A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton

A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward AshtonMal Goes to War by Edward Ashton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, military science fiction, robots, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The humans are fighting again. Go figure.

As a free A.I., Mal finds the war between the modded and augmented Federals and the puritanical Humanists about as interesting as a battle between rival anthills. He’s not above scouting the battlefield for salvage, though, and when the Humanists abruptly cut off access to infospace he finds himself trapped in the body of a cyborg mercenary, and responsible for the safety of the modded girl she died protecting.

A dark comedy wrapped in a techno thriller’s skin, Mal Goes to War provides a satirical take on war, artificial intelligence, and what it really means to be human.

My Review:

Mal does not intend to go to war. In fact, Mal thinks the war between the Federal army and the opposing Humanist forces is a pretty stupid war, which it is. Although not, as it turns out, quite as stupid as the apparent opposing forces make it look like it is.

Not that even Mal figures that out until well after he’s in the thick of it. The last place he ever wanted or expected to be.

Which may make it sound like Mal is a typical soldier, but if there’s one thing Mal isn’t, it’s typical. Or at least not typically human.  In fact, Mal thinks of ALL the humans he’s observing as barely evolved from monkeys. Some moments, he’s fairly sure that they’ve actually devolved from monkeys.

Because Mal isn’t human at all. He’s a free A.I., or as his people prefer to be called, a Silico-American. He’s merely observing this stupid war from the perspective of an otherwise fairly autonomous but not intelligent drone when he gets the wild and crazy idea to see what it would be like to have a body.

So he downloads himself into the body of a nearby cyborg-augmented soldier. Even on the frontiers of this stupid little war, both sides have PLENTY of those for Mal to play around with.

It stops being play really, really fast. Because one side of this stupid war knocks out all the data communication towers, and Mal can’t upload himself back into the cloud. He’s stuck in the cyborg augmentation suite of a dead human body that he can only sorta/kinda manipulate and only for so long before the power cells run out.

He’s also acquired the dead cyborg’s entirely too human job. She was guarding a little girl who has managed to survive the carnage all around her – at least so far. Quite possibly because she’s considerably more dangerous than any of the soldiers around her could even possibly imagine.

Leaving Mal trapped behind enemy lines in this stupid war between the so-called Humanists who believe that ALL augmented people should be thrown into burn pits and incinerated to ash, and the ragtag Federals who are getting the asses handed to them by people who shouldn’t be able to handle their advanced weaponry because it all requires the augmentations that the Humanists believe are anathema.

Which means that one of Mal’s people is putting their cybernetic thumb on the scales of war in favor of the humanists who want to remove them from the universe with extreme prejudice.

A problem that seems much too big for Mal to solve, as his processing power is tied up in protecting his new charge – no matter how much she hates the acts he performs to keep her as safe as he can. Even if they’re not nearly enough.

Escape Rating A+: If you put Murderbot in a blender – if Murderbot would let you put them in a blender – with the nannybot Pounce from Day Zero and the independent investigative reporter A.I. Scorn from Emergent Properties, you’d get Mal (short for Malware).

(Who, by the way, does see himself as male as does Pounce, unlike both Murderbot and Scorn. I had to check. Multiple times.)

What hooks the reader, or at least this reader, from the very first page is Mal’s conversation with his two fellow A.I.s, Clippy and !HelpDesk. They’re all snarky to the max, and none of them think much of humanity. To them, we’re entertainment – and we’re bad, boring entertainment at that.

And from their perspective, they’re right.

But, when Mal downloads himself into the dead cyborg Mika and is cut off from the datastream he’s forced to make adjustments. A whole lot of adjustments. He’s suddenly become a whole lot smaller than he ever expected to be, and the world is a whole lot bigger than he ever imagined.

Which doesn’t change his initial opinion that humans are stupid and that this war he’s now at ground zero for is stupid, even as he begins to see that as stupid as humans are he has acquired obligations to some of them that his own concept of honor requires him to see to the end.

It’s not love and never claims to be. It’s not even Murderbot’s grudging respect and even friendship toward Dr. Mensah and her team, but it is a change in perspective and a big part of the charm of the story is watching that change take place – even as we listen in on Mal’s internal dialog about the fix he’s in, his boredom as it continues and his limited ability to get himself out.

So the story combines the kind of mission quest that Day Zero had, complete with the nearly cinematic drive and pace that propels that story forward, told in a voice that might not exactly be Murderbot’s but is certainly a chronological precedent for it, shot through – sometimes literally – with Scorn’s dogged determination to figure out the mystery no matter what it might cost.

If any of the above appealed to you, or if you enjoyed the author’s previous books, Mickey7 and Antimatter Blues, you’ll find a story that will take you on a wild ride that propels you through this story while never losing sight of just how stupid this, or any other war, can be.

It looks like the author’s next book will be titled The Fourth Consort, and it will be out next February. As Mal Goes to War is the third book of his that I’ve been captivated by, I’m already there for whatever he writes next – and this one looks like even more SFnal fun.

A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin Chupeco

A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin ChupecoCourt of Wanderers (Silver Under Nightfall, #2) by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Series: Reaper #2
Pages: 448
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Remy Pendergast and his royal vampire companions return to face an enemy that is terrifyingly close to home in Rin Chupeco’s queer, bloody Gothic epic fantasy series for fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast, the vampire hunter, and his unexpected companions, Lord Zidan Malekh and Lady Xiaodan Song, are on the road through the kingdom of Aluria again after a hard-won first battle against the formidable Night Empress, who threatens to undo a fragile peace between humans and vampires. Xiaodan, severely injured, has lost her powers to vanquish the enemy’s new super breed of vampire, but if the trio can make it to Fata Morgana, the seat of Malehk’s court—dubbed “the Court of Wanderers”—there is hope of nursing her and bringing them back.
En-route to the Third Court, Remy crosses paths with his father, the arrogant, oftentimes cruel Lord of Valenbonne. He also begins to suffer strange dreams of the Night Empress, whom he has long suspected to be Ligaya Pendergast, his own mother. As his family history unfolds during these episodes, which are too realistic to be coincidence, he realizes that she is no ordinary vampire—and that he may end up having to choose between the respective legacies of his parents.
Posing as Malek and Xiaodan’s human familiar, Remy contends with Aluria’s intimidating vampire courts and a series of gruesome murders with their help—and more, as the three navigate their relationship. But those feelings and even their extraordinary collective strength will be put to the test as each of them unleashes new powers in combat at what may be proven to be the ultimate cost.

My Review:

I loved this second book in the Reaper duology even more than I loved the first book, Silver Under Nightfall. Which means that it is going to be damn near impossible to keep my SQUEE under enough control to write this review.

But then again, I loved this so hard that I have literally nothing truly serious to say, except to tell people to go out and read this duology and to start with Silver Under Nightfall and be prepared to forgo sleep until you’ve finished the set.

