Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de BodardOf Charms, Ghosts and Grievances (Dragons and Blades #2) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Series: Dragons and Blades #2, Dominion of the Fallen #3.6
Pages: 110
on June 28th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

From the author of the critically acclaimed Dominion of the Fallen trilogy comes a sparkling new romantic adventure full of kissing, sarcasm and stabbing.

It was supposed to be a holiday, with nothing more challenging than babysitting, navigating familial politics and arguing about the proper way to brew tea.

But when dragon prince Thuan and his ruthless husband Asmodeus find a corpse in a ruined shrine and a hungry ghost who is the only witness to the crime, their holiday goes from restful to high-pressure. Someone is trying to silence the ghost and everyone involved. Asmodeus wants revenge for the murder; Thuan would like everyone, including Asmodeus, to stay alive.

Chased by bloodthirsty paper charms and struggling to protect their family, Thuan and Asmodeus are going to need all the allies they can—and, as the cracks in their relationship widen, they'll have to face the scariest challenge of all: how to bring together their two vastly different ideas of their future...

A heartwarming standalone book set in a world of dark intrigue.

My Review:

I still need to read the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, of which the Dragons and Blades series is an offshoot. But I really enjoyed the first Dragons and Blades book, Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, so this followup has been whispering my name for a month now and I decided to listen to that whisper.

Little did I know that it was the whisper of blades dragging across silk and piercing the hearts of everything they touched.

This charming little story starts out as a bit of a family tale. A dragon prince and his fallen angel spouse take their adopted children on a bit of a picnic. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to quell the restlessness that both the children and the fallen angel are all too frequently subject to.

It’s supposed to keep the children from wrecking any further destruction on the dragon palace that is destroying itself with rot and mold entirely too quickly as it is.

It’s supposed to keep the fallen angel from threatening, maiming or killing any of his husband’s imperial relatives. Or anyone else who might or might not deserve it.

It’s not supposed to turn into a ghost story. But then, Asmodeus the fallen angel isn’t supposed to adopt a ghost child, either.

The dragon prince Thuan sees a hungry ghost who might (most probably, will beyond a shadow of a doubt) either kill his husband or get his husband killed or both. Not that it will matter after the fact either way.

Asmodeus sees a child who died terribly and alone for reasons that should never have happened in the first place. The ghost child starved to death in an empire that is supposed to at least feed all of its people.

But when it comes to Thuan and Asmodeus, not even a ghost story is simply about a ghost. Because Asmodeus sees a child who witnessed a murder, even if that murder happened after the child became a ghost. And Asmodeus can’t let either the murder or the ghost child go.

Not even if he has to tether the ghost child to his own life. Not even if his husband is scared to death that the ghost child is either going to kill him or get him killed before any of them can figure out the mystery that started it all.

Escape Rating A-: As I said I still haven’t read Dominion of the Fallen, so I know I’m missing some stuff, but after Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders I figured I had enough background to be going on with. Not that I wouldn’t love more – because I always love more backstory – but this read like it followed directly from Of Dragons and that the original trilogy was a bit more distant both in time and place.

Or I was just looking forward to this and didn’t care about the backstory for a change.

One of the bits that fascinates me about this subseries is the setting. The imperial court that dragon prince Thuan came from is underwater and his people all seem to be shapeshifters – or shapeshifter-ish. Thuan is a dragon who appears human – except for the horns. That’s Thuan on the cover of Of Charms, which makes me even more certain that it’s Asmodeus on the cover of Of Dragons – even though Asmodeus is not the dragon of the pair.

I’m wandering because this story does so much in its rather short length.

What I started with was the underwater nature of the dragon’s imperial capital. One of the pervasive elements of the capital is that everything is rotting. Water, even water kept back by powerful magic, still manages to do the damage that water naturally does all the time and everywhere. It’s constantly somewhat damp and damp causes mold and rot and rotting things eventually disintegrate.

But the story of the ghost and the murder and the reasons why those things happened are also about rot. The child should not have died of starvation. The shrine where the child became that ghost and witnessed the murder is a shrine that should never have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. The worship that was supposed to occur at the shrine should not have fallen into dust and rumor. It’s all rot.

And the story here is about something rotten, and it’s not really about the ghost. It’s about the murder and the reasons for it. The resolution of that part of the story was all the more chilling because underneath all of the fantasy setting and characters, the reasons for the murder were all too human, much too possible, and entirely too familiar – not from fantasy but from real life and real tragedy and unfortunately, dammit, the real news.

Just as the motives for murder and even god-killing (would that be “deicide” or deity-cide?) were entirely familiar, the heart of the conflict that arises between Thuan and Asmodeus, feels equally familiar. What shakes their marriage is fear of losing each other’s respect, regard and affection. Some of the reasons it occurs may be fantasy, but the emotions at the heart of the story, and in their hearts, felt equally real.

A slice of life story that seems like it’s going to be eaten by a hungry ghost, but in the end is almost consumed by someone entirely human and all the more dangerous for that.

Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari GentillThe Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill
Narrator: Katherine Littrell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 288
Length: 8 hours and 58 minutes
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In every person's story, there is something to hide...
The ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library is quiet, until the tranquility is shattered by a woman's terrified scream. Security guards take charge immediately, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers, who'd happened to sit at the same table, pass the time in conversation and friendships are struck. Each has his or her own reasons for being in the reading room that morning—it just happens that one is a murderer.
Award-winning author Sulari Gentill delivers a sharply thrilling read with The Woman in the Library, an unexpectedly twisty literary adventure that examines the complicated nature of friendship and shows us that words can be the most treacherous weapons of all.

My Review:

The mystery in The Woman in the Library is like one of those Russian nesting dolls. It’s a mystery inside a mystery inside yet another mystery.

Mystery writer Winifred (Freddie) Kincaid is sitting at one of the long reading tables in Boston Public Library’s Central Library on Boylston Street staring up at the ceiling for inspiration for her next mystery. When the ceiling fails to inspire, she observes her neighbors at the long table, and begins constructing a story around her three nearest neighbors, who she labels “Freud Girl”, “Heroic Chin” and “Handsome Man”.

Then they all hear a scream from a nearby room. As they wait at their table for security to investigate, they strike up a conversation. The characters on Freddie’s page become real people to her, and the story of who they really are becomes the second story.

But there’s a story wrapped around that, as we see correspondence from a writer named Leo, who seems to be making comments on the story of Freddie and her three new friends, Marigold, Whit and Cain. Now Freddie isn’t the author, Hannah is the author and Freddie and her friends are just a story while “Freud Girl” and her pals are the story within the story.

However, we don’t see the mysterious mystery writer’s responses to Leo’s commentary, so we don’t know if Leo is really writing to a fellow author or if he’s just making it all up.

But we do read the chapters about Freddie and her new friends as they form a surprisingly tight little group. The more they learn about each other, the more we learn about them. Cain McLeod, AKA Handsome Man, is an author like Freddie. Whit Metters AKA Heroic Chin is a law student determined to fail in order to avoid spending the rest of his life under his mother’s thumb as a member of the family law firm, while Marigold AKA Freud Girl is a graduate psychology student who seems to be in love with Whit as well as obsessively intrusive about the entire group.

