Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Review: Book Lovers by Emily HenryBook Lovers by Emily Henry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 377
Published by Berkley on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn't see coming....
Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.
Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.
If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

My Review:

When it comes to Happy Ever Afters, one size definitely doesn’t fit all – even if a certain ubiquitous type of romance movie leads you to believe it does.

You know the ones I mean, on the channel created by the equally ubiquitous greeting card company, where a City Person™ is forced by circumstance to spend a month (or two) in a (very) small town and discovers true love, happiness and fulfillment in the welcoming embrace of that small town and particularly in the arms of one of the handsomest or most beautiful people who loves the place and everyone in it that all that love converts the City Person into a country person.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about the city people that former City Person left behind back in the big city. Because there’s always someone in that city who they were supposed to marry as soon as they got back – which they never do. Whether that other City Person just doesn’t really understand or love them after all, or whether that person is the reincarnation of Cruella de Vil (whether male or female, doesn’t matter), that person who thought they knew where their life was going and who it was going with is left in the lurch, scrambling to put things back together.

Nora Stephens has been that ‘left behind’ person four times now. She’s a highly respected, perhaps just a teensy bit cutthroat book editor who will do anything and everything for her clients – but doesn’t leave much time, energy or effort for herself. She’s been left behind in love so many times that she’s given up on the idea.

The one person in her life that she always makes time for – even if not nearly fast enough or often enough – the one person she loves without reservation is her younger sister Libby. So when Libby entreats, inveigles and somewhat emotionally manipulates Nora into taking a vacation, together, just the two of them, away from Nora’s all-consuming job and Libby’s beloved husband and two little girls, Nora caves. Pretty much instantly. Libby has that effect on her.

Nora can sense there’s something that Libby’s not telling her. And whatever it is, she needs to get to the bottom of it so she can fix it for her sister. Because that’s what Nora always does, one way or another.

Because she can’t fix the one thing that both of them want more than anything. She can’t bring back the mother who died and left her girls behind. So she’ll give everything else instead. Including her own dreams of a Happy Ever After.

Unless, just this once, Libby can fix things so that it’s Nora who finally gets to have it all. While still managing to remain that City Person> But finally a City Person with her very own, fitted just for her, HEA.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one for all the reasons that made Nora’s HEA seem so impossible to her at the beginning. Because her HEA fits her and doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold. And I loved her for it every bit as her sometimes-nemesis (but not really) does. So there’s a reason Book Lovers won so many plaudits and was on so many “Best of the Year” lists and I’m there for every single one of them.

The story is a bit meta, but in a terrific way. It’s a book about romance tropes and a romance between two people who love books, fall for each other, and have a romance that appears to be casting against all those romance tropes, only to learn that they’ve been happening while they haven’t been looking at anything but each other.

There’s also a bit of a relationship fiction/women’s fiction/chick lit story going on very much in the foreground of the story, as the only long-term relationship in Nora Stephens’ life isn’t a romance – because she’s been avoiding those or failing at them (or a bit of both) – right, left and center.

The sustaining relationship in Nora’s life is her love for her younger sister Libby. Normally, I don’t like misunderstandammits, but it’s fascinating in this book because the misunderstandammit in Book Lovers isn’t in Nora’s very slowing brewing romance with Charlie Lastra, but rather with her sister Libby.

There’s something wrong between them, and Nora knows it but doesn’t know what it is. Libby’s keeping something important from her, but she doesn’t know what that is, either. It’s only when the blowup actually happens that we – and Nora – finally understand why it needed to happen. AND why it had to reach such a huge boiling point so that Nora could finally hear it instead of trying to fix it. That what it’s about is so very real was a big part of why this book was just so damn good.

This is a story with not just one beating heart for the romance, but actually two – one for the romance and one for their sisterhood. It gives the story the kind of balance that it needs to make it work. Because Nora can’t be truly happy unless things are alright with Libby, which can’t happen until Nora stops playing “mom” so she can just live being “sister”.

And then there’s the romance. As much as the romance in this story doesn’t fit a lot of the usual tropes as Nora describes them early on, it does fall very nicely into the enemies to lovers trope. Not that Nora and Charlie Lastra ever were truly enemies. They’re not rivals or competitors in any way. They just met on what turned out to be a terrible day for each of them. Every single word of their entire conversation wasn’t heard without being filtered through their respective miseries. They gave each other good snark but just couldn’t get past their own admittedly terrible crap to see the person on the other side of the table.

Two years later, unbeknownst to each other, in the middle of trips that they’ve each been separately strong-armed into, they run into each other in the tiny town of Sunshine Falls, NC, to discover that their enmity isn’t really all that strong, but their bantering snarkitude is excellent.

It’s not every couple who gets to say they bonded over truly terrible Bigfoot erotica. But when you’re both book lovers, the bad ones are THE MOST FUN to giggle over. Together. (If there’s any truly great Bigfoot erotica I doubt that either of them would want to know. And neither do I.)

I loved Book Lovers very, very hard. Which means I’m now very much looking forward to the author’s next romance with relationships story, Happy Place. It’s coming in April so happily I don’t have that long to wait!

Review: City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita

Review: City Under One Roof by Iris YamashitaCity Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on January 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stranded detective tries to solve a murder in a tiny Alaskan town where everyone lives in a single high-rise building, in this gripping debut by an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter.
When a local teenager discovers a severed hand and foot washed up on the shore of the small town of Point Mettier, Alaska, Cara Kennedy is on the case. A detective from Anchorage, she has her own motives for investigating the possible murder in this isolated place, which can be accessed only by a tunnel.
After a blizzard causes the tunnel to close indefinitely, Cara is stuck among the odd and suspicious residents of the town—all 205 of whom live in the same high-rise building and are as icy as the weather. Cara teams up with Point Mettier police officer Joe Barkowski, but before long the investigation is upended by fearsome gang members from a nearby native village.
Haunted by her past, Cara soon discovers that everyone in this town has something to hide. Will she be able to unravel their secrets before she unravels?"

My Review:

When teenage resident Amy Lin finds hacked off human body parts along the shore, it’s more than a bit gruesome but it’s not exactly unusual. It is for Amy personally, but not in the grand scheme of life on the Last Frontier. “Death by Alaska” is a real phenomenon, where people die by doing stupid things that might be survivable in the Lower 48 but just are not in a place where humans are often the prey of both the wildlife and the weather.

