Review: Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester

Review: Reality and Other Stories by John LanchesterReality and Other Stories by John Lanchester
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: horror, short stories
Pages: 192
on March 9, 2021
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Ghost stories for the digital age by the Booker Prize–longlisted author of The Wall.
In 2017, inspired in part by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the acclaimed English novelist John Lanchester published a ghost story in The New Yorker. "Signal," an eerie story of contemporary life and the perils of technology, was a sensation among readers—and since then Lanchester has written several more.
Reality and Other Stories gathers the best of these, taking readers to an uncanny world familiar to fans of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. Household gizmos with a mind of their own. Mysterious cell-phone calls from unknown numbers. Reality TV shows and the creeping suspicion that none of this is real…
Reality and Other Stories is a book of disquiet that captures the severe disconnection and distraction of our time.

My Review:

If you like the kind of horror that is featured in The Twilight Zone, those stories where it doesn’t exactly feel like horror until that sudden twist at the end – “It’s…it’s a cookbook!”

So rather than being in your face – or in your roiling stomach – this is a collection where the stories kind of sidle up to their horror aspects, give it a nod, nod, wink, wink, and then wham just before you turn the page to the next story.

And a couple lay an egg. But then that’s true for any collection where even when the concept as a whole has a lot of appeal to a lot of readers, one or two stories don’t work for everyone. And usually not the same one or two stories either.

The first story, “Signal”, was one of my favorites in the set. It’s kind of a haunted house story, and it manages to be both creepy and sad at the same time. The ending was kind of Sixth Sense in more ways than one, and also, I just love stories where it seems like it’s going one way but then the sadness just slaps you at the end, as it does here.

“Charity”, the last story in the collection, was the one that contained the most outright horror aspects, and also felt like it threw itself back to some of the classics like Lovecraft. At the same time, it’s a bit more like revenge on Lovecraft rather than homage, as the cursed object that forms the center of the story is an instrument of revenge by people who Lovecraft would never have given the time of day. “Charity” is also a story whose plot is fairly easy to predict from the opening but still manages to chill the reader at the end.

The story that is sticking with me is “We Happy Few” because it honestly scared me twice, once in its implications and then again in its result. Howsomever, from other reviews of this book it seems that this story did not resonate with a lot of readers, and I kind of understand why. The characters in the story are extremely unlikeable. At the surface level, this is about a bunch of junior academics sitting in a coffee shop complaining about absolutely everyone around them. Their observations are, for the most part, no deeper than a teaspoon. And yet, when one of them posits that the reason that the world seems to be getting crazier – and it really is if you consider things like Trump, Brexit and the COVID mask deniers and the anti-vaxxers – is that social media is designed as a system to appeal to the worst part of human nature and to ultimately make people less clear thinking and less intelligent. Which is a very scary thought in real life. In the story, the implications were instantaneous. And kind of awful.

While on the one hand it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of people, on the other, it’s more than a bit chilling.

Escape Rating C: Out of a collection of eight stories, the three listed above were the ones that I either enjoyed or that stuck with me or a bit of both. Of the other five, I thought that “Coffin Liquor”, “The Kit” and the title story “Reality” were okay but not more than that. Also “Reality” absolutely confirmed my conviction that reality TV shows are one of the circles of Hell.

I think that a lot of people are going to find “Cold Call” really chilling, but I got annoyed with it, or with the actions of the characters in it, at the very beginning and just couldn’t stick with it. “Which of These Would You Like?” didn’t have enough setup or enough detail to work for me. It’s weird rather than horrifying and there just wasn’t enough there, there.

Everyone’s reading mileage is going to vary on this one, so if you like Twilight Zone-esq horror, give this a try.

Last but not least, the UK cover at left has a completely different vibe from the US cover. The US cover feels like it touches more on the SFnal aspects of the stories, while the UK cover has more of a horror feel to it. And your mileage may vary about that as well.

Review: Rabbits by Terry Miles

Review: Rabbits by Terry MilesRabbits by Terry Miles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, technothriller, thriller
Pages: 448
Published by Del Rey Books on June 8, 2021
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Conspiracies abound in this surreal and yet all-too-real technothriller in which a deadly underground alternate reality game might just be altering reality itself, set in the same world as the popular Rabbits podcast.
It's an average work day. You've been wrapped up in a task, and you check the clock when you come up for air--4:44 pm. You go to check your email, and 44 unread messages have built up. With a shock, you realize it is April 4th--4/4. And when you get in your car to drive home, your odometer reads 44,444. Coincidence? Or have you just seen the edge of a rabbit hole?
Rabbits is a mysterious alternate reality game so vast it uses our global reality as its canvas. Since the game first started in 1959, ten iterations have appeared and nine winners have been declared. Their identities are unknown. So is their reward, which is whispered to be NSA or CIA recruitment, vast wealth, immortality, or perhaps even the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe itself. But the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes. Players have died in the past--and the body count is rising.
And now the eleventh round is about to begin. Enter K--a Rabbits obsessive who has been trying to find a way into the game for years. That path opens when K is approached by billionaire Alan Scarpio, the alleged winner of the sixth iteration. Scarpio says that something has gone wrong with the game and that K needs to fix it before Eleven starts or the whole world will pay the price.
Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing. Two weeks after that, K blows the deadline and Eleven begins. And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.

