Review: Stargazer by Anne Hillerman

Review: Stargazer by Anne HillermanStargazer (Leaphorn & Chee, #24) by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Leaphorn and Chee #24, Leaphorn Chee and Manuelito #6
Pages: 318
Published by Harper on April 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Murder, deception, Navajo tradition, and the stars collide in this enthralling entry in New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman’s Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series, set amid the beautiful landscape of the American Southwest.
What begins as a typical day for Officer Bernadette Manuelito—serving a bench warrant, dealing with a herd of cattle obstructing traffic, and stumbling across a crime scene—takes an unexpected twist when she’s called to help find an old friend. Years ago, Bernie and Maya were roommates, but time and Maya’s struggles with addiction drove them apart. Now Maya’s brother asks Bernie to find out what happened to his sister.
Tracing Maya’s whereabouts, Bernie learns that her old friend had confessed to the murder of her estranged husband, a prominent astronomer. But the details don’t align. Suspicious, Bernie takes a closer look at the case only to find that nothing is as it seems. Uncovering new information about the astronomer’s work leads Bernie to a remote spot on the Navajo Nation and a calculating killer.
The investigation causes an unexpected rift with her husband and new acting boss, Jim Chee, who’s sure Bernie’s headed for trouble. While she’s caught between present and past, Chee is at a crossroads of his own. Burdened with new responsibilities he didn’t ask for and doesn’t want, he must decide what the future holds for him and act accordingly. 
Can their mentor Joe Leaphorn—a man also looking at the past for answers to the future—provide the guidance both Bernie and Chee need? And will the Navajo heroes that stud the starry sky help them find justice—and the truth they seek?

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise – or a spoiler – for a mystery to open with the discovery of a dead body. But when that discovery is immediately followed by a voluntary confession to a circumstance that the police haven’t yet even determined is a homicide, well, that is kind of a surprise.

Although in real life the police would probably be thrilled to have a case wrapped up so neatly and tied with such a pretty bow, in mystery fiction that easy resolution could end the book – with 300+ pages or so left to fill.

So, the reader is pretty sure that there must be more to this story from the very beginning. Luckily, so is Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Navajo Police. Once upon a time, when Bernie was in college, she and the confessed murderer were roommates, while the victim was the bilagaana lover who whisked her friend off to Hawaii for marriage, a son, and a later breakup.

It’s not that Bernie can’t imagine that her once-friend isn’t capable of murder, because after ten years on the force she knows too well that every person is capable of killing someone in the right – or wrong – circumstance. But THIS murder doesn’t match the person she knew.

Particularly as the confession is a bit threadbare, to say the least. The supposed murderer isn’t saying much of anything about either how or why – and the circumstances just don’t add up. But the circumstances do conspire to keep Bernie on the case, even though the crime was not committed on Navajo land and therefore not in Bernie’s jurisdiction.

She’s, not happy about driving back and forth the four hours between Shiprock and the county sheriff’s office in Socorro but she is more than a bit relieved to get away from her substation, where her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee, is currently also serving as the supervisor – and Bernie’s temporary boss.

Bernie and Chee need their captain to get back from his meetings in Window Rock before their marriage suffers any more stress than is normal for two cops married to each other. And Bernie wants to make sure that she does right by her old friend.

The more times that Bernie makes that long drive, the more certain she is that her friend’s convenient but threadbare confession doesn’t hold up to any examination whatsoever. But if the woman won’t help herself and tell the police – and Bernie – something, ANYTHING to make the whole thing make sense, the system is going to grind her under and spit her into prison whether she deserves it or not.

It’s up to Bernie to find the answers – to the crime, to her marriage, to her relationship with her mother and even to the future of her own career – on those long, solitary drives before it’s too late to fix any of the messes that she’s stuck in the middle of.

Escape Rating B+: I read this series because it’s a comfort read. It’s been a comfort read for decades at this point, as I started the series back in the 1990s when I had a really long car commute, and the then Leaphorn & Chee series written by the author’s father was one of the few things available in audiobook at my library. What a long, strange trip it’s been!

So I know and love these characters, and visiting them again is as comfortable as a warm pair of slippers – even if the case they end up investigating turns out to be considerably less warm and fuzzy. This week, when I wasn’t feeling all that great, I found myself searching out comfort reads – and lo and behold, here’s Bernie Manuelito, her husband the Cheeseburger, and the Legendary Lieutenant Leaphorn to see me through.

There are two threads to this story. The primary thread, of course, is the case. The second thread is the part where this being an ongoing series comes into play, as Bernie, Chee and even Leaphorn are all facing decision points, whether large or small, in their lives.

The case, although it’s a twisted mess, is the easy part. Or the easy-er part, anyway. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the confession doesn’t really solve anything. Partly because the book would end at that point if it were correct, but mostly because it doesn’t make sense, whether to Bernie or to the reader.

There’s no there, there. To the point where it was obvious, at least to this reader, that the woman confessed in order to protect someone else. The questions then become who is she protecting and why is she protecting that person? The protection was, as I said, obvious, but the who and the why weren’t nearly as obvious as they seemed. I bit down on that red herring pretty hard and didn’t manage to extract myself until close to the point where Bernie extracted herself.

And even then I was half right after all, making the mystery of this entry in the series not quite mysterious enough.

The parts of the story that deal with the life-decisions that the characters have to face were much more interesting – at least to this long-time reader of the series. Leaphorn’s decision isn’t all that earth-shattering, but Chee and Bernie are on the horns of some pretty big dilemmas, both together and separately.

It’s always Bernie’s decisions that interest me the most, because she’s the point of departure from the original series. And because she faces conflicts that neither of the men will ever have to. Bernie’s caught between her career, her marriage, and her love of and duty towards her aging mother. All of her decisions are hard, and they all impact each other, because they face in different directions.

