Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi PatelKaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, mythology, retellings
Pages: 496
Length: 17 hours, 22 minutes
Published by Redhook on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions — much good it did me.”
So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.
Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.
But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak — and what legacy she intends to leave behind.
A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

My Review:

Kaikeyi is a story that gave me mixed feelings on top of my mixed feelings, much as the character of Kaikeyi herself has inspired multiple interpretations of her story and her character in the centuries since the Ramayana, one of the two important legends of Hinduism, was first written – or amassed – or compiled – or all of the above – sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.E.

The closest Western parallel is probably the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in age, size and in the scope of their importance to the canon of literature.

And, like the recent spate of modernized retellings of Homer’s famous tales such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, as well as Claire North’s upcoming Ithaca, the Ramayana, particularly the story of the reviled Kaikeyi, was ripe for a contemporary retelling.

Which is just what Kaikeyi is, an account of Queen Kaikeyi’s life from her early childhood to the terrible events that made her so despised in the Ramayana. But told from Kaikeyi’s own first-person point of view, we’re able to see the famous story in which she plays such an infamous part told from a feminist perspective rather than the patriarchal, male-centric version that was written by the all-male Sages who denigrated her during her life and controlled her narrative after her death.

While the Ramayana itself is the epic history of Kaikeyi’s son Rama, a reincarnation of Vishnu, in Kaikeyi’s part of that story we are at the end, where she poisons the mind of her husband King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, persuading him to exile Rama from the kingdom he is supposed to rule, for 14 long, bitter years. But that event – and the worse things that follow after it, are the last part of Kaikeyi’s story when it is told from her own perspective.

For her, the story begins at the beginning, the tale of a young woman, the only princess of Kekaya, with eight younger brothers and a disapproving father, the king who exiled her mother as a result of machinations in his own court.

Kekaya is a warlike kingdom, and Kaikeyi, in spite of her gender, learns many of the arts of war under the tutelage of her twin brother. But for all her agency and independence, she is forced to obey when her father marries her off to the King of Ayodhya, as Ayodhya is a larger, more prosperous country that Kekaya cannot afford to anger.

It is as one of the three Queens of Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finds both her purpose and her eventual downfall – at least according to the legends.

What we have in this fictionalized version of her life is the story of a strong woman who was forsaken by her gods for acts she had not yet committed, who began her rise with a little magic and less agency, but who eventually managed to carve herself a place at her husband’s side in war and in the highest councils of their kingdom in peace.

And who managed – in spite of the dire pronouncements of the Sages who denounced her as angering the gods by not staying in her “woman’s place” – to raise the standard of living and responsibility for many of the women of her kingdom.

Until it all went straight to something like hell – right along with damnation.

Escape Rating B: I said at the top that my mixed feelings had mixed feelings about this story. There were points where it seemed like a fairly straightforward feminist interpretation, where the conservative forces of the patriarchy who claimed they were speaking for the gods were just part of the cycle of men making god in their own image. In other words they wanted to maintain the status quo that kept them in power and women less than the dust under their feet by claiming that was what the gods wanted.

But then there are actual gods in this story who actually claim that those men are, in fact, speaking for their divine selves. Which does undercut some of that interpretation.

And on my rather confused other hand, as Rama and his brothers grow up, it’s clear, at least from Kaikeyi’s point of view, that knowing he was the avatar of a god from such a young age had done Rama absolutely no favors whatsoever. That he’s a puppet of divine forces beyond his control or understanding – and that he is just as much a pawn of men who get their hooks into him when he is young and corrupt him to their purposes – one of which is to strike Kaikeyi down through their control of her son.

In other words, these facets of the story read like an entirely different saying about the gods, the one that goes “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” variations of which go all the way back to Sophocles’ play Antigone – which was also written sometime in the 4th century B.C.E.

Because this is Kaikeyi’s story rather than Rama’s, this is not a story about a great man fighting great battles against great evil and having great adventures. In many ways it’s a much quieter story than that as Kaikeyi reaches maturity in Ayodhya, learns how to control her own magic, and makes changes in the ways that all women are treated in her adopted country.

But this is also a story that is effectively forced to serve two masters. On the one hand, it hits many of the same beats as epic fantasy. The use of magic, deities meddling in the affairs of their worshippers, the battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Howsomever, as the retelling of a foundational document in religions that have millions of adherents to this very day, the story must still conform to the major plot points of the epic poem it derives from. Kaikeyi the character can explain, to herself and to the reader, why events are remembered and recorded as they eventually were – but she can’t change the outcome no matter how much the reader might want her to or even expect her to because this does read much like epic fantasy.

Still, what makes Kaikeyi’s story so interesting is the way that she works through relationships, aided by her magic, to garner influence and power to help the women of her kingdom. One of the unusual facets of her story is that Kaikeyi herself is both Ace and Aromantic in this interpretation. Whatever her husband feels for her, this is not a romance. She comes to see him as a dear friend and a partner, but she has no romantic or sexual interest in him or anyone else in her life. She does not use ‘feminine wiles’ or seduction to make her point or to gather followers. It’s always fascinating to see a woman in a historical-type story that does not ever play those obvious tropes.

But as much as I found Kaikeyi’s campaign for increased women’s rights in general and greater agency and authority for herself in particular, the last quarter of the story fell flat for me. At that point, the bitter ending is coming fast, and Kaikeyi spends a great deal of time and energy castigating herself because she didn’t see it coming and can’t seem to stop the destruction that cannot be turned aside. She blames herself for absolutely everything that happens to a degree that just bogs down a whole chunk of chapters leading to the ending.

So I loved the first three quarters and was ready to throw the thing across the room in the long, drawn-out, “it’s all my fault, I’m to blame for everything” final quarter.

June is Audiobook Month and I listened to Kaikeyi rather than reading the text – which would have made throwing it across the room not just difficult but downright dangerous as I was generally driving while listening. And I’d hate to throw my iPhone out of the window. Seriously.

One of the reasons I kept going even when the story hit that big slough of despond at the end was because I was listening rather than reading. Stories that are in the first-person-perspective, as Kaikeyi is, lend themselves particularly well to audio when the narrator’s voice matches the character, as was certainly the case here. While I had mixed feelings about the story she was telling, the audio teller of the tale was excellent.

