Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van PeltRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism, relationship fiction
Pages: 360
Published by Ecco on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A novel tracing a widow's unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.
Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.
Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

My Review:

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a story about higher numbered chances than merely second and the long tentacle of coincidence that helps them happen.

Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common. A man whose prime isn’t very prime, who seems to have thrown away all his chances. An aging woman who has lost both her husband and her son, living lonely but determinedly in the house her parents built. And a giant Pacific octopus eking out his final days in the tiny Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound.

But Marcellus the octopus, whose placard outside his tank lists him as a “remarkably bright creature”, is as clever as he is bright. He’s also an intelligent observer of human behavior and a bit of an escape artist. There isn’t much else to do, all alone in his tank.

So he occasionally squeezes himself out to graze on the sea cucumbers – or even hazard a trip to the staff break room when the smell of leftover Chinese takeaway is too tempting to resist.

Which is how Tova Sullivan finds him, outside of his tank, caught in a tangle of wires and electrical cords and about to suffer what Marcellus calls “The Consequences” of being out of a tank for more than 20 minutes. Which he can calculate.

Marcellus is, after all, a remarkably bright creature.

Tova rescues him from the tangle. Not only that, but she doesn’t report Marcellus nighttime excursions to the aquarium’s director. It’s their little secret and the beginning of their unlikely friendship.

A friendship that ultimately results in both of them achieving the dreams they never admitted that they held. Not even to themselves.

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Aquarium in Washington DC

Escape Rating A-: This book turned out to be WAY more charming than I expected. It was recommended by someone in my reading group so I was expecting a decent to good read, but this turned out to be just lovely.

This is kind of a quiet story, where things happen slowly and truths emerge over time. To the point where it borders on literary fiction a bit. But instead of being dark and gloomy where nothing happens and everyone argues a lot – which is how I tend to see litfic – the situations all start out a bit gloomy but everyone gets better. Even Marcellus.

At first you kind of wonder how Cameron’s story is going to link up to Tova’s and Marcellus’. And that coming together takes a while and goes off on a couple of tangents as it meanders along. But once it does, it all fits together beautifully.

What holds the story together – besides Marcellus’ tentacles – is Tova. Her son disappeared without a trace when he was just 18. Her husband has passed away. She’s alone – and yet she’s not. She has friends, she has a job, she makes sure she has purpose. And yet she also has concerns about what will happen to her when she can’t live on her own anymore.

Being Tova, she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she takes steps to determine her own future for her own self. In her situation I’d want to be her when I grew up. She’s a character to both admire and empathize with. To the point where we want her to get a better ending than it looks like she’s headed for when the story begins.

Cameron is not initially all that likable. He’s not bad, and he’s taken some seriously rough knocks, but he’s not good at taking responsibility for himself. And at 30 it’s past time he did. He arrives in Sowell Bay searching for his sperm donor in the hopes of a big financial score. He’s doomed to be disappointed – and it’s the making of him.

Marcellus – who is much more present as a character than one might think – is an absolute gem. At the same time, his intellectual presence in the story, his perspective on the events that he helps to bring about, is both fascinating and a bit equivocal. Anyone who wants to believe that all of the thoughts and actions ascribed to Marcellus are in the minds of Tova and Cameron – in the same way that we all believe we know what our pets are thinking when we most likely don’t – the story still works – and works well.

But it’s so much better if you let yourself believe that Marcellus is helping Tova and Cameron all along – and that they are helping him as well.

I enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures a whole lot more than I ever expected to. And in that way that when you are conscious of something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere – like getting a new car and being aware of all the cars of the same make and model sharing the road with you – I liked this so much that I started seeing books with octopi characters everywhere. In addition to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus from a few years ago there’s The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler coming out in October, and Sea Change by Gina Chung next year.

I’m going to hunt me down some more octopi to read about while I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next!

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice BroaddusBuffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 144
Published by Tordotcom on April 25, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari.
Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.
Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.

My Review:

As yesterday’s book was a fictionalized story of a world that was, then today’s is a leap into world that might have been.

A leap somewhat like being dropped into a roller coaster just as its about to crest that first big hill and then a wild, screaming ride all the way to the end of the ride. Only to discover that, while the ride may be over, the story is just beginning.

Although the historical turning points that created the steampunk-fueled world of Buffalo Soldier are different, in some ways the feel of the story is similar to Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century that begins with Boneshaker. As well as, come to think of it, A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark as all three take the world down different legs of the trousers of time, and yet some forces of history seem immutable in the face of huge changes of circumstances.

The United States, well, isn’t. Not that the manifest destiny ambitions of “Albion”, the English colony that encompasses at least the East Coast and Midwest, aren’t entirely too similar. But Albion hasn’t succeeded by this point in this world’s late 19th or early 20th century.

So this story opens in independent Tejas, caught between Albion on one side and the Five Civilized Tribes on the other, as Jamaican fugitive Desmond Coke finds himself and the boy he’s guarding caught in the crosshairs between the Pinkertons, the agents of Albion, and the agents of his own truly pissed-off government as he attempts to cross the contested border.

Everyone is out to get him. Actually, only his own government really wants him all that badly. But everyone wants the boy he calls Lij. Because Lij is entirely too many things to entirely too many people.

A symbol. An experiment. An abomination. A resource. Even all of the above.

But Desmond just sees him as a little boy who deserves the chance to BE a little boy and determine his own path when he grows up. If Desmond can keep them both alive and on the run long enough to have that chance.

Unless he can find them a sanctuary. Or he dies trying.

Escape Rating A: This is one of those stories where the reader is dropped into the midst of a world that has already been fully created. We just don’t know exactly what that world is, so it comes into focus through the characters, particularly the point-of-view character Desmond Coke.

We’re not in his head, but the action follows his perspective, so we’re not omniscient. We see what he sees and know what he knows. And he knows a lot about the world in which he lives as once upon a time he was an espionage agent for his home country of Jamaica.

