#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik Larson

#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik LarsonNo One Goes Alone by Erik Larson
Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, suspense
Length: 7 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Random House Audio Publishing Group on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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From New York Times best-selling author Erik Larson comes his first venture into fiction, an otherworldly tale of intrigue and the impossible that marshals his trademark approach to nonfiction to create something new: a ghost story thoroughly grounded in history.
Pioneering psychologist William James leads an expedition to a remote isle in search of answers after a family inexplicably vanishes. Was the cause rooted in the physical world...or were there forces more paranormal and sinister at work? Available only on audio, because as Larson says, ghost stories are best told aloud.
A group of researchers sets sail for the Isle of Dorn in the North Atlantic in 1905 to explore the cause of several mysterious disappearances, most notably a family of four who vanished without a trace after a week-long holiday on the island. Led by Professor James, a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research, they begin to explore the island’s sole cottage and surrounding landscape in search of a logical explanation.
The idyllic setting belies an undercurrent of danger and treachery, with raging storms and unnerving discoveries adding to the sense of menace. As increasingly unexplainable events unfold, the now-stranded investigators are unsure whether they can trust their own eyes, their instincts, one another - or even themselves.
Erik Larson has written a terrifying tale of suspense, underpinned with actual people and events. Created specifically to entertain audio listeners, this eerie blend of the ghostly and the real will keep listeners captivated till the blood-chilling end.
Featuring Erik Larson reading his Notes for a Narrator.

My Review:

This is a ghost story. Actually, it’s not, because there’s no ghost. No one has ever reported seeing an actual ghost on spooky, creepy, isolated Dorn Island. Oodles of disappearances and other strange phenomena have been recorded, but there has been a singular lack of actual ghosties in a place that even the Society for Psychical Research has flagged as being haunted.

Maybe it’s the humans who occasionally visit who bring the hauntings with them. After all, they certainly bring enough emotional baggage along to conceal any number of ghosts.

That learned society, however, isn’t interested in mere speculation – although they certainly have plenty of that documented in their archives. The Society is looking for proof, for scientific evidence obtained by scientific methods, that will either prove beyond most shadows of doubt that psychic phenomena – including ghosts – are real, or that they are unequivocally not.

A party of researchers, led by pioneering psychologist William James, embarked for the tiny Island of Dorn off the coast of England in 1905. The reader, or in this case listener, follows along in their wake through the eyes of Julian Frost, an up-and-coming engineer in the British Post Office for his expertise with the new wireless telegraphy pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi. The party and the Society entertain some hopes that the sensitive apparatus that pulls telegraph signals from thin air might also manage to record psychic emanations the same way.

As we listen to Frost reading his diary long after the events chronicled within have come to their eerie, deadly, fever dream of a conclusion, we’re right there with this eccentric and increasingly fractious group of confirmed skeptics, reluctant believers, and as it turns out, unwitting experimental subjects and eventual signers of the Official Secrets Act regarding the tale that Frost is telling us much, much later – even though he knows he shouldn’t be revealing anything at all.

Whether this story tells a truth still behind lock and key, or is merely the fevered imaginings of a young man thwarted in love by not one but two beautiful women while the rest of the company looks on and laughs at his frequent humiliation is a question that will haunt the reader long after Frost’s furtive account has come to its surprising end.

Escape Rating B: I need to get this part out of the way because it’s the thing that drove me utterly BANANAS while I was listening to this story. No One Goes Alone was an audio original when it was published three years ago, because the author believes that ghost stories are best when told rather than read. YMMV may vary on that.

Howsomever, it’s been three years. I confess that I fully expected that at some point in those intervening years a text would have been published. My expectation was in error. There is no text. Still. Hence the bananas.

When I began the story, I was sucked right in and couldn’t wait to find out not just whodunnit but how and why it was done. The dramatic tension began on a very low simmer but kept building bit by bit as the water got hotter – so to speak – and an entire, literal rain of frogs started to overheat.

BUUUUT, there’s no text. So I couldn’t just read it quickly – it’s not that long even in audio – and I absolutely could not thumb to the end to get my curiosity assuaged. I got VERY frustrated with the whole thing but I HAD to know. (Now that I do know, I know that if I had flipped to the end it wouldn’t have made sense – but even that would have been informative in its way.)

Which doesn’t mean that I had to enjoy every scrap of that journey towards that knowing.

The story of No One Goes Alone is a very slow-building story, both because of the ponderousness of the early 20th century manners of polite speech and because it’s a story mostly told rather than shown, possibly because of the nature of the way it is told, through the reading of a diary rather than as it is happening before the diary writer’s eyes.

Also, while the narrator did a good job mimicking those slow speech patterns and differentiating between the members of this mixed party, American and British, male and female, young and middle-aged, the narration itself was a bit ponderous. To the point where, even though I normally listen to audiobooks specifically FOR the voice acting, this was a rare audiobook that worked better at 1.1x speed.

At first, the story had a bit of the flavor of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even though the cast of characters didn’t have anything like the right mix of seething resentments and hatreds to make that plot work without an outside force.

When the penny finally dropped, I realized what this story reminded me of very much was the Ishmael Jones series by Simon R. Green – hence yesterday’s review. Obviously not in the tone of the characters, as Green’s snark would not have played well or fit AT ALL coming from Julian Frost’s pen, but rather in the way that the story worked and the way that the ending came out of a deep left field that subverts the haunted house genre, pulls in elements that are totally unexpected, and does its damndest to make the story part of something bigger, more horrific and considerably more complicated all the way around.

In the Ishmael Jones series, that sharp turn into the even weirder works because the premise of the entire series comes out of that weird – that Jones is an alien masquerading as human and therefore has some superhuman talents and outside of the box enemies.

