#BookReview: A Murder of Crows by Sarah Yarwood-Lovett

#BookReview: A Murder of Crows by Sarah Yarwood-LovettA Murder of Crows by Sarah Yarwood-Lovett
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Dr Nell Ward #1
Pages: 368
Published by Embla Books on July 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Dr Nell Ward is an ecologist, not a detective. But when she’s the prime suspect in a murder, only her unique set of skills could help to clear her name…
In the sleepy village of Cookingdean, Dr Nell Ward is busy working in the grounds of a local manor house. Whilst inspecting an old tunnel, the last thing she expects to overhear is a murder. As the only person with any clues as to what happened, Nell soon finds herself in the middle of the investigation.
Desperate to clear her name Nell, along with her colleague Adam, set out solving the murder using their skills as ecologists to uncover details no one else would notice. But it soon becomes clear that playing Agatha Christie is much harder than it might at first appear…
The start of an exciting new cosy crime series – perfect for fans of Richard Osman, Faith Martin and Joy Ellis.

My Review:

Dr. Nell Ward, consulting ecologist, licensed surveyor of bats as well as great crested newts, barn owls and dormice, is a very square peg, personally and professionally.

She keeps her personal life VERY close to the vest, while professionally she’s both nerdy about her beloved bats and extremely meticulous about her work.

The problem is that the local police in Pendlebury have a rough but round hole they seem determined to shove her into.

Nell was doing an ecological survey, specifically a bat survey, in the old tunnels underneath Manor House Farm – with permission of course – when the owner, the woman who gave her that permission, was murdered at the opposite end of the tunnel where Nell was surveying.

Nell was alone, the bats unfortunately can’t give her an alibi, and the obvious suspect for Sophie Crows’ murder, her husband David, was at a business conference a couple of hours away. He has all the alibi he needs, while Nell has none.

On the other hand, David Stephenson had PLENTY of motives to murder his wife – it just doesn’t seem possible that he could have managed the job personally. That Nell has about as much motive for murdering Sophie Crows as her husband seems to have had opportunity doesn’t seem to matter.

Nell’s behavior, her seeming over-helpfulness and abundant documentation about her movements that night, combined with her reticence about her personal connections, strikes the police as suspicious behavior. They’re sure she must have a motive for the murder, and they seem determined to find it – or make one up – rather than dig deeply into the husband.

Leaving Nell in the midst of the absolute classic series starter for an amateur detective – her very first case is to do the job the police don’t seem to be nearly interested enough in doing themselves, and figure out who really ‘done it’ – before circumstantial evidence and a lack of imagination on the part of the local constabulary convict Nell of a crime that she may have heard committed – but absolutely did not commit herself.

Escape Rating B: I was hoping to love this book, because it definitely fits the murder-y reading mood I’ve been in recently and I can always use a comfort read series.

I did like Nell Ward rather a lot – at least in her first outing. I enjoyed her professionalism and especially her charming nerdiness about her job and her bats. Especially her bats. I may not ever want to meet a whole colony of the creatures but I could feel for her love of them and advocacy for them all the way through.

As well as her emotional conflicts around revealing her private self and ultra-privileged identity to her friends and colleagues. She doesn’t trust her judgment, she’s been burned by too many people before, and she has plenty to protect.

But there were a couple of things about the case that the local police did their damndest to stitch her up for that bothered me. More than a little bit. Actually rather a lot.

It’s not even that the frame was obvious – although it certainly was. I knew who really done it very early on, and had a good guess about how he’d managed it. He wasn’t even all that clever.

The police spent SO MUCH time on hypothesizing possible motives for Nell to have killed Sophie Crows that it seemed as if someone on the force was determined to make Nell pay for being extremely privileged. Or possibly for being nerdy and so overhelpful that the police were overwhelmed by all her information. At the same time, they spent very little effort checking out the husband’s alibi in comparison.

He had literally millions of reasons to murder his wife. And her mother. Millions of pounds sterling of reasons. Motives that should have garnered much more serious attempts to break his alibi.

But the story only works if Nell is wrongfully accused, and the only way that could happen was for the police to focus their efforts in Nell’s direction – whether their reasons made sense or not.

In the end, I liked A Murder of Crows rather than loved it. I like Nell a lot, although I’m hoping the love triangle she’s backed herself into gets resolved sooner rather than later. I’m really curious about how she’s going to manage to reconcile Dr. Nell Ward’s professional life with Lady Eleanor Ward-Beaumont’s wealthy and privileged existence as the daughter of the Earl of Finchmere, Lord Beaumont, and his Conservative MP wife Imelda Ward-Beaumont, and the heir to the grand – but seemingly not entailed – estate of Finchmere.

Because neither of the two men currently vying for her hand have a chance of fitting into Lady Eleanor’s world no matter how much either or both of them suit Dr. Nell Ward down to the ground. If she can ever manage to tell either of them so and very much vice-versa.

The book that A Murder of Crows reminds me of very much is A Death in Door County, the first book in the Monster Hunter Mystery series by Annelise Ryan. Both series are fronted by female scientists who are deeply but never pedantically into their scientific specialities, both were first books in series that hopefully will figure themselves out a bit better as they continue (the second book in the Monster Hunter series, Death in the Dark Woods, was much better than the first!) both women are making only tentative steps towards possible romances, and both have a habit of falling into amateur detection by way of their scientific pursuits.

So if you like the one series, you’ll probably like the other. I certainly liked Dr. Nell Ward more than enough to be looking forward to the next book in her series, A Cast of Falcons, whenever I next get the itch for murder.

Grade A #BookReview: Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster Bujold

Grade A #BookReview: Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster BujoldDemon Daughter (Penric and Desdemona #12) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric & Desdemona #12
Pages: 153
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A six-year-old shiplost girl draws the kin Jurald family of Vilnoc into complex dilemmas, and sorcerer Learned Penric and his Temple demon Desdemona into conflict—with each other. It will take all of Penric’s wits, his wife Nikys’s wisdom, and the hand of the fifth god’s strangest saint to untangle the threads of their future.

My Review:

Demon Daughter – not Demon’s Daughter because that would be a different genre altogether – is a delightfully cozy entry in the Penric and Desdemona series.

Not that there isn’t plenty of chaos along the way – because the god that Learned Penric kin Jurald serves as both sorcerer and Divine IS chaos. Or at least the god thereof. Penric serves the Fifth God, the Lord Bastard, the “master of all disasters out of season”. His god is also called the “White God” which, now that I’m thinking about it, makes him a sort of kin to the “White Rat” god in T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series. Which actually works if you think about it a bit.

I digress.

For a series consisting entirely of novellas, Penric and Desdemona’s adventures are not only compelling, but they always leave me thinking more than expected. Because this is a world where the gods absolutely are manifest in people’s lives – not just by faith, but by having real influence on and actions in the world. (Also they explicitly come to their own people’s funerals, sometimes even in person, to take them ‘home’.)

Penric has spoken directly with his god, not just in the sense of prayers and imprecations, but as a real conversation. Although usually when his god is talking to him it means that Penric’s life is about to have more than the usual amount of chaos thrown into it. Again.

Which is exactly what happens in Demon Daughter, in a roundabout sort of way. The chaos at least.

