I read Maddalena’s excellent review of this one at Space and Sorcery – and immediately nipped across and got hold of a copy. I really love the premise as I’m always a sucker for a good whodunit in an unusual setting.
BLURB: North America was never colonized. The United States and Canada don’t exist. The Great Lakes are surrounded by an independent Ojibwe nation. And in the village of Baawitigong, a Peacekeeper confronts his devastating past.
Twenty years ago to the day, Chibenashi’s mother was murdered and his father confessed. Ever since, caring for his still-traumatized younger sister has been Chibenashi’s privilege and penance. Now, on the same night of the Manoomin harvest, another woman is slain. His mother’s best friend. This leads to a seemingly impossible connection that takes Chibenashi far from the only world he’s ever known. The major city of Shikaakwa is home to the victim’s cruelly estranged family—and to two people Chibenashi never wanted to see again: his imprisoned father and the lover who broke his heart. As the questions mount, the answers will change his and his sister’s lives forever. Because Chibenashi is about to discover that everything about their lives has been a lie.
REVIEW: Yes… I do enjoy well-constructed thrillers, yes… I do appreciate complicated protagonists with a whole suite of luggage that skews their attitude towards the world. But for me, the highlight of this book – what makes it memorable and really stand out – is the setting. This is an alternate world, where the likes of Columbus and the hungry tide of conquistadors never landed on the shores of the Americas, so the indigenous people had the opportunity to develop on their own terms, with their own cultures largely intact. And while the inhabitants of the small village where the crimes occur still live in wigwams, this is a contemporary setting, so there are also mobile phones and high-speed trains. However, there is also a regard for the natural world that is woven alongside everyday life and I am delighted that Blanchard gives examples of how that works. I’d LOVE someone to make a film of this book – the twisty plot and anguished protagonist would work well on the big screen, but overwhelmingly, I think seeing Blanchard’s evocation of how modern life could work alongside Nature would be marvellous.
Getting back to the book, I did find it initially something of a challenge. Chibenashi, the main protagonist, isn’t someone I found easy to like – although learning of the terrible events that have destabilised his life did have me warming to him. Necessarily, the pacing at the start is a bit slow as the world also needs a lot of description. That said, I was never tempted to DNF it as the worldbuilding held me throughout.
Watching Chibenashi struggling to cope was also interesting – he isn’t a classic hero by any means and makes some really dodgy decisions – one in particular had me shaking my head at the time. I had guessed the murderer about two-thirds of the way through, but this time around that didn’t bother me all that much. In the event, the denouement was still shocking especially as the fallout was a bit heart-wrenching and messy, contributing towards making this one a very memorable read. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series to find out where it goes next. Highly recommended for fans of murder mysteries with unusual settings. 8/10
This is my fortnightly update on how I’m doing while coping with Long Covid now it’s been 10 months since I first got ill, which I’m adding to my Sunday Post blog, hosted by Kimberly at Caffeinated Reviewer.
I had hoped to continue to feel better after the uptick in my energy levels once I recovered from my cold at the beginning of January. But last week, it was a struggle to get out of bed before the middle of the afternoon and by the time I’d showered and dressed, it was often getting dark again. While I’m aware it’s important to get outside in the fresh air and whatever sunshine – there didn’t seem much point shuffling around the block in the frigid gloom of a mid-winter late afternoon. So I didn’t bother – for one thing, I can’t move fast enough to get the blood moving to combat the cold, so it’s an exercise in misery.
However this week, I woke up on Monday feeling hugely better. And so far, on Sunday, I’m still feeling better. Though I’m taking it cautiously. I still am dealing with the ongoing nasal drip, which I’m heartily sick of – both the disgusting taste and the resulting tinnitus. And my neck is still very swollen and tender, making it painful to turn my head quickly. But my energy levels, both physical and mental, are much improved. When I saw the Dr last week, he was very reassuring. My liver and kidney functions are normal and while my thyroid is swollen and has a number of nodules, which he thinks is a result of covid, it is also functioning normally. I’m due to have another scan in March to monitor any further changes. But I still don’t manage to get up much before midday and I still struggle to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, even if I go to bed at the right time. Thank goodness for books – if I wasn’t able to put the light on and read in the wee small hours, Life would be a whole lot more challenging.
On the bright side, our car has now been fixed after the minor accident when someone swung into the passenger door – and their insurance accepted the liability. And our grandson came to stay again from Tuesday through to Friday. Having him in the house, travelling back and forth to college on the train, with his bubbling enthusiasm for his college course is a real tonic. So I’m delighted that his staying with us is going to become a regular fortnightly event. Now he is 17, I’m not worried about having to look after him if I’m too ill to get out of bed and he is happy to help around the house.
This week I’ve read:- The Red King – Book 1 of the Wilde Justice series by Jenn Stark As the first Justice of the Arcana Council in two hundred years, Tarot-reading Sara Wilde is tasked with taking out the most dangerous magic-wielding criminals on the planet. Her first assignment? A killer known only as the Red King, who’s systematically picking off the world’s most gifted magicians in the rollicking streets and storied canals of Venice, Italy, on the eve of Carnevale.