(We lived in Anchorage for three years. Reading a newspaper story about a missing person identified through bear scat was not an uncommon occurrence.)

Amy and a group of her friends only found one hand and one foot encased in a boot. Not enough to identify or to determine cause of death. It looked like death by misadventure, part of a string of such cases washing up on shore up and down the coast.

But Anchorage PD Detective Cara Kennedy looks at the report and sees something that might be a link to the tragic deaths of her husband and young son just the year before. She heads to Point Mettier with her scene of crime investigation kit to see the actual scenes of the crime and interview the people involved in this case that everyone in Point Mettier believes is open and shut and dead and buried.

Just like the case of Cara’s family.

Cara’s investigation throws a gigantic monkey wrench into what “everybody knew”. First she finds the dead man’s head, buried in a local woman’s barn. Now the local two-man (literally) police department has something that can be identified as well as a clear cause of death. Somebody shot whoever-he-was.

Now everyone wants to see the back of Cara after she’s just reopened this truly messy can of worms (not that worms have actually gotten to the head in the middle of an Alaska winter). Cara wants to put Point Mettier in her rearview mirror, believing that this case, as terrible and terribly confusing as it might be, has no relationship to her family’s deaths.

But the tunnel has been closed by a raging storm, and Cara is forced to remain in Point Mettier with all those people she’s just seriously pissed off – and most likely a murderer as well. If not a whole damn conspiracy of people who are never going to trust the outsider stuck in their midst.

Their distrust may be justified, but in their collective desire to keep Cara in the dark it becomes clear that something, or someone, is hiding in that darkness as well – and that they are way more dangerous than anyone wants to believe.

Escape Rating A-: There’s a real “City Under One Roof” – Whittier, Alaska. Which is intended to sound a lot like Point Mettier, Alaska, the setting of the story. If it all sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because there were several stories about it on TV after one of the residents posted a series of TikTok videos about life in Whittier that went viral in 2021.

While Point Mettier is explicitly NOT Whittier, it does sit in the same geographic position as the real town, has the same weather, and the same single-point of access via a tunnel that shuts down at night and when the weather gets really awful. So it isn’t the real place exactly, but perhaps its twin. Not its evil twin, but absolutely a twin where evil happens.

Which leads back around to this mystery thriller. Just follow Denny the moose as he’s led around town on his leash.

Although Cara certainly finds a lot more clues by following Denny’s person, Lonnie – including that sawed off head that kicks the whole case into gear – frozen or otherwise.

As unusual as the Point Mettier setting is, the mystery has a lot of the hallmarks of a more typical small-town mystery even if Point Mettier is not exactly a typical small town. Because in some ways it still very much is.

The 300 permanent residents all know each other, whether they like each other or not on any given day, week, or month. They literally live in each other’s pockets, think they know of all each other’s secrets, and certainly are entirely too familiar with each other’s quirks and foibles. They are also all up in each other’s business whether they want to be or not.

So it’s not a surprise, either to Cara or to the reader, that the local residents are keeping all kinds of secrets from the outsider. It’s not implausible that there’s a coverup going on, whether of the murder, of the disposal of the corpse, of something illegal but completely unrelated, or all of the above. Cara knows there are secrets, and is sure she’s going to have to watch and wait and hope that someone will finally trust her enough to let her in on the ones she needs to know before the killer strikes again.

What she finds isn’t what she expected – but if it was there wouldn’t be much of a story. And there most definitely is a compelling story. While there is much about Point Mettier that strikes similar chords to other small town mysteries, the claustrophobic, isolated nature of Point Mettier added plenty of unique twists and turns every single shivering step of the way to whodunnit.

One of the things that I both really enjoyed about the story and that drove me a bit crazy as it was happening was just how much of the story is wrapped around Cara simply getting to know the residents. It was necessary but it was also more than a bit of the showcase of the quirky. Everyone had a personal secret, everyone seemed to be marching to the beat of a drummer who was marching out of step with the outside world but really in tune locally. It seemed like Point Mettier had become a haven for people who didn’t quite fit into even the rest of Alaska, which itself is a bit of an off the beaten path place to live.

I particularly liked the way that the mystery managed to both hinge on the kind of outsider that everyone in a small town mystery WANTS to have been the perpetrator while at the same time also feeding into the whole small town covers each other’s secrets trope. That was particularly well done.

On my other hand, I’m not totally sure the slow burn romance between Cara and one of the local cops was completely necessary. The story was plenty compelling without wondering will they/won’t they.

And very much on my third, possibly frostbitten, hand, the explosive revelation at the end leaves the door open for more mysteries featuring Cara Kennedy as the detective – even if Point Mettier isn’t the setting. There’s plenty of room for another female detective in Alaska like Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak (start with A Cold Day for Murder). I’ll be very curious to see if Cara Kennedy will be back, and in the meantime I think I’ll check out what Kate has been up to.

Review: Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire

Review: Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuireLost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #8
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on January 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A young girl discovers an infinite variety of worlds in this standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Wayward Children series from Seanan McGuire, Lost in the Moment and Found.
Welcome to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go.

If you ever lost a sock, you’ll find it here.If you ever wondered about favorite toy from childhood... it’s probably sitting on a shelf in the back.And the headphones that you swore that this time you’d keep safe? You guessed it….
Antoinette has lost her father. Metaphorically. He’s not in the shop, and she’ll never see him again. But when Antsy finds herself lost (literally, this time), she finds that however many doors open for her, leaving the Shop for good might not be as simple as it sounds.
And stepping through those doors exacts a price.
Lost in the Moment and Found tells us that childhood and innocence, once lost, can never be found.

My Review:

If you’ve ever wondered where the odd socks or the missing Tupperware lids go, well, that’s where Antsy finds herself on the other side of that door. The Shop Where the Lost Things Go. Which is completely, totally and utterly appropriate, because Antsy is certainly lost herself. And has lost herself, along with some things that she wasn’t aware of, like her belief that adults would keep her safe, along with her innocence of all the horrors the world has to offer.

In that shop she finds two “people”, the intelligent magpie Hudson and the old woman Vineta. She also finds safety, purpose and the joy of discovery, not just by helping in the shop but by venturing out into all the new doors that open every morning leading out of the shop to worlds of wonder.

It’s a good, happy, fulfilling life. It’s the life she might have chosen for herself, if only she knew it was available to choose. But she thinks she’s paying for her safety and her happiness, along with her room and board, through her work in the shop AND in venturing through the various doors to help keep it stocked.

