Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis BaldreeLegends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 305
Published by Cryptid Press on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

High Fantasy with a double-shot of self-reinvention
Worn out after decades of packing steel and raising hell, Viv the orc barbarian cashes out of the warrior’s life with one final score. A forgotten legend, a fabled artifact, and an unreasonable amount of hope lead her to the streets of Thune, where she plans to open the first coffee shop the city has ever seen.
However, her dreams of a fresh start pulling shots instead of swinging swords are hardly a sure bet. Old frenemies and Thune’s shady underbelly may just upset her plans. To finally build something that will last, Viv will need some new partners and a different kind of resolve.
A hot cup of fantasy slice-of-life with a dollop of romantic froth.

My Review:

An orc, a succubus, and Ratatouille (the rat who wanted to be a chef from the Pixar film but in this case a baker named Thimble) open a coffee shop in Thune, a rather typical medieval-style fantasy town that has never seen, heard, smelled or especially drunk coffee before. Then Thimble the rattkin starts baking and honestly, they’ve opened the world’s first Cinnabon – complete with heavenly aromas pumped out to ensnare the masses who are about to learn just what they’ve been missing all their lives.

As much as that opening sounds like the start of a very bad joke, it isn’t at all. Instead, the story is every bit as sweet as one of Thimble’s soon-to-be-famous cinnamon rolls, and sticks in the pleasant corners of the reader’s mind just as much as Thimble’s icing sticks to everyone’s fingers.

This is one of those fantasy stories where the hero (or possibly the anti-hero) of entirely too many battlefields decides to retire while they’re still above ground and have all of their limbs and haven’t had their bell rung too many times.

And it’s a story about what happens after when anyone decides to live their dreams.

Viv visited a coffee shop once, and fell in love with pretty much everything about it. The aroma, the taste, the peace that filled her from both the drink and the ambiance of the place she drank it. She wanted to recreate all of those tastes and smells and feelings somewhere that hadn’t been introduced to coffee – at least not yet.

When she found a legendary treasure that was supposed to guarantee good fortune, she took it and her savings, retired from the mercenary life, and opened the first coffee shop in busy, bustling, Thune.

Along the way she gathered a group of friends and comrades to help her spread the word and run the business, while taking on trouble from both the local “protection racket” and from an old frenemy who believed that Viv hadn’t been honest about that treasure.

As much as Viv is determined to start a new life that doesn’t involve slicing throats or any other body parts, there are plenty of times when she’s tempted to solve her problems the way she used to. Especially when she loses the lucky charm that made all of her success possible.

Only to learn that it wasn’t the charm at all. It was all Viv, and the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls, and the love and respect of her friends, her neighbors, and her new-found family.

Escape Rating A+: Legends & Lattes is one of those stories that no one knew they needed until they read it. Only to realize that the whole story is pretty much the best thing ever. I pulled this one off the virtually towering TBR pile because I seriously needed a comfort read after last week and I wanted something new at the same time. I also wasn’t in the mood for anyone who didn’t deserve it to die, or for anyone to get abused. I just wanted all good things in an interesting story and that’s actually kind of hard. Fictionally, all good things and interesting are contradictory, there’s no story without at least some drama.

Somehow, Legends & Lattes just delivered on all counts. (The only thing that would have made it better would be if one of Thimble’s cinnamon rolls had popped out of the book while reading!) Viv has a dream and she doesn’t step on anyone to fulfill it. She gathers great people around her, she accepts them as they are, treats them well, and they grow together into a lovely found family.

The course doesn’t always run smooth. There’s a lot of hard work involved in starting a business – especially one that no one is looking for or understands. Her carpenter calls the coffee “bean water” and he’s not wrong.

There are a few books with orcs as protagonists, but usually they’re doing the things that we expect of orcs in fantasy even if the orcs are the good guys. Viv is turning over a new leaf, trying not to be what everyone expects an orc to be. It’s hard but it’s working – mostly.

Her assistant-turned-business partner (and eventual romantic interest) Tandri, is a succubus, another character we don’t see being on the side of the angels. But she’s yet another character in this story who is cast against type and it works.

Viv even manages to deal with the protection racket without paying protection. Well, not exactly paying protection. Also without busting heads. It’s a bit tense and a bit of a gamble but it works.

And honestly, Thimble the rattkin baker is the best character in the whole story. I love Thimble – and I love that the little guy is a genius and that this shy and self-effacing character gets his own chance to shine.

But what makes the story so wonderful is that the treasure wasn’t really treasure. It was a stone full of karma and because Viv put good into it she got good out of it. The next person to own it seems to be on the road to getting exactly what he puts into it as well.

And that’s a story I wouldn’t mind reading – along with anything else this author comes up with. Now that Legends & Lattes has been picked up by Tor Books, maybe we’ll see more stories set in Thune! Pretty please! With cinnamon on it?

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air--in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

My Review:

There is just something about New Orleans that makes it seem, not just possible but downright plausible, that there is magic on those streets and always has been. Whether the version of the city is the one we know from history, or some other New Orleans out there in the multiverse of parallel universes and alternate histories.

The U.S. Civil War has its own magic – not that magic with a capital “M” happened, but rather the magic of possibility, that so many never weres and might have beens hinge on the events that occurred during those few years that must have felt like they lasted forever.

It’s not just that the history and meaning of that conflict have been reinterpreted, re-imagined and re-written in the century and a half that followed, but that the entire enterprise balanced on a knife edge and could have tipped in pretty much any bloody direction.

That particular “might have been” has been the stuff of much alt-history science fiction. One very readable toe in that water is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but he needed time-travel to make it work. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and her saga of the grim, steampunk Clockwork Century posits a U.S. Civil War that never ended as collateral damage of a catastrophic event in Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush that created zombies.

The Black God’s Drums takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans in a world where the U.S. Civil War tipped off the knife edge in the direction of a negotiated almost-peace, into an armistice between the Union and the Confederacy. An armistice that left the crucial port of New Orleans as an independent neutral city-state, governed by its citizens – ALL its citizens, black and white.

The Union counts this New Orleans as an ally, if not officially, while the Confederacy views it as a repudiation of all they hold dear. Under the armistice, the city may not be an open battleground, but it is sometimes a covert one. Which is what takes place in this story.

Right alongside the coming-of-age story of Creeper, a girl on the cusp of adulthood (Creeper’s OK with creeping up to adulthood, but she’s much less sanguine about approaching womanhood in any way, shape, or form) who wants more than anything to find a way out of the city she has lived in all of her life. She thinks her accidental discovery of a plot to drown the city in magically created storms can be traded for a berth on a smuggler’s airship.

