Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy WeirProject Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 476
Published by Ballantine Books on May 4, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission--and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn't know that. He can't even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he's been asleep for a very, very long time. And he's just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that's been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it's up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.
Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian--while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

My Review:

Project Hail Mary is, quite possibly, the ultimate in competence porn stories. Or at least the best such book since The Martian, also, of course, by the same author.

I sense a theme here.

In order to enjoy Project Hail Mary, I think that the reader has to really like stories about people who are good at their jobs demonstrating exactly how good they are, which is the essence of competence porn. (If you prefer watching people flounder, fail and screw up, this is not your book.)

It also feels like it’s absolutely necessary for a reader to like science in order to really get suck in this story. I don’t think one has to be an expert – I’m certainly not and I loved the heck out of this – but the reader has to enjoy reading about science and engineering and discovery and believe that science is real and that it can provide real and verifiable solutions to real problems.

But expertise is not required because a lot of the story is about a scientist and an engineer teaching each other how their specialties work, and how both of their extremely different cultures work, so that they can work together on sciencing the shit out of the problem that is staring both of them in the face.

That teaching aspect – very much the way that Sophie’s World “taught” people about philosophy by telling stories about it – turned out to not just be a fascinating way of telling the story but also way more appropriate and resonant than I was expecting at the beginning.

This is a story with two beginnings. It begins with a man waking up from a coma, chased and coddled by giant robot arms, not knowing who he is or how he got to be in the fix he’s currently in.

And it begins several years in the past, when humanity learns that the sun, our sun, is cooling off, not just measurably but rapidly, and that we have a mere 30 years to fix the problem before Earth faces its “sixth extinction” and takes us with it.

As the two storylines catch up to each other, and the man waking up from the coma remembers how he got stuck with the job of fixing what’s wrong with the sun, leading him to waking up in a tiny spaceship cruising in the Tau Ceti system, along with two dead teammates and a ship full of scientific instruments, we get caught up and caught up in the past and the present of Dr. Ryland Grace, humanity’s last, best hope for survival.

Even if he won’t live to see it.

Escape Rating A+: I pulled this book out of the middle of the towering TBR pile because I’m in the middle of a replay of Mass Effect: Andromeda and was looking for something SFnal to read to go along with my playthrough.

And this book has been recommended to the skies (ha-ha) so it seemed like a good choice. I had no idea that the opening scenes of Project Hail Mary were going to bear such a strong resemblance to the opening scenes of the game, waking up from a coma and trying to figure out which end is up in a situation that has gone even more pear-shaped than it was when the protagonist went to sleep.

Ryland Grace is in a much bigger fix than Pathfinder Ryder and the Andromeda Initiative, but comparisons can definitely be drawn.

Howsomever, the stories that Project Hail Mary most resembles, beyond any obvious similarities to The Martian – which I’ve seen but not read and clearly need to read – are Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series (start with The Calculating Stars) and Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

The Lady Astronaut series also features an Earth that is facing an extinction-level event and a desperate international effort to save the species before the planet kills us. (There’s also a surprising bit of a resemblance to some of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series in the way that the leader of Project Hail Mary cuts through bureaucratic red tape with a machete!) To Be Taught features a similar story about a tiny crew doing good science and facing seemingly impossible odds for a home that can never be theirs again, so poignantly similar to Ryland Grace’s situation.

But the surprising difference, and the absolute charm of Project Hail Mary is that Grace does not, after all, face his situation alone, even though he’s the only surviving human on his tiny ship. Twelve light-years from home, Ryland Grace finds a kindred spirit in the place he absolutely least expected, against all the odds.

The heart and soul of Project Hail Mary is not about the plucky human scientist saving the day. It’s about a human scientist and an Erid engineer, who can’t even breathe each other’s air, reaching out to each other using the only language they have in common, the language of science.  Because it’s going to take both of them and every ounce of ingenuity they both possess to save both of their worlds.

So this story that started out as a science and engineering story still turns out to be about the beauty of science – but at its heart it’s about finding friendship in the most unlikely place of all.

And that’s beautiful – right up to and including the ending which gave me the sniffles. It was just a bit bittersweet and so very, very right.

Review: M. King’s Bodyguard by Niall Leonard

Review: M. King’s Bodyguard by Niall LeonardM, King's Bodyguard by Niall Leonard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 272
Published by Pantheon on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Based on a true story, M, King’s Bodyguard is a gripping, atmospheric thriller about anarchy and assassination in Edwardian London, and one detective’s mission to preserve the life of his king and prevent a bloody war in Europe.
From humble beginnings in Ireland, William Melville has risen through hard work, intelligence, and occasional brute force to become head of Britain’s Special Branch, personal bodyguard to Queen Victoria and her family, and the scourge of anarchists at home and abroad. But when in January 1901 the aged Queen dies and the crowned heads of Europe converge on London for her funeral, Melville learns of a conspiracy, led by a mysterious nihilist known only as Akushku, to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany at the ceremony.
Racing to prevent the atrocity, Melville and his German counterpart Gustav Steinhauer find themselves tangled in a web of adultery, betrayal, and violence. As the funeral looms ever closer, Melville realizes that Akushku is the most resourceful and vicious foe he has yet encountered—but is the real threat from Melville’s enemies, or his allies?

My Review:

It’s fascinating to learn that this is based on a true story. Possibly a bit loosely. But the bare bones of these events really happened. It’s even more fascinating to learn that another story, a much more famous one, owes its origins to this same set of events. Sorta/kinda.

Let me explain.

When this story opens, we’re in London, in 1901, experiencing that time and place through the mind of William Mellville, the Head of Special Branch. (The name of that agency may sound familiar. Thomas Pitt, one of the protagonists of Anne Perry’s historical mystery series, becomes Head of Special Branch in the 21st book in the series, The Whitechapel Conspiracy. It’s a title he still holds in 1910 when the series featuring his son Daniel opens with Twenty-One Days. Honestly, I thought Perry made the agency and the title up for her series. Now I’m wondering if Pitt was based a bit on Melville.)

Thomas Pitt is a fictional character, but William Melville is not. When we meet him and get inside his head at the beginning of this book, an era is about to end, and Melville is going to be one of the close witnesses to what happens next. Especially if it explodes.

William Melville

That’s because the events in this story are based on historical fact. The outlines of this case actually happened. William Melville, the title character of this book, was, in addition to his position as Head of Special Branch, one of the high-level bodyguards tasked with keeping the royal family safe, and it’s in that combined set of duties that he becomes the focal point of this story.

