Review: Remember Me by Mario Escobar

Review: Remember Me by Mario EscobarRemember Me: A Spanish Civil War Novel by Mario Escobar
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Thomas Nelson on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From international bestseller Mario Escobar comes a 20th-century historical novel of tragedy and resilience inspired by Spain’s famed Children of Morelia and the true events that shaped their lives.
Historians refer to the Spanish Civil War as one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century. In 1937, at Mexico’s request and offer, nearly 500 children from Spain—remembered as Los Niños de Morelia—were relocated via ship to Mexico to escape the war’s violence. These children traveled across the sea without their families and were expected to return at the war’s end. No one could have foreseen another world war was on the way—or that that Franco’s regime would prevent the children from coming home. These enduring conflicts trapped the children in a country far from their homeland, and many never made it back.
Remember Me is Mario Escobar’s novelization of these events, as told by a fictional survivor—one of the children of Morelia—who looks back upon his life after making the long and devastating journey across the Atlantic. This story explores the endurance of the human spirit as well as the quandary of a parent’s impossible decision, asking: At what cost do you protect your child in the face of uncertainty?

My Review:

I picked this book up because I was moved by Children of the Stars and was hoping for something similar. And it is that, a fictionalized account of real history, and real history of roughly the same period.

In other words, I was expecting a story where fiction is the lie that tells the truth – in this case the truth about the very real children of Morelia, the nearly 500 children who were sent out of the Spanish Civil War to Mexico in the hopes that they would be safe.

There are all kinds of versions of safe, however. They were safe from the direct effects of the war – and its immediate aftermath. Many of the children were the sons and daughters of the left-leaning Popular Front government. Which was defeated by Franco and his right-leaning Nazi supported Nationalists. Who brutally suppressed the left after their victory. Which meant that their parents weren’t safe either during or after the war. The children weren’t exactly safe either – but neither were they being shelled.

The Spanish Civil War is often referred to as a dress rehearsal for World War II, as the countries who became the Allies supported the Republican government of the Popular Front, while the Axis supported the Nationalists.

And just as happened elsewhere before and even during that war, parents tried their best to keep their children safe – or at least as safe as possible. That meant that parents faced a terrible choice – to keep their children with them, to do their own best to keep them safe in a country that was the front for war, or to send them away in the hopes that they would be safer far from the battlefield.

The story in Remember Me is the story of those children sent to Mexico under the sponsorship of the Mexican government. And while the experiences of the children of Morelia were not as brutal as the Stein brothers endured in Children of the Stars as young Jewish orphans trekking across a Nazi-dominated Europe that hunted them in order to exterminate them, it was far indeed from the safety and security that their parents had hoped for.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard book. It’s hard because what happens to the children of Morelia is both all too horrible and all too familiar. On the one hand, this was a history that I wasn’t familiar with in its particulars, although the outline of it is part of many stories that happened during the war, from the children of London shipped to the countryside to escape the Blitz to the Kindertransport that rescued 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany and other countries in the months prior to World War II to the Danish resistance movement’s evacuation of over 90% of the country’s Jewish population to Sweden.

But the rescue itself is only part of this particular story, which is wrapped in the particular circumstances in Spain during and after the Civil War, and of the conditions that the children faced in Mexico.

And quite probably elsewhere, because the story of what the children went through reads like a combination of Lord of the Flies with all the old sayings about power corrupting. Much of what happened read like it could be attributed to people who had power over the children while they were in Mexico either being venal or neglectful or having their own axe to grind. Or multiple axes, as Spanish colonial oppression was not that far in Mexico’s past that there weren’t people who wanted to punish the children for the sins of their figurative grandparents. There was also conflict with the Catholic Church that just added to the issues. Many of the children were secular, having been raised in left-leaning revolutionary families. The Catholic Church in Mexico was very powerful, and there was a fair amount of pious skullduggery involved, with children who still had parents being assigned as orphans to the Church.

The money that was intended to support the children was siphoned into multiple pockets, the people put in charge of the children had no idea how to take care of them, and the facility ended up being run by the bullies. Parts of that story, awful as they are – and they are awful – felt both sad and predictable.

Human beings often suck. While wartime may make some rise to the occasion, it also makes the sucky even suckier.

This is reading like a downer, and that feels appropriate. While it ends on a hopeful note, that didn’t feel like the tone for much of the story. And I’ll admit that I am not in a hopeful mood this week, and this was probably not the right book at the right time, as compellingly readable as it is. And it certainly is.

In the end, the book this reminded me of more than any other was not the author’s Children of the Stars but rather The Brothers of Auschwitz. While a bit of that is the period setting, it is mostly due to the way that both stories are unflinching in their look at a terrible history, and in their emphasis on the ongoing cost of that history to its surviving victims.

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Review: Burning Roses by S.L. Huang

Review: Burning Roses by S.L. HuangBurning Roses by S.L. Huang
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Pages: 160
Published by Tor.com on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"S. L. Huang is amazing."—Patrick Rothfuss
Burning Roses is a gorgeous fairy tale of love and family, of demons and lost gods, for fans of Zen Cho and JY Yang.
Rosa, also known as Red Riding Hood, is done with wolves and woods.
Hou Yi the Archer is tired, and knows she’s past her prime.
They would both rather just be retired, but that’s not what the world has ready for them.
When deadly sunbirds begin to ravage the countryside, threatening everything they’ve both grown to love, the two must join forces. Now blessed and burdened with the hindsight of middle age, they begin a quest that’s a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality."

My Review:

Just how many fairy tales can one story retell at the same time?

While the graphic novel series Fables may have answered that question by combining ALL of the Western fairy tales in one story, but it’s a story that requires 22 collected editions to encompass.