At least until he scooped up Lij and ran away into the predicament in which we find him as the story opens.

While the hints of how his world differs from ours and how it got that way are absolutely fascinating – at least to this reader – what kept me turning the pages was the quick, sharp peeks into his out of the frying pan into the fire journey. He’s desperate, he didn’t plan things out nearly as well as he should have, and no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Or, in this case, no plan survives contact with situations where there are enemies on every side with their weapons pointing at each other while Desmond is caught in the crossfire. Sometimes literally.

The story is a thrill-a-minute ride as every time Desmond tries to take them a little further away, he just ends up in a bigger mess, his steps dogged at every turn by agents from pretty much every power involved in North America. Some are hunting him down, some are using him as bait to hunt each other down, and some are using him as a distraction while they go after their real goals.

And in the middle, there’s a little boy who deserves the chance to grow up and become his own man instead of just the sum of all the things he was created to be. The truth of which is revealed over the course of the story and manages to catch at both the heart and the throat at the same time.

So, come to this one for the wild ride. Shake your head in rueful recognition at the ways that the powers-that-be are exactly the same as they are even in an entirely new world. Stay for the story, and the stories about stories, at its heart.

Whatever brings you on this steampunk journey, I believe you’ll find it well worth the trip.

Initially, I picked this up because I needed a couple of really short books this week and this looked like fun. Which it was! So I’m really glad I read it because it made for a terrific reading pick-me-up. It also made me look and see what else the author has available and now Sweep of Stars has moved considerably up the virtually towering TBR pile. There are so many books, and so little time, but now that I’ve read something of his work I can’t wait to dive into his latest!

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen WhiteThe Shop on Royal Street (Royal Street, #1) by Karen White
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal
Series: Royal Street #1
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley Books on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first in a new spinoff series of Karen White's New York Times bestselling Tradd Street novels.
After a difficult hiccup on her road to adulthood, Nola Trenholm is looking to begin anew in New Orleans, and what better way to start her future than with her first house? But the historic fixer-upper she buys comes with even more work than she anticipated when the house's previous occupants don't seem to be ready to depart. Although she can't communicate with ghosts like her stepmother, luckily Nola knows someone in New Orleans who can--even if he's the last person on earth she wants anything to do with, ever again. Because Beau Ryan comes with his own dark past, a past that involves the disappearance of his sister and parents during Hurricane Katrina, and the unsolved murder of a woman who once lived in the old Creole Cottage Nola is determined to make her own whether or not the resident restless spirits agree...

My Review:

There’s just something about New Orleans. Not just the beignets and chicory coffee at the Café du Monde (although those beignets still loom large and delicious in my memory). It’s the hot, steamy mélange of gumbo and hurricanes – and HURRICANES – and blues and magic that seems to pervade both the area AND the history of it.

New Orleans is a place of stories – the kind of stories that are told in the light and the ones that are whispered in the dark. Which makes it the perfect place to set this combination of ghost story, cold case mystery and gothic thriller.

Nola Trenholm is named for the city, because that’s where she was conceived. (Thank goodness she wasn’t conceived in Poughkeepsie!) So the city represents her birth, but it also represents her downfall, as her first attempt at college – at Tulane University in New Orleans – ended in a haze of alcohol and addiction.

She intends for the city to be her rebirth as well. Clean, sober and with a Master’s degree in historic preservation under her belt, Nola has returned to the city with a job investigating the historical significance of buildings that may be demolished in the name of “progress”, unless her work bears compelling fruit.

Her plan is to do at least some of her preservation work very personally, by buying a historic home that is in need of TONS of professional preservation. And that’s where the mystery really begins.

The old Creole Cottage is meant to be hers. It’s not just that it calls to her in the way that some places do. It’s that it is literally intended to belong to her, at least as relayed by her grandmother Sarah from beyond the grave.

Which should be a red flag that Nola isn’t quite right in the head. But not in her family. Nola can’t see spirits or communicate with the dead, but her stepmother Melanie most definitely can, as is it told in the Tradd Street series of which this is a spinoff.

When Grandmother Sarah calls Melanie from the beyond to tell her that the house is meant to be Nola’s it doesn’t so much take care of Melanie’s many, many objections as it does move them to another sphere entirely.

Nola’s meant to have the house because she’s the one with the resources – or the sheer pigheadedness – to finally lay the ghosts haunting the cottage to rest. Nola’s historic fixer-upper is a murder house. A murder that’s tied into the one person Nola would really rather not see in her return to New Orleans.

But it’s not a coincidence that the cottage – and in some surprising ways that old murder – both belong to Beau Ryan, who once saved her from a ghost, twice saved her from the consequences of her addiction, and has the talents needed to save her yet again.

If she can bear to let him. And if he can let himself admit that, just like Nola’s stepmother Melanie, Beau Ryan can see dead people.

Escape Rating B+: As soon as I picked up a copy of this from the library last week it started calling my name – much like New Orleans itself. The combination of past and present mysteries along with ghostly and other perpetrators hiding in the shadows looked fascinating, and so it proved.

And I always love a good story set in New Orleans.

This is the first book in a new series, spun off from a previous series. Which I have not read, probably because Charleston, while a lovely historic city in its own right, doesn’t draw me the way that New Orleans does. There are plenty of cross-over characters from Tradd Street to Royal Street, but I didn’t feel like I missed too much by not having started there. Not that I might not go back when I’m next in the mood for a story like this one!

The whole point of the move back to New Orleans for Nola is to get a fresh start without her parents looking over her shoulder, which works even better for this series starter than it does for Nola herself. She’s building a new team of friends, helpers and supporters around herself in her new city so the reader gets to be introduced to all the new people and watch the “Scooby Gang” come together along with Nola.

And what a marvelously mixed bunch they are! Especially Nola’s best friend Jolene, who combines Southern Belle with Steel Magnolia, while speaking in metaphors that make perfect sense but seem to come out of an ether that only Jolene can access. Probably the same place that Jolene gets what seems to be magical talents in just about every skill a Southern Belle could possibly need or want. She’s amazing and amazingly offbeat at the same time.

