Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Singular Affair by M.K. Wiseman

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Singular Affair by M.K. WisemanSherlock Holmes & the Singular Affair by M.K. Wiseman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 200
Published by M.K. Wiseman on December 7, 2021
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Before Baker Street, there was Montague.
Before partnership with a former army doctor recently returned from Afghanistan, Sherlock Holmes had but the quiet company of his own great intellect. Solitary he might be but, living as he did for the thrill of the chase, it was enough.
For a little while, at the least, it was enough.
That is, until a client arrives at his door with a desperate plea and an invitation into a world of societal scandal and stage door dandies. Thrust deep in an all-consuming role and charged with the safe-keeping of another, Holmes must own to his limits or risk danger to others besides himself in this the case of the aluminium crutch.

My Review:

After last week’s marvelous book, I was looking for more Sherlock Holmes – as is often the case. So here we are with this little gem.

Many, it feels like most, Sherlock Holmes stories purport to be written by another, usually Dr. John H. Watson, and published by a third or fourth party. By presenting the story as being another person’s recollections and/or impressions of the Great Detective, while the reader is left thinking that they know what Holmes was “like”, what they really know is what the writer/observer “thought” Holmes was like.

As a writing device, it puts Holmes at one or more removes, as the writer imbues the character with his or her own slant on what Holmes thought and did, and then the reader slants that slant. Which fits fairly well with Holmes’ perception or presentation of himself as a thinking machine with few human emotions.

It’s also part of what makes the saying that “every generation has its Sherlock” so true, in that a 21st century author has the opportunity to fit Holmes into the writer’s time and place – as Conan Doyle himself did – or the reader’s time and place or any other in between depending on who is used as Holmes’ biographer/narrator.

This particular entry in the not-quite-canon of Holmes pastiches takes an entirely different tack. The Singular Affair that Holmes must deal with in this adventure occurred before he ever met Watson. Holmes is young – only 26 – and living alone on Montague Street in a flat that is in no way large enough to contain his experiments, his office, and himself.

In other words, his housekeeping is atrocious, there is no Mrs. Hudson in sight, and the tools of his trade have outgrown any and all possible housing for them in the space available. Or, in his present circumstances, affordable.

It allows us to see that Holmes already needs Watson, even if he doesn’t believe he will ever find someone who will be able to tolerate his work, his mess, his single-mindedness or himself with any degree of equanimity.

So Holmes is at the beginning of his career, just far enough along that his name opens many doors – and closes a few others. He has no one to serve as his amanuensis, so he tell the story himself.

But it is removed, as this story is in a manuscript that Dr. John H. Watson discovers amongst Holmes’ papers in the wake of the Great Detective’s death. It’s a story that Holmes tells, but one that he tells of his early career written at the end of his long and celebrated one.

And what a fascinating tale it is.

Escape Rating B: On the one hand, the story does its best to read as the kind of adventure that Watson so successfully wrote. It is chock full of desperate clients, misdirection, multiple identities and shady underworld connections as any Holmes’ fan might wish.

At the same time, it also includes a bit more feeling and not-quite-purple prose than one’s interpretation of Holmes would lead one to expect. The sort of prose and the sort of internal feelings that were part of Watson’s narration but aren’t as expected coming from Holmes’ own pen based on the interpretation of the man that we are familiar with from the pen of Watson.

(The author’s previous foray into Holmes pastiches, Sherlock Holmes & the Ripper of Whitechapel, also foregoes the use of Watson as chronicler, but for an entirely different reason. if this author continues her chronicles of Holmes’ adventures we’ll see if this trend continues in any form. I hope we do.)

On yet another hand, the story is of Holmes’ own early days, when he was both a bit full of the false sense of immortality that we all are capable of at that age, while still more than occasionally being hit upside the head – sometimes literally – by the things he does not yet know or understand.

So the case, as his cases often do, starts out simple to the point of not seeming to be worth his time, only to end up nearly getting Holmes and the man he originally thought was the villain, killed.

It begins with a young woman who is certain that her childhood friend and correspondent has been abducted and that someone else has taken his place – even though everyone else tells her that she’s wrong. She’s not, of course, or Holmes wouldn’t have a case to follow.

But in the best Holmesian traditional mistaken identities and misdirection, she is also wrong. A conundrum that leads Holmes on a very wild goose chase indeed.

The game is afoot! Chasing after Sherlock Holmes as he chases after that game is as much fun as ever. I hope that we see more such tales from this author in the future.

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew JonesWhen the Goddess Wakes (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #3) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #3
Pages: 336
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In When the Goddess Wakes, the final book of the Ring-Sworn trilogy, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the five realms of the Dendressi to conclude his heroic, adventure-filled epic fantasy trilogy.
The Naor hordes have been driven from the walls, but the Dendressi forces are scattered and fragmented, and their gravest threat lies before them. For their queen has slain the ruling council and fled with the magical artifacts known as the hearthstones, and she is only a few days from turning them to her mad ends.
The Altenerai corps has suffered grievous casualties, and Elenai's hearthstone and her source of sorcerous power has been shattered. She and her friends have no choice but to join with the most unlikely of allies.
Their goal: to find the queen's hiding place and somehow stop her before she wakes the goddess who will destroy them all...
Praised for his ability to write modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrews Jones delivers a finale to his trilogy that reveals the dark secrets and resolves the mysteries and conflicts introduced in the first two books of this series.

My Review:

“When last we left our heroes…” Seriously. When we last left the heroes of the Ring-Sworn Trilogy at the end of Upon the Flight of the Queen it was in the pause, stock taking and toting up of the butcher’s bill after the end of another epic battle to retake another city of the Realms by the remaining loyal corps of the legendary Altenerai.

In other words, the ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is not all that different from the ending of the first book in the series, For the Killing of Kings, as it also ends in that same pause at the end of an epic battle after retaking a different city of the Realms.

In other words, if you enjoy really meaty epic fantasy, the place to start this series is with the first book, For the Killing of Kings. Which itself begins a bit in the middle of a story that has already been rotting the Realms from within. But by starting there, you have the opportunity to discover what’s gone wrong and who the real enemies are along with our heroes.

The titles of this series are surprisingly relevant to the story – if just a bit long-winded. For the Killing of Kings is all about the discovery that the legendary sword of the same name is NOT hanging safely on the walls of the Altenerai compound. That a fake has been mounted in its place. It’s the first signal that something is rotten, not in the state of Denmark, but in the state of the Five Realms of which Darassus is the seat of power.

The action in Upon the Flight of the Queen takes place, quite literally, as the result of the flight of Queen Leonara from Darassus to a formerly mythical paradise world where she plans to resurrect a goddess. In fact “THE Goddess” whose awakening is the key event in this final book in the series.

The Queen plans to wake the goddess believing that she has promised them a paradise. Our heroes hope to stop her, because any paradise that’s been built on as many lies as Queen Leonara has been telling is bound to be anything but.