A little girl aboard her father’s ship pets a literal white rat (see, that connection isn’t quite so obscure after all) and starts setting things on fire. Aboard a wooden ship, that’s a recipe for death, disaster and oh yes and very much, chaos.

In a contest between little Otta and the entire crew of the merchant vessel, well, there’s not even a contest – even though the ship’s owner and captain is her own father. Otta gets thrown overboard while the crew sets to work putting out the fires, plural, lest they all end up joining her in the drink.

She washes ashore not far from Penric’s home in Vilnoc, gets scared, sets off more fires, and this time gets put in the bottom of a dry well while the local priest calls for somebody, anybody, from the Bastard’s Order to deal with this mess – because it most definitely is the Bastard’s business. Which gets Penric, his wife Nikys, and his demon Desdemona setting out for the tiny coastal village.

They take the little girl home and into their hearts. All of their hearts, including the demon Desdemona’s – in spite of Desdemona not having an actual heart or even a body of her own. Which becomes the real conflict within Penric.

His family wants to adopt the little girl as their own. Desdemona wants to adopt the little girl’s little demon as her own. But Penric answers to the White God, and he may have other plans, that may very well hinge on which choice adds the most chaos to Penric’s already chaotic life.

Escape Rating A: This twelfth entry in the Penric and Desdemona series could almost be classed as a ‘cozy fantasy’. Even with all the chaos naturally generated by Penric’s service to the Lord Bastard, this particular story is very home-oriented and relationship-centric in a way that is just warm and, well, cozy, because Penric’s household is both of those things – even in the depths of winter while he’s teaching a young girl and her even younger demon the art of NOT setting everything on fire.

Which turns out to be all about making sure Otta is not anxious and afraid – not the easiest things to do for a child who has been literally thrown away from her home and family, is scared out of her wits that she might have accidentally killed everyone she loves, and is forced to deal with concepts and responsibilities that are well beyond her years.

Otta is an accidental sorceress, just as Penric became an equally accidental sorcerer twenty years ago, a story told in Penric’s Demon. But Penric was an adult, maybe just barely, but old enough to attend Seminary and learn the ropes of being a Temple Sorcerer and Learned Divine and all that went with it. AND more importantly, having enough experience to truly understand what he was learning. Most of it anyway.

His demon, Desdemona, was centuries old, very experienced, and was as much his teacher as any of his more corporeal tutors.

Otta is just six, her demon’s very first manifestation was that little white rat, and it only received a few days of experience at most. It can’t teach her and she can’t teach it – but Penric and Desdemona are perfect for that job. Jobs.

But Otta is just a little girl, just as Atto, her demon, is just a very little demon. It is Penric’s duty to train Otta enough that she stops setting fires. But she becomes part of the family, which is where all the conflicts and all the thoughts that raced through my head came in.

How does a small child cope when adult responsibilities are thrust upon them? More importantly, how does anyone cope when all of their teaching and training up to that point has indoctrinated them into believing that they have become an abomination – because the thing they are is something they have been taught doesn’t exist and should absolutely not be believed in?

Those are big questions, questions that little Otta has to wrestle with in a way that Penric never did. (His people did believe in the Fifth God, even if none of them ever expected to serve him directly. Otta’s people absolutely did NOT.) Those big questions and indoctrinated beliefs lead to choices that Otta and only Otta can make – all Penric and Desdemona can do is give them a strong foundation on which to stand while they make that choice.

It’s those questions that stick in my mind after finishing Demon Daughter. Because there are entirely too many people in the real world who face that dilemma every day while trying to live their truth even though they’ve been taught by family, faith and community that their truth is a lie.

In Otta’s case it’s easy to see the solution – even as we feel how difficult it is for a little girl to turn away from everything she’s known and form a new path for herself and the little demon she has become responsible for. In the real world, it’s not nearly so easy, both because Otta has a good, firm support network in Penric, Desdemona, and their family, and because the reality of her god is, well, real in a way that can erase many doubts. But her being forced to decide whether to break with her birth family or give up the thing that makes her whole breaks my heart even more than Otta’s decision nearly broke Penric’s, Desdemona’s, and even Otta’s own.

Now that Otta has become part of Penric’s household, it will be fun to see how his and Des’ training of the little sorcerette (Otta is much too little to be even an apprentice sorceress – yet) works its way into the next bit of chaos that the Lord Bastard sends their way. I’m already looking forward to reading those adventures, whenever the chaos surrounding their deity allows them to appear!

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Seanan McGuire
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #5
Pages: 189
Length: 3 hours and 52 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.
But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.
Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.
Again.

My Review:

I’ve been winding my way through Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series for nearly three years now, since I first read Every Heart a Doorway back in early 2021. I’ve skipped around through the series and had both a grand and a thoughtful time each and every time I’ve returned to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Clearly, you don’t have to read the series in order to get into it. Although it probably does help to read that first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. And possibly, in this particular case, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before this one. But now I’m caught up with the whole thing, even though this particular book happens very much in the middle of the series.

All of that is to say that some of this review is bound to reflect my thoughts on the series as a whole because it’s just now whole for me, as well as this entry in the series in particular.

You have been warned.

Much as Jacqueline Wolcott warns her friends at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children just before they follow her through the lightning-keyed door back to her home, the horror-movie hellscape called ‘The Moors’.

A place where EVERYTHING is ruled by science and powered by lightning, where vampires contend with mad scientists and resurrection is as commonplace as blood, where Frankenstein’s monster would be seen as just another citizen – and quite possibly was.

Jack is in dire straits when she returns to the school, and she needs the help of the only friends she can trust to see that, in spite of appearances, she’s still Jack even though she’s in her twin sister Jill’s body. They are the only people who know her well enough to understand that her OCD will not allow her to just adapt to living her life in the unclean thing that murdered her mentor – even if Jill’s full, entire, complete and utterly nefarious plot is to destroy both her sister Jack and the balance that keeps The Moors relatively safe and functional for the human population that was born to a world where vampires contend with mad scientists and drowned gods prey upon ships and shorelines, where the sun only rises behind thick clouds and lightning storms happen whenever the Moon wills it so.

Jack needs help, so she’s gone to the one place where she knows she can get it. Even if it’s the one place she hoped never to return to, because it means that she’ll have to do the one thing she hoped she’d never have to do.

She’ll have to kill her twin sister. Again. She already did it once to save the world she was born to. She’ll have to do it again so that she can save the world that her heart calls home.

Escape Rating A-: The Wayward Children series winds itself around and around and back and forth and over and under and all over again. We first met the Wolcott twins in the very first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, but we don’t get their full story until the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, while book three, Beneath the Sugar Sky, deals with the effects of their actions in Every Heart a Doorway.

(After listening to the latest book in this series, Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, and liking it very much, I decided to grab this middle book in audio as well – although the readers are very different. The author herself narrates this story, as she did the previous books that featured the Wolcott sisters. McGuire has a formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense delivery that is utterly fitting for the formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense Jack Wolcott. Audiobooks just work better when the narrator fits the primary character’s voice and the author/narrator fit Jack to a ‘T’, even when Jack felt like she wasn’t fitting her own self very well at all.)

Come Tumbling Down is still dealing with the effects of Jill’s actions. Which have been the kind of actions that make her behavior and her very nature in this book make all that much more sense. As much as anything that happens in any of the worlds that the doors lead to make sense from the perspective of this world.

