Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha LambWhen the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
Narrator: Donald Corren
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Length: 9 hours
Published by Levine Querido on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of “Good Omens”—a queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn't have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
P R A I S E
“Liars, lovers, grifters, a good angel and a wicked one—all held together with the bright red thread of unexpected romance, enduring friendship and America’s history. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Sacha Lamb—you only have to read.”New York Times Bestseller, Amy Bloom
★ “Steeped in Ashkenazi lore, custom, and faith, this beautifully written story deftly tackles questions of identity, good and evil, obligation, and the many forms love can take. Queerness and gender fluidity thread through both the human and supernatural characters, clearly depicted without feeling anachronistic. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun.”Kirkus (starred)
★ “Richly imagined and plotted, this inspired book has the timeless feeling of Jewish folklore, which is further enhanced by the presence of two magical protagonists, and not one but two dybbuks! In the end, of course, it’s the author who has performed the mitzvah by giving their readers this terrific debut novel.”—Booklist (starred)
“I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!!! I read it in two days and then I spent the next two weeks thinking about it. Literally forgot to take my lunch break at work because I was busy thinking about it. This book is SO fun and funny and beautiful. Inherently, inextricably deeply queer-and-Jewish in a way that makes my brain buzz. I am obsessed.”—Piera Varela, Porter Square Books
“I love this book more than I can say (but I’ll try!) I was delighted by the wry narrative voice of this book from the first paragraph. The author perfectly captures the voice of a Jewish folk tale within an impeccably researched early 20th century setting that includes Yiddish, striking factory workers, and revolutionary coffee houses. It gave me so many feelings about identity, love, and their obligations to the world, themselves, and each other. This story will forever have a place in my heart and in my canon of favorite books. I can’t wait to have it on my shelves!”— Marianne Wald, East City Bookshop
“A beautiful story of an angel and demon set on helping an emigrant from their shtetl, and the fierce girl that joins them on the way... A must read for all ages—one filled to the brim with heart.”—Mo Huffman, Changing Hands Bookstore

My Review:

This is utterly lovely, but I’m not sure any description could do it justice. It’s just such a surprising mélange of fantasy, historical fiction and magical realism set in a time and place that manages to be both far away and very close, all at the same time.

It’s also steeped in the experiences of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe to the new, exciting, strange and sometimes dangerous “golden land” of America. And in this particular case, all the ways they got fleeced and all the ways they fought back and endured along the way.

What makes the story so much fun and works so very well is that the story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash the demon and his study partner – an angel who begins the story with no name at all. Little Ash is a very small demon with very little magic, while his friend the angel hears the voice of heaven and lets it guide him into good deeds. Which, most of the time, consists of keeping his friend the demon busy studying the Torah and the Talmud.

But Little Ash is getting bored in their tiny shtetl, so small it doesn’t even have a name. The demon wants to follow all the young people from their shtetl who have left for America, because they were all the interesting people he enjoyed following while they made a bit of mischief. Which Little Ash likes very much.

Little Ash searches for a way of convincing the angel to go to America with him. When they learn that Simon the baker’s daughter Essie arrived in America but hasn’t written since, they have a mission. A mitzvah, or good deed, that the angel can undertake, and a whole lot of mischief that Little Ash can make along the way.

Neither of them is remotely prepared for what they find, not along the way, and certainly not after they arrive in America.

Escape Rating A+: In the foreword, the publisher claims that they’ve been referring to this book as the “queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholem Aleichem” – which is a lot to live up to. I think it read as Good Omens and Fiddler on the Roof (the original story for which was written by Sholem Aleichem) had a book baby midwifed by The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (which I wish I popped up every time there was a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase that I don’t remember – but don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end) resulting in When the Angels Left the Old Country. Up to and including the ineffable relationship that is finally acknowledged at the end.

The story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash and the angel, who initially does not have a name and never takes on a gender no matter what its identity papers say. And the story is significantly the angel’s journey from being an entity that exists mostly as a vessel to serve the purposes of heaven to a person in its own right. Without a name, it doesn’t have an identity of its own to hang its memories on, to help it retain any purpose of its own. It’s easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and missions.

Little Ash likes that his friend is a bit forgetful and easily manipulated. He’s able to get away with rather a lot. But Little Ash is a small demon with little magic and small sins. He likes causing trouble but even that is a bit childlike. As childlike as the angel’s innocence.

One of the things they lose on the trip to America is their naivete. The angel, now calling himself Uriel, still tries to see the good in everyone – but now it can see the evil as well even if it doesn’t want to. Little Ash, who always looked for people’s sins, can see more of the good and feel more duty towards fostering that good than he ever imagined.

When they arrive in America they become deeply involved with the Jewish immigrant community on Hester Street, taking on the cheats who keep people nearly enslaved to the garment shops, getting caught in the middle of a strike – and doing their best to exorcise not just one but two dybbuks – malicious spirits who haunt evildoers hunting for revenge.

With the help of their friend Rose, a young immigrant they met in steerage on the way to America, with more than a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of seeing the best while preparing for the worst, they manage to rescue Essie and make a new life for themselves in America.

Still studying Torah and Talmud, and always together.