Amidst the festival’s music, masks, and brightly colored costumes, Sara must unravel the truth about a brutal murderer from Venice’s own murky past, navigate the twisting political currents of magicians who seek to rival her own Council, and keep one costume change ahead of a conjurer whose lethal spells could end Justice–permanently. Good thing the diabolically sexy and deeply powerful Magician of the Arcana Council has Sara’s back…if only he didn’t hold so much of her heart as well. This was a gripping read – and it didn’t hurt that Stark’s vivid evocation of Venice reminded me of a wonderful family holiday in what seems another life. Sara is a sympathetic protagonist, there were plenty of plot twists that kept the pages turning and I’m delighted to discover there are plenty of books in this spinoff series. 9/10
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld In 1971, Hillary Rodham is a young woman full of promise: Life magazine has covered her Wellesley commencement speech, she’s attending Yale Law School, and she’s on the forefront of student activism and the women’s rights movement. And then she meets Bill Clinton. A handsome, charismatic southerner and fellow law student, Bill is already planning his political career. In each other, the two find a profound intellectual, emotional, and physical connection that neither has previously experienced. In the real world, Hillary followed Bill back to Arkansas, and he proposed several times; although she said no more than once, as we all know, she eventually accepted and became Hillary Clinton.
But in Curtis Sittenfeld’s powerfully imagined tour-de-force of fiction, Hillary takes a different road. Feeling doubt about the prospective marriage, she endures their devastating breakup and leaves Arkansas. Over the next four decades, she blazes her own trail—one that unfolds in public as well as in private, that involves crossing paths again (and again) with Bill Clinton, that raises questions about the tradeoffs all of us must make in building a life.
Brilliantly weaving a riveting fictional tale into actual historical events, Curtis Sittenfeld delivers an uncannily astute and witty story for our times. In exploring the loneliness, moral ambivalence, and iron determination that characterize the quest for political power, as well as both the exhilaration and painful compromises demanded of female ambition in a world still run mostly by men, Rodham is a singular and unforgettable novel. I’ve included the complete very wordy blurb as it does a good job of setting out the narrative imperative behind this intriguing book. While I’m notcompletely familiar with the political landscape of the time, Sittenfeld has done a thorough job of depicting it. But what I think is masterly is her evocation of the unthinking sexism and racism running throughout the spheres of influence that not just impacts Hillary, but other women around her. I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since I finished reading this one, and the main reason why it hasn’t garnered a 10 from me is the unevenness of the pacing in places. 9/10
Immortal in Death – Book 3 of the In Death series by J.D. Robb When Police Lieutenant Eve Dallas investigates the murder of a top model, she is putting her career on the line, because the prime suspect is her best friend. Eve’s investigations lead her into the glamorous world of high fashion.
Himself has bought all these books, so I’m starting to work my way through them. Set in the near future, the writing is pacy with plenty of romance as Norah Roberts in the guise of J.D. Robb serves up a number of brutal murders for our feisty protagonist to contend with. 8/10
AUDIOBOOK – Kingdoms at War – Book 1 of the Dragon Gate series by Lindsay Buroker For centuries, wizard kings have ruled the world from their elite sky cities, battling each other to add to their wealth and power, while using normal human beings as pawns. Those without magic struggle to feed their families and live in constant fear of bringing down the wrath of their tyrannical masters. Something must change.
As a cartography student, Jak has always dreamed of finding the lost dragon gate and exploring and mapping distant worlds. Developing magical powers and becoming a powerful wizard? Not a chance. Wizards are cruel and inhumane, warring with each other from their great sky cities and keeping most of humanity enslaved. Jak wants nothing to do with them. But when he and his archaeologist mother unearth the gate, they attract the attention of the very wizards they sought to avoid. Even more troubling, Jak starts developing magical powers of his own, powers that could rival those of the great rulers. Fate may have given him the opportunity to change the world. But the wizard rulers don’t like change, and when they detect threats, they send their elite assassins to eliminate them. And if the above blurb sounds like an intriguing situation – you’re absolutely right. I love Buroker’s vivid, three-dimensional worlds. Her settings are always detailed and politically sophisticated and once again, I’ve lost my heart to the main protagonists, Jak and his clever, studious mother. I’m thrilled to discover yet another gripping series by this accomplished author to dive into – Buroker has been one of my major lifelines during my illness! 9/10
The Cruel Stars – Book 1 of The Cruel Stars trilogy by John Birmingham The galaxy was once terrorized by the Sturm, a group of “species purists” intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. Fashioning themselves as the one true “Human Republic,” the Sturm cut a bloody swath across the stars, killing billions before finally being defeated and driven into the far reaches of Dark Space. Centuries of peace bred complacency. Everyone believed the Sturm had died out in the Dark. They were wrong.
The enemy has returned and, with a brutal and decisive attack, knocks out almost all of humanity’s defenses. Now on the brink of annihilation, humankind’s only hope is a few brave souls who survived the initial attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy, thrust into uncertain command of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship. Booker3, a soldier of Earth, sentenced to die for treason, whose time on death row is cut short when the Sturm attack his prison compound. Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation, forced to flee when her home planet is overrun and her entire family executed. Sephina L’trel, the leader of an outlaw band who must call on all of her criminal skills to resist the invasion. And, finally, Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm hundreds of years ago, who hopes to rout his old foes once and for all—or die trying. This military space opera adventure is full of action and conflict, as well as a number of punchy, well-written protagonists. One of the best written is the terrified child caught up in the middle of a waking nightmare by dint of her birth – Birmingham’s depiction of Alessia is one of the highlights in this enjoyable book. 8/10
Baking Bad – Book 1 of the Beaufort Scales Mysteries by Kim M. Watt A tranquil village. A poisoned cupcake. A murdered vicar. A simple case – or it should be. But all clues point to the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, and Detective Inspector Adams is about to discover there’s much more to the W.I. than bake sales and jam making.
