Review: The Appeal by Janice Hallett

Review: The Appeal by Janice HallettThe Appeal by Janice Hallett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 419
Published by Atria Books on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This murder mystery follows a community rallying around a sick child—but when escalating lies lead to a dead body, everyone is a suspect.
The Fairway Players, a local theatre group, is in the midst of rehearsals for an Arthur Miller play, when tragedy strikes the family of director Martin Haywood and his wife Helen, the play’s star. Their young granddaughter has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and with an experimental treatment costing a tremendous sum, their fellow castmates rally to raise the money to give her a chance at survival.
But not everybody is convinced of the experimental treatment’s efficacy—nor of the good intentions of those involved. New actress Sam, a former NGO worker, raises doubts. But are her suspicions justified? Or does she have a history with the doctor involved? As tension grows within the community, things come to a shocking head the night of the dress rehearsal. The next day, a dead body is found, and soon, an arrest is made. In the run-up to the trial, two young lawyers sift through the material—emails, messages, letters—with a growing suspicion that a killer may still be on the loose.
A wholly modern take on the epistolary novel, The Appeal is a debut perfect for fans of Richard Osman and Lucy Foley.

My Review:

As the reader opens this story, they are in pretty much the same position as Femi and Charlotte. They, and we, are presented with a pile of correspondence and miscellanea to read through on behalf of a presumably prestigious law firm. There’s an assumption that a crime must have been committed somewhere along the way or they wouldn’t have to read through this mess – but neither they nor we even know what the crime was, let alone whodunnit.

And it is a mess – as are the people whose correspondence they are plowing through. (Although that should probably be “plough” instead of “plow” as this mystery is set in the U.K.)

As we – and they – eventually find out, the point of receiving this pile of email texts and assorted what-nots without any explanatory information is for them to go through said pile with a completely unbiased viewpoint and create that explanatory information. Even if they don’t know what it is they’re supposed to explain – or why.

The story builds upon itself by reading that correspondence with them. As we all sort through the emails, patterns begin to emerge. Whether those patterns will have anything to do with a crime, or for that matter whether those patterns will make any sense at all, is left up to the readers – both the ones who are part of the story and the ones who are following it.

What emerges is the story of a small town with an even smaller and more insular community nestled within it. And what happens when an outsider manages to work their way in and exposes the secrets that lie at the center of everything that the members thought they all held dear.

Escape Rating A: The easy way to describe the appeal of The Appeal would be Noises Off meets Knives Out. A play about the behind the scenes shenanigans of a play combined with a story of all the members of a wealthy family behaving very badly while everyone involved is conning everybody else.

But that description does not convey the sheer, utterly glorious WTF’ery of The Appeal.

What we’re reading right along with Femi and Charlotte, is the seemingly uncensored email correspondence among a group of amateur thespians. The Fairway Players, helmed by director Martin Hayward and leading lady Helen Grace Hayward, have, for the last several years, put on a series of plays with the voluntary assistance of many members of the community who are, or at least who aspire to be, in the inner circle of the Haywards, the most important family in the area.

They’ve just completed their latest production and are casting for the next, when two critical events take place. Newcomers have arrived in the area, Sam and Kel Greenwood, both taking up nursing positions at a nearby hospital after nearly a decade serving in underfunded, overstressed but absolutely vital medical clinics in the Central African Republic.

And the Hayward’s granddaughter Poppy is diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, Medulloblastoma. They have learned about an experimental drug on trial in the U.S. that will give little Poppy a better chance of beating the cancer so they are sending out a high-profile appeal in order to raise the money for the not-yet-proven treatment.

An amount which keeps fluctuating, but always, only and ever upwards.

The genius of this approach to relating and eventually solving this mystery is the way that the readers are all (Charlotte, Femi, the actual reader themself – or at least this reader) is compelled to move from page to page, and email to email, rather in the same way that very few people can resist sticking at least a few pieces into any random jigsaw puzzle they happen to come across.

Each message is another puzzle piece, while just as it is in solving a cardboard jigsaw puzzle, some don’t seem to fit at all and some the reader/puzzle solver is oh-so-tempted to shove in whether they fit or not because the mind wants there to be a discernable pattern and inevitably starts trying to create it whether that pattern is visible yet or not.

What we do learn early on – as the viewer does in Knives Out – is that whatever is really going on these people are ALL hot messes.

At first, it seems as if the crime involved is a financial crime. From the earliest read of the correspondence it’s obvious that something about the medical charity “A Cure for Poppy”, isn’t on the up-and-up. What we – and the investigators – don’t know is whether financial fraud is the only crime being perpetrated.

And we can’t wait to find out.

Epistolary novels like this one, stories written entirely or nearly entirely as correspondence, are difficult to pull off, but The Appeal manages to do so with aplomb. In the case of The Appeal, that we are creating and solving the puzzle with each message – however off the wall either the text or the writer might be – makes the reader part of the solution in a way that compels much the same way as eating one chip from a bag. It’s hard to stop.

Or at least it was for me. I hope it will be for you, too.