My Review:

R U playing? That’s the question that runs through the entire book. Are you playing Rabbits?

There’s a quote attributed to Mary Kay Ash – yes, the cosmetics queen – that goes, “If you think you can. And if you think you can’t, you’re right.” (There are also variations attributed to Henry Ford, but I like her version better.) With Rabbits, it’s more that if you think you’re playing, you might be, but if you think you’re not, you’re probably right. But whether or not you are playing Rabbits, Rabbits is definitely playing you. You just don’t know it. By the time you do know, it’s too late. Too late for you, and possibly too late for the rest of us as well.

If you’re a bit confused by the above, you’re not alone. And you’re not supposed to be. That’s Rabbits.

What is certain, for select, certain, Rabbits-induced values of certainty, is that when the story opens, our protagonist K is not playing Rabbits. At least at the moment. Because the eleventh round of the long-running game – just how long its been running is a matter for serious debate – is about to begin but hasn’t – yet.

So K is in the middle of giving a somewhat roundabout introductory lecture into the world of Rabbits, being extremely circumlocutory because the first rule of Rabbits is that no one ever talks either directly or straightforwardly about Rabbits. He’s also passing the hat because being a Rabbits player isn’t exactly a way to make a living.

Winning is even better than winning the lottery, but the odds of winning are probably equal to the odds of winning the lottery if not, honestly, a bit worse. Very much on that infamous other hand, playing the lottery won’t get you killed. Playing Rabbits just might.

Especially if, like K and his friends, you’re asked to investigate why Rabbits players are dropping dead at even greater than normal rates. There’s something rotten in the current state of Rabbits, and K has to fix it before it’s too late.

If he can figure out what it is. Or where it is. Or even IF it really is. Without revealing much, if anything about what he’s really doing. Because the game might be out to get him. Or it might not. After all, it’s Rabbits.

Escape Rating C+: Rabbits (the book) is, honestly, fairly confusing. The book is supposed to stand alone from the podcast of the same name by the same author, and I’m not 100% sure that it does. I’m also not sure it doesn’t, but that’s Rabbits for you.

I think part of my confusion with the story was that it was presented to me as science fiction, so I was expecting it to be more SFnal than it turned out to be. There is a bit of true SF, but that felt like handwavium rather than being part of the meat of the story.

The story, at its heart, reads like a thriller. K and his friends are tasked with fixing the game before it starts its next iteration and even more terrible things happen. They are under a tremendous amount of pressure and absolutely do not know what they’re doing.

They are paranoid, but there really does seem to be someone out to get them. And paranoia as a state of mind feels like it’s a requirement for playing Rabbits in the first place. Which does a terrific job of ratcheting up the slow building tension of the entire story.

There were plenty of points where the book reminded me of Ready Player One, but that’s also a bit of a misdirection. The stakes turn out to actually be higher in Rabbits, but the game itself is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. Ready Player One, after all, is a game where the players know they are participating, and where, while they may not share tips and tricks with their competitors, discussion of the game is going on pretty much everywhere.

Rabbits is a real-world game, where obsessed people find patterns everywhere in everything (like noticing that once you buy a car you start seeing that make and model of car EVERYWHERE). Some of the patterns that Rabbits players see are part of the game, but some are just the mind playing tricks and some are simply coincidence and the players seem to have very few ways of figuring out which witch is which or even if there are any witches at all. (Mixing metaphors to the point of absurdity.)

So I finished Rabbits feeling not exactly satisfied. As a thriller the SFnal handwavium didn’t quite work for me. As SF, there just wasn’t nearly enough SF there. I liked the characters, but the story didn’t gel because of the handwavium.

But it’s fascinating if you enjoy stories that are chock-full of conspiracy theories, where the stakes are high and the characters are never sure which way is up. Or even if there is an “up” at all. If you threw Ready Player One, The Matrix and and the TV series Lost into an extremely high-tech blender fueled by whatever was fueling the Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you might get something like Rabbits. Play if you dare.

Review: The Final Dawn by Jess Anastasi

Review: The Final Dawn by Jess AnastasiThe Final Dawn (Atrophy #5) by Jess Anastasi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Atrophy #5
Pages: 400
Published by Entangled Publishing: Amara on March 22, 2021
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Rian Sherron is a lot of things. Captain of the spaceship Imojenna. Ex-war hero. Ex-assassin. For years, he's traveled from one end of the galaxy to the other, both trying to escape his demons and get revenge on the shape-shifting aliens responsible for his slow demise into hell.
That all changed the day Rian rescued an Arynian priestess from slave traders. Ella Kinton is everything Rian both fears and admires. Ella is everything he never let himself admit he wanted. Together, they must face a harrowing choice—come together and defeat Reidar, or fall apart, leaving the universe in total chaos.

My Review:

I picked up The Final Dawn because I enjoyed so much of the Atrophy series – to the point where I gave more than one entry in the series an SFR Galaxy Award.

The Atrophy series began as more than a bit of a Firefly-alike, and when it began back in 2015 with Atrophy, later republished as The Last Sky, it filled a Serenity-shaped hole in my heart as it had not been all that long since I finally got around to rewatching the oft-recommended and much-beloved TV series.