And she is. But not in the way that she believes she is. Perhaps in a way she might have chosen anyway – perhaps not. But the choice was taken away from her because the magic of the Doors didn’t want her to know – and knows just how to punish her when she discovers the terrible truth.

Escape Rating A-: Considering that the author spoils this in an Author’s Note at the very front of the book, I don’t feel at all bad about doing it here as well. Because honestly, if she hadn’t told me up front that Antsy was going to rescue herself from the grooming, gaslighting monster in her own house I wouldn’t have made it through the first chapter.

Other strange, wondrous and terrible things happen to Antsy after she gets herself through that door marked “Be Sure”, but that particular horror is NOT among them. After all, this is a book about the Wayward Children and many of those children have passed through some very dark places. Antsy will not be an exception.

But be both warned and reassured – she will get herself out of that first, most terrible place. And all the terrible and wonderful things that happen to her in the story are able to happen because she was able to get herself out and onto the road that leads her to this story.

Antsy’s story is about everything having a price, a realization that is part of everyone’s loss of innocence. At seven, as Antsy is when she steps through that door, while her loss of some innocence is what made her run in the first place, she’s still naive enough not to realize that prices can be levied even when one is not aware that a bargain has been struck.

For an adult, the price of most things is often simply that we never get to know what might have been down the road less taken or the other leg of the trousers of time. Some costs are more explicit, whether it’s the choice of a profession of service that may cost one’s life, a decision to or not to have children, or even the famous one posited by Benjamin Franklin, that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” But we generally know the bargain we’re making when we make it – or at least we think we do.

When Antsy opens the door to The Shop Where the Lost Things Go, and starts opening all the fascinating doors that open within the shop to all those fascinating places, she too is making a bargain and paying a price for it. But she’s only seven years old, she’s lost, alone and scared, and not nearly savvy enough to understand that the price she’s paying may or may not be something she’s willing to give.

But it’s not an unknown price. Both Vineta and Hudson are perfectly aware of what Antsy is giving away, even though she is not. They are all too aware that they are using her for their own purposes – and choose not to tell her, not even when she matures enough to understand.

In a way, the woman and the bird are using Antsy just as much as someone in her original world intended to use her. Which intent was worse or more heinous is one the reader will have to decide for themselves.

What’s fascinating about Antsy’s trip through the Doors is the way that the Doors are revealed to be much closer to full sentience than was apparent in the earlier stories. Antsy’s door took her to the Shop because that’s where the Doors wanted her to go. And they’ve deliberately obscured her awareness of what’s happening to her because the Doors want her to stay – no matter what it will cost her.

That they have the wherewithal to punish her when she tries to break free is a shock – both to Antsy and to the reader. It makes us rethink some of the events of the previous books in the series and quite possibly makes the whole thing more dark and even less of a lark than it previously appeared to be.

Which won’t stop me from reading the next book in the series, still untitled but scheduled for publication next January. In the meantime, I still have one previous book to read, Come Tumbling Down, and quite possibly a re-read of the whole marvelous thing now that I know a whole lot more about the Doors and their universe work – although I’m certain there’s more to discover.

This award winning series began with Every Heart a Doorway, which means it starts at the end of a whole bunch of the Wayward Children’s stories. Lost in the Moment and Found ends in the place if not the time where that story begins, and would be a perfect place to get into the series if you haven’t already found your way to the reading door that leads to it. Wherever you begin, it’s an awfully wonderful journey, particularly in the sense that it is chock-full of both awe and wonder.

Review: Breaking the Circle by M. J. Trow

Review: Breaking the Circle by M. J. TrowBreaking the Circle (Margaret Murray, #2) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Margaret Murray #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Turn-of-the-century archaeologist-sleuth Margaret Murray returns for the second in her captivating historical mystery series.

'Famous Sensitive Found Dead. Police Baffled.'

May, 1905. When one medium turns up dead, the police assume it is a robbery gone wrong, but when another is found obviously murdered, it's clear there's a killer on the loose!

Dr Margaret Murray, accomplished archaeologist and occasional sleuth, calls upon her police connections to investigate; who wants to see the mediums of London dead? Known for her sharp mind and quick wit, Margaret decides to infiltrate one of the spiritualist circles to narrow down the list of suspects.

Her tactics seem to be working as she accidentally puts herself in the sights of the murderer. Unperturbed, Margaret sets an elaborate trap to uncover the culprit - but can she untangle the trail of clues before she too, passes beyond the veil?

My Review:

While the victims of this particular murder spree may be a bit more “out there” in terms of their belief in spiritualism, Margaret Murray’s participation in the investigation isn’t quite as far-fetched here as it was in her first outing, Four Thousand Days.

In that first book it seemed like Murray and her colleagues came together to solve the mystery by a combination of friendship, happenstance and curiosity. This time, while it’s the same band of amateur and professional detectives, the investigation begins deliberately – if still a bit haphazardly. (How the band first got together may be a bit haphazard but their investigation is NOT.)

A woman is dead, having drowned in her mulligatawny soup. It could have been natural causes, but that doesn’t explain what an entire blackbird’s feather was doing in her mouth when she was found. Chicken may be a source of protein for the dish, but blackbird most definitely is not. Nor would it place a whole feather in the mouth AFTER the victim’s death.

But that victim was no one important, and the police seem to have wanted an easy solution. That she was a practicing – if quite possibly fraudulent – spirit medium made the whole thing just that much more distasteful. The inquest ruled the death as natural causes and closed the door on it.

At least until a second spirit medium turned up dead, this time poisoned with cyanide, with the Tarot card of The Hanged Man crushed in the victim’s hand.

That reopens the official case, and brings Detective Sergeant Andrew Crawford and retired Inspector Edmund Reid back to Professor Margaret Murray’s door – which has moved to the Flinders Petrie Museum at University College (now the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology) in the five years since their previous case. (That gap in time means that you don’t REALLY need to read the first book first, but if this one sounds like your jam it’s every bit as good!)

