It was the cover of this offering that caught my eye – it’s just so very attractive. But then I read the blurb and knew I wanted to read it. I’m a sucker for the 1920s era – and I loved the spiritualist element of this fantasy heist adventure.
BLURB:Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.
REVIEW: This is a cracking read. I thoroughly enjoyed Clara’s spiky character. She is short-fused and in the habit of pushing away people, though that doesn’t stop her from helping those who seek her out. Given her gift, she could so easily have been portrayed as a noble, self-sacrificing heroine, brimful of the desire to help her fellows. While that is what she does – because she is so crotchety about it, I found her far more appealing. Especially when those around her make it their business to break through the façade she has erected – and we are shown just how vulnerable she actually is.
As well as Clara being a thoroughly sympathetic protagonist, the pacing was pretty much perfect. In any historical adventure, there is always a balance between giving the reader sufficient period details to make the background believable and ensuring the narrative moves along at a reasonable clip. Penelope nailed it, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve read several books recently featuring a POC protagonist and this was right up there with the best in portraying the casual and unthinking racism that was rife at that time. Indeed, it is part of the ongoing difficulty stacking up against Clara and her associates that a black person finds it hazardous to try and travel to certain parts of the city. Not only does this aid the narrative in upping the stakes – it is a visceral reminder of the extra burden the black community were coping with in their daily lives just because of the colour of their skin. I’d love to think such attitudes were consigned to history – but sadly, daily racist crime shows this isn’t the case, so reading entertaining, well-written fiction that highlights the issue can only help.
The spirit world was also well portrayed. There is a real sense of menace around those who want agency within the mortal world in order to steal human destinies. I liked the way Penelope gradually revealed the enormity of the threat, making this one of those reads that was very difficult to put down. All in all, this was a thoroughly engrossing tale that had me reading far later than I should. Highly recommended for those who like their fantasy within a compelling historical setting. While I obtained an arc of The Monsters We Defy from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
This is my update on how I’m coping with Long Covid now it’s been over fifteen months since I first got ill, which I’m adding to my Sunday Post blog, hosted by Kimberly at Caffeinated Reviewer.
My grandmother had a saying, “What goes up must come down.” And yes… it absolutely applies to my current situation. After celebrating my triumphant return to something approaching my life before I got sick with Covid – I then had another relapse that lasted nearly a fortnight, where I spent most of the day in bed again, feeling utterly exhausted. And this time around it was a lot harder to endure after having once more felt like the person I used to be.
The good news is that I know exactly what triggered this setback – my hospital appointment at the Breast Care Clinic, where I had a thorough exam by a consultant, a mammogram and ultrasound scan – just to ensure that some of my Long Covid symptoms weren’t masking something far more sinister and life-shortening. I was so impressed at the efficient and kindly staff and I’m delighted to be able to report that all is well. But the appointment was over three hours long and entailed having to get dressed and undressed a number of times and was also rather emotionally gruelling, as well as extremely painful at times. Small wonder that I was knocked back afterwards.
The huge light at the end of this tunnel is that I am now able to write, once my energy levels improved again. I’ve been editing for a while – but not said too much about it, as initially every time I mentioned I was able to work on my manuscripts, I then promptly found I couldn’t. And it massively mattered to me that I’d lost my ability to write – to be honest, it’s been one of hardest things I’ve had to cope with. And – yes – I know I’ve been regularly knocking out a steady stream of reviews. But while I enjoy recording my responses to the books I’ve read, I don’t define myself creatively by my non-fiction output. For me, it’s always been about the stories I tell. I’ve been writing science fiction and fantasy for longer than I care to think and to quote the late great Terry Pratchett, ‘Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.’ I’ll fully endorse that! And when I simply didn’t have the mental energy to hold a character and his story in my head long enough to get it down onto the page, I was devastated. Though the big silver lining was said lack of energy meant that devastation was overlaid by a Zenlike calm caused by my inability to feel very much about anything. So when this week, I finally completed the chapter I’d started before I went down with Covid, I wept with relief that my secret dread – that I’d never regain my ability to write – hasn’t come to pass. I’m thrilled that dear old Castellan is back in my life in all his grumpy glory😊.
