Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer RyanThe Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, World War II
Pages: 411
Published by Ballantine Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration—even at weddings—in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir.After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.
Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay—the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet's conscription letter. It couldn't have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?
Meanwhile, the local vicar's daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother's gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help—but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.
Before long, Cressida's spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.

My Review:

Eustace Westcott was dead, to begin with. And it seems to be a relief for all concerned, especially his family. His deceased presence turns out to be a bigger blight on the lives of everyone who knew him than the war. Even the local pub still boasts “a certain ditty written in the men’s lavatory” proclaiming that “Eustace Westcott should stick his precious checkbook up a certain part of his anatomy.”

His estranged sister, the famous – or infamous in the late Eustace’s mind – fashion designer Cressida Westcott would certainly agree. She only attended his funeral to make absolutely certain the blighter was dead.

But speaking of that war, when the London Blitz takes out both her house and her design house in the same night, Cressida’s not sure where to go or what to do. She’s lost everything except the clothes on her back, the designs in her head, and a reputation in the fashion industry that she’s spent the last 20 years building. Those will see her through – but first she needs a place to live and regroup.

She never thought she’d go back home to Aldhurst. In fact, she’d sworn she wouldn’t. But Eustace is dead and she can at least hope that his two children, now adults themselves, haven’t turned into carbon copies of their not-so-dear old dad. Or that there’s still time for her to help them become functional human beings now that his oppressive influence over their lives has been removed.

What she finds in the old family pile is a second chance. A chance to get to know the village and its people – and become one of them. A chance to find family again by helping her niece and nephew see that their father’s ideas and influence are holding them back from living their own lives instead of repeating all the restrictions of his.

All the restrictions he tried to impose on Cressida and utterly failed at.

Cressida has a chance to explore a bit of the road not taken and let herself have as much of it all as could ever be possible – not in spite of the war but because of it.

Escape Rating A: I was looking for, not exactly a comfort read as most of my comfort reads start with murder, but rather a comfortable read for the end of this week. It’s kind of surprising that led me to World War II, not exactly a comfortable time for ANYONE, but this actually fit the bill quite nicely. I adored one of the author’s previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and was expecting more of the same – interesting characters who grow and change in a heartwarming story of the British homefront during World War II. And I was expecting a female-centric story because, well, the war.

And all of that is exactly what I got. With bells on!

The story revolves around three women, Cressida Westcott, her niece Violet Westcott, and the woman cressida mentors in Aldhurst, Grace Carlisle. All of their lives have been knocked off their original courses by World War II, but the war also gives each of them a chance to change a course that they thought was set. Hopefully for the better.

Cressida’s change is a driving force in what happens, which is fitting because Cressida herself has always been a driving force in her own life. While her return to Aldhurst allows her to see the place with fresh eyes, her trip back home doesn’t change who she has become in all the years between.

She’s still a driven woman, determined to be in the top echelon of fashion design – and succeeding on her own terms. What her return to Aldhurst allows her to do is to open herself up to new experiences and new friendships. She is still who she has always been, but becoming part of the village – something she was not allowed to do when she was growing up – reminds her that in addition to making a living she also needs to make a life.

Violet and Grace are both in their 20s, and each has planned a certain life for themselves based on what they’ve been taught, what they’ve been told, what they’ve always believed in the “right thing to do.” Violet is honestly a selfish, self-involved little bitch, an upper class twit who believes that marrying a title is her due and that she’s entitled to all the privileges that come with her family’s wealth and status without ever working for them.

Grace is her opposite, the daughter of the local vicar, selflessly devoting herself to the village and parish work, never asking a thing for herself. She’s been shouldering much of her father’s caretaking of the village in the years since her mother died, and everyone else’s need for her has become her life. To the point that she’s planning to marry a clergyman herself, believing that it’s her best chance of recreating the happy family that raised her before her mother’s death.

Violet just needs to grow up – and for that to happen she needs to break out of a role that is designed to keep her childlike and uneducation. Conscription into war work forced Violet to see herself and the world around her with her own eyes, and it’s the making of her.

But it’s Grace’s transformation from colorless drudge to fashion design apprentice that gives the story its heart and its heartbreak. Her involvement with Cressida begins with her engagement, and her desire to wear her mother’s rather moth-eaten wedding gown on her own ‘special’ day.

It’s not just a wish out of love and nostalgia, it’s a necessity. Under wartime clothing rationing, there is no material available for new wedding dresses. There’s little available for repairing old ones, either. But with Cressida’s vast design experience and Grace’s eye for the best ways of ‘making mend and making do’ there’s a chance to make it happen.

Even though the process of design and exploration finally makes Grace wake up and realize that it shouldn’t happen for her – or at least it shouldn’t happen for her with the man she’s currently engaged to marry.

Whether Grace gets to wear the dress herself or not, out of her mother’s old dress both a new dress and a grand idea, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle of the title, are born. The dress that Violet’s mother gave to Grace’s mother eventually becomes THE dress for many young women of Aldhurst and beyond, in an act of sisterhood that is carried not just around the country, but all the way back home to where it began.

The dress is beautiful on every woman who wears it. And the story of how it came to be is every single bit as lovely.

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie BarnesMr. Clarke's Deepest Desire (Enterprising Scoundrels #2) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, Victorian romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #2
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

When an earl's daughter falls for a businessman in this secret identities Regency romance, she risks more than heartbreak when his connection to her past threatens her reputation...

How can he build a future with a woman whose father ruined his life?

Having recently suffered the death of her father, Rosamund Parker faces an uncertain future. Intent on retaining her independence, she plans to invest her modest inheritance. But the man whose help she seeks is as infuriating as he is handsome. For reasons she can't comprehend, he's set on thwarting her at every turn, even as he tempts her with kisses she ought not want.

Matthew Clarke needs funding for his locomotive business, but he'll not accept it from the Earl of Stoneburrow's daughter. As far as Matthew's concerned, that entire family can go hang. Unfortunately, Lady Rosamund seems to pop up wherever he goes. Ignoring the fire she stirs in him becomes an increasing challenge. But surrendering to it could prove disastrous. It could in fact ruin both their lives...

My Review:

Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desires, the second book in the Enterprising Scoundrels series after Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender (I sense a theme in the titles, don’t you?) is a delightfully frothy bit of Victorian romance with some dark notes in the background. And a whole heaping helping of insta-lust in the lush foreground.