It’s looking like a serial killer is stalking psychics in London. And yes, someone does make the obvious joke that they should have seen it coming. Setting that witticism aside, Crawford has a bit of a problem. He needs an insider to learn if there were tensions among the various sensitive circles that might have led to murder. But that community skews overwhelmingly female, especially among the active participants. He needs a woman to infiltrate that community, but there were, as yet, no women in the police. (WPCs didn’t begin serving until after WW1)

And that’s where Margaret comes directly into his case, literally, posing as a psychic and getting an inside look at the circle where the first victim was a member. The police are still searching for a motive for the killings when the killer turns from poison to blunt force trauma, killing one woman by beating her to death with her own crystal ball.

Now Margaret is in the thick of it. All she’ll need to do is hatch an out-of-the-box scheme to catch the killer without putting herself into a box – or a coffin.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this series work, at least for this reader, is the voice of its protagonist Dr. Margaret Murray. Not just because she was a real person – as were both Flinders Petrie and Edmund Reid, but because she led the kind of life, had the type of career, and left behind the writing to make the adventures that her fictional avatar gets herself into seem not just plausible but even possible.

On the page she may seem like a voice from the 21st century, but there is more than enough evidence that she was a woman of her own time with the kind of history and personality that makes her easy to identify with now. She was a feminist before it was ‘cool’, and then not so cool, and then cool again, and not again and left behind the body of work to prove it.

Which makes her dry wit and trenchant observations on being a professional woman in a man’s world all that much more fascinating as well as both rueful and even funny although they all too frequently still ring true.

The mystery that Murray is in the middle of is more than a bit ‘out there’ and not just because the victims are into looking ‘behind the veil’ and other euphemisms for attempting to speak to the dead. Even if the professionals among them are mostly fleecing people by attempting to speak to the dead. Some of the practitioners and their adherents really do believe – whether we do or not.

The whole case is a fascinating puzzle, all the more so because it takes place at the dawn of modern forensics. Fingerprints are just being accepted as valid evidence, and photography of crime scenes is just beginning to come into its own.

Most of the investigation of this crime involves human factors rather than early 20th century technology, but we also see a bit of the human factors from the police perspective as well. The initial reluctance to take up the case because of the victim’s profession being a case in point.

Howsomever, it’s Margaret Murray that we follow, and she’s just fascinating in an understated and dry-witted way. She’s looking into the people, both the spiritualists and the victims, to see where there might be means, motive and opportunity for murder. That she discovers she’s been barking up the wrong tree but still manages to right herself in the end gives the mystery the twist that it needs to ramp the tension up and to bring it back down to its justified conclusion.

She’s also creating a rather eclectic group of colleagues around herself. Not just Crawford and Reid, both policemen by trade and training, but also Thomas the proprietor of the local cafe – and reformed thief, and Dr. William Flinders Petrie himself, who was her real-life mentor but is also her lover. (Whether that last bit is also history or just fictional we may never know).

But I’m reading this series for Dr. Margaret Murray. I had a fantastic time with her in Breaking the Circle – every bit as much as I did in the first book in her series, and hope that she has as long a career as an amateur detective as she did in real life!

Review: Courting Dragons by Jeri Westerson

Review: Courting Dragons by Jeri WestersonCourting Dragons (A King's Fool mystery, 1) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: King's Fool #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on Publication date January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Introducing Will Somers, the king's jester but nobody's fool in this exuberant, intriguing and thoroughly entertaining mystery set in Tudor England – the first in a new series from the author of the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series.

1529, London. Jester Will Somers enjoys an enviable position at the court of Henry VIII. As the king's entertainer, chief gossip-monger, spy and loyal adviser, he knows all of the king's secrets – and almost everyone else's within the walls of Greenwich Palace.

But when Will discovers the body of Spanish count Don Gonzalo while walking his trusted sidekick Nosewise in the courtyard gardens, and a blackmail note arrives soon after demanding information about the king, is one of his own closely guarded secrets about to be exposed? Trouble is afoot at the palace. Are the king's enemies plotting a move against him? Will must draw on all his wit and ingenuity to get to the bottom of the treacherous and deadly goings-on at the court before further tragedy strikes . . .

My Review:

Henry VIII was always a towering, larger-than-life figure, even before he became the obese caricature of himself that has become the popular image of him. Just as he loomed large over the life of his court and everyone in it, so too he dominates this historical mystery told from, not Henry’s point of view, but through the eyes of his fool, or court jester, William Somers.

Who was every bit as real a person – whether or not he resembles the character in this story – as the king he served.

If you remember the old doggerel, “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived” as a way of tracking Henry VIII’s six wives, this story takes place in 1529, in the midst of the long and ultimately futile negotiations between Henry and Pope Clement VII in regards to that first divorce, sometimes referred to as the King’s Great Matter.

Which it most certainly was.

So the court is in ferment, divided between the rapidly waning star of the old queen, Catherine of Aragon, and the woman who will be the next queen, Anne Boleyn. Tension is everywhere among the usual cutthroat jockeying for favor and position that was always an integral part of serving in the King’s court.

Will Somers, the king’s fool, has been among Henry’s closest companions since he had arrived in court several years before. Somers was the one person who could, by the very nature of his position, go anywhere, talk to anyone, walk in and out of the King’s apartments, and generally do as he pleased as long as he was always available when the King called for him.

Somers is perfectly placed to find himself in the role of amateur detective when that metaphorically cutthroat jockeying results in the actual cut throat of one of the Spanish ambassador’s attendants.

That the bisexual Somers had spent the previous night with the dead man only adds to his distress. Someone he genuinely cared for is dead, and a thorough investigation could discover Will’s own clandestine behavior. He wants justice – and he needs to protect himself.

In the midst of the King’s Great Matter, with the Spanish on one side and his King on the other, the crime could also have political implications. Somers will have to tread carefully, but still poke his, or his dog’s, nose into every nook and cranny to find the killer – even while that killer is stalking him and those he holds dear.

The Family of Henry VIII (c. 1545), unknown artist. Left to right: ‘Mother Jak’, Lady Mary, Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour (posthumous), Lady Elizabeth and Will Somers. Oil on canvas, 141 x 355 cm. Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey

Escape Rating A-: Hybrid genres like historical mystery have to achieve a balance between the two genres being blended. In the case of historical mystery that means that the historical setting has to feel authentic and the mystery has to be puzzling and fit the conventions for solving the crime that has taken place.

Courting Dragons is one of those historical mysteries where the reader is dropped right into the historical period from the first page, and where the history that wraps around it is integral to the plot – even though it can’t change any of the known historical facts. (For anyone who remembers the movie or the play, Anne of the Thousand Days, Courting Dragons read a LOT like returning to that setting and characters.)