It is 1901, and Queen Victoria’s death is imminent. She has ruled for 63 years, and is the only queen that most Britons have ever known. (Only Elizabeth II has ruled longer.) Melville’s duty is to assist in the preparations for her State Funeral, and to deal with any security issues which it will engender.

There will be plenty. Queen Victoria was related to most of the crowned heads of Europe, and many are planning to attend her funeral. In an era when terrorism was on the rise and it seemed like anarchists, nihilists and revolutionaries were springing up at every turn, it is Special Branch’s remit to keep an eye on every organization that might tip over into violence and stop it before it happens.

Queen Victoria’s funeral will present would-be assassins with a veritable cornucopia of crowned heads to cut down or chop off, all marching in a stately procession along a predetermined route, with the newly crowned King Edward VII and his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia in a prominent – and easily targeted – position.

When Melville learns of a plot to assassinate the Kaiser during the procession, he spends every waking moment – of which there are entirely too many – tracking down the would-be assassin. He is aided by the Kaiser’s own bodyguard, Gustav Steinhauer.

In a Europe where the old guard is dying, with revolution on every horizon, the storm clouds of war are gathering. Melville’s motives and loyalties are clear – even if his methods are sometimes questionable.

Gustav Steinhauer

Steinhauer appears to be a comrade in arms, working at Melville’s side to prevent the potential assassination of one or both of their charges. The plot is real enough, but the impulse behind it is murky, at least partially obscured by a man that Melville wants to trust, whether he should or not.

Escape Rating A: I misread the title of this book, and as a consequence got something different – and much better – than I was expecting. I read the comma in the title as a period, so I thought it was M. King’s Bodyguard, as in someone was guarding someone named M. King, or, from the blurb, that it was intended as “M. King” a nom-de-plume for the king himself.

Instead, this is a story about the person who might have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s famous “M”, the head of the Secret Service for which James Bond is an agent. William Melville, after all, rose from Head of Special Branch to become the first head of the organization that eventually became MI5, the British Security Service.

The case in this book really happened, but probably not quite the way it does in the story. The very beginning of the action is based on Gustav Steinhauer’s own autobiography. How accurate he was at telling his own story, and how much he obscured is anyone’s guess. After all, he was Melville’s counterpart, not just the Kaiser’s bodyguard but also the head of the Prussian – later German – Intelligence Service.

But the heart of this story – and this case – is Melville’s desperate race to discover the would-be assassin and prevent the assassination. It’s a race against the clock that draws the reader into Melville’s world and his desperation to stop the terrorist before he starts a war in the streets of London that will reverberate around the world.

To some extent, Melville is like the boy sticking his fingers in the dike. We know the war is going to happen no matter what he does. But it doesn’t have to begin in a bloodbath at Queen Victoria’s State Funeral, and it doesn’t have to begin on his watch on his own turf.

Queen Victoria’s Funeral Procession

His opponent is intelligent and well-trained, and his right hand is none too certain what his left-hand man, Steinhauer, knows and isn’t sharing. There were times in the story where I wondered if Steinhauer himself was the assassin and was leading Melville on even more of a wild goose chase than he actually was.

This was a terrific thrill-ride of a story, all the better for being based in the real. Melville is enough of an outsider to be a dispassionate observer of the people around him, including royalty, while still being a staunch defender of the status quo for reasons that make sense to both the character and the reader. Steinhauer is as much a puzzle to the reader as he is to Melville, serving as acolyte, foil and antagonist by turns, always hiding his real self in the shadows.

The portrait of an era as it ends, that period when the old order was fading, the world was changing, the status quo was falling to pieces and the war we know was inevitable still seemed preventable is heartbreaking, frustrating and compelling by turns. I couldn’t put this one down. If you enjoy historical mysteries, thrillers and/or espionage tales, you won’t be able to either.

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky ChambersA Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot, #1) by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: hopepunk, science fiction, solarpunk
Series: Monk & Robot #1
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers's delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.
It's been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.
One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of what do people need? is answered.
But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.
They're going to need to ask it a lot.
Becky Chambers's new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

My Review:

A Psalm for the Wild-Built turned out to be a surprisingly lovely read about both finding oneself and finding friendship, even if there were plenty of times when I wondered where on earth, or rather where on Panga, the entire thing was going.

But that turned out to be the appropriate reaction, as there were plenty of times when Sibling Dex and Mosscap wondered, separately and together, where their journey was going, and if they’d recognize their destination when they finally reached it.

Assuming they ever did.

At first, this reads as a story of self discovery of one particular self, the person of Sibling Dex. Dex (If the name reminds you of Stargate: Atlantis you are not the only one.) Dex’ world is not our world. It may or may not have ever been our world, but it certainly isn’t by the point of their “now”.

Because Sibling Dex’ now is in a post-industrial age. It also seems to be in a post-consumerism age and certainly a post-robotic age. Money still has value, and people still work for wages or exchanges – Dex seems to work for exchanges as much as they do for credits – but it seems very different from our now.

And that’s because there doesn’t seem to be any artificially inflated “wanting” of stuff. The Joneses don’t seem to exist to be kept up with. There’s nothing in the story about how they got past our never-ending hunger for “more”, but somehow they did.

Or at least they did in the material sense. The emotional sense, the fulfillment sense, is still alive and well and eating Sibling Dex up more and more each day. They had a good life as a monk, a servant to one of the gods, but it wasn’t enough. So they started over again as a tea monk, traveling the countryside and dispensing special blends of tea, places to rest and relax, and solace when people needed it.

After a rocky start, Dex is very good at it. And it’s a fulfilling life, but it seems to fulfill Dex less and less with each passing day. So Dex turns off the road well-traveled for a trek out into the wilderness in search of whatever undefined something is not present in their life as it is.

And that’s where the story really begins, as the monk with no idea about what they really want meets the robot who has volunteered to discover what humans really want. Neither of them has a clue, about their journey, about their destination, or about each other.

Escape Rating A-: I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I opened this book. Kind of like Sibling Dex doesn’t know what they’re letting themselves in for when they take that road much, much less traveled.

I was hoping that whatever I got would be as good as To Be Taught, If Fortunate. That hope was most definitely fulfilled. But there was a point – actually several points – where I was as much in the dark about the book’s journey as Sibling Dex was about their own.

