Review: King of Eon by Anna Hackett

Review: King of Eon by Anna HackettKing of Eon (Eon Warriors #9) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Eon Warriors #9
Pages: 284
Published by Anna Hackett on September 5th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
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The King of the Eon Warriors has decided to take a Terran as his bride…but finds himself shockingly attracted to the tough, beautiful Space Corps officer in charge of his potential brides’ security.

King Gayel Solann-Eon is dedicated to his people and empire. His father was a hard man and a rigid king, but Gayel is doing things his own way. That includes working with his allies to defeat the ravenous insectoid Kantos. To strengthen the alliance with Earth, he’ll put his own wants and needs aside and take a Terran bride. But as the group of bridal candidates arrive on the Eon homeworld, he’s shocked by a stunning attraction to the Space Corps officer in charge of their security.
Captain Alea Rodriguez has worked hard to escape her awful childhood and make something of herself. Space Corps is her family and her work is her life. Escorting a group of women to an alien planet so a king can pick a bride has left her feeling like she’s on a reality television show. But she takes her job seriously and will keep them safe. What she never expected was her own powerful reaction to the alien warrior king.

Stealth attacks by the Kantos make it clear that no one is safe. Alea is sure that the aliens want to assassinate Gayel, and she’ll do anything to protect him, even as she fights to safeguard her heart. But Gayel is a king and a warrior, and as the two of them fight side by side, he will also convince Alea to risk everything: for their people, for their hearts, and for a bond that won’t be denied.

My Review:

The story in King of Eon reminded me very much of the immortal words of the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. You know the quote, even if you don’t remember who said it. It’s that old saying about the best laid plans of mice and men going oft astray – or variations thereof. The original words went as follows, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” A truism that applies every bit as much to kings and Kantos as it does to mice and men.

Readers have been watching the growth of the alliance between the Eon Warriors and Earth, against the swarming, insectoid Kantos since its rocky beginning in the first book in this series, Edge of Eon. (That’s a big hint to start there at the beginning and not here at the end.)

The Eon Warriors and the Terran Space Corps have united against their common enemy, the Kantos. The big bug-like creatures who are nipping at both species’ heels – along with any other body parts they can reach. The Kantos want to swarm, consume and destroy, while the Eons and the Terrans are hoping to live and let live once the threat is eliminated.

As long as the threat doesn’t eliminate them first.

Gayel, the king of the Eon Warriors, has observed as the ties between his people and the Terrans have gotten stronger – and more intimate – as the series has progressed. Several of his warriors have found their mates among the Terrans. Gayel sees the future of his people going from strength to strength as part of this alliance, and decides, for the future of his own people, that he should set an example by finding his future queen among the Terrans.

It’s not actually a bad idea, but his plan for accomplishing that goal is doomed to fall prey to the old saying about mice and men. Gayel determines that he will find his bride through a process that sounds a bit too much like the reality TV series The Bachelor. And with the same odds of long-term happiness as the show.

That Gayel falls for the Space Corps officer assigned as security for his prospective brides instead of one of the actual prospective brides isn’t much of a surprise – not even to his friends and family. He was never going to fall for, or make a successful match with, a pampered princess – and he didn’t.

But Captain Alea Rodriguez, as much as she may want the man who occupies the throne, has no interest in becoming a queen – as well as zero belief that she might be worthy of the honor.

While the course of true love is running far from smoothly, the Kantos are hatching plans of their own. They need to break the alliance between Eon and Earth before the alliance wrecks their plans to destroy both their enemies and gobble up the remains.

Literally.

Escape Rating B+: King of Eon is a fittingly epic wrap-up to this series, and there is plenty that needs wrapping up to get all of the previous relationships – along with the people of both races – to move from “happy for now but still seriously worried about the future” to happy ever after.

It’s a wild ride and a thrilling read from beginning to end – especially because there is so much left to get wrapped up when this final entry in the series begins!

Gayel’s idea to cement the alliance with Earth by marrying a Terran woman is a solid political decision. It’s been done for centuries on Earth, marrying for alliance instead of love. The problems with the execution of said idea are obvious from the start, because Gayel also wants some kind of real marriage, if not of love than at least of mutual respect and duty. He does not want to marry someone whose ambition is to be queen. He needs someone who will see it as the duty and responsibility that it is and share that duty with him.

And that’s not the scenario he’s set up, as everyone around him realizes long before he does.

At the same time, he’s the linchpin for the alliance with Earth, not because he’s planning to marry a Terran but because Eon is much the stronger partner in the alliance. If he falls, especially if it can be made to seem as if his death is somehow the fault of the Terrans, the alliance will fall apart and the separated allies will be easier to pick off one by one.

So in between the various events that are scheduled for Gayel to choose a bride, the Kantos have scheduled a series of assassination attempts and stealth attacks that get more desperate, more dangerous and more relentless each time they are thwarted.

In the end, the Eon Warriors and the Terrans are going to have to bring the fight to the Kantos – who have already brought the fight to Eon territory with devastating results. The climactic battle is, of course, climactic in more ways than one as the Terran Captain and the Eon King make one final push – with more than a little help from all their friends – to end the conflict once and for all.

The romance in this story, with its backdrop of the bachelor king seeking a bride, was a lot of fun. While it’s obvious early on that Gayel and Alea belong together, their reasons for resisting the attraction feel right for the story. That they can’t resist is what puts the icing on the romantic part of this particular book-cake.

The war with the Kantos felt like it needed a bit of help, not just from all their friends but from more than a touch of deus ex machina. For a species that has been such a big and long-running threat, the denouement of their people as a conquering race was exciting but felt a little too fast and the moral dilemmas of their potential genocide dealt with a bit too easily.

Not that I wasn’t glad to see that problem resolved!

In summary, I loved the romance, thought the Kantos got eliminated a bit too easily, and saw plenty of possibilities for a followup to this series at some not-so-far-future date! Meanwhile I’m looking forward to more science fiction romance from this author when the first book in her Galactic Kings series (loosely linked to the awesome Galactic Gladiators) arrives at the end of the year!

Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera KurianNever Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 400
Published by Park Row on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Meet Chloe Sevre. She’s a freshman honor student, a leggings-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. Her hobbies include yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her.
Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study for psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smart watches that track their moods and movements.
When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.
Never Saw Me Coming is a compulsive, voice-driven thriller by an exciting new voice in fiction, that will keep you pinned to the page and rooting for a would-be killer.

My Review:

The collective noun for a group of psychopaths is a sling. It’s a necessary bit of trivia for this story, because the fictional DC-based John Adams University has given full-ride scholarships to seven students who have been officially diagnosed as psychopaths.