And then it all goes a bit pear-shaped, as someone starts sending threatening messages to Freddie. The situation escalates when Whit is attacked and Cain’s past as a convicted murderer is brought to light even as Freddie realizes that she’s in love with Cain as much as Marigold is with Whit.

But along the way the comments on the manuscript from the mysterious Leo get creepier and creepier. The reader starts wondering about just how much of everything is either going on in Leo’s head – or is being caused by the increasingly unhinged would-be author.

That’s when all the stories inside the stories all blow up at once and we finally are able to start winding the ball of string that we thought was rolling in a straight line – only to discover that we’ve been wandering through a maze all along.

Escape Rating A: I would have loved to stick with the audio of this, because the narrator was doing an excellent job with the large cast and especially with all the accents. I just ran out of time and switched to the text. But the narrator was very good and I’d be happy to listen to her again. She did a particularly terrific Australian accent – unless she is Australian in which case she did several terrific and different American accents!)

That the narrator did such a good job differentiating the characters made it easy for the listener to distinguish who was speaking and or writing as the story twisted and turned. Because this is definitely one of those mysteries that twists and turns and doubles back on itself until the reader doesn’t know which end is up, down or sideways in the story, the story within the story, or even the story within that story. Or even which story is the story and which is supposed to be real life.

We don’t really see Freddie’s story about Freud Girl, Handsome Man and Heroic Chin, and at first it seems like Leo is commenting on the story we’re not seeing. That particular deception doesn’t last long, only for it to be replaced by questions about whether Leo is really communicating with his fellow author Hannah or whether he’s deluding himself and/or us because we never see Hannah’s side of the correspondence.

Once we do, the situation gets even crazier – and possibly so does Leo. At first his comments just seem very meta, literature commenting on literature. Then he seems obsessive and we start wondering whether he’s a true colleague or just a crazed stalker-fan. In other words, was the reference to Stephen King’s Misery a bit of foreshadowing or just a red herring?

But the story of Freddie and her new friends also gets more compelling – in spite of Leo’s increasingly creepy commentary. And even though we know that Freddie is a creation of some author’s imagination, we still become completely invested in her budding romance with a man who might be a serial killer. Or might just be the victim of an elaborate frame.

Freddie likens her own creative process to boarding a bus and watching as the characters drive that bus to a place or places unknown. Freddie’s story careens all over the road. She’s the only character we don’t suspect might be the murderer. There’s enough of a stew of clues and red herrings to make any explanation plausible.

Which is what makes this thing so damn much fun. We know it’s a story, so as much as we are invested in Freddie’s life, we also know it’s not real or serious. Leo, on the other hand, might possibly be both. Whatever conclusions we thought we had come to, in the end the resolution of all the mysteries is cathartic and surprising. It’s like arriving at the end of a roller coaster ride, smiling and laughing because it was fun not in spite of the thrills and near-spills, but because of them, even though our legs are still a bit wobbly as we depart. And because we feel just that tiny bit of astonishment that we survived everything that was thrown our way. Although there’s a ghost of a hint of a possibility that maybe neither story is truly over.

And isn’t that just a chilling way to end a mystery!

Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine SchellmanLast Call at the Nightingale (Nightingale Mysteries, #1) by Katharine Schellman
Narrator: Sara Young
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Nightingale Mysteries #1
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 14 minutes
Published by Minotaur Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

* Duration: 09:14:29 *
First in a captivating Jazz age mystery series from author Katharine Schellman, 'LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTINGALE' beckons listeners into a darkly glamorous speakeasy where music, liquor, and secrets flow.
New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly's days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day. But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement.
With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home. But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking. Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn't the nameless bootlegger he first appeared.
With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York's underground and the world of the city's wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable...including Vivian's own.
©2022 Katharine Schellman (P)2022 Dreamscape Media. LLC

My Review:

Prohibition was a noble concept, the execution of which was considerably less than noble. But as a setting for historical fiction, Prohibition and the Jazz Age that it spawned sparkles every bit as much as the spangled dresses that the “Flappers” of the period wore when they went dancing. At the speakeasies where liquor was bought from illegal bootleggers, ignored by cops on the take, and drunk by everyone who came to forget their troubles for a night of drinking and dancing.

Drinking can be a social lubricant even when it’s legal. Illegal booze drunk in barely hidden illegal establishments didn’t just break down individual’s inhibitions, it broke the social inhibitions between races, classes and identities.

Which is why Vivian Kelly dances at the Nightingale every night that she can, in spite of her older sister’s fear and disapproval. By day, Vivian lives in a constrained world. She’s Irish, she’s an orphan, she’s poor and she has a job that barely buys the necessities and has no prospects whatsoever. She and her sister seem doomed to be spinster seamstresses under the thumb of their overbearing, disapproving, autocratic boss until they step over a line or their eyesight gives out. They’re barely scraping by with little hope for better.

So Vivian dances as much as she can. She may not be able to dance away her problems, but she can certainly set them aside for a while when the drinks are flowing and someone is always looking for a dance partner.

Vivian also comes to the Nightingale because it’s where her best friend, Bea Henry, works as a dancer. Vivian may be white, but she’s also poor Irish. Bea is black, but in the poorer quarters of New York City where they live only a block apart, the Nightingale is a place where no one cares that they’re not supposed to be lifelong friends, just as no one bats an eye that the bartender is Chinese and the club’s owner is a woman who clearly prefers other women.

The Nightingale is a place where anyone can belong and everyone can be themselves – a place where people can put down whatever mask the outside world forces them to wear.

The night that Vivian and Bea find a dead body in an alley behind the club all of that is threatened. The police hush up the murder, but the dead man was high society and someone is determined to make the club and its owner, Honor Huxley, pay dearly for the privilege of staying open and keeping the secret.

All the secrets.

Vivian is in it up to her neck. She can’t get the scene out of her head, and she can’t help but gnaw at the few available threads of the mystery. When the club is raided, and Vivian finds herself owing Honor for her bail money, the only way she can pay the teasing, tantalizing woman back is to do a little bit of snooping. Vivian can’t admit to herself that she wants to please Honor, but she also wants to pay back what she owes and more importantly, she doesn’t know how she’ll live without the Nightingale.

But there’s someone wrapped in this mess who seems determined not to let the Nightingale, or Honor Huxley, or especially Vivian, go on living at all.

Escape Rating B: There has been a veritable spate of recent mysteries or fantasies with mystery elements set in the Jazz Age in recent months, all featuring female amateur detectives who are in over their heads so far that they nearly drown. The time period is fascinating because the illicit nature of the speakeasies encouraged a breakdown of social barriers, allowing all sorts of people to mix and mingle in ways that would have been impossible before.

The cover of Last Call at the Nightingale was so evocative of the era and the ambiance that I was hoping that the story would be up with the other recent trips back to the 1920s such as Dead, Dead Girls, Wild and Wicked Things, Bindle Punk Bruja and my absolute favorite, Comeuppance Served Cold.