Review: Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

Review: Road of Bones by Christopher GoldenRoad of Bones by Christopher Golden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Pages: 240
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin's gulag.
Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.
Felix Teigland, or "Teig," is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he's stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.
A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

My Review:

The “Road of Bones” really does exist, and it really does go through some of the coldest places on Earth. And there really are bones buried under the road – the remains of the slave laborers and political prisoners who were forced to work on the road and in the mines and other extractive industries that it traveled between.

The history of this road is filled with tragedy. Whether it also harbors spirits like the ones that haunt this story – it probably depends on what you believe about ghosts, myths, legends and the supernatural.

With the knowledge that whether or not you believe in them, they still might believe in you. Or at least, might believe in killing you.

Or, more to the point that begins this story, there are plenty of people around the world who want to believe – or at least want to be titillated by the supernatural. And there are even more people who want to watch intrepid explorers venture into dangerous occupations and places from the comfort of their own cozy living rooms.

Felix Teigland produces just those kinds of “reality” TV shows – and he needs a hit to keep his company from going under. He’s decided that a TV series following the travels of a couple of intrepid explorers along the haunted and ice-bound “Road of Bones” has the potential of combining the deadly driving conditions of Ice Road Truckers with the spooky chills of Ghost Hunters into a megahit.

And Teig is all about selling the potential of things. He’s good at it – even if he’s not always good at bringing his ideas fully to profitable fruition. He always means well and he always plans to pay back all the people who believe in him.

Which is what brings his cameraman Jack Prentiss along on this journey. Jack says he’s just protecting his investment – meaning he’s watching out for Teig in the interests of getting back all the money he’s lent the man over the years.

But they are also pretty much each other’s only friend – so who else would either of them take on what will be, at best, a five day trek through a frozen hellscape that will kill them if anything happens to their vehicle or themselves.

They hoped for a great story. They expected long, dark nights and killing cold. What they found was the embodiment of the dark heart of the frozen land following behind them and picking them off – one by one in a reign of blood and terror.

And a saint blessing the dead but who had no power to save the living.

Escape Rating A-: I was willing to take this chilling drive into horror because of the author. Christopher Golden, along with Tim Lebbon, wrote one of the most haunting post-Katrina New Orleans stories to ever ride that slippery line between fantasy, history, myth and horror in The Map of Moments. I loved that book. So every once in a while I dip back into something else by either of its authors in the hopes of hitting that ‘just right’ level of chill.

Road of Bones hit that spot in a different way than I expected, but very definitely hit it. At first it reminded me of the more chilling Alaska stories that I’ve read. Fairbanks doesn’t get quite as cold as the place that Teig and Prentiss travel through, but it gets entirely too damn close – with even longer nights.

But the real chill in Road of Bones is what Teig and Prentiss experience as the darkest parts of the history of the place come to life all around them – with deadly consequences. An ancient myth, a battle between good and evil, rises up and gathers them into its grip. A myth that does not seem to care about humanity at all.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anne Bishop’s World of the Others, in that primal forces much vaster and wilder than anything humans could ever imagine are what is really in control of this world and everything in it.

All the spirits know on this Road of Bones is that something has awoken a malevolent spirit and it is their sacred duty to imprison it again – no matter who or what stands in their way. Because they are off and running.

At first, those ancient spirits of the land seem evil – at least from the perspective of the humans attempting to outrun them. All that the Teig and Prentiss initially understand is that the spirits are transforming every person they find into either a shadowy wolf or a reindeer with a rack of deadly antlers and relentlessly hunting them down.

It’s only at the end when they have a glimmer of understanding. And when it finally comes, it chills the reader to the bone.

This still isn’t my usual cup of reading tea – although I certainly needed a hot cup of something as I read it. I like to sidle up to horror rather than approaching it head on, and between the Alaska vibes, the history and the dark fantasy-type myths coming to life I was just about able to get there. I still wouldn’t want to read it alone or in a dark room – or too late at night. But I would recommend it to anyone who likes to get their chills from stories where something supernatural is very definitely out to get us.

Review: Find Me by Alafair Burke

Review: Find Me by Alafair BurkeFind Me by Alafair Burke
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Ellie Hatcher #6
Pages: 293
Published by Harper on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The disappearance of a young woman leaves her closest friend reeling and an NYPD homicide detective digging into her own past in this thrilling mystery full of twists from the New York Times bestselling author of The Better Sister and The Wife.
Some pasts won’t stay forgotten . . .
She calls herself Hope Miller, but she has no idea who she actually is. Fifteen years ago, she was found in a small New Jersey town thrown from an overturned vehicle, with no clue to her identity. Doctors assumed her amnesia was a temporary side effect of her injuries, but she never regained her memory. Hope eventually started a new life with a new name in a new town that welcomed her, yet always wondered what she may have left behind—or been running from. Now, fifteen years later, she’s leaving New Jersey to start over once again.
Manhattan defense lawyer Lindsay Kelly, Hope’s best friend and the one who found her after the accident, understands why Hope wants a new beginning. But she worries how her friend will fare in her new East Hampton home, far away from everything familiar. Lindsay’s worst fears are confirmed when she discovers Hope has vanished without a trace—the only lead a drop of blood found where she was last seen. Even more ominously, the blood matches a DNA sample with a connection to a notorious Kansas murderer.
In pursuit of answers, the women search for the truth beneath long-buried secrets. And when their searches converge, what they find will upend everything they’ve ever known. 

My Review:

The title has a chilling double meaning in this wild thrill-ride of a story. On the surface it’s about Lindsay Kelly’s search for her missing best friend, Hope Miller. Under the surface of that desperate search, there’s Hope Miller’s search for herself.

Once upon a time, fifteen years ago, the woman now known as Hope Miller crashed a stolen SUV outside tiny Hopewell New Jersey. Her seriously injured body was found by the police chief’s daughter, Lindsay, on her way home.

When Hope regained consciousness in the hospital, she had no memory of the crash – or of any part of her life before it. She was a blank slate with no knowledge of who she was or what she was doing on that road or in that car. She had to start her life over with nothing to guide her.

But Lindsay saw her rescue of the young woman as a responsibility. She stood by the woman now called Hope every step of the way. The entire town protected her once the police chief and his daughter took her under their wing, always looking out for her. And making sure that no one tried to take advantage of her. They even found work for her, always paying in cash because Hope had no ID and no way to get one without a birth certificate. Legally, Hope existed in limbo.