In other words, there’s a sling of psychopaths at John Adams, and it looks like one of them is bent on killing the other six. Because, after all, that’s what psychopaths are best known for in the popular imagination – being serial killers. So just as the saying goes that it takes a thief to catch a thief, it seems as if it takes a psychopath to knock off a sling of psychopaths.

But just as psychopaths are lacking empathy for others, it would seem like a story about one psychopath killing several others would not contain many, well, empathetic characters. So it’s more than a bit of a surprise for the reader to find themselves not just following the point of view of several members of the group, but feeling for them, more than they feel for each other, if not for themselves.

That is part of why they are there, or at least why they got those full-rides. They are part of a study, conducted by a respected psychologist who studies, naturally, psychopaths, to see if there are ways that psychopaths can work their way around their lack of empathy, compassion and even conscience in order to live relatively normal lives.

Something that obviously won’t happen if one of their number bumps off the rest in this multidimensional cat and mouse game where ALL the participants believe that they are the cats – only to discover they were the mice after all.

Escape Rating B+: This book, like Local Woman Missing a few months ago, is a book I picked up because it was recommended by someone in my reading group. I don’t read a ton of thrillers and this sounded interesting.

I’ll admit to having a strange reaction to this one as compared to Local Woman Missing, in that I liked this book more even though I recognize that Local Woman Missing was a better book of this type. There was just a bit too much domestic in that domestic thriller to really wow me, even though I’m pretty certain that domestic thriller readers – who are legion – will probably adore it.

What made this work for me is that in spite of all the main characters being psychopaths, they still turned out to be sympathetic characters in their own slightly twisted ways.

We follow three of the students in the study, Andre, Charles and Chloe. They are all unreliable narrators, some of which is down to their diagnoses, but quite a bit of which is simply because they are young and still a bit naïve and filled with a bit too much bravado. While it’s possible that time will fix some of those issues and turn them into more successful psychopaths, at the moment they are still young and still have some seriously dumb moments in spite of their intelligence.

It probably helps that the only murder we see committed by the three students we are following is Chloe’s murder of the guy who raped her when she was 12, while his friend recorded the rape on his cellphone. She wants the cellphone, and she wants her rapist dead. She knows she’ll get no justice any other way. And even if the reader decries her methods, it’s hard to dispute that the dude earned some serious punishments. (After all, there are a lot of books where delivering just this kind of justice to a rapist would be the entire book.)

As meticulous as Chloe’s plan is to get her revenge, she gets thrown more than a bit off the tracks when first one student and then a second one in their tiny group of seven are murdered. That’s when Andre, Charles and Chloe form their little circle of untrusting trust. Because they know that people like them lie like they’re breathing. They can’t trust each other.

So they maneuver, and lie, and scheme. Whatever they tell each other, they’re always holding something back. And even when they do reveal some of the truth, it’s filtered through their flawed ability to read and empathize with other people.

And that’s just as true of Andre as it is of Chloe and Charles, even though Andre faked his diagnosis to keep the scholarship. Because he’s maintaining that lie at all costs. Which may make his diagnosis as true as either of theirs.

The other thing that made this story work is that the reader can empathize with the characters without necessarily liking them. Because they’re not all that likeable. Andre is gaming the system, Chloe reads as if she’s likely to become a version of Harley Quinn, and Charles is on his way to becoming the kind of amoral conservative politician that we see all too often these days.

(Would it surprise anyone if entirely too many politicians were secretly psychopaths? Really?)

In the end, they’re all scared and young and dumb, because they all believed they were smarter than the hunter they thought they were hunting, and because none of them could get past the lies they told themselves to uncover the killer they never did see coming – even if the reader does. Watching the trap tighten around them all makes for one hell of a thrill-ride of a story.

Review: Murder in the Dark by Simon R. Green

Review: Murder in the Dark by Simon R. GreenMurder in the Dark (Ishmael Jones, #6) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #6
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House Publishers on December 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The sudden appearance of a sinister black hole in the English countryside leads to a baffling murder investigation for Ishmael Jones.

"The past is England's dreaming, and not all of it sleeps soundly..."
Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny have been despatched to assist a group of scientists who are investigating a mysterious black hole which has appeared on a Somerset hillside. Could it really be a doorway to another dimension, an opening into another world?
When one of the scientists disappears into the hole — with fatal consequences — Ishmael must prove whether it was an accident — or murder. But with no clues, no witnesses and no apparent motive, he has little to go on. Is there an alien predator at large, or is an all-too-human killer responsible? Only one thing is certain: if Ishmael does not uncover the truth in time, more deaths will follow...

My Review:

There’s an uncanny, unnatural hole in the fabric of the universe, and it’s up to an almost-but-not-quite-completely human to close this extremely dangerous door in the space-time continuum.

In a nutshell, that’s the premise of Murder in the Dark, this sixth book in the Ishmael Jones urban fantasy/paranormal/SF series.

What’s even weirder is that, at least so far, it’s also the plot of The Scavenger Door, the book I’m currently listening to. Considering that I started Murder in the Dark because I wanted to keep on reading Scavenger Door but couldn’t for a variety of reasons, I was really surprised to discover that I sorta/kinda was anyway.

The Ishmael Jones series exists at an uncanny crossroads between urban fantasy, paranormal and science fiction. The SFnal element is Ishmael himself. He’s an alien who crash landed his spaceship on Earth in the early 1960s. His ship did its level best to transform him into a human, but it glitched a few of the details. He hasn’t aged a day since he crashed. And he doesn’t remember a thing about his life before the crash. Both of these “glitches” come into play a bit in this story.

The stories in this series, for the most part, have been a play on the old country house murders. Ishmael met his romantic and investigative partner Penny Belcourt in the first book in the series, The Dark Side of the Road, when Ishmael was sent by his mysterious and secretive employers, The Organization, to look into the eerie and uncanny goings on at the country house where Penny lived with her parents. Penny was the sole survivor of that investigation.

In fact, most of Ishmael and Penny’s investigations turn out that way, the way that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None turned out. Ishmael and Penny manage to walk away, but seldom do many – or sometimes any – of the people they are sent in to save. Even though they always manage to solve the original mystery.

Ishmael is starting to get a bit of survivor’s guilt over that fact.

But this story is a bit off of Ishmael and Penny’s beaten path, as they are sent in to secure a hole in the side of a hill in a seriously remote bit of countryside. No country houses in sight. Just a hole that swallows up everything that gets a bit too close – including one of the archaeologists that found it in the first place.

