#BookReview: My Dearest Mackenzie by Rachel Blaufeld

#BookReview: My Dearest Mackenzie by Rachel BlaufeldMy Dearest Mackenzie by Rachel Blaufeld
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: 40s Love and Romance #3
Pages: 217
Published by Rachel Blaufeld Publishing on April 25, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Frankie Burns, brash and bold on the outside, divorced and scarred on the inside, is determined to figure out what really happened with her Paps and his long-lost love, Rosie. Understanding why the duo didn’t find their happily-ever-after is her biggest mission. With every inch of her five-foot-two frame, she’s determined to discover why they were separated and forced to live a life without one another, convinced it will fix her own unhappiness.
Mackenzie Miller, handsome, rich, and one of New York’s most eligible bachelors, keeps everyone at an arm’s length and believes the only barometer to happiness is how wealthy and powerful he becomes. Shoving back his grandmother Milly’s wishes for him to find an everlasting love, he is successful in every other area of life. Abandoned by his mother, fairy tales are not part of Mack’s world, but running his makeup and perfume empire is paramount.
That is… until a feisty blond woman blasts into his life and won’t accept no for an answer when it comes to looking for a connection between his beloved Milly and her beloved Paps. He doesn’t understand the severity of her search. She needs to know the story to fill a gap in her own life.
The twist neither of them expects is falling for one another in the process…

My Review:

It’s not exactly a meet-cute, although Mackenzie Miller thinks that Frances Burns is plenty cute – also feisty and ferocious – which is how she managed to barge her 5 foot nothing self into his usually well-guarded office.

Frankie has a quest that Mack doesn’t even believe in – and he’s not remotely willing to hear her out. He’s pretty sure that her quest is for his money – and he’s been there and done that and is way, way over any further attempts.

But Frankie doesn’t care about his money – or the cosmetics and perfume empire he inherited from his beloved grandmother Milly.

Although that’s not quite right. Frankie is interested in one product and one only. A perfume that is now considered old fashioned and was discontinued long ago. Frankie only cares about “Rose’s Lily” because it was named for the love of her late grandfather’s life.

Frankie found the letters that Milly wrote to James Burns during the year that they fell in love – back when her grandfather and Mack’s grandmother were seventeen. Milly’s father – Mack’s great-grandfather – dragged the young lovers apart and got Milly married off before she even turned eighteen because Milly was Jewish and James Burns was not – and in those days that mattered and it mattered a lot.

But neither James nor Milly EVER forgot the person who was their “One” – not over the course of their long and relatively successful, but separate, lives.

Frankie, whose own tilt at the “Happy Ever After” windmill went down in flames, feels like she needs to learn what happened to that young woman her grandfather loved and lost in order to get some closure on the loss of the person who meant the most to her in this world.

At first, Mack doesn’t believe her. Then again, his mother’s abandonment of him to his grandmother’s waiting arms left him with a whole trunk of emotional baggage that he mostly deals with by running away, including a belief that romantic love doesn’t really exist.

But the irresistible force has met the immovable object – and sparks have been struck no matter how much both Frankie and Mack deny it – and each other – at every turn.

Escape Rating B: This isn’t exactly a dual-timelines story. It is a bit, but not really. Mack and Frankie’s tempestuous relationship – whatever it might be at the time – is always front and center in the story. What they discover about the past really doesn’t change things for them – although it does change some of the dynamics in their present-day relationships with others.

Their journey of discovery, both of their grandparents’ past and of their mutual present, is a story of two steps forward and one step back for multiple reasons – although the biggest reason is that every time they get close emotionally Mack runs away. Often literally. Once leaving Frankie behind in the Hamptons with no transportation.

(Not that ride-sharing isn’t a thing, and not that she doesn’t call one, but really, that’s a douche move. Or at least the move of a man who’s scared of touching his own emotions – let alone anyone else’s. And his behavior dovetails all too well and very badly with Frankie’s fears of abandonment.)

Each time they discover something about the past – it temporarily derails their present. Not because the revelations are so terrible, but because each one peels back a layer of reserve and self-protection and neither of them is really all that great at handling any of THAT.

Even though they should be as both are well into adulthood – and for the most part are doing a decently successful job of adulting. But that also means that their emotional scar tissue is many layers deep – and that scraping at it hurts rather a lot.

I really enjoyed that this was a romance between two people at midlife – and not fresh and dewy 20somethings. Their baggage is real and heavy, but the rewards feel that much sweeter because they were much harder to earn.

At the same time, the story they are searching for, Paps and Milly’s blighted young love, had a lot of resonance for this reader. Not because there’s something like their story in my own family’s history, but because the idea of it, that young lovers could be forcibly separated by a difference in religion – to the point of disownment or declaring the one who married out to be deceased – was very real in my own family. It’s a practice that has changed over time, but there were a few cousins of my parents’ generation who disappeared from family gatherings only to reappear decades later with non-Jewish spouses after the immigrant generation of the family had passed on.

Also, Milly’s real name was Rose and so was my own grandmother’s. So there’s that.

Returning to Frankie and Mack – as the story itself does frequently and often. I liked their midlife romance. I felt that their emotional baggage had weight and heft and made a huge difference both in what brought them together and what kept them apart. I really did enjoy their journey, but as a reader I felt like the book should have ended a bit sooner. The last few chapters dragged a bit because it felt like everything had been resolved and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And it finally did, but when it dropped it was more of a whimper than a thud and didn’t seem to quite justify those last “slice of new life” chapters. Not that it wasn’t nice to see their HEA get firmly planted, but the lingering last bits did, well, linger a bit too long.

But I still did enjoy My Dearest Mackenzie with its dip into the past and its exploration of midlife romance in the present. I didn’t learn that this is might be part in a series until I finished, so I’ll be looking for the author’s loosely connected 40s, Love and Romance series that starts with The Back Nine, the next time I’m in the mood for a bit of romance.