In No One Goes Alone, this claustrophobic haunted house story is connected instead to a greater, but more amorphous and less defined evil in a way that I’m not sure worked – at least not for this reader – leaving the conclusion to the story plenty chilling but not nearly as cathartic or as much of a resolution as I expected.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

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
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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: The Black Hand by Will Thomas + #Giveaway

A+ #BookReview: The Black Hand by Will Thomas + #GiveawayThe Black Hand (Barker & Llewelyn, #5) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #5
Pages: 289
Published by Touchstone on July 1, 2008
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When an Italian assassin's body is found floating in a barrel in Victorian London's East End, enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn are called in to investigate. Soon corpses begin to appear all over London, each accompanied by a Mafia Black Hand note. As Barker and Llewelyn dig deeper, they become entangled in the vendettas of rival Italian syndicates -- and it is no longer clear who is a friend or foe.

My Review:

So far, at least, the Barker & Llewelyn series is a bit like a caper movie. Not that Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn are committing capers – their job is to either thwart or investigate such goings-on. Instead, just like a good caper movie, the story opens at a climactic moment and then rewinds to the beginning of the story we’ve just been dropped into the middle of so we can see how things came to such a desperate pass.

As those climactic moments are generally life-threatening, and specifically threatening to the life of Thomas Llewelyn, it’s a good thing that we go into that pulse-pounding scene knowing that Llewelyn must have survived. After all, part of his job as private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker’s assistant is to chronicle Barker’s cases – and dead men tell no tales.

The tale that Llewelyn has to tell this time around is the story of a brewing turf war among London’s criminal underbelly. There’s a new player in the old game of gangs and turf and money, but a new player under a very old and familiar name – the Sicilian Mafia.

Muscling for territory in wide-open London with their signature stilettos against native gangs and older immigrant groups who rely on fists, brickbats and other coshes to get their dirty work done, the incomers cut a wide swath, literally, through the forces scrambling to array against them.

Including both Scotland Yard and the Home Office, which is where Barker and Llewelyn get dragooned into the fight. A fight that Barker most certainly did not start, but is utterly determined to finish – no matter how many favors he has to call in, how many compromises he has to make, or how many of his own hostages to fortune he has to put in harm’s way.

Escape Rating A+: There are three – well, at least three – things going on in this book, and every single one of them just adds to the reader’s compulsion to keep turning the pages, starting from that chilling, riveting opening.

The first thing, of course, is the case itself. The Mafia – or at least one arm or finger of that organization – is doing its damndest to carve out a toehold for itself in London – by carving up as many as possible until they get their way.

Barker’s remit – to be handled however he sees fit – is to make London so hot for the Sicilian gangs that they go back to Sicily, before their brand of bloody assassination becomes the norm in London.

But just because Barker has carte blanche from the Home Office, that doesn’t mean they’ll provide him with anything else, and certainly not any of their own forces. They don’t even want Scotland Yard involved but have left Barker to do things as he sees best. After all, they can always blame him for whatever goes wrong after the fact.

He sees best to call in a whole lot of favors, which means that the reader, through Thomas Llewelyn’s eyes and pen, gets to learn a whole lot more about who Barker really is under the persona he has created for himself, where he comes from, and who and what he holds dear. As well as how many rules, regulations, laws and ethics he is willing to bend if not outright break to see this thing through.

Those revelations rock Llewelyn to his foundations but don’t change his mind one single bit about following the man he refers to as ‘the Guv’ anywhere he leads – even into the jaws of hell.

So, there’s the case. Then there’s the deeper dive into Barker’s secrets – a set of revelations that should continue as the series progresses.

Last but not least there’s the resonance to the now in this story that is very much steeped in the ‘then’. Because while the case may be about the Mafia, what’s behind their advent into London is a debate about immigration and immigrants and just how easy or difficult it should be and just how much enforcement is necessary and which way and upon whom the economic impacts have and will fall.

And doesn’t all of that sound bloody familiar?

I’m here for all of the above, but even if just one part of that appeals to you, the fully realized historical setting, the whodunnit, the network of ‘Irregulars’ that Barker and Llewelyn are developing, Llewelyn’s continued training, OR the way that the past links to the present, this series is utterly fan-damn-tastic every single step of the way.

The deeper I read into this series, the better it gets. Each book in the series has been tight, taut, thrilling and compelling, all at the same marvelous time. They’ve just been awesome so far, and I can’t recommend the whole thing highly enough – although I plan to keep trying. I also, of course, plan to keep reading, and suspect that it won’t be long before I pick up the next book in the series, Fatal Enquiry.

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

Because I’ve enjoyed this series so much so far, it was an obvious choice for one of this week’s Blogo-Birthday giveaways – especially as the latest book in the series, Death and Glory, is coming out later this month!

Drumroll please! On this third day of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, today’s giveaway is the winner’s choice of ANY book in the Barker & Llewelyn series in any format, up to $25 (US) which should be enough to get even Death and Glory if you’re already caught up!

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

#BookReview: A Cast of Falcons by Sarah Yarwood-Lovett

#BookReview: A Cast of Falcons by Sarah Yarwood-LovettA Cast of Falcons by Sarah Yarwood-Lovett
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Dr Nell Ward #2
Pages: 380
Published by Embla Books on October 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
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When the wedding of her oldest friend ends with a shocking murder, Dr Nell Ward is once again caught up in a web of subterfuge, secrets and lies...
When her childhood friend Percy announces she's engaged to handsome businessman Hawke McAnstruther, Dr Nell Ward rashly offers to host the wedding at Finchmere, her family's estate. But she hadn't anticipated Percy's parents' fiery disapproval of the groom.
The ceremony is barely over before Hawke's shady personal and professional life starts to unravel, and tension ripples through the assembled guests. When the wedding night ends with a shocking death, Nell, best-friend, Rav and DI James Clarke all find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery worthy of Agatha Christie.
Surviving a terrifying threat to her own life, Nell has to face up to the truth. Not just about murder at Finchmere, but about where her heart truly lies...

My Review:

It really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for whoever did the world a favor by bashing Hawke McAnstruther over the head before he could do any further damage to Nell Ward’s best friend Percy and her family.

Which is also, come to think of it, Nell Ward’s family – just at a bit of extension.

