Review: Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Mickey7 by Edward Ashton

Review: Mickey7 by Edward AshtonMickey7 by Edward Ashton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Mickey7, an "expendable," refuses to let his replacement clone Mickey8 take his place.
Dying isn’t any fun…but at least it’s a living.
Mickey7 is an Expendable: a disposable employee on a human expedition sent to colonize the ice world Niflheim. Whenever there’s a mission that’s too dangerous—even suicidal—the crew turns to Mickey. After one iteration dies, a new body is regenerated with most of his memories intact. After six deaths, Mickey7 understands the terms of his deal…and why it was the only colonial position unfilled when he took it.
On a fairly routine scouting mission, Mickey7 goes missing and is presumed dead. By the time he returns to the colony base, surprisingly helped back by native life, Mickey7’s fate has been sealed. There’s a new clone, Mickey8, reporting for Expendable duties. The idea of duplicate Expendables is universally loathed, and if caught, they will likely be thrown into the recycler for protein.
Mickey7 must keep his double a secret from the rest of the colony. Meanwhile, life on Niflheim is getting worse. The atmosphere is unsuitable for humans, food is in short supply, and terraforming is going poorly. The native species are growing curious about their new neighbors, and that curiosity has Commander Marshall very afraid. Ultimately, the survival of both lifeforms will come down to Mickey7.
That is, if he can just keep from dying for good.

My Review:

At first, Mickey7 feels like it’s being played for the laughs. And it is. But it also isn’t. And thereby, as the saying goes, hangs a tale.

When we first meet Mickey, he’s in his seventh iteration as his colony’s one and only “Expendable.” It’s Mickey’s job to go out and die, and he’s about to do it again. Hence his designation as “Mickey7”.

Mickey Barnes contracted with the colony ship out of desperation, to leave his home planet. The problem with being as desperate as Mickey was is that when you’re all out of options you’re left with damn few choices. In this case, only one. He can either stay on Earth and die at the hands of the gangsters who are chasing him – or he can join the crew headed off to Niflheim to die over and over but rise, not out of his own ashes but out of a combination of advanced 3D printing and memory uploading in a new body while still feeling more or less like his old self.

But Mickey7, after several previous “rebirths”, doesn’t hold his own life nearly as cheaply as his crewmates do. He has learned that coming back from the dead is no fun at all and he’d rather avoid it if at all possible.

His current mission looks like an unrecoverable failure to his supposed “best friend” who just plain does not want to go to the trouble of searching for Mickey7 on this hellish iceball of a planet. In spite of the odds, Mickey7 gets himself out of the frozen pickle he’s been dropped into, but when he returns to base he learns that his so-called friend has already reported him dead.

Mickey8 has already been created in a struggling colony that literally isn’t big enough for the both of them. There’s not enough rations to feed two Mickeys. One of them will have to go.

But neither of them wants to.

And that’s where things get both comedic and interesting. In the sense of the old SFnal movie Multiplicity, where Michael Keaton clones himself and all the clones are a bit different. Mickey8 is a bit of a user and a slacker, especially in comparison to Mickey7. His clone is his own worst enemy – and too many people are starting to notice.

One or both of them are going to end up in the recycler if this keeps up. Unless they put their heads together and find another way.

Escape Rating A-: While the opening leads the reader to take the story as a bit of a joke, once it gets going it’s clear that it’s not. At all. Not that there aren’t some funny bits – especially when the Mickeys are arguing with each other – but the story overall pokes at a whole bunch of serious issues. It’s just that the “spoonful of sugar” of the humor makes the lessons go down a bit more easily.

The issues that the story raises call back to a lot of things that are often glossed over in SF, so when they hit they hit with a bit of a punch. Mickey, all the Mickeys, raise questions about what it means to be, not necessarily to be human but to be a person. A self-aware, sentient, sapient being.

Mickey’s issues are the same ones dealt with in Day Zero, where the robots grapple with their personhood vs. their programming, wondering “if this unit has a soul”. Both Mickey7 and Day Zero reference the famous problem in the metaphysics of identity known as the “Ship of Theseus”. The question of whether an object that has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object – or not.

At the same time Mickey7 is wrapped around the central issue of the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” which premiered OMG 33 years ago this week. It’s the one where Data’s personhood is put on trial. Is he an object to be owned because he was constructed rather than born? Is he a slave to be exploited? Or is he a person in his own right – with his own rights? Those same questions apply to the Mickeys every bit as much as they do to Data.

But this is a colony story, and it deals a bit, although not in as much depth, with the questions that colony stories often gloss over. It’s not fictionally possible – and it’s not likely possible in reality when we get there – that all the “golden worlds” that colony ships set out for are actually going to be golden. And that it’s not going to be half as simple and easy to fix what’s wrong as it turns out to be in Mass Effect Andromeda – for certain very dangerous and strenuous definitions of “easy”. Niflheim is one of those worlds that may not ever be truly viable. And it’s not going to be a quick and easy solution – or even a quick and painful massacre – for that situation to be resolved one way or another. The terrible slog of trying to make it work is more painfully evident here than we usually see in colonization SF.

As heartbreaking as the colony’s inevitable failure might be, the situation they are in also addresses an issue that usually gets swept away by “manifest destiny” and/or scenarios where planets were seeded with humans by a divine or omnipotent or extremely technologically advanced species so that questions of adaptation and cultural repression can get swept under the carpet.

Instead, we have a situation that, oddly enough, resembles the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Home Soil”, where there is life on Niflheim, it looks nothing like us, acts nothing like us and communicates nothing like us. (In that episode, the silicon based life referred to humans as “ugly bags of mostly water”. Which is technically true in all its parts.

