Review: Boss Witch by Ann Aguirre

Review: Boss Witch by Ann AguirreBoss Witch (Fix-It Witches #2) by Ann Aguirre
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance
Series: Fit-It Witches #2
Pages: 368
Published by Sourcecbooks Casablanca on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The second in an adorable witchy rom-com series by New York Times bestselling author Ann Aguirre, perfect for fans of:
Ride-or-die female friendshipsA bisexual heroine who stubbornly refuses to accept helpA hero with an incredibly pesky moral conscienceA mouse named Benson who may or may not have all the answers to life, magic, and love (Spoiler: he does!)
Clementine Waterhouse is a perfectly logical witch. She doesn't tumble headlong into love. Rather she weighs the pros and cons and decides if a relationship is worth pursuing. At least that's always been her modus operandi before. Clem prefers being the one in charge, always the first to walk away when the time is right. Attraction has never struck her like lightning.
Until the witch hunter comes to town.
Gavin Rhys hates being a witch hunter, but his family honor is on the line, and he needs to prove he's nothing like his grandfather, a traitor who let everyone down. But things in St. Claire aren't what they seem, and Gavin is distracted from the job immediately by a bewitching brunette with a sexy smile and haunting secrets in her eyes.
Can the bossiest witch in town find a happy ending with the last person she should ever love?

My Review:

I often begin the review of a second book in a series by speaking about how it picked up where the story left off, but that’s not even accurate here.

Boss Witch picks up in the middle of Witch, Please, showing the reader the events of the second half of that first book from a different perspective in the first half of this one.

So, on the one hand, new readers won’t feel like they’ve missed much by starting here. Howsomever, readers of the previous book may start out wondering WTF is going on and whether we’re going to learn anything new about this charming (in multiple senses of the word) little Midwestern town and the witches who live there, hiding in plain sight among the mundanes.

The switch in perspective from Danica to Clementine Waterhouse, cousins and sisters-of-the-heart, as they deal with the crisis that cropped up in Witch, Please in their very separate ways.

Danica’s magic spiked out of control in that first book, spiking high enough to draw the attention of one of the dreaded – and dreadful – witch hunters. But Clementine has a plan to deal with Witch Hunter Gavin Rhys. (Clementine ALWAYS has a plan, that’s part of her function in the excruciatingly dysfunctional Waterhouse family.)

While Danica is off ‘billing and cooing’ with the love of her life, her magically mundane ‘Cinnaman’, Clementine will do what she’s done all of their lives and clean up her cousin’s mess.

But Clem is tired of being the person who gets ALL the jobs done ALL the time in their family. It’s not about work, the ‘Fix-It Witches’ shop that the cousins share. Well, it isn’t ALL about the work. It’s about Clem being the fixer-upper in their family who has taken charge and gotten the shit that needs doing done since her mother started dumping too many of her adult emotions and woes on her then-teenaged daughter.

As I said, this family is not functional, and they have never put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional in any way, shape or form. Clem is tired, and stressed, and tired of batting clean-up all the time and then getting blamed for ‘hurting’ someone by mentioning that she’s tired of cleaning up after them. She’s a bit blunt and abrasive but she’s earned it. But she sucks it up to keep the peace – and to keep her family from having a meltdown which she will, again, have to soothe and fix.

I feel her pain. (I like Clem. Her family, on the other hand, drives me up a wall.)

So, when Clem volunteers to distract Gavin Rhys from hunting for all the witches in town, starting with her cousin Danica, it starts out as just another thing she has to take care of for everyone else.

When Clem distracting Gavin turns into Clem and Gavin distracting each other, in bed and out, Clem realizes that however it started, her relationship that shouldn’t be has become something that she’s doing just for herself – and just for him. At least until all the secrets start coming out of the woodwork to take down Clem, her coven sisters – and Gavin.

Escape Rating C+: I really need to start picking books this week where I like the characters a whole lot more than I did yesterday and today.

The Waterhouse family of witches absolutely does not put the fun in dysfunctional. The real problem at the core of the family is that Gram is more toxic than the Wicked Witch of the West, and unfortunately a big chunk of the story that repeats between Witch, Please and Boss Witch is the revelation of just how toxic and manipulative Gram really is, and just how much and how often she reaches out to damage and demean every other woman in the family – meaning her daughters and her granddaughters. She’s honestly a greater force for evil than the witch hunters – and is that EVER saying something!

One of the problems I had with Witch, Please is that even after Gram’s lies and manipulations are uncovered, she doesn’t get the comeuppance she deserves. So the story has to deal with it all again in this book, and she still doesn’t take delivery of the message. That left this reader unsatisfied with that part of the story. Again.

OTOH, the witch hunter saga does manage to get surprisingly neatly tied up with a big bow in a way that gives Gavin’s crisis of both conscience and the heart a lot of emotional weight. The way that Gavin’s situation is resolved, both as a witch hunter AND with his own uber-toxic father, was wonderfully cathartic. (If only Gavin’s dad and Clem’s Gram could share a prison cell for a while…)

But on my third hand – the one belonging to my familiar, perhaps – resolving the witch hunter danger at the end of this book, does make the thought of the third book in the series, Extra Witchy, feel more than a bit anticlimactic (no matter how many climaxes the characters manage to experience) – particularly as it looks like the first half of that story runs parallel to the second half of this one.