It IS too bad, however, that whoever eliminated Hawke from the gene pool before he could contaminate it further, the arsehole (they’re all Brits, only arsehole will do) did the deed at Nell’s family estate, Finchmere, just hours after the conclusion – the epically awful conclusion at that – of Percy’s wedding to the bastard.

Luckily for Percy, she wised up to her new husband’s evil ways in those few scant hours between the ceremony and his spectacular fall from grace onto the floor two or three stories below. So it’s good riddance to bad rubbish – and at that point it might really have been a drunken accident.

The wealth, influence and titles of both Percy’s AND Nell’s family are more than enough to ensure that the official verdict reads exactly that.

The only person who will really miss Hawke is his mother Linda. But not for long, as sometime in the wee hours of the morning someone savagely slit her throat and impaled the murder weapon in her chest to make sure that the job’s been done.

HIS death COULD have been an accident. HER death absolutely could not be accidental, nor is there any scenario where it could have been self-inflicted. Even the police are able to draw the obvious conclusion that there is at least one murderer on the premises – and possibly two.

There are plenty of suspects for Hawke’s murder, as the man was a charming, conniving slimeball who left a trail of ruined companies and broken people in his wake – and clearly planned to do the same to Percy, her family, and her family’s properties.

Motives and suspects abound for HIS murder, but for HERS, not so much. Leaving the police flailing, caught between compromised crime scenes, endless possibilities for sneaking around the stately pile without being seen, and more motives than they can shake a truncheon at.

But Nell Ward, as demonstrated in her first, and all-too-personal, investigation in A Murder of Crows, just can’t keep her nose out of the investigation. She might not be in the frame this time around, but her best friend and her extended family certainly are.

Even if that puts her on the opposite side of the investigation from her current boyfriend, Detective Inspector James Clark, and pushes her straight into the arms of her work partner and best friend Rav.

Exactly the place that Rav has always wanted her to be.

Escape Rating B+: The latest book in this series, A Trace of Hares, is coming out today. I’m reading this series from the beginning, so I’m not there yet, but I wanted to mark the day so here we are. I’m enjoying this series because I really like the protagonist, Nell Ward, and her geeky love of bats and owls as well as her personal and professional advocacy for ecology in general. Although, at least so far, she does seem to have a bit of Midsomer-itis.

Admittedly, from where I’m reading, the series is only two books in and so far she’s been intimately involved with both murders. And based on the blurb for the next book, A Mischief of Rats, that streak of unbelievably bad luck is not running out any time soon. Which it really needs to, as no one’s luck is this bad.

But that’s more of an overall issue that will hopefully resolve itself later down the series. This particular entry in the series, however, was a whole lot of murder-y fun, in spite of the personal consequences for Nell. It’s pretty easy to be a bit gleeful in this one, as the first murder victim was an arsehole, the second murder victim, the arsehole’s mother, proved that his apple didn’t fall all that far from the tree, and frankly the eventual third victim wasn’t all that great an excuse for a human being either even if he was a member of Nell’s extended family.

The family of the suspects may not have been nearly as despicable as the Thrombeys in Knives Out, but comparisons could certainly be drawn.

In the first book, Nell displayed the geeky professional persona of Dr. Nell Ward, while keeping her aristocratic background – among other secrets – hidden for as long as she could. It wasn’t until the local police went so far as to actually arrest her for murder with only vague suspicions and circumstantial evidence that her alter ego of Lady Eleanor Ward-Beaumont, niece to the Duke of Aveshire, daughter of the Earl of Finchmere and his wife, Imelda Beaumont MP, and heir to Finchmere came out – along with her family’s expensive and effective legal counsel.

Not that any of the above stopped Nell from investigating her way out of a rather well-placed frame and clearing her own name. Both of them.

This time around it’s Nell’s ‘lady of the manor’ persona that’s on display – although Nell the ecologist peeks out frequently and eventually manages to solve this murder as well – to the consternation of the police. Again.

I found Nell to be a likable amateur investigator, and certainly felt for her inability to keep herself out of the investigation. After her previous experience, I wouldn’t have trusted the police either – which makes her decision to date the man who investigated her the first time around a bit questionable. While the ‘torn between two (potential) lovers’ dilemma that Nell is in the midst of isn’t my favorite, it was certainly an interesting twist on the theme to experience it more from one of those two lovers’ points of view instead of Nell’s. I’m hoping that she sticks to the choice she made in future books in the series, but we’ll see.

I’m certainly planning to see that for myself as I continue my reading of this series. I’ll be picking up A Mischief of Rats the next time I’m in the mood for a cozy-ish, Midsomer Murders-type mystery. I may not have caught up with the series in time to read and review A Trace of Hares on its publication date, but I have a chance of being ready for the following book, A Swarm of Butterflies, by the time it comes out in August!

A+ #BookReview: The Hellfire Conspiracy by Will Thomas

A+ #BookReview: The Hellfire Conspiracy by Will ThomasThe Hellfire Conspiracy (Barker & Llewelyn, #4) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #4
Pages: 338
Published by Touchstone on July 10, 2007
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In the latest adventure in what is "fast becoming one of the genre's best historical-mystery series" (Booklist), roughhewn private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn must track down London's first serial killer.
When Barker and Llewelyn are hired to find a girl from the upper classes who has gone missing in the East End, they assume her kidnapping is the work of white slavers. But when they discover five girls have been murdered in Bethnal Green, taunting letters begin to arrive in Craig's Court from a killer calling himself Mr. Miacca.
Barker fears that Miacca might be part of the Hellfire Club, a group of powerful, hedonistic aristocrats performing Satanic rituals. He must track the fiend to his hideout, while Llewelyn confronts the man who put him in prison.
Dodging muckrakers, navigating the murky Thames under cover of darkness, and infiltrating London's most powerful secret society, The Hellfire Conspiracy is another wild ride that "brings to life a London roiling with secret leagues, deadly organizations, and hidden clubs" (Ron Bernas, Detroit Free Press).