The Organization has sent a team of crackerjack scientists to investigate the unnatural hole, and sent Ishmael and Penny to keep the scientists safe while they investigate. When they arrive, both Ishmael and Penny believe that they are there to keep the scientists safe from the hole, and the hole safe from the scientists – along with anyone else who might happen to wander by.

It doesn’t take long for both of them to figure out that their real job is keeping the scientists safe from themselves – and each other.

Escape Rating B+: This was the right book at the right time, and not just for its surprising resemblance to The Scavenger Door. After yesterday’s terrific book, I was looking for something that also had a high snark quotient, and this author has always been good for that, no matter which of his many, many sandboxes he happens to be playing in at the time. And I was looking forward to swiftly sinking into a world that I already knew, and the Ishmael Jones series certainly has that box ticked off as well.

Last but not least, because I love this series and this author, I was hoping that this entry in the series would redeem the previous book, Into the Thinnest of Air, because that one didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But Murder in the Dark, even though it went to a different locale than the series usually does, was just a much better book.

All of the above being said, this is the sixth book in an ongoing series. I’m not certain that you need to have read them ALL to get stuck into this one, but reading at least the series opener, The Dark Side of the Road, would probably help a lot. Also it’s very good if you like creepy country house mysteries with even creepier monsters hiding in the shadows.

There are three mysteries in the dark in this story. One is the mystery that brings Ishmael and Penny into the picture, the mystery of the mystery of the unnatural hole. Who or what created it? What is it? Where does it go? What is its purpose?

The second mystery seems like it’s part of the first, at least at first. Who or what is killing the scientists?

And then there’s that third mystery, the one that lies behind the entire series. Who was Ishmael Jones before he became Ishmael Jones? Where did he come from? Why was he near Earth? How did he crash?

Ishmael has learned very few answers to those questions about himself. But he has learned that he really doesn’t want to know. Whoever he was and wherever he came from, right here and right now he’s exactly where he belongs, with Penny.

What’s surprising about those three mysteries is that they are not neatly tied up with a single bow. Rather, they are individually tied with separate bows, no matter how much someone tries to make it seem like the hole is responsible for the murders, possibly via the agency of someone who is a blast from Ishmael’s unremembered past.

The thing that makes this series work is that in spite of any supernatural or extraterrestrial red herrings that may appear while Ishmael and Penny are desperately trying to figure out who’s bumping off the people they’re supposed to save, the reality turns out to be that the biggest, baddest and deadliest monsters in any setting are human. The evil that people are capable of doing to each other is much, much scarier than any mythical beast or raygun toting alien. That in the end the most horrible monsters are just people doing bad things because they’re selfish and greedy. And it’s that grounding in human monsters and human evil that keep the whole thing from flying over the top, jumping the shark, and landing in a cesspit full of slime monsters.

This is a series that when I’m in the mood for it, I’m really in the mood for it and nothing else will do. So I’ll be back with Ishamel Jones and Penny Belcourt in Till Sudden Death Do Us Part the next time I need a story with the creep factor on high and the snark turned up to eleven.

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah BakerOver the Woodward Wall (The Up-and-Under, #1) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #1
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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If you trust her you’ll never make it home…
Avery is an exceptional child. Everything he does is precise, from the way he washes his face in the morning, to the way he completes his homework – without complaint, without fuss, without prompt.
Zib is also an exceptional child, because all children are, in their own way. But where everything Avery does and is can be measured, nothing Zib does can possibly be predicted, except for the fact that she can always be relied upon to be unpredictable.
They live on the same street.They live in different worlds.
On an unplanned detour from home to school one morning, Avery and Zib find themselves climbing over a stone wall into the Up and Under – an impossible land filled with mystery, adventure and the strangest creatures.
And they must find themselves and each other if they are to also find their way out and back to their own lives.

My Review:

If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the grandparent book, and Narnia and Oz were the parent books – but wait, there’s another generation in there. If Alice was the great-grandparent, Narnia and Oz were the grandparents and Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame was the parent – perhaps with her Wayward Children series as the aunts and uncles – you’d get something like Over the Woodward Wall, and hopefully the following books in The Up-and-Under series, as the book-children.

Not that Over the Woodward Wall isn’t perfectly understandable and enjoyable without having read any of the above. But if you’re familiar with any of them, you can kind of see them looking on with pride and possibly a bit of chagrin, as all progenitors sometimes do, at the actions of their new and often unruly and less than well behaved descendent.

At least Zib is poorly behaved, according to some lights. Including her fellow adventurer Avery when this story begins.

It’s hard to get the comparisons to Wonderland, Narnia and Oz out of your head while reading Over the Woodward Wall. If Wonderland had physically reached out and grabbed Alice, instead of just grabbing her emotionally or psychologically, and if she’d been operating on the buddy system, the beginning of her story might be even closer to Woodward Wall.

Like Wonderland and Narnia, there are four kings and queens – or there are supposed to be four kings and queens. But the royals currently in office are all rather like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the White Witch in Narnia. While the road that Zib and Avery are traveling on, like the Yellow Brick Road of Oz, is neither as straight nor as without danger as the locals claim it to be. Although Zib and Avery’s companions, the Crow Girl and the Drowning Girl, while they are certainly missing something essentially it’s nothing so straightforward as brains, a heart or even the nerve, nor is it going to be as simple to discover how to get them back.

In the end, this is a story about friendship, and about being true to yourself above all, and about loyalty. It’s also a story about learning that even as a child, the world is neither as safe nor protected as you might want it to be, and that you need to learn to take care of yourself and your choices – with a little bit of help from the friends you find along the way.

Escape Rating B+: A. Deborah Baker is Seanan McGuire writing not so much under a pen name but rather under the name of a character she created in Middlegame. Bits and pieces of the stories in The Up-and Under were introduced in Middlegame as stories written by a character in the book named A. Deborah Baker, all of which serves to explain where this series comes from and why it’s under a new pseudonym for the author who already writes as Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire.

The irony for this reader is that I liked this story – maybe not quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway and Across the Green Grass Fields, but still quite a lot – even though I bounced hard off Middlegame and never went back to it. I’m starting to believe that the answer is that I like this author in smaller chunks, possibly because her style of fairy tale feeling stories for adults works better for me in the shorter form.

While this story reminds me a lot of its antecedents, it’s also different from all of them in a way that feels more interesting and more realistic. Oz and Wonderland both turned out to be dreams rather than reality. Narnia was real, for select definitions of real, but even though the Pevensie children spent decades in Narnia and reached adulthood there, when they returned to the real world they remembered Narnia and all their experiences there BUT they returned to being children as if no time had passed at all. Even odder, they returned seemingly unaffected and unchanged by their decades of extra life experience.