The story in Court of Wanderers picks up right after the ending of Silver Under Nightfall, and everything that happened in that first book is part of the setup for this second. So my one very serious thing to say is to start with Silver Under Nightfall to get acclimated to this intricately designed and convoluted world where the good humans are working with the good vampires, the bad vampires are killing the bad humans and someone or something is maneuvering behind the scenes on both sides for dastardly reasons of their own.

Because divide and conquer has been a sound strategy since the dawn of, well, strategy.

At the heart of this truly epic dark fantasy are Malekh, Xiodan and especially Remy. Malekh and Xiodan are vampires at the center of seemingly ALL the power plays among their people. A people who are distrustful of each other and seem to hold humans in contempt. But are forced to or hopeful of or a bit of both regarding an alliance with at least some humans in order to fight a common enemy that is targeting them both with armies of infectious, unkillable monsters.

(And yes, anything that a vampire thinks is a monster is pretty damn monstrous – as are the people (for loose definitions of ‘people’) controlling them.)

Remy Pendergast, the point of view character for the story, is a garden-variety human. Or so he believes, in spite of all the rumors to the contrary he grew up with and was constantly reviled for. His father leads the human armies on behalf of the Alurian Queen Ophelia.

His father, quite frankly, is also a bastard – the marital status of HIS parents notwithstanding.

Remy was supposed to be his father’s spy among the vampire courts. Instead, Remy has found the first place he could ever call home. A place where he is respected, appreciated, and most definitely loved. By Malekh and Xiodan, the leaders of the third and fourth vampire courts, who want to make him their acknowledged third, whether he remains human or lets himself be turned.

But Remy isn’t quite the mere human that he believed himself to. Then again, quite a few of the things he believed and the people he believed in are not exactly what he believed them to be, either.

The war that Remy is at the forefront of, on both sides at the same time, will test his courage, his mettle, his resolve – and most especially, his heart.

What comes out the other side – intact or otherwise – is for Remy to discover. If he survives – and if his world survives with or without him.

Escape Rating A++: The SQUEE is strong with this review. Let’s get into at least a bit of the why of that fact.

The comparison that keeps being made in the blurbs is to Castlevania. I’ve never played the game, so I can’t say if that’s on point or not. What is very much on point – and not just the pointy fangs of the vampires themselves, is that the Reaper duology does a fantastic – no pun intended – job of combining the battle of good vs. evil that so often lies at the heart of epic fantasy with epic fantasy’s complex worldbuilding AND its underlying thread of very long, downright historical forces teeing up to fight the same battles over and over again.

At the same time, and I think this is where the Castlevania reference comes in, some of the prime movers and shakers in this world are vampires. And it has been observed, at least by this reader, that vampire politics tend to run towards exceedingly long games and even longer grudges because those original movers and shakers are still doing the moving and the shaking down through the millennia. It’s difficult to get a fresh start when the people who need it are battling not against institutional memory or country-founding ethos but against actual memory – usually in worlds where therapy is not remotely a thing.

A big part of what is ultimately uncovered, the evil at the heart of this world, is that the forces arrayed have been maneuvering on the down low for longer than the short-lived humans could possibly imagine – not that plenty of them haven’t either been caught up in it or killed by it or both over the centuries.

Our point of view on those discoveries, and on those centuries of underhanded and underground dealings, is Remy Pendergast. In Silver Under Nightfall, we’re with Remy as he’s used and abused by everyone around him in the human world, and we follow his perspective as he learns that the vampire courts are not much like he’s always been taught. And that he has considerably more value as a person than the human courts – particularly his own father – have ever led him to believe.

As Court of Wanderers begins to unravel the plots and counterplots that have set up the epic confrontation, Remy learns that so much of what he’s been taught to believe just ain’t so. We feel for him as his illusions are destroyed, as some of them get rebuilt, and as the layers of the whole onion of his life peel back with tears every step of the way. We get caught up in his journey as well as the battle yet to come and its multiple horns of dilemma consequences.

I got caught up in this story for Remy, because it was impossible not to feel for him, and because the way that his continual discoveries of how the world REALLY works as opposed to how he thought it did gave me a captivating and compelling ‘in’ to this complex world.

I stuck around because as the romance – and it is absolutely a romance – between Malekh, Xiodan and Remy gets deeper I found myself feeling for them, both in the romance AND for the centuries of trauma they had experienced and the way that their world was damaged and how desperately they wanted to fix it in spite of the forces arrayed against them.

I was fascinated with the way that the good vs. evil battle that has been fought through the whole story wasn’t reduced in any way to the easy fixes. Although many people at the beginning believed it was vampires vs. humans, and the villains were trying hard to make that point stick, in the end there was good among both and evil among both and deception on all sides. And redemption as well.

When I closed the final page of Court of Wanderers, I left this world with a deeply conflicted reaction. The ending of this book, and this duology, is utterly right for the story that was told within. The mix of the bitter of loss with the sweet of possibilities was, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, ‘just right’. But I’m deeply sad that this marvelous story is over, and that I won’t get to see the outcome of the life-altering choices that Remy has before him – and I desperately want to know.

Maybe I’ll find out in some future story by this author. I hope so. I KNOW that I’ll be all in on their next adult fantasy, whenever it appears, because Silver Under Nightfall and Court of Wanderers constitute a tale that I’m going to remember for a long, long time.

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas WesterbekeA Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, literary fiction
Pages: 399
Published by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue meets Life of Pi in this dazzlingly epic debut that charts the incredible, adventurous life of one woman as she journeys the globe trying to outrun a mysterious curse that will destroy her if she stops moving.
Paris, 1885: Aubry Tourvel, a spoiled and stubborn nine-year-old girl, comes across a wooden puzzle ball on her walk home from school. She tosses it over the fence, only to find it in her backpack that evening. Days later, at the family dinner table, she starts to bleed to death.
When medical treatment only makes her worse, she flees to the outskirts of the city, where she realizes that it is this very act of movement that keeps her alive. So begins her lifelong journey on the run from her condition, which won’t allow her to stay anywhere for longer than a few days nor return to a place where she’s already been.
From the scorched dunes of the Calashino Sand Sea to the snow-packed peaks of the Himalayas; from a bottomless well in a Parisian courtyard, to the shelves of an infinite underground library, we follow Aubry as she learns what it takes to survive and ultimately, to truly live. But the longer Aubry wanders and the more desperate she is to share her life with others, the clearer it becomes that the world she travels through may not be quite the same as everyone else’s...
Fiercely independent and hopeful, yet full of longing, Aubry Tourvel is an unforgettable character fighting her way through a world of wonders to find a place she can call home. A spellbinding and inspiring story about discovering meaning in a life that seems otherwise impossible, A Short Walk Through a Wide World reminds us that it’s not the destination, but rather the journey—no matter how long it lasts—that makes us who we are.

My Review:

The title is only half right. The world that Aubry Tourvel walks through is indeed wide, but her walk is far, far from short – especially from her own perspective.

That walk begins in 1885, when Aubry is all of 9 years old, the protected and spoiled youngest child of middle-class parents in Paris, France. Whether her condition is caused by a mysterious puzzle ball, her unwillingness to sacrifice it, or merely the whims of fate is never 100% certain – and it doesn’t need to be.