My Review:

This fourth entry in the marvelously absorbing Barker & Llewelyn historical mystery (after The Limehouse Text) will grab the reader by the throat and not let go until the end – even as one’s gorge rises more than a bit at the nature of the crimes committed.

A young girl has been kidnapped in Bethnal Green, a down-at-heels neighborhood that seems to be on the cusp between gentrifying and falling straight down into hell alongside its infamous neighbor, Whitechapel.

But the girl is not a resident of the area, she’s just a bored little visitor forced to tag along with her do-gooding mother as she volunteers at one of the many charitable institutions in the area. If Gwendolyn DeVere had been a local girl, it’s sad to say that no one would have cared and the police would have paid no attention whatsoever. Girls and women come to bad ends in Bethnal Green every single day.

Middle and upper class children are an entirely different matter. The police ARE interested in the disappearance of the child of one of the Queen’s elite Life Guards. Howsomever, as Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn do their best to bring the girl’s abductor to justice, it seems as if the police are not merely one step ahead of them, but actively hindering their investigation.

Whether because they resent Barker working on their patch, whether it’s merely inter-agency warfare between Scotland Yard and the Thames River Police or even if they are protecting a potentially guilty party out of respect or loyalty is just one of many things that stick in Barker’s craw.

The case, as heinous as it is, looks to be the work of a serial killer. But Barker’s investigation turns up an even more disgusting angle – albeit one not quite as gruesome. Because the death of one well-to-do child has kicked off a hornet’s nest in the middle of the internecine war between privilege and reform.

The reformers want to raise the age of legal consent to 16, because too many young girls are forced in prostitution at much too early an age. The nobility want to retain their privilege to ‘buy’ 13 year old girls and ‘keep’ them until the girls are no longer young and fresh faced, and then have the right to get another – and another.

And it’s a privilege that some of them, at least, are willing to kill for. Including Llewelyn’s old nemesis.

More than one reckoning is due, and Barker and Llewelyn intend to deliver. Whatever it might cost them.

Escape Rating A+: I just wasn’t getting into the book I planned to read, I flailed, I bailed, and found myself back in Victorian England with Barker & Llewelyn, and fell right into The Hellfire Conspiracy.

Which, now that I think about it, is a bit of a pun of a title – although not a funny one. The original club operated about a century before this one, but it’s all in the family. Literally, as the most infamous earlier incarnation was organized by the current reprobate’s grandfather, took place in the same location, and was just as disgusting as this one. And there certainly is a conspiracy of silence regarding their membership and the depraved practices those members engage in, but it’s not the actual conspiracy at the heart of the actual crime spree. Although in a way, it sorta/kinda is.

That the Hellfire Club in either version is not the actual murderer is a bit of a surprise twist, because they are utterly disgusting, and so are their aims and practices. Yet they are able to operate pretty much in plain sight because of their immense privilege.

Part of what makes this series so fascinating is that it takes place at around the same time as the Sherlock Holmes stories, but it operates in an entirely different sphere. Barker and Llewelyn are both middle-class at best, are able to blend in with ‘the quality’ when necessary, but their hearts and their sensibilities are with people of their own class and further down the economic scale.

What made this particular case so absorbing was that it happens at the intersection of so many things, both historical and fictional.

Fictionally, we get a bit more information about both Barker’s and Llewelyn’s still obscure pasts, which is being revealed in tiny bites in each book. HIstorically the political infighting between the Reform Movement and the aristocracy, along with the somewhat exaggerated but real fears of so-called ‘White Slavery’ made the reform cause that much more urgent even as the nobility dug in their heels and the muckraking newspapers of the day breathlessly reported on both sides adds even more hair-raising facets to a case that was already sensational.

But it’s the characters of Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn themselves that keep the reader turning pages. Especially in a case like this one, where they go in knowing that the odds of a happy ending are very much against them, but determined to bring as much justice as can be had to all the victims of this atrocity; the living and the dead.

This series has turned out to be THE BEST comfort/go to series, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the dark and terrible places that they have to go to in order to find some measure of justice. Even though, very much like in the Sebastian St. Cyr series, that measure is seldom as full as one would like it to be because some of the perpetrators are above the investigator’s touch.

But that means I will certainly be back for the next book in this series, The Black Hand, the next time I flail, need to bail, and have to find a compelling story to take refuge in.

#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.

#AudioBookReview: A Midnight Puzzle by Gigi Pandian

#AudioBookReview: A Midnight Puzzle by Gigi PandianA Midnight Puzzle (Secret Staircase Mystery, #3) by Gigi Pandian
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase Mystery #3
Pages: 342
Length: 10 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Minotaur Books on March 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In heroine Tempest Raj, modern-day queen of the locked room mystery Gigi Pandian has created a brilliant homage to the greats of classic detective fiction. Secret Staircase Construction is under attack, and Tempest Raj feels helpless. After former client Julian Rhodes tried to kill his wife, he blamed her "accident" on the home renovation company’s craftsmanship. Now the family business—known for bringing magic into homes through hidden doors, floating staircases, and architectural puzzle walls—is at a breaking point. No amount of Scottish and Indian meals from her grandfather can distract Tempest from the truth: they’re being framed.
When Tempest receives an urgent midnight phone call from Julian, she decides to meet him at the historic Whispering Creek Theater—only to find his dead body, a sword through his chest. After a blade appears from thin air to claim another victim, Tempest is certain they’re dealing with a booby trap… something Secret Staircase Construction could easily build. Tempest refuses to wait for the investigation to turn to her or her loved ones. She knows the pieces of the puzzle are right in front of her, she just has to put them together correctly before more disaster strikes.
Multiple award-winning author Gigi Pandian and her heroine Tempest Raj return in A Midnight Puzzle, where an old theater reveals a deadly booby trap, secrets, and one puzzle of a mystery.

My Review:

A Midnight Puzzle is all about the Raj Family Curse – and the sin of hubris that allows it to last so long and makes it so damn difficult to put to rest.