This was a story where I flipped between listening and reading. I was in a time crunch and I really did want to find out whodunnit and whether I was right about the things I managed to guess in advance. Some books are much better one way than the other, but this turned out to be one where it didn’t matter. The narrator did a good job with the various accents and characters, but the performance didn’t elevate the material above and beyond what was on the page.

Whether in audio or text, I would say that this is a story that I liked more than I loved, and I think that’s down to its protagonist Vivian Kelly. In her mid-20s with no family other than her sister, raised in an orphanage, barely making ends meet, Vivian is poor and Irish and would probably be called “white trash” behind her back if not to her face. It would have to have been a “hard-knock life” as the play Annie put it, and she’d have to have more sharp edges and street smarts than she seems to.

She’s in so far over her head that she should be drowning. Or, she should be more cynical about pretty much everything. Not that she shouldn’t have dreams or be trying, in however messy a fashion, to make them true, but that she misses some of the realities of life that should be obvious.

Or it could be that the intervening century between her time and ours has made us much more jaded than she was. As soon as the public story about the situation with the dead man’s widow, her young sister and her bastard of a dead husband was revealed, it was screamingly obvious what the underlying cause of that part of the mess was – and Vivian didn’t even think it. Which felt off and made Vivian a bit more incongruous than I could quite believe.

Which doesn’t mean that the setup of the story wasn’t fascinating, or that the reveal of both whodunnit and why wasn’t completely earned. In the end, this reads like Vivian Kelly’s coming-of-age story, and sets up the possibility of more to come. If that more doesn’t materialize, this one is absolutely complete in and of itself. It’s just that there’s a door in the back of the bar that could lead into another mystery.

One of the things that I very much did like was the way that we explore Vivian’s world, both the good parts and the bad, as she undertakes her undercover adventure for Honor Huxley. Vivian’s journey travels through the dark places and shines a light on them without being preachy but still showing clearly just how much was wrong and how hugely unequal the many, many inequities were. And that the Nightingale was a haven where those things didn’t have to happen.

By the time we leave Vivian, she is only a tiny bit older, but much sadder and maybe a little wiser. She learns that nothing she thought was true at the beginning was, and that the people we look up to are in position to use us and hurt us the most. And that she’s going to have to be a lot smarter and grow a much tougher skin if she’s going to survive in the world she has chosen to inhabit.

If this does turn out to be the first in a series as both the Goodreads and Amazon blurbs seem to indicate, I’ll be very curious to see how well, or even if, she manages either of those things.

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi PatelKaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, mythology, retellings
Pages: 496
Length: 17 hours, 22 minutes
Published by Redhook on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions — much good it did me.”
So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.
Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.
But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak — and what legacy she intends to leave behind.
A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

My Review:

Kaikeyi is a story that gave me mixed feelings on top of my mixed feelings, much as the character of Kaikeyi herself has inspired multiple interpretations of her story and her character in the centuries since the Ramayana, one of the two important legends of Hinduism, was first written – or amassed – or compiled – or all of the above – sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.E.

The closest Western parallel is probably the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in age, size and in the scope of their importance to the canon of literature.

And, like the recent spate of modernized retellings of Homer’s famous tales such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, as well as Claire North’s upcoming Ithaca, the Ramayana, particularly the story of the reviled Kaikeyi, was ripe for a contemporary retelling.

Which is just what Kaikeyi is, an account of Queen Kaikeyi’s life from her early childhood to the terrible events that made her so despised in the Ramayana. But told from Kaikeyi’s own first-person point of view, we’re able to see the famous story in which she plays such an infamous part told from a feminist perspective rather than the patriarchal, male-centric version that was written by the all-male Sages who denigrated her during her life and controlled her narrative after her death.

While the Ramayana itself is the epic history of Kaikeyi’s son Rama, a reincarnation of Vishnu, in Kaikeyi’s part of that story we are at the end, where she poisons the mind of her husband King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, persuading him to exile Rama from the kingdom he is supposed to rule, for 14 long, bitter years. But that event – and the worse things that follow after it, are the last part of Kaikeyi’s story when it is told from her own perspective.

For her, the story begins at the beginning, the tale of a young woman, the only princess of Kekaya, with eight younger brothers and a disapproving father, the king who exiled her mother as a result of machinations in his own court.

Kekaya is a warlike kingdom, and Kaikeyi, in spite of her gender, learns many of the arts of war under the tutelage of her twin brother. But for all her agency and independence, she is forced to obey when her father marries her off to the King of Ayodhya, as Ayodhya is a larger, more prosperous country that Kekaya cannot afford to anger.

It is as one of the three Queens of Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finds both her purpose and her eventual downfall – at least according to the legends.

What we have in this fictionalized version of her life is the story of a strong woman who was forsaken by her gods for acts she had not yet committed, who began her rise with a little magic and less agency, but who eventually managed to carve herself a place at her husband’s side in war and in the highest councils of their kingdom in peace.

And who managed – in spite of the dire pronouncements of the Sages who denounced her as angering the gods by not staying in her “woman’s place” – to raise the standard of living and responsibility for many of the women of her kingdom.

Until it all went straight to something like hell – right along with damnation.

Escape Rating B: I said at the top that my mixed feelings had mixed feelings about this story. There were points where it seemed like a fairly straightforward feminist interpretation, where the conservative forces of the patriarchy who claimed they were speaking for the gods were just part of the cycle of men making god in their own image. In other words they wanted to maintain the status quo that kept them in power and women less than the dust under their feet by claiming that was what the gods wanted.

But then there are actual gods in this story who actually claim that those men are, in fact, speaking for their divine selves. Which does undercut some of that interpretation.

And on my rather confused other hand, as Rama and his brothers grow up, it’s clear, at least from Kaikeyi’s point of view, that knowing he was the avatar of a god from such a young age had done Rama absolutely no favors whatsoever. That he’s a puppet of divine forces beyond his control or understanding – and that he is just as much a pawn of men who get their hooks into him when he is young and corrupt him to their purposes – one of which is to strike Kaikeyi down through their control of her son.

In other words, these facets of the story read like an entirely different saying about the gods, the one that goes “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” variations of which go all the way back to Sophocles’ play Antigone – which was also written sometime in the 4th century B.C.E.

Because this is Kaikeyi’s story rather than Rama’s, this is not a story about a great man fighting great battles against great evil and having great adventures. In many ways it’s a much quieter story than that as Kaikeyi reaches maturity in Ayodhya, learns how to control her own magic, and makes changes in the ways that all women are treated in her adopted country.

But this is also a story that is effectively forced to serve two masters. On the one hand, it hits many of the same beats as epic fantasy. The use of magic, deities meddling in the affairs of their worshippers, the battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Howsomever, as the retelling of a foundational document in religions that have millions of adherents to this very day, the story must still conform to the major plot points of the epic poem it derives from. Kaikeyi the character can explain, to herself and to the reader, why events are remembered and recorded as they eventually were – but she can’t change the outcome no matter how much the reader might want her to or even expect her to because this does read much like epic fantasy.