A part of me wants to make some terrible puns about Rosamund Parker and her need to have her engines overhauled – or at least her ashes hauled, but that’s not where this story begins. In a perverse way it began way back when, when her late, lamented, dear old dad couldn’t resist forcing their housemaid to haul his – will she or nill she. And of course he fired her when she informed him that she was carrying the inevitable consequence of his actions.

Now he’s dead and buried, and the mourning period has just officially ended. The reading of his will has left his daughter in a bit of a fix of a different sort. As the daughter (and only child) of an Earl, she knew she would not inherit his title or the entailed estate. But she expected a bit more than 500 pounds. Not per annum, but in total. Along with a binding clause that her uncle, the new Earl, was not permitted to maintain or support her.

(If you’re curious, that’s just over $60,000 in today’s dollars. A more-than-decent one year’s salary, but not nearly enough for a relatively young woman to live off of for the rest of her life.)

Rosamund, who does want to marry, also wants to have enough time going about the selection process to ensure that she makes a choice that satisfies both her head and her heart. So, instead of rushing into anything or anyone she plans to invest most of her money and life off the income from her investment while she makes a considered choice.

It’s a sensible plan, which makes sense. Because Rosamund is a very sensible woman. Also a very intelligent one.

But her plans go up almost literally in smoke when she meets Matthew Clarke, the owner of A&C Locomotive. Because Rosamund and Matthew strike more sparks from each other than any one of his engines do when they screech their brakes. Not that either of them can manage much of anything except almost literally screeching at each other.

Matthew’s mother was the housemaid that Rosamund’s father forced into his bed and then out the door, leaving both mother and 12-year-old Matthew destitute. Matthew refuses to take Rosamund’s investment money – no matter how much he actually needs it. He’s still carrying that grudge – and is an absolute ass about it to Rosamund even though she has no clue what he’s so angry about.

After all, she was all of 10 at the time and it’s not exactly a subject that any father would raise with his own daughter – particularly not in the Victorian Era!

But Rosamund is determined to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry, and Matthew still does need investors. Which means that they keep meeting – and meeting – and meeting at various gatherings of industry executives and potential investors. The more often they run into each other, the more sparks that fly – no matter how little Rosamund wants to believe the truth about her beloved father.

The push-pull of their relationship, the way that they hate each other but still want each other desperately, is hot enough to fuel a locomotive or ten without the use of coal. All they need to do is give in – before they make a mistake that will haunt the rest of their lives.

Escape Rating B+: One of the things that I really enjoy about the Enterprising Scoundrels series is that the heroes all work for a living. Admittedly it’s work among the wealthy and powerful, and they’ve done well for themselves, but it’s still real work that gives them real purpose. This is a series where happiness is not just the province of the idle rich to the point where it openly questions whether the idle rich are all that happy.

Matthew Clarke is an especially delicious hero in this mold because he’s a self-made man who has not either lost the threads of his humanity or obtained his wealth outside the law. Both of which are not uncommon backgrounds for heroes of historical romances.

What made this book downright refreshing is that even the bounder who tries to interfere with the romance between Rose and Matthew is really after Rose for her prodigious intellect and genius ideas, while her truly delectable person is icing on the cake of her splendid brain and not the other way around.

But speaking of that bounder, he’s not really a villain – at least not in the bwahaha sense that often happens. He’s out for himself and he does take advantage of a situation, but he doesn’t make the situation and he’s just not evil. Selfish and self-centered, but not beyond human reason.

So I didn’t leave this book, as I did Mr. Donohue’s Total Surrender, with the feeling that there were too many characters who did not receive the desserts they had so richly earned. If there is a villain in this piece it’s Rosamund’s father, and he’s already having that discussion with his Maker when the story begins.

I do have to say that I found the blurb for the book a bit deceptive. This isn’t really a story of secret identities. Rosamund and Matthew know exactly who each other is. She doesn’t know that he and his mother were once in service to her family – at least not at the beginning – but his business success wipes out most of that stigma. They do end up on the wrong end of a lot of social opprobrium, but it’s as a result of their actions in the present and not some hidden secret in either of their pasts.

While I’m not personally satisfied with the amount of groveling Matthew does over that incident, he does manage to screw his courage to the sticking point and fix things before it’s too late – with a whole lot of professional assistance from his soon-to-be bride. Which makes for happy endings all around – as they certainly deserved.

Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl

Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurlThe Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Collins on November 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A country rebelling
It’s 1916 and, as war rages in Europe, Gráinne leaves her job in a department store to join Countess Markiewicz’s revolutionary efforts. It is a decision which will change her life forever. A rebellion is brewing, and as Dublin’s streets become a battleground, Gráinne soon discovers the personal cost of fighting for what you believe in…
A forgotten sacrifice
Decades on, student Nicky is recovering from a break-up when a research project leads her to her great-grandmother’s experiences in revolutionary Ireland. When Nicky finds a long-forgotten handkerchief amongst her great-grandmother’s things, it leads to the revelation of a heartbreaking story of tragedy and courage, and those who sacrificed everything for their country.
Inspired by a heartbreaking true story, this emotional historical novel will sweep you away to the Emerald Isle. Perfect for fans of Jean Grainger, Sandy Taylor and Fiona Valpy.

My Review:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” or so claimed both Winston Churchill and Nicky Waters, the late 20th century protagonist of this dual-timeline story about Ireland’s Easter Rising. But another quote about history, from another continent is equally apropos. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The early 20th century heroine of this story, that girl with the emerald flag herself, Gráinne MacDowd, witnessed the bending of that arc from its beginning in the Eastern Rising to what seems like its right, proper and fitting ending in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing peace – more or less – between the Republic of Ireland and a Northern Ireland still controlled by Britain.

But it all begins, or at least this version of it, with a college student both being rebellious and studying rebellions, and her great-grandmother – who she calls Supergran (best name for a great-grandmother EVER) – who was in the rooms where a lot of a real and significant 20th century rebellion happened.

And has a story that she has been waiting nearly a century for someone to finally want to hear.

Escape Rating A-: Nicky Waters and Gráinne MacDowd are the same age at the opposite ends of their century. It’s only Gráinne’s long life and continued good health and mental acuity that allows this story to happen.

(It’s more plausible than one might think. A friend’s grandmother, not even his ‘Supergran’, crossed the US in a covered wagon with one of the last of the wagon trains and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.)

I digress.

This story is told in two timelines. In 1998, the year that the Good Friday Agreement was, well, agreed to, Nicky Waters is a bit spoiled, a bit selfish, a lot self-indulgent, and trying to stretch her wings at uni. It’s her need for a project on historic rebellions that kicks things off – even though she resents her mother’s suggestion that Supergran’s experiences would make a fantastic springboard for her project.