It’s the ugly that gets displayed in Mickey7, as the commander of the colony plans to pretend the discovery never happened – and commit genocide if necessary to ensure that no evidence is left behind. That the Mickeys come up with an ingenious solution to the problem that relies on their dual nature is what redeems this story from farce to something a whole lot more thoughtful and interesting.

And yet never negates the fact that the thing is a whole lot of hair-raising fun to read!

Review: Abandoned in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Abandoned in Death by J.D. RobbAbandoned in Death (In Death, #54) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #54
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Homicide detective Eve Dallas must untangle a twisted family history while a hostage’s life hangs in the balance—in the new In Death novel by #1 New York Times bestselling J. D. Robb.
The woman’s body was found on a bench in a New York City playground. She was clean, her hair neatly arranged, her makeup carefully applied. But other things were very wrong—like the tattoo and piercings, clearly new. The clothes, decades out of date. The fatal wound hidden beneath a ribbon around her neck. And the note: Bad Mommy, written in crayon as if by a child.
It seems clear the killer’s childhood was traumatic—a situation Eve is all too familiar with herself. Yet the clues point to a perpetrator who’d be around sixty, and there are no records of old crimes with a similar MO. What was the trigger that apparently reopened such an old wound and sent someone over the edge? When Eve learns that other young women have recently vanished, the case grows even more urgent—and to solve it she’ll need to find her way into a hidden place of dim light and concrete, into the distant past, and into the depths of a shattered mind.

My Review:

This series is a strange sort of comfort read for me, so I usually say that each entry in the series is at least a chance to visit with old friends. Sometimes it’s more, but it’s always at least that.

Abandoned in Death is one of the instances where it was also at most that. I loved seeing how Dallas, Roarke and the gang are doing, but the way this one began – and the entire case – really, seriously creeped me out.

I felt creeped enough the whole way through that I didn’t enjoy this entry in the series as much as I usually do. And I’m a bit sad about that because I was seriously looking forward to this one.

Once upon a time in Eve Dallas’ world, which is actually now in ours, a desperate and despairing young woman left her child on a church doorstep in the middle of the night. Then she drove straight into a lake and prepared to drown.

But she didn’t. Instead, she dragged herself out of the car and the water and passed out along the side of the road not too far away. She was rescued by a good Samaritan who happened to be a doctor, who took her home, treated her injuries, fell in love with her and married her.

Between the trauma of her injuries – along with the effects of her depression and her drug addiction – her life before her rescue was a complete blank. She didn’t remember the child, the drugs or the attempted suicide. She lived her life from that point forward in the here and the now and it was a good life.

In Eve Dallas’ here and now, someone dumped the corpse of a young woman in a children’s playground. The playground is just around the corner from the house that Eve’s friend Mavis is moving into, with her family. It hits MUCH too close to home, putting Eve in a bit more angst than any trip to the “angst factory” of her own.

Not that this case doesn’t have a bit of that as well.

The investigation of the case is interesting. Weird, but interesting. Weird because the body was dressed and made up to fit a certain image – that of a blonde woman in her mid-20s with a tramp stamp, a belly piercing, cheap party clothes and overdone makeup.

She’s made up to be a woman in her mid-20s in the early 2000s. All the brands, the style, the look, the colors all fit that era. Which means that if someone is getting vicarious revenge on their mother, that person is now in their 60s.

And the first thing that Dallas and company discover about the crime is that their victim isn’t the only woman taken who could be made up to fit the image. She’s just the first to die.

Escape Rating B-: So, the opening of this one weirded me out and the parts of the story that were told either from the killer’s perspective or from the mother’s distant past just didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to be inside the murderer’s head AT ALL and found myself skimming through those sections and the past bits.

Some of that may have been that the originating events were already in the past of the real world – kind of like that double-take you do when confronted with the fact that 1980 is as far away from 2020 as 1940 is from 1980. That time passes way more quickly than we like to think about.

However, whether it was because of skimming those bits quickly or because the murderer was simply very good at hiding in plain sight I had absolutely no idea who was doing it before Dallas gets there herself. I recognized that the wild goose she chased at one point was a red herring, but hadn’t figured out who the real culprit was until the investigators got there.

That there’s a clock ticking more obviously in this case from the usual made some of the normal cop shop gallows humor fall a bit flat – at least for me. No one has much of a sense of humor in this one.

At the same time the rather humorous blossoming of young love between Feeney’s intern and Nadine Furst’s intern (and their respective mentors reaction to same) was a nice little bright stop that did fit well into the story. It also points out just how huge the team ended up being on this one as Dallas needed people to investigate not just the murders happening now, not just whodunnit, but also who in the past it was being done to in proxy.

They were solving an equation for multiple unknowns, and that level of research and search and cooperation and puzzle solving was, as always, fascinating. Whatever team Dallas puts together for a case always gives a master class in competence and this time was no exception.

In spite of the mess that’s uncovered at the end.

All of this adds up to Abandoned in Death being an interesting entry in this marvelous long-running series that wasn’t quite as satisfying for me as they usually are. That’s happened before, as is expected in a series that is 54 books and counting and shows absolutely no sign of stopping. Next up is Desperation in Death, coming this fall and I’m already looking forward to it!

