A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. Kingfisher

A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. KingfisherWhat Feasts at Night (Sworn Soldier, #2) by T. Kingfisher
Narrator: Avi Roque
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Series: Sworn Soldier #2
Pages: 160
Length: 5 hours and 2 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The follow-up to T. Kingfisher’s bestselling gothic novella, What Moves the Dead .

Retired soldier Alex Easton returns in a horrifying new adventure.

After their terrifying ordeal at the Usher manor, Alex Easton feels as if they just survived another war. All they crave is rest, routine, and sunshine, but instead, as a favor to Angus and Miss Potter, they find themself heading to their family hunting lodge, deep in the cold, damp forests of their home country, Gallacia.

In theory, one can find relaxation in even the coldest and dampest of Gallacian autumns, but when Easton arrives, they find the caretaker dead, the lodge in disarray, and the grounds troubled by a strange, uncanny silence. The villagers whisper that a breath-stealing monster from folklore has taken up residence in Easton’s home. Easton knows better than to put too much stock in local superstitions, but they can tell that something is not quite right in their home. . . or in their dreams.

My Review:

It’s not mushrooms this time. Not that there isn’t something creeping around the old hunting lodge that retired soldier Alex Easton inherited from their family in the remoter parts of their native Gallacia. And not that Easton isn’t still experiencing PTSD and a whole, entire and entirely justified case of the collywobbles at even the thought of anything that might possibly have to do with mushrooms after the fungus-powered monstrosities in Easton’s first outing, What Moves the Dead.

In fact, after the events in What Moves the Dead, it’s not at all surprising that Easton is searching for a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just a surprise that they’ve gone home to Gallacia to find either of those things. Because it is clear from Easton’s opening remarks regarding this trip to their homeland, the whys and wherefores of the whole thing, and their thoughts and feelings about Gallacia and anything to do with it that they would much rather have stayed in Paris.

As Easton makes VERY clear on the way to that hunting lodge they haven’t visited in the past ten years, at least in the conversation they are having with themselves inside the confines of their own head, they are feeling very put upon by this whole trip. Their reluctance, at least, is apparent in the conversation they are having aloud, the one between themselves, their very good horse Hob, their batman and general factotum Angus, and Angus’ mustache, which seems to convey rather strong opinions of its own in spite of not actually being able to say a word.

Besides, it’s all Angus’ fault. Well, Angus’ fault as well as Easton’s own sense of propriety – no matter how much they’d like to let THAT go hang itself at the moment. Because Eugenia Potter, that redoubtable English mycologist who so ably assisted them with the fungal infestation in the House of Usher in What Moves the Dead, has been invited to Gallacia to observe the local fungi, with Easton as her ostensible host.

Honestly, it’s to further Miss Potter’s romance with Angus, but no one is admitting that. It wouldn’t be proper.

Easton planned to arrive at the lodge a few days ahead of Miss Potter, expecting to find the place in reasonable shape, just needing a bit of restocking and tidying up. That’s how Easton remembers it from the last time they were there. But Easton also remembers a caretaker taking care of the place, a caretaker that Easton has been paying a salary to for years and years, and as recently as the preceding month.

So, it’s obvious when Easton and Angus arrive that things are not quite what they expected. The house is a mess, the caretaker is a few months dead, and no one seems to be willing to be employed to help Easton and Angus get the place cleaned up and cleaned out, in spite of the good wages in hard currency that Easton is more than willing to pay in this poverty-stricken village where those things are seldom seen or even heard of.

Which is the point where Easton should have rescinded the invitation to Miss Potter and run back to Paris as fast as their horse’s legs could carry them. Because there’s something uncanny about the caretaker’s death, and there’s something dangerous haunting the old hunting lodge.

At least, this time, it’s not mushrooms.

Escape Rating A-: I’m not sure whether to say that What Feasts at Night isn’t quite as creepy as What Moves the Dead, or to say that it is even creepier. Let’s say I’m creeping along that fence and not sure which side I’ll fall off onto.

What Moves the Dead was a creepy story that turned out to be a bit more scientifically inclined than anything that happens within it might lead the reader to expect.

What Feasts at Night, very much on the other hand, reads much more like a fever dream story about pneumonia and PTSD. Or a ghost story about PTSD. Or a nightmare about a ghost that’s strangely cured or killed through PTSD that only masquerades as being about pneumonia. Or all of the above.

The fever dream aspects of the story, particularly as the pneumonia, or the wandering local vampire/ghost creeps its way into the dreams of both Alex Easton and the grandson of the bitter old woman they finally manage to hire to take care of the house, manage to both make the story even creepier AND slow it down at the same time. Because for the longest time not much happens except in dreams and that’s not a quick process until the end. Not helped at all by the fact that no one local will really EXPLAIN anything about what might be happened, and Easton clearly didn’t get told the right stories when they were growing up.

But at that point, where the dream and the ghost and Easton’s PTSD all emerge on the same battlefield, it’s chilling and riveting and every frightening thing the reader has been expecting all along. It just feels like it takes a while to get there. But then, that’s what dreams do.

One thing that does kick the story along, frequently, often, and with more than a bit of a rueful laugh, is that it’s clear from the volume of conversations that Easton has with themself that the author has never met a Fourth Wall she wasn’t more than willing to batter her way through head first, whether using her protagonist’s head or even her own.

Which is one of the things that made listening to What Feasts at Night so much creepy fun, as the narrator, Avi Roque, has a rough, smoky voice that is perfect for Easton as it lets us inside their wry, sarcastic, self-deprecating head even as they tell both themselves and us that they realize that they should have known better at so many points along the way of the story they are now telling, if only they hadn’t let their logic get in the way of observing what was actually happening around them.

I enjoy Alex Easton’s voice, even when I’m not nearly so certain about the story they are telling. Horror is not my jam, but in this case I’m here for the characters, and Easton’s perspective is compelling even when the story they are in the middle of is creeping me right the hell out.

#BookReview: A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen

#BookReview: A Quantum Love Story by Mike ChenA Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, science fiction, science fiction romance, time travel
Pages: 368
Published by Harlequin MIRA on January 30, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The only thing harder than finding someone in a time loop is losing them.

Grieving her best friend's recent death, neuroscientist Mariana Pineda’s ready to give up everything to start anew. Even her career— after one last week consulting at a top secret particle accelerator.

Except the strangest thing a man stops her…and claims they've met before. Carter Cho knows who she is, why she's mourning, why she's there. And he needs Mariana to remember everything he’s saying.

Because time is about to loop.

In a flash of energy, it’s Monday morning. Again. Together, Mariana and Carter enter an inevitable life, four days at a time, over and over, without permanence except for what they share. With everything resetting—even bank accounts—joy comes in the little a delicious (and expensive) meal, a tennis match, giving a dog his favorite treat.

In some ways, those are all that matter.

But just as they figure out this new life, everything changes. Because Carter's memories of the time loop are slowly disappearing. And their only chance at happiness is breaking out of the loop—forever.