But the mystery – and the ghosts – that haunt the cottage are tied to Nola’s frenemy, Beau Ryan, and especially his family and their relationship with the shady movers and shakers of the city. As Nola’s father says in every one of his best-selling mystery thrillers, there is no such thing as coincidence. And there are no coincidences in the fact that Nola’s new house, which she bought from Beau’s grandmother over Beau’s objections, is tied to Beau’s family all the way back to that long ago murder – and the consequences of that murder that keep spilling over into each generation.

While one piece of the puzzle gets resolved by the end of The Shop on Royal Street, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a long and bloody history – one that will probably take several books to resolve. As will the glimmer of a romantic possibility between Beau Ryan and Nola Trenholm – in spite of both of their intentions to stay out of each other’s way romantically and otherwise.

It will be fun – with a bit of a ghostly chill – to see all the interwoven threads begin their unraveling in the next book in the Royal Street series, The House on Prytania, coming late next spring. I always look forward to a trip to New Orleans!

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. KingfisherThe Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, retellings, young adult
Pages: 236
Published by 47North on November 24, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Young Rhea is a miller’s daughter of low birth, so she is understandably surprised when a mysterious nobleman, Lord Crevan, shows up on her doorstep and proposes marriage. Since commoners don’t turn down lords—no matter how sinister they may seem—Rhea is forced to agree to the engagement.

Lord Crevan demands that Rhea visit his remote manor before their wedding. Upon arrival, she discovers that not only was her betrothed married six times before, but his previous wives are all imprisoned in his enchanted castle. Determined not to share their same fate, Rhea asserts her desire for freedom. In answer, Lord Crevan gives Rhea a series of magical tasks to complete, with the threat “Come back before dawn, or else I’ll marry you.”

With time running out and each task more dangerous and bizarre than the last, Rhea must use her resourcefulness, compassion, and bravery to rally the other wives and defeat the sorcerer before he binds her to him forever.

My Review:

I picked up The Seventh Bride because I love T. Kingfisher’s work and especially because I love her stories of young women – often very, very young – who have found themselves in a seriously large and potentially deadly pickle of epic proportions. Who, instead of whining, “oh woe is me!” or their world’s equivalent, put on the big girl panties they may not even be old enough to actually have yet and set about the business of saving themselves and everyone around them.

Just like Mona in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and especially Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is a young woman who is forced to adult really hard because the adults around her are either not up to the job (Mona) or are in positions of powerlessness relative to the evil aristocratic villain who is pulling everyone’s strings (Marra).

Rhea knows there’s something seriously wrong in the whole idea of a nobleman sweeping in to marry a miller’s daughter. Not because fairy tales don’t occasionally happen, and not that this won’t be one someday, but she knows it doesn’t happen to relatively plain girls in working-class families without some kind of magical intervention.

She’s also all too aware that no matter how the mysterious Lord Crevan might phrase his proposal, neither Rhea nor her parents have any real choice in the matter. He’s manipulating them all and he’s enjoying it.

Rhea’s just as aware that her parents are doing their best to pretend that this mess isn’t as wrong as it really is. She’s angry and frustrated because she knows there’s something rotten going on, and she’s exasperated almost beyond bearing that her parents keep trying to pretend that things might be okay after all. It takes a long time and a lot of thought for her to acknowledge that they are basically whistling past the graveyard and that they are hoping that if they pretend hard enough that things might not be quite so bad – although they probably will be.

But when Rhea arrives at Lord Crevan’s hidden country estate she discovers that actually – the whole thing is much, much worse than she imagined. That there are fates worse than death and that six of Crevan’s previous wives have all landed in those situations. And that Rhea is next unless she can find a way to stop him before its too late for her- and her hedgehog – if not for them.

Escape Rating A: The Seventh Bride is right at the crossroads between fairy tales, fantasy, horror and young adult. Or it is if there’s a skeleton buried under that crossroads.

It also reads like a bit of a ‘dress-rehearsal’ for Nettle & Bone, having been originally published eight years before Nettle. The two stories have a lot of the same elements, but as they are all elements that I love, that’s an excellent thing.

Like Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is in an impossible situation, one in which she knows she’s utterly powerless. At least in any traditional sense of power. She’s low born, she’s young, she’s female, her family is dependent on the local lord’s goodwill. Even if Lord Crevan mistreats her – as she expects he will – if she refuses him her family will, at best, be thrown out of their house and livelihood. At worst, they’ll all be killed. She’s in that squeeze between the rock and the hard place. She expects the hard place to be hard, but her parents will survive her going there and it might not be AS bad as she fears. The rock will crush them all for certain if she doesn’t.

But that’s where the magic of the tale comes in, in its horrible, beneficent, and human aspects. All at once. Because if there’s one thing Rhea is good at, it’s making the best of her situation. There’s a band of sisters waiting for her at Lord Crevan’s estate – his other wives. She has allies – and she gives them hope. She finds a way to fight back that is both underhanded and subversive.

And why shouldn’t she? It’s not as if Crevan is playing fair.

The more she sees of the horror that she’ll have to endure if she submits, or is ground under, the more determined she is to find a way out. And the more she shows that he can be subverted, the more of his other wives are willing to help her do so.

The creepy factor in this one is very high. The sense of a band coming together is very strong. And the possibility of a villain getting EXACTLY what’s coming to him is EXTREMELY satisfying.

So don’t let the idea that this might be YA-ish stop you from picking up this marvelously creepy story of magic, helpfully intelligent animals (Rhea’s hedgehog friend is adorable), found sisterhood and evil getting hoist on its own pointy petard. (Especially as the ebook is currently on sale for 99 cents. It’s an absolute STEAL!)

And if the author ever writes a bonus scene of Rhea, Marra and Mona sitting down for tea in some place between the worlds, I’d love to be a fly on that wall – or at least a reader of that story!