Burning Roses answers the question a bit differently. It combines the Western fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood with a bit of Goldilocks and the Three Bears AND Beauty and the Beast and personifies them in Rosa, a Latina woman who has fled her home and family by going east to China. Where she becomes hunting partners with Hou Yi, a woman who is the personification of a Chinese fairy tale.

They are both middle-aged, they are both hunters, and they are both hunted. Or haunted. Or perhaps more than a bit of both.

Then the author packed the entire glorious tale into a novella. That’s a lot of packing, but the result is lovely. And haunting.

At first, it seems like a simple story. And in the present, it kind of is. Rosa with her rifle and Hou Yi with her bow and arrows are the ones who come to the aid of remote villagers when monsters come calling.

They’re both a bit past their prime – maybe more than a bit – and they need each other to take care of a job that they each, once upon a time, used to manage quite well on their own. But they are all the villagers have and they get it done.

But their past, individually rather than collectively, is complicated. And painful. And they’re both hiding from it – and hiding it from each other. Theirs is a relationship filled with silences where the truth is hidden.

Until the firebirds come for Hou Yi.

Not directly, because that would be too easy.

Instead, Hou Yi’s nemesis has sent the firebirds to hunt the local villagers, knowing that Hou Yi will be the one to respond, and then he’ll have her in the sights of his own arrows, whether they are made of magic, or wood, or memories.

But Hou Yi does not chase the firebirds alone. She and Rosa work together to track them. Along the way, they finally tell each other their versions of the truths they ran away from. Only to discover that those truths have been chasing them all along.

Escape Rating A-: The thing about novellas is that they need to pack a big story into a small package. often it works (Driftwood, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, The Empress of Salt and Fortune) but occasionally it doesn’t.

Burning Roses works because it mines backstories that we know, twists them a bit, adds something new, and weaves it all into a new whole thing. But those bits we know give it the weight it needs to make the story complete.

We don’t need all the details of any of the hinted at fairy tales, the suggestions are enough to give Rosa’s story resonance. It’s not a stretch to see Goldilocks as a right bitch. Those poor bears. Or to see the Beast as an abuser grooming his next victim. The original Grimm’s fairy tales were much grimmer than the sanitized versions that were popularized – or Disneyfied.

Even with Hou Yi’s story – which I did not know before reading Burning Roses – there’s a sense that there’s a deeper story there than she tells either Rosa or herself, and that all we have to do is find it. (It’s easy to find, it’s in Wikipedia)

But those originating tales are in Rosa’s and Hou Yi’s past, while the story we have is in their present. And that’s an entirely different story. It’s a “what happens after the happily ever after” story, even though neither of the tales of their youthful adventures ends happily.

And that’s the point. Those stories didn’t end well, and they are both living in the aftermath. An aftermath that each of them attributes to their own actions. An aftermath where they blame themselves for everything that went wrong.

They’re both running away from that blame. And they’re both running away from the lives and the loved ones they have left. Because they feel undeserving.

What they discover in this story is a kind of redemption. And it’s earned..

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina WalschotsHench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, urban fantasy
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy? As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.
So, of course, then she gets laid off.
With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.
Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.
It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

My Review:

Hench is decadently delicious villainous competence porn.

I loved every page of it. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t a bit squicked out at some of Anna’s decisions. But then, so is Anna. She just goes ahead and does them anyway – and generally does them very, very well.

Still, she makes us wonder what she might have been – and we’re supposed to. That’s part, but only part, of her story.

In a way, Anna’s story is the behind-the-scenes of what would happen if the Avengers – and all of the other superhero stories, were real life. Because that entire mess in the first Avengers movie, where Loki and his forces seriously mess up New York City? There would be one hell of a lot of collateral damage.

How much will it cost to clean all that up? Who pays for all of the many hospitalizations and years if not decades of physical and psychological therapy that all the survivors are going to need? Who pays all their bills while they’re incapacitated? We’re meant to think that the villains got their just desserts, but the ordinary people who just happened to be on one of the skyscrapers that got crashed or trashed – what about them?

There have been superhero stories before where society has taken a look at that damage and decided that it just isn’t worth it, like the marvelous After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Even The Incredibles, under its golly-gee-whiz-bang, begins in a place where all the supers have been forced to stand down for everyone else’s own good.

In a whole lot of ways, Hench takes that story and backtracks it into a story of supervillain vs superhero vs the tyranny of spreadsheets, and gives us a story about all the “little people” who stand behind a superhero or supervillain. After all, someone has to do the jobs that Gru assigned to his Minions in the Despicable Me series.

I could say that this is a story where one of those minions becomes a supervillain in their own right. Or certainly rises from being merely a hench to an actual kick, meaning a sidekick. Because this isn’t Leviathan’s story. It isn’t Supercollider’s story, either.

It’s the story of Anna, a hench caught in the middle between a supervillain and a superhero, who decides to get her life back by taking down that superhero the only way she can – with spreadsheets.

Escape Rating A++: There are two ways to read this story. One is that it is simply a delightful supervillain vs. superhero story where the villain actually wins. Sorta/kinda. But on the surface this is a romp and it’s easy to ignore the collateral damage of Anna’s actions, or blame them on her opponents – as superhero stories generally do.

And that’s the level I initially read the story at, because I was looking for a world to sink into for a few hours, and Hench certainly provided that escape.

But that’s not all there is to the story.

The first layer underneath is still a lot of fun stuff about the world in which superheroes and villains operate. That while creatures like the Minions make for fun cartoons, in a world of real supers there would be real work that would need to get done.

That’s where Anna and her friends and colleagues come in. They are all henches. Or meat. Henches are functionaries, hanging around to make the supervillain look important, doing the jobs that any large organization needs to get done. Meat are muscle, the people who make the supe look deadly and dangerous. They all effectively sign up to be cannon fodder if an encounter with a supe goes badly.

