose House AND a method of going along with its thought processes without getting absorbed by them. Plus there’s the mystery of Rose House’s creator and all of the greedy and grasping people who believe they are entitled to a piece of his legacy and believe that the ends justify their means of acquiring it.

Which they don’t.

Rose/House supports all of those various plot strings, potentials and possibilities without really solving any of them, which works because this novella is short and it’s intended to leave the reader wondering whether Rose House has manipulated everyone and everything – including the reader – all along. It’s not meant to be solved, it’s meant to continue as a puzzle long after the last page is turned.

Whether that will leave the reader puzzled or satisfied is a question that each reader will have to answer for themselves. I wanted this to focus on the mystery – and i’m left a bit unsatisfied that it didn’t really resolve those issues.

The biggest questions that remain are all wrapped around the AI itself. And they are questions that leave me with shivers of possibility – all of them horrifying.

Review: You Are Here by Karin Lin-Greenberg

Review: You Are Here by Karin Lin-GreenbergYou Are Here by Karin Lin-Greenberg
Narrator: Jennifer Aquino
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 304
Length: 8 hours and 39 minutes
Published by Counterpoint, HighBridge a division of Recorded Books on May 2, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The inhabitants of a small town have long found that their lives intersect at one focal point: the local shopping mall. But business is down, stores are closing, and as the institution breathes its last gasp, the people inside it dream of something different, something more. You Are Here brings this diverse group of characters vividly to life.
The only hair stylist at Sunshine Clips secretly watches YouTube primers on how to draw and paint, just as her awkward young son covertly studies new illusions for his magic act. His friend and magician's assistant, a high school cashier in the food court, has attracted the unwanted attention of a strange boy at school. She tells no one except the mall's chain bookstore manager, a failed academic living in the tiny house he built in his mother-in-law's backyard. His family is watched over by the judgmental old woman next door, whose weekly trips to Sunshine Clips hide a complicated and emotional history and will spark the moment when everything changes for them all.
Exploring how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are inextricably bound to the places we call home, You Are Here is a keenly perceptive and deeply humane portrait of a community in transition, ultimately illuminating the magical connections that can bloom from the ordinary wonder of our everyday lives.

My Review:

You are here, in an America where the driving economic engine and social-type phenomenon called a “shopping mall” is clearly dying. All you have to do is look at the vacant storefronts in even the largest and seemingly busiest malls around you. Or at the vast acreage of sparsely populated parking lots that surround them.

There are lots of stories about what happens in small towns when the largest employer in the area leaves or dies. Stories about the economic depression and eventual death of the town it once supported.

But what happens when a shopping mall dies? (We’re probably in the process of finding out in real life, as they do seem to be dying all over.) Greenways Mall in upstate New York has been dying for years at the point where this book picks up its action.

Or rather, the lack thereof, which is the problem in a nutshell. There is very little going on at the mall. It’s dying and everyone knows it. It’s been dying for years, to the point where its actual demise won’t be much of a blip in the local economy. Not many stores are still open, not very many people still work there, not many people, even in the neighborhood, still shop there. It’s a vicious circle, cycling rapidly towards the drain.

But the lack of traffic in the mall, writ large, does not mean that the place isn’t the hub of several people’s lives and/or their economic mainstay. They are the central figures in You Are Here, Tina Huang who is the last stylist at Sunshine Clips and her little boy Jackson who spends his after school hours doing his homework at the salon. Kevin, the manager of the chain bookstore outlet, is killing time in a dead end job because he can’t make up his mind about what he really wants to be doing with his life. And all too aware that his wife is running out of patience with his lack of pretty much everything except crazy business ideas that will only eat up money they don’t have.

Then there’s Ro Goodson, an elderly widow who comes to the mall because she’s lonely. She’s Tina’s only regular customer, and she’s a fixture at Greenways. A disapproving one who bestows judgemental advice on everyone she meets, making it clear that none of them are measuring up to whatever standards have ossified inside her barely polite and unconsciously bigoted head.

The mall and its denizens all seem accepting of their fate, trapped in a cycle where nothing good ever seems to happen, until something truly terrible occurs to shake them out of their respective sloughs of despond. It may be the making of each of them. Or it may mow them under.

Time will, as it always does, tell.