But then, she resents her mother a lot at this point in her life. They love each other but don’t seem to be sympatico at all. Some mother-daughter relationships just go that way.

The heart of the book, both literally and figuratively, is Gráinne telling her story to Nicky. And telling it to the reader as she does.

Gráinne’s story takes place over an intense period of time from the fall of 1915 when she becomes the right-hand-woman of Countess Constance Markiewicz (see quote and picture above) through the Rising itself in its glory and its inevitable defeat. And its immediate aftermath, the nights when the survivors huddled together in Kilmainham Gaol and the mornings when they heard but could not see their leaders facing one firing squad after another.

Gráinne’s story brings Nicky up short, letting her see that rebellion without good purpose has no meaning. Nicky’s turnaround was a bit abrupt, but the harrowing events that her Supergran lived through make the story shine – even if sometimes with tears.

What makes this story so touching – although that’s nearly a big enough word – is the way that it allows the reader to experience this history making and in some ways history shattering event in a way that brings the Rising and the people who gave their lives for it to vivid life.

Gráinne and her beau Emmett are the only important characters in the story who are fictional. All of the leaders of the Rising are presented as they were, and this event is more than close enough in history that documentation exists for much of what Gráinne saw, heard and felt. Including the heartbreaking jailhouse wedding between Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford. (I honestly expected that to be a bit of literary license but it was NOT.)

Gráinne as a character reads as both plausible and aspirational. Women really did all the jobs she performed during the Rising, and she makes the reader hope that they would have done as well in the same cause. At the same time, her example leads her great-granddaughter to do and be better, by example and not by exhortation.

Any reader who loves historical fiction, or has any interest at all in Irish history and the Easter Rising will fall in love with The Girl with the Emerald Flag as much as I did. This story is terrific, and it’s told in way that both tugs at the heartstrings and practically compels the reader to look for more.

One final note. That arc of history is still bending. In the Good Friday Agreement, the politicians on both sides basically finessed some of long-standing issues through both countries’ membership in the European Union. Brexit brought many of those issues, particularly the economic ones – as well as questions about how to deal with the border – back to life. While this is not exactly part of this story, considering that it ends when it does as a way of attempting to close the circle, it’s difficult not to point out that the circle keeps on turning.

About the Author:

Kathleen McGurl lives near the coast in Christchurch, England. She writes dual timeline novels in which a historical mystery is uncovered and resolved in the present day. She is married to an Irishman and has two adult sons. She enjoys travelling, especially in her motorhome around Europe and has of course visited Ireland many times.

Social Media Links – 

https://kathleenmcgurl.com/

https://www.facebook.com/KathleenMcGurl

https://twitter.com/KathMcGurl 

 

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori WhitakerA Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A cherished heirloom opens up a century of secrets in a bittersweet novel about family, hard truths, and self-discovery by the author of Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish.
Melanie Barnett thinks she has it all together. With an ex-fiancé and a pending promotion at a Kentucky bourbon distillery, Melanie has figured out that love and career don’t mix. Until she makes a discovery while cleaning her Jordan MX car, a scarlet-red symbol of the Jazz Age’s independent women that she inherited from her great-great-great-aunt Violet. Its secret compartment holds Violet’s weathered journal—within it an intriguing message: Take from this story what you will, Melanie, and you can bury the rest. Melanie wonders what more there is to learn from Violet’s past.
In 1921 Violet Bond defers to no one. Hers is a life of adventure in Detroit, the hub of the motorcar boom and the fastest growing city in America. But in an era of speakeasies, financial windfalls, free-spirited friends, and unexpected romance, it’s easy to spin out of control.
Now, as Melanie’s own world takes unexpected turns, her life and Violet’s life intersect. Generations apart, they’re coming into their own and questioning what modern womanhood—and happiness—really means.

My Review:

Melanie Barnett and her ‘Great Aunt Grape’ were simpatico in a way that Melanie and her judgmental, disapproving and disappointed mother were not. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the late and much lamented Violet Bond left her classic 1923 Jordan Playboy car to Melanie when she died.


1920 Jordon Playboy at Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum

What is surprising is the treasure trove of her personal papers and memories that Violet hid inside the car – just waiting for Melanie to check all the compartments and bring them to light.

As this story opens, Melanie is finally claiming that legacy, wishing that she had taken a look a whole lot earlier. But the time is now, and Melanie discovers the whole truth of Violet’s story just in time to help her decide the path she should take for her own.

In spite of her mother’s constant needling that Melanie’s choices are all the wrong ones. Inspired by Violet’s story, Melanie takes a good hard look at what she’s doing and where she’s going, and figures out that when it comes to the matter of her happiness the choices will have to be her own.

Just as Violet’s did. No matter what anyone else might think.

Escape Rating B+: I picked up A Matter of Happiness because I loved the author’s first book, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish. I liked A Matter of Happiness quite a bit, but it didn’t quite match up to the first book, although I think that the nostalgia of its Cincinnati setting pulled a bit more at my personal heartstrings than this one did. But I think that’s a ‘me’ thing and not a commentary on either book. A Matter of Happiness was definitely worth the read.

Like Millicent Glenn’s story, this one also exists in two time frames – but it is also told by two rather different people. Melanie’s story is set in pre-COVID 2018 (I have a feeling that authors are going to avoid the COVID years a LOT because they were just SO WEIRD). Melanie is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. The man she thought she’d marry thought that she would be happy to give up her career for his big promotion. But that promotion was taking him to Silicon Valley, and her career is in the Kentucky bourbon industry, which necessitates that she live, unsurprisingly, in her home state of Kentucky.

And now she’s sworn off men, devoting herself to her career, pursuing a promotion to management at the company she’s been working at for several years. She hopes that if she reaches a management position that her striving, seeking, disapproving mother will finally be proud of her.

But she’s found her great-aunt’s diary in the hidden compartments of that old car. A diary of Violet Bond in the 1920s, in her 20s, at a crossroads in her own life. Going off to Detroit to get a job in the burgeoning automobile industry, living on her own by her own wits and on her own wages, pursuing a career and swearing off men – albeit for different reasons than Melanie.

Melanie sees a bit of her own journey in her beloved great-aunt’s story. And we see a bit of our own in both of theirs. And in reading about the choices and the sacrifices that her aunt made in order to live the life she wanted, Melanie finds her own way forward.