They are there to do a job, and quite often a job that could be done as easily in a non-supe organization. Which, come to think of it, might have every bit as evil a purpose as the average supervillain. Which is kind of the point.

Anna and her friends are just regular people doing regular jobs who just happen to be doing that job for supervillains. The portrait of their lives, their work and especially their friendships underpins the whole story with a sense of reality.

They’re real folks doing an unreal job.

But dig deeper, and there’s even more about the nature of heroism and villainy, and who decides which is which. That Supercollider believes that superheroes create their own nemeses feels truer than true. He created his own downfall with his own actions, and he was enabled by organizations that have a vested interest in protecting the labeling of heroes vs. villains at any cost.

Because, in the end, it turns out that they create both.

Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky

Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel PolanskyThe Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Daniel Polansky returns with The Seventh Perfection, an innovative, mind-bending fantasy mystery
When a woman with perfect memory sets out to solve a riddle, the threads she tugs on could bring a whole city crashing down. The God-King who made her is at risk, and his other servants will do anything to stop her.
To become the God-King's Amanuensis, Manet had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and mind to the peak of human performance. She remembers everything that has happened to her, in absolute clarity, a gift that will surely drive her mad. But before she goes, Manet must unravel a secret which threatens not only the carefully prepared myths of the God-King's ascent, but her own identity and the nature of truth itself.

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Silence of the White City by Eva Garcia Saenz

Review: The Silence of the White City by Eva Garcia SaenzThe Silence of the White City (Trilogy of the White City, #1) by Eva García Sáenz de Urturi, Eva García Sáenz, Nick Caistor
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Trilogy of the White City #1
Pages: 528
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A madman is holding Vitoria hostage, killing its citizens in brutal ways and staging the bodies. The city's only hope is a brilliant detective struggling to battle his own demons.
Inspector Unai López de Ayala, known as "Kraken", is charged with investigating a series of ritualistic murders. The killings are eerily similar to ones that terrorized the citizens of Vitoria twenty years earlier. But back then, police were sure they had discovered the killer, a prestigious archaeologist who is currently in jail. Now Kraken must race to determine whether the killer had an accomplice or if the wrong man has been incarcerated for two decades. This fast-paced, unrelenting thriller weaves in and out of the mythology and legends of the Basque country as it hurtles to its shocking conclusion.

My Review:

The white city that the devil played in was 1893 Chicago. The white city that is silent in this mystery thriller is Vitoria, the capital of the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Although it would not be a reach to say that a devil is playing in Vitoria as well. His play certainly makes for a compelling mystery and an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

In spite of the fact that the police thought they knew who that devil was. But they were wrong. Or were they?

Twenty years ago a series of murders rocked Vitoria. Someone, obviously a sick, psychopathic someone, terrorized the city and weirdly highlighted its history at the same time. The victims were found in couples, one male and one female, posed nude, each with a hand cupped on the other’s cheek. The victims were placed at scenes important in Vitoria’s history, in chronological order. As the locations moved forward through history, the ages of the victims also ratcheted upwards. The first victims, at the oldest site, were both 5 years old. The second victims were 10, the third 15.

Then the murders stopped. The police tried and convicted the killer, Tasio Ortiz de Zárate, after evidence was found linking him to the crimes. That evidence was found by his twin brother, Ignacio, the police investigator assigned to solve the crimes.

But that was in 1996. As this story opens, it is 2016. Tasio is due to get out of prison on parole in a few weeks. But he is definitely still incarcerated when the story opens.

And the murders begin again.

Tasio has an ironclad alibi for the actual killing of two 20 year olds, even though the murder follows his old pattern, right down to names of the victims. Both have double-barreled surnames local to the Avila region.

As does the inspector assigned to solve the case. Inspector Unai López de Ayala, who is now 40 and in the line of possible victims. Just as he was 20 years ago. But 20 years ago he was a young man just starting out. Now he is the police department’s most successful criminal profiler.

It’s his job to profile this killer, in order to find him before he chalks up another string of victims.

But Unai is caught up in his own personal web of secrets, lies and misdirections, just added to the weight of the previous investigation. He is all too easily manipulated, by his own griefs, by the mounting tension of his affair with his boss, his fractious relationship with his police partner and by the charismatic prisoner who claims that he is innocent of the heinous crimes that he was convicted of.

And he just might be right.

Escape Rating A+: I picked this up because this was a book that the publisher was absolutely over the moon for when I wrote the Library Journal Crime Fiction (mystery/suspense/thriller) Preview earlier this year. It looked fascinating as a mystery, as a work in translation, and as a book that was a bestseller in its native Spain (there’s even a movie!) but that hadn’t caused a ripple over here – but looked like it should.

And it definitely should. I was hooked from the very first page and didn’t emerge until I turned the last page, gasping in shock and with a horrible book hangover. This is a story that is suspended on that knife edge between mystery, suspense and thriller and it cuts deeply with all three blades.

But in the end this feels like a mystery, because the thing that haunts the entire story is very definitely whodunnit. Or to be even more grammatically incorrect, who done them?

We see most of this mystery from inside the head of the lead investigator, although there are these bits and pieces from the past that at first don’t feel part of Kraken’s narrative but do feel part of the story. Even if we’re not sure how they fit.

What we have in the present is more than compelling enough. On the one hand, it feels familiar, a police investigator who is beguiled by the charisma of a serial killer. And on that shaking other hand, while Tasio is charismatic, he also has a point. He can’t have committed the current crimes because he’s locked up. He does have followers on the outside, as exemplified by the internet communications he’s just not supposed to have, but there’s no one in his orbit who would be committing crimes on his behalf just in time to mess up his parole.

He manifestly does not benefit. So who does? And that’s where the trail gets exceedingly complicated – and also extremely cold. Like that saying about how revenge is best served. But who is it serving?