Still, what makes Kaikeyi’s story so interesting is the way that she works through relationships, aided by her magic, to garner influence and power to help the women of her kingdom. One of the unusual facets of her story is that Kaikeyi herself is both Ace and Aromantic in this interpretation. Whatever her husband feels for her, this is not a romance. She comes to see him as a dear friend and a partner, but she has no romantic or sexual interest in him or anyone else in her life. She does not use ‘feminine wiles’ or seduction to make her point or to gather followers. It’s always fascinating to see a woman in a historical-type story that does not ever play those obvious tropes.

But as much as I found Kaikeyi’s campaign for increased women’s rights in general and greater agency and authority for herself in particular, the last quarter of the story fell flat for me. At that point, the bitter ending is coming fast, and Kaikeyi spends a great deal of time and energy castigating herself because she didn’t see it coming and can’t seem to stop the destruction that cannot be turned aside. She blames herself for absolutely everything that happens to a degree that just bogs down a whole chunk of chapters leading to the ending.

So I loved the first three quarters and was ready to throw the thing across the room in the long, drawn-out, “it’s all my fault, I’m to blame for everything” final quarter.

June is Audiobook Month and I listened to Kaikeyi rather than reading the text – which would have made throwing it across the room not just difficult but downright dangerous as I was generally driving while listening. And I’d hate to throw my iPhone out of the window. Seriously.

One of the reasons I kept going even when the story hit that big slough of despond at the end was because I was listening rather than reading. Stories that are in the first-person-perspective, as Kaikeyi is, lend themselves particularly well to audio when the narrator’s voice matches the character, as was certainly the case here. While I had mixed feelings about the story she was telling, the audio teller of the tale was excellent.

Review: Flirting with Fifty by Jane Porter

Review: Flirting with Fifty by Jane PorterFlirting with Fifty by Jane Porter
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Modern Love #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A sexy and sparkling later-in-life contemporary romance about a woman who leaps out of her comfort zone and takes a chance on love by New York Times bestselling author Jane Porter.
Paige Newsom is finally at a place in her life where she's comfortable. She loves her job as a college professor in Southern California, lives close enough to her mother to visit her regularly, and has three daughters who are flourishing in their own careers. Paige has no plans to upend her life again after her divorce eight years ago, but she's about to embark on a new adventure: co-teaching a course that includes a three-week international field study.
Paige can think of a dozen reasons why she shouldn't go, one being a dazzling Australian biologist who will be teaching alongside her. Professor Jack King is charismatic, a world traveler, and more like Indiana Jones than Indiana Jones, all of which unsettles Paige, who prides herself on being immune to any man's charms. As the two co-professors lead the rigorous program together, first on campus, then in beautiful Tanzania, Paige's biggest challenge will be working closely with Jack while resisting the undeniable chemistry she feels when she's with him.

My Review:

“We are too soon old, and too late smart” – at least according to an old Dutch proverb. Flirting with Fifty is the story of a woman who seems to be caught at the balance point between those two states.

Paige Newsom is just about to turn 50. The big 5-0. But it doesn’t seem all that big a deal to Paige, who finally has her life arranged the way she thinks she wants it. She has a marvelous job, in a place that’s close enough to home to feel “just right”. Also close enough to visit her mother back home on a regular but not too frequent basis.

Her career may have not hit stellar heights, but she’s done well enough for herself and she’s stable enough to be able to afford a home in coastal Southern California, have enough to help out her grown daughters when they need it, and save for her retirement.

Now that’s a bit closer than she likes to think about. Not that she won’t have enough saved. And not that being retired and alone isn’t amazingly better than being retired with her narcissistic, alcoholic, emotionally abusive, bullying ex-husband. It wasn’t all bad, after all, she got her girls out of it and they are her heart, but she stayed more than long enough to make her swear off all men.

So she’s not interested in meeting someone new. At all. Ever. Which means that shaking Paige out of her comfortable but slightly lonely romantic rut is going to require the re-introduction of someone from her past.

Jack King wasn’t the one that got away because Paige never let it get that far. Their one-night stand almost 30 years ago rocked her world. But she saw at the time that she could fall and fall hard for him, someone who clearly wasn’t ready to settle down or settle with someone. Or so she thought at the time.

Of course, at the time, she was only 20 and Jack was 25, pretty much a long time ago in the equivalent of a galaxy far, far away. Actually it was Paris, France, which was pretty damn far away from Paige’s home in SoCal.

Jack’s become a superstar in his field of studying climate change and human effects on the planet. He has his own show on the Discovery Channel and teaches around the world. He’s rather like a 21st century Indiana Jones – without the whip and the aversion to snakes.

And Jack is coming to her university in Southern California to team teach his specialty class and needs a co-teacher for the class who teaches advanced math and statistics. Her Dean has just voluntold her that she’ll be Jack’s co-teacher for the semester.

She’s mortified. Jack is intrigued. Because for him, Paige IS the one that got away. And this time he’s not planning to let her run off in the middle of the night before he has the chance to tell her how he really felt all those years ago.

And how he feels now.

Escape Rating A: I picked this up because of how rare it is to see a romance that centers people past their 30s. The only other one I can think of is Jasmine Guillory’s Royal Holiday. (Which was terrific and well worth a read!) Not that there isn’t plenty of women’s fiction where the story centers around a woman and her daughters where a romance occurs for the mother – not that I don’t love LOTS of those books – but those don’t center the romance the way that Flirting with Fifty does.

What made this work so well is that Paige is more-or-less content in the life she has created for herself. She has what she needs and most of what she wants and she’s not looking for more. It’s a good life. It also works well that we see enough of her thoughts and memories about her ex-husband to understand why she’s in the emotional place she’s in without dwelling on his abuse. She’s still affected by the past – as we all are – but her regrets don’t consume her.

She’s also mature enough to acknowledge that her actions with Jack in Paris happened the way they did because she wasn’t mature at all. She was young and insecure – not too surprising at 20 – and couldn’t cope with her own feelings. She was embarrassed and overwhelmed and she ran instead of dealing with him in what might have been a very awkward morning after.

The romance is lovely because they don’t pick up where they left off. There’s a lot of water under that bridge, and the only way to see if they have something now is to let it happen slowly if it’s going to happen at all. They move from colleagues to friends to more than friends to lovers in a hesitant but natural progression.

It makes sense that way. They’re not who they were 30 years ago. Who is? But they’re also not NOT who they were. Their younger selves are still inside them, and those selves have, if not exactly regrets, at least a certain wistfulness about that road not taken. So this time they decide to take a few steps down that road and see how it feels.

The other thing that made this story work is the way that the author captures the combination of the giddiness of falling in love again with the issues of already having lives and plans that will need to be adjusted and cooperated over to make anything work. And that both of them have pasts that are guaranteed to bite the relationship in the ass at times. As Jack’s certainly does.

He does an excellent patient grovel when required. It’s not glossed over and it’s not leapt past. Which meant that their HEA felt earned and included the acknowledgement that the “ever after” past of that equation was never going to be as many years as it might have been – but that those years will be filled with love.