But Creeper has magic of her own, a magic that leads her to be in the right place at the right time to save her city. And the knowledge that this place is hers to love and hers to defend – for as long as she has the favor of her goddess.

Escape Rating A-: The Black God’s Drums was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novella back in 2019 – and I meant to read it then but it got swallowed by the “so many books, so little time” event horizon and it didn’t happen. Then I read the author’s A Master of Djinn last year and this popped back up to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile. So when I went hunting for novellas for this week, there it was near the top of the heap.

And am I ever glad that it was – even though this is nothing like A Master of Djinn. Instead, it reads like a combination of every book of magical New Orleans from the Sentinels of New Orleans to The City of Lost Fortunes to The Map of Moments combined then tossed in with steampunk like Boneshaker but stirred with the perspective of the author’s Ring Shout in the way that magic of the African diaspora is interwoven into the story and to the events of the alternate history.

So Creeper’s New Orleans feels like New Orleans even if it isn’t exactly the one that history records. Even though the work (and misuse of the work) of those gods, the orishas, have produced effects that both remind the reader of Katrina and make the hurricane seem tame in comparison.

And on top of all that, we have not just the coming-of-age story, but a pulse-pounding adventure with deadly danger both in the immediate term and in the consequences if things go wrong. As they very nearly do. Along with the possibility of a daring rescue by pirate airship – or an ignominious crash of defeat.

The thing about novellas is that even when they are complete in and of themselves, and The Black God’s Drums does tell its story beautifully in the length it has, I’m left wanting more. This adventure does come, rightly and properly, to its end. But what happens next? And what happened before? There’s so much of this alternate version of the city – and the country – to explore.

So, just as the author’s short works, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 embiggened their Dead Djinn Universe into the utterly captivating A Master of Djinn, I hope that someday the New Orleans of the orisha and the pirate airships will embiggen into something bigger, bolder and even more grand.

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev + Spotlight + Giveaway

Review: The Wedding Setup by Sonali Dev + Spotlight + GiveawayThe Wedding Setup: A Short Story by Sonali Dev
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, short stories
Pages: 67
Published by Amazon Original Stories on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author Sonali Dev comes a heartfelt short story about one woman’s journey of self-discovery and what it means to be happy.
Ayesha Shetty lost her brother seven years ago, the same time she lost everything else important to her: her dreams, her fierce independence, and the man she loved. Not wanting to see her mother hurt anymore, she put her wild self away and became the dutiful daughter her mother needed and took on her brother’s role in the family business.
Now her best friend’s big, fat Indian wedding is a chance to get away from her endless duties at the restaurant and maybe even have some fun (if she remembers how). But a setup arranged by her mother, with a doctor no less, is the last thing she needs. The fact that he checks all her mother’s boxes just makes everything better…and worse.
Then Emmitt Hughes shows up. Her brother’s best friend. The love she once chose over family duties and her responsibilities. The one she asked to leave, and who did. The one who knows the real Ayesha. Torn between a love from the past that could cost her the only person she has left and her sense of obligation to her mother, will Ayesha find the strength to stop thinking about what everyone else wants and finally put herself first? Or is the old Ayesha truly gone for good?

My Review:

The Wedding Setup is a short story, so I’m going to try to do it justice in a short review. Especially since this is a jam-packed post with an interview with the author, an excerpt from the story AND a giveaway!

From a certain perspective, this is a story about handling grief – or rather NOT handling grief. Ayesha has put herself in a box in her attempt to be the perfect daughter that she never was – and it’s a straitjacket. But so is the reason for that attempt, the death of her brother and her desperate need to hold onto her mother in the ultimately vain hope of preventing either of them from suffering any more losses. Ayesha’s father died when she was ten, and her mother was the rock that sheltered both her and her brother through the rest of her childhood. When her brother died, they were all each other had left. That and the depth of their grief and the fear of another loss.

But they lost each other along the way – even as they spent 16 hours a day together keeping the family’s restaurant afloat. Hanging onto the last remaining bit of her brother’s dream.

As this story opens, it’s been seven years since Ajay died, and Ayesha’s mother has had enough of living with Ayesha’s obedient ghost – because that’s who it seems has been trudging through the world in Ayesha’s place.

But that is far, far, far from what the story seems to be for most of its length. As Amma does her level best to bring back the old, vibrant, downright combative Ayesha by poking that sleeping tiger with every single stick she can find.

In the hopes that her daughter will come back to life and reach out for her own happy ever after.

Escape Rating A-: I have only one complaint about this story – it’s too damn short. It’s beautiful, it’s marvelous, and all the characters are fascinating – even the ones who only exist in memory. I would have loved this story even more if it had been novel length. But it isn’t so I’ll make do with what I have.

Part of the fun of The Wedding Setup is that the setup of Ayesha is not what either Ayesha or the reader think it is. The story is a gem of misdirection, and the reveal at the end forces both Ayesha and the reader to rethink everything that has happened. And rejoice at the ending.

Also laugh uproariously at the mental picture of a rat in scrubs administering a pap smear. Which is the only way to laugh at one of those necessary evils. Read The Wedding Setup to find out just how that comes to pass. The mental picture, that is.


Interview with Sonali Dev + Excerpt from The Wedding Setup

The Wedding Setup may be a short story, but it is tremendously powerful. How would you describe it to readers?

Thank you. It’s the story of a girl who used to be a rebel who followed her heart and fought for what she wanted, and then her brother’s death leaves her responsible for her widowed mother. It’s about being knocked off your feet and getting stuck, and learning how to stand back up and reclaim yourself.

The story invites us to take an intimate look into a mother-daughter relationship. This is a universal theme, however, you also steep the plot in your own Indian heritage. Can you tell readers what this story means to you as a daughter? What it means to you as an Indian woman?

There is so much of my own relationship with my mother in this book. We’ve always been incredibly close. She’s outspoken and confident and she modeled some powerful behaviors for me growing up about owning her own body and her voice. But there were the other parts where she was a product of her time and culture, believing in absolute terms that it is a woman’s duty to nurture her family, to marry ‘at the right time,’ to be a certain kind of mother. These are things she pushed hard. Things I internalized but also fought to do on my own terms and not hers. Ayesha’s relationship with her mother used to be this way, and then a tragedy changes their dynamic. So, it’s an exploration of how battles for identity get derailed by tragedy and grief and what it takes to heal.

Ayesha’s mom describes her as obedient, responsible, and “always putting everyone else before her own needs.” After hearing this Ayesha (internally) feels hypothermic. Can you explain how these seemingly sweet compliments completely destroy your heroine?