Along the way, we have all the stresses of a police investigation that seems to be going nowhere fast, along with all of the strains of modern life. Kraken is a widower, having an affair with his new boss – who is very much married. His police partner has a history of, let’s call it pharmaceutical flirtation, courtesy of her abusive childhood and her brother the former drug dealer.

Meanwhile, someone out there is ritually killing people, and Kraken and his friends and family are all in the target circle. He’s motivated to find the killer – but he’s just not having any success. Until he suddenly does, and it’s all worse than he expected.

The reader rides along in Kraken’s head, and is just as stressed and just as lost as he is. Until the house of cards finally comes together – and nearly comes apart – as the stories all connect up with a lot of whimpering and a huge bang.

I loved this for its immersion in the life of a place and a culture that was completely new to me, while also surrounding me with all the familiar trappings of a police procedural. One that introduced me to the family of birth and choice that makes the best mystery series so compelling.

The crimes, in their combination of history, ritual and revenge, reminded me a bit of a combination of The DaVinci Code – albeit with much more emphasis on the actual crimes than the ritualist nature of them as well as Antoine Marcas series by Eric Giacometti and Jacques Ravenne – which I loved.

That The Silence in the White City is the first book in a trilogy makes this reader very happy. That the second book in the trilogy, The Water Rituals, will be published in English early in 2021 makes me even happier. I hope the third book follows as shortly as possible!

Review: At the Slightest Sound by M.L. Buchman

Review: At the Slightest Sound by M.L. BuchmanAt the Slightest Sound (ShadowForce: Psi #1) by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, military romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: ShadowForce: Psi #1
Pages: 204
Published by Buchman Bookworks on September 14, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Delta Force recon specialist Hannah Tucker needs out of the Colombian jungle and she needs out now.

Night Stalker pilot Jesse Johnson aims to oblige...until his helicopter is shot down. He finds that more than a little inconvenient.

Stalked by guerrillas, crocodiles, and other jungle unfriendlies, they must learn to control skills they never knew they had — or even existed!

Together they discover an unpredictable psychic ability to project sound and distract their enemies. Though the crocodiles remain unimpressed.

Their introduction to a secret military force, whose unique psi talents lay hidden in the shadows, launches them into a whole new world they never imagined.

My Review:

I read the first three books in the ShadowForce: Psi series in one glorious weekend binge. I had such a good time that I want to push them at everyone, and the best place to start is with the first book, the setup for THIS series, At the Slightest Sound.

So here we are.

The story begins with Night Stalkers helicopter pilot Jesse Johnson crash landing in Colombia on his attempt to rescue Delta operator Hannah Tucker. They’re both more than a bit bruised and banged up, and now they’re both in the jungle in the midst of the guerrilla forces that she was sent to find and he was sent to rescue her from. They’re going to have to rescue each other if either of them is to have a chance of surviving.

But Jesse and Hannah have an ace up their sleeves that they don’t even know they have. Hannah isn’t just very, very lucky at escaping capture, she has an uncanny ability that makes her pursuers look the other way at the most inconvenient moment – at least for those pursuers.

Hannah can throw, not her voice, but sound. Sound that distracts her enemies just when she most needs them distracted. She’s unwilling to admit that she might be a freak – but she and Jesse need that freakish ability of hers to survive. And, they need Jesse’s equally freakish ability to magnify those sounds to get the rescue of Jesse’s rescue to notice two camouflaged people hiding in the middle of a dense jungle from flyover height.

They come out of that jungle, together, caught between an intensive pull to find a way to stay together – in spite of both being lone operators in parts of the service that will pull them apart – and a desperate push to find their way back to some kind of normal, either by denying their strange abilities – or embracing them.

And that’s where things get really interesting, as they receive rather cryptic instructions from Hannah’s equally cryptic boss – to meet up with a group of ex-military and civilian operatives who have powers just as far outside the so-called normal as theirs.

It’s going to be the start of a beautiful friendship. It’s already the start of a terrific romantic suspense series!

Escape Rating A-: This was definitely a case of the right book at the right time. The book I was in the middle of was good but not great, and the one I’d just finished, which was in a similar vein to the ShadowForce series, was at that same not-quite-sweet spot, good but not as great as I’d hoped. And I have a review of the 4th – and it looks like final – book in this series scheduled for the end of the month, so I needed to get caught up.

I was only planning to read this first book, but the series turned out to be a bit like those potato chips – as in you can’t read just one. So I kept right on going, although I’m still saving that final book until next week. I think. Maybe I can resist.

I wouldn’t be able to resist too long, because this series reads more like a single story spread out over four relatively short books than it does four separate stories loosely connected into a series.

Although it is loosely connected to several of the author’s previous series. Which you don’t HAVE to have read to get totally immersed in this one. But they’re fun, adrenaline-inducing reads and if you like ShadowForce you’ll love them too. (If you’re looking for a fantastic way to while away about a month of this pandemic, start with The Night is Mine and get lost in this author’s world for a terrific – and long – time.)

Meanwhile, there’s At the Slightest Sound, and the three threads that it does an excellent job of packing into its rather tight length.

There’s the obvious thread, the high-adrenaline, high-stakes mutual rescue of Hannah and Jesse. Hannah is a Delta operator, she can get herself out of anything, anywhere, anytime. And she usually does. But she’s also a solo operator, not used to either counting on or dealing with anyone else.

Jesse is a helicopter pilot. The best of the best at what he does, just as Hannah is among the elite at what she does. But the one thing Jesse doesn’t do is get himself lost on the ground in unfamiliar territory. Hannah is the one leading their mutual escape, and Jesse has zero problems letting her lead.

The equality of the romantic partners is also one of the hallmarks of this author’s writing – it’s one of the things I read him FOR because it’s still rare and always GREAT to see.