As they should be.

I am utterly thrilled to learn that this is the first book in a series of romances centered on later-in-life couples. The next book, Flirting with the Beast, is coming in November. YAY!

Reviewer’s Note: As much as I loved Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, the picture of Jack King in my head is Sam Neill – probably because of the accent. Your imaginary casting mileage may definitely vary.

Review: Beach House Summer by Sarah Morgan

Review: Beach House Summer by Sarah MorganBeach House Summer by Sarah Morgan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on May 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan returns with the ultimate beach read, as one woman forges the most unlikely friendship of all, and embarks on a summer of confronting her past in order to build the future she wants...
When Joanna Whitman's famous ex-husband dies in a car accident, she doesn't know what to feel. Their dysfunctional marriage held more painful secrets than she cares to remember. But when she discovers that the young woman with him in the crash is pregnant, Joanna feels compelled to act, knowing exactly how brutal the media spotlight will be on celebrity chef Cliff Whitman's ex-wife and his mysterious female friend.
Ashley Blake can't believe it when Joanna shows up in her hospital room and suggests they hide away at her beach house on a sleepy stretch of California coast. Joanna should be hating her, not helping her. But alone and pregnant, Ashley can't turn down Joanna's offer. Yet she knows that if Joanna ever found out the real reason Ashley was in that car, their tentative bond would shatter instantly.
Joanna's only goal for the summer is privacy, but her return causes major waves in the local community, especially for the man she left behind years ago. All Ashley wants is space to plan for her and her baby's future, and to avoid causing any trouble for Joanna. But as secrets spill out under the hot summer sun, this unlikely friendship is about to be put to the test.

My Review:

There can be a huge difference between the truth and “the story”. In this era of 24/7 “news” where everyone has an opportunity to voice their opinions using social media as a megaphone, it’s “the story” that keeps people interested and engaged – the truth be, well, not so much damned as ignored in favor of whatever slant gathers the most eyeballs and sells the most advertising.

So when celebrity chef and serial philanderer Cliff Whitman dies in a car crash with a young woman in his car, the media sharks already know where the story is, because “the story” of Cliff’s sexcapades has never been about him. The story has always been about his now ex-wife Joanna.

There’s way more interest in making her a victim yet again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, than there is in finding out the truth about the crash. After all, Cliff was a celebrity, and let’s not forget male and charismatic. People are always willing to believe that whatever a famous man does wrong is somehow the woman’s fault. Even if they’re divorced. Even if she was nowhere near the place or the person at the time.

Even Joanna’s non-reaction is a story, and the vultures (read that as reporters) are more than willing to stake out her house and harass her neighbors to get it.

That there was a young woman in Cliff’s car when he crashed just adds fuel to the fire. After all, everyone knows that Cliff liked them young and younger as he got older. And the girl survived, which makes her fair game as far as the vultures are concerned.

Which is where the story gets interesting. Everyone assumes that the young woman, Ashley Blake, was Cliff’s latest fling. Or that she was about to be. She was certainly his type.

So no one expects Joanna Whitman to sweep into Ashley’s hospital room and rescue her from the schooling piranhas staking out the hospital just waiting for her to be discharged. They’ve already breached her privacy once, so it’s only a matter of time until they can find a patient, a visitor or even a hospital staffer to give one of them the juicy scoop.

Joanna, who has already evaded the swarm of stalkers outside her house, sweeps Ashley away to somewhere no one will look – at least for a little while. They both need a bit of peace, a time to heal, and a chance to figure out what happens next.

But the place Joanna has taken Ashley is her own hometown on the California Coast, to the beach house that sits on the land she once called home.

Joanna thinks she’s helping Ashley. And she is. But Ashley is also helping her. And by returning to her roots, Joanna finally gives herself a chance to take stock of her own life – and to explore the road not taken, the one that everyone, including Joanna herself, expected to take all those years ago.

Escape Rating A: Beach House Summer isn’t so much a romance as it is women’s fiction or relationship fiction. Not that a romance doesn’t eventually occur in the story, but the romance is not the center of the story.

The heart of Beach House Summer is in the relationship between Joanna and Ashley, and then Joanna’s relationships with all the people she left behind in Silver Point, especially her childhood best friend Melanie and Mel’s twin brother Nate – who was, once upon a time, the love of Joanna’s life.

More than anything else, though, the story is about Joanna’s hesitant reaching out to, well, anyone at all.

For the 19 years of her marriage, and the year of her divorce, Joanna has been the media’s punching bag whenever one of Cliff’s affairs was exposed. Which happened often. Extremely often. Even after their divorce, she was still the one who got stalked whenever he was seen with anyone. Because after each and every affair, she went back to him. Over and over and over. The speculation and innuendo, as occurs whenever a famous man is involved with a less famous woman, was vicious. Every single time.

And every single time Joanna’s response was “no comment” if she gave a response at all. She trusts no one because she knows they’ll either stab her in the back with the press or turn away from her in pity or even horror whenever the press comes stalking. Because they inevitably will.

Joanna’s reaction is to make like a turtle and hide all her vulnerable bits. Which is pretty much all of them. But bringing Ashley into her life opens a door that she realizes she doesn’t want to close. Letting one person in lets in others. Going back to her hometown lets her see that there ARE people who love her and people who can be counted on – no matter what her vicious stepmother used to tell her.

As much of the joy of this book is wrapped around Joanna’s relationships with both her new and her old friends, as lovely as it is that she does get back the friendships and the love she left behind, the part of the story that kept me turning pages in fury was the part about the relentless stalking behavior of the media.

Cliff is the one who cheated, Cliff is the one who lied, Cliff is the one who crashed his own car because he thought the speed limit on a cliffside road was a suggestion and not a warning. But Joanna is the one who suffers for it. Every. Single. Time. Even after their divorce. He’s the guilty party but she’s always the one to blame because that’s the story that people want to read.

It reminds me of a story going on right now that seems to be distracting the entire country from pretty much every substantive issue that should be getting more attention. So I wasn’t surprised at all that Joanna did her level best to hide and hope it would all blow over, and I saw so many parallels with the way she was treated and the way that the sharks circle any woman who speaks up about rich and/or famous men. What did surprise me was that when she finally stood up and refused to be a victim any longer, that it actually worked. I wish that was true in real life – at least more of the time.

Wrapping up, I loved Beach House Summer for its story about love and friendship and second chances. But its ripped from the headlines background is what really put it over the top for this reader.

Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes

Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie BarnesThe Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, holiday romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #9
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When a rakish scoundrel decides to pursue the woman he loves in this friends to lovers Regency romance, he risks his father's disapproval...and the consequence this will have on his future.

He had to risk losing her so he would realize how much he loved her...

Jack Lancaster, Baron Hawthorne, hasn't been home in four years. He's been too busy running from his emotions. So when he finally does return and discovers his childhood friend, Sophia Fenmore, has gotten engaged, he's not only shocked, but determined to change her mind and make her his.