My Review:

Carter Cho recognizes that he’s in a time loop. He has four days to live, over and over and over and OVER again, with no way to stop it and no way out. All he can do is watch, wait and repeat. It’s boring, it’s disheartening, it’s downright depressing. Most of all it’s terribly, terribly lonely.

Until Carter decides to take one loop and do the opposite of everything he did the first and all the subsequent, mind-numbing, heart-breaking times he’s looped before. And in that opposition he manages to convince, coerce, drag another person into the loop with him.

Dr. Mariana Pineda and technician Carter Cho are opposites in every possible way, but all they have is each other. And a seemingly endless amount of time to figure out what keeps making the Hawke Accelerator accelerate itself into a catastrophic explosion, time after time after time – and resetting the world as everyone but the two of them knows it.

Neither of them has the training or the tools to diagnose what’s going wrong – but they are all they have. And that turns out to be more than enough. Just in the nick of, well, time.

Escape Rating B+: If the blurb or the description above are making you think of the movie Groundhog Day, you are not alone. Neither was it alone in my head as I was reading my way through the first part of the story – because time travel loops have been done before.

In other words, this loop has been looped before. As they do.

At one end of that time loop story perspective there’s Groundhog Day, which has kind of a sweet ending no matter how much of an asshole the protagonist (played by Bill Murray) is as the story begins. But Carter Cho is a really nice guy – if a bit of an underachiever according to his parents – so that resemblance isn’t 100%

The ending of A Quantum Love Story, or rather, all the endings of the world before the resets, have all of the explosive punch of the movie Edge of Tomorrow, although there’s no war in Quantum.

A Quantum Love Story felt more akin to the Stargate SG-1 episode “Window of Opportunity” as following the protagonists through the loops of that journey goes through many of the same stages that Carter and Mariana go through while following characters that one really does want to follow. Also there’s no real villain in “Window of Opportunity”, which is also true in Quantum. The story, the journey, the battle if you will, is to solve the mystery and break the cycle – not to break heads.

But the chasing down of just how many different time loop stories this one brought to mind kept me from being as invested in Carter and Mariana’s problem solving through their loops, although the emotional journey they took did hold my interest even as it briefly looked like it was heading for Flowers for Algernon territory which made for some tense moments for this reader. (Don’t worry too much, it doesn’t go there, but there were a few bits that just about gave me the weepies when it looked that way. Howsomever, the author has form for this, as that’s part of the direction that his lovely Light Years from Home went.)

The heart of the story, and it very much does have one, is in the relationship between Carter and Mariana, who begin as opposites in just about every sense of the word and bond through shared trauma. But what they discover through that sharing is that their version of opposites attract brings out the best in both of them, and that there are possibilities in life that neither of them ever imagined.

Including the possibility of a happy ever after with someone that they would otherwise never have had a chance to meet. A chance that will be whisked away if they ever manage to solve the problem and stop the resets.

The solution to both problems, to the endless resets of the time loop and to stopping those resets, turns out to be exactly the same thing. With one surprising and beautiful deus ex machina of an exception.

Ultimately, the repeating time loops with their repeating reminders of other time loop stories is both a bit of a bug AND a feature. After all this is a story about things repeating until they don’t, so it seems right that they kind of do. In the end I was charmed by the story and the characters as they worked through both repeating and not repeating time at the same time.

I’ll certainly be repeating my exploration of this author’s work and his signature combination of science fiction and relationship fiction with his next outing, hopefully this time next year. In the meantime, if you are intrigued by this review, check out the first chapter excerpt I posted last week. If you like SF with just a touch of romance and a heaping helping of relationship building and problem solving, you just might fall in love with A Quantum Love Story!

#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. Green

#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. GreenThe Holy Terrors (A Holy Terrors mystery) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal
Series: Holy Terrors #1
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Six people locked in a haunted hall . . . Cameras watching their every move . . . And then someone dies . . . This first in a spine-tingling new paranormal mystery series from New York Times bestselling British fantasy author Simon R. Green will make you doubt your judgement - and believe in ghosts!
Welcome to Spooky Time, the hit TV ghost-hunting show where the horror is scripted . . . and the ratings are declining rapidly. What better way to up the stakes - and boost the viewership - than by locking a select group of Z-list celebrities up for the night in The Most Haunted Hall in England (TM) and live-streaming the 'terrifying' results?
Soon Alistair, a newly appointed Bishop, actress Diana, medium Leslie, comedian Toby and celebrity chef Indira are trapped inside Stonehaven town hall, along with June, the host and producer of the show. The group tries to settle in and put on a good show, but then strange things start happening in their hall of horrors.
What is it about this place - and why is the TV crew outside not responding? Are they even on air?
Logical Alistair attempts to keep the group's fears at bay and rationalise the odd events, but there are things that just can't be explained within reason . . . Can he stop a cold-blooded would-be killer - even if it's come from beyond the grave?
This locked-room mystery with a paranormal twist is classic Simon R. Green, featuring his trademark humour and imagination, irresistible characters, and thoroughly entertaining plotting.

My Review:

Four strangers locked in a haunted building overnight with two TV “personalities”, their every action and emotion covered by hidden cameras, all in pursuit of a payday that’s not going to be nearly as generous as their agents led them to expect.

Sounds like the perfect setup for a “Reality TV” program. Or a joke. Or, in this particular case, a joke of a reality TV show that is desperate to recapture the market share it lost much longer ago than its presenter is willing to admit. Or allow.

Put another way, a has-been comedian, a wannabe almost-celebrity chef, an outspoken bishop and an actress whose career isn’t what it used to be, walk into a haunted town hall to film an episode of ‘Spooky Time!’ with its resident medium AND its indefatigable host.

There should be a punchline coming for that joke. And there certainly is for at least some of the participants. At least for the ones that survive the night.

Anyone who has any illusions left about the exact amount of ‘reality’ present in a so-called reality TV show needs to check those illusions before the first page – because they’ll all be spoiled although the plot of the book certainly is not.

From the moment the time-locks ominously click shut and the lights start to go out, it’s clear to the participants that something has gone even wronger than they expected after seeing the dilapidated state of the place they’re supposed to be spending the night. But in the gloomy, shadowed and downright spooky atmosphere, it’s all too easy to chalk up their fears to the idea that something supernatural might be stalking their number.

But as the Bishop says to the Actress, that doesn’t add up. It’s clear, at least to him, that they are being led astray by their own guilts and fears. And even though there is an entirely different sort of ‘leading astray’ that the Actress would prefer to do to the Bishop, she’s willing to trust him to see her through this long and particularly dark night.

Escape Rating B-: I ended up with a LOT of mixed feelings about this one, some of which may have to do with having no love or even liking for so-called reality TV. (Although, honestly, if the author has any love for that genre it’s a particularly twisted version of it.)