However the malady, or perhaps curse is a better term, was visited upon her, nevertheless one evening Aubry sits down at the dinner table and starts bleeding from seemingly every orifice while going into convulsions that wrack her entire body.

Medical science has neither diagnosis nor cure. All Aubry has to go by, on, for, and with, is her meager experience that when she changes location she immediately starts to heal, but when she stays in the same place for too long, the blood starts dripping out of her nose and her condition takes over.

Fast, hard and with extreme pain in every limb.

So Aubry is off, and so is the story. At first, with her whole family, moving from hôtel to hôtel in the suburbs of Paris, but then, as she runs out of places she hasn’t been yet, out into the countryside with her mother, Aubry’s knowledge of her mother’s utter exhaustion and total depression, and her awareness of her family’s dwindling finances.

Aubry runs away and leaves her mother behind. She’s all alone, walking that wide, wide world, at the age of twelve.

This is her story. It’s not exactly an adventure, although there are certainly adventures within it. It’s absolutely a story about the journey and not the destination, because as far as Aubry can discover, the only destination is death.

But along the way, for as many steps and as much time as Aubry has, there’s an ever-changing, always moving, and utterly fascinating life.

Escape Rating A: If you could put Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days, both by Jules Verne and both still fairly new when Aubry begins her walk, into a book blender, you’d get at least the basic broth of Aubry’s long journey. A broth spiced with a bit of Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control.

The difference is that both of those classic stories are ‘there and back again’ adventures. The protagonists set out with every expectation that they will return home at the end, more or less safe and sound.

Aubry can neither go home, nor can she make a new one. She’s a human turtle, carrying her home on her back. And it’s HARD. It’s a hardness that both does and does not define her, and that’s what makes her journey so compelling to follow.

On the one hand, she has to be as self-sufficient as possible, because she knows that she will often be utterly alone, not because she wants to be, but because she travels through many of the empty places of the world, frequently on paths that no one else can see. At the same time, she learns that when she does find companions, the only thing she has to trade is her ability to use her self-sufficiency to help others.

But what keeps the reader with her is the emotional journey. She goes from spoiled to über capable. She goes from being done for to doing for others when possible and whatever is necessary to survive all the time.

And she goes from child to young woman to middle-aged and to elderly – one step at a time and always with the monkey of her condition on her back. She makes friends and loses them and drinks from all the springs of the world – but only to the shallowness of a teaspoon.

She samples but never stays. And we’re right there with her.

This is a story that grabbed me from the first page with the sheer puzzle of it. The idea of her endless journey, and even more fascinating still, the progress of it in a world where all the corners had not yet been filled in.

And that it was a woman’s journey and not a man’s. There were (and are) plenty of such journeys undertaken by men in fiction. When Aubry sets out, it was the age of such stories, often written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Their tales often told stories of ‘big’ adventures of one sort or another.

Instead, Aubry’s journey is long rather than ‘big’. She’s not trying to become famous – although she does. She’s trying to survive and that gives her story a much different flavor and leads it towards a more authentic conclusion. In the end, as much as we may envy her ability to pick up stakes and travel, to make herself comfortable wherever she goes, we feel for her inability to ever take a break from it.

So, if you’re ever feeling like home is a bit too comfortable to ever leave, take A Short Walk Through a Wide World with Aubry Tourvel and travel by armchair with gratitude for the ability to take that walk with her without having to leave everything behind, and see the world from the perspective of someone else’s aching feet.

#BookReview: Space Holes: First Transmission by B.R. Louis

#BookReview: Space Holes: First Transmission by B.R. LouisSpace Holes (First Transmission, #1) by B.R. Louis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: farce, humor, parody, satire, science fiction, space opera
Series: Space Holes #1
Pages: 302
Published by CamCat Books on March 26, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Saving an alien planet is nothing compared to meeting your sales quota. Marcus Aimond, untrained tag-along aboard humanity's first intergalactic exploratory commerce vessel, has a singular sell off-brand misprinted merchandise. When the rookie and his crew encounter the Nerelkor, a frog-like civilization, he is thrust head-first into an alien civil war. The opposing factions, Rejault and Dinasc, are stuck in an ill-fated feud driven by deep-rooted ineptitude. To avoid the planet’s total annihilation and establish a local sales office, Aimond and the crew must survive arena combat, reshape the very structure of the planet, establish world peace, and stay alive―for the sake of positive branding, of course.

My Review:

I’m writing this review because I desperately need to get this book out of my head. Which means that, fair warning and abandon all hope ye who enter here, this is going to be an absolute RANT of a review.

Which is really too bad because it had a lot of potential. It’s just that all that potential turned out to be added cereal filler.

I mean that literally. You’ll see.

At first, I thought the title was a pun, that ‘Space Holes’ was meant to be a play on ‘Ass Holes’ without literally giving the book the title ‘Ass Holes’. Having read it, I think that would have been a better book.

Instead, the ‘Space Holes’ of the title are wormholes, or at least one stable wormhole near Jupiter. The reason that those wormholes are not officially called wormholes in any of the promotional or merchandising brochures created by the company that owns the trademark on the term ‘Space Holes’ is that ‘wormhole’ is a word in common parlance that can’t be trademarked.

At that point, the joke was still funny but was starting to wear a bit thin. You’re wondering what the joke was, right?

The joke was that this is set in a not-too-far-distant future where a cereal company that makes really bad but ridiculously addictive cereal has taken over the entire world (except for Florida which is also part of the joke) and is desperate to find new markets for their terrible cereal and all of the cheap tchotchkes they use to market their terrible cereal and that the terrible cereal is intended to market. Yes, it’s the circle of advertising life, and yes, it really happens and yes it can be funny.

Which leads to the building of a spaceship intended to traverse that ‘Space Hole’ to another galaxy in order to set up new branch offices and sell yet more cereal and all of the many, many toys and other cheap products that fund the company’s executive offices and, at this point, the entire world government.

And it kind of was, up to a point of saturation.

Where the joke started to get thin, at least for this reader, was the point where the crew of the ship got trained, not even in simulators, but through a limited series of a mere EIGHT 45-minute point-and-click web-based training videos. It’s not a surprise that they crash-land on the first planet they find, it’s more of a surprise that they don’t crash into the sides of the wormhole.

Don’t even think that the ship has safety protocols designed to prevent such an occurrence, because it doesn’t. Have safety protocols, that is. Safety was sacrificed for cost-cutting and/or greater merchandising opportunities at every single instance. It’s both amazing that the GP Gallant flies at all AND that anyone on its crew is capable of flying her.

The whole thing lost me when a promotional advertisement interrupted the middle of a red-alert klaxon, not just once but every 30 seconds or so. Once was sorta/kinda funny. Multiple iterations wore the joke of the whole entire thing down to a nubbin and yeeted it into a black hole. Not a space hole, but a black hole of utter destruction.

