Review: Insurrection by Nina Croft

Review: Insurrection by Nina CroftInsurrection by Nina Croft
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera, vampires
Series: Dark Desires Origins #3
Pages: 384
Published by Entangled: Amara on October 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Malpheas is one of the most powerful demons from Earth, but when he wakes up from cryo on the other side of the galaxy, he notices something is wrong—he’s human. Oh, hell no. In order to get his powers back, he must remove the sigil on his arm by carrying out three good deeds. But acts of kindness aren’t exactly his strong suit. Working undercover as a security officer investigating a suspicious death, he’s assigned to work with Hope, the most softhearted woman he’s ever met. If she can’t teach him how to be good, no one can.
Hope is in a pot of trouble, and if anyone finds out what she did, that pot would quickly boil over. She just needs to lay low until she can figure out a way to fix this mess. But when she’s ordered to show Mal the ropes and introduce him to everyone, sorting out her problems becomes impossible. Mal is sexy as sin, broody as hell, and believes she can help him change his bad-boy ways. Fine. If that keeps him from discovering her ties to the rebellion, she’ll teach him how to be a perfect angel.
As they work together, though, it becomes clear that Hope isn’t the only one with a hidden agenda, and their irresistible attraction to each other just adds fuel to the fire. When secrets are exposed, they must make the impossible choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s necessary.
Light meets dark, good meets evil…and love can hurt like Hell.

My Review:

At the end of Insurrection, it feels a bit like the circle just got squared. Or it feels like the series has either come to a conclusion or is headed for one. It kind of depends on whether you boarded the ship on the way to the Trakis system at the beginning of the Dark Desires Origins series in Malfunction, or whether you’ve been aboard for the whole wild ride starting at the very beginning in Break Out.

Because at the end of Insurrection, while we aren’t exactly where we were at the opening of Break Out, we can certainly see that beginning from here. The pieces that we picked up then are just about in place now, which makes a certain kind of sense as the Dark Desires Origins series, which began with Malfunction and was followed by Deception, seems to be heading towards its conclusion here in Insurrection.

Break Out, the first book of the Dark Desires series, takes place several centuries after the events in Insurrection. Events that are so far back in the rearview mirror that they’ve taken on the patina of myths and legends – even though Rico Sanchez lived through it all, as we’ve seen in this prequel series.

But then Rico has lived through a LOT of human history – even though he is no longer exactly human himself, and hasn’t been since the Spanish Inquisition. While no one expects the Spanish Inquisition in the first place, even less do they expect to meet a vampire who began hunting the night at that same time.

The premise behind the entire Dark Desires and Dark Desires Origins series is that Earth was well on its way to becoming uninhabitable, so a fleet of sleeper ships left the dying planet for what would hopefully be greener pastures.

Or at least pastures less fucked up by humans. At least not yet.

In the series that seems to conclude with Insurrection (I could be wrong about this being the conclusion but it feels close) we watched the maneuvering and the finagling, the bribery and the theft, as the places that should have been assigned by lottery were instead filled with the rich and the powerful. While Rico Sanchez bought, bribed or murdered his way into filling half of one ship with his own people. Not just vampires, but also shapeshifters and other things that go bump in the night, including one warlock (his story is in Deception) and one of the seven lords of the Abyss, more colloquially called Hell.

The demon Malpheas just so happens to be the warlock’s father. True to his demonic nature, Malpheas is used to getting his own way, reigning from the top of the heap, and killing anyone who gets in his way. In other words, he’s an entitled alphahole with the power to back it up.

Power he has been cut off from by the time Rico wakes him from cryosleep at the beginning of Insurrection. Malpheas has to commit three “good deeds”, definition rather nebulous, before he’ll have access to all his powers again. The curse he has to labor under is one last “present” from his old frenemy Lucifer.

All Mal has to do is figure out what “good” means, keep the humans on the other ships from discovering just what Rico has been hiding aboard his own ship, and plot and scheme to take over everything once he’s managed to beat the curse.

Unless Mal learns the lesson that his curse is trying to teach him, first.

Escape Rating A-: Now that I’ve finished Insurrection I have the strongest urge to go back and reread the expanded version of Break Out again. It feels so much like this story puts all the pieces in place for that one, and I want to check just how well it did.

This also feels like a great place to end the Dark Desires Origins prequel series, as we’ve seen in detail just how much the humans of the Trakis expedition brought humanity with them, very much warts and all. Readers who began this journey with Malfunction will leave Insurrection primed and ready to see where things have ended up by the time of Break Out, while readers who boarded this flight there will be sorely tempted to see how well the ends meet.

I’m not sure that readers who start here will be completely satisfied. On the other hand, their appetites may be whetted well enough to tempt them to read the entire series from start to finish!

In addition to all of the historical and human – or human-ish – pieces being put in place for the story to continue in that already explored future, one of the reasons that this story read like so much a part of the original book was that both deal explicitly with the problems not of mortality but of immortality.

The process that is discovered on Trakis Seven makes people practically immortal, just as Rico’s vampirism does. People who have gone through the process CAN be killed – decapitation is always an option – but don’t die from disease or accidents or even extreme old age.

The problem with immortality is that the human lifespan is meant to be finite. Psychologically, we need purpose and surprise and a whole bunch of other things that stop being important if one knows one literally has all the time in the universe. Time enough to have been there and done that for every possible thing one could be or do. It gets boring.

In Break Out, Rico may be a bit bored, but the people who have gone through the Trakis immortality treatment are getting really, really bored. And jaded. Just as the immortal demon, Malpheas has gotten bored and jaded with his already extremely long life.

So the romance in this story is wrapped around Malpheas experiencing the old curse of “may you live in interesting times.” As an immortal demon with all his powers, he can make whatever and whoever he wants happen. Nothing is interesting. With his powers locked away, he’s just human. A big, strong, and very sexy human, but human nonetheless. Everything is frustrating. Everything is weird. Everything is fascinating. His times are suddenly very interesting indeed in a way that he hasn’t experienced for a very long time. For Malpheas, the curse has become a blessing.