Escape Rating B-: The premise of this book has a tremendous amount of potential. Shopping malls, once a bright fixture of the landscape, are dying pretty much everywhere. So there are lots of Greenways Malls out there and probably one near where you live just as there is here. So this sounded like it would have lots of story potential. Which it does.

The question for the reader is whether or not the book in hand lived up to that potential. As you might surmise from the rating, I ended up with very mixed feelings.

One of the parts that is done very well is that each of the individual characters, from 9-year-old Jackson Huang to 89-year-old Ro Goodson, is distinct and distinctly well portrayed. We get to know who these people are and how and why they’ve ended up in this crumbling place – and just how much of their lives will crumble with it.

But not a lot happens in You Are Here. It’s a slice-of-life kind of story, where every character is shuffling along in their rut – except for 9-year-old Jackson – and can’t see over the edges of the rut they’ve worn down for themselves.

Even the big event that knocks everything off course is downplayed as it happens very late in the book. The chapter with the most verve is actually an epilogue, where we learn the effects of that event nearly a decade later.

The story as it goes along is a story of quiet desperation told in plots and subplots that knit together well but don’t seem to go much of anywhere until that sharp break almost at the end.

And that was pretty much where this story fell down for me on not one but two fronts. As I said above, the characters are distinct and well-drawn, which should have made this a great book for audio. But it wasn’t, which was pretty jarring after the marvelous performance of The Wager earlier this week.

In the case of You Are Here the narrator is very precise but her reading is flat. She doesn’t voice the characters enough to make each one as distinct as they are in the text. I had to drop the audio and switch to text very early in the story just to keep going with this one, as my reading group recommended it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

The other reason this didn’t work for me as well as it did for others in that group is that it is VERY much in the literary fiction tradition, which means that not much really happens but the characters angst about it a lot. If that’s your jam this will work for you, but if it’s not, it likely won’t.

Which is too bad, because this slow build of a novel confronts a whole lot of serious issues in 21st century life, and does a great job of making the reader feel those issues through those well-drawn, distinct, characters. For this reader, that made You Are Here an interesting but not compelling book.

Review: The Raven Thief by Gigi Pandian

Review: The Raven Thief by Gigi PandianThe Raven Thief (Secret Staircase Mystery, #2) by Gigi Pandian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase Mystery #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on March 21, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Multiple award-winning author Gigi Pandian is one of the best locked room mystery writers working today. Her newest heroine, Tempest Raj, returns in The Raven Thief, where sliding bookcases, trick tables, and hidden reading nooks hide something much more sinister than the Secret Staircase Construction crew ever imagined.
One murder. Four impossibilities. A fake séance hides a very real crime.
Secret Staircase Construction just finished their first project with Tempest Raj officially a part of the team—a classic mystery novel-themed home interior. Their client is now ready to celebrate her new life without her cheating ex-husband, famous mystery author Corbin Colt. First up, a party, and Tempest and Grandpa Ash are invited to the exclusive mock séance to remove any trace of Corbin from the property—for good. It's all lighthearted fun until Corbin's dead body crashes the party.
The only possible suspects are the eight people around the séance table—a circle of clasped hands that wasn't broken. Suspicion quickly falls on Grandpa Ash, the only one with actual blood on him. To prove her beloved grandfather’s innocence, Tempest must figure out what really happened—and how—or Ash will be cooking his delectable Indian and Scottish creations nevermore.

My Review:

Hidden staircases are far from the only secrets that Tempest Raj has to contend with in this second book in the Secret Staircase Mystery series, after the events of last year’s locked room mystery/thriller romp, Under Lock and Skeleton Key.

In fact, the Raj family seems to be keeping an entire hidden vault chock-full of secrets, each believing they are protecting the others – and Tempest herself is no different. But those secrets – or at least a few of them, very nearly put Tempest’s beloved grandfather Ash into prison.

It all starts innocently enough. Lavinia Kingsley wants to exorcise the demon of her cheating ex-husband from her life in general and from the home they once shared in particular. As the bastard is very much still alive – and still living in town – Lavinia decides on a fake séance to remove his virtual or spiritual presence. A ceremony in which she plans to burn a box of papers he left behind when he moved out – into his new girlfriend’s house.

Even in a real séance, the practitioner does not expect the corpse of the dearly or not-so-dearly departed to manifest in the room. So it’s more than a bit of a surprise – it’s a downright shock – when Corbin Colt’s still warm body drops from the ceiling to the middle of the table.