The series continued with Quantum in 2016 (now titled The Lost Stars), Diffraction in 2017 (now The Dark Moon) and then Entropy in 2018 (now The Empty Night). And then nothing. It was obvious from the ending of Entropy and there was more to come in the series, but real-life entropy set in and … crickets.

Until now. The Final Dawn is the final book in the series, but it’s been three years since the previous book. Long enough that I’m not entirely certain that the reason this book didn’t feel like it really followed on from the previous is because I’ve forgotten too much or because it doesn’t follow nearly as well or as tightly as the previous books did.

And that matters because the books in this series are not true standalones. The romantic pairing is different in each but everyone stays together to fight the good fight and all of the prior action and worldbuilding gets tied up in this final book in the series.

So this one follows everything that came before, and on top of that felt both rushed and like more than a bit of kitchen sink got thrown in. To reference another late and much-lamented science fiction TV series, it reminded me a bit too much of the way that Babylon 5 nearly ended at the end of season 4, so all the plot threads had to start closing in a hurry, only for there to be a reprieve giving us a season 5 after all, albeit one that had more than a bit of filler because so many plot threads had been closed.

As this series reaches The Final Dawn, the characters are separated, everything spins downward towards the dark, and it all takes on a spiritual/metaphysical direction that just did not feel like it was part of the original action/adventure story that I enjoyed so much.

Escape Rating C: In the end, The Final Dawn was a book that I so very much wanted to love, but just didn’t. And I’m rather sad about that. The first four books in this series were wonderful, the characters were fascinating, the worldbuilding was complex and the overarching story of an underdog crew fighting against an enemy that no one else even believes exists was compelling.

I’m still glad to know how it all ended. Mostly. At least I think I am.

Review: To Catch a Dream by Audrey Carlan

Review: To Catch a Dream by Audrey CarlanTo Catch a Dream by Audrey Carlan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Wish #2
Pages: 320
Published by Hqn on March 9, 2021
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The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the worldwide phenomenon Calendar Girl series brings readers a poignant and honest look at life’s most complicated relationships.
When their mother passed away, Evie Ross and her sister were each given a stack of letters, one to be opened every year on their birthday; letters their free-spirited mother hoped would inspire and guide them through adulthood. But although Evie has made a successful career, her desire for the stability and security she never had from her parents has meant she’s never experienced the best life has to offer. But the discovery of more letters hidden in a safe-deposit box points to secrets her mother held close, and possibly a new way for Evie to think about her family, her heart and her dreams.
“Audrey Carlan has created a gem of a story about sisterhood, love, second chances, and the kind of wanderlust that won’t be silenced, reminding us that sometimes the most important journey is the one we take home.” —Lexi Ryan, New York Times bestselling author

My Review:

There are two stories in To Catch a Dream. One is a story of sisterhood, and that part of the story is also about finding the place that your heart can call home – even if it’s not a place at all. And that part of the story really worked – at least for this reader.

The second part of the story is the romance. It’s a story about finally making the dreams of love and romance you had when you were experiencing your first crush come not just true, but seemingly just about perfect. And I have to say that this part of the story did not work nearly as well, at least not for this reader.

The relationship between Evie, her younger sister Suda Kaye and their mother Catori is a story about roots and wings and baggage. And I include Catori in the present tense because that relationship is still very much a part of both Evie and Suda Kaye’s present even though Catori has been dead for over a decade by the time To Catch a Dream begins.

When Catori died, Evie was 20, Suda Kaye was 18 and their mother had NEVER been their primary caregiver. That role was reserved for Catori’s father Tahsuda, the grandfather that the girls called Toko who was the defining figure in their lives.

Why? Because their father Adam Ross was a career Army officer, someone high up in hush-hush operations, and someone who lived where he served – wherever in the world that might be. Catori knew that going in, but the reality turned out to be more than she could handle as a young mother with postpartum depression and a baby.

Catori was a free spirit, born with wanderlust, and her home was never going to be a fixed place. So she left her daughters on the reservation with her own father and took off. Not that both Catori and Adam didn’t come back to their daughters as often as they could, but it made for a far from conventional upbringing for the girls.

When Catori succumbed to cancer, the girls were just barely old enough to take care of themselves. But she left them each a pile of letters, one to be opened on each of their birthdays, year after year, until the piles ran out. She left them each a piece of her spirit even if she couldn’t be with them.

And as soon as she opened her letter, Suda Kaye began making plans to follow the wanderlust in her own heart, leaving Evie heartbroken all over again, wondering why she was never enough for anyone she loved.

Suda Kaye returned to Colorado in the first book in the The Wish series, What the Heart Wants, which I haven’t read but didn’t feel like I missed anything important for this story by not having read that one.

As this story opens, Suda Kaye has found her heart has led her home, and she has found her happy ever after, but she and Evie still have a ton of baggage to get over, and a metric buttload of resentment, hurt and anger that they are both trying desperately to ignore.

And in the middle of that still seeping emotional wound, Suda Kaye just HAS to manipulate and maneuver her sister into the path of the childhood crush that she never got over. While it may be that folks who have found their own romantic HEAs are particularly bound and determined to make sure that every single person in their orbit finds theirs, the course of true love does not run smooth when there are too many people sticking their oars in the water.