From the perspective of their own worlds, they are completely logical. Unless of course they are nonsense worlds to begin with.

One of the core tenets of the whole, entire, Wayward Children series, something that is said by one character or another over the course of the series, is that “actions have consequences”. This particular entry in the series is the story of the consequences of Jill’s actions in The Moors, which were the consequences of Jill’s actions in our world and Jack’s response to those actions, which were, in their turn, a consequence of both of their reactions when they found their door to The Moors. All of which were the consequences of their parents’ treatment and conditioning of them when they were still under their parents’ thumbs and had never gone through a doorway at all.

But that’s EXACTLY the kind of cause and effect that underpins this whole series. Which feels like it is set as a counterpoint to Narnia, where the Pevensie children went through the back of a wardrobe and lived an entire life to adulthood without their actions seeming to have had any consequences at all when they returned to the world they were born to.

As a result of their trips through the doors, the children return ill-adapted to the world where they were born. But that’s in the story. In reality – for certain select definitions of the word – what they exhibit upon their returns are psychological disorders that people are all too frequently misdiagnosed or not diagnosed as having for reasons that have more to do with either parental or medical or societal assumptions and/or expectations than they do with what the people coping or not coping are coping or not coping with.

Which is a long way around to say that there’s more to this series than initially meets either the eye or the reader’s mind. Now that I’ve finished the whole thing – at least so far – the whole thing gets deeper and more meaningful the further you get into it, no matter the order that you get into it in.

So, on the surface there’s a story about vampires and mad scientists set in a place that the great horror movies might have used for their inspiration – if not their actual setting. Underneath that there’s a deeper story about balances of power and how devastating it can be when those balances become unbalanced. And the story of one heroine who is willing to throw her own body into the breach – along with her sister’s corpse – to preserve that balance at truly any and every cost.

At its heart – beating with the power of unbridled electricity – there’s a love story about a young woman who fell so much in love with a monster and the world that created her that she was willing to do anything at all to preserve that happy ever after – even to become a monster herself.

But the soul of the series, in each and every story, is that ‘actions have consequences’ for good and for ill, and that the most important thing, to do and to be, is to ‘Be Sure’ that your choices are the ones that you can live with – or die by.

A- #BookReview: Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby Olson

A- #BookReview: Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby OlsonMiss Percy's Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons (Miss Percy Guide, #1) by Quenby Olson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Miss Percy Guide #1
Pages: 397
on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Miss Mildred Percy inherits a dragon.
Ah, but we’ve already got ahead of ourselves…
Miss Mildred Percy is a spinster. She does not dance, she has long stopped dreaming, and she certainly does not have adventures. That is, until her great uncle has the audacity to leave her an inheritance, one that includes a dragon’s egg.
The egg - as eggs are wont to do - decides to hatch, and Miss Mildred Percy is suddenly thrust out of the role of “spinster and general wallflower” and into the unprecedented position of “spinster and keeper of dragons.”
But England has not seen a dragon since… well, ever. And now Mildred must contend with raising a dragon (that should not exist), kindling a romance (with a humble vicar), and embarking on an adventure she never thought could be hers for the taking.

My Review:

At first, Miss Percy seems like a rather quiet and retiring sort of person, and her book seems like a rather quiet and cozy sort of book. Both of these things are true – and both of them are not.

Miss Percy is quiet because it has become the only way she can survive as a disregarded, disapproved of and constantly overseen and overworked spinster in the household her sister rules with an iron fist.

The meek, mild mouse of a woman is not the person Mildred Percy aspired to be when she was an adventurous child. It’s not even the person she planned to be when she chose to stay at home and nurse her ailing father.

It’s just what happened along the way of putting one foot in front of the other and getting through each day as an unmarried gentlewoman of no independent means whatsoever. It was the safe and easy path.

At least until her Great-Uncle Forthright died and left her a trunk full of bits and bobs and papers and oddments, the detritus of a scientific mind and an adventurous life. A life that he has, wittingly or not, passed to the great-niece he remembered as a free-spirited girl three decades gone.

But surprisingly, and delightfully come again, while dragging the trunk of legacy secretly away from her sister’s overbearing presence and opinions, and straight into the brawny arms of the local vicar, Mr. Wiggan – an unmarried man of a certain age not too far at all from her own.

A man of God Mr. Wiggan may be, but he also possesses every bit of the same spirit of discovery and adventure that her late, great-uncle did, as well as a willingness to help her investigate that legacy.

Which turns out to include, not just books and papers, but also a well-wrapped, deeply hidden, curious looking rock. A rock which hatches into an equally curious dragon.

And thereby hangs a tale of adventure, discover, and even romance of Miss Mildred Percy’s own, as Mildred’s – and Mr. Wiggan’s – efforts to save and protect the little dragon burn away the shyness and diffidence that have held both of them back.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I saw it on a list of cozy fantasies, and it seemed like the perfect book for a chilly winter weekend. And it was calling my name rather loudly, with occasional puffs of smoke for emphasis.

While of course I fell in love with the little dragon – just as Mildred does – I stayed for Mildred, very much in the way that I got so thoroughly stuck into all of the protagonists in the Never Too Old to Save the World collection. Because Mildred had become convinced that her time was passed and that she had no choice but to cover under her sister’s thumb, raise her sister’s children, and take up as little space as possible in a household where she was forced to live on the tiniest amount of sufferance possible.

The little dragon, with his puffs of smoky breath and occasionally sparky sneezes, lit a fire in Mildred that had been banked so thoroughly that the embers sputtered A LOT before they finally caught. And caught Mildred up in the radical idea that, at forty years of age, she still had plenty of time for adventures if only she could just bring her courage to the sticking point, defy her sister, and seize the days yet to come.

So, just as the little dragon hatches from his shell, we follow along with Mildred as she cracks open her own. She might not have been willing to step out of her comfort zone just for herself, because her whole life has taught her that’s not her place, but she will take on all comers to keep the dragon safe – no matter how much she shakes in her boots as she fights her battles on his behalf.

As much as I was enjoying Mildred’s hesitant steps towards adventure, the tone of this book teased me for multiple chapters as I settled in for this cozy winter read. Because it reads a bit like Pride and Prejudice – not in the plot, but in the setting, the characters and the writing style. Particularly as Mildred’s sister, Mrs. Diana Muncy, reads very, very much like a smarter, meaner version of Mrs. Bennet from Jane Austen’s classic romance and comedy of manners.

I got so deeply into the story that it took me halfway through before the dragon’s name dropped the clue-by-four on my head – just as the villains attempted to throw the creature from a second-story window. (The dragon has wings, so things did not go AT ALL according to their dastardly plan.) They named the dragon Fitz, after, of course, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Making the ‘pocket’ description of Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care & Feeding of British Dragons – you guessed it and I’m chagrined at how long it took me to – Pride and Prejudice and Dragons!

Which is not played for nearly as many over-the-top laughs and innuendos as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So, if you think Pride and Prejudice was a good story that just needed more dragons, this cozy fantasy is a delight from beginning to end.

