Monday, April 2, 2018

THE BODY ON THE BARSTOOL, a charming cozy murder mystery


THE BODY ON THE BARSTOOL
LOLLI POWELL
(Top Shelf Mysteries #1)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: Solid 4 stars of five

The (Self-)Publisher Says: New Yorker Erica "Ricki" Fontaine's ne'er-do-well uncle has dropped dead and left her a dive bar in a small Ohio River town. With a lousy apartment, less-than-promising job prospects, and even worse romantic ones, the inheritance comes at just the right time. Ricki packs up her cat and heads for the Buckeye State.

Now she's trying to change the Top Shelf from a bar known for its Friday night fights into the kind of drinking establishment where you can bring your granny. But finding her ex-husband dead on a barstool at opening time one morning just might put a kink in those plans.

2016 WISHING SHELF INDEPENDENT BOOK AWARDS BRONZE WINNER...congratulations!

My Review
: I knew this series was for me when I read that the author lived with three or four dogs. I feel a little betrayed that the c-a-t in these books is presented in a favorable light, but one can't have everything. I'm not quite sure why that should be, but there it is.

When Ricki returns to (fictional) Waterton, Ohio, after a stint there as a child in the middle 1990s, she does so as a woman of property, a caryatid of the community, her late uncle's heiress and new owner of a dive bar called The Top Shelf. It's run-down, it's crappy, the police know it by heart, but it's all hers. She's thrilled because her life in New York City was stale as hell. Her college romance drifted into marriage that, sadly, proved not to be right for either of them...her ex-husband Michael remarried after the divorce, tastelessly quickly, to his secretary the Hot Scot. Andy the Hot Scot. So yeah, not really right for the first spouse.

After landing up in Waterton, Michael and Ricki stayed friends and even continued to talk. So it was a huge surprise to Ricki when Michael shows up unannounced at the Top Shelf. Especially since he's dead. Inside her closed and locked bar. With one of her food service steak knives in his side.

Don't you hate when that happens?

Lolli Powell's rollicking ride to resolving this mystery, and the even deeper and scarier mystery at the heart of the murder, is full of surprises and chuckles and relatable moments, just like you want a cozy to be:
I enjoy a good horse race from time to time, but team sports make me yawn. Probably has something to do with the fact that I'm about as coordinated as a legless pig and was psychologically traumatized by always being picked last for teams in gym class.
Also present are the requisite cast of oddballs and eccentrics one requires to be cozy and the employed good-looking heterosexual single men (ha! as if) in this one-stoplight town required for it to be chick lit.

There are a few inevitable holes in the quilt. The characters are numerous so some have little screen time. The red herrings piled up a bit high, though the fishy smell was never quite overwhelming. There's a timely Act of God that did cause my eyes to roll just a widge. The aforementioned Limb of Satan is not dead by the end of the book or there'd be fractionally more stars here. But none of these minor infelicities are remotely big enough to be deal-breakers.

We know the tropes are present. This is good. We know the murder has layers, we know the herrings are red and copious, we know the setting is exotic. (Ohio? There are people there?) We know, in short, all the elements of a satisfying read are present. And having just read the book, I vouch for the satisfactions of the read. I appreciate the chance to look at the world from a front porch once in a while. That's the secret of cozies, they afford a sense of community and connection not always readily available in the real world. Mysteries in general offer a reinforcement of the frequently absent sense that Justice will prevail.

Doesn't sound like your cuppa? Pass on. The world will keep spinning. But I say take a side trip and visit the Top Shelf for a refreshing Jim Beam and soda.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

DARK ECOLOGY presents a philosophical basis for understanding the Anthropocene Epoch



DARK ECOLOGY: For a Logic of Future Coexistence
TIMOTHY MORTON

Columbia University Press
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Timothy Morton argues that ecological awareness in the present Anthropocene era takes the form of a strange loop or M?bius strip, twisted to have only one side. Deckard travels this oedipal path in Blade Runner (1982) when he learns that he might be the enemy he has been ordered to pursue. Ecological awareness takes this shape because ecological phenomena have a loop form that is also fundamental to the structure of how things are.

The logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind. Dark ecology puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. Morton explores the logical foundations of the ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving, as we explore its loop form, into something playful, anarchic, and comedic. His work is a skilled fusion of humanities and scientific scholarship, incorporating the theories and findings of philosophy, anthropology, literature, ecology, biology, and physics. Morton hopes to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse.

THE PUBLISHER PROVIDED A REVIEW COPY OF THE BOOK. THANK YOU.

My Review: I can honestly say that Author Morton was writing directly to my most dearly held concerns. The Anthropocene, the current post-Holocene epoch of geological time, is a given in the author's thinking; if you're not in sync with 21st-century thinking and deny that climate change is not only happening but is largely if not entirely of human genesis, this book will not do one single thing for you. That is, it will make you screechingly furious, but it won't change your mind.

For the rest of us, the book's foundations in logic has lacunae. I'd expected to see the role of Big Science play a major part here; also Toxic Technology; instead Author Morton focuses on the philosophical and cultural roots of the Anthropocene. It's less about What Happened than it is about Why Things Are. We go down a bunch of rabbit holes to explore the nature of the Anthropocene's genesis, we spend a lot of time (in the footnotes) digging for truffles in the dirt of our Collective Unconscious, and in the end come to the surface of our minds with some useful new concepts. "Agrilogistics" and "ecognosis" are worthy neologisms for deep and tangled concepts. A simple explanation of them is that the reductive power of modern STEM-based environmental discussion ignores a huge reservoir of knowledge that comes from our shared, lived experience; this isn't in any way a comprehensive explanation so my suggestion is to read the 192 pages of the book slowly and carefully.

It repaid me enormously to do so and it could do that for you as well.

THE TELLING



THE TELLING
ZOE ZOLBROD

Curbside Splendor Publishing
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: Zoe Zolbrod remained silent about her early childhood molestation for nearly a decade. When she finally decided to tell, she wasn't sure what to expect, or what to say. Through a kaleidoscopic series of experiences—Zolbrod hitchhikes with a boyfriend from one coast to another, hangs out in a strip club in Philadelphia, meets and marries her husband, and gives birth to her children—she traces the development of her sexuality, her relationships with men, and the cultivation of her motherhood in the shadow of her childhood sexual abuse. Bolstered with research, Zolbrod argues passionately for the empowerment of sexual abuse victims and the courage it takes to talk about it.

The Telling is an intimate examination of one woman's reckoning with a past she can't always explain, and a life lived in search for the right words.

THE PUBLISHER SENT ME A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU.

My Review:

deepwater horizon



DEEPWATER HORIZON: A Systems Analysis of the Macondo Disaster
EARL BOEBERT, JAMES M. BLOSSOM

Harvard University Press
$39.95 hardcover, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: In 2010 BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe spiraled into the worst human-made economic and ecological disaster in Gulf Coast history. In the most comprehensive account to date, senior systems engineers Earl Boebert and James Blossom show how corporate and engineering decisions, each one individually innocuous, interacted to create the disaster.

Senior systems engineers Earl Boebert and James Blossom offer the most comprehensive account to date of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Sifting through a mountain of evidence generated by the largest civil trial in U.S. history, the authors challenge the commonly accepted explanation that the crew, operating under pressure to cut costs, made mistakes that were compounded by the failure of a key safety device. This explanation arose from legal, political, and public relations maneuvering over the billions of dollars in damages that were ultimately paid to compensate individuals and local businesses and repair the environment. But as this book makes clear, the blowout emerged from corporate and engineering decisions which, while individually innocuous, combined to create the disaster.

Rather than focusing on blame, Boebert and Blossom use the complex interactions of technology, people, and procedures involved in the high-consequence enterprise of offshore drilling to illustrate a systems approach which contributes to a better understanding of how similar disasters emerge and how they can be prevented.