After her adventures – and misadventures – in the first two books in the Secret Staircase Mystery series, Under Lock and Skeleton Key and The Raven Thief, stage illusionist turned construction illusionist Tempest Raj believes that she is on the verge of solving the mystery that has cast a shadow over her family and her life for the past decade – if not considerably longer.

Long, long ago, the Raj family were illusionists and court magicians in their native India. Way back then, it was believed that a curse had been laid on the family – or the family business. It was said that the Raj family’s firstborn child in each generation would “die by magic”. Of course, over the centuries, it did happen sometimes. Just enough to keep the curse – or the belief in it – going for another century or so.

Tempest’s beloved grandfather Ash is the second child of his generation, because his older brother died “by magic”. Ash left India for Scotland and its renowned medical colleges, married a local artist and never looked back. Or at least tried very hard not to.

But the magic skipped a generation as well as a continent. Ash’s daughters, Elspeth and Emma, became stage illusionists as “The Selkie Sisters” until an accident and an argument broke their trust in each other. Working alone, Elspeth, the older of the two, did indeed “die by magic”, keeping the talk of the curse alive for another generation.

However, Emma died by magic as well – or at least disappeared in the middle of her own magic show, on the boards – or at least in the wings – of their hometown’s Whispering Creek Theater ten years ago.

Tempest has rented the haunted and haunting little theater in order to stage one final performance, a one night “Farewell” to her own ill-starred career as a stage illusionist. Of course, being in temporary possession of the place her mother vanished, Tempest is also determined to comb the theater for clues.

At least until disaster strikes – from without and from within. But in solving the current mystery, Tempest may have the opportunity she needs to lay that old mystery to rest. If her family’s construction company, Secret Staircase Construction, can survive just one more public disaster.

And if Tempest and her ‘Scooby gang’ can manage to unmask a killer before their curse sweeps Tempest AND her friends into yet another example of the Raj Family curse.

Escape Rating B: I have to admit that I went into this third entry in the series with a bit of trepidation after the muddle of The Raven Thief. Particularly as A Midnight Puzzle opened with Tempest, her family and the construction company being in the midst of what seemed like rather pointedly aimed chaos on all fronts – only because it was.

(I started this one in audio, as I figured it would get me over the hump of those trepidations. And it did. I switched to text once it got going because there were so many potential clues and delicious red herrings that I needed to find out who actually ‘dunnit’ FASTER.)

But at the beginning I was still a bit stuck in thinking this series was inflicted with Cabot Cove Syndrome, or perhaps Midsommer-itis. By which I mean that all of the mysteries so far have been a bit too intimate and her family and their business have been much too personally involved – not as the investigators, or even as the direct victims – but as the suspects.

No one’s luck is THAT bad. Unless, of course, they really are cursed.

Which means that I was very pleased to see the mystery of the Raj Family Curse – at least in its modern iteration – laid to rest at the end of A Midnight Puzzle, along with a promise of more mysteries but somewhat less personal ones in future entries in the series.

But first, there’s the mystery in THIS outing. Or rather, the two mysteries that are both squarely aimed at the Raj Family.

What makes this story work better than The Raven Thief is that the story keeps its eyes – and Tempest’s – on the prize of solving the mystery of her mother’s disappearance – no matter how many distractions and misdirections get thrown in Tempest’s way.

And no matter how much the police seem to be bungling their investigation into the deadliest of those distractions.

As much and as often as Tempest is tempted (and so is the reader!) to hare off after the many distractions and misdirections, in the end A Midnight Puzzle is a very satisfying wrap up to what looks to be the opening setup trilogy for this series. And the way that the whole thing was strung out over three books feels like it was the right length after all, because this mystery has been decades in the making, so it’s only fitting that it take a year or more to wrap up in a way that leads back around to a beginning that Tempest barely knew about, as well as a reminder that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

But Tempest is not the one who falls, even though the resulting thud breaks her heart, and it clears the way for new, and hopefully less personal mysteries and adventures. I’m looking forward to see what Tempest stirs up next.

#BookReview: Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis

#BookReview: Floating Hotel by Grace CurtisFloating Hotel by Grace Curtis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, science fiction mystery, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by DAW on March 19, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

This cozy debut science fiction novel tells a story of misfits, rebels, found family—and a mystery that spans the stars
Welcome to the Grand Abeona home of the finest food, the sweetest service, and the very best views the galaxy has to offer. All year round it moves from planet to planet, system to system, pampering guests across the furthest reaches of the milky way. The last word in sub-orbital luxury—and an absolute magnet for intrigue. Intrigues such Why are there love poems in the lobby inbox? How many Imperial spies are currently on board? What is the true purpose of the Problem Solver’s conference? And perhaps most pertinently— who is driving the ship?
Each guest has a secret, every member of staff a universe unto themselves. At the center of these interweaving lives and interlocking mysteries stands Carl, one time stowaway, longtime manager, devoted caretaker to the hotel. It’s the love of his life and the only place he’s ever called home. But as forces beyond Carl’s comprehension converge on the Abeona, he has to face one final when is it time to let go?

My Review:

The Grand Abeona, the ‘floating hotel’ of the title, isn’t quite as grand as it used to be. Both as a place and as a story, It also isn’t quite as cozy as the blurb leads the reader to believe. Which does, however, make it much more interesting as a story.

It’s more layered than cozy, rather like an onion. Complete with tears.

Traveling through Imperial-controlled space, the Grand Abeona serves the function that once upon a time the circus used to fill in small town America. It’s a place that blows into town – or above town, as the case might be – livens up an otherwise humdrum life for a few hours or days, and then leaves, taking its crew of roadies and roustabouts along with it.

Along with, occasionally, a local or two who can’t resist the bright lights or can’t bear or afford to stay where they’ve always been for another minute, now that they’ve seen a way out.

So, the story of Floating Hotel begins with young Carl, who doesn’t so much stow himself away as he does slouch around in plain sight hoping for a chance to work his way aboard the most beautiful place he’s ever seen and away from his home planet. A place that is literally eating itself from the inside out as its people mine its resources to their own and its destruction under the orders of the rapacious empire.