Along with a secret that changes her perspective on how both she – and her mother – see their past and their places in a family they thought they knew.

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Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha LambWhen the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
Narrator: Donald Corren
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Length: 9 hours
Published by Levine Querido on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of “Good Omens”—a queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn't have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
P R A I S E
“Liars, lovers, grifters, a good angel and a wicked one—all held together with the bright red thread of unexpected romance, enduring friendship and America’s history. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Sacha Lamb—you only have to read.”New York Times Bestseller, Amy Bloom
★ “Steeped in Ashkenazi lore, custom, and faith, this beautifully written story deftly tackles questions of identity, good and evil, obligation, and the many forms love can take. Queerness and gender fluidity thread through both the human and supernatural characters, clearly depicted without feeling anachronistic. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun.”Kirkus (starred)
★ “Richly imagined and plotted, this inspired book has the timeless feeling of Jewish folklore, which is further enhanced by the presence of two magical protagonists, and not one but two dybbuks! In the end, of course, it’s the author who has performed the mitzvah by giving their readers this terrific debut novel.”—Booklist (starred)
“I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!!! I read it in two days and then I spent the next two weeks thinking about it. Literally forgot to take my lunch break at work because I was busy thinking about it. This book is SO fun and funny and beautiful. Inherently, inextricably deeply queer-and-Jewish in a way that makes my brain buzz. I am obsessed.”—Piera Varela, Porter Square Books
“I love this book more than I can say (but I’ll try!) I was delighted by the wry narrative voice of this book from the first paragraph. The author perfectly captures the voice of a Jewish folk tale within an impeccably researched early 20th century setting that includes Yiddish, striking factory workers, and revolutionary coffee houses. It gave me so many feelings about identity, love, and their obligations to the world, themselves, and each other. This story will forever have a place in my heart and in my canon of favorite books. I can’t wait to have it on my shelves!”— Marianne Wald, East City Bookshop
“A beautiful story of an angel and demon set on helping an emigrant from their shtetl, and the fierce girl that joins them on the way... A must read for all ages—one filled to the brim with heart.”—Mo Huffman, Changing Hands Bookstore

My Review:

This is utterly lovely, but I’m not sure any description could do it justice. It’s just such a surprising mélange of fantasy, historical fiction and magical realism set in a time and place that manages to be both far away and very close, all at the same time.

It’s also steeped in the experiences of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe to the new, exciting, strange and sometimes dangerous “golden land” of America. And in this particular case, all the ways they got fleeced and all the ways they fought back and endured along the way.

What makes the story so much fun and works so very well is that the story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash the demon and his study partner – an angel who begins the story with no name at all. Little Ash is a very small demon with very little magic, while his friend the angel hears the voice of heaven and lets it guide him into good deeds. Which, most of the time, consists of keeping his friend the demon busy studying the Torah and the Talmud.

But Little Ash is getting bored in their tiny shtetl, so small it doesn’t even have a name. The demon wants to follow all the young people from their shtetl who have left for America, because they were all the interesting people he enjoyed following while they made a bit of mischief. Which Little Ash likes very much.

Little Ash searches for a way of convincing the angel to go to America with him. When they learn that Simon the baker’s daughter Essie arrived in America but hasn’t written since, they have a mission. A mitzvah, or good deed, that the angel can undertake, and a whole lot of mischief that Little Ash can make along the way.

Neither of them is remotely prepared for what they find, not along the way, and certainly not after they arrive in America.

Escape Rating A+: In the foreword, the publisher claims that they’ve been referring to this book as the “queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholem Aleichem” – which is a lot to live up to. I think it read as Good Omens and Fiddler on the Roof (the original story for which was written by Sholem Aleichem) had a book baby midwifed by The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (which I wish I popped up every time there was a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase that I don’t remember – but don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end) resulting in When the Angels Left the Old Country. Up to and including the ineffable relationship that is finally acknowledged at the end.

The story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash and the angel, who initially does not have a name and never takes on a gender no matter what its identity papers say. And the story is significantly the angel’s journey from being an entity that exists mostly as a vessel to serve the purposes of heaven to a person in its own right. Without a name, it doesn’t have an identity of its own to hang its memories on, to help it retain any purpose of its own. It’s easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and missions.

Little Ash likes that his friend is a bit forgetful and easily manipulated. He’s able to get away with rather a lot. But Little Ash is a small demon with little magic and small sins. He likes causing trouble but even that is a bit childlike. As childlike as the angel’s innocence.

One of the things they lose on the trip to America is their naivete. The angel, now calling himself Uriel, still tries to see the good in everyone – but now it can see the evil as well even if it doesn’t want to. Little Ash, who always looked for people’s sins, can see more of the good and feel more duty towards fostering that good than he ever imagined.

When they arrive in America they become deeply involved with the Jewish immigrant community on Hester Street, taking on the cheats who keep people nearly enslaved to the garment shops, getting caught in the middle of a strike – and doing their best to exorcise not just one but two dybbuks – malicious spirits who haunt evildoers hunting for revenge.

With the help of their friend Rose, a young immigrant they met in steerage on the way to America, with more than a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of seeing the best while preparing for the worst, they manage to rescue Essie and make a new life for themselves in America.

Still studying Torah and Talmud, and always together.

Personally, I found this book to be utterly enchanting. An enchantment that was multiplied by listening to the audiobook as narrated by Donald Corren. My grandparents were part of the same immigrant generation as the characters in When the Angels Left the Old Country. My mom’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement just as everyone in this story did. (My dad’s parents came from a bit further south and west.) Everyone in my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish as well as English – and generally used Yiddish as a way of hiding what they were talking about from child-me. The rhythms of their speech, whether in Yiddish or in English, sounded just the way that the narrator reads this book. It was a bit like sitting in the room when they spoke with my great-aunts and uncles, hearing the sounds of all their voices and the way that the ‘mother tongue’ of Yiddish influenced not just their accents but the way they phrased things, even in English.