My Review:

BUDDHIST ECONOMICS







Rating:

The Publisher Says: Traditional economics measures the ways in which we spend our income, and doesn't attribute worth to the crucial human interactions that give our lives meaning.

Clair Brown, an economist at UC Berkeley and a practicing Buddhist, has developed a holistic model, one based on the notion that quality of life should be measured by more than national income. Brown advocates an approach to organizing the economy that embraces, rather than skirts, questions of values, sustainability, and inequality. Complementing the award-winning work of Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs, and the paradigm-breaking spirit of Thomas Piketty and Amartya Sen, Brown incorporates the Buddhist emphasis on interconnectedness, capability, and happiness into her vision for a sustainable and compassionate world.

Buddhist economics leads us to think mindfully as we go about our daily activities, and offers a way to appreciate how our actions affect the welfare of those around us. By replacing the endless cycle of desire with more positive collective priorities, our lives can become more meaningful as well as happier. Inspired by the popular seminar course Brown developed for UC Berkeley that has garnered international attention, Buddhist Economics represents an enlightened approach to our modern world infused with ancient wisdom, with benefits both personal and global, for generations to come.

800 CEO READ SENT THIS BOOK TO ME. THANK YOU.

My Review:

LEADED



LEADED: The Poisoning of Idaho's Silver Valley
MICHAEL C. MIX

OSU Press
$22.95 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: Leaded is a timely and deeply researched account of one of the largest environmental disasters in western US history. It examines the origin, evolution, and causes of the harmful environmental and human health effects caused by mining operations in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Mining District—the “Silver Valley”—from 1885 to 1981. During that period, district mines produced over $5 billion worth of lead, silver, and zinc. The Bunker Hill Company dominated business and community activities in the district as owners and operators of the largest mine, lead smelter, and zinc plant.

During the first half of the twentieth century, industrial mining operations caused severe environmental damage to area waterways and lands from releases of sulfur gases, lead, and other toxic metals. Damaging human health effects were evident soon after the smelter opened in 1917, when Bunker Hill workers suffered from lead poisoning. Despite the obvious devastation, due to the influence of the mine and lead industry in state and federal politics, as well as scientific uncertainties about pollution effects, no effective federal laws regulating mining and smelting operations were passed until the 1970s.

In 1974, uncontrolled Bunker Hill lead smelter emissions led to the worst community lead exposure problem in the United States and resulted in a widespread lead poisoning epidemic of Silver Valley children. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency ultimately mandated federal air lead standards. At the same time, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health passed national standards reducing allowable occupational lead exposures. Bunker Hill could not meet the new standards, which was a major factor in forcing the company to close, leaving behind a contaminated geographic area that was classified at the time as the largest Superfund site in the United States.

Leaded will resonate with anyone who is concerned about the long-term effects of industrial pollution, as well as students of environmental history, western US history, mining history, environmental ethics, and environmental law.

My Review:

MISS MORISON'S GHOSTS, proof yet again that women face higher hurdles than men



MISS MORISON'S GHOSTS; aka GHOSTS OF THE TRIANON: The Complete "An Adventure"
C.A.E. MOBERLY and ELEANOR F. JOURDAIN

Miss Morison's Ghosts
Internet Archive 1913 illustrated edition

The Book Description: This is the true story of two Englishwomen getting caught up in one of the most fascinating and inexplicable "time travel" experiences ever recorded. After travelling down to the grand French palaces of Versailles, they proceed to take a walk along the various pathways and gardens outside, only to lose their way and on top of that, get lost in a time warp, literally. It takes them back in time to the palace gardens at the time of the French Revolution and to a face-to-face confrontation with Marie Antoinette, among others. No, this is not fiction, it purports to be fact. The two women, both prominent academics, give us a very convincing and staggering account of their claims. This book is their clear and thought-provoking explanation of exactly what happened to them. Were they mistaken? Was it a hoax? Was the experience real? You decide. This is a truly fascinating book, which quickly sold 10, 000 copies when it was first published. Here it is back in print again at long last.