So I love this series. Sometimes for the mystery, sometimes just to keep up with these beloved characters and their lives. Often a bit of both. I’m looking forward to my next visit to Four Corners, hopefully this time next year. And if you’re looking for a fresh take on a well-loved series, you can get hooked back into these characters and this place in Spider Woman’s Daughter, the marvelous mystery where the author picked up the threads that her father dropped and made them her own.

Review: Death with a Double Edge by Anne Perry

Review: Death with a Double Edge by Anne PerryDeath with a Double Edge (Daniel Pitt #4) by Anne Perry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Daniel Pitt #4
Pages: 304
Published by Ballantine Books on April 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Daniel Pitt's investigation into his colleague's murder leads him through London's teeming underbelly to the suspicious dealings of one of England's most influential shipbuilding magnates in a thrilling novel from New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry.
When junior barrister Daniel Pitt is summoned to the scene of a murder in the London district known as Mile End, he knows only that the victim is a senior barrister from the same firm. To Daniel's relief, it is not his close friend Toby Kitteridge, but the question remains: What was this respected colleague doing in such a rough part of the city? The firm's head, Marcus fford Croft, may know more than he admits, but fford Croft's memory is not what it used to be, and his daughter, Miriam--Daniel's friend and sometime sidekick--isn't in the country to offer her usual help. And so Daniel and Kitteridge must investigate on their own, lest the police uncover something that may cast a suspicious light on the firm.
Their inquiries in Mile End lead them to a local brothel and to an opium den, but also--unexpectedly--to a wealthy shipbuilder crucial to Britain's effort to build up its fleet, which may soon face the fearsome naval might of Germany. Daniel finds his path blocked by officials at every turn, his investigation so unwelcome that even his father, Special Branch head Thomas Pitt, receives a chilling warning from a powerful source. Suddenly, not just Daniel but his whole family--including his beloved mother, Charlotte--is in danger. Will Daniel's devotion to justice be the undoing of his entire life, and endanger Britain's defense at sea? As ever, the fates of family and history are inextricably intertwined in this spellbinder from Anne Perry.

My Review:

For all of its early-20th century setting, Death with a Double Edge is a story about power and privilege that could take place here and now as easily and as effectively as there and then.

Not just because many of the trappings of that time could be easily extrapolated to the present. And certainly not just because human nature doesn’t seem to have changed much in millennia, let alone in a mere century.

But because all of the causes of the series of crimes that keep pushing this story and this case forward, and especially because all of the reasons for officialdom to turn a blind eye, happened then, happen now, and quite probably will go right on happening ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

A young woman is beaten to death. A young man is accused of killing her. A lawyer defends him and the system seems to be working as it should. But when the accused is exonerated and both he and his lawyer are also killed it shines a bright light onto a dark deed that no one seems to have wanted to investigate too closely.

The young woman was a nobody with a “bad” reputation who was killed at a “fast” party. The young man’s father was rich and influential, meaning that he had the money to pay for an excellent lawyer – which he did. Although this was a case where justice was actually not bought. The young man was innocent – merely convenient.

It’s only when the lawyer turns up dead of a slit throat that Daniel Pitt enters the case. Because the lawyer was a senior member of his own chambers (read that as law firm) and the man’s death opens up every case he ever worked so that the chambers can make sure that all of his unfinished cases are taken care of. And so that it can make sure that its own hands are clean.

And that’s where things get interesting – and very nearly go pear-shaped. Daniel Pitt, still rather young and idealistic in spite of his profession, is stuck investigating men he respects and even in some cases, reveres. He’s all too aware that murder investigations uncover dirt that may have nothing to do with the crime being investigated but are still dirty and have the potential to ruin reputations and lives – possibly even his own.

He doesn’t want to discover that those he respects have played fast and loose with the law they’ve all sworn to defend. So much of this case is about Daniel’s loss of innocence.

At the same time, this operates on a second level. Because Daniel, as he often does, bounces ideas off of his father, Sir Thomas Pitt, now the Head of Special Branch. These days, the elder Pitt investigates terrorism and treason, but once upon a time he was a beat cop. His experience makes him an excellent, if sometimes involved, sounding board for his son.

But Daniel’s investigation wanders too near that accused young man’s wealthy father, and the elder Pitt is officially warned off. Repeatedly. Even as the case draws tighter around this wealthy man who has money, power, and influence – and whose business is building ships that the British Navy is going to need for the war that is coming.

Officialdom wants this case to die quietly, because Britain needs those ships. But neither Pitt can stop asking questions, because the law they both serve says that one murder is too many to overlook.

No matter what the powers-that-be are willing to tolerate for “the greater good”.

Escape Rating A-: The story of Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte – who met over the body of her murdered sister – are the featured characters in the author’s long running series that begins with The Cater Street Hangman. During the course of that series this mismatched pair, gamekeeper’s son Thomas and aristocratic daughter Charlotte, met, married and solved cases together as Charlotte adjusted to living as a cop’s wife and Thomas rose in rank, got himself fired because he has always been incapable of looking the other way, and then rose in rank again to become the Head of Special Branch.

In the details of their life together we meet all of their children, so it was lovely when their son Daniel became the focus of this new series in Twenty-One Days.

While I think Daniel’s series stands separately from his parents’, just as Daniel has begun a new life on his own as a young lawyer, there are plenty of hints from his parents’ storied past threaded through Daniel’s own series, just as our lives are influenced by our own parents, whether for good or for ill. Meaning that if you haven’t read the earlier series (I haven’t read them all but I read many once upon a time), you won’t feel left behind because enough of the details are present in their son’s series. But I remember the whole series VERY fondly.