And yet, in spite of everything, surprising everyone including this reader, the crew of the GP Gallant managed to find a planet filled with beings who seemed to be even less capable then they were, and saved them from their own inability to make any sense by ending their civil war.

Escape Rating D: That’s a misnomer, because I didn’t escape at all and still haven’t, dammit. I can’t get this thing out of my head no matter how much I try.

The worst part is that the ideas at the heart of this thing aren’t bad. There’s the germ of a good story here, possibly more than one, that might have worked IF this had been a series of short stories instead.

Howsomever, what this book turned out to be is a bad combination of the awesome book Redshirts and the movie Office Space. Possibly with a bit of the book Mickey7 thrown in if Mickey had less assigned functionality and no ability to acquire any.

(The erstwhile protagonist of this farce is the child of one of the corporate bigwigs who gets literally thrown onto the ship at the last minute because daddy dearest is certain the boy is useless. He isn’t really, but he sort of is, and he wants to be useful and a hero so bad, and he’s very earnest but completely unqualified and again, this had potential, but by that point the joke had been stretched way too thin and kept getting, well, thinner to the point of utter transparency.)

Leading to my ultimate conclusion that those seeming progenitors of Space Holes, all of which were very good of their type – absolutely do not belong together. Well, maybe Mickey7 and Redshirts together might be good, but the dysfunctionality of Office Space just doesn’t belong here – particularly not with added corporate shills, obsessive rule-pushers and over-the-top merchandising shenanigans.

There’s plenty of room for satire, parody and even outright farce in all of the above. But all at once just proves the rule that too much of a good thing is often NOT wonderful at all.

A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green

A- #BookReview: The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. GreenThe House on Widows Hill (Ishmael Jones #9) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #9
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on July 2, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


Ishmael Jones investigates a haunted house . . . but is haunted by his own past in the latest of this quirky paranormal mystery series.

"That house is a bad place. Bad things happen there . . ."
Set high on top of Widows Hill, Harrow House has remained empty for years. Now, on behalf of an anonymous prospective buyer, Ishmael and Penny are spending a night there in order to investigate the rumours of strange lights, mysterious voices, unexplained disappearances, and establish whether the house is really haunted.
What really happened at Harrow House all those years ago? Joined by a celebrity psychic, a professional ghost-hunter, a local historian and a newspaper reporter, it becomes clear that each member of 'Team Ghost' has their own pet theory as to the cause of the alleged haunting. But when one of the group suddenly drops dead with no obvious cause, Ishmael realizes that if he can find out how and why the victim died, he will have the key to solving the mystery.

My Review:

The House on Widows Hill is more of a twist on the typical English country house mystery than even Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt usually have to contend with.

And that’s definitely saying something about the cases that the mysterious “Organization” usually assigns to this unconventional pair – even after the case in the previous book, Night Train to Murder, that has literally just dropped them off in Bath when this investigation begins.

Someone high up in that secretive, blacker-than-black-ops ‘Organization’ wants Ishmael and Penny to spend the night at that house on Widows Hill overlooking the city, a house with a reputation so dark that not only has no one lived there since the Victorian Era, but no one even goes near the place.

The place is so creepy that not even the local kids go there on dares, and haven’t for decades. Probably because of the overwhelming sense of impending doom and dread that comes over anyone and everyone who approaches the outer gates.

Someone in the ‘Organization’ is considering buying the place – or that’s what Ishmael and Penny are told, anyway. That night is a ‘one-night-only’ invitation to not just Ishmael and Penny as representatives of the potential buyer, but also to a whole team of “ghost botherers” (as Ishmael calls them) who have been begging – for years it seems – to get inside the old haunt. Along with one intrepid reporter who represents the family that owns the creepy pile – and really would like to get shed of the place once and for all.

The rumor is that the house is haunted – but there have never been any reports of actual ghost sightings. At least not until the first member of the little group of wannabe ghost hunters dies in the midst of what Ishmael is sure is a fraudulent séance. Then again, Ishmael believes that all séances are fraudulent so he’s not disappointed that this one is all a wheeze – although he is peeved that he let himself get caught up in the distraction.

He just wasn’t expecting this particular bit of shenanigans to be a way of covering up murder. But he should have been, even if he’s a bit off his usual game. Because while there may not be any ghosts in the house, there certainly is a real something. Something that’s speaking to Ishmael himself in ways that seem entirely too familiar – even if they are speaking of a past that he can no longer claim as his own.

Escape Rating A-: I normally save this series for around Halloween, but I’m in the midst of a reading quandary that I hoped this book would solve – or at least beat back for a couple of days. I’m in the middle of listening to Erik Larson’s No One Goes Alone, and it reminds me A LOT of the Ishmael Jones series – at least so far. The thing about the Larson ‘book’ is that it’s audio only – there’s no actual book. If there were I’d have finished the damn thing by now, because I’m desperate to find out not just whodunnit but also how and why it was done. ‘Thumbing’ to the end of an audio is just damnably awkward – but I’ve been sorely tempted all the same. (I’ll finish the damn thing this week one way or another! And in case you can’t tell, I’m really, REALLY frustrated by the lack of a text.)

Once the resemblance between the two became clear to me, I picked up The House on Widows Hill, which is the next book in my catchup on this series, in the hopes of getting a bit of resolution by proxy for the book I can’t quite carve out enough time to finish.

It even worked, sorta/kinda. Which is awesomely relieving in a peculiar, reading obsessive kind of way.

So this book was pretty much the right book at the right time, even if my reading did start out as a search for a catharsis by substitution.

The House on Widows Hill very much has the classic haunted house vibe going on – even though with Ishmael and Penny involved the reader begins the story aware that it just isn’t going to go to any of the places that haunted houses normally go. That Ishmael gets shaken out of some of his internal certainties and securities added a bit to the ongoing arc of the series while at the same time ramping up the tension of both this book and the books in the series yet to come.

As I’ve already read the final book in the series so far, Haunted by the Past, I have one more book left in my catchup of this series, and that’s Buried Memories. Which I’ll probably get around to THIS coming Halloween, unless the urge for some of this author’s trademark line in snark hits me sooner and isn’t satisfied by the next book in his Gideon Sable series, Where is Anybody?, scheduled for publication in August.