Because they have no choice. It’s mine now and die later, or stop now and die now. It’s happened all over the empire and it’s happening right now on Hoxxes. But not to Carl, because he’s found a way out.

Middle-aged Carl is now the manager of the Grand Abeona, and that later he staved off all those years ago by leaving with the floating hotel is now coming for him and everyone aboard the place he’s come to call home. The place that he has let consume him, one day and one task at a time.

So welcome aboard the last voyage of the Grand Abeona. Be sure to take your heart and all your belongings with you on your way out.

Escape Rating B: This isn’t nearly as cozy as I was expecting from both the blurb AND the opening Prologue. That introduction makes it seem like its going to be Carl’s story about rising through the ranks of the hotel and that it will follow him along the way.

It isn’t and it doesn’t. While Carl opens the story – and also closes it – we absolutely don’t follow his rise through the ranks. He’s already there when the real story begins. We also don’t follow Carl, although he’s clearly the center around which the hotel revolves – even if no one quite sees him that way.

Instead, the story skips around through the crew and the regular guests, focusing on one after another as the saga of the ship’s last voyage gets told. That kaleidoscope of perspectives keeps the reader from getting invested in any one of the characters, but does show all of the facets of the hotel as it is – and pokes its way around the edges of the many, many secrets that are being kept aboard her.

One ginormous, galaxy-spanning secret most of all.

On the one hand, we have the ship and its denizens, each telling their individual bit of the story. And on the other, we have the ship and its denizens, each revealing a bit of their own secrets, as well as a soupçon of the BIG secret, while painting an excruciatingly unflattering portrait of the Empire they have escaped by becoming part of the ship’s company.

Initially believing that this was going to be cozier, The Floating Hotel gave me vibes of several recent SF stories that featured, or began with, entertainment venues in the space lanes, even if they branched out later into either mystery or space opera. I’m particularly thinking of The Spare Man, You Sexy Thing, and Veronica Scott’s Star Cruise series.

In the end, the SF book I was most reminded of is Khan Wong’s awesome The Circus Infinite, although I have to say that The Floating Hotel isn’t quite as awesome because The Circus Infinite was just a WOW of a book from beginning to end. (Therefore, saying it’s not quite as awesome as such an absolutely fantastic book means it was still pretty damn good.)

But it’s in that correlation between the circus and the cruise ship that gives the two a bit of the same resonance, as both stories begin with a character who desperately needs the kind of escape that constant traveling among the stars can provide, and finds themselves in a world that is filled with more secrets than just their own. Secrets that they will have to go to extreme lengths to keep.

So if you liked any of the above mentioned books, or if you have fond memories of either the very old book Hotel by Arthur Hailey, or the slightly less old TV series based on it, The Floating Hotel will both tickle that memory AND tell a fascinating story about the lengths that can be taken in running away and the crimes that can be committed in forcing someone back to the place they’re supposed to belong.

A- #BookReview: Murder at the Merton Library by Andrea Penrose

A- #BookReview: Murder at the Merton Library by Andrea PenroseMurder at the Merton Library (Wrexford & Sloane, #7) by Andrea Penrose
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, regency mystery
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #7
Pages: 361
Published by Kensington Books on September 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Responding to an urgent plea from a troubled family friend, the Earl of Wrexford journeys to Oxford only to find the reclusive university librarian has been murdered and a rare manuscript has gone missing. The only clue is that someone overheard an argument in which Wrexford’s name was mentioned. At the same time, Charlotte—working under her pen name, A. J. Quill—must determine whether a laboratory fire was arson and if it’s connected to the race between competing consortiums to build a new type of ship—one that can cross the ocean powered by steam rather than sails—with the potential to revolutionize military power and world commerce. That the race involves new innovations in finance and entrepreneurship only adds to the high stakes—especially as their good friend Kit Sheffield may be an investor in one of the competitors. As they delve deeper into the baffling clues, Wrexford and Charlotte begin to realize that things are not what they seem. An evil conspiracy is lurking in the shadows and threatens all they hold dear—unless they can tie the loose threads together before it’s too late . . .

My Review:

As is usual in the Wrexford & Sloane series, the titular murder is only the beginning of the mystery. Also, as usual, the reader both is and is not a witness to said murder. We hear what is said, and done, but we get few, if any clues about who the perpetrator might be. At least, not until Wrex and his wife Charlotte discover that the deed was done – and that it hits a little too close to home.

No matter how much, or how sincerely, they promised each other that they wanted a bit of peace and quiet with no murder investigations at the end of the previous book in the series, Murder at the Serpentine Bridge.

(They promise each other the same at the end of this entry in the series. I’m getting the impression that THAT is going to be a recurring theme of the series – one of the VERY few things they promise each other and the rest of their family that is doomed to lay unfulfilled. On that other hand, if their lives were that peaceful, this marvelous series wouldn’t exist!)

The mystery in this particular entry in the series hits both close to home and reaches back into the past. It’s also a case of woulda, coulda, shoulda in more ways than one.

One of the regrets of Wrex’ life before he met Charlotte is related to the death of his younger brother, Thomas, during the recently concluded, or at least paused, Napoleonic Wars. (Napoleon is in exile on Elba in the process of becoming less “able” as that old palindrome had it, “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”

Wrex’ brother and his cohort died by treachery, as someone on the British side sold their location to the French for gold. But the identity of the traitor was never uncovered. Eight years later, the only survivor of Thomas’ unit finally figures out that identity – right before the man kills him in ice-cold blood.

Wrex owes it to his brother, owes it to his own past, that the traitor be unmasked and brought to justice. Meanwhile, his wife Charlotte, AKA the satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill, is mired in an investigation of her own in London, looking into the possibilities of corporate espionage that surround the race to solve an engineering problem that will, quite literally, change the world.

Several inventors say they are on the cusp of building a steam engine capable of powering a ship out of sight of land and out of the reach of fuel – across the vast oceans.