The setup for this is fascinating – so I’m really happy that this appears to be a series and we’ll get to visit Panga again. Some of that fascination is in the way that human nature is either vastly different from the way humans behave here and now – or that they’ve evolved a long way from where we are now. Or both.

Because in Panga, in the not all that far past, in its factory/industrial era, the humans created robots to do the hard work for them. When the robots slipped over the line into self-awareness and asked to leave to pursue their own goals, the humans let them go. Without pursuit, without rancor, without warfare.

If you’ve ever played the Mass Effect Trilogy, then you may understand my astonishment. In that universe, one race created robots to do their hard work for them, but when the robots asked if they had souls, their creators attempted to wipe them off the face of the galaxy. And failed, miserably, for both sides and pretty much everyone else.

That’s the reaction we tend to expect, that humans or their equivalent will go to war to hang onto what they believe is theirs. But in Panga, we got enlightenment – and environmentalism! – instead. Or something damn close to it.

The robots have gone their own way, far into the wilderness, to find their own fulfillment. Or to spend decades watching stalactites grow. Whatever floats their individual and particular boat. They’ve learned to find purpose in just being, rather than endlessly doing.

But they do wonder what humans have done in their absence. Not out of fear, but out of curiosity. And that’s where Dex meets Mosscap, in that realm of curiosity. Dex wants to learn whether or not the life they have is all there is. Mosscap wants to explore what humans are.

At first they are more than a bit at cross purposes. Mosscap knows it needs a guide, while Dex refuses to admit that they do as well. What makes the story work is the way that they learn to come together in friendship. Their discovery that what they have both been looking for is each other – even if, like so much else of their journey towards each other – they had no clue.

The story asks a lot of questions that echo after it ends. It’s a story that asks, “is that all there is?” but slyly leads the reader to think about the meaning of that phrase. Because it’s never about anything we expect.

But at the end, what makes this story so very lovely is the friendship between two beings who have nothing in common, but who, in the end, have everything in common – along with a comforting mug of tea.

The second book in this series, which is being called solarpunk but feels more like hopepunk, is A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, and will hopefully come out sometime next year.

Review: Books Promiscuously Read by Heather Cass White

Review: Books Promiscuously Read by Heather Cass WhiteBooks Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life by Heather Cass White
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: books and reading, nonfiction
Pages: 176
on July 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The critic and scholar Heather Cass White offers an exploration of the nature of reading
Heather Cass White's Books Promiscuously Read is about the pleasures of reading and its power in shaping our internal lives. It advocates for a life of constant, disorderly, time-consuming reading, and encourages readers to trust in the value of the exhilaration and fascination such reading entails. Rather than arguing for the moral value of reading or the preeminence of literature as an aesthetic form, Books Promiscuously Read illustrates the irreplaceable experience of the self that reading provides for those inclined to do it.
Through three sections--Play, Transgression, and Insight--which focus on three ways of thinking about reading, Books Promiscuously Read moves among and considers many poems, novels, stories, and works of nonfiction. The prose is shot through with quotations reflecting the way readers think through the words of others.
Books Promiscuously Read is a tribute to the whole lives readers live in their books, and aims to recommit people to those lives. As White writes, "What matters is staying attuned to an ordinary, unflashy, mutely persistent miracle; that all the books to be read, and all the selves to be because we have read them, are still there, still waiting, still undiminished in their power. It is an astonishing joy."

My Review:

I picked this one up for the title, because honestly, that title feels like a combination of the story of my life and raison d’etre. I’ve always been a reader, and I’ll stop when they pry my last book, whether it’s print or electronic or audio, out of my cold, dead hands or ears.

So I was kind of hoping for the story of a reading life. I was expecting either an exhortation, a manifesto, a kind of “preaching to the choir” – or all of the above.

I think I got everything except the part I was most hoping for, that story of a reading life. Or rather, the story of a particular reading life. There was plenty about why one should have a reading life – no matter how much the author would say that using the word “should” in reference to reading is pretty much the kiss of death when it comes to reading as promiscuously as she advocates.

Or, rather, I’ve frequently found the word “should” in reference to my own reading as almost a guaranteed death knell to my own enjoyment of a book. There have been exceptions, of course. But I generally have to play mental games with myself to make sure I read the books that I’ve obligated myself to in one way or another.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be the chapters about reading as a transgressive act. So many repressive societies, historically and in the present day, our own and elsewhere, attempt to restrict either the ability to read or the availability of reading material as a method of curbing that transgression.

Attempts that always fail, at least in the long run, because the words we read have a life of their own, and are capable of reaching audiences and interpretations that their authors never intended. That’s part of what makes a classic a classic, in that it still has meaning after the era for which it was written and intended.

It’s that thing that gives a reader that shiver up the spine, that frisson of extra-awareness, that tells a reader not just that words have power, but that this particular set of words has the power to move, if not mountains, at least to move us.

I picked this up because the title represents my own life. I read constantly and certainly promiscuously, in search of escape, adventure, identity, experience and every other thing possible to find between pages in a book.

I don’t think this book will convert a non-reader to being a reader, and I don’t think that’s the intent. I think, or perhaps I feel, that the intent is to remove the guilt from reading, and to get people to think of reading as a way of life – or many lives – and not just a secret pleasure that can only be indulged in when all the necessities of life are finished. If they ever are.

Reality Rating B: People who enjoy reading books about books and reading will get something out of the hypotheses and the concluding hopes for readers. Others are unlikely to pick it up in the first place.

I’m left in the place I began, reminding myself of the following quote from George R.R. Martin:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Although I’d prefer a perhaps slightly less pithy but more inclusive phrasing, “A reader lives a thousand lives before they die. The person who never reads lives only one.” Because I’ve seen places and lived lives that would otherwise be impossible, and my life has certainly been the richer for it.

Review: An Irish Hostage by Charles Todd

Review: An Irish Hostage by Charles ToddAn Irish Hostage (Bess Crawford #12) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #12
Pages: 336
Published by William Morrow on July 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the uneasy peace following World War I, nurse Bess Crawford runs into trouble and treachery in Ireland—in this twelfth book in the New York Times bestselling mystery series.
The Great War has finally come to an end, but tensions remain high throughout Europe. In Ireland, no one has forgotten the bloody 1916 Easter Rising that fought to end British rule in the country. Bess’s old friend, nurse Eileen Flynn, returns to her isolated Irish village where two factions continue to battle against each other. Eileen’s time with the British army makes her a target for retaliation. Her missing cousin, who was active in the rising and is still being hunted by the British, is her only protection.
Despite concerns about her safety, Bess keeps her promise to her wartime friend and travels to Ireland to be part of Eileen’s wedding party. But on her arrival, Bess discovers that the groom has gone missing. Then a body is fished from the sea. The villagers are hungry to see justice carried out—for wrongdoings new and old—and Eileen’s protection is running out. But clearing her name may mean sacrificing another beloved friend’s neck to the noose instead. Bess must unravel a dark, deceptive plot before someone she loves dies. 