So one of the reasons that I loved Courting Dragons was because I saw that movie in 1969 – I was twelve – and fell in love with the entire Tudor Period, warts and all. Going back was a delight. Howsomever, I read a lot in the period after I saw the movie and was familiar with the historical background.

Courting Dragons read like that balance between the history and the mystery was weighted towards the history, to the point where unless you are either familiar with the period, or enjoy learning a surprising amount of detail about a period with which you are not well acquainted, you need to be aware that the historical setting and tensions of Courting Dragons dominate the mystery. As I said, I loved it but your reading mileage may vary.

It does take a while for the mystery to get itself going, because there is just so much to learn and explore about life at court and Will’s circumstances within it. Which are fascinating but may not be what you read mysteries for.

There was one bit of the story that niggled more than a bit. It doesn’t feel inaccurate, but it was jarring to a 21st century reader all the same. And that involves Will’s relationship with the king. On the one hand, Will is utterly financially dependent on his work. He has a relatively high place for someone of low birth, but it can be snatched away at any time – and so can his life. He is the one person who can tell the king “No” and not get killed for it. He can needle the king about matters, such as his divorce, that the king doesn’t want to hear contradicted in any way. But he has to be careful of how much and how far he goes all the time. Very much on the other hand, in the book it is clear that Will is the king’s man through and through, and actually loves him in a way that seems a lot like the way that Sam Gamgee looked up to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Or the way that slavery proponents claimed that slaves felt about their slavemasters. It may be the way things actually were, but it still disconcerts.

So, if you like your historical mystery to dive deeply into the historical milieu in which it is set – or if you are just plain fascinated with the Tudors, Courting Dragons is a terrific mix of royal history and rotten murder. Will Somers, and his master Henry VIII, will be back in The Lioness Stumbles, hopefully this time next year!

Review: Sleep No More by Jayne Ann Krentz

Review: Sleep No More by Jayne Ann KrentzSleep No More by Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Lost Night Files #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Seven months ago, Pallas Llewellyn, Talia March, and Amelia Rivers were strangers, until their fateful stay at the Lucent Springs Hotel. An earthquake and a fire partially destroyed the hotel, but the women have no memory of their time there. Now close friends, the three women co-host a podcast called the Lost Night Files, where they investigate cold cases and hope to connect with others who may have had a similar experience to theirs—an experience that has somehow enhanced the psychic abilities already present in each woman.

After receiving a tip for their podcast, Pallas travels to the small college town of Carnelian, California, to explore an abandoned asylum. Shaken by the dark energy she feels in the building, she is rushing out when she’s stopped by a dark figure—who turns out to be the women's mysterious tipster.

Ambrose Drake is certain he’s a witness to a murder, but without a body, everyone thinks he’s having delusions caused by extreme sleep deprivation. But Ambrose is positive something terrible happened at the Carnelian Sleep Institute the night he was there. Unable to find proof on his own, he approaches Pallas for help, only for her to realize that Ambrose, too, has a lost night that he can’t remember—one that may be connected to Pallas. Pallas and Ambrose conduct their investigation using the podcast as a cover, and while the townsfolk are eager to share what they know, it turns out there are others who are not so happy about their questions—and someone is willing to kill to keep the truth from coming out.

My Review:

Our story begins before it begins. Seven months before, specifically. Three women, Pallas Llewellyn, Talia March and Amelia Rivers, complete strangers to each other, were all invited to the Lucent Springs Hotel for a meeting about restoring the old hotel in this quaint California town. They were woken in the morning – not by a wake up call or an alarm – but by an earthquake. There was hospital equipment all around them, the hotel was on fire, and not a single one of them had any memory of the evening before after entering the hotel.

Officials chalked it up to a girls’ night out party ending in a drunken blackout. But those three women knew that wasn’t the case. They had all undergone a traumatic experience, they all had transient global amnesia (yes, it really does exist) about the events, and they all had their various forms of ‘strong intuition’ ramped up to the point of being honest-to-goodness psychic powers.

They banded together to search for the truth about what happened to them, starting their podcast, The Lost Night Files, to investigate their own and other people’s experiences of having lost a night – or more – to an experience they can’t remember and can’t explain.

And all of their collective families are sure they’ve each gone a bit off the deep end – but they have each other.

Ambrose Drake looks into The Lost Night Files because his experience mirrors theirs. He went to a meeting, has no recollection of the entire night it was supposed to happen, woke up in the morning to discover there were no records of the people or organization that invited him. And his own ‘intuition’ suddenly ramped up to eleven. Alone, he was coping so badly that his family staged an intervention and sent him to have his resulting extreme insomnia studied at a sleep disorder clinic – where he believes he witnessed a murder.

Ambrose needs help, and Pallas Llewellyn and her friends are just the right people to help him. At least once Pallas and Ambrose get past their mutual distrust. After all, they’ve each dealt with plenty of crazies on their way to this rather precarious point in their lives. To survive, they’ll have to learn to trust each other.

Or they won’t survive at all.

Escape Rating A-: The fascinating thing about this very fun read is that it is very much a three-pronged story, and all those prongs come together to hold a rather lovely gem of a book.

The author’s trademark blend of paranormal vibes and psychic powers forms what initially seems like a backdrop to the whole thing. Ambrose, as well as Pallas and her friends, all have some sort of strong intuition that they have mostly kept to themselves – because in the 21st century people who claim to read auras or rebalance energies are generally considered crackpots.

And no one wants THAT on their resume.

(Long time readers of the ‘Jayneverse’ may wonder if this book links up to her vast, sprawling Arcane Society series. The answer is probably, yes, eventually, but at the moment that link is tangential. There’s a tiny, explicit reference to Burning Cove (series begins with The Girl Who Knew Too Much) but it’s a blink and you’ll miss it and doesn’t affect anything in the book in hand at this point.)

The second prong holding the gem is, of course, the slow-burning romance between Pallas and Ambrose. And it’s appropriately slow burn because they don’t initially trust each other one little bit. But they’re stuck together in a rather dangerous ‘foxhole’ and they have to develop that trust in order to, for one thing, just get through the night.

(There’s another form of amnesia, Korsakoff’s syndrome, that results from extremes of alcoholism or malnutrition. Ambrose is courting this version with a combination of insomnia and complete loss of appetite. Honestly, he’s a mess.)

