#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X Chang

#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X ChangTo Gaze Upon Wicked Gods (Gods Beyond the Skies, #1) by Molly X. Chang
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, dystopian, epic fantasy, historical fantasy, science fiction, space opera
Series: Gods Beyond the Skies #1
Pages: 368
Length: 10 hours and 41 minutes
Published by Del Rey, Random House Audio on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

She has power over death. He has power over her. When two enemies strike a dangerous bargain, will they end a war . . . or ignite one?
Heroes die, cowards live. Daughter of a conquered world, Ruying hates the invaders who descended from the heavens long before she was born and defeated the magic of her people with technologies unlike anything her world had ever seen.
Blessed by Death, born with the ability to pull the life right out of mortal bodies, Ruying shouldn’t have to fear these foreign invaders, but she does. Especially because she wants to keep herself and her family safe.
When Ruying’s Gift is discovered by an enemy prince, he offers her an impossible deal: If she becomes his private assassin and eliminates his political rivals—whose deaths he swears would be for the good of both their worlds and would protect her people from further brutalization—her family will never starve or suffer harm again. But to accept this bargain, she must use the powers she has always feared, powers that will shave years off her own existence.
Can Ruying trust this prince, whose promises of a better world make her heart ache and whose smiles make her pulse beat faster? Are the evils of this agreement really in the service of a much greater good? Or will she betray her entire nation by protecting those she loves the most?

My Review:

I picked this up because I had the opportunity to get the audiobook from Libro.fm, saw that the narrator, Natalie Naudus, is one of my faves, looked at the summary and thought to myself that this had terrific possibilities and figured I’d be in for a decent if not outright excellent listening/reading time.

It was not to be. It was not to be so hard that I bailed on the audio at the 30% mark and it’s not the narrator’s fault. Really, truly, seriously, it’s not her fault. Natalie Naudus, as always, does a great job with the first person perspective of a protagonist who is expected to be kickass or at least grow into that role. (In this case, it may have been a bit too good of a job, as it felt like I was right there with her in a story where I’d have much preferred to be at a remove or ten.)

That decent to excellent time is not what I got. What I got for that first 30% felt like torture porn, and experiencing that neverending torment from inside the character’s own head was literally more than I could take. To the point where, if you’ve followed my comments about the book I flailed and bailed on that set nearly a whole week of reviews off-kilter, you’ve found it. This was it.

And damn was I surprised about that.

So I flailed, and bailed – also ranted and raved (not in a good way) – but in the end I finished in text. Because when I looked at the text to see where I stopped the audio, to figure out if the situation got redeemed at all, I learned that in the very next sentence – which of course I couldn’t see in the audio – the thing that nearly made me turn this book into a wallbanger in spite of a) the potential for having to replace my iphone and b) I was driving – didn’t actually happen.

Not that the character and I hadn’t already been tortured plenty at that point. But it was enough to bring me back if only to find out whether the situation got better – or worse.

The answer, as it turned out, was both.

Escape Rating D: If The Poppy War and Babel had an ugly, squalling bookbaby, To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods would be it. I loved The Poppy War, but had deeply serious issues with Babel which pretty much sums up my feelings about To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods in a desicated, unsightly, possibly even poisonous nutshell.

And that requires some explanation. Possibly a whole lot of it.

This story sits uneasily on a whole lot of crossing points. It’s right on the border between YA and Adult AND it’s at the intersection of historical fantasy with science fiction as well as at least hinting at being a romantasy – which it absolutely is not in spite of those hints in the blurb – even as it turns out to be post-apocalyptic and utterly dystopian in ways that are not hinted at anywhere at all.

And it’s torture porn. By that I mean that the entire first third of the story focuses on a protagonist whose entire life seems to be made of various axes on which she is ground, tortured and punished.

She’s female in a society that makes her property of the male head of household – in a line where those men squandered the family fortune on gambling and drugs one after another. She has magic powers that make her a target for people who want to use her gifts until those gifts use her up – and people who want to destroy her where she stands for a gift that many deem anathema.

Her entire world is under the boot heel of an overwhelming empire – in this I believe the story is intended to reference the Opium Wars and their oppressors are intended to stand in for the British Empire even if they are called Romans.

That her sister is addicted to a substance named “Opian”, provided by the Romans and engineered by the Romans to bring their society down even faster adds to that resemblance as well as to the protagonist’s torture.

That she’s 19, her sister’s and her grandmother’s only real support, and that her cultural conditioning has her blaming herself for everything wrong in their lives – including the invasion by the Romans before she was even born – is just terrible icing on an already unsightly cake overflowing with oppression and self-flagellation.

Ruying, her family and her whole entire world are in deep, deep trouble with no way out that anyone can see. I got that. I got that LONG before the story didn’t so much come out of the mire as it did finally start sloshing through the muck to the even more epically fucked up political shenanigans that are at the heart of everything that’s gone wrong for Ruying’s people.

Once the story finally, FINALLY started to reveal what was really happening and why and how, the situation got more interesting even as Ruying wallowed even more deeply in her personal angst and kept right on torturing herself every literally bloody step of the way.

At the very, very end, after all the blood and gore and guts and not very much plot movement forward, the story finally shows a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, reveals that the light is an oncoming train, and at least displays a glimmer of a hint of action in this book’s sequel, titled either Immortal the Blood or  To Kill a Monstrous Prince, which will be coming out this time net year.

This reader, at least, has no plans to be there for it. I’ve been tormented enough. Your reading mileage (and/or listening mileage) may vary.

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica Roth

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica RothWhen Among Crows by Veronica Roth
Narrator: Helen Laser, James Fouhey, Tim Campbell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 176
Length: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When Among Crows is swift and striking, drawing from the deep well of Slavic folklore and asking if redemption and atonement can be found in embracing what we most fear.
We bear the sword, and we bear the pain of the sword.
Pain is Dymitr’s calling. His family is one in a long line of hunters who sacrifice their souls to slay monsters. Now he’s tasked with a deadly mission: find the legendary witch Baba Jaga. To reach her, Dymitr must ally with the ones he’s sworn to kill.
Pain is Ala’s inheritance. A fear-eating zmora with little left to lose, Ala awaits death from the curse she carries. When Dymitr offers her a cure in exchange for her help, she has no choice but to agree.
Together they must fight against time and the wrath of the Chicago underworld. But Dymitr’s secrets—and his true motives—may be the thing that actually destroys them.

My Review:

There’s an old Polish saying – not the one you’re thinking of, at least not yet – that translates as “Not my circus, not my monkeys” Which pretty much sums up the attitude of the first zmora that Dymitr approaches in regards to the very dangerous trade he wants to make.