My Review:

“How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?) was a popular World War I song, particularly after the war ended. Just at the point where this 12th book in the Bess Crawford series takes place.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddBecause in June of 1919, Bess Crawford was facing her own version of that question. When we met her in A Duty to the Dead, all the way back in 1916, her war was just beginning, and Bess, a trained nurse in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, was on her way to the forward aid stations to serve her country in her chosen profession, aboard the HMHS Britannic – which nearly sank along with her and her career.

Back on that doomed ship, Bess saved the life – and the injured legs – of one of her fellow nurses, Eileen Flynn. Now that the war is over, Eileen and the soldier she waited for for more than four years are going to be married. At Eileen’s family home in Killeighbeg, on the west coast of Ireland.

Eileen just wants to be married with her family and friends around her, in the place where she grew up and in the church where she was baptized. She wants to set out on her life’s journey by starting in her home.

But Eileen’s soldier took the “King’s Shilling” back in 1914, serving in the Irish Guards. That was before the Easter Rising of 1916 and the brutal British repression of the rebellion. Sentiment has changed quite a bit in Ireland in the following years.

Eileen and her fiancé Michael are both considered traitors by many of the locals for having served in the British Army. Eileen has asked Bess to be her attendant at the wedding and Michael has asked one of his commanding officers, so not only are Eileen and Michael considered traitors but they’ve invited English “spies” to come to Killeighbeg as well.

Although what there is in tiny Killeighbeg to spy on is anyone’s guess.

Emotions and tempers are high – on both sides. When Bess arrives just a few days before the wedding she finds herself in the middle of a powder keg that feels like it’s going to explode at any moment.

The groom is missing and entirely too many of the locals believe that it’s good riddance to bad rubbish – including Eileen’s tyrannical grandmother. Who appears to be the local despot in charge of all things Rebellion – in spite of her own son being a live – and wanted – hero of the Easter Rising.

Bess feels like a hostage in hostile territory, only because she is. But she can’t leave until Eileen’s betrothed is found – one way or another. And that can’t happen until someone figures out who took him and why.

But in the moments in between worrying about her friend’s future, Bess has little to do but consider her own. Because she’s seen her own Paree, she’s had a life where she was independent and responsible for herself, respected for her skills. She can’t quite see herself going back to being a dependent daughter again.

She envies Eileen her possibility of happiness, even as she fears that it may not come to pass. And in the darkness of entirely too many nights of tension and terror, she has to face her own truth no matter how much she wants to turn away.

Escape Rating A-: The story in An Irish Hostage feels close and tight, and that’s probably the way it should be. There are huge issues on the horizon, and in the story, and most of them are too big for Bess to solve. She’s stuck, inside tiny, hostile Killeighbeg, caught in the web of the Flynn household, and trapped entirely too often inside her own head.

I want to say that the house and town read like an attempt at a microcosm of Irish history in that tense period between the Rising and Independence. Some want to continue the bloodshed at all costs, some want to find a peaceful solution, some just want to stir up trouble for its own sake. Some people, like Eileen’s cousin Terrance, want justice for Ireland, meaning independence. Some, like Eileen’s grandmother, want vengeance at any cost. Many refuse to recognize that justice and vengeance are NOT the same thing.

And others, like Eileen and her Michael, just want peace – even if they have to leave their home in order to get any.

(I just had the very wild thought that pretty much all of the above could be applied to the Middle East as well, and that one of the big root causes in both places was the British Empire meddling in places that it arguably had no business meddling. I digress.)

And that leads directly to Bess, who is a symbol of, in some ways, the worst of all possibilities, that now that the Great War is over, the British Army in all of its might is going to come down on Ireland like many, many armed tons of explosive bricks.

While the future of Ireland looms over the entire story, it is much too big a thing for Bess to even think about solving. All she can do is get herself and those she has pledged to help out of the line of fire.

But Bess’ future is a problem that only she can solve. It, too, has been looming on the horizon for the past several books, possibly as far back as A Question of Honor, set in the Summer of 1918, but certainly by A Forgotten Place, set in November 1918 as the Armistice is signed.

Her dilemma feels real – although she has a bit too much time on her hands to mull it over. She knows what she’s expected to do. As a woman, she’s expected to “forget” having been an independent and responsible adult in a war zone for the past four years and go back to being a dependent female until she marries. She also knows that isn’t enough for her but that her choices are few.

At the same time, she is wondering about who she will spend the rest of her life with. Unlike many long-running mystery series, Bess’ love life has never been a feature of the books. She hasn’t fallen in love with anyone. By the end of An Irish Hostage, we know precisely why.

We just don’t know what Bess is going to do about it. And neither does she. Hopefully, that answer is to come in the next book in the series!

Review: Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan

Review: Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason DoanLady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Graydon House on June 29, 2021
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“A delicious daydream of a book.” —Elin Hilderbrand, New York Times bestselling author of 28 Summers
“With lyrical writing and a page-turning plot, this sun-dappled book has it all: heart, smarts, and an irresistible musical beat. A tone-perfect evocation of the free-spirited late 1970s and a riveting coming-of-age story.” —Karen Dukess, author of The Last Book Party
“In LADY SUNSHINE, Amy Mason Doan has crafted an engrossing tale of secrets, memory, music, and the people and places you can never outrun. This novel will transport you to the ‘70s and summertime magic and a long overdue reckoning. A fantastic summer read.”—Laura Dave, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me
ONE ICONIC FAMILY. ONE SUMMER OF SECRETS. THE DAZZLING SPIRIT OF 1970S CALIFORNIA.