If Britain owns the solution, their naval power will be assured for centuries. If the newly-fledged United States figures it out first, the century will be theirs. If Russia manages to steal either the plans or the engineers who make them – or better yet both – they will become a superpower the likes of which they have not yet dreamed of.

The two cases, a murder in Oxford – at Merton Library, hence the title of the book – and theft, arson and fraud in London, shouldn’t REALLY have any relationship to each other. But there are few if any clues in either case, leading Wrex, Charlotte and their ever-growing found family to cast about for the tiniest of threads that might point them in the right direction.

Or any.

As those threads are gathered, they do point somewhere, but not anywhere that either Wrex or Charlotte imagined. Because those clues all point towards their two cases becoming one – even though neither of them believes that makes any sense at all.

But as another famous detective will have said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Escape Rating A-: I discovered this series last summer – another time when I was hunting for a good mystery series – and it has been an absolute delight every single time I’ve picked the series back up. But I held onto this entry because I’ve learned that no matter how great a series is – and this absolutely is – it just isn’t a good idea to read the series books too closely together no matter how much I’m tempted.

But when I picked up the eARC for the next book, Murder at King’s Crossing, last week, I decided it was time to get caught up, so here we are. Also, I just can’t resist a murder set in a library – even if the story doesn’t stay in the library quite as long as I might have liked.

I said at the top that this was a ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ kind of story. What I meant by that is that there are elements of both mysteries that were on the cusp of going a different way, or rather, in one case a character should have made a different choice, and in another, an invention would have happened IF real, historical circumstances had been just a bit different.

The macguffin that drives much of this story is almost real. Or rather, is in the process of becoming real but isn’t quite there yet. As this story takes place in 1814, steam power has been proven to work and is already revolutionizing transportation. Ocean-going vessels are the next big – really, really big – step. It’s a problem that is absolutely going to be solved and certainly was solved within the decade.

All of which means that the developments were oh-so-close and the stakes were oh-so-high, so it’s not surprising that the competition was equally as fierce, that corporate and government espionage was a very real factor, and that the possibilities for financial fraud were ridiculously high, giving that side of the mystery equation an air of plausibility, near-certainty, and hope triumphing over experience that felt very real.

At the same time, Wrex’ side of the mystery, the part that revolved around the death of his brother, was equally familiar but for different reasons. There have been other Regency-set mystery series where exactly this type of treason led to just this manner of death for someone close to the protagonist – with just the same desire for revenge and retribution motivating the investigator, whether amateur or professions, to bend more of the rules than is comfortable for either the character or the reader. (I know I’ve read at least one such book relatively recently, so if this plot sounds familiar to you and you recall what it was, please let me know!)

And on my third hand, one of the people caught up in this farrago clearly wasn’t onboard with all the deviltry involved, and could have had made much different choices, and we are confused by and feel for that character almost as much as Charlotte does.

Overall and absolutely positively, I had a grand time with this entry in the series, as it tells two mysteries very well, feels marvelously steeped in its time and place, AND allows for character growth on the part of most of the members of the family. It certainly had this reader on the edge of their seat as everything built to an explosive crisis.

So now I’m twice as eager as I was before to start Murder at King’s Crossing, and am glad that I only have a few months to wait!

Grade A #BookReview: Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen Cambridge

Grade A #BookReview: Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen CambridgeMastering the Art of French Murder (An American In Paris, #1) by Colleen Cambridge
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: culinary mystery, foodie fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: American in Paris Mystery #1
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on April 25, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Marie Benedict, Nita Prose, and of course, Julia Child, will adore this magnifique new mystery set in Paris and starring Julia Child’s (fictional) best friend, confidante, and fellow American. From the acclaimed author of Murder at Mallowan Hall , this delightful new book provides a fresh perspective on the iconic chef’s years in post-WWII Paris.
“Enchanting…Cambridge captures Child’s distinct voice and energy so perfectly. Expect to leave this vacation hoping for a return trip.” – Publishers Weekly
As Paris rediscovers its joie de vivre, Tabitha Knight, recently arrived from Detroit for an extended stay with her French grandfather, is on her own journey of discovery. Paris isn’t just the City of Light; it’s the city of history, romance, stunning architecture . . . and food. Thanks to her neighbor and friend Julia Child, another ex-pat who’s fallen head over heels for Paris, Tabitha is learning how to cook for her Grandpère and Oncle Rafe.
Between tutoring Americans in French, visiting the market, and eagerly sampling the results of Julia’s studies at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, Tabitha’s sojourn is proving thoroughly delightful. That is, until the cold December day they return to Julia’s building and learn that a body has been found in the cellar. Tabitha recognizes the victim as a woman she’d met only the night before, at a party given by Julia’s sister, Dort. The murder weapon found nearby is recognizable too—a knife from Julia’s kitchen.
Tabitha is eager to help the investigation, but is shocked when Inspector Merveille reveals that a note, in Tabitha’s handwriting, was found in the dead woman’s pocket. Is this murder a case of international intrigue, or something far more personal? From the shadows of the Tour Eiffel at midnight, to the tiny third-floor Child kitchen, to the grungy streets of Montmartre, Tabitha navigates through the city hoping to find the real killer before she or one of her friends ends up in prison . . . or worse.
“Part historical fiction, part mystery, Mastering the Art of French Murder is totally delectable entertainment.” – The Washington Post
“Certain to appeal to a broad readership, especially fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, and Cambridge’s own Phyllida Bright series.” –First Clue, STARRED REVIEW

My Review:

“Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it’s done right. Even a pancake.” So said the real Julia Child, whose larger-than-life fictional persona has barged into the life of her neighbor in Paris, fellow expat Tabitha Knight, just a few months before a murder in Julia’s building bangs into both of their lives.

It’s the murder of a very recent guest in the apartment shared by Julia, her husband Paul Child, her sister Dorothy (Dort) McWilliams on the “Roo de Loo” as Julia called it. A murder committed with one of Julia’s distinctive chef’s knives, making Julia, at least initially, the prime suspect in this tragedy.