Alice Martin, RAF Wing Commander (Ret.), and current chair of the W.I., knows the ladies of the Women’s Institute are not guilty. But she has a bigger problem. Toot Hansell has a dragonish secret, and she needs to keep the police well away from it. And she’d really rather not be arrested for murder. Again. Meanwhile, Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons and survivor of the days of knights and dragon hunts, knows even better than Alice that the modern dragon only survives as long as no one knows they exist. But he also knows friends don’t let friends face murder inquiries alone. Beaufort fully intends to Get Involved. This investigation is about to take on dragonish proportions. A cosy murder mystery set in a small English village, accompanied by quantities of tea, cake and dragons… This one sounds almost to be too good to be true. So I was delighted to discover that as well as being genuinely funny with a cast of enjoyable, believable characters – the dragons are also intriguingly different from the general run of scaly monsters we’re used to seeing in our fiction. I will definitely be reading more of this series. 9/10
The Shattered Skies – Book 2 of The Cruel Stars trilogy by John Birmingham The Sturm, a group of “species purists” intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements, returned from the far reaches of Dark Space to strike a devastating blow against humanity. Though their victory seemed inevitable, a small group of reluctant heroes managed to beat back the invading force. Now left with the remains of a crippled civilization, they must work together to rebuild–and to stand guard, in case those weren’t the only enemies hiding in the dark…
This Netgalley arc is the second book in this military space opera adventure. Once again our plucky group of misfits are faced with dealing with a lethal and committed enemy. Review to follow.
Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. I’m very aware that right now, it’s a very one-sided relationship and I don’t know when I’ll be able to fully reciprocate. In the meantime, do take care and try to keep well.
For those of you who are interested in such things, Brendan Bellacourt also writes under the name of Bradley Beaulieu. I loved his exciting Sand and Sorcery trilogy The Song of the Shattered Sands – see my reviews of Twelve Kings and Blood Upon the Sand – so I was keen to get hold of this arc when I realised who the author is. Would I enjoy his science fiction writing as much as his fantasy?
BLURB: truncated: Liam Mulcahey, a reclusive, shell-shocked veteran, remembers little of the Great War. Ten years later, when he is caught in a brutal attack on a Chicago speakeasy, Liam is saved by Grace, an alluring heiress who’s able to cast illusions. Though the attack appears to have been committed by the hated Uprising, Grace believes it was orchestrated by Leland De Pere–Liam’s former commander and the current President of the United States.
Meeting Grace unearths long-buried memories. Liam’s former squad, the Devil’s Henchmen, was given a serum to allow telepathic communication, transforming them into a unified killing machine. With Grace’s help, Liam begins to regain his abilities, but his journey towards self-discovery hits a major roadbump, when he becomes a target for those who are determined to prevent him from learning who he is really is and what he can do.
REVIEW: I’ve tweaked the very chatty blurb and my advice is to give it a miss, as it gives away far too many of the main plotpoints of the story. This is an intriguing world, clearly still fractured and struggling after the terrible events of the Great War. In this alternate United States ended up fighting a desperate war against a coalition of Britain, France, Canada and Germany and only narrowly managed to win, thanks to the valiant intervention of the now-President De Pere. Their technology is far in advance of where we were in the 1920s, as huge strides have been made in the field of virology, so that people can undergo major transformations, both physically and mentally on being injected by serums.
I particularly enjoyed the opening sequences of this book, where we are firmly in Liam’s head and he reluctantly attends a public opening for a new train as a favour to his friend – and it is Liam’s journey that powers this narrative. Personally, I would have preferred it if the narrative had kept with Liam throughout, as there were times when we were with other characters and I was conscious that I was flipping the pages wanting to get back to him.
The fast-moving, twisty plot provides a number of surprises. The worldbuilding was especially well done, so that I was able to visualise the interesting blend of art deco and steampunk, with a helping of speakeasies and vintage cars to add to the richness. This is an ambitious novel that examines the theme of power – who has it, who wants it and what some people will do for it. None of the conclusions are particularly original or world-shattering. But I like the fact that Bellacourt ends up having power as a personification – and that the damage started when initially decent people decided that the means justified the ends when they were in desperate straits.
However, if you’d rather read it as a straightforward 1920s steampunk action adventure story – fans of this genre should find it an entertaining book. While I obtained an arc of Absynthe from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 8/10
I’ve heard good things about this author, and when I saw that the blurb mentioned England as a French colony, I was immediately intrigued and requested the arc. I’m always a sucker for a well-written alternate history…
BLURB: Joe Tournier has a bad case of amnesia. His first memory is of stepping off a train in the nineteenth-century French colony of England. The only clue Joe has about his identity is a century-old postcard of a Scottish lighthouse that arrives in London the same month he does. Written in illegal English—instead of French—the postcard is signed only with the letter “M,” but Joe is certain whoever wrote it knows him far better than he currently knows himself, and he’s determined to find the writer.
The search for M, though, will drive Joe from French-ruled London to rebel-owned Scotland and finally onto the battle ships of a lost empire’s Royal Navy. In the process, Joe will remake history, and himself.
REVIEW: Think of a mash-up of The Time Traveller’s Wife and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocksand you’ll have some idea of what Pulley is aiming for in this highly ambitious novel that dances around different strands within two main times – 1805 and 1898/99. And as the blurb doesn’t give away any spoilers as to why one of those dates, in particular, is significant, then I shan’t do so here.