For Jackie Pierce, everything changed the summer of 1979, when she spent three months of infinite freedom at her bohemian uncle’s sprawling estate on the California coast. As musicians, artists, and free spirits gathered at The Sandcastle for the season in pursuit of inspiration and communal living, Jackie and her cousin Willa fell into a fast friendship, testing their limits along the rocky beach and in the wild woods... until the summer abruptly ended in tragedy, and Willa silently slipped away into the night.
Twenty years later, Jackie unexpectedly inherits The Sandcastle and returns to the iconic estate for a short visit to ready it for sale. But she reluctantly extends her stay when she learns that, before her death, her estranged aunt had promised an up-and-coming producer he could record a tribute album to her late uncle at the property’s studio. As her musical guests bring the place to life again with their sun-drenched beach days and late-night bonfires, Jackie begins to notice startling parallels to that summer long ago. And when a piece of the past resurfaces and sparks new questions about Willa’s disappearance, Jackie must discover if the dark secret she’s kept ever since is even the truth at all.
Lady Sunshine is shot through with free love, hope, and all the magic of the ’70s, but under the sun and music lie dark secrets.It’s a thrilling ride, a beautiful evocation of an era, and a story that will keep readers entranced from the first page to the last.”—Rene Denfeld, bestselling author of The Child Finder
“This book is gorgeous. A gold-drenched nostalgic dream with a fierce female friendship at its heart.”—Marisa de los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of I'll Be Your Blue Sky
“Haunting and vivid, with layered, complex characters and an evocative setting that sparkles with detail, LADY SUNSHINE will stay with me for a long time.”—Julie Clark, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Flight

My Review:

This story feels like its drenched in summer, not just any summer, but those summers that exist only in memory, the summers of childhood where the season seems endless when school lets out, but speeds up inexorably as the number of carefree sunny days dwindles down at the end as school looms on the horizon.

Even though Jackie and her cousin Willa are not children in this particular summer. But at 17 when the story begins, they are not exactly adults either. This is a story of that summer where it all changes.

It’s also a story about another summer, the summer twenty years later when Jackie returns to the place she left behind, all alone with her memories of friendship and love and loss. Only to find that she isn’t quite as alone as she believed, and that those memories, as painful as they are, are not quite done with her yet – no matter how much she wants to be done with them.

It’s the summer of 1979, and Jackie has come to spend her last summer of high school at the Sandcastle, the home of her uncle Graham Kingston, a famous folk singer of the 1960s whose best performing and recording years seem to be behind him – along with the demons that lifestyle brought with them.

Jackie, escaping from the straitjacket of conformism that is life with her father and stepmother, finds herself, and finds herself a home, in the free-spirited and freewheeling circle of artists, musicians and friends that hangs around her uncle at the Sandcastle. And she finds the sister of her heart in her cousin Willa.

Twenty years later it’s all gone. Her larger-than-life uncle is long dead, as is her cousin Willa. No one is left except Jackie to inherit the house, the grounds, the studio and all the memories they left behind. She’s back for one final summer, the summer of 1999, to pack it all up and sell it all away. Forever.

But first she has to go back to the time, and the place, where it all went so very wrong. There are pieces still left to break her heart one last time – if only she’ll reach out and grab them.

Escape Rating B: This is such a summer book. The heat of both of those long-ago summers practically steams off the page, and the sound of the surf rolls in your ears as you read Jackie’s old diary over her shoulder.

But the story also moves at the pace of those long ago summers, in that it builds slowly at the beginning, like the early days of summer when it feels like the season will last forever. And occasionally it feels like that part of the book is taking its own sweet summer time to get itself off the ground.

Once it catches its own wave, once the end of both summers is on the horizon, the pace picks up as the girls of 1979 and the woman of 1999 try to wring the last drop of bittersweetness out of each and every day that is left.

In 1979, Jackie doesn’t want to leave. In 1999, it feels like she can’t until she’s done. Or until it’s done with her.

Although speaking of 1979, on the one hand I have to say that it read like I remember. I was just a few years older than Jackie and Willa at the time. On the other hand, I kept wondering why the author chose that particular time period, and I think it must have been the music.

As I said, Jackie’s 1979 felt like the one I remember. Which is part of what carried me through the early parts of the story.

Because it’s the story of that golden summer that sweeps the reader up and carries them away, just as Jackie was carried away by the larger than life figure of her uncle and the place he created around himself on the northern California coast.

Because of the dual timelines, we start the story know that something terrible happened at the end of that summer. The questions all revolve around what that something was that made the idyll crash and burn.

Waiting to discover what that “something” was hangs over the entire book, because even in the secondary timeline of 1999 Jackie refuses to get near that memory. As the story spun out, it became clear that it was a loss of innocence, but not sexual. This is not Summer of ‘42 and the girls neither lose their virginity nor get sexually abused by a trusted mentor or family member. It’s much more complicated, and therefore more interesting, than that.

It turns out that the loss is twofold, they discover that their hero has feet of clay up to the knees, and they discover that their attempts to “fix” things can have tragic consequences. But it takes a fair bit of story to get there.

While the foundation of everything is in 1979, the 1999 portions of the story were more dynamic. More things happen and they happen faster, even as Jackie continues to avoid the real issues that brought her back.

But when those issues finally come full circle, it provides a lovely ending for the whole emotional package. There were points in the middle where I wondered whether this story was ever going to get itself to its sticking point, but when it finally did it made for just the right coda to the entire journey.

Review: Murphy’s Slaw by Elizabeth Logan

Review: Murphy’s Slaw by Elizabeth LoganMurphy's Slaw (Alaskan Diner Mystery #3) by Elizabeth Logan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Alaskan Diner #3
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on June 1, 2021
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When a local prize-winning farmer is murdered at the state fair, Charlie Cook gets called in to help investigate, but she’s shocked to learn the victim is a friend in this latest installment in the Alaskan Diner Mysteries.
Charlie Cooke loves many things, like the Bear Claw Diner, the heated steering wheel of her car, and her orange tabby cat Eggs Benedict. Something she has never loved is the state fair. So when her best friend Annie Jensen begs her for a fair day, she’s reluctant. But Annie isn’t the only one who wants her to spend a day among farm animals and deep fried food. A vendor has been murdered, and Trooper Graham needs his favorite part-time sleuth to dig up the truth, and Charlie is happy to oblige.
The case grows personal when Charlie learns the victim is Kelly Carson, whom she and Annie were friends with in high school. If Charlie wants to find justice for Kelly, she and Annie will have to work together to weed out the killer.