But the third prong was the hook for me. As many vibes and auras surround Pallas and Ambrose, it really seems like the motives for everything that happens to them in the story itself are rather mundane criminal activities even if they are conducted at higher stakes than usual. It seems like the events that brought them to Carnelian California all revolve around people behaving badly because of money and then covering it up. Following the money is a tried and true investigative principle for damn good reasons, after all.

And just when you think that’s where the story is going – the bottom drops out and it all gets just so much bigger that I can’t wait to see where The Lost Night Files goes from here. Hopefully this time next year if not a bit sooner? But first we’ll be taking a trip back to Burning Cove this May in The Bride Wore White.

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie BlakeThe Atlas Six (The Atlas, #1) by Olivie Blake
Narrator: Andy Ingalls, Caitlin Kelly, Damian Lynch, David Monteith, James Patrick Cronin, Munirih Grace, Siho Ellsmore, Steve West
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, fantasy
Series: Atlas #1
Pages: 384
Length: 16 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alexandrian Society is a secret society of magical academicians, the best in the world. Their members are caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity. And those who earn a place among their number will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams. Each decade, the world’s six most uniquely talented magicians are selected for initiation – and here are the chosen few...

- Libby Rhodes and Nicolás Ferrer de Varona: inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds.
- Reina Mori: a naturalist who can speak the language of life itself.
- Parisa Kamali: a mind reader whose powers of seduction are unmatched.
- Tristan Caine: the son of a crime kingpin who can see the secrets of the universe.
- Callum Nova: an insanely rich pretty boy who could bring about the end of the world. He need only ask.

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they must spend one year together to qualify for initiation. During this time, they will be permitted access to the Society’s archives and judged on their contributions to arcane areas of knowledge. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. If they can prove themselves to be the best, they will survive. Most of them.

My Review:

This dive into the inner workings of a very dark academia begins with Atlas Blakely, Caretaker of the Alexandrian Society, visiting the six most powerful mages of their generation and making each of them an offer that they can refuse – although he knows that none of them will.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and they all know it. Even if, at the beginning, they don’t realize that it will absolutely be the end of at least one of theirs.

In this alternate version of our world, magic has taken the place of science, and is treated, studied, and advanced much as science is in the world we know. Magic has created the equivalent, if not the better, of the technologies that power our world. Magic is known, it is respected, and it is feared.

Magic is power every bit as much, if in a somewhat different way, as power is magic.

Those six powerful mages are being recruited to join the Alexandrian Society, the secret inheritors of the knowledge and power that was once held in and by the Great Library of Alexandria. Membership in the Society confers prestige, which, on top of their already considerable magical power, is certain to bring them wealth and yet more earthly power as well.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every powerful and secret society, there is at least one, if not two or six, rivals searching for a way to take that power and add it to their own.

The six mages who have been recruited by Atlas Blakely have one year to suss out all the secrets held by the Society, by its enigmatic caretaker, and by each other. It’s not enough time to even scratch the surface of that labyrinth.

But it’s all that one of them has left.

Escape Rating B: I have extremely mixed feelings about The Atlas Six. So mixed that the blender of my feelings hasn’t stopped whirling even a week after I finished the damn thing.

At the top of the column labeled ‘good’ feelings, the book is compelling as hell. Once the story gets past Libby and Nico’s barely post-adolescent sniping and swiping at each other, the whole thing is off to the races in a way that both commands and demands the reader’s attention.

I finished at 4 o’clock in the damn morning because I just couldn’t put it down – and when I tried it gnawed at me until I picked it back up again. Over and over until finally I fell out at the end, as exhausted and spent as the characters.

Howsomever, at the top of the column labeled ‘bad’ feelings is the fact that not a single one of these characters is on the side of the angels. There ARE NO angels here. There are no innocents to serve as heartbreaking collateral damage. Saying that no one is any better than they ought to be doesn’t nearly cover it. More like they are all worse than each other in a Möbius strip of turning their backs on anything that could be classified as “light” and diving straight for the bottom.

If you need to like at least one character to follow a story, even if that character is an anti-hero rather than a hero or a lovable or even just a redeemable rogue, there is absolutely no one in this story who remotely qualifies. Every single character, even the ones that at the beginning you might think will turn out to be a bit corrupt but not too awful, seems to have had their moral compass surgically removed at birth or shortly thereafter.

At the same time, for most of its length The Atlas Six seems to sit squarely on the intersection between “power corrupts” and “some gifts come at just too high a price.” And those certainly are elements of the story. But, just as we think we know what’s going on, the centrality of those two tropes is knocked off that center. Or rather, we learn that believing that those are the central tenets also centers characters who may not actually be IN that center.

Which admittedly does ramp up the tension VERY dramatically for the second book in the series, The Atlas Paradox. Which, thank goodness – or more likely badness in this case – is already out so I’ll be starting it as soon as I recuperate from the first book.

The thing is that I’m not sure there’s anything honestly new in The Atlas Six. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, it’s stomach turning at points, but the whole corruption of dark academia thing is not exactly new under the sun. (Recent examples include Babel by R.F. Kuang, and The Scholomance by Naomi Novik to name just a couple). For this reader, the way that all the arcs, at least so far, are trending so deeply downwards means that I’ll be diving into the second book more to see just how far down into hell these people and this situation can go. I suspect it’s pretty damn far. I don’t actually care about ANY of the characters.

So, if you need to like someone, anyone in a story to want to make your way to its end, The Atlas Six may not do it for you as a reader. I’m very much of two minds about the whole thing.

Howsomever, while I may have had a ton of mixed feelings about the story, but absolutely none whatsoever about the full cast narration. The way the book was narrated was truly what both made it possible for me to read and compelled me to finish. The perspective on the events is batted around between seven first person narrators, the Atlas Six themselves plus Libby Rhodes’ boyfriend Ezra Fowler. In the narration, the actor changed when the perspective did, and the actors did a fantastic job of making each other their characters distinct and easy to recognize.

Because voice acting fascinates me, and this group did such a damn good job of it (and because I had to do a fair bit of digging and listening to figure out who played who), here’s almost the full cast list: (I think I got this right but if I didn’t or if someone knows who Damien Lynch voiced PLEASE let me know)

-Libby Rhodes voiced by Caitlin Kelly
-Nico de Varona voiced by James Patrick Cronin
-Reina Mori voiced by Siho Ellsmore
-Parisa Kamali voiced by Munirih Grace
-Tristan Caine voiced by David Monteith
-Callum Nova voiced by Steve West
-Ezra Fowler voiced by Andy Ingalls

One of the reasons that I plan to listen to the second book, The Atlas Paradox, just as I did The Atlas Six is because this stellar cast is returning for the second book, along with three additional players whose identities I have yet to discover.