Escape Rating C+: As I said, there were two parts to this story, as is fitting for something that straddles the line between women’s fiction and romance. The women’s fiction part of this story worked really, really well for me. As much as Suda Kaye would drive me crazy, and frequently does her sister Evie, their relationship felt solid and loving and grounded even when they were arguing. All of their stuff felt very real – including Suda Kaye’s well-intentioned but MUCH too frequent interference in her sister’s life.

And I especially loved the relationship that they both had with their grandfather. That was beautifully done.

But, and you knew there was a but coming, I had serious issues with the relationship between Evie and Milo, the relationship that eventually becomes the romance in the story.

I say eventually because in the first half of the book, Milo comes on so strong, and is so overbearingly heavy-handed in all of his dealings with Evie that I had to wonder whether that part of the book was going to turn out to be a cautionary tale about letting a man take over your life rather than a romance.

Although Milo and Evie have known each other since they were 12 and 8 respectively, when Milo saved Evie from a bunch of bullies, they have not had an ongoing friendship. So when the meet again as adults, the way that Milo declares that Evie is “his woman” and overrides her expressed wishes because he knows what’s best for her, it was honestly cringeworthy. He comes across as an obsessed stalker, and their every interaction for the entire first half of the book felt possessive and overbearing – not the start of a romance.

That he also wants to merge their businesses as well as their personal lives made things extra-squicky for a significant part of the story, because he kept ignoring and overriding Evie’s expressed opinions, concerns and needs. Even if he turned out to be right, the way that their romance began did not read like a relationship of equals.

I will say that Milo redeems himself in the second half of the story, but the impression left by the first half lingers uncomfortably.

So skim the first half of the romance, read this one for the sisterhood and the family relationships and the awesome and surprising cliffie at the end that sets up the next story in the series, On the Sweet Side.

Review: Dune: The Duke of Caladan by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson

Review: Dune: The Duke of Caladan by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. AndersonDune: The Duke of Caladan by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Caladan Trilogy #1
Pages: 414
Published by Tor Books on October 13, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A legend begins in Dune: The Duke of Caladan, first in The Caladan Trilogy by New York Times bestselling authors Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.
Leto Atreides, Duke of Caladan and father of the Muad’Dib. While all know of his fall and the rise of his son, little is known about the quiet ruler of Caladan and his partner Jessica. Or how a Duke of an inconsequential planet earned an emperor’s favor, the ire of House Harkonnen, and set himself on a collision course with his own death. This is the story.
Through patience and loyalty, Leto serves the Golden Lion Throne. Where others scheme, the Duke of Caladan acts. But Leto’s powerful enemies are starting to feel that he is rising beyond his station, and House Atreides rises too high. With unseen enemies circling, Leto must decide if the twin burdens of duty and honor are worth the price of his life, family, and love.

My Review:

Dune: The Duke of Caladan really should have been titled Dune: The Book of Foreshadowing. Seriously. This book is all the foreshadowing all the time. That’s neither good nor bad, but it is kind of “meh”.

First edition cover

Which it may not be if the original Dune is just something you read but didn’t make that gigantic an impression. But those of us for whom the original is part of our personal canon (see Sarah Gailey’s marvelous feature for an explanation of what that REALLY means) there’s not nearly as much dramatic tension here as there was in the original.

After all, we already know EXACTLY what happens to all of these people – and only one year in their future at that. And even if you don’t already know from either the book or one of the dramatic adaptations, it’s pretty easy to find out. Dune was originally published in 1965 as a two-part serial in Analog magazine It tied for the Hugo and won the FIRST Nebula and was cited as the WORLD’s best-selling science fiction novel in 2003. Synopses and analyses and all kinds of other -ses are readily available pretty much everywhere, including a brief but decent summary on Wikipedia that manages to hit all the high points without nearly conveying just how compelling the damn thing is to read – or at least was when it first came out.

I read it in for the first time in the mid-to-late 1960s, probably not long after I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time, so I was probably 11 or 12, certainly no more than 13, and it was one of the first big science fiction books I ever read, along with Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – which I was MUCH too young to completely “grok” at the time. I read them all, including LOTR, more than once, and those readings formed the backbone of my lifelong love affair with Fantasy and Science Fiction – along with a heaping helping of Star Trek.

I think it’s difficult to see from today’s perspective just how influential those books were on a young reader who fell into the genre, because speculative fiction today, to treat fantasy and SF more broadly, is so much more influential – and infinitely more readily available – than it was then. There weren’t nearly so many choices, so discovering something that was just SO GOOD was marvelous and had an outsize influence.

All that to say that the original Dune – not the sequels and prequels and what-have-you – is a book I still remember very fondly – and still remember the high points of even decades after the last time I read it.

So I had hopes that this prequel would bring back some of that intense love I felt for the original OMG half a century ago. (Mind reels!) And it did bring back memories of the original book. Perhaps too many, as those memories cut the legs out from under any dramatic tension in this one.

Escape Rating C+: I loved the original, and this one suffers both in comparison and in the way that my knowledge of the original story turns almost the entirety of this book into foreshadowing of that one instead of feeling compelled to read this one in it’s own right.

Completists will probably love this book. However, while I may usually be a completist it’s just not working for me here. I feel like I already knew enough about what happened at this point in the history, AND it’s really difficult to get into a story knowing when, where, how and why the protagonist will die. And that the death in question isn’t even all that far off.