Both times are very well evoked, particularly just how hard life is – and how cheaply it is held. Particularly the lives of sailors, slaves and soldiers. There are some quite shocking scenes in the book of murder and violence – and as we also have a naval battle portrayed and a ringside scene of the injuries inflicted, this one isn’t for the squeamish. We also see what this does to the main characters in the story, especially Missouri Kite who is scarred both physically and emotionally. He is capable of wonderful leadership that undeniably saves the lives of those in his charge; real tenderness in an age that doesn’t value or regard such an emotion. And absolute, lethal savagery.
I’ve been quite conflicted by this one. Terrible things happen and we are encouraged to feel it’s okay, because at the heart of it all is a love story. And while there is an upbeat ending, I wasn’t convinced that Joe wouldn’t wake up one morning full of longing for someone in a lost time and simply walk away, again, driven to desperately seek her out… But that kernel of uncertainty demonstrates the power of Pulley’s writing, which packs a strong emotional punch, throughout. She portrays Joe’s constant, terrible yearning for someone he can’t quite recall with a visceral vividness that had me wanting to weep at times.
What is undeniable is the technical skill Pulley displays in dealing with the scrambled timelines, the depiction of the historical times and the changes brought about by alternate circumstances. Her handling of those elements is masterful, as is her pacing and the management of a complex plot, complete with a number of twists that kept me paying attention. I saw a couple of them coming – but not the full picture. And that bittersweet ending adds up to a challenging book that has raised some awkward questions it leaves to the reader to figure out. I’m not sure if this is a story demonstrating just what a destructive force love is, for instance. Very highly recommended for fans of alternate historical tales. While I obtained an arc of The Kingdoms from Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.
We are still recovering from a nasty attack of Covid and it’s baby steps. I walked to my local supermarket yesterday – only the second time I’ve been out and about since the beginning of March. A journey there and back, including the shopping normally takes about half an hour, if it isn’t too busy. I took nearly an hour and only bought two items. By the time I staggered back through the kitchen door, I felt as if I’d run a marathon. However, it’s now four days since I needed to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon. Himself is back at work, but still battling with a horrible cough. We are both taking lots of supplements and ensuring that we are eating and drinking healthily.
The photos this week are of plants blooming in the garden. It hasn’t been warm enough to sit out, but one lovely sunny morning I couldn’t resist wandering around taking some pictures. Though the garden is in desperate need of TLC and neither of us feels up to tackling the weeds, so frankly it’s a disgrace.
Last week I read: The Recollection: Tenth Anniversary Edition by Gareth L. Powell Four hundred years ago, Ed and Alice Rico threw themselves through a mysterious portal on the London Underground, hunting for Ed’s lost brother—Alice’s husband—Verne.
Now, starship captain Katherine Abdulov embarks on a desperate race against ruthless rival captain—and her former lover—Victor Luciano, to try and earn back her family’s trust.
Tomorrow, all their lives will be thrown together by disaster, as an ancient evil stirs among the stars, threatening the survival of all life… I took a while to get invested in this dual narrative adventure, as initially I didn’t bond with any of the protagonists. But once things started to kick off, I was able to settle into this enjoyable space opera adventure and let the pages turn themselves. Review to follow.
The Russian Cage – Book 3 of the Gunnie Rose series by Charlaine Harris Picking up right where A Longer Fall left off, this thrilling third installment follows Lizbeth Rose as she takes on one of her most dangerous missions yet: rescuing her estranged partner, Prince Eli, from the Holy Russian Empire.
Once in San Diego, Lizbeth is going to have to rely upon her sister Felicia, and her growing Grigori powers to navigate her way through this strange new world of royalty and deception in order to get Eli freed from jail where he’s being held for murder. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous two books in this entertaining alternate history series and appreciated learning more about the Holy Russian Empire and exactly how it became established. There is plenty of action and more of Lizbeth, which is always a bonus…
Railhead – Book 1 of the Railhead series by Philip Reeve Zen Starling is a petty thief, a street urchin from Thunder City. So when mysterious stranger Raven sends Zen and his new friend Nova on a mission to infiltrate the Emperor’s train, he jumps at the chance to traverse the Great Network, to cross the galaxy in a heartbeat, to meet interesting people – and to steal their stuff. But the Great Network is a dangerous place, and Zen has no idea where his journey will take him.
This YA adventure, with its sentient trains that span galaxies, is great fun. Though poor Zen is plonked right in the middle of something far bigger and scarier than he initially realised. Review to follow.
The Eyes of Tamburah – Book 1 of the Archives of the Invisible Swords series by Maria V. Snyder Shyla is a researcher who resides in the underground desert city of Zirdai, which is ruled by the wealthy Water Prince and brutal Heliacal Priestess. Even though Shyla is sun-kissed – an outcast, considered cursed by the Sun Goddess – she is still renowned for uncovering innumerable archaic facts, lost artefacts, ancient maps and obscure historical documents.
Her quiet life is about to change when Banqui, an archaeologist, enlists her services to find The Eyes of Tamburah: legendary gemstones that bestow great magic on their wielder. These ancient objects can tip the balance of power and give whoever possesses them complete control of the city. But chaos erupts when The Eyes are stolen soon after they’re found – and Shyla is blamed for the theft. I thoroughly enjoy the bouncy energy in Snyder’s writing – particularly now I’m feeling a tad embattled. So this cracking Sand and Sorcery adventure ticked all the boxes. Review to follow.