Emotionally, she was a woman who began to want to stretch her wings – however tentatively. Hopewell was safe for her, but it was also a place where everyone was up in her business all the time. Lindsay’s close friendship was comforting but also confining, so Hope struck out on her own.

She moved to the Hamptons, found a place to rent for cash and an under-the-table job as a realtor’s assistant. Also for cash.

And then she disappeared. After a couple of weeks of no calls and no texts, her frantic best friend went to East Hampton to see Hope for herself. Only to learn that her friend hadn’t been seen or heard from for over a week. And that no one, not even the local police, was willing to start even a cursory search for a missing woman who might have just decided to vanish just as thoroughly as she had appeared all those years ago.

But Lindsay refused to believe that. She refused to let go. And in her unrelenting search for her missing friend she turned over a rock that no one even knew was there – until the snake crawled out.

Escape Rating A+: What makes this thriller so suspenseful and so damn, pardon me, thrilling is the way that it turns itself inside out not just once, but over and over and over again. The story starts out simple – a woman is missing and her friend wants to find her.

Then it grows tentacles.

Hope may have scammed her boss out of some cash before she disappeared. It looks like someone left behind a lot of blood in her last known location – and it’s not her blood. Someone claims she was stalking her boyfriend – and the man’s corpse turns up literally dead in the water – but not a drowning victim. No one shoots themselves in the back of the neck, hiding the wound under the hairline to make it harder to spot.

So Hope, whoever she really is, is wanted for murder.

But those tentacles suck in an NYPD homicide detective who has never given up on finding her father’s murderer. Which should be one hell of a stretch of the long arm of coincidence. Except that Hope has no memory of who she was or where she came from, so it’s just barely possible that she had something to do with either the death of a cop in Wichita Kansas fifteen years ago OR that her true identity had some relationship to the serial killer case that obsessed him.

And it’s equally possible that nothing Lindsay Kelly thought she knew about her best friend was really true. Or that someone that either Hatcher or Kelly has relied upon in this crisis is who they think they are. Or both. Possibly both. Frighteningly both.

This is a page-turning, nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat read as ideas and assumptions knot and unknot at breakneck speed with each move that Lindsay Kelly and Ellie Hatcher take. They are both searching for a truth that neither of them really wants to find. A truth that very nearly finds them first.

And just when the reader thinks the story is done, it twists one last time and muddies all the water all over again.

I had not realized when I picked this up that it was the 6th in a series featuring NYPD homicide detective Ellie Hatcher. I was immersed in it immediately without that background as the story focuses more on the original characters Lindsay Kelly and Hope Maxwell than it does Hatcher. But the story was so compelling that now I’m terribly curious about the earlier books in the series, starting with Dead Connection, so I’ll probably go back and pick them up the next time I’m looking for a compelling police thriller.

Because Find Me had me in its grip from the very first page.

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie Cana

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie CanaA Proposal They Can't Refuse by Natalie Caña
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Vega Family Love Stories #1
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Natalie Caña turns up the heat, humor and heart in this debut rom-com about a Puerto Rican chef and an Irish American whiskey distiller forced into a fake engagement by their scheming octogenarian grandfathers.
Kamilah Vega is desperate to convince her family to update their Puerto Rican restaurant and enter it into the Fall Foodie Tour. With the gentrification of their Chicago neighborhood, it's the only way to save the place. The fly in her mofongo--her blackmailing abuelo says if she wants to change anything in his restaurant, she'll have to marry the one man she can't stand: his best friend's grandson.
Liam Kane spent a decade working to turn his family's distillery into a contender. Now he and his grandfather are on the verge of winning a national competition. Then Granda hits him with a one-two punch: he has cancer and he has his heart set on seeing Liam married before it's too late. And Granda knows just the girl...Kamilah Vega.
If they refuse, their grandfathers will sell the building that houses both their businesses. With their futures on the line, Kamilah and Liam plan to outfox the devious duo, faking an engagement until they both get what they want. But soon, they find themselves tangled up in more than either of them bargained for.

My Review:

This story may have elements of a rom-com, but it absolutely does not start with anything remotely resembling a “meet cute”. The first meeting we witness between Kamilah Vega and Liam Kane is clearly not their first meeting. Their grandfathers have been best friends since before their parents were born, Kamilah and Liam have known each other since childhood – even if they can’t seem to stand each other as adults.

But the real reason that their meeting in the opening of this story isn’t a meet-cute is because the first interaction we see between Kamilah and Liam is when she punches him in the junk. Hard and fast. (I can still hear him wheezing in agony from here.)

That opening scene sets up a surprising amount of the action in this “proposal”, even if that’s not obvious to the players in that particular scene.

Both the Vega Family and the Kane Family owe their hearts, their souls and their origin to this two octogenarians, Kamilah’s beloved Abuelo, Santiago Vegas and Liam’s cantankerous grandpa Killian served together, bought a former blacksmithy in Chicago’s Humboldt Park together, and have raised their businesses and their families side-by-side.

Now the old men, the misbehaving delinquents of their senior citizens’ home, have come to their grandchildren with an offer that neither Liam nor Kamilah can afford to refuse.

Kamilah wants to modernize the Vega Family’s Puerto Rican restaurant to compete with the new, bougie eateries that are moving in on the gentrifying neighborhood. Her parents and her siblings never listen to anything she says, always brushing her off with tales of childhood misdemeanors – even though she has a degree in the culinary arts and is the person they all rely on to get shit done.

She still gets shit on to the point of abuse by pretty much everyone in the family – even though she’s right. They have to either compromise a bit to stay in business – or let the family business fade away with so many other local institutions that are being washed away in the tide of gentrification.

Liam just wants his grandpa to stick around long enough for them to realize Liam’s father’s dream. The Kanes are whiskey distillers, and the signature blend that Connor Kane put up before he died in a boating accident is about to mature. Killian has cancer that he’s not planning to even think about treating. Liam wants him to at least try to stick around – because he can’t bear the thought of losing anyone else.

The old men still own those family businesses and the building that houses both the businesses AND the families, even if they’ve left it to the next generation to run those enterprises. So the deal is simple. Kamilah gets her shot at running the restaurant, Liam gets his grandpa to enter treatment, and in return Liam and Kamilah get engaged and move in together – even though they haven’t been able to be in the same room with each other without breaking into a fight since they were children. And in return their grandfathers don’t sell the building out from under them all..