It’s clear from the outset that all of the so-called ‘supernatural’ events are planned and prepared, that the show is on its last legs and the guests were chosen for their gullibility, their expendability, or both. And because they were relatively cheap – just like the all-night rental of the supposed ‘Most Haunted Hall in England.’

Particularly as, in spite of all the horror implications of the blurb and the Goodreads genre assignment, the title of the series to follow has it right, The Holy Terrors is a mystery and not horror at all.

Which means that the reader’s enjoyment of and/or absorption in this story relies on either getting caught up in the mystery or being charmed by its characters – many of whom are not charming at all.

Although the Bishop and the Actress certainly are, and their increasing charm with each other does help carry readers along. Which is a good thing, because ‘whodunnit’ was obvious long before the big reveal – complete with a bit of good old-fashioned villain monologuing – at the end.

As the first book in a series that looks like it will follow the adventures of the Bishop and the Actress as they have more mysterious and possibly spooky adventures, there’s a fair amount of heavy lifting to be done that doesn’t feel like it’s completely done by the book’s end.

Because I’m not totally sure what the newly christened “Holy Terrors” will actually be doing in their future adventures – beyond that they’ll be doing them together. It’s not clear even at the end of this book and I’ve been guessing throughout.

Not that I won’t ‘tune back in’ to find out when the next book appears. I just hope it’s a bit more clear by then AND that it doesn’t sidle quite so close to the territory the author has already occupied by Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt.

One final note to say thanks for the memories, the facepalm and the headslap – not necessarily in that order and definitely not as the Actress said to the Bishop – which is what all of the above are referencing.

This entire story – and quite possibly the series intended to follow – is part of a long-running British tradition of jokes and/or clichés (your mileage may vary on which they are) of double entendres that begin or end with “as the bishop said to the actress” or the other way around. Phrases that take on a sexual overtone, undertone, or alternate meaning by adding that phrase that either way is roughly equivalent to a joke ending, “that’s what she (or he) said”.

It niggled at me through the whole book as something familiar, but I was caught up just enough in the mystery at hand and the bell didn’t ring until AFTER I finished the book. Because that phrase, in popular parlance in British in the 1930s, was one that Simon Templar, The Saint, used frequently and often in the original books by Leslie Charteris – of which I read as many as I could find back in the dark ages after seeing bits of the TV series starring Roger Moore in syndication way back when.

I don’t remember that phrase from the TV series, but in the books, Templar used it frequently, often and as intended. Honestly, I’m not even sure I was quite old enough to get the double entendres at the time I read the books, but the whole thing stuck in my memory and thereby hangs that facepalm and headslap.

Because if this series continues, the whole entire thing has the potential to be a series of investigations where the Bishop and the Actress are going to have a LOT to say to each other. And quite possibly do with and to each other between solving mysteries.

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Seance by Marty Wingate

A- #BookReview: A Body at the Seance by Marty WingateA Body at the Séance (London Ladies' Murder Club, #2) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Pages: 332
Published by Bookouture on January 11, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBetter World Books
Goodreads

When a body turns up at a glamorous séance, Mabel Canning’s sleuthing skills are put to the test. Because it appears the victim died twice…
London, 1921: As a winter wind blows through the streets of London, Mabel Canning is hired by the Useful Women’s Agency to attend a séance at the home of famous medium Madame Pushkana. But when Mabel hears a choking noise and a loud thud, she quickly turns on the lights to find herself at the scene of a murder.
The victim is none other than Stamford Plomley, whose widow arranged the séance after he died in a fire eight months ago. How did he come back from the dead without a scorch mark on him? And could one of their assembled party of gentlewomen have killed him… again?
When Scotland Yard arrive, the police try to stop Mabel from interfering. But having just formed the London Ladies’ Murder Club, Mabel isn’t going anywhere. And with the help of former detective Park Winstone, she begins to piece together what really happened at the ghostly gathering.
But when Mabel receives a threatening letter warning her to stay away from the case, she realises the murderer may have another victim in mind. With time running out, will she hit a dead end? Or can she keep herself from becoming the next one to be sent to an early grave?
A totally gripping, witty and warm Golden Age cozy murder mystery from USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Richard Osman, Verity Bright and T.E. Kinsey.

My Review:

Whether or not one is a believer in spiritualism, the best one can hope for at a séance is a ‘message from the other side’ from the dearly departed. But no matter how much one believes, one absolutely does not expect the dearly departed to appear in the flesh. Even more miraculously, in the whole and entirely not desiccated or decomposing flesh – in spite of the dearly departed’s departure having taken place eight months previously.

However, one could not exactly say that reports of Stamford Plomley’s death had been greatly exaggerated – more that they were clearly premature eight months ago. Because the man is certainly dead now, strangled with the rope generally used to tie back the curtains that had so recently concealed his quite living body until the advent of the rope and whoever used it to bring about his delayed – or at least erroneously reported – demise.

And not that the world – and certainly Stamford Plomley’s widow Ivy – aren’t both better off with him firmly and finally deceased. However, that leaves both Scotland Yard and Mabel Canning, the head of the Useful Women’s Agency’s private investigations division with cases to solve.

Mrs. Plomley hires Mabel to investigate the circumstances of Stamford Plomley’s ‘first’ death, while Inspector Tollerton of Scotland Yard must look into the case of his second and more permanent one.

They will both have their hands full looking into the cult of believers who attended the séance conducted by the mysterious Madame Pushkana. A séance that was intended to bring Mrs. Plomley a message from the perhaps not-so-dearly departed – a message that was providentially – for someone – interrupted by a bit of flash paper and that rope around Mr. Plomley’s neck.

But if the late and not-so-lamented-as-was-originally-believed Stamford Plomley was killed with a rope in the séance room, when Madame Pushkana, the medium herself, is murdered by a knife in the back, backstage before one of her public ‘spiritual evenings’, both Inspector Tollerton and Mabel are forced to the realization that their cases have become uncannily close – and that someone is stalking their list of potential suspects.

Escape Rating A-: I couldn’t resist diving almost straight into A Body at the Séance so soon after the first book in the London Ladies’ Murder Club series, the charmingly murderous A Body on the Doorstep, because that book was just so much cozy mystery fun that I had to find out if the author managed to capture that lightning in the bottle a second time – even if said lightning jumped out of the bottle and killed someone new.

Which it did – in all the ways that the above can be taken as a pun. A Body at the Séance was every bit as much fun as the first book – if not just a teeny bit more because of the many ways that Mabel managed to hang onto her skepticism even as she found herself investigating an all-too-real murder that was just a bit over the top because of both setting and circumstances.

Watching Mabel unravel the murder while exploring her post-World War I London was just as charming as the first book – even if I did figure out whodunnit well before the final reveal.

What carried this second entry in the series, at least for this reader, was the intelligence and yes, charm, of Mabel herself. She’s easy for contemporary readers to identify with because, in spite of an entire century between her world and ours, her situation is so very similar to that of any independent woman determined to stretch her wings and make a place for herself on her own merits for the very first time in her life.