Certainly this reader was utterly delighted by the whole saga, which means that I’m doubly pleased that Mildred’s, Fitz’ and Mr. Wiggan’s adventures are far from over. The next book in this charming cozy fantasy series, Miss Percy’s Travel Guide to Welsh Moors and Feral Dragons, is already out and rapidly clawing its way up my virtually towering TBR pile for the next time I’m in the mood for a cozy fantasy with more dragons!

Review: The Limehouse Text by Will Thomas

Review: The Limehouse Text by Will ThomasThe Limehouse Text (Barker & Llewelyn, #3) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #3
Pages: 352
Published by Touchstone on July 4, 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In The Limehouse Text, Barker and Llewelyn discover a pawn ticket among the effects of Barker's late assistant, leading them to London's Chinese district, Limehouse. There they retrieve an innocent-looking book that proves to be a rare and secret text stolen from a Nanking monastery, containing lethal martial arts techniques forbidden to the West. With the political situation between the British Empire and Imperial China already unstable, the duo must not only track down a killer intent upon gaining the secret knowledge but also safeguard the text from a snarl of suspects with conflicting interests.
Prowling through an underworld of opium dens, back-room blood sports, and sailors' penny hangs while avoiding the wrath of the district's powerful warlord, Mr. K'ing, Barker and Llewelyn take readers on a perilous tour through the mean streets of turn-of-the-century London.

My Review:

I was feeling in a bit of a murder-y mood this week – reading-wise at least. Which seems entirely fitting as we’re ‘killing’ 2023 this weekend and ringing in 2024. Even the first book this week, Paladin’s Faith, fits that murder theme, because the story is wrapped around preventing the protagonist from getting murdered, AND because one of the characters in the story is from a people who call the individual years gods, gods who die at the end of the year as the new year-god is born.

And this series, Barker & Llewelyn is also part of my anticipation for the coming year, as this series has turned into my new comfort read series, just as yesterday’s book was the penultimate story in a series that has formed part of my comfort reading for THIS year coming to an end.

Barker & Llewelyn certainly have become a comfort read, as was evidenced by the way I slipped back into their Victorian London like slipping into a warm bath, and didn’t resurface until my mind had its fill of the mystery and was ready to come back to the real world.

Not that the real, 21st century doesn’t intrude in this series, because it frequently does. Not through ANY anachronisms, but rather as a result of the fact that technology may change but human nature does not. The issues that face Barker & Llewelyn, issues of race, gender, class and socioeconomic inequalities, the tensions between countries and war and peace, have always been part of the human condition.

The author does an excellent job of allowing the reader to experience the roots of specific 21st century issues in 19th century mores, behaviors and actions without ever breaking the character of the era in which this series takes place.

This entry in the series, as looks to be a developing pattern for the stories as a whole, begins at a climactic moment very near the end that seems both shocking and inexplicable as an opening – but fully rivets the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go until the story has caught up to that climax.

Rather like a caper story, which often begins by seeing the results of what got done and then winds its action back to the beginning of how the characters got to that point. After all, there kind of is a caper in The Limehouse Text. Multiple capers, in fact, although that’s not clear to anyone involved when Llewelyn winds his narrative back to begin at the beginning.

Which turns out to be tied up in Thomas Llewelyn’s own beginning as Private Enquiry Agent Cyrus Barker’s assistant. The job Llewelyn has been growing into and abler for every day was only available to him because the previous occupant had become involved in considerably more danger than even his employer had been aware of. Danger that resulted in his murder – a case that Barker has not managed to solve even a year later.

But new evidence in Quong’s murder has been uncovered by a police inspector who turns out to have been a bit too thorough for his own good. Resulting in the reopening of that old case, a new string of deaths and the potential for grave diplomatic incidents in the already fractious relationship between Britain and China – whether those incidents take place in Limehouse, in Peking, or over Cyrus Barker’s grave.

Escape Rating A+: One thing drove me utterly bananas during my reading of The Limehouse Text. I had the vague impression, not that I’d read this before, but that the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series had also tackled a story set in Limehouse – London’s Victorian version of Chinatown – but couldn’t track down precisely which story. I think it may have been “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, but I wasn’t able to nail it down without watching the thing. (Which would have been a treat but not necessarily at 3 in the morning.)

And that was absolutely the only quibble I had with the whole fascinating story, which made The Limehouse Text an excellent book to close out the year!

I got into the Barker & Llewelyn series because of their resemblance to Holmes and Watson, but I’ve stayed, and plan on continuing, because of the ways in which they take that familiar setting and put an entirely different spin on it in the very best way.

A big part of that spin is that Holmes and Watson were, in their own ways, both insiders in a society that rigorously imposed boundaries on all sides. Barker, as a self-educated Scotsman who grew up in China, and Llewelyn, as a Welshman who served a prison sentence, are outsiders and frequently and bitingly reminded of it by the powers-that-think-they-be.

This condition is played with, up, out and over in this entry in the series, as it showcases the contempt with which the British government and its representatives, as well as more of the general public than we’d like to admit, treated both the Chinese immigrants who had settled in London AND the whole entire government of Imperial China which the British continued to rape and pillage on any and all pretexts.

(R.F. Kuang’s Babel also draws on these same historical conditions – but takes them in a rather different direction.)

While all of that is background, it is also an integral part of the mystery, as the item that Quong died for is a sacred text that should never have been smuggled out of China. It does not have the military applications that either the Chinese or the British believe that it might, and it absolutely does belong back where it was stolen from. The conflict within the story is between those who want to profit from it, those who want to use it for its purported military applications, and those who want to see it returned to its rightful place.

With Barker caught in the middle and punched from all sides. Literally.

In the end, this is a clever, convoluted mystery, solved but not truly resolved by fascinating characters, steeped in a culture and a perspective that was not treated with any kind of respect in its time and about which stereotypes promoted during this period still linger. The reader is inexorably drawn in by the mystery and the setting, and left with both the satisfaction of at least some just desserts being served – as a mystery should – while still reeling from the marvelously presented microcosm of all the reasons why ‘colonialism’ is such a disgustingly dirty word in so many places around the globe to this very day.

For all these reasons, and the reasons outlined in my reviews of the first two books in this marvelous series, Some Danger Involved and To Kingdom Come, I will absolutely be back for more of Barker & Llewelyn’s fascinating cases in 2024. Next up, The Hellfire Conspiracy, the next time I need a comfortingly murderous read!

Review: Murder at the Serpentine Bridge by Andrea Penrose

Review: Murder at the Serpentine Bridge by Andrea PenroseMurder at the Serpentine Bridge (Wrexford & Sloane, #6) by Andrea Penrose
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #6
Pages: 361
Published by Kensington on September 27, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Charlotte, now the Countess of Wrexford, would like nothing more than a summer of peace and quiet with her new husband and their unconventional family and friends. Still, some social obligations must be honored, especially with the grand Peace Celebrations unfolding throughout London to honor victory over Napoleon.
But when Wrexford and their two young wards, Raven and Hawk, discover a body floating in Hyde Park’s famous lake, that newfound peace looks to be at risk. The late Jeremiah Willis was the engineering genius behind a new design for a top-secret weapon, and the prototype is missing from the Royal Armory’s laboratory. Wrexford is tasked with retrieving it before it falls into the wrong hands. But there are unsettling complications to the case—including a family connection.
Soon, old secrets are tangling with new betrayals, and as Charlotte and Wrexford spin through a web of international intrigue and sumptuous parties, they must race against time to save their loved ones from harm—and keep the weapon from igniting a new war . . .