Nobody’s motives are remotely pure in this arrangement, but everybody gets something they want. Except, of course, for Kamilah and Liam’s friends and family – who all believe that this fake relationship is real.

Unless, of course, it is.

Escape Rating B: I’m not exactly sure that this book is a romantic comedy. It is certainly a romance, but I didn’t think a bit of it was funny – at least not once we learn what the grandfathers are up to besides switching out ALL the decaf at their community with espresso. And even that’s not really all that funny, as someone nearly had a heart attack from the caffeine surprise.

These families are both hot messes, with Kamilah and Liam being the biggest messes of them all. A big part of this story is them revealing to each other exactly what’s packed inside the emotional baggage that each of them has been lugging around since they were children. The unpacking of that messy luggage is heartbreaking all by itself without factoring in Killian’s cancer diagnosis.

It’s also not funny that the Vegas’ treatment of Kamilah, as much as they love her and as much as they mean well, borders on abuse. Nothing she does is ever right, nothing she says is ever taken seriously, and she’s beaten down at every single turn with a recitation of her failures going all the way back to early childhood. Whatever they think they’re accomplishing, all they’re really doing is undermining her self esteem while expecting her to pick up everyone’s slack.

That Kamilah has turned into a martyr about it may not be a healthy reaction – but it’s not a surprising one either. She’s learned that the only way to get anything approaching what she wants is to be a big underhanded about it – in ways that eventually bite her in the ass.

Liam still blames his father for dying when Liam was 11. His grandmother died in the same accident and his grandfather drove Liam’s mother away in the aftermath. Liam expects all relationships to end in people leaving him, as his grandfather is about to do. He pushes everyone away and doesn’t know how to make himself stop.

Kamilah’s manipulations run smack into Liam’s need to push people away before they leave him – giving him the perfect excuse to expose everyone’s machinations in this mess into the bargain. It’s not funny at all. It’s downright tragic.

What makes this story work is that they get the help they both need. It’s not so much a complete happy ever after as it is a happy work in progress with a sincere hope of ever after. Love doesn’t conquer or cure all – nor should it. There’s too much that needs fixing in this case. But it does provide a firm foundation to stand on to get the work done.

That’s a lesson we don’t see often enough in romance, but I’m definitely here for it.

Review: As Seen on TV by Meredith Schorr

Review: As Seen on TV by Meredith SchorrAs Seen on TV by Meredith Schorr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 352
Published by Forever on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Fans of the Hallmark Channel and Gilmore Girls will adore this delightful rom‑com about a city girl who goes in search of small-town happiness, only to discover life—and love—are nothing like the TV movies.
Emerging journalist Adina Gellar is done with dating in New York City. If she’s learned anything from made-for-TV romance movies, it’s that she’ll find love in a small town—the kind with harvest festivals, delightful but quirky characters, and scores of delectable single dudes. So when a big-city real estate magnate targets tiny Pleasant Hollow for development, Adi knows she’s found the perfect story—one that will earn her a position at a coveted online magazine, so she can finally start adulting for real . . . and maybe even find her dream man in the process. 
Only Pleasant Hollow isn’t exactly “pleasant.” There’s no charming bakery, no quaint seasonal festivals, and the residents are more ambivalent than welcoming. The only upside is Finn Adams, who’s more mouthwatering than the homemade cherry pie Adi can’t seem to find—even if he does work for the company she’d hoped to bring down. Suddenly Adi has to wonder if maybe TV got it all wrong after all. But will following her heart mean losing her chance to break into the big time?

My Review:

As Adina Gellar discovers, life is NOT like a Hallmark movie. Except when it is.

It could be said that 25-year-old Adina Gellar is experiencing a “failure to launch”. She’s still living with her mother in their rent-controlled NYC apartment. She’s graduated from college, but she’s looking for a job in journalism – and that’s one field that very much isn’t what it used to be. So she has two low-paying jobs as a spin instructor and a barista so that she can contribute something to household expenses. And she keeps cold-calling the editor of one lifestyle publication hoping that one of her ideas will click. She’s trying, but it seems like not very hard because her nest is much too comfortable.

She’s also fed up with the dating scene after yet another first date where the guy can’t be bothered to show up. She’s done.

But she’s addicted to Hallmark movies, so when she sees a profile of a big time New York City real estate developer who has bought up a huge building site in a little town about 2 hours outside the city, she thinks she’s found a story straight out of one of those Hallmark movies she loves so much.

She even manages to sell the story to that editor she keeps calling. Now all she has to do is spend a week or two in beautiful, rustic Pleasant Hollow and write a story about its wonderful small town ambiance, close-knit community, and fears of losing its identity and heritage in the face of a big, bad developer coming in and gentrifying the place.

Adi assumes that Pleasant Hollow is going to be just like all the quirky, plucky, welcoming little towns that she’s seen in all those Hallmark movies. And that she’ll find a hunky, handsome local who will sweep her off her feet.

None of Adi’s Hallmark fueled hopes and dreams about Pleasant Hollow turn out to be remotely true. Except for one. She does find a hunky, handsome man who does sweep her off her feet – after he laughs at her rather a lot – and justifiably so. But Finn Adams isn’t local.

He’s the on-site representative for that supposedly greedy developer that Adi was planning to cast as the villain in her story. But bad boys need love too – and so do slightly naïve would-be journalists.

Escape Rating C-: I really, really wanted to like this and I just didn’t. The idea had the potential for so many happy feels – rather like the Hallmark movies that inspired it. But it was let down by its main character.

Adi is naïve to the point of ridiculousness. We’re not surprised that Finn has fun misdirecting her, we’re just surprised that she’s so gullible as to fall for it. I know that I lot of people LOVE Hallmark movies – and I’ve certainly enjoyed the books that some of them have been based on, but does anyone believe that anything in them is real? Seriously?
That being said, I kind of liked the schadenfreude of Adi discovering that small towns – or at least the small town she was visiting, were absolutely nothing like what she’d seen on TV.

While I did like Adi’s relationship with her mother, as well as her lovely friendship with her lifelong bestie Kate, Adi herself just wasn’t enough to carry the book. Although it certainly made for a fairytale ending that she not only got the guy but that she managed to fail upwards in her journalism career in a way that would be perfect for a Hallmark movie – but in real life only happens to cis, straight, white men who got much luckier in the difficulty setting for their life than the even the regular lowest difficulty setting would allow.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary, but I think the next time I’m looking for the equivalent of Hallmark movie feels I’m going to go back to Virgin River – even though that’s on Netflix.