Review: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

Review: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi MatthewsThe Siren of Sussex (Belles of London, #1) by Mimi Matthews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Belles of London #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Victorian high society’s most daring equestrienne finds love and an unexpected ally in her fight for independence in the strong arms of London’s most sought after and devastatingly handsome half-Indian tailor.
Evelyn Maltravers understands exactly how little she’s worth on the marriage mart. As an incurable bluestocking from a family tumbling swiftly toward ruin, she knows she’ll never make a match in a ballroom. Her only hope is to distinguish herself by making the biggest splash in the one sphere she excels: on horseback. In haute couture. But to truly capture London’s attention she’ll need a habit-maker who’s not afraid to take risks with his designs—and with his heart.
Half-Indian tailor Ahmad Malik has always had a talent for making women beautiful, inching his way toward recognition by designing riding habits for Rotten Row’s infamous Pretty Horsebreakers—but no one compares to Evelyn. Her unbridled spirit enchants him, awakening a depth of feeling he never thought possible.
But pushing boundaries comes at a cost and not everyone is pleased to welcome Evelyn and Ahmad into fashionable society. With obstacles spanning between them, the indomitable pair must decide which hurdles they can jump and what matters most: making their mark or following their hearts?

My Review:

Ahmad Malik has a dream. His dream is to open his own exclusive dressmaking establishment. He has the talent, the training, the ambition and the drive to succeed. But he needs capital, he needs a patroness, and he needs to be twice as good as anyone else because he’s an immigrant, and because he’s of mixed race.

And he has to pretend that he doesn’t hear or see all of the slurs and outright verbal abuse that is all-too-frequently heaped upon him because of those last two facts.

Evelyn Maltravers, on the other hand, has a plan. She has arrived in London from tiny Combe Regis at the age of 24, very nearly on the shelf, to have her delayed season and secure a marriage to some prosperous member of the ton. Because that marriage will provide a secure future for not just herself but also her three younger sisters and their widowed mother. She has barely five months to find a match or her family faces financial ruin.

Her only assets are her bluestocking self, her ability to ride any horse ever born, her stallion Hephaestus – and her unfailing drive to succeed in whatever she sets out to accomplish whether either her methods or her motives are precisely within the bounds of proper social norms – or not.

Ahmad designs exquisite – even fashion-forward – riding habits for the beautiful and notorious Pretty Horsebreakers. Who may or may not be prettier than Evelyn, but are absolutely nowhere near her perfection on a horse. She’s sure that Ahmad can design a habit for her that will make her the talk of the town.

He’s sure that her riding habits – and all of the other commissions he carries out among both the ton and the demimonde – will provide him with the patronage he needs to fulfill his dream.

The one thing neither of them plans on is falling in love – with each other.

Escape Rating B: There is just so much to love in The Siren of Sussex. It’s absolutely charming. I loved the role reversal as well as the trope-tweaking. So much trope-tweaking.

Usually the bluestocking heroine gets discovered in all her bluestocking glory and there’s some kind of gorgeous-reveal. Here, the bluestocking – who refuses to let herself be pigeonholed that way – doesn’t so much have a beauty-reveal as a talent and expertise reveal that forces the hero to see the beauty she already has for himself.

It was also terrific to have the female be of a higher social class than the male. Not to mention that there are no dukes to be seen. Anywhere at all. There just aren’t or weren’t nearly as many as historical romance might lead one to believe. And other people deserve HEAs just as much if not a bit more than aristos.

So YAY for someone who works for a living being the focus of a romance and getting their HEA without turning out to be either a lost or hidden duke or earl.

The backgrounds of Ahmad and his sister Mira also provided a way for the author to make more than a few pointed observations about the treatment of people of color in general and half-Indians in particular in England during the Victorian era without getting preachy or infodumping or going into lecture mode. Ahmad is an intelligent man, he has a lot of thoughts, and downright teeth-clenching, fist-making observations about the way he’s treated, along with the aching awareness that he can’t act on those thoughts without it resulting in consequences that will make the situation immediately and personally a whole lot worse. At least in the moment. But it was important for both the character and the story that the crap he puts up with on a daily basis was never swept under the rug by the story or the character.

In spite of everything I just said, I gave this a B rating and not an A, and by this point you might be wondering why. I kind of am too.

There’s so much about this story to love, but I just didn’t. It’s charming, it makes a lot of good and interesting points along the way to its HEA, but it just didn’t compel me to keep reading. I liked it but I didn’t fall in love – even though the characters certainly did. The story is kind of a slow build, and the romance is very much a slow burn. It’s clear early on that they are interested in each other, but there are a lot of external barriers in the way and it takes them more than a bit of a while to get there. Although this is a relatively clean romance in that there’s lots of obvious longing and eventually kissing but they keep getting interrupted.

It may be that this just wasn’t what I was in the mood for. Because it is lovely and charming and just didn’t move me the way I expected it to. Although it did find the historical underpinnings – no pun intended – absolutely fascinating.

So I have high hopes for the second book in the series, The Belle of Belgrave Square when it comes out this fall.

Review: The Courier by Ernest Dempsey

Review: The Courier by Ernest DempseyThe Courier: A Dak Harper Thriller: 1 (The Relic Runner) by Ernest Dempsey
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Relic Runner #1
Pages: 286
Published by 138 Publishing on March 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Former Special Forces operator Dak Harper needs a job.
Out of work and on the run after a shocking betrayal by his brothers-in-arms, the ex-Special Forces commando hasn’t stopped moving for months.
He can’t. Some of the same soldiers who left him for dead in the Middle East still want his head. And they’re getting closer.
So far, he’s been lucky. But Dak is low on money and nearly out of time.All he needs is an easy gig. A place to lie low, bank some cash, and quietly figure out his next move.
That’s not exactly what he finds.
Some rich kid with more money than he knows what to do with wants to open his own museum. But first, he’s got to fill it, and that’s where Dak comes in.
Not sure if his gift for hunting bad guys will translate to finding priceless artifacts, Dak’s willing to give it a shot. He needs this job. The kid will pay him a lot of money and ask no questions.
Before he knows it, Dak’s on the first flight to South America, chasing his big payday. But Dak’s about to trade one set of problems for something even worse: the deadliest mission of his life.