The second zmora comes to him, because what he’s offering IS her cursed circus and those are her damned monkeys. Or, to be a bit more on the nose about the whole thing, it is her murder – or at least it will be – and those are her crows, who are already flocking to the scene.

Dymitr has acquired a legendary magical artifact that holds the possibility of a cure for the curse that Ala suffers from. A curse that killed her mother, her aunt, and her cousin, and is now killing her. A curse that will pass down her bloodline to the next female relative in line – no matter how distant – until the whole line is wiped out.

In return, Dymitr wants an introduction to another legendary ‘artifact’, the powerful witch Baba Jaga [that’s how her name is spelled in the book]. As merely a human, Dymitr does not have access to the places and people that will get him to his goal. As a zmora, while Ala does not know Baba Jaga at all, she does have contacts who can at least get Dymitr a few steps further along on the quest that he refuses to either name or explain.

Their journey proves to be a very different “magical mystery tour” than the one that the Beatles sang about, observing the different magical populations that have migrated to Chicago from his native Poland, and how each group abides by the proverb, “When among crows, caw as the crows do.”

The zmora, who feed on fear, operate movie theaters that feature horror movies, the strzygi, who live on anger and aggression, run underground fight clubs, while the llorona, who collect sorrow, own a chain of hospice centers. It’s all perfectly legal, or at least most of it is. And the parts that aren’t, the strzygi fight clubs, fit right in with the rest of the organized crime and corruption that operates in Chicago.

The supernatural have learned to caw like the crows do, the better to hide from the powerful so-called ‘Holy Order’ that hunts down anyone and anything it deems to be ‘not human enough’. And isn’t that the most human impulse of all?

An impulse, and a life, that Dmitry is willing to cut himself off from – literally as well as figuratively – at any and all cost. Even the cost of the humanity that his family has held so dear over the centuries.

All he needs to do is find Baba Jaga – and pay whatever price she demands in order to cut the sword out of his back once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve frequently said that a story has to be just about perfect to make the leap from an A- to an A. This one absolutely did, and listening to the audio put it over the top into A+. With bells on. To the point where I have to restrain myself from just squeeing all over the place.

The tone of When Among Crows felt very much like ‘old school’ urban fantasy before it left its horror with mystery roots behind to fall down the paranormal romance rabbit hole. Not that I don’t love a good paranormal with a kickass heroine posed on the cover in an utterly impossible position, but those got to dominating the genre and that’s not all I wanted from it.

(The blurb implies a romantic relationship between Dymitr and Ala. Don’t be fooled, that is absolutely not what is going on here – and it shouldn’t be. The relationship they are scrabbling towards is family, that the pain they have both suffered, and from the same source, can lead to them finding the family ties that pain has cost them with each other.)

At the same time, the way this story drew in so many Slavic myths and legends that I itched for a mythopedia (I was driving, that would have had terrible consequences) reminded me, a lot and very fondly, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, because that book gave me the same vibes – along with the same dilemma – and I listened to it well before the Annotated Edition was published. I won’t say that When Among Crows was better, because American Gods had a much larger scope, but for the smaller size of the package of Crows, it still managed to evoke that same sense of memory and wonder, that so much that is old and weird still walks among us hidden in plain sight – made all that much more poignant in that the place the weird is hiding is the darker corners of Chicago – a city that has always had plenty.

When Among Crows was utterly enchanting, and I was totally enchanted by it, staying up entirely too late to finish the audio because it was just that good. While the story was relatively short, it also went surprisingly deep, and then came around full circle in a way that surprised and delighted even as it led to a delicious sort of closure that I wasn’t expecting but utterly loved.

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Funny Story by Emily Henry

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Funny Story by Emily HenryFunny Story by Emily Henry
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Length: 11 hours and 23 minutes
Published by Berkley, Random House Audio on April 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A shimmering, joyful new novel about a pair of opposites with the wrong thing in common.
Daphne always loved the way her fiancé Peter told their story. How they met (on a blustery day), fell in love (over an errant hat), and moved back to his lakeside hometown to begin their life together. He really was good at telling it…right up until the moment he realized he was actually in love with his childhood best friend Petra.
Which is how Daphne begins her new story: Stranded in beautiful Waning Bay, Michigan, without friends or family but with a dream job as a children’s librarian (that barely pays the bills), and proposing to be roommates with the only person who could possibly understand her predicament: Petra’s ex, Miles Nowak.
Scruffy and chaotic—with a penchant for taking solace in the sounds of heart break love ballads—Miles is exactly the opposite of practical, buttoned up Daphne, whose coworkers know so little about her they have a running bet that she’s either FBI or in witness protection. The roommates mainly avoid one another, until one day, while drowning their sorrows, they form a tenuous friendship and a plan. If said plan also involves posting deliberately misleading photos of their summer adventures together, well, who could blame them?
But it’s all just for show, of course, because there’s no way Daphne would actually start her new chapter by falling in love with her ex-fiancé’s new fiancée’s ex…right?

My Review:

This is not a meet-cute, it’s more like a meet-really-really-ugly. But it starts with a meet-cute. It’s just that the meet-cute is NOT between our protagonists Daphne and Miles. It’s between Daphne and her very suddenly ex-fiancé Peter. There may, or may not, have been another meet-cute between Miles and his equally suddenly ex-girlfriend Petra – but that really doesn’t matter by the time we meet all of the above.

Because of all of that VERY sudden ex-ing that happened. In the wee hours after Peter’s bachelor party, between Peter and his childhood bestie, the beautiful Petra. The woman he claimed had always been a platonic friend. Always.

At least until Petra confessed to Peter, when they were alone in the aftermath of that bachelor party, which of course Petra attended because she was, after all, his bestie, that she was in love with him and couldn’t watch him marry someone else without letting him know that.

The resulting mess – and was it ever a mess – left Daphne with one week to move out of the house that she and Peter were supposed to share, alone in the small town she’d moved to because that’s what HE wanted, with no support network because all of “their” friends were really his friends – and a job she loved and didn’t want to leave in a place she could no longer bear to stay.

Not too far away, in that same tiny little town, Petra’s ex Miles was left with an apartment he could only afford half the rent on, in a town that he felt like he’d made his own, with an utterly shattered heart.

Daphne, ever practical EXCEPT when it came to Peter, made Miles an offer he literally couldn’t afford to refuse. His need for a roommate dovetailed heartbreakingly and conveniently with her need for a place to live.

They may have agreed to be roommates out of their shared tragedy but they are definitely respectful of each other’s space and each other’s brokenness. At least until they both receive invitations to – you guessed it! – Peter and Petra’s upcoming nuptials. After a long and very drunken night of shared drinking, ranting and more than occasional sobbing, Daphne and Miles decide that living well – or at least the appearance of it – will be their revenge on their exes.