The Film Description: Two British women claim to have been thrown into a time warp where they saw Marie Antoinette as they were strolling through the gardens at Versailles Palace in France. After they tell their story to a psychic society, they find themselves the objects of derision and their jobs are threatened.

My Review:

Friday, March 30, 2018

MAELSTROM, seventh Whyborne & Griffin Lovecraft-tinged adventure


MAELSTROM
JORDAN L. HAWK
(Whyborne & Griffin #7)
Kindle edition
$4.99 available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Between his father’s sudden—and rather suspicious—generosity, and his own rash promise to help Christine plan her wedding, Percival Endicott Whyborne has quite enough to worry about. But when the donation of a mysterious codex to the Ladysmith Museum draws the attention of a murderous cult, Whyborne finds himself in a race against time to unlock its secrets.

Meanwhile, Griffin has a case of his own: the disappearance of an historic map, which quickly escalates to murder. Someone is sacrificing men in dark rituals—and all the clues lead back to the museum.

With their friends Christine and Iskander, Whyborne and Griffin must discover the cult’s true goal before it’s too late. For dark forces are afoot at the very heart of the museum, and they want more than Whyborne’s codex.

They want his life.

***THIS IS A REVIEW OF THE SEVENTH BOOK IN A SERIES SO DO NOT UTTER A SYLLABLE OF COMPLAINT ABOUT SPOILERS***

My Review
: Here's an amazing fact for y'all. I hate the c-a-t in this series because, well, it's a c-a-t. In point of fact the presence of a c-a-t in a book as a suitable companion for a male human is grounds for a one-star deduction from the five total a book can earn. And yet the sharp-eyed habitué of these precincts will note that this book has a five-star rating! Has His Growling Curmudgeonliness softened in his disdain and disgust for Felis catus?!

Don't register for those classes in the aerodynamics of pork just yet, pigs ain't a-flyin'.

While the c-a-t is prominent in this book and is even presented as capable of performing actions not directly beneficial to itself (which is how we know we're reading a novel), the main focus of this book is on a subject near and dear to my heart: Hating your siblings and your parents, while acknowledging their ability to throttle back their intrinsic evil enough to perform actions that, when squinted at from a far enough distance and lit exactly perfectly, can be construed by an unbiased observer as not entirely destructive. Whyborne's selfish and self-centered father has lost his wife, his adored elder son, and both his daughters; it's no surprise that the poor chump realizes he'd best mend fences with his remaining son, faggot or no. Also no surprise is the said son's unwillingness to let go of his grudge against the old bastard.

And here's where that star comes from. This plot arc has developed over the course of the entire series. It's a difficult task to keep a reader involved in an arc over more than one book without making frequently eyerollingly hamfisted attempts to wedge the damn thing into stories better off without it. Author Hawk has magical fingers. This series doesn't suffer from the dreaded hamfistedness. The presence of Whyborne's father is always plausible or he's left out. While he's there, he acts in character. Even when it's obvious to the reader he's doing his level best to make it up to Whyborne, the man is his abrasive and selfish self. No miracles are adduced. Just as we see the attempts as well as the selfishness, Whyborne does not.

Griffin, however, does, and he tries to offer his dearly beloved a perspective not wholly hostile to Whyborne père. The offer is rebuffed with brusqueness, even a scoche of hurt feelings. Whyborne begins to fear that his beloved husband has been bought off by the sudden generosity his father has shown Griffin. It's even enabled Griffin to purchase a motor car! A (period appropriate) Curved Dash Oldsmobile:
Is that not the most amazing thing! It is in Widdershins, Massachusetts, I can promise you. Griffin is almost bursting with eagerness to take Whyborne for a ride!

In the car, you dirty-minded dregs. In the car.