So, color me curious about how this all works out into HEAs all around. We’ll see when Extra Witchy drops in October.

Review: Love, Hate and Clickbait by Liz Bowery

Review: Love, Hate and Clickbait by Liz BoweryLove, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, M/M romance
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Politics is shaking hands and kissing coworkers
Cutthroat political consultant Thom Morgan is thriving, working on the governor of California’s presidential campaign. If only he didn’t have to deal with Clay Parker, the infuriatingly smug data analyst who gets under Thom’s skin like it’s his job. In the midst of one of their heated and very public arguments, a journalist snaps a photo, but the image makes it look like they’re kissing. As if that weren’t already worst-nightmare territory, the photo goes viral—and in a bid to secure the liberal vote, the governor asks them to lean into it. Hard.
Thom knows all about damage control—he practically invented it. Ever the professional, he’ll grin and bear this challenge as he does all others. But as the loyal staffers push the boundaries of “giving the people what they want,” the animosity between them blooms into something deeper and far more dangerous: desire. Soon their fake relationship is hurtling toward something very real, which could derail the campaign and cost them both their jobs…and their hearts.

My Review:

“Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much” as he’s tripping over that infinitely (and infamously) fine line between love and hate. Pardon me for mangling Shakespeare and mixing metaphors in the same sentence, but if the shoe fits – or in this case both shoes fit – I’m wearing them.

All three of the titular events happen in this enemies-to-lovers in a fake relationship romance. As the story begins, campaign operative Thom Morgan and pro-level geek Clay Parker are office enemies working on California governor Lennie Westwood’s pre-campaign campaign to become the next president of these United States.

Thom and Clay are office rivals because they are completely opposites. Not that either of them start out exactly likable, but they’re on totally different ends of pretty much any workplace spectrum, and they rub each other the wrong way pretty much just by breathing in each other’s vicinity.

Clay pretty much lets his geek flag fly all the time. He’s a refugee from Silicon Valley and is used to that kind of workstyle – meaning one that may be “working” 24/7 but sometimes that work looks like play and everyone is out to be the biggest nerd.. But he’s also the child of a family that loves him unconditionally and celebrated ALL of his accomplishments ALL the time. So he toots his own horn a lot. Too much. To the point of cringing absurdity – at least as far as Thom is concerned.

Thom, on the other hand, is a shark. Every relationship is calculated for the maximum benefit to him. He’s always dressed to the nines in a style appropriate to the event. He’s all about making his candidate look good so that he can make himself look good. But he’s from a family that treated him like a cuckoo in their cozy suburban nest. It’s not that anyone hated him, it’s that no one truly saw him or was there for him because he was just so different. He’s a version of Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties, but one that was neither supported nor even accepted by his family. He’s used to taking on protective coloration, not to blend in but just to get by.

The campaign that Thom and Clay are working on is in trouble, seemingly constantly, by huge gaffes committed by both the governor/candidate and her dysfunctional family. When Lennie is recorded making an off-the-cuff remark that the reason her hair isn’t properly styled is because there are no gays on her campaign staff, the liberal voters that her campaign is courting are up in arms.

The campaign’s answer is to have Thom and Clay pose as a gay couple working for the campaign. A candid video of them has been posted having an ugly argument that looks like it’s about to morph into throwing each other on the ground for sex instead of the kicking and punching that nearly happened for real. Twitter and Insta are both loving the picture, to the point where OMG fanfic is starting up.

With their jobs on the line, the enemies reluctantly agree to not just a temporary truce, but a fake relationship for the inevitable cameras. From both their perspectives, the whole thing is so implausible they can’t imagine it will work.

But it has to. And surprisingly, it does – at least as far as social media is concerned. Whether it can possibly save the campaign is an entirely other matter…

Escape Rating C+: This is a story that threatens to go completely off the rails at multiple points. It never quite does, but it toes that line awfully, awfully hard in multiple ways and multiple directions.

As unlikable as both Thom and Clay are in the beginning, once I got into the story it became clear that Clay’s behavior was a result of not knowing the work culture and feeling out of his depth and a bit insecure. Once he got a bit more settled the things that made him annoying smoothed out quite a bit. So I ended up feeling FOR him considerably more than I did Thom – not that in the beginning Thom seems to have any feelings whatsoever.

OTOH, Thom is both cold-blooded and narcissistic from jump, and it takes a long time for him to change and for the reader to see what is really motivating his shark-like behavior. While it was easy to see that Clay, for all his faults, was the kind of person who could give themselves in a relationship. With Thom I had to wonder if he was capable of having a real relationship of any kind with anyone but himself. He starts out with no real friends, no family (either birth or found) and no real romantic interests.

That the campaign required them to fake a romantic relationship, and that they agreed to do so, may be the trope that powers the story, but it crossed so far over so many lines that it was hard to take even though agreeing to the pretense felt very much in Thom’s wheelhouse if not Clay’s. Even though Thom is the one that has ALL the objections, mostly because he isn’t shy about pointing out that he’s “lowering his standards” to date someone like Clay.

I could see Clay falling for Thom if he was willing to let his heart sliced into bloody chunks, but that happens. People fall in love with all sorts of people who they either know or refuse to admit are either bad for them or just plain terrible.