In other words, I loved this book for the story it told, and I loved the narration for the nostalgia it invoked. For this listener, the entire experience was made of win. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Review: Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji

Review: Braking Day by Adam OyebanjiBraking Day by Adam Oyebanji
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, space opera, thriller
Pages: 359
Published by DAW Books on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

On a generation ship bound for a distant star, one engineer-in-training must discover the secrets at the heart of the voyage in this new sci-fi novel.
It's been over a century since three generation ships escaped an Earth dominated by artificial intelligence in pursuit of a life on a distant planet orbiting Tau Ceti. Now, it's nearly Braking Day, when the ships will begin their long-awaited descent to their new home.
Born on the lower decks of the Archimedes, Ravi Macleod is an engineer-in-training, set to be the first of his family to become an officer in the stratified hierarchy aboard the ship. While on a routine inspection, Ravi sees the impossible: a young woman floating, helmetless, out in space. And he's the only one who can see her.
As his visions of the girl grow more frequent, Ravi is faced with a choice: secure his family's place among the elite members of Archimedes' crew or risk it all by pursuing the mystery of the floating girl. With the help of his cousin, Boz, and her illegally constructed AI, Ravi must investigate the source of these strange visions and uncovers the truth of the Archimedes' departure from Earth before Braking Day arrives and changes everything about life as they know it.

My Review: 

This debut science fiction thriller combines both “We have met the enemy and he is us” with “No matter where you go, there you are” into a story about the baggage that we literally carry with us as we attempt to make a seemingly fresh, new start.

Three colony ships, the Archimedes, the Bohr, and the Chandrasekhar, have been traveling through the black of interstellar space for 132 years. That’s seven generations of shipboard life, all in service of a single goal – reaching Destination World and disembarking for a return to planet bound life that is otherwise so far in the past that no one alive remembers any sense of gravity other than that generated by the gigantic revolving rings that make up their ships.

But all of that is about to change when we first meet Midshipman Ravi MacLeod aboard the Archimedes. Because Braking Day is only weeks away. On that day, the ship will fire up its main engines to start their final push for their new home.

When everything that has become familiar over so many decades of shipboard life will finally change.

But there are always plenty of people who prefer the status quo, and that’s just as true aboard the Archie and her sister ships as it is in any other gathering of humans. Some are just afraid. Some don’t want to take the chance of screwing up a pristine new world the same way that their ancestors – meaning us, now – made a mess of Earth.

And some, the privileged few of the officer class in particular, are not looking forward to the loss of their purpose or especially those much vaunted privileges. After all, a planetary colony won’t need an officer class to run things anymore. At least it won’t need the same people and skills in that officer class that it has needed while aboard.

First, however, Archie and her sister ships have to get there. The crew has always been told that there’s no one out there to stop them – except their own internal squabbles. And not that they don’t have plenty of those to be going on with.

But as operations gear up for Braking Day, engineer-in-training Ravi and his hacker-extraordinaire cousin Boz hack their way into secrets that no one was ever supposed to find.

Archie, Bohr and Chandrasekhar are not alone – and never have been. The officers have a plan for dealing with the threat that they’ve never officially acknowledged. The problem is that the so-called enemy has a plan to deal with them, too.

And Ravi and Boz are caught right in the middle of it.

Escape Rating A+: This was another reread for me, from another STARRED Library Journal review. So I went back to this after several months and, like The Bruising of Qilwa yesterday, it was every bit as good the second time around. I don’t have the opportunity to reread terribly often these days, so this was kind of a treat!

I got caught up in this right away, both times, because this complex story in this large, artificial ecosystem is anchored in one, multi-faceted character, Ravi MacLeod. From one perspective, Braking Day can be seen as Ravi’s coming-of-age story. When we first meet him, he’s a cadet in engineering, but that’s just the tip of a ship-sized iceberg. And from another, it’s a gigantic mystery with potentially deadly consequences. Certainly for Ravi, and quite possibly for everyone else as well.

After 132 years, the social stratification of shipboard life has reached the level of downright ossification. Children of officers become privileged officers in their turn. Children of crew become crew. Children of criminal lowlifes eventually get recycled (literally) as “Dead Weight”, just like their parents.

Ravi is a maverick who gets punished at pretty much every turn because he comes from a criminal family. He doesn’t “belong” to the officer class and few people on either side of that divide ever let him forget it. (If this part of the story sounds interesting, take a look at Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport, which shows what happens after century upon century of such ossification. It’s not pretty but it is compelling.)

There’s also a gigantic secret hidden in the history of the Archie’s expedition – as there was in David Ramirez’ The Forever Watch. It’s a secret that was born out of the same kind of fear and that results in the same deadly consequences.

There is also an enemy within Archie, in a place and position that all the powers that be refuse to even look at. It’s an issue that has more resonance to today than I originally saw. The privileged classes, the officers, don’t want to lose their power and privilege, and fear the changes that landfall will bring. Some of them don’t care that if they don’t land that eventually the ship’s recycling will fail and they’ll end up drifting in space. After all, it won’t happen in their generation. But the officers who are investigating the increasing incidents of sabotage never look among “their own” for the perpetrators.

Add in an actual, living, breathing enemy that has been raised for generations to hate everything about the Archie and her sister ships, that wants nothing more than revenge for past wrongs, and you have multiple recipes for disaster all playing out at the same time – a disaster that just keeps on getting bigger and having more facets every minute.

The question of whether the fleet will cripple itself, whether they and their old enemy will wipe each other out, or whether the cybernetic space dragons will decide that they are all collectively too stupid to live creates the kind of non-stop adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seats even after the big, explosive climax.

Braking Day was the author’s debut novel, and it was wild and marvelous and thoughtful all at the same time. I literally gobbled it up not once but twice and still wished there were more. His next book is a complete surprise as it’s a contemporary mystery thriller. A Quiet Teacher is coming out next week, and I’m terribly curious to see where the author takes me next.

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC RosenLavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Pages: 288
Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes
Published by Forge Books on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen's Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.
Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.
Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.
Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.
When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

My Review:

When Andy Mills meets Pearl Velez in a bar that’s just on the edge of seedy, they need each other – just not in any of the ways that one might expect at the opening of this dark, very noir-ish historical mystery.

Andy needs a purpose, and Pearl needs to give him one. Pearl needs an experienced detective that she can trust to investigate the recent death of her wife. And she knows that Andy is both experienced and trustworthy because he just got fired from the SFPD for being caught with his pants down, literally, in a police raid on a gay bar. His career is over. His life feels like it’s over, because all he’s been doing for the past 10 years is living his job and doing his best to keep his secrets. Now he has no secrets, no job, no apartment, no friends and nothing to fall back on.

He’s planning to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge once it gets dark enough – and once he gets drunk enough. At least that’s the plan until Pearl steps into his life with something that looks like it might BE purpose. And might give him the opportunity to help someone one more time.

Or hurt them worse than he ever imagined – depending on whether the case Pearl wants him to investigate turns out to really be a case. And depending, of course, on whodunnit.