But this feels like the first time that Thomas has had an actual full-on case arise from Daniel’s legal and investigative practice, and this series and its characters feels like it is established enough that Thomas’ case complements his son’s without overshadowing it – although some of the events that occur nearly bring both of them to their knees.

Everything in the story turns on power and privilege. Daniel fears that his late colleague cut corners in the law, and that he’ll be the one to uncover it. He is also mortally afraid that a man he reveres has allowed those corners to be cut, whether out of greed or because he is no longer capable of managing the chambers that he founded.

Daniel knows that justice can be bought and paid for by the rich and powerful, but he fears that the firm he hoped to spend his career in has been complicit. Even worse, that the father of his dearest friend has aided and abetted the practice.

Thomas, on the other hand, fears that the government that he serves is willing to condone and cover up multiple murders – and he is unwilling – in fact constitutionally unable – to allow it. He knows that the time to stop evil is when it is smaller and weaker – not after it’s been allowed to commit larger and worser acts and has become too powerful to overcome.

What keeps this story going is the way that, as the investigation continues, and the noose seems to close around the one neck that the government wants to pretend is not a suspect, the danger to everyone around both Daniel and Thomas Pitt grows ever greater. As the story becomes a race against time, the reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.

Who done it is easy to guess. Whether they will pay the price for doing it is the question that drives the story – and drives it very hard indeed.

Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers

Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. WagersBeyond the Empire (The Indranan War, #3) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Indranan War #3
Pages: 416
Published by Orbit on November 14, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The adrenaline-fueled, explosive conclusion to the Indranan War trilogy by K. B. Wagers.
Gunrunner-turned-Empress Hail Bristol was dragged back to her home planet to take her rightful place in the palace. Her sisters and parents have been murdered, and the Indranan Empire is reeling from both treasonous plots and foreign invasion.Now, on the run from enemies on all fronts, Hail prepares to fight a full-scale war for her throne and her people, even as she struggles with the immense weight of the legacy thrust upon her. With the aid of a motley crew of allies old and new, she must return home to face off with the same powerful enemies who killed her family and aim to destroy everything and everyone she loves. Untangling a legacy of lies and restoring peace to Indrana will require an empress's wrath and a gunrunner's justice.

My Review:

This rose to the top of the TBR pile because my husband is playing the Mass Effect Legendary Edition and has been for the past three weeks. We’ve both played the Trilogy before, so we both know how the story ends. I picked up Beyond the Empire because I was looking for a female-led big space opera story (he’s playing as FemShep) that hopefully doesn’t have as heartbreaking an ending as Mass Effect 3 did. Does. That entire third game is a goddamn farewell tour and it just hurts. I may not replay it after all because as the old song says, “you won’t read that book again because the ending’s just too hard to take.”

The action of Beyond the Empire follows directly upon the events of After the Crown, which, in its turn, started just about the minute after Behind the Throne ended. In other words, this is not the place to begin Hail’s story. If you love big space operas with snarky heroines and dirty, rotten underhanded politics as much as I do, start with Behind the Throne and be prepared to immerse yourself in a fantastic binge read.

As this story begins, Hail and her company of friends, advisors and found family are on the run. In trilogy terms, this beginning is similar to the opening of The Return of the King, where the situation looks desperate and Aragorn and the Rangers have to take the Paths of the Dead while Sam has started out alone for Mordor. In other words, the situation is in a very dark place but there are ways they can retake the empire IF they are willing to take a hell of a lot of risks.

Empress Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the empress formerly known as the gunrunner Cressen Stone, is always up for entirely too many risks. She’s just not used to so much and so many people riding on her success – or dying for her failure.

But a gunrunner-turned-reluctant-empress is the only person who could possibly rescue Hail’s friends, her found family, her loved ones and especially her empire, before it’s too late for them all.

Escape Rating A+: This was, again, the right book at the right time. Both for the Mass Effect Trilogy with a less destructive ending (any ending is less destructive and heartbreaking than the end of that saga) and for its “woman in charge who takes no prisoners” heroine. Because I’ve read too many books recently where women are at the mercy of men, and I just wasn’t there for THAT again at the moment. (Although there’s an irony in that desire that turns out to be part of the denouement of this trilogy that I’m not going to go into here.)

As Hail and company close in physically on the home planet and the capitol, and close the noose around their enemies, they also finally draw close to the architect of everything that has happened, not just in this trilogy, but in pretty much everything that has gone wrong or strange or tragic in Hail’s life since her father was killed and she ran away to become Cressen Stone and chase down his killer.

I’m referring to the mysterious “Wilson” who seems to be more ghost than man. Who has disappeared and reappeared to wreck destruction in Hail’s life over and over for the past 20 years, and who seems to be the architect – or perhaps the puppet master – behind all Hail’s recent tragedies.

The mystery of who and how and why Wilson has been after Hail’s family and her empire has lain behind every event in this series. As Hail closes in on Pashati and retaking the seat of her empire, she and her companions also close in on Wilson’s true identity and the reasons behind his decades-long campaign to destroy the Indranan Empire and its ruling family.

Wilson is clearly out for revenge for something – even if Hail has no idea what.

But, as that other old saying goes (a lot of old sayings seem to be turning up in this one), if revenge is a dish best served cold, then this story, in fact this whole trilogy, turns out to be a case study in what happens when someone lets their cold revenge warm up. Wilson has let his revenge heat to a boiling point, along with his temper, his ego and his aggression, and that revenge curdles as much and as badly as you think it will. But the story that results from that curdle is absolutely EPIC.