What was harder to believe was the way that Thom slowly – very slowly – let some of his walls down. Even if he couldn’t admit to himself he was doing it. Thom’s in denial until the very end, and even then he’s more than a bit of a douche about it. Which fits his personality to a T. Even as much as Thom is dragged, kicking and screaming, into being a real human being, his redemption was a bit too pat.

But the hardest part of this story is the political shark tank they operate in. We all know that politics is a dirty business and is the epitome of the old joke about not wanting to see how the sausage is made. In fiction, especially in a romance, I think we want to see a few less of the warts that surround the process. Or more consequences for those warts. Or we want our heroes to be heroes and our villains to be villains and that’s not what happens here. Or, perhaps, all of the above.

Lennie Westwood is a piece of work, for all the negative connotations of that phrase. Thom’s colleague Felicia seems to still think that politics can do some good for people, but she’s generally a realist and a pragmatist. That Felicia sees the excesses of Westwood’s behavior and STILL thinks that getting the woman elected POTUS is her best chance at making a positive difference in people’s lives feels disingenuous at best and self-sabotage at worst. Or Felicia is playing everyone for a fool, including, quite possibly, herself.

To make a rather long story short, I ended up with extremely mixed feelings about Love, Hate & Clickbait. As much as I love both enemies-to-lovers and fake relationship romances, this one didn’t quite gel for me. As always, your reading mileage may vary.

Review: Mr. Dale and the Divorcee by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Dale and the Divorcee by Sophie BarnesMr. Dale and The Divorcée (The Brazen Beauties #1) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Brazen Beauties #1
Pages: 342
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 23rd 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He's a respectable barrister...
She's the most scandalous woman in England...

Wilhelmina Hewitt knows she's in for a rough ride when she agrees to help her husband get a divorce. Nothing, however, prepares her for the regret of meeting Mr. Dale on the eve of her downfall. No other man has ever sent her heart racing as he does. Unfortunately, while she’ll soon be free to engage in a new relationship, no respectable man will have her.

James Dale would never pursue another man’s wife. Or a woman reputed to be a deceitful adulteress. Furious with himself for letting the lovely Mrs. Hewitt charm him, he strives to keep his distance. But when her daughter elopes with his son, they're forced into a partnership where passion ignites. And James soon wonders if there might be more to the divorcée than meets the eye.

My Review:

As I’m posting this review the day after Thanksgiving, I want to start out by saying this book made me really, really thankful that I was born in the latter half of the 20th century and not any damn earlier at all. But I’m also feeling kind of sorry that I plan to read a book I would have liked better for the holiday – or at least felt less conflicted about.

The story feels historically accurate, at least as far as the amount of control and agency that women had over their own lives during the Regency period. Whether it actually is or not, the situation that the heroine is in matches the way we believed things were during that time, or the image that has taken hold in the popular imagination.

Which, quite frankly, is that she has no agency or control at all.

This is a story about a woman who only has as much control over her life as the men in her life and society in general allow her, which is not much. The only control she has is over how much of herself she is willing to sacrifice, knowing that she will always be the one to pay the price for that sacrifice no matter who might truly be to blame.

The first half of this one left me on the horns of a giant dilemma. Because the heroine’s actions and society’s reactions felt true to what we expect of the time. She’s put herself in a terrible situation for reasons that were never in her control, and society punishes her for it exactly as one expected they would.

Which means that both she – and the reader – get repeatedly slapped in the face with just how terrible conditions for women could be.

I very nearly DNF’d at that halfway point, because I was getting really tired of the smell and the taste of that wet fish of horribleness. Not that it’s written horribly, as the author writes well and I generally like her books, but that the situation the heroine is IN is horrible and at that halfway point seems as though it’s only going to get worse as it goes.

That was the point where the son of the man who raped her 20 years ago makes it clear that he has the exact same plan as his vile old man and isn’t planning to let anyone or anything stand in his way, either.

You could call that a low point in the story. It was certainly a low point in my reading of it and I stopped for a while and picked up something else.

But I picked it back up because I thought the worst had to be behind me. And the heroine. And it was.

Escape Rating C: For a story that actually does have a happy ending, this is kind of a sad story for a lot of its length. Mina’s entire life seems to have been about being stuck between a rock and a hard place and letting herself be ground between them in one way or another.

Letting herself be divorced at a time when the only way for her husband to be allowed to remarry afterwards was to accept all the blame, all the calumny, all the social opprobrium and for both of them to commit perjury that she had numerous affairs when she never had any seems harsh and is harsh and society deals with her harshly as a result.

Her ex-husband leaves the country, marries his pregnant lover, and society forgets him except as her victim. She has to suck it all up and move on, which she honestly does. At least until her widowed daughter falls in love with a man whose father will not allow the marriage because of Mina’s reputation as a scarlet woman.

(Whether any of the scenario around Mina’s divorce was legal or possible at the time this story takes place seems to be a matter of some debate.)

The young couple elopes to Gretna Green, the older couple chase after in hot pursuit, and truth gets revealed all around – after more than one misunderstandammit.

This is a story where the happy ending is earned through a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears and a very literal change of heart on the part of the hero. Who was in serious need of getting the stick out of his ass.

I ended this with mixed feelings, which was a definite improvement after my near-DNF at the midpoint.

I liked both that the main romance of this story is between two people who are on either side of 40 instead of barely over 20. It made the situation much more complex and the characters more interesting because they had more depth as well as more emotional baggage.