Zib and Avery are changing all the time, and as we learn at the end of the story, real time is passing both for them and for their parents back home. While on the one hand this feels like a fairy tale, on the other it definitely reads like a journey with consequences. Zib and Avery have an important mission to complete in the Up-and-Under, and their experiences in that world have already changed them from who they were – and who they would have become as a result. They already see the world differently, and it feels like those changes are going to have long-term effects, just as the children’s journeys do in Wayward Children.

We’ll certainly have time to find out, as Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under continues in Along the Saltwise Sea later this year. They’re going to sail with a pirate queen!

Review: Pirate’s Promise by Lisa Kessler

Review: Pirate’s Promise by Lisa KesslerPirate's Promise (Sentinels of Savannah #5) by Lisa Kessler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, paranormal romance
Series: Sentinels of Savannah #5
Pages: 270
Published by Entangled Publishing: Amara on July 26th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Greyson Till never found a weapon he didn’t like. As the immortal Master Gunner of a pirate ship, he’s grown his collection for over two hundred years. So when a legendary cursed blade that can cut through any material goes missing from the government’s paranormal artifact vault, he’s eager to retrieve it. Working with the secret division Department 13 has always come with its set of challenges, but this one is the worst yet.

Along with the mission comes fiery, no-nonsense paranormal weapons expert Aura Henderson, who couldn't be less thrilled about this pairing. The last time they saw each other, Greyson accidentally blew her cover, almost killing them both. Worst of all, to get the sword, she has to pose as Greyson's wife. The last thing she needs is to get involved with a sexy grumbly pirate, whether in reality or just pretend.

When they locate the relic, the gilded blade thirsts for blood and things aren’t what they seem. Greyson isn’t sure who to trust anymore, and he’s not about to let death come between them...

My Review:

Once upon a time, in the 1700s, the pirate crew of the Sea Dog found an unexpected treasure. They found the Grail. That Grail. King Arthur’s Grail. And drank from it. They expected, honestly, nothing at all. What they got was a form of immortality. They heal. From everything. Even old age.

Actually, they just never age. Something that has become a big more difficult to cover up in the 21st century with its CCTV, social media everywhere all the time, and just the sheer amount of documentation that’s required to make a living.

Even immortal pirates have to make a living. Keeping their replica Sea Dog not just afloat but seaworthy requires licenses, paperwork and yet more paperwork, and, of course, money.

After all, the pirates may heal, but their ship most definitely does not. And operating the Sea Dog as a tourist attraction is more a labor of love than profit. And it requires a cargo hold of licenses and permits of its very own.

That’s where Department 13 of the U.S. Government comes in. It’s not a surprise that there’s a department tasked with monitoring the weird, the wacky, and the things that go bump in the night. It’s even less of a surprise that the department in question would know ALL about the immortal pirates.

So when a dangerous relic is stolen from Department 13’s super-secret and super-secure warehouse, only to turn up in Scotland, the Department is a)embarrassed as hell and b)worried about causing an international incident with their British counterparts, who are, of course, MI13.

But there’s not a lot of trust between the pirates and the government. Not surprising considering their respective histories. But the Department needs to get that relic back, and the Sea Dog is the right crew for the job. With one addition, Department 13 Agent Aura Henderson.

It’s a simple job. Sail to Scotland aboard the Sea Dog. Pose as a couple of well-heeled collectors, buy the relic and sail back with the prize so it can be locked up again. Hopefully more permanently this time.

NOTHING about this job is as easy as it should be back in the planning stages in Savannah.

Aura doesn’t believe the pirates will have her back. The Department fears that the pirates will, well, act like pirates and sell the relic to the highest bidder. The current owner of the relic is Aura’s former NYPD partner and the entire operation is a trap. For her.

Oh, and Aura’s former partner – he’s a demon. And that relic of his – it’s out for blood. Specifically, Aura’s blood. It wants to cut her open in order to take it.

Escape Rating B+: I got started in this series in Magnolia Mystic because I was looking for something a bit lighter and fluffier than the dense tome I was reading at the time. Between the immortal pirates, the evil property owner, and the seeress promising gloom and doom, I was surprised to get what I came for. There is a bit of lightness in this series, even though there’s generally something dark and evil coming their way in every story.

Considering their long lives, the pirates of the Sea Dog have more than a few demons of the psychological type in their mental baggage. They all have serious trust issues with outsiders for obvious reasons, and when the story began they’d all loved and lost a few too many times and all seemed to be more or less resolved not to get emotionally involved again.

But this time there’s an actual demon, although not so much a demon from hell as a demon from a hellish dimension. The demon has stolen a mythical sword that can cut through any material. It’s already cut through Agent Aura Henderson’s trust in herself. This “thing” was her police partner for several years and she never noticed that it was anything other than a cop she shared pizza and a love of B movies with. Until he revealed his demonic nature, she thought he was one of the good guys and was she ever wrong.

What’s making this whole thing work for me is that the setup reads as if Stargate and Anna Hackett’s Treasure Hunter Security series had a book baby and this series is it. From Stargate we get the idea of other planets and dimensions who have left stuff lying around and from THS comes the idea that government agencies and private contractors are tasked with hunting this stuff down and putting it away where it can’t do any harm. That Treasure Hunter Security is an action/adventure/suspense type romance makes it a very strong read alike for the Sentinels of Savannah. (Start with Undiscovered and be prepared for a book binge to tide you over until the next immortal pirate falls.)

So Pirate’s Promise and the entire Sentinels of Savannah series is just a big ball of elements that I love. There’s a touch of the paranormal, supernatural or otherworldly, there’s the idea that history is bigger and much different from what we imagine, there’s action, there’s adventure, and there’s a hot romance between two people who are perfect for each other and fighting it every step of the way.

That the pirates have baggage as well as booty and that the heroines have all walked through dark places and kept both their dukes and their guards up just adds to the fun. This entry in the series, featuring the romance between the ship’s master gunner and an agent who really, really loves to make things explode definitely made for a fun and explosive reading time for this reader.