However I end up feeling about the second book, even if those feelings turn out to be as mixed as they were for this one, I already know the performance is going to be riveting.

Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu MandannaThe Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family--and a new love--changes the course of her life.
As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don't mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she's used to being alone and she follows the rules...with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.
But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and...Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he's concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.
As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn't the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn't know she was looking for....

My Review:

What would happen if people discovered that there really were witches in the world, and that magic really did work – if only for a privileged few? Most of the urban fantasy/paranormal stories that use this premise in the world we know tend to look at how witches were treated historically – whether the women (and it was almost always women) – who got burned, stoned or drowned could actually practice magic or not and take the Harry Potter option of a Statute of Secrecy or equivalent prohibitions.

It’s not an unreasonable fear. Even without the possibility of witchcraft, humans already find plenty of reasons to persecute each other over perceived differences that mostly total up to some people hate and fear others and will latch on to any excuse to practice that hate in the hopes of putting that fear to sleep. People who are different because they have actual, real, mysterious powers? The line to pick up torches and pitchforks forms on the right. Please maintain an orderly queue.

In The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, the witches in question, irregular or otherwise, have taken that very reasonable fear and run a bit too far with it. Pretty much running away from each other into the mixed results at best bargain.

Mika Moon is a witch. And she’s lonely. She is forced to live a secret, and fears staying anywhere long enough to put down roots or develop friendships for fear that if people get to know her they’ll figure out what she’s hiding. Or they’ll simply decide that she’s just not worth their time, their care or their friendship.

Her entire life is a sad song of just not being enough to make anyone want to stay. Unless, of course, they have a USE for her powers.

So she’s sure that the advertisement she’s seen on the interwebs, that someone is searching very specifically for a witch, is probably a scam of some kind – at best. Howsomever, between losing her most recent job, not having enough money to pay rent and feeling like it’s time to move on from her current location, Mika is at loose ends.

The job, if it really exists, comes with room and board – along with the mystery of why someone is looking so specifically for something and someone that isn’t supposed to exist. That the location of this puzzling offer is called “Nowhere House” adds to the sensation that Mika is probably being pranked.

At least until she gets there, and meets the job head on. Three little witches, all gathered together in a way that Mika’s been taught is never supposed to happen, need an adult witch to teach them how to do magic. And more importantly, how and when NOT to do it.

Mika’s never been a teacher before. She’s been taught that witches are NEVER supposed to gather together – and certainly never to practice magic together. But the girls need her, and Mika needs a refuge where, for once in her life she can be exactly who and what she is without having to keep so many secrets.

That the adults in the house all know about magic, and seem to have a Mika-shaped hole in their lives and their hearts is the icing on a cake that Mika never thought she’d even get to taste.

Everything about Nowhere House seems like it’s made of magic. The answer that Mika has to discover for herself is whether or not it’s real – or just another illusion.

Escape Rating A-: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches was absolutely charming – and I was utterly charmed by it. It’s a heartwarming read with just the right touch of magic to keep you turning pages, both to be part of this wonderful if extremely irregular household and to see what happens next.

It’s also a story that sits very comfortably on the border between cozy fantasy, paranormal romance and relationship fiction, snuggled right next to The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – with both Witch, Please by Ann Aguirre and Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck looking on with stern disapproval.

By that I mean that the magical household is centered around the care of the children, in this case the three young witches. Their caretakers are not magical themselves, but they obviously love the children very much, and have gone more than a bit overboard in protecting them. They are, for the most part, an utterly delightful gang, including the young, grumpy librarian, Jamie, while the madcap Ian felt more than a bit like an homage to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, particularly in his later incarnation as “The Curator”.

And just as in The House in the Cerulean Sea, there is more than the possibility of a romantic relationship in the air – which Ian is delightfully encouraging with mad abandon – to the consternation of Jamie, Mika and his own husband Ken.

But amongst the joy of Mika finding her place in the world, the girls learning magic and the adults making an eclectic but warm and loving home for the children and each other, there are clouds on the horizon. Just as in Witch, Please and Small Town, Big Magic, the forces of official witchdom, in the persons of the elderly ladies who have overshadowed Mika’s life as a witch from childhood, are ever present as the voice in Mika’s head telling her that everything she is doing is wrong and will be punished. Severely. Because she is breaking ALL THE RULES.

At the same time, it’s obvious fairly early on that a secret is looming over the entire household, and that secret, with all of its accompanying chickens, must come to roost before the story can reach anything like a happy ending.

So the Sword of Damocles casts a long shadow over everything – at least until it crashes down and cuts through all the hidden issues and agendas, including all the secrets standing in the way of pretty much everything. And, while it may seem like everything wraps up just a bit too neatly, by this point in our investment in the story that’s kind of what we want.

And in the end, that happy ever after, for the girls, for Mika and Jamie, and quite possibly, eventually, for witches everywhere, is utterly magical.

Review: The Gingerbread Cat by Stephanie Osborn

Review: The Gingerbread Cat by Stephanie OsbornThe Gingerbread Cat by Stephanie Osborn
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: holiday fiction
Pages: 52
Published by Stephanie Osborn on December 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Santa's cat, the Gingerbread Cat, has been around as long as Santa and knows a few things; a magical cat, he's one of Santa's oldest and most important helpers.

So when Ginger tells the elves a story about one Nikolai Kristoffsen and his involvement with the Magi at the first Christmas, there's more in the story than meets the eye.

How did Kristoffsen find the Anointed Child? What is his relationship to Santa? And how did the Gingerbread Cat help?

My Review:

It’s all the cat’s fault. Both in the story and that I’m reading the story. I don’t read a lot of Xmas stories, but, well, it’s all about the cat and told from the cat’s perspective. And I read it on Xmas Day. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But about this story, it’s also all the cat’s fault. As things so often are. That’s why they call them CATastrophes. Or, as often occurs in so many households with one or more cats in residence, “CAT-ass-trophies”.

(Sorry, there’s a cat clawing the chair behind my head as I type this. She’s reminding me to talk about the cat IN the story. She’ll get her due later, I’m sure.)