Sophia has always known Jack was out of her league. But she valued his friendship, until he broke her heart. Now he's back, as eager to charm her as she is to thwart him.For as much as she'd like to believe Jack has changed, she cannot risk taking a chance on a rogue. Unless of course, he proves himself worthy.

A daring forbidden love romance from a USA Today bestselling author

*Previously published as part of The Rogue Who Stole Christmas anthology*

My Review:

The way that the romances are intertwined and misdirected in this latest book in the Diamonds in the Rough series reads like the kind of convoluted plot that Shakespeare would have loved.

The Lancaster children, Jack, Felicity, and Kaitlin, and the Fenmore siblings, Edward and Sophia, grew up together as one romping tangle of friends. But the Lancasters are the offspring of the Earl of Turner, while the Fenmores are the children of the local vicar. There’s an even larger gap in station between Sophia Fenmore and the others, as Sophia is an orphan who was found wrapped in a blanket in the church that the Fenmores’ father is the vicar of. They raised her as their own, but with her origins obscure at best, she’s not quite the social equal of the others.

A difference that makes no difference when they are all children, but drives a wedge in the close friendship between Jack and Sophia when they reach the cusp of adulthood. Not that either of them cares one whit, they are the best of friends even if Sophia is just beginning to understand that she wants more.

But to Jack’s father the Earl, it matters a great deal. To the point where the Earl threatens to cut off Jack’s inheritance if he marries Sophia. Something that Jack hadn’t even thought of up to that point. (The title and the estate are entailed, Jack will inherit those whatever his father wants. But the money is his father’s own to dispose of as he pleases. Inheriting the estate without the money for the upkeep of the stately pile is a recipe for bankruptcy.)

Jack runs away to London for four years, earning enough money to no longer need anything his father doesn’t want to give. He ALSO earns a well-deserved reputation as a rake as he cuts a wide and smiling swath through the female population of London in an attempt to deny his father’s accusation – that he’s in love with Sophia. Even though he is.

Jack returns home to a mess. Sophia is more beautiful than he remembered, and even more captivating. But she’s also engaged to, of all people, her adopted brother Edward. Who is in love with Jack’s sister Felicity. But Edward and Felicity both believe that their love is doomed, that Felicity’s father would never consent to a match between them.

In other words, everyone is being self-sacrificing – except Jack’s father who is still being an ass.

And just when it seems like they’ve all gotten past all of the roadblocks they’ve put in their own way, the truth about Sophia’s origins finally comes to light. And those roadblocks just get higher.

Escape Rating B: The Diamonds in the Rough series has been charming romantic fluff from the very first book, A Most Unlikely Duke (still my favorite in the series) to this 9th book in the series. And this one feels like the last. Not that it doesn’t stand alone, because it most certainly does, but because all of those Diamonds and their equally happy spouses are guests at the wedding that ends this entry in the series. It felt like closure, although I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong!

The best part of The Roguish Baron isn’t the Baron. It’s Sophia. What made her interesting was that, in spite of some of her over-the-top descriptions of her feelings, her thoughts and actions were very, very pragmatic. And she wasn’t shy about letting Jack know when he’d stepped in it and on them. She doesn’t cry and expect to be patted and soothed, she speaks up and uses her words very clearly and forthrightly.

Her situation in this story is very much “one down”. She’s female in a time and place where she has no rights and her only hope of a comfortable future is to marry and hope that her husband isn’t a brute or a gambler or a spendthrift. And she may not have a say in who she marries, and then she’ll basically be property in the marriage.

Under those circumstances, her acceptance of Edward’s proposal may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it is far, far, far from the worst. With her origins obscured, it may be the only offer she’ll get, and she knows it. Whatever dreams she might have of marrying Jack, she’s not wrong to think that society will look down upon them both and that his father will not be forgiving. She’s doomed before she starts.

Jack loves her and wants her but takes, not so much convincing as beating about with a clue-by-four to get that if they’re going to untangle the mess their in that there are no half-measures. And that if he can’t commit to this course he needs to leave her alone. Which he has a hard time even imagining, let alone actually doing.

The thing that made this work was the way that Jack was forced to grovel, publicly, for the mess he’d made of his life, and the mess he’d very nearly made of both their lives. Sophia may have forgiven him, but he still had to earn back the respect he’d squandered when he was punishing both himself and his father – who honestly didn’t grovel enough.

That Sophia does learn who she came from was lovely, even though it did seem like a bit of deus ex machina. And I have some mixed feelings about whether that was the right way to solve things.

But this was still a lovely, frothy bit of holiday Regency romance. If this is the end of the series, it provides a charming bit of closure to five years of romantic reads. If it turns out there are still more to come, I’d be happy to watch more of these unconventional couples find their HEAs..

Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Review: Last Exit by Max GladstoneLast Exit by Max Gladstone
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Length: 21 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Tor Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

My Review:

There was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world. Zelda, June, Sarah, Ramon and Ish go on the road trying to do something to slow it down or keep it at bay or just stop it. If they can. Because they believe they must. Because they tried before – and they failed.

But, and it’s a very big but that fills the sky with thunder and lightning and cracks the ground all around them every place they go – is that “last exit” they’re searching for the last exit to get OFF the road that is heading TO hell, or is it the last exit to get ON that road. Differences may be crucial – and nearly impossible to judge when the critical moment arrives with the ring of boot heels on cracked and broken pavement.

Ten years ago, five college students (Sal, Zelda, Sarah, Ramon and Ish) who all felt like outsiders at their preppy, pretentious Ivy League school (cough Yale cough) discovered that they each had a ‘knack’ for exploring the multiverse. So, they decided to go on an adventure instead of heading out into the real world of adulting, jobs and families.

They wanted to make the world better – or find a world that was better – rather than settle for and in the world they had. So they went on ‘The Road’ and explored all the alternate worlds they could find within the reach of their “souped up” car.

They found adventure all right. And they were all young enough to shrug off the danger they encountered and the damage they took escaping it. But what they did not find was anyplace better. They didn’t even find anywhere that was all that good.

They helped where they could and escaped where they had to and generally had a good time together. But, and again it’s a very big but, all the worlds they found had given way to the same terrible applications of power and privilege and use and abuse that are dragging this world down. They found death cults and dictatorships and slavery and madness everywhere they went.

The multiverse was rotting from within, because there was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world.

So together they embarked upon a desperate journey to the Crossroads at the heart of all the multiverses, the place where there might be a chance to not just shore up the forces of not-too-bad in one alternate world, but in all the alternate worlds all at the same time.

They failed. And they lost the woman who was their heart and their soul. Sal fell through the cracks of the world. She was lost to the rot that was destroying not just the alts but their own world as well.

That could have been the end of their story. And it almost was. Without Sal, they fell apart. Individually and collectively. Sarah went to medical school and raised a family. Ish raised a tech empire. Ramon tried to destroy himself, tried to forget, and ended up back where he started.

And Zelda stayed on the road, sleepwalking through ten years of loneliness, doing her best to plug the holes in this world where the rot was creeping in.

Because it was all their fault – it was all her fault. She lost Sal, the woman she loved – and then everything fell apart. She feels duty-bound, obligated and guilt-ridden, to fix it.