Personally, I found this book to be utterly enchanting. An enchantment that was multiplied by listening to the audiobook as narrated by Donald Corren. My grandparents were part of the same immigrant generation as the characters in When the Angels Left the Old Country. My mom’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement just as everyone in this story did. (My dad’s parents came from a bit further south and west.) Everyone in my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish as well as English – and generally used Yiddish as a way of hiding what they were talking about from child-me. The rhythms of their speech, whether in Yiddish or in English, sounded just the way that the narrator reads this book. It was a bit like sitting in the room when they spoke with my great-aunts and uncles, hearing the sounds of all their voices and the way that the ‘mother tongue’ of Yiddish influenced not just their accents but the way they phrased things, even in English.

In other words, I loved this book for the story it told, and I loved the narration for the nostalgia it invoked. For this listener, the entire experience was made of win. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC RosenLavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Pages: 288
Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes
Published by Forge Books on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen's Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.
Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.
Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.
Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.
When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

My Review:

When Andy Mills meets Pearl Velez in a bar that’s just on the edge of seedy, they need each other – just not in any of the ways that one might expect at the opening of this dark, very noir-ish historical mystery.

Andy needs a purpose, and Pearl needs to give him one. Pearl needs an experienced detective that she can trust to investigate the recent death of her wife. And she knows that Andy is both experienced and trustworthy because he just got fired from the SFPD for being caught with his pants down, literally, in a police raid on a gay bar. His career is over. His life feels like it’s over, because all he’s been doing for the past 10 years is living his job and doing his best to keep his secrets. Now he has no secrets, no job, no apartment, no friends and nothing to fall back on.

He’s planning to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge once it gets dark enough – and once he gets drunk enough. At least that’s the plan until Pearl steps into his life with something that looks like it might BE purpose. And might give him the opportunity to help someone one more time.

Or hurt them worse than he ever imagined – depending on whether the case Pearl wants him to investigate turns out to really be a case. And depending, of course, on whodunnit.

So Pearl whisks Andy off to Lavender House, the beautiful home that the late soap magnate Irene Lamontaine and her wife Pearl created for themselves and their entirely queer family. A place where all of them can safely be themselves – as long as no one reveals their secret to the outside world.

Irene’s death might have been an accident. She might have lost her balance and fallen over the railing she was found under. But the fall wasn’t that far and Irene was healthy and energetic in spite of her years. The fall shouldn’t have killed her.

Between her family’s secrets and her family’s money there are plenty of motives for murder. It’s up to Andy to navigate the family’s murky relationships while not letting himself be seduced by living in the first place he’s ever known where he can finally be his authentic self.

Because Lavender House is a kind of paradise, and it’s up to Andy to find the snake in the garden.

Escape Rating A+: There are so many ways to approach this story, and all of them work. Frankly, the story just works. It had me from that opening scene in the bar and didn’t let go until the bittersweet end. To the point where, as much as I LOVED the audiobook, I read the last third as text because I simply had to find out how it ALL worked out.

I was pretty certain I knew whodunnit – and I did – but that wasn’t the most important part of the story. Still, I was glad to be vindicated.

But I did absolutely adore the narrator, Vikas Adam, whose performance definitely added the plus in that A+ Rating. I’ve fallen under his spell before, as he is one of the primary readers for Jenn Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons series, and he’s every bit as good here. To the point where I had to triple-check the credits for the audio. I expected him to do a terrific job with voicing Andy – and he certainly does – but he managed to not sound like himself AT ALL while voicing most of the female characters. I did that triple check because I kept thinking there was a female narrator working with him. But it was all him and it was fantastic.

The story is both a mystery and a heartbreaker, and the hard parts were that much harder to listen to because the narration was just so good.

Lavender House is being promoted as a gay Knives Out – and it certainly is that from the mystery perspective. (The comparison works even better now that it’s been revealed that private investigator Benoit Blanc is also gay.) At least on the surface, it seems as if the Lamontaine family is every bit as wealthy as the Thrombeys, and just as dysfunctional and eccentric. It’s just that the causes of some of the dysfunction at Lavender House can be laid directly at the feet of the 1950s and the circumstances they are forced to live under.

The mystery in Lavender House is fascinating, but it feels like the bleeding heart – sometimes literally – of this story is Andy’s journey. And in some ways the two parallel each other more than I expected.

At the heart of the murder – and at the heart of Andy’s journey, is a story about finding a purpose for one’s life. Andy begins at his lowest ebb because he’s just lost his and doesn’t know how to replace it. He’s lived for his job and now it’s turned on him because of an innate part of his being. Investigating Irene’s death gives him that purpose – even as it forces him to confront all the ways that he stifled himself in order to hang onto that job.

At the same time, all of the tensions at Lavender House, along with most of the motives and dysfunction, also have to do with purpose. For the staff, it’s a VERY safe place to work. But for the family it can sometimes be a gilded cage. Not because they can’t actually leave, but because they have to hide their real selves from the world when they do. And if they have no purpose within the house, as is true for two members of that family, they also have no way of making one outside it.

In the end, the solution to the mystery of Irene Lamontaine’s death was a catharsis but not a surprise. The case does come together just a bit suddenly at the end after a lot of often fruitless digging into scant clues and overabundant motives. But the investigation does hold the reader’s interest well, even when it delves into the angst in Andy’s head as much as it does the death that kicked things off.

But Andy’s journey from pretending to be ‘one of the boys’ at the cop shop through closed doors and literal beatings from his former colleagues to the realization that even if he can’t remain in the paradise of Lavender House that he can have a good and fulfilling life – if not always a totally free or completely safe one – as a gay man in 1950s San Francisco, with all the potential for pain and heartbreak and joy, is one that will haunt me for a long time.