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie PriestGrave Reservations by Cherie Priest
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, paranormal, thriller, urban fantasy
Series: Booking Agents #1
Pages: 304
Published by Atria Books on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A psychic travel agent and a Seattle PD detective solve a murder in this quirky mystery in the vein of Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files and Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series.
Meet Leda Foley: devoted friend, struggling travel agent, and inconsistent psychic. When Leda, sole proprietor of Foley's Flights of Fancy, impulsively re-books Seattle PD detective Grady Merritt’s flight, her life changes in ways she couldn’t have predicted.
After watching his original plane blow up from the safety of the airport, Grady realizes that Leda’s special abilities could help him with a cold case he just can’t crack.
Despite her scattershot premonitions, she agrees for a secret reason: her fiancé’s murder remains unsolved. Leda’s psychic abilities couldn’t help the case several years before, but she’s been honing her skills and drawing a crowd at her favorite bar’s open-mic nights, where she performs Klairvoyant Karaoke—singing whatever song comes to mind when she holds people’s personal effects. Now joined by a rag-tag group of bar patrons and pals alike, Leda and Grady set out to catch a killer—and learn how the two cases that haunt them have more in common than they ever suspected.

My Review:

Grave Reservations is a “no good deed goes unpunished” kind of story. Or a “may you live in interesting times” kind of story. With a heaping helping of karma being a bitch and being careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

Although not all of those things are visited on Leda Foley. It’s more like she sets all of them in motion with one surprising act. Leda Foley is a travel agent. She’s also a somewhat erratic psychic. Those two things combine when she gets a really bad feeling about one of her (very) few client’s upcoming flight from Orlando back home to Seattle.

She has a really bad feeling that if Grady Merritt makes his originally planned flight from Orlando to Seattle that he’s not going to make it home. Ever. Leda doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen, only that it’s going to be fatal – at least for Grady.

So she rebooks him through Atlanta. (Leda’s not wrong, if you die in the south your corpse really will have to go through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.) Grady would have missed his flight anyway thanks to accident-delayed traffic on the way to the airport, but Leda rebooked him before he missed that plane. Which has Grady angry and yelling at her on the phone right up until the point where the plane he should have been on catches fire on the runway.

Leda’s relieved. Grady is too – but also a bit spooked. Once he gets over the shock and the gratitude, he turns up in Leda’s tiny office hoping that her psychic powers, the ones that saved his life, might also save this murder case that he can’t get out of his head.

Grady Merritt is a detective in the Seattle Police Department, and he’s got a multiple murder to solve that has been at a dead end for over a year and made very little sense even when it was all fresh. Asking Leda for help is pretty much the equivalent of grasping at straws, but he hasn’t had any better ideas – or actually even any worse ones – for months of digging.

He’s desperate. She’s wary but game. Very wary and not very game at all, so she tries her level best to lower his expectations as much as possible. Like all the way to the ground.

Only to hit paydirt on their very first try. Not much, and not something that he can take to a judge or even to his lieutenant, but enough to give him a place to start looking again.

Leda can’t resist helping – even when she shouldn’t – because her “spidey senses” are telling her that Grady’s case is linked to another unsolved murder – the murder of Leda’s fiancé. But the closer that Grady and Leda get to a solution, the more death follows in the wake of their investigation.

Leda has clearly found Grady a lead that someone else wants to close off – by turning as many investigative possibilities into “dead ends” as possible – before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: This was fun. In fact, this was a whole lot of fun. It hits just the right note of seriousness – after all, they are investigating not just one murder but a continuing series of murders – but the tone is still fairly lighthearted. It reminds me a bit of the early Stephanie Plum books with its lighthearted mayhem and quirky cast, while having more of a beating heart – and a few more brain cells – than it seemed like the later books in that series did. (While the blurb compares this to Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series, it reminded me more of Harper Connelly. Your reading mileage may vary.)

The beating and broken heart of this story is Leda’s still healing (sometimes badly) trauma over the murder of her fiancé. Her life has gone on, but it’s not the same, it’s not going to be the same. Even if she gets her questions finally answered, her world has gone down a different path than it otherwise would have, and the scene of her in their storage locker still hunting for his scent among his old clothes was heartbreaking. As it should be.

At the same time, the life that Leda has cobbled together, while it isn’t quite working in a financial sense – at least not yet – does give her the emotional support that she needs and she is healing in that heartbreaking two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way.

Even through her tears, her thoughts and actions are often funny as hell. I’m still laughing about Princess Pookie and Mr. Wiggles, felines who were discovered to be the opposite genders of their names when Princess Pookie got Mr. Wiggles pregnant. The entire scene was just a perfect explanation of cats and their owners and how much we love them and they tolerate us. It was a literal laugh out loud moment that gave just the right amount of lift in the story when it was needed, as Leda reactions often did.

But the story manages to follow the conventions of a cozy mystery – even as it deals with situations that are far from cozy. Leda’s found family among the denizens of the bar Castaways, where she does her “Psychic Psongstress” (the manager’s name for it) act of “Klairvoyant Karaoke” (Leda’s name for it) are sweet and funny and affirming of a talent that Leda used to hide but is learning to use.

There was so much about this story and the people in it that I just fell in love with. It also does a terrific job of representing the Seattle that I used to live in, which made for a much more fun blast from the past than my actual residence there. I was just about ROFL at the description of the downtown Seattle library building where I used to work. It is exactly as the author described. Including the neon and the vertigo.

Main Seattle Library (photo from Wikipedia)

But I will also confess that the conflation of the King County Library System with the Seattle Public Library drove me nuts. They are two separate entities. Not that plenty of residents don’t totally mix up the two, because libraries. But still, it read wrong because I knew better.

