Review: Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Ruddy Gore by Kerry GreenwoodRuddy Gore (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries #7) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #7
Pages: 240
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 17th 2014
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A night at the theatre is interrupted by a bizarre and mysterious on-stage death
Running late to the Hinkler gala performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, Phryne Fisher meets some thugs in a dark alley and handles them convincingly before they can ruin her silver dress. Phryne then finds that she has rescued a gorgeous Chinese, Lin Chung, and his grandmother, and is briefly mistaken for a deity.
Denying divinity but accepting cognac, she later continues safely to the theatre. But it's an unexpected evening as her night is again interrupted by a most bizarre death onstage.
What links can Phryne possibly find between the ridiculously entertaining plot of Ruddigore, the Chinese community of Little Bourke St or the actors treading the boards of His Majesty's Theatre?
Drawn backstage and onstage, Phryne must solve an old murder and find a new murderer - and, of course, banish the theatre's ghost, who seems likely to kill again.

My Review:

In a week which started terrifically but where I eventually bounced off of more than half the books I planned to read, I found myself searching for a “comfort read” to finish the week. And as usual found myself sinking gratefully into the immersive world of Phryne Fisher, as created by Kerry Greenwood. And I have emerged, like Phryne from her luxurious bath, grateful for the respite.

The mystery in this book takes place during a seemingly ill-starred run of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser known comic operas, Ruddigore. And the operetta’s plot of ghosts, curses, mistaken identities and long-lost heirs finds its parallels in the theater in which it is being performed. As Phryne herself comments late in the story, the mystery that she is unraveling makes her feel as if she herself is in the middle of a G and S operetta. Or one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

The story begins with Phryne rescuing an elderly Chinese lady and her grandson from a band of cutthroats, also Chinese, as Phryne is on her way to the theater. And for much of the story, that rescue seems disconnected from the events that follow, until just the right moment at the end.

Phryne, who seems to know everyone and always be on hand when trouble strikes, is in the audience for a performance of Ruddigore when two of the actors are struck down onstage, one right after the other, both playing the leading role.

Either this is one heck of a coincidence, or one of the other actors wants that part very, very badly. Or possibly both. Phryne, friendly with the manager of the theater as she is with a surprising number of people, is asked to investigate the events, whether they be accidental, deliberate or one of each. So Phryne finds herself at the center of a whirling cast of over-emotional, constantly emoting and continually superstitious actors and crew, as she finds herself not just investigating the attempted murders, but also every strange thing that has happened at the theater since the company began rehearsing Ruddigore. So not just death and potential death, but also ghostly visions, petty thefts, even pettier meddling, and the case of long-dead actress and her missing child.

Inspector Robinson wants Phryne involved in this case. His usual methods of interrogation simply don’t work with people who are professional dissemblers. When everyone is faking everything, it is difficult for an honest cop to determine who is faking just one particular thing out of all the fakery on display.

Phryne dives right in, attempting to separate the plot of the operetta from the real life imbroglio, while untwisting the separate schemes of a thief, a prankster, and a murderer.

This is the theater, and everyone Phryne meets is playing at least one part. Possibly more. The question is who is willing to kill to protect theirs.

Escape Rating B+: A good time was had by all, at least I believe among the readers. I certainly had a great time. But the plot in this tale is surprisingly convoluted.It is usually a truism in detective stories that where there is a series of crimes there is generally only one criminal – that the long arm of coincidence doesn’t stretch to multiple villains operating at the same time on the same patch.

That’s not true here, and all of the various bits of separate skulduggery result in a plethora of red herrings and a veritable army of possible motives. It is only as Phryne peels away the truly small-time peccadilloes that she is able to work her way into the heart of the mysteries. It doesn’t matter if the actress faked the theft of her own gloves, but who died, and how and especially why, matters a great deal.

The solution of this particular mystery is all on Phryne. While unlike in her previous outing, Blood and Circuses, Phryne manages to keep herself at home for this one, the world of the theatre is one that she invades mostly alone, relying on herself almost completely to solve all the mysteries.

The one person who does help her is the mysterious Lin Chung, whom she meets at the very beginning. In spite of the possible societal repercussions, which could be many, Phryne not only enlists Lin’s help with the mystery but also embarks on a long-term liaison with the handsome (and extremely talented) merchant and former stage magician. Through Lin Chung’s descriptions and through the reception that each of them faces when seen to invade the other’s culture, there’s just a bit of a glimpse of what life was like for Chinese immigrants in 1920s Australia.

In the end, just as in the best Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, all of the various mysteries, including the ones that Phryne brings to light during the investigation, all get resolved with happy endings, no matter how unlikely, all around. For everyone except the murderers, who naturally receive their just desserts.

So a good time is had by all. Especially this reader. But as much as I enjoyed this one, the plot is more than a bit convoluted, and is is missing the input from Phryne’s usual cast of irregulars who add so much to her adventures. So this one feels like one for people who are already into the series and not a good place for someone new to the series to begin.

Reviewer’s Note: In the TV series, Phryne’s relationship with Lin Chung was downplayed in favor of exploring the incredible chemistry between the actors playing Phryne and Jack Robinson. It is going to be very interesting to see how future stories differ based on the impact of that change.

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La FargeThe Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, thriller
Pages: 389
Published by Penguin Press on March 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals, psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.
Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends--or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.
A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story The Night Ocean); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan -- the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.
As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City.
The Night Ocean is about love and deception -- about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.

My Review:

Originally, The Night Ocean was a short story written by Robert H. Barlow and H.P. Lovecraft. Mostly by Barlow.

However, this version of The Night Ocean is ostensibly, although not actually ABOUT Barlow and Lovecraft. It’s a Russian nesting doll of a story, with story inside story inside story, all of them told by unreliable narrators, one more so than the others.

And yet, at the same time, much of the story is true – it just didn’t happen to the people who said it happened to them. Or did it?

Charlie Willett committed suicide. Or he didn’t. His journey parallels that of Robert H. Barlow, or it doesn’t. Or that of L.C. Spinks. Or maybe not. Or maybe Charlie just got lost along the way.

His wife (or possibly widow) Marina, finds that she can’t quite let Charlie go. There’s no body, so it is all too easy to imagine that Charlie is still alive. In order to find her closure, or expiate her grief, or both, Marina sets herself on the trail of Charlie’s last days and final quest, and that’s where Lovecraft (and Barlow and Spinks) come in.

Charlie was both a writer and a dream, and one of the things he dreams of writing is about H.P. Lovecraft, that famous, and infamous, writer of horror fiction and Weird Tales. Lovecraft was famous, among other things, for writing about mythical books, notably the Necronomicon, that bane of librarians everywhere. (It doesn’t exist, it never existed, but every generation of Lovecraftians persists in searching libraries for it)

Although the Necronomicon never existed, Charlie dreams of finding another one of Lovecraft’s mythical tomes. And falls into a wild goose chase for an entirely different apocryphal work, the Eratonomicon.