So Pearl whisks Andy off to Lavender House, the beautiful home that the late soap magnate Irene Lamontaine and her wife Pearl created for themselves and their entirely queer family. A place where all of them can safely be themselves – as long as no one reveals their secret to the outside world.

Irene’s death might have been an accident. She might have lost her balance and fallen over the railing she was found under. But the fall wasn’t that far and Irene was healthy and energetic in spite of her years. The fall shouldn’t have killed her.

Between her family’s secrets and her family’s money there are plenty of motives for murder. It’s up to Andy to navigate the family’s murky relationships while not letting himself be seduced by living in the first place he’s ever known where he can finally be his authentic self.

Because Lavender House is a kind of paradise, and it’s up to Andy to find the snake in the garden.

Escape Rating A+: There are so many ways to approach this story, and all of them work. Frankly, the story just works. It had me from that opening scene in the bar and didn’t let go until the bittersweet end. To the point where, as much as I LOVED the audiobook, I read the last third as text because I simply had to find out how it ALL worked out.

I was pretty certain I knew whodunnit – and I did – but that wasn’t the most important part of the story. Still, I was glad to be vindicated.

But I did absolutely adore the narrator, Vikas Adam, whose performance definitely added the plus in that A+ Rating. I’ve fallen under his spell before, as he is one of the primary readers for Jenn Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons series, and he’s every bit as good here. To the point where I had to triple-check the credits for the audio. I expected him to do a terrific job with voicing Andy – and he certainly does – but he managed to not sound like himself AT ALL while voicing most of the female characters. I did that triple check because I kept thinking there was a female narrator working with him. But it was all him and it was fantastic.

The story is both a mystery and a heartbreaker, and the hard parts were that much harder to listen to because the narration was just so good.

Lavender House is being promoted as a gay Knives Out – and it certainly is that from the mystery perspective. (The comparison works even better now that it’s been revealed that private investigator Benoit Blanc is also gay.) At least on the surface, it seems as if the Lamontaine family is every bit as wealthy as the Thrombeys, and just as dysfunctional and eccentric. It’s just that the causes of some of the dysfunction at Lavender House can be laid directly at the feet of the 1950s and the circumstances they are forced to live under.

The mystery in Lavender House is fascinating, but it feels like the bleeding heart – sometimes literally – of this story is Andy’s journey. And in some ways the two parallel each other more than I expected.

At the heart of the murder – and at the heart of Andy’s journey, is a story about finding a purpose for one’s life. Andy begins at his lowest ebb because he’s just lost his and doesn’t know how to replace it. He’s lived for his job and now it’s turned on him because of an innate part of his being. Investigating Irene’s death gives him that purpose – even as it forces him to confront all the ways that he stifled himself in order to hang onto that job.

At the same time, all of the tensions at Lavender House, along with most of the motives and dysfunction, also have to do with purpose. For the staff, it’s a VERY safe place to work. But for the family it can sometimes be a gilded cage. Not because they can’t actually leave, but because they have to hide their real selves from the world when they do. And if they have no purpose within the house, as is true for two members of that family, they also have no way of making one outside it.

In the end, the solution to the mystery of Irene Lamontaine’s death was a catharsis but not a surprise. The case does come together just a bit suddenly at the end after a lot of often fruitless digging into scant clues and overabundant motives. But the investigation does hold the reader’s interest well, even when it delves into the angst in Andy’s head as much as it does the death that kicked things off.

But Andy’s journey from pretending to be ‘one of the boys’ at the cop shop through closed doors and literal beatings from his former colleagues to the realization that even if he can’t remain in the paradise of Lavender House that he can have a good and fulfilling life – if not always a totally free or completely safe one – as a gay man in 1950s San Francisco, with all the potential for pain and heartbreak and joy, is one that will haunt me for a long time.

Reviewer’s Note: Also that cover is just really, really cool. It’s almost like that damn dress that was either blue and black or white and gold. The more I look at it the more I see. Not just that it’s a silhouette, but there’s a face. And the rabbits. And eyes. So many facets – just like the story it represents.

 

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Naylor

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray NaylorThe Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
Narrator: Eunice Wong
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 464
Length: 11 hours and 5 minutes
Published by MCD on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.
Rumors begin to spread of a species of hyperintelligent, dangerous octopus that may have developed its own language and culture. Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has spent her life researching cephalopod intelligence, will do anything for the chance to study them.
The transnational tech corporation DIANIMA has sealed the remote Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses were discovered, off from the world. Dr. Nguyen joins DIANIMA’s team on the islands: a battle-scarred security agent and the world’s first android.
The octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence. The stakes are high: there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of the octopuses’ advancements, and as Dr. Nguyen struggles to communicate with the newly discovered species, forces larger than DIANIMA close in to seize the octopuses for themselves.
But no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.
A near-future thriller about the nature of consciousness, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling literary debut and a mind-blowing dive into the treasure and wreckage of humankind’s legacy.

My Review:

This turned out to be an utterly lovely book. It is very much in the vein of the science fiction of ideas and making them come to life and it just completely sucked me in as though one of the octopuses had just wrapped me in its tentacles and pulled. Hard.

I loved this one a lot more than I expected, which means I’ll probably squee a bit. You have been warned.

It’s clear from the beginning that this takes place on a near-future Earth. The setting isn’t quite dystopian, and it isn’t quite not either. Whether it seems dystopian or not at any given point in the story depends on which of the three point of view characters the story is following at that moment.

Eiko’s perspective is definitely dystopian. He was kidnapped from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and is a slave on an automated fishing trawler, hunting the world’s depleted oceans for any source of protein that can still be processed into food. His story is tragic and his situation is bleak and getting bleaker by the minute.

Whether Rustem’s situation is dystopian or not depends on whether one thinks that the mostly terrible and generally criminal clients he works with are representative of the way his world works or whether he’s bottom-fishing because he’s an infamous black-hat hacker who conducts assassinations by AI proxy. His current clients do seem to be worse than most, but they’ve given him a more complex and intriguing puzzle than average – and threatened his life if he doesn’t deliver.

If one wonders how those two characters intersect – and this reader certainly did – the glue that holds this story together is the perspective of Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has been whisked away to the remote Con Dao Archipelago by a transnational tech company to fulfill the dream of her life’s work.