That being said, now that my personal pet peeve is out of the way, I have to say that I loved Leda’s story and this opening chapter in a series that looks like it’s going to be Leda’s journey. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

Review: Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose + Giveaway

Review: Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose + GiveawayTiffany Blues by M.J. Rose
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Atria Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York, 1924. Twenty‑four‑year‑old Jenny Bell is one of a dozen burgeoning artists invited to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s prestigious artists’ colony. Gifted and determined, Jenny vows to avoid distractions and romantic entanglements and take full advantage of the many wonders to be found at Laurelton Hall.

But Jenny’s past has followed her to Long Island. Images of her beloved mother, her hard-hearted stepfather, waterfalls, and murder, and the dank hallways of Canada’s notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women overwhelm Jenny’s thoughts, even as she is inextricably drawn to Oliver, Tiffany’s charismatic grandson.

As the summer shimmers on, and the competition between the artists grows fierce as they vie for a spot at Tiffany’s New York gallery, a series of suspicious and disturbing occurrences suggest someone knows enough about Jenny’s childhood trauma to expose her.

Supported by her closest friend Minx Deering, a seemingly carefree socialite yet dedicated sculptor, and Oliver, Jenny pushes her demons aside. Between stolen kisses and stolen jewels, the champagne flows and the jazz plays on until one moonless night when Jenny’s past and present are thrown together in a desperate moment, that will threaten her promising future, her love, her friendships, and her very life.

My Review:

This is a story about finding beauty in what is broken. It is also a story about creeping menace among the beauty. And it’s a love story. Not just about romantic love, but also the love of family, the love of making beauty – and love gone very, very wrong.

As the story begins, Jenny Bell is standing in the charred ruins of Laurelton Hall, looking back at her past. Or at least one particular summer of her past, the summer of 1924, how she got there, why she left, and finally, what brought her to come back, and look back, on the events that transformed her life – both the dark side and the light.

Laurelton Hall circa 1924

Laurelton Hall was the real-life home of a school for artists run by the famous artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Yes, that Tiffany, of the gorgeous stained glass windows and the little signature blue boxes. (At least, the only Tiffany boxes I’ve ever received have been very, very small.)

Tiffany’s Foundation sponsored summer artists’ retreat for several years. (This is real, not fictional.) Jenny Bell and most of the events of the summer of 1924, however, are mostly fictional – with the possible exception of the visit by Thomas A. Edison.

Jenny is an artist, a painter, who is exploring the creation and perception of light through her paintings. But she has washed all the colors out of her work after a terrible tragedy, accompanied by an equally terrible miscarriage of justice. And even though Jenny was not to blame for the events that have cast a shadow over her life – she is the only one left who knows the truth of the day that her stepfather died. Not just why and how his death occurred, but why the events that came afterwards seemed necessary at the time.

But Jenny put that horrible day, and the years that followed it, behind her. Or so she thinks. At least until her past follows her to Laurelton, and takes away her brightest future.

Unless it is not too late to pick up the threads she left behind.

Escape Rating A-: There are so many marvelous things to unpack about this story. All of them fascinating and all of them guaranteed to both keep the reader on the edge of their seat and draw them deeply into the world of Laurelton and the Jazz Age.

Jenny is a great character to follow. She is both very, very strong and completely broken all at the same time. As are the people who become closest to her, her best friend Minx Deering and her lover Oliver Tiffany. But then, all of the artists who come to Laurelton are broken in one way or another. World War I feels just barely over, and even those who did not serve lived in its terrible shadow.

And the frenetic gaiety that followed has caused its own damage.

Jenny tries to be an enigma to those around her, but inside her own head she is all too aware of what happened and what she did. But also what she didn’t. And she’s paid a very high price for protecting her mother and her unborn brother – a price that in its aftermath may not have been worth it after all.

Even though she has tried to bury her past, there is someone at Laurelton who seems to know at least the public version of events, and either wants to reveal her secrets, punish her more directly, or just break her all over again – for reasons that Jenny does not know.

All she knows is that something is very, very wrong, and both she and her friend Minx are in terrible, but terribly different, kinds of danger. The portrait of a woman who knows that there is something wrong, who fears that she knows at least part of what that is, but is too afraid to ask for help and for a long time too willing to disbelieve her own fears is both compelling and all too familiar.

The air of creeping menace is palpable, and permeates the whole story. It casts a shadow over the beauty of the place, much in the way that the contrast between shadow and light creates both beauty and perspective in art.

In the end, the resolution is both cathartic and bitter. Jenny pays a great price, yet again, for a crime that she did not commit. But then there is the sweet, and the ending shows that there is beauty in the breakdown, and even in the shards of our lives.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Tiffany Blues to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter!

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Joint Review: Discovering the Mammoth by John J. McKay and Woolly by Ben Mezrich

Format read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genre: science history, nonfiction
Length: 264 p.
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Date Released: August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Today, we know that a mammoth is an extinct type of elephant that was covered with long fur and lived in the north country during the ice ages. But how do you figure out what a mammoth is if you have no concept of extinction, ice ages, or fossils? Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of the human diet, it still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through the lens of their own worldview and mythology.

When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered the battle fields where the gods had vanquished the Titans. When the Chinese discovered buried ivory, they knew they had found dragons’ teeth. But as the Age of Reason dawned, monsters and giants gave way to the scientific method. Yet the mystery of these mighty bones remained. How did Enlightenment thinkers overcome centuries of myth and misunderstanding to reconstruct an unknown animal?