Charlie gets taken for a long, sad and ultimately costly if not tragic, ride. And Marina, whether out of love or guilt, follows along after him.

It’s a strange journey, as weird as any of Lovecraft’s tales, that winds from Arkham to Florida to Mexico City to Parry Sound on Lake Huron in Canada, with stops along the way in New York City, at the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee, and the beginnings of science fiction fandom.

And it’s only when Marina exposes the spider at the heart of this web that she has even a chance at escaping from this very weird tale. Just when she does, it drags her back in. Or does it?

Escape Rating B: This story has so many aspects, that I think each reader is going to be reading a different book, depending on which parts grabbed them and stuck. Like a jellyfish.

A lot of people are going to pick this up because of the H.P. Lovecraft connection, which doesn’t feel quite as large as the blurb makes it out to be. Characters enter this story because of their connection to Lovecraft, but it isn’t really about him. If it’s about anything in reference to him, it’s about all of the friends, fans and controversy that swirls in the wake of his relatively short life and continually controversial life.

The part of this story that grabbed me and hung on was the rather deep dive into the early years of science fiction fandom. And even though the narrator of those parts of the story is completely unreliable, the story itself matches historical fact. Those were the people at the center of those early days, and that was how they behaved and what happened to them.

For those of us who have been involved in fandom, even tangentially, it is fascinating to feel like a witness to those early days, and to see people that we knew at the end of their lives as young, ambitious and more than occasionally stupid. Certainly arrogant. But still visionary, even if we never did get our flying cars.

And it is part of the seduction of the book, and of Charlie and Marina Willett that these stories are true, it’s only their setting that’s false. The characters and personalities of those people feels a bit more real than either Charlie or Marina, who in the end become vehicles to tell someone else’s story.

A story that isn’t even really theirs.

I was grabbed and startled by this book early on, when Charlie discovers the surreptitious publication of the Eratonomicon and the absolutely scathing response to it by the scandalized science fiction community. One of those scathing responses is from well-known fan (and author) Wilson “Bob” Tucker in his fanzine Le Zombie. I knew Bob Tucker in the early 1990s, and the quote certainly sounds like him. It was also beyond weird to have someone I knew appear in a book.

Ironically, one of the things that Tucker was famous for was a practice that was named for him, Tuckerization. Tuckerization is the insertion of a real person’s name (and sometimes other characteristics) into an otherwise fictitious story. Today, this is often done for charity. But now that I’ve finished the book, I find it funny that Tucker was himself Tuckerized in The Night Ocean.

Tucker’s appearance in the story added to the verisimilitude so much that I went on my own wild goose chase, hunting for the cited issue of Le Zombie. But that issue is not preserved. So it all could have happened. Just like Marina and Charlie, I too got caught up in the desire to believe this was all real.

Reviewer’s Note: I listed to the audiobook of this one, and I think it made the story more compelling, as the structure of the book is that its variations are often being told by one person to another, rather than being read or happening in the present. However, I discovered when I looked at the print copy that the audiobook narrator left out the footnotes. For those familiar with the history, the footnotes are interesting but not necessary. But a reader who is not already familiar with the early history of science fiction fandom, and admittedly that’s most people, is going to lose some of the context and the verisimilitude by the omission of those notes.

Review: A Twisted Vengeance by Candace Robb

Review: A Twisted Vengeance by Candace RobbA Twisted Vengeance (Kate Clifford #2) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Kate Clifford #2
Pages: 400
Published by Pegasus Books on May 9th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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1399. York is preparing for civil war, teeming with knights and their armed retainers summoned for the city’s defense. Henry of Lancaster is rumored to have landed on the northeast coast of England, not so far from York, intent on reclaiming his inheritance—an inheritance which his cousin, King Richard, has declared forfeit.
With the city unsettled and rife with rumors, Eleanor Clifford’s abrupt return to York upon the mysterious death of her husband in Strasbourg is met with suspicion in the city. Her daughter Kate is determined to keep her distance, but it will not be easy—Eleanor has settled next door with the intention of establishing a house of beguines, or poor sisters. When one of the beguines is set upon in the night by an intruder, Kate knows that for the sake of her own reputation and the safety of her young wards she must investigate.
From the first, Eleanor is clearly frightened yet maintains a stubborn silence. The brutal murder of one of Eleanor’s servants leads Kate to suspect that her mother’s troubles have followed her from Strasbourg. Is she secretly involved in the political upheaval? When one of her wards is frightened by a too-curious stranger, Kate is desperate to draw her mother out of her silence before tragedy strikes her own household.

My Review:

In yesterday’s review, I noted that one of the things that historical mysteries often have in common is that they are set in times of great political upheaval. And so it proves with A Twisted Vengeance, the second book in Candace Robb’s Kate Clifford series, after last year’s The Service of the Dead.

Kate Clifford, the protagonist and amateur detective of this series, lives in York, England in 1399, a time when England was again on the cusp of civil war. (While England has only had one conflict officially called the English Civil War, it has had lots of civil wars that were named something else.) In 1399, what Kate and her city are experiencing is part of the long run up to the Wars of the Roses, which may have “officially” begun in 1455 but had their roots in much earlier conflicts.

At this particular point in the century-long mess, Richard II, unbeknownst to all the characters in this particular story, is about to be deposed by his cousin, the Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke, crowned as Henry IV. While the deposing, and later beheading, hasn’t happened at this point in Kate’s story, the conflict between Richard and Henry is in full swing, with nobles and their knights scurrying for position on both sides, or sometimes, as in yesterday’s book, attempting to straddle the increasingly mushy middle.

York, as the second city in England and the unofficial capital of the North, is a prize coveted by both factions. As our story begins, both factions have sent knights, spies and seemingly unaffiliated with surprisingly well-armed men to camp in and around York, in hopes of glorious battle and rich plunder.

And all of them are spoiling for a fight.

Kate, on the other hand, is trying to keep her head down, manage her properties, and get out from under the onerous weight of her late husband’s massive debts and away from the grasping machinations of his family. Her initial efforts in this regard form the backdrop of The Service of the Dead. Her late husband being the dead in that instance, and no one seems to lament the bastard. Not even his bastards.

But Kate’s hopes for peace are immediately dashed in this story, when someone attacks the house next door. Unfortunately for Kate, her mother has moved into that house. And whatever Dame Eleanor’s ostensible reasons for her move to open a lay religious house on Kate’s doorstep, Kate knows that her mother always has layers under layers of motivations, and that somehow Kate will end up picking up the pieces while enduring streams of her mother’s verbal abuse.

Dame Eleanor has a dangerous secret. And just like all of Eleanor’s secrets, it is going to get someone killed. And, also as usual, that secret is going to do it and Eleanor’s damn level best to drag Kate under with it.