Review: Lightning by M.L. Buchman

Review: Lightning by M.L. BuchmanLightning (Miranda Chase NTSB #10) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #10
Pages: 388
Published by Buchman Bookworks on June 7th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Miranda Chase—the autistic heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

Revenge? A terrorist attack? Or a declaration of war?

The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee lies dead. The murder weapon? An Air Force Learjet deliberately crashed into his DC hotel room.

Half a world away in the South China Sea, an F-35C Lightning II — America’s newest fighter jet — crashes during landing. It cripples the aircraft supercarrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. An accident? Or China’s next move toward world domination?

Miranda Chase and her NTSB air-crash investigation team are spread thin as they struggle to unravel two horrific crashes at once — and halt a global firestorm before it burns them all.

Worst of all. The next target could be Miranda herself.

My Review:

As many times as M.L. Buchman’s work, particularly the Miranda Chase series, is compared with Tom Clancy, it seems fitting that the opening of Lightning is just a bit reminiscent of Clancy’s eighth Jack Ryan book, Executive Orders. That’s the one where Ryan finds himself very unexpectedly President after a plane crashes into a joint session of Congress and wipes out pretty much everyone.

Not that the crash that opens Lightning – actually, either of the crashes – does nearly as thorough a job on the entire government as that one did. But the description of that plane circling a landmark DC hotel did give me the same kind of vibe.

While President Roy Clarke in Miranda Chase’s world has already lost his VP (that’s just a tiny piece of the story in White Top) it does resemble Executive Orders, relative to its predecessor Debt of Honor, as Lightning takes place very much in the immediate wake of the events of that previous story.

Miranda’s team has just been split. Two of the members of her core team, computer genius Jeremy Trahn and Colonel Vicki “Taz” Cortez have been seconded to the Air Force office that investigates crashes AND the headquarters of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) in a joint assignment.

Jeremy has always been Miranda’s right-hand, the person she trusts most at a crash site to do things not just as she wants them, but just as she would do them herself. Jeremy is ready to “fly the nest” and run his own team. But Miranda misses him like a limb. She functions best when her personal world remains stable and the adjustment is difficult for her.

How much of that is her autism and how much is just that she misses Jeremy and Taz because they’re part of her found family is not something she’s able to determine. Miranda knows what makes planes tick and what makes them crash, but she has very little grasp on humans and their emotions – even her own.

Jeremy and Taz arrive in DC – with all their boxes and assorted crap – to take over the investigation of the plane crash in the heart of downtown DC that wiped out more than one luxury hotel. The initial question on the very bloody table is whether the crash was aimed at the hotel or at the regular guest whose suite it landed in – the late Senator Hunter Ransom, a thorn in the side of the current administration. But more importantly, a formerly influential Senator whose many many underhanded and/or under-the-table deals in the Middle East had just fallen through with a bang.

Meanwhile, Miranda and the rest of her team are investigating a plane crash at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage when they get “hijacked” by an order from the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to immediately fly to the site of a disastrous crash on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Because as bad as the mess at Elmendorf was, it doesn’t have even the ghost of the ghost of a chance of plunging the U.S. into war with China. If the incident aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt was caused by anything other than “pilot error” the possibility of World War III opening in its wake is not inconsiderable.

Only Miranda and her team are capable of putting the very tiny pieces of the crashed plane and the circumstances surrounding it together in a way that will reliably point the finger at “whodunnit”. What the politicians will make of the situation after that isn’t remotely part of Miranda Chase’s remit – or her genius.

Escape Rating A+: The reason that Buchman’s Miranda Chase series gets compared to Tom Clancy so often is that both are stories about political brinkmanship as seen through the eyes of someone who is so damn good at their job that they frequently upset the best laid plans of the powers-that-be or wannabe by exposing either their incompetence or their triple-crossing craziness. Or both. In Mirada’s case at least, often both.

Miranda Chase is the best crash-scene investigator that the NTSB has ever produced. The laser focus that is a part of her being on the autism spectrum allows and/or forces her to keep pursuing her goal – solving the crash – until every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed no matter what it takes.

The team that has coalesced around her (their origin stories are all in the marvelous Start the Chase collection) are all the best at the best of what they do, whether that’s maneuver around the humans who are inevitably part of a crash scene (Mike), analyze data from every single piece of electronic equipment on the downed craft (Jeremy), provide the pilot’s perspective for helicopters (Andi) that Miranda herself has for planes, navigate the Pentagon’s darker corners (Taz) or just protect Miranda and the rest of the team from anyone who tries to get in their way (Holly). Together they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to finding the right needle in the crumpled haystack of a crash.

The cases that meet in a headlong collision in Lightning are up to everyone’s eyeballs with political ramifications. Even the CIA Director Clarissa Reese, who hates Miranda and her team with an incandescent fire that can probably be seen from orbit, finds herself playing nice not just with Miranda but with the Chinese government who may, or may not, or may, be the architects of this series of disasters.

Watching Miranda, her team and the powerful people she has in her corner negotiate their way out of – or at least into a delay of – what seems like an inevitable war always makes for edge-of-the-seat reading – and Lightning was absolutely no exception to that rule.

I want to say this has a happy ending, but this is set in a version of the real world that is entirely too close to what is happening right now. The news doesn’t have a happy ending, and Lightning feels so ripped from the headlines that it doesn’t either.

What it does have is a sense of breathless anticipation for the next disaster. At least Miranda and her team have a chance at kicking doom down the road until the next book. And I can’t wait to see how they manage it next time!

Review: The Appeal by Janice Hallett

Review: The Appeal by Janice HallettThe Appeal by Janice Hallett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 419
Published by Atria Books on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This murder mystery follows a community rallying around a sick child—but when escalating lies lead to a dead body, everyone is a suspect.
The Fairway Players, a local theatre group, is in the midst of rehearsals for an Arthur Miller play, when tragedy strikes the family of director Martin Haywood and his wife Helen, the play’s star. Their young granddaughter has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and with an experimental treatment costing a tremendous sum, their fellow castmates rally to raise the money to give her a chance at survival.
But not everybody is convinced of the experimental treatment’s efficacy—nor of the good intentions of those involved. New actress Sam, a former NGO worker, raises doubts. But are her suspicions justified? Or does she have a history with the doctor involved? As tension grows within the community, things come to a shocking head the night of the dress rehearsal. The next day, a dead body is found, and soon, an arrest is made. In the run-up to the trial, two young lawyers sift through the material—emails, messages, letters—with a growing suspicion that a killer may still be on the loose.
A wholly modern take on the epistolary novel, The Appeal is a debut perfect for fans of Richard Osman and Lucy Foley.