The journey to unravel that puzzle begins in the 1690s with the arrival of new type of ivory on the European market bearing the exotic name “mammoth.” It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by merchants, diplomats, missionaries, cranky doctors, collectors of natural wonders, Swedish POWs, Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, and even one pirate.

McKay brings together dozens of original documents and illustrations, some ignored for centuries, to show how this odd assortment of characters solved the mystery of the mammoth and, in doing so, created the science of paleontology.

 

Format read: eARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science history, nonfiction
Length: 304 p.
Publisher: Atria Books
Date Released: July 4th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Science fiction becomes reality in this Jurassic Park-like story of the genetic resurrection of an extinct species—the woolly mammoth—by the bestselling author of The Accidental Billionaires and The 37th Parallel.

“With his knack for turning narrative nonfiction into stories worthy of the best thriller fiction” (Omnivoracious), Ben Mezrich takes us on an exhilarating true adventure story from the icy terrain of Siberia to the cutting-edge genetic labs of Harvard University. A group of young scientists, under the guidance of Dr. George Church, the most brilliant geneticist of our time, works to make fantasy reality by sequencing the DNA of a frozen woolly mammoth harvested from above the Arctic circle, and splicing elements of that sequence into the DNA of a modern elephant. Will they be able to turn the hybrid cells into a functional embryo and bring the extinct creatures to life in our modern world?

Along with Church and his team of Harvard scientists, a world-famous conservationist and a genius Russian scientist plan to turn a tract of the Siberian tundra into Pleistocene Park, populating the permafrost with ancient herbivores as a hedge against an environmental ticking time bomb. More than a story of genetics, this is a thriller illuminating the race against global warming, the incredible power of modern technology, the brave fossil hunters who battle polar bears and extreme weather conditions, and the ethical quandary of cloning extinct animals. Can we right the wrongs of our ancestors who hunted the woolly mammoth to extinction—and at what cost?

When I started reading Woolly, I remembered that I had another book about the same subject in my TBR pile. I thought about reading both, but couldn’t quite manage the time. Then I had a brilliant idea – why not have Galen read the other mammoth book and then do a joint review? The two books are not as close in content as I originally thought, but they do dovetail quite nicely. And here’s the result.

Our Review:

Ossip Shumachov’s mammoth—the first pulled mostly intact from the Siberian permafrost and deposited in a museum, represents the culmination of centuries of debate about the meaning of the strange, large bones found in all the places modern elephants do not live. John J. McKay’s book, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science, explores how the process of scientific discovery is often not so much about seeing something for the first time—but figuring out how to name it and where to place it in its historical setting.

As McKay explains, the story of discovering the mammoth is in part the story of remembering them. After all, there was a time when humans drew pictures of living mammoths and mastodons. However, a few centuries ago it was not at all clear (except, presumably, to a handful of hunters ln Siberia) that mammoth fossils came from anything resembling an elephant that had become extinct. Various explanations were tried over the years. For example, mammoths bones were sometimes thought to have come from human giants of biblical myth or Roman legends. Alternatively, it was thought that they were scattered by the Biblical Deluge or left behind by invading armies (though there was a big objection to the latter: why would armies bury dead elephants in such quantity but never think to hang on to the ivory?).

In the course of exploring the rediscovery of the mammoth, McKay covers a lot of ground, including the development of the sciences in a westernizing Russia; how the discovery of mastodons with unexpected teeth in the Americas unsettled a nascent consensus that Eurasian mammoths were just elephants out of place; and how scientific communication developed over the centuries. Unfortunately, an unusually high number of typographical errors mar the text.

McKay also acknowledges the part that people who were not scientists, diplomats, and monarchs had to play in his tale. Mammoth bones are often found not fully mineralized; when an unearthed bone crumbles, it is so very often the unnamed workmen who get blamed. Ossip Shumachov was the Eveki hunter who found the thawing carcass the mammoth that is more commonly known as Mikhail Adam’s, after the botanist who collected it and sent it on to St. Petersburg. While Adam’s role in helping to describe should not be discounted—we should also not discount the fact that due to his high-handed way of impressing local labor to pack it up during an important hunting season, the Evenki never forgot—and became much more reluctant to share knowledge of their finds.

McKay closes his book with an expression of gratitude to the mammoth:

We followed mammoths. We learned from them. We learned about them and created a new science. We miss them so much that we want to resurrect them from extinction more than any other animal.

So we are.

And that’s the story in Ben Mezrich’s Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures.

There are currently multiple efforts going on, in different countries using different methods, to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, and bring back the ultimate in charismatic megafauna.

Woolly does its level best to turn a story of sleep-starved post-docs, chilly laboratories far-fetched cloning and meticulous gene splicing experiments into edge-of-the-seat adventure, and it very nearly succeeds.

The quest to rescue one of the most iconic of extinct species from the dustbin of history is certainly worthy of a great story. And like any great story, it needs heroes. In the case of Woolly, that hero is Dr. George Church, the leader of an ever-expanding cadre of researchers who are fully invested in the number one rule at Church Labs – that nothing is impossible.

The story of the quest to de-extinct the mammoth travels from the death of the last remaining mammoth herd on remote Wrangell Island over 3,000 years ago to a point about four years from now, when Church’s experiments have succeeded. The quest also shifts in time from George Church’s earliest years to the present day, and all over the globe from Harvard to Wrangell to Siberia to Seoul.