Review: Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman

Review: Radar Girls by Sara AckermanRadar Girls: a novel of WWII by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large Print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on July 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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An extraordinary story inspired by the real Women’s Air Raid Defense, where an unlikely recruit and her sisters-in-arms forge their place in WWII history.
Daisy Wilder prefers the company of horses to people, bare feet and salt water to high heels and society parties. Then, in the dizzying aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Daisy enlists in a top secret program, replacing male soldiers in a war zone for the first time. Under fear of imminent invasion, the WARDs guide pilots into blacked-out airstrips and track unidentified planes across Pacific skies.  
But not everyone thinks the women are up to the job, and the new recruits must rise above their differences and work side by side despite the resistance and heartache they meet along the way. With America’s future on the line, Daisy is determined to prove herself worthy. And with the man she’s falling for out on the front lines, she cannot fail. From radar towers on remote mountaintops to flooded bomb shelters, she’ll need her new team when the stakes are highest. Because the most important battles are fought—and won—together.
This inspiring and uplifting tale of pioneering, unsung heroines vividly transports the reader to wartime Hawaii, where one woman’s call to duty leads her to find courage, strength and sisterhood. 

My Review:

Like the author’s previous books, including last year’s Red Sky Over Hawaii, Radar Girls is a story that talks about World War II on a slightly different homefront from most.

The experience of the war was a bit different in both Hawaii and Alaska, as these two U.S. territories were considerably closer to the front lines than the 48 contiguous states. Alaska was vulnerable because of its large size and relatively small population, making it an easy target – except for the weather. Islands in the Aleutian chain were occupied during the war.

Hawaii, on the other hand, was a small, sparkling, isolated jewel in the middle of the Pacific. It was the perfect location for the U.S. to have a forward base in the Pacific – and provided a tempting target for Japanese forces to use as a stepping stone to the U.S. mainland.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 showed the U.S., and especially the Islands’ residents, just how vulnerable their paradise could be. In the wake of the attack, they were determined not to get caught with their defensive pants down a second time.

The centerpiece of that determination forms the heart of this story, as Hawaii mobilizes its men for war and its women for defense, armed with a new tool in their arsenal – RADAR.

This story of previously unsung heroines is wrapped around three fascinating threads. First, of course, there’s the war. But secondly, there’s the story of the sisterhood of women who were recruited to learn military communication, signal interpretations and vectorology, in spite of all the men who said they couldn’t do it. Daisy Wilder, her friends and her frenemies become the heart and soul of the Women’s Air Raid Defense of the Islands, watching for enemies approaching by air and sea, locating downed American pilots and piloting those in trouble safely home.

Daisy comes into the program as a loner, having been raised around more horses than people in the isolated cabin she and her mother have shared since her father’s death. Daisy has been her little family’s primary breadwinner, and dropped out of school in order to make a living at the stables where her father was once employed.

She doesn’t expect to become part of this group of women – after all, it’s not something she has any experience with. That two of the other women are upper class and look down on her for lack of education, her towering height and her practical, unfeminine wardrobe is what she expects. She expects to fail.

Instead she succeeds. Her supposedly “unfeminine” traits and interests make her a good fit for the WARD, and becomes part of this tight-knit sisterhood in spite of those expectations – and in spite of those frenemies.

So a story of unexpected sisterhood set amidst a story of rising to the occasion in the midst of war. But it wouldn’t be complete without the romance that weaves through it. A romance that might never have happened without the war breaking down the barriers between the son of one of the richest men on the island and the daughter of the man his father accidentally killed.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I enjoyed the author’s previous book, Red Sky Over Hawaii, in spite of one seriously over-the-top villain – as if the ordinary wartime conditions weren’t enough trouble for one woman to be dealing with.

I liked Radar Girls more than Red Sky because it didn’t go over that top and dump ALL the troubles of the world onto the same woman’s shoulders. Not that Daisy and her group of found sisters didn’t have plenty of problems, but they were a bit more evenly shared.

One of their training officers is a creeper, stalker and sexual harasser. One of their husbands is MIA and presumed dead. Another woman’s husband is a gambler who has lost their house. Someone else just has terrible luck with men – or makes terrible choices of men. Or a bit of both. Daisy herself is in love with someone she can’t believe could love her back considering their backgrounds.

And they adopt a kitten, who has kittens providing comfort and comic relief in equal measure. While someone in the neighborhood keeps stealing their lingerie from the clothesline.

And over all of it, the constant tension of interpreting radar signals that might, this time, be a second invasion, knowing that getting it wrong could have potentially dire consequences. It’s a stress that increases with each day and each potential sighting – and that never lets up.

Considering that WARD operated behind the scenes – or underground – this is a story where there aren’t a lot of really BIG events happening onstage. There are lots of radar sightings that have the potential to be a second invasion – but it never happens. The women are, by the top secret nature of the job, in an isolated environment. There are big battles, and they all listen to them on the radio, but the battles don’t come to them.

But in spite of all that, in spite of the big drama happening offstage, the story is captivating from the very first page, with Daisy on a remote beach seeing the Japanese planes screaming overhead. Daisy is a fascinating character who is just different enough for 21st century readers to identify with while still feeling like a part of her own time.

Also, I love a good training story, so the parts of this one where Daisy and her cohort get a crash course in their new duties and master them was a treat. It was easy to imagine oneself being part of that crew and doing one’s own bit to fight their war.

This author seems to be making a specialty of telling captivating stories about the homefront experience of her own home state during World War II. I’m looking forward to more – and I expect them to keep getting better and better!

Review: Into the Thinnest of Air by Simon R. Green

Review: Into the Thinnest of Air by Simon R. GreenInto the Thinnest of Air (Ishmael Jones, #5) by Simon R. Green
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobok
Genres: horror, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #5
Pages: 167
Published by Severn House Publishers on March 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Dinner at an ancient Cornish inn leads to one baffling disappearance after another in the latest intriguing Ishmael Jones mystery.

"It's just a nice weekend, in a nice country inn. Nothing bad is going to happen ..."
Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny are attending the re-opening of Tyrone's Castle, an ancient Cornish inn originally built by smugglers. Over dinner that night, the guests entertain one another with ghost stories inspired by local legends and superstitions. But it would appear that the curse of Tyrone's Castle has struck for real when one of their number disappears into thin air. And then another . . .
Is the inn really subject to an ancient curse? Sceptical of ghost stories, Ishmael believes the key to the mystery lies in the present rather than the past. But with no bodies, no evidence and no clues to go on, how can he prove it?

My Review:

There’s a version of Murphy’s Law for adventurers and investigators, and after everything that’s happened to Penny Belcourt since she met Ishmael Jones in the first book in this series, The Dark Side of the Road, she should definitely know better than to invoke it.