I also liked that the member of the nobility who featured prominently in the story was the villain. The hero is part of the upper middle class. His family has land but no title, and he is a practicing lawyer. He works for a living, something we still don’t see often enough in Regency romance but does seem to be on the uptick.

So I want to say that this story did gel for me after all. Except it jelled kind of like the two-layer Jell-O cups where the top flavor is one I hated and the bottom flavor was one I almost liked. But a lot of reviewers absolutely adored this book so reading mileage obvious varies on this one.

Review: Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn

Review: Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. RocklynFlowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on October 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Flowers for the Sea is a dark, dazzling debut novella that reads like Rosemary's Baby by way of Octavia E. Butler.
We are a people who do not forget.
Survivors from a flooded kingdom struggle alone on an ark. Resources are scant, and ravenous beasts circle. Their fangs are sharp.
Among the refugees is Iraxi: ostracized, despised, and a commoner who refused a prince, she’s pregnant with a child that might be more than human. Her fate may be darker and more powerful than she can imagine.
Zin E. Rocklyn’s extraordinary debut is a lush, gothic fantasy about the prices we pay and the vengeance we seek.

My Review:

I picked this up because I was expecting a story that would be doing that creepy, uncomfortable straddle over the place where dark fantasy bleeds into horror. But that wasn’t quite what I got – although there was plenty of uncomfortable, downright painful straddling in the book itself.

Having finished the book, it feels like I got the middle part of a story that had a lot more depth to explore – but that those deeper elements just weren’t present in the part I got.

The story begins aboard a ship that has, or at least had, some very interesting magic. The ship is and has been, floating in an endless sea, its passengers permanent exiles from a shore they left behind. Originally, the ship fed and protected and sustained them easily, but the magic is dying, or the sea is dying, or it’s all fading away.

Our perspective on the ship, its inhabitants and its circumstances is through the mind of resentful, pregnant, angry, ostracized Iraxi. She is angry at everyone on the ship, and everyone on the ship is resentful and afraid of her. Even though they all hope that the baby she has zero desire to carry or bear will save them all.

Iraxi’s perspective is an uncomfortable one. She is, herself, extremely uncomfortable in the last days of her pregnancy, and very, very angry at everyone and everything around her. Including most especially, herself.

But Iraxi’s anger is a much bigger thing than one woman – or even one ocean – can contain. All she has to do is accept it, and accept the past that brought her to this point, and it will become big enough to encompass the world – and destroy it.

Escape Rating C: Even after finishing this book, I still had more of a sense of what it was supposed to be from the blurb than from reading – actually listening to – the entire thing from beginning to end. Not that the reader didn’t do a good job, because she most definitely did, but because the story didn’t quite gel for me – or perhaps it gelled in the wrong places.

The blurb describes Flowers for the Sea as Rosemary’s Baby meets Octavia Butler, in other words a combination of horror and SF. I was expecting something at least a bit like Rivers Solomon’s marvelous The Deep, in the sense that I was expecting a story that was intended to reclaim the Middle Passage of the slave trade for its victims and away from its perpetrators.

I didn’t exactly get either of those things. Admittedly that’s at least in part because both the author and the narrator did an all too excellent job of portraying Iraxi’s unwanted, undesired, unwelcome and utterly resented pregnancy and eventual childbirth as a internal horror of anger, fear, hatred, loathing, disgust and pretty much every other negative emotion in a way that hit me right in the nightmare to the point where it overshadowed the entire story.

The other reason the story didn’t gel is that we see the entire thing from Iraxi’s perspective, and Iraxi is angry almost to the point of incoherence pretty much all of the time. She hates her circumstances, she hates her pregnancy, she hates her baby, she hates all the people aboard the ship for the way that they have forced her to carry this unwanted pregnancy to term, the way that they in their turn hate and fear her and only give a damn about the child she is carrying. She’s lonely, she’s resentful, she’s afraid and she’s hiding the reasons she is in this circumstance from herself and from the reader, only dribbling out clues and then shutting herself down before we learn what we need to know.

Paradoxically for a story that didn’t work for me, I wish this had been longer. We don’t know anything about this world, although we learn that it isn’t exactly ours. We don’t know nearly enough about Iraxi’s people, their background or how they got into this fix. We eventually get hints, but they’re not enough. More pages, more scope to learn more, would have made this work better – at least for this reader.

Your reading mileage may vary. I’m headed off to gibber in a quiet corner someplace until the nightmare passes.

Review: An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets

Review: An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara SheetsAn Impossible Promise: A Novel by Jude Deveraux
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, time travel romance
Series: Providence Falls #2
Pages: 288
Published by Mira on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

They can’t be together, but they can’t stay apart…
Liam O’Connor has one purpose in this life—to push the woman he loves into the arms of another man. The Irish rogue unknowingly changed the course of destiny when he fell in love with Cora McLeod over a century ago. Their passion was intense, brief and tragic. And the angels have been trying to restore the balance of fate ever since.
Now police officers in Providence Falls, North Carolina, Liam and Cora are partners on a murder investigation. The intensity of the case has drawn them closer together—exactly what Liam is supposed to avoid. The angels have made it clear Cora must be with Finley Walsh. But headstrong Cora makes her own decisions and she’s starting to have feelings for Liam—the only thing he’s ever really wanted.
Liam knows this is the last chance to save his soul. But does he love Cora enough to let her go?
Providence Falls
Book 1: Chance of a Lifetime

My Review:

Okay, I’m hooked. Also confused, frustrated and annoyed – but hooked. I have to find out how this whole soap opera turns out.