They RSVP to the wedding of the people they each once believed to be the love of their lives, together. And to back that up, they post a selfie that gives the unmistakable impression that they’ve found the new loves of their own lives – with each other.

Miles is certain that they can keep up the pretense of dating each other for the summer – just long enough to get past that dreadful wedding. Daphne isn’t nearly so sure – but she’s willing to try. She certainly expects it all to go terribly, terribly wrong long before they reach that Labor Day weekend disaster-ganza. And it very nearly does.

At least until it all starts going terribly, terribly right.

Escape Rating A: I started out listening to this one, and that’s probably what got me over the hump of the early chapters. This is one of those stories that, of necessity, has a very hard start. We meet Daphne just after very nearly the entire life she had planned crashed and burned. She’s wallowing in a whole lot of angst and regret and self-recrimination, nearly buried by the weight of her emotional baggage piling up all around her. Listening to the excellent narrator makes the listener feel like they are literally inside Daphne’s mostly despairing head and it’s a realistically well-portrayed terrible place to be.

Fortunately for the reader/listener and Daphne, it really does get better – mostly thanks to Miles – who very nearly crashes and burns it all around her again.

The thing that keeps the whole meet-ugly/meet-cute of the thing from going over the top is that Peter in particular may be the villain of this piece – which he definitely turns out to be – but he isn’t evil. He’s certainly awful, and he displays all of his awful bits over the course of the story – but he’s not actually, technically, evil. He’s just selfish and self-centered and more than a bit spoiled.

Daphne was willing to continue spoiling him because he represented something she’d never had – stability. Her dad was mostly absent and generally in the midst of his next big score that never materialized. Her mother was the very best in Daphne’s eyes, but they moved a LOT in pursuit of financial security and Daphne stopped bothering to make connections because she knew they’d never survive a move. Peter, his large, loving family and his wide circle of lifelong friends is a situation she wants to be adopted into wholesale so she lets herself be surrounded and subsumed into it.

Only to be confronted with the fact that it was never really hers – and neither was Peter. (Although that turns out to have been dodging a bullet she never would have seen coming.)

The fun part of this story – and it mostly is fun after that first long, deep and totally justified wallow – is watching the way that Miles courts Daphne by getting her to fall in love with tiny, slightly touristy, totally scenic, Waning Bay Michigan. He loves the town that he’s adopted and been adopted by, and does his damndest to share that love with Daphne. That he makes the town irresistible makes him irresistible and their hesitant steps toward a relationship turn this story into a marvelous kind of dance of a romance.

That, at the very same time, Daphne uses the foundation of having a job that she totally loves – even if it barely pays the bills – to put herself out there in the sense of opening herself up to the possibilities of deep and true friendship and fellowship – is what makes this story so much her journey to happiness and fulfillment. Whether or not, in the end, either of those things includes Miles, or Waning Bay, or both, or neither.

That Peter ultimately gets the shaft all the way around turned out to be merely the icing on a very tasty cake of a book – or perhaps that should be the slathering of cheese and jalapenos on a fresh, hot serving of Petoskey fries. The part that makes a good thing just that much better.

My favorite of Emily Henry’s books is still Book Lovers, but Funny Story definitely moved into the runner-up slot. I loved that Daphne was a librarian, and she definitely read like “one of us” while her Waning Bay Library read as both realistic and on the good side of places to work – except for the poor salary which was equally realistic – dammit.

I’ve read all of the author’s adult books except for People We Meet on Vacation, which I can feel climbing the virtually towering TBR pile as I type this. It looks like a perfect book to pick up later this summer – when we’re on vacation!

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ RozanThe Murder of Mr. Ma (Dee & Lao, #1) by John Shen Yen Nee, S.J. Rozan
Narrator: Daniel York Loh
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Dee & Lao #1
Pages: 312
Length: 8 hours and 24 minutes
Published by Recorded Books, Soho Crime on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, this stunning, swashbuckling series opener by a powerhouse duo of authors is at once comfortingly familiar and tantalizingly new.
Two unlikely allies race through the cobbled streets of 1920s London in search of a killer targeting Chinese immigrants.
London, 1924. When shy academic Lao She meets larger-than-life Judge Dee Ren Jie, his life abruptly turns from books and lectures to daring chases and narrow escapes. Dee has come to London to investigate the murder of a man he’d known during World War I when serving with the Chinese Labour Corps. No sooner has Dee interviewed the grieving widow than another dead body turns up. Then another. All stabbed to death withg a butterfly sword. Will Dee and Lao be able to connect the threads of the murders—or are they next in line as victims?
John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan’s groundbreaking collaboration blends traditional gong'an crime fiction and the most iconic aspects of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Dee and Lao encounter the aristocracy and the street-child telegraph, churchmen and thieves in this clever, cinematic mystery that’s as thrilling and visual as an action film, as imaginative and transporting as a timeless classic.

My Review:

It can be considered both sad and ironic that Ma Ze Ren had left his native China in pursuit of fortune and adventure among the Chinese Labour Corps in the trenches of World War I, survived, immigrated to London and opened a successful shop dealing in Chinese antiquities – having seemingly attained all that he had originally sought – only to be killed in the midst of his shop by means of one of those self-same antiquities he intended to sell.

When they both served in the Labour Corps, Ma Ze Ren and several of his compatriots had come to an agreement with the man who served as the liaison between the Chinese Labour Corps members and the British officers who used them as cannon fodder, Judge Dee Ren Jie, that Dee would make arrangements to send their bodies back home if the chances of war required such service.

The war may be long over when this story opens in 1924, but that contract still holds Judge Dee, so he has come to London to take care of Ma’s final arrangements. But before he can even begin, Dee is taken up in the midst of a labor riot along with other Chinese men protesting for fair wages and treatment in a city that considers them something less than fully human.

Which is where the chronicler of this tale, scholar and author Lao She, comes into the tale. Dee needs to be out of jail before an enemy realizes that he has this nemesis in his clutches. Bertrand Russell wishes to help his friend Dee without getting his own name attached to this scandalous business.

And Lao She is bored out of his mind – even if he is unwilling to admit it to himself – spending his days teaching Chinese language and literature to students who have no love or care for the language or the people who speak it, merely a desire to get a leg up on their fellows in the commercial opportunities opening up in a modernized China.

Lao is supposed to be clandestinely exchanged for Dee – but Lao gives away the game with every move he makes and every word he’s not supposed to be uttering. So a prison break it is, with Lao, Dee and Russell scattering along with the rest of the prisoners.