TLC

TLC tour schedule:

Reviews:

Monday, April 29th: @kristis_literary_corner

Monday, April 29th: @bookapotamus

Wednesday, May 1st:  Cheryl’s Book Nook and @beastreader

Thursday, May 2nd: @karas_reads

Friday, May 3rd: Reading Reality and @reading_reality

Monday, May 6th: @booksimperfectcondition

Wednesday, May 8th: @jacklynsbooknook

Thursday, May 9th: Girl Who Reads

Monday, May 13th: @sarahs.bookish.reviews

Friday, May 17th: What is That Book About

Monday, May 20th: @hardcovers.withhans

Wednesday, May 22nd: @finding_joyathome

Instagram features:

Monday, May 6th: @ablueboxfullofbooks

Monday, May 6th: @the.caffeinated.reader

Tuesday, May 7th: @allys.book.corner

Tuesday, May 7th: @alexandriavwilliams_

Wednesday, May 8th: @shopcoffeekids

Wednesday, May 8th: @christinas_reading

Thursday, May 9th: @webreakforbooks

Friday, May 10th: @subakka.bookstuff

Saturday, May 11th: @nissa_the.bookworm

#BookReview: Knightqueen by Anna Hackett

#BookReview: Knightqueen by Anna HackettKnightqueen by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Oronis Knights #3
Pages: 221
Published by Anna Hackett on May 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A queen and her battle-scarred guard are on the run on an alien planet…with a relentless enemy hunting them.
Knightqueen Carys of Oron lives a life of duty to her people and planet. After the murder of her parents, she worked hard to become a fair and dedicated leader. She never expected to be abducted by the vicious Gek’Dragar and locked in a mountain prison, but having her head knightguard at her side makes it bearable. Older, scarred Sten is duty personified, the one man she’s always been able to trust.
He’s also the only man she’s ever loved, not that she’s ever told him that.
Knightguard Thorsten Carahan has sworn to protect his knightqueen, and lives and breathes her safety. He works hard to keep his mind on his duty, and not on the too young, too beautiful, and too kind queen who is way out of his league. But now they’ve escaped their enemy’s prison and are on the run on a dangerous planet. When they learn that the Gek’Dragar have created a lethal weapon to use against the Oronis, Sten knows he must get Carys home. But with danger at every turn, lines get blurred.
With only each other to depend on, Carys and Sten’s bond of duty and respect tangles with forbidden desire and need. As passion flares, they can no longer deny their connection, and they will discover just how far they are willing to go for their people…and each other.

My Review:

When last we left our heroes – actually, in this particular case, it’s more like “when first we met our heroes” back in the first book in the Oronis Knights series, Knightmaster. In the first story, the Oronis had just welcomed a delegation from Terra, our very own Earth, in the hopes of forging an alliance to fight the rapacious Gek’Dragar.

The Terrans had already formed a similar alliance with the Eons, in spite of a somewhat rocky beginning, as part of the stories told in the marvelous Eon Warriors series. The Eons are long-standing allies of the Oronis, and now all three planets face the same enemy, the Gek’Dragar.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” as that saying goes. Not that this alliance was EVER smooth sailing, as it began back in Knightmaster with the Gek’Dragar kidnapping the Oronis Knightqueen and her Knightguard, and framing the Terrans for the crime.

But once that misdirection got straightened out, the Oronis and the Terrans have been on a joint mission to rescue the Knightqueen – assuming that she and her Knightguard don’t manage to rescue themselves, first.

Which is where we left those heroes at the end of the second book in the series, Knighthunter. That hunter team blew open and blew up the prison where the queen and her bodyguard, were being held, and Carys and Sten escaped in the chaos.

Meaning that they unknowingly ran away from their rescuers, jumped out of the frying pan into the fire – sometimes literally – and have spent the past several days outrunning their Gek’Dragar pursuers, throwing off the effects of the drugs they were injected with that suppressed their normally formidable powers, and generally running themselves into the ground.

Because the monsters on this hellhole planet are just as deadly as the Gek’Dragar – if not maybe a bit worse – and Carys and Sten have no weapons or armor until their powers return.

All they have is each other. Which has always been more than enough – even if neither of them has ever admitted that to themselves – let alone each other.

It’s not right, it’s not proper, for a Knightqueen to fall in love with her Knightguard. But this time, it’s inevitable.

Escape Rating B+: Knightqueen is the culmination of the whole, entire Oronis Knights series – which is only three books long. Meaning that, on the one hand, you really do kind of need to start at the beginning with Knightmaster, while on the other hand, three novellas is just a lovely amount of reading for a rainy spring weekend – of which there are PLENTY this time of year!

Knightqueen is a bodyguard romance. Maybe not exactly like the movie – certainly the SFnal setting if Knightqueen is literally light years away from the movie – but the trope is the trope is the trope – and it’s ALL here in Knightqueen.

Except the music, so you’ll just have to bring your own. I kept hearing Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” in the back of my mind as I read – and it took the longest time to figure out why.

Unlike the movie, the ending of Knightqueen results in a resounding HEA. That may seem like a bit of a spoiler, but all of this author’s stories end in either an HEA or an HFN depending on just how FUBAR the world they are set on happens to be.

It is part of why I enjoy her work so much.

But this particular entry in the series hit one of my less than favorite tropes pretty hard. The relationship between Carys and Sten does have its questionable aspects, she’s queen, he’s her bodyguard, he’s over a decade older which isn’t itself enough to make things squicky but he watched her grow up which is at least on the border of questionable.

As it’s usually not so much the years as the mileage, it’s not the age difference per se so much as it is that Carys is inexperienced with romantic relationships – which is not a surprise as she’s been queen from a very young age and it would never have been politically safe for her to go on dates or experiment with either love or sex.

Nevertheless, the trope that this fell into that put me off a bit was that Sten had a really bad case of the “I’m not worthy’s” that was a whole lot more personal and ingrained in his psyche than just the difference in their respective stations. This is a “me” thing and may not be a “you” thing.

Putting it another way – I did love the bodyguard romance but wasn’t thrilled with how little the bodyguard thought of himself in it. Your reading mileage obviously may vary.

That being said, I still had a grand time with the entire Oronis Knights series and am a bit sorry to see it come to end even though I’m happy to see the Gek’Dragar put in their place – a grave.

As this series has come to a close – and doesn’t end with teasers for a spinoff, it looks like the author will be turning back to contemporary action adventure romances for most of this year. Leaving this reader looking forward to the next book in her Unbroken Heroes series, The Hero She Craves, coming next month!

A- #BookReview: People in Glass Houses by Jayne Castle

A- #BookReview: People in Glass Houses by Jayne CastlePeople in Glass Houses (Ghost Hunters, #16) by Jayne Castle
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, futuristic, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, science fiction romance
Series: Harmony #16
Pages: 313
Published by Berkley on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Dive into the alien world of Harmony in this new novel by New York Times bestselling author Jayne Castle.
His name is Joshua Knight. Once a respected explorer, the press now calls him the Tarnished Knight. He took the fall for a disaster in the Underworld that destroyed his career. The devastating event occurred in the newly discovered sector known as Glass House—a maze of crystal that is rumored to conceal powerful Alien antiquities. The rest of the Hollister Expedition team disappeared and are presumed dead.
Whatever happened down in the tunnels scrambled Josh’s psychic senses and his memories, but he’s determined to uncover the truth. Labeled delusional and paranoid, he retreats to an abandoned mansion in the desert, a house filled with mirrors. Now a recluse, Josh spends his days trying to discover the secrets in the looking glasses that cover the walls. He knows he is running out of time.
Talented, ambitious crystal artist Molly Griffin is shocked to learn that the Tarnished Knight has been located. She drops everything and heads for the mansion to find Josh, confident she can help him regain control of his shattered senses. She has no choice—he is the key to finding her sister, Leona, a member of the vanished expedition team. Josh reluctantly allows her to stay one night but there are two rules: she must not go down into the basement, and she must not uncover the mirrors that have been draped.
But her only hope for finding her sister is to break the rules…

My Review:

We all know the way that phrase ends, don’t we? “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” It’s a somewhat more potentially kinetic way of talking about the “pot calling the kettle black.” Or putting it yet another way, people who have the same faults should resist poking at each other along the same fault lines.