But there are two other pieces to this story. One is wrapped around Hannah’s special talent and her understandable unwillingness to accept that she might be even more “different” than she thought she was. She already knew she was different, just by being a female Delta operator, but this is a step beyond – in more ways than one.

There’s less on this front for Jesse to accept or deal with. His talent only exists in conjunction with hers. He can amplify her signal, but can’t make a single spooky sound on his own. And he’s just plain more laid-back than Hannah.

However, the thing that they both have to come to terms with is that they are falling for each other, that they trust each other implicitly, and that they have an intimate relationship that hasn’t even managed to find a bed to consummate itself in yet, in less than 48 hours. They’ve both held their hearts closed before now, and they’re both having a difficult time accepting that they’re all in on a relationship that’s barely begun.

And that it’s the right thing to do. And feel.

The story of Shadowforce: Psi continues in At the Quietest Word and At the Merest Glance, and the continuing books in the series are every bit as good as this first one. I’m chomping at the bit to read the 4th book in the series, At the Clearest Sensation. Once you get started, I’m certain that you will be too!

That 4th and it looks like final book in the series will be out at the end of the month, and I wanted to be caught up before I started it. I’m definitely glad I did, because this series is complete in the four books, and it kind of IS one story spread out over the four. So start with At the Slightest Sound and get ready for one hell of a wild ride.

Review: The Investigator by Anna Hackett

Review: The Investigator by Anna HackettThe Investigator (Norcross #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Norcross #1
Pages: 253
Published by Anna Hackett on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

It should have been easy. Stay away from her boss’ hot brother.
Museum curator Haven McKinney has sworn off men. All of them. Totally. She’s recently escaped a bad ex and started a new life for herself in San Francisco. She loves her job at the Hutton Museum, likes her new boss, and has made best friends with his feisty sister. Haven’s also desperately trying not to notice their brother: hotshot investigator Rhys Norcross. And she’s really trying not to notice his muscular body, sexy tattoos, and charming smile.
Nope, Rhys is off limits.
Investigator Rhys Norcross is good at finding his targets. After leaving an elite military team, he thrives on his job at his brother’s security firm, Norcross Security. He’s had his eye on smart, sexy Haven for a while, but the pretty curator with her eyes full of secrets is proving far harder to chase down than he anticipated.
Luckily, Rhys never, ever gives up.
When thieves target the museum and steal a multi-million-dollar painting in a daring theft, Haven finds herself right in the middle of a deadly situation. With the painting gone and Haven in danger, Rhys vows to do whatever it takes to keep her safe, and Haven finds herself risking the one thing she was trying so hard to protect—her heart.

My Review:

The Norcross family of next-level badasses/security consultants was first introduced in Mission: Her Safety when Team 52 needed some high-level intel on the villainous badass they were hunting for. They got in touch with Vander Norcross, and we got the seeds of this series of contemporary, high-octane action adventure romance.

Which does not begin with Vander’s romance. Instead we have his younger brother Rhys on the trail of a bunch of seriously high-end art thieves who have just stolen part of Monet’s Water Lilies series from the high-class art museum owned by business mogul brother Easton Norcross.

(Norcross is also the name of two towns in the U.S., one in Georgia and one in Minnesota. I live near the one in Georgia, so every time I see the Norcross name I have a bit of a giggle.)

This series opener introduces readers to the four Norcross siblings, brothers Vander, Easton and Rhys, along with sister Gia, whose new best friend Haven McKinney is the new curator of Easton’s museum.

You would think that Haven would finally have achieved, if not a happy ever after yet, at least a solid sense of life finally being unfair in her favor. She left an abusive ex and a douchecanoe job behind in Miami, while life in San Francisco has provided her with a dream job, a fantastic new best friend, and a whole lot of seriously yummy man candy in the persons of her boss and his brothers to drool over in private.

Because publicly she’s decided she’s over men. Mostly she’s still smarting after her misjudgment of the abusive ex back in Miami.

But it seems like the roller coaster ride of Haven’s life in Miami isn’t nearly done with her yet. She thought she was through with shit happening when she switched coasts, only to discover that all of the bad stuff she left behind has reached all the way across the country to mess up her life one more time.

Water-Lily Pond and Weeping Willow, 1916-19 by Claude Monet

Over and over and over again, just starting with that theft of Water Lilies.

But things are different now. In Miami she was on her own, and her best course of action was to flee. In San Francisco, she has the Norcross family in her corner. They’ll fight to protect her, because she’s theirs. And she’ll fight to stick, because they’re hers. And not just her bestie Gia.

Because Haven McKinney isn’t really over men at all. And she never wants to get over Rhys Norcross. Not ever.

Escape Rating B: I have to say that while I certainly liked The Investigator, I didn’t love it as much as I have most of this author’s previous series openers like Marcus (Hell Squad), Edge of Eon (Eon Warriors) and Mission: Her Protection (Team 52). Actually, this is an author I just plain like – and often more, period, so liking the book was a given. This one just didn’t have the something extra that wows me the way that her science fiction romance generally does.

But I still had a good reading time with The Investigator, and if you’re more into contemporary romance than SFR this would be a great place to start with Anna Hackett.

That being said, I have to talk a bit about why this was a like and not a love – unlike Haven and Rhys who are gone on each other long before either of them is willing to admit it.

As I was reading Haven’s story, it felt like she was someone to whom bad things kept happening, generally through no fault of her own. It felt like a “heroine in jeopardy” story where every single thing turned out to be yet another way for Haven to end up in such deep trouble that she needed to be rescued by the Norcross family.