And the biggest part of the blessing is Hope Featherstone. Not just because she’s nice and she’s pretty, but because she’s real and so are all her emotions. She may want the big, sexy beast, but she doesn’t actually like him all that much. She also finds him surprisingly resistible, and that’s something Mal has never experienced in his life. He has to become a better person to have a chance with her.

That he discovers that she’s not nearly as good as she appears makes them perfect for each other. Now they just have to survive the mess that both their secrets have gotten them into. And get themselves as far away as possible from the brave new world being established – because it’s already every bit as FUBAR’d as the old world they left behind.

Because of the situation on Trakis Four at the end of this book, this feels like the end of the Dark Desires Origins series. But it may not actually be the end. It was great fun to go back to the beginning, to see how the situation we saw in Break Out came to be, with paranormal beings from Earth flying spaceships in a far-flung corner of the galaxy. I never expected to read about vampires in space but I’m certainly glad I did.

This was a fitting sendoff for the whole thing, as not only do we see how things got to be the way they were, but the ending puts a fair amount of focus back on the character most of us fell for at the beginning, vampire and captain Rico Sanchez. It’s been an exciting ride from beginning to end, and I’m glad I took the trip.

If the author ever chooses to return to this universe I’ll be right there.

Review: Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn

Review: Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. RocklynFlowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on October 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Flowers for the Sea is a dark, dazzling debut novella that reads like Rosemary's Baby by way of Octavia E. Butler.
We are a people who do not forget.
Survivors from a flooded kingdom struggle alone on an ark. Resources are scant, and ravenous beasts circle. Their fangs are sharp.
Among the refugees is Iraxi: ostracized, despised, and a commoner who refused a prince, she’s pregnant with a child that might be more than human. Her fate may be darker and more powerful than she can imagine.
Zin E. Rocklyn’s extraordinary debut is a lush, gothic fantasy about the prices we pay and the vengeance we seek.

My Review:

I picked this up because I was expecting a story that would be doing that creepy, uncomfortable straddle over the place where dark fantasy bleeds into horror. But that wasn’t quite what I got – although there was plenty of uncomfortable, downright painful straddling in the book itself.

Having finished the book, it feels like I got the middle part of a story that had a lot more depth to explore – but that those deeper elements just weren’t present in the part I got.

The story begins aboard a ship that has, or at least had, some very interesting magic. The ship is and has been, floating in an endless sea, its passengers permanent exiles from a shore they left behind. Originally, the ship fed and protected and sustained them easily, but the magic is dying, or the sea is dying, or it’s all fading away.

Our perspective on the ship, its inhabitants and its circumstances is through the mind of resentful, pregnant, angry, ostracized Iraxi. She is angry at everyone on the ship, and everyone on the ship is resentful and afraid of her. Even though they all hope that the baby she has zero desire to carry or bear will save them all.

Iraxi’s perspective is an uncomfortable one. She is, herself, extremely uncomfortable in the last days of her pregnancy, and very, very angry at everyone and everything around her. Including most especially, herself.

But Iraxi’s anger is a much bigger thing than one woman – or even one ocean – can contain. All she has to do is accept it, and accept the past that brought her to this point, and it will become big enough to encompass the world – and destroy it.

Escape Rating C: Even after finishing this book, I still had more of a sense of what it was supposed to be from the blurb than from reading – actually listening to – the entire thing from beginning to end. Not that the reader didn’t do a good job, because she most definitely did, but because the story didn’t quite gel for me – or perhaps it gelled in the wrong places.

The blurb describes Flowers for the Sea as Rosemary’s Baby meets Octavia Butler, in other words a combination of horror and SF. I was expecting something at least a bit like Rivers Solomon’s marvelous The Deep, in the sense that I was expecting a story that was intended to reclaim the Middle Passage of the slave trade for its victims and away from its perpetrators.

I didn’t exactly get either of those things. Admittedly that’s at least in part because both the author and the narrator did an all too excellent job of portraying Iraxi’s unwanted, undesired, unwelcome and utterly resented pregnancy and eventual childbirth as a internal horror of anger, fear, hatred, loathing, disgust and pretty much every other negative emotion in a way that hit me right in the nightmare to the point where it overshadowed the entire story.

The other reason the story didn’t gel is that we see the entire thing from Iraxi’s perspective, and Iraxi is angry almost to the point of incoherence pretty much all of the time. She hates her circumstances, she hates her pregnancy, she hates her baby, she hates all the people aboard the ship for the way that they have forced her to carry this unwanted pregnancy to term, the way that they in their turn hate and fear her and only give a damn about the child she is carrying. She’s lonely, she’s resentful, she’s afraid and she’s hiding the reasons she is in this circumstance from herself and from the reader, only dribbling out clues and then shutting herself down before we learn what we need to know.

Paradoxically for a story that didn’t work for me, I wish this had been longer. We don’t know anything about this world, although we learn that it isn’t exactly ours. We don’t know nearly enough about Iraxi’s people, their background or how they got into this fix. We eventually get hints, but they’re not enough. More pages, more scope to learn more, would have made this work better – at least for this reader.

Your reading mileage may vary. I’m headed off to gibber in a quiet corner someplace until the nightmare passes.

Review: Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman

Review: Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne FeldmanSisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 400
Published by Mira on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Inspired by real women, this powerful novel tells the story of two unconventional American sisters who volunteer at the front during World War I
August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort--Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.
Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war's harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.
Illuminating the critical role women played in the Great War, this is a remarkable story of resilience, sacrifice and the bonds that can never be vanquished.

My Review:

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” The quote is by William Tecumseh Sherman. While Sherman was referring to the American Civil War, it is just as germane to World War I, and indeed any war either before or since.

Sisters of the Great War focuses on, not those who fired the shots, but rather those whose duty it was to hear the shrieks and groans of the wounded. Those who were tasked with the duty of transporting the wounded from the “front” to the makeshift hospitals nearly always inadequately staffed with doctors, nurses and orderlies who did the best they could with what little they had to patch them up if they could, invalid them out if they could not, or at least give them as much peace and surcease from pain as possible as they died.

Ruth and Elise Duncan represent two of those women. Ruth as a nurse, and Elise as an ambulance driver and mechanic. The story in Sisters of the Great War is the story of service on the front lines of that hell, undertaken with a lot of pluck, a great deal of stubbornness, and no small amount of naivete as a way of escaping privileged but unfulfilled lives under their father’s dictatorial thumb.