My Review:

As the reader opens this story, they are in pretty much the same position as Femi and Charlotte. They, and we, are presented with a pile of correspondence and miscellanea to read through on behalf of a presumably prestigious law firm. There’s an assumption that a crime must have been committed somewhere along the way or they wouldn’t have to read through this mess – but neither they nor we even know what the crime was, let alone whodunnit.

And it is a mess – as are the people whose correspondence they are plowing through. (Although that should probably be “plough” instead of “plow” as this mystery is set in the U.K.)

As we – and they – eventually find out, the point of receiving this pile of email texts and assorted what-nots without any explanatory information is for them to go through said pile with a completely unbiased viewpoint and create that explanatory information. Even if they don’t know what it is they’re supposed to explain – or why.

The story builds upon itself by reading that correspondence with them. As we all sort through the emails, patterns begin to emerge. Whether those patterns will have anything to do with a crime, or for that matter whether those patterns will make any sense at all, is left up to the readers – both the ones who are part of the story and the ones who are following it.

What emerges is the story of a small town with an even smaller and more insular community nestled within it. And what happens when an outsider manages to work their way in and exposes the secrets that lie at the center of everything that the members thought they all held dear.

Escape Rating A: The easy way to describe the appeal of The Appeal would be Noises Off meets Knives Out. A play about the behind the scenes shenanigans of a play combined with a story of all the members of a wealthy family behaving very badly while everyone involved is conning everybody else.

But that description does not convey the sheer, utterly glorious WTF’ery of The Appeal.

What we’re reading right along with Femi and Charlotte, is the seemingly uncensored email correspondence among a group of amateur thespians. The Fairway Players, helmed by director Martin Hayward and leading lady Helen Grace Hayward, have, for the last several years, put on a series of plays with the voluntary assistance of many members of the community who are, or at least who aspire to be, in the inner circle of the Haywards, the most important family in the area.

They’ve just completed their latest production and are casting for the next, when two critical events take place. Newcomers have arrived in the area, Sam and Kel Greenwood, both taking up nursing positions at a nearby hospital after nearly a decade serving in underfunded, overstressed but absolutely vital medical clinics in the Central African Republic.

And the Hayward’s granddaughter Poppy is diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, Medulloblastoma. They have learned about an experimental drug on trial in the U.S. that will give little Poppy a better chance of beating the cancer so they are sending out a high-profile appeal in order to raise the money for the not-yet-proven treatment.

An amount which keeps fluctuating, but always, only and ever upwards.

The genius of this approach to relating and eventually solving this mystery is the way that the readers are all (Charlotte, Femi, the actual reader themself – or at least this reader) is compelled to move from page to page, and email to email, rather in the same way that very few people can resist sticking at least a few pieces into any random jigsaw puzzle they happen to come across.

Each message is another puzzle piece, while just as it is in solving a cardboard jigsaw puzzle, some don’t seem to fit at all and some the reader/puzzle solver is oh-so-tempted to shove in whether they fit or not because the mind wants there to be a discernable pattern and inevitably starts trying to create it whether that pattern is visible yet or not.

What we do learn early on – as the viewer does in Knives Out – is that whatever is really going on these people are ALL hot messes.

At first, it seems as if the crime involved is a financial crime. From the earliest read of the correspondence it’s obvious that something about the medical charity “A Cure for Poppy”, isn’t on the up-and-up. What we – and the investigators – don’t know is whether financial fraud is the only crime being perpetrated.

And we can’t wait to find out.

Epistolary novels like this one, stories written entirely or nearly entirely as correspondence, are difficult to pull off, but The Appeal manages to do so with aplomb. In the case of The Appeal, that we are creating and solving the puzzle with each message – however off the wall either the text or the writer might be – makes the reader part of the solution in a way that compels much the same way as eating one chip from a bag. It’s hard to stop.

Or at least it was for me. I hope it will be for you, too.

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan MalleryThe Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love. 

My Review:

Six months after their decision to move their businesses in together, Ashley, Bree and Mikki are all pretty happy with the results. Between the new, more central, beachfront location, and the synergy between Bree’s bookshop on one end, Mikki’s gift shop on the other and Ashley’s cupcakery in the middle, traffic is up, profits are up and all three businesses are booming.

Howsomever, on the personal front, while Ashley believes she’s happy with her live-in boyfriend Seth, and Bree is certain she’s happy with using men for sex as long as she’s up front about her unwillingness to commit for more than a night or two. Meanwhile Mikki believes that she’s content with the company of Earl – her vibrator.

Their business successes are real. Their romantic contentment, on the other hand, is considerably more questionable as each of their respective illusions crash and burn in different and unexpected ways.

Bree meets someone who makes her wish she wasn’t too damaged to let anyone into her heart ever again. Ashley discovers that her perfect boyfriend has commitment issues of his own – he claims to want to be with her forever but refuses to even consider marriage. While Mikki’s realization that a vibrator is far from enough finds her leading not one but two men on while believing she’s doing no such thing.

The story of the Boardwalk Bookshop and its three proprietors is the story of what happens after things fall apart. And how they help each other put everything back together. Not the same as before. Not necessarily and certainly not completely better. But getting up and putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it is until it gets just a bit easier. Because they have each other.

Escape Rating B+: Although this book is being billed as a romance, the heart of the story isn’t the romances. The heart of the story is the friendship. It’s not that love doesn’t lift them up, it’s that the love between these women who began as strangers is what gives them the support to make those romances possible.

Bree is the one who comes into the story with the most damage. Her famously intellectual parents saw her as an interruption to their work and were not in the least bit shy about reminding her of that fact. Looking for love and acceptance, she married a man who made her feel important because he needed her to take care of him, not because he either loved her or respected her. She tries to say she’s not capable of falling in love, but what she really means is that she’s too afraid to risk her heart again so keeps people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to hurt her. Bree is the one who needs the most help and the most healing, but it’s not going to happen unless she is able to admit that she’s just plain scared.