My Review:

As the previous book in this series, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, represented a door in Charlotte Sloane’s life closing, this sixth book in the series marks a different door in her life opening, albeit a door she believed she’d closed long ago.

In that previous book, widowed and disgraced Charlotte Sloane married the Earl of Wrexford, removing that earlier disgrace but placing herself back in the gilded cage she ran away from more than a dozen years before.

Putting her freedom to the test and the secret of her alter ego, the muckraking political cartoonist A.J. Quill, into even greater danger of exposure – with even more uncertain consequences.

The backdrop of this particular entry in the series is a combination of a very real historical event with a plausibly realistic macguffin into just the sort of case that makes Wrexford & Sloane’s adventures so very appealing.

At first, the murder victim in the prologue would seem to have nothing to do with Charlotte or even Wrex, in spite of his discovery of the corpse. But that is seldom the case in this series. The dead man, Jeremiah Willis, was an engineer of considerable repute, working for the government on a most secret project.

The late Willis’ beloved nephew, in a case of the rather long arm of coincidence, is the ward of one of Charlotte’s newly reconciled family members. It’s clear from the very first meeting that there is something rotten in the relationship between the young Lord Lampson and his guardians, Charlotte’s sister-in-law’s older sister Louisa and her husband, a Mr. Belmont of the Foreign Office.

Charlotte’s brother-in-law (let’s call him that for simplicity’s sake) is an abusive arse. Young Lampson has inherited the title Belmont expected to inherit himself, creating plenty of room for resentment right there – particularly as it appears that the abusive arse had been running up debts in anticipation of a title that he’s not going to get after all. Adding fuel to that conflagration, Lampson is black, as was his late uncle Jeremiah.

Whatever Jeremiah Willis was working on for the British government, he’s dead, the plans for his revolutionary device are missing, and all the crowned and uncrowned heads of Europe are massing in London for a celebration of Napoleon’s defeat and exile to Elba. Creating plenty of opportunity for skullduggery at the highest levels and for the greatest stakes.

It’s a recipe for intrigue – and yet more murder. With Wrex, Charlotte, the Weasels, and their whole eccentric household caught in the middle of the imminent explosion.

Escape Rating A: This was the right book at the right time, and I clearly waited enough time after Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens before diving into Wrexford and Sloane’s first investigation as a married couple. Meaning that I had an absolutely terrific reading time this time around.

As is de rigueur for this series, the historical elements are real or at least plausibly so. Certainly the Peace Celebrations – even if we know from our future vantage point that they were just a tad premature – happened as shown in the story. The scientific and engineering discoveries at the heart of this particular mystery were indeed plausible, and the foundations were as described.

While a ‘repeating rifle’ was not invented at this particular juncture, the concepts were already circulating. The problems that remained to be solved, and eventually were, were not those of ideas or invention, but rather problems of engineering. That the industrial capabilities had not yet reached a point where the machines necessary to make the rifles a truly workable product (I hesitate to use the word ‘viable’ in this instance) were not yet themselves workable.

Obviously the engineering caught up to the concept in the years to come, but they weren’t quite there at this time. But it all makes it that much easier to get into this series and this mystery, because so many of the foundational elements don’t require the willing suspension of disbelief as they are believable in their own right.

What makes this series so fascinating to follow – as much as I enjoy the historical setting – are the people and their relationships. From the very beginning in Murder at Black Swan Lane, Wrexford and Sloane have been an unconventional couple, and the found family they have gathered around them adds to that unconventionality in the best way possible.

(The title of this entry in the series may be familiar, as it pays a bit of homage to a previously-written but historically following unconventional couple, Charlotte & Thomas Pitt, whose final adventures were published in Murder ON the Serpentine.)

A big part of what makes them special is Charlotte’s alter ego as the satirist A.J. Quill, both that she does it and how she became Quill in the first place. She stepped off the path of aristocratic respectability, broke open the bars of the gilded cage of expectations for the young women of the ton, and took the road not taken by eloping with her art teacher – only to return older, sadder, wiser, widowed and broke. So she took up her late husband’s pen and became A.J. Quill, acquiring a career, a reputation, and two orphaned guttersnipes into the bargain.

And eventually, the Earl of Wrexford, adding bliss and frustration in equal measure, as the happiness of her marriage often conflicts with the frustration of having to at least appear to obey the rules she escaped as a young woman.

So, much of Charlotte’s progress in this book is the acknowledgement that there will be times she will have to put her own need for action aside in order to operate in areas that she, and only she, now has access to.

As well as dealing with the angst that she, and only she, experiences as her husband continues to throw himself into danger and the two boys she took for her own begin their own road to manhood, following right behind him – if not leading him straight into the thick of it. While knowing that she will not always be able to follow while being observed by the beady, censorious eyes of the haut ton.

In short, Murder at the Serpentine Bridge is, like all the stories so far in this terrific series, a story about change. The Napoleonic Wars may not actually have ended – although everyone believes that they have and the handwriting is very much on the wall. The old alliances and the old rivalries will shift in response to the coming rapprochement between Britain and France. This war may be ending, but new conflicts already loom on the horizon, and all sides are looking for a military advantage in those wars yet to come.

The Industrial Revolution is gearing up, pun definitely intended. The mystery that Wrex, Charlotte, and their friends face is rooted in the turning of those gears. Charlotte wants justice for Jeremiah Willis’ murder. The government needs to find the traitor in their midst, loath as they are to admit one exists. Wrex wants to make certain that Willis’ engineering marvel does not fall into the hands of his country’s enemies. And that no other bodies fall while they figure out whodunnit.

Meanwhile, everyone is chasing everyone else’s tails into danger, as the government’s intelligence services are unwilling to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing (shades of yesterday’s book) and everyone is unwittingly keeping vital clues from even their nearest and dearest.

I’m here for the wonderfully accurate historical setting, the tasty red herrings that get sprinkled throughout the mystery, and the ever-changing and developing relationships among Charlotte and Wrex’ increasing circle.

A new member of which gets added in the close of this entry in the series. We’ll see what effect the inclusion of young ‘Falcon’ has on the adventures of Charlotte’s adopted sons, Raven and Hawk, in the books to come.

Next up, Murder at the Merton Library. Which already sounds like just my kind of story!

Review: Paladin’s Faith by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Faith by T. KingfisherPaladin's Faith (The Saint of Steel, #4) by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, romantasy
Series: Saint of Steel #4
Pages: 446
Published by Red Wombat Studio on December 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Marguerite Florian is a spy with two problems. A former employer wants her dead, and one of her new bodyguards is a far too good-looking paladin with a martyr complex.
Shane is a paladin with three problems. His god is dead, his client is much too attractive for his peace of mind, and a powerful organization is trying to have them both killed.
Add in a brilliant artificer with a device that may change the world, a glittering and dangerous court, and a demon-led cult, and Shane and Marguerite will be lucky to escape with their souls intact, never mind their hearts. . .

My Review:

There’s a classic saying about large organizations at cross-purposes within themselves, that the right-hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Marguerite Florian’s problem with the Red Sail mercantile empire is that their “right hand does not know who the left is killing”.