So Mabel is finding her way in what, for her, is intended to be a brave, new world, and it is. She’s got to earn a living, watch her expenses, find a new set of friends, new familiar places, and generally make her own way. She’s not rich, she’s not poor, she’s not in service, she’s from a comfortably middle-class background and has been given strong roots by her upbringing and wings from being finally able to make her own life.

And that’s a circumstance that many of us can identify with – with or without the ubiquity of social media.

That Mabel may have found an unexpected romance is just icing on a cake that she’s not sure she’s ready to eat. Because her independence is precious to her, she’s worked hard to reach it, and she’s not willing to fall back into the expected female role. She just isn’t sure yet whether the man she stumbled across in her first investigation will be able to accept her as an equal and not just as a wife.

She’s not willing to settle. And she doesn’t have to. Which makes her the kind of role model the world could still use more of.

So, as much as I came for the cozy murder mystery setting so reminiscent of the Golden Age of detective fiction, I’m absolutely sticking for Mabel Canning, her London Ladies’ Murder Club and the wonderful doggy assistance of the rather intelligent Gladys, because I’m loving every page.

Mabel, and her growing ‘Scooby Gang’, especially Gladys, will be back in April in A Body at the Dance Hall. As a child, I thought the old saying was “a new face on the BALLroom floor”, instead of what it really is. It looks like this time I’ll get to see my version come to life. Or, more likely, death, in just a couple of months.

Either way, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how Mabel and her friends get to the bottom of their next case!

Grade A #BookReview: The Missing Witness by Allison Brennan

Grade A #BookReview: The Missing Witness by Allison BrennanThe Missing Witness (Quinn & Costa, #5) by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Quinn & Costa #5
Pages: 416
Published by Mira on January 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When a key witness goes missing, Quinn and Costa must find her before a killer silences her for good…
Detective Kara Quinn is back in Los Angeles to testify against a notorious human trafficker, finally moving past the case that upended her life. But when the accused is shot by a masked man in broad daylight, the chaotic scene of the crime turns up few reliable bystanders. And one witness—a whistleblower who might be the key to everything—has disappeared.
After the prosecuting DDA is stabbed to death, it’s clear that anyone who knows too much about the investigation is in danger, and tracking down the witness becomes a matter of life or death. With government corruption running rampant and someone on the inside trying to pin anything they can on Kara, she trusts nobody except FBI special agent Matt Costa and a handful of allies.
But when explosive secrets begin to surface within the LAPD and FBI, Kara questions everything she thought she knew about the case, her colleagues and the life she left behind months ago.
Now Quinn and Costa must race to find the missing witness and get to the bottom of the avalanche of conspiracies that has rocked LA to its core…before it's too late.

My Review:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” or so Sir Walter Scott claimed – even if the quote is generally and erroneously attributed to Shakespeare. It does rather sound like one of his, after all.

The Missing Witness, both the person and the case she’s caught in the middle of, is all about those practices of deception, and the need for the FBI’s Mobile Response Team to get to the heart of those deceptions. Bloodily if necessary.

Because the case in this fifth book in the series, after The Third to Die, Tell No Lies, The Wrong Victim and last year’s Seven Girls Gone, takes LAPD Detective Kara Quinn’s temporary membership in the MRT all the way back to where it began, to the case that made LA much too hot a place for her to remain, putting her on an unwelcome vacation and pushing her straight into the path of the FBI – and into the arms of the MRT’s Special Agent in Charge, Matt Costa.

Kara has been dragged back to LA, possibly because the human trafficking case that sent her out of town is finally being brought to trial. Or, more likely because the villain of the piece wants her back in town so he can send his goons out to eliminate her – just as he’s done with all the other witnesses to his many, many crimes.

Not that both of those things aren’t true – they’re just not anything remotely like the whole entire story or any of its moduses and/or operandis.

This is a case that has always been about deception. Including covering up the fact that the case is much bigger on the inside than appears on the outside. But also because Kara’s participation at the beginning, misplaced guilt in the middle and exile at the end are all about, not the deceptions that all the perpetrators have perpetrated in order to keep the dirty deeds on the down-low. The biggest deceptions in this case are the lies that the cops who were supposed to be on Kara’s side, on her team, the people that she trusted to bring her back home to her city and her job, have been lying to her all along.

And that’s one betrayal that she has utterly no capacity to forgive.

Escape Rating A: The case in The Missing Witness was solid and compelling and confounding, all at the same time. Because it’s wrapped around something so huge, so monstrous, and so easy to hide and obfuscate, that it’s nearly impossible to see the whole of it at once.

When Kara Quinn opened this case and this can of worms not quite a year ago, it was about sweatshops and human trafficking and scum who are so rich and so well connected it seems like they can even buy forgiveness from the FBI

But Kara tipped over a huge, gigantic rock, and the things that crawled out from underneath it have tentacles reaching from the Mayor’s Office to the County Board of Supervisors to the LAPD and the LA Office of the FBI – and that’s just for starters.

So Kara left town so that the case against one human trafficker could get pulled together without her body ending up in the middle of it. But that’s not the case her friends and mentors at the LAPD are investigating. They’re investigating the much bigger monsters that crawled out from under that rock – and they’re keeping Kara out of town for her own good – or so they believe.

Their cause is righteous, but their methods are not. To the point where the left hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing – or who the left hand is killing along the way.

At its heart, this is a case about political corruption, greed and graft, and the way all those things have intersected within the morass that has been called the Homeless Industrial Complex.

But white collar corruption and fraud cases are huge and complicated. There are so many moving parts that it’s difficult to get people to understand what’s at stake and who has been staked. So an awful lot of bad has happened but it’s been hard to even get the public’s attention OR to get a District Attorney to prosecute.

Murder cases, on the other hand, are easy to reduce to the soundbite of a gunshot.

What makes this story so compelling, is the way that Kara’s pursuit of the original murder and trafficker is used as a vehicle to get us inside, to get us to care about the larger but much more amorphous corruption case that has been hiding in plain sight all along.

And the way that even though a measure of justice gets served, we still feel the depths of the betrayals Kara suffers, that the people she once believed had her back have been lying to her all along in their belief that she wouldn’t have been willing to serve the same justice they were.

Which leads to the epic conclusion of The Missing Witness, a conclusion that is certainly the ending of the story arc of the first five books in this thrilling, suspenseful series, but hopefully will lead to much more to come. Because I’ve loved this whole series and I absolutely do not want it to end!