As it turns out, this particular story is also a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – although Joshua Knight and Molly Griffin want to be much more than friends the moment they meet, in spite of both of them living in the glass house of having extremely high levels of paranormal talent that they keep under wraps.

Because too much power can be extremely dangerous – especially when all the power is encased in the fragile mind of a human. Any human.

Although at the moment they meet, both Joshua and Molly do happen to be rather fragile humans – particularly in the context of the not-totally-explored and still all too frequently dangerous lost Terran colony on Harmony. A planet where high-resonating crystal artifacts left on the planet by aliens have caused, raised and enhanced the psychic powers of the humans who have occupied the planet for more than two centuries.

Joshua Knight is considered to be psi-burned. He was a talented guide and navigator to Harmony’s fascinating but treacherous underworld, and he lost ALL the members of his last expedition.

An expedition that included Molly Griffin’s sister Leona. Molly needs Joshua to lead her to where he lost her sister. Joshua needs Molly to help him regain his lost memories of where he lost the expedition in order to have even a chance at making that happen.

Lucky for them, their talents dovetail in a harmony that neither of them ever expected. But not lucky at all for the mastermind who set Joshua up to take the fall and did not reckon, at all, on the dogged persistence of the Griffin sisters.

And not that the villain doesn’t have a plan B to take care of all of those new, pesky, loose ends that Molly and Joshua have managed to unravel in the crystal palaces hidden under Harmony.

Escape Rating A-: Once upon a time, a historical romance author writing under the name of Amanda Quick introduced an organization of physically adept practitioners and mad scientists into her Victorian Era set romances – and the Arcane Society was born. In one of her other personas, Jayne Ann Krentz, the author carried the Arcane Society in the 20th and 21st centuries. Under a third name, Jayne Castle, she created the lost Terran colony world of Harmony and eventually admitted that the original colonists included a considerable number of members of, you guessed it, the Arcane Society.

It’s been over two centuries since Harmony was cut off from Earth. The population has evolved to include paranormal talents, many of which have become specialized in response to the resonating crystal artifacts that aliens left behind on their new home world. Their society has also evolved into the close-knitted, family oriented, relatively stable structure that we see in this series.

The population also still throws out the occasional mad scientist.

Which is part of Molly and Leona Griffin’s background, although it’s not really part of this story – except in the trust issues that background left in both women – although the next book in the series will be going there – and I’m seriously looking forward to it.

But in the meantime, this book is focused in Harmony’s present, and follows directly after the events of Guild Boss while putting brand new characters in the literal hot seat – along with another of Harmony’s adorable, scene-stealing predators, Newton the intrepid dust bunny.

As is often the case in the entire extended Arcane Society/Harmony series, there’s both a crime to solve and a talented person to save from what seems like the brink of madness. Molly’s sister is missing, the search has been called off. Molly is determined to pursue the only lead she has left, the supposedly burned out has-been navigator, Joshua Knight.

Joshua is the one who needs saving – he’s pretty sure he’s going mad, and the crazy house he’s squatting in is helping to finish the job that the mess of that lost expedition merely started. Joshua and Molly are each other’s last chance, so they grab onto that chance – and each other – with both hands.

That they manage to find the lost expedition – as wonderful as that is – opens up an entirely new can of worms so that the chief worm can finally get squashed. Only to open the way for yet another and even more dangerous worm – or perhaps that should be wyrm – to emerge from the shadows.

The romance between Molly and Joshua is as hot as the energy they both channel, but the way that their mutual needs and insecurities keep bumping up against one another keeps the relationship from feeling like insta-love. They also have a lot more in common than just their tangling insecurities, leaving the reader to believe that they really do have a good chance at an HEA even after the adrenaline of this case evens out.

To make a long story – or review – short; Harmony is a fascinating world, the paranormal powers keep everything and everyone involved tuned up to the max, the dust bunnies are both adorable and deadly, the romances are scorching, and the tension of whatever wrong needs to be righted or case that needs to be solved has been keeping this reader on the edge of her seat from the very first and this entry in the series continues that happy trend. Visit Harmony and settle in for a long, highly charged, utterly captivating binge-read.

And, also very much to the good, the way that the resolution of this adventure hints so tantalizingly at the next gives this fan of the series a lot of high-rez hope for the next – which doesn’t appear to be coming nearly soon enough!

Grade A #BookReview: Lost Birds by Anne Hillerman

Grade A #BookReview: Lost Birds by Anne HillermanLost Birds (Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #27) by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Leaphorn & Chee #27, Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #9
Pages: 304
Published by Harper on April 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman, a thrilling and moving chapter in the Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series involving several emotionally complex cases that will test the detectives in different ways. Joe Leaphorn may be long retired from the Navajo Tribal Police, but his detective skills are still sharp, honed by his work as a private detective. His experience will be essential to solve a compelling new finding the birth parents of a woman who was raised by a bilagáana family but believes she is Diné based on one solid clue, an old photograph with a classic Navajo child’s blanket. Leaphorn discovers that his client’s adoption was questionable, and her adoptive family not what they seem. His quest for answers takes him to an old trading post and leads him to a deadly cache of long-buried family secrets. As that case grows more complicated, Leaphorn receives an unexpected call from a person he met decades earlier. Cecil Bowleg’s desperation is clear in his voice, but just as he begins to explain, the call is cut off by an explosion and Cecil disappears. True to his nature, Leaphorn is determined to find the truth even as the situation grows dangerous. Investigation of the explosion falls in part to Officer Bernadette Manuelito, who discovers an unexpected link to Cecil’s missing wife. Bernie also is involved in a troubling investigation of her an elderly weaver whose prize-winning sheep have been ruthlessly killed by feral dogs. Exploring the emotionally complex issues of adoption of Indigenous children by non-native parents, Anne Hillerman delivers another thought-provoking, gripping mystery that brings to life the vivid terrain of the American Southwest, its people, and the lore and traditions that make it distinct.

My Review:

“We grow too soon old and too late smart,” a saying that has its roots far from the Navajo tribal lands in the Four Corners area, but nevertheless applies to many of the characters in this 27th entry in the long-running Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito series.

Especially, but absolutely not exclusively, to the ‘Legendary Lieutenant’ himself, retired Navajo Nation Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn – the original protagonist of this series back when it began back in 1970 in The Blessing Way, written by author Anne Hillerman’s father Tony Hillerman.

As this series is written in a kind of ‘perpetual now’, Leaphorn isn’t quite as old as the number of years between 1970 and 2024 would lead one to expect, But he has aged from a man in his prime into retirement – and the start of a second career as a private investigator.