In the waters off Con Dau, DIANIMA Corporation has discovered a pod of octopuses that might, just possibly, have achieved not just a similar level of intelligence to humans, but have also independently developed the skills that vaulted humans to the top of the food chain. DIANIMA has brought Dr. Ha Nguyen to Con Dau because she quite literally wrote the book on the possibility of intelligent, communicating life developing in the world’s oceans.

If she determines that the pod of octopuses is just a pod of ordinary octopuses – who are plenty intelligent but have no way to pass it on – well, probably not much happens to her and there wouldn’t have been much of a book, either.

But if she finds enough evidence that the octopuses off Con Dau can do what we do, if they have developed language that conveys abstract concepts and have methods of speaking and especially writing that language, then they may hold the key to humans learning to communicate with other species. Or it may be possible to weaponize their abilities through threats, intimidation and superior firepower – assuming that humans actually have superior firepower.

Or they could be a threat. If humans threaten them, they will likely become a threat regardless. So the human sharks and vultures are gathering around Con Dau, whether to protect, to save – or to kill.

Escape Rating A+: If Remarkably Bright Creatures and Three Miles Down had a book baby, it would be The Mountain in the Sea. Which is a fairly strange thought because as much as I loved both those books, they really shouldn’t have any relationship to each other.

But here they do. And it’s surprising and awesome.

As I said at the top, this book is an example, a stellar example in fact, of science fiction of ideas. This is a near-future world, there are no spaceships or extraterrestrials here. It could be said to be a climatological disaster, but if so it’s one that we can see from here.

The heart of that mountain in the sea is the idea of just how damn difficult communication is. It’s an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough play in space opera type SF, and it should. Other species who don’t share our frames of reference probably don’t communicate the way we do – at all.

So what this story does, and does well, is to convey just the smallest sliver of how difficult it will be to find common ground with a species that doesn’t communicate the way we do, doesn’t have the same species imperatives, doesn’t move through its world the way we do, doesn’t use any body language we recognize. There’s not going to be the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. It’s Dr. Ha Nguyen’s job to create one from scratch, while never being certain that her interpretation is anywhere near the correct target – let alone hitting a ‘bull’s eye’. If her base assumptions are off base, everything that follows after will be gibberish – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

That the author manages to make what could have been a fairly dry story about communication difficulties into a compelling story of relationships between people, octopuses and artificial intelligences turned the whole thing into an utter delight with a surprising ending that mixed more sweet than I expected into a situation that could have turned out so very bitter. That the story managed to bring those three extremely disparate and seemingly disconnected perspectives into a connected whole that brought the whole story full circle made for delicious icing on top of a very yummy story-cake.

I listened to The Mountain in the Sea, and the reader did an excellent job to the point where I found myself hunting for things to occupy my hands so I could listen longer to the story. Much of Dr. Ha Nguyen’s side of the story is a dialog between her written work and that of DIANIMA’s creator, Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan. The reader did a particularly good job of distinguishing these two strong, intelligent women’s writings from their personal perspectives and their frequently contentious dialog once they finally do meet in person.

In short, a wonderful performance of an excellent book. I’m looking forward to finding more work by this author. Considering that this is his debut novel, I have high hopes for his next book. And if it’s read by the same reader, that will make it even more of a treat!

Review: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden

Review: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen OddenUnder a Veiled Moon (Inspector Corravan #2) by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #2
Pages: 336
Published by Crooked Lane Books on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, a fatal disaster on the Thames and a roiling political conflict set the stage for Karen Odden’s second Inspector Corravan historical mystery.
September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule.
For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion, and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.
Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.
As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth—one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.

My Review:


Drawing of a collision between the Princess Alice and Bywell Castle

What happens Under a Veiled Moon is a series of real, historical tragedies. Well, the tragedies themselves, including the Sinking of the SS Princess Alice and the Abercarn mine explosion. But the causes of those disasters were thoroughly investigated at the time. While there was plenty of blame to go around – and did it ever go around – the plots that Inspector Corravan eventually ferrets out are not among them.

But it does blend those real disasters with a fascinating story about the power of the press – its use and particularly its misuse – to change minds and inflame emotions.

Corravan, Acting Superintendent of the Wapping River Police, opens the book by rushing to the scene of an explosion on the river. The SS Princess Alice, a passenger steamer, was rammed by the coal barge SS Bywell Castle near the south bank of the river. The Castle emerged from the collision with minimal damage, but the Alice broke in three and sank almost instantly. (It sounds like it would be the equivalent of an automobile accident with a double-semi crashing into a Smart Car only with more passengers in the tiny car.)

Between 600 and 700 people died in the wreck, and it is still the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident ever recorded.

It takes days to recover everything that can be recovered, including the bodies. The city is reeling from the shock, and everyone official is looking for someone to pin the responsibility on. And that’s where things get interesting, as well as downright confusing, for a whole lot of people – especially Inspector Michael Corravan.

Someone – actually a whole lot of rich and influential someones – seems determined to blame the disaster on the pilot of the Bywell Castle. A man who can’t seem to be found in the wake of the tragedy. And who just so happens to be Irish. Which shouldn’t matter. But is made to matter very much in the press – and is linked, step by painstaking step in those newspapers – to a recent railway disaster, to a mining disaster that occurs in the aftermath of the wreck, and finally to gang warfare in Irish immigrant districts and a three-year’s past terrorist bombing claimed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

It starts to look like an organized effort to blame the Irish for everything currently wrong with the state of Britain – for reasons that do not seem apparent on the surface. Until Corravan, with his roots in the Irish community, his position in the police and his relationships with a surprising number of very helpful and intelligent people – begins to see a pattern.

An insidious pattern that began in a shared tragedy but seems determined to end in a shared explosion of one kind or another – even if the conspirators have to engineer it for themselves.

Escape Rating A+: I think that Under a Veiled Moon is an even better story, both as historical fiction and as mystery, than the first book in the series, Down a Dark River. And I loved that one. This one is so compelling because what happens under that veiled moon takes place at the intersection of power corrupts, the ends justify the means, and there is nothing new under the sun. And it’s absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

We get to know Corravan a bit better in this one. We learn a lot more about where he came from and how he got to be who he is now that he’s in his 30s. The underpinnings of this one, the involvement with the Irish community in London and the various hopes and fears about the possibility of Irish Home Rule set alongside the prejudice and resentment of Irish immigrants really exposes some of what he keeps hidden in his heart.

And he’s just old enough to see his own past and resent his own errors of youth and judgment – and we like him the better for it.

At the same time, the mystery plot is deep and dark and downright frightening. Not just because it’s so easy to see how it might have happened then, but because we can all too clearly how its happened before – for real – and very much how it’s happening again.