The mother-child bond comes with a kind of intuitive understanding of each other that’s unique to that relationship. So, while Ayesha has lost her fiery spirit and both she and her mother have lost years to their grief and struggle to survive, her mother knows who her daughter is deep down and how much she’s buried. So there’s a very nuanced intent to these ‘compliments’ and they hit the nerve they’re meant to hit. Ayesha’s reaction to these words is her dead parts coming back to life.

It only takes a moment—one second—for Ayesha to break free from her ice…a single word from Emmitt has her coming back to life. Why does she have such a powerful reaction to someone she hasn’t seen in seven years?

Ayesha had a crush on Emmitt for many years before they got together. She’s always had a strong reaction to him. The years they spent together as young adults were years when she came into herself, and felt seen and cherished. Then she loses all of that when her brother dies and they break up. So, it’s a combination of things that come together when Ayesha meets Emmitt again. They have a natural connection, but also, with his return come all the memories of who she used to be and how much she used to let herself feel.

Ayesha has never forgotten how Emmitt turns “her messy, impulsive, unfettered emotion into something beautiful.” But she has forgotten the effect that she has on him. What buried memories are uncovered as she watches Emmitt react to their reunion?

Emmitt has always dealt with the world and the pain it causes him by keeping everyone at arm’s length. But Ayesha destroys his defenses with her ability to love (and do everything else) so fiercely. So, when he loses her he’s already lost his ability to protect himself. Their joint grief is what separated them, so, while they understand each other’s pain they both also understand the loneliness of not having each other to lean on. They’ve had to make the journey to healing individually, but meeting each other again brings up the piece that needs the other to heal.

How did you get to know your couple? How were you able to understand what was needed to heal their broken hearts?

The one theme that threads through all my books is finding yourself on the tightrope between personal freedom and responsibility to family and community. Healing is always about finding or rediscovering your love for yourself. So, I understand my characters through that lens: how have they lost themselves? What about themselves do they need to reclaim and fall in love with? A truly connected couple is one who aids this journey in each other, recognizes it, and supports it.

In a limited number of pages you not only give readers a living, breathing couple, but also an avalanche of equally interesting characters like Ayesha’s best friend, suitor, aunties…and you even create depth with characters that are no longer living. Why was it so important to spend time with these secondary characters? What do they reveal about your hero and heroine?

I believe that as humans we are a sum total of our relationships and the world we live in and build for ourselves. How someone treats other people and how they respond to how they are treated is what constitutes character.

At its heart, every story is about a person who is somehow at odds with the world they live in or with themselves because of the expectations of their world, and the journey they make to resolve that conflict. Ayesha wouldn’t be Ayesha without her mother and Bela, her best friend and the community she was raised in. Bela has been her wild other half growing up, then their paths diverged, but they continued to be each other’s support. Her mother has become a crutch she uses to hold on to her grief. Emmitt’s grief over his friend has run his life for seven years too. So the secondary characters are just as integral to the story as the protagonists.

While the plot focuses on grief, there is also great joy to be found. After all, the backdrop of the story is a giant wedding. What do you personally find the most fun at a traditional Indian wedding celebration?

I’m always only there for the food and dancing! Fine, and getting to dress up. And the wine. Also, maybe the chance to hang out with family and friends I only see at weddings. And the drunk aunties and uncles.

After readers devour The Wedding Setup, which of your other books would you recommend they read next?

First, thank you so much for devouring The Wedding Setup! I’m incredibly proud of my Rajes series, a set of retellings of my four favorite Jane Austen novels set in a politically ambitious Indian American family from Northern California. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is a gender flipped Pride and Prejudice. Recipe for Persuasion is a two-generational homage to Persuasion set on a Food Network show. Incense and Sensibility, the love story between a gubernatorial candidate and a yoga therapist who can save him but also destroy his campaign, pays tribute to Sense and Sensibility. And the upcoming The Emma Project (May 17th 2022), which is a gender flipped Emma that explores what it means when a person with tremendous privilege offers charity to someone who has much less.

The Wedding Setup Excerpt

Goose bumps rose across Ayesha’s skin, one sharp dot at a time.

“Ayesha.”

That was it. Just that one word. Her name. In a voice that was its own ghost.

She squeezed her eyes shut. One tight squeeze. Tight enough to hurt, tight enough to almost dislodge the false eyelashes Andre had pressed into her lash line one by one with the precision of a surgeon. Then boom! she was in control again and back to Ayesha on Ice.

Eyes blank, face set, she turned toward the voice.

Emmitt.

The impact of him was a body blow.

The entire universe stilled. Words weren’t a thing. Or sound. Breath? What was that?

Ayesha! Get a grip.

No grip. That’s how it had always been. She’d had no grip when it came to Emmitt Hughes. Not even a little bit. Not when she’d spied on him and Ajay playing Mario Kart and Minecraft and GTA for hours, for years. Not when she’d yearned and dreamed and spun stories with him at the center.

I’ve made my love for you, my god.

It was the cheesiest of lines from one of those Bollywood songs her parents had played on repeat at the restaurant. Amma had loved translating the over-the-top lyrics and explaining their nuances.

Back when Amma was full of stories and songs and laughter. Before Ajay.

Ajay.

Her brother’s unspoken name fell between them like a glass bauble and shattered.

“You remember Emmitt,” Edward had the gall to say.

Bela shot him a glare.

You didn’t tell me he would be here. Ayesha threw the silent accusation at her traitorous best friend, who gave her nothing more than another worried look.

No, Eddie. Remind me again who he is? The snarky words stuck in Ayesha’s throat. Old Ayesha would have said them. Old Ayesha said everything.

“Emmitt,” New Ayesha said, every feeling buried under her customer-is-king voice from the restaurant. “Nice to see you again.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed in the long column of his throat. How was he still so darned beautiful?

One swallow, and then he smiled back. Banking feelings where no one saw them had been his thing. Emmitt the Wall. That’s what Ajay had called him. Her brother had been best friends with him since Emmitt had moved to Naperville in fifth grade after his parents’ divorce. Years of friendship, and he’d still held Ajay at that slight distance he’d been so good at. Something she would always wish she hadn’t cured him of.

You broke me, Ayesha.You broke every defense I’ve ever had against the world.

She, Ayesha Shetty—too tall, too dark, too outspoken, too intense, too ambitious, too everything for everyone else had been just enough to break through Emmitt the Wall.

“It’s nice to see you too,” he said gently, sounding . . . she dug through her brain to come up with the right word. Grown-up? Contained?

Good. Because Ayesha was all those things now too. Not a grenade with its fuse pulled, ready to blow up the world.