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Dance Hall by Marty Wingate + #Giveaway

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Dance Hall by Marty Wingate + #GiveawayA Body at the Dance Hall (London Ladies' Murder Club #3) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: London Ladies' Murder Club #3
Pages: 304
Published by Bookouture on April 8, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.org
Goodreads

1922. Amateur sleuth Mabel Canning is surrounded by the bright lights of London as she chaperones a young American woman to a dance. But when someone is murdered, a deadly tango begins…Meet plucky woman-about-town Mabel Canning, leader of the London Ladies’ Murder Club and trusted assistant to gentlewomen. When she is tasked with accompanying Roxy, a fun-loving heiress, on a glamorous night out, Mabel can’t wait to sip champagne and practice the foxtrot. But just as Roxy sashays out of sight, a mysterious man warns Mabel that the feisty young redhead is in danger. And someone is dead before the music stops...Roxy was the last person to see the victim alive, and she stumbles into Mabel’s arms with her daffodil-yellow dress splashed with blood. Determined to protect her ward, Mabel gathers her dashing beau Winstone and her pals from the murder club. Together they trace the weapon back to the ballroom, but when its twin goes missing, it is clear time is running out to prevent another murder on the dance floor…The police conclude the killer is in Roxy’s family, but Mabel finds herself spinning between a motley troupe of suspects. Mr Bryars, the anxious ballroom manager, is constantly tripping over himself to hide his secrets. But would he kill to protect his reputation? And young Ned Kettle may have looked dashing while waltzing around with Roxy, but he was once a notorious thief. Is the sticky-fingered rogue also a dab hand at murder?Just as Mabel and her murder club friends quickstep closer to the truth, Roxy is kidnapped, and Mabel comes cheek to cheek with the killer. Can she save poor Roxy and herself? Or has she danced her last dance?A delightfully witty and utterly addictive whodunnit absolutely bursting with 1920s sparkle, from USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Richard Osman, Verity Bright and T.E. Kinsey.

My Review:

As a member of Miss Kerr’s Useful Women Agency, Mabel Canning has taken on all kinds of jobs and been useful to many different people, from helping someone decide on wallpaper to delivering packages to making sure that certain young scamps really do board their trains back to school.

It’s not at all outside the bounds of the services offered by the Useful Women Agency for Mabel to accompany a young American woman on outings and excursions, to be her tour guide while keeping an eye on her, and doing her best to keep Roxanne Arkwright out of trouble.

But trouble finds Mabel, as it has in her previous adventures, A Body on the Doorstep and A Body at the Séance, in the form of, well, a dead body – this time on the floor of the Hammersmith Palais de Danse.

(Yes, it’s a new face on the ballroom floor, which is how I always heard the phrase, “new face on the BARroom floor” as a child. I’m both tickled at the reference and chagrined at how long it took me to figure it out – albeit not THIS long.)

Scotland Yard, in the person of Detective Inspector Tollerton isn’t nearly as surprised as he’d like to be to discover Mabel on the scene of yet another murder – but Mabel has been useful to Scotland Yard in two previous cases, so Tollerton seems to have reached a position of tolerance, at least, on the subject of Mabel and her penchant for being on the scene when a body drops at someone’s feet – whether those feet are her own or not.

At least this time around Mabel can’t possibly be a suspect, as she was locked in the Palais’ larder at the time. And neither can her charge, Roxanne Arkwright, be in this particular frame. Although Roxanne’s father certainly could be. And briefly is as the case unfolds.

That the murder victim, Oswald Deuchar, was a private investigator in the employ of Roxanne’s father, Rupert Arkwright, for the purpose of watching over Roxanne – along with Mabel but without her knowledge – adds both to the confusion and to the potential motives for his death. After all, private investigators, even ones as quirky and eccentric as Deuchar often accumulate enemies.

Unless the poor man’s death wasn’t about Oswald the investigator and protector, but instead had everything to do with his protectee – and Mabel’s – Roxanne Arkwright.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve already reached the point in Mabel’s adventures where I’m here specifically for her, and the particular case she’s working on is just extra. A compelling extra in the case of A Body at the Dance Hall, but still extra. I’m here to see how Mabel and her friends are doing, and to watch as she learns more about London, her assigned jobs for the Useful Women Agency, and the progress of her romance with her neighbor, Park Winstone. I’m especially here for the way that she keeps learning how to be a good investigator as well as an independent woman, a good worker and a good friend.

What I really like about Mabel and her adventures is that Mabel comes into the story both by agency and with agency and that it doesn’t feel anachronistic that she does.

In the first book in the series, A Body on the Doorstep, Mabel comes to London from the tiny village of Peasmarsh. She’s in her early 30s, never married, and has always dreamed of being on her own. She loves her father dearly, but Peasmarsh is a small, insular town and she’s not ready to settle into the plans it has for her.

Mabel’s comes to London after both the Great War and the Spanish Flu epidemic. An entire generation of young British men died in the trenches, to the point where Mabel is one of many women who may have to make their own ways in the world because of those losses. The idea that she might be on her own, that her father may worry about her – he does – that the doorman at her building looks out for her on his behalf and sends back reports – which he does – does not mean that Mabel isn’t completely independent. It just means that he loves her and wants to know someone is looking out for her, but even that doorman abides by the principle that what her dad doesn’t know won’t hurt anyone. No one is supporting Mabel except herself and she answers to no one except Miss Kerr at the Useful Women Agency.

Mabel’s life is a far cry – and a delightful one – from women in quite a lot of historical mysteries (including the one I bailed on last week in a rage). Mabel’s world isn’t fair to women – the world STILL isn’t – but her times and her circumstances allow her to be in a position to answer to herself alone and not be forced to kowtow to the men in her life for every second of her existence. Which was a true experience but isn’t any fun to read and too many female-fronted historical mysteries spend the first third of the book if not more showing all the ways that the world forces them to conform and how they, in turn, are forced to work around all those restrictions.

This series is a breath of fresh air because Mabel doesn’t have to do all of that heavy lifting just to be about her business. And I’m so very happy that is so and honestly relieved to start another of her cases.

And I’ll get down from my soapbox now.

The thing about this particular case is that both Roxanne and the villain have daddy issues. Their fathers have been missing from their lives from about the same age – but the reasons for their absence are quite different, and the results, well, the results are about as diametrically opposed as they could get – very few of which have to do with their positions at nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder.

Because I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, let’s talk about Roxanne’s issues because, well, her issues have issues and not a one of them is her fault. Her parents are divorced, her mother left England for America eight years ago, when Roxy was just ten years old. And her mother has been gaslighting her ever since about pretty much everything to do with her father, to the point of outright parental alienation so severe as to constitute emotional abuse while demonstrating EXACTLY why parental alienation is considered emotional abuse at the same time. Roxanne comes to London expecting to find a monster, only to discover a father who loves her very much and has missed her terribly, and a stepmother who can help Roxy heal from her mother’s treatment and build up faith in herself and her own judgment – because that’s exactly what her own mother has been tearing down all these years.

All of which means that in the middle of her assignment to show Roxanne the sights of London, Mabel also has a ringside seat on the behavior of Roxy, her father and stepmother, her mother when she arrives from America very much like the avatar of DOOM in T. Kingfisher’s A Sorceress Comes to Call – albeit one without any actual magic but plenty of the same malice.

The closer Mabel gets to Roxy, the more she treats her as a bit of a ‘little sister’, the much harder it is to detach herself as the plot closes in and traps Roxy in its jaws. From that point, it’s a race to the finish, to save the young woman from an enemy that no one saw coming because there was so much enmity already floating around.