But this has been, from the very beginning, a story of unlikely allies and unexpected betrayals.

The enemy of my enemy may not exactly be my friend, but when my enemy plans to destroy the entire world including both the enemy of my enemy and myself – and every other person, animal, place and thing in that entire world, the enemy of my enemy and I – or in this case the Altenerai, and the Naor, are more or less united in the face of the alternative.

But there is someone waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of the chaos that will ensue when the goddess wakes. And there’s a literal God of Chaos, waiting to have a few words with the Goddess who betrayed him at the beginning of the world – before she makes an end of it.

Escape Rating A: At the beginning, this series reminded me more than a bit of A Chorus of Dragons. That both series began with books named for swords prophesied to kill kings (The Ruin of Kings for A Chorus of Dragons) did kind of hit that resemblance on the nose a bit. That both series are ultimately about the neverending battle between order and chaos, and that the gods in both series are not exactly what anyone thought they were does keep that resemblance going.

And even though A Chorus of Dragons hits heights that the Ring-Sworn Trilogy never quite reaches, if you like this you’ll love that and vice versa. Particularly if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that isn’t quite as epically long and is already complete.

This story has a huge cast, but the many main characters have become distinct enough that it’s relatively easy to follow along and stay in touch with each of them as they move the action towards the conclusion. After a bit of a rocky start the audio narrator managed to get past her earlier mispronunciations and malapropisms to deliver a solid performance that does a good job of differentiating between the voices of the main characters. It also helps that by the point of this third volume, the story’s focus has shifted so that many of the points of view are female, and that the former squire Elenai has become a leader of the Altenerai and possibly the future Queen.

It works better for me if the reader’s voice matches the main character’s voice no matter how many other characters there are. This just was not true in the first book but became true in the second and is very clear and well done in this one.

The entire trilogy has been an “out of the frying pan into the fire” “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” kind of story, and that’s still true in this book up until the nearly bitter end. And I did tear up a bit at some of the darkest and bitterest points. This is a story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have that victory stolen in its turn by the epic betrayals that fuel so much of the action.

But it’s also a tense, gripping tale about unlikely heroes banding together in spite of all their differences and prior enmities. And it’s a story of companionship and found family found in the most unexpected of places.

In the end, the Ring-Sworn Trilogy’s epic conclusion is one of the rare occasions when what appears to be a deus ex machina ending not only involves very real dei, but that their involvement turns out to be the right way to bring the whole thing home, with an ending that manages to mix just the right touch of bitter into the sweet hurrah.

Review: Observations by Gaslight by Lyndsay Faye

Review: Observations by Gaslight by Lyndsay FayeObservations by Gaslight: Stories from the World of Sherlock Holmes by Lyndsay Faye
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 295
Published by Mysterious Press on December 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Lyndsay Faye—international bestseller, translated into fifteen languages, and a two-time Edgar Award nominee—first appeared on the literary scene with Dust and Shadow, her now-classic novel pitting Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and later produced The Whole Art of Detection, her widely acclaimed collection of traditional Watsonian tales.  Now Faye is back with Observations by Gaslight, a thrilling volume of both new and previously published short stories and novellas narrated by those who knew the Great Detective.
Beloved adventuress Irene Adler teams up with her former adversary in a near-deadly inquiry into a room full of eerily stopped grandfather clocks.  Learn of the case that cemented the lasting friendship between Holmes and Inspector Lestrade, and of the tragic crime which haunted the Yarder into joining the police force. And witness Stanley Hopkins’ first meeting with the remote logician he idolizes, who will one day become his devoted mentor.  
From familiar faces like landlady Mrs. Hudson to minor characters like Lomax the sub-librarian, Observations by Gaslight—entirely epistolary, told through diaries, telegrams, and even grocery lists—paints a masterful portrait of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as you have never seen them before.
 

My Review:

There’s a conceit in regards to Sherlock Holmes stories, beginning with Doyle himself. That Doyle was merely the publisher of stories written by Dr. John H. Watson that were somewhat sensationalized accounts of Watson’s adventures with his friend and flatmate, Sherlock Holmes.

So it is with the collection, that someone is putting together a book or booklet of previously unknown Holmes adventures, written by people who were occasional or even frequent assistants to the “Great Detective”. As this book is to be published in commemoration of Holmes’ retirement from public life, the collator of this volume has reached out to acquaintances of Holmes throughout his career, ranging from his housekeeper Mrs. Hudson to his former lieutenant Henry Wiggins to his frequent foil Inspector Lestrade.

With, naturally, a contribution from “the Woman” herself, Irene Norton née Adler recounting the one time that she and Holmes were on the same side of a thorny and fascinating case.

There are six stories in this collection, with the entries rounded out by contributions from two minor characters in the Holmes canon, Detective Stanley Hopkins and the sub-librarian A. Davenport Lomax who becomes acquainted with Holmes through his long-standing friendship with Watson.

The stories range from the slight to the profound. Mrs. Hudson’s story, “A Life Well Lived,” is one of the slighter – and also fluffier – works in the collection. There is a small mystery to be solved, but the heart of the story is on Mrs. Hudson’s reflections that her life has been richer and more satisfying because of the occasionally explosive presence of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in the flat she offered for rent so many years before.

Lomax’ story, “The Gospel of Sheba,” is also a bit on the lesser side, as Holmes himself doesn’t appear until nearly the end, and most of the mystery is wrapped around Lomax’ fears regarding his absent wife’s fidelity and his nearly-fatal idiocy surrounding his own investigation of a poisoned book.

Hopkins’ story, “The River of Silence,” shows Holmes in the role of mentor to the young police inspector, a role that surprises and delights and is perfect for the length of the story.

But the shining lights of this collection belong to Adler, Wiggins and Lestrade. Adler’s contribution, “The Adventure of the Stopped Clocks,” shines as brightly as the footlights that illuminate the opera stages which are her accustomed milieu. This story, unlike Adler’s famous introduction to Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” places “The Woman” and “The Great Detective” on the same side, investigating a criminal organization that has its hooks into Holmes’ beloved London in general, and Adler’s despicable in-laws in specific. What makes this story sing is its portrayal of their brief but brilliant collaboration as not just colleagues, but also friends for this one sparkling moment in time.

On the other hand, both Wiggins’ story, “The Song of a Want,” and Lestrade’s, “Our Common Correspondent,” are heartbreaking in their sorrow.

Wiggins, now a prosperous and successful solicitor, looks back on his days as a mudlark, when Holmes, himself younger and considerably poorer, teamed up with 9-year-old Wiggins to find a kidnapped young girl, bring down a sick and twisted criminal preying on the young and the desperate, and scratch out the humble beginnings of an organization that became the bane of criminals throughout London, the famous ‘Baker Street Irregulars’.