Author Biography

USA Today bestselling author Sonali Dev writes Bollywood-style love stories that explore universal issues. Her novels have been named best books of the year by Library Journal, NPR, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews. She has won numerous accolades, including the American Library Association’s award for best romance, the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for best contemporary romance, and multiple RT Seals of Excellence; has been a RITA finalist; and has been listed for the Dublin Literary Award. Shelf Awareness calls her “not only one of the best but one of the bravest romance novelists working today.” She lives in Chicagoland with her husband, two visiting adult children, and the world’s most perfect dog.

Buy Link: https://amzn.to/3pWDqM8

Social Media Links

Website: https://sonalidev.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SonaliDev.author

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Sonali_Dev

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sonali.dev/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7025918.Sonali_Dev

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Review: Pets in Space 6 edited by Carol Van Natta

Review: Pets in Space 6 edited by Carol Van NattaPets in Space 6: A Science Fiction Romance Anthology by S.E. Smith, Veronica Scott, Honey Phillips, Carol Van Natta, Cassandra Chandler, J.C. Hay, S.J. Pajonas, Greta van der Rol, Deborah A. Bailey, Melisse Aires, Kyndra Hatch
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction, science fiction romance
Series: Pets in Space #6
Pages: 1329
Published by Pets in Space Books on October 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Pets in Space® is back for a new year of adventures!
Join the incredible authors in this year's Pets in Space 6 for another out-of-this-world adventure. This award-winning, USA TODAY Bestselling anthology is packed full ofyour favorite Pets in Space®. Featuring 11 original, never-before-released stories from some of today's bestselling science fiction romance and fantasy authors, Pets in Space 6 continues their vital support of Hero-Dogs.org, the non-profit charity that improves quality of life for veterans of the U.S. military and first-responders with disabilities. Don't miss out on this limited-edition anthology before it is too late!

THE STORIES
BEHR'S REBEL

Marastin Dow Book 2
by S.E. Smith
With the help of her two innovative pets, a human woman rescues an alien General and becomes part of the revolution he is leading.

STAR CRUISE: TIME LOOP
Sectors Romance series
by Veronica Scott
Reliving the same terrible day, Raelyn and her pet are in a race to save the interstellar cruise ship…

THE CYBORG WITH NO NAME
by Honey Phillips
Can a rogue robotic horse and a misfit mechanical dog protect a wounded cyborg and a lonely scientist from a vicious new enemy?

ESCAPE FROM NOVA NINE
A Central Galactic Concordance Novella
by Carol Van Natta
She's a space pirate with vital information. He's a wanted fugitive with enemies hot on his afterburner. Will their unexpected attraction survive escaping a dangerous asteroid mine in time to avert a war?

TRADE SECRETS
The Department of Homeworld Security Series

by Cassandra Chandler
She wanted to learn about aliens—and ended up uncovering their secrets!

SEE HOW THEY RUN
TriSystems: Smugglers
by JC Hay
Love blossoms in space, but can it survive being dragged back down to ground?

SURI'S SURE THING
Kimura Sisters Series
by S.J. Pajonas
In this best-friends-to-lover romance, workaholic Suri would rather be in space than deal with her ex-boyfriend. Will she be able to leave him behind and find love with her best friend instead?

THE THUNDER EGG
by Greta van der Rol
Can a freighter captain and an academic outwit their pursuers and get a little alien foundling back where she belongs?

WORLDS OF FIRE: METAMORPHOSIS
by Deborah A. Bailey
When an alchemy student is deceived into using her transmutation skills to assist a smuggling ring, will her gargoyle shifter mentor help her expose the criminals or turn her in?

STRANDED ON GRZBT
by Melisse Aires
Can a resourceful human trust the alien determined to help her and her companions?

ESCAPING KORTH
Before The Fall series
by Kyndra Hatch
An alien interrogator recognizes the human prisoner as his fated mate, leading to danger for both of them.

My Review:

Welcome to the latest iteration of the annual reading treat that is Pets in Space. It’s that time again, and the newest addition to the Pets in Space litter, clowder, herd or what-have-you of marvelous science fiction romance novellas where the pets steal the show will be released tomorrow, October 5, 2021.

It’s time for Pets in Space 6, and I already know that it’s every bit as big a winner as its earlier siblings.

The Pets in Space collections are always huge reading treats, and this year is no exception. There are eleven stories packed into 1,300 pages – that’s over 100 pages per story. So these are not exactly short stories. Rather they are all novelette or novella length.

So none of the stories are small. Some of the pets however – like the mice in one of my favorite stories this year – are a bit on the tiny side. But oh-so-cute all the same.

Because this collection is always a mega-treat, I always go into it with a plan of attack – and this year is no exception. The stories are always so good, and too much of a good thing can be wonderful, but these are always such lovely treats that I like to spread them out a bit over the year.

But first, that plan of attack. Because I definitely want to read some of the stories the moment I get the collection!

I start by looking for stories in worlds that I’m already familiar with. This year that meant Veronica Scott’s Sectors SF Romance Star Cruise: Time Loop. The series as a whole began with The Wreck of the Nebula Dream, but has evolved to cruise around the galaxy on a ship that is crewed and staffed by quite a few retired members of the military.

It’s a cruise ship. In space. Who wouldn’t want to take one of their cruises, in spite of some of the stranger and/or more dangerous things that happen aboard? I’d certainly sign up.

The events of the story in this year’s collection are both strange AND dangerous. Senior stewardess Raelyn Cantorini of the cruise ship Nebula Zephyr has a pet lizard from her homeworld. Eyn is bright and mischievous, as so many pets are. Eyn is also more intelligent than average, which just adds to the amount of mischief the little one can make. But when Eyn breaks a glass ornament that was supposedly an artifact of the Ancients who seeded the galaxy with life, Raelyn finds herself experiencing Groundhog Day. Not the day in February, but the movie, where life repeats the same day over and over until someone, in this case Raelyn, gets it right.

And saves the lives of everyone on the ship. If she can get someone to believe her before its too late.

Eyn’s mischief led me to feline mischief – not that I don’t see plenty of that in real life!

In Trade Secrets by Cassandra Chandler, a confessed space nerd girl learns that not only are aliens out there, but they are also living on Earth – with their ultra-intelligent, hypo-allergenic cats. Gwen points her hacking skills at an abandoned Mars Rover only to discover that lizard-like aliens have fixed and adopted the little machine. Which is very much against the rules – not that Gwen’s hack was any better. The aliens come to Earth to persuade Gwen to give up her recording – and end up taking her back to the stars.