Our Boomerang Boy is back with us this weekend, which is another joy. He cycled over on Friday night and will be going home again later today. We went shopping together in Rustington yesterday – he is such good company. And today, my sister is coming over to see us, which is also such a treat. Himself is, as ever, my rock and my saviour – even though my relapse coincided with his annual leave so that we ended up doing very little and going nowhere together, despite optimistic plans for day trips to places we’ve missed seeing for the past year and bit. I’m so blessed that his love, constancy and care has never faltered.
This week I’ve read:-
Veiled Threat – Book 3 of the Highland Magic series by Helen Harper Integrity Taylor has regained possession of her ancestral lands – and inherited a whole host of new problems. The spectre of what really happened to her parents is casting a shadow over everything while Fomori demons are being sighted up and down the Highlands. It doesn’t help that Aifric Moncrieffe still seems determined to see her dead and emerald-eyed Byron remains stubbornly blind to his father’s true nature.
Integrity is determined to stay in control of her own destiny, however, even if it means confronting the darkness across the Veil yet again. And at least she’s still got a sense of humour… Harper has nailed writing feisty heroines facing huge odds, who cope with dollops of often inappropriate humour – which I thoroughly enjoy. This latest adventure also has brought some intriguing twists to the ongoing narrative arc, which means it won’t be long before I tuck into the next book, which I think is the final one in this entertaining series. Which, I’m dreading – as I’ve grown very fond of Integrity. 9/10
AUDIOBOOK – Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip Brenden Vetch has a gift. With an innate sense he cannot explain to himself or describe to others, he connects to the agricultural world, nurturing gardens to flourish and instinctively knowing the healing properties each plant and herb has to offer. But Brenden’s gift isolates him from people–and from becoming part of a community.
Until the day he receives a personal invitation from the wizard Od. She needs a gardener for her school in the great city of Kelior, where every potential wizard must be trained to serve the Kingdom of Numis. For decades the rulers of Numis have controlled the school, believing they can contain the power within it–and punish any wizard who dares defy the law.But unknown to the reigning monarchy is the power possessed by the school’s new gardener–a power that even Brenden isn’t fully aware of, and which is the true reason Od recruited him… This standalone fantasy adventure is a joy. I was hugely impressed by McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld – see my review. So jumped at the chance to tuck into this one when it came up as a freebie with my Audible membership. And I wasn’t disappointed – it’s stood the test of time very well. I particularly enjoyed the shafts of dry humour throughout and loved dear Brendon. Though it’s a pity that the cover decided to depict Od as some glamorous maiden, when McKillip is at such pains to describe her so very differently. 9/10
Death and Hard Cider – Book 19 of the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly September, 1840. A giant rally is being planned in New Orleans to stir up support for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison: the Indian-killing, hard-cider-drinking, wannabe “people’s president”. Trained surgeon turned piano-player Benjamin January has little use for politicians. But the run-up to the rally is packed with balls and dinner parties, and the meagre pay is sorely needed.
Soon, however, January has more to worry about than keeping his beloved family fed and safe. During an elegant reception thrown by New Orleans’ local Whig notables, the son of a prominent politician gets into a fist-fight with a rival over beautiful young flirt Marie-Joyeuse Maginot – and, the day after the rally is over, Marie-Joyeuse turns up dead. The only black person amongst the initial suspects is arrested immediately: January’s dear friend, Catherine Clisson. With Catherine’s life on the line, January is determined to uncover the truth and prove her innocence. But his adversaries are powerful politicians, and the clock is ticking . . . What a treat. Hambly’s vivid evocation of the time and place had me dreaming of it – and I am just a bit in love with Benjamin January. It’s the first time I’ve read this series, but it certainly won’t be the last. 10/10
AUDIOBOOK – Destroyer – Book 7 (Sequence 3, Book 1) of the Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh It has been two years since the starship Phoenix left Alpha Station on a rescue mission where over four thousand human spacers were under attack by a hostile alien race. Now, exhausted from their journey, the crew of the Phoenix yearns for home. But when the ship makes the jump into atevi space, they learn the worst: that supplies to the station have been cut off; that civil war has broken out on the atevi mainland; that the powerful Western Association has been overthrown; and that Tabini-aiji, Bren Cameron’s primary supporter and Ilisidi’s grandson and ally, is missing and may be dead.