Ashley’s initial damage is old and scarred over and she’s learned to deal with it reasonably well. Her older brother barely survived a hit and run accident. While her parents were taking care of him, she learned to take care of herself. Her habit of compromising her own needs because others’ were so much greater makes her cling too long to a relationship that just isn’t working because she’s so used to giving up what she wants for others. When she can’t this time she’s crushed. (And IMHO he’s an asshat.)

I have to admit that I found it easier to empathize with Bree and Ashley than I did Mikki. She’s so competent in her business and so ditzy in her personal life that I didn’t enjoy her parts of the story as much as the others – although her frequent conversational gaffes about Earl were hilarious. But Mikki’s dilemma is that she’s considering remarrying her ex-husband while dating someone else. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, what are second marriages to the person you divorced? The triumph of hope over experience AND knowledge? I know it does happen in real life but in her situation it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting herself out of the mess that she’d unwittingly gotten herself into required lots of uncomfortable conversations and a whole lot of groveling.

All in all, this is a charming story about three women who help each other to be strong in their broken places – sometimes even in spite of themselves. So come for the champagne-fueled walks on the beach, and stay for the healing power of friendship. It’s all here in The Boardwalk Bookshop.

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearA Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #17
Pages: 358
Published by Harper on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear's beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire--the fastest fighter aircraft in the world--to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing.
Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo's plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Meanwhile, Maisie's husband, a high-ranking political attach� based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There's already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.
To guarantee the safety of the First Lady--and of the soldier being held in police custody--Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own.

My Review:

I love the Maisie Dobbs series, so I had been saving this book for a time when I needed a reading treat. As yesterday was Memorial Day, I was looking for a book about war and what comes after. Considering the origins of Memorial Day, I probably should have been looking for a book set during the U.S. Civil War, but I remembered I’d been saving this one and today seemed like a perfect time. So here we are.

Part of what makes this series so compelling is the way that Maisie Dobbs as an investigator turns some of the mystery conventions on their pointy little heads. A lot of fictional detectives don’t believe in coincidence, so when there are multiple crimes it usually turns out that there’s a single cause or perpetrator at their roots.

Maisie, as trained by the late and often lamented Maurice Blanche, sees coincidences as guideposts – not necessarily to the crime she’s investigating, but to something in her own life that needs looking into. Which means that in addition to the usual questioning of witnesses and suspects, Maisie is quite often questioning herself. Not that she doubts herself, but that she’s always looking for the lesson that the universe is trying to teach her.

The cases and incidents that she undertakes to resolve in A Sunlit Weapon have huge, potentially world-shattering consequences. They will also change the life of one little girl. And all the aspects of that tangled investigation are wrapped around war. Not just this war, but also the one before. And not just the fighting, but the grief that inevitably follows in its wake.

Maisie begins with one case. A young aviatrix, a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary tasked with repositioning planes from one airbase to another, is nearly shot down over Kent by someone on the ground. When Jo Hardy goes back to check out the scene on the ground, she finds, not the shooter, but Mattias Crittenden, a young black American soldier bound and gagged in a deserted barn. She is determined to make sure that the black GI gets justice and not a lynching, so she turns to Maisie for help.

Maisie also has a much more personal case of her own. Her adopted daughter Anna is being bullied at school because Anna is slightly darker skinned than the typical “English Rose” complexion. The children at her school have suddenly started harassing her and referring to her as an enemy Italian, when in fact she’s English. (Her father was a Maltese sailor. Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.)

What has Maisie perplexed is that Anna was happy in school and eager to learn – up until the past few weeks. Something at the school has changed – and not for the better.

These two “cases” shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Or to the third case that falls into Maisie’s lap. Her new husband, Mark Scott, is an American attached to the U.S. Embassy. His current task is to handle security for Eleanor Roosevelt’s imminent visit to Britain. Scott has learned that there are plans to assassinate the First Lady while she’s in Britain.

Maisie’s search of the barn where Private Crittenden was discovered turned up two items. The dog tags of Crittenden’s friend Private Stone, who is missing – and coded plans that reference the First Lady’s codename while she’s traveling.

Somehow, Jo Hardy’s mysterious ground shooter and the plot to assassinate Mrs. Roosevelt are linked – even if Maisie doesn’t yet know how. And all of it, along with the mystery at little Anna’s school, may not all be part of the same series of crimes, but are all part of the same thing – the terrible consequences of war.

Escape Rating A-: We’ve followed Maisie from her childhood apprenticeship with Maurice Blanche through her nursing service in WW1, through her grief at the loss of her fiancé, her eventual wedding and subsequent tragic widowhood, her recovery and now her second marriage to the American Mark Scott who she met in a previous book in this series, The American Agent. What we haven’t seen until now is Maisie as a married woman, as the period in her life when she was married happened between Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Dangerous Place. So for those of us who have followed Maisie through her career, this is the first time we’ve seen her in the position where she’s going to have to negotiate how to balance her work life and personal life in a way that she hasn’t had to before.

Because being an investigator is very much core to who Maisie is as a person. It wasn’t easy giving it up to marry the first time around, but she was younger and less well established. At this point in her life she knows she can’t give up being who she is to become a traditional wife and mother – something that the Headmistress of her daughter’s school throws in her face in their first confrontation.

At the same time, a part of the undercurrent of this story is that Maisie’s job is dangerous, and that no matter what she promises she’s not going to stop doing it. And that her new husband hates the danger she throws herself into – even though that kind of danger is the reason they met in the first place.

But the case, or rather cases, that Maisie looks into exemplify the way that Maisie works. She pulls on one thread because it’s part of her initial remit from her client. The more she pulls, the more she investigates, the more complicated and interwoven the threads seem to be – until they send out branches and tentacles into people and places she never thought they’d go.

It’s not a quick process, so Maisie’s stories aren’t page-turners in a thriller sense. And yet they’re compelling because Maisie makes them so. She’s intelligent and complicated, and the way she works through her cases is the same – no matter where they lead her.