This is Marguerite’s problem because the person that the Red Sail’s left hand intends to kill is her. Which she has some strenuous objections to. Most people would.

Marguerite has tried all sorts of methods for getting the Red Sail off her back. Most parts of the organization think that she’s just a loose end, someone who knows something they shouldn’t but who clearly has no plans for doing anything about it. Someone who can be watched but otherwise left alone.

Other parts of the organization want to use her life – or rather her death – to score points against the others. For every Red Sail branch she does enough favors for to earn amnesty, there’s another who hates that branch and wants to add her body to their tally of tit for tat.

A particularly appropriate cliché as Marguerite’s attributes in that regard are exceptionally noteworthy – as MANY of the characters in this fourth entry in the Saint of Steel series can’t help themselves from noticing. Notably Shane, one of the very few remaining Paladins of the dead god, that titular Saint of Steel.

And that’s where the nature of the secret and the remit of the White Rat, the god who has taken Shane and his fellow Paladins under their wing, comes into play.

The White Rat, in the able and energetic person of Bishop Beartongue, is the god who sees a problem and gets it fixed. One of the things that makes pretty much all of their relief efforts everywhere more expensive than they need to be is that the price of salt is also fixed, not in a good way and not by good people. Specifically the Red Sail organization which has a monopoly on the large scale mining, production and most importantly, shipping, of salt.

Marguerite has helped the Bishop and the Rat – and those Paladins – a time or two before this story. She needs their help now to hunt down that loose end the Red Sail keeps trying to kill her over.

All Marguerite needs to do is locate the artificer who has invented a method for large-scale salt production that the Red Sail will clearly do anything to keep from publicizing her work. Because once it’s known that circumventing their monopoly is possible, it WILL be done. It will bankrupt Red Sail, cause short term economic hardships for any economy that is dependent on either the high price of salt, the high taxes on salt, or receiving favors from Red Sail. But in the long term, salt will be cheaper, the Rat’s relief efforts will cost less money and therefore require less in the way of donations and tithes from their members, and a whole lot of people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder (the folks the Rat specifically serves) will be better off.

So Bishop Beartongue lends Marguerite Shane and Wren, two of the former Paladins of the Saint of Steel ,to be her bodyguards while she hunts through the cutthroat Courts of Smoke, a place where dirty deals get done both dirt cheap and VERY expensively. A place where someone is bound to brag that they have a pet artificer who does genius work. Or, if someone doesn’t brag, they’ll at least leave papers lying around.

Marguerite just has to stay alive long enough to find the artificer. For that, she’ll need bodyguards who can’t be bribed or bought, seduced or suborned. She needs a paladin – or two.

Little does she know that both of her bodyguards are quite capable of being seduced. Just not in any of the ways that she ever expected – and with none of the results that could ever have been imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve written a LOT to get to the point where I can talk about what I thought of the book, which makes a good metaphor for the book itself. Because Paladin’s Faith is a very big story of ‘hurry up and wait’. Marguerite’s literal task is to hurry up and get to the Court of Smoke then to spend endless amounts of time hoping that teeny-tiny clues will drop into her waiting ear. Or Wren’s or Shane’s waiting ears. While not giving themselves away to any agents of Red Sail who are undoubtedly lurking in hopes of discovering the exact same information.

It’s the spy game and a lot of actual spying is waiting for the ‘click’ of the right clue. Hurrying just gives the game away – which will get them all killed. Also a LOT of other people killed, as Paladins of the Saint of Steel do NOT go either gently or quietly into that good night. They ALWAYS take a lot of their enemies with them when they go. It’s what they are, it’s what they do, it’s what their god chose them for in the first place.

So a huge part of this book is taken up in that waiting and watching, and the frustration of not finding much while Marguerite knows her enemy is hot on her heels. The frustration of waiting for clues is compounded by the sexual frustration of BOTH Marguerite and Shane. The heat they generate practically steams off the page, to the point where the reader wants to groan right along with Marguerite as Shane carries out a mental routine of self-flagellation because he believes he shouldn’t and he’s not worthy and he’ll only fuck things up even more than they already are. Which honestly isn’t even POSSIBLE but his guilty complex is so damn loud that he can’t hear anything except the voice in his head telling him he’s a fuckup and that’s all he’s ever been or will be.

One of the best parts of, not just this book but the whole, entire series so far is that it is told in the author’s inimitable voice, and her character development is both always excellent and done with absolutely oodles of snark and self-realization layered with frequent, self-deprecating humor on all sides.

Howsomever, by the nature of that waiting game a LOT of this story is extremely interesting character development with a fair bit of adding to the depth of the worldbuilding but one does, like one of the side characters, Davith, want them to just ‘get on with it’ one way or another, either to get a move on in their mission or just make a move on each other.

Once both of those things finally happen, the story is a race to a surprising and delightful finish.

In the beginning of this series, there were seven surviving Paladins of the messily departed Saint of Steel; Stephen, Istvhan, Galen, Shane, Wren, Marcus and Judith. Stephen’s story was told in the first book in the series, Paladin’s Grace, Istvhan’s in the second, Paladin’s Strength, Galen’s in the third, Paladin’s Hope, and now Shane’s in Paladin’s Faith. Which does lead on to the belief – or certainly to the HOPE, that there will be three more books in the series. Based on events in this book, Wren’s is likely to be next – which would be awesome. And Judith’s story is going to be a humdinger. But whatever or whoever’s story is coming next, I’m already looking forward to it!

Review: To Kingdom Come by Will Thomas

Review: To Kingdom Come by Will ThomasTo Kingdom Come (Barker & Llewelyn, #2) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #2
Pages: 288
Published by Touchstone Books on May 3, 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When a bomb destroys the recently formed Special Irish Branch of Scotland Yard, all fingers point to the increasingly brazen factions of Irish dissidents seeking liberation from English rule. Volunteering their services to the British government, Barker and Llewelyn set out to infiltrate a secret cell of the Irish Republican Brotherhood known as the Invisibles. Posing as a reclusive German bomb maker and his anarchist apprentice, they are recruited for the group's ultimate plan: to bring London to its knees and end the monarchy forever.
Their adventures take them from a lighthouse on the craggy coast of Wales to a Liverpool infested with radicals, and even to the City of Light, where Llewelyn goes undercover with Maire O'Casey, the alluring sister of an Irish radical. Llewelyn again finds himself put to the test by his enigmatic employer, studying the art of self-defense and the brutal sport of hurling -- and, most dangerous of all, being schooled in the deadly science of bomb making.

My Review:

What an explosive treat this book turned out to be!

I’ve started at the end a bit there, but that fits right into the story, as it does too. Not that the beginning of the book tells us much – yet – because it shouldn’t. But does make for every bit as dramatic – and yes explosive – opening as that first sentence.

After the events of the first marvelous book in this series, Some Danger Involved, we catch up with Thomas Llewelyn as he’s drowning in the Thames. As we learn later, that’s a fitting metaphor for the entire case, because Llewelyn is in over his head the whole way through.

So, as Llewelyn extracts himself from his watery predicament, the story loops back so that the reader can discover how he ended up in that particularly messy water. A situation which we are pretty sure he survived, as he is the narrator for this entire series as part of his duties as enquiry agent Cyrus Barker’s assistant.