My Review:

The Courier is the first book in an action adventure thriller series featuring former Delta operator Dak Harper. A man on the run, but not from a crime he committed. Dak is running from a crime he didn’t commit – or rather from the man who actually did commit that crime and is pissed as hell to have it pinned on him. Particularly after all the trouble he went to in his failed attempt to put Dak in that frame.

(That origin story is told in a 6-part novella series, descriptively titled The Relic Runner Origin Story. The reader does get enough hints of those events to slip into this book fairly easily, but I’ll probably read those when I get a round tuit because I always like more background.)

So Dak is open to a job that will take him out of the country, and temporarily out of the reach of the man who wants him dead. Even if it’s a job that might add more than a few names to that list of people who are out to kill him.

But the job he picks up at the beginning of this story is nothing like he ever expected. It’s also where that passing reference to Indiana Jones comes in. Twelve-year-old Boston McClaren has parlayed his knack for video gaming into an extremely lucrative career. And he plans to use some of his legally gotten gains to do something of dubious legality – or, at least, to pay someone, hopefully Dak, to do something of dubious legality on his behalf.

The young entrepreneur hires the disgraced Delta operator to go to Lima, Peru and re-appropriate, by whatever means necessary, a priceless relic purchased on the dark web by the cartel kingpin who runs everything shady in the city of Lima.

Considering that everyone in Lima from the Mayor on down is at least partially on that kingpin’s payroll, Dak is going to have to go through a lot of people – one way or another – to “find” the relic that he’s looking for.

The kingpin needs to go down, the city needs to get out from under his thumb, and that relic needs to get into the hands of a museum where many, many more people will be able to appreciate it and its history.

Dak Harper is looking forward to taking out the trash. Unless he ends up in it.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up on a whim because a writer whose work I really like recommended this author and the series. The comparisons in that recommendation were to Indiana Jones, Dirt Pitt And Doc Savage. While I’m more familiar with Indy than the other two, I’ve certainly heard of all of them. I have to say that I was a combination of intrigued and confused, but decided it was worth a try, if only because I enjoy the work of the author providing the recommendation so damn much.

Having finished The Courier, I think all of those comparisons are dead wrong, although the book made for a terrific, edge-of-the-seat read. But the cinematic character that Dak Harper resembles more than any other isn’t Indiana Jones – it’s Nathan Drake. And not so much from the movie as from the game series, also titled Uncharted.

And that includes the level of violence. You mow down a LOT of bad guys while you’re pretending to be Nathan Drake, including a whole slew of drug dealers, gun runners and kingpins of cartels dealing one, or the other – or both. Dak’s origins are actually a bit less shady than Nathan’s, but neither of their hands are exactly clean.

Howsomever, at least in this first outing, the Relic Runner as a series does bear a sharp resemblance to that video game. There is a story, but the story is in service of watching Dak Harper outsmart all of his opponents and essentially mow them down in one way or another. The conditions he observes in Lima are heartbreaking and even horrific, and the reader does reach the point of wanting to see all those bastards go down and go down as hard as possible while Harper does his best to avoid as much collateral damage as he can.

If you see it resembling a certain type of action-adventure video game – like the Uncharted series or even Tomb Raider – it’s easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the dropping of the bodies and just go with the action. But if you’re looking for a story with any kind of depth, you’ll probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t. I was looking for a bit of mindless adventure being led by a character who was superlative at his job and I got exactly what I wanted. We’ll see if that’s true in the next book in the series, Two Nights in Mumbai, the next time I’m in this kind of mood.

Which, admittedly, is the kind of mood where I either want to vicariously kill things by playing a video game – or read about someone else doing it in a story that – you guessed it – resembles a video game.

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint1632 (Ring of Fire #1) by Eric Flint
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, time travel
Series: Ring of Fire #1
Pages: 597
Published by Baen Books on 2-1-2000
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

FREEDOM AND JUSTICE -- AMERICAN STYLE 1632 And in northern Germany things couldn't get much worse. Famine. Disease. Religous war laying waste the cities. Only the aristocrats remained relatively unscathed; for the peasants, death was a mercy. 2000 Things are going OK in Grantville, West Virginia, and everybody attending the wedding of Mike Stearn's sister (including the entire local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, which Mike leads) is having a good time. THEN, EVERYTHING CHANGED.... When the dust settles, Mike leads a group of armed miners to find out what happened and finds the road into town is cut, as with a sword. On the other side, a scene out of Hell: a man nailed to a farmhouse door, his wife and daughter attacked by men in steel vests. Faced with this, Mike and his friends don't have to ask who to shoot. At that moment Freedom and Justice, American style, are introduced to the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

My Review:

What if? That’s often the central question in science fiction. In the case of alternate history, as 1632 most definitely is, the question is just a bit more specific. What if history went down a different leg of the trousers of time than it did in the world we know?

When this book and this series, 1632, opens, it’s the year 2000 in Grantville, West Virginia. The entire town has turned out, along with quite a few selected and/or important guests, to see Rita Stearns, hometown hero Mike Stearns’ sister, get married to an out-of-towner whose parents most definitely do not approve.

Time and history, at least as far as the residents of Grantville knew it, gets knocked off the rails during the wedding reception, when what they later refer to as “The Ring of Fire” slices a 6 mile wide – and deep – circle in the earth with Grantville at its center, picks up that slice of the just barely 21st century U.S. and switches it with a corresponding slice of earth in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire in 1632 during the height of the mess that history refers to as the Thirty Years’ War.

The story in this book and the series that grew out of it, is not about the aliens. Nor is it about the mechanism of that time travel. It’s about what happens next. In 1632. Where a complete town of 3,000 people with late 20th century ideas and ideals has suddenly dropped into the midst of chaos.