But Julia is not the amateur sleuth – she was too busy with what became her lifelong obsession, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” as evidenced by the title of her first cookbook.

The amateur sleuthing is left to Tabitha Knight, a former “Rosie the Riveter” living across the street with her elderly French grandfather and her honorary “oncle”, his equally elderly best friend (and probably lover).

Tabitha and Julia have already bonded over their shared infatuation with French food and French cooking – the difference being that Julia is already extremely capable at that art while Tabitha is lucky not to burn or otherwise ruin the meals she attempts to make for her elderly ‘messieurs’ and their two spoiled pets, Oscar Wilde the tiny papillon dog and Madame X the slinky cat.

But the murder isn’t merely a curiosity for either of the women. The victim died just after leaving a party in Julia’s apartment, a guest of Julia’s sister Dort, killed by one of Julia’s knives. Tabitha rode down in the elevator with the woman, and was the last to speak with her other than her killer.

The police, in the steely-eyed persona of Inspecteur Merveille, seem convinced that either Julia or Tabitha committed the foul deed. Or so it seems to Tabitha, who grew up on a steady reading diet of Nancy Drew and other mystery stories as well as her police detective father brought home. Julia is just certain – and Julia was always certain if she was anything at all – that Tabitha will be able to solve the murder ahead of the police – and pushes her into trying.

Not that it takes much arm twisting to get Tabitha on the case. A case that leads from one murder, to a second, and a third – and even a first before the one that dragged Tabitha and Julia into the mess. A mess that, surprising to everyone but the two old men yearning for Julia’s cooking rather than Tabitha’s, leads back to the war late war in which they all, in their own way, served.

And the colder war that has just begun.

Escape Rating A: First, and most important, this was an absolutely charming, utterly lovely read as well as a captivating mystery. The way that evokes post-World War II Paris, just as the lights came back on in the City of Light draws the reader and keeps them mesmerized every step of Tabitha’s way.

And I could hear Julia Child’s voice in my head in every single bit of her dialog. She was such an iconic figure in the 60s and 70s, and so ubiquitous in seemingly EVERY promo that PBS broadcast during those decades, that even though I never watched any of her programs I STILL heard her distinctive voice every single time she barged into a scene. The character as fictionalized sounded and behaved very much as at least her public persona did and swept the reader along in her wake.

But Julia was not the star of this show, no matter how often she seemed to hold center stage in any individual scene. That honor – even if she didn’t always see it as an honor – was reserved for Julia’s fictional friend and neighbor, Tabitha Knight.

And Tabitha turned out to be a terrific point-of-view character for this story. She’s impish, impulsive and intelligent, and can’t resist being the fool who rushes into a crime scene where police have barred the way and angels rightfully fear to tread.

As much as the blurbs for this book invoke Jacqueline Winspear and her Maisie Dobbs, the character that Tabitha reminds this reader of is Mabel Canning in her first outing, A Body on the Doorstep. Both Tabitha and Mabel’s stories are set just after the ending of a World War, although not the same war, at a point where their worlds are changing and new possibilities are opening up even as others close down. Both young women choose to uproot themselves from the familiar and chart a new course for their lives, and are still in the exploratory stage of that new life and new opportunities.

And both have a fortunate knack – one that often seems unfortunate as it occurs – of tripping over murder victims and being unable to resist poking their own noses into investigations that should be left to the police.

At the same time, Tabitha’s post-war Paris is a place that, if given the opportunity at the right time, It’s almost impossible not to imagine taking that opportunity and running with it to a new life in a storied city just as it is coming back into its own after the darkness of war.

The secondary characters introduced in this first book do an excellent job of drawing the reader into and filling out the corners or Tabitha’s Paris, from her charming, elderly messieurs, their equally idiosyncratic pets, the even more idiosyncratic members of the Child household, to the implacable, unreadable Inspecteur Étienne Merveille, who looks like he will become both a thorn in Tabitha’s side – and vice versa – in the books ahead.

If not, perhaps, something more.

And then there’s Julia Child herself, much too boisterous to ever be considered merely a secondary character and certainly not a sidekick, who draws readers in with her true-to-life mannerism, her real, documented history working for the OSS in the war, and her larger-than-life presence on so many wonderful pages of this story.

The alchemy of all of the above makes this reader so very glad that a second book in this An American in Paris series, A Murder Most French, will be coming out in April. I’m anticipating its arrival with nearly as much pleasure as Tabitha’s messieurs look forward to their next delicious repast from the kitchen of Madame Child.

It’s impossible to leave this story behind without one final word from that famous chef. Fortunately for the fictional Julia Child, this quote postdates her post-War years by a considerable margin. If this had been attributed to her at the time, Tabitha might have had considerably more difficulty convincing the Inspecteur that Julia was not guilty of the murder.

According to Julia Child, “The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded, and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit.”

TLC

TLC tour schedule:

Monday, February 19th: @books_old_and_new

Tuesday, February 20th: @diveintoagoodbook

Tuesday, February 20th: @suethebookie

Wednesday, February 21st: @mrsj_readsbooks

Wednesday, February 21st: @dianas_books_cars_coffee

Thursday, February 22nd: @abookwormwithwine

Thursday, February 22nd: @amys_book_addiction

Friday, February 23rd: @bookapotamus

Friday, February 23rd: @bookgirlbrown_reviews

Saturday, February 24th: @nissa_the.bookworm

Sunday, February 25th: @pineshorelittlefreelibrary

Monday, February 26th: @donasbooks

Tuesday, February 27th: Reading Reality and @reading_reality

Wednesday, February 28th: @the.caffeinated.reader

Thursday, February 29th: @aneedleinmybookstack

Friday, March 1st: @oilycaffeinatedmama

Friday, March 1st: @whatkarinareads

Saturday, March 2nd: @cmtloveswineandbooks

Saturday, March 2nd: @ablueboxfullofbooks

Sunday, March 3rd: @lyon.brit.andthebookshelf