My Review:

Everyone knows about “Murphy’s Law”, that entirely too often true dictum that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Then there’s Cole’s Law, which is shredded cabbage with mayo, with or without shredded carrots. There’s another version of Cole’s Law, at least according to the Urban Dictionary, that when dining out, either one person will eat everyone’s coleslaw, or nobody eats the coleslaw at all.

Somewhere west of everything there’s Charlie Cooke’s coleslaw at her Bear Claw Diner in tiny Elkview, Alaska, which doesn’t use mayo in the coleslaw – using vinaigrette instead, and her recipe is included in the back of the book – along with a few other tasty treats!

While people come to the Bear Claw Diner for those tasty treats – along with a bit of traditional diner cooking and flair – it’s not possible, at least not yet, for the delicious aromas and mouth-watering mooseloaf to make their way out of the pages of the book – not that the descriptions won’t make you hungry.

We’re here for the murder mystery, the portrait of life in small-town Alaska, and reading about the way that Charlie Cooke spoils her cat Eggs Benedict – better known as Benny – absolutely rotten. (Sometimes the amount of spoiling Benny gets makes me feel a bit guilty about the relative paucity of treats for our own four cats. And sometimes it makes me feel a bit better that we don’t spoil them quite THAT much!)

Murphy’s Slaw serves up plenty of all of the above, as Charlie and her fellow volunteer investigators find themselves scouring the Alaska State Fair in nearby Palmer for clues to the Fair-site murder of their friend KC. For a woman that everyone in Elkview seems to have loved, there sure are plenty of motives for KC’s murder. It’s ferreting out the possible suspects that keeps Charlie and Company on their investigative toes!

Escape Rating B: I read and enjoy this series because it allows me to vicariously re-visit a place that I once lived and mostly enjoyed. (Except for January, January in Anchorage absolutely sucks rocks.) I still tell Alaska stories from my own time there, and I love reading Alaska stories – especially when it feels like the author gets things plausibly right – as this author generally does.

I have to say that one of the things I read this series for is the way that Charlie spoils her cat “Benny” rotten to an amazing degree. Our cats are spoiled, but she does take the concept to new dimensions. But providing a feline with their due is not quite enough to power an entire series.

So, one of the things that I especially enjoy about this series that probably has more “legs” to power a series is the brush with plausibility of Charlie and her friends assisting Trooper, the Alaska State Trooper assigned to Elkview and its surrounds, with his investigations. There are a lot of ways that things get done differently in Alaska because there are relatively few people spread out over a very big space. The state budget has been shrinking the past several years while there are many more things done at the state level than is common in the “Lower 48” as there are relatively few cities or large towns and there is no governmental unit that is the equivalent of a county. And if there’s no counties, that means there are no county sheriffs, either.

So things are done just a bit differently. Meaning that while Elkview seems to have the same homicide rate as Bar Harbor, Maine or Midsomer County in England, there are considerably fewer police agencies to deal with those homicides and it feels more likely that local volunteers might get enlisted to the cause. (Even if it doesn’t happen in real life at all.)

Something else this story highlights is just how few degrees of separation there are between people. Charlie and her bestie Annie knew the victim in high school. They also have continuing interactions because KC was a local farmer and supplier to Charlie’s diner and possibly even Annie’s inn. KC’s mother and Charlie’s mother are friends. Her murder hits close to home, as does the search for her murderer.

So I enjoy watching Charlie solve the mystery in this series, usually by getting herself smack in the middle of it whether she intended to or not. But what I sink into with a grateful sigh is the cozy small town ambiance that reminds me of somewhere I still remember fondly.

The one element I could have lived without in this particular entry in the series is the “bobble” in the relationship between Charlie and her best friend Annie over whether either of them can, or should, take even the first steps in a potential romantic relationship with the third member of their investigative trio, newspaper reporter Chris Doucette. Chris, of course, is not present for this discussion, but the difficulties that it raises between Charlie and Annie, and between Charlie and Chris, casts a strange air over their performance of their “regular” sleuthing for entirely too much of a chunk of the story. Not every long-running mystery series requires a romance between any of the continuing characters. My 2 cents.

But it all did get resolved by the end, along with the murder. So I’ll be back the next time the author takes a trip to Elkview. After all, I have to see how Benny is doing!

Review: The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Review: The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-GarciaThe Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 104
Published by Subterranean Press on June 30, 2021
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From the bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a magical journey of revenge and redemption.
Yalxi, the deposed Supreme Mistress of the Guild of Sorcerers, is on a desperate mission. Her lover and confidant seized her throne and stole the precious diamond heart, the jewel that is the engine of her power. Yalxi sets out to regain her magic and find a weapon capable of destroying the usurper. But this will mean turning to unlikely allies and opening herself up to unpleasant memories that have been suppressed for many years. For Yalxi is no great hero, but a cunning sorceress who once forged her path in blood – and must reckon with the consequences.
Set in a fantastical land where jewels and blood provide symbiotic magical powers to their wearers, The Return of the Sorceress evokes the energy of classic sword and sorcery, while building a thoroughly fresh and exciting adventure ripe for our era.

My Review:

For a fairly short story, this was one that kept surprising me. At first, I thought I knew exactly what it was about. But it wasn’t nearly that simple.

Then I thought I had it figured out – and it changed again. And again. Until in the end, I was nowhere near the place I thought I’d be.

At first, this seems like a combination of two very old sayings, the Biblical phrase that proclaims “how the mighty have fallen” and the oft-repeated paraphrase from Lord Acton about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. (I’m always surprised to learn that the actual quote is “The corrupting influence of power is total when one’s power is total.” but it does make me understand why it got rephrased into something a bit pithier, or at least catchier.)

This story, at first, seems to be all about the Sorceress Yalxi, who was once the Supreme Mistress of the Guild of Sorcerers, and plans to be again. As soon as she overthrows the ex-colleague and former lover who betrayed her.

Without the great Diamond that served as both her badge of office and the source of much of her power, Yalxi needs to find herself a source of power that can not just equal, but actually best it. She’s not worried about beating her betrayer, she knows she’s stronger than he is on his own.

But he isn’t on his own, that’s the point. As long as she is, however, he has all the magical power he needs, as well as all the temporal power required to capture her so he can gloat over her defeat and drain her blood to power his own spells.

When Yalxi reaches back into their mutual past for a way to get her revenge, she hunts out two artifacts. One is a ring invested with a spirit that was her first teacher, her first source of power – and the first friend she betrayed.