It’s a dizzying ride, moving back and forth in both time and space over the life of the project, its quirky and charismatic director, and its possibilities for saving both the mammoth, and ourselves.

But as fascinating a story as Woolly is, and as good a job as the author does in breaking its cutting edge science down into chunks that a non-scientist can understand, it also has plenty of frustrations.

The narrative sweeps back and forth in time, from that misty point four years from now to the 1950s and every point in between – and not in any order that the reader, or at least this reader, can discern. Each of the building blocks of this story are individually compelling, but they don’t gel together into a whole. Just as I got invested in one person or one project, the perspective would shift and we would suddenly be years earlier – or later.

The device of setting both the beginning and ending of the tale in that misty “four years from now” adds a nice bit of dramatic framing to a story that already has plenty of drama in it. But it also detracts from its veracity. That frame is science fiction, where the rest of the book purports to be science fact. And most of it is. But I can’t help but wonder where that dividing line really is.

Galen’s Reality Rating for Discovering the Mammoth: B

Marlene’s Reality Rating for Woolly is also a solid B.

Review: The Right Side by Spencer Quinn + Giveaway

Review: The Right Side by Spencer Quinn + GiveawayThe Right Side by Spencer Quinn
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 336
Published by Atria Books on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

LeAnne Hogan went to Afghanistan as a rising star in the military, and came back a much lesser person, mentally and physically. Now missing an eye and with half her face badly scarred, she can barely remember the disastrous desert operation that almost killed her. She is confused, angry, and suspects the fault is hers, even though nobody will come out and say it.
Shattered by one last blow—the sudden death of her hospital roommate, Marci—LeAnne finds herself on a fateful drive across the country, reflecting on her past and seeing no future. Her native land is now unfamiliar, recast in shadow by her one good eye, her damaged psyche, and her weakened body. Arriving in the rain-soaked small town in Washington state that Marci had called home, she makes a troubling discovery: Marci’s eight-year-old daughter has vanished. When a stray dog—a powerful, dark, unreadable creature, no one’s idea of a pet—seems to adopt LeAnne, a surprising connection is formed and something shifts inside her. As she becomes obsessed with finding Marci’s daughter, LeAnne and her inscrutable canine companion are drawn into danger as dark and menacing as her last Afghan mission. This time she has a strange but loyal fellow traveler protecting her blind side.

My Review:

This wasn’t quite what I expected. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, because it was, but it doesn’t quite match the description.

This is way, way more about LeAnne than it is about the dog, or anything related to the dog. Which is kind of a pity, because it’s only when Goody adopts LeAnne that the story really kicks into gear.

But LeAnne’s life before Goody is even more important to the story than her life with dog. And a whole lot sadder.

LeAnne was an elite soldier in Afghanistan, until one catastrophic incident left her a broken shell of herself. She’s lost an eye, and that’s terrible and will change everything she ever thought she was or would be. But more importantly, LeAnne left that battlefield with a piece of shrapnel in her head, and as a consequence LeAnne’s memories, of herself, her past and even very recent events, are more than a bit shaky.

LeAnne is the ultimate unreliable narrator – she’s fooling herself and most of the time she doesn’t know it. Even when she does know it, she doesn’t care.

The story is really LeAnne’s search for herself. Not the self she was, possibly not even the self she will be, but simply a self that she can live with. And as much as she can’t admit it, even to herself, she needs someone to protect her blind side – not just the physical one, but also all the blind sides within herself.

I want to say that this is a road story, but it kind of is and kind of isn’t. When LeAnne’s rehab roommate at Walter Reed Army Hospital dies suddenly and very unexpectedly, LeAnne breaks out of the hospital. Marci’s death is the last straw for LeAnne’s shaky sense of self, and she just lights out of there. And goes cold turkey on ALL her meds.

But the Army isn’t done with her. She has one last service to perform. But first they have to find her and convince her that she needs to open her box of bad memories. And that bit of her past is the one place she doesn’t want to go.

Ever.

Escape Rating B: The story felt like it was divided into two separate and not quite equal parts, before dog and after dog. The parts of LeAnne’s journey before Goody adopts her (and the dog is definitely the prime mover of events) are pretty damn grim. LeAnne is physically and emotionally devastated, to the point where she is not always aware of just how bad things really are.

She loses days at a time. Sometimes in disjointed memory, sometimes in sleep, sometimes just in a fog. She’s lost who she was, and can’t always manage to acknowledge it. She’s also drifting and rudderless. It’s a hard journey, and it makes for hard reading. Considering how much driving she does while not quite all there, it’s amazing that she doesn’t die in a car accident. On that other hand, the very used Honda that she’s driving probably can’t get up enough speed to cause more than a fender-bender.

Just as an aside, LeAnne’s mother is a piece of work.

But it is only when LeAnne drifts into Marci’s old hometown that LeAnne begins to pick up the pieces of what her life can be now. She starts finding her new self. Partly with her self-assigned mission to find Marci’s missing daughter, but mostly because Goody adopts her.

In the best “dog saves human” tradition, Goody worms her way into LeAnne’s life, and eventually her battered heart (and psyche). Goody’s interventions keep her from letting all of her more destructive impulses out (the sheriff deserves the verbal abuse LeAnne doles out, just not quite the broken neck she wants to give him).