Poor Haven often felt like a vehicle for the plot rather than a participant in the story. She isn’t in a position where she can act, she’s always in a position where she has to react. And after a story of Haven having one bad thing after another center on her, the final plot screw where the evil, villainous art collector takes one look at her and just HAS to add her to his collection pushed things well over-the-top, at least for me. It was just a cliche too far to maintain my willing suspension of disbelief.

At the same time, the walking, talking cliche that was Haven’s abusive ex-from-Miami played into all the stereotypes about men who are abusive, blame it on just how much they love the woman they’ve abused and expect to be taken back because they really, really love her, read like a terrific expose of just how rotten this stereotype is and just how entitled the male brat thinks he is. He read as a total jerk and Haven as utterly righteous for dumping him in the trash where he belonged.

That he didn’t stay in that trash is both an example of exactly what an entitled bastard he is AND the starting point for every single bad thing that happens to Haven in the story. Except for the cliche, evil, villainous collector of women as well as art. His attempt to collect Haven was entirely his own evil – except that he wouldn’t have met her at all if not for the ex and his stupid shenanigans. See, it does all come back that ex!

So, I had a good but not great time with this one. This series continues next month with The Troubleshooter. If that turns out to be Gia’s story, as the hints in The Investigator suggest (and it is! YAY!), I expect to be wowed because Gia is definitely going to be the star of her own story!

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie HannahThe Killings at Kingfisher Hill: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: New Hercule Poirot #4
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“I was thrilled to see Poirot in such very, very good hands.”— Gillian Flynn, New York Times bestselling author of Gone Girl
The world’s most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot—the legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile—returns in a delectably twisty mystery.
Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate. Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. There is one strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there from the rest of the Devonport family.
On the coach, a distressed woman leaps up, demanding to disembark. She insists that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. A seat-swap is arranged, and the rest of the journey passes without incident. But Poirot has a bad feeling about it, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered in the Devonports' home with a note that refers to ‘the seat that you shouldn’t have sat in’.
Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving the mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And can Poirot find the real murderer in time to save an innocent woman from the gallows?

My Review:

This is the 4th book in the New Hercule Poirot mystery series, and I have to say that the longer this new Poirot series goes on, the more I sympathize with Inspector Edward Catchpool.

Not that there were many sympathetic characters in this particular entry in the series. Not even Poirot. And that’s not a good thing for a story where he is the main character.

Not that a book can’t have a frustrating or unappealing central character, but that’s not who or what Poirot is supposed to be. His quirks – his many, many quirks – are supposed to be familiar and endearing. And they usually are.

I say this as someone whose enduring memories of Poirot are from the portrayal by David Suchet and not from Christie’s original work, of which I’ve read a few but not exhaustively. It’s Suchet’s portrait of the little Belgian detective as a quirky genius that sticks in the mind. Not just for the stories and the settings, which were marvelous, but for the twinkle in the eye that his Poirot seemed to have, particularly when his idiosyncrasies were otherwise at their most annoying.

It’s something I’ve seen in the previous books in this series, and I certainly heard Suchet’s voice uttering many of Poirot’s lines in the earlier books. But this time the illusion fell apart.

The device for these new stories is that Poirot has taken on the role of mentor to a young Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Edward Catchpool. It’s very different from the role he occupied in regards to his original partners in either the books or the TV series, Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Inspector Japp. While none of those mentioned had nearly Poirot’s genius, they all seemed to be his contemporaries in age, giving those relationships some level of equality that the young Catchpool cannot aspire to.

And this is a case where Poirot is at his most mysterious and impenetrable, deriding Catchpool at every turn while withholding the information that the man needs to even begin to figure out what is going on. The scene where Catchpool is freezing in a swimming pool while Poirot insists that he make his report before permitting him to get out of the pool and dry off, meanwhile telling Catchpool how stupid he is to be swimming in the first place seemed a bridge too far for even Poirot’s insensitivity to anything but the processes of his “little grey cells”.

It does not help that in this particular mystery, none of the potential murderers are remotely sympathetic – and most of their motives and actions don’t make nearly enough sense. They’re not quite as terrible as the Thrombey family in Knives Out, but they’re not far off that mark, either.

And the Thrombey family, as hateful as they were, generally had motives that were both clear and comprehendible. Reprehensible, but understandable. That didn’t feel true in this story. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the suspects, as that the reasons they acted as they did just did not ring true.

The rich may be different than you and me, and the past may be another country where they do things differently, but human beings are just not this different.

Escape Rating C: This may be a “fair play” mystery, where the reader has all of the same clues as the detective, but it felt like neither fair nor play. The only character I felt for, or who felt like a plausible human being, was the much-put-upon Catchpool, who is all too aware of the situation that he has been placed in, caught between his superintendent’s belief in Poirot’s detective genius and Poirot’s need to expound that genius at someone he believes needs his expert guidance. Not that Catchpool doesn’t need seasoning and experience, but all I did in this outing was feel sorry for him.

Obviously, this was not my favorite in this series. I found the others charming and comforting, reading like continuations of the TV series. I enjoyed them enough that I’ll be back for the next in the series in the hopes that it returns to its original form.

Review: A Question of Betrayal by Anne Perry

Review: A Question of Betrayal by Anne PerryA Question of Betrayal (Elena Standish) by Anne Perry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, suspense, thriller, World War II
Series: Elena Standish #2
Pages: 304
Published by Ballantine Books on September 8, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

On her first mission for MI6, the daring young photographer at the heart of this thrilling new mystery series by bestselling author Anne Perry travels to Mussolini's Italy to rescue the lover who betrayed her.
Britain's secret intelligence service, MI6, has lost contact with its informant in northern Italy, just as important information about the future plans of Austria and Nazi Germany is coming to light. And young Elena Standish, to her surprise, is the only person who can recognize MI6's man--because he is her former lover. Aiden Strother betrayed her six years before, throwing shame on her entire family. Now, with so much to prove, Elena heads to Trieste to track down Aiden and find out what happened to his handler, who has mysteriously cut off contact with Britain.
As Elena gets word of a secret group working to put Austria in the hands of Germany, her older sister, Margot, is in Berlin to watch a childhood friend get married--to a member of the Gestapo. Margot and Elena's grandfather, the former head of MI6, is none too happy about the sisters' travels at this tumultuous time, especially when a violent event at home reminds him that even Britain is growing dangerous. As his own investigation collides with his granddaughter's, what's at stake on the continent becomes increasingly frightening--and personal.
Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Europe, New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry crafts a novel full of suspense, political intrigue, and the struggle between love and loyalty to country.