By Other Means – Book 5 of the Hayden War Cycle by Evan Currie The Hayden War has ended and now SOLCOM and the Alliance are face to face in talks, but neither side has the slightest idea what happened in the ultimate battle of the war. Amid political jockeying and diplomatic gamesmanship, Captain Sorilla Aida has been given an assignment : Find a weakness to exploit, buy SOLCOM time to learn just what the hell happened to Valkyrie, and make sure that the Alliance isn’t prepared to risk another conflict in the open.
Sorilla has problems of her own, however, and after losing so much in the war she isn’t as certain of her life choices as she used to be. Unfortunately for her, the Alliance, SOLCOM, and others don’t intend to let her have time to figure it out for herself. This offering is a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner with plenty of tension and action, despite the lack of full-on space battles that Currie tends to specialise in. Review to follow.
This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.
It’s not been a good week. From Tuesday through to Thursday, I went down with a bug, plagued by a miserable cough – and couldn’t sleep. I had only four hours sleep in 24 by Thursday. Though I established that it definitely wasn’t COVID. And then yesterday, Himself went down with exactly the same symptoms. When I spoke to my sister, she also was ill with the same thing… Not only is it a miserable illness – the inability to sleep is horrible – but it meant I had to cancel having the grandchildren coming to stay this weekend, which is a real blow as I haven’t seen them for a while. I’m better, but still a bit washed out. So that’s why I wasn’t around in the middle of the week. Apologies for not having visited blogs, etc…
The only bright spot in the middle of all this was that I curled up with my trusty Kindles and either read or listened to books throughout. So I’ve read a few more than usual.
The photos this week are from the walk last Sunday, when it was sunny with a brisk wind. As you can see, they’re doing some dredging work on the mouth of the river to ensure the large gravel boats can still enter Littlehampton harbour.
Last week I read: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry For his entire life, Charley Sutherland has concealed a magical ability he can’t quite control: he can bring characters from books into the real world. His older brother, Rob — a young lawyer with a normal house, a normal fiancee, and an utterly normal life — hopes that this strange family secret will disappear with disuse, and he will be discharged from his life’s duty of protecting Charley and the real world from each other. But then, literary characters start causing trouble in their city, making threats about destroying the world…
I’m a sucker for fantasy books featuring libraries and other book characters – but this one really exceeded by expectations. A delightful, clever read that took the story and used it to highlight sibling relationships in a nuanced, three-dimensional way. Review to follow.
The Transylvania Twist – Book 2 of the Monster M*A*S*H series by Angie Fox Even during a truce, I have my hands full as a MASH surgeon to an army of warring gods—especially when Medusa herself turns up pregnant. I frankly have no idea what to expect when a Gorgon’s expecting, but I have an even bigger problem when my presumed-dead former-fiancé sneaks into my tent with enough emotional baggage to fill a tank…
Yes… I know I’ve read this series out of order – but it was so much fun, I really wanted to go back and get another fix of Petra Robichaud and this madcap world. Review to follow.
The Conductors – Book 1 of the Murder and Magic series by Nicole Glover As an escaped slave, Hetty Rhodes helped dozens of people find their own freedom north using her wits and her magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, still fight for their people by solving the murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch.
When they discover one of their friends brutally murdered in an alley, Hetty and Benjy mourn his loss by setting off to find answers. But the mystery of his death soon brings up more questions, more secrets, more hurt. To solve his death, they will have to not only face the ugly truths about the world but the ones about each other. While this isn’t a flawless book, nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the world and the main protagonist. Review to follow.
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn 1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything—beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses—but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.
1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter–the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum… I loved this historical thriller set in Bletchley Park during WWII. Quinn clearly knows what she is doing, as weaving the stories of three women across two narrative timelines could have so easily descended into a hot mess – and it doesn’t. Review to follow.
AUDIOBOOK Death Around the Bend – Book 3 of the Lady Hardcastle series by T.E. Kinsey September 1909, and Lady Hardcastle and her maid, Florence, have been invited to Lord Riddlethorpe’s country estate for a week of motor racing and parties. They both agree that it sounds like a perfectly charming holiday. But when one of the drivers dies in a crash during the very first race, they discover that what seemed like an uncharacteristic error in judgement may have a more sinister explanation… Closer investigation reveals that the driver’s car was sabotaged—and the driver murdered.
The local constabulary are quick to dismiss the case, but Flo and Lady Hardcastle are determined to find out just who has committed this dastardly act, and why. As the pair begin to make enquiries of Lord Riddlethorpe’s servants and guests, it seems that, below stairs and above, there is more to this case than meets the eye. And, even in the quiet of the countryside, death is always just around the bend. This entertaining series is becoming a solid favourite of mine. Elizabeth Knowelden’s excellent narration and the thread of humour running through the story makes this a really enjoyable listen. Mini-review to follow.
The Wizard’s Butler by Nathan Lowell For five grand a month and a million dollar chaser, Roger Mulligan didn’t care how crazy the old geezer is. All he had to do was keep Joseph Perry Shackleford alive and keep him from squandering the estate for a year.
They didn’t tell him about the pixies. This quirky and unusual urban fantasy tale is unexpectedly gentle and was just what I needed. And the bonus is – this author also writes space opera adventures, too. Given how much I love his writing style, I am delighted to have discovered his work. Review to follow.