The second, however, is the malevolent spirit of her mentor and predecessor as Supreme Sorcerer, someone she and her ex-lover first followed, and then betrayed. His spirit is hungry, it desires revenge of its own and has had plenty of time to chill that revenge to an icy temperature that will burn more than any hellfire.

The stage is set, but what is it set for? A tale of the mighty falling, power corrupting, ice-cold revenge and the pride that goes before a fall? Or something older, sadder, and perhaps just a bit wiser?

Escape Rating A-: At first, very much at first, this story reminded me a lot of The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, to the point that if you liked that you’ll like this and vice versa – although this story is told in a bit more of a straightforward fashion than that lovely bit of historical fantasy myth-making.

But the likeness turned out to be more about style and setting, and less about the actual plot of the story than I expected.

The story in Empress is about a comeback. It’s also an explicitly feminist story in that the Empress and her unsung handmaiden stand in for all of the women who have been cast aside and forgotten throughout history.

I thought that the Sorceress’ return would be similar, and was surprised in the end that it wasn’t, and that it was a better story for it. But the circumstances are different, in that the Sorceress has already held power in her own right, and lost that power through her own actions. She’s not simply cast aside as inconvenient – she’s deposed from the seat of power that she took in the exact same fashion.

But still, that’s the story I initially expected. Then, as Yalxi furthered her plans, I was expecting her to be betrayed again. And again. Only differently.

The ending was better than that – also unexpected and more uplifting than the beginning led me to believe. Because in the end, this is a story about love and justice, friendship and redemption. And the way it got there – that’s the best part of this unexpected journey.

Review: Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Cherish by Mary BaloghSomeone to Cherish (Westcott #8) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #8
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on June 29, 2021
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Is love worth the loss of one's freedom and independence? This is what Mrs. Tavernor must decide in the new novel in the Westcott series from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.
When Harry Westcott lost the title Earl of Riverdale after the discovery of his father's bigamy, he shipped off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, where he was near-fatally wounded. After a harrowing recovery, the once cheery, light-hearted boy has become a reclusive, somber man. Though Harry insists he enjoys the solitude, he does wonder sometimes if he is lonely.
Lydia Tavernor, recently widowed, dreams of taking a lover. Her marriage to Reverend Isaiah Tavernor was one of service and obedience, and she has secretly enjoyed her freedom since his death. She doesn't want to shackle herself to another man in marriage, but sometimes, she wonders if she is lonely.
Both are unwilling to face the truth until they find themselves alone together one night, and Lydia surprises even herself with a simple question: "Are you ever lonely?" Harry's answer leads them down a path neither could ever have imagined...

My Review:

There should be a truly hot place in hell for the late, unlamented Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale. But, and it is now a huge, 8 marvelous books and counting BUT, the results of his metaphorical bastardy, to whit, the legal and actual bastardy he inflicted on his three children who believed they were legitimate, have been glorious.

So maybe an exceptionally hot place in hell with a few occasional luxuries. Because it’s all his fault, including some of the surprisingly good things. Like this series which began with Someone to Love and doesn’t seem to be over yet.

Thank goodness. Or perhaps I should be thanking Humphrey’s badness. Maybe a bit of both?

As big of a factor as Humphrey’s badness has been in this entire series, a more fitting summation of the issues in this entry might be this particular paraphrase of Thoreau, the one that goes, “If you see someone coming towards you with the obvious intent of doing you good – run like hell.” with the added codicil that it goes double if that someone – or many someones in the case of Major Harry Westcott, are family.

There are an awful lot of well-meaning, good intentioned families in fiction who have, let’s call them, boundary issues. As in entirely too many of them ignore any boundaries set by other members of the family. They’re just sure they know best. And maybe, sometimes, they do. But even when they might, even if they do, they can be a bit much and more than a bit annoying and extremely frustrating when the boundaries they are riding roughshod over belong to adults who might, equally and with much better justification, know what they do and don’t want for themselves.

The story in Someone to Cherish centers around two people, both adults nearing 30, so really, really actual adults mostly adulting, whose families are both firmly convinced that neither of these adults could possibly know what they want for themselves, or really mean anything they say about what they want for themselves, and that other people in the family, older if not wiser, know best.

Ironically, or paradoxically, it’s the women of the Westcott family who are certain that Harry doesn’t know what’s good for him, while it’s the men of Lydia Winterbourne Tavernor’s family who are just as certain that she can’t possibly know her own mind or truly desire her own independence.

But there’s a critical difference. When Harry’s family invades his country home to give him a huge 30th birthday party whether he wants one or not, he goes along with their plans because he loves them, because they are already there, and because it would be horribly rude not to. However, that they brought along three young ladies as possible brides for him, all he has to be is polite. No more, no less. His family can’t make him marry or even make him consider one of those young ladies as a possible bride. Even with all of his wealth and titles stripped from him by his illegitimacy, as a man he is still free to live his life as he pleases.

Lydia’s experience is completely the opposite. During her girlhood, her father and brothers did their best to wrap her in cotton wool and protect her from everything she might worry her little head about. Her father refused to allow her a season because London “wasn’t safe” and she wouldn’t be properly protected from the rakehells of the ton. When she married, she went straight from her father’s loving but demeaning protection to her husband’s dictatorial pronouncements about every single facet of her life. As a woman, she has no recourse, the men in her life, who actually do love her, control her very being and expect her to acquiesce. It’s only as a widow with enough money to support herself that she has the freedom to be who and what she wants to be.

A freedom that she will lose if she trusts herself to another man – no matter how much that man claims to love her. After growing up in an environment designed to keep her childlike, and marrying a man she loved but who dictated her every move and thought, the first person whose judgement she questions is always herself.

And yes, this is a personal soapbox that I’ve climbed on and now can’t quite figure out how to get down from. Pardon me a moment while I search for a very tall metaphorical ladder to use for a descent.

All of that being said – and yes, I know I said a LOT – what eventually becomes the romance between Harry and Lydia is very much of a slow burn kind of romance, because they are both slowly burning kind of people. Both have experienced tragedy, both have hidden their true selves behind masks that they are having a difficult time pulling off, and both are very uncertain about trust.

They are also both prominent people in the tiny village of Hinsford, a circumstance that comes to bite both of them in the ass – but also forces them to decide who they are and who they want to be.

It takes them more than a bit of time to figure out that what they want to be is together, because together they have that trust that both of them have lacked.