Even the information that is new to this story, like the plot about the Noble Commonwealth and the Caladan drug, drove me a bit bonkers as I kept expecting one of the Mentats to suggest that there might be a link between the two, but it never happens. Which meant that the “big reveal” wasn’t one to this reader, although it certainly was to entirely too many characters within the story.

But as much as that particular lack of computation felt like a missing piece, overall there were too many pieces, and they repeated too many things I remembered. When I saw the blurb for this book, I was expecting something a lot shorter than what I got. So don’t let the details on Amazon or anywhere else fool you, the Book Depository, and only on the British edition of the book, seems to be the only place that got the correct information. This is NOT a 320 page book. Rather, it just misses being a 420 page book by a hair. Maybe it SHOULD have been a 320 page book. But it isn’t.

Science fiction has been referred to as the “romance of political agency” and this is definitely a book in that mode. It’s all about political chicanery, noble skullduggery, and greed on all sides, with Leto as the one honorable man in the middle of an imperial shitstorm. Readers who are looking for something to either substitute for, whet their appetites for, or tide them over until the next movie version will probably enjoy this. There are plenty of juicy bits.

But it doesn’t live up to the original – or at least not the way that original shines so bright in my memory.

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie HannahThe Killings at Kingfisher Hill: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: New Hercule Poirot #4
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“I was thrilled to see Poirot in such very, very good hands.”— Gillian Flynn, New York Times bestselling author of Gone Girl
The world’s most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot—the legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile—returns in a delectably twisty mystery.
Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate. Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. There is one strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there from the rest of the Devonport family.
On the coach, a distressed woman leaps up, demanding to disembark. She insists that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. A seat-swap is arranged, and the rest of the journey passes without incident. But Poirot has a bad feeling about it, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered in the Devonports' home with a note that refers to ‘the seat that you shouldn’t have sat in’.
Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving the mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And can Poirot find the real murderer in time to save an innocent woman from the gallows?

My Review:

This is the 4th book in the New Hercule Poirot mystery series, and I have to say that the longer this new Poirot series goes on, the more I sympathize with Inspector Edward Catchpool.

Not that there were many sympathetic characters in this particular entry in the series. Not even Poirot. And that’s not a good thing for a story where he is the main character.

Not that a book can’t have a frustrating or unappealing central character, but that’s not who or what Poirot is supposed to be. His quirks – his many, many quirks – are supposed to be familiar and endearing. And they usually are.

I say this as someone whose enduring memories of Poirot are from the portrayal by David Suchet and not from Christie’s original work, of which I’ve read a few but not exhaustively. It’s Suchet’s portrait of the little Belgian detective as a quirky genius that sticks in the mind. Not just for the stories and the settings, which were marvelous, but for the twinkle in the eye that his Poirot seemed to have, particularly when his idiosyncrasies were otherwise at their most annoying.

It’s something I’ve seen in the previous books in this series, and I certainly heard Suchet’s voice uttering many of Poirot’s lines in the earlier books. But this time the illusion fell apart.

The device for these new stories is that Poirot has taken on the role of mentor to a young Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Edward Catchpool. It’s very different from the role he occupied in regards to his original partners in either the books or the TV series, Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Inspector Japp. While none of those mentioned had nearly Poirot’s genius, they all seemed to be his contemporaries in age, giving those relationships some level of equality that the young Catchpool cannot aspire to.

And this is a case where Poirot is at his most mysterious and impenetrable, deriding Catchpool at every turn while withholding the information that the man needs to even begin to figure out what is going on. The scene where Catchpool is freezing in a swimming pool while Poirot insists that he make his report before permitting him to get out of the pool and dry off, meanwhile telling Catchpool how stupid he is to be swimming in the first place seemed a bridge too far for even Poirot’s insensitivity to anything but the processes of his “little grey cells”.

It does not help that in this particular mystery, none of the potential murderers are remotely sympathetic – and most of their motives and actions don’t make nearly enough sense. They’re not quite as terrible as the Thrombey family in Knives Out, but they’re not far off that mark, either.

And the Thrombey family, as hateful as they were, generally had motives that were both clear and comprehendible. Reprehensible, but understandable. That didn’t feel true in this story. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the suspects, as that the reasons they acted as they did just did not ring true.

The rich may be different than you and me, and the past may be another country where they do things differently, but human beings are just not this different.

Escape Rating C: This may be a “fair play” mystery, where the reader has all of the same clues as the detective, but it felt like neither fair nor play. The only character I felt for, or who felt like a plausible human being, was the much-put-upon Catchpool, who is all too aware of the situation that he has been placed in, caught between his superintendent’s belief in Poirot’s detective genius and Poirot’s need to expound that genius at someone he believes needs his expert guidance. Not that Catchpool doesn’t need seasoning and experience, but all I did in this outing was feel sorry for him.

Obviously, this was not my favorite in this series. I found the others charming and comforting, reading like continuations of the TV series. I enjoyed them enough that I’ll be back for the next in the series in the hopes that it returns to its original form.