But Dee still has a mission, Lao has acquitted himself well in the melee and has acquired a taste for danger and adventure he never realized blazed within him. Reluctant partners, resistant friends, together they will uncover not one but two murder plots in a fascinating tale that takes readers from the homes of the intelligentsia to the alleys of Limehouse – with a stop among the pioneers of the silver screen along the heights and depths of its way – only to arrive frantic and breathless at one of the first principles in any investigation:

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Escape Rating A-: The Murder of Mr. Ma was the highlighted review in the online mystery/crime review newsletter First Clue several months ago, and something about that review caught my attention and held it more than long enough for me to mark the title in Edelweiss as “Highly Anticipated” and immediately grab it when my anticipation was rewarded with the availability of an eARC and later an early audiobook.

(The above is a hint. If you love mysteries, subscribe to First Clue!)

The comparison in many reviews of this book are to Holmes and Watson, particularly the Holmes played by Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie movies – because that particular version of Holmes is considerably more active than most.

As has been confessed before, I am a sucker for a Holmes pastiche, so I would have been interested in this book on that basis alone, but I think that quick comparison sells Dee and Lao and The Murder of Mr. Ma a bit short in this particular instance.

There is a surface resemblance in that Dee is the more active and experienced investigator – with or without resorting to the martial arts – while Lao, like Watson, is the newbie at this particular game and is tasked with creating a record of the adventure rather than necessarily figuring out the solution on his own. And if this combination appeals, Barker & Llewelyn are a bit closer analog than Holmes and Watson in more ways than the initially obvious.

What takes this story up another notch or ten is that both Dee and Lao were real historical figures – who never met due to having lived centuries apart. But Lao was a Chinese scholar in London during this period in real life, while Dee was a figure out of legend whose adventures were popularized by Robert van Gulik in the mid-20th century. (So if you think Dee’s name sounds familiar, that’s most likely the reason.)

Of course, what makes any mystery is the way the case itself is laid out and investigated, and that’s where this one draws the reader in its whirlwind every bit as much as Dee pulls Lao along in his wake. Because at first it seems as if the murder was a result of the prejudice and anti-Chinese sentiment that Dee, Lao and their countrymen face on every side in London in 1924, not helped at all by the popular “Yellow Peril” movies that play on and sensationalize the British fear of “the other”.

But the more Dee and Lao, with the able assistance and frequent succor of Dee’s friend Hoong, search for clues and motives, the less that simple but terrible conclusion feels like the entirety of the answer – not that it doesn’t underlay that answer but it’s just not the whole of the thing. Particularly as that answer is made even more elusive by Lao’s struggles with his pride and his naivete, and Dee’s ongoing attempts to extract himself from his opium addiction.

This is a mystery with layers surrounding layers, wheels within wheels, two investigators neither of whom are having their best day and criminals whose overweening pride finally gets in their way. And it’s marvelous.

The audiobook, narrated by Daniel York Loh,  was a delight, but as is so often the case, I switched to text near the end because I couldn’t figure it out either and I just HAD to know. I have two and only two quibbles with the whole thing. I REALLY wanted Lao to get over his mooning over his landlady’s daughter because it was obvious from the beginning that he was deluding himself about his prospects and almost willfully blind to the obvious. His vain hopes and how thoroughly they were going to be dashed took a lot of audio time. My other quibble – a much bigger one – is that the short story that introduced this fascinating pair “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine does not appear to be available online, and that there’s no second book firmly fixed on the horizon. Dee’s and Lao’s investigations NEED to be a series. So much. So very much.

Which means that I leave this review pleased that Lao finally let himself get hit with the clue-by-four regarding Miss Wendell, and that rumors of a second book leave me with hope on that front as well.

#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik Larson

#AudioBookReview: No One Goes Alone by Erik LarsonNo One Goes Alone by Erik Larson
Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal, suspense
Length: 7 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Random House Audio Publishing Group on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From New York Times best-selling author Erik Larson comes his first venture into fiction, an otherworldly tale of intrigue and the impossible that marshals his trademark approach to nonfiction to create something new: a ghost story thoroughly grounded in history.
Pioneering psychologist William James leads an expedition to a remote isle in search of answers after a family inexplicably vanishes. Was the cause rooted in the physical world...or were there forces more paranormal and sinister at work? Available only on audio, because as Larson says, ghost stories are best told aloud.
A group of researchers sets sail for the Isle of Dorn in the North Atlantic in 1905 to explore the cause of several mysterious disappearances, most notably a family of four who vanished without a trace after a week-long holiday on the island. Led by Professor James, a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research, they begin to explore the island’s sole cottage and surrounding landscape in search of a logical explanation.
The idyllic setting belies an undercurrent of danger and treachery, with raging storms and unnerving discoveries adding to the sense of menace. As increasingly unexplainable events unfold, the now-stranded investigators are unsure whether they can trust their own eyes, their instincts, one another - or even themselves.
Erik Larson has written a terrifying tale of suspense, underpinned with actual people and events. Created specifically to entertain audio listeners, this eerie blend of the ghostly and the real will keep listeners captivated till the blood-chilling end.
Featuring Erik Larson reading his Notes for a Narrator.

My Review:

This is a ghost story. Actually, it’s not, because there’s no ghost. No one has ever reported seeing an actual ghost on spooky, creepy, isolated Dorn Island. Oodles of disappearances and other strange phenomena have been recorded, but there has been a singular lack of actual ghosties in a place that even the Society for Psychical Research has flagged as being haunted.

Maybe it’s the humans who occasionally visit who bring the hauntings with them. After all, they certainly bring enough emotional baggage along to conceal any number of ghosts.

That learned society, however, isn’t interested in mere speculation – although they certainly have plenty of that documented in their archives. The Society is looking for proof, for scientific evidence obtained by scientific methods, that will either prove beyond most shadows of doubt that psychic phenomena – including ghosts – are real, or that they are unequivocally not.

A party of researchers, led by pioneering psychologist William James, embarked for the tiny Island of Dorn off the coast of England in 1905. The reader, or in this case listener, follows along in their wake through the eyes of Julian Frost, an up-and-coming engineer in the British Post Office for his expertise with the new wireless telegraphy pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi. The party and the Society entertain some hopes that the sensitive apparatus that pulls telegraph signals from thin air might also manage to record psychic emanations the same way.

As we listen to Frost reading his diary long after the events chronicled within have come to their eerie, deadly, fever dream of a conclusion, we’re right there with this eccentric and increasingly fractious group of confirmed skeptics, reluctant believers, and as it turns out, unwitting experimental subjects and eventual signers of the Official Secrets Act regarding the tale that Frost is telling us much, much later – even though he knows he shouldn’t be revealing anything at all.