It takes ten years, and a kick in the pants from Sal’s cousin June, for Zelda to finally acknowledge that the only way she can fix what she broke, what they broke, is going to require more than a little help from their friends.

If they’re willing to take one final ride on the road.

American Gods by Neil GaimanEscape Rating A-: In the end, Last Exit is awesome. But it takes one hell of a long and painful journey to reach that end. Because it starts with all of them not just apart, but in their own separate ways, falling apart. And it ends with all of their demons coming home to roost – and nearly destroying them – as they relive the past and do their damndest to push through to either some kind of future – or some kind of sacrifice to balance out the one they already made when they lost Sal.

The reader – along with Zelda and Sal’s cousin June – starts out the story believing that it’s all about the journey. Or that it’s a quest to reach a specific destination that may or may not be Mount Doom. It’s only at the very, very bitter end that they – and the reader – figure out that it was about the perspective all along.

A lot of readers are going to see a resemblance to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I haven’t read that so it wasn’t there for me. What I saw was a sharp comparison to American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both because it’s very much an “American Road Story”, even if most of the Americas are alts, but especially because of that sudden, sharp, shock at the end, where the reader has to re-think everything that came before.

I listened to Last Exit all the way through, and the narrator did a terrific job of differentiating the voices. There was a lyricism to the characters’ internal dialogs that she conveyed particularly well – it was easy to get caught up in each one’s internal thoughts and understand where they were coming from, even if the sheer overwhelming amount of angst most of them were going through was occasionally overwhelming – both for the characters and for the listener.

Part of what makes this a densely packed and difficult story and journey is that the main character and perspective is Zelda – who is just a hot mess of angst and guilt and regret. We understand why she blames herself for everything – whether anything is her fault or not – but there seems to be no comfort for her anywhere and you do spend a lot of the book wondering if she’s going to sacrifice herself because she just can’t bear it a minute longer.

The story feels a bit disjointed at points because the narrative is disjointed both because Zelda keeps telling and experiencing snippets of what happened before interwoven with what’s happening now and because the alts themselves are disjointed. It’s clear there’s some kind of organizing geography, but I just didn’t quite see it. To me, the alts all sounded like various aspects of the fractured future Earth in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I stopped worrying about what went where.

There were a lot of points where I seriously wondered where this was all going. Where it ended up wasn’t what I was initially expecting – at all. But it was one hell of a journey and I’m really glad I went, even if I needed a cocoa and a lie-down to recover from the sheer, chaotic wildness of the ride..

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. HughesHeroic Hearts by Jim Butcher, Kerrie Hughes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 368
Published by Ace Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An all-star urban fantasy collection featuring short stories from #1 New York Times bestselling authors Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, and more . . .
In this short story collection of courage, adventure, and magic, heroes--ordinary people who do the right thing--bravely step forward.
But running toward danger might cost them everything. . . .
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher's "Little Things," the pixie Toot-Toot discovers an invader unbeknownst to the wizard Harry Dresden . . . and in order to defeat it, he'll have to team up with the dread cat Mister.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Briggs's "Dating Terrors," the werewolf Asil finds an online date might just turn into something more--if she can escape the dark magic binding her.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris's "The Return of the Mage," the Britlingen mercenaries will discover more than they've bargained for when they answer the call of a distress beacon on a strange and remote world.
And in #1 New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong's "Comfort Zone," the necromancer Chloe Saunders and the werewolf Derek Souza are just trying to get through college. But they can't refuse a ghost pleading for help.
ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BY Annie Bellet * Anne Bishop * Jennifer Brozek * Kevin Hearne * Nancy Holder * Kerrie L. Hughes * Chloe Neill * R.R. Virdi

My Review:

I was looking for a bit of a change of pace to wrap this week’s reviews, so I turned to my favorite pick-me-up genre, urban fantasy, and to this excellent collection of it, Heroic Hearts, which features stories by some of the stars in the genre, while giving me a chance to explore worlds both familiar and not.

Four of the stories were set in worlds that I am at least somewhat familiar with; Jim Butcher’s Little Things, set of course in the Dresden Files, The Dark Ship by Anne Bishop in previously unexplored part of her World of the Others, Fire Hazard by Kevin Hearne in the Iron Druid Chronicles and Patricia Briggs’ Dating Terror in her Alpha & Omega spinoff of Mercy Thompson’s world.

What made both Little Things and Fire Hazard so much fun to read wasn’t just their familiarity but the way that both stories gave that familiarity a bit of a twist by telling the story from alternate points of view.

Harry Dresden is too busy to be the main character or narrator of Little Things. That role is reserved for the pixie Toot-Toot who leads the castle’s forces of pixies and other small creatures to fend off a gremlin invasion. While Toot-Toot and his minions start out just defending their beloved pizza, by the time the story is baked to its conclusion they’ve saved the whole castle and everyone in it – with a bit of assistance from Dresden’s cat Mister. Even if they can’t manage to help Dresden with his angst about the terrible “conomee” and his regular fight with the dread monster “budget”.

Fire Hazard, which deals with the very serious issue of the wide-spread fires in Australia, is both lightened and made a bit more profound – surprisingly so! – by being told from the perspective of Oberon, Atticus’ Irish wolfhound. While the fires were started through either natural causes or human error, there is something supernatural that is, quite literally, fanning the flames. That Atticus can take care of. But it’s Oberon’s meditations on the nature of courage and sausage that give this story both its heart and its humor.

The Dark Ship is one of the darker stories in the World of the Others, and that’s saying something because the world as a whole is often plenty dark. But what makes this one chilling isn’t the looming threat of the Others, it’s that the evil that men do is so terrible that the reader completely understands why the Others get involved – even though on this occasion the Others are not the target of that evil. I still think there’s reading crack somehow embedded into this series, because even in ebook form once I start one I can’t put the damn thing down.

I haven’t kept up – at all – with the Mercyverse. I read the series as it stood a long time ago, including the first Alpha & Omega book, and that was enough to make the world of this story feel familiar. In the end Dating Terror is a story about taking control of your own life with a bit of help from your friends, but it does it through a fake dating agency scenario that blends a subtle bit of humor with the righteous takedown of a monster.

The rest of the stories in this collection are either standalones or set in worlds I’m not familiar with. And for the most part that didn’t matter either way. Except for one story, Silverspell by Chloe Neill. It’s part of her Heirs of Chicagoland series. I liked it well enough as a standalone but I think there would have been more there, there if I were familiar with the series.

The one story that didn’t work for me was The Vampires Karamazov. There were plenty of villains in this one, but no real hero and the story was just dark and grim.

On the other hand, my favorite stories in the collection, Troll Life by Kerrie L. Hughes, Grave Gambles by R.R. Virdi and The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic by Jennifer Brozek were all set in worlds completely new to me.

Troll Magic features the troll probationary station master of a train line that takes paranormal creatures from one realm to another. It’s part of his magic to manage the station, make sure that no one is aboard who shouldn’t be, and keep the vending machines stocked. When a couple of runaways – and the villains who are chasing them – use his station for their confrontation, it’s up to the station master and his pet barghest to see justice done and evil get its just desserts, along with some help from some sentient and surprisingly gossipy trains.