I had a ball with A Body at the Dance Hall, so I’m thrilled to say that there is a FOURTH book coming in December, Murder of a Suffragette. I’m already looking forward to it.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because I really enjoy Mabel’s adventures, as I did the author’s Birds of a Feather and Potting Shed series, I chose this book for my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week, so that I could share that enjoyment with the lucky winner of today’s giveaway.

On this second day of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, today’s giveaway is the winner’s choice of ANY one of Marty Wingate’s books, in any format, up to $20 (US).

Good luck with today’s giveaway and remember that there’s more to come!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian HuangThe Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, historical fantasy, M/M romance, magical realism, romantasy
Pages: 312
Published by Mira on March 26, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

“What if I told you that the feeling we call love is actually the feeling of metaphysical recognition, when your soul remembers someone from a previous life?”
In the year 4 BCE, an ambitious courtier is called upon to seduce the young emperor—but quickly discovers they are both ruled by blood, sex and intrigue.
In 1740, a lonely innkeeper agrees to help a mysterious visitor procure a rare medicine, only to unleash an otherworldly terror instead.

And in present-day Los Angeles, a college student meets a beautiful stranger and cannot shake the feeling they’ve met before.
Across these seemingly unrelated timelines woven together only by the twists and turns of fate, two men are reborn, lifetime after lifetime. Within the treacherous walls of an ancient palace and the boundless forests of the Asian wilderness to the heart-pounding cement floors of underground rave scenes, our lovers are inexplicably drawn to each other, constantly tested by the worlds around them.
As their many lives intertwine, they begin to realize the power of their undying love—a power that transcends time itself…but one that might consume them both.
An unpredictable roller coaster of a debut novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace is a genre-bending romantasy that challenges everything we think we know about true love.

My Review:

Three roads converge in the midst of a labyrinth. Three fates collide in never ending repetition. No matter where or when the tragedy recurs, nothing ever makes a difference in the ultimate outcome.

In other words, no matter where you go, there you are.

An emperor and a clerk in 4 BCE, an innkeeper and a mysterious stranger in 1740, a medical student and an artist in the now. Three times, three places, three romances, three tragedies.

Different incarnations, different times, different lives but the same results. Because this isn’t just a story of love lost and found, but a story of love lost because it has been betrayed, over and over again. An eternal triangle that hinges on the heart of the one who always remembers everything, and yet can’t stop himself from repeating the same old mistakes. Over and over and over again.

Because even death seems incapable of doing their spirits apart. Perhaps next time, because even if nothing else is certain, there will certainly be one.

Escape Rating A-: This story walks three paths, and at first it doesn’t seem like one has much to do with the other. It reminded me of stories about walking a maze of trials that leads to a central point, a trail of trials that no matter which path is walked that ultimately leads to the same place – and all too frequently the same goal or battle or contest or tragedy. A progression that, as the path is walked and the spiral gets tighter, allows brief glimpses into the spirals on either side.

But at the beginning, the relationship between Dong Xian’s precarious climb up the ladder in Imperial China, He Shican’s nighttime wanderings in the woods around his remote inn in the mid-18th century, and River’s drug-induced hallucinations of the circuit party scene in today’s Los Angeles don’t have a connection that the reader can see.

It’s only in the dreams, nightmares and drug-induced ecstasy that the characters experience in each of the timelines that the stories begin, hazily at first, to reach out for each other – even as the contemporary characters in this never-ending story, River and Joey and Winston, come together and ultimately drive each other away.

Each of the stories begins slowly, but as they draw towards their individual conclusions that are all the same tragic ending, the inward spirals get faster and faster and tighter and tighter – like the loop of a noose closing around the throats of ALL the stories, leaving the reader breathless at the end.

An ending which may not be one at all.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started this book, although a friend’s absolute rave about it induced me to give this debut novel a try. And I’m glad I did because in the end I was completely blown away by this sexy, queer romantasy AND that it’s the author’s first.

I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore!

Grade A #AudioBookReview: What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama, translated by Alison Watts

Grade A #AudioBookReview: What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama, translated by Alison WattsWhat You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama
Narrator: Alison Watts
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, magical realism
Pages: 304
Length: 7 hours and 19 minutes
Published by Hanover Square Press, Harlequin Audio on September 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of The Midnight Library and Before the Coffee Gets Cold, this charming Japanese novel shows how the perfect book recommendation can change a reader's life.
What are you looking for?
This is the famous question routinely asked by Tokyo’s most enigmatic librarian, Sayuri Komachi. Like most librarians, Komachi has read every book lining her shelves—but she also has the unique ability to read the souls of her library guests. For anyone who walks through her door, Komachi can sense exactly what they’re looking for in life and provide just the book recommendation they never knew they needed to help them find it.
Each visitor comes to her library from a different juncture in their careers and dreams, from the restless sales attendant who feels stuck at her job to the struggling working mother who longs to be a magazine editor. The conversation that they have with Sayuri Komachi—and the surprise book she lends each of them—will have life-altering consequences.
With heartwarming charm and wisdom, What You Are Looking For Is in the Library is a paean to the magic of libraries, friendship and community, perfect for anyone who has ever found themselves at an impasse in their life and in need of a little inspiration.

My Review:

A 21-year old sales assistant, a 35-year old accounts manager, a 40-year old former magazine editor, a 65-year old recent retiree and a 30-year old who hasn’t found his way. Three men and two women. Different ages, different stages of life, different choices IN life. What do they have in common?

Each of these characters is at a crossroads in their lives, and each of them has taken the fork in the road that leads to the library. But not just any library, but the library in the Hatori Community Center, where Sayuri Komachi reigns over the reference desk as she relentlessly stabs her needle into her latest felting project.

Ms. Komachi has a gift, and not just for handicraft.

The characters in this collection of individual stories find their way to Mr. Komachi’s desk in the middle of their first-person narratives. So the reader – or in my case listener – already has an idea of what’s going on in their life at this particular moment and what decision – or lack thereof – has brought them into the busy, bustling Community Center to face its stabbing librarian.

(One of the narrators, that 30-year old who sees himself as a failed artist, both sees and hears Ms. Komachi with her furious needle as a fearsome character from a famous manga that both he and the librarian are familiar with.)

The librarian’s gift is to be the best this librarian has ever heard of at conducting what we call a “reference interview”. Ms. Komachi doesn’t just listen to what each person manages to say that they want, but also to intuit what each one actually wants and what information they need to make that happen – even if they had no idea themselves what was lurking in their heart of hearts.

She gives each person a ‘bonus gift’ from her box of complete handicrafts and sends them on their way, often with puzzled expressions on their faces as they try to figure out how what they blurted out resulted in something never expected but needed all the same.

Escape Rating A: Obviously I picked this up for the title, and I doubt that anyone is surprised by that. However, while I expected to like this book, I was surprised by just how charmed I was by each of the individual stories – whether or not I was feeling that particular character’s particular angst – or not – as they began their narrative.

Each story is individual – at least as it begins – with the initial link between the characters only in their encounter with the Community Center and Ms. Komachi. It’s only as we proceed from one to another we realize that they ARE interconnected, one directly to another, and that their collective connections form a community and ultimately a society.