And even though she can’t take Goody with her, it does seem like it is Goody who gives her enough strength to deal with the most important unfinished business of her past. And whose assistance allows her to finally let go of some of her demons.

The rest she is willing to take on the road with them.

This is a hard book to love, because LeAnne is a difficult character to like. It’s not that the reader doesn’t feel sorry for her, because one certainly does, but the kind of pity she initially engenders does not necessarily make one want to read about her struggles in detail, especially when there are so few triumphs to balance them out. It reads as real, but also depressing as hell. It’s only when Goody appears on the scene that the story turns outward, from endless anger and angst to coping with her world as it is that the story begins to lift.

The story ends on a high note, but it’s a long, dark journey to reach that brighter place.

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

The author is giving away 3 copies of The Right Side to lucky entrants on this tour.

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Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + Giveaway

Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + GiveawayThe Enemies of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy #3) by Sally Christie
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #3
Pages: 416
Published by Atria Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.
“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.
Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches inevitable revolution.

My Review:

The Enemies of Versailles, and the entire series of the Mistresses of Versailles, beginning with The Sisters of Versailles and continuing with The Rivals of Versailles, is a fascinating blend of historical fiction and herstorical fiction, telling the story of the reign of Louis XV of France through the eyes of the women who shared his bed and/or his heart.

So instead of viewing this history through the lives of its movers and shakers, usually male, we see the king from the perspective of his mistresses and, in the case of this final book in the series, from the point of view of his oldest daughter, the unmarried and extremely upright (also uptight in modern terms) Adelaide.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it isn’t intended to be, particularly at this point late in the king’s life. It is to Louis XV that the famous phrase is attributed, “apres moi, le deluge”. And while he may not have known precisely what horrors the deluge of the French Revolution was destined to unleash, it is clear from this account that he was well aware that whatever followed him was going to be less rich, less glorious, less regal, and pretty much just less of everything.

It turned out he was right. From the perspective of the monarchy and the aristocracy, the Revolution indeed brought much less of everything, except blood. There was plenty of that. An outcome that Louis himself does not live to see, although the principal narrators of this story, his daughter Adelaide and his last mistress, the Duchesse du Barry, witness the revolution in all its horror.

In this book, and the trilogy as a whole, Louis appears as a self-indulgent and even indolent ruler, willing to let his advisors run the country while he dallies with his mistresses and escapes from the pomp and ceremony of court life as much as possible. And, of course, his advisors are more than happy to take the burdens of monarchy off of his hands, the better to further their own ambitions.

At the center of this book, and of the final years of Louis’ life, we see a man caught between two opposing forces. On the one side, his daughter Adelaide, ruthlessly virtuous, desiring above all else to save her father’s eternal soul by persuading him to give up his licentious ways. On his other side, the courtesan Jeanne Becu, Duchesse du Barry, encouraging the king to while away his hours in her company, giving her as many beautiful presents as possible and ignoring the world outside her boudoir.

Adelaide never stands a chance. Louis always prefers his mistress’ charms, whoever that mistress might be. But as we watch the court squabble over who should have precedence, and how best to capture the attention of the aging king, we know that we are watching the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or fiddling while Paris, substituting for Rome in the famous saying, burns.

Escape Rating B: This is a series about which I have had mixed feelings from the very beginning, and I leave the series with lots of them. But most of those mixed feelings are about the history portrayed, rather than the portrayal itself. In other words, this series made me think. Among other thoughts, making me glad that I am reading about this period rather than living in it.

The world portrayed in the series is fascinating, enthralling, rich, decadent and strange. There are two sayings that seem to apply equally: “The past is another country, they do things differently there” and, to paraphrase just a bit, “the rich are very, very different from you and me”.

One of the things that strikes me is the appalling waste. Not just the wretched excesses of the court, but also the waste of the brains and talent of the women in this series, and this era. As much as I would not want to have spent five minutes in her company, I found Adelaide and to a lesser extent her sisters, to be utterly pitiable. They all had brains, and probably talents of one sort or another. And absolutely no outlets for any of that except through moral rectitude to the point of priggishness, extreme protection of their privileges and status, and endless backbiting and jostling for position in a court and an era that simply saw them as less than nothing.

Then of course, there’s the wretched excess of the court itself. That so much time and effort was expended, and so much wealth wasted, on ceremony that was extended and elaborated somewhere past the nth degree fascinates and disgusts at the same time.

The Revolution was a bloodbath of epic proportions, and yet it is all too easy to see it looming on the horizon, at least from our viewpoint, and wonder why no one at the time seriously saw it coming. But the same is true, to a much less bloody extent, in the run up to the American Revolution. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.

About the books and the series. Looking back, there is one thing about each of the books that made the first parts a bit difficult to get over. In each book, the story of the mistress or mistresses begins with their childhood. And while the child certainly makes the woman, that period of each of their lives just wasn’t as compelling, or even as interesting, as what happens to each of them as they find themselves, or are thrust in the case of duBarry, into the king’s orbit. One reason I found Adelaide sympathetic in this particular book was that by the time this story begins, she is an adult, even if her understanding is somewhat lacking in particulars because of her very peculiar sheltered life.