Whether this story tells a truth still behind lock and key, or is merely the fevered imaginings of a young man thwarted in love by not one but two beautiful women while the rest of the company looks on and laughs at his frequent humiliation is a question that will haunt the reader long after Frost’s furtive account has come to its surprising end.

Escape Rating B: I need to get this part out of the way because it’s the thing that drove me utterly BANANAS while I was listening to this story. No One Goes Alone was an audio original when it was published three years ago, because the author believes that ghost stories are best when told rather than read. YMMV may vary on that.

Howsomever, it’s been three years. I confess that I fully expected that at some point in those intervening years a text would have been published. My expectation was in error. There is no text. Still. Hence the bananas.

When I began the story, I was sucked right in and couldn’t wait to find out not just whodunnit but how and why it was done. The dramatic tension began on a very low simmer but kept building bit by bit as the water got hotter – so to speak – and an entire, literal rain of frogs started to overheat.

BUUUUT, there’s no text. So I couldn’t just read it quickly – it’s not that long even in audio – and I absolutely could not thumb to the end to get my curiosity assuaged. I got VERY frustrated with the whole thing but I HAD to know. (Now that I do know, I know that if I had flipped to the end it wouldn’t have made sense – but even that would have been informative in its way.)

Which doesn’t mean that I had to enjoy every scrap of that journey towards that knowing.

The story of No One Goes Alone is a very slow-building story, both because of the ponderousness of the early 20th century manners of polite speech and because it’s a story mostly told rather than shown, possibly because of the nature of the way it is told, through the reading of a diary rather than as it is happening before the diary writer’s eyes.

Also, while the narrator did a good job mimicking those slow speech patterns and differentiating between the members of this mixed party, American and British, male and female, young and middle-aged, the narration itself was a bit ponderous. To the point where, even though I normally listen to audiobooks specifically FOR the voice acting, this was a rare audiobook that worked better at 1.1x speed.

At first, the story had a bit of the flavor of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even though the cast of characters didn’t have anything like the right mix of seething resentments and hatreds to make that plot work without an outside force.

When the penny finally dropped, I realized what this story reminded me of very much was the Ishmael Jones series by Simon R. Green – hence yesterday’s review. Obviously not in the tone of the characters, as Green’s snark would not have played well or fit AT ALL coming from Julian Frost’s pen, but rather in the way that the story worked and the way that the ending came out of a deep left field that subverts the haunted house genre, pulls in elements that are totally unexpected, and does its damndest to make the story part of something bigger, more horrific and considerably more complicated all the way around.

In the Ishmael Jones series, that sharp turn into the even weirder works because the premise of the entire series comes out of that weird – that Jones is an alien masquerading as human and therefore has some superhuman talents and outside of the box enemies.

In No One Goes Alone, this claustrophobic haunted house story is connected instead to a greater, but more amorphous and less defined evil in a way that I’m not sure worked – at least not for this reader – leaving the conclusion to the story plenty chilling but not nearly as cathartic or as much of a resolution as I expected.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

#AudioBookReview: A Midnight Puzzle by Gigi Pandian

#AudioBookReview: A Midnight Puzzle by Gigi PandianA Midnight Puzzle (Secret Staircase Mystery, #3) by Gigi Pandian
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Libro.fm, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase Mystery #3
Pages: 342
Length: 10 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Minotaur Books on March 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In heroine Tempest Raj, modern-day queen of the locked room mystery Gigi Pandian has created a brilliant homage to the greats of classic detective fiction. Secret Staircase Construction is under attack, and Tempest Raj feels helpless. After former client Julian Rhodes tried to kill his wife, he blamed her "accident" on the home renovation company’s craftsmanship. Now the family business—known for bringing magic into homes through hidden doors, floating staircases, and architectural puzzle walls—is at a breaking point. No amount of Scottish and Indian meals from her grandfather can distract Tempest from the truth: they’re being framed.
When Tempest receives an urgent midnight phone call from Julian, she decides to meet him at the historic Whispering Creek Theater—only to find his dead body, a sword through his chest. After a blade appears from thin air to claim another victim, Tempest is certain they’re dealing with a booby trap… something Secret Staircase Construction could easily build. Tempest refuses to wait for the investigation to turn to her or her loved ones. She knows the pieces of the puzzle are right in front of her, she just has to put them together correctly before more disaster strikes.
Multiple award-winning author Gigi Pandian and her heroine Tempest Raj return in A Midnight Puzzle, where an old theater reveals a deadly booby trap, secrets, and one puzzle of a mystery.

My Review:

A Midnight Puzzle is all about the Raj Family Curse – and the sin of hubris that allows it to last so long and makes it so damn difficult to put to rest.

After her adventures – and misadventures – in the first two books in the Secret Staircase Mystery series, Under Lock and Skeleton Key and The Raven Thief, stage illusionist turned construction illusionist Tempest Raj believes that she is on the verge of solving the mystery that has cast a shadow over her family and her life for the past decade – if not considerably longer.

Long, long ago, the Raj family were illusionists and court magicians in their native India. Way back then, it was believed that a curse had been laid on the family – or the family business. It was said that the Raj family’s firstborn child in each generation would “die by magic”. Of course, over the centuries, it did happen sometimes. Just enough to keep the curse – or the belief in it – going for another century or so.

Tempest’s beloved grandfather Ash is the second child of his generation, because his older brother died “by magic”. Ash left India for Scotland and its renowned medical colleges, married a local artist and never looked back. Or at least tried very hard not to.

But the magic skipped a generation as well as a continent. Ash’s daughters, Elspeth and Emma, became stage illusionists as “The Selkie Sisters” until an accident and an argument broke their trust in each other. Working alone, Elspeth, the older of the two, did indeed “die by magic”, keeping the talk of the curse alive for another generation.

However, Emma died by magic as well – or at least disappeared in the middle of her own magic show, on the boards – or at least in the wings – of their hometown’s Whispering Creek Theater ten years ago.

Tempest has rented the haunted and haunting little theater in order to stage one final performance, a one night “Farewell” to her own ill-starred career as a stage illusionist. Of course, being in temporary possession of the place her mother vanished, Tempest is also determined to comb the theater for clues.

At least until disaster strikes – from without and from within. But in solving the current mystery, Tempest may have the opportunity she needs to lay that old mystery to rest. If her family’s construction company, Secret Staircase Construction, can survive just one more public disaster.

And if Tempest and her ‘Scooby gang’ can manage to unmask a killer before their curse sweeps Tempest AND her friends into yet another example of the Raj Family curse.