A- #AudioBookReview: A Body on the Doorstep by Marty Wingate

A- #AudioBookReview: A Body on the Doorstep by Marty WingateA Body on the Doorstep (London Ladies' Murder Club, #1) by Marty Wingate
Narrator: Naomi Frederick
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: London Ladies' Murder Club #1
Pages: 288
Length: 9 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Bookouture on January 11, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Fiercely independent Mabel Canning can’t wait to begin working for the Useful Women’s Agency. But when she discovers a body on her client’s doorstep, it’s time to add solving murders to her job description…
London, 1921: Mabel Canning is proud to be a modern woman working for the Useful Women’s Agency, carrying out tasks for gentlewomen from flower arranging to washing muddy dogs. But when she answers the door for wealthy widow Rosalind Despard, she almost chokes on her cucumber sandwich when she finds a soldier’s body on the doorstep.
As she offers tea to the policemen of Scotland Yard, Mabel can’t resist getting drawn into the investigation. Who was the mysterious dead man? And why was he holding a letter for Rosalind, written by her husband on the day he disappeared?
As Mabel hunts for clues, she joins forces with Rosalind’s handsome brother, former detective Park Winstone, and his adorable terrier, Gladys. But when Mabel suspects she is being followed, the detective duo know that time is running out before the killer strikes again.
As she investigates, Mabel discovers dusty old photographs that help her reveal the soldier’s true identity. But as she gets closer to uncovering the young man’s murderer, she knows she’s also one step closer to danger... Can she outsmart the killer and save Park and Rosalind before they also turn up dead as doornails?
A totally unputdownable and utterly charming Golden Age cozy mystery from USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Richard Osman, Verity Bright and T.E. Kinsey.

My Review:

Miss Mabel Canning has arrived in London in 1921 after FINALLY managing to convince her father that it was no longer scandalous for an unmarried woman to live on her own and support herself in the big city. She’s also running away from her whole village’s firmly held belief that she should marry the local vicar – who is also her best friend’s widower after the ravages of the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Mabel has always dreamed of going to London and living on her own, and she sees poor, dear Ronald as a brother and absolutely NOT a potential spouse. In her mid-30s, Mabel isn’t even certain she wants one of those. She’s certain she doesn’t want any of the available men back home in Peasmarch.

We meet her on her first assignment for the Useful Women’s Agency. She’s been tasked with helping newly declared widow Rosalind Despard at the wake for her late and much lamented husband. But Rosalind isn’t even certain that her husband Guy is actually dead. He’s been missing for seven years and has been declared legally dead so that his business affairs can be taken care of. It’s all about closure – a closure that Rosalind isn’t sure she’s either ready or even eligible for.

So it’s a very strange wake, under rather unusual circumstances. Circumstances that only get stranger and even more unusual when a dead man thumps into the front door with a seven-year-old letter from Guy Despard in his pocket.

No one knows who the dead man is. No one knows what the letter has only turned up seven years after Guy’s disappearance. No one is entirely certain whether the letter is real or merely an elaborate hoax.

But the dead body is certainly real enough to bring the police to the house and open up all the questions and insinuations that Rosaline Despard has been dealing with all these years.

This is certainly not closure, not for Rosalind and not for any of her friends and family. And not for Miss Mabel Canning, who has befriended the widow and is determined to help her get that closure – one way or another – while doing her best to keep her own body and soul together along the way.

Escape Rating A-: This was lovely, very much a case of the right book at the right time, as I’ve been in a bit of a murder-y mood this week – actually this whole entire year so far.

From the beginning, Mabel Canning’s situation at the Useful Women’s Agency reminded me of something, and it’s a something that very much fits. The ‘Golden Age’ detective series about Lord Peter Wimsey, written by Dorothy Sayers, is also set in the 1920s, and the world has some of the same feel even if Mabel is seeing it from much more towards the middle of the social strata.

But during the Wimsey series, Lord Peter funds an agency for independent women, very much like the Useful Women’s Agency. He hires Miss Katharine Climpson’s agency to investigate situations in various cases where women will have entry and he does not, much like Mabel Canning uses the Useful Women’s Agency to get herself involved in a murder investigation.

Unlike Miss Climpson, Miss Kerr and the Useful Women’s Agency really existed – without Miss Canning’s particular specialty – because there was a need for independent women to make their own livings after World War I followed by the flu epidemic wiped out much of the generation of men they would otherwise have married.

The mystery in The Body on the Doorstep is quite nefarious, multi-layered and much closer to home than anyone imagined at its beginning. Well, not the police as they ALWAYS assumed that the wife did it. An erroneous assumption, of course, otherwise we wouldn’t have a mystery on our hands.

The story is cozy without being twee, and its setting in London as seen through the eyes of a woman on the verge of ‘middle-age’ gives her perspective a combination of freshness and maturity at the same time.

There are plenty of murders, and they are often all too gruesome, and yet the details are smudged just enough that the reader ‘gets’ the gruesomeness without being bathed in the blood – so to speak.

But the story works well because we’re following Mabel Canning, and her opening herself to the city and all its possibilities for independence and purpose makes her interesting to follow. We empathize with her every bit as much as she empathizes with the characters who become caught up by the ever expanding tendrils of the murder and its cover up.

I listened to this one for about half its length, and the narrator gave Mabel just the right voice for her inner thoughts and outer expressions. But I got so caught up in the mystery itself that I had to see whodunnit and switched to text because it’s a)faster and b) a whole lot easier to thumb to the end. Although I resisted that temptation by simply finishing in one sitting.

I liked Mabel, I enjoyed her two steps forward, one step back, looking over her shoulder investigation through friendship and a sincere desire to help, and am happy to say that there are two more books in this series – at least!

Particularly because there’s a hint of a possibility of romance for Mabel in this first book, and I’m hoping that we’ll learn whether they will or they won’t in A Body at the Seance, which is out now, and A Body at the Dance Hall, coming in April.

Review: The Twilight Queen by Jeri Westerson

Review: The Twilight Queen by Jeri WestersonThe Twilight Queen (A King's Fool mystery, 2) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: King's Fool #2
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on January 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Court jester Will Somers is drawn into another gripping and entertaining mystery when malevolent forces strike again at the court of Henry VIII - and Anne Boleyn is the target.
Greenwich, Palace of Placentia, April 1536. Queen Anne is in peril. In the mid of night, court jester Will Somers is summoned to an urgent assignation when she discovers a body in her chamber. The queen wants Will to find out who the man is and how he ended up there. Is someone trying to frame her for his murder?
Anne has many enemies at court, and to make matters worse, Henry VIII is lining up his next conquest and suspects her of treason. Has the formidable Oliver Cromwell been whispering vile lies in the king's ears, and could Anne be the target of a Catholic conspiracy? As further attacks plague the court, Will is determined to uncover the truth behind the plotting and devilry, but he will need to keep hold of all his wits to do so!

My Review:

There are characters, whether real or imagined, who seem to get reinvented or reinterpreted for each generation. Henry VIII, that towering, looming figure of British history, with his outsized body and equally outsized personality – along with his fascinating and scandalous pursuit of a son and heir for his crown – seems to be one of those characters.