He’s not as young or as fast as he used to be – even if he’s not always willing to admit it – while the first young officer he mentored, Jim Chee, has just been promoted to Lieutenant himself. Leaphorn’s other mentee, Officer Bernie Manuelito, now Chee’s wife, is still grieving a miscarriage, and stinging after losing out on a promotion of her own.

The case they ALL find themselves working on – if not always together – begins with an explosion at a local school. Joe is on the phone with the survivor of one of his earliest cases when he hears the explosion through the phone, the call drops – or the caller does, and Joe is left hanging.

Bernie gets called to the school, because the place is on fire – or at least one specific building is. She’s had some training in dealing with explosions and their aftermath – and this case unfortunately looks like an occasion for her to use those skills.

Which is exactly what it turns out to be. Which is also the last straightforward aspect of the whole case. The ONLY saving grace to the disaster is that it happened on a Saturday morning and no students were present to be caught up in the flames.

With the increasing amount of violence on all school campuses across the country, the Navajo Police, the FBI, and every other possible jurisdiction fear that the conflagration was both cleverly and deliberately set. And they could be right. There are certainly plenty of signs that point that way – including the absence of a custodian with a whole lot of financially troubling motives for something nefarious.

Or, as much as Leaphorn and the cops he trained do not believe in coincidences, that chain of terrible events could be the result of them. After all, the other case that Leaphorn is working on turns out to be riddled with them – to considerably better results.

But it’s the much too personal case that catches up to Leaphorn that forcibly reminds him that time is catching up to him – and that there are some things it is best to say before it is too late.

Escape Rating A: Just as there are three investigators in this story, there are three cases, but the cases are not in parallel, do not intersect and mostly lead back to Joe Leaphorn, which is fitting as he is the place where the whole series began.

The big case, the official investigation into the explosion and fire at the school, is the case that takes up the least of Leaphorn’s time but the most of Bernie Manuelito’s time and effort – and pushes her up against her issues with her job disappointment and her new boss.

But the case of the explosion is the case with the largest number of facets in the present, and the only part that doesn’t do a deep dive into any of the investigators’ pasts or personal lives. Which is a good thing because there is plenty of that on the parts of all of the potential suspects.

That part of the case is interesting because the track it goes down isn’t remotely fruitful – and yet it manages to lead to the correct result in spite of itself and everyone’s assumptions about the hows and the whys of the thing. There turn out to be plenty of arrests to go around – but not for any of the reasons that anyone first suspects.

Leaphorn’s private case is the one that delves into a bit of history, and rights a single tragedy in a vast sea of wrongs that no one has the power to fix in its entirety. It’s this case that the book is titled after, as a “Lost Bird” in the Navajo context is a child who was adopted out of their tribal community. Joe’s client may be one of those “Lost Birds”, one who is determined to find out as much of the truth as is still there to find before everyone left who might have known a bit of that truth passes away.

Last, but not least, are the personal aspects of this series. While Bernie’s ongoing struggle to balance her career as a police officer alongside of her more traditional obligations as daughter and sister often features in this series, and a further chapter of her difficulty in managing that balancing act does occur, the big personal ‘case’ in this case is Leaphorn’s – which is a surprise and a revelation because Leaphorn is a person who very much keeps himself to himself – and this time that’s impossible.

All of which made Lost Birds another enthralling chapter in this long-running saga. While I don’t think a new reader would need to start back at the very, very beginning, picking this series up with Spider Woman’s Daughter, the story where Anne Hillerman picks up her father’s legacy just as Bernie Manuelito investigates the shooting of her mentor and father-figure Leaphorn is a great place to begin.

This entry in the series feels like it might be Joe Leaphorn’s swan song. He comes to some conclusions at the end that leave the impression that he’s going to move from his second act as a private investigator to a third act as a consultant – one that will hopefully put him less in the line of fire. Not that I think the series is going to end – please no – but rather that his role is going to be a bit more reduced. Whatever happens, I’m certainly looking forward to finding out – hopefully this time next year.

A+ #BookReview: A Murder Most French by Colleen Cambridge

A+ #BookReview: A Murder Most French by Colleen CambridgeA Murder Most French (American In Paris Mystery, #2) by Colleen Cambridge
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: culinary mystery, foodie fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: American in Paris Mystery #2
Pages: 272
Published by Kensington on April 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Postwar Paris is surging back to life, and its citizens are seizing every opportunity to raise a glass or share a delicious meal. But as American ex-pat Tabitha Knight and chef-in-training Julia Child discover, celebrations can quickly go awry when someone has murder in mind . . .
The graceful domes of Sacré Coeur, the imposing cathedral of Notre Dame, the breathtaking TourEiffel . . . Paris is overflowing with stunning architecture. Yet for Tabitha Knight, the humble building that houses the Cordon Bleu cooking school, where her friend Julia studies, is just as notable. Tabitha is always happy to sample Julia’s latest creation and try to recreate dishes for her Grand-père and Oncle Rafe.
The legendary school also holds open demonstrations, where the public can see its master chefs at work. It’s a treat for any aspiring cook—until one of the chefs pours himself a glass of wine from a rare vintage bottle—and promptly drops dead in front of Julia, Tabitha, and other assembled guests. It’s the first in a frightening string of poisonings that turns grimly personal when cyanide-laced wine is sent to someone very close to Tabitha.
What kind of killer chooses such a means of murder, and why? Tabitha and Julia hope to find answers in order to save innocent lives—not to mention a few exquisite vintages—even as their investigation takes them through some of the darkest corners of France’s wartime past . . .

My Review:

According to Julia Child, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

While Child absolutely did say that, she certainly hadn’t said it yet at in 1950, the time this second book in the American in Paris Mystery series takes place, directly after the events of the first book in this delicious historical mystery series, Mastering the Art of French Murder.

Julia Child is too busy learning French cooking, living her larger-than-life life in Paris AND at the beginning of writing her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, when this series takes place.

Meaning that Julia – as much as she steals every scene in which she appears – is not the amateur detective protagonist of this series, even if she is every bit as much an American in post-war Paris as her best (fictional) friend Tabitha Knight.

Tabi probably would not entirely agree with that opening quote from Julia. It’s not fear of failure that dooms so many of Tabi’s cooking forays, it’s the fear of disappointing – yet again – her two messieurs, her elderly grandfather and his partner, her adopted Oncle Rafe.

Tabi does, however, most definitely have a what-the-hell attitude, but it seems to be increasingly focused, not on cooking but on murder. Not committing them, of course, but solving them. It’s an attitude that is immeasurably helped by just how many corpses she seemingly trips over.

The way that corpses seem to follow in her wake, and her inability to ignore the clues that bubble up before her, unfortunately looks like it’s helping police judiciaire Inspecteur Étienne Merveille into entirely too many headaches, if not an early ulcer.