In Baltimore. In the United States. In 1914. Three years before the Americans entered the war. They volunteered, not really knowing, as no one did in 1914, that the war was going to take four long years of trenches and gas and devastation. Ruth left behind her father’s stern disapproval in the hopes that somehow, someway, serving as a nurse in wartime would give her the experience and the attitude needed for her to live her dream and become a doctor.

Elise just came along to keep her sister safe. Not that, as it turned out, safety was what either of them was built for. Nor was there any safety to be had in hospital tents or in barely functioning ambulances that were shelled almost as often as the trenches.

This is a story of perseverance in the face of bombs, shells and prejudice, railing against the lice and the substandard food and the even worse conditions and the sheer bloody-mindedness required to do not nearly enough with not nearly enough in order to save as many as possible – even if that wasn’t nearly enough either.

But they tried their best. They kept trying in the face of all the odds. And in the end, it was enough.

Escape Rating A: There have been plenty of stories featuring women who served in World War I as nurses or ambulance drivers. I can think of three off the top of my head; Phryne Fisher, Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford. (It may or may not be a coincidence that all lead mystery series.)

But the thing that struck me about all three of those heroines in comparison to Ruth and Elise Duncan is that in all three of those cases, in spite of the war being a critical part of each of their experiences, the brutal, devastating, depressing horror of the experience itself is a bit glossed over.

Phryne firmly keeps herself from looking back at her experience as an ambulance driver, while Maisie’s wartime experience effectively occurs between stories. Even Bess Crawford a nurse in a forward aid station, just as Ruth Duncan is at the beginning of her career, seems to carefully glance away from the worst of the gore in the operating theater to focus on the more individual gore of the murders that Bess uncovers.

What feels singular about Sisters of the Great War is that it uses Ruth’s and Elise’s slightly separated perspectives to put the nearly neverending horrors of the war and the desperation of the health care workers attempting to save them in the center of the story.

We’re with them every draining, numbing step of their way. We feel for them and with them and it makes their experience searing and horrifying and so very human. They’re both trying so hard and it’s never enough and they keep doing it anyway. We can’t turn our eyes away from their story – because they didn’t.

And yet, they’re not superhuman. We see their hopelessness and their fears and their exhaustion and we’re with them.

But because the story doesn’t gloss over just how much hell this war is, it’s a hard book because their experience, and the entire experience of that war, was so very hard and so deeply dark.

Not that there aren’t light moments in the story and in their hopes for the future – even as both of those things are full of fear. Ruth may have volunteered to escape their father, but she is also following the man she loves. Elise finally admits the truth of her own heart, and lets herself fall in love with another woman in spite of the censure they will face.

They do emerge from their war, bloody, often literally, and not either unscathed or unbowed. But they find the light at the end of their long dark tunnel and the entire experience makes for an extremely compelling read.

Review: Fan Fiction by Brent Spiner

Review: Fan Fiction by Brent SpinerFan Fiction: A Mem-Noir: Inspired by True Events by Brent Spiner, Jeanne Darst
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, humor, mystery, noir
Pages: 256
Published by Macmillan Audio on October 5, 2021
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From Brent Spiner, who played the beloved Lieutenant Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, comes an explosive and hilarious autobiographical novel.
Brent Spiner’s explosive and hilarious novel is a personal look at the slightly askew relationship between a celebrity and his fans. If the Coen Brothers were to make a Star Trek movie, involving the complexity of fan obsession and sci-fi, this noir comedy might just be the one.
Set in 1991, just as Star Trek: The Next Generation has rocketed the cast to global fame, the young and impressionable actor Brent Spiner receives a mysterious package and a series of disturbing letters, that take him on a terrifying and bizarre journey that enlists Paramount Security, the LAPD, and even the FBI in putting a stop to the danger that has his life and career hanging in the balance.
Featuring a cast of characters from Patrick Stewart to Levar Burton to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, to some completely imagined, this is the fictional autobiography that takes readers into the life of Brent Spiner and tells an amazing tale about the trappings of celebrity and the fear he has carried with him his entire life.
Fan Fiction is a zany love letter to a world in which we all participate, the phenomenon of “Fandom.”

My Review:

There’s a fine line between parody and farce, and it feels like Brent Spiner tap-danced over it in both directions, multiple times, during the course of this story. If that dance turned out to be set to one of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits, or something else from the “Great American Songbook” I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised.

It might be best to go into this story not really thinking of it as, well, a story. It’s more of a combination of homage and love letter. The “mystery” part of the story reads like an homage to the noir films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, complete with a reference to that classic image of noir, the painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942 courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

It’s also a love letter, to his friends and fellow crew members of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and to all of us who vicariously voyaged with them aboard the Enterprise-D.

But as a story, it goes over the top so much and so often that it pratfalls down the other side. At the same time, it mixes events from his real life in a way that intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction to the point where the reader just has to hang on for the ride without attempting to figure out which is which.

So the story is grounded in what feels like the real, the real traumas of Spiner’s childhood with his abusive stepfather, the real grief over the death of Gene Roddenberry which occurs during the course of the story. But the picture that hangs within that real framing is the story of a crazed fan stalking the actor and making his life his misery, while his attempts to find help to keep him safe and find his stalker send the story way over the top into the land of make believe.

At least I hope they do, because some of what happens can’t possibly be real. Can it?

Escape Rating B: I’ll confess that as much as I’m still a Star Trek fan, particularly the original series and Next Generation, I had no intentions of reading this book, until I saw the audio. The full cast audio with appearances by several of the Next Gen cast playing themselves – albeit a slightly exaggerated version thereof. And that’s what got me to pick up the audio – and eventually the book because I needed to doublecheck more than a few things.

There is still plenty of animosity among the remaining members of the original series cast, even after 50+ years, but there were no such rumors about the Next Gen cast, and the idea that they would get together and do this for one of their members after all these years says a lot about the group dynamic. A dynamic that was on full display in this recording.

So the audiobook is both a blast and a blast from the past and I was all in for that. Fan Fiction is a tremendously fun listening experience, and hearing everyone play themselves made the whole thing a real treat even when the story itself doesn’t quite hold up to examination.