Escape Rating A-: A Twisted Vengeance grabbed me from the very first page, and didn’t let go until around midnight, when I turned the last page and heaved a sigh of relief. No one escapes from this one unscathed, and danger piles upon danger (also secret piles upon secret), from the first to the last. But our heroine and her fascinating and motley household do live to fight (and investigate) another day.

One of the reasons that A Twisted Vengeance was able to do that first-page grab was because all of the setup had already been handled in The Service of the Dead. That first book has a rather slow beginning, because the richness of this historical setting, and the circumstances of Kate’s rather singular position in it, take a while to take hold. The investment of time in reading the first book, definitely pays off here in the second.

In the end of this outing, the army leaves, and all is finally revealed, not necessarily in that order. That army, and all of its plotting and scheming, are in many ways a giant (and very stinky) red herring, confusing all the issues and providing too many places for too many villains to hide in plain sight.

When all is said and done, and there’s a lot of both, this is a story about family. Both writ large, as the family squabbles and family conflicts are a huge part of the political landscape, and as the great lords use the conflict as an excuse to enact their petty (and not so petty) revenges.

But also writ small, in the neverending conflict between Kate and her mother Eleanor. Where the political shenanigans can sometimes get very large and seem very arcane, the little war between Kate and Eleanor is easy to understand and sympathize with. It will remind every woman who has ever had issues with her own mother (and the number of women who have never had such issues is vanishingly small). The yawning gap between mothers and their grown daughters is a chasm filled with childhood resentments and parental admonishments.

In 21st century terms, parents have such an easy time pushing our buttons because they are the ones who installed them.

Kate doesn’t trust Eleanor because Eleanor keeps secrets, as she is in this instance. And while much of their conflict lies in the past and in patterns neither of them seems able to change, the fact is that Eleanor’s secrets have gotten people killed in the past, and Kate is right to both worry and be mistrustful.

A Twisted Vengeance, like The Service of the Dead and the author’s absolutely marvelous Owen Archer series, is a historical mystery for those who love a rich, detailed slice of history served up with their engrossing mystery. If that’s you, Kate Clifford is a heroine to follow.

Review: A Cruel Necessity by L.C. Tyler

Review: A Cruel Necessity by L.C. TylerA Cruel Necessity: The First John Grey Historical Mystery by L.C. Tyler
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: John Grey #1
Pages: 288
Published by Felony & Mayhem on May 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Two-time Edgar nominee LC Tyler is best known for his series featuring Ethelred and Elsie a third-rate novelist and his gloriously vulgar agent, respectively. And so he should be: He s twice won Britain s Last Laugh award for the Best Humorous Mystery of the Year. But with A Cruel Necessity, the first in the John Grey series, Tyler takes a sharp turn into the shadows. There are still some chuckles to be had, but not many: This is England in the year 1657, Oliver Cromwell is in power, and joy has essentially been outlawed. A young lawyer with a taste for beer and pretty women, Grey finds pleasures enough, even in this backwater Essex town, but he d be wise to keep his amusement to himself: A Royalist spy has been found dead in a local ditch, and Cromwell s agents are eager distressingly eager to explain to Grey that this is nothing to laugh about."

My Review:

I picked this one up out of simple curiosity – it refers to itself as the “first” John Grey historical mystery, and that caught my attention. Because Diana Gabaldon has written a series of historical mysteries featuring Lord John Grey from her Outlander series, set a century after this John Grey. I wondered how they compared.

While Lord John Grey, by the time we meet him in Outlander, is a bit older and a whole lot cannier than John Grey, erstwhile lawyer, they do have one thing in common. And it is something they have in common with many historical mysteries, starting with Brother Cadfael, set in the 1100s and often considered the progenitor of the current popularity of historical mysteries.

All of these series are set at times of great political upheaval. In Brother Cadfael’s time, England was in the midst of a civil war. Lord John Grey, in the 1740s and onwards, faces the Jacobite rebellion and the run up to the American Revolution.

John Grey, the hero, and sometimes dupe of Tyler’s series, lives in the middle of an equally disruptive political upheaval in the late 1650s. In a way, the issues that swirl around him tie into Lord John Grey and the time of the not-too-distant American Revolution. One of the things that made the American experiment singular at its inception was that the nascent Republic created a method for the peaceful transfer of power.

In John Grey’s 1657, that concept only existed in one form, “the King is dead, long live the King.” Other than in a monarchy, there was no other way to go about it. And not all of those transfers were particularly peaceful. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate was coming to its inevitable end. Not because there was anything particularly wrong happening, at least not in light of its time, but because the rise and continuation of the Protectorate was focused solely on the life of its creator and Protector, Oliver Cromwell. And no man lives forever.

Cromwell was 50 when the Protectorate was established, and by the opening days of A Cruel Necessity, nearing 60. People on both sides, Royalist and Roundhead, were looking to the future. If Cromwell attempted to pass the Protectorate to his own son, he would be establishing a monarchy, no better than the one he deposed. And possibly worse. Richard Cromwell wasn’t half the man his father was. Possibly not even a quarter.

Granting the Protectorate to one of his generals would set up a military dictatorship – also not a desirable option. No country can afford to be at war forever.

People were starting to look at the third option – invite the son of their deposed and beheaded King back to England to pick up the reins of monarchy, and reign England. And it is A Cruel Necessity indeed that many people were trying to keep a foot in both camps, in the hope of saving their families if not themselves from economic ruin and a traitor’s death.

Poor John Grey, back home after a year at Cambridge studying law, is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. And he’s just a little too honest, and more than a bit too easily fooled, for the villagers to trust him with any of the things that they are doing to deal with that onrushing but uncertain future.

So John keeps trying to do the right thing, even if he can’t figure out what that right thing is, or what might be the best way might be. And even though he can’t seem to see that everyone around him is lying through whatever teeth they have left.

And so is he.

Escape Rating B: In the end, I liked this story, but not for the things I usually expect in a historical mystery.

One of the things that I liked a lot was the way that the historical period and its messes played into the mystery. In another time and place, these events simply wouldn’t have happened. But it helped that I already knew the outlines of this history. I have had a lifelong fascination with English history, even though none of my ancestors came from anywhere near there. And while the period I studied centered on the Tudors, I did dip my toes into both the Plantagenets and the Stuarts. The Protectorate bit a chunk out of the Stuart period.

Which is why the review began with a history lesson. I’m not sure how this book will work for readers with no interest or familiarity in the period. I found all the period details absolutely fascinating, but I wonder if some readers will just get lost in them.

Usually in a historical mystery, particularly in a series, it works better if the reader likes and empathizes with the main character. This John Grey is a bit a puzzle in that regard. He’s likable enough, but he’s also a very great fool. Or simply greatly foolish a great deal of the time. Or perhaps completely socially unaware might be a better description. It’s not just that he spends the book being deceived by absolutely everyone, it’s that he falls into the trap, over and over, so very easily. And so very often.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Grey grows up. If Grey grows up. I know that there is a saying that G-d looks out for fools, but if that’s true, then John Grey is probably keeping him a bit busier than he should be.