Tempest’s magician friend Sanjay prepared the room for the fake séance, but that was absolutely not one of the props he planned to include!

But that preparation included all the participants surrendering their cell phones, all of the doors to the room being locked, and all of the lights dimmed to set the ‘right’ atmosphere for the event. When that body drops right in front of him, Ashok’s instincts as a retired doctor are to examine the victim in the hopes that he can save the man.

An instinct that unfortunately covers Ash in the evidence used to indict him for the murder of a man who once filed a restraining order against him for assault.

Leaving Tempest and her friends in the same position they found themselves in Under Lock and Skeleton Key – running an unofficial, unsanctioned and absolutely unprofessional investigation into a murder case involving her family that the police seem to have gotten all wrong. Again.

Escape Rating B-: Like the series opener, The Raven Thief is a cozy mystery thriller that takes the classic locked-room mystery and gives it a whole prop cupboard’s worth of new, inventive and occasionally downright magical twists and turns.

When Corbin Colt’s case turns into a murder investigation, it’s not merely a locked room mystery. There are not just one or two, but four impossibilities built into his killing, from how did his murderer get the body into the ceiling with the séance attendees in the room to how did he get so recently dead when he was seen a half hour away by hundreds of witnesses just a few minutes before his shocking demise?

Watching Tempest figure out just how it was done and whodunnit was a lot of fun, filled with oodles of surprises and misdirections, but it takes a fair amount of book to get there.

What was much less fun, or at least much more disjointed, was following Tempest as the family secrets and curses that have plagued her life twisted her up, sent her on more than one wild goose chase and just generally muddied the waters of both the case in hand AND the overarching story of her family and the tragedies that have followed them around the world.

Tempest’s family have a long and storied history as stage magicians – a history that included Tempest herself until just prior to the events of Under Lock and Skeleton Key. Both her mother and her aunt were murdered due to a secret not yet revealed. A mysterious figure that Tempest has nicknamed ‘Moriarty’ is stalking her, claiming to be protecting her but that is murky at best and the reader, along with Tempest is still very much in the dark about his true purpose.

So there are two stories combined into The Raven Thief, and they don’t manage to jell into one. The case of the dead bastard, while not exactly straightforward, had the potential to be a delightful mystery romp of an arsehole getting his just desserts that gets twisted by human emotions and clever misdirection.

The secrets that the Raj family are keeping from one another keep rising up to bite them in the collective arse – which could make the mystery more fascinating. But so far it feels like trying to solve an equation for too many unknowns and they just muddy the waters – at least for this reader.

I did enjoy the last third of the book, as the case in hand starts drawing towards its conclusion. I love Tempest’s quirky family and their even quirkier business adding whimsy, hidden rooms and secret staircases to houses. I’ve also read and liked a few of the books in the author’s Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series. Taking all of those things together means that I’ll be picking up the next book in the Secret Staircase Mystery series in the hopes of getting a few more clues to all of those pesky family secrets that keep getting in Tempest’s way.

Review: The Cliff’s Edge by Charles Todd

Review: The Cliff’s Edge by Charles ToddThe Cliff's Edge (Bess Crawford #13) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #13
Pages: 320
Published by William Morrow on February 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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In the aftermath of World War I, nurse Bess Crawford is caught in a deadly feud between two families in this thirteenth book in the beloved mystery series from New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd. Restless and uncertain of her future in the wake of World War I, former battlefield nurse Bess Crawford agrees to travel to Yorkshire to help a friend of her cousin Melinda through surgery. But circumstances change suddenly when news of a terrible accident reaches them. Bess agrees to go to isolated Scarfdale and the Neville family, where one man has been killed and another gravely injured. The police are asking questions, and Bess is quickly drawn into the fray as two once close families take sides, even as they are forced to remain in the same house until the inquest is completed.
When another tragedy strikes, the police are ready to make an arrest. Bess struggles to keep order as tensions rise and shots are fired. What dark truth is behind these deaths? And what about the tale of an older murder--one that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the Nevilles? Bess is unaware that when she passes the story on to Cousin Melinda, she will set in motion a revelation with the potential to change the lives of those she loves most--her parents, and her dearest friend, Simon Brandon...

My Review:

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddThe cliff’s edge of the title is both literal and figurative in this 13th entry in the Bess Crawford series.