It’s also a very smart puzzle with a whole lot of moving parts, most of which don’t seem to fit in the same jigsaw because honestly they don’t. Watching the way that the square peg red herrings are retrofitted to slot into the available round holes makes the mystery that much harder to solve.

I did recognize that the long arm of coincidence couldn’t possibly be as long as it was being made to appear, but the how and why of it is so steeped in the history of the time that it made the revelation and resolution that much more riveting.

This is a series that I seriously hope continues. It combines elements of C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series with Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series along with her William Monk  series. It deals with the issues of its day and the influences of the wider world on its London microcosm with the same depth as St. Cyr while focusing on a character who works for his living as a “copper” as do both Pitt and Monk, at a time period where the world is changing at an ever increasing pace to the one we know. There’s also a bit of an irony there, as Corravan is an Irish police inspector while Pitt ended up being Head of Special Branch, an office whose remit was to deal with terrorism – particularly that sponsored and/or perpetrated by those agitating for Irish Home Rule.

An issue that I expect Corravan to get caught in the middle of, again and again, through the hopefully many future books in this compelling series.

Review: Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty

Review: Station Eternity by Mur LaffertyStation Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1) by Mur Lafferty
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Midsolar Murders #1
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From idyllic small towns to claustrophobic urban landscapes, Mallory Viridian is constantly embroiled in murder cases that only she has the insight to solve. But outside of a classic mystery novel, being surrounded by death doesn’t make you a charming amateur detective, it makes you a suspect and a social pariah. So when Mallory gets the opportunity to take refuge on a sentient space station, she thinks she has the solution. Surely the murders will stop if her only company is alien beings. At first her new existence is peacefully quiet…and markedly devoid of homicide.
But when the station agrees to allow additional human guests, Mallory knows the break from her peculiar reality is over. After the first Earth shuttle arrives, and aliens and humans alike begin to die, the station is thrown into peril. Stuck smack-dab in the middle of an extraterrestrial whodunit, and wondering how in the world this keeps happening to her anyway, Mallory has to solve the crime—and fast—or the list of victims could grow to include everyone on board….

My Review:

Mallory Viridian is a murder magnet. Wherever she goes, whenever she is in a group long enough, big enough, or both, somebody ends up dead. She’s never been the intended victim, and she’s never been the perpetrator, either. No matter how many times any number of different law enforcement agencies have tried to pin the murder on her. Because she nearly always solves the case. In fact, she has a downright preternatural ability to solve crimes. She’d be perfect as a cop or a private investigator, but law enforcement is so perturbed by her ability to be in the room where it happens AND figure out whodunnit when they can’t that she’s been blackballed from any possibility of using her weird talent where it will do some good.

She’s also tired of being in the midst of all the carnage as well as the suspicion that goes along with it.

Which has led her to Station Eternity, one of only three humans permitted on the alien, self-aware, sentient station. In the hopes that, with only three humans aboard her gift – or curse – won’t kick in. As long as she doesn’t let herself get too close to either of her fellow exiles.

So when she learns that an entire shuttle full of humans is already on its way to the station, she starts to panic. A panic she manages to pass along to her fellow exiles; an AWOL US Army soldier with a whole lot of military secrets, along with the human ambassador who is sure the shuttle contains his replacement. The soldier is sure that someone is coming to get him, while Mallory is dead certain that when the shuttle arrives, somebody is going to end up dead.

They’re all equally correct. And equally screwed.

When the shuttle approaches the station, chaos erupts. Mallory expected a murder – but not on the scale she is forced to confront. Or the people she’s forced to confront along with it.

The station lashes out at the shuttle, killing half the humans aboard, along with all of the non-human crew. Why? Because someone attacked the station’s very own symbiotic partner, setting off a chain of catastrophes, evolutions, and revelations that no one aboard is prepared to deal with.

Especially Mallory.

Escape Rating A-: This delightfully bonkers story combines a locked-room – or at least locked station – mystery with a fascinating premise and a species-diverse post-First Contact setting to create a puzzle that will drive its readers every single bit as panic-stricken as its protagonists.

The world of Station Eternity isn’t all that hard to fathom – from a certain point of view. The concept that someday – possibly even someday soon as in this story – beings from the galaxy at large will visit Earth. And most likely decide that we aren’t nearly as impressive as we think we are.

We don’t impress the rest of the galaxy because we’re so…singular. Isolated. Unable to form symbiotic bonds with other species, which those other species believe are required for higher development.

While humans – at least those of certain mindsets – see threats to our existence in what are most likely just threats to their own sense of self-importance and manifest destiny.

So what begins as a seemingly simple crash turns into a life-threatening crisis that places Mallory and her uncanny talent for solving murders at its center. And very nearly out its airlock.

What holds the story together is the way that everyone involved, including the non-humans, is linked to Mallory. In spite of her fear of becoming linked to much of anyone. The station has permitted her sanctuary, one species of insect-type aliens is studying human biology through her, several of the rock-type aliens are her friends, the camouflage-type aliens respect her ability to help solve problems, and the officious administrative-type (both human and alien) want her off the station.

Even what seems like a grab-bag of assorted humans aboard the shuttle are all connected to her – or connected to the other human-granted-sanctuary aboard, that AWOL soldier Xan. Who is also connected to Mallory – not just because of their time on the station but as a result of all the times they interacted on Earth.

It’s the connections to Mallory, those things she has avoided much of her life, that glue both the reader and Mallory into the story. Some of that holding together peeks back at how they all got there, and occasionally that peering into the past puts a bit of a hitch in the narrative – but that always manages to stutter back around.

So it’s bonkers. And weird. And fascinating. And a bit too on the nose at some points. It’s also perfect that in the end Mallory finally has the three things she’s been looking for. A purpose she can really sink her teeth into. A place where she can have friends and a real life for herself. Best of all, she finally has answers to all the puzzles of her life – and a way to move forward. With hope.

It’s not surprising that Station Eternity is the first book in a series. The premise of the uncanny detective on the alien station just seems perfect for continuing. And it will be, sometime next year.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to tide you over, I can recommend two recent books that are also wrapped around solving mysteries on spaceships or colonies which have put different but still fascinating spins of their own onto their SFnal mystery. So if you like the sound of Station Eternity, or are looking for more after you finish it, check out The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal and the upcoming To Each This World by Julie Czerneda. They are both excellent and will make the wait for the (so far untitled) next book in The Midsolar Murders series go just a little bit faster.