Having finished Beyond the Empire in a few all-too-brief hours, and after picking it up because I wasn’t ready to deal with another big space opera with a heartbreaking ending, I’m “pleased as Punch”, as that saying goes, to say that while Hail’s butt seems to be firmly on the throne of the Indranan Empire at the end of Beyond the Empire, her adventures are FAR from over. Her future adventures form the second trilogy in this series, The Farian War, beginning with There Before the Chaos – a fitting title if ever there was one, as Hail is usually around before, during AND after the chaos. I have it in both ebook and audio, and I’m looking forward to diving into it the next time I need a reading pick-me-up.

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison Montclair

Review: A Rogue’s Company by Allison MontclairA Rogue's Company (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery, #3) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Allison Monclair's A Rogue's Company, business becomes personal for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau when a new client, a brutal murder, two kidnappings, and the recently returned from Africa Lord Bainbridge threatens everything that one of the principals holds dear.
In London, 1946, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and expanding. Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge are making a go of it. That is until Lord Bainbridge—the widowed Gwen's father-in-law and legal guardian—returns from a business trip to Africa and threatens to undo everything important to her, even sending her six-year-old son away to a boarding school.
But there's more going on than that. A new client shows up at the agency, one whom Sparks and Bainbridge begin to suspect really has a secret agenda, somehow involving the Bainbridge family. A murder and a subsequent kidnapping sends Sparks to seek help from a dangerous quarter—and now their very survival is at stake.

My Review:

I’ve just realized that the title is a pun – or a spoiler, take your pick – on multiple levels. Iris Sparks, co-owner of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, is keeping company with Archie Spelling, a known gangster. Quite willingly and fairly often.

Gwen Bainbridge, her friend and co-owner of the agency, very much on the other hand, has been forced to keep company with a gang of rogues because they’ve kidnapped her while she was in the unfortunate company – and unfortunately in the company – of her douchecanoe of a father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge.

That Harold is a complete and utter rotter is not a spoiler at all. I think I rage-read the first half of this book because Harold’s douchecanoe nature and general all-around misogynistic asshattery is on display from practically the first page of the book.

I hated not just every scene the man was in but every time Gwen was forced to deal with the power the man had over Gwen’s – and every other person in the household’s – life. A power that he indulged to a disgusting degree at every possible turn as well as at plenty of turns that one wouldn’t have thought were possible, if only because he was willing to insult and demean everyone except his cronies in front of any audience at all. Going completely against that whole idea that one didn’t air one’s dirty linen in public.

Harold has power over Gwen because he had Gwen declared mentally incompetent when she was unable to maintain the proper British stiff-upper-lip in the face of her husband’s (Harold’s son’s) death during the late war. Along with that declaration, Harold captured custody of Gwen, her son Ronnie (his grandson) and all of the shares in Bainbridge Ltd., that his son left to his wife in his will.

And thereby hangs a good chunk of the tale. For Gwen, it’s all about little Ronnie, and not letting Harold send her 6-year-old boy off to the boarding school that his father hated and that turned his grandfather into the disgusting, overbearing ass that he became.

As Gwen grabs hold of her courage and her will and begins to finally fight back, she – with the aiding, abetting and more-than-able assistance of her partner Iris – puts her very superior brain to work to figure out what’s behind her consignment to her father-in-law’s clutches, along with exactly what’s behind his consignment to the clutches of his (their) kidnappers.

It’ll be the making of Gwen – if she survives. Even if calling in favors from her friendly neighborhood gangster puts Iris’ future happiness at risk.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I loved the first two books in this series, The Right Sort of Man and A Royal Affair. In the end, I loved this one too, but not as much as the first two because, well, see my comments about rage-reading the first half located above.

I’m starting to think I’m just allergic to stories that feature women caught in impossible situations because men are entitled assholes whether the jerks in question are actually titled or not. Gwen Bainbridge’s situation has always been a bit precarious vis a vis her titled, overbearing, petty dictator of a father-in-law, because he’s always held the whip hand in their relationship and seems to enjoy using it. Her husband – his son – died in the war and Gwen’s mourning of him did not exactly exhibit the stiff upper lip that Brits are known for. She was labeled as a “hysteric” and placed under the guardianship of her late husband’s family. Under the thumb of her father-in-law who threatens and demeans every single person with whom he comes in contact at every possible turn – including his grandson, Gwen’s 6-year-old son Ronnie. The dinner party scene with the toasts was particularly horrific in this regard – but it was just the latest in a continuing line of horrors in that household.

It’s not a surprise that both Sparks and Bainbridge, along with nearly every other person who comes into contact with the man, wants to commit some kind of mayhem upon his odious person. It’s only a surprise that it didn’t happen sooner – and more often.

I’m going to try to stop ranting now. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be. Gwen’s asshat-in-law has the same name as my ex-husband, so there might be a teensy bit of transference going on here.

Moving right along…

This story isn’t about Gwen’s family troubles, although it certainly is about families, and troubles, and the trouble that we will put ourselves through for our families – or at least for the members of our family that we love.

Because the other half of this story starts out with a bit of a dilemma for Gwen and Iris. They have a new client – well of course they do, that’s the whole raison d’etre of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau after all. But their new client causes them to question a whole host of assumptions that they both had when they began their enterprise.

Their new client, Simon Daile, is African. Not a Brit who has gone to Africa to make a fortune – like the odious Lord Bainbridge – but a man from Africa who came to England to study agriculture and got stuck there during the war. He’s the first black client the agency has had, and they are surprised. Then they are surprised that they are surprised.

And finally, they figure out that they’ve been missing out on clients because they assumed that all their clients would be just like themselves. White. And that they need to throw their assumptions out the window, no matter how comfortable clinging to them might have been.