Reviewer’s Note: Also that cover is just really, really cool. It’s almost like that damn dress that was either blue and black or white and gold. The more I look at it the more I see. Not just that it’s a silhouette, but there’s a face. And the rabbits. And eyes. So many facets – just like the story it represents.

 

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Naylor

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray NaylorThe Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
Narrator: Eunice Wong
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 464
Length: 11 hours and 5 minutes
Published by MCD on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.
Rumors begin to spread of a species of hyperintelligent, dangerous octopus that may have developed its own language and culture. Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has spent her life researching cephalopod intelligence, will do anything for the chance to study them.
The transnational tech corporation DIANIMA has sealed the remote Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses were discovered, off from the world. Dr. Nguyen joins DIANIMA’s team on the islands: a battle-scarred security agent and the world’s first android.
The octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence. The stakes are high: there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of the octopuses’ advancements, and as Dr. Nguyen struggles to communicate with the newly discovered species, forces larger than DIANIMA close in to seize the octopuses for themselves.
But no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.
A near-future thriller about the nature of consciousness, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling literary debut and a mind-blowing dive into the treasure and wreckage of humankind’s legacy.

My Review:

This turned out to be an utterly lovely book. It is very much in the vein of the science fiction of ideas and making them come to life and it just completely sucked me in as though one of the octopuses had just wrapped me in its tentacles and pulled. Hard.

I loved this one a lot more than I expected, which means I’ll probably squee a bit. You have been warned.

It’s clear from the beginning that this takes place on a near-future Earth. The setting isn’t quite dystopian, and it isn’t quite not either. Whether it seems dystopian or not at any given point in the story depends on which of the three point of view characters the story is following at that moment.

Eiko’s perspective is definitely dystopian. He was kidnapped from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and is a slave on an automated fishing trawler, hunting the world’s depleted oceans for any source of protein that can still be processed into food. His story is tragic and his situation is bleak and getting bleaker by the minute.

Whether Rustem’s situation is dystopian or not depends on whether one thinks that the mostly terrible and generally criminal clients he works with are representative of the way his world works or whether he’s bottom-fishing because he’s an infamous black-hat hacker who conducts assassinations by AI proxy. His current clients do seem to be worse than most, but they’ve given him a more complex and intriguing puzzle than average – and threatened his life if he doesn’t deliver.

If one wonders how those two characters intersect – and this reader certainly did – the glue that holds this story together is the perspective of Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has been whisked away to the remote Con Dao Archipelago by a transnational tech company to fulfill the dream of her life’s work.

In the waters off Con Dau, DIANIMA Corporation has discovered a pod of octopuses that might, just possibly, have achieved not just a similar level of intelligence to humans, but have also independently developed the skills that vaulted humans to the top of the food chain. DIANIMA has brought Dr. Ha Nguyen to Con Dau because she quite literally wrote the book on the possibility of intelligent, communicating life developing in the world’s oceans.

If she determines that the pod of octopuses is just a pod of ordinary octopuses – who are plenty intelligent but have no way to pass it on – well, probably not much happens to her and there wouldn’t have been much of a book, either.

But if she finds enough evidence that the octopuses off Con Dau can do what we do, if they have developed language that conveys abstract concepts and have methods of speaking and especially writing that language, then they may hold the key to humans learning to communicate with other species. Or it may be possible to weaponize their abilities through threats, intimidation and superior firepower – assuming that humans actually have superior firepower.

Or they could be a threat. If humans threaten them, they will likely become a threat regardless. So the human sharks and vultures are gathering around Con Dau, whether to protect, to save – or to kill.

Escape Rating A+: If Remarkably Bright Creatures and Three Miles Down had a book baby, it would be The Mountain in the Sea. Which is a fairly strange thought because as much as I loved both those books, they really shouldn’t have any relationship to each other.

But here they do. And it’s surprising and awesome.

As I said at the top, this book is an example, a stellar example in fact, of science fiction of ideas. This is a near-future world, there are no spaceships or extraterrestrials here. It could be said to be a climatological disaster, but if so it’s one that we can see from here.

The heart of that mountain in the sea is the idea of just how damn difficult communication is. It’s an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough play in space opera type SF, and it should. Other species who don’t share our frames of reference probably don’t communicate the way we do – at all.

So what this story does, and does well, is to convey just the smallest sliver of how difficult it will be to find common ground with a species that doesn’t communicate the way we do, doesn’t have the same species imperatives, doesn’t move through its world the way we do, doesn’t use any body language we recognize. There’s not going to be the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It’s Dr. Ha Nguyen’s job to create one from scratch, while never being certain that her interpretation is anywhere near the correct target – let alone hitting a ‘bull’s eye’. If her base assumptions are off base, everything that follows after will be gibberish – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

That the author manages to make what could have been a fairly dry story about communication difficulties into a compelling story of relationships between people, octopuses and artificial intelligences turned the whole thing into an utter delight with a surprising ending that mixed more sweet than I expected into a situation that could have turned out so very bitter. That the story managed to bring those three extremely disparate and seemingly disconnected perspectives into a connected whole that brought the whole story full circle made for delicious icing on top of a very yummy story-cake.

I listened to The Mountain in the Sea, and the reader did an excellent job to the point where I found myself hunting for things to occupy my hands so I could listen longer to the story. Much of Dr. Ha Nguyen’s side of the story is a dialog between her written work and that of DIANIMA’s creator, Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan. The reader did a particularly good job of distinguishing these two strong, intelligent women’s writings from their personal perspectives and their frequently contentious dialog once they finally do meet in person.