Review: The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham

Review: The Rakess by Scarlett PeckhamThe Rakess (Society of Sirens, #1) by Scarlett Peckham
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Society of Sirens #1
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on April 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Meet the SOCIETY OF SIRENS—three radical, libertine ladies determined to weaponize their scandalous reputations to fight for justice and the love they deserve…
She's a Rakess on a quest for women's rights…


Seraphina Arden's passions include equality, amorous affairs, and wild, wine-soaked nights. To raise funds for her cause, she's set to publish explosive memoirs exposing the powerful man who ruined her. Her ideals are her purpose, her friends are her family, and her paramours are forbidden to linger in the morning.

He's not looking for a summer lover…

Adam Anderson is a wholesome, handsome, widowed Scottish architect, with two young children, a business to protect, and an aversion to scandal. He could never, ever afford to fall for Seraphina. But her indecent proposal—one month, no strings, no future—proves too tempting for a man who strains to keep his passions buried with the losses of his past.

But one night changes everything...

What began as a fling soon forces them to confront painful secrets—and yearnings they thought they'd never have again. But when Seraphina discovers Adam's future depends on the man she's about to destroy, she must decide what to protect…her desire for justice, or her heart.

My Review:

So many people love this book, including the friends who recommended it to me. I feel sad, because I just…didn’t. No matter how much I really, really wanted to.

I have to admit that I started out being put off by the title. There are plenty of ways to subvert the rake trope without making up horrible feminine versions of the word. I’ve even read some of them. So I was turned off before I started. But I persevered.

The idea behind the story seems to be that men are celebrated for being sexual predators, while women are excoriated for being the victims of that predation, whether willingly or not. And it’s still true. Men with lots of conquests are envied, while women are slut-shamed for even a few.

So there was the thought going in that the protagonist of this story, Seraphina Arden, would be a sex-positive historical heroine. But she’s not all that positive, although there’s plenty of sex. While she certainly enjoys sex a LOT more than unmarried women traditionally do in historical romance, she’s mostly using sex – and alcohol, a whole lot of alcohol – to forget just how miserable she is.

Admittedly, she may not ALWAYS be miserable. But she’s taken herself off to her childhood home, where she was bullied, abused and eventually disowned because she let a man seduce her, in order to write her memoirs. So she’s put herself in a position to be reminded of a terrible time in her past, among people who vilify her because she refused to conform to the stereotype of a “fallen woman”, and she’s unhappy where she is because anyone would be, and drinking to forget her misery. Along with seducing her neighbor, who is, after a token resistance, more than willing to be seduced.

Her goals are more than laudable. She wants to create an educational institution for women. She wants educational reform, so that women can live independently and up to their full potential. She also wants legal reform, so that husbands (and fathers) don’t own their wives and daughters. So that her friend and mentor can’t be committed to a lunatic asylum by her jealous husband because she has taken up the cause of reform and therefore must, by definition, be insane.

And hysterical. If that doesn’t remind readers that the condition of “hysteria” was named for the Greek word for uterus because, in the minds of so-called rational men, only women suffered from ungovernable emotional excess.

Now she’s got me doing it, getting up on a soapbox to rant. Not that these subjects and these injustices don’t deserve a rant, but Sera’s internal angst isn’t the place for it, and neither is this review.

Dammit.

The portrayal of female friendship, that Sera and her two friends, a celebrated female artist and an equally celebrated courtesan, have banded together to rescue their friend and mentor from her unjust imprisonment is awesome. But it takes way too long to get there.

Sera spends the first 2/3rds of the book moldering in a decaying house, drinking to keep herself from writing, seducing her neighbor to keep herself from thinking – or writing , afraid of the neighbors who are posting scurrilous caricatures on her gate and leaving dead birds for her to worry over. She’s a mess.

Not that most rakes weren’t something of a mess underneath – but not this much. She’s a flawed heroine, which is great, but her flaws just stopped being interesting to me because it took her so long to even start working on them. Which would be true to real life, but not all that fascinating to read.

Escape Rating C: This is so much of a YMMV review. There are LOTS of people who love this book, and its plot and themes certainly have great possibilities. It just didn’t work for me. It really didn’t.

And the whole “rescue woman from an asylum she’s been committed to by her husband” worked much better in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, even though, or especially because, the woman being rescued was a vampire!

Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady HendrixThe Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, vampires
Pages: 404
Published by Quirk Books on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Fried Green Tomatoes and "Steel Magnolias" meet Dracula in this Southern-flavored supernatural thriller set in the '90s about a women's book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a blood-sucking fiend.
Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia's life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they're more likely to discuss the FBI's recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.
But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club's meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he's a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she--and her book club--are the only people standing between the monster they've invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.

My Review:

This was exactly what I was expecting when picking up horror. But the friends who recommended it to me mentioned the words “laughing” and “humor” in relation to this book, and I just didn’t get any of either.

What I did get read like a really odd twist on the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series – and I know that sounds insane. But really, we have a tight-knit Southern community where an unattached but charismatic man turns up, moves in, can’t manage sunlight and has been around a LOT longer than anyone thinks. Admittedly, when James Harris moves into this neighborhood, he makes Bill the Vampire seem like a big, ole pussycat. Because Bill doesn’t come to Bon Temps to prey on the locals, while James Harris has that plan in mind from the very beginning – and he’s ruthless in carrying it out.

But the story isn’t the monster’s story. Instead, it’s the story of the group of suburban women who band together, first to read true crime and murder mysteries, and then to deal with the unreal but absolutely true crime that has invaded their very own little town.