Which constitutes fair warning on two counts. Count number one, that the insane story begun in Chance of a Lifetime does NOT conclude in An Impossible Promise. Count number two, this series is one story broken up into chapters, not two separate stories with some kind of link between them. In other words, you have to start at the beginning and it’s not done yet.

The third book isn’t even announced yet. Hence both the frustration AND the annoyance. I want to know how this is all going to get resolved – if only to find out if ANY of my guesses are right. And I need to know that the answers will be forthcoming at hopefully the not too distant future, but at least at some fixed date in the future.

Let me explain, which isn’t going to be easy because this story, at least so far, completely broke my willing suspension of disbelief meter and then set it on fire. This story needs resolution in the hopes that at the end it will all make sense.

The concept for the whole thing, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the series last week, has a lot of potential. It’s a time travel romance with a bit of angelic interference taking the place of any SFnal handwavium that often powers the jaunt through time.

What makes this different from the usual run of such things is that Liam O’Connor doesn’t go backward in time – he goes forward. From 1844 to an undefined present day probably just pre-pandemic.

Way back when, Liam O’Connor messed with Cora McLeod’s destiny when he convinced her to run away with him rather than marrying the man her father picked out for her. Whatever that destiny was, it was so huge and important that the angels, two of them specifically, have given Liam a second chance to get it right by giving up the woman he really does most sincerely love.

The angels fast forward Liam to now, where Cora McLeod, still with the same name, has another chance to marry her destined mate, Finley Walsh. It’s up to Liam to put aside his own desires – and honestly Cora’s as well – to make sure that this time things turn out the way they were supposed to.

All the while pretending to be a 21st police detective in a tiny town in North Carolina, learning how to live in a world he never imagined, while helping Cora solve a series of murders that have everyone in town on edge.

While a couple of meddling angels blow celestial trumpets in his ears to remind him that he only has three months to fix what he broke long ago before he goes straight to hell.

Escape Rating C+: As I said at the top, I am hooked on this story, and eaten up with speculation about how the whole thing is finally going to be worked out. But, but, but there are a whole lot of things about this story that drive me crazy because they don’t make sense – or at least they don’t make sense without a whole lot more explication than we have so far.

Liam, at one point in this book, asks the angels who have stuck him in this situation whether they are really angels or whether they’re working for the other side. I do not blame him AT ALL for wondering. They say they’re working for the “greater good” and all that, but anyone who works for the so-called “greater good” without explaining a whole lot about whose good and why it’s greater makes me twitchy and gives me mad Albus Dumbledore vibes and not in a good way.

Liam was kind of “voluntold” to participate in this mess, but it seems like everyone else is being manipulated rather a lot in order to accept Liam’s place in the world and in all of their lives. It also feels like a vast coincidence, beyond any angelic arrangement, that all the people in Providence Falls are reincarnations of the people Liam and Cora knew in their first go around, that they ALL have the same names and they are all in the same relationships to Liam, to Cora, and to each other.

The long arm of coincidence does not stretch that far – even in fiction.

Aside from the setup, the big issue in this romance is the romance. Liam really does love Cora, past and present. Cora is falling for Liam, again, even though she doesn’t remember their first time around.

Because we experience the story from Liam’s perspective, he’s the one we have empathy for. We want him to get his HEA and there’s no way that happens if he fulfills his promise to the angels. The entire story goes against the grain of the way it’s being told, especially when Cora’s growing feelings for Liam are taken into consideration. That she is not getting to make her own choices just bites. Seriously.

That’s not to say that this incarnation of Finley Walsh isn’t a good guy or in any way unworthy – but he’s not Cora’s choice. Although at least the story gives us a little more depth about him in this second installment. I would be happy to see Finn get his own HEA, but so far at least I’m not on board with that HEA being with Cora.

That’s where all of my thoughts about how this is going to play out go pear-shaped. At the end of this book, Liam finally gets a full explanation of why Cora has to marry Finn – but we don’t see it. All we get is Liam’s epiphany that his wants don’t matter, that Cora’s destiny is too important for him to mess up.

The problem I’m having is that I just don’t believe it. I’m not convinced. At all. The angels could be manipulating him, they could have shown him something that leads to this conclusion without it being the truth, and they could still be demons. On an entirely other hand they could be demons like Crowley (in Good Omens) was a demon, meaning that they might be doing the right thing in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. That’s actually an explanation I could seriously get behind.

But I want to know so, so badly. So I’m hooked. Along with being confused, frustrated and annoyed. The next book can’t come out soon enough. The horns of this particular dilemma are downright painful!