That his story – or rather the reinterpretation of his story through the characters of his six wives – has been reimagined yet again in the Tony Award winning Broadway play, Six: The Musical, is just the latest in a long line of portrayals, beginning with the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, written under the rule of King James I of England and VI of Scotland – a reign that could be said to be the direct result of Henry’s failure to secure a healthy male heir.

Which makes this portrayal of Henry, his court and his wives and paramours, as seen through the eyes of his Court Fool, Will Somers, just that much more fascinating and relevant, as it appears that this series is also going to trip its way through Henry’s nearly 40-year reign through the machinations of his court and his courtiers through each of his successive – but not all that successful – marriages.

The first book in this series, Courting Dragons, took place as Catherine of Aragon’s star at court was rapidly waning, and Anne Boleyn’s was on the ascendant.

In the midst of the King’s ‘Great Matter’, the impending divorce that severed not only Henry’s first marriage but also his country’s religion, a murder took place among the foreign diplomatic corps that threatened to destabilize the already fraught negotiations over, well, pretty much everything at that point.

A murder that was ultimately solved by a not-so-foolish investigation by the King’s Fool, Will Somers.

Just as that first murder of a Spanish diplomat had political implications for Catherine of Aragon, the murder that opens The Twilight Queen has potentially deadly implications for Anne Boleyn, whose brief, tumultuous reign is now in its twilight.

A dead musician has been discovered in the Queen’s private chambers. It’s obvious to Anne that the intent is to stir up rumors that she is unfaithful to her royal husband. A treasonous pot that someone influential at court is already stirring.

Because no good deed goes unpunished, when the Queen has need of a discreet investigator, she calls upon the King’s Fool to poke his nose into all the places he can to figure out who left this dead and potentially deadly ‘package’ in her private chambers – in the hopes that the truth will stave off her inevitable downfall.

Escape Rating B: Genre blends such as historical mystery are always a balancing act – much like Will Somers position is a balancing act between making his sovereign laugh, forcing his master to stop and think – and keeping both his job and his head.

For a historical mystery to be successful, it has to balance upon the knife edge of being true to its historical setting AND following the somewhat strict conventions of the mystery genre. It must allow the reader to maintain that crucial willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to history while still delivering that ‘romance of justice’ that is crucial to a mystery’s satisfactory ending.

As much as I love this particular period of history, this series so far reads like it tilts more than a bit towards the description and details of the historical setting. Not that the mystery doesn’t get solved, but rather that the mystery feels more like an excuse to dive into the history instead of the historical period being a setting for a mystery.

Reflecting on this second book in the series, I believe that impression is a result of Will Somers’ life and work being so far removed from ordinary life either in his time or our own. Even Crispin Guest, the protagonist of the author’s Medieval Noir series, feels like more of a standard archetype, as he’s operating as a kind of private investigator in a big city. Even though the details of his circumstances are even a century or two before Somers, what Guest does and the way he does it – and how he feels about it – reads as something surprisingly familiar.

Will Somers’ dependence on and love of his ‘master’ the King, on the other hand, jars a bit in the 21st century mind whether it rings true or not. A kind interpretation of their relationship would liken it to the relationship between Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings – except that Frodo couldn’t order Sam’s head to be struck off. Will Somers’ relationship with his king reads a bit too close to the so-called ‘love’ of slaves for their masters in the antebellum South. It’s not comfortable, no matter how fascinating a character Somers has turned out to be.

Which he most definitely is.

In the end, I found the history behind this story more interesting than the mystery within its pages. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary. I am, however, still terribly curious about the next book in this series, which is planned to take place during Henry’s brief but fruitful marriage to Jane Seymour, tentatively titled, Rebellious Grace.

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuire

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuireMislaid in Parts Half-Known (Wayward Children, #9) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Jesse Vilinsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #9
Pages: 160
Length: 4 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Dinosaurs and portals, and a girl who can find both in the latest book in the Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning series.
Antsy is the latest student to pass through the doors at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children.
When her fellow students realize that Antsy's talent for finding absolutely anything may extend to doors, she's forced to flee in the company of a small group of friends, looking for a way back to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go to be sure that Vineta and Hudson are keeping their promise.
Along the way, temptations are dangled, decisions are reinforced, and a departure to a world populated by dinosaurs brings untold dangers and one or two other surprises!
A story that reminds us that finding what you want doesn't always mean finding what you need.

My Review:

This book and certainly the Wayward Children series as a whole, feels like the perfect story to start off the new year.

Why?

Because new years are all about doors closing, doors opening, and taking the opportunity to start with a fresh slate and reinvent yourself and how you see the world, and that’s a big part of what the Wayward Children series is all about.

Beginning with Every Heart a Doorway, the series is a metaphor for finding the place where you belong, the place that your heart calls home, and then getting tossed out of that personal Eden and being forced to make a whole new start on a whole new you – whether you want to or not.

Especially when you don’t. And when you no longer belong in the place you originally came from. You really can’t go home again because it’s not the place you remember and the people who once loved you no longer see you as theirs.

The story in this particular entry in the series picks up where the previous book, Lost in the Moment and Found, left off. Antsy has returned to Earth from the Shop Where the Lost Things Go, nine-years-old in a sixteen-year-old body, still angry at the shopkeeper Vineta and terrified that someone will figure out her secret.

Which they do. Both of her secrets. Her friends figure out that she isn’t nearly as mature as her body appears to be. Her enemies figure out that Antsy left the shop with a talent for finding anything – including other people’s doors – and have absolutely no care in the world about what the doors cost and zero intention to pay for it themselves because that’s what other people are for.

But Antsy can find anything when she needs it badly enough. Including a way out when she and her friends are cornered by the magically mesmerizing head mean girl and her clique of magically reinforced sycophants.

Leading Antsy and company to break one of the School’s most sacred rules. They think they’re hunting for an escape route, but what they’re really searching for is the place that at least one of their hearts calls home. In other words, they’re going on a quest.

A quest to find the one place that Antsy literally can’t afford to return to. Unless she takes it over – for herself.

Escape Rating A: Before I get started on the book, I want to mention that I listened to this one in audio – and that feels like a bit of an afterthought, which is rare. The book was excellent, as you can tell from the rating. But this is a case where the fact I was listening to it instead of reading it didn’t impinge on my consciousness at all. The experience felt seamless, as though the narrator was downloading the story directly into my brain. Which was VERY much unlike Under the Smokestrewn Sky, where the narration detracted from the story.

I said at the top that this book was perfectly themed for the start of the year, because of its fundamental metaphor about doors opening and reinvention that just dovetails perfectly with the thoughts and feelings we all have about the old year ending and the new year beginning.

Ironically, however, this entry in the series is much more about closing doors than it is about opening them, although it definitely carries the theme of self-reflection and reinvention and finally being sure of who one needs to be in the world and their life in it.

At first, the story feels very much a part of the YA genre which the series is often pigeonholed into, as out-of-place, out-of-time Antsy is being persecuted by a powerful clique of ‘mean girls’. It’s only when she starts revealing herself for who she really is and what she really can do that we start to see her as considerably more capable and mature than either her nine-year-old head or her sixteen-year-old body would be capable of.