The portrayal of the women’s friendships, through all their ups and downs, was the real highlight of the story. But the way that they not only turn on each other, but turn on their own very selves, was a big part of the sadness. None of their husband’s are remotely worthy of them, as they prove over the course of the story.

They have all caged themselves, and it takes a monster, and a monster’s rampage, to finally get them to set themselves free. They’ve spent their lives cleaning up men’s messes, after all, and they are damn good at it. Which is a good thing, because this monster left one big damn mess.

Escape Rating C: Most readers seem to have loved this book. Certainly all the people who recommended it to me did. And I really did need to read it for reasons that I can’t get into. And I did finish and the ending was compelling. Getting to that point was less so, at least for this reader.

Part of the reason that I didn’t enjoy this book is that it reminded me of all the reasons I don’t normally read horror. It was gruesome and terrible things were happening and nobody wants to believe the book club members and no one wants to pay attention to what’s going wrong.

But it felt like all of the reasons that no one wanted to pay attention had to do with the women themselves. They were all small and narrow and put upon and put down and disregarded in their own lives. They didn’t pay attention to themselves or each other and no one else did either. They were dismissed at every turn, not just by society as a whole, but by their husbands and children. They didn’t believe each other and they didn’t believe in themselves.

Also, this is supposed to be a satire of suburban life in the 90s, but to me it felt flat. Probably because this just didn’t read like the 90s. During the 90s, I was in my late 30s, so relatively close in age to the members of the book club, but I was divorced, childfree and working. I worked in a female dominated profession, so ALL the women I knew worked. Many had stepped out when their kids were very young, but had returned to work at some point when their kids got a bit older, as the children of these women already had. It was difficult if not impossible to maintain a suburban life with multiple children without both spouses working. So for this reader their lives were small, sad and unrealistic and that colored my opinion of the whole book. Your experience of that time period may certainly vary, and your reaction may be entirely different. If this had been set in the 1960s or earlier I would have had a different reaction. I would have still felt the sadness and smallness, but it would have fit better into the times.

I did like, well, not the villain, you’re not supposed to like the villain, but that the monster didn’t exactly fit into any preconceived versions of monster. He’s referred to as a vampire, but it felt more in the sense that some people are emotional vampires sucking the life out of everyone around them. Not that he didn’t suck blood, but he also put it back. It’s complicated. But he didn’t just take blood, he took everything. He was a force of eternal hunger, always wanting more, always taking advantage, always leaving destruction in his wake. And we never do discover how he came to be. Or whether or not he actually came to end.

So that part was cool. But he also represented the way that the men in these women’s lives had also sucked them dry and left devastation in their wakes, and that leads me back to sad, and a bit disappointed. Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Guest Review: Clone Hunter by Victor Methos

Guest Review: Clone Hunter by Victor MethosClone Hunter by Victor Methos
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Clone Rebellion Chronicles #1
Pages: 366
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on August 19, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteBook Depository
Goodreads

Born in a laboratory for war or pleasure, they live as slaves, unable to fight those that oppress them . . . all, except one.

A single clone is no longer willing to live in slavery and has declared war on those that would subjugate her.

Hunted by the most powerful men in existence and a threat to the social order, if she wants her freedom she must fight her way through bounty hunters, war machines, and the deadliest enemy of all: her own kind . . .

Guest Review by Amy:

Clones were created quite some time back, to be super-soldiers. But what do you do with your super-soldiers when the war is over? It’s a theme that’s been explored again and again, and in this case, the clones become — servants. Slaves. It’s a problem that won’t last forever, you see, because they can’t breed.

Except, at least one can. The Powers That Be want her dead, and trying to gun her down with a human assassin just won’t work, so they program and send one of her own. And there’s a clone rebellion brewing, to top it off.

Escape Rating C: We have here a sci-fi action/adventure, with a premise that fans of the genre have seen more than once, I’m sure. And to tell the truth, I was looking forward to seeing how this variation got handled.

There’s action a-plenty, with enough plot twists to keep me reading through a three-hour flight, and the cast of characters are all pretty interesting people in their own right. It’s a bit unclear who the heroes and villains are at the outset, and to my mind, it’s never entirely certain who the “good guys” are, or if they’ll save the day. The clones are fighting a one-world-government for their freedom, and apparently there are more than a few who could breed, given the opportunity, and there’s a big-time planetbuster bomb hidden away somewhere…

I wanted to say I enjoyed this book, and indeed, it has all the ingredients for a tasty, straightforward sci-fi read. But it has some rather-massive mechanical problems, in my mind. First off, we see the world from no less than five different viewpoints during the book. Yes, each chapter was titled with the name of the person whose head we’re inhabiting, but after a while, it got a little tiring, with all the switchee-swapee. Additionally, since we frequently cover the same event from two (or more!) viewpoints, it comes off as repetitive and tiring, especially since those events are often the most-violent in the book.

If we’d seen snippets of things that interlaced and came together for one big finale, as in John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet? I’d have been a lot happier with this interaction. (Editor’sNote: John M. Ford was a genius who didn’t write nearly enough and was taken much too soon.) While that story was a multiple point-of-view comedy-of-errors (in the Star Trek universe!) that led us to a hilarious conclusion, this one was just an error, without any comedy, and with a whole lot of seriously savage killing and violence replayed for us, over and over. Methos’ habit of multiple first-person views result in an awful lot of sentences starting with “I,” and frankly, it makes the multiple point-of-view construction of the book come off as cheap and poorly written.