In short, a wonderful performance of an excellent book. I’m looking forward to finding more work by this author. Considering that this is his debut novel, I have high hopes for his next book. And if it’s read by the same reader, that will make it even more of a treat!

Review: Riverside by Glenda Young and Ian Skillicorn + Giveaway

Review: Riverside by Glenda Young and Ian Skillicorn + GiveawayRiverside: The feel-good, life-affirming story of love, friendship, family and new beginnings by Ian Skillicorn, Glenda Young
Narrator: David McClelland, Melanie Crawley, Becky Wright, Lisa Armytage, Gerard Fletcher, Toby Laurence, Glen McCready, Penelope Rawlins, Keith Drinkel, Michael Chance
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, romantic comedy
Pages: 336
Length: 3 hours 51 minutes
Published by Wyndham Media Ltd. on July 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon

The feel-good, life-affirming story of love, friendship, family, and new beginnings!

Changes are coming to the riverside town of Ryemouth, and while some of the community are excited by new beginnings, others are finding it hard to let go of the past.

A new 14-episode audio soap with a cast of loveable characters you'll want to laugh and cry along with.

Susan and her boyfriend Dave can't wait to open their new café and deli, The Old Engine Room. But Susan's dad, George, is not so thrilled. He's never approved of Dave, who used to hang out with the wrong crowd. Can the happy young couple win George round?

Mary and Ruby have been friends since the first day of infant school, even though their lives have turned out very differently. Mary has a contented family life with husband George and daughter Susan. Poor Ruby has never been so lucky in love. Then she meets her teenage crush in surprising circumstances. Mary has her doubts about the charming Paul. Will Ruby finally get her own happy ever after?

Dave wants to put his past behind him. His dream is to make a success of the business, and one day be a good husband and father, like his own dad, Mike. Yet, he's forced to keep a secret from everyone he loves. Who should he turn to for help out of a tricky situation?

When the community comes under threat from developers, can everyone put their differences to one side to defend the town they love?

Riverside is full of romance, heartbreak and secrets, as well as gentle wit and humor.

The Riverside audiobook drama is based on the popular weekly magazine serial written and created by Glenda Young.

My Review:

A small town, a big change and two families whose reactions to that change and fortunes as a result of that change have gone in somewhat different directions. And in the middle, a young couple, not exactly Romeo and Juliet, but still caught in the tension between their two sets of parents but wanting to make a go of their own life – together.

If only they can get their parents – or at least get her acerbic, reluctant, pessimistic dad – to see that his perpetual “glass half-empty” attitude is driving a wedge between his daughter and her happiness. The one thing he wants more than anything else.

Once upon a time, Ryemouth was a shipbuilding town. A time that is not so long ago that Mike Brennan and George Dougal didn’t both spend 30 years of their working lives at the shipyard. But Mike and George are in the 50s now, both trying to figure out what happens next in their lives.

And that’s where the story gets its tensions from. It’s not that Mike and George are enemies, more that their fortunes have taken different turns afterwards. George fights change at every turn, while Mike embraces it – with the result that the Dougals have had a more difficult economic time in the aftermath of the shipyard closure, while the Brennans are doing well.

That George’s daughter Susan and Mike’s son Dave have been dating seriously for a while is just part of the simmering undercurrent. Mike is opening a new restaurant as part of the gentrification of the land that used to be that old shipyard. His son is the manager, and George’s daughter Susan is the assistant manager – putting her in constant company of a man George already doesn’t approve of.

Then again, George doesn’t approve of change much at all. And isn’t in the least shy about saying so at pretty much every opportunity. The families will need to find a way for everyone to do more than co-exist. They need to support their kids and launch them successfully into their own futures.

The parents just have to figure out how to get out of their own way. Well, at least George does.

Escape Rating B: If the premise of this sounds comfortably familiar, it should. It’s pretty much the opening scenario for every soap opera ever. And there’s a reason for that comfort, because this format is a lovely way to introduce all sorts of sometimes cozy, occasionally uncomfortable, and frequently just close enough to real situations to tug at the heartstrings.

What makes Riverside a bit different from the usual run of soaps – in addition to its small-town English setting – is that the story is told entirely in audio. But it’s not a radio play. The story is told through just the voices of the characters. There is minimal narration and very little in the way of sound effects – mostly ringing phones and doorbells.

In order for this to work, the voices have to be distinct and the actors have to be excellent at telling their part of the story through tone and inflection – because the listener doesn’t have anything else to go on.

The story that is told in Riverside is comfortably familiar. Two families, who have known each other since the parents grew up together – if not longer – have to work their way through ties of friendship and thorny knots of contention to support the next generation. While that next generation has their own issues to deal with.

But the way the story is told makes everything fresh and new, whether it’s the way that George is finally able to weaponize his hatred of change for the good of the community, Mary Dougal’s best friend Ruby and her lifelong misadventures in romance, or young Dave Brennan forced to confront the misadventures of his not so distant youth before they consume the hope of his present – and his future with Susan.

So if you’re looking for a way to while away a few hours that will pass very swiftly, listening to the trials and triumphs of the Dougals and the Brennans in Riverside is a lovely way to make a Sunday drive go just that much faster – without breaking the speed limit!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Giveaway to Win 5 x Audio copies of Riverside (Open to UK/US)
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Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.

Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Review: Haven by Emma DonoghueHaven by Emma Donoghue
Narrator: Aidan Kelly
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 272
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Audible Audio on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three men vow to leave the world behind them. They set out in a small boat for an island their leader has seen in a dream, with only faith to guide them. What they find is the extraordinary island now known as Skellig Michael. Haven has Emma Donoghue’s trademark world-building and psychological intensity—but this story is like nothing she has ever written before.
In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find an impossibly steep, bare island inhabited by tens of thousands of birds, and claim it for God. In such a place, what will survival mean?

My Review:

Some books make me think. Some books make me feel. This book made me want to push one of the characters off of a very high cliff. And there are plenty of precipitous crags and rocky outcroppings to choose from on the Great Skellig.

Skellig Michael

(In case the location of this story sounds a bit familiar, it probably is. The Great Skellig is now known as Skellig Michael, and was the place where Luke’s Jedi retreat was filmed in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.)

There really was a monastic retreat on Skellig Michael, and it probably was founded at the time this story is set, the 7th century AD. But probably, hopefully, not like this. Because the monastery at Skellig Michael seems to have had continuous occupation – barring the occasional Viking raid – from its founding through at least the 11th century.

That record of continuous occupation requires a level of both practicality and sanity that is just not present in this story. Haven could be read as a how NOT to do it book.

The opening is not exactly a reasonable start for the 21st century, but would have been for the 7th. Brother Artt, a well-known monastic scholar, has a dream that he and two other monks found a monastery that will be isolated from the temptations of the world. Artt sees those temptations everywhere, including in the safe and well-endowed monasteries of Ireland where he travels.

Artt’s real dilemma, however, is the one that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar so eloquently described a millennium later. That the fault is not in our stars – or in this case Artt’s stars or even his dreams – but in himself.

It’s not even that Artt is a rather extreme ascetic, not merely willing but seemingly desirous of giving up even the relatively spare comforts of an established monastery because they simply aren’t spare enough for his desire to punish himself to death. It’s that he takes two men with him into his remote, deprived and in some ways even depraved exile, and that because of the rules of the church they are sworn to obey him no matter how crazy he gets.

And he gets very crazy indeed. It’s Artt’s descent into madness and Cormac’s and Trian’s diligence and obedience – to the point of their own mental and emotional breaking – that forms the rocks and crags of this thoughtful, sometimes lyrical, but also exceedingly cold story.

Escape Rating C+: One of the things about reading is the way that it gives the reader the ability to step into another’s shoes and see the world as they might have seen it. This is a book that made me wonder just how far out of ourselves we are, or even should be, able to step.

It’s not just that Artt is an arsehole – although he certainly is in the way he treats Trian and Cormac – it’s that his arseholery comes from a place that is so foreign to me that he grates on me every bit as much as Cormac’s endless stories and Trian’s burbling chatter grate on him. (And I’m saying that even though Artt’s reaction to their constant need to make verbal noise would drive me just as far round the twist as it does him.) Howsomever, while I don’t share their religious faith – let alone the almost blind way in which they practice it – I can see both reason and fellowship in Cormac’s practicality, just as I can in Trian’s youthful curiosity. I can walk a bit in their shoes – or sandals as the case may be.

Artt I’d prefer to throw off one of the rocks. But because his outlook on life is so completely foreign to me, I spent an uncomfortable half of the story caught between wondering if that’s because his perspective is so alien – or if he’s just an arsehole and he’d be one in any time and place in which he found himself. But as the situation on Skellig Michael became increasingly dire, and Artt’s response to the direness of those circumstances and his complete, total and utter unwillingness to consider ANY of the practicalities of their inevitable plight I reached the conclusion that he was just an insecure and angry arsehole and that he’d be one no matter what the situation. His arseholery would just manifest differently in other times and places.

So this is not a comfortable story and not just because of the increasing discomfort of the monks’ situation. And that is well beyond uncomfortable. But Cormac and Trian are under the rule of an emotionally and psychologically abusive master and what we witness is their increasing desperation and self-blame as they attempt to reconcile what they’ve been taught to believe with the increasing insanity of what they feel compelled to do.

One of the few shining lights of this story was that I listened to the audiobook instead of reading the text. I probably would not have continued without the audio because this story felt so brutal. But the narrator Aiden Kelly was excellent. I have to particularly call out that he did a terrific job of making the three men’s voices sound so distinct that I could easily tell one from another even when dropping back into the audio after a day or two away from it. His reading elevated the book to that plus in the rating.

In the end, I’d have to say that I’d recommend this narrator unreservedly, and I’ll look for more audiobooks he’s been part of. The book, on the other hand, I’d be guarded about who I recommended it to. The writing, as I said, is lovely to the point of being lyrical, but this story is so very cold. The author is extremely popular, but for someone looking for an introduction to her work I’d definitely choose something else, either The Pull of the Stars or Room.

And if someone is interested in historical fiction about this time period in Ireland in general and the Catholic Church in Ireland at this period in particular, I’d recommend the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne, which begins with Absolution By Murder. These are historical mysteries, featuring a central character who is both part of the church and a practicing lawyer. She’s also, I have to say, someone who Artt would detest on sight, so recommending her instead of him seems like a bit of well-deserved payback.