Because somehow, no matter how many times Merveille warns her away, when Tabi rushes in where even angels would fear to tread, Merveille is always on hand to rescue her.

Maybe Tabi is following Julia’s three-part plan for managing men after all – no matter how many times the lady protests too much otherwise.

Escape Rating A+: If you loved the first book in this series – and who didn’t? – you will run, not walk to get this second book because it’s every bit as charming as the first. If you still need a bit of convincing, I’m going to get right to that.

But before I do, if you haven’t read Mastering the Art of French Murder and aren’t sure whether you can start the series here – you can. Everything you need to catch up does get enough of an explanation to make it work. Howsomever, that first book is delightful and delicious so even if you do start here you’ll want to go there immediately afterwards!

Yes, this review is full of squee. It’s that kind of book and that kind of series.

This time around, Tabitha gets involved in the case not because she’s a suspect, but because the murder happens literally right before her eyes – as does the second murder. Also before Julia’s eyes as well, and she absolutely can’t resist egging Tabitha on whenever she falters in her determination the least little bit.

Which is pretty much true for Julia all the way around.

The case is a twisted puzzlement – but in it’s ever increasing list of victims and in its choice of methods. Increasing both Tabitha’s and the reader’s fascination is the way that the string of murders links back to the late war, the simmering resentments of the surviving Resistance fighters and the blot on the French psyche that the collaborators represent.

Then the whole thing dives into the catacombs. Literally as well as figuratively, and the secrets that are hidden among the bones – not all of which are ancient.

When her messieurs receive a beautifully wrapped bottle of pilfered, poisoned wine – just as the first two victims did, Tabitha throws aside her remaining qualms and cautions to throw herself into an investigation that gets her thrown into the pitch black darkness of the catacombs.

Tabitha rescues herself – which is definitely part of her charm for this reader – but she’s afraid she won’t be able to run across Paris fast enough to save her messieurs. Fortunately for Tabi, her apple didn’t fall far from the family tree – and Inspecteur Merveille has been following her a LOT more closely than she imagined.

Their relationship – whatever it might turn out to be – is one of the teasingly dangling threads left at the end of this book. The mystery gets tidily wrapped up, but nearly everyone in Tabi’s life seems to think that Merveille has a tendre for her that would be worth exploring.

If it’s not obvious from all the squeeing, I would love for there to be a third book in this series and possibly more. For one thing, I have to see if Tabitha continues to follow that three-part plan of Julia’s for managing men. Tabi has the first part completed, as she actually managed to feed the man a surprisingly edible – for her at least – Croque Monsieur albeit without the bechamel sauce. Step two in Julia’s plan is to flatter the man which should be easy enough to do as he just saved her life and is quite competent at everything she’s seen of him so far.

Tabitha should have plenty of opportunities as the series continues – which I am oh so hopeful that it will. Because it looks as if investigating murders is looking more and more like it’s Tabitha’s answer to one of Julia’s instructions, to “find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”

“Bon appetit!”

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel AllendeLovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende
Narrator: Nicholas Boulton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, short stories
Pages: 25
Length: 38 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories on April 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Wind Knows My Name comes a mesmerizing tale of two passionate souls who share one magical night that defies all rational explanation.
Love, be it wild or tender, often defies logic. In fact, at times, the only rationale behind the instant connection of two souls is plain magic.
Bibiña Aranda, runaway bride, wakes up in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao still wearing her wedding dress, draped in the loving arms of a naked man whose name she doesn’t know. She and the man with no clothes, Indar Zubieta, attempt to explain to the authorities how they got there. It’s a story of love at first sight and experience beyond compare, one that involves a dreamlike journey through the museum.
But the lovers’ transcendent night bears no resemblance to the crude one Detective Larramendi attempts to reconstruct. And no amount of fantastical descriptions can convince the irritated inspector of the truth.
Allende’s dreamy short story has the power to transport readers in any language, leaving them to ponder the wonders of love long after the story’s over.

My Review:

Lovers at the Museum caught my eye primarily for the audiobook. The narrator, Nicholas Boulton, is the voice of one of my favorite characters in the video game Mass Effect Andromeda. (A game that is much better than the reviews would lead one to believe, but that is not the topic of this review.)

Back on topic, at least a bit more on topic, I have to say that he didn’t sound much like that character in this narration, which I should have expected because they’re not remotely alike nor should they be and that’s just plain good acting.

Which leads me back, again, by a meandering path, to this lovely little short story about, well, love, and magic, and the magic of love.

Although it starts out with the evidence of a whole lot of lust – as that’s a much easier thing to get a handle on – particularly when one of the protagonists is still presenting a handle. So to speak.

Ahem.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of modern and contemporary art in Spain’s Basque region (pictured at left) is already a magical place, both for its bulky, blocky and some would even say Brutalist, design, and in this story, at least, for the strange and weird things that happen within its walls.

This incident would add to that legend.

The morning staff of the museum discovered two disheveled, entwined, partially nude lovers in one of the galleries sleeping off a night of lustful debauchery that shouldn’t have happened at all. Not for particularly nefarious reasons but simply because they entered while the museum was closed – and should have triggered alarms in every single room they came into – which seems to have been all of them.

They say the door opened for them. They claim that they weren’t really in the museum, but in a magical pleasure palace.

The local police inspector, with a reputation for finding hidden clues, eliciting damning confessions, and a dogged determination to punish the guilty, is frustrated that he can’t break their ridiculous stories and isn’t sure what crime, if any, they actually committed.

It seems as if the magic of the Guggenheim claimed the lovers that incredible night, and it’s taking away the inspector’s will to punish them in the cold light of day.

Escape Rating B: This is short and very, very sweet – even though the inspector is downright salty for a lot of the story.

There’s a lot of salt to be had – at least from his perspective. He’s sure that someone HAS to be guilty of something prosecutable, and that someone is lying to him.

(I was betting on the museum officials lying to cover up less than attentive guards and not so secure security. It seemed like the obvious solution. Which it is logically but then again, this is about magic.)

The inspector wants to punish the lovers for their vice and their disrespect of the museum. But mostly because he envies them the magic of their love – something that is clearly lacking in his own life in spite of his decades long marriage – or perhaps because of it. That’s a bit hard to tell, but it’s sad no matter how one looks at it. Unless one is the inspector, in which case it’s downright tragic.

In the end, it all boils down to magic, the kind of magical realism that takes a story out of the everyday and sprinkles a bit of fairy dust over the proceedings. So short, sweet and utterly charming – including the inspector’s bluster.

Even better, if Isabel Allende is an author you’ve heard about but haven’t ever actually read – as was true for this reader – or if you’re not sure whether or not magical realism could be a flavor in your jam – this delightful short is the perfect way to stick your reading toe into magical realism with an author who is considered a master of the genre.