Review: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: The Guns Above by Robyn BennisThe Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #1
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The nation of Garnia has been at war for as long as Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupris can remember – this time against neighboring Vinzhalia. Garnia’s Air Signal Corp stands out as the favored martial child of the King. But though it’s co-ed, women on-board are only allowed “auxiliary” crew positions and are banned from combat. In extenuating circumstances, Josette saves her airship in the heat of battle. She is rewarded with the Mistral, becoming Garnia’s first female captain.
She wants the job – just not the political flak attached. On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat – a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. He’s also been assigned to her ship to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. When the Vins make an unprecedented military move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself to the top brass?

My Review:

The Guns Above is an absolutely fantastic steampunk/Military SF action adventure story. This is one of those stories where it’s science fiction mostly because it isn’t anything else. The only SFnal element is the “not our world” setting and, of course, the airships. Those marvelous airships.

But in its protagonist of Lieutenant Josette Dupre, we have an avatar for every woman who has had it drummed into her head that “in order to be thought half as good as a man she’ll have to be twice as good. And that lucky for her, that’s not difficult.” And we’ve all heard it.

And on my rather confused other hand, it feels like Josette Dupre is Jack Aubrey, which makes Bernat Hinkal into Stephen Maturin. I’m having a really difficult time getting my head around that thought, but at the same time, I can’t dislodge that thought either.

Yes, I promise to explain. As well as I can, anyway.

Lieutenant Dupre technically begins the story as an Auxiliary Lieutenant, because women aren’t permitted to be “real” officers. Or give orders to men. Or participate in battles. Or a whole lot of other completely ridiculous and totally unrealistic rules and regulations that seem to be the first thing thrown over the side when an airship lifts.

Dupre is being feted as the winner of the Garnians’ recent battle in their perpetual war with the Vinzhalians. A war which to this reader sounds an awful lot like the perpetual 18th and even 19th century wars between England and France. (Also the 14th and 15th centuries, better known as the Hundred Years’ War, because it was)

Who the war is with, and which side anyone is one, don’t feel particularly relevant, although I expect they will in the later books in this series that I am crossing my fingers for. What matters to the reader is that we are on Dupre’s side from beginning to end, against the Vinz, against the bureaucracy, against her commanding officer, against the entire world that is just so damn certain that she is incapable of doing the job she is manifestly so damn good at.

And we begin the book pretty much against Lord Bernat Hinkal, because his entire purpose on board Dupre’s ship Mistral is to write a damning report to his uncle the General, giving said General grounds for dismissing the first female captain in the Signal Corps. It doesn’t matter how much utter fabrication Bernat includes in his report, because whatever terrible things he makes up will be believed. There are plenty of reactionary idiots in the Army and the government who believe that women are incapable of commanding, therefore Dupre must be a fluke or a freak of nature or both.

The General is looking for ammunition to shoot down, not just Dupre, but the notion that the Garnians are losing their perpetual war, or at least running out of manpower to fight it, and that womanpower might possibly be at least part of the answer. But the General, like so much of the military hierarchy, is content to rest their laurels and their asses on the so-called fact that Garnia hasn’t lost a war in over three centuries, therefore they can’t be losing this one now.

The past is not always a good predictor of the future, especially when combined with the old truism that generals are always fighting the last war.

But what happens to Bernat, and to the reader, is that we follow in Dupre’s wake, observing her behavior, her doubts, her actions and her sheer ability to command not just her crew’s obedience but also its fear, its respect and even its awe. Dupre, whether in spite of or because of her so-called handicap of being female, is a commander that troops will follow into the toughest firefight – because she is their very best chance at getting to the other side alive – no matter how desperate the odds.

Dupre, her airship Mistral, and The Guns Above are all winners. The Garnian military hierarchy be damned.

Escape Rating A+: It’s obvious that I loved The Guns Above. I got completely absorbed in it from the very first page, and was reluctant to put it down at the end and leave this world behind. Dupre is a marvelous hero who has clear doubts and fears and yet keeps on going from one great thing to another. Part of what makes her fantastic is that she hears that still small voice inside all of us that says we’re faking it, but forces herself to keep going anyway. She exhibits that best kind of courage – she knows she’s terrified, but she goes ahead anyway. Because it’s her duty. Because she knows that, in spite of everything, she is the best person available for the job. Not that she’s the best person in the universe for it, she has way too much self-doubt for that, but that in that place and in that time she’s the best person available. And to quote one of my favorite characters from a much different universe, “Someone else might get it wrong.”

The way that this world is set up, and the way that the setting up proceeds, reminds me tremendously of the Aubrey/Maturin series by the late Patrick O’Brian. That series features a British naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars, along with the friend that he brings aboard his first (and subsequent) command. Like Dupre, Jack Aubrey is also a lieutenant in his first outing, called “Captain” by courtesy when aboard his rather small ship. As is Dupre. Also like the Aubrey series, there is a tremendous amount of detail about the ship and the way it is rigged and the way that the crew behaves. The reader is virtually dumped into a sea of lines and jargon, and it makes the setting feel real. In the O’Brian series it was real, and here it isn’t, but the feeling is the same, that this is a working ship and that this is the way it works.

Also the focus here, like in the O’Brian series, is on this battle and this action and this fight, not on the greater politics as a whole, most of the time. It feels like the Granians are England in this scenario, and the Vinzhalians, France. This is not dissimilar to the Honor Harrington series, where Honor is Jack, Manticore is England, and Haven is France. “This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.”

Dupre is only a resident of the halls of power when she is about to receive a dressing down, as is Jack Aubrey in the early days.

But the comparison of Aubrey to Dupre makes Bernat into Maturin, and it actually does work a bit. But where Maturin was a doctor and discovered a function aboard the ship early on, Bernat is rather different. He’s a spy for his uncle, and Dupre knows it. He also begins the journey as a completely useless supernumerary whose only task seems to be to foment small rebellions. Also he’s a complete fop and as out of place on a ship of war as fox in a henhouse. Until he gets every bit as caught up in the action as the reader.

The fascinating thing about Bernat is that he neither changes nor reforms. And yet he does. At the beginning of the story he’s a complete fop, more concerned about his dress, his drink and the quality of his food than he is about anything else, including the progress of the war. He believes what he has been taught. At the end of the story, he is still a fop. But his eyes and his mind have been opened. Partially by Dupre, and partially by the rest of the crew. And, it seems, partially by finding something that he is good at. Aboard the Mistral, he has a positive purpose. On land, only a negative one. And it changes his perspective while not changing his essential nature.

At least not yet. Finding out where he goes from here, along with what plan to be the wild gyrations of Dupre’s career, looks like it’s going to be fascinating. And I can’t wait.