Escape Rating B: This one turned out to be kind of a mixed bag for me as a reader. I got up on that really tall soapbox because there were a lot of elements of the setup that obviously drove me utterly bananas. It has felt like every other book that I’ve read in the last couple of months has been chock-full of families with boundary issues and generally heroines who have trouble saying “NO” and setting and maintaining boundaries with their well-meaning but annoyingly intrusive families.

The power dynamics of Lydia’s relationship with her birth family AND her late husband add fuel to that fire, as she has no agency until she becomes a widow – and even then her birth family is eager, insistent and downright smothering in their attempts to snatch that agency away from her.

I see that soapbox looming again so I’ll move on.

Lydia has been self-effacing to the point of disappearing in plain sight for most of her life. A huge and lovely part of this story is watching her stretch, grow, and STOP HIDING. Her two steps forward, half step back progress feels real.

At the same time, one of her first steps forward is to ask Harry, in an extremely roundabout and circuitous way, if he’d be interested in starting what we would call a “friends with benefits” relationship. With her.

And every single thing that both of them expect, along with a passion that neither of them knew to expect, happens. Especially all the bad things. It’s their response to those bad things that forms the heart of the romance in this story, but it takes a bit too much of the book to get off the ground – even though they’ve already gotten off. So to speak.

Ahem.

So as much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a whole, the book in the series that this one most reminds me of is Someone to Care, the story I liked the least so far. In that one, the first half was lovely and the second half drove me bananas. With this one its the other way around. The first half was a slog but the second half worked itself out into a lovely HEA.

I’m glad I read this, both to see how the rest of Harry’s large and boisterous family are doing and to see one of the original “victims” of Humphrey’s bastardy finally get his own life fully together and happy.

I’m still fascinated with the Westcott family, so I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, Someone Perfect – we’ll see about that! – coming just in time for the holiday season.

Review: White Top by M.L. Buchman

Review: White Top by M.L. BuchmanWhite Top (Miranda Chase NTSB #8) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #8
Pages: 360
Published by Buchman Bookworks on May 25, 2021
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Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.
The White Top helicopters of HMX-1 are known by a much more familiar name: Marine One. The S-92A, the newest helicopter in the HMX fleet, enters service after years of testing.
When their perfect safety record lies shattered across the National Mall, Miranda Chase and her team of NTSB crash investigators go in. They must discover if it was an accident, a declaration of war, or something even worse.

My Review:

I’ve always found shopping in Walmart to be generally depressing, so I don’t go there often. But the Walmart scene in this story is enough to make me swear off the place for life! Possibly you will too, when you read the literally explosive details of a helicopter crashing into a Walmart and turning the entire huge store PLUS the surrounding parking lot into a gigantic fireball.

That the helicopter that crashed is Marine Two, carrying the Vice-President, is what pushes the crash into the path of the NTSB’s pre-eminent investigator, Miranda Chase, along with her crack team of top-notch experts into the investigation.

Not that she might not have been called in anyway, come to think of it, but Miranda and her team are the only NTSB team with the security clearance to deal with the potential causes and the political fallout of an entirely too successful attempt to sabotage one of the most secure aircraft in the nation’s entire arsenal.

And all of that is exactly what I read this series for. Miranda and her team are beyond excellent in their specialties, making every single book in this series an absolute delight of competence porn. There’s something absolutely fascinating about watching a bunch of interesting people do their complex jobs at the peak of pretty much everything.

The group that has coalesced around Miranda is one of the best teams it has ever been my pleasure to read about, and I mean that in both senses of the word “best”. Because they are all so damn good at their jobs – see above paragraph about competence porn.

But they are also a delight to read about and follow along with. Each member of the team has their own place, from Holly, the former Australian Special Forces operator who serves as the team’s muscle, to Mike, the human factors specialist, to Andi, the helicopter expert – much needed for particular crash, to Jeremy, the expert in all things geek and also Miranda’s “Mini-Me”.

That last bit turns out to be an important part of the story as far as the ongoing development of the characters is concerned. It’s getting to be time for Jeremy to leave the nest. It’s up to Miranda’s team, especially that human factors specialist, to help Miranda – who does not like change at all – to realize that it’s time to give Jeremy the opportunity to learn, grow and fail as a team leader so that he can be ready to become the Investigator in Charge (IIC) of his own team.

Which intersects both well and badly with the crash of Marine Two. It’s time for Jeremy to learn to lead, but this is not the crash he can “officially” lead. Too much is at stake and too much is at risk.

That’s where the other thing I love about this series comes in. In the Miranda Chase series, that the author has managed to out-intrigue one of the masters of the political intrigue genre, Tom Clancy. Buchman does it better in this story and this series, at least in part because it feels like he has an editor he actually listens to. (That is an opinion and I have no actual knowledge, but having read Clancy let’s say that the first books were great and then they got bloated. IMHO for what that’s worth.)

The setup for this story goes all the way back to the very first book in this awesome series, Drone. And it all pays off beautifully here, as the sabotage links back to players on the international stage who are in cahoots with power brokers in the U.S.

We follow along with Miranda as she and her team figure out how it was done, and we have a ringside seat as one of the prime movers and shakers of the whole series learns just how far her thirst for power has managed to lead her away from achieving her dream of it.

Escape Rating A+: The scenes of the two opening crashes, of which the Walmart crash was the second, are gruesome in their dispassionate recital of just how terrible and terrifying the loss of life was. (There were many times more dismemberments than in the book earlier this week.)

But this series is not about the gore, it’s about how the pattern of the crash – including the gore – allows Miranda and her team to figure out what happened. The purpose of that “figuring out” in normal life is to eliminate any design or mechanical factors that are capable of happening again – so they don’t.

In this particular instance, because this is a political thriller as much as it is anything else, the purpose of figuring out what happened is about assigning blame – and if possible, taking vengeance.

Although that part is not usually Miranda’s bailiwick. Not that she occasionally doesn’t end up in the thick of it anyway. But then, Miranda goes where the clues lead her, whether anyone wants her to go there or not.

In this case, those clues lead her, her team, her mentor and her president to a few inexorable conclusions. Conclusions that will certainly factor into where this series goes next. And I am so there for wherever that turns out to be. I’m just mad that the author is making me wait until next freaking year to find out!

But at least I got to see Miranda’s team punch the lights out of her douchecanoe ex-boyfriend, not once but twice. And he got tased again. The women on Miranda’s team stick up for her, for each other, and for the team and definitely for the win!