Their bit of soul searching feels like it’s handled reasonably well, at least right up until the point where Gwen’s bit of sixth sense about when people are lying to her kicks in. Because Mr. Daile is lying about something. Or she thinks he is. And she’s afraid that her intuition has gone off or is leading her astray because she’s uncomfortable. Which is logical, merely incorrect in this case. Also, that she’s just second-guessing herself because Lord Bainbridge does nothing but try his worst to make her feel small, incapable and lacking in pretty much everything at every turn.

(Speaking of comfort, my soapbox is apparently a bit too comfortable. Moving right along AGAIN…)

It turns out that she’s both right and wrong, and that the wrongness ties into the mystery genre’s convention about coincidences. There are two threads to this story, Mr. Daile and the kidnapping of Lord Bainbridge and Gwen. Those threads connect – just not in any of the ways that Gwen – or the reader – might have initially suspected..

And Gwen rescues herself. Not just from the kidnapping, but from Lord Bainbridge. And it’s glorious! Now that she’s gotten THAT albatross off from around her neck. I have really high hopes for future books in this series! Meanwhile, I’m going to take a look at The Haunting of the Desks, a short story in the series that looks like oodles of fun!

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 6-6-21

It’s been “bounce-off” week this week and it looks like next. I’ve not been feeling quite the thing, so I’ve really been looking for books I can get stuck into right away. Which means I’ve thrown this week’s schedule into a blender fairly often in the last couple of days. I’m not too sure this version will stick either after the first couple of books – because I’ve already finished them! I also finished All the Feels by Olivia Dade because it’s what I desperately WANTED to read, even though it won’t be out until October and I can’t post the review for months. But it’s so good. If you loved Spoiler Alert you’ll love All the Feels, too.

But speaking of spoilers, I have to spoil this picture a bit. It’s titled “Anticipation“, after the song, but what Freddie thinks he’s anticipating here isn’t what he’s actually going to get. He’s hoping it’s food. Chewy’s boxes often contain food. And Freddie, out of all of our cats, is the one who lives to eat. He’s going to be so disappointed when we open these and he learns that it’s just kitty litter. Not that that’s not important for a cat who loves to eat! It’s just not nearly as interesting.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Berry Good Giveaway Hop
$25 Amazon Gift Card from Sophie Barnes and Her Scottish Scoundrel

Blog Recap:

B+ Review: Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway
Berry Good Giveaway Hop
B Review: Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia
A- Review: Castle Shade by Laurie R. King
A Review: The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu
Stacking the Shelves (447)

Coming This Week:

A Rogue’s Company by Allison Montclair (review)
Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers (review)
While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams (review)
Death with a Double Edge by Anne Perry (review)
The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner (review)

Stacking the Shelves (447)

I’m not sure whether the appropriate catch phrase for this month is “June is busting out all over” or “Spring is sprung, Fall is fell, here comes summer and it’s hotter than…last year.”  Both feel like they are equally true, although it’s not so much that June is busting out all over as “It’s June, we’re vaccinated, and people are busting out all over.” Because it is, we are, and we definitely are. It still feels like a treat to just go out and do things and see people everywhere, knowing that whether or not they are vaccinated – although I certainly HOPE they all are – I definitely am. It’s starting to feel “real” that events are happening again.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not still taking a book or my iPad or at least my iPhone with me wherever I go. There’s always time to READ!

For Review:
All the Feels (Spoiler Alert #2) by Olivia Dade
As the Wicked Watch (Jordan Manning #1) by Tamron Hall
Blind Tiger by Sandra Brown
Child of Light by Terry Brooks
Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky
A Darker Reality (Elena Standish #3) by Anne Perry
Dust Off the Bones by Paul Howarth
Echo by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
The Family Plot by Megan Collins
Heartbreak Incorporated by Alex De Campi
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
Look What You Made Me Do by Elaine Murphy
Mordew (Cities of the Weft #1) by Alex Pheby
Murder Under Her Skin (Pentecost and Parker #2) by Stephen Spotswood
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
Nolyn (Rise and Fall #1) by Michael J. Sullivan
Palm Beach by Mary Adkins
The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Scandal in Babylon (Silver Screen #1) by Barbara Hambly
The Shadows of London (Joseph Bridgeman #2) by Nick Jones
Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie
Someone Perfect (Westcott #9) by Mary Balogh
A Wrinkle in Thyme (Pancake House Mystery #8) by Sarah Fox

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory (Murderbot Diaries #4.5) by Martha Wells

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Review: The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu

Review: The Library of the Dead by T.L. HuchuThe Library of the Dead (Edinburgh Nights, #1) by T.L. Huchu
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Edinburgh Nights #1
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on June 1, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sixth Sense meets Stranger Things in T. L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead, a sharp contemporary fantasy following a precocious and cynical teen as she explores the shadowy magical underside of modern Edinburgh.
When a child goes missing in Edinburgh's darkest streets, young Ropa investigates. She'll need to call on Zimbabwean magic as well as her Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. But as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?
When ghosts talk, she will listen...
Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh's dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl's gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone's bewitching children--leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It's on Ropa's patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She'll dice with death (not part of her life plan...), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She'll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa's gonna hunt them all down.

My Review:

If I had to describe this story – and I do – I’d start out by saying this is very much a dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy, where that darkness is sometimes so impenetrable that this is a world where the light at the end of the tunnel is ALWAYS an oncoming train, and the situation is always darkest just before it turns completely black.

At the same time, it’s also urban fantasy, complete with a magic-wielding and very amateur detective and a huge mystery to be solved. But the urban in this fantasy, while it is still recognizably Edinburgh, it’s not exactly any version of Edinburgh that we know – and not just because of the magic.