I also have to say that, as weird as it is in yesterday’s book where the author is a character in his own fictional story, it’s even weirder when the author is a real-life character in a story that is basically fan fiction about his own life. Particularly in the bits where he alludes to his own romantic escapades. (He’s married now, but he hadn’t even met his wife in 1991 when this story takes place. So it’s weird and meta but not quite THAT weird and meta.)

There’s a saying about the past being another country, that they do things differently there. Fan Fiction, in addition to its bloody animal parts in the mail, bombshell twin detectives who BOTH have romantic designs on the author AND the stalker who gets stalked by yet another stalker, is also a trip down memory lane back to 1991.

That’s 30 years ago, and we, along with the world, were a bit different then. Next Generation was in its 5th season, and still not all that popular in the wider world of TV no matter how huge a hit it was among science fiction fans. Next Gen was in syndication only at a time before the streaming juggernauts were even a gleam of a thing in a producer’s eye. It was the author’s really big break as an actor, and that was true for all of the cast except Patrick Stewart and LeVar Burton.

So we were all a lot younger then, childhood traumas were a lot closer in the rearview mirror and still being worked on and worked out, and no one knew then that Star Trek would become a multimedia colossus to rival Star Wars. None of us knew then what we know now, and that’s true of the author and his attitudes towards his own celebrity.

Back to this story. The mystery/thriller aspects push the willing suspension of disbelief well past the breaking point. I half expected this to turn out to have all been a dream like The Wizard of Oz. But the full cast recording turns the whole thing into a delightful trip down memory lane as well as a hilarious send-up of acting and fame and celebrity and fandom. .

If you’re a Star Trek fan, get the audio and settle in to hear some of your favorite characters tell you just one more story. Bits of it might even be true!

Review: A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz

Review: A Line to Kill by Anthony HorowitzA Line To Kill (Hawthorne and Horowitz Mystery, #3) by Anthony Horowitz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Hawthorne and Horowitz #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harper on October 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The New York Times bestselling author of the brilliantly inventive The Word Is Murder and The Sentence Is Death returns with his third literary whodunit featuring intrepid detectives Hawthorne and Horowitz.
When Ex-Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, author Anthony Horowitz, are invited to an exclusive literary festival on Alderney, an idyllic island off the south coast of England, they don’t expect to find themselves in the middle of murder investigation—or to be trapped with a cold-blooded killer in a remote place with a murky, haunted past.
Arriving on Alderney, Hawthorne and Horowitz soon meet the festival’s other guests—an eccentric gathering that includes a bestselling children’s author, a French poet, a TV chef turned cookbook author, a blind psychic, and a war historian—along with a group of ornery locals embroiled in an escalating feud over a disruptive power line.
When a local grandee is found dead under mysterious circumstances, Hawthorne and Horowitz become embroiled in the case. The island is locked down, no one is allowed on or off, and it soon becomes horribly clear that a murderer lurks in their midst. But who?
Both a brilliant satire on the world of books and writers and an immensely enjoyable locked-room mystery, A Line to Kill is a triumph—a riddle of a story full of brilliant misdirection, beautifully set-out clues, and diabolically clever denouements.

My Review:

Think of this story, in fact, think of this entire series, as taking place surrounded by the rubble of the “fourth wall” that author Anthony Horowitz continually demolishes by making himself a character in his own series.

And not even the hero of it. He’s the narrator, but he’s definitely not the star of this show. That position is reserved for – really taken over by – detective Daniel Hawthorne, formerly of the London Metropolitan Police and currently working for himself and whoever is willing to pay him to figure out whodunnit when the Met is stumped.

Or when he’s way, way off their patch, as he and “Tony” are in this story.

After the previous books in this series, The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death, where Hawthorne barges in, completely disrupts “Tony’s” life, drags him along on a case and never lets the man catch his breath, this case begins when Tony reluctantly agrees with his agent’s notion to send both himself and Hawthorne to a literary festival in the Channel Islands. Tony hopes that this will finally be the first time in their contentious acquaintance that Tony will be in his element and Hawthorne will need at least a little bit of his help and guidance.

But Hawthorne has an agenda of his own on Alderney and is just going along with this literary festival idea for the ride to a place he wants to get to anyway. And, as much as this might not be the mostly anti-social Hawthorne’s natural setting – he’s VERY good at playing whatever part is necessary to get him who and what he needs to achieve whatever he’s set out to do.

Whatever Hawthorne’s private agenda, and Tony’s anger and disappointment when he figures it out, their entire reason for being on Alderney ends up taking a back seat to murder. Specifically the murder of the man responsible for funding the literary festival, and coincidentally – or perhaps not – responsible for the current controversy that is tearing tiny Alderney apart.

Considering that Alderney has a population of around 2,000, it’s not much of a surprise that they have a police force of 3. That none of the three are actually available to work this case is a bit of an issue, but considering that no one can remember the last time there was a murder on Alderney, they’re not much missed. But the police force on the nearby islands isn’t much bigger – or much more experienced with murder. (If anyone remembers the TV series Bergerac, there’s no one like him anywhere in evidence – and this was a case that could certainly have used an experienced detective with local knowledge and no axe to grind.)

Naturally they ask for Hawthorne’s help. And just as naturally, Hawthorne assumes that Tony will tag along as chronicler, occasional foil, and, just as important from Hawthorne’s perspective, the person who will pay all the bills.

So Tony finds himself in the exact position he had no desire to be in again, serving as Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock – and one of the less ept Watsons into the bargain. Meanwhile Hawthorne is on the track of a murderer that Tony is certain no one will feel an ounce of sympathy for, making any book coming out of this case a nonstarter.

However, as their previous cases have proven, in the end Hawthorne is always right, and Tony is inevitably barking up the wrong tree when it comes to figuring out whodunnit. There might be a book in this mess after all.

Escape Rating B+: Both of the author’s current series, the Susan Ryeland series that starts with Magpie Murders and the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, take the concepts of a classic murder mystery and wrap them up in ways that the authors of those classics never would have thought of.

In the Susan Ryeland series, that’s literal, as the classic-style mysteries of Atticus Pünd, which are included in their entirety in each book, provide clues to the more recent murder that Susan Ryeland is bumbling her way towards solving.