With no one left to lead the Western Association, Ilisidi and Bren know that the survival of their allies lies in their hands. And with the atevi world at war, the only safe landing strip lies on the human colony at Mospheira. Although there are many dangers inherent in bringing a powerful atevi leader such as Ilisidi onto human lands, Bren realizes they have no other choice. But even if they safely survive their landing, will Bren and Ilisidi together prove strong enough to muster the remaining shards of the Western Association and regain control of their planet?
The long-running Foreigner series can also be enjoyed by more casual genre readers in sub-trilogy installments. Destroyer is the 7th Foreigner novel. It is also the 1st book in the third subtrilogy. This audiobook was a lifesaver during a couple of particularly wretched nights when I simply couldn’t sleep, despite feeling utterly exhausted – not a combination I recommend. Daniel May’s brilliant narration brought poor old Bren’s current woes to life and had me crouching in the pouring rain alongside him, hoping that all his associates would survive the desperate battle raging around him. This series really comes into its own when listening to it and I’m delighted there are plenty more Foreigner adventures to enjoy. 9/10
Delusions of the Past – Reg Rawlins #6 – Books 4-6 of the Reg Rawlins, Psychic Investigator series by P.D. Workman What kind of a monster poisons a psychic’s cat? When Starlight first fell ill, Reg thought that she was the cause of it. She should have been watching him more carefully. She should have found out about household plants and chemicals that could hurt her familiar. She was clearly a negligent owner.
But it soon becomes clear that there is some darker force at work, and Reg is going to need all of her resources to find the culprit before it is too late if she is to have any chance of saving her furry companion’s life. I really enjoy this series. Some cosy mystery series are so slathered in treacle they become frankly sickly – this one isn’t. In amongst the cute pets and intriguing fantasy creatures is a hard edge that means the story can often take an unexpected turn to a place just dark enough to keep me turning the pages, desperate to discover what happens next. And with Workman, you can’t ever really predict what that will be… I’ve just spent money we don’t really have to buy the next bundle, because I want more Reg Rawlins in my life. 8/10
Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. I’m 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.
The title grabbed my attention – what is hard cider? And after I read the blurb, I was hooked. I like historical whodunits – and what especially snagged my attention with this story is the political backdrop. Set in New Orleans in the febrile period some thirty years before the American Civil War, tensions are rising as French and American interests collide, along with increasing unease regarding the tricky issue of slavery. So freeman Benjamin January has to tread carefully at all times.
BLURB: September, 1840. A giant rally is being planned in New Orleans to stir up support for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison: the Indian-killing, hard-cider-drinking, wannabe “people’s president”. Trained surgeon turned piano-player Benjamin January has little use for politicians. But the run-up to the rally is packed with balls and dinner parties, and the meagre pay is sorely needed.
Soon, however, January has more to worry about than keeping his beloved family fed and safe. During an elegant reception thrown by New Orleans’ local Whig notables, the son of a prominent politician gets into a fist-fight with a rival over beautiful young flirt Marie-Joyeuse Maginot – and, the day after the rally is over, Marie-Joyeuse turns up dead. The only black person amongst the initial suspects is arrested immediately: January’s dear friend, Catherine Clisson. With Catherine’s life on the line, January is determined to uncover the truth and prove her innocence. But his adversaries are powerful politicians, and the clock is ticking . . .
REVIEW: Despite this being the nineteenth book in the series, it’s the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading about Ben’s adventures. And what a ride it was… Hambly’s prose is richly descriptive of the lush, often hedonistic setting that starkly rubs shoulders with utter poverty and deprivation. We see all this through Ben January’s eyes, who was brought up in New Orleans – but then spent time in France, where he trained as a surgeon. So while he is very familiar with the neighbourhood, he isn’t as necessarily as accepting of the ingrained and cultural prejudice as many of his peers. It’s a tricky balance to achieve, but Hambly negotiates it well.
In New Orleans, Ben obviously isn’t able to earn a decent living as a skilled medical man – none of the well-heeled white folks would entertain the notion of being treated by black man. However, he is also a skilled musician and with a series of grand election rallies coming up, he is employed to play at all these events – both the Democrat and Whig functions. Hambly gives us a ringside seat as inflammatory speeches are made, food and drink is handed out to the crowd and rousing songs slurring the reputations of political opponents are sung.