At least Wiggins’ story, as dark and desperate as it seems in the middle, manages to scrape out a happy ending. Lestrade’s account of his first ‘case’ with Holmes and the tragedy that turned him towards a career bringing criminals to justice is a story about one man who is keeping on keeping on a quest that can never be fulfilled and a grief that can never be assuaged. The light that shines through this story is the kind that is seen through a glass very darkly indeed. It’s a story that inspires both weeping and rage. As it should.

Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay FayeEscape Rating A-: This review is just a bit early, but I couldn’t resist picking this one up now. I’m considering it a Hanukkah present – and a marvelous one for any reader who loves Sherlock Holmes stories as I do.

My first exposure to the author of this collection was through her utterly marvelous Dust and Shadow, an account of Holmes’ involvement with the Ripper case. There have been plenty of attempts to portray Holmes assaying that investigation, but Dust and Shadow is still the best, the most true to both the Holmes we know and love from the canon and the known facts about the infamous Ripper.

Her previous Holmes collection, The Whole Art of Detection, was equally marvelous and definitely worth a read.

As is this one, Observations by Gaslight. Of the six stories, two weren’t quite up to snuff, but “The Song of a Want”, “Our Common Correspondent” and “The Adventure of the Stopped Clocks” absolutely made the entire collection a terrific read and a great way to while away a chilly fall evening by whisking the reader away to sit in front of a warm fire at 221B Baker Street in the midst of a London pea-souper. If only for a little while.

Review: Forever Home by Elysia Whisler

Review: Forever Home by Elysia WhislerForever Home (Dogwood County, #2) by Elysia Whisler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: Dogwood County #2
Pages: 384
Published by Mira on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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If home is where the heart is, Dogwood County may have just what Delaney Monroe needs
Newly retired from the Marine Corps, Delaney is looking for somewhere to start over. It’s not going to be easy, but when she finds the perfect place to open her dream motorcycle shop, she goes for it. What she doesn’t expect is an abandoned pit bull to come with the building. The shy pup is slow to trust, but Delaney is determined to win it over.
Detective Sean Callahan is smitten from the moment he sees Delaney, but her cool demeanor throws him off his game. When her late father's vintage motorcycle is stolen from Delaney's shop, Sean gets to turn up in his element: chasing the bad guy and showing his best self to a woman who’s gotten under his skin in a bad way.
Delaney isn't used to lasting relationships, but letting love in—both human and canine—helps her see that she may have found a place she belongs, forever.
"Complex, quietly compelling characters… A poignant reminder that ‘home’ is often more than a place." —Maggie Wells, author of Love Game
Dogwood County
Book 1: Rescue YouBook 2: Forever Home

My Review:

As the sayings go, “home is where the heart is” and “a dream is a wish your heart makes.” Delaney Monroe’s home was working on motorcycles with her father in Omaha, and their shared dream was to open their own motorcycle repair shop.

But Delaney’s beloved father is dead. Killed in an accident between his motorcycle and an SUV whose driver wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to the other vehicles on the road. She’s just retired from the Marine Corps after putting in her 20. She can’t face living in Omaha without her dad, no matter how much her adopted uncles love her and want to help her.

They want to take care of her just a bit too much, and Delaney can’t stop seeing the hole in their formation where her dad used to be.

There’s a part of that dream that is still alive. She has just enough money saved up to buy what used to be a motorcycle shop in Dogwood County. It comes with a tiny apartment, a screaming need to be cleaned up and fixed up, and a dog who can’t figure out whether he wants his home to be in the shop he used to live in or the dog rescue park on the other side of the creek.

Wyatt the dog is afraid to trust that his heart has led him home. Making him not all that different from Delaney. Maybe they can figure it out together.

Or maybe Delaney will give up and run away, again, in the face of the dastardly and determined opposition of the men who used to own both the shop and the dog.

Along with a suspected slice of the local drug trade.

Escape Rating A-: At the end of the story, the dog is fine. I’m saying that first because my reading circle gets very upset if the starring animals don’t make it. No worries on that score, Wyatt has a few adventures but he’s fine, actually better than fine, at the end.

Which doesn’t stop Delaney and Wyatt from being equally heartbroken at the beginning – and some of the middle – of the story. They both need to feel that it’s OK to trust, safe to open their hearts, and the right time and place to put down roots so they can flourish. Neither of them is anywhere near there at the beginning.

And neither, in an entirely different way, is Detective Sean Callahan. He’s been going through the motions for a long time, having little holding him together except his job and his duty. He’s a good cop but a sad human being.

The situation in Dogwood County, between Delaney, Sean, Wyatt, the Dudebros – literally, they’re the Dude Brothers – and each and every one of their pasts is on a collision course.

It’s not just that the Dudebros are trying to wreck her business and take her dog – although they are.

Someone has stolen Delaney’s prize bike, the classic Indian Motorcycle that has been passed down in Delaney’s family for four generations. It’s that they tinkered with it and then put it back. It was heartbreaking while it was gone, and it’s baffling now that it’s back. But as much as Delaney wants to pin it all on the Dudebros, Sean knows that’s not the right answer no matter how tempting it is.

Also how tempting it must have been for the author. That would have been such an easy solution – but the real answer added so much to the story that I was surprised and pleased at the way things turned out.

Although the Dudebros do get theirs in the end.

Forever Home turned out to be one of those books where the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. It sits right on the border between contemporary romance and relationship fiction, and it’s a surprisingly comfortable border in this case.

A romance occurs between Delaney and Sean, with an HEA that definitely feels earned. But that romance doesn’t completely hold the center of the story. The HEA is the icing on the cake and not the cake.

The suspense element was suspenseful in a surprising way, in that the obvious perpetrators were both obvious and not obvious at the same time.

The heart of the story was in Delaney – and Wyatt – finding their way to a home in Dogwood County. The way that Delaney establishes her shop, makes friends and allies, and makes a home and a life for herself in this new place and with these (mostly) terrific people.

I very much enjoyed my visit to this place, and I’m looking forward to seeing these people again. The next book in this series, Becoming Family, won’t be available until next August, but the first book, Rescue You, is available and I’m looking forward to reading it the next time I need a bit of a reading pick-me-up.

Review: Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone Perfect by Mary BaloghSomeone Perfect (Westcott, #9) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Westcott #9
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sometimes, just one person can pull a whole family apart. And sometimes, it just takes one person to pull it back together. For fans of Bridgerton, New York Times bestselling Regency Romance author Mary Balogh shows how love truly conquers all in this new Friends of the Westcotts novel.
As a young man, Justin Wiley was banished by his father for mysterious reasons, but now, his father is dead, and Justin has been Earl of Brandon for six years. A dark, dour man, he, nonetheless, takes it as his responsibility to care for his half-sister, Maria, when her mother dies. He travels to her home to fetch her back to the family seat at Everleigh Park.
Although she adored him, once, Maria now loathes Justin, and her friend, Lady Estelle Lamarr, can see, immediately, how his very name upsets her. When Justin arrives and invites Estelle and her brother to accompany Maria to Everleigh Park to help with her distress, she begrudgingly agrees, for Maria's sake.
As family secrets unravel in Maria's homecoming, Justin, too, uncovers his desire for a countess. And, while he may believe he's found an obvious candidate in the beautiful 25-year-old Lady Estelle, she is most certain that they could never make a match...