(I’ve just realized that Penny is the “final girl” of that story. The concept behind The Final Girl Support Group seems to be a gift that just keeps on giving…)

As this adventure opens, Penny asks her investigative and romantic partner, alien-turned-mostly-human Ishmael Jones, to come with her to a celebratory dinner for some old friends of her late parents that she’s been invited to. In Cornwall. At the restoration of a haunted smuggler’s inn with a bloody history.

Because she wants to spend a quiet, vacation-type weekend with him, doing normal couple things and pretending to be a normal couple, instead of spending all of their weekends at creepy places cleaning up even creepier happenings for their secretive employers, the mysterious “Organization”.

The number of ways that Penny should have known better absolutely beggar the imagination. Penny and Ishmael may be romantically involved, but “normal” just isn’t in either of their wheelhouses.

That the place they are intending to visit has a long and bloody history of murder, smuggling, poisoning, crazy murderers doing what the “Voices” in their head tell them to do, mysterious disappearances and don’t forget the murders is pretty much a guarantee that something about this weekend is going to shift in shape from normal to pear.

And so it proves when the first member of the group disappears into thin air. But that’s only the beginning, as one-by-one every member of the uncomfortable and increasingly frightened party disappears from seemingly plain sight in places where there’s no possible exit – but only when the remaining potential victims are distracted or have their backs briefly turned.

Or when someone is in the loo, with the door, quite naturally, closed.

As the number of “guests” winds down, the speculation ratchets up. Some claim that it must be ghosts, or the spirit of a long-dead murderer still haunting the scene of his crimes. Ishmael is firmly convinced that whatever is happening, there’s a real, live, most likely human agency involved.

After all, a ghost wouldn’t need to get their victims alone in order to whisk them away. Only the living need to hide the evil that they do behind smoke and mirrors.

Unless, of course, they’ve all been played from the very beginning.

Escape Rating B+: Just as the guests disappear into the thinnest of air, that also seemed to be what the plot of this story was made out of. Not that it’s not a fun read, because it certainly was, but this isn’t a big story. Also not a terribly long one, so if you’re looking for just a bit of horror-barely-adjacent urban fantasy-type storytelling with oodles of snark, this entire series might be your jam.

It certainly is mine, especially when the mood for snarkasm strikes.

Part of what makes this particular story one of the “thinner” plots of the series – so far at least – is that all the participants were being extremely obvious that this reunion of old friends – with Penny invited in place of her late father – was absolutely boiling over with long-buried resentments. And that there was a not-very-well-hidden agenda involving Penny herself.

Ishmael’s presence as Penny’s plus-one was neither expected nor desired. The tensions among the group were so obvious and so high that when the disappearances began Ishmael should have been checking every circumstance out for himself. But he wasn’t, and that felt a bit out of character although it was necessary to make the whole thing work.

What was interesting was the ongoing discussion about the difference between “paranormal” and “supernatural”. The participants became increasingly credulous and superstitious as their numbers were reduced. Many of them wanted to believe in a supernatural explanation, because the presence of a ghost would have made them feel better. For slightly weird interpretations of the word – and feeling – better.

There was certainly plenty of bloody history to have created a ghost on the spot – if one believes that ghosts are real. Or if one simply subscribes to the belief that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that some belief in something was better than nothing.

But Ishmael, who is not exactly human, doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He does, however, believe in the paranormal. In other words, he doesn’t believe in things that science will never be able to explain at all (supernatural) but does believe in things that science can’t explain yet (paranormal). After all, he is one. And he’s met plenty of others.

If you’ve read previous books in this series, it’s obvious from the beginning that the perpetrator is certainly corporeal and most likely human. The trick in this little puzzle is figuring out both who done it and why, and that’s just the kind of puzzle that Ishmael and Penny are best at.

Normal weekends doing normal couple things are totally outside their wheelhouse – but it’s still a lot of fun watching them try. But I expect to see them back to their usual in the next book in the series, Murder in the Dark, the next time I’m looking for a bit of snark served up with my paranormal problem solving!

Review: The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

Review: The Final Girl Support Group by Grady HendrixThe Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A fast-paced, thrilling horror novel that follows a group of heroines to die for, from the brilliant New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires.
In horror movies, the final girl is the one who's left standing when the credits roll. The one who fought back, defeated the killer, and avenged her friends. The one who emerges bloodied but victorious. But after the sirens fade and the audience moves on, what happens to her?
Lynnette Tarkington is a real-life final girl who survived a massacre twenty-two years ago, and it has defined every day of her life since. And she's not alone. For more than a decade she's been meeting with five other actual final girls and their therapist in a support group for those who survived the unthinkable, putting their lives back together, piece by piece. That is until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette's worst fears are realized--someone knows about the group and is determined to take their lives apart again, piece by piece.
But the thing about these final girls is that they have each other now, and no matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, they will never, ever give up.

My Review:

Whew! This was an extremely compelling, one-sitting kind of read. I’m not going to say I enjoyed it, because honestly, joy is an emotion that doesn’t get anywhere near this book. But I was certainly fascinated, to the point where I couldn’t stop until I got to the end.

And then I had to go to my happy place for a while to get over the whole experience.

This doesn’t exactly take place in the real world. But it’s close enough to make some really disturbing parallels. Because this is a story that begins with the premise that all of those teenage slasher movies are based on real people’s real stories which have been adapted and exploited for sensationalism and especially for cash..

Which means that the girl – and it’s usually a girl – who survives and kills the monster is a real person who has been violated first by the monster and second by the sexualization of violence against women and third by the system and fourth by all the sick fans and sicker media – is also a real person.

A young woman who has to live her life after all the horrible things that have happened to her with one hell of a case of PTSD. It’s not paranoia if someone really is out to get you, and someone really is out to get all of these women – even before the members of their support group start getting killed, one after another, in VERY rapid succession.

One of those women, one of those survivors, is on the run, desperately trying to keep her shit together and searching for the person who really is out to get all of them. Each twist of the plot is like a turn of the screw for Lynnette Tarkington, as she escapes from custody, alienates all of her friends, and accuses one member of the support group after another as she works her way through her own psychoses along with a breadcrumb trail of clues that is designed to make her look even more crazy than she is. Right before the monster at the heart of this web finally ends her story.

Unless she ends theirs.

Escape Rating B+: I’m not a horror reader, so I wasn’t expecting to get as involved in this as I did. I also started it with more than a bit of an approach/avoidance conundrum, because not only am I not a horror reader, but I think I was the only person in my reading circle that did not absolutely adore the author’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires last year. I went into this one with concerns that the same issues that tripped me up in that book would appear again.