The Guns Above has received my first A+ Review for 2017, and will definitely be on my “Best of 2017” list, along with my Hugo nominations next year. This book is absolutely awesomesauce.

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose HalsonThe Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London by Penrose Halson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after World War II—a heart-warming, touching, and thoroughly absorbing true story of a world gone by.
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of matchmaking. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson—who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau—tells their story, and those of their clients.
From shop girls to debutantes; widowers to war veterans, clients came in search of security, social acceptance, or simply love. And thanks to the meticulous organization and astute intuition of the Bureau’s matchmakers, most found what they were looking for.
Penrose Halson draws from newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and interviews with the proprietors themselves to bring the romance and heartbreak of matchmaking during wartime to vivid, often hilarious, life in this unforgettable story of a most unusual business.

My Review:

Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one that goes, “The truth is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” Fiction has to actually feel plausible, or it turns the willing suspension of disbelief into the unwilling, and bounces the reader out of the story. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, it just has to be true.

The history of The Marriage Bureau is one of those stories that would feel a bit too contrived if it were fiction. But it isn’t. Fictional, that is. It still feels a bit contrived, but because it actually did happen, the reader ends up marveling at human nature in all its sometimes crazy variety (much as the proprietors did) instead of picking apart the characters.

Because if these folks weren’t real, we’d all be sure it was a bit too good or too strange to be true. Mostly strange.

Not bad strange, just, well, people.

In 1939, both Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver had dipped their toes into the marital well, and come out either scalded or completely tepid. Heather was divorced and Mary hadn’t found anyone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Or even more than few weeks with.

It was Mary’s Uncle George who suggested the idea that became the Marriage Bureau. Providing a registry for people who were looking for spouses, and using interviews, common sense and intuition to match people up, had the possibility of providing both young women with both an independent income and a purpose in life, allowing them to remain single and independent of their families while providing a much needed service.

A service that was much more needed than either of them anticipated. From their very first day the line for interviews went down the stairs from their rented office and practically out the door of the building, three stories below.

The story in The Marriage Bureau is that of the first ten years of the Bureau, a period that encompasses the end of Empire, the Phoney War, the London Blitz and the years of post-war rationing. Through it all, Londoners and many others crossed the threshold of the Marriage Bureau, hoping that the ladies of the Bureau could do for them what they had not managed to do for themselves, find a congenial and suitable spouse.

One of the fascinating things about the way that the Bureau worked was that, unlike many British institutions, particularly of that era, it was not restricted to class. The fees were modest, and structured so that it was in the agency’s best interest to find each client a spouse who would suit them, not anyone else’s ideas for them.

Yes, most people were looking for someone of their own class, or close to it, but the Bureau had clients of every class and station from working to landed to titled and all the gradations in between. Just as today, those who are too busy making a living or caring for others or a combination of the above are often too busy, too shy or both to put themselves out where they have a chance at finding a life-partner.

And for the women who ran the Bureau over that decade (and beyond) it was a labor of love. And a rousing success.

Reality Rating B: The story in The Marriage Bureau is episodic rather than a continual narrative. The story dips into the lives, loves and ambitions of the people who came the Bureau as clients, rather than delving deeply into the lives of its proprietors and agents. Although the years of the London Blitz are part of the story, we read more of the Blitz’s impact on people’s lives and their desire to marry than we follow any one person’s story.

Being a series of dips rather than a deep dive, the story is not a compelling read. One isn’t riveted, wanting to see what happens next, because the narrative doesn’t follow individuals in the way that compels. However, and it is a very big however in this case, it is both easy to dip into and out of, and the story as a whole is quite charming. Even the more “interesting” and less matchable clients get their due. And while there is a certain amount of shared laughter at some clients’ wilder expectations, every client and their story are treated with respect, sometimes including a direct “talking to” about just how wild their expectations might be. And sometimes they are very wild, whether for self-aggrandizement, out of self-absorption, or, on occasion, out of sympathy and hope.

It isn’t all sweetness and light. There are a few stories where the clients tipped over (or barged over) the line, and got shown the door. There is one haunting story of parental interference in what should have been a happily ever after. And, of course, life happens. The war brings an end to some marriages, and the peace brings an end to a few more. Some merely grieve, but some return in the hopes of striking lucky a second time.

In the end, this is a story of two women and the execution of one great idea. And it’s a story that shows that there is someone out there for everyone, even if we occasionally need a little help with the looking.

TLC
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Review: The Nanny Arrangement by Rachel Harris

Review: The Nanny Arrangement by Rachel HarrisThe Nanny Arrangement by Rachel Harris
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, new adult romance
Series: Country Blues #2
Pages: 266
Published by Entangled Publishing on May 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Soft-spoken and shy Hannah Fisher is determined to make the man she’s loved her entire life finally see her as a woman. With the help of a makeover, a new mission—Operation Find My Happy—and the convenient forced proximity of a tour bus, she vows to win her best friend Deacon’s heart.

Former bad boy and current fiddle player Deacon Latrell has the world at his fingertips: a new gig with a famous band, plus his best friend on tour as his son’s nanny. Life couldn’t get much sweeter. Now if only he could stop imagining kissing the daylights out of his childhood BFF...

With one friend set on pushing the boundaries and the other afraid to rock the boat, one thing’s for certain—their story would make one heck of a country song.

My Review:

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Nanny Arrangement. As much as I love the friends-to-lovers trope, there are a whole lot of other factors in this story that generally drive me crazy, and certainly did this time. And I liked the damn thing anyway!

The Nanny Arrangement is right on the cusp between New Adult and Contemporary Romance. The protagonists are both 20-somethings, and are still figuring out what they want out of life. They also fumble quite a bit along their way.

This is really Hannah’s story. She has come back from a year-long stay in Paris as an au pair to initiate Operation Find My Happy. It’s not that Hannah doesn’t know where her happy is, it’s that she isn’t sure she can manage to grab it. Because Hannah has been in love with Deacon Lattrell for ten years now, and he doesn’t seem to see her as anything more than a friend. Admittedly his best friend in the whole universe, but still, firmly and seemingly irrevocably, stuck in the dreaded friend zone.

But as much as Hannah loves being Deke’s friend, as well as the surrogate mother to his young son Max, Hannah just plain loves Deke, and always has. But Hannah has always hidden herself away in baggy clothes and in the fringes of any group, and it is possible that Deke simply hasn’t seen her as she really is. And that he never got past spending high school defending Hannah from all the schoolyard cruelty inflicted on her as a red-headed girl with a stutter who wore slightly old-fashioned clothes. She was the class freak, and Deke was her lone defender.

There’s plenty of love there, but it isn’t exactly the kind of love that Hannah wants or needs. Running away to Paris didn’t cure her of her embarrassingly unrequited love for Deke, so putting herself out there and making him see her may not work either, but she has to try before she has a chance at moving on.