My Review:

The terrific first book in the Elena Standish series, Death in Focus, was an espionage thriller wrapped around a traditional mystery, set in a changing Europe in the years between the Great War and World War II.

The years while Hitler was on his rise to power, the years when those with eyes to see were aware that a second war was on the horizon – no matter how badly they wanted that not to be true. And no matter how many people were willing to compromise anything and everything to keep the fragile peace at ANY cost.

But this second book in the series, set just a few months after the events of Death in Focus, is unquestionably all about the spy games. Not that there aren’t plenty of mysterious things happening, but those mysteries are wrapped around Elena’s mission – to rescue a spy that her government planted six years ago in Austria so that they could have someone on the “inside” if things went the direction that was feared.

Aiden Strother was in deep cover, but his “handler” is dead and his mission is compromised. Someone needs to go to Trieste, warn him, get him out if possible and his information out no matter what. And Elena is the best operative MI6 has for the job – no matter how new she is to the job.

She knows Strother on sight. And he’ll trust her, for the contacts he knows she has in the Foreign Service and MI6, if not for the relationship they once had. Once upon a time, they were lovers. Until Strother stole secrets from the Service and went over to the Austrians, burning Elena’s career in the process.

Now Elena learns he was tasked with becoming a double agent, setup by MI6 to pretend to betray the British. Elena’s career was merely collateral damage to MI6. Even if her grandfather was once the head of the organization. Or perhaps especially because, as Lucas Standish’ successor will do anything to erase the man’s shadow.

But this is a spy game from beginning to end, and nothing is quite as it seems. Not Aiden Strother, not Jerome Bradley, current head of MI6, not the situation in Trieste, and especially not Elena Standish. Whatever she may once have been, whatever she may once have felt, Elena’s experiences in Berlin at the hands of the Gestapo in Death in Focus have changed her focus.

Elena will do what she must, even if she must commit murder, all alone in the dark. After all, all is fair in love and war. And this is war, even if it is conducted in the shadows.

Escape Rating A-: My feelings about this book are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, I found it even more compelling than the first book. On the other, I feel like I have even less of a grasp of Elena’s character than I did in that first book. So I felt driven to keep turning the pages, but it wasn’t Elena’s story that I was turning those pages for. Definitely a paradox as this is supposed to be Elena’s journey and Elena’s series – or it should be as it is named for her.

(I’ve read at least some of three of the author’s previous historical mystery series, and all of those, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, Daniel Pitt, and William Monk, are all unquestionably about the people they’re named for.)

So even though Elena was the one in danger, it was her grandfather Lucas and her sister Margot who seemed to have more compelling narratives. Or perhaps it’s that their stories felt like they had a broader focus on conditions in general. Elena’s story, although it did have implications for the war that no one wants to see on the horizon, was, of necessity, more tightly focused on her need to find Strother and convince him to leave or at least get his information out, while the Fatherland Front for the Nazis in Austria did its best and worst to kill them.

And while Elena’s feelings about Strother complicate her perspective on what’s really going on, both in general and between them in particular. Even though Elena has grown up a bit from the first book, she still reads as a bit naive and much too wrapped inside her own head to be actually good at the job. Although she’s learning, she’s still too emotionally conflicted to draw me in the way that Maisie Dobbs or Bess Crawford do in their respective series. (And they are all readalikes for each other, so if you like one give the others a try!)

Meanwhile, her sister Margot returns to Berlin to attend a friend’s wedding to a young German officer. Because it’s not Margot herself who is directly involved, she has a much clearer picture of the true state of affairs as she watches her friend marry someone who is such a fanatic that Hitler is practically a guest at the wedding, while both the bride and her parents desperately hope that this marriage will protect her and them in the storm to come. So many people on all sides of the wedding seem much more clear-eyed on what the future will bring than Elena playing spy games in Trieste.

But the part of the story that really grabbed my attention was Lucas Standish’ part of the story. He’s supposed to be retired from MI6, but he still has his hand, possibly both hands, into the service that he led for so long. He sees the war coming, and also sees that there are too many in Britain who are so weary of the cost of war that they will rationalize any atrocity in Germany in order to keep their heads in the sand.

And that there are an entirely too well placed few who believe that Germany has the right idea, and that Hitler’s Germany would be a natural ally for Britain. That the atrocities committed by Hitler’s Germany are not merely necessary but are actually a good start to the eradication of people that too many Britons, as well as Germans, believe are less than human.

While Elena is rescuing a spy, and Margot is supporting a friend at the outset of a terrible journey, Lucas is on the hunt for one of those Britons who wants to ally directly with Hitler’s Germany and not only supports his tyranny but possibly wants to import it. And is using MI6, a service that Lucas still loves, in order to subvert the expressed policy of the government.

Lucas is hunting for a traitor who has his eyes on Lucas’ country and his family. His part of the story, figuring out who the traitor is and convincing enough people in high places to root him out is the part of the story that took me for the biggest thrill ride.

So, I’m compelled to continue following the “Standish Saga” as the spy games continue leading straight into the war we all know is coming – even if the character the series is named for is not the character I’m following the series for.