In some ways, both Adelaide and du Barry remain infantilized by their circumstances until the Revolution robs everyone of any possible pretensions. They had to either grow up or die. That one did and one did not provides a last and final contrast in the remarkable circumstances of their lives.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Enemies of Versailles to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: The Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Review: The Rivals of Versailles by Sally ChristieThe Rivals of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy, #2) by Sally Christie
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #2
Pages: 448
Published by Atria Books on April 5th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

And you thought sisters were a thing to fear. In this compelling follow-up to Sally Christie's clever and absorbing debut, we meet none other than the Marquise de Pompadour, one of the greatest beauties of her generation and the first bourgeois mistress ever to grace the hallowed halls of Versailles.
I write this before her blood is even cold. She is dead, suddenly, from a high fever. The King is inconsolable, but the way is now clear.
The way is now clear.
The year is 1745. Marie-Anne, the youngest of the infamous Nesle sisters and King Louis XV's most beloved mistress, is gone, making room for the next Royal Favorite.
Enter Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a stunningly beautiful girl from the middle classes. Fifteen years prior, a fortune teller had mapped out young Jeanne's destiny: she would become the lover of a king and the most powerful woman in the land. Eventually connections, luck, and a little scheming pave her way to Versailles and into the King's arms.
All too soon, conniving politicians and hopeful beauties seek to replace the bourgeois interloper with a more suitable mistress. As Jeanne, now the Marquise de Pompadour, takes on her many rivals - including a lustful lady-in-waiting; a precocious fourteen-year-old prostitute, and even a cousin of the notorious Nesle sisters - she helps the king give himself over to a life of luxury and depravity. Around them, war rages, discontent grows, and France inches ever closer to the Revolution.
Enigmatic beauty, social climber, actress, trendsetter, patron of the arts, spendthrift, whoremonger, friend, lover, foe. History books may say many things about the famous Marquise de Pompadour, but one thing is clear: for almost twenty years, she ruled France and the King's heart.
Told in Christie's witty and modern style, this second book in the Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the world of eighteenth century Versailles in all its pride, pestilence and glory.

My Review:

Age and treachery beat youth and skill, set amid the long, twilight fall of France into the abyss of the Revolution.

Alternate possibility, there’s nothing new under the sun. Especially not Desperate Wives of Wherever and the Kardashians. And isn’t that a frightening thought?

Louis XV by Rigaud (1730)
Louis XV by Rigaud (1730)

The Rivals of Versailles is the second book in Sally Christie’s Mistresses of Versailles series. All of those titular mistresses were the mistresses, official or otherwise, of Louis XV of France. His predecessor Louis XIV was called “The Sun King” because the power of France was at its height during his rule. His great-grandson, Louis XV squandered all of the goodwill generated by his illustrious fore-bearer, and bequeathed a broke and humbled France to his grandson, Louis XVI. Who in his turn lost his throne and then his head in the Revolution.

But the story in The Rivals of Versailles follows not Louis, but the career of his most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour. And what a career it was!

During her nearly 20 year reign as Louis’ official mistress, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson served as both Louis’ chief comforter and more importantly, seemingly his chief minister, even after she no longer filled what would otherwise seem to be the most important function of a mistress – she stopped sharing his bed. Instead, she shared his mind, or possibly served as the best part of it, and shared what heart he had left.

This is not a pretty story. Jeanne starts out as a young girl who is told she is destined to catch the eye of the king. Her family grooms her assiduously for the position, and when his favorite mistress, Marie-Anne de Mailly dies, Jeanne’s backers put her in the way of the grieving king.

(The story of Louis’ affairs with Marie-Anne de Mailly and nearly all of her five sisters is told in The Sisters of Versailles, but it is not necessary to read that book to get into this one, the stories are very different)

sisters of versailles by sally christieUnlike The Sisters of Versailles, where the five de Mailly sisters squabble over the king and share his bed in turns, The Rivals of Versailles follows de Pompadour and her rivals through the course of her life at court. Even when some younger woman thinks she has a chance to oust de Pompadour, all of their efforts, and the efforts of the various parties who back them, come to naught.

Even as the king sinks further into depravity in his over-indulged middle-age, it is always Madame de Pompadour that he turns to for comfort and counsel. She is the person that he rails to about the demands of Parlement and she is the one he consults on all decisions. It is Madame de Pompadour who fosters the French rapprochement with their old enemies, the Austrians, and it is de Pompadour who helps to determine the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which led to France’s involvement in what is known to American history as the French and Indian War, and the loss of all of France’s North American colonies.

Her reach was long, her influence was wide. She was one of the most powerful women of Europe in the 18th century. The Rivals of Versailles is her story.

Escape Rating B: Although the period and setting are just as over-indulgent as The Sisters of Versailles, I found The Rivals of Versailles to be a more accessible book. In Sisters, while survivor Hortense begins and ends the story, the narration moves around among all the de Mailly sisters, and none of them make likeable protagonists.

Madame de Pompadour, portrait by François Boucher
Madame de Pompadour, portrait by François Boucher

In The Rivals of Versailles, Madame de Pompadour is the point of view character for most of the story. And even when she is not directly relating the action, she is still a very strong presence. Even the women who are trying to supplant her are forced to reckon with her power over the king.

One thing drove this reader just a bit nuts. The story begins with Jeanne as a young girl, and is from her childish and naive perspective. When she comes to court, we see her mature and harden into the woman who becomes Madame de Pompadour, and it’s a hard and frequently painful journey.