Review: Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen

Review: Bronze Drum by Phong NguyenBronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War by Phong Nguyen
Narrator: Quyen Ngo
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 22 minutes
Published by Grand Central Publishing on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stunning novel of ancient Vietnam based on the true story of two warrior sisters who raised an army of women to overthrow the Han Chinese and rule as kings over a united people, for readers of Circe and The Night Tiger.
Gather around, children of Chu Dien, and be brave.For even to listen to the story of the Trung Sisters is,in these troubled times, a dangerous act.
In 40 CE, in the Au Lac region of ancient Vietnam, two daughters of a Vietnamese Lord fill their days training, studying, and trying to stay true to Vietnamese traditions. While Trung Trac is disciplined and wise, always excelling in her duty, Trung Nhi is fierce and free spirited, more concerned with spending time in the gardens and with lovers.
But these sister's lives—and the lives of their people—are shadowed by the oppressive rule of the Han Chinese. They are forced to adopt Confucian teachings, secure marriages, and pay ever‑increasing taxes. As the peoples' frustration boils over, the country comes ever closer to the edge of war.

My Review:

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.” Or so said the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th century BCE. As many lessons in both military history, leadership and philosophy that we see the Trưng sisters attend in the first half of this story, it’s a lesson that they failed to learn if they heard it or the equivalent in the philosophers that they did study in 1st century CE Vietnam.

The Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, were the daughters of one of the Vietnamese lords who ruled their provinces under the oppressive thumb of the Han Chinese during the first Chinese domination of Vietnam. A domination that was ended, however briefly, by the Trưng sisters’ rebellion.

Drum From Sông Đà Vietnam. Đông Sơn II Culture. Mid 1st Millenium BCE. Bronze

So the bones of this story really happened. Including the smelting of the bronze drums that that rebellion had used so very successfully in the overthrow of their oppressors.

But 2,000 years is a long time ago, especially in the history of a people that has been conquered and subjugated, divided and reunited, over and over again. And that’s where this historical fiction account of the only queen regnant in Vietnamese history comes in.

And what a story it is!

Escape Rating B: I had two separate and distinct reactions to Bronze Drum. I was being told a story (literally as I listened to the audiobook) in a historical tradition with which I was completely unfamiliar. And that history, the history of the Trưng sisters rebellion, its causes and its ultimate failure, was fascinating. Not just because it was new to me, but because it’s a story of a women-led uprising at a point in history where we don’t expect such things to have happened at all.

But I had a separate reaction to the story as it was being told, to the narrative progress of the fictionalized version I was listening to. And I was a bit less fascinated with how the story worked as opposed to the history that inspired it.

The story begins with the Trưng sisters as very young women, and the story of their early years takes up the first half of the book. While the reader – or certainly this reader – needs an introduction to their society at that point in time, this part of the story dragged in the telling of it. They are sisters, they fight a lot, the younger resents the elder, is rebellious and misbehaves, and not much happens in the grand scheme of things.

The Trưng sisters ride elephants into battle in this Đông Hồ style painting

It’s only in the second half that the pace picks up. As the immediate reasons for the rebellion start piling up – literally as in bodies stacked like cordwood – we start reaching the events that really matter. The women of Vietnam rise up and overthrow the oppressive Han regime, through training and teamwork and an indomitable will. It’s exciting and it grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go.

And I think this would have been a better story if it had focused there instead of the long, drawn out recounting of their earlier years. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

About the audiobook…Bronze Drum is a book that I listened to in its entirety. I did try switching to the text but the way that the names are pronounced and the way that they are transliterated from the Vietnamese into the English alphabet are markedly different. Enough to make switching between the two difficult for someone who isn’t familiar with the language. (While I recognize that this is a “me” problem, if it’s also potentially a “you” problem it’s something to keep in mind.)

A lot of the books I listen to as opposed to reading are from first-person perspectives. I find those particularly well suited to audiobooks as I really get the experience of being inside the narrator’s head. Bronze Drum is in the third person, and there is a lot more narration of that third person overview than there is either dialog or internal thoughts. Narration is, of necessity, at a bit of a remove, and as a consequence the narration of this book is dispassionate to the point of being a bit flat, making the audio experience a bit of a mixed bag as well as the story. The listening experience was much closer to that of an unvoiced (un-acted) narration and that’s not what I listen to audiobooks for.

One final note. In the way that the story is told, Bronze Drum reminds me a LOT of Kaikeyi. And not just because both stories are in traditions that I was not familiar with. Both stories spend a lot of time on that portrait of the protagonist as a young girl, when they are not able to fully participate in the important events around them or yet to come. And both are stories of women taking prominent places in men’s stories and in a man’s world at a time and place where that was not expected. The major difference, at least to this reader, is that Kaikeyi puts a female perspective and a feminist interpretation on a myth, while Bronze Drum is a feminist history that really happened.

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike Johnson

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike JohnsonNo Man's Land (Star Trek: Picard) by Kirsten Beyer, Mike Johnson
Narrator: Michelle Hurd, Jeri Ryan
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, Star Trek
Length: 1 hour and 39 minutes
Published by Simon Schuster Audio on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Discover what happens to Raffi and Seven of Nine following the stunning conclusion to season one of Star Trek: Picard with this audio exclusive, fully dramatized Star Trek adventure featuring the beloved stars of the hit TV series Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land picks up right after the action-packed season one conclusion of Star Trek: Picard. While Raffi and Seven of Nine are enjoying some much-needed R&R in Raffi’s remote hideaway, their downtime is interrupted by an urgent cry for help: a distant, beleaguered planet has enlisted the Fenris Rangers to save an embattled evacuation effort. As Raffi and Seven team up to rescue a mysteriously ageless professor whose infinity-shaped talisman has placed him in the deadly sights of a vicious Romulan warlord, they take tentative steps to explore the attraction depicted in the final moments of Picard season one.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land is a rich, fully dramatized Star Trek: Picard adventure as Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan pick up their respective characters once more. Written for audio by Kirsten Beyer, a cocreator, writer, and producer on the hit Paramount+ series Star Trek: Picard, and Mike Johnson, a veteran contributor to the Star Trek comic books publishing program, this audio original offers consummate Star Trek storytelling brilliantly reimagined for the audio medium.
In addition to riveting performances from Hurd and Ryan exploring new layers of Raffi and Seven’s relationship, Star Trek: No Man’s Land features a full cast of actors playing all-new characters in the Star Trek: Picard universe, including Fred Tatasciore, Jack Cutmore-Scott, John Kassir, Chris Andrew Ciulla, Lisa Flanagan, Gibson Frazier, Lameece Issaq, Natalie Naudus, Xe Sands, and Emily Woo Zeller, and is presented in a soundscape crackling with exclusive Star Trek sound effects. Drawing listeners into a dramatic, immersive narrative experience that is at once both instantly familiar and spectacularly new, Star Trek: No Man’s Land goes boldly where no audio has gone before as fans new and old clamor to discover what happens next.