My Review:

Is there such a thing as historical relationship fiction? Or is that just what used to be called a family saga?

The reason I’m asking is that as the Westcott series has continued it has begun to feel more like relationship fiction (or women’s fiction to use the more popular but also more cringe-worthy name) and less like a romance. Not that romances don’t occur during each book including this one, but rather that the romance doesn’t feel like the central point of the story.

Particularly in this book, Someone Perfect, which feels like it’s more about the family relationships between and around Justin Wiley, the Earl of Brandon, and his estranged sister Maria. Who just so happens to be best friends with Lady Estelle Lamarr, who, through several twists and turns, is tangentially related to the Westcott family this series has followed through nine books now and hopefully counting.

But it feels like Estelle and her twin brother Bertrand are part of this story in order to provide that connection to the Westcotts. Even though Estelle eventually becomes the romantic heroine of this story. Which turned out to be lovely but just didn’t seem to stand at the center of it all.

Instead, that romance occurs in the midst of a story about collateral damage, which has been the central theme of the whole, overarching Westcott saga.

The Westcott series began back in Someone to Love when Humphrey Westcott, the Earl of Riverdale, shuffled off this mortal coil. While going through his papers in the wake of his death, his pernicious bastardy came to light.

Not that Humphrey’s parents weren’t married, but rather that Humphrey’s marriage to the woman who believed she was his countess lo these many years was bigamous – making their four children bastards and his not-exactly-countess a scarlet woman. (She eventually marries Estelle and Bertrand’s father in Someone to Care but that’s another story.)

Humphrey never suffered for his actions – unless he’s occupying a very hot place in hell. But the series as a whole has focused on his collateral damage – all the people whose lives were overturned when his perfidy was discovered.

Justin and Maria are also suffering from being collateral damage as a result of a parent’s unforgivable actions. In their case, the parent at the heart of the mess was Maria’s mother, Justin’s stepmother. Justin and Maria have been estranged for over a decade because of her mother’s actions. Maria has been cut off from her entire family on both sides, all her aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., because of her mother’s actions.

And it’s Maria’s and Justin’s journey that feels like the centerpiece of this book. Not just that Justin has to put his very real hurts and grievances into the past – because all the perpetrators are beyond Earthly justice.

Maria loves her mother, and accepted everything her mother said without question. But her mother is dead, and her entire gathered family is presenting her with an entirely different perspective on the life she thought she knew. If she can accept the love and support they offer – there are questions she needs to ask herself in order to be part of a family that has always loved her even though she never knew it.

Escape Rating B+: I hesitated a bit before starting this, because I was still getting over last week’s foray into historical romance. But I’m glad I picked this one up after all.

At the same time, I still have mixed feelings about this book. In this case, those mixed feelings are the result of being of two minds about what kind of book it is. If this is supposed to be a historical romance, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I enjoyed the story, and liked the characters, but if this is a romance then the romance needed to be the center of the story, and it just wasn’t. I didn’t really buy the romance between Justin and Estelle even though I liked them both. His first proposal to Estelle was rather lackluster and she rightfully rejected it. But it did sum up their relationship perhaps a little too well.

Maria’s and Justin’s journey towards being a family again and being welcomed into the rest of their family felt like it was a much bigger and better story. I felt their heartache and heartbreak and just how much they wanted to find their way back to each other even though on Maria’s part, at least, there was absolutely no trust to be found. The big family gathering that Justin arranged – that could absolutely have been a complete disaster on every level – turned out to be heartwarming and utterly lovely.

So the romance occurred and the family story won the day in this one. At the end, neither Justin’s sister Maria nor Estelle’s brother Bertrand had found even a hint of a future romantic partner, and there was nothing to indicate that they were looking at each other at all – which is probably a good thing. Both because it would be a bit TOO neat and tidy, and because it means that there will hopefully be at least two more books to look forward to in the Westcott series!

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster BujoldKnot of Shadows (Penric & Desdemona #11) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric & Desdemona #11
Pages: 111
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on October 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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When a corpse is found floating face-down in Vilnoc harbor that is not quite as dead as it seems, Temple sorcerer Penric and his chaos demon Desdemona are drawn into the uncanny investigation. Pen’s keen questions will take him across the city of Vilnoc, and into far more profound mysteries, as his search for truths interlaces with tragedy.

My Review:

There’s a fine line between justice and vengeance. In the World of the Five Gods, that line is the white of the Fifth God, the Lord Bastard, the god of chaos, criminals and unexpected blessings, often of the “may you live in interesting times” and “be careful what you wish for” varieties. The Bastard is the god that Learned Penric, sorcerer and divine, serves in whatever way his god deems best – or whatever way will screw up Penric’s life the most at the time. If the White God has his way – and he usually does – it’s generally both at once.

After all, if Murphy’s Law has a god, it’s the Lord Bastard.

Penric gets called when uncanny things happen in the port and city of Vilnoc, or in the Court of the Duke of Orbas, which are the same place in summer. But not in winter when the port city is cold and the Duke retreats inland where it’s a bit less so, leaving Penric, who is also the court sorcerer, to concentrate on his other duties and avocations, like his growing family, his service to the Temple, and his scholarship.

But there are always interruptions, and this one is a bit of a mystery that gets bigger and has more profound implications as it goes along.

A corpse was washed ashore, not uncommon in a port city. The dead man was assumed to be a drowning victim, also not uncommon. Until he “woke up” and began knocking on the locked door of the hospice morgue – from the inside.

That’s not common at all. It’s also not all that rare in a world where rogue demons can possess the dead. When THAT happens, putting things to rights is the province of the Bastard, so Penric, as the highest ranked priest of the White God in Vilnoc, trudges to the hospice with the intent of sending the rogue demon to his god and letting the hospice deal with the funeral rites for the unnamed deceased.

But the case isn’t nearly that simple. The body has not been possessed by a demon, but it has been possessed. One of the many ghosts that naturally haunt a place where people meet their end has found a new home in the body. Which leaves Penric on the horns of a serious moral and ethical dilemma, as well as a chilly quest to discover both who the victim was and who wanted him dead so badly that they were willing to sacrifice their own life in order to achieve it.

The Bastard is, among his many other titles and attributes, the deliverer of justice when all justice fails. Worldly justice failed this man’s victims, but divine justice has not. It’s up to Penric to figure out who and how and why, to clean up any loose ends that his god might have left behind.