As political factions find young women to supplant her, we see their stories from their perspectives, and they are, to a person, very young, very naive and very selfish. Also in at least one case, uneducated and unintelligent into the bargain. Sometimes it is difficult to read from inside their heads, because there’s just no there, there.

However, one aspect of this progression is sad but also telling. As the king gets older, the women who are procured for him get younger and younger, also stupider and stupider. And the king is constantly indulged while the Revolution seems to literally brew around him. As the story continues, the storm to come feels more and more inevitable.

But what makes this book work better than Sisters is the voice of de Pompadour. She does her best to keep her king happy. And his happiness means that she takes as much of the burden of ruling as she can from behind the throne. She seems to truly love him, and to be truly doing her best to keep him happy, even as the deeds she must commit or at least condone get darker and darker.

This is the sad story of a woman who only wanted to be loved, but discovered that the accumulation power was addicting, and was the only way that she could survive.

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Review: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie + Giveaway

Review: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie + GiveawayThe Sisters of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy #1) by Sally Christie
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #1
Pages: 432
Published by Atria Books on September 1st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A sumptuous and sensual tale of power, romance, family, and betrayal centered around four sisters and one King. Carefully researched and ornately detailed, The Sisters of Versailles is the first book in an exciting new historical fiction trilogy about King Louis XV, France's most "well-beloved" monarch, and the women who shared his heart and his bed.
Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.
Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.
Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot - and women - forward. The King's scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.
In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie's stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood; of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.

My Review:

This is going to seem like a strange place to start this review, but I’m going to quote the great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, who was, in turn, paraphrasing J.B.S. Haldane, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist. The same quote is also attributed to Arthur Stanley Eddington, an astronomer.

“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

There’s a truism in there. Fiction has to be believable. The story has to hang together, the characters and the plot have to make sense to the reader. History, no matter how strange or bizarre, merely has to be true.

As historical fiction, the story in The Sisters of Versailles therefore does not have to be believable, it just has to match the historical record. And while we can’t know whether the thoughts and feelings ascribed to the Mailly-Nesle sisters in the story reflect their personalities, we can learn that the events portrayed in the book really did happen.

In 18th century France, Louis XV inherited the throne from his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, known to history as the Sun King. When Louis XV became king, he was all of 2 years old, and his regency council ruled, not just until he came of age, but at least one of them stayed pretty much in charge until his own death.when Louis was in his 30s.

Seeming to be rather more self-indulgent than interested in ruling, Louis seems to have let his ministers do everything for him, including choose his first mistress. And that is where our story begins.

The first mistress of Louix XV was Louise-Julie de Mailly-Nesle. She was the oldest of the five Mailly-Nesle sisters, and the story in The Sisters of Versailles is the story of Louise and her younger sisters, Pauline, Diane, Hortense and Marie-Anne, all of whom except Hortense took their turns as the King’s official mistress.

Interestingly, it is Hortense, the only one who skipped bedding the King, who tells the story.

If this were fiction, we wouldn’t believe it. We’d believe he had mistresses, but not that he chose one sister after another. And it seems, at least according to the story, that they were not by any means alike. Louise was naive to the very end. Diane was fun-loving, and both Pauline and Marie-Anne were calculating, using the position of maitresse-en-titre (official mistress) to achieve power. They were the women behind the throne and they ruled through Louis as effectively as any of his official ministers did.

The way that the sisters score off against each other and supplant each other reads like an 18th century version of Real Housewives or the Kardashians, but set against a backdrop that is even more opulent, and among people who are even more self-absorbed, than any reality TV series.

And amid this portrait of absolutely wretched excess, the reader hears the desperation of the common French people. We see that these events are inexorably leading to the French Revolution, while the nobility plays and the people starve.

Escape Rating B-: If this were purely fiction, no one would believe this story. As history, it does make the reader gasp a bit. Four sisters? Really? And yet it did happen.

The author switches between the points of view of the women, and also adds in letters between the sisters to convey the way that reality often differed from written communication. Everyone always wrote that they were happy, no matter how miserable they were. Also everyone always writes that they are faithful to their husbands, when seemingly no one except Hortense actually was.

Whether these letters are real or fabrications is not stated, but while they fit the characters, they are most likely inventions of the author to move the story along. And in context, that works just fine.

What doesn’t quite work is the constant switching between perspectives. The viewpoint rotates in a whirlwind between the sisters, although the perspective of whoever is the King’s mistress at the time is in the ascendant. But the revolving points of view make the story fragment. I would have preferred it if we had stayed with Hortense’ viewpoint throughout – she is the survivor and seems to be the least self-serving, at least as regards to their collective relationship with the king.

While the story of the Mailly-Nesle sisters, their King, and the court that they ruled is fascinating, the sisters themselves are not a likable bunch, with the possible exception of Diane. Louise feels like a bit of an idiot, and Pauline and Marie-Anne both seem willing to trample over anyone and everyone, obviously including their own sisters, in order to get their own way. Pauline also seems to have had the makings of a sociopath, at least according to the stories the other sisters tell about their mutual childhood.

This is a portrait of a world that is not merely gone, but of a glittering world that brought about its own destruction, as seen through the eyes of women who had no path to power except through the men that they ruled and squabbled over.

And as a portrait of toxic sisterhood, it made me very glad to be an only child.

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

I am giving away a copy of The Sisters of Versailles to one lucky U.S. or Canadian commenter:

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