No one even thinks about Star Trek’s Prime Directive. They can’t reverse what happened. They don’t even know how it happened. They can’t leave. And there are far, far too many of them to either hide that they are there or attempt to blend into the local population. Where they are, which turns out to be the middle of the Thuringian Forest, is where they are staying. And where their children, and grandchildren, etc., will be born and raised.

This is the story of who they decide to be and how they decide to make that happen in a world that isn’t ready for either what they think or what they know. They see two options laid out before them. The first is to batten down the hatches and fend off anyone from the outside who tries to get in. The second is to throw open the doors and let everyone in – as long as they are willing to abide by the conditions laid out in documents that won’t be written for another century and a half.

Can the United States of Europe get enough people to accept democracy, civil rights and American-style prosperity fast enough to change enough history to make a new, good life for themselves and everyone willing to join them?

Or will the powers-that-be of 17th century Europe wipe them out and grind them under before they have firm enough ground to stand on?

Escape Rating A: I read 1632 way back when it was originally published in 2000 and absolutely fell in love with it – and several of the subsequent volumes of the Ring of Fire series. The author and originator, Eric Flint, passed away last week and it reminded me just how much I loved this at the time. I decided to see if it held up over the intervening decades – and here we are. The answer is pretty obvious from the rating. I loved it then and I love it still and I’ll probably read more of the series – again or for the first time – as time permits.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws along with its terrific points – but I still loved it. For one thing, this is very much competence porn. The group of folks who end up as the “Founding Fathers and Mothers” are all utterly excellent at doing the jobs that have been thrust upon them.

Probably more excellent – and more cohesively – than would happen if this were real. Or if it happened now. It did feel like they came together much faster in 2000 than might occur today after the last two decades of extreme political divisiveness in the U.S.

The wedding reception also created a rather convenient excuse for a lot of people to be in this small and already dying town than would have been true on a typical Sunday. It is particularly notable that the only black people in town – a much needed doctor and his paramedic daughter – are only there for the wedding. Otherwise the town would be almost entirely monochromatic.

If there are any LGBTQ+ folks in Grantville – we certainly don’t meet them in this first book. (That being said, this was not atypical of publishing at the time this book came out. The series kept on going, 32 books and counting, with the most recent, 1636: The China Venture, published in 2019. I imagine the books got more diverse in all ways as the series continued, but I can’t prove it from here.)

What fascinated me the first time I read this, and continues to do so, was the history and the directions that the author – and his later collaborators – chose to take that history. Their initial decisions in this first book seem reasonable, especially that all-important decision to gear their technology down to the level of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a level they can reach and maintain with the knowledge they have and the level of technology they can get their neighbors to reach. And it’s still way ahead of where central Europe is when they “landed”.

This book doesn’t so much end as it does lead immediately to the next book in the series, 1633. But it still feels like it stops on a triumphant note. Not because they just won an important military victory – although they certainly did. It’s what that victory is in service of that makes the ending a high note.

First, the victory is a victory of alliance – not of Grantville using its technical superiority to turn itself into a fortress nation. They form an alliance with King Gustav II Adolphus of Sweden, who in the history that was but will not be, a very forward thinking monarch who might have changed real history – if he hadn’t died in late 1632.

Second, the victory on their home ground, protects the most dangerous thing that Grantville brought back with it – the high school library and the students studying at the school. The powers-that-be, including Cardinal Richelieu of France (the villainous mastermind in The Three Musketeers) knew that the knowledge and information that Grantville brought to the 17th century was infinitely more dangerous than any of their weapons – and they wanted it destroyed at all costs.

And I have to admit that that acknowledgement, that libraries are dangerous because they expose people to knowledge and information, warmed the cockles of my librarian’s heart. Because it is and because we are. Not because of any of the specific things that are being protested today, but because libraries open people’s minds to what is possible – and that is what reactionary forces always fear above all else. Libraries, and librarians, teach people to ask questions that no tyrant, whether of government or of thought, wants to answer.

So I had fun. I had a lot of thoughts re-reading this book, but I also had a lot of fun. Even if things were a lot easier than I expect they would have been or should have been, I enjoyed watching these highly competent people doing their best to not just survive but to make a real life for themselves, their neighbors AND their posterity in a place where none of them could ever have expected to be.

I’ll be back – again or for the first time – the next time I need a competence porn pick-me-up or just want to watch a whole bunch of people play silly buggers with history. 1633 here I come!

Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis BaldreeLegends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 305
Published by Cryptid Press on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

High Fantasy with a double-shot of self-reinvention
Worn out after decades of packing steel and raising hell, Viv the orc barbarian cashes out of the warrior’s life with one final score. A forgotten legend, a fabled artifact, and an unreasonable amount of hope lead her to the streets of Thune, where she plans to open the first coffee shop the city has ever seen.
However, her dreams of a fresh start pulling shots instead of swinging swords are hardly a sure bet. Old frenemies and Thune’s shady underbelly may just upset her plans. To finally build something that will last, Viv will need some new partners and a different kind of resolve.
A hot cup of fantasy slice-of-life with a dollop of romantic froth.

My Review:

An orc, a succubus, and Ratatouille (the rat who wanted to be a chef from the Pixar film but in this case a baker named Thimble) open a coffee shop in Thune, a rather typical medieval-style fantasy town that has never seen, heard, smelled or especially drunk coffee before. Then Thimble the rattkin starts baking and honestly, they’ve opened the world’s first Cinnabon – complete with heavenly aromas pumped out to ensnare the masses who are about to learn just what they’ve been missing all their lives.

As much as that opening sounds like the start of a very bad joke, it isn’t at all. Instead, the story is every bit as sweet as one of Thimble’s soon-to-be-famous cinnamon rolls, and sticks in the pleasant corners of the reader’s mind just as much as Thimble’s icing sticks to everyone’s fingers.