In the Hawthorne and Horowitz series it’s a bit more of a stretch, but still definitely there, and not just because the main characters are so obviously avatars for Holmes and Watson, albeit a Holmes who is even more sociopathic and self-absorbed than the original, leading around a Watson who is even more bumbling. Not that saying any of that doesn’t feel slightly weird, as it’s the author of the book inserting himself into the narrative as a character, which gets more than a bit meta.

But the mystery that Hawthorne is presented with in this case begins as something that Dame Agatha Christie – at least in the person of Hercule Poirot – would have had a great time solving. The victim is wealthy – and he’s an absolute bastard. The line of people wanting to murder him is long, to the point where the title of the book is a pun on the concept. Alderney is a relatively remote location, an island that can be closed so that the potential suspects are forced to remain, while the murder itself begins as a locked room murder in the victim’s own mansion.

All of those are plot elements that Christie played with more than once, and quite successfully. It’s not a surprise that another mystery writer would take those same ingredients and make something quite a bit different from them. Because, of course, nothing is quite as it seems.

Except the victim’s bastardy. That was most definitely real. And the point of quite a lot.

The case is even more complicated than it initially appeared to be. At first, it just seems difficult, but as Hawthorne digs into the lives and motives of the potential suspects, it gets deeper as well. And puts at least some of his own motives for coming to Alderney on display. A bit. As much as Hawthorne ever displays much of any part of his internal life.

Or to put it another way, once the body was discovered, the story got really fascinating really quickly. It was much more fun following Horowitz following Hawthorne as he investigated than it was hanging around as Tony groused – mostly to himself – about getting there and being there and dealing with Hawthorne and the other authors at the festival.

The other stories in this series started with murder. This one takes a while to work itself up to that sticking point. Once it does, it’s off to the races, while throwing out plenty of red herrings for the reader, along with Tony, to chew on.

The thing is, Tony doesn’t actually like Hawthorne, which is fair, because Hawthorne is not at all likeable. It makes the early part of this book awkward because all of their interactions are frustrating, and Tony is clearly frustrated by pretty much everything involved in his odd relationship with Hawthorne. Absent a case, their conversations seem rather forced – only because they are. But it makes for a bit of a slow read until they have a case in hand.

Also, and very much the point, Tony may not like Hawthorne, but he is utterly fascinated by him. And so are we. So once Hawthorne is in his element, solving a mystery, the relationship between them falls into a place from which we can watch the master at his work – even if, or especially because, we can’t see where he’s heading with it until the end. Or somebody’s end. Or both.

“Tony” may not want to work with Hawthorne again. Ever. But I really hope he does.

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis Zarate

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis ZarateThe Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, David Bowles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, horror, vampires
Pages: 196
Published by Innsmouth Free Press on January 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.
It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.
He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides.
Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.
The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.

My Review:

Everyone thinks they know the story of Dracula – and we all do. Sorta/kinda. Not necessarily because we’ve read the original but because we’ve seen one or more variations of it. The Count’s story is part of the cultural zeitgeist. We ALL know who he is.

(If you haven’t read the original, it’s available in ebook free from your local public library AND from a host of online retailers including Amazon. If you want to get the flavor of the story there’s also an excellent full-cast recording by L.A. Theatreworks that I highly recommend – especially for Halloween.)

But one of the things that gets lost in adaptations of the original work is that Dracula is an epistolary novel. It’s a story told in documents – not just letters but also newspaper accounts, diary entries and, as expanded upon in The Route of Ice and Salt, the terse entries in the captain’s log of the ship that brought Dracula’s crates of Transylvanian soil to Britain. And, unbeknownst to the captain and crew of the Demeter, Count Dracula himself.

Not that the captain doesn’t eventually find out about the vampire – just before he dies.

However, The Route of Ice and Salt is not a retelling of the original Dracula story. Rather, it’s an illumination and expansion of a dark and hidden place in that more famous tale. In the original, we read the terse prose of the captain’s official log. We learn that when the ship reached its destination, the crew was missing, presumed dead. And the unnamed captain was discovered lashed to the wheel of his doomed ship with a rosary clutched in his cold, dead hands.

This is his story.

Escape Rating A-: Dracula may be the entry point for this story for many readers, but the Count isn’t exactly THE point of the story. The Route of Ice and Salt is cult classic of Mexican fantasy, first published in 1998 by a small comic book publisher that didn’t survive its attempt to jump from comic books to prose. This is the first translation of the work into English, and it’s a creeping fever dream of a story that picks up on themes that were subtext in Dracula – and other early vampire stories – and moves them from subtext to explicit text.

The still-unnamed captain of the Demeter is gay, horny and has very explicit thoughts and feelings about his crew that he keeps to himself in the dark of the night but never indulges. For reasons that have explicitly to do with keeping discipline aboard the ship, maintaining the chain of command and the acknowledgement that his crew can’t really give consent because he’s their master while they’re aboard.

And that, if they report him to the ship’s owners when the Demeter is back home, he’ll not just be fired – he’ll be prosecuted, imprisoned and quite possibly killed. Just as his first lover was – something that he is still blaming himself for years if not decades later.

That blame brings up a second theme, the question of what, and who is truly the monster in this or any other monster tale. The captain sees himself as a monster, both for his own part in his lover’s death and for the desires that his society and his church consider monstrous.

It’s only at the end that he comes to the liberating realization, in the face of a literal bloodsucking fiend who has murdered his crew, that he is not a monster at all – no matter what anyone else might say.

But those aren’t reasons to read The Route of Ice and Salt. As much as it has to say in its own subtext, it’s the way that it says it that are the reasons to read the story.

This thing is creepy as hell. If you like horror of the creeping, crawling, looming variety, if you enjoy that sensation of drowning horror as you read deeper into something that you know is going to keep you up half the night, this is an excellent story of that type. I finished at 2 am and I honestly should have waited until morning because it left me seriously creeped out.

The language of the story is beautiful. At times it’s lush and poetic, and then it turns sharp as a knife – or a tooth. I suspect it’s even more lyrical in the original Spanish but the translation is quite lovely. In that aspect it reminds me of Nothing but Blackened Teeth although their language and vernaculars are literally at least a century apart. But still, that same sense of sinking into a pool of beautiful words – only to have the story almost literally jerk you down into its depths of nightmarish horror.