That certainly did not happen. This time, the point-of-view character, the not really a Final Girl Lynnette Tarkington really worked for me as a perspective. Her head may have been a really messed up place to be, but it was messed up in a way that felt consistent for her story and her experience. I felt for her even as I was grateful not to be her.

(She kind of reminded me of Linda Hamilton’s character at the beginning of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, all alone and prepping obsessively for a doomsday that she is certain is going to come to pass even if no one else is. And of course her fears are justified, just as Lynnette’s are.)

But the story here mixes its slasher sequel plot of the endless parade of descendants, copycats and slavish fans of the original monster returning to kill the one that got away, over and over again, with a commentary on the sexualization and fetishization of violence against women in a way that is not even subtext, but is actual text underpinning the story. (I certainly  saw it as text, but I’m sure people who want to ignore the entire sick, ugly business will either see it as subtle subtext or not see it at all.)

And that’s what disturbed me the most in reading this. While Lynnette comes off as a slightly crazed and increasingly desperate woman, she turns out to be the hero of this story – even though someone is trying to victimize her yet again. That’s what kept me reading through every twist and turn and walk through the valley of the shadow of nightmare. I wanted to see her not just survive, but win – and I was so afraid so often that she wouldn’t.

So I didn’t enjoy this at all, but I felt compelled to keep turning pages and finish. There was absolutely no way this had a happy ending, but I was hoping for catharsis. And I can say that the ending turned out to be relief, release and redemption all rolled into one slightly crazed ball.

I may not have exactly enjoyed this book, but my cats certainly did. I sat still for most of three hours, and they were all overjoyed that I was providing them a warm lap to nap in. I was just glad of their comfort.

Review: The Abduction of Pretty Penny by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Abduction of Pretty Penny by Leonard GoldbergThe Abduction of Pretty Penny (Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mystery, #5) by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Daughter of Sherlock Holmes #5
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A continuation of USA Today bestselling author Leonard Goldberg's Daughter of Sherlock Holmes series, The Abduction of Pretty Penny finds Joanna and the Watsons on the tail of an infamous killer.
Joanna and the Watsons are called in by the Whitechapel Playhouse to find Pretty Penny, a lovely, young actress who has gone missing without reason or notice. While on their search, the trio is asked by Scotland Yard to join in the hunt for a vicious murderer whose method resembles that of Jack The Ripper. It soon becomes clear that The Ripper has reemerged after a 28-year absence and is once again murdering young prostitutes in Whitechapel.
Following a line of subtle clues, Joanna quickly reasons that Pretty Penny has been taken capture by the killer. But as Joanna moves closer to learning his true identity, the killer sends her a letter indicating her young son Johnny will be the next victim to die. Time is running out, and Joanna has no choice but to devise a most dangerous plan which will bring her face-to-face with the killer. It is the only chance to protect her son and rescue Pretty Penny, and save both from an agonizing death.
The Abduction of Pretty Penny is a wonderful new entry in a series that the Historical Novel Society calls “one of the best Sherlock Holmes series since Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books."

My Review:

The Abduction of Pretty Penny falls prey to a temptation that has proven irresistible to more than one writer of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, just as Pretty Penny herself seems to have fallen victim to one of the most notorious serial killers in history.

It looks like the star of the Whitechapel Playhouse, the Pretty Penny of the story’s title, has been kidnapped by a criminal who is notorious – not for kidnapping his victims, but for murdering and dismembering them, leaving their mutilated corpses to be found in the alleys of Whitechapel.

Of course, I’m referring to Jack the Ripper, and therein lies both the terror and the multiple conundrums of this story. Because Joanna Blalock Watson is the daughter of Sherlock Holmes. She has certainly inherited her father’s prodigious talents – but she is manifestly not his contemporary.

Joanna plies her inherited trade in the early years of the 20th century, while Jack committed his best-known crimes between 1888 and 1891. The heyday of Joanna’s famous father, and before her own birth.

It’s been 28 years since the Ripper stalked Whitechapel, but in addition to Pretty Penny’s abduction, Jack has been leaving his calling cards, the mutilated corpses of Unfortunates, as prostitutes are called, all over Whitechapel.

While sending especially terrifying notes to Joanna. And seemingly holding Pretty Penny captive until he can display her fresh corpse as part of his grisly “final act”.

So what begins as the search for a kidnap victim turns into a deadly contest between Jack the Ripper and, in a peculiar way, Sherlock Holmes. It’s clear from the Ripper’s actions that in his mind his antagonist is the Great Detective himself, even if the person he is taunting is Holmes’ daughter – and her son.

Escape Rating B+: So the story here is really Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper – only once removed, sort of like cousins, as in “first-cousin once-removed”.

Which only serves to highlight the thing about this story that drove me absolutely freaking bananas.

Many writers have succumbed to the temptation to write the case that never was but should have been, that of Sherlock Holmes investigating the Ripper. If Holmes were factual rather than fictional, this is a case that would certainly have happened. The Ripper’s spree occurred between 1888 and 1891, while Holmes’ first case, A Study in Scarlet, was published in The Strand in 1887, so presumably took place in that year or the year before.

Holmes and Moriarty had their presumed fatal encounter at Reichenbach Falls in 1891, so if Holmes had truly been operating during the Ripper years, he would have either been called in by Scotland Yard or would have been drawn in by his own irrepressible curiosity. (If you’re curious, the best accounting that I have ever read of Holmes investigating the Ripper is still Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye.)

As this series features Holmes’ daughter Joanna, her husband (and chronicler) Dr. John H. Watson, Jr., AND his father, Holmes’ friend and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, Sr., now retired, I kept expecting to see some references by the senior Watson to either Holmes’ own investigation of the Ripper or the reason that Holmes didn’t involve himself with the Ripper case. The lack of such a reference was annoying. In the extreme.

I ended up with a lot of mixed feelings about this entry in the series – although the series opener, the appropriately titled The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, is still the best.

The progress of the case itself provided plenty of thrills and chills, to the point where some of the gruesome descriptions caused me to stop reading at bedtime. Some people have no problems sleeping after reading the details of human dismemberment but I’m not one of them.

So the investigation, and the hunt for Pretty Penny, had me riveted from the beginning to the surprisingly real sensation of relief at the end.

But it’s the things not said or not fully explained that keep this from true excellence.

As noted above, there should have been a reference either to Sherlock Holmes’ own investigation of the Ripper or an explanation of why such an investigation never took place. The lack was frustrating – infuriating even, like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Likewise there seemed to be a bit of a lack of explanation of why the Ripper went dormant for 28 years only to suddenly reappear at this particular juncture. Reasons were implied but not well explained. This may be the result of a desire not to mess with the known history – that the Ripper was never identified. This story does a surprisingly good job of having its cake and eating it too in that particular regard. But in order to make that part work, explanations of his long hiatus and his “resurrection” felt a bit scant.