The wonderful books I’ve encountered during this horrible year have, at times, kept my head straight when other pressures have added an extra twist of awfulness due to the pandemic. I have encountered a number of talented authors I’d previously not had the pleasure of reading (I’m looking at you Mary Robinette Kowal, Elisabeth Bear, Marilyn Messik and T. Kingfisher) and managed to complete 11 series, while working my way through 66 other series. I’ll get more nerdy in my post about the stats relating to my 2020 reads, later in the week.
During 2020 I read 184 books and wrote 155 full reviews, with 23 still to be published. In no particular order, these are the books that have stood out for me. It might be that I didn’t originally give them a 10 – but these books have stayed with me, which is why they made the cut. And let’s forget any top ten nonsense – whittling down my list to this paltry number was painful enough!
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky Despite reading this one back in January, I often found myself thinking about brave, clever Emily and what she underwent. That is the mark of a special book – when it won’t leave you alone. I think it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s best, and given the man’s towering talent, that’s saying something. See my review.
AUDIOBOOK Ancestral Night – Book 1 of the White Space series by Elizabeth Bear Elizabeth Bear is another wonderful author I discovered this year – and the good news is that she has a pleasingly long backlist. This one was an utter joy to listen to – Haimey’s first-person narrative held me throughout, even though the pacing was somewhat leisurely at times. This book at 500+ pages has it all – vivid action scenes, nail-biting tension, and plenty of plot twists and shocking reveals. And of course a space cat – who could resist that? See my review.
You Let me In by Camilla Bruce By rights, this shouldn’t have worked for me – I really don’t like books featuring an abused child. But the way Bruce posits this situation is masterfully done, as Cassie narrates her adventures with Pepperman, a grumpy and dangerous fae entity, who draws the small child into the world of the fae. This book has also stayed with me throughout the year. Read my review.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Macksey This is such a simple book with lots of pictures. The story of four different creatures, who come together to help each other. It could so easily have turned into a treacly, sentimental mess. But it doesn’t. My lovely sister-in-law gave me my copy and it has been beside me ever since. Read my review.
TUYO – Book 1 of the Tuyo series by Rachel Neumeier The opening sequence of this book immediately hooked me and wouldn’t let me go. I enjoy Neumeier’s writing, anyway. But this amazing world and the vividness of her characters still have me regularly thinking about them. In particular, the depiction of being ensorcelled was brilliantly portrayed – I’ve never seen it done better. Read my review.
AUDIOBOOK Deep Roots – Book 2 of The Innsmouth Legacy by Ruthanna Emrys This riveting world has left me yearning for more after reading the first book Winter Tide, which made my Outstanding Reads of 2017. So I was thrilled to discover this offering. Aphra is still coming to terms with the loss of her parents, friends and relations when confronted with a new danger. Once more I was pulled into a tense adventure where Lovecraftian monsters were only part of the threat. Read my review.
Last Dragon Standing – Book 5 of the Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron This is as much about the celebration of this quirky, enjoyable series, as much as it is about the climactic battle that wraps up the story. Peopled with shape-shifting dragons, a powerful ghost who assumes the shape of a cat and an enraged nature goddess, this urban fantasy reaches epic proportions, with all sorts of surprises and twists along the way. Review to follow.
The Book of Koli – Book 1 of the Rampart trilogy by M.R. Carey I very much enjoyed The Girl With All the Gifts, but I liked this even better. Koli is an endearing character with his youth and restless energy that gets him into far too much trouble within his village. This book is set in post-apocalyptic England, where even trees have become feral – but there are welcome shafts of light, too. Read my review.
AUDIOBOOK The Mirror and the Light – Book 3 of the Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel This whole series is a tour de force and I loved listening to this extraordinary conclusion to Cromwell’s life, as an embittered Henry VIII becomes ever more difficult to deal with – and Cromwell’s many enemies begin to circle. I wept at the end, which was wonderfully handled – and I’m still trying to work out how Mantel managed to keep me spellbound for so long, when I already knew the outcome before listening to the first chapter. Read my review.
Relatively Strange – Book 1 of the Strange series by Marilyn Messik This was one of those books I picked up and couldn’t put down again. Messik’s writing is utterly addictive, as far as I’m concerned and Stella is now my new best friend. I finished this one far too fast and was miserable until I picked up the next one in the series. I think this was the worst book hangover I endured during the year. Review my review.
The Relentless Moon – Book 3 of the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal This is another of those wonderful authors I discovered this year – and this series just blew me away. I loved Elma York and her battles to gain recognition during the first two books in the series – but when this story introduced me to Nicole, who finds herself trying to track down a saboteur on the Moon, I not only loved every single minute of the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, afterwards. Read my review.
A Memory Called Empire – Book 1 of the Teixcalaan series by Martine Arkady I tracked down this one, after hearing it compared to the great C.J. Cherryh’s immersive writing style. And I wasn’t disappointed. I loved watching poor Mahit, replacement ambassador to the enigmatic Teixcalaani empire, flounder as she tries to work out just how her predecessor died. This tense murder mystery played out in the far future kept me up far too late as I couldn’t put it down. Read my review.
AUDIOBOOK Charlotte Sometimes – Book 3 of the Aviary Hall series by Penelope Farmer I have always enjoyed reading Children’s fiction, because the very best is far too good just to leave to the kids. And this gem certainly falls into that category. A children’s classic that was published in 1969, it is written with depth and sophistication about two schoolgirls who cris-cross into each other’s times. Until something happens to Charlotte… I loved this one. Set in 1918, the period is beautifully portrayed and the bittersweet ending has stayed with me. Read my review.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher This is another of those books for children, which engrossed and delighted me. Mona is a baker’s apprentice with a small magical talent, who suddenly finds herself caught up in a murder. Events snowball entertainingly – and I found myself thoroughly enjoying Mona’s ingenious creations to try and stay ahead of the baddies. Review to follow.