Escape Rating A-: OMG this was the right book at the right time. Last week’s reading ended on a major fail, so I was looking for something that I was even more certain would be a terrific read. I was also looking for a story of people being competent and accepted for their competence, as Penric finally has been. (He needed to grow up first, and he has.) What I especially loved about this entry in the series is that it’s both a puzzle to be solved AND displays the way that things in this world WORK, both in the sense of how things are done as well as in the way that justice is finally served. The way that even though human justice failed, divine justice was able to balance the scales.

The fascinating thing about this series is that we view the story from inside Penric’s rather crowded head. It’s not just Penric in there, it’s also his temple-trained demon Desdemona, and the memories of all the people (and a couple of animals) that Desdemona rode before she came to Penric. From Penric’s perspective, it’s rather like having a dozen older sisters living in his head, because all of Desdemona’s previous companions have been female. Even the animals.

Desdemona has a personality all her own. She doesn’t always agree with Penric, and she often knows best because her experience is considerably longer than his. They are partners and the relationship is deep and rich and frequently hilarious, because Desdemona sits on Penric’s shoulder like a demon of temptation, and Penric doesn’t need anyone to lead him in that direction. He already knows the way.

In this particular case, it’s Desdemona who is able to identify what’s going on, but it’s Penric’s logic and his legwork that discovers the solution to the mystery. Which turned out to be sad but ultimately cathartic.

Still, this is a story where the journey is what keeps the reader – or at least this reader – turning pages. It’s whodunnit and whydunnit wrapped into one tantalizing package, with just a bit of philosophy added for seasoning.

All the novellas in this series are wonderful little reading treats, just right for a change of pace or something to fill in the corners after a big epic book hangover. If epic fantasy by the mouthful appeals to you, start with Penric’s Demon – just as Penric himself did – and be prepared for a wonderful reading time.

Review: Mr. Dale and the Divorcee by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Dale and the Divorcee by Sophie BarnesMr. Dale and The Divorcée (The Brazen Beauties #1) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Brazen Beauties #1
Pages: 342
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 23rd 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He's a respectable barrister...
She's the most scandalous woman in England...

Wilhelmina Hewitt knows she's in for a rough ride when she agrees to help her husband get a divorce. Nothing, however, prepares her for the regret of meeting Mr. Dale on the eve of her downfall. No other man has ever sent her heart racing as he does. Unfortunately, while she’ll soon be free to engage in a new relationship, no respectable man will have her.

James Dale would never pursue another man’s wife. Or a woman reputed to be a deceitful adulteress. Furious with himself for letting the lovely Mrs. Hewitt charm him, he strives to keep his distance. But when her daughter elopes with his son, they're forced into a partnership where passion ignites. And James soon wonders if there might be more to the divorcée than meets the eye.

My Review:

As I’m posting this review the day after Thanksgiving, I want to start out by saying this book made me really, really thankful that I was born in the latter half of the 20th century and not any damn earlier at all. But I’m also feeling kind of sorry that I plan to read a book I would have liked better for the holiday – or at least felt less conflicted about.

The story feels historically accurate, at least as far as the amount of control and agency that women had over their own lives during the Regency period. Whether it actually is or not, the situation that the heroine is in matches the way we believed things were during that time, or the image that has taken hold in the popular imagination.

Which, quite frankly, is that she has no agency or control at all.

This is a story about a woman who only has as much control over her life as the men in her life and society in general allow her, which is not much. The only control she has is over how much of herself she is willing to sacrifice, knowing that she will always be the one to pay the price for that sacrifice no matter who might truly be to blame.

The first half of this one left me on the horns of a giant dilemma. Because the heroine’s actions and society’s reactions felt true to what we expect of the time. She’s put herself in a terrible situation for reasons that were never in her control, and society punishes her for it exactly as one expected they would.

Which means that both she – and the reader – get repeatedly slapped in the face with just how terrible conditions for women could be.

I very nearly DNF’d at that halfway point, because I was getting really tired of the smell and the taste of that wet fish of horribleness. Not that it’s written horribly, as the author writes well and I generally like her books, but that the situation the heroine is IN is horrible and at that halfway point seems as though it’s only going to get worse as it goes.

That was the point where the son of the man who raped her 20 years ago makes it clear that he has the exact same plan as his vile old man and isn’t planning to let anyone or anything stand in his way, either.

You could call that a low point in the story. It was certainly a low point in my reading of it and I stopped for a while and picked up something else.

But I picked it back up because I thought the worst had to be behind me. And the heroine. And it was.

Escape Rating C: For a story that actually does have a happy ending, this is kind of a sad story for a lot of its length. Mina’s entire life seems to have been about being stuck between a rock and a hard place and letting herself be ground between them in one way or another.

Letting herself be divorced at a time when the only way for her husband to be allowed to remarry afterwards was to accept all the blame, all the calumny, all the social opprobrium and for both of them to commit perjury that she had numerous affairs when she never had any seems harsh and is harsh and society deals with her harshly as a result.

Her ex-husband leaves the country, marries his pregnant lover, and society forgets him except as her victim. She has to suck it all up and move on, which she honestly does. At least until her widowed daughter falls in love with a man whose father will not allow the marriage because of Mina’s reputation as a scarlet woman.

(Whether any of the scenario around Mina’s divorce was legal or possible at the time this story takes place seems to be a matter of some debate.)

The young couple elopes to Gretna Green, the older couple chase after in hot pursuit, and truth gets revealed all around – after more than one misunderstandammit.

This is a story where the happy ending is earned through a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears and a very literal change of heart on the part of the hero. Who was in serious need of getting the stick out of his ass.

I ended this with mixed feelings, which was a definite improvement after my near-DNF at the midpoint.

I liked both that the main romance of this story is between two people who are on either side of 40 instead of barely over 20. It made the situation much more complex and the characters more interesting because they had more depth as well as more emotional baggage.

I also liked that the member of the nobility who featured prominently in the story was the villain. The hero is part of the upper middle class. His family has land but no title, and he is a practicing lawyer. He works for a living, something we still don’t see often enough in Regency romance but does seem to be on the uptick.

So I want to say that this story did gel for me after all. Except it jelled kind of like the two-layer Jell-O cups where the top flavor is one I hated and the bottom flavor was one I almost liked. But a lot of reviewers absolutely adored this book so reading mileage obvious varies on this one.

Review: Hex Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Hex Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + GiveawayHex Work (Babylon Boy, #1) by T.A. Moore
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Babylon Boy #1
Pages: 136
Published by Rogue Firebird Press on November 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

My name is Jonah Carrow, and it’s been 300 days since I laid a hex.

OK, Jonah Carrow isn’t actually an alcoholic. But there’s no support group of lapsed hex-slingers in Jerusalem, so he’s got to make do. He goes for the bad coffee and the reminder that he just has to take normal one day at a time.

Unfortunately, his past isn’t willing to go down without a fight.

A chance encounter with a desperate Deborah Seddon, and a warning that ‘they’re watching’, pulls Jonah back into the world he’d tried to leave behind. Now he has to navigate ghosts, curses, and the hottest bad idea warlock he’s ever met…all without a single hex to his name.