If you’re looking for a truly creepy Halloween read, take The Route of Ice and Salt.

Review: Scandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly

Review: Scandal in Babylon by Barbara HamblyScandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Silver Screen Historical Mystery #1
Pages: 240
Published by Severn House Publishers on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"You shall never have a penny of my money. Leave me alone or I will shoot you dead!"

1924. After six months in Hollywood, young British widow Emma Blackstone has come to love her new employer, glamourous movie-star Kitty Flint - even if her late husband's sister is one of the worst actresses she's ever seen. Looking after Kitty and her three adorable Pekinese dogs isn't work Emma dreamed of, but Kitty rescued her when she was all alone in the world. Now, the worst thing academically-minded Emma has to worry about is the shocking historical inaccuracies of the films Kitty stars in.
Until, that is, Rex Festraw - Kitty's first husband, to whom she may or may not still be married - turns up dead in her dressing room, a threatening letter seemingly from Kitty in his pocket.
Emma's certain her flighty but kind-hearted sister-in-law has been framed. But who by? And why? From spiteful rivals to jealous boyfriends, the suspects are numerous. But as Emma investigates, she begins to untangle a deadly plot - and there's something Kitty's not telling her . . .
This gripping first in a brand-new series from NYT-bestselling author Barbara Hambly brings the sights and sounds of Hollywood to life and is a perfect pick for fans of female-fronted historical mysteries set in the roaring twenties.

My Review:

Welcome to Hollywood, circa 1924, in the heady days before the content crackdown of the Hays Code, and just a few short years before Al Jolson’s famous line in the original Jazz Singer, when the audience first heard an actor in a movie say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Movies may not talk yet, but everyone in the movie industry, from the gossip columnists to the extras, certainly has plenty to say. And as our story begins, they’re all saying it about silent screen temptress Kitty Flint – better known to her legions of fans as Camille de la Rose.

Kitty’s sister-in-law, the young widow Emma Blackstone, isn’t so much a fan as she is a personal assistant, general factotum and confidant to the woman who rescued her from desperation in the form of serving as a paid companion to an ill-tempered, irascible old woman who was driving Emma into an early grave. Literally.

After six months in Tinseltown with Kitty, Emma isn’t sure whether she’s happy or not, fulfilled or not content or not, but she’s sure that Kitty needs her and that taking care of Kitty and her three spoiled Pekingese, writing last-minute scene treatments for Kitty’s movies, has both exhausted her and given her a new lease on life.

At least until someone ends up dead in Kitty’s dressing room, with Kitty unwilling to reveal her alibi – probably because she was two-timing at least two of her powerful and well-heeled lovers with a handsome stagehand. Or so Emma believes, because that’s par for Kitty’s behavior even at the best of times – which this certainly is now.

The dead body belongs to Kitty’s long-absent husband. Or possibly her ex-husband. But whether or not a divorce ever occurred is not the biggest problem that Kitty has to deal with when it comes to her first husband’s death.

He died in her dressing room. He was shot with her gun. She has no alibi. When the police discover sloppily concealed threatening letters between Kitty and Rex, it’s a foregone conclusion that Kitty will be arrested for his murder.

The gossip columnists are going to have a field day. The fire-and-brimstone preaching protestors that surround the studio thank heaven for the ammunition in their fight to censor the movie industry. Kitty’s rivals start circling her like sharks who have spotten chum in the water.

But Emma isn’t so sure that the whole thing adds up nearly as well as the corrupt and incompetent police would like to believe it does. The setup for the crime is meticulously planned. The execution of the crime – and of Rex Festraw – is incredibly sloppy. It doesn’t make sense that Kitty did it, to the point where any competent lawyer is going to get her off – if this case ever comes to trial.

It’s a magician’s trick. Distract the audience with something big and flashy over here, so no one looks at what’s really going on behind the curtain – or under the hat – or being pulled from the magician’s sleeves.

It’s up to Emma to figure out just who the magician is behind this particular trick and why they are out for Kitty – before it’s too late.

Hollywood movie studios, 1922

Escape Rating A: Scandal in Babylon is simply a delicious read on so many levels. It’s such a juicy, gossipy story, and even if all the characters are fiction, it’s impossible not to wonder if they’re more “fictionalized” than truly imaginary. Certainly there were plenty of real-life scandals in Hollywood in the 1920s, and every decade thereafter, to make this fictional portrayal of that imaginary world wrapped in a fake world keeping the real world at bay feel, well, real.

Emma and Kitty are both survivors, and that’s a big chunk of what bonds their relationship. Emma is English, grew up in the household of an Oxford don, assisted her father with his research into ancient civilizations, attended Oxford herself and planned to follow in her father’s footsteps. Then the war happened and the flu epidemic of 1918 followed on its heels. By the time Emma recovered from her illness her young husband was dead on the battlefields, as was her brother, and her parents were carried off by the flu. She was alone and destitute, the last survivor of a veritable shipwreck that took her family and her future.

Kitty ran away from home, a wild child who made terrible choices in men and jobs and everything else but who kept picking herself up and reinventing herself until she found Hollywood – the ultimate reinvention machine.

Emma and Kitty are holding each other up in more ways than one. But it’s clear that Emma is the brains of this outfit, and it’s her brain that’s needed. She’s the first person who sees the puzzle, and she’s the one who eventually solves it.

But as fascinating as the mystery is – and it certainly is that, complete with oodles of misdirection and a whole net full of tasty red herrings – it’s the portrait of Hollywood in the 1920s, as the star making machinery is being exploited and invented with each new day and new film and new star that makes this story sing and dance.

Even if Kitty can do neither. She doesn’t really need to. Movies haven’t become talkies yet. And whatever Kitty lacks in acting talent, she makes up for in sheer star power. Kitty has “It” whatever “It” is. It’s up to Emma to make sure that she gets to keep it.

One last thing – as I was reading Scandal in Babylon, and wading through all the many scandalous events it touches on, there were three books that it reminded me of, one of which I had to hunt for a bit.