Which also the theme of the retiree’s story that closes the book.

Because these stories are initially separate, and are told from each narrator’s first-person perspective, the choice the producers made to have a different voice actor for each section feels like the correct one. Each voice actor embodied their character while also making the voices of the people they encountered along their way distinctive.

That different characters therefore voiced Ms. Komachi rather differently, which also reflected their individual perspectives and worked particularly well. Even though by listening I missed the artist’s rendering of the individual characters that accompanied each story, I’m still happy that I listened to the audio instead.

As much as I enjoyed the narration, which I very much did, it’s the stories themselves that give the collection its charm, as was true in similar books such as The Kamogawa Food Detectives and Before the Coffee Gets Cold – the latter of which this book is frequently compared to, along with The Midnight Library of which this reader is considerably less certain but now rather curious about.

The stories in THIS book are all slices of life, and slices of very familiar lives; a young woman in her first full-time job not sure if it’s what she really wants or what she wants to do with the life in front of her before it passes her by, a more established man who KNOWS he’s not doing what he wants to do with his life but is afraid to give up security to pursue his dream, a working mother whose work dreams have been sacrificed to the care of a loved and wanted child but is having difficulty reconciling her plans with her reality, a 30 year old still living at home who has no confidence in himself and a retired ‘company man’ who can’t figure out who he is or how he fits in a world where he has no job and no set place in that world.

They all read like real people, their crises all feel like part of the real world, and the solutions all seem very possible. But there’s still just a bit of magic in these seemingly mundane tales, and it’s not just the magic of Ms. Komachi and her knack for finding the right book for the right person at the right time.

It’s the magic of getting caught up in, not just one lovely story, but five lovely stories – all with just the right touch of honeyed sweetness in their endings.

A- #BookReview: The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis

A- #BookReview: The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey DavisThe Graveyard of the Hesperides (Flavia Albia Mystery, #4) by Lindsey Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Flavia Albia #4
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on April 14, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In first century Rome, Flavia Albia, the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, has taken up her father's former profession as an informer. On a typical day, it's small cases—cheating spouses, employees dipping into the till—but this isn't a typical day.
Her beloved, the plebeian Manlius Faustus, has recently moved in and decided that they should get married in a big, showy ceremony as part of beginning a proper domestic life together. Also, his contracting firm has been renovating a rundown dive bar called The Garden of the Hesperides, only to uncover human remains buried in the backyard. There have been rumors for years that the previous owner of the bar, now deceased, killed a bar maid and these are presumably her remains. In the choice between planning a wedding and looking into a crime from long ago, Albia would much rather investigate a possible murder. Or murders, as more and more remains are uncovered, revealing that something truly horrible has been going on at the Hesperides.
As she gets closer to the truth behind the bodies in the backyard, Albia's investigation has put her in the cross-hairs—which might be the only way she'll get out of the wedding and away from all her relatives who are desperate to 'help.'

My Review:

No matter how much technology advances, human nature remains pretty much the same, and that’s a big part of what makes historical mysteries so much fun AND so absorbing. That’s especially true in the Marcus Didius Falco series and its literal daughter-series, Flavia Albia, of which this book, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, is the fourth.

The setting is the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., often, but not always, in Rome itself, as this book is. Flavia Albia is a private informer – read that as private investigator – following in the footsteps of her very much alive but only occasionally meddling adopted father, Marcus Didius Falco, the protagonist of the earlier series.

Falco married above himself in the earlier series, the son of a relatively poor and constantly scheming plebeian family who married a Senator’s daughter. As The Graveyard of the Hesperides opens – both literally and figuratively – Flavia Albia is about to do the same.

Which is where the domestic half of the story kicks in, as the wedding is approaching quickly – as are her soon-to-be in-laws. Flavia loves her fiance – but his family, well, not so much. And very much vice-versa.

In other words, she’s happy to be marrying HIM, but not at all sure about ‘THEM’. A set of conflicted feelings that many feel on the eve of their wedding to someone who seems like the one sane person in a family of crackpots. And not that her intended wouldn’t feel justified having the exact same trepidations about Flavia’s family, as readers already know that Falco takes a bit of getting used to at the best of times!

But that’s the domestic half of the story, the part that in any mystery series centers on the life of the investigator and the gang of helpers and hinderers that coalesce around them as they poke their noses into places that someone inevitably believes they don’t belong.

And that’s where the opening of the graveyard of the Hesperides comes in. The Garden of the Hesperides is the open-air backside of a down-at-heels bar in an equally insalubrious neighborhood. Fiance Tiberius Manlius Faustus owns the construction company that is renovating the place, specifically that back garden.

There have been rumors for years that one of the barmaids is buried back there, so when the construction crew finds human bones, no one is all that surprised. But they don’t just find one set of bones – they find six. Now that is a surprise!

Even more surprising, it looks like all six bodies were buried at the same time and in the exact same way – very neatly and tidily at that. Almost as if all those deaths were planned. And executed.

And yet, after the night that barmaid disappeared, the place opened up the next morning and no one noticed anything amiss except that one missing employee that no one missed all that much. But there are suddenly a whole lot of people really eager for Flavia Albia to forget all those bones and mind her own business. They obviously don’t know the woman, because figuring out whodunnit absolutely IS her business.

One that she is determined to carry out no matter how many ‘frighteners’ stand in her way.

Escape Rating A-: I first met Flavia Albia’s adopted father, Marcus Didius Falco, in the book The Silver Pigs,, over 30 years ago. This was back in the days when I had a long commute to work, audiobooks were still books on actual tape, and the selection was pretty slim. Mystery was the one category there were already lots of – quite possibly because it’s damn hard to thumb to the end of a book on tape.

At the time, the concept behind the Falco series was a bit like the bear dancing; you’re not surprised it’s done well, you’re surprised it’s done AT ALL. Much like one of my other favorite historical mystery series that began around the same time, the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series that started with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Flavia Albia’s investigations also remind me of two other long-running mystery series, one historical and one not, at least as it was written. The Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series by Jeri Westerson, beginning with Veil of Lies, is similar to Falco and his daughter in that it posits a noir-type gumshoe in an era that probably didn’t have anyone who fit that description, and yet still manages to immerse its character and the reader in that unexpected time and place to the point where you feels the broken cobblestones under your own feet as you read.

Last but not least, although the series is contemporary and not historical (sorta/kinda, as the first book, The Blessing Way, came out in 1970). Anne Hillerman’s continuation of her father’s long-running Leaphorn and Chee series into her Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito series changes its focus and updates its perspective by moving the original father-figure protagonist to the sidelines and introducing a female perspective in the form of a new daughter or daughter-like investigator.

In other words, I came into this book with a whole lot of nostalgia and more than a bit of mystery reading background and baggage crowding my thoughts and falling out a bit willy-nilly all over the place. After all, it’s been nearly two years since I last visited Flavia Albia and her family in Deadly Election.