Former battlefield nurse Bess Crawford finds herself in Yorkshire in her latest attempt to put off making firm decisions about what she will do now that her war is over. While she has resigned from QAIMNS, (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service), that itself was out of a sense of duty. She has a secured future, whether it’s one she wants or not. Bess’ dilemma is either that she does not want the future that would have been hers if there had never been a war – or more likely that she either doesn’t want to give up the freedom and purpose that came with her wartime service or believes that what she really wants is not possible for her.

Or perhaps that should be “who” she wants. Or all of the above, wrapped in a great big ball of angst, recriminations and regrets.

Her cousin Melinda asked her to see Lady Beatrice through her gallbladder surgery. Lady Beatrice asked her to go to Scarfdale to make sure that her adult godson was alive after a terrible accident and to help in any way that she could – as well as send back a great deal more information than was supplied in the initial, alarming telegram.

When Bess arrives in Scarfdale she learns all about that cliff’s edge. The edge that two men fell over, or were pushed over, or pulled each other over. One man is dead under these rather murky circumstances, while the other is alive, severely injured, and suspected of the other’s murder.

While Bess’ first responsibility is to her new patient, and her second to Lady Beatrice, still recovering at her home, as usual Bess can’t stop herself from becoming at least curious if not downright involved in the mysteries and tensions that swirl around the house AND the village that depends upon it.

The family and ‘friends’ that had gathered in the house clearly can’t stand each other. The local police seem all too willing to rush the survivor to judgment for reasons that no one is willing to tell a stranger – namely Bess.

And the injured survivor is not in nearly as desperate straits as first appeared. It will be up to Bess to learn what she can – and protect whom she feels she must – in order to bring this thorny case to some kind of conclusion.

Preferably without bringing too many others, including Bess herself, to theirs.

Escape Rating B-: As much as I have enjoyed this series, I believe that it is time for it to come to an end unless it makes a major change in direction. Because Bess has been in limbo for several entries now – at least since book 10, A Forgotten Place and perhaps as long ago as book 9, A Casualty of War. That limbo that makes sense in her circumstances – but her limbo of indecision has sunk into a slough of despond and it feels like it’s simply time for her to get on with her life.

But first she has to decide what that life is going to be, which means she needs to come to a whole bunch of resolutions that may be outside of her control.

What made Bess such a terrific choice of protagonist back in her first adventure, A Duty to the Dead, has reached a kind of expiration date now that the war is over. As a battlefield nurse, Bess had agency, responsibility and purpose. It was necessary for her to be able to think for herself, do for herself, and take charge of her own actions. That her sense of responsibility and inability to leave a puzzle unsolved led her into investigating murder worked intensely well.

But her war is over, she’s resigned from the service. She’s no longer in that position of independence and agency and looking for a new purpose. It stretches the long arm of coincidence – or perhaps that’s the willing suspension of disbelief – that in her decision-making paralysis about the shape of her post-war life she keeps tripping over and into murder investigations one after another – which feels like a bridge too far.

She could return to nursing, in a hospital or in private service, and perhaps run across more such mysteries among her duties. She could become a private investigator as Maisie Dobbs has done, but it seems less likely. Or she could marry. And that’s where Bess’ personal dilemma runs headlong into this rather murky mess of a case.

Because Bess is angsting over the state of her relationship with her father’s aide-de-camp Simon Brandon. Not that their relationship has ever been romantic. When Simon first entered her life, he was fourteen and on the run from some mysterious fate or abusive situation and Bess was still a child. But they’ve both grown up and Bess has come to see Simon in a different light while Simon seems to have distanced himself over something Bess said or did and won’t either acknowledge that distance or explain it.

So Bess is in Yorkshire in the midst of this case, which is quite a muddle that doesn’t seem much clearer at its end. Not that the cause of the whole thing isn’t found, but rather that the solution isn’t terribly cathartic and doesn’t seem to resolve much of the surrounding tension.

What it does do is re-open the situation that brought Simon Brandon to Colonel Crawford’s door and regiment so many years ago – even if Simon is not yet aware of it when The Cliff’s Edge ends. But that ending does give me hope that Simon’s past desperation, Bess’ present angst and the question of both of their futures will finally be resolved in the next book in the series.

Review: Uncanny Times by Laura Anne Gilman

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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