Even though it’s a different war and a different aftermath, Emma Blackstone and Gwen Bainbridge from The Right Sort of Man by Allison Montclair would have gotten along like a house on fire. A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott, is set more than a decade later during the filming of Gone with the Wind, but it has a similar feel to it. A story about Tinseltown and its scandals and gossips, as seen through the eyes of someone close to the action but not directly a part of it. And last but not least, The Pirate King by Laurie R. King, set in the same period as Scandal in Babylon and displaying the rackety nature of the fledgling movie industry while murder travels in the wake of an utterly farcical production. One even more farcical, in its way, than the historical farce, Temptress in Babylon, that Kitty is filming.

Scandal in Babylon is billed as the first book in a new Silver Screen Historical Mystery series. While this particular case is over, the way that the story wraps up does leave room for Emma to find herself in the middle of another investigation. And I certainly hope that turns out to be the case!

Review: The Hacker by Anna Hackett

Review: The Hacker by Anna HackettThe Hacker (Norcross Security #5) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance
Series: Norcross Security #5
Pages: 252
Published by Anna Hackett on October 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

She’s accidentally pregnant and someone is trying to kill her…and now her one-night-stand is her fierce protector.

Helicopter pilot Maggie Lopez is focused on building her helicopter and drone photography business—and she has the loans to prove it. She takes one night off to trade her jeans for a designer dress, and attend a fancy gala…and ends up spending a very steamy night with her panty-melting crush—Ace Oliveira. He’s tall, sexy, and the guru of all things tech at Norcross Security.

She wasn’t supposed to fall in lust, or fall in love, and she really wasn’t supposed to fall pregnant.

Ace Oliveira’s life is just how he likes it. After years protecting his country at the NSA, he now puts his special computer and hacking skills to good use at Norcross Security. He gets paid well. Has good friends. Enjoys the hell out of his carefree bachelor lifestyle. Relationships and kids are not on the cards for him—ever. He has his reasons.

But then feisty, saucy Maggie—who snuck out of his bed like a thief—drops a bombshell.

Before they can even process the surprise pregnancy, it becomes clear someone is trying to kill Maggie. A series of deadly accidents are all centered on her, and Ace will do whatever it takes to keep her safe. With the men of Norcross at his side, he’ll track down a killer, fight his own demons, and convince skittish, independent Maggie to fall in love with her baby’s daddy.

My Review:

One of the things I love about this author’s series (serieses?) is the way that each book in the series previews the coming attractions of the romance in the next book. So the genesis of The Hacker was foreshadowed at the end of The Bodyguard in the one-night-stand between Norcross Security’s ace hacker Ace Oliveira and Maggie Lopez, a helicopter pilot that Norcross Security regularly contracts with for some of their hairier jobs – especially the desperate rescues therefrom.

Genesis is certainly the right word to describe how this particular story starts, because that one-night-stand included some hot, up against the wall, unprotected sex. The result of which is that Maggie is avoiding the really awkward conversation she needs to have with Oliveira. A conversation that needs to include Maggie’s unintended pregnancy.

Maggie wants the baby. What she doesn’t want is to get her life tangled up with Ace’s love-’em-and-leave-’em lifestyle. Because there’s no love involved. Being a notch on his bedpost is bad enough, but there were two enthusiastically consenting adults involved in that particular scenario. Watching as an endless series of other women drape themselves all over him is not something that Maggie plans to sign up for.

They need to have a civilized, rational, adult conversation about the baby they’ve unexpectedly made. A dispassionate conversation they can’t seem to manage to have with all the passion that is still stirring between them.

And that’s before someone tries to kill Maggie and the “Peanut”, or whatever size fruit or vegetable is the current equivalent of the growing embryo.

As much as Maggie is afraid to get involved with Ace out of fear that he will break her heart, Ace is equally afraid to fall for Maggie because he’s afraid that once she gets to know the real him, she’ll run fast and far and not look back. He’s certain that he’s not good enough for either her or the Peanut, and that once she learns the truth she’ll agree.

But as the attempts on Maggie’s life escalate, Ace can’t stop himself from setting aside his nebulous fears for the future in order to deal with the very real fears that have intruded on the present. Fears that are filled with armed drones chasing Maggie down dark alleys leading to snatch and grab kidnap attempts that are barely thwarted by the efforts of the entire Norcross Security team.

In order to keep Maggie safe, Ace needs to let her all the way in, to his life and to his heart. And in order to let him help her, Maggie has to set aside all the lessons her father drummed into her about never letting lean on anyone no matter how much she hurts.

Escape Rating B: The Hacker is a solidly entertaining entry in the Norcross Security series. It’s not my favorite in the series (at the moment that would be The Specialist, but I have high hopes for Vander’s upcoming book) but a good reading time was definitely had by this reader.

Even though obvious villain was very obvious, and every bit as over-the-top as most of the baddies in this series. And the unplanned pregnancy trope is far from my favorite.

What I liked about this story was that Maggie has made a life for herself and that it’s a life she’s satisfied and happy with. And that while she does need help and protection in this entry in the series, she’s not stupid about it. She makes adjustments to keep herself and the Peanut as safe as possible, and doesn’t run around meeting mobsters and robbing estates on the sly. At the same time, she stands firm on needing to continue working and maintaining her independence.

That, in the end she doesn’t merely participate in but plays a key, professional role in her own rescue was a great antidote to some of the earlier books in the series where the heroines were all reactive rather than active.

At the same time, this book reads like the series is starting to wind down, which it is. There were lots of scenes where the entire Norcross Security team as well as their friends among the police were active participants in the investigation, the interrogations, and the rescue. Almost like a second-to-last-hurrah before the big finale that’s coming in the next and final book in the series, The Powerbroker, coming next month. (YAY!)

They say that the bigger they stand, the harder they fall. Throughout the Norcross Security series, Vander Norcross has always stood the biggest – literally – and been the biggest badass of all his brothers and of the security agency he founded. We’re finally going to see just how hard he falls – and I can’t wait.