The case that has brought Llewelyn to this pass is steeped in the true history of the late Victorian era, as London is rocked by bombs planted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. (Not a typo, the IRB was a predecessor/brother organization to the later IRA). In 1884, when this story took place, Irish Home Rule was a rising question in the House of Commons, “Fenian” terrorism was on the rise, and the Special Irish Branch of the Metropolitan Police, formed in 1882, was tasked with rooting out the terrorists but still getting their boots under them as far as being successful at it.

When Barker and Llewelyn enter this particular case, the area around Scotland Yard – including their own offices – has been cratered by bombs planted by one faction or another of the IRB. Exactly by which faction is caught up in an investigation filled with jurisdictional conflicts between the Met’s Special Branch – whose offices were completely destroyed – and the government’s Home Office department.

Barker throws his – and by extension Llewelyn’s – lives and reputations on the line by promising the Home Office – and by extension the Queen – that he and Llewelyn can infiltrate the IRB, discover the actual perpetrators of the bombings, and set them up for capture by whichever department wins the prize of publicity for their arrest. And that they can get the job done in less than a month – before the date when the bombers have promised a bigger and more explosive round of bombings.

It’s Llewelyn’s first – but probably far from last – attempt to work undercover and play the spy. It’s a difficult task for a man who usually wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s also a hard lesson in keeping his emotions to himself – a lesson at which he fails – and not getting too deep into the part he has to play to survive – even if his heart does not.

Escape Rating A+: Diving into the first book in this series, Some Danger Involved, has turned out to be one of my best reading decisions of the whole, entire year. Now two books in, I’m fully committed to reading the whole series because it’s completely absorbing and consistently awesome.

It also fits right into historical mystery series I’ve previously loved. Not just the obvious echoes of Holmes and Watson, but also to the late Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, to the point where I’m wondering if Thomas Llewelyn’s name is a bit of an homage to Pitt. I invoke Pitt specifically here because Thomas Pitt was also involved with the Special Irish Branch in that series after book 21, The Whitechapel Conspiracy, and became its head before he retired at the end of the series. So those parts of the story felt every bit as familiar as the subtle Holmes and Watson call backs and it made this story that much easier to get stuck into.

What kept me glued to my seat (as this turned out to be a one-sitting/one-evening read) was the way that it dove head-first both into the heart of its point-of-view character Thomas Llewelyn and into the hearts and motivations of the Irish Republican Brotherhood faction members, and the difficulty that Llewelyn had separating himself from them and his sympathy for their cause even as he decried their methods and worked to bring them down, doing his best to keep them all from being blown “to kingdom come”.

So I fell every bit as deeply into this book as I did to the first book in the series, Some Danger Involved, the title of which is a quote from Barker’s ‘Help Wanted’ advertisement that Llewelyn applied for in that first book. I will most definitely be back for the third book in this series, The Limehouse Text, in the hopes of figuring out what that title has to do with the story, the next time I need a reading break with a bit of body and a compelling mystery adventure.

Review: Evergreen Chase by Juneau Black + Giveaway

Review: Evergreen Chase by Juneau Black + GiveawayEvergreen Chase: A Shady Hollow Mystery Short Story by Juneau Black
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy fantasy, cozy mystery, holiday fiction
Series: Shady Hollow #3.5
Pages: 32
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

It’s the winter solstice in Shady Hollow, that magical time of year when creatures of all shapes and sizes come together to honor the season and eat as much pie as possible. Reporter Vera Vixen is eager to experience her first holiday in town and is especially looking forward to the unveiling of the solstice tree. But then disaster strikes. The year’s tree—the tallest in the forest—has disappeared without a trace. Can Vera, her best friend, Lenore, and Deputy Orville Braun find the tree and save the season? Or will this year’s solstice be especially dark?

My Review:

Today is Black Friday in the U.S., that unofficial holiday after the official Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Traditionally, this was the day when holiday decorating ‘officially’ kicked off, and anyplace that had not already started playing Xmas carols started doing so with a vengeance. So, as this feels like the right day, at least to me, to start reviewing holiday books, I’m kicking off my holiday season with this Shady Hollow winter solstice story.

This is explicitly not a Christmas story, just as Phantom Pond was not explicitly a Halloween story. The historical and religious underpinnings of both of those holidays in our world don’t exist in the animal-centric world of Shady Hollow.

But that doesn’t mean that something like those holidays wouldn’t, doesn’t or hasn’t arisen in other cultures – and that particularly applies to the winter solstice. Many, many traditions have holidays around the solstice, and Shady Hollow wouldn’t be exceptional in marking the shortest day of the year – even if they might be a bit exceptional in just how they do that marking.

Along with the touch of mystery that makes the series so very much fun!

The tradition in Shady Hollow is to ‘walk’ the specially chosen Solstice tree from the surrounding woods to the center of town, where it will be decorated and feted and brightly lit to chase away the darkness of the longest night.

The trees are chosen decades in advance and tended lovingly by specially appointed treekeepers until their appointed day as the center of the whole town’s attention and celebration.

But someone has stolen this year’s tree – all FIFTY FEET of it – the night before its celebratory walk. The whole town is enraged, incensed, and practically in mourning over the loss of their tree.

It will take the efforts of every animal in town, from Police Bear Orville Braun to ace investigative reporter Vera Vixen to all the birds around town, led by night-owl Professor Heidegger and bookstore owner Lenore the Raven to find the tree in time.

The longest night comes early in Shady Hollow, and time is running out.

Escape Rating B: Shady Hollow may sound a bit twee, but it’s really a LOT more like Zootopia – at least if the movie had been set in Judy Hopp’s rural Bunnyburrow instead of Nick Wilde’s big city. A reflection that reporter Vera Vixen frequently makes herself, as she used to be a resident of one of those big cities but has found cozy Shady Hollow to be a lot more to her taste.

The Shady Hollow series as a whole, are lovely, charming, and very cozy mysteries – and Evergreen Chase is no exception. At the same time, the use of animals as people gives the author all sorts of opportunities to include comments about human behavior hiding in plain sight – or under the bare covering of a pawkerchief.

Like many of the stories in this series, there’s a mystery, but it’s a gentle one. No one is dead, no one is likely to end up dead, but the town’s collective anguish is still VERY real, as someone has literally stolen one of their beloved traditions right out from under them.

That the town pulls together to celebrate the solstice with or without the tree is all part of the series’ charm. That they have their own solstice miracle just adds to the sweetness of both the story and the holiday season – both theirs and ours.

So this feels like its a short story for the many fans of the series, of which I am mostly definitely one. And it turned out to be the perfect start for my holiday reading. (As much as I enjoyed The Wishing Bridge reading it last week made me want to give myself a ‘ten-yard penalty for rushing the season.’ Reading Evergreen Chase felt like a ‘proper’ start to the season.)

It did also remind me of another lovely holiday story that uses animals to tell an entirely different but equally charming human story. If Shady Hollow sounds charming but you’ve never watched Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, well, let this be the season to get the song, “There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub” stuck in your head, just like it is in mine this time of year!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Black Friday is just a weird day. It’s not a holiday, but it still feels like part of a holiday. Unless one works in retail, because it’s most definitely, absolutely not a holiday under those conditions! Also weird, but along the U.S./Canadian border, even though there is no Thanksgiving Thursday in Canada (Canadian Thanksgiving is in mid-October), there is mostly definitely a Black Friday complete with Black Friday sales.