Where the Star Cruise story reminded me a lot of the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity, Trade Secrets had the flavor of Earth Girls are Easy – which was a hoot and a half I still remember fondly.

Howsomever, as much as I’d love to go into space, and as easily as Gwen falls for her fated alien mate, much of the charm of this story belongs to the super-smart and super-cute “space cat” Bandit, along with his self-centered and destructive litter-mate Queenie.

After the cruise ship and the cats, I went looking for something cute and fuzzy to round out this portion of my SFR reading and discovered Positive, Negative and Monocle, the lab mice in See How They Run by JC Hay. This story is part of a series that sounds a bit like Firefly crossed with Sisters of the Vast Black, as odd a combination as that sounds. The engineers on the ship Sentinel of Gems, April and Baker, are friends who would like to be more. But Baker has a history of not letting herself get involved, and April has just learned that they may have a genetic time bomb ticking in their lungs. When Baker decides to save her friend by stealing a trio of lab mice from a high tech laboratory that studies just the disease that April fears they have, the situation goes pear-shaped at the speed of light. But while they are all in quarantine together, April, Baker and the surprisingly intelligent stolen mice, the humans figure out that it’s more important to spend what time they have together than to worry about how much time they might or might not have. Not that the mice won’t have plenty to say about that.

Escape Rating A: I love this collection. I love it for its size and its scope, for the endless hours of reading pleasure it gives me, for its promotion of great science fiction romance and SFR authors, and for its annual donations to Hero Dogs, a charity that raises, trains, and places support dogs with U.S. veterans and first-responders.

So this is a win-win-win. I get a great bunch of stories to read every year. A terrific charity gets a nice boost in donations and publicity. And now I get to pass all of that on to you! If any of the stories I’ve mentioned above appeal to you, or if you like the concept of Pets in Space, pick up a copy of this year’s collection and settle in for a long and glorious reading binge!

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina BocciA Vineyard Valenting by Nina Bocci
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Published by Audible Studios on February 4th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

An unforgettable night of romance awaits in this funny, charming novella by USA Today best-selling author Nina Bocci!

The annual Valentine’s Day singles soiree is always a big money-maker for Eloisa Giordono’s winery. What could be more romantic than looking for love at a quaint family vineyard on the most romantic night of year? Well, just about anything as far as Eloisa is concerned. She’s a Valentine’s Day Grinch who thinks it’s the lamest, most clichéd holiday ever invented.

Fortunately, she’ll get to hang out with like-minded folks this year by hosting an Anti-Valentine’s Day party on the same night. She’ll just need to alternate between events to keep them both running and she’ll be raking in the profits. But Eloisa is thrown for a loop when a sexy, self-described hopeless romantic shows up at the singles soiree and keeps her captivated. Will he change her mind about the holiday...and about love?

My Review:

If you’ve soured on love, or romance, or simply the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, you’d probably fit right in with winery owner Eloisa Giordono’s Anti-Valentine’s Day shindig – complete with black roses, dead cupids and a much more murdery and depressing vibe than she originally intended.

As a self-proclaimed Valentine’s Day Grinch, Elo was hoping to create an alternative celebration of the holiday of all-things-love for the happily single crowd. A place to celebrate friendship, acknowledge that loving yourself can be enough, and simply a place for those who aren’t ready to jump back into the dating pool to find some like-minded people for a fun evening.

Elo’s anti-love bash – or her bash against love, take your pick – is competing with her vineyard’s annual – and more traditional – Valentine’s Day event, Love at the Vineyard, which may sound hokey and cliché but works. Especially with the planning genius of the vineyard’s PR director – and Elo’s best friend – Mac.

Speaking of planning and genius, the genius plan is for Mac to handle the traditional event while Elo hosts the bashing Valentine’s bash. It’s all going SO WELL – until Mac makes the tired and hangry mistake of eating some leftover Seafood Alfredo that is way, way, way past its “safe to eat” date.

Food poisoning ensues, and the best laid plans of mice, women and vineyard owners go very much “gang aft agley” as Mac wakes up on the day of the dueling events with a desperate need to spend the day – and probably the night – worshipping at the porcelain altar to really bad decisions.

With Mac down for the count for at least a day if not more, Elo is on her own with both events. Now she’s responsible for two things that just aren’t her thing, a traditional love fest and public hosting and event management duties, along with worrying about Mac.

It should be the worst night of Elo’s life, at least recently. But just as the “festivities” are about to begin, Elo runs into Mr. Chardonnay. Literally. With a golf cart. But figuratively, as that’s not his real name.

In between shuttling from “murder Cupid” to “love is in the air” Elo and the mysterious man she has named “Mr. Chardonnay” flirt, banter and play a game of “strangers in the night”.

As the magic of the evening wraps around them both, the two mysterious strangers both start thinking that there might be something to this Valentine’s Day magic after all.

Escape Rating A-: This is kind of an amuse-bouche of a story. A chef’s kiss of a bit of romance. One that goes perfectly with the bite-sized wine and cheese pairings that are being served at the winery’s pro-Valentine’s Day event.

But seriously, this is a short story. A VERY short story. At most 100 pages if it’s length were being measured in pages.

That’s actually the right length. Because this is a story about the possibilities of love and the thrill of discovering that this person might just be the one. It’s the opening of the romance, with all of the internal angst and flirty banter that any romance reader could want.

It’s a meet-cute. And it’s ALL ABOUT the meet-cute. At the end, we’re left with the same possibility that the characters have, that this might lead to a happy ever after. It also might not. But that’s what first meetings are all about when you just click with someone and all you can see in front of you are possibilities.

One of the things that I, as the reader/listener loved about this story was Elo’s internal voice. She’s witty, snarky, and generally honest with herself no matter what actually comes out of her mouth. But she’s marvelously gifted with snarkitude and the reader’s voice was perfect for her.

The reader also does a good job voicing Mr. Chardonnay, but…I would have liked this one more if he’d been voiced by a male reader. Although I probably would have swooned while driving, which would be bad. His dialog is not just flirty but frequently downright sexy, and a second reader would have really put it over the top.

Speaking of over the top, there is one character who, in spite of her inability to leap tall buildings – or jump at all – was the perfect sidekick for the snarky but soft-hearted Elo, and that’s her adorable dog Olive in her equally adorable little cart. Olive steals hearts and scenes every time Elo brings her ANYWHERE and it’s just really, really cute.

So come for the yummy-sounding wine-and-cheese pairings. Stay for the flirty banter that turns Valentine’s Day Grinch Elo into a match with hopeless romantic Mr. Chardonnay. And don’t leave without giving Olive a scritch or three.