A- #BookReview: Chaotic Aperitifs by Tao Wong

A- #BookReview: Chaotic Aperitifs by Tao WongChaotic Apéritifs: A Cozy Cooking Fantasy (Hidden Dishes Book 2) by Tao Wong
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, foodie fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Hidden Dishes #2
Pages: 124
Published by Starlit Publishing on May 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Only Constant with Magic is Change.
Mo Meng is reminded of that fact once again, as the Nameless Restaurant faces a new challenge. Magic and its old wielders are returning to the world. For the restaurant, wards of anonymity and camouflage are fading, leading to the arrival of new customers. And some older friends.
What started as a way to pass the decades and feed a few customers has become actual work.
The world is changing, and to face it, the Nameless Restaurant, along with its proprietor and patrons, will need to embrace the change with a good meal and new friends.
Chaotic Apéritifs is book 2 in the Hidden Dishes series, a cozy cooking fantasy perfect for fans of Travis Baldree's Legends & Lattes and Junpei Inuzuka's Restaurant to Another World. Written by bestselling author Tao Wong, his other series include the System Apocalypse, A Thousand Li, Hidden Wishes and Adventures on Brad series.

My Review:

Welcome to another day in the life of Mo Meng’s nameless restaurant, following the first delicious book in the Hidden Dishes series, titled, of course, The Nameless Restaurant!

The dishes served here truly are magically delicious, because the chef, Mo Meng, is a mage. Not that he actually uses magic in his cooking, because that would be cheating. Instead, he’s been using magical wards and sigils to make his hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Toronto look unappealing to the average restaurant goer, tourist and especially mundane government bureaucrat.

Because he absolutely IS using magic to keep pests at bay – no matter how many legs they have.

The problem that Mo Meng faces in this story is a direct result of the events in the first book featuring his nameless restaurant. Because in that story, Mo Meng’s out-of-the-way establishment hosted a newly awakened utter nuisance of a jinn, and she’s been waking up all kinds of magic and all sorts of other magic users as she navigates the 21st century.

That influx of her chaotic magic is wearing down Mo Meng’s wards. The sheer, overwhelming ubiquity of the internet isn’t helping either. It’s everywhere, no spell of forgetting or obfuscation affects it, and too many people are discovering, remembering, and talking about his restaurant on it.

He and his front-of-house manager Kelly are so swamped with customers that something is going to have to change – because it already has. The question is whether Mo Meng will embrace that change – or leave it and the community he’s built behind while he retreats. Again.

As he observes one very singular customer get confronted with all the changes that have occurred over the centuries while he slept and does his damndest to bluff his way into the future without setting the restaurant on fire with his magic, Mo Meng figures out his own answers.

Escape Rating A-: I’m doing this review a week early so that you have a chance to read the tasty first book in the Hidden Dishes series, The Nameless Restaurant, before you gobble this second book up in one delicious bite.

Because they are both absolutely magically delicious, to the point where I need to put a kind of a trigger warning on both books. Do NOT read while hungry. It’s very dangerous. Trust me on this. Mo Meng’s entire cooking process and every single dish is described in mouth-watering detail as he cooks and it’s impossible to resist – even if the dish itself isn’t one you actually think you’ll like.

The tone of this second book is not quite as lighthearted as the first book, in spite of it being underpinned by the advent of two agents from the Department of Supernatural Entities. Mika and Ophelia are there to investigate the weakening of Mo Meng’s wards and just generally behave like government bureaucrats – up to and including the tension between the two of them, as senior agent Mika knows just where the lines are drawn, while his junior wants to leap over all the rules, regulations, and common sense to right what she defines as wrong in spite of all of the above.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is tense all the way around. Kelly begins her day being berated by her mother over the phone, Mo Meng is behind because there is way more business than one chef – even a magical one – can handle, and the patrons and would-be patrons start out agitated because a) Mo Meng IS running behind schedule and b) the restaurant is tiny, the wait is long, and the line out the door and around the block is enough to outrage anyone.

That a new predator who absolutely radiates power sits in the midst of all, offending many while trying to obfuscate his way through his lack of recent knowledge just adds to everyone’s stress – including his own as he’s trying to figure out why the jinn woke him up and sent him to this place. (I’m truly chagrined at how long it took me to figure out who he was. All the clues were there, I just wasn’t seeing them. (Consider a picture of me facepalming inserted here)

All the same, I loved every mouth-watering page of this story – at least once I sat down with my own dinner to accompany it. (There’s a regular at this restaurant who also reads through his meal, so I’d fit right in!)

Even though the situation is a bit tense, the story and the setting still fit delightfully into the new cozy fantasy vibe, on the shelf between Legends & Lattes and The Kamogawa Food Detectives. At the same time, it’s doing what urban fantasy has always done, it’s getting just a bit deeper and darker as it goes – and it’s fascinating and makes me want more.

It’s clear from the way that this entry in the series ends that even though Mo Meng and Kelly have found a way through their immediate problems, trouble is brewing on the horizon right alongside Mo Meng’s pineapple vinegar. So I’m going to get that more I wanted in the next book in the series, titled Sorcerous Plates. My mouth and my brain are already craving the next bite!

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie Tidhar

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie TidharJudge Dee and the Limits of the Law (Judge Dee, #1) by Lavie Tidhar
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal, short stories, vampires
Series: Judge Dee #1
Pages: 32
Published by Tor Books on November 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
Goodreads

No vampire is ever innocent…
The wandering Judge Dee serves as judge, jury, and executioner for any vampire who breaks the laws designed to safeguard their kind’s survival. This new case in particular puts his mandate to the test.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked this up, but what I got was kind of interesting and sorta cute and blissfully short yet still told a good story and somehow managed to fit – albeit weirdly and oddly – into the whole Judge Dee rabbit hole I fell down last week.

Like many vampire stories, it needs a human touch. And it has one in this case, as it is told by vampire Judge Dee’s current human assistant, Jonathan. Who is often just a bit hard done by the Judge, as poor Jonathan needs the occasional meal of real food, and the occasional break to catch his labored breath, while the vampire clearly does not. And sometimes forgets to care.

That the human is a considerably messier eater than the average vampire, let alone the rather fastidious Judge Dee, is just part of the byplay between these two unequal companions.

The story here still manages to display Judge Dee’s much vaunted ability to, well, judge evildoers within the limits of the law and render a fit punishment – when punishment is what’s due.

The case that introduces this pair to readers is just such a case – more convoluted that one might expect leading to a rather elegant ending – and not the one the reader expects when Judge Dee first knocks on the door.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up this week for two reasons. The first is part of the reason I grabbed this at all, that I fell down a reading rabbit hole about Judge Dee and discovered this series and simply couldn’t resist. A lack of resistance that may have had something to do with the cover art which is just this side of comic but bizarre in a way that pulled me in.

The second reason, and the why right now reason, is that these are blissfully short. I’ve overcommitted myself this week and needed that really, really badly.

But I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting a lot, because there is literally not a lot here. Howsomever, I got more than I expected.