See paragraph one and the reference to post-apocalyptic. Although the technology makes it seem like this Edinburgh isn’t all that far into the future, it’s also clear that some serious shit went down in the not too distant past – or not too far back along the path that is now trending towards hell while being carried along in that handcart.

Ropa Moyo is the reader’s guide and avatar in this brave new/old world. Or, at any rate, Ropa is brave while we’re sitting on our comfy couches quivering at all of the risks she takes – and especially the risks that nearly take her.

Her world is both new and old, as whatever turned our world into hers has changed everything to the point where 70s and 80s TV shows – which are still broadcast and viewed – show Ropa a world that looks like a paradise of abundance compared to the time and place she now lives.

It’s also an old world, because the “event” – whatever it was – if it was a singular event and not just a general trend hellwards – has brought back not only ghosts and the old magic needed to communicate with them and take messages from them – but also brought out all of the old magical beings, especially the evil ones – that made living beside creepy places a real peril and “may you live in interesting times” a really, really serious curse.

But the fault, the truly big evil, the really serious evil, is, as always, not in our myths and legends or, but rather as Shakespeare so famously said, “not in our stars but in ourselves.”

And only Ropa Moyo seems ready and willing to fight it.

Escape Rating A: The Library of the Dead is fantasy that is so dark it tips all the way into horror at more than one point, so if you prefer your horror-adjacency to not be quite so on the nose, so to speak, then this can, at points be a hard read – although absolutely worth persevering through.

If only to see just how Ropa manages to persevere through in spite of the odds very much stacked against her.

In fact, I have to say that I had the weirdest kind of approach/avoidance reaction to reading this book, whether in print or on audio. Actually I listened to most of this one and the reader was fantastic and if you have the time I highly recommend it.

Even though listening does highlight the “two nations divided by a common language” thing on more than one occasion.

There were many points where the horror aspects, or Ropa’s temporary near-helplessness in the face of either the situation in general or those aspects in particular, made me want to stop listening. At the same time, I was so completely stuck into the story that I felt compelled to keep going.

It was kind of a different version of a train-wreck book. It’s not that the book was horrible, but that the things that happen within it were horrible in one way or another but I absolutely couldn’t turn my eyes or my mind away. It was the whole “watching yucky things ooze” kind of fascination, but I was absolutely fascinated. And definitely riveted. Also, there was plenty of ooze.

One of the things that drove me nuts was that I still don’t know exactly what happened that tipped this version of the world onto the path into hell. SOMETHING definitely happened, but I don’t know what. Not that once the tip happened the hellish snowball hasn’t picked up plenty of speed through purely human pushing, but there was an EVENT in the past and I didn’t grasp what it was.

Maybe in the next book, Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments, sometime next year. I can hope!

What makes this story work, and keeps the reader turning pages at an ever increasing rate, is Ropa. We’re inside her head and she’s telling her story, which does, now that I think about it, mean that the reader knows she survived from the beginning. But honestly her situation gets so grim at points that it completely slipped past me. Also survival alone is insufficient.

Ropa is a ball of contradictions. She is very young, but at the same time she is the primary breadwinner for her tiny family. Ropa’s ghostalking (barely) brings in enough money to pay the rent on the land under their small caravan, feed her grandmother, her little sister and herself, and pay for her gran’s medicine and her sister’s school fees. She’s walking a tightrope every second, knowing that a bad day or bad luck can put them all behind in a way that she may not be able to recover from.

If the difference between “poor” and “broke” is that broke is temporary while poor isn’t going to change anytime soon without a miracle, Ropa is all too aware that her family is poor in material goods but rich in love and that she’ll do whatever she has to in order to keep them together.

But – huge, giant but – Ropa loves her grandmother and can’t imagine a life without her. So when gran tells her to help one of the dead for free, even though Ropa knows it will set the family back financially, she does it anyway. And everything that happens after that, good and bad, is because she was doing someone a favor because gran asked her to. She learns terrible things, she uncovers horrible secrets, she saves herself and does her best to save some others, and she learns she’s way more of a magic-user than merely a ghostalker.

And it ends with both the hope and the fear of things to come, because when there’s big evil, there’s generally an even bigger evil hiding behind it. With the help of her friends, the Library of the Dead, her fox-familiar and her own sheer nerve, roiling guts and self-educated brain, Ropa will take it all on. Tomorrow. After she gets the bills paid.

It’s going to be another EPIC adventure. .Just like this one.

Review: Castle Shade by Laurie R. King

Review: Castle Shade by Laurie R. KingCastle Shade (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #17) by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #17
Pages: 384
Published by Bantam on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A queen, a castle, a dark and ageless threat--all await Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes in this chilling new adventure.
The queen is Marie of Roumania: the doubly royal granddaughter to Victoria, Empress of the British Empire, and Alexander II, Tsar of Russia. A famous beauty who was married at seventeen into Roumania's young dynasty, Marie had beguiled the Paris Peace Conference into returning her adopted country's long-lost provinces, single-handedly transforming Roumania from a backwater into a force.
The castle is Bran: a tall, quirky, ancient structure perched on high rocks overlooking the border between Roumania and its newly regained territory of Transylvania. The castle was a gift to Queen Marie, a thanks from her people, and she loves it as she loves her own children.
The threat is...now, that is less clear. Shadowy figures, vague whispers, the fears of girls, dangers that may only be accidents. But this is a land of long memory and hidden corners, a land that had known Vlad the Impaler, a land from whose churchyards the shades creep.
When Queen Marie calls, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are as dubious as they are reluctant. But a young girl is involved, and a beautiful queen. Surely it won't take long to shine light on this unlikely case of what would seem to be strigoi?
Or, as they are known in the West...vampires.