AUDIOBOOK The Stranger Diaries – Book 1 of the Harbinder Kaur series by Elly Griffiths I enjoy Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, so decided to try this latest series and absolutely loved it. There is a tongue-in-cheek Gothic vibe that I found very appealing. Though I have a shocking memory, the twists and turns of this enjoyable murder mystery have stayed with me. Read my review.
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken – Book 3 of the Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall I was utterly beguiled by Vish when I first encountered him during the fifth book of the series, The Case of the Reincarnated Client earlier in the year and have been eking out the rest of the series ever since. Vish Puri is fond of calling himself the Indian Sherlock Holmes and his energetic attitude and passion for justice are very endearing – even if he does dismiss his clever, streetwise Mummy-Ji, who often takes a close interest in his cases. This book has an extra dimension and Hall is adept at dealing with hefty issues of the painful events around India’s partition in a respectful manner, without making it dreary. Read my review.
While I’d like to think that each one of these books offers some brain fodder, none of them are gloomy, downbeat reads as this year I needed to escape. And my favourite book of 2020? Probably Ancestor Nights, though I’m likely to claim it’s The Relentless Moon if you ask me the same question again tomorrow. And then there’s Relatively Strange, of course…
BLURB: The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened. Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.
REVIEW: The previous two books are in Elma’s viewpoint and are all about her struggle to get accepted as a woman astronaut in an alternate world where unfortunately sexism and racism are still prevalent. However, this slice of the adventure changes both the dynamic and viewpoint, so if you wanted to know what all the fuss is about, yet are reluctant to read the previous two books – you could pick this one up without struggling too much. That said, you would be missing out on two wonderful books, so my recommendation is that you then hunt them down, too. But I suspect once you’ve got to the end of this one – you’ll want to do that anyway…
I loved Elma and was a bit taken aback when I saw this one was in Nicole’s viewpoint – particularly as Elma isn’t always a huge fan of Nicole and believes – rightly – that her husband’s position guaranteed her slot on the space programme. However, I fell in love with her. Nicole is such a gutsy woman, who has overcome so much in her life – and continues to do so. There were times during this story when I was struggling not to cry – and yet at no stage is she portrayed as a helpless victim. Kowal writes powerful women so very well – along with their vulnerabilities, and I thought once again she absolutely nailed it.
But what had me reading throughout the night, unable to put this one down, is the fact that it turns into one of the most nail-biting thrillers set in space that I’ve ever read. The Moon colony is a fragile community and Nicole is put into the position of trying to ensure its survival. This isn’t a foot-to-the-floor, non-stop adventure, but a tense, high-stakes scenario, where those implacably opposed to any kind of solution that diverts money and effort from Earth, do their level best to scupper the whole project.
It’s very well done, with plenty of details that portray the struggles of living in space without overloading the story with too much techy stuff – yet make the environment wholly believable. Kowal’s ability to pull this off is far harder than she makes it look, and this one is right up there as one of my best reads of the year, so far. I’m just really sorry I’ve now reached the end of this exceptional series. Highly recommended for science fiction fans who enjoyedThe Martian. 10/10
It’s been a truly dreadful year – like everyone else, I cannot wait to see the back of it. But in one respect, it’s been wonderful – I have discovered some fabulous science fiction reads. Some are relatively newly published, others are a bit older. But the one thing they all have in common is that they provided me with an engrossing read that took me right away from the daily grind of social distancing, masks and lockdowns… Have you read any of these? I’m linking this post to #Sci Fi Month 2020.
Ancestral Night – Book 1 of the White Space series by Elizabeth Bear Haimey Dz thinks she knows what she wants. She thinks she knows who she is. She is wrong.
A routine salvage mission uncovers evidence of a terrible crime and relics of powerful ancient technology. Haimey and her small crew run afoul of pirates at the outer limits of the Milky Way, and find themselves on the run and in possession of universe-changing information. When authorities prove corrupt, Haimey realizes that she is the only one who can protect her galaxy-spanning civilization from the implications of this ancient technology—and the revolutionaries who want to use it for terror and war. Her quest will take her careening from the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core to the infinite, empty spaces at its edge. To save everything that matters, she will need to uncover the secrets of ancient intelligences lost to time—and her own lost secrets, which she will wish had remained hidden from her forever. Yes… I don’t deny there are some pacing issues. And that Bear does tend to muse about all sorts of philosophical issues that her character is chewing over – evidently being in a small tin can light years away from everyone else other than your own small crew can do that to you. But listening to this one, where the world seeped into my dreams and Haimey and I hung out together for a handful of days, was such a blessing… see my review. I’m currently listening to Machine, the second book in the series and enjoying that one, too.
Skyward and Starsight of the Skyward series by Brandon Sanderson Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul. This one has more of a YA feel as Spensa is a teenager with family issues that make her reckless and a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Humanity is clinging onto existence, anyway as constant alien attacks are besieging their ghetto on a planet ringed by ordnance. I loved the sentient ship – and also where the adventure went in the second book. See my mini-reviews of Skyward and Starsight.