Judge Dee does his damndest to stick to the letter of the law while leaning over it just enough to find justice in a situation where there might not have been any to find. He’s beyond clever and yet is amused when a potential defendant before his traveling bench manages to out-clever him.

What makes the story fun – more than fun enough that I’ll be picking up the next story the next time I need something short to tide me over an overcommitted calendar – is the first person perspective of poor, put upon, Jonathan. He’s snarky, he’s both world-weary and vampire-weary, but he’s always aware of the side on which his bread is buttered – when he can get any, that is. So his commentary covers the Judge, the law he administers, his opinions and predilections, but also the companionship they provide each other.

Along with Jonathan’s constant scramble to get enough food in his belly to keep him upright for another day trudging after the indefatigable vampire Judge Dee. And one of these days soon I’ll be, not trudging but skipping along right beside him with Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels.

#AudioBookReview: Close to Death by Anthony Horowitz

#AudioBookReview: Close to Death by Anthony HorowitzClose to Death (Hawthorne & Horowitz, #5) by Anthony Horowitz
Narrator: Rory Kinnear
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Hawthorne and Horowitz #5
Pages: 419
Length: 9 hours and 12 minutes
Published by Harper, HarperAudio on April 11, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In New York Times–bestselling author Anthony Horowitz’s ingenious fifth literary whodunit in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, Detective Hawthorne is once again called upon to solve an unsolvable case—a gruesome murder in an idyllic gated community in which suspects abound
Riverside Close is a picture-perfect community. The six exclusive and attractive houses are tucked far away from the noise and grime of city life, allowing the residents to enjoy beautiful gardens, pleasant birdsong and tranquility from behind the security of a locked gate.
It is the perfect idyll until the Kentworthy family arrives, with their four giant, gas-guzzling cars, a gaggle of shrieking children and plans for a garish swimming pool in the backyard. Obvious outsiders, the Kentworthys do not belong in Riverside Close, and they quickly offend every last one of their neighbours.
When Giles Kentworthy is found dead on his own doorstep, a crossbow bolt sticking out of his chest, Detective Hawthorne is the only investigator that can be called on to solve the case.
Because how do you solve a murder when everyone is a suspect?

My Review:

There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of Giles Kenworthy and the other residents of Riverview Close it seems as if the contempt came pre-installed – at least on his side and well before he actually got to know any of his neighbors. If indeed he ever bothered to try.

Kenworthy seems to be one of those smug, self-involved, ultra-privileged individuals who go through life completely unable to see other people as, well, people. Meaning that he simply doesn’t notice how much the noise and smoke from his backyard barbecues affects the neighbors he can’t be bothered to invite, he doesn’t care that the loud music he plays on his convertible wakes up the entire neighborhood when he comes home in the middle of the night and parks the damn car in the middle of a shared driveway and blocks the neighbors in.

It seems as if Kenworthy’s inconsideration knows no bounds. He’s certainly brought utter disharmony to what was formerly seemed to be a close-knit and completely harmonious little community.

But is being a boor – even to the point of being a total arsehole (it’s arse, they’re English) – enough of a reason to actually murder someone?

That’s the problem that confronted Detective Superintendent Tariq Khan five years ago when he began his investigation of the murder of Giles Kenworthy, in the foyer of his expensive home, with a crossbow bolt through his throat.

And it’s the exact same question confronting Tony Horowitz – along with the ridiculously short deadline his editor has given him for the fifth book in the series following the investigations of former Metropolitan Police Detective Daniel Hawthorne as Tony follows literally behind the man as his bumbling sidekick.

But not this time, not exactly. Because Hawthorne can’t exactly call up an interesting murder to order. So instead of following the detective as he works a case, Tony is stuck with following Hawthorne on a past case through the extensive notes left by Hawthorne’s previous assistant, the considerably less bumbling John Dudley.

Tony is even more curious about the man who preceded him than he is about whodunnit. By this point in his association with Hawthorne he knows that he’s not going to get even close to the solution until Hawthorne leads him there – most likely by the nose at that.

Which leaves Tony doing a bit of snooping on his own – not into Giles Kenworthy’s murder – but into John Dudley’s exit from Daniel Hawthorne’s life. Something that it looks like no one wants him to look into – but that might just lead him back to an entirely different whodunnit.

Escape Rating B+: Hawthorne drives Tony crazy. This series generally drives me crazy. This particular entry drove me so crazy I switched from the audio – which was, as always in this series, and with this narrator, marvelous – to the ebook at the halfway point because I was going nuts trying to figure out anything at all. My luck is no better than Tony’s usually is because the cases Hawthorne ends up investigating are so bizarre AND the man dribbles out clues like a miser drops pennies.

But by that point I was so caught up in the thing that I didn’t thumb to the end to find out whodunnit – I just read faster to get there in one hour instead of five for the audio.

At first, I have to say that I only hung in because of the audio. Because the first section is all set up and it takes more than long enough that the reader is downright grateful when the body finally drops – particularly as the body that drops seems like it couldn’t have belonged to a more deserving fellow.

At that point, the story switches from third person – which just felt WRONG for this series because it is – back to Tony’s first person perspective where he proceeds to hang a lampshade over just how trite and boring that long set up is.

After all, Giles Kenworthy was a seriously deserving murder victim and all of the issues among the residents of Riverview Close – except for the woman suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and the death of that poor dog – are very much first world problems and rich people’s first world problems at that. Which does lead back to the question of whether the man deserved to be murdered.

(Maybe for the dog, but not the rest. For the rest, maybe some slashed tires, or a thorough egging of both the house AND the open convertible. Or some maybe not-so-petty vandalism. But not murder.)

Normally this series works by following Tony as he follows Hawthorne and bumbles his way through the man’s genius and misanthropy to a solution. This time was a bit different, and I don’t think it entirely worked.

Because Hawthorne is reluctant to have Tony look into this case, parsimonious with clues and information, and doing his damndest to micromanage Tony’s writing process to the point of obstruction, the story is on two tracks.

The first is, obviously, the murder. Which is as twisty as ever and Tony is as lost as always but doggedly pursuing a solution even though he can’t see it because he knows Hawthorne can. At least until that thread of the story goes temporarily – and deliberately – pear-shaped.

But it’s the other track that gave me some pause, because part of the point of the series is that Tony knows little or nothing about Hawthorne and Hawthorne does his best to make sure it stays that way. His mystery is part of, I don’t want to say charm because let’s just say that’s not Hawthorne’s strongest suit, but rather it’s part of the way he works AND what keeps Tony following him. This entry in the series pulled that curtain back a bit in ways that I really hope pay off later because it seemed like some of them belonged more to the author’s James Bond novels than Hawthorne and Horowitz.

In the end, I have to admit that I’m every bit as hooked on this series, as Tony is hooked on following after Hawthorne, sometimes in spite of himself. The books certainly drive me every bit as crazy as Hawthorne does Tony.