My Review:

As this one opens, Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes, are leaving the sunny Riviera, the scene of their previous adventure, Riviera Gold, for the chillier and considerably more forbidding Carpathian Mountains. For the very scene of Count Dracula’s fictional adventures.

But Castle Bran, unlike the fictional residence of Dracula that was based on it, is the real life retreat of Queen Marie of Roumania.

There is a bit of Dorothy Parker doggerel that I memorized a long time ago, that goes:

“Life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea.
Love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.”

I had no idea that Marie of Roumania was a real person. I thought it was something Parker made up in order to make the thing rhyme and scan correctly. Color me chagrined.

Holmes is on his way to Castle Bran and the town of Bran that it overlooks at the behest of Queen Marie herself. Someone is threatening the Queen’s young daughter, Princess Ireana and Her Majesty wants Holmes to find the culprit and stop them. That Holmes is also in the area at the suggestion, at least, of his brother Mycroft turns out to be a source of irritation for both Holmes and Russell.

Mycroft, the eminence grise of the British government, has a habit of commanding and commandeering the services of his brother for political purposes and occasionally downright espionage, in ways that give Russell serious qualms.

Qualms that are quite serious, a situation that has been developing since Russell learned the full scope of Mycroft’s government remit during The God of the Hive. Qualms that are compelling Holmes to, effectively, pick a side. He can either continue to serve his brother whenever and wherever called upon, at a moment’s notice for purposes that he may or may not strictly agree with and may or may not be for the so-called “greater good” – or he can remain married and in full partnership with his wife Mary Russell.

Because Mary requires honesty and Mycroft requires secrecy, and those requirements cannot both be met. (The fallout, when it finally comes in a later book in the series, is going to be EPIC.)

But at the moment, Holmes and Russell have a case. A case that has entirely too many shades of The Sussex Vampire, while potentially covered in all the blood that the infamous Roumanian countess Erzsebet (AKA Elizabeth) Bathory, ever bathed in.

There’s someone running around Bran and its neighboring villages trying to convince the locals that Queen Marie is as evil as Bathory and Dracula combined, and that no one in Bran will be safe until she’s been evicted from her castle.

Or, until Russell and Holmes figure out who is really behind this local reign of attempted terror.

Escape Rating A-: Castle Shade was good fun. Not quite as much good fun as Riviera Gold, but still absolutely worth the read for anyone who has followed the adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes since The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Speaking of which, while I don’t think you have to have read Mary Russell’s entire opus to get into Castle Shade, you do have to have read some, if only to make sure you can get past the astonishing premise, that when Holmes retired to Sussex to keep bees he took on a 15-year-old apprentice who later – after she attained her majority – became both his investigative partner and his spouse.

But the case, with its echoes of Holmes’ earlier investigation, The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, is, in its way, a kind of a callback to Holmes’ earlier adventures.

In spite of the potential political overtones, the brush with real-life royalty and the unresolved issue of Brother Mycroft, among other things, the case that the Queen has asked Holmes to investigate and that Holmes has, in turn, requested Russell’s assistance with, winds its way around and about until it resolves into something classic.

When Holmes rules out any political motivations, the heart of the mystery turns into one of the basic questions in mystery. “Qui bono?” or more familiarly, “Who benefits?”

Because it’s all about Queen Marie and her ownership of Bran Castle. The whole point of the strange happenings and rumor mongering and attempts at raising unbridled hysteria among the local population are all aimed at Queen Marie.

Someone wants her out of Castle Bran. Someone believes they benefit from driving Marie out of her castle. It’s up to Holmes and Russell to see through all the misdirection swirling around them, find a way clear of all the many and various secrets that the locals are obviously keeping that may or may not have anything to do with what’s really going on, to determine exactly who it is who is up to no good.

And stop them.

One of the other lovely things about this particular entry in the series is that, unlike Riviera Gold and other recent stories, the focus is equally split between Holmes and Russell. They have equal but separate parts to play in this mystery and I’m happy to see that, at the moment of this story at least, their partnership is still working for both of them.

While this mystery comes to a satisfactory conclusion, it is equally clear that the adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes still have many more stories yet to tell. And I’m looking forward to each and every one.

Review: Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

Review: Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa AfiaDead Dead Girls (Harlem Renaissance Mystery #1) by Nekesa Afia
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Harlem Renaissance #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on June 1, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The start of an exciting new historical mystery series set in 1920s Harlem featuring Louise Lloyd, a young black woman caught up in a series of murders way too close to home...
Harlem, 1926. Young black girls like Louise Lloyd are ending up dead.
Following a harrowing kidnapping ordeal when she was in her teens, Louise is doing everything she can to maintain a normal life. She's succeeding, too. She spends her days working at Maggie's Café and her nights at the Zodiac, Manhattan's hottest speakeasy. Louise's friends might say she's running from her past and the notoriety that still stalks her, but don't tell her that.
When a girl turns up dead in front of the café, Louise is forced to confront something she's been trying to ignore--several local black girls have been murdered over the past few weeks. After an altercation with a local police officer gets her arrested, Louise is given an ultimatum: She can either help solve the case or let a judge make an example of her.
Louise has no choice but to take the case and soon finds herself toe-to-toe with a murderous mastermind. She'll have to tackle her own fears and the prejudices of New York City society if she wants to catch a killer and save her own life in the process.

My Review:

It’s 1926. The Roaring 20’s. The period of the “lost generation” post-WW1 and pre-Depression. In Britain, Lord Peter Wimsey is dealing, sometimes badly, with his PTSD and solving crimes. In Australia, Phryne Fisher is seducing young men, solving crimes, and proving to anyone who even thinks to criticize her for doing a man’s job that she’s doing it better than anyone else, including the police, thankyouverymuch and please keep your opinions to yourself.