Termination Shock and Interdicted Space of the Interstellar Enforcement Agency series by Gillian Andrews Ryler Mallivan’s comfortable life as an upstanding young freighter captain has just imploded. Avaraks are storming the training ship he is on and the bullets being fired are not blanks. Interstellar war has broken out and unless he moves fast they will all be as stone dead as the instructor lying at his feet. But this is one conflict they can never escape. The cause of the trouble is far closer than they know and will bring Mallivan and his ragbag fledgling crew under ferocious attack from all sides. They are going to need all their wits about them if they are to stay alive. And they have to, because there is nobody else to save all their worlds from a doomsday weapon which is set to obliterate the entire universe. Just how much can one lone spaceship do? This is a lot of fun with loads of action and engaging characters – see my reviews of Termination Shock and Interdicted Space. I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series – Exceptional Point sometime in the New Year…
The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli – of the Rampart trilogy by M.R. Carey Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will. Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls. What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice? I absolutely loved this series. The slightly degraded English in Koli’s first-person narrative is beautifully handled and works very well. Too much more and it have been annoying, but it is an effective part of the worldbuilding. I’m really looking forward to reading the third book in the series – see my reviews of The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli.
A Memory Called Empire – Book 1 of the Teixcalaan series by Arkady Martine Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court. Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation. I have a particular fondness for stories where there are whodunits set in the future – done well, it makes for a wonderful, gripping read. And this is excellent – one of my outstanding reads of the year – see my review which is also going live today. I’m looking forward to getting hold of A Desolation Called Peace next year.
Relatively Strange, Even Stranger and Stranger Still – the Strange series by Marilyn Messik It’s tricky to know what’s normal if you’re not, But Stella’s north west London upbringing is average enough, and her eccentric, protective (paranoid?) family are not given to making a fuss. Only when she finds herself smack dab in the middle of a situation, face to face with the stark reality of medical experimentation and its horrifying consequences, does she realise how sure she is of one thing. This hero stuff just isn’t her. Normal, or as near as damn it is what she wants for the future, and if that means smothering her instincts, so be it. At least she’ll know, should she slip off the wagon occasionally, it’ll be choice not chance. Isn’t it a fact though, just when you think you’ve got yourself back on track, events can overtake and derail you. This series has been one of the major reading highlights of my year – at a time when my need for enjoyable escapism has been intense, diving into these books was like a long cold drink of water on a steaming hot day… Love, love, love them all – here are my reviews – Relatively Strange, Even Stranger, Stranger Still.
The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky and The Relentless Moon of the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process. Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too. Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her. This classy, alternate history where a meteorite accelerates Humanity’s reach for the stars is another highlight of the year. I loved Elma – and Nicole, who we get to spend more time with in the final book. See my reviews of The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky – The Relentless Moon is to follow.
I am linking this review to #Sci Fi Month 2020, as I absolutely loved the first book in this series, The Calculating Stars – see my review – so was thrilled when Himself went and promptly bought the second book in this series. Would I enjoy it as much?
BLURB: It is 1961, and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a colony on the moon. Elma York, the noted Lady Astronaut, is working on rotation, flying shuttles on the moon and returning regularly to Earth. But humanity must get a foothold on Mars. The first exploratory mission is being planned, and none of the women astronauts is on the crew list. The international Aerospace Coalition has grave reservations about sending their “Lady Astronauts” on such a dangerous mission…
REVIEW: I loved this one. Though it is essentially a continuation of the story started in The Calculating Stars so don’t pick up this one first. Or you will spend too much time trying to figure out exactly who is doing what to whom to be able to fully appreciate the scope and stakes involved.
We continue to follow maths genius Elma Wexler, as she completes a three-month stint on the Moon and looking forward to seeing her husband, again. If I have a niggle, it’s that their relationship seems improbably idyllic, given the stresses put on it. Nathaniel is just so understanding, kind and appreciative of Elma’s drive to excel that I think a modern husband would struggle to be able to match up to his enlightened attitude. Given he is a product of a very different time, when it was tacitly agreed by many right-thinking men and a fair number of women, that it was a risky business giving a woman any kind of major responsibility, it does strain credulity. Especially as most of the other men Elma encounters have their macho insensitivity on display. However, I’m aware it’s a minor niggle in the scheme of things, when so much about this book is so good.
I think the handling of the alternate historical timeline throughout has been skilful and inspired. As someone who recalls the launch of Telstar and the Race to the Moon, Kowal manages to capture the feeling of the time, even allowing for her huge ‘what if’ of a major meteor strike that accelerates Humanity’s interest in establishing a colony elsewhere. I also enjoyed the adventure and tension with the two ships travelling to Mars and the ongoing tensions caused by the prevailing racist and sexist attitudes. The influence of the ongoing political situation, where hanging onto the funding as the life on Earth becomes increasingly difficult to sustain, is also a factor.
This all adds up to a cracking story, with plenty of adventure and some pause for thought about the ingrained attitudes that lead to people being overlooked because of what they represent, rather than being judged more fairly on their abilities and individual merits. I found the ongoing character arc of Parker to be an interesting progression – and while he was still fairly obnoxious, I appreciated learning more about him and what drove him. But one of the things I liked about Elma was her reaction to being attacked – she didn’t come out all guns blazing. She retreated behind a façade of politeness and tried to propitiate those around her whenever possible – which is what women of her generation, and my generation were raised to do. We were taught to be ‘good’. And I really, really liked that Kowal didn’t ignore that aspect, which I think has probably hindered gender equality far more than is appreciated.
An exceptionally good space travel adventure. 9/10