Review: Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah BakerAlong the Saltwise Sea (The Up-and-Under, #2) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on October 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For readers of Kelly Barnhill and Cat Valente's Fairyland books, adventure and danger lurk Along the Saltwise Sea in this new book by Seanan McGuire's latest open pseudonym, A. Deborah Baker.
Be sure to explore the myriad wonders that can be found Along the Saltwise Sea.
After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and making their way across the forest, Avery and Zib found themselves acquiring some extraordinary friends in their journey through the Up-and-Under.
After staying the night, uninvited, at a pirate queen’s cottage in the woods, the companions find themselves accountable to its owner, and reluctantly agree to work off their debt as her ship sets sail, bound for lands unknown. But the queen and her crew are not the only ones on board, and the monsters at sea aren’t all underwater.
The friends will need to navigate the stormy seas of obligation and honor on their continuing journey along the improbable road
Writing as A. Deborah Baker, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes our heroes Avery and Zib (and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl) on a high seas adventure, with pirates and queens and all the dangers of the deep as they continue their journey through the Up-and-Under on their quest for the road that will lead them home....
Welcome to a world of talking trees and sarcastic owls, of dangerous mermaids and captivating queens in this exceptional tale for readers who are young at heart in this companion book to McGuire's critically-acclaimed Middlegame and the sequel to Over the Woodward Wall.

My Review:

Childhood is not nearly so safe as we like to imagine. Safety, after all, is a bit of an illusion, and there are entirely too many children in situations that make it unsafe to be a child. Whatever the adults around them might think.

In their own ways, at the beginning of the first book in The Up-and-Under series, Over the Woodward Wall, Avery and Zib both believed they were more or less safe, although their beliefs about exactly what constituted safety were as opposite as opposite could be.

But then, so were they. Avery loved rules and order while Zib loved adventure. Avery was polite and well-behaved. Zib was a force of nature. Avery’s parents were all about a place for everything and everything in its place. Zib’s parents were either indulgent or neglectful, depending on one’s perspective. Avery’s parents would say that Zib’s parents were extremely neglectful, and would never have let Avery associate with a girl they would see as wild and untamed.

When Avery and Zib went Over the Woodward Wall into the Up-and-Under, their adventures cemented this unlikely pair into a solid unit against a world that seemed determined to swallow them up and NOT spit them out. Ever.

At least, not as they were. Although time will do that anyway, whether or not one travels the Improbable Road through the Up-and-Under in search of a way home.

Escape Rating B: If you loved Over the Woodward Wall, and I very much did, it is just lovely to be back in the Up-and-Under, this less safe and even less logical amalgam of Wonderland and Narnia and every other world opened up by a child’s portal, with Avery and Zib and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl.

As much as I loved being with them again, this feels like not so much a new adventure in their journey on the Improbable Road to find the Queen of Wands as it does a bit of a stop along the way.

Their sojourn on the pirate ship is interesting but the ship isn’t going anywhere and as long as they are aboard her, neither are they. It’s a bit of a rest stop, with a roof over their heads, somewhat comfortable beds to sleep in and no worries about regular -and delicious – meals.

But very little happens – at least until the very end when suddenly a lot happens all at once, a bit of how the world works gets explained, and the Improbable Road finds them again and whisks them off to more adventure.

So if you’re already into this world, this is a lovely little trip back. If you’ve not yet been, start with Over the Woodward Wall. If you love the author’s Wayward Children series, or if you got fascinated with the bits of The Up-and-Under that were revealed in Middlegame, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll be looking forward to Avery and Zib’s next adventure. After all, they haven’t found the Queen of Wands yet – or the road that will lead them home.

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra KhawNothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal
Pages: 128
Published by Nightfire on October 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.
But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

My Review:

Four funerals and a wedding, not necessarily in that order. But…not necessarily NOT in that order. Or at least that’s what I thought might be the ending of this story as I was listening to it.

And drowning in it. Or being buried in it. Or both. Definitely both.

There are so many ways of looking at this bruisingly creepy, completely absorbing and utterly weird story. Especially as our point of view character, Cat, has such a history of mental and emotional damage that we’re never quite sure whether the story she’s relating is happening in the real world, whether the real is being viewed through a skewed and drunken lens or if the entire surreal experience is all just in her head.

At the same time, it’s also the kind of horror story that’s been heard and seen and done before. It could be something out of The Final Girl Support Group, except that Cat knows that if it is she’s not going to be the final girl.

After all, the damaged and the deviant always die first in those stories – and Cat is both. If the tropes get followed to their bitter end, the survivor of this tale is going to be golden boy Phillip. Unless this isn’t that kind of story.

Except when it is.

Five 20 somethings still clinging to their school friendship, in spite of the emotional baggage they gave each other then and throw at each other now, get together for one last attempt to pretend that they haven’t already gone their separate ways.

Three guys, two girls, an interwoven knot of friendship and rivalry with teeth and claws, gather in a haunted mansion to fulfill one girl’s dream of getting married in a haunted mansion. The darker it gets, the drunker they get, the more the fractures of their once tight-knit group come to the surface.

Letting the spirits of the house get into their heads, allowing the resentments they’ve hidden to surface, pushing them into a devil’s bargain with the house, the spirits, and each other.

Escape Rating A: This is a story of youth and hubris. They’re young, they’re still at the stage where they believe they’re immortal. Except for Cat. She knows it’s all an illusion, and that’s why she’s the narrator. She’s been on the outside looking in, on the group, on her own life. She sees beneath the surface of both her friends and the house they’ve paid to occupy for a few nights.

But the house is creepy in ways that get under everyone’s skin. Cat, who has studied the folklore that this place is straight out of and rotting into, knows in her gut that there’s something lying under the surface of everything. And knows that no one will believe her until it’s too late, because that’s how these stories go.

The bones of all the women who were supposed to have been buried alive in this place. Cat sees them, she hears them, and the reader wonders whether what Cat is experiencing is real or a hallucination or a fever dream. The language is creepy, lyrical and moving in ways that remind the reader of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s drug-infused epic poetry.

And all of that works so incredibly well in audio. It feels like being inside the poem, inside the ghost story as it crawls around everything and everyone, sucks them under and starts to rot them from the inside. I read this book earlier in the year and it wasn’t nearly as good in my head as it was when the narrator put me in Cat’s head.

So if you’re looking for a creepy ghost story for this Halloween season, gather some friends and let Cat tell you one hell of a story.