And throughout all the hectic activity, the dark thread of institutional prejudice, exclusion, double-standards and hypocrisy winds across the society. It’s masterfully done – and brought home to me just how much damage slavery wrought. Not only upon those whose lives were shackled to unceasing hard labour with no prospect of anything better – but also to those responsible for it. The story is all the more effective for Ben’s bitter acceptance of such a miserable state of affairs, as Hambly is brilliant at showing, not telling. And since I finished this one, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the situation – particularly as slavery is still going on.
There is also a murder mystery to be solved. Initially, I thought the pacing was a tad slow – but I think that’s because of the rather chatty blurb. If I hadn’t been waiting for a certain key event, I don’t think it would have been an issue. After the murder, consequences roll forward and Ben has to get involved to save the life of someone very dear to him. To be honest, I would have been happy with this book if the whodunit aspect had been averagely good, given the quality of the backdrop and its vivid depiction. But the icing on the cake is that the murder mystery is very well executed, with a brilliant denouement. This might have been the first Ben January mystery I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Very highly recommended for fans of historical murder mysteries. While I obtained an arc of Death and Hard Cider from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own. 10/10
Can’t-Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted at Wishful Endings, to spotlight and discuss the books we’re excited about that we have yet to read. Generally they’re books that have yet to be released. It’s based on Waiting on Wednesday, hosted by the fabulous Jill at Breaking the Spine.
This week’s Can’t-Wait offering – Death and Hard Cider – Book 19 of the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly – release date – 7th June, 2022
#historical murder mystery #troubled hero
BLURB:September, 1840. A giant rally is being planned in New Orleans to stir up support for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison: the Indian-killing, hard-cider-drinking, wannabe “people’s president”. Trained surgeon turned piano-player Benjamin January has little use for politicians. But the run-up to the rally is packed with balls and dinner parties, and the meagre pay is sorely needed.
Soon, however, January has more to worry about than keeping his beloved family fed and safe. During an elegant reception thrown by New Orleans’ local Whig notables, the son of a prominent politician gets into a fist-fight with a rival over beautiful young flirt Marie-Joyeuse Maginot – and, the day after the rally is over, Marie-Joyeuse turns up dead. The only black person amongst the initial suspects is arrested immediately: January’s dear friend, Catherine Clisson.
With Catherine’s life on the line, January is determined to uncover the truth and prove her innocence. But his adversaries are powerful politicians, and the clock is ticking . . .
Yes… another series I’m crashing into without having read any of the other books! But I liked the look of the cover and the sound of the blurb, which I managed to read without noticing that it is the nineteenth in the series. However it is a murder mystery – so I should be able to still enjoy the story.
This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.
I haven’t been around this last couple of weeks, as I’ve been away on a writing retreat with my sister-in-law in Bexhill in a lovely flat overlooking the sea. That’s where the photos are from. My sister-in-law is on the last lap of her thesis on looking at how the issue of despair was discussed within monastic circles during the Middle Ages. As for me, I took along Picky Eaters Part 2 and managed to write 27,000 words, charting the further adventures of Castellan the Black, in between watching storms and sunshine sweep across the bay. We have been working hard – only watching The Great British Bakeoff and writing into the night, hence the significant lack of books I managed to get through. Though what I lacked in in quantity, I made up for in quality…
Apologies for my lack of interaction, particularly visiting other blogs, but my laptop has major memory issues at present, so I had to disconnect from the internet, which I was only accessing with my phone. Hopefully I’ll be able to start catching up during the coming week!
Last fortnight I have read:
The Invisible Lives of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world. But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name. I absolutely loved this one. Accomplished and unputdownable – this is a tour de force from a writer at the height of her powers. Review to follow.
A Deadly Education – Book 1 of The Scholomance series by Naomi Novik A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.
There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.
El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students. Another stormingly good read – though in case you’re wondering… Hogwarts it ain’t. No teachers – the students are instructed via the magical school and manage to keep safe from the constant threat of deadly monsters drawn by their magical abilities by forming allies and learning a raft of defensive spells. Gripping and highly readable. Review to follow.
AUDIOBOOK The Stranger Diaries – Book 1 of the Harbinder Kaur series by Elly Griffiths A dark story has been brought to terrifying life. Can the ending be rewritten in time?
Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. As a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, she teaches a short course on it every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by her body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case.
Not knowing who to trust, and afraid that the killer is someone she knows, Clare confides her darkest suspicions and fears about the case to her journal. Then one day she notices some other writing in the diary. Writing that isn’t hers… This is a solid delight. I was attracted by the promise of a murder mystery after the style of Agatha Christie, within a contemporary setting with modern characters. And that is what I got. The audiobook works especially well and this one is highly recommended for those who enjoy gripping characters and nicely twisty plots with plenty of suspects. Review to follow.
Fallen Princeborn: Chosen – Book 2 of Fallen Princeborn series by Jean Lee Charlotte just wanted to start a new life with her sister Anna out of the reaches of their abusive uncle. When their journey led to Anna’s disappearance from human memory, Charlotte hunted for her sister and the mysterious creatures that took her behind an ancient Wall that hid a land of magic the world had long forgotten. Charlotte woke the Princeborn Liam Artair, and with his return the conflict between factions of the magical Velidevour turned cursed and deadly.
Now Charlotte must end this conflict before the land of River Vine and the inhabitants she’s befriended are consumed by Orna, Lady of the Pits, who is still very, very eager to see her beloved return. And Orna is not the only one who wants hold of the Princeborn Liam’s heart. These Velidevour come armed with firey wings, crimson claws, and pale fire, and like dead magic, they know no kindness.
The Bloody Days are soon returning, and they will not end until a choice is made, a choice that could tear the heart of River Vine apart. This book continues the story directly from the ending of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen – and immediately scoops the reader up into the high-stakes action, that just goes on growing, as Charlotte battles for Liam and his followers. Highly recommended for fantasy fans looking for sharp contemporary writing and a vivid fantasy setting. 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 been an intensely busy week as I have been organising the upcoming release of my new book Mantivore Dreams. I’m also working on a major editing project, as well as now editing the next book in the series, Mantivore Prey. On Friday, Himself and I went for a coffee and cake at the Look and Sea Centre, which has now reopened, thank goodness. So we were able to sit at our favourite spot, have a natter while enjoying views of the river as the weather has suddenly become warmer and sunnier again in time for the Bank Holiday weekend. Yay!
Today we will be driving over the Brighton to pick up the children and have them stay over for a few days. It’s a long time since we had Oscar to stay, so we are really looking forward to catching up with them both.
Last week I read:
The Green Man’s Foe – Book 1 of The Green Man series by Juliet E. McKenna
When you do a good job for someone, there’s a strong chance they’ll offer you more work or recommend you elsewhere. So Daniel Mackmain isn’t particularly surprised when his boss’s architect brother asks for his help on a historic house renovation in the Cotswolds. Except Dan’s a dryad’s son, and he soon realises there’s a whole lot more going on. Ancient malice is stirring and it has made an alliance in the modern world. The Green Man expects Dan to put an end to this threat. Seeing the danger, Dan’s forced to agree. The problem is he’s alone in a place he doesn’t know, a hundred miles or more away from any allies of his own.
I loved the first book in the series and the sequel is every bit as good. It’s a joy to read a cracking contemporary adventure set in the heart of the English countryside, featuring magical creatures from our own long, colourful history.
Sweep of the Blade – Book 4 of The Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews
Once a wife to a powerful vampire knight, Maud and her daughter, Helen, had been exiled for the sins of her husband to the desolate planet of Karhari. Karhari killed her husband, and Maud had spent a year and a half avenging his debts. But now all the debts are paid. Rescued by her sister Dina, Maud had sworn off all things vampire. Except she met Arland, the Marshal of House Krahr. One thing led to another and he asked for her hand in marriage. She declined.
Try as she might, she can’t just walk away from Arland. It doesn’t help that being human is a lot harder for Maud than being a vampire.
Another fabulous read – this has been a wonderful reading week! I treated myself to this one, once I realised how well Mantivore Prey has turned out as a reward from me to me😊
Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron
Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.
There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.
She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.
This African-inspired epic fantasy is an impressive debut, given it’s ambition and scope and Barron has triumphantly succeeded in depicting a vivid, dangerous world rife with vengeful seers and lethal magic. Review to follow.