The Gingerbread Cat takes a bit of historical fantasy stirs in more than a smidgeon of magical realism, a hint of romance and a heaping helping of wish fulfillment, and cooks up a sweet story about the man who was supposed to have been the FOURTH magi.

His name was Nikolai Kristoffsen and he had come from the frozen Northlands to Ur of the Chaldees to study magic with the great mages and sages of that famous Biblical city. After many years of study, Nikolai and his teachers read the coming of the Child in the stars, and planned to greet the prophesied one with gifts upon his birth.

They intended to follow the star. They also intended to all travel together. BUT Nikolai’s cat, Ginger, who was still very much a kitten at the time, spooked Nikolai’s animals. Over and over again.

Nikolai was late to the meeting and the rest of the expedition set out without him.

This turned out to be the story of both Nikolai’s journey AND Nikolai’s life. He spent decades hunting for that Child, well into the Child’s adulthood, and had always just missed him. Over and over and over.

It was fate. His, the Child’s, and as it turned out, Ginger the cat’s as well. How that tale of always arriving after the “nick” of time led to Nikolai becoming the Santa we all know and love, with the help of Ginger, of course, well, that’s the rest of the story.

Escape Rating A-: This may not be my holiday, but I still found The Gingerbread Cat to be a lovely little holiday story. And it is all because of Ginger the cat. Not that the rest of the story isn’t entirely cute, because it is. This is such a completely different origin story for the being we know as Santa Claus that it is hard not to fall in love with this tale of the patient but sometimes exasperated man who spends his life in pursuit of both a dream and a calling, only to find it fulfilled in the most surprising way imaginable – at least from his perspective.

But what made this story shine for me – and brought a tear to my eyes at the end – was the way that Nikolai’s entire found family was granted the gift of long life so that they could help him in his appointed task. There are entirely too many Santa stories where Santa loses an endless series of Mrs. Clauses and that’s just so sad.

Ginger gets not one but two gifts. As someone who has been owned by a series of cats, the gift of speech is absolutely a gift for Ginger’s benefit. (I know cats judge us, I’m just not all that willing to hear said judgment every day.) The other gift is a long life to match that of his person, a gift that feels like it’s a bit more for Nikolai than just for Ginger. And that’s what’s putting dust in this review right now.

It’s just the kind of holiday miracle that every pet person would give ALL their presents, forever, to receive.

George standing in for Ginger

Review: Eversion by Alastair Reynolds

Review: Eversion by Alastair ReynoldsEversion by Alastair Reynolds
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 308
Published by Orbit on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the master of the space opera, Alastair Reynolds, comes a dark, mind-bending SF adventure spread across time and space, Doctor Silas Coade has been tasked with keeping his crew safe as they adventure across the galaxy in search of a mysterious artifact, but as things keep going wrong, Silas soon realizes that something more sinister is at work, and this may not even be the first time it's happened.
In the 1800s, a sailing ship crashes off the coast of Norway. In the 1900s, a Zepellin explores an icy canyon in Antarctica. In the far future, a spaceship sets out for an alien artifact. Each excursion goes horribly wrong. And on every journey, Dr. Silas Coade is the physician, but only Silas seems to realize that these events keep repeating themselves. And it's up to him to figure out why and how. And how to stop it all from happening again.

My Review:

Humans process ideas, events and catastrophes through stories, whether by telling them, making them or being swept away by them. It’s why things like Aesop’s Fables and the Arthurian legends, the Greek tragedies and Pride and Prejudice have all lasted so very long yet still change in interpretations and retellings as society changes. Those stories still have universal things to say about the human condition, so we keep telling them.

This is a story about processing a tragedy by telling stories around and about it until it can be approached directly. So the reason the story is told, and re-told, very nearly ad infinitum, is to give the protagonist enough time and distance to process something that he can’t bring himself to face.

No matter how much he needs to.

The way he does it is to put himself inside a story. It’s the story of a doomed exploratory ship, at the edges of the known world, searching for a possibly mythical ice fissure that will lead to an epic, world-shaking, discovery.

First, it’s a sailing ship in the Arctic. Our hero is the ship’s surgeon, who is also writing a fictional tale of adventure in the vein of Jonathan Swift and Robert Louis Stevenson. And when the doctor’s tale went awry, and he effectively rebooted his story, moving it forward to the age of steam and erasing the disaster that killed all his passengers, I was lulled into thinking this was about the story he was writing.

And it sort of is, but it really isn’t.

As the doctor successively retells the tale, it moves forward in time, from the age of sail to the age of steam to outright steampunk and into the stars. Always with the same crew, always relating the same events, getting just a little further and going just a little deeper each time.

It’s only then that he, and we, discover what looks like the truth. And that it’s even worse than anything he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A: The author of Eversion is best known for his epic, space opera type science fiction, but if that’s what you’re looking for you’re not going to find it in Eversion. Very much on the other hand, if you enjoyed the small-scale, small-cast, intimate story of his Permafrost, which I most definitely did, there’s a LOT to love in Eversion.

In the first iteration, the reader, or at least this reader, gets caught up in the story of the sailing ship Demeter’s expedition to the Arctic fjords of Scandinavia to find a mysterious ruin, or artifact, or both, referred to as the edifice. There was more than enough creeping dread, combined with the hunt for treasure and the details of sailing ship life to make me think this was a very strange but compelling combination of The Route of Ice and Salt, the Aubrey and Maturin series (Master and Commander) with Dr. Silas Coade as Maturin, and something like Indiana Jones and the Edifice of Doom. At least until Coade is forced to rewrite his story after a catastrophe kills off all the characters.

And that’s the first inkling that they might be HIS characters, part of the adventure story he’s writing.

At least until it happens again. And then again. At which point I thought I’d wandered into Groundhog Day. or to use more genre-appropriate references, the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity or the Star Trek Next Gen episode Cause and Effect.

Along with one fascinating variation on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

As I said at the beginning, stories are one of the ways that humans process, and Eversion reminded me of more and more stories, also more and more SFnal stories, as it went through its iterations, or versions.

Until we finally get to the point of “eversions” and discover that everything we thought we might be reading isn’t quite right at all. Although in a very peculiar way it is at the heart of all of the stories.

And that even though the heart they have isn’t quite the one we thought it was, it still manages to break ours. If you’re looking for the kind of SF that will blow your mind and break your expectations, Eversion is a gem.