Which means that, as differently crazed as this entry was from some of the previous books in the series, I’m still riveted – sometimes in spite of myself. So I’ll be back for the next – whenever either Hawthorne manages to run across a conveniently timed twisted murder – or Tony gets faced with an urgent deadline for book six!

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ RozanThe Murder of Mr. Ma (Dee & Lao, #1) by John Shen Yen Nee, S.J. Rozan
Narrator: Daniel York Loh
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Dee & Lao #1
Pages: 312
Length: 8 hours and 24 minutes
Published by Recorded Books, Soho Crime on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, this stunning, swashbuckling series opener by a powerhouse duo of authors is at once comfortingly familiar and tantalizingly new.
Two unlikely allies race through the cobbled streets of 1920s London in search of a killer targeting Chinese immigrants.
London, 1924. When shy academic Lao She meets larger-than-life Judge Dee Ren Jie, his life abruptly turns from books and lectures to daring chases and narrow escapes. Dee has come to London to investigate the murder of a man he’d known during World War I when serving with the Chinese Labour Corps. No sooner has Dee interviewed the grieving widow than another dead body turns up. Then another. All stabbed to death withg a butterfly sword. Will Dee and Lao be able to connect the threads of the murders—or are they next in line as victims?
John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan’s groundbreaking collaboration blends traditional gong'an crime fiction and the most iconic aspects of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Dee and Lao encounter the aristocracy and the street-child telegraph, churchmen and thieves in this clever, cinematic mystery that’s as thrilling and visual as an action film, as imaginative and transporting as a timeless classic.

My Review:

It can be considered both sad and ironic that Ma Ze Ren had left his native China in pursuit of fortune and adventure among the Chinese Labour Corps in the trenches of World War I, survived, immigrated to London and opened a successful shop dealing in Chinese antiquities – having seemingly attained all that he had originally sought – only to be killed in the midst of his shop by means of one of those self-same antiquities he intended to sell.

When they both served in the Labour Corps, Ma Ze Ren and several of his compatriots had come to an agreement with the man who served as the liaison between the Chinese Labour Corps members and the British officers who used them as cannon fodder, Judge Dee Ren Jie, that Dee would make arrangements to send their bodies back home if the chances of war required such service.

The war may be long over when this story opens in 1924, but that contract still holds Judge Dee, so he has come to London to take care of Ma’s final arrangements. But before he can even begin, Dee is taken up in the midst of a labor riot along with other Chinese men protesting for fair wages and treatment in a city that considers them something less than fully human.

Which is where the chronicler of this tale, scholar and author Lao She, comes into the tale. Dee needs to be out of jail before an enemy realizes that he has this nemesis in his clutches. Bertrand Russell wishes to help his friend Dee without getting his own name attached to this scandalous business.

And Lao She is bored out of his mind – even if he is unwilling to admit it to himself – spending his days teaching Chinese language and literature to students who have no love or care for the language or the people who speak it, merely a desire to get a leg up on their fellows in the commercial opportunities opening up in a modernized China.

Lao is supposed to be clandestinely exchanged for Dee – but Lao gives away the game with every move he makes and every word he’s not supposed to be uttering. So a prison break it is, with Lao, Dee and Russell scattering along with the rest of the prisoners.

But Dee still has a mission, Lao has acquitted himself well in the melee and has acquired a taste for danger and adventure he never realized blazed within him. Reluctant partners, resistant friends, together they will uncover not one but two murder plots in a fascinating tale that takes readers from the homes of the intelligentsia to the alleys of Limehouse – with a stop among the pioneers of the silver screen along the heights and depths of its way – only to arrive frantic and breathless at one of the first principles in any investigation:

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Escape Rating A-: The Murder of Mr. Ma was the highlighted review in the online mystery/crime review newsletter First Clue several months ago, and something about that review caught my attention and held it more than long enough for me to mark the title in Edelweiss as “Highly Anticipated” and immediately grab it when my anticipation was rewarded with the availability of an eARC and later an early audiobook.

(The above is a hint. If you love mysteries, subscribe to First Clue!)

The comparison in many reviews of this book are to Holmes and Watson, particularly the Holmes played by Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie movies – because that particular version of Holmes is considerably more active than most.

As has been confessed before, I am a sucker for a Holmes pastiche, so I would have been interested in this book on that basis alone, but I think that quick comparison sells Dee and Lao and The Murder of Mr. Ma a bit short in this particular instance.

There is a surface resemblance in that Dee is the more active and experienced investigator – with or without resorting to the martial arts – while Lao, like Watson, is the newbie at this particular game and is tasked with creating a record of the adventure rather than necessarily figuring out the solution on his own. And if this combination appeals, Barker & Llewelyn are a bit closer analog than Holmes and Watson in more ways than the initially obvious.

What takes this story up another notch or ten is that both Dee and Lao were real historical figures – who never met due to having lived centuries apart. But Lao was a Chinese scholar in London during this period in real life, while Dee was a figure out of legend whose adventures were popularized by Robert van Gulik in the mid-20th century. (So if you think Dee’s name sounds familiar, that’s most likely the reason.)

Of course, what makes any mystery is the way the case itself is laid out and investigated, and that’s where this one draws the reader in its whirlwind every bit as much as Dee pulls Lao along in his wake. Because at first it seems as if the murder was a result of the prejudice and anti-Chinese sentiment that Dee, Lao and their countrymen face on every side in London in 1924, not helped at all by the popular “Yellow Peril” movies that play on and sensationalize the British fear of “the other”.

But the more Dee and Lao, with the able assistance and frequent succor of Dee’s friend Hoong, search for clues and motives, the less that simple but terrible conclusion feels like the entirety of the answer – not that it doesn’t underlay that answer but it’s just not the whole of the thing. Particularly as that answer is made even more elusive by Lao’s struggles with his pride and his naivete, and Dee’s ongoing attempts to extract himself from his opium addiction.

This is a mystery with layers surrounding layers, wheels within wheels, two investigators neither of whom are having their best day and criminals whose overweening pride finally gets in their way. And it’s marvelous.

The audiobook, narrated by Daniel York Loh,  was a delight, but as is so often the case, I switched to text near the end because I couldn’t figure it out either and I just HAD to know. I have two and only two quibbles with the whole thing. I REALLY wanted Lao to get over his mooning over his landlady’s daughter because it was obvious from the beginning that he was deluding himself about his prospects and almost willfully blind to the obvious. His vain hopes and how thoroughly they were going to be dashed took a lot of audio time. My other quibble – a much bigger one – is that the short story that introduced this fascinating pair “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine does not appear to be available online, and that there’s no second book firmly fixed on the horizon. Dee’s and Lao’s investigations NEED to be a series. So much. So very much.

Which means that I leave this review pleased that Lao finally let himself get hit with the clue-by-four regarding Miss Wendell, and that rumors of a second book leave me with hope on that front as well.