Escape Rating B: I have to admit that I went into this third entry in the series with a bit of trepidation after the muddle of The Raven Thief. Particularly as A Midnight Puzzle opened with Tempest, her family and the construction company being in the midst of what seemed like rather pointedly aimed chaos on all fronts – only because it was.

(I started this one in audio, as I figured it would get me over the hump of those trepidations. And it did. I switched to text once it got going because there were so many potential clues and delicious red herrings that I needed to find out who actually ‘dunnit’ FASTER.)

But at the beginning I was still a bit stuck in thinking this series was inflicted with Cabot Cove Syndrome, or perhaps Midsommer-itis. By which I mean that all of the mysteries so far have been a bit too intimate and her family and their business have been much too personally involved – not as the investigators, or even as the direct victims – but as the suspects.

No one’s luck is THAT bad. Unless, of course, they really are cursed.

Which means that I was very pleased to see the mystery of the Raj Family Curse – at least in its modern iteration – laid to rest at the end of A Midnight Puzzle, along with a promise of more mysteries but somewhat less personal ones in future entries in the series.

But first, there’s the mystery in THIS outing. Or rather, the two mysteries that are both squarely aimed at the Raj Family.

What makes this story work better than The Raven Thief is that the story keeps its eyes – and Tempest’s – on the prize of solving the mystery of her mother’s disappearance – no matter how many distractions and misdirections get thrown in Tempest’s way.

And no matter how much the police seem to be bungling their investigation into the deadliest of those distractions.

As much and as often as Tempest is tempted (and so is the reader!) to hare off after the many distractions and misdirections, in the end A Midnight Puzzle is a very satisfying wrap up to what looks to be the opening setup trilogy for this series. And the way that the whole thing was strung out over three books feels like it was the right length after all, because this mystery has been decades in the making, so it’s only fitting that it take a year or more to wrap up in a way that leads back around to a beginning that Tempest barely knew about, as well as a reminder that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

But Tempest is not the one who falls, even though the resulting thud breaks her heart, and it clears the way for new, and hopefully less personal mysteries and adventures. I’m looking forward to see what Tempest stirs up next.

Review: Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah BakerUnder the Smokestrewn Sky (The Up-and-Under, #4) by A. Deborah Baker
Narrator: Heath Miller
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #4
Pages: 195
Length: 4 hours and 48 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on October 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The end of the improbable road.
Since stumbling from their world into the Up-and-Under, Avery and Zib have walked the improbable road across forests, seas, and skies, finding friends in the unlikeliest of places and enemies great in number, as they make their way toward the Impossible City in the hope of finding their way home.
But the final part of their journey is filled with danger and demise. Not everyone will make it through unscathed. Not everyone will make it through alive.
The final part of the enchanting Up and Under quartet reminds us of the value of friendship and the price one sometimes pays for straying from the path. No one’s safety can be guaranteed under the smokestrewn sky.

My Review:

We have come, at last, to the final chapter of Zib and Avery’s journey into and hopefully through the Up-and-Under. It’s a journey that has taken them from their ordinary and mundane homes – even if Zib’s and Avery’s definitions of ordinary and mundane are entirely opposite to one another – and sent them along the Improbable Road on an equally improbable journey through every single one of the elemental kingdoms in the Up-and-Under.

They’ve picked up friends along the way. And, even if they haven’t changed physically along their way, they’ve certainly changed quite a bit on the inside – just as they’ve changed the lands they pass through on the outside.

Even though, as their quest winds closer to its end, this particular part of their journey sees Avery backsliding rather a lot into the boy he was at the beginning. A boy who couldn’t quite wrap his logical and orderly mind around the immutable fact that the Up-and-Under was entirely mutable from beginning to end, that things absolutely did not work there the way they did back home in America. And that the way things did work in the Up-and-Under might not be what HE was used to, but just because things were done differently did not mean things were wrong or ridiculous.

It’s Avery’s bit of stubborn backsliding that pushes the story off the Improbable Road and into their very last set of adventures in the Up-and-Under. Adventures that will have a much bigger impact than any of them imagined when they began.

Because for every great change there are great consequences, and the time has come for someone to pay them. Whether or not anyone wins this last throw of the dice, someone is going to have to lose.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve enjoyed Zib and Avery’s journey through the Up-and-Under, so as a treat for this final entry in the series I decided to try it in audio. I still loved their story, but the audio wasn’t quite as much of a treat as I was hoping it would be.

The voice actor was terrific at differentiating the characters’ voices, but one of those characters is the voice of the narrator who is telling the story to us as the audience. Because of the nature of the series, that its protagonists are predominantly young adults or not quite that old the storyteller character took on an arch tone that arched so very high that it arced all the way over into condescension – which led me to switch to text at the halfway point. I liked the storyteller’s voice a LOT better inside my own head.

However, whether in text or in audio, Under the Smokestrewn Sky is the story that brings the journey through the Up-and-Under to its ending, and it’s a story full of surprises and costs and consequences – as it should be.

No matter the age of the protagonists, this has been the story of an epic fantasy quest that combines bits of Narnia with elements of Wonderland. Zib and Avery have been brought to the Up-and-Under to fix what’s gone wrong there, while for Zib and Avery the quest is to find their way home. It’s not going to end in a big battle between good and evil, because those concepts aren’t exactly the same in the Up-an-Under as they are back home. Instead, it’s a quest to put the out-of-balance back into balance – even if some of what they see looks like evil to Zib and Avery’s – especially Avery’s – eyes.

And, even though Zib and Avery are still children, this has been an adult journey which has to carry adult consequences for someone. A someone who might be either Avery or Zib – even if that doesn’t feel fair. Because part of the lesson Avery has to learn is that fairness doesn’t enter into the big answers to the big questions nearly as often as his life so far has led him to believe that it should.

Readers who started at the beginning of this journey in Over the Woodward Wall will probably not be surprised at how all the big questions that were asked at the beginning of the story get answered at its end. But following Zib’s and Avery’s journey to get there has been fantastic!