So Whyborne's fears for Griffin's loyalty are not unfounded; plus he now has to ride in a motor car or risk hurting his dearly beloved's feelings. So into the damned thing he climbs (greater love hath no fuddy-duddy), thence to be sped at a blistering pace (almost twenty miles an hour!) hither, thither, and yon. Worse yet, Christine and her intended groom Iskander the half-Egyptian are enraptured by the damn thing as well. Has Whyborne père cast his net so wide as to deprive his son of all support and succor? The rotter! Then, if that isn't enough to frame Whyborne père in the most villainous light imaginable, he has the audacity to all-but-demand his son visit the evildoer of his childhood, formerly fair-haired boy Stanford, in the comfy sanitorium where he's confined in lieu of a prison cell (greatly to Whyborne's disgruntlement) for the crime of murdering various and sundry people including their mutual sister.

In acceding to his father's barely-not-a-demand to visit Stanford, Whyborne acts like a mulish, unforgiving, spiteful brat towards Stanford as the latter brandishes sweet words and requests for reconciliation. How petty, how small-souled of him, no? Even Griffin advocates for peace! Griffin!! The man was nearly sacrificed to the Elder Gods by Whyborne père and then nearly blown away by Stanford's (badly aimed, thank goodness) gun! Whyborne's feelings of isolation make sense.

I am fully aware of his faulty reasoning and his sense of injustice being perpetrated on him and his pettish whining all from the inside. I see it in myself when dealing with my own "family." (I hasten to add that my siblings have never aimed firearms at anyone nor are they, to the best of my knowledge, sharktoothed half-fish.) So Author Hawk was already singin' my song. The way the family drama and the story drama each resolve in step with the other felt natural, inevitable to me. The fact that Whyborne's loving husband and his best friend both support him emotionally as well as nudge him towards a more charitable view of his intimate enemies is a great enrichment of the emotional facet of the series. It's one reason I keep reading the books. By now most series stories are thin, floppy things. Not Whyborne & Griffin. The world the men occupy is different from our own but keeps adding layers and nuances and even, just like life, harks back to remembered events both fun and not so much.

As this installment of the loving, exciting lives of Whyborne & Griffin approaches its end, there is a chapter...57 to be precise...that will profoundly expand your appreciation for Author Hawk's chops, and will most likely move you as well. For that alone I will read the other two books already out in the series. But I do so in the hope that there will be others to come. It's rare that I feel a desire to continue a series to this length. I feel a strong need to finish what's out before I being the tedious process of waiting for more.

Trigger warning to the squeamishly heterosexual. Depictions of loving and consensual but still filthy-pig-dirty sex exist in here, just like they do in life; avoid if that's disagreeable to you. Also start at the beginning or you'll be utterly at sea reading the later books.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY, first in a YA steampunk/urban fantasy series


THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY
GENEVIEVE COGMAN
(The Invisible Library #1)
Kindle edition
$2.99 available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she's posted to an alternative London. Their mission - to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it's already been stolen. London's underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested - the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene's new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.

Soon, she's up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option - the nature of reality itself is at stake.

My Review: I want to be a Librarian.
The atmosphere of the place soothed her automatically; the rich lantern lights, the sheer scent of paper and leather, and the fact that everywhere she looked, there were books, books, beautiful books.
***
She was a Librarian, and the deepest, most fundamental part of her life involved a love of books. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out and have nothing to worry about except the next page of whatever she was reading...
***
And then they were inside, and out of the wind, and surrounded by comforting walls and walls of books. The rich, delightful smell of old paper, leather and ink permeated the place, washing away the pettier odours of blood and oil and smog.
Need I say more?
A high level of chaos would mean that they could expect to meet the Fae, creatures of chaos and magic, who were able to take form and cause disorder on such a corrupted world. And that was never good news.
***
A Librarian’s mission to seek out books for the Library developed, after a few years, into an urge to find out everything that was going on around one. It wasn’t even a personal curiosity. It was a simple, impersonal, uncontrollable need to know. One came to terms with it.
***
And if she’d been able to choose her options a few hours ago, being trapped in a dead vampire’s private study with an angry Fae would not have been one of them.
***
Irene sighed. “So we have an incredibly glamorous female cat burglar who slinks around in a black leather cat-suit, who kills vampires in her spare time?”
Now. Are you sold? If not, skip it and regret nothing. The rest of us who aren't dead-souled potato heads will be happily reading the five extant volumes for the sheer verve with which Author Cogman lobs twists at us.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