TLC
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Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia HibbertGet a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters, #1) by Talia Hibbert
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Brown Sisters #1
Pages: 373
Published by Avon on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?
• Enjoy a drunken night out.• Ride a motorcycle.• Go camping.• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.• And... do something bad.
But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.
Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.
But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

My Review:

Because yesterday’s book had a slightly higher, let’s call it “discomfort” factor than I was expecting from something promoted as a play on classic mysteries, I went looking for something a bit lighter in tone – or at least something I could reasonably expect to have a happy ending. My search led me to Get a Life, Chloe Brown, as I have the whole series in the virtually towering TBR pile but hadn’t quite been in the mood for it.

Until now. I was definitely in the mood for something light and maybe even a bit fluffy, and was hoping this would fill that particular bill. And even though the baggage that both of the protagonists are carrying is much too heavy to make this book either light or fluffy, it still gave me the happy ending that I was craving.

And all the better for dealing appropriately with that baggage.

Chloe needs to carve out a tiny bit of space from her loving, intrusive, extremely overprotective family. Not that Chloe doesn’t need a bit of help and protection, because she does. In the aftermath of a nearly deadly bout of pneumonia a few years ago, Chloe found herself living with both fibromyalgia and chronic pain.

It’s a situation that has forced Chloe to learn to manage her illness – with the help of the medical professionals she finally located who believed her and didn’t brush her off. Because if she doesn’t manage her health, the issues with it will manage her. And sometimes they still do, in spite of her efforts.

Along the way she’s lost friends and a fiance who refused to believe her, and her family, her parents, her grandmother, and her two sisters, have all stepped in to fill the gaps in Chloe’s social network.

But they’re smothering her with their good intentions, so after another near-death experience – this time with a drunk driver who swerves away at the last possible second – Chloe decides to go out and get herself a life without her loving family looking over her shoulder and swaddling her in cotton every single second.

She does find a new apartment, although the new social life is a bit harder to come by. What she does have is a new frenemy/obsession, the gorgeous, tattooed superintendent of the building. She sees him as a bit of a rough badass, and he sees her as a stuck up rich girl with a snooty attitude and her head up her very shapely backside.

When he discovers her rescuing a stray cat from a very tall tree, the ensuing mayhem allows them both to discover that neither is exactly who the other thought. And that each might provide the other with the kind of friendship that is forged not from what they have in common, but from the elements each needs and sorely lacks – but that the other has in abundance.

If only they can manage to get their own personal baggage out of the other’s way.

Escape Rating A-: As I said at the top, I was expecting fluff. What I got was a whole hell of a lot more nuanced than that, and I think I enjoyed it more because of that nuance. Not that fluff can’t be a wonderful thing if that’s what you’re looking for at a particular time, but this was just more than I expected and I was very happy with that.

The baggage that Chloe and Red are dealing with is both heavier than I expected and was handled so much better than I expected. The crap they’re carrying around isn’t easy and there are no quick solutions.

At the same time, they both recognize that they have a crapton of crap – even if it takes Red quite a bit longer to figure that out – and they both are coming to terms with their own shit. (I can’t be the only person in the world who had a relationship go to hell because both parties had their own crap and weren’t both willing to deal with it.)

And on my third hand, the stuff they each had to deal with was real and hard and not generally dealt with well or at all in romance. Chloe has a chronic illness. It’s something she has learned how to handle, but it will most likely never be cured. So her illness and her management of it and her health is part of what she has to deal with every single day. Even the good days, because it’s always lurking.

But there’s also the emotional baggage along with it. Not just her family’s overprotectiveness, which comes from a place of love but can be unintentionally belittling, but Chloe’s quite real fears of abandonment – because those feelings arose from reality. Her friends and her fiance didn’t believe her illness was real, so they treated her like she was a lying faker and left her to cope by herself.

The result is that she has walled herself away from people other than her family because everyone else has betrayed her trust when she needed them the most. So when her relationship with Red changes from disdain to friendship to flirting to love, she’s afraid he’ll leave because it’s happened to her before.

When he does leave she’s devastated but determined, because he leaves her not because of her crap but his own. His last girlfriend was a rich girl like Chloe, but she was abusive – something that you don’t see nearly enough in romance but does happen. He leaves Chloe because he panics and conflates her behavior with the ex, even though it isn’t so. But it’s something he has to work through and Chloe can’t do it for him anymore than he can deal with her abandonment issues for her.

No matter how much he can, and does, help her deal with the practical issues of her illness and the management of it.

So there was way more to unpack in this story than I was expecting – and it was all terrific stuff. Stuff that slid very nicely between the lines of this terrific, fun, flirty and very sexy romance – almost as nicely as Chloe and Red slid between the sheets – and eventually managed to stay there.

I loved Chloe Brown, and I liked her sisters Dani and Eve – along with the whole family – quite a lot. More than enough that I’m looking very much forward to reading Dani’s story next – and next week – in Take a Hint, Dani Brown!

Review: Anthems Outside Time by Kenneth Schneyer

Review: Anthems Outside Time by Kenneth SchneyerAnthems Outside Time and Other Strange Voices by Kenneth Schneyer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Pages: 372
Published by Fairwood Press on July 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Curator's notes from an art exhibition. Exam questions. A children's social-studies textbook. An end-user license agreement from God. From Nebula-nominated author Kenneth Schneyer comes this collection spanning the range from fantasy to science fiction to horror to political speculative fiction. Representing more than a decade of work, these 26 weird, disorienting stories will accost your expectations while relocating your heart. This volume includes such celebrated works as "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer," as well as two stories never before published.

My Review:

When I read this collection a few weeks ago, I found myself astonished all the way around. And I mean that in the best way possible.

That very pleasant surprised was on two counts. The first being that short story collections usually aren’t my favorite thing. I tend to find them a mixed bag at best, with some strong stories mixed with at least one or two that missed the boat – or in this case the rocket ship – completely. That didn’t happen here. At All. Every story hits its mark – sometimes with a bang. And occasionally – when completely appropriate to the story – with a whimper. Usually on the part of the reader. A kind of contented, contemplative “OH!”

That the collection was written by an author I hadn’t heard of before – in spite of the Nebula nomination – was the second thing that surprised me. I wouldn’t have picked up a collection of something I don’t normally care for by an author I don’t otherwise know without receiving it as an assignment from somewhere.

In this particular case, an assignment from Library Journal. But I loved this book so hard that I felt compelled to signal boost it here, as many reviews in LJ are behind a paywall – although this review might not be. But here we are, just in case.

What I found so compelling about this collection was the way that it does something that SF and fantasy don’t always do well. So much of speculative fiction in general concentrates on the gee whiz of either rocket ships or dragons – or sometimes both – that it misses the human connection.