This is one of those fantasy stories where the hero (or possibly the anti-hero) of entirely too many battlefields decides to retire while they’re still above ground and have all of their limbs and haven’t had their bell rung too many times.

And it’s a story about what happens after when anyone decides to live their dreams.

Viv visited a coffee shop once, and fell in love with pretty much everything about it. The aroma, the taste, the peace that filled her from both the drink and the ambiance of the place she drank it. She wanted to recreate all of those tastes and smells and feelings somewhere that hadn’t been introduced to coffee – at least not yet.

When she found a legendary treasure that was supposed to guarantee good fortune, she took it and her savings, retired from the mercenary life, and opened the first coffee shop in busy, bustling, Thune.

Along the way she gathered a group of friends and comrades to help her spread the word and run the business, while taking on trouble from both the local “protection racket” and from an old frenemy who believed that Viv hadn’t been honest about that treasure.

As much as Viv is determined to start a new life that doesn’t involve slicing throats or any other body parts, there are plenty of times when she’s tempted to solve her problems the way she used to. Especially when she loses the lucky charm that made all of her success possible.

Only to learn that it wasn’t the charm at all. It was all Viv, and the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls, and the love and respect of her friends, her neighbors, and her new-found family.

Escape Rating A+: Legends & Lattes is one of those stories that no one knew they needed until they read it. Only to realize that the whole story is pretty much the best thing ever. I pulled this one off the virtually towering TBR pile because I seriously needed a comfort read after last week and I wanted something new at the same time. I also wasn’t in the mood for anyone who didn’t deserve it to die, or for anyone to get abused. I just wanted all good things in an interesting story and that’s actually kind of hard. Fictionally, all good things and interesting are contradictory, there’s no story without at least some drama.

Somehow, Legends & Lattes just delivered on all counts. (The only thing that would have made it better would be if one of Thimble’s cinnamon rolls had popped out of the book while reading!) Viv has a dream and she doesn’t step on anyone to fulfill it. She gathers great people around her, she accepts them as they are, treats them well, and they grow together into a lovely found family.

The course doesn’t always run smooth. There’s a lot of hard work involved in starting a business – especially one that no one is looking for or understands. Her carpenter calls the coffee “bean water” and he’s not wrong.

There are a few books with orcs as protagonists, but usually they’re doing the things that we expect of orcs in fantasy even if the orcs are the good guys. Viv is turning over a new leaf, trying not to be what everyone expects an orc to be. It’s hard but it’s working – mostly.

Her assistant-turned-business partner (and eventual romantic interest) Tandri, is a succubus, another character we don’t see being on the side of the angels. But she’s yet another character in this story who is cast against type and it works.

Viv even manages to deal with the protection racket without paying protection. Well, not exactly paying protection. Also without busting heads. It’s a bit tense and a bit of a gamble but it works.

And honestly, Thimble the rattkin baker is the best character in the whole story. I love Thimble – and I love that the little guy is a genius and that this shy and self-effacing character gets his own chance to shine.

But what makes the story so wonderful is that the treasure wasn’t really treasure. It was a stone full of karma and because Viv put good into it she got good out of it. The next person to own it seems to be on the road to getting exactly what he puts into it as well.

And that’s a story I wouldn’t mind reading – along with anything else this author comes up with. Now that Legends & Lattes has been picked up by Tor Books, maybe we’ll see more stories set in Thune! Pretty please! With cinnamon on it?

Review: Love and Saffron by Kim Fay

Review: Love and Saffron by Kim FayLove & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: foodie fiction, historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 208
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on February 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The #1 Indie Next Pick, in the vein of the classic 84, Charing Cross Road and Meet Me at the Museum, this witty and tender novel follows two women in 1960s America as they discover that food really does connect us all, and that friendship and laughter are the best medicine.

When twenty-seven-year-old Joan Bergstrom sends a fan letter--as well as a gift of saffron--to fifty-nine-year-old Imogen Fortier, a life-changing friendship begins. Joan lives in Los Angeles and is just starting out as a writer for the newspaper food pages. Imogen lives on Camano Island outside Seattle, writing a monthly column for a Pacific Northwest magazine, and while she can hunt elk and dig for clams, she's never tasted fresh garlic--exotic fare in the Northwest of the sixties. As the two women commune through their letters, they build a closeness that sustains them through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the unexpected in their own lives.
Food and a good life--they can't be separated. It is a discovery the women share, not only with each other, but with the men in their lives. Because of her correspondence with Joan, Imogen's decades-long marriage blossoms into something new and exciting, and in turn, Joan learns that true love does not always come in the form we expect it to. Into this beautiful, intimate world comes the ultimate test of Joan and Imogen's friendship--a test that summons their unconditional trust in each other.
A brief respite from our chaotic world, Love & Saffron is a gem of a novel, a reminder that food and friendship are the antidote to most any heartache, and that human connection will always be worth creating.

My Review:

It’s 1962 and the world is about to change. Neither Joan Bergstrom in LA nor Imogen Fortier on Camano Island (in Puget Sound outside Seattle) have any foreknowledge of what the 60s are going to bring, either to the country or to themselves.

They are both writers, and their correspondence begins when 27-year-old Joan writes a fan letter to 59-year-old Imogen about Imogen’s monthly column in a Seattle-based lifestyle magazine, Northwest Home & Life. Imogen is kind of who and what Joan wants to be when she grows up. Joan is Imogen’s chance to help, befriend, advise and share her soul with a woman living on the cusp of change.

They tell their stories to each other in letters over the next four years as the country grieves through the assassination of JFK and watches the Civil Rights Movement come to life. They mourn together, they hope together, and most importantly for their friendship, they explore the cuisines of the world together even though they’re usually eating more than 1,000 miles apart.

But they begin their friendship, their correspondence, and that delicious sharing with Joan’s first letter. It includes both a recipe and a few, precious strands of saffron to make the flavors come to life. And they do.