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew JonesWhen the Goddess Wakes (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #3) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #3
Pages: 336
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In When the Goddess Wakes, the final book of the Ring-Sworn trilogy, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the five realms of the Dendressi to conclude his heroic, adventure-filled epic fantasy trilogy.
The Naor hordes have been driven from the walls, but the Dendressi forces are scattered and fragmented, and their gravest threat lies before them. For their queen has slain the ruling council and fled with the magical artifacts known as the hearthstones, and she is only a few days from turning them to her mad ends.
The Altenerai corps has suffered grievous casualties, and Elenai's hearthstone and her source of sorcerous power has been shattered. She and her friends have no choice but to join with the most unlikely of allies.
Their goal: to find the queen's hiding place and somehow stop her before she wakes the goddess who will destroy them all...
Praised for his ability to write modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrews Jones delivers a finale to his trilogy that reveals the dark secrets and resolves the mysteries and conflicts introduced in the first two books of this series.

My Review:

“When last we left our heroes…” Seriously. When we last left the heroes of the Ring-Sworn Trilogy at the end of Upon the Flight of the Queen it was in the pause, stock taking and toting up of the butcher’s bill after the end of another epic battle to retake another city of the Realms by the remaining loyal corps of the legendary Altenerai.

In other words, the ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is not all that different from the ending of the first book in the series, For the Killing of Kings, as it also ends in that same pause at the end of an epic battle after retaking a different city of the Realms.

In other words, if you enjoy really meaty epic fantasy, the place to start this series is with the first book, For the Killing of Kings. Which itself begins a bit in the middle of a story that has already been rotting the Realms from within. But by starting there, you have the opportunity to discover what’s gone wrong and who the real enemies are along with our heroes.

The titles of this series are surprisingly relevant to the story – if just a bit long-winded. For the Killing of Kings is all about the discovery that the legendary sword of the same name is NOT hanging safely on the walls of the Altenerai compound. That a fake has been mounted in its place. It’s the first signal that something is rotten, not in the state of Denmark, but in the state of the Five Realms of which Darassus is the seat of power.

The action in Upon the Flight of the Queen takes place, quite literally, as the result of the flight of Queen Leonara from Darassus to a formerly mythical paradise world where she plans to resurrect a goddess. In fact “THE Goddess” whose awakening is the key event in this final book in the series.

The Queen plans to wake the goddess believing that she has promised them a paradise. Our heroes hope to stop her, because any paradise that’s been built on as many lies as Queen Leonara has been telling is bound to be anything but.

But this has been, from the very beginning, a story of unlikely allies and unexpected betrayals.

The enemy of my enemy may not exactly be my friend, but when my enemy plans to destroy the entire world including both the enemy of my enemy and myself – and every other person, animal, place and thing in that entire world, the enemy of my enemy and I – or in this case the Altenerai, and the Naor, are more or less united in the face of the alternative.

But there is someone waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of the chaos that will ensue when the goddess wakes. And there’s a literal God of Chaos, waiting to have a few words with the Goddess who betrayed him at the beginning of the world – before she makes an end of it.

Escape Rating A: At the beginning, this series reminded me more than a bit of A Chorus of Dragons. That both series began with books named for swords prophesied to kill kings (The Ruin of Kings for A Chorus of Dragons) did kind of hit that resemblance on the nose a bit. That both series are ultimately about the neverending battle between order and chaos, and that the gods in both series are not exactly what anyone thought they were does keep that resemblance going.

And even though A Chorus of Dragons hits heights that the Ring-Sworn Trilogy never quite reaches, if you like this you’ll love that and vice versa. Particularly if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that isn’t quite as epically long and is already complete.

This story has a huge cast, but the many main characters have become distinct enough that it’s relatively easy to follow along and stay in touch with each of them as they move the action towards the conclusion. After a bit of a rocky start the audio narrator managed to get past her earlier mispronunciations and malapropisms to deliver a solid performance that does a good job of differentiating between the voices of the main characters. It also helps that by the point of this third volume, the story’s focus has shifted so that many of the points of view are female, and that the former squire Elenai has become a leader of the Altenerai and possibly the future Queen.

It works better for me if the reader’s voice matches the main character’s voice no matter how many other characters there are. This just was not true in the first book but became true in the second and is very clear and well done in this one.

The entire trilogy has been an “out of the frying pan into the fire” “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” kind of story, and that’s still true in this book up until the nearly bitter end. And I did tear up a bit at some of the darkest and bitterest points. This is a story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have that victory stolen in its turn by the epic betrayals that fuel so much of the action.

But it’s also a tense, gripping tale about unlikely heroes banding together in spite of all their differences and prior enmities. And it’s a story of companionship and found family found in the most unexpected of places.

In the end, the Ring-Sworn Trilogy’s epic conclusion is one of the rare occasions when what appears to be a deus ex machina ending not only involves very real dei, but that their involvement turns out to be the right way to bring the whole thing home, with an ending that manages to mix just the right touch of bitter into the sweet hurrah.

Review: Forgotten in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Forgotten in Death by J.D. RobbForgotten in Death (In Death, #53) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, eboook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #53
Pages: 384
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the latest novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series, homicide detective Eve Dallas sifts through the wreckage of the past to find a killer.

The body was left in a dumpster like so much trash, the victim a woman of no fixed address, known for offering paper flowers in return for spare change―and for keeping the cops informed of any infractions she witnessed on the street. But the notebook where she scribbled her intel on litterers and other such offenders is nowhere to be found.