Not that I don’t love me a good hard SF story. Or for that matter a good time travel story or a good story about dragons either doing or done wrong or a big high-flown epic fantasy. Or a mix of all of the above – although that’s HARD.

But all stories written by humans are about humans, no matter what skin or fur or feather or metal they might be wearing on the outside. And that’s what this collection does so well, whether in its SF or its fantasy stories.

This author is great at letting the reader see the effects of the SFnal or fantasy elements on the humans who are our perspective on what’s happening. And that’s fantastic!

Escape Rating A: This author has what can wonderfully be called a somewhat sideways view of the world. A view that is certainly on display in that Nebula-nominated story, Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer. It’s a story told through the unusual lens of museum case notes. One of this author’s fascinating devices is to tell a story through something else, often something small like the tiny notes next to exhibit entries, and let the pulling together of the story in its entirety occur in the reader’s mind – as it does anyway.

(For the curious, the winner that year was If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky which was itself a nominee for the Hugo the following year. Eligibility periods for the Hugo and the Nebula are confoundingly different!)

The stories in this collection, those Anthems Outside Time, are not fluffy bunnies. Most of them come from the darker corners of the imagination, and all of them are compellingly readable.

The stories in this collection manage to be prescient, heartbreaking and provocative, sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once. They are stories for readers who want their SF and fantasy to make them think, and think hard, about the human condition. And they’re marvelous.

I’ll certainly be looking for more of this author’s work, starting with his previous collection, The Law & the Heart.

Review: The Name of All Things by Jenn Lyons

Review: The Name of All Things by Jenn LyonsThe Name of All Things (A Chorus of Dragons, #2) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #2
Pages: 589
Published by Tor Books on October 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

You can have everything you want if you sacrifice everything you believe.

Kihrin D'Mon is a wanted man.

Since he destroyed the Stone of Shackles and set demons free across Quur, he has been on the run from the wrath of an entire empire. His attempt to escape brings him into the path of Janel Theranon, a mysterious Joratese woman who claims to know Kihrin.

Janel's plea for help pits Kihrin against all manner of dangers: a secret rebellion, a dragon capable of destroying an entire city, and Kihrin's old enemy, the wizard Relos Var.

Janel believes that Relos Var possesses one of the most powerful artifacts in the world―the Cornerstone called the Name of All Things. And if Janel is right, then there may be nothing in the world that can stop Relos Var from getting what he wants.

And what he wants is Kihrin D'Mon.

Jenn Lyons continues the Chorus of Dragons series with The Name of All Things, the epic sequel to The Ruin of Kings.

My Review:

This is going to be one of those times when I talk around the book as much as I talk about the book. Because this is one hell of a story – one that is still rolling around uneasily in my head – and it’s not done yet. Either the story or in my head.

And I’ll probably say this multiple times in the course of this review, but I want the third book in the trilogy, The Memory of Souls, now. RIGHT NOW. It’s due out in August and that’s just not soon enough. Not nearly.

This series began early in 2019 with The Ruin of Kings. Which was awesome and marvelous and terrific and The Name of All Things is actually better – something that is seldom said either about a sequel or about book two in a trilogy. This is a middle book that does not SUFFER from middle-book syndrome. More like it revels in the parts of that syndrome that it bothers to deal with.

The Ruin of Kings was a sword. The Name of All Things is a stone. I suspect that the Memory of All Things will also turn out to be a stone – but I wouldn’t bet my own money on that.

This is a twisty story where nothing is as it seems. And while it seamlessly blends a whole bunch of elements that shouldn’t be within spitting distance of each other, the resulting wild ride holds the reader’s attention marvelously – and possibly also props the reader’s eyeballs wide open long after they should be closed.

(I couldn’t bear to wait to finish this and spent five hours listening, still wasn’t done and carried the hardcover to bed. I never read hardcovers anymore but I couldn’t stop.)

Like the previous book, The Ruin of Kings, this is an experiment in voice. The way it is told is almost as important as what is being told. The first book was Kihrin’s story, but we’ve already heard Kihrin’s story. This one is Janel’s story, and it takes place simultaneously with that first book. (That’s a huge hint that you need to read both and in order.) But it also takes place three days after the end of that first book as the sometimes hilarious but always trenchant chapter titles make clear.

Kihrin and Janel have finally met, as they are fated to in all sorts of demonic prophecies, and Janel is telling Kihrin and her assembled company of heroes, followers, betrayers and hangers on just what happened to her. But Janel is not the only one telling that story, her narrative alternates with that of her friend, the healer priest Brother Qown. Off in the background, the story is framed by a third party and participant in these events, the mage Senera. She is reporting the story to her master Relos Var. Who may be the villain of the entire piece. Or may in fact be the actual hero. He certainly thinks he is. But then, many villains do.

So the story being told within the story being told makes this an excellent choice for audio, especially as the three in-story narrators are voiced by three different voice actors.

But the story itself is an epic about gods and monsters. Except that neither are exactly that.

The gods in this story, or rather the exceedingly powerful beings who are worshiped as gods, aren’t really gods. (That this parallels the Elven Gods in the world of Dragon Age was rather a surprise.)

At the same time, this is also the story of what appears to be a very long con. Those so-called gods are conning their worshipers into treating them as gods, yes. But they are also doing their best to keep the monster who used to be one of them chained. And failing. Over and over and over again. They may be doing the right thing – or at least the best thing they can under the circumstances. Or they may just be preserving the status quo.

Relos Var wants to tear it all down and start over. He’s trying to set up something like Ragnarok, because he seems to think the best answer is to finally have that ultimate battle and deal with the consequences. He may be right. Or it may just be a very long two-person grift like American Gods. We just don’t know – yet.

But at this point in the story, Relos Var’s help keeps coming at just too high a price. Whether the result is triumph or his head on pike for everyone to wave at is still up in the air. (And that’s a reference from Babylon 5 because Relos Var really, really reminds me of Morden, which means he’s working for the Shadows of ultimate Chaos. Which is entirely possible.)

And in the middle of all of this, we have Janel’s story of her country of Jorat, a place whose social mores and politics are absolutely fascinating, more than a bit subversive, and worthy of an epic all of their own. It’s also the story of someone who thinks they are, or at least can be, the one who is running all the games, only to discover at the end that they are probably one of the suckers who bought the con.

In the end, well, it isn’t the end. This chapter of the story concludes, but the story itself is far from over. And this reader at least didn’t want it to be. I just wanted the next book. Immediately if not sooner.