Joan is the explorer while Immy supports her and cheers her on. Joan starts out wanting to explore the cuisines of her native Los Angeles, and ends up finding the love of her life. Immy shares Joan’s discoveries, her recipes and her saffron, and discovers whole new facets of her husband of over 40 years. Both of their worlds expand because of their friendship with each other.

It all makes for a beautiful story, a sharing of hearts, minds and perspectives. With an ending that will make even the hardest of hearts shed a tear that it doesn’t last forever.

Escape Rating A: This is a bit more Charing Cross Road than Meet Me at the Museum, but it is every bit as marvelous as they are. It’s just that the ending has the bittersweetness of the former more than the hope of the latter. Not that both of those things aren’t part of its story.

I did figure out how this was going to end long before I got there but it honestly didn’t matter. This is one of those stories that are about the journey and not the destination.

More than anything else, what I read was that this journey was all about opening. Joan and Immy begin their journey far apart, in geography, in age, in circumstance. While those gaps aren’t bridged, they cease to matter. Because what they open up to each other are both their minds and their hearts.

They laugh together, they cry together, they share their triumphs, their tragedies, and their innermost thoughts. They inspire and encourage each other to leap and believe that the net will appear – even if the other has to provide that net. It’s impossible not to envy the depth of their friendship.

This is also not a book to read if you’re already hungry. From the very first letter, they share recipes, occasionally actual food and condiments, and encourage each other to explore new tastes and new cuisines at a time when the height of suburban culinary achievement was a fancy jello mold. They encourage each other to live a bigger life than they have been.

Love & Saffron is a very quick read with a lot of heart that kind of sidles up to the issues that were fomenting during the mid-1960s. We’re led into Joan and Immy’s sometimes sideways discussion of the Civil Rights Movement, racial prejudice and women’s rights through the perspectives of two intelligent women who are in the midst of having their eyes opened and their consciousness raised and figuring out where they are going to stand. It was easy to feel with them and for them and this is just a story that I’m very glad I read.

Review: Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

Review: Road of Bones by Christopher GoldenRoad of Bones by Christopher Golden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Pages: 240
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin's gulag.
Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.
Felix Teigland, or "Teig," is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he's stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.
A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

My Review:

The “Road of Bones” really does exist, and it really does go through some of the coldest places on Earth. And there really are bones buried under the road – the remains of the slave laborers and political prisoners who were forced to work on the road and in the mines and other extractive industries that it traveled between.

The history of this road is filled with tragedy. Whether it also harbors spirits like the ones that haunt this story – it probably depends on what you believe about ghosts, myths, legends and the supernatural.

With the knowledge that whether or not you believe in them, they still might believe in you. Or at least, might believe in killing you.

Or, more to the point that begins this story, there are plenty of people around the world who want to believe – or at least want to be titillated by the supernatural. And there are even more people who want to watch intrepid explorers venture into dangerous occupations and places from the comfort of their own cozy living rooms.

Felix Teigland produces just those kinds of “reality” TV shows – and he needs a hit to keep his company from going under. He’s decided that a TV series following the travels of a couple of intrepid explorers along the haunted and ice-bound “Road of Bones” has the potential of combining the deadly driving conditions of Ice Road Truckers with the spooky chills of Ghost Hunters into a megahit.

And Teig is all about selling the potential of things. He’s good at it – even if he’s not always good at bringing his ideas fully to profitable fruition. He always means well and he always plans to pay back all the people who believe in him.

Which is what brings his cameraman Jack Prentiss along on this journey. Jack says he’s just protecting his investment – meaning he’s watching out for Teig in the interests of getting back all the money he’s lent the man over the years.

But they are also pretty much each other’s only friend – so who else would either of them take on what will be, at best, a five day trek through a frozen hellscape that will kill them if anything happens to their vehicle or themselves.

They hoped for a great story. They expected long, dark nights and killing cold. What they found was the embodiment of the dark heart of the frozen land following behind them and picking them off – one by one in a reign of blood and terror.

And a saint blessing the dead but who had no power to save the living.

Escape Rating A-: I was willing to take this chilling drive into horror because of the author. Christopher Golden, along with Tim Lebbon, wrote one of the most haunting post-Katrina New Orleans stories to ever ride that slippery line between fantasy, history, myth and horror in The Map of Moments. I loved that book. So every once in a while I dip back into something else by either of its authors in the hopes of hitting that ‘just right’ level of chill.

Road of Bones hit that spot in a different way than I expected, but very definitely hit it. At first it reminded me of the more chilling Alaska stories that I’ve read. Fairbanks doesn’t get quite as cold as the place that Teig and Prentiss travel through, but it gets entirely too damn close – with even longer nights.

But the real chill in Road of Bones is what Teig and Prentiss experience as the darkest parts of the history of the place come to life all around them – with deadly consequences. An ancient myth, a battle between good and evil, rises up and gathers them into its grip. A myth that does not seem to care about humanity at all.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anne Bishop’s World of the Others, in that primal forces much vaster and wilder than anything humans could ever imagine are what is really in control of this world and everything in it.

All the spirits know on this Road of Bones is that something has awoken a malevolent spirit and it is their sacred duty to imprison it again – no matter who or what stands in their way. Because they are off and running.

At first, those ancient spirits of the land seem evil – at least from the perspective of the humans attempting to outrun them. All that the Teig and Prentiss initially understand is that the spirits are transforming every person they find into either a shadowy wolf or a reindeer with a rack of deadly antlers and relentlessly hunting them down.

It’s only at the end when they have a glimmer of understanding. And when it finally comes, it chills the reader to the bone.

This still isn’t my usual cup of reading tea – although I certainly needed a hot cup of something as I read it. I like to sidle up to horror rather than approaching it head on, and between the Alaska vibes, the history and the dark fantasy-type myths coming to life I was just about able to get there. I still wouldn’t want to read it alone or in a dark room – or too late at night. But I would recommend it to anyone who likes to get their chills from stories where something supernatural is very definitely out to get us.