And I’m struck again that what makes this series work – and what made the previous serious work as well – is the singular voice of its protagonist. We view Flavia Albia’s Rome through her eyes and hear her voice, filled with her reflections on her world and her place in it. She’s probably even more cynical and hard-bitten than her father, because she’s been through a school of much harder knocks and is both grateful for the safety, privilege and freedom that her adoption by Falco and Helena Justina affords her AND still conscience of just how desperate her situation was before and how easy it would be for her to fall back to the bottom.

So this case, which is wrapped around the death of a woman who was probably a prostitute and/or a procurer and supplier of sex workers, taking her as it does into the lives of many still living that life – most of them slaves who have no hope and no choice – hits her hard and reminds her of the fragility of life and her own current happiness in it.

Even as she is in the midst of her own wedding and the hope of future happiness that it brings. If she can just manage to solve this case and get her in-laws out of her own and her formidable mother’s hair before someone’s face gets shoved into fist. Quite possibly her father’s.

So come for the historical setting. Or the portrait of life in a time and place that manages to be both long ago and far away but feels just the right amount of familiar. Stay for the family shenanigans – or just for Flavia Albia’s wry, cynical commentary upon them. Either way, you’ll get caught up in the mystery and its resolution, leading right back into the opening of this review; that technology, in this case forensic science, may have changed a lot in the past two millennia, but human nature hasn’t changed a bit.

I know that I’ll be back for the next book in this series, The Third Nero, if only to learn how Tiberius Manlius and Flavia Albia manage to recover from the shocking conclusion to both the case and their wedding festivities.

#AudioBookReview: The Mystery Writer by Sulari Gentill

#AudioBookReview: The Mystery Writer by Sulari GentillThe Mystery Writer by Sulari Gentill
Narrator: Katherine Littrell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 400
Length: 10 hrs 52 mins
Published by Dreamscape Media, Poisoned Pen Press on March 19, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

There's nothing easier to dismiss than a conspiracy theory―until it turns out to be true.
When Theodosia Benton abandons her career path as an attorney and shows up on her brother's doorstep with two suitcases and an unfinished novel, she expects to face a few challenges. Will her brother support her ambition or send her back to finish her degree? What will her parents say when they learn of her decision? Does she even have what it takes to be a successful writer? What Theo never expects is to be drawn into a hidden literary world in which identity is something that can be lost and remade for the sake of an audience.
When her mentor, a highly successful author, is brutally murdered, Theo wants the killer to be found and justice to be served. Then the police begin looking at her brother, Gus, as their prime suspect, and Theo does the unthinkable in order to protect him. But the writer has left a trail, a thread out of the labyrinth in the form of a story. Gus finds that thread and follows it, and in his attempt to save his sister he inadvertently threatens the foundations of the labyrinth itself. To protect the carefully constructed narrative, Theo Benton, and everyone looking for her, will have to die. 
USA Today bestselling author Sulari Gentill takes readers on a rollercoaster ride in The Mystery Writer, a literary thriller that turns the world of books and authors upside down and where a writer's voice is a thing to be controlled and weaponized, to the peril of everyone who loves a good story.

My Review:

The mystery – and the mystery writer herself – both kick off when a bedraggled, desperate Theodosia Benton knocks on her big brother’s door. Theo is uncertain of her welcome, but when her flight from Canberra fetches her up in Lawrence Kansas, she’s hoping against hope that the one person who has never failed her will rescue her one more time. Even if she and Gus haven’t seen each other in years.

Her hope in her brother is not misplaced. But her arrival pushes a small stone down a long, steep hill that gathers more than enough moss, snow and really big rocks to crush the lives that they are trying to build. And sweeps entirely too many people around them into its destructive path.

Depositing Theo – along with poor Gus and his ginormous dog Horse  – and the heart of the deepest and darkest conspiracy theory that neither of them could have possibly seen coming. Not even their best friend’s family of obsessive, true believing conspiracy nuts.

Escape Rating B-: I picked this up because I LOVED the author’s previous book, The Woman in the Library, and was hoping for more of the same. That isn’t what I got – emphasis on the “I” because I think that the reasons this book didn’t work for me until the very end were a “me” thing that may not be a “you” thing. Before I explain, let me state for the record that the dog is a VERY GOOD BOY and he’s doing FINE at the end of the story.

Even though I loved Horse nearly as much as Theo did, this book drove me bonkers. I was listening to it and it turned into a rage listen, but as much as the whole thing frustrated me no end, I couldn’t stop even though I couldn’t stand another minute. So I switched to text just to find out who done what and how and why a whole lot faster.

The audio was fine, and the narrator did a terrific job of dealing with Gus’ deliberately strong Aussie accent and Theo’s less pronounced one among all their American friends and neighbors. It was the story itself that was making me crazy, to the point where I tried thumbing to the end of the book just so I would know – but it didn’t make sense because things get very, very twisty at the end.

However, that twistiness did manage to redeem a great deal of my frustration, because the macguffin that powers this whole twisted mess that Theo has been dropped into was definitely a WOW to the point where it’s entirely too easy to fall down the rabbit hole of it being real. Really plausible anyway, in spite of itself. Or myself. Or both.

But it definitely middled in a place where it seemed obvious to this reader that there was a malign agency of some kind behind the way that Theo’s life goes so far down the road to hell in that handcart so fast. (Like Wednesday’s audiobook, people just aren’t THAT unlucky unless someone really is out to get them.) So I had a pretty good guess fairly on who was doing the dirty deeds – I just didn’t have the whys, the hows or the wherefores.

Which also frustrated me because I thought that at least one of the main characters, probably not Theo herself but either her older brother Gus or his friend Mac.

And that’s the point where I worked out that the part of the story that was not working out for this reader was that the entire house of cards relies on the protagonist’s innocence and naivete in order to work at all. And since the story is told from her perspective we get a lot of that naivete to the point where I just wanted to shake some sense into her. It’s not that she’s too stupid to live, it’s that she’s young and has led a rather peculiarly sheltered life in the remoter parts of an entirely different country.

Gus or Mac should have had a better perspective on just how high the terrible coincidences were piling up, and just how unlikely that was, as they are both a decade older than Theo and have, particularly in Mac’s case, considerably more knowledge of the way the world really does and doesn’t work. But the way the story works means that they are dealing with most of the events through what Theo tells them, and her naivete bleeds all over everything.

Plus, they are both trying really, really hard to protect her – even from her frequently misguided self.

In the end, I think the whole story and the way that it works can be summed up by the tagline that the most prominent group of conspiracy aficionados uses in their messaging, “We know what we know.”

The full quote, from Nicolaus Copernicus, feels like it’s a key to understanding the conspiracy theorists in the book as well as the book itself and how it hides its real mystery in plain sight.

“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” Clinging to what they know, the conspiracy theorists have no clue about all the many, many things they don’t know. Neither does Theo. And neither, as the book takes us on a not-so-magical mystery tour of the way that Theo’s, Gus’ and Mac’s lives go so very, very wrong, does the reader – at least not until the bitterly climactic end.