Escape Rating A++: OK this is the first time I’m officially using this rating. The Name of All Things is epically epic in all the best ways. It’s so good that I added it to my Best of 2019 post even though I was only halfway through at the time. I already knew it was just that damn good. It’s everything that epic fantasy is supposed to be; rich, lush, decadent, other-worldly, beautiful, strange, corrupt and compelling, all at the same time.

This was a rare book where, while I mostly listened to it, I also read the ebook and the hardcover as appropriate. Or necessary. Like at the end where I had 1.5 hours left of listening but under half an hour if I just read the damn thing. Patience is not one of my virtues.

That being said, if you have the time and the inclination, the audio of this is marvelous. Partly that’s because of the way that the story is told, and partly that’s because the voice actors are just that damn good. This is also a rare case where I have to admit that if you run out of time or patience, get the book in print and not ebook. Senera’s commentary in her framing report of the story is footnoted. In audio her comments are inserted as asides. In print, they are footnotes at the bottom of the page. In ebook, they are footnotes at the end of each chapter. Flipping back and forth to the chapter end just to get her commentary is worth it but ANNOYING.

However you get to it, one of the things that is absolutely marvelous in this story is the social commentary that is an integral part of the way that things work in Janel’s country, Jorat. While there’s a whole lot of fascinating stuff about the way that pretty much everything was developed around intelligent “horse” herds and their behavior, what makes it all sing is the separation of sexuality and gender roles. So much of what happens to Janel, and has happened to her, is rooted in the fact that she while she may physically be female, she is a stallion – a leader of the herd. That she is a woman and that she is a leader are not contradictory – although some people want it to be. Women can be stallions, and men can be mares. And it’s completely separate from what genitalia they have as well as utterly separate from what genitalia they prefer for their sexual partners. It’s political and it’s baked into the culture, as are the concepts of edora and thudaje, whether someone is the ruler or the ruled, how that is determined – and how that can be changed.

One of the other things that makes this series so mesmerizing is that it is never a simple contest of good vs. evil. Everything in this world is in shades of gray. The gods are not really gods. However, the demons, for the most part, at least so far, seem to really be demonic. But the characters who commit evil acts, like Relos Var and Senera, may have the best of motives. And may still be evil at the same time. Nothing is clear but everything is compelling.

And I’m compelled. The Memory of Souls can’t come out fast enough.

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa ColeThe A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Published by Audible Audio on December 3rd 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A captivating romantic comedy with a thrilling sci-fi twist by award-winning author Alyssa Cole!

Trinity Jordan leads a quiet, normal life: working from home for the Hive, a multifunctional government research center, and recovering from the incident that sent her into a tailspin. But the life she’s trying to rebuild is plagued by mishaps when Li Wei, her neighbor’s super sexy and super strange nephew, moves in and turns things upside down. Li Wei’s behavior is downright odd—and the attraction building between them is even more so. When an emergency pulls his aunt away from the apartment complex, Trinity decides to keep an eye on him…and slowly discovers that nothing is what it seems. For one thing, Li Wei isn’t just the hot guy next door—he’s the hot A.I. next door. In fact, he’s so advanced that he blurs the line between man and machine. It’s up to Trinity to help him achieve his objective of learning to be human, but danger is mounting as they figure out whether he’s capable of the most illogical human behavior of all…falling in love.

My Review:

I thought I knew where this was going. Since I was enjoying where it was going, I was happy to be along for the ride. But then, it went in a direction I wasn’t expecting – and it got even better.

What I expected after the first chapter or so was something like the classic A.I. romance The Silver Metal Lover – or perhaps Data proclaiming that he was “fully functional” in the Star Trek Next Gen episode The Naked Now, but set in a world that felt like a slice of Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow from his Radicalized collection.

Instead, I got a terrific science fiction romance set in a near-future dystopian U.S. crossed with a spy thriller. And I loved every minute of it – especially after I got surprised by the turn.

So, at first we have Trinity Jordan, working from home while recovering from an accident. But this is the future. Her home is a tiny apartment and all of her appliances are way too smart for Trinity’s own good – especially Penny, her home monitoring app – and secret therapist.

But it’s obvious from the beginning that things aren’t quite what they appear.  A suspicion that only gets deeper when Trinity meets her neighbor’s visiting nephew, Li Wei. (Actually, it turns out that nothing and no one are quite what they appear to be.)

Something isn’t right about Li Wei. Her neighbor passes off his strangeness as memory issues due to recovering from an accident – not a dissimilar case to Trinity’s. While Li Wei’s social skills may be so lacking as to be non-existent, he’s so damn good-looking that Trinity’s libido wakes up from an extremely long nap to sit up and take notice. And notice. And notice.

The more time they spend together, the better Li Wei gets at communicating – and the more obvious it becomes that something is wrong with both Li Wei and Trinity. And that it’s the same kind of wrong – and the same kind of right.

Escape Rating A: First of all, I absolutely loved this. It was short and sweet and went in directions I wasn’t expecting and it was all just marvelous.

Second of all, this is the first romance audiobook I’ve ever reviewed. I read plenty of romance, but those are ebooks. Listening to romance is a bit different. It felt weird listening to the sex scenes. They were well done – they definitely were – but there’s a psychological difference between having those scenes go through my eyes vs through my ears.

Third, this is a full-cast recording. Most audiobook narrators are good at differentiating the voices of the different characters, but full-cast recordings are always extra special.

The one downside of this being an audiobook and only an audiobook is that I have no idea how to spell the name of any character who isn’t mentioned in the Goodreads blurb. For most of the time I was listening to this story, I thought that “Li Wei” was “Leeway”. This does not change my enjoyment of the whole thing one little bit, but it makes me wary of mentioning any character whose name I have no idea how to spell. Like Trinity’s neighbor who claims that Li Wei is her nephew. Or Trinity’s two girlfriends. I’m pretty sure that Tim the cat is just “Tim”. And he’s an adorable cat even though he does turn out to be 50 pounds of bio-synthetic feline.

What I loved about this story was the ever-deepening layers of subversion. At first it feels like a robot romance – and those have been around at least since 1981. So there’s nothing new about the romance between Trinity and Li Wei. But then things get deeper – and darker. The more that Li Wei falls in love with Trinity, the more he realizes that there is something wrong – even more wrong than what is obvious on the surface.

The deeper he digs, the more he uncovers, and the deeper they fall. Until the story finally breaks open – and it changes everything.

So grab The A.I. Who Loved Me for the romance – and stay for the surprisingly deep science fiction surprise tucked into its gooey center. You’ll be glad you did. Meanwhile, the audiobook promises that there will be more in this series, following Trinity’s friends. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what happens next!