But nobody ever said normal was easy. Not to Jonah anyhow.

My Review:

The central theme of Hex Work might be “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.”

It’s not merely that Jonah Carrow has to resist turning his truck down the road to temptation – and his family’s home place in Babylon, Pennsylvania – every single day, but that something happened when he left home a year ago that made him swear off using his family gift. A gift for casting – and warding off – hexes.

We may not know what went wrong – at least not yet – but we are riding along with Jonah as his old life does its best to drag him back under its spell. Literally.

A woman enlists his help in a way that seems so random and nebulous that he isn’t exactly sure what it’s about. Not until the people who are chasing her drag him in for a little “chat” about ghosties and ghoulies and just how many of them are going to be set upon him if he doesn’t figure out what she’s up to. Or why she stole something nasty from them. Or both.

Everyone thinks he doesn’t know what it’s all about. Because he’s left his home, his name and his reputation behind in the hopes of making a new start – or outrunning his own ghosts. Except the ghost of his brother who haunts his front yard at night. He’s stuck with that one. Why? We don’t exactly know. Yet.

And even though this wasn’t initially his fight, his circus or his monkeys, by the time he solves the supernatural mystery that stalks Jerusalem (PA) he’s right back in the thick of it. Even if he has, at least so far, still managed to resist falling off the hex wagon.

It’s only a matter of time – and the things that stalk the night have plenty of that.

Escape Rating A-: I was looking for something, let’s say.a bit less complicated after a long weekend reading marathon (because reasons). Not that I expected the characters in the book to be in an uncomplicated situation – from that perspective the more messed up the better. Rather I was looking for something where the story would suck me right in and take my mind away – not tie it up in knots that I wouldn’t be able to unravel for hours or days later.

Urban fantasy has always been my go-to when I want a world to slip right into, and Hex Work certainly fulfilled all my dark, dirty magical expectations. Although, at least so far as this series starter goes, all of the dirt is quite literally dirt. Grave dirt. Not the other kind – at least not yet. This series may eventually switch from urban fantasy to paranormal romance at some point – but neither it nor Jonah are there yet.

The story of Hex Work is told from Jonah’s first-person perspective. We’re inside his head and it’s a pretty damn snarky place to be, which is just fine as one of the things I love about urban fantasy is that it is generally snarky as hell – and sometimes snarky IN hell- and Jonah is no exception.

So we know what he’s thinking in the moment, and we see what he’s struggling with. But we also see that there are plenty of shadowy places in his past that he’s definitely, absolutely, obsessively trying his best NOT to think about. The places that I really hope this series goes as it continues.

Right here and right now, Jonah is in a kind of limbo. He’s sworn he’s not going to lay another hex. He’s left Babylon in order to get away from the supernatural world. But it’s found him. The story is of his struggle to get to the bottom of the grave that the hag that is chasing him pulled itself out of, so he can maybe get back to that fresh start he’s working on.

Only to discover that even though the hag has been laid to rest and the mystery has been solved, he’s still neck deep in the supernatural – and not getting out. We’re left wondering if, in his heart of hearts, he truly wants to.

This reader certainly doesn’t want him to at all. The magic of this world is fascinating, both simple and complex by turns. It feels like it’s been drawn right out of myths and legends and has been hiding in plain sight all along. (It also feels a bit like Midnight Crossroads, so if you liked either the book series or the TV series you’ll probably love this.)

Jonah himself has secrets that I’m itching to discover. I can’t wait to see what trouble finds him next!

Guest Post from TA Moore + Chapter 2 of Stories of Babylon (check out Chapter 1 at Book Gemz)

Hi! Can you believe it’s November already? I feel entirely adrift in the calendar these days. It’s 1934th of Morch! One thing I have managed to keep on track for, more or less, is the whole publication schedule for Hex Work…more or less! 

Hex Work is NOT the book I was meant to be writing, but it’s the one that wanted to come out of my head. So I hope people like it in order to make the absolute shambles it made of my writing schedule worth it. I like it, so I guess that’s a good start!

Thanks for having me and I hope you enjoy the exclusive short story prequel to the Hex Work novella!

Read the rest of the story at TAMooreWrites.com

Stories of Babylon: Chapter Two

He followed the crushed crash and tire tracks to a pick-up truck wrapped around a beech tree. The front end was crumpled and the windows smashed in over the burned, half-melted sheets. It had been red once, but it was smoke-scarred now with black, brittle patches of cracked blisters on the doors.

The kid sat on the rutted ground with his head in his hands. He looked up when Jonah cleared his throat.

Shit, the kid said, my dad’s going to kill me.

His name was John Samuels and he’d been dead for a week. His funeral was tomorrow. That always…cut some sort of thread. Not that John would move on, but being John would start to wear off him. He’d not think he was alive anymore.

“You weren’t meant to have the truck?” Jonah asked. 

He already knew the answer. John was fifteen and he’d gotten home early from football practice. There’d been a casserole in the oven for him and chores to do before his homework. He knew better than to take the truck. His Dad had said that over and over.

Lot—always friendlier—squeezed by Jonah and stuck his nose into the John’s face. His tongue slobbered up, and through, John’s vaguely insubstantial nose until he got a snuffle of laughter and a hand came up to pet his ears.

No, John said. He looked up at Jonah through his tangled fringe, His voice changed—breathy and light, the catch of fear wet in the back of his throat—but his face didn’t. We have to go. Jonah, Joey, we have to go. He’s COMING.

Wife leaned against Jonah’s legs and sighed heavily. The hot, living weight of her anchored Jonah and he pulled away from the hook of that voice. It hadn’t been his name, not when he played it back in his head, it probably hadn’t been John’s either.

“Who was she?” Jonah asked. “Did you know her?”

Some girls are like that, John said, some segment of memory queued up to suit the question. I thought we were the same, but she was….she was…

The words glitched together. Awful/Beautiful/DEADDEADFUCKINGDEAD/Lost. Jonah took a step back and shook his head to clear it. There was blood in his mouth, but when he turned his head to spit it was just saliva. Not his copper and salt thick on his tongue, not his fear thick and clotted in his throat.

For a second John knew what he was and it peeled the facade away. A chunk of glass glittered in his cheek as he talked—speared through flesh and into the mess of broken teeth and gums the impact had left of the kid’s mouth—and the side of his skull was caved in. Blood matted dark blond, curly hair and when he raised a hand it was gone.

He gaped that ruined mouth and screamed. It was a thin, pinched sound that just made the dogs look curious, but it spilled over to something and awful on the unnatural side of things. A handful of confused birds were jostled from their roost as it grated on them, and took off into the sky.

John lurched up from the ground and lunged at Jonah, his hand curled into a claw tipped with bony spikes that poked through his fingertips. His breath hung in the air, dark and oily as smoke.

You have her touch her take her away. I wontletyouhurtheragaaaaaaaa!