ON TYRANNY, the perfect inexpensive gift for your favorite high-school grad or college student


ON TYRANNY: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
TIMOTHY SNYDER

Tim Duggan Books
$3.99 ereader platforms, $8.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: An historian of fascism offers a guide for surviving and resisting America’s turn towards authoritarianism.

On November 9th, millions of Americans woke up to the impossible: the election of Donald Trump as president. Against all predictions, one of the most-disliked presidential candidates in history had swept the electoral college, elevating a man with open contempt for democratic norms and institutions to the height of power.

Timothy Snyder is one of the most celebrated historians of the Holocaust. In his books Bloodlands and Black Earth, he has carefully dissected the events and values that enabled the rise of Hitler and Stalin and the execution of their catastrophic policies. With Twenty Lessons, Snyder draws from the darkest hours of the twentieth century to provide hope for the twenty-first. As he writes, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Twenty Lessons is a call to arms and a guide to resistance, with invaluable ideas for how we can preserve our freedoms in the uncertain years to come.

My Review: Not for its perfection of style but for its perfection of wisdom and its amazing timeliness. As I write this today, 24 March 2018, I saw the face of our future president in Emma Gonzalez as she stood silent, focused, determined, at a march made by young people to demand their lives be protected from ammosexual assholes. She spoke for six minutes and twenty seconds in total, the same amount of time that it took one piece of shit human being to slaughter seventeen of her classmates.

I believe that her speech...the few words, the long silence...will be the spark of the youth revolution our country so very badly needs. I am hopeful that Emma Gonzalez will be, by her very adamantine sense of self and her charismatic gravitas, the voice that alerts her compatriots to Author Snyder's clarion call to clarity:
The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma.
The most unbelievably high stakes are at risk in the November 2018 elections. Buy this book not for yourself but for your hopes of a reasonably happy future for the United States of America, buy it in quantity and give it to everyone you know and/or can find who is under 25, and talk to them about why you're giving them this short, clear, concise, and urgently necessary book.

Your life, my life, the life of a truly great nation, depends on them showing up at the ballot box on 6 November 2018. This is neither hyperbole nor alarmism. It is simply the truth. Looking away from the horrors of the current kakistocracy's rise to any position of power higher than hall monitor at the local middle school will only ensure the brutal and vicious agenda of these lowlife scumbags and their horrifying cadres of disgustingly venal and/or stupid supporters will succeed.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

THE SECRET CASEBOOK OF SIMON FEXIMAL, unusually well-done relationship fiction with gay protagonists and urban fantasy underpinnings


THE SECRET CASEBOOK OF SIMON FEXIMAL
KJ CHARLES

Kindle original
$3.99 available now

Rating: a warm and fuzzy four stars of five

The Publisher Says: A story too secret, too terrifying—and too shockingly intimate—for Victorian eyes.

A note to the Editor

Dear Henry,

I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.

You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.

So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.

I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.

Robert Caldwell
September 1914


My Review: This isn't a novel, but a collection of connected short stories. I'm not upset by that, just noting it so others won't go in expecting something they won't get.

Most romantic fiction comes, these days, in series form. This book's series origins are in the short fiction world. Although the premise isn't unique, the untold story behind an unseen told story, it's got legs for a reason: It gives the read an intimacy, a sense that there is nothing held back, while at the same time holding back the more public face that never existed. I like that. It feels playful to me. It resembles