Dead Dead Girls takes place in the same time period, following the same avocation, but not exactly the same world.

Louise Lloyd, a black woman in her late 20s, is caught up in a seemingly endless round of late nights dancing at speakeasies, waitressing during the day to pay for those late nights, and living in a single women’s boarding house with-and-not-with her best friend and lover, Rosa. Louise is trying to outrun her demons by dancing and drinking her nights away.

But those demons reach out for her in a way she can’t ignore. Young black women are turning up dead in Harlem, and Louise has just discovered the latest victim on the front step of the diner where she works.

So many girls have been killed, so close together, that even the white powers-that-be of the NYPD can’t ignore the serial killings any longer – no matter how much they’d rather sweep it all under the rug.

When Louise’ anger and frustration at the situation, along with the way that the cops seem to be using the murder investigation as an excuse to harrass as many Harlem residents with no pretext whatsoever rather than solve the crime, bubbles over, she hits a cop, ends up in jail and facing the kind of offer that it isn’t safe to refuse.

Help the cops find the killer, or go to jail and let herself be further abused by the system that is designed to keep her people down.

At first both reluctant and amateur in all her investigation and interrogation techniques, as the body count rises and the cops make no progress whatsoever, Louise finds herself drawn deeper into a web of hatred, lies and a determined desire on the part of officialdom to look the other way as long as all of the victims are black.

Louise can’t look away. She’s frightened at every turn, knowing that she, or someone she loves, could be next. And that no one except her own community will care. But when she stares into the abyss, she discovers that the abyss has been staring back at her all along.

Escape Rating B: I have to say that in the end this story hits like a hammer. And I’m still reeling from the blow. But that needs a bit of explanation. Perhaps more than that, because this is one of those stories that made me think – and I’m still thinking.

As a historical mystery, Dead Dead Girls manages to hit the sweet spot – or in this case the bittersweet spot – of being both firmly fixed in its time and place while being utterly relevant to the present, to the point where the reader, as much as they know it’s there and then, is certain that it could just as easily be here and now with entirely too few changes.

The consequence is that the mystery has a bit of a slow start, because it takes a while for the time machine to transport us back to Harlem in the 1920s. It’s definitely worth the trip, but it takes a few chapters to get us there.

At the same time, OMG but this is a hard read after this past year. Because of the way that it feels both historical and all too plausible in the present day. Particularly as I’m writing this review on June 1, the 100th anniversary of the second day of the Tulsa race massacre. Which Louise would have known all about – but which entirely too many of us did not and do not to this day.

Just as the murder spree in Harlem that touches Louise’ life much too closely would have been reported on extensively in the Black newspapers of the day like The Defender but would have been totally ignored by the white papers.

As a character, at first I found Louise a bit difficult to get close to, because so much of her behavior seems so deliberately reckless. It took me quite a while to get it through my head that her irresponsible behavior doesn’t really matter. She’s in a no-win scenario and nothing that she does or doesn’t do will make it any better. Like all of the things that we women are taught not to do because we might get raped, when the fact of the matter is that rape is about power and not about sex, and there’s little we can do to prevent it – and that we’ll be blamed for it anyway.

Louise’ situation is that only multiplied. Exhibiting different behavior, while it might have made her life in her father’s house more tolerable, doesn’t change the way the world perceives her and treats her. She has the power to make things worse, but not to make them better. At least not on her own. Lashing out however and whenever she can is a reasonable response. But I admit that I had to work my way towards that reaction.

The mystery that Louise has to solve is as dark and mesmerizing, twisty and turny as any mystery reader could possibly desire. But the circumstances in which Louise has to solve it are weighted with the baggage of racism and sexism in a way that fill much of the story with the darkness of the evil that men do and the inexorable weight of power corrupting – even just the power of small-minded people with little authority – and absolute power corrupting absolutely and inciting more of the same.

Dead Dead Girls is the author’s first novel – and what a searing debut it is. I’m looking forward to great, great things in her future work – particularly the second projected book in this series!

Berry Good Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Berry Good Giveaway Hop, hosted by Mama the Fox!

Berries, fresh berries, still feel like the taste of summer, don’t they? Not just the freshness, but the juiciness and the sweetness and the stickiness running down your chin when you bite into a really good one. Or any fresh fruit, honestly. They just taste wonderful and sweet and summery – no matter when you get them.

Because I just read a book about going to summer camp, I can’t help but think of the camp I went to – Camp Ross Trails near Cincinnati, which has been closed for decades and replaced by a subdivision! There were a lot of either blackberry or black raspberry bushes (I think black raspberry) growing all along the trails and roads, and if you happened to go at just the right part of the summer (there were 5-ish two-week sessions each summer) you could pick the ripe berries as you walked along to meals and activities.

Those berries were delicious. Possibly even more delicious in memory than in real life – isn’t that always the way – but they were wonderful.

These days, most of my berries are definitely blackberries – and from the grocery story. They may not taste quite as good as those long ago berries, but they are available fresh all year round. So every morning – even in the dead of winter – I get a little taste of summer sweetness in my morning.

What about you? What’s your favorite flavor of berry, and how do you like them best? Or most? Answer in the rafflecopter for your chance at the usual Reading Reality blog hop prize, the winner’s choice of a $10 Amazon Gift Card or $10 in books. This giveaway is open to all!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And for more “berry good” prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on this hop!

MamatheFox and all participating blogs are not held responsible for sponsors who fail to fulfill their prize obligations.