Review: The Deadly Hours by Susanna Kearsley, C.S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, Christine Trent

Review: The Deadly Hours by Susanna Kearsley, C.S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, Christine TrentThe Deadly Hours by Susanna Kearsley, C.S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, Christine Trent
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, romantic suspense
Pages: 352
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A stellar line-up of historical mystery novelists weaves the tale of a priceless and cursed gold watch as it passes through time wreaking havoc from one owner to another. The characters are irrevocably linked by fate, each playing a key role in breaking the curse and destroying the watch once and for all.
From 1733 Italy to Edinburgh in 1831 to a series of chilling murders in 1870 London, and a lethal game of revenge decades later, the watch touches lives with misfortune, until it comes into the reach of one young woman who might be able to stop it for good.
This outstanding collaboration of authors includes:Susanna Kearsley – New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of compelling time slip fiction.C.S. Harris – bestselling author of the Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series.Anna Lee Huber – award-winning author of the national bestselling Lady Darby Mysteries. Christine Trent – author of the Lady of Ashes Victorian mystery series.

My Review:

It’s not so much the hours that are deadly, as the watch that counts them as it passes from one dead hand to another, carrying disaster and destruction on its way.

That watch, La Sirène, links the four novellas that make up The Deadly Hours, as the watch’s story is taken up by four different authors as it surfaces in four completely different eras.

We begin following La Sirène in Italy in 1733, although the watch has already acquired a storied – and checkered – history by that point, as has the man who carries her into Portofino. The watch, and the curse on it, originated with freebooter Vautour’s infamous father, also a freebooter. There was a war – there was always a war – and the freebooters didn’t get paid for the “work” they did in Cartagena. So they took their own payment in blood. And in the case of Vautour père, in the gold that the churches had attempted to hide.

That’s where the curse came in. Not just because the elder Vautour stole from the church, and was cursed for it by the priest he tortured, but because the church, in its turn, as it did, stole the gold from the religions that held sway in the Americas before they arrived to “convert the heathens”.

The cursed gold was made into a beautiful pocket watch, La Sirène, with a mermaid on its case and words etched on its opposite side that translate as “I am the only master of my time.” The reader may question who the “I” refers to in this, whether that’s the watch’s owner, the watch’s original creator, or the watch itself. A person could be forgiven for thinking the watch is actually in charge of pretty much everything.

In 1733, the curse catches up with Vautour the younger – or perhaps it’s merely his life as a freebooter. Or, in this particular case, the company he keeps. Carrying an assassin aboard one’s ship can result in collateral damage, in this case to both Vautour and the assassin, both of whom were obsessed, in entirely different ways, with La Sirène.

No one else involved wants to touch the damned thing, except the innkeeper, who pockets the watch after everyone else deliberately leaves it in a dead man’s pocket, intending it to be buried with him.

Each time the watch resurfaces, in 1831, 1870 and finally 1944, it brings death and destruction to everyone it touches – especially the descendants of those stranded travelers who hosted a pirate and an assassin at that inn in Portofino all the way back at the very beginning.

Until La Sirène finds herself in the hands of someone who deserves ALL the bad luck she has stored within her – and finally fulfills the conditions of her curse. Unless…she’s out there still.

Escape Rating A-: As I pretty much poured through this story it struck me that there was more than one story being told in this braided set of novellas.

There’s the obvious one, of course, the story of La Sirène through the centuries and just how many terrible events seem to follow in her wake. You don’t have to believe in the curse, and many of the people who cross her path are at least skeptical of it, but the mind is a powerful thing. Even if the “curse” is really people searching for meaning in a hellacious coincidence of bad luck, or if people blame the watch when it’s really just people giving into their baser instincts and blaming it on the watch, the events still occur. Whether they would have occurred without her, well, no one will ever know, will they?

But these novellas, while each complete in and of themselves, are also portraits of a series of romantic relationships. And no matter what century they are set in, each portrays a relationship where the partners are negotiating just how to not merely be together, but how to be equals together in societies that don’t expect men and women to be equal. The men seem to be, to a man, learning how to let their partners into a world that holds danger and excitement in equal measure, and that they were taught that women are to be protected from. But all of their partners are women who embody a saying that is strangely apropos, the one about a ship in harbor being safe, but that not being what ships are built for. None of these negotiations are easy, but all of them will result in much happier relationships – if they can figure out how to go about it.

And that leads to another thread that lurks under the individual novellas. With the exception of the final story, Siren’s Call by C.S. Harris (and the one I picked up this book FOR), we are reading about couples who are already in a relationship, but are still in the process of figuring out how it’s going to work. As a reader, I had the sense that there was more story about these people that I hadn’t read. I didn’t need to in order to get into the action in their portion of THIS story, but I could tell there was more and I WANTED it.

It drove me crazy, so I had to hunt for them.

In Weapon of Choice, Susanna Kearsley combined the historical characters from three of her time slip books, A Desperate Fortune, The Firebird and The Rose Garden, into one chance meeting at that inn in Portofino. Anna Lee Huber’s In a Fevered Hour takes place sometime during her Lady Darby series, and features the lead couple of from that series, Lady Darby and her second husband, the private inquiry agent Sebastian Gage. This series sounds fascinating and I’m planning to look into them more deeply. Likewise, the primary investigator in A Pocketful of Death by Christine Trent is Violet Harper, a Victorian era undertaker! I really liked the character of Violet and will probably look up her series (Lady of Ashes) sometime too, but I found her story to fit into the braiding of this collection a bit less tightly than the others.

All in all, this was a fun “collection” of historical mysteries, did a great job of telling its entire story while sharing its parts, and had a wow of a surprise ending. And, AND it’s a terrific introduction to the writing of a fantastic group of historical romantic suspense/mystery writers, making The Deadly Hours a win-win all the way around!