So, lots of mixed feelings. I got instantly caught up in the story and was riveted to the end. But at that end, the link to Sherlock Holmes that I come to these stories for, fell just a bit short.

Review: Stargazer by Anne Hillerman

Review: Stargazer by Anne HillermanStargazer (Leaphorn & Chee, #24) by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Leaphorn and Chee #24, Leaphorn Chee and Manuelito #6
Pages: 318
Published by Harper on April 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Murder, deception, Navajo tradition, and the stars collide in this enthralling entry in New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman’s Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series, set amid the beautiful landscape of the American Southwest.
What begins as a typical day for Officer Bernadette Manuelito—serving a bench warrant, dealing with a herd of cattle obstructing traffic, and stumbling across a crime scene—takes an unexpected twist when she’s called to help find an old friend. Years ago, Bernie and Maya were roommates, but time and Maya’s struggles with addiction drove them apart. Now Maya’s brother asks Bernie to find out what happened to his sister.
Tracing Maya’s whereabouts, Bernie learns that her old friend had confessed to the murder of her estranged husband, a prominent astronomer. But the details don’t align. Suspicious, Bernie takes a closer look at the case only to find that nothing is as it seems. Uncovering new information about the astronomer’s work leads Bernie to a remote spot on the Navajo Nation and a calculating killer.
The investigation causes an unexpected rift with her husband and new acting boss, Jim Chee, who’s sure Bernie’s headed for trouble. While she’s caught between present and past, Chee is at a crossroads of his own. Burdened with new responsibilities he didn’t ask for and doesn’t want, he must decide what the future holds for him and act accordingly. 
Can their mentor Joe Leaphorn—a man also looking at the past for answers to the future—provide the guidance both Bernie and Chee need? And will the Navajo heroes that stud the starry sky help them find justice—and the truth they seek?

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise – or a spoiler – for a mystery to open with the discovery of a dead body. But when that discovery is immediately followed by a voluntary confession to a circumstance that the police haven’t yet even determined is a homicide, well, that is kind of a surprise.

Although in real life the police would probably be thrilled to have a case wrapped up so neatly and tied with such a pretty bow, in mystery fiction that easy resolution could end the book – with 300+ pages or so left to fill.

So, the reader is pretty sure that there must be more to this story from the very beginning. Luckily, so is Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Navajo Police. Once upon a time, when Bernie was in college, she and the confessed murderer were roommates, while the victim was the bilagaana lover who whisked her friend off to Hawaii for marriage, a son, and a later breakup.

It’s not that Bernie can’t imagine that her once-friend isn’t capable of murder, because after ten years on the force she knows too well that every person is capable of killing someone in the right – or wrong – circumstance. But THIS murder doesn’t match the person she knew.

Particularly as the confession is a bit threadbare, to say the least. The supposed murderer isn’t saying much of anything about either how or why – and the circumstances just don’t add up. But the circumstances do conspire to keep Bernie on the case, even though the crime was not committed on Navajo land and therefore not in Bernie’s jurisdiction.

She’s, not happy about driving back and forth the four hours between Shiprock and the county sheriff’s office in Socorro but she is more than a bit relieved to get away from her substation, where her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee, is currently also serving as the supervisor – and Bernie’s temporary boss.

Bernie and Chee need their captain to get back from his meetings in Window Rock before their marriage suffers any more stress than is normal for two cops married to each other. And Bernie wants to make sure that she does right by her old friend.

The more times that Bernie makes that long drive, the more certain she is that her friend’s convenient but threadbare confession doesn’t hold up to any examination whatsoever. But if the woman won’t help herself and tell the police – and Bernie – something, ANYTHING to make the whole thing make sense, the system is going to grind her under and spit her into prison whether she deserves it or not.

It’s up to Bernie to find the answers – to the crime, to her marriage, to her relationship with her mother and even to the future of her own career – on those long, solitary drives before it’s too late to fix any of the messes that she’s stuck in the middle of.

Escape Rating B+: I read this series because it’s a comfort read. It’s been a comfort read for decades at this point, as I started the series back in the 1990s when I had a really long car commute, and the then Leaphorn & Chee series written by the author’s father was one of the few things available in audiobook at my library. What a long, strange trip it’s been!

So I know and love these characters, and visiting them again is as comfortable as a warm pair of slippers – even if the case they end up investigating turns out to be considerably less warm and fuzzy. This week, when I wasn’t feeling all that great, I found myself searching out comfort reads – and lo and behold, here’s Bernie Manuelito, her husband the Cheeseburger, and the Legendary Lieutenant Leaphorn to see me through.

There are two threads to this story. The primary thread, of course, is the case. The second thread is the part where this being an ongoing series comes into play, as Bernie, Chee and even Leaphorn are all facing decision points, whether large or small, in their lives.

The case, although it’s a twisted mess, is the easy part. Or the easy-er part, anyway. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the confession doesn’t really solve anything. Partly because the book would end at that point if it were correct, but mostly because it doesn’t make sense, whether to Bernie or to the reader.

There’s no there, there. To the point where it was obvious, at least to this reader, that the woman confessed in order to protect someone else. The questions then become who is she protecting and why is she protecting that person? The protection was, as I said, obvious, but the who and the why weren’t nearly as obvious as they seemed. I bit down on that red herring pretty hard and didn’t manage to extract myself until close to the point where Bernie extracted herself.

And even then I was half right after all, making the mystery of this entry in the series not quite mysterious enough.

The parts of the story that deal with the life-decisions that the characters have to face were much more interesting – at least to this long-time reader of the series. Leaphorn’s decision isn’t all that earth-shattering, but Chee and Bernie are on the horns of some pretty big dilemmas, both together and separately.

It’s always Bernie’s decisions that interest me the most, because she’s the point of departure from the original series. And because she faces conflicts that neither of the men will ever have to. Bernie’s caught between her career, her marriage, and her love of and duty towards her aging mother. All of her decisions are hard, and they all impact each other, because they face in different directions.

So I love this series. Sometimes for the mystery, sometimes just to keep up with these beloved characters and their lives. Often a bit of both. I’m looking forward to my next visit to Four Corners, hopefully this time next year. And if you’re looking for a fresh take on a well-loved series, you can get hooked back into these characters and this place in Spider Woman’s Daughter, the marvelous mystery where the author picked up the threads that her father dropped and made them her own.