Review: Chance of a Lifetime by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets

Review: Chance of a Lifetime by Jude Deveraux and Tara SheetsChance of a Lifetime by Jude Deveraux, Tara Sheets
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, time travel romance
Series: Providence Falls #1
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on September 15, 2020
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In one century she loved him madly, and in another she wants nothing to do with him
In 1844 Ireland, Liam O’Connor, a rogue and a thief, fell madly in love with a squire’s daughter and unwittingly altered the future. Shy and naive Cora McLeod thought Liam was the answer to her prayers. But the angels disagreed and they’ve been waiting for the right moment in time to step in.
Now Liam finds himself reunited with his beloved Cora in Providence Falls, North Carolina. The angels have given Liam a task. He must make sure Cora falls in love with another man—the one she was supposed to marry before Liam interfered. But this Cora is very different from the innocent girl who fell for Liam in the past. She’s a cop and has a confidence and independence he wasn’t expecting. She doesn’t remember Liam or their past lives, nor is she impressed with his attempts to guide her in any way.
Liam wants Cora for himself, but with his soul hanging in the balance, he must choose between a stolen moment in time or an eternity of damnation.

My Review:

I picked this up last year, but it fell into the black hole of “so many books, so little time” and I just didn’t get a round tuit. Fast forward a year later, I pick up the second book in the Providence Falls series, intending to review it for a tour, only to realize that An Impossible Promise isn’t so much the second book in a series, with the possibility it can be read as a standalone, as it is the second “chapter” of what appears to be a continuing story.

Whether that story concludes in An Impossible Promise or continues further, well, I’ll find that out next week. Thankfully this book tour is a bit open-ended. Because I’m not sure that reading that second book makes any sense at all without this first one.

Although I’m not totally sure this first one makes a whole lot of sense, either.

There’s a reason why time travel stories generally send their characters back in time rather than forward. Life probably wasn’t any simpler in the past – just that the complications were different then they are now. And there are any number of ways that the author can give their time travelers knowledge about the past they end up traveling to.

A character coming forward into the future has no clue what they’re letting themselves in for, not even in this particular instance when Liam O’Connor’s soul is fast forwarded from Ireland in 1844 to Providence Falls, North Carolina sometime more or less here and now.

But Liam has been sent forward to fix his own great mistake, at least according to the two angels who are doing the sending. Once upon a time, Liam fell in love with Cora McLeod, and very much vice versa. According to the angels, that was not her destined path. Cora was supposed to marry someone else and give birth to a child that was destined to “help” humanity . Instead, she died young, and has continued to do so in every reincarnation since.

Liam’s been sent forward in time to make sure that this time Cora fulfills her destiny. He’s been given a minimal number of tools, an even more minimal amount of the knowledge the angels believe he needs to live in the 21st century, an amazingly deep cover story, and a deadline.

He has three months to make sure that Cora marries the man she’s supposed to marry and not the man of her dreams. Because that would be Liam. If he does the right thing and gives up the only woman he has ever, or will ever, love, he’ll go to heaven.

But if he gives into his own heart, and hers, he’ll go straight to Hell.

Escape Rating C: I’ll say this up front. I had to chuck my common sense and my willing suspension of disbelief really far out the window in order to finish this book. Because there is just so much that makes me go “WTF?” over and over and honestly, over.

Maybe I’ve read too much fantasy and paranormal romance, because what the angels did gave me so many vibes that either they aren’t on the up and up, they’re not angels at all, or they just lied their wings off to Liam to get him to participate in whatever scam they’ve got going on.

I’m not saying they aren’t some kind of supernatural being of some sort, but this whole thing makes way more sense if they’re demons posing as angels. Or if the reason they’ve set Liam up like this is NOT what they said it was. Or if there’s something bigger and more important going on that hasn’t been revealed.

Part of that is because the time travel setup is way too much like Dorothy’s trip to Oz. Possibly including someone behind the curtain that Liam isn’t supposed to be paying attention to – but we’re not there yet by the end of this book.

Howsomever, what makes the time travel so “fishy” in this story is that every single person that Liam knew in mid-19th century Ireland has been reincarnated and relocated to 21st century North Carolina and THEY ALL HAVE THE EXACT SAME NAMES AND FACES. For the most part, they also have the exact same relationships to Liam and to each other that they did over 150 years ago and 8,000+ miles away.

This is not logical and my brain went ‘tilt’.

The other part that makes me question pretty much everything that Liam has been told about Cora, his mission in this future and his own fate is that, while Liam may have seduced Cora in their original timeline – and he maybe a himbo and a horndog in both timelines – he seems to really love Cora and in their original timeline she really loved him.

While 19th century Cora could have been forced to marry the man her father picked out for her, 21st century Cora lives in an entirely different world of choices and options. And the 21st century reincarnation of the man she’s supposed to marry is a really nice guy with zero charisma that Cora has been friends with for years. He may be in love with Cora, but she just likes him as a friend. Every once in a while she feels a bit more, but it’s so rare that it’s more than possible that someone is manipulating her. As things stand when this part of the story ends, I’m not seeing anything that remotely resembles a Happy Ever After for Cora with this particular “destiny” as someone else’s endgame.

Because I already don’t trust those angels, I’d be putting my money on them as the manipulators. Especially since we don’t really know why it is just so damn important that Cora marry this guy that so many people are being maneuvered to make it happen. The angels could be telling the truth about the child that never was, or it could be part of whatever scam they’ve got going on.

So the story so far is a bit of a hot mess. I like Cora and Liam well enough, and am more than dead curious enough about those angels and what’s really going on that I’m definitely reading An Impossible Promise next week in the hopes of possibly finding out what all of this is leading to.