That’s where the fun begins. Deke is the latest member of the country rock group Blue. The band has been established for years, but they needed a new fiddle-player and Deke has turned out to be it. But Deke doesn’t travel without little Max, and that’s where Hannah steps in. The band needs a live-in nanny on tour, not just for Max but also for the lead singer’s little girl Stella. So just as Deke is on a trial contract as their fiddler for the length of their US tour, Hannah is on a trial contract as their nanny.

In the enforced intimacy of a small group on tour in not-nearly-big-enough buses, Hannah has the chance to open Deke’s eyes. It’s not her fault that as soon as he opens them, the idiot slams them shut again. He wants only the absolute best for Hannah, and he’s sure that’s not him. Not that he’s actually asked her what she wants. Of course not.

He’s an idiot, but while plumbing the vast depths of his idiocy he finally gets smart enough to put on some really excellent grovel to get back the girl he’s always loved.

Escape Rating B+: Throw the tropes New Adult Romance, Rock Star Romance, Friends-to-Lovers, I’m Not Worthy, and Misunderstandammit into a blender, mix with Operation Find My Happy, and come up with a story that in spite of its flaws still makes the reader finish with a big smile.

I say this because I find that I’m hit or miss with New Adult, and very much down on both I’m Not Worthy and the Misunderstandammit. Combining the trope where the hero kicks the heroine to the curb because he’s certain she’s too good for him, and mixing it with the trope where so many of their issues could be solved if they just talked with each other instead of past each other once in awhile does not make for this reader’s favorite frustration.

What redeemed a whole lot of these two issues was that, unusual for romance, Deke put on very good grovel to make up for his errors. Not that Hannah wasn’t going to take him back anyway, but not just Deke but all the guys in the story were conscious that Deke had screwed up big time and needed to make up for it even bigger time.

It was great not to see the guy get a hall pass on this.

But it was Hannah’s Operation Find My Happy that made the story for me. She’s not sure how to get what she wants, and she’s certainly not sure that she’ll get what she wants, but she has internalized the mantra about only getting a different result by taking a different action. Along with the realization that the whole unrequited longing thing just wasn’t working for her. She needed to get on or get over, and she hadn’t found a way to get over so it was time to get on with pursuing what she wanted, even if she lost.

I also loved the way that both the friendships among the women and the friendships among the men developed organically over the story. Expanding their respective circles was something that both Deke and Hannah desperately needed to do, even if neither of them saw it.

And we do see where Deke and Hannah came from, and just how and why they ended up in the pickle that they are in. And we’re thrilled when Hannah’s courage and Deke’s excellent grovel finally locate Hannah’s (and Deke’s and Max’s) happy.

Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa TuttleThe Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: From the Casebooks of Jesperson & Lane #1
Pages: 416
Published by Random House Publishing Group - Hydra on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

To solve some mysteries, one must embrace the impossible.
Has there ever been a more unlikely pair of consulting detectives than Jesperson and Lane? They certainly make a striking duo: Mr. Jasper Jesperson, with his shock of red hair and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of all subjects—save common sense—and Miss Lane, whose logical mind is matched only by her fascination with psychic phenomena.
Their talents are rare . . . as are their customers. So when Jesperson and Lane are hired to track the nocturnal wanderings of a sleepwalking London business owner, they’re simply happy to be working again. The case begins as a window into the séances and other supernatural parlor games that are so popular these days, and takes a sinister turn as the intrepid investigators pull back the curtain on the cutthroat rivalries underpinning polite society.
But after several mediums go missing, it’s clear that Jesperson and Lane are in over their heads. For they’ve uncovered a presence beyond their understanding—an evil force that won’t hesitate to kill in order to achieve its nefarious ends.

My Review:

I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. It was an interesting set up to a slightly off-beat Sherlock Holmes read-alike, with an even more eccentric Holmes and a female Watson who is not a doctor. On the one hand, their respective eccentricities make Jesperson and Lane closer to partners from the beginning. On that other hand, it also begins as a kind of tweak of the nose at Conan Doyle, because Aphrodite Lane becomes a detective after discovering that her friend and employer Gabrielle Fox, who is supposed to be a skeptical investigator for the Society for Psychical Research, is every bit as much of a fraud and a trickster as every medium they have ever investigated.

Miss Lane is willing to believe, but she wants empirical evidence. Evidence that doesn’t involve secret hooks and pulleys under the table. And I applauded her for that.

But about halfway through, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief turned into the most infuriating book I have read in a long time, perhaps ever.

I fully realize that sentence requires a bit more explanation.

At the beginning of the story, as Jesperson and Lane get started in their consulting detective business, the setting seems to be the same Victorian London as the Holmes and Watson stories. (There is a tip of the hat to Holmes as a fictional character they are both familiar with). There was, at that time, quite a bit of exploration of and belief in the supernatural, and frauds abounded.

Conan Doyle, in spite of his invention of that most rational detective, Holmes, was himself a great believer in spiritualism (and fairies!). Harry Houdini, formerly one of Conan Doyle’s great friends, practically had a second career as a debunker of mediums and psychic phenomena. Their friendship broke over this fundamental difference of belief.

When the first case is presented to Jesperson and Lane, that of the sleepwalking, Mr. Creavey (in other words, the somnambulist) they are looking for a logical and rational explanation. Which Jesperson eventually finds. Someone is controlling Mr. Creavey through a post-hypnotic suggestion.

And while psychic phenomena are bunk, hypnosis is a well-known and reproducible technique.

And this is where the story goes completely off the rails. At least for this reader. Because the so far rational and redoubtable Miss Lane, who is telling the story in the first-person, becomes completely irrational on the subject of hypnotism and hypnosis, when it is obvious to both Jesperson and to the reader that Miss Lane has herself been hypnotized. The only question yet to be completely resolved is whether her hypnotist is the same as Mr. Creavey’s, but even at the outset it seems all too likely. It would be much too coincidental, in the best detectival tradition, for there to be two different hypnotists involved in the same case.

Whether hypnosis works exactly as portrayed in the story is questionable, but it certainly does work and does exist to a significant extent. That the amount of control the hypnotist has over his victims seems rather greater than is considered the norm feels like it falls within the spectrum of fiction.

But it gets worse. While the formerly rational Miss Lane descends into risible irrationality, what drove this reader off the edge into fury was that the story seemed to change its basic premise. While throughout the book it seems to be part of the historical Victorian era, when mostly gullible or desperate people believed in spiritualism but it was not proven, the ending of the story requires that this setting become a world in which psychic phenomena are real and functional.

In other words, we began in rationality and ended with magic, with no explanation for how the basic way that the world works seems to have flipped on its head.

Escape Rating C-: I did finish, which gets the C grade. And I’m still thinking about the book, and still furious, which also keeps it in the C category. But, but and very definitely but. I am so disappointed. What read like a very promising start descended so far on so many levels. Miss Lane’s descent in particular, from rational action to idiocy was particularly galling, especially as we view the story from inside her head.