Review: Kinauvit?: What’s Your Name? by Norma Dunning

Review: Kinauvit?: What’s Your Name? by Norma DunningKinauvit?: What's Your Name? The Eskimo Disc System and a Daughter's Search for her Grandmother by Norma Dunning
Narrator: Norma Dunning
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Canadian history, history, memoir
Pages: 184
Length: 6 hours and 4 minutes
on August 1, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
Goodreads

From the winner of the 2021 Governor General's Award for literature, a revelatory look into an obscured piece of Canadian history: what was then called the Eskimo Identification Tag System
In 2001, Dr. Norma Dunning applied to the Nunavut Beneficiary program, requesting enrolment to legally solidify her existence as an Inuk woman. But in the process, she was faced with a question she could not answer, tied to a colonial institution retired decades ago: "What was your disc number?"
Still haunted by this question years later, Dunning took it upon herself to reach out to Inuit community members who experienced the Eskimo Identification Tag System first-hand, providing vital perspective and nuance to the scant records available on the subject. Written with incisive detail and passion, Dunning provides readers with a comprehensive look into a bureaucracy sustained by the Canadian government for over thirty years, neglected by history books but with lasting echoes revealed in Dunning's intimate interviews with affected community members. Not one government has taken responsibility or apologized for the E-number system to date -- a symbol of the blatant dehumanizing treatment of the smallest Indigenous population in Canada.
A necessary and timely offering, Kinauvit? provides a critical record and response to a significant piece of Canadian history, collecting years of research, interviews and personal stories from an important voice in Canadian literature.

My Review:

The title of this book is a question, because that’s how this author’s journey began. While it begins as a reclamation of identity, what that attempt leads to is a search for it – or at least, and with full irony as becomes apparent during the telling – a search for a very specific piece of government documentation that was intended, not to confirm but rather to deny the lived essence of an identity it was designed to repress if not, outright, erase.

That search for proof of her mother’s, and as a result her own, Inuit heritage led the author, not just to a multi-year search but also to a second act career in academia, exposing the origins and the abuses – whether committed out of governmental malice or idiocy – of a system that may have been claimed to be a system for identifying the Inuit population, but was truly intended to colonize them, divide them, and ultimately erase the beliefs and practices that made them who they were.

So on the one hand, this is a very personal story. The author had learned only in adulthood that she was, herself, Inuit. It’s a truth that her own mother refused to talk about as long as she lived. But when Dunning decided to apply for enrolment in the Nunavut Beneficiary program, she opened up the proverbial can of worms, discovering long-buried secrets that had overshadowed her mother’s life and the lives of all Inuit of her mother’s generation and the one before it. A history that was as poorly documented as her mother’s life and identity.

It’s a journey that began with a hope, middled with a question that turned into an obsession – even after that hope was answered – and led to the author’s search for a history that was long-denied but that needed to be brought into the light.

Reality Rating C: Kinauvit? is a combination of a personal search for identity with the intricacies of searching in records that were an afterthought for the government that recorded them, administered them and was, at least in theory, supposed to serve the people those records concerned but that the government obviously didn’t understand a whit. But the story of that personal search is mixed, but not terribly well blended, with a scholarly paper about the history of the Canadian government’s treatment and suppression of the Inuit peoples over whom the government believed it held sovereignty.

The two narratives, the author’s personal search and the scholarly paper that resulted from it (her Master’s thesis for the University of Alberta) both have important stories to tell, and either had the possibility of carrying this book. The issue is that the two purposes don’t blend together, but rather march along side-by-side uncomfortably and unharmoniously as they are entirely different in structure and tone to the point where they don’t reinforce each other’s message the way that they should – or was mostly likely intended that they should.

This book contains just the kind of hidden history that cries out to be revealed. But this attempt to wrap the personal journey around the academic paper results in a book that doesn’t quite work for either of its prospective audiences.

I listened to Kinauvit? in audio, which generally works well for me for first-person narratives, which this looked like it would be. Also, sometimes an excellent reader can carry a book over any rough patches in its text, especially for a work with a compelling story or an important topic that I have a strong desire to see revealed. Kinauvit? as an audiobook had both of the latter, a search that was compelling, combined with a deep dive into historical archives which is absolutely my jam, resulting in a true story of government neglect and outright stupidity.

But it is very, very rare that authors turn out to be good readers for their work unless they have some kind of performance experience. In all of the audiobooks I have ever listened to over the past three decades, I can only think of one exception to serve as an exception.

In this particular case, the author recites the book as though she was delivering the academic paper that forms the core of the book. But this publication of the work was not intended to BE an academic paper. The audience for this work would be better served with a narrator who is able to ‘voice’ the book, to use a narrative style imbued with the flow and the cadences of a storyteller.

The dry recitation that I listened to blunted the impact of the personal side of the story while the inclusion of the words “Footnote 1”, “Footnote 2”, etc., when one of the many, many footnotes occurred in the text was jarring to the point that it broke this reader out of the book completely. That the footnotes themselves consisted of the simple reference to the place in the source material from which the quote was drawn added nothing to the narrative but made its origin as a scholarly paper all too apparent.

In the end, this book left me torn. I wanted to love it. I was fascinated by its premise, and remain so. It’s important history and not just Canadian history. The truths that the author uncovered deserve a wider audience and more official recognition than has been achieved to date. But this vehicle for telling those truths doesn’t do them justice, even though justice is exactly what is needed.

Review: Wild Spaces by S.L. Coney

Review: Wild Spaces by S.L. ConeyWild Spaces by S.L. Coney
Narrator: Nick Mondelli
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, horror
Pages: 122
Length: 2 hours and 28 minutes
Published by Dreamscape Media, Tordotcom on August 1, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life meets H. P. Lovecraft in Wild Spaces, a foreboding, sensual coming-of-age debut in which the corrosive nature of family secrets and toxic relatives assume eldritch proportions.
An eleven-year-old boy lives an idyllic childhood exploring the remote coastal plains and wetlands of South Carolina alongside his parents and his dog Teach. But when the boy’s eerie and estranged grandfather shows up one day with no warning, cracks begin to form as hidden secrets resurface that his parents refuse to explain.
The longer his grandfather outstays his welcome and the greater the tension between the adults grows, the more the boy feels something within him changing —physically—into something his grandfather welcomes and his mother fears. Something abyssal. Something monstrous.

My Review:

Wild Spaces is the story of one boy’s coming of age. It’s the story of a summer that sharply divides a young man’s life between ‘BEFORE’ and ‘AFTER’. And it’s the story of something straight out of Lovecraft Country oozing its destructive way out of a cave on the coastal plains of South Carolina to wreak havoc on that boy and everyone and everything he holds dear.

On its surface, on the surface of the murky water that hides a monster, this is the story about the summer the boy’s grandfather came and outstayed his welcome. It’s about the summer that destroyed the family’s idyll and particularly the boy’s idyllic childhood.

It’s obvious to everyone, the boy, his parents and even his dog, that there’s something not right about his grandfather and this visit. In this summer of his 12th birthday, the boy is aware enough of his family’s dynamic to see that the advent of his grandfather is destroying them from the inside, fractured peace by broken piece.

The boy trusts his parents to fix things – as adults are supposed to do – as they’ve always done. But they don’t. And he can’t. He can’t even articulate what’s wrong, even though he knows the old man has broken something important within them all.