Grave Gambles was interesting as a kind of paranormal variation on Quantum Leap – which seems apropos as that classic series might be coming back. But instead of science powering the leaps, it’s magic. Specifically the magic of meting out deathly justice to those who have escaped the earthly kind. It’s a quietly atmospheric story with a fascinating premise.

I liked The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic because it features two elderly ladies, one of whom would probably be excellent friends with the protagonist of An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good. It’s the story of two old witches who are comrades a bit more than they are friends, bringing their magical power to bear on an ancient terror that wants to consume their favorite museum – along with, most likely, the town it sits in.

I had mixed feelings about Return of the Mage by Charlaine Harris, and based on the reviews I’m not alone. I did rather like it, even though it isn’t really urban fantasy, but that’s because it reminds me a lot of episodes of both Stargate and Star Trek. It’s a story about a mage who has settled down on a primitive planet and made himself king, emperor and god even though he really ought to know better. The mage/mech/merc forces that come to pry him out of his cozy, exploitative little nest certainly do.

The last two stories are Train to Last Hope by Annie Bellet and Comfort Zone by Kelly Armstrong.

Comfort Zone reminded me a bit of the Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris, in that Chloe sees – and speaks to – dead people. So the story is about helping a ghost save his little sister from the mess he got her in before he died because of said mess.

Train to Last Hope is the kind of Weird West story that haunts. Two women go on a quest to find out what happened to their daughter. They broke up a decade ago, because one accepted that the girl was dead while the other refused to let go. Not that either of them truly ever has let go of the girl or each other. One became a Reaper to harvest the souls of the dead in order to extend her search, while the other waits at Last Hope, the last stop of the train of the dead, hoping that one day her daughter will pass by. This story about closure is bittersweet and sticks with the reader once it’s done. It also reminds me more than a bit of T.J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door.

Escape Rating A-: This was a collection with plenty of great reading but surprisingly just the one story that didn’t work for me. There’s always at least one, but usually it’s more, so I’m very happy to have picked this up and read the lot. I do think the ones that are set in established worlds work better with at least some familiarity, but it is a great way to sample and see if you like what those worlds have to offer.

To make a long story short, if you love urban fantasy, this collection is fantastic – pun certainly intended. If you’re curious, this is a great place to start!

Mister rules, as cats always do, but Oberon, as always, is a very good boy indeed.

Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Review: By the Book by Jasmine GuilloryBy the Book (Meant to Be #2) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, retellings
Series: Meant To Be #2
Pages: 320
Published by Hyperion Avenue on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.
All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?
But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn't there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

My Review:

When we meet Isabelle Marlowe, it’s the first day of her dream job – or at least the starter job on her dream job ladder. She’s the new editorial assistant to Marta Wallace, one of the top editors at TAOAT Publishing.

That intro clues the reader into the two themes of this story. TAOAT stands for “Tale as Old as Time”, part of the chorus of the Oscar and Grammy winning song “Beauty and the Beast” from the 1991 Disney movie of the same name. By the Book is a contemporary retelling of that now-classic movie.

The second theme is conveyed by Isabelle’s passion for her brand new job. Isabelle loves books and everything about them. She loves reading, she loves editing, she loves writing, she loves looking for new books and she loves talking about books. Working in the publishing industry (also being a librarian, a nurse, or a teacher, BTW) is what’s commonly called a “passion job”. People go into those and certain other fields because they have a passion for the work. Or, at least, a passion for what they think the work will be. They know they’ll be overworked and underpaid, but they expect the joys of the job to make up for the many shortfalls.

As the story fast forwards two years, we see that Izzy’s passion for the work and everything that surrounds it has been ground out – and Izzy has been ground down – by the circumstances and drudgery that surround it. She’s even more overworked than she expected, as she is not only Marta’ assistant but also her gopher, AND as one of the very few POC on the staff of TAOAT (the publishing industry as a whole is still mostly white IRL), Izzy gets called in whenever someone needs to represent diversity in the office or the industry.

That her boss Marta seems to be modeling herself after the villainess of The Devil Wears Prada – or at least the lower budget publishing industry version – is nasty icing on top of the already tasteless cake. And Izzy’s heard from one of the other editors that Marta still doesn’t think Izzy’s up to the job – even after two years.

But Izzy and her office bestie Priya are on their way to a publishing conference in Los Angeles with Marta. They’ll still be overworked, underpaid and underappreciated – but at least they’ll be able to escape New York City’s frigid winter for a few days of California sunshine.

Izzy’s pretty much at the end of her last rope – and she’s getting sick of just hanging on. That’s when she overhears Marta complaining about a former child actor she signed for an autobiography who not only refuses to deliver a manuscript – he refuses to communicate at all. Izzy leaps before she looks into the fray, and volunteers to drive from LA to Santa Barbara to get in the would-be author’s face about his book and the lack thereof.

Driving to the beast’s coastal “castle” gets Izzy one more night in sunny California. Barging her way into the house where that beast, Beau Towers, has been holed up for a year gets her the chance of a lifetime.

A chance to read. A chance to write. And a chance to recover her passion.

Escape Rating A-: The heart of this story is in Izzy’s invasion of Beau Towers castle and what happens after. Because what happens first is that Beau is pretty damn beastly.

He gets better.

While the romance between Izzy and Beau is intended as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it hits the obvious beats of the movie pretty hard. When Izzy starts talking to her luxurious bathtub and she’s almost sure it’s talking back, the way that those familiar beats get pounded borders on overkill.

But the romance is just so damn charming that if you liked the original at all it’s impossible not to love this version as well.

While the romance begins with a meet cute, the situations they are separately in are both pretty damn ugly. We know about the mess that Izzy is in, and we already feel for her when she barges into Beau’s house. We start out sharing her opinion, that Beau is an overprivileged, irresponsible asshole – and he does nothing to counter that impression. Quite the reverse – he leans into it in an attempt to drive Izzy away.

He’s retreated into his very own “Fortress of Solitude” and is desperate to pull up the drawbridge behind him. But Izzy’s stuck – and he’s stuck with her. Or so it seems at first.

Their work into friendship into romance works because they both have mountains to climb and shells to climb out of. She needs to find her own voice again, and he needs to get past his own hurt and shame. And they both need to do it the same way, by writing it all out – even the hard parts.

Especially the hard parts.

The more they write – separately but together in the same space – the more they expose to each other. Beau gets to see Izzy’s dreams and how much she has invested in them, while Izzy sees Beau’s pain and how much he needs to let it out so he can forgive himself.

They fall in love because they get to really know each other all the way down to the bone. And just as in the movie, once Beau is able to let out all the terrible secrets he has been hiding, he stops being a beast.

While that part was beautiful, what was even better was the way that once Izzy let herself reach for her dreams she was able to find the passion she once had for her passion job – and the success that was her due.

If it worked that way for passion jobs in real life, the world would be a much happier place!