Review: Jekyll & Hyde Inc by Simon R. Green

Review: Jekyll & Hyde Inc by Simon R. GreenJekyll & Hyde Inc. by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 240
Published by Baen on September 7, 2021
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A NEW MASTERPIECE OF MACABRE HUMOR AND ACTION FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR OF ROBIN HOOD, PRINCE OF THIEVES, THE NATIONALLY BEST-SELLING NIGHTSIDE SERIES, THE DEATHSTALKER CHRONICLES, THE ISHMAEL JONES PARANORMAL MYSTERIES, AND MORE!
HYDE IN THE SHADOWS
Daniel Carter was a London cop who just wanted to do the right thing. But during a raid on an organ-selling chop shop, he is almost torn to pieces by monsters. And no one believes him. Hurt and crippled, his career over and his life in ruins, Daniel is suddenly presented with a chance at redemption. And revenge. It seems that more than two centuries ago, the monsters of the world disappeared—into the underworld of crime. Guild-like Clans now have control over all the dark and illegal trades, from the awful surgeries of the Frankenstein Clan, to the shadowy and seductive Vampire Clan, to the dreaded purveyors of drugs and death, the Clan of Mummies. And there’s always the Werewolf Clan, to keep order.
Only one force stands opposed to the monster Clans: the superstrong, extremely sexy, quick-witted Hydes! Now Daniel is just one sip of Dr. Jekyll’s Elixir away from joining their company. At Jekyll & Hyde Inc.
 About Simon R. Green:
“A macabre and thoroughly entertaining world.” —Jim Butcher on the Nightside series
“A splendid riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, conveyed with trademark wisecracking humor, and carried out with maximum bloodshed and mayhem. In a word, irresistible.” —Kirkus, Starred Review of Simon R. Green's Night Fall
“[F]or those who want a fantasy-genre mash-up that doesn’t slow down.” —Booklist on From a Drood to a Kill
 “Simon R. Green is a great favorite of mine. It’s almost impossible to find a writer with a more fertile imagination than Simon. He’s a writer who seems endlessly inventive.” —Charlaine Harris
 

My Review:

I picked this book up because I usually enjoy the author’s fine line in snark. His characters generally manage to say the things we all wish we’d said, and that’s always good for a bit of a chuckle, even if the humor involved tends to have the whiff of the gallows about it.

In other words, I expected to enjoy this book, at least on some levels. Even when his stories are at their most macabre, there’s always been something in the banter and the byplay that has tickled me a bit. Even when, or especially because there’s frequently something awful going on at the time.

I expected to have a good reading time with Jekyll & Hyde Inc. I really did. I liked the concept of it taking a monster to catch a monster, and the idea of Edward Hyde still running around London almost a century and a half after he supposedly died – along with his alter ego and progenitor, Dr. Henry Jekyll.

The blurb makes it seem as if the Hydes are, if not exactly on the side of the angels, at least on the side of putting the monsters down and out of both our and their misery – because the monsters have certainly earned it.

I was looking for a fun, horror-adjacent story with a heaping helping of snark. I expected to end with a bit of a chuckle and the feeling of order restored to the world in one way or another. Something along those lines.

But at the end of Jekyll & Hyde Inc., all I felt was sad. And I’m really, really sad about that.

Escape Rating C: From the description, and from the opening of the story, I’ll admit that I was wondering if this was going to turn out to be a bit like the Secret Histories series, only with real monsters as the protagonists instead of merely human monsters with great technology.

But the Hydes as a group don’t seem to have any redeeming motives the way that the Droods did. The Droods believed that they knew what was best for humanity, and even if they were wrong about methods or results, even if they caused a lot of collateral damage, and even if some of their number were corrupt, their overall goals at least nodded at being righteous.

The Hydes, or at least Edward Hyde himself, just want to eliminate all the other monster clans so that he can be the top dog and rule the underworld. Daniel and Tina are just tools in his hands who don’t realize that they are being taken for a ride until very near the end.

The underworld the Hydes are taking out has all the creepiness of the Nightside, or even Neil Gaiman’s  Neverwhere, without any light shining in from John Taylor or Richard Mayhew or even the Marquis de Carabas. In other words, I was looking for a least a bit of a redemptive arc or the possibility thereof, and all I got was a breather between monster mashes.

The relationship that develops between Daniel and Tina may be intended to mimic some kind of romance, but just doesn’t have the kind of heart that the relationship between Ishmael Jones and Penny Belcourt has in that series. Or even the on again/off again relationship that Gideon Sable has with Annie Anybody in The Best Thing You Can Steal.

Something is just missing in Jekyll & Hyde Inc. It has all the grim and all the dark of many of the author’s previous series, but it’s lacking in the light moments – and the snark – that made Ishmael Jones and Gideon Sable and the Nightside so compulsively readable.

Qualities that I sincerely hope he brings back in his next book, whatever it might be. I’ll certainly be looking for it the next time I go back to see what Ishmael Jones is up to in Till Sudden Death Do Us Part and the rest of that series.

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin HallStar Eater by Kerstin Hall
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Pages: 448
Published by Tordotcom on June 22, 2021
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All martyrdoms are difficult.
Elfreda Raughn will avoid pregnancy if it kills her, and one way or another, it will kill her. Though she’s able to stomach her gruesome day-to-day duties, the reality of preserving the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline horrifies her. She wants out, whatever the cost.
So when a shadowy cabal approaches Elfreda with an offer of escape, she leaps at the opportunity. As their spy, she gains access to the highest reaches of the Sisterhood, and enters a glittering world of opulent parties, subtle deceptions, and unexpected bloodshed.
A phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power, Star Eater takes readers deep into a perilous and uncanny world where even the most powerful women are forced to choose what sacrifices they will make, so that they might have any choice at all.