There are apparently more books set in this world, but I won’t be hunting them down for a read. This book and the series from which it comes might be your cup of tea, but it wasn’t mine, regrettably.

 

Review: The Lying Room by Nicci French

Review: The Lying Room by Nicci FrenchThe Lying Room by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

One little secret between a married woman, her lover, and a killer.

It should have been just a mid-life fling. A guilty indiscretion that Neve Connolly could have weathered. An escape from twenty years of routine marriage to her overworked husband, and from her increasingly distant children. But when Neve pays a morning-after visit to her lover, Saul, and finds him brutally murdered, their pied-à-terre still heady with her perfume, all the lies she has so painstakingly stitched together threaten to unravel.

After scrubbing clean every trace of her existence from Saul’s life—and death—Neve believes she can return to normal, shaken but intact. But she can’t get out of her head the one tormenting question: what was she forgetting?

An investigation into the slaying could provide the answer. It’s brought Detective Chief Inspector Alastair Hitching, and Neve’s worst fears, to her door. But with every new lie, every new misdirection to save herself, Neve descends further into the darkness of her betrayal—and into more danger than she ever imagined. Because Hitching isn’t the only one watching Neve. So is a determined killer who’s about to make the next terrifying move in a deadly affair….

My Review:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Sir Walter Scott said that back in 1806 in his poem Marmion, but the phrase has become a cliche because it is just so demonstrably true so very often. Mark Twain put it another way, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” And he was equally right.

Neve Connolly should have taken both of those phrases to heart long before she decided to clean up her lover’s apartment. She tried her level best to erase herself from the man’s life – before someone else finds his murdered body. Along with the truth about their affair.

Neve begins the story as discontentedly married and disappointingly approaching middle age. Her lover, who was also married and also, in an entirely different cliche, her boss, is dead. She goes to his flat (the story takes place in contemporary London which does turn out to be important later), thinking they’re about to have a tryst, only to discover him dead on the floor with his head bashed in.

She didn’t do it, but someone certainly did.

And this is the point where Neve’s life goes completely pear-shaped – but not in the way that it should have.

She thinks she can erase herself from her lover’s apartment by cleaning the place within an inch of it’s – or actually her – life. While the corpse is lying on the floor of the living room. That she is probably erasing evidence of the murderer doesn’t seem to enter either her conscience or her consciousness. Her only motivation is protecting herself from the way that her life would implode if the affair was discovered.

But no one in a panic is thinking as clearly as someone would need to be to get themselves out from under a scenario with this much potential for self-destruction. The situation should backfire on Neve.

And it sort of does – but not in any way that she ever could have expected.

Escape Rating C+: I picked up The Lying Room because I really enjoyed the author’s Frieda Klein series and hoped that this standalone would have the same kind of taut excellence. (If you are interested, start with Blue Monday and proceed through the rest of the days of the week!)

But one of the things that I liked about Frieda Klein’s series was the character of Frieda Klein herself. Because Frieda Klein is an intelligent protagonist – and also because while she may sometimes be misled and she’s certainly someone to whom terrible things happen through no fault of her own – she’s never stupid and she never gets herself into stupid situations.

When she does defy the police – and she sometimes does – it’s both for a good reason and we expect her to succeed long enough to accomplish her goals.

As the protagonist, Neve drove me crazy. I just didn’t like her and didn’t want to be in her head. On the other hand, I passionately dislike her, so the author definitely got me involved.

But seriously, she’s unhappy at home – for reasons that are easy to empathize with – and takes the easy way out of having an affair to spice up her life rather than rock the boat at home. And as a reader I could see why she made those choices.

I fell off the “understand” wagon when she didn’t put on her big girl panties and deal with the results of her actions, as horrible as those results were. There are lots of cliches about people who have affairs secretly wanting to get caught in order to bring whatever the crisis in their home life is out into the open. How true that cliche is, well, who knows?

But I found the results of her actions contradictory. She just didn’t act smart enough to fool the police – but she managed to do so anyway. And that in spite of something that the UK readers of this book have pointed out repeatedly. Contemporary London is one of the cities most saturated with CCTV in the world. This story takes place in Central London but none of the police ever attempt to consult CCTV to discover the killer. They suspect Neve but never look at the CCTV to see if she was at the victim’s apartment or not. It’s not that there was a catastrophic and coincidental failure of the CCTV in one way or another – it’s that they never try.

Instead, it seems like the police inspector in charge of the case turns into Neve’s stalker. Or should I say Neve’s second stalker? Because it seemed obvious to this reader from the earliest parts of the book, even before Neve discovers that corpse, that someone is stalking her.

Who the stalker is – and their motivations for following her, assaulting her and trying to put her in the frame for the murder – did turn out to be surprises. But that someone was there was not. It was just a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In the end, I found this one disappointing, especially in comparison to the Frieda Klein series. But it’s staying in my head a fairly long time in that disappointment, so perhaps infuriating is closer to the mark. As always, your reading mileage may vary. Considerably.

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