In this case they lead her from a black GI accused of killing his white friend even though no corpse has been found. It’s all too clear that this is a rush to judgment or that he’s a convenient scapegoat because of the color of his skin. There is no part of the way that the US military treats its black soldiers, particularly in the persons of its MPs, that does not grate – not just on 21st century readers but on the British public at large at the time. Because racial segregation doesn’t make sense and that’s all too easy to see through the eyes of people who don’t employ it. (That’s not to say that Britain didn’t and doesn’t have plenty of its own problems in regards to class separation, elitism, etc., just that it didn’t run that way at the time.)

But in doing her best to ensure that Pvt. Crittenden isn’t rushed to a hangman’s noose or the electric chair for the murder of a man who might not even be dead Maisie opens up more cans of worms. As she does.

And in the middle of investigating how Crittenden got to be in that barn – no matter how many roadblocks, literal and figurative, get thrown in her way – Maisie links the barn to the shooting, the shooting to a damaged young man, and the young man all the way back to the Headmistress of her daughter’s school. Not because they have the same beliefs or commit any of the same actions, but because they were all, every single one, damaged by the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

Not because it didn’t, but because war is hell – both for the ones who fight it and the ones who wait behind.

I am already looking forward to Maisie’s next adventure, and not just because I’m wondering how hard (or if) she’s going to have to hit her husband with a clue-by-four to get it through his head that she’s never going to turn away from doing the right thing no matter how dangerous it might be. As this book took place in the autumn of 1943, I expect the next book to cover some of 1944. If Maisie ends up being involved in the planning of or the misdirection wrapped around D-Day I will not be at all surprised. Riveted, but not surprised. And I can’t wait to read it!

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. Buchman

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. BuchmanStart the Chase: a Miranda Chase Origin Story Collection by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: Kickstarter
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #9
Pages: 318
Published by Buchman Bookworks on October 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Miranda Chase’s Team—before they were one!
Before they were the hottest, and most at-risk air-crash investigation team for the NTSB and the US military, the six members of Miranda Chase’s team had each started along very unique paths.
Courtesy of backers of The Great Chase tabletop game Kickstarter, their pasts are revealed. Discover why each team member’s future turned out so differently than they planned.
Six exciting stories filled with challenges, disasters, and triumphs. Five stories with fans as guest characters. A fun and wild flight.

My Review:

I usually have a hard time getting myself stuck into short story or novella collections, but Start the Chase was definitely an exception. Just as Miranda Chase herself is an exception in so many fascinating ways.

In the middle of a week that has gone completely off the rails, I was looking for something that I could get sucked into instantly that wouldn’t let me go until the end, and the Miranda Chase series has been good for that from the very first book, Drone.

But there haven’t been any new books in the series for a few months, as the author has been busy taking care of all the good business that was generated when he got his rights back to his earliest work. Which I loved from all the way back in The Night is Mine, lo those many years ago at the beginning of Reading Reality. So if you love military romance, now is a great time to start or restart his Night Stalkers series and all the deliciously good books that followed.

Howsomever, let’s get back to Miranda Chase and her team, which is where I started. I got a notification about the tenth book in the series, Lightning, coming out in June, which reminded me that I hadn’t read the ninth book in the series, Start the Chase, even though I participated in the Kickstarter.

I needed to get lost in a book and a world that I was already familiar with, and I wanted to read Start the Chase before Lightning struck, so here we are.

The stories in Start the Chase are all origin stories. Which makes this a great place to start the series if you aren’t already part of the action.

What makes the stories special is that they show us the characters we have come to know and love at pivot points in their lives. Specifically the pivot that changed their courses into the one that eventually intersected with Miranda Chase and the rest of her team. To kick things off there’s the pivotal moment when Miranda investigated her very first plane crash on her very own.

She had to do the investigation on her own, because the crash she was investigating was also her own. On her way to her first class at the NTSB her private plane crashed in the desolate forest between Washington State and Idaho. Miranda was the pilot and the only person aboard. Her meticulous investigation of a crash that she honestly didn’t expect to be rescued from kept her sane until her rescuers surprised her and themselves by finding her alive. She learned a valuable lesson in this story, and we learned a lot about her. Not that a lot of her past hasn’t come up over the course of the series, but this particular bit of detail was something special.

For each member of the team, the story in Start the Chase is just as pivotal as Miranda’s High Passage, Holly Harper’s story, Holly Games a New Path, begins during one of Holly’s darkest moments. She has just left the Australian Special Forces after the loss of her entire team. A new friend drags her to, of all places, a gaming convention, where Holly, costumed as Captain Marvel, discovers that she still has friends both in and out of the service, and that there’s a surprising, but surprisingly interesting opportunity for her if she is willing to seize the day.

Mike’s Last Big Con is the story that comes the closest to the opening of the Miranda Chase series, as we see the secretive Mike in his last undercover job for the FBI as it all goes completely pear-shaped. Working with Miranda is going to require that the long-time conman live on the straight and narrow – a place with which he is not even remotely familiar.

All six of the stories provide insights into characters we think we know. There have been hints before, but this collection fleshes out the details of how they ended up on the path that leads to the team. For fans of the series, it gives us an up close and personal look at people we thought we knew. For those coming in, it’s a great way of seeing who they were as individuals before they jostled their way into becoming part of such a marvelous whole.

Escape Rating A: I loved this collection. I got sucked in right away and didn’t get shaken out until the end – wishing there were more. Or wishing that Lightning was here now and not next month. I’ve missed Miranda and the gang and it was fantastic to spend time with them again.

Because this collection was produced as part of a Kickstarter campaign for The Great Chase Tabletop Game that Miranda and her team play during the later books in the series, there’s an additional fascinating piece to this collection of great stories.

One of the backer levels for the Kickstarter was the opportunity for five people to get themselves written into the individual stories as secondary characters. (This is called Tuckerization after the SF author Wilson “Bob” Tucker. I only mention this because once upon a time, when I went to a LOT of SF cons, I knew Tucker a bit. I digress.)

In Miranda’s story she’s alone, that’s a huge part of the point of the story after all. But in all of the other stories the secondary character who helps push or guide Miranda’s future team member into the path that leads them there is one of these backers. All of the stories include more than a bit of real detail about those backers, along with a way for readers to support the charities of their choice. So there’s a prompt to do a bit of good in the world – which seems to need it now more than ever – along with a terrific story.

If you like political thrillers, technothrillers and/or competence porn, you absolutely cannot go wrong following Miranda Chase and her team. Lightning can’t strike my TBR pile soon enough!