But it’s a day when not many people may be reading blogs – possibly because in the U.S. they are either still in a turkey coma or because they’re off trying to grab the best Black Friday deals. So, for those who are staying home, I have a bit of a giveaway for you.

It’ll just be a little something to put in someone’s holiday stocking, but it’s just a way to say ‘THANKS!’ to all of you who have spent a bit of time with me over the year at chez Reading Reality.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will ThomasSome Danger Involved (Barker & Llewelyn, #1) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #1
Pages: 290
Published by Touchstone on May 18, 2004
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

An atmospheric debut novel set on the gritty streets of Victorian London, Some Danger Involved introduces detective Cyrus Barker and his apprentice, Thomas Llewelyn, as they work to solve the gruesome murder of a young scholar.
When a student bearing a striking resemblance to artists' renderings of Jesus Christ is found murdered -- by crucifixion -- in London's Jewish ghetto, 19th-century private detective Barker must hire an assistant to help him solve the sinister case. Out of all who answer an ad for a position with "some danger involved," the eccentric and enigmatic Barker chooses downtrodden Llewelyn, a gutsy young man whose murky past includes recent stints at both an Oxford college and an Oxford prison. As Llewelyn learns the ropes of his position, he is drawn deeper and deeper into Barker's peculiar world of vigilante detective work, as well as the dark heart of London's teeming underworld. Together they pass through chophouses, stables, and clandestine tea rooms, tangling with the early Italian mafia, a mad professor of eugenics, and other shadowy figures, inching ever closer to the shocking truth behind the murder.

My Review:

Fair warning, this review is going to be LONG, even for me. I really, truly, seriously LOVED this book – even more than I expected. And I had pretty high hopes going in.

We first meet our protagonists in a tried-and-true manner that does an excellent job of hinting at the mysteries and the reveals yet to come.

Cyrus Barker is a ‘private enquiry agent’ (read as private detective), in search of a new assistant, while down-so-low-bottom-looks-like-up Thomas Llewelyn, formerly of both Oxford University and Oxford Castle & Prison, has nothing left either to life for or to live on. He sees Barker’s advertisement as a decision point. Either he’ll get the job or he’ll throw himself in the Thames.

Of course, he gets the job – otherwise we wouldn’t have this marvelous book to read, let alone the series that follows.

But the job that he gets is nothing like he expected. On the one hand, his new employer likes to hold all his cards VERY close to his vest. Llewelyn is constantly flying blind, expected to figure things out by the seat of his pants.

Pants – along with every other stitch of clothing he has on – purchased for him by his employer, who is also providing food, board, education, and all the books the former scholar can read in his spare time – of which there is admittedly little.

Most important, Barker gives him purpose, keeps his mind fully engaged, and sets him to the task of learning the ins and outs of his new job while thinking on his feet and occasionally employing his fists.

But the ‘Help Wanted’ listing said that there was ‘some danger involved’ in the job, as the title of the book indicates. Barker’s previous assistant was killed while performing that job. Llewelyn will have to keep his wits about him every second to make sure that he doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Working with Cyrus Barker promises to be the making of him, IF he manages to survive it. We’ll certainly see how well he manages in the books ahead!

Escape Rating A+: I generally require my comfort reads to have a bit of body to hold my interest. I mean that literally, as my comfort reads tend to be historical mysteries, preferably in series, so that when I have a ‘bail and flail’ day – or week – there’s always another known quantity of a book to sweep me into its world.

Buuuut, I’m caught up with one series I was using as comfort reading, the Sebastian St. Cyr series. And I’m nearly caught up with its readalike series, Wrexford & Sloane. Which left me scrabbling for another, which is very much where Barker & Llewelyn came in.

This first entry in the Barker & Llewelyn series turned out to be a comfort read on not just one but multiple levels, which is pretty amazing.

Most importantly, the partnership of Barker & Llewelyn is at its very beginning in this book, and they are fascinating – partly because of the second reason. The period in which this series takes place is the Victorian era, the bailiwick of the Great Detective and his equally famous amanuensis. In other words, Barker & Llewelyn could easily find themselves in competition with Sherlock Holmes – even more than they already are.

It’s not difficult to see Barker as Holmes and Llewelyn as his Watson, but that famous duo serves mostly as a jumping off point for our protagonists in this series. This isn’t a true Holmes pastiche as the Lady Sherlock or The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes series, or the TV series Sherlock and Elementary, are.

Not that Barker doesn’t have similarities to Holmes, but more in the sense that any capable senior partner in a detective duo shares at least some characteristics with the Great Detective. What sets Barker apart is the way that Barker is, well, set apart.

Detectives are often outsiders in their own cultures, it’s what gives them the ability to observe in detachment and solve the case. Sherlock Holmes is an outsider because of his idiosyncrasies, as is made extremely apparent in the modern interpretations. However, from what little we know of Holmes’ earlier life, he’s at least a member of the squirearchy and was raised in at least upper middle class comfort with all of its privileges.

Barker has been an outsider all of his life, an English orphan abandoned in China, making his way around the globe from a rough start as a cabin boy, initially seeing the world from outside the British Empire and from the bottom up. He’s earned his place by working his way into it.

He’s also a considerably more human character than Holmes frequently is. Barker often hides the real depths of his humanity to outsiders, but it is always present to his intimates. It’s a much fuller portrait of a Victorian detective, and also one that, through Barker’s haphazard but global education, manages to credibly eschew the common prejudices of his day that Holmes exhibits in the original text.

Llewelyn is just as fascinating a character as Barker, and just as much of an outsider, although he comes at that perspective from an entirely different direction. He’s very much the apprentice in this first book, and so it should be. We’re just starting to get hints of how he ended up in depths of the slough of despond he is in when he arrives as Barker’s office for the first time, and his education in the arts of the ‘enquiry agent’ as Barker prefers to be called provide an in-depth introduction to their world.

On a personal note, part of what made this such a special comfort read for this reader is that the story takes place among the Jewish community of London in 1884 as a gruesome murder causes the leaders of that community to fear that a pogrom just like the ones that they or their families fled in Eastern Europe is about to boil over in London.

Much of the story is steeped in that community, and requires Barker to display his own familiarity with its customs and ways AND his respect for its people to Llewelyn. Even more importantly, the inside/outsiderness of the Jewish community in London, and Llewelyn’s open-mindedness to learning about it lets readers into a time and a place that history often sweeps under the carpet.

(Although my own family was still spread across Eastern Europe at this time period, I have pictures of my great-grandfather, and this would have been his generation, letting me connect to this story on a deeper level than I expected – which is where those multiple levels of comfort read come comfortably in.)

So I began Some Danger Involved in the hopes that the danger promised would lead me to a book and a series that would hold me in its thrall until the very last page, and give me something to look forward to whenever I next need a reading pick-me-up.

This first of Barker & Llewelyn’s investigations more than delivered, and I expect to dive back into their world in the next book in the series, To Kingdom Come, sometime over the holidays. If I can make myself wait even that long!