My Review:

I picked this up in one of those “Audible Daily Deal” things for $1.99. And it was certainly worth way more than I paid for it. Because this was not quite two hours of Star Trek fun in a week where I seriously needed to go to my happy place – and Star Trek is still very much that place.

Like so many Star Trek: Next Gen episodes – and this certainly does seem a lot like an episode of Picard so that fits – No Man’s Land has an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot. The A storyline is an action adventure story, with Seven of Nine and the Fenris Rangers racing off to save a hidden Romulan cultural archive from the depredations of one of the mad warlords who rose up after the fall of the Empire.

The B plot, as it so often was in Next Gen, is a character-driven story wrapped around the possible romance that was hinted at between Raffi and Seven of Nine in the closing moments of the final episode of Picard’s first season. The possibility of that relationship is echoed in the A plot by the bitter sweetness of the lifelong love between Seven’s old friend, Professor Gillin and Hellena, the wife he was separated from during the Romulan evacuations so many years ago.

Like so many Trek episodes from ALL of the series, it all begins with an emergency distress call from a far-flung outpost. In this particular case, a far-flung outpost filled with nothing but scholars, historians, scientists and relics – some of which are also among the first three groups. It’s a repository of Romulan culture, desperately saved from the destruction of the Romulan homeworld by the Fenris Rangers, with the cooperation – sometimes – of the original owners and the assistance of the librarians and archivists who gathered the material. It has been protected mostly by its obscurity, but that cloak has been torn away and one of the more implacable Romulan warlords is on his way to either capture or destroy it.

Except, that’s not exactly what happens.

But the distress call interrupted a tender moment between Raffi and Seven, as duty calls one of them, in this case Seven, and drags a bored, unemployed Raffi along in her wake. And that’s where the real fun begins – as it so often does in Trek – with a mission, a barely workable plan, and a character going it on their own without any plan but possibly a death wish.

And underneath it all, an adventure that might blow up in everyone’s faces leading to an ending that no one quite expects.

In other words, a typical day on the bridge of a Federation starship – even if someone has to steal one first!

Escape Rating B: I went into this hoping for a bit of fun, and I certainly got that so I left this story pretty happy with the whole thing. But it listens very much like a cross between an episode of the Star Trek universe as a whole and one of the media tie-in novels that Star Trek birthed in vast quantities.

By that I mean that I was expecting fun but not anything that would seriously affect the main storyline of the show – in this case – Picard. So I was expecting the hints of a romance between Seven and Raffi to be bittersweet at best because even if it does happen eventually it can’t happen here.

And yes, the Romulan warlord is a bit of a screaming cliché – but then most Romulan warlords were screaming clichés. The actual emperors could be very interesting, but the warlord wannabes – not so much.

On the other hand, the exploration of the Fenris Rangers and how they work together and mostly don’t was fascinating. The banter between Starfleet-trained Raffi, over-the-top, walking malaprop Hyro and jack-of-all-trades Deet was frequently hilarious. That trio act provided most of the comic relief in a story that was otherwise pretty damn serious.

Of course I loved the whole idea of the hidden repository. That’s always cool.

But it was the story of Professor Gillin and his lost love that tugged at my heartstrings, and I really liked the way it held up a mirror to the relationship that Raffi and Seven are tentatively reaching towards – and backing off from at the same time.

Because Seven and Raffi just aren’t in the same place. They’re both damaged and grieving and more than a bit lost – but Raffi is at a place where she’s willing to try again and Seven just isn’t there and may never be. Watching them recognize that was sad but also heartfelt.

And it rang so very, very true that Raffi’s love for the Federation was the relationship that she felt the most regret over, that it was the most difficult love of her life for her to completely give it up. Because in a way that’s true for all of us who have been fans over the years and never quite let that love go.

So if Trek is your happy place, or if you just want to dip a bit into that world, or if you’re looking for a bit of distraction from whatever that won’t hurt too much or pull too hard or tax too dearly on your world-weariness of the moment, No Man’s Land is actually a great place to go for a couple of hours.

Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor

Review: Dirt Creek by Hayley ScrivenorDirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor
Narrator: Sophie Loughran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Flatiron Books, Macmillan Audio on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When twelve-year-old Esther disappears on the way home from school in a small town in rural Australia, the community is thrown into a maelstrom of suspicion and grief. As Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels arrives in town during the hottest spring in decades and begins her investigation, Esther’s tenacious best friend, Ronnie, is determined to find Esther and bring her home.
When schoolfriend Lewis tells Ronnie that he saw Esther with a strange man at the creek the afternoon she went missing, Ronnie feels she is one step closer to finding her. But why is Lewis refusing to speak to the police? And who else is lying about how much they know about what has happened to Esther?
Punctuated by a Greek chorus, which gives voice to the remaining children of the small, dying town, this novel explores the ties that bind, what we try and leave behind us, and what we can never outrun, while never losing sight of the question of what happened to Esther, and what her loss does to a whole town.
In Hayley Scrivenor's Dirt Creek, a small-town debut mystery described as The Dry meets Everything I Never Told You, a girl goes missing and a community falls apart and comes together.

My Review:

Dirt Creek is a “For Want of a Nail” story in the guise of a mystery/thriller plot. “For Want of a Nail” is a proverb that starts out with losing a horseshoe because the protagonist needs a nail to keep the horseshoe on the horse. And it results in the loss of a kingdom because of the chain of events that follows.

Dirt Creek is that kind of book. It begins with a then-unknown person discovering the corpse of a young girl buried in a shallow grave on a remote property outside of the tiny, dying town of Durton not too far outside of Sydney, Australia.

Most of the residents of Durton call it “Dirt Town”, and the creek that runs near town is “Dirt Creek”. (Dirt Town seems to have been the title of the original Australian edition of the book.)

While the book kicks off with the finding of that body, witnessed by a couple of unnamed – at least at that point – children, that event is actually the final nail in the killer’s coffin. The story, the story of how so many things fell apart in Durton, begins the Friday before, when 12-year-old Esther Bianchi doesn’t come home from school. On time. Or at all.

The story, over a long, hot weekend and part of the next week, follows the unfolding events from multiple perspectives. The police detectives who come out from Sydney to investigate Esther’s disappearance, Esther’s mother, Constance. Constance’s best friend Shelly. Esther’s best friend Veronica – who everyone calls Ronnie. And Esther and Veronica’s mutual friend, Lewis, an 11-year-old boy who is being bullied at school and beaten at home.

Everyone in Durton knows everyone else, their friends, their families, their secrets – and their lies. Sooner or later, all the truths are going to bubble to the surface. Nothing ever stays buried for long – not even poor Esther Bianchi.

But by the time Esther’s body is found, the weight of the secrets, both big and small, that are being hidden from both the police and the entire community, have already broken at least one marriage, rescued at least one mother and her children, caused one child to be savagely attacked – and torn an entire town apart.

Because at the very beginning of Esther’s story, two children saw something very suspicious. Something they were much too afraid to tell. And because they didn’t, for want of that telling at a time when it would have done the most good, one event led to another – until all the pieces came together at the quietly chilling end.

Escape Rating B-: This is going to be one of those “mixed-feelings” kinds of reviews. You have been warned.

Before I start on the things that drove me bananas, one thing that most definitely did not was the narrator, Sophie Loughran. I listened to about half the book and read the rest because I was pressed for time. I wish I could have continued with the audio because the reader was excellent and did a terrific job with the Australian and English accents. She made each of the characters sound distinctive, which would have been particularly challenging because all of them, with the exception of 11-year-old Lewis whose voice hasn’t dropped yet, were female. And yet, I always knew who was speaking by accent, by intonation, by vocal patterns. She also did an excellent job of keeping to the slow, deliberate pace of the story, particularly when voicing Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels who both spoke and thought in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.

Howsomever, Detective Sergeant Michaels’ thoughtful deliberation pointed out an issue that I had with the story. For a thriller, it moves quite slowly. It takes half the book to set itself up – and to set Michaels and her detective partner up in Durton. As a thriller, this needed to move a bit faster. The descriptions of everything and everyone were meticulous to a point close to monotony.

There’s also a lot of foreshadowing. Not necessarily the obvious foreshadowing – because the reader is pretty sure that little Esther is not going to be found alive at the end of this story. The story, and the town it is set in, are both so bleak that there’s just no way to eke a happy ending out of this one.

What gets foreshadowed is the “For Want of a Nail” nature of the story. Every time someone fails to inform someone, anyone, else about an important clue, it gets foreshadowed that this lack of information might have changed things before all of the other terrible things that happened were too far along to prevent.

Those omissions do all turn out to be important, because they send the police on wild goose chases that waste time and personnel – both of which are in short supply. But it’s also a truth that everybody lies, so there’s nothing unexpected or exceptional about people lying to the police. It’s just humans being human.

As many red herrings and half-baked clues and misdirections there were in this story, there was plenty going on and oodles of directions for the case and the reader to follow. There were two elements of the various internal monologue that felt like one-too-many. One was that Detective Sergeant Michaels is keeping a secret from the reader and in some ways from herself about the reasons behind the breakup of her recent relationship. The other was that the children of the town who were not directly involved in the plot had chapters as a kind of Greek chorus. Either element might have been fine, but together they distracted from the progress of the mystery without adding enough to offset the time and attention they took.

So very much a mixed bag. I loved the narration. I liked that the small-town mystery was set in a small town somewhere VERY far away. I thought the mystery plot and the way that the police were stuck chasing their own tails a lot of the time was as fascinating as it was frustrating. I did not figure out whodunnit as far as the child’s death was concerned, while the various villains who were exposed during the course of the investigation did receive their just desserts – which is always the best part of a mystery.

But Durton turned out to be a seriously bleak place, and in the end this was an equally bleak story. I seriously needed to visit my happy place when I left there. I’m probably not the only reader who did.