The words ran into each other, slurred back into the harrowing, static howl of the scream that drew the other side closer. Moonlight faltered and faded into a grey miasma as the air thickened and chilled.

It was always cold in Babylon, even in summer. A climatic anomaly apparently. Good for the shop that sold coats in town, not so great for tourism. 

Jonah snapped the piece of chalk in his pocket and crumbled the bit he hung onto between his fingers. He threw it into the air.

Technically it should have been drawn on a door or a wall, or a bit of paper to shove down the hag’s throat. Jonah was a Carrow, though, and magic still owed one him for that. Chalk powder dripped from his fingers as he sketched the rune in the air and it hung between him and poor, dead John.

“Holy, holy,” he said and clenched his hand into a fist, thumb extended, to cross himself in a quick, careless swipe. The hex burned on his tongue and stung his lips as he spat the words out. They’d probably meant something once, years and books ago. Now it was just sounds that worked and who cared why? In the moment. “Salt and dirt. Hold your breath and it won’t hurt.”

John smashed into the rune. The little bits of chalk dust stuck to him and spread, white and powdery skin that filled in the holes of his death and clogged up his mind. He staggered to a stop as he forgot, again, why he was so angry. He coughed and licked his lips with a greyish tongue.

I’m thirsty, He said and reached up to rub his head, breaking off sections of crust. It dusted the ground under his feet. What happened?

Catch the next chapter tomorrow at Two Chicks Obsessed and follow the tour for the rest of the story!

About the Author:

TA Moore is a Northern Irish writer of romantic suspense, urban fantasy, and contemporary romance novels. A childhood in a rural, seaside town fostered in her a suspicious nature, a love of mystery, and a streak of black humour a mile wide. As her grandmother always said, ‘she’d laugh at a bad thing that one’, mind you, that was the pot calling the kettle black. TA Moore studied History, Irish mythology, English at University, mostly because she has always loved a good story. She has worked as a journalist, a finance manager, and in the arts sector before she finally gave in to a lifelong desire to write.

Coffee, Doc Marten boots, and good friends are the essential things in life. Spiders, mayo, and heels are to be avoided.

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Review: The Hookup Dilemma by Constance Gillam

Review: The Hookup Dilemma by Constance GillamThe Hookup Dilemma by Constance Gillam
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 309
on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory, this laugh-out-loud #OwnVoices story proves that sometimes the least perfect arrangement can lead to something perfect for them.
Rashida Howard has never been a one-night-stand kind of woman, but she has good reason for making an exception with Elliott after meeting him in a bar. Cliché? Yes. Utterly amazing? Absolutely. Regrets? None.
Elliott Quinn is a workaholic. The one night he decides to break his routine, he has an encounter with the woman of his dreams. But no matter how amazing they are together, work will always come first.
Both of their lives get turned upside down when they find themselves on opposite sides of an ongoing fight between Elliott’s company and Rashida’s community. Though their chemistry is undeniable, neither of them will risk their integrity…or their heart.
And just when they think they might have found a solution that benefits both sides, they uncover a secret that will change everything.

My Review:

One way of thinking of The Hookup Dilemma is as a sexing-to-love romcom. The title certainly leads in that direction. But it’s not nearly that simple a story to describe, to the point where I might need some arithmetic notation or something similar. Because it’s more like sex to enemies to (frenemies AND lovers) to (frenemies OR lovers) to an HEA so big it encompasses an entire community.

It all begins with that hookup. An instant connection that leads to an evening of very hot sex with no strings attached and no plans for doing it again. Not that they didn’t do it plenty of times that night.

The thing is that both Elliott and Rashida want to do it again – and not JUST the sex. With each other. As often as possible. A possibility that intrigues Elliott and scares Rashida to the point where she does a nearly literal midnight flit, leaving a sleeping Elliott in a suite in the Ritz Carlton in downtown Atlanta. They know nothing about each other except their first names and that they’ve just had the best sex of their entire lives.

She never expects to see him again. She’s not interested in a relationship. He’d love to see where their chemistry might lead them, but he has no leads on her identity and not nearly enough information to get any.

When they meet again it’s a case of worlds colliding the way continents collide through plate tectonics, complete with the earth shaking and volcanos rising to spew molten lava. They meet at a Zoning Board hearing in the neighborhood where Rashida grew up and where her beloved grandmother still lives. Rashida, her Grammy, and Grammy’s neighbors are there to protest the zoning change to convert a parcel in their neighborhood to commercial use. The plan is to bring in high-end stores like Whole Foods – stores that the neighborhood of mostly retired senior citizens on fixed incomes won’t be able to afford to shop at. It’s the opening wedge of gentrification and everyone knows it.

The request to rezone was made by the new owner of the property, the construction company owned by Elliott’s father. Elliott is stuck carrying the ball on this project for his old man, who is recovering from a massive heart attack. And the company needs this project to succeed in order to get itself back on track after years of questionable financial decisions – made, of course, by Elliott’s father.

Elliott is caught between a rock, a hard place, and a community that plans to stonewall him every step of the way. He’s torn between pursuing a relationship with Rashida and keeping the peace in his relationship with his steamroller of a father.

Rashida’s all in on saving her grandmother’s home. She may be falling for Elliott, but her grandmother was there for her when she needed a refuge and a place to heal. Now it’s her turn to support her Grammy.

Rashida knows exactly what she wants, even if she’s having a bit of difficulty figuring out how to get it. Elliott has been too busy reacting to his father’s demands – his entire life – to completely figure out what he wants for himself. Let alone stick to it. But Elliott has to decide whether what he really wants to do is cave into his father one more time, or stick to his guns, get his father to retire before he has ANOTHER heart attack, and go all in with Rashida on a project that will actually help the neighborhood instead of bulldozing it.

Because if he doesn’t “man up” he’s going to lose it all, one way or another.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb is correct that this does have a similar feel to many of the books in Jasmine Guillory’s Wedding Date series – particularly The Wedding Party. It also has more than a touch of Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching, which is a suspense thriller about gentrification of a neighborhood not unlike the fictional Millhouse.

So this is kind of what When No One is Watching would have been if the author had written it with her romance hat on instead of her thriller hat.

This is also one of those stories where the tension keeping the couple apart isn’t a will they/won’t they? They already have and they can’t seem to stop from having each other again every time they’re alone.

Instead, this is a story about herding the elephant out of the room so they have a chance. Which is really difficult to do if they aren’t both ready to lay hands on that elephant and PUSH!

What makes this book so good is that once the story gets past the meet-cute, the issues that they face together and separately are very real and very much in the way.

Rashida’s issues are, well, not exactly easy but they are at least straightforward. She wants to save her Grammy’s neighborhood. She wants to save her Grammy’s house. She wants to save her Grammy’s friends’ houses. She also needs Grammy and her friends to stop driving their gas-guzzlers – sometimes without licenses – before they have more serious accidents than they’ve already had. Underlying all of that is saving a place that Rashida loves AND allowing her Grammy and her friends to live their retirements in their own homes as long as they are able to rather than be forced out by corporate greed or corporate desperation.