I enjoy stories where magic works. I love urban fantasy. But if that’s the case, it needs to be established, or at least hinted at, from the beginning. That’s not what happened here. And yes, I’m aware that some of the promotional materials delve a bit into the supernatural aspects, but a) promotional materials don’t always represent the work in hand, b) the switch between absolute belief in rationality to confirmed belief in “magic” is not even subtext in the actual text, and 3) the point-of-view character still changes from an interesting and rational being to a complete idiot.

Color me extremely disappointed. And very, very annoyed.

Review: The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer

Review: The Scribe of Siena by Melodie WinawerThe Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, time travel
Pages: 464
Published by Touchstone on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Equal parts transporting love story and gripping historical conspiracy—think The Girl with a Pearl Earring meets Outlander—debut author Melodie Winawer takes readers deep into medieval Italy, where the past and present blur and a twenty-first century woman will discover a plot to destroy Siena.
Accomplished neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato knows that her deep empathy for her patients is starting to impede her work. So when her beloved brother passes away, she welcomes the unexpected trip to the Tuscan city of Siena to resolve his estate, even as she wrestles with grief. But as she delves deeper into her brother’s affairs, she discovers intrigue she never imagined—a 700-year-old conspiracy to decimate the city.
After uncovering the journal and paintings of Gabriele Accorsi, the fourteenth-century artist at the heart of the plot, Beatrice finds a startling image of her own face and is suddenly transported to the year 1347. She awakens in a Siena unfamiliar to her, one that will soon be hit by the Plague.
Yet when Beatrice meets Accorsi, something unexpected happens: she falls in love—not only with Gabriele, but also with the beauty and cadence of medieval life. As the Plague and the ruthless hands behind its trajectory threaten not only her survival but also Siena’s very existence, Beatrice must decide in which century she belongs.
The Scribe of Siena is the captivating story of a brilliant woman’s passionate affair with a time and a place that captures her in an impossibly romantic and dangerous trap—testing the strength of fate and the bonds of love.

My Review:

The Scribe of Siena is a time-travel whodunnit, or possibly howdunnit, wrapped inside a romance, and filled with plenty of scrumptious details on life in Medieval Italy, just before it all went pear-shaped.

Beatrice Trovato begins the story as a 21st century neurosurgeon, and ends it as a 14th century scribe. That’s quite a journey, and the beauty of the story is all in how she gets there.

We begin with Beatrice at her home in New York, just beginning to think that her career, while it has its compensations, is also consuming her life. She seems to be on 24/7, because even when she gets a rare day off, there’s always someone who desperately needs her life-saving skills.

Beatrice has a gift, not just for neurosurgery, but also for empathy. She occasionally just “knows” what’s wrong with a patient before the alarms start going off. She’s also more than a little too wrapped up in her work.

And then everything changes. Her beloved brother dies in Siena, Italy, of a heart attack. She’s always known that Ben had a congenital condition, but she also thought they’d have more time. Time she never seemed to make because of her demanding calling.

But Ben was in the middle of his own calling. He was a scholar who tracked the course of medieval epidemics. And he was looking at something potentially groundbreaking about the spread of the Black Death in Siena in the 1300s.

Now he’s dead, and Beatrice finally takes that often imagined trip to Siena to deal with his estate, and possibly pick up the pieces of his research.

The chase enthralls her. Beatrice, who almost followed Ben into historical research, revives long-abandoned skills, and finds herself caught up in the hunt. She falls in love, both with the city of Siena and with its storied, and possibly contentious, past.

And on the hunt for Ben’s elusive quarry, she finds the diary of a 14th century painter who lived at the time of Ben’s research, and may have left behind clues to the mystery. But more than anything else, Gabriele Accorsi imbued his diary with a sense of himself. A sense that Beatrice’s empathy grabs onto and uses to propel her back through time, to Gabriele’s side.

There she must make a life for herself, a lone woman in a medieval city, while she desperately hopes that she can find a way back to her own time before the quite literal oncoming Plague reaches Siena.

But instead of finding a way out, she finds a way of life that fulfills her as the 21st century never has. As she falls in love with both the man and the place, she fears that all is already lost. The Black Death is coming for Siena, and there is nothing she can do to stop it, or to protect those she loves.

Escape Rating A-: If you put Somewhere in Time, Outlander, The Girl With a Pearl Earring, Doomsday Book and Household Gods into a blender, you’d get something like The Scribe of Siena. You might also need to add a bit of Brother Cadfael or Crispin Guest for a bit of spice (and bodies).

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium, and this book is no exception. That aspect of the story reminded me of Household Gods, where a commonplace object facilitates the time travel back. And also a bit of Somewhere in Time, where a common object of the modern era draws the protagonist forward again.

But the harrowing description of the time travel experience itself feels drawn straight from Outlander, as do the romantic aspects of the story. Beatrice, like Clare, is accidentally pulled back into the past and forced to make a way for herself against seemingly impossible odds. Where Clare marries to provide herself safety, Beatrice finds work as a scribe. It’s a career that both provides a reasonable living and causes trouble. Much as Clare does.

Beatrice also falls in love, but the relationship between Gabriele and Beatrice is very slow-building. She may be a 21st century woman, but he is a man of his times. He loves and respects her, and therefore wants things done properly, even if they must wait for all of the ceremonies to finally take place.

Ironically, even though both Doomsday Book and Scribe of Siena feature a heroine who goes back to the time of the Black Death, the way that the plague is handled is very different. In the Doomsday Book the heroine lives through the Plague in all its heartbreaking detail, and that’s where a lot of the empathy in that story comes from. In Scribe, the heroine escapes the Plague by accidentally sending herself back to the future where modern medicine can cure her. She returns to 14th century Siena in the winter after the Plague has temporarily passed, and is now immune. But she doesn’t experience the cataclysmic deaths first-hand.

The other piece of the puzzle in this story is the historical mystery, which is more of a historical conspiracy theory. The Black Death hit Siena especially hard, even for an epidemic which cut the population of Europe in half. The theory that Ben Trovato was attempting to prove was that political forces deliberately sent Plague carriers to Siena in an attempt to break the back of this ascendant city and let a different one rise in its place. It’s a fascinating idea, and Beatrice finds herself on the wrong side of powerful figures in both the 14th and 21st centuries as she strives to prove what happened. It gives us a glimpse of both 14th century power politics and 21st century academic politics, and while both are fascinating, neither are pretty.

In the end, whether readers will fall in love with this story rests with Beatrice. It is her perspective that we follow from the 21st century to the 14th, and it is through her eyes that we see this brave, old world. I felt for her journey, and in the end I believed I understood why she made the choices that she did. If you do too, you will love this book.