My Review:

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, Star Eater is the story of a world that has put that absolute power in the hands of a mean girl clique. And it’s working about as well as one might think it would, because these mean girls have real power and are using it to destroy people’s lives AND play with politics, sometimes at the same time.

Once the reader is as far on that train as the worldbuilding will allow, the situation gets even more dire and much, much stranger, all at the same time, until the story reaches a conclusion that doesn’t quite feel like it was part of the book that we started with.

When the story opens, the protagonist, the point of view from which we will view this world, is about to be raped. It’s her duty as an Acolyte of the Sisterhood of Aytrium to present herself to the “Renewal Wards” once every few months in order to, well, propagate the species. Not the human species, but specifically the “Lace”-wielding (read as magic) members of the Sisterhood by allowing herself to be raped – and it is rape even though she gives forced consent for it to happen – by a man who has already been infected with the disease that men contract when they have sex with a woman who has “lace”.

If her visit to the Renewal Wards results in a pregnancy, if the child is male he will either be given away or killed. If the child is female, the birth of her daughter begins the countdown on her mother’s life. Because the only way that lace can be renewed is for women to literally eat the flesh of their comatose mothers.

You’re probably already creeped out. The person I attempted to describe this story to certainly was. It is seriously creepy and this world is utterly fucked up. There’s no other word for it.

The thing is, as bad as Elfreda’s situation is, and the situation of every single one of her Sisters, the situation on Aytrium as a whole is even worse than you’re imagining. The Sisterhood controls everything in Aytrium because they are the ones keeping the place literally afloat. All of Aytrium and the land that supports the city and everyone in it was jerked out of the crust of the planet below by the very first Sister of the Order. If they don’t keep pouring their power into the spells that keep the city floating, it will crash back down.

And maybe it should.

Escape Rating C+: This story is a hot mess and so is its protagonist Elfreda Raughn. And the story is not nearly as high-falutin’ or well-put together as the blurb would lead one to believe.

Elfreda is a rather unreliable narrator, and not necessarily in a good way. She’s unreliable both because there are so many things she doesn’t know, and because there are just so many things that she doesn’t LET herself know. So she gets surprised a lot, and so do we, and it’s pretty much never the good kind of surprise.

Although there are plenty of things about this world that honestly, I wish I didn’t know now that I’ve read the book. Or had it read to me. In the end, a bit of both.

In the beginning, the focus seems to be on Elfrida’s relationship with the Sisterhood, and that’s where the mean girls vibe comes in. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Sisterhood has absolute power over the lives of everyone on Aytrium, especially the Sisters. While the power over everyone else is ordinary temporal power, the power over the other Sisters has a weird feel to it. It’s not just that Elfreda and the other Sisters regularly eat bits of their mothers, but the way that their mothers are kept comatose is referred to as martyrdom. And that Elfreda’s mother was martyred for political reasons and not because it was her time.

At the same time, the whole setup leads to the Sisterhood, and all of Aytrium, being ruled by a group of middle-aged women who are more interested in playing power games against each other than they are in running the place. Also, it feels like there are no elders among the Sisterhood because of the martyrdoms. Which feels like it matters more than it should, because it removes the possibility of hard-earned wisdom as a bit of a check on how bad things are both for the Sisters and for everyone else.

So part of the story is the poisonous internal politics of the Sisterhood. A second part wraps around a threat to that power, in the form of a semi-organized resistance movement made up of regular people, particularly but not exclusively men, who seem to be just about completely disenfranchised.

An organization, using the term loosely, which Elfreda’s best friends, Millie and Finn, seem to be an integral part of every bit as much as they are Elfreda’s life. Millie is Elfreda’s counselor (read Sisterhood-licensed therapist) and Millie’s brother Finn is the love of Elfreda’s life and vice versa, even if that relationship can never be acknowledged or consummated.

Either of those two scenarios would have been enough for a book. The repressive government and the resistance thereto, or the internal political squabbling of the all-powerful Sisterhood with its religious underpinning and its combination of “corrupt church” and “religion of evil” tropes fully on display.

Except that it gets crazier and weirder from there in ways that didn’t seem predicated on what happened so far and needed a bit of deus ex machina plot and character rescue at the end to make the whole thing tie itself up in a very messy bow.

In spite of all of the above, I have to admit that there were plenty of points where as much as I marveled at just how much shit this protagonist could manage to get herself into, and just how fucked up her world was, I felt compelled to keep reading after kind of a slow start. Elfreda’s story is the “Perils of Pauline” on steroids, out of the frying pan, into the fire and then jumping from one active volcano to another.

This is a trainwreck book, as in I knew it was going to have LOTS of awful things in it to see and read but I couldn’t turn my eyes away even when I wanted to. Hence that C+ rating. I was riveted even as I was appalled, and not in a good way. More like I couldn’t stop turning pages or sitting in the garage listening because I just couldn’t believe how much weirder and crazier it was going to get.

I mostly listened to this in audio through the NetGalley app. As I said above, the story is a hot mess. I have issues with the app. But the reader did an excellent job. I’d be happy to listen to her again, hopefully in a better story.

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.