And then it’s too late.

Escape Rating B: Wild Spaces is a story about creeping dread creeping creepily along until it overwhelms the story, the family at its center, the soul of the boy at its heart and the life of the dog at his.

The dog, Teach, who may be the hero of this story because he’s the only character referred to by name, dies at the end, so take this as a trigger warning. Even more triggery, the first time the boy thinks his dog is dead, he isn’t, which makes the point where the dog really does die just that much more devastating at a point where the entire story has become a howl of devastation.

For a story that isn’t normally in my wheelhouse, I ended up with a whole lot of thoughts about the whole thing – sometimes as I was listening to it with no good way to write stuff down.

The narrator did an excellent job of adding to the creeping creepiness because his reading was in what felt like what would be the boy’s slight drawl of cadence. This was, on the one hand, perfect for the story and for being inside the boy’s head, and on the other, it drove me bonkers because I wanted things to happen faster – which leads to this being one of the few audiobooks where I raised the narration speed a bit.

I wanted things to go faster because it was obvious what was coming. That creeping horror is part of the story, it’s supposed to work that way, but I had reached the point where I was shouting at the adult characters to wake the eff up and stop effing up and get the old man out because it was obvious that he was bent on destroying them. And even worse, that they knew it and weren’t doing anything about it – because family.

The old man didn’t have to become a sea monster – which he does – because he is already a monster in human form and would have been a monster if he hadn’t transformed. It was also super obvious that he was trying to groom his grandson to become a monster just like him. Which could have been true and horror-filled horror with or without the actual transformation.

Which leads me straight to the boy transforming into the monster his heredity has doomed him to be. Which still could have been a metaphor for puberty, and going from last week’s Shark Heart, where a man turns into a Great white shark straight to this book, where a boy in the throes of puberty turns into a monster straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos (don’t all teenagers turn just a bit into monsters as puberty ravages them?) was a segue I just wasn’t expecting.

So if you’re in the mood for a short coming-of-age story that will drive you crazy and scare the crap out of you in a slow creeping kind of way, this might be your jam. I was more than interested enough to finish it – and I’m still thinking about it because damn! – but it’ll be awhile before I pick something like this up again. Not because this wasn’t good as what it was, but because it confirmed for me yet again that it just isn’t my reading wheelhouse.

Review: Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

Review: Thornhedge by T. KingfisherThornhedge by T. Kingfisher
Narrator: Jennifer Blom
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Pages: 128
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Tor Books on August 15, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge is an original, subversive fairytale about a kind-hearted, toad-shaped heroine, a gentle knight, and a mission gone completely sideways.
There’s a princess trapped in a tower. This isn't her story.
Meet Toadling. On the day of her birth, she was stolen from her family by the fairies, but she grew up safe and loved in the warm waters of faerieland. Once an adult though, the fae ask a favor of Toadling: return to the human world and offer a blessing of protection to a newborn child. Simple, right?
If only.
Centuries later, a knight approaches a towering wall of brambles, where the thorns are as thick as your arm and as sharp as swords. He’s heard there’s a curse here that needs breaking, but it’s a curse Toadling will do anything to uphold…

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who was cursed by an evil fairy godmother to prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and sleep for a century – along with everyone else who inhabits that castle. This isn’t that story. That’s the story that was made from this one, when the truth needed to be spindled in order to make the story fit a more conventional mold.

Because in all the stories, evil is supposed to be ugly and anyone beautiful must be good. Which is what makes it a story, because in truth, evil often wears a very pretty face – all the better to hide the rot within. But that’s not the way the story is supposed to go – so it didn’t.

The truth, or at least this version of the truth – is considerably different – as the truth generally is.

Toadling has watched seasons change and years pass beyond counting, guarding the thornhedge that surrounds the darkling woods that encase the decaying castle where the beautiful princess sleeps a troubled, enchanted sleep. Once upon a time, Toadling was human. Once upon a time, she might have been that princess.

Once upon a time, she made a terrible mistake that put her exactly where she is, standing guard, doing her sometimes human, sometimes toad-like best to perform her self-imposed duty of keeping the princess safe – and keeping everyone else safe from the princess.

Just as Toadling is almost, almost sure that all knowledge of the lost princess and the crumbling tower has slipping out of time and mind of the rest of the world, her sanctuary is invaded in the kindliest and most annoyingly frustrating – at least for Toadling – way possible. The knight Halim has a burning need to solve the mystery. If there’s a princess imprisoned in the crumbling castle, he’ll certainly rescue her – after all, he is a knight – if not either a very good or very successful one. But his primary motivation isn’t the princess, it’s solving the puzzle.

Which, in the end, he does. Just not the way that Toadling feared. Or even worse, hoped.

Escape Rating A: Thornhedge is a fractured fairy tale. In fact, Thornhedge and A Spindle Splintered are fractured versions of the same fairy tale, that of Sleeping Beauty. But they have been fractured along very different fault lines.

It’s because they start with different questions. A Spindle Splintered asked whether there were ways for Sleeping Beauty to escape her destiny, and what would happen if she tried, and then proceeded to play out those variations across the multiverse.

Thornhedge goes back to the beginning of the story and asks a fundamental question about why it was necessary for the princess to be ensconced in that castle so thoroughly in the first place. The answer to that question sets the fairy tale entirely on its head but also makes the story considerably more interesting.

Instead of a ‘fridged’ heroine who gets top billing but does nothing to earn it, we get a lovely story about friendship and duty and guilt and spending a lifetime making up for someone else’s mistakes and cleaning up after someone else’s messes and finally, finally participating in your own rescue.

Because this isn’t really the Sleeping Beauty story at all, but in a totally different way than Sleeping Beauty wasn’t actually Sleeping Beauty’s own story.

Instead it’s a story about friendship and guilt and learning to be – not who you are supposed to be, but who you really are. That the lesson turns out to be just as much for Halim the Knight as it is for Toadling the fairy is just the teeniest, tiny part of what makes Thornhedge such a lovely read.

Or in my case, reread. I read this for a Library Journal review a few months back, and loved it as I do all of T. Kingfisher’s work, but not quite as much as I did Nettle & Bone. Listening to it now brought all the best parts back – particularly the perspective of the princess turned Toadling in her frustration, her longing, and her utterly justified anger at everything that brought her to this pass. Including herself.

The way in which she rescues herself, and Halim, and finally gets the future she wants now and the home she wants later, was beautiful. As is Toadling, even if neither the reader nor Halim notice it at first. Because this is Toadling’s story, and she’s the heroine, and heroines are supposed to be beautiful. So she is, and so is her story.