Guest Review: Tender Wings of Desire by Harland Sanders

Guest Review: Tender Wings of Desire by Harland SandersTender Wings of Desire by Harland Sanders
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 96
Published by Amazon Digital Services on May 2, 2017
Amazon
Goodreads

When Lady Madeline Parker runs away from Parker Manor and a loveless betrothal, she finally feels like she is in control of her life. But what happens when she realizes she can’t control how she feels? When she finds herself swept into the arms of Harland, a handsome sailor with a mysterious past, Madeline realizes she must choose between a life of order and a man of passion. Can love overcome lies? What happens in the embrace of destiny, on the Tender Wings of Desire?

When this book was released last week, I was in a fowl, er, foul mood. I couldn’t pinpoint eggs-actly why that was so, I’d just been in a funk for a few weeks. This book brought up nuggets of inspiration that I really didn’t know I had waiting in the wings. So, let’s get right to it.

Guest Review by Amy:

To be fair to this work, we really need to spend some time on this cover image; like most historical romances, the cover art has little-to-nothing to do with the actual content of the book, and here we have an extreme case: Harland Sanders (1890-1980), in his later white-haired years, yet still obviously muscular, carrying a woman wearing “mom jeans” circa 1980s…on the cover of a Regency novel, circa 1811-1820. The art itself was so amusing when it popped up on my Kindle that I had to show my husband, who also laughed himself into a fit. The masterstroke, for both of us, was having her holding a piece of chicken (in her right hand). Let’s not forget the white linen suit with the sleeves cut off–showing off those breathtakingly muscular arms on the…er…handsome Colonel.

Fortunately, perhaps, for us all, the content of the book just doesn’t give us that image of Sanders. What it does deliver is a sharp lampooning of Every. Regency. Ever. Written. I was telling my best friend about this book the morning after reading it, and I likened it to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: campy on its own, but crammed full of inside jokes and jabs at the thing it is lampooning, just as RHPS is full of jabs at the classic cinema. If you don’t understand those jabs, it’s hilarious, but if you do, it’s even funnier.

Lady Madeline Parker is old enough to marry–though, as the book points out, we modern people would not think so. She considers herself a bit of an ugly duckling, of course, though she and her younger sister Victoria both have “the same pale, dewy skin, the same bright green eyes and heart-shaped faces.” Madeline’s hair is dark brown and in unruly curls, while Victoria has long, blonde hair. Madeline’s other problem is that she’s really not interested in marrying, certainly not merely for position, as her parents are working to arrange. If she’s to marry, she wants it to be for love, and only then after she’s had a while to roam about and see the world.

For her groom-to-be’s part, he’s quite a dashing gent: Reginald Lewis, the Duke of Sainsbury. He’s not terribly older than Madeline, which she’s grateful for, but he just doesn’t move her. Little sister Victoria claims he “looks like a fairy-tale prince,” of course, but Madeline isn’t impressed. He’s nice enough, and not ugly, but nothing about him grabs her attention or her interest. “He looks like a vanilla biscuit,” she asserts privately to her sister. Her older brother, Oxford student Winston, is the only person who really gets her, it seems.

Ugly Duckling Who Isn’t, Girl Wants To Break The Pattern, Arranged Marriage, Troublesome Younger Sibling, Wise Older Brother…the only Regency trope we’re missing is the dashing rake who actually does win her affections, at this point.

Madeline must, of course, run away. On the night before her wedding. So, she does. She and her horse, cleverly named Persephone, spend one uncomfortable night in a forest, then one night in a run-down inn, and end up by the sea. Please take note: when you live on an island, all directions will lead you to the sea sooner or later.

She finds a small fishing town. She rides into town, bold as brass, hitches her horse outside a tavern, and strolls in, asking for a job. The head barkeep is, as she surely must be, a non-local; a redheaded, dark-eyed Irish lass named “Caoimhe”. Please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, for I haven’t a clue. But ponder the worldly-wise Caoimhe a moment – how many Irish redheads do you know with dark eyes? Yeah, me either. When asked, she tells Madeline where she wound up: the village is named Mistle-Thrush-by-the-Sea. I kid you not.

The tavern itself, The Admiral’s Arms, is described two different ways in the course of about a page and a half. Madeline enters “a dim place, lit only by the occasional lantern or two, with wooden tables and a fireplace that was currently bare,” but a couple of hours later, as she is learning her job, she’s enjoying a spectacular view, which the tavern exploited “for all it was worth by installing giant windows that showed a view of the harbor and the sea beyond.” This and other glaring continuity errors are peppered throughout, and they just add to the fun.

On her first night there, Madeline must of course meet…Harland Sanders. The most handsome man she’d ever seen, naturally. He was “tall, dressed like a sailor,” with light and fair hair, “framing his head in airy curls, and the eyes that stared back and her were almost the exact color of the sea.” Oh, please! This younger avatar of the famously-curmudgeonish Sanders is, of course, Not Who He Appears To Be (yet another great trope). I won’t spoil it by giving you the ending, but serious readers of Regencies could write the rest of this tale easily. At only 96 pages, this tale moves fast, and the utterly-predictable denouement comes at you like a runaway locomotive.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this. YUM Brands, the owner of KFC, is releasing this novella as a marketing gimmick, not even as a serious work. There are a number of breathtaking flaws, like the continuity errors I pointed out, the needless wealth of outdated adjectives, and the tired old tropes–but were these errors deliberate? When I look at the piece as a whole, I can’t help but wonder. Will it win a “Pullet-zer” prize? Not a chance. But it was cheep…er, cheap – you’ll shell out at most a dollar for this ebook – and to me, it was a fun, silly read, and a mood-booster that I just didn’t see coming. Don’t take it too seriously; it’s way too campy for that. But if campy is your thing – Tender Wings of Desire might be a sleeper hit for you. Chick lit? Absolutely. But worth crossing the road for, in my opinion.

Escape Rating: Extra Crispy

Editor’s Note: When this book showed up on my Facebook feed I was too chicken to read it, so Amy graciously leapt into the breach. Or bucket. I’m very glad she did. I expected the hilarious yet thoughtful review, but had no idea it would also snap her out of a reading slump. And I’m so grateful that Amy was willing to go where no wings have flown before, so that the rest of us don’t have to. I am also grateful that the rating for this one was NOT spicy, because my mind still won’t go there.

For anyone dying of curiosity, this is a real book, and KFC, admittedly with tongue firmly in cheek, released it for a real reason – Mothers’ Day is one of their busiest days of the year. There seem to be nearly 400,000 families who think that the easiest way to give a hard working mother (and they are all hard-working) a night off is to pick up a bucket of chicken from KFC. And I bet there will be even more this year, as people who can’t believe this is a real thing go to KFC to discover if this is a real thing. Which it is, this weekend, free with every $20 Fill-Up Meal. Or for 99 cents at Amazon.

Me, I’m still back at OMG I’m too chicken to read this. Thanks Amy!