Then Eve is summoned away to a nearby building site to view more remains―in this case decades old, adorned with gold jewelry and fine clothing―unearthed by recent construction work. She isn’t happy when she realizes that the scene of the crime belongs to her husband, Roarke―not that it should surprise her, since the Irish billionaire owns a good chunk of New York. Now Eve must enter a complex world of real estate development, family history, shady deals, and shocking secrets to find justice for two women whose lives were thrown away…

My Review:

While I fully admit that I’ve been planning to read this since the minute I finished the previous book in the series (Faithless in Death, which was one of the truly EXCELLENT entries in the series), I picked this up over the Labor Day weekend because I was having a difficult time getting stuck into a book and I knew that, even if this was just an average book in the series – which I have to say that it was – I would still have no difficulties whatsoever getting immersed (again) in this world and these characters. Which turned out to be completely, totally and utterly true, as it always does.

I even finished this before yesterday’s book, but that left me so sad that I didn’t want to end the week on such a down note. So here we are with Forgotten in Death. Not that Eve Dallas ever forgets any of the murder victims that she stands for, even after she gets the justice they are due.

As usual with this series, the story begins with a body. A dead body poorly concealed in a dumpster near a construction site. It seems that, in death as well as in life, someone saw Alva Quirk as trash and threw her away.

But this site isn’t through with Eve Dallas yet, as she gets called to another body in the midst of New York City cleaning up the shoddy construction hastily erected in the aftermath of the Urban Wars that are not that many years from now in the alternate timeline of Eve’s world.

Or at least we hope it’s an alternate timeline. Because if it isn’t, the bad years are coming up really fast.

The second body is the opposite of the first. This victim was at least upper middle-class based on the items found with her. She was at least 20 years younger than the first victim, probably more. And she was very, very pregnant at the time of her death.

Which was nearly 40 years ago, just at the time that all of the buildings now being demolished were first and hastily built. And the site that she was found in now belongs to, of course, Eve’s mega-rich husband Roarke.

But he didn’t, and couldn’t have, owned it when that young woman and her viable baby were entombed. He would have been all of 2 years old or thereabouts, and in Ireland at the time. Roarke may be an overachiever in a whole lot of ways, but not THAT much.

Because the long arm of coincidence isn’t nearly that long, at the time each murder happened, and it was definitely murder in both cases, what are now two building sites were one, both owned by the same company, Singer Family Developers. Singer still owns the site where Quirk was found, and the main players in the company from the earlier murder are all still alive and more or less active in it.

And entirely too involved and interested in covering up whatever happened all those years ago.

Escape Rating B: Forgotten in Death is a solid – and solidly enjoyable – entry in this long-running series. As plenty of reviewers have said, one of the things I look forward to every year are the Spring and Fall updates to the world of Dallas and Roarke. So even when the story doesn’t break any new ground – and this one doesn’t – it’s always a good reading time and it’s always great to see what the gang is up to.

One of the things I love about this series is the way that the world is set up. The first book in the series, Naked in Death, was published in 1995, when I was also in my 30s, just as Eve and Roarke were at the time. In 1995, the 2058 setting of the series seemed an impossibly long time away.

And yet it isn’t. Eve’s world doesn’t move as fast as ours, so 50+ books in Eve’s world have only moved the time needle three years forward to 2061. Her world is still far enough in the future that many things are different, while close enough to our time that many things are still the same. Also 2021 is near enough in their rear-view mirror that plenty of people actually remember the time we’re living in right now.

Part of the charm of this series, in addition to the ever-present romance between Dallas and Roarke, is the cop shop vibe of Eve’s Homicide Division of NYPSD. Over the books in the series we’ve gotten to know all the people in Eve’s ever-growing circle of friends, colleagues and frenemies so it’s always fun to see how everyone is doing. And how everyone pulls together when the chips are down.

So even when the case isn’t all that fascinating, I still love this peek into Eve’s world.

Speaking of the case, this one is all about real estate chicanery and family legacies – and just how a family that thinks it’s cut from a finer bit of silk than the rest of us covers up it’s less than savory shenanigans – and shenanigators.

Because all of the real estate, let’s call them irregularities, go back a century – in other words to the 1960s – and because some of the scions of the family have been less than stellar representatives of it, I kind of got the feeling that the author might have been venting some spleen at the long term shady dealings of a family of former high-level government officials. Or at least I got that vibe and enjoyed that vibe very much. I’m totally speculating about the author’s feelings on the matter. Plenty of New York City real estate history – and other history – is filled with people and families who dealt on both sides of the law.

So that part was fun but not deep. But speaking of deep, I really enjoyed the research and historical digging involved both in determining the identity of the long-buried victim and in getting some much overdue justice for the circumstances that eventually put Alva Quirk into that dumpster.

And it’s always great to catch up with the gang. Including Eve’s word-salad descriptions of Detective Jenkinson’s horrendously clashing ties. They always give me a giggle. So I’ll be back in the spring for the next book in this series, Abandoned in Death. I already can’t wait!

Review: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

Review: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. HossainThe Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mythology, science fiction
Pages: 167
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 13, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When the djinn king Melek Ahmar wakes up after millennia of imprisoned slumber, he finds a world vastly different from what he remembers. Arrogant and bombastic, he comes down the mountain expecting an easy conquest: the wealthy, spectacular city state of Kathmandu, ruled by the all-knowing, all-seeing tyrant AI Karma. To his surprise, he finds that Kathmandu is a cut-price paradise, where citizens want for nothing and even the dregs of society are distinctly unwilling to revolt.
Everyone seems happy, except for the old Gurkha soldier Bhan Gurung. Knife saint, recidivist, and mass murderer, he is an exile from Kathmandu, pursuing a forty-year-old vendetta that leads to the very heart of Karma. Pushed and prodded by Gurung, Melek Ahmer finds himself in ever deeper conflicts, until they finally face off against Karma and her forces. In the upheaval that follows, old crimes will come to light and the city itself will be forced to change.

My Review:

Karma is a stone cold bitch. Of course, we all already know that. It’s one of the fundamental laws of the universe, right up there with Murphy.

But when the djinn King Melek Ahmar waks up after a 4,000+ year nap, the version of Karma who is running the nearby city/state/corporation of Kathmandu is more literally a bitch than he, or even we, imagined.

It’s also true that mankind creates their gods in their own image. Based on Kathmandu, we also create our utopias in our image as well. The difference is that we create deities in the image of what we actually are, while we create utopias in the image of what we’d like to be.

When the Lord of Tuesday and his Gurkha sidekick (or perhaps that’s the other way around) arrive in Kathmandu, those two contradictory images come into sharp and broken-bottled conflict. Karma, the AI running the city, gives everyone what they need. Melek Ahmar games the system by using his power to give everyone what they want. No matter how perverse or destructive it might be.

What the Gurkha Bhan Gurung wants is what he’s wanted for over 40 years. He wants revenge on the man who sold his family into distant death, who stole his home and his property and who has lived off the riches he amassed from the misery he caused every day since.

More than that, Bhan Gurung wants to deliver karma, up close and personal, on the AI Karma who made it all possible.

No matter how much blood and how many bodies he has to wade through to make it happen.

Escape Rating A: This is a book that has repeatedly popped up for me as a possible read, but hadn’t quite leapt to the top of the TBR pile. But in this week of constant doomscrolling, it suddenly seemed like the time.

And now I understand why this got so much buzz and was nominated for so many awards when it came out two years ago. Because it’s just awesome. It’s also a story that does not go where you think it will, which just adds to the fun. And it has a high snark quotient, which just makes it even more my jam than I expected it would be.

At first, it seems like Melek Ahmar is going to be a figure of either fun or terror. Or possibly the first right up until he turns into the second. But he is, to at least some extent, laughing at himself. After all, what he seems to want most is a bunch of people to get drunk and have a party – or possibly a drunken orgy – with.

What he finds is a world vastly different from when he went to sleep. To the point where he is a bit lost and easy prey for a single-minded manipulator like Bhan Gurung. Gurung wants to move the city, and Melek Ahmar looks like a really big lever.

Or possibly just a really big tool. Either way, Gurung thinks Melek will be useful. And he’s right.

What makes this story, however, is the way that it manages to comment on so much of the present, no matter its futuristic setting.

The AI Karma is a fair and impartial tyrant, and she’s created a utopia for the people who live within her boundaries. When Melek and Gurung “invade” Kathmandu, they set off a cascade of events that pokes holes in the beliefs about Karma’s impartiality, her fair-mindedness, and her benevolence.

And in the process we end up questioning her purpose, her intent and especially her value system. A value system that is the heart of her seemingly benevolent dictatorship. If you squint, it makes the reader question both capitalism and consumerism, along with a whole bunch of other -isms that are currently powering our world towards unstoppable climate change, extremes of income inequality and other outcomes that look so dire in the future because no one in the present is willing to upset the status quo.

Which in a way is what Karma enforces even as she seems to be doing the opposite. The way she operates points out to the reader that maintaining the status quo is never truly neutral.

And that no one who operates in the political sphere, not even a supposedly impartial AI, can keep their hands clean.

There have been a few books in the last couple of weeks where the sum of their individual parts did not manage to equal up to a whole. Take yesterday’s book as an example, although that’s not the only one in recent memory. This one, however, managed that feat of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, to the point where it feels like this one is still adding itself up and talking back at me about more and more ideas that it touched on.

All of which is making me even more excited for the two books by this author that are now rapidly moving up my TBR pile, Kundo Wakes Up, set in a different part of this same world, and Cyber Mage, which promises to be completely different. I’m very much looking forward to reading both. Soon!

Review: Level Up by Cathy Yardley

Review: Level Up by Cathy YardleyLevel Up (Fandom Hearts, #1) by Cathy Yardley
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Fandom Hearts #1
Pages: 154
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 11, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Geeky introvert Tessa Rodriguez will do whatever it takes to get promoted to video game engineer– including create a fandom-based video game in just three weeks. The only problem is, she can't do it alone. Now, she needs to strong-arm, cajole, and otherwise socialize with her video game coworkers, especially her roommate, Adam, who’s always been strictly business with her. The more they work together, though, the closer they get…
Adam London has always thought of his roomie Tessa as “one of the guys” until he agreed to help her with this crazy project. Now, he’s thinking of her all the time… and certainly as something more than just a roommate! But his last girlfriend broke up with him to follow her ambitions, and he knows that Tessa is obsessed with getting ahead in the video game world.
Going from friends to something more is one hell of a challenge. Can Tessa and Adam level up their relationship to love?

My Review:

I reviewed the second book in the Fandom Hearts series, One True Pairing, several years ago for Library Journal. I loved it so much that I gave it a Starred Review. While that review may be behind a paywall, a variation of it is here on Goodreads.

I also enjoyed it so much that I bought the first book in the series, Level Up, certain that I would get a round tuit eventually. When the notification for this tour popped up I decided that eventually was finally here.

And I have to say that Level Up was just as much geeky fun as One True Pairing.

The title of Level Up is a bit of a pun. Both Tessa and Adam work for the game design company MPG, whose name is also a pun but stands for Mysterious Pickles Games – not that anyone really calls the place that.

And they’re roommates. Adam owns the house, Tessa rents a room and shares the public spaces. They’re friend-ly rather than friends, as Tessa is very much of an introvert while Adam has a whole coterie of male friends that he works with and spends time gaming with outside of work.

The thing is that both Tessa and Adam need to do some leveling up in their lives and neither of them are quite ready to acknowledge it. Both are a year out of long-term relationships that went badly, and that’s a lot of it.

But Tessa in particular is in more than a bit of a “pickle” of her very own. She’s an excellent coder, she has serious skills in coding and design, but she’s a woman trying to break into a profession, a company and a gang that is an entirely male preserve.

She knows that she’s ready to level up her career and move from being merely the audio coder to a member of the engineering team. She’s been keeping her nose to the grindstone nearly 24/7 in the hopes that her talents will be recognized.

And it just doesn’t work that way. It should, but it doesn’t.

If Tessa wants to be recognized, she needs to put herself into a position where she can be known – at least a little bit. She needs to spend some time with her colleagues and co-workers and not holed up in her cubicle or her room.

Stepping outside of her comfort zone – and her walls – brings her the friendship of the geeky women who operate the geeky bookstore around the corner from the house. Tessa finds friendship and sisterhood with a group of women who are every bit as nerdy and geeky as she is herself. She belongs.

And she can help them as much as they can help her.

They need to win a fandom contest to say the bookstore. Tessa needs a gaming project that she can spearhead to bring herself the right kind of attention at MPG. And Adam needs to get over his high-maintenance ex by getting himself a girlfriend.

Those things shouldn’t quite go together. But they do. And it’s awesome, geeky romantic fun every level along the way.

Escape Rating A-: There is just so much to love in the Fandom Hearts series, especially for anyone who is a bit of a geek themselves. The portrait of life at a game developer in Level Up, and the way that One True Pairing speaks to the heart of “shipping” are just so much fun.

This story succeeds on multiple levels – and they’re all a lot of fun.

The romance here is a geeky version of friends to lovers. Tessa and Adam are platonic roommates. They’ve worked together for a while and shared a house for a year. They’ve had a chance to get to know each other and they’re friend-ly without being close friends. It also seems like their bad breakups have insulated them from each other, keeping them from seeing each other as possible romantic partners.

There are, after all, plenty of professional pitfalls for Tessa if she gets romantically involved with a co-worker or even dresses like anything other than “one of the guys”. She’s in an awkward spot. And it’s a very real kind of awkward. Software development companies of all types are known to be sausage-fests. All guys, all the time, to the point where measuring whose is biggest is practically a daily event.

That the team lead of this particular development group is a known asshole to everyone but especially to women makes this scenario feel especially true to life. Tessa still wants in, but knows that she’ll have to prove herself every single day and pay for it with her career if she ever falls a bit short – even if that shortfall is something that a man would be forgiven for instantly.

So Tessa’s spearheading of this project for her new friends is ballsy. Necessary for her career. And a tightrope walk every minute. And we feel for her.

The romance is glittery icing on top of Tessa’s hard-working and hard-won cake. Adam has to both get over his ex and see her for the user that she really is. And that he and Tessa are good for each other because they already like each other for who they really are and not anyone they need to pretend to be.

And it’s lovely that they figure that out while snowbound – even if that particular part of the scenario felt a bit too close to real life this month!

For those of us who are geeky girls, Fandom Hearts is a series that demonstrates that we can be just exactly who we are and still meet cute and find romance without compromising on our love of all things nerdy.

BTW if the plot of One True Pairing reminds readers a bit of last year’s marvelous Spoiler Alert, just remember that One True Pairing was originally published in 2017. So if you like one you’ll love the other and definitely vice-versa. After all, we’ve all shipped the story of a romance between one of the characters we love – or the actor who plays them – and a real-life person more than a few times in our fannish lives, haven’t we?

Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Review: The Four Winds by Kristin HannahThe Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 464
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes an epic novel of love and heroism and hope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most defining eras—the Great Depression.
Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.
In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.

My Review:

Today is the Presidents Day Holiday in the U.S., so I went looking through the virtually towering TBR pile for something with an Americana theme. Which led me straight to The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. While the Great Depression happened everywhere, the Dust Bowl feels like a distinctly American bit of history. At least this particular telling of it certainly is. Just as the topsoil of Texas and the Great Plains States blew east as far as Washington D.C., many of the people living in the former – and future – breadbasket of America blew west to California.

Like many of the people who went west, in that or any other era of American history, these former farmers – and doctors, lawyers, bankers and businessmen – and their families went west to make a better life for their families. Or at least a life where the very land that once sustained them wasn’t killing them with every breath.

The story, this era of devastation and loss, is seen through two women, Elsa (Elsinore) Wolcott Martinelli and her daughter Loreda. The story begins with Elsa, over-protected and under-loved, a 25-year-old woman who sees the life her upper-class parents have mapped out for her and wants none of it.

Elsa is no beauty, and she was diagnosed with a heart condition in her early teens. Her parents expect her to live the life of an invalid, doomed to spinsterhood and expected to sit quietly and self-effacingly in a corner, waiting until her parents become elderly and need her to take care of them.

Elsa wants a life for herself. One evening she goes out in secret and meets a man who is just as lonely and feels just as trapped as she does. In stolen moments together, she discovers love while he honestly just finds a temporary escape.

At least until the child they make changes all of their plans. And the dry years and the dust take away everything they ever dreamed of. It’s left up to Elsa to take her children somewhere that they might have a chance.

Or at least somewhere that the land itself won’t kill them – although there will be plenty of other things and people that just might do the same.

Escape Rating A-: I’m having a bit of a mixed feelings reaction to this book and in an unusual way. Those mixed feelings are because I recognize that this book is really, really good, while at the same time feeling like it’s not for me.

And I’m thinking that’s because for historical fiction, which it very much is, The Four Winds definitely borders on Literary Fiction which is generally not my jam. So I’m torn.

The alternative explanation is that the historical parts really drew me in, but the character of Elsa didn’t. On the one hand, she’s an indomitable spirit, surviving in a situation that would bring anyone to their knees – as it certainly does Elsa.

The difference is that Elsa doesn’t so much rise up until the very end as she puts her head down and keeps on keeping on for the sake of her children Loreda and Anthony. But she doesn’t so much exhibit courage or selflessness as she does a lack of self. She’s been beaten down her whole life and now she beats herself down whenever her situation isn’t doing a hard enough job at it.

I think that is where the story verges on Literary Fiction as she’s downtrodden internally even before she’s trodden down externally.

But the history wrapped into this is intensely compelling. It’s as though the author reached into the Dust Bowl Migration photographs by Dorothea Lange and just pulled out all of the emotion and backstory and poured it onto the page. If you’re not seeing the iconic image of the woman with her children as you’re reading this you need to take a good, hard look at Lange’s work because the images are still absolutely soul-searing 80-plus years later.

And those scorching is on every page of The Four Winds. Not just the despair of the land and the life blowing away – and into everyone’s lungs – in Texas, but the hate and derision on the face of so many Californians when they arrive. The inhumane treatment that Elsa and her children – and all of the other migrant workers – receive in California echoes through the years right up to the present and the way that immigrants are spoken about, written about and treated to this very day.

Review: Faithless in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Faithless in Death by J.D. RobbFaithless in Death (In Death, #52) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #52
Pages: 400
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the new Eve Dallas police thriller from #1 New York Times-bestselling author J. D. Robb, what looked like a lover's quarrel turned fatal has larger--and more terrifying--motives behind it...
The scene in the West Village studio appears to be classic crime-of-passion: two wine glasses by the bed, music playing, and a young sculptor named Ariel Byrd with the back of her head bashed in. But when Dallas tracks down the wealthy Upper East Side woman who called 911, the details don't add up. Gwen Huffman is wealthy, elegant, comforted by her handsome fiancé as she sheds tears over the trauma of finding the body--but why did it take an hour to report it? And why is she lying about little things?
As Eve and her team look into Gwen, her past, and the people around her, they find that the lies are about more than murder. As with sculpture, they need to chip away at the layers of deception to find the shape within--and soon they're getting the FBI involved in a case that involves a sinister, fanatical group and a stunning criminal conspiracy.

My Review:

I’ll try to keep the squeeing to a minimum over here, but with this OMG 52nd book in the In Death series it’s going to be damn difficult.

Because this entry in the series, after last fall’s admittedly excellent trip to the angst factory with Shadows in Death, is all about the case. And also JUST about the case. While there are plenty of personal – and generally wonderful – things going on in the background for several members of this found family, the crime and hoped for punishment that this story is centered on is a murder case and JUST a murder case.

There are plenty of people and events that surround the murder and its coverup that many readers – including this one – may see as a commentary on our contemporary events in spite of this series being set in a future that is 40 years beyond our time and probably not the one we’re going to get.

But this case, in spite of it coming directly on the heels of the events in Shadows in Death, doesn’t do any deep diving into the nightmares that haunt the pasts of both NYPSD Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her husband, thief-turned-multi-billionaire Roarke.

In fact, as this case opens, Eve is wrapping up the paperwork for that previous case. (NYPSD is a bureaucracy and a city department. Of course she has to deal with the demon that is paperwork.)

At first, the case seems relatively simple. Ariel Byrd, a promising artist. is dead, bludgeoned to death in her studio with one of her own tools. The cause of death in this particular case is screamingly obvious. Initially, the killer seems so too. The woman who discovered and reported the dead body is just as screamingly obviously lying as the victim is dead.

The question that Dallas and her detective partner are stuck on and stuck with is wrapped around exactly what the woman is lying about. The facts, the evidence and the woman’s story are jumbled into a big ball of wrong, but the exact nature of that wrong is considerably less obvious.

As the dive gets deeper into the background of the lying, manipulative and utterly faithless Gwen Huffman, Dallas discovers that there be monsters there, in the shape of Gwen’s parents and their friends, the founders of and true believers in the cult of the Natural Order. A cult that espouses total racial segregation, absolute female subjugation and the elimination with extreme prejudice of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans men and women and anyone who is non-genderconforming in any way.

There isn’t a law enforcement agency on the entire PLANET that doesn’t want to bring the Natural Order down. They’ve been trying for years, but just as with the past and present KKK and with contemporary white supremacy, there are plenty of people among the powers that be who are either true believes themselves or have been paid off to look the other way, which has put the righteous takedown this bunch really deserves out of reach.

Until this case, a case that at first doesn’t seem to connect at all, develops tentacles that reach all the way down into the heart of this darkness.

After all, like so many cases that begin small and end up being really, really big – it’s not the initial criminal act that causes all the trouble. It’s the cover up. This one just turned out to need way more cover up than the perpetrator or the cult could ever handle.

Especially with Dallas on the case.

Escape Rating A: The books in this series generally begin with a murder and in a certain sense the situation tends to go straight downhill from there, at least until justice triumphs and evil gets its just desserts. In this particular case, actually in MANY of Dallas’ cases, those desserts are very just indeed.

Very much on the other hand, this series is a comfort read for me, even if the case that Dallas and Roarke are involved in doesn’t turn out to be all that involving, although this one certainly did.

But, very much and very surprisingly like reading fanfiction for a beloved book or TV series, the world that Dallas and Roarke live in is a world that I can slip into as easily as an old sweater or a comfy pair of slippers. After 52 books (and counting!) I know these people, this found family that Dallas and Roarke have gathered around themselves, very much to their own continued astonishment.

With each entry in the series, I get to visit with all my old friends, see how they are doing, catch up on what has been happening in their lives. I don’t need to be introduced to them, I don’t need to figure out the worldbuilding. I’m immersed in the story from the very first page because everything is so familiar and beloved.

Except the murder, of course. That’s always new. But the way that Dallas investigates that murder, and the people who help her along her way – they are known and familiar. To the point where I laugh along with them, not because anyone has necessarily said anything particularly funny, but because the humor is built into the way they interact. Like old friends with fond and familiar stories.

This case, however, was absorbing in and of itself, which doesn’t always happen. But it certainly did this time. The cult that turns out to be front-and-center of the case, after being successfully hidden and behind and in back for so many years, is just plain evil. Not fantasy villainy, but purely the evil that humans do, to each other and to themselves, all too frequently in history.

There are seeds of that evil in the here and now. Today. As there have always been. That’s what makes the entire story so chilling, and makes the takedown so very righteous.

So come for the camaraderie. And for the romance between Dallas and Roarke that still manages to be both romantic and hot after 52 books. Stay for the horror show, because you’ll be riveted.

Stand up and cheer for the ending. The end of the cult. The end of the case. But not the end of the job. Dallas and Roarke, along with the rest of the family, will be back in the fall in Forgotten in Death. I already have it scheduled on my reading calendar!

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie JennerThe Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 309
Published by St. Martin's Press on May 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

My Review:

I didn’t pick this book in any of the usual ways. A friend and I were having a discussion about the importance of the right voice for the right character in video games (yes, we both have cases of ‘voice kink’) and transferred the discussion to audiobooks and somehow ended up talking about Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit.

I decided to test her theory about being willing to listen to him read the phone book, and ended up with the audiobook of The Jane Austen Society because he’s the reader for the unabridged audiobook.

While I’m not so sure about the phone book reading, he did turn out to be a terrific reader for the story – and the story turned out to be pretty terrific too. To the point where I got impatient at the halfway point and switched from the audio to the ebook, which I just so happened to have on hand.

So I may have gotten here for the audiobook reader, but I stayed for the story. And what a lovely story it turned out to be.

First, I have to confess that I am not a big Jane Austen fan the way that most of the characters – and nearly all of the sympathetic ones – are in this book. I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility when I listened to them, but I never got bitten by the Jane Austen bug like so many readers do.

In other words, if this story was just all about the Austen I probably wouldn’t like it nearly as much.

Instead, it reminds me of The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. That story extends the Austen classic past the end of the original by focusing on one of the secondary characters. The Jane Austen Society extends the Austen oeuvre by telling an Austen-like story that is focused, not on Jane herself as so many such stories are, but rather on the place she left behind and the people who have chosen to carry on her legacy.

Escape Rating A-: Thinking about this one after finishing, I realized that this reads very much like the type of story that Austen herself would have told. Ostensibly, it’s about the attempt to create a place for the study of Austen in her final home, but instead, just like so much of Austen’s own work, it’s a story about a group of disparate people and the complex relationships they have woven between them.

At the outset, they are all quite separate individuals, loosely linked by one small village. A village that just happens to be Chawton, the place where Austen spent her final decade.

But as the story wends its way, the group weaves itself into a whole, into, in fact, the Jane Austen Society. It’s definitely a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but its parts feel like familiar updates to Austen’s own characters.

The village doctor, the village lawyer, the farmer, the widowed teacher, the maid at the “great house”, the daughter of that same great house and the villain of the piece, the dying patriarch of the great house. Then we add the people that would not have been part of Austen’s world, the auctioneer from Sotheby’s, the American actress, and the secondary villain, the actress’ fiancé.

But what makes up this story are the relationships that develop, like the one between the doctor and the teacher, a relationship that brims with just the kind of unacknowledged romantic and sexual tension that drives so many of Austen’s own stories. As well as the textbook example of how a cad woos a woman who is much too good for him, as exemplified in so many of Austen’s stories, particularly Mansfield Park, and in the relationship between the actress and the Hollywood producer she almost but not quite marries.

The Jane Austen Society is a kind of a quiet little story, as it begins slowly – perhaps just a touch too slowly – to set up the village and the relationships there before introducing those outside influences. The story speeds up as those outsiders become part of it, just as the outside world moves a bit faster – perhaps more than a bit – than tiny little Chawton.

And it all ends on a lovely high note, with happy ever afters all around – even the ones that the reader as well as the characters – never anticipated at the beginning.

One final note. While there is something like the Jane Austen Society, and it did develop a center for the study of Austen in Chawton, the way that it came about bears no resemblance to the events in this story.

However, life does still imitate art. Just as, during the setting of this story, there was no established center for the study of Jane Austen’s works and none of the places where she lived had been preserved for that purpose, as of this writing the same can be said for another English writer, J.R.R. Tolkien (and circling back to The Hobbit). An effort is underway, established by many of the actors who have portrayed characters in the movies based on his work, to purchase Tolkien’s house in Oxford and create a cultural center for the study of his work.

Like many whose lives have been enriched by reading this author’s work, I wish them well in their endeavor.