Because her moral compass is firmly pointed towards doing the right thing, and she’s very sure indeed what that right thing is – at least in the context of the Shop, its doors, its costs, and its purpose. It wants her back, and she wants to go, but it’s more than that. It’s that she’s ready to do the necessary for the shop and for herself. She’s grown up in the ways that matter, she just has to recognize that fact.

She has to ‘Be Sure’, and by the story’s end, she finally is.

But along Antsy’s journey we see other doors that open and close for other ‘wayward children’. Discovering that her best friend is happy and somewhat safe in the world her own heart calls home, even if it’s a world that none of the rest of the travelers would be remotely interested in staying, gives her strength and much-needed closure.

However, the series as a whole feels like it’s winding down, as it should. The young children in the first part of the series are now teenagers and their life paths are reaching out for them. One way or another, their doors are opening, giving them one last chance to be sure enough to go home.

What got me about this entry in the series was the way that the doors and the futures they represent felt like metaphors for life, for making or finding a life filled with magic and purpose. It doesn’t HAVE to be the magic of the doors – because happiness is a magic all its own. All one has to do is find it. And BE SURE.

I’m sure I’ll be back for the next book in this series, currently untitled but scheduled to be published this time next year.

Review: The Butterfly Collector by Tea Cooper

Review: The Butterfly Collector by Tea CooperThe Butterfly Collector by Tea Cooper
Narrator: Emily Barrett
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, timeslip fiction
Pages: 400
Length: 10 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Harper Muse on November 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

What connects a botanical illustration of a butterfly with a missing baby and an enigma fifty years in the making? A twisty historical mystery from a bestselling Australian author.
1868 Morpeth Theodora Breckenridge, still in mourning after the loss of her parents and brother at sea, is more interested in working quietly on her art at the family's country estate than she is finding a husband in Sydney society, even if her elder sister Florence has other ideas. Theodora seeks to emulate prestigious nature illustrators, the Scott sisters, who lived nearby, so she cannot believe her luck when she discovers a butterfly never before sighted in Australia. With the help of Clarrie, her maid, and her beautiful illustrations, she is poised to make a natural science discovery that will put her name on the map. Then Clarrie's new-born son goes missing and everything changes.
1922 Sydney When would-be correspondent Verity Binks is sent an anonymous parcel containing a spectacular butterfly costume and an invitation to the Sydney Artists Masquerade Ball on the same day she loses her job at The Arrow, she is both baffled and determined to go. Her late grandfather Sid, an esteemed newspaperman, would expect no less of her. At the ball, she lands a juicy commission to write the history of the Treadwell Foundation - an institution that supports disgraced young women and their babies. But as she begins to dig, her investigation quickly leads her to an increasingly dark and complex mystery, a mystery fifty years in the making. Can she solve it? And will anyone believe her if she does?

My Review:

There’s a butterfly effect in chaos theory. You know the one, or at least the way it plays out in fiction, particularly in relation to time travel, that a tiny change halfway around the world creates incrementally increasing changes in circumstances the further one gets from that first new flap of the titular butterfly’s wings.

That butterfly effect turns out to be a metaphor for this entire story – complete with resultant chaos – even though there’s no time travel in the usual sense. There’s just a story that takes place at multiple points in the same time stream, with a particularly well-traveled species of butterfly at the heart of each of those multiple points.

The monarch butterfly is a familiar sight in North America. But when and where this story begins, it was not, which is tied up in the very reason why the familiar Monarch is called Wanderer in Australia – because it somehow managed to wander from North America to the Land Down Under, a journey far longer than a butterfly’s lifespan, even if a colony could manage that distance out of sight of land on their beautiful but fragile wings.

So we first meet amateur lepidopterist Theodora Breckenridge when a then unknown to her wanderer butterfly alights on her fingers in 1868 outside the village of Morpeth on the banks of the Hunter River. In New South Wales, Australia. Where no monarch butterfly has EVER been seen to that date.

Just laid-off newspaper reporter Verity Binks’ introduction to the same species occurs in 1922, in the form of a masquerade costume for the upcoming Sydney Artists’ Masquerade Ball. She receives a package from an unnamed and un-guessed at benefactor, consisting of an invitation to the Artists’ Ball she could not otherwise afford – and a caped costume in the shape and form of a wanderer butterfly’s distinctive wings.

The link between Theodora in 1868 and Verity in 1922 is in the person of a third woman, Clarrie, and an unthinkably terrible but murderously profitable criminal enterprise that still cries out for justice.

A justice that Verity is determined to provide, whoever it hurts and whatever it costs.

Escape Rating B: I have to say that I ended up with mixed feelings all over the place while listening to and reading The Butterfly Collector. In the end, the 1922 story carried me through, but it’s the 1868 story that held the most bone-chilling horrors. Real-life horror, like revenge, is compellingly served ice cold – and the horrors of this story, based on real historical events – had plenty of chills to deliver.

I had two issues with this story, and the first one led to the second in a way that made the first half a fairly hard go for reasons that are certainly a ‘me’ problem but could also be a ‘you’ problem if we have some of the same inclinations.

One of the issues I’m finding increasingly hard to get through in female-centered historical fiction of any kind is the ubiquitous and nearly obligatory opening third – if not a bit longer – that details all the restrictions that women faced in whatever period the story is set in regards to having agency and independence. As this book alternates between three historical female perspectives, each of whom are hedged about by such restrictions on all sides, it took a lot of pages to get each of them into places where they had some freedom of movement.

In the end, I found myself following Verity’s part of the story in 1922 the most easily because Verity IS in a position to act on her own for reasons that are mostly tragic. Her parents and grandparents are deceased, she has no male siblings, it’s after WW1 which cost her her job as a newspaper reporter but doesn’t stop her from finding freelance work, which she does and which kicks off the mystery of the piece.

Neither Theodora nor Clarrie have true freedom of movement, Theodora for societal expectation reasons and Clarrie because of restrictions due to her socioeconomic class. That they are able to help each other eases those constraints for both of them, but it takes a while for the situation to reach that far.

That I was frustrated by the slow pace of the early parts of all their stories led to my second frustration. I began this book in audio, but the story was going slowly for all the above reasons and the actually quite good quality of the narration made it worse. Which may seem contradictory, but as the reader was doing an excellent job with the Australian accent – or so it seemed to my American ears – her reading cadence was slower than I could stand in a story that was already proceeding at a snail’s pace.

Once I switched to text it all got better, and I was able to finally be captured by the increasingly frenetic pace of the mystery of it all. Not just a terrible crime, but decades of a profitable series of terrible crimes come to light and sticks a knife into Verity’s heart AND her perceptions of her family’s history in a way that makes the whole story both sing and sting at the same time.