All of that is a very real struggle. Forms of that struggle are happening everywhere, all the time.

Elliott’s issues are, in some ways, a lot smaller than Rashida’s, but in other ways a whole lot bigger. In comparison, honestly, the idea that it’s Elliott’s father’s company going bankrupt because of his father’s poor business decisions vs driving Rashida’s grandmother and her friends out of their homes, Rashida’s situation feels more serious.

Underneath that, however, is Elliott’s very real fear that if he can’t get his father to slow down and obey his doctor’s orders the man is going to have another heart attack and die. Really, really, soon. But that doesn’t mean Elliott should keep kowtowing to the man when he’s so clearly in the wrong and so completely unwilling to listen to any advice from anyone at all. Which is a huge chunk of what caused that heart attack in the first place.

So the issues that keep Rashida and Elliott are not simple, and the solutions are not going to be easy. Reaching for them is going to cause a LOT of short term trouble in order to reach a long term HEA.

And that’s what made this story so very appealing. Read it for yourself and see what I mean!

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Noor by Nnedi OkoraforNoor by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 224
Published by DAW Books on November 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From Africanfuturist luminary Okorafor comes a new science fiction novel of intense action and thoughtful rumination on biotechnology, destiny, and humanity in a near-future Nigeria.
Anwuli Okwudili prefers to be called AO. To her, these initials have always stood for Artificial Organism. AO has never really felt...natural, and that's putting it lightly. Her parents spent most of the days before she was born praying for her peaceful passing because even in-utero she was wrong. But she lived. Then came the car accident years later that disabled her even further. Yet instead of viewing her strange body the way the world views it, as freakish, unnatural, even the work of the devil, AO embraces all that she is: A woman with a ton of major and necessary body augmentations. And then one day she goes to her local market and everything goes wrong.
Once on the run, she meets a Fulani herdsman named DNA and the race against time across the deserts of Northern Nigeria begins. In a world where all things are streamed, everyone is watching the reckoning of the murderess and the terrorist and the saga of the wicked woman and mad man unfold. This fast-paced, relentless journey of tribe, destiny, body, and the wonderland of technology revels in the fact that the future sometimes isn't so predictable. Expect the unaccepted.

My Review:

Two lost people find themselves, each other and a secret that the biggest corporation in the world hoped would never be found. A secret that the powers-that-be will do anything to protect. As the saying goes, once a can of worms is opened they never go back into the can. Especially when the secret that’s been hidden is as earth-shattering and sand-spewing as this one.

And no, we’re not talking about Arrakis. We’re talking about Earth. A future Earth after an ecological/climatological disaster has created the equivalent of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in northern Nigeria. A sandstorm of such speed and force that the windpower it generates is powering great cities all over the world.

Even as it eats up and eats away the land that gave it birth.

The Red Eye is the place where people who don’t fit, where those who have nothing left to lose, and those who refuse to be monitored by giant corporations 24/7 take themselves when they have nowhere else to go. Or when they can no longer make themselves pretend that they belong in the world that has left them behind, in one way or another.

This big story, like that big ecological disaster, starts small. With AO and DNA, those two lost people who have each survived a trauma on the very same day. AO, born with multiple birth defects both internal and external, is now part cybernetic. In fact, AO is a lot cybernetic, with two cybernetic legs and one cybernetic arm to replace the nonfunctional limbs she was born with. And with cybernetics in her brain, not because there was anything wrong, but because she wanted the enhanced memory and permanent internet connectivity.

But the more AO looks like the “Autobionic Organism” she had named herself for, the less she is accepted by the people around her. Many object on religious grounds. Some do so out of fear – not that that’s much of a difference. Some find her rejection of traditional appearances and roles for women to be anathema. Many call her an “abomination”.

When the safe space she believes she has carved out for herself suddenly becomes anything but, AO refuses to submit. Instead, she uses her greater strength to not merely subdue her tormentors but to kill the men who expected her to submit to her own execution at their hands.

In the aftermath, AO runs. Away from the towns and towards the desert. Heading away. North. Towards the Red Eye. Driving as far and as fast as she can in an unthinking fugue state. At least until her car runs out of power and she continues on foot towards an unknown but probably brief future.

Where she runs into a herdsman named DNA, who is just as lost and traumatized as she is. Who has also just defended himself with deadly force against a mob that killed his friends and most of his herd of cattle in an act of misplaced revenge against terrorists posing as herdsmen.

Now DNA has been labeled a terrorist, just as AO has been labeled a crazed murderer. Everyone is literally out to get them.

But the context of both of their stories is missing. When they find that context, when they are able to dig down through the layers of propaganda and misinformation that surrounds the most traumatic events in both their lives, they find a deep, dark, deadly secret.

A secret that many people will kill to protect. A secret that brought them together – and is tearing their continent apart while entirely too many people, including both of their families, go complacently about their business.

Just the way the biggest corporation in the world had planned it.

Escape Rating A: One way of looking at Noor is that it is two stories with an interlude in the middle. Another way, and a better metaphor, is that it is a story that winds up like a hurricane or a tornado, pauses in a calm storm’s eye in the middle, and then unwinds quickly in an explosive ending as the storm dissipates.

I listened to Noor through the eye of that storm, and then read the rest because it and I were both so wound up that I couldn’t wait to see which direction all those winds ended up blowing. And the narrator, particularly for that first part, had a wonderful voice that was just perfect for storytelling. She helped me to not just hear, but see and feel that oncoming storm.

At first, in the story’s tight focus on AO, it all seems small and personal. AO is different, and she is all too aware of those differences. She, and the reader, are equally aware that one of the ways in which human beings suck is that anyone who is deemed by society to be different gets punished by that society in ways both large and small. AO’s constant awareness of her surroundings and her ongoing attempts to be less threatening and less “herself” in order to carve out a safe space in which to live will sound familiar to anyone who has bucked the way it’s supposed to be in order to be who they really are.

The violence against her is sadly expected and both she and the reader sadly expect it – until it becomes life-threatening and she strikes back.

When she meets DNA and his two steers, GPS and Carpe Diem, he is in the same emotional trauma coming from an entirely different direction. Where AO has embraced the future – perhaps too much – DNA has clung to his people’s past as a nomadic herdsman. That they find themselves in the same situation is ironic and tragic, but not in any way a coincidence.

And that’s where things get interesting. The more that AO and DNA search for answers, the bigger the questions get. The more they find friends and allies, the bigger the forces arrayed against them.

And the less the story is about those two lost people and the more it is about the forces that put them in that situation in the first place. The story expands its tent to encompass colonialism, complacency and exploitation in ways that make the most singular acts have the most global of consequences – and the other way around – in an infinity loop at the heart of the storm.