I picked this book up because I fell hard for several of the author’s previous books, The Woman in the Green Dress, The Cartographer’s Secret and The Girl in the Painting. While The Butterfly Collector didn’t work nearly as well for me as those earlier books, the heart of the mystery is both awfully compelling and compellingly awful, and it did engage me fully once the story really got into it. So while I’d recommend this particular book with some caveats, I’ll still be picking up the author’s next book, The Talented Mrs Greenway, when it reaches these North American shores.

Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi OkoraforLike Thunder (The Desert Magician's Duology #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Délé Ogundiran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: African Futurism, climate fiction, fantasy, science fiction
Series: Desert Magician's Duology #2
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 23 minutes
Published by DAW, Tantor Audio on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

This brand-new sequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s Shadow Speaker contains the powerful prose and compelling stories that have made Nnedi Okorafor a star of the literary science fiction and fantasy space and put her at the forefront of Africanfuturist fiction
Niger, West Africa, 2077
Welcome back. This second volume is a breathtaking story that sweeps across the sands of the Sahara, flies up to the peaks of the Aïr Mountains, cartwheels into a wild megacity—you get the idea.
I am the Desert Magician; I bring water where there is none.
This book begins with Dikéogu Obidimkpa slowly losing his mind. Yes, that boy who can bring rain just by thinking about it is having some…issues. Years ago, Dikéogu went on an epic journey to save Earth with the shadow speaker girl, Ejii Ubaid, who became his best friend. When it was all over, they went their separate ways, but now he’s learned their quest never really ended at all.
So Dikéogu, more powerful than ever, reunites with Ejii. He records this story as an audiofile, hoping it will help him keep his sanity or at least give him something to leave behind. Smart kid, but it won’t work—or will it?
I can tell you it won’t be like before. Our rainmaker and shadow speaker have changed. And after this, nothing will ever be the same again.
As they say, ‘ Onye amaro ebe nmili si bido mabaya ama ama onye nyelu ya akwa oji welu ficha aru .’
Or, ‘If you do not remember where the rain started to beat you, you will not remember who gave you the towel with which to dry your body.’

My Review:

Like Thunder is the second half of the Desert Magician’s Duology, and the follow-up to the utterly excellent Shadow Speaker. Like that first book, Like Thunder is a story within a story, as the whole duology is a tale of a possible future, and a lesson to be learned, told by the Desert Magician himself.

But it is not the Desert Magician’s story, no matter how much that being meddled with the characters and the events that they faced. Just as Shadow Speaker was the story of Eiji Ugabe, the titular shadow speaker herself, Like Thunder represents her best friend Dikéogu Obidimkpa’s side of the events that followed.

Shadow speaking is but one of the many transformations and strange, new powers brought into this world after the ‘peace bombs’ were dropped and the oncoming nuclear catastrophe was transformed into something survivable for the human population.

A survival that seems to be more contingent on the adaptability of not just the humans of Earth, but also the sentient populations of ALL the worlds that have become interconnected after Earth’s ‘Great Change’ caused a ‘Great Merge’ of several formerly separated worlds.

The story in Shadow Speaker very much represented Eiji’s perspective on the world, as Eiji’s first impulse is always to talk, and to listen. An impulse that combines her youthful belief that people CAN be better if given the opportunity, and is likely a result of her talent for speaking with not just the shadows of the dead, but directly into the minds of other people and animals.

Her talent is to see others’ points of view and to project her own. She’s young enough to believe that if there is understanding, there can be peace.

Like Thunder is not Eiji’s story, and it shouldn’t be. Instead, it’s a kind of mirror image. Just as Eiji’s talent leads her to foster peace and understanding, her friend Dikéogu’s talent is violent. Dikéogu is a stormbringer, someone who brings all of the violence of nature and all of the violence visited upon him in his scarred past to every encounter with his friends, with his enemies, and with his world.

And within himself.

The world through which we follow Dikéogu in this concluding volume of the Desert Magician’s Duology is the direct result of Eiji’s peacemaking in her book. Because, unfortunately for the world but fortunate for the reader enthralled with their story, Eiji didn’t really make peace because peace is not what most of the people present for the so-called ‘peace conference’ had any desire for whatsoever.

And have been maneuvering in the background to ensure that the only peace that results in the end is the peace of the grave. Someone is going to have to die. Too many people already have. It’s only a question of whether Dikéogu and Eiji’s feared and reviled powers will save the world – or end it.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I loved Shadow Speaker, I came into this second book with some doubts and quibbles – all of which were marvelously dashed to the ground at the very beginning of Dikéogu’s story.

Eiji and Dikéogu were both very young when their adventure began, but by the time they met they had both already seen enough hardship and disaster to fill a whole lifetime for someone else. But Eiji was just a touch older than Dikéogu, and the differences between her fourteen and his thirteen mattered a lot in terms of maturity.

In other words, Eiji was definitely on the cusp of adulthood in her book, making adult decisions with huge, literally world-shaking consequences, while Dikéogu frequently came off as a whiny little shit, an impression not helped AT ALL by the higher pitched voice used by the narrator for his character.

Dikéogu had PLENTY of reasons for his hatreds and his fears – but that doesn’t mean that they were much more enjoyable to listen to than they were to experience. Less traumatic, certainly, but awful in an entirely different way.

But Like Thunder takes place AFTER the events of Shadow Speaker. (This is also a hint that neither book stands on its own) Whiny thirteen becomes traumatized fifteen with more experience, a bit more closure for some of the worst parts, a bit more distance from terrible betrayals – and his voice drops. (This last bit, of course, doesn’t matter if you’re reading the text and hearing your own voice in your head, but matters a lot in audio.)

Dikéogu’s life experience, particularly after he was sold into slavery by his own uncle at the age of twelve, have taught him that the world is pain and strife and that he has to defend himself at all times and that people will believe ANYTHING if it allows them to stay comfortable and maintain their illusions and their prejudices.

He learned that last bit from his parents, Felecia and Chika Obidimkpa, the power couple of THE West African multimedia empire. They betrayed him into slavery, they betrayed him by pretending he was dead, they betray him every single time they broadcast a program filled with ridiculous nostalgia for a past that never was and disallows and disavows Dikéogu’s existence as a stormbringer, a ‘Changed One’ with powers granted by the ‘Great Change’ they hate so much.

It’s no surprise that his parents are in league with his enemies.

What is a surprise, especially to Dikéogu, is how much of his story, how much of his trauma and how many of his tragedies, are directly traceable to that first betrayal AND his inability to deal with its consequences to himself and the magic he carries.

So, very much on the one hand, Like Thunder is a save the world quest with a surprising twist at its end. A twist at least partly manufactured, and certainly cackled over, by the Desert Magician. And absolutely on the other hand, it’s a story about a young man learning to live with the person he has become – and very nearly failing the test. ALL the tests.

Whichever way you look at it, it is compelling and captivating from the first page – or from the opening words – until the very last line of the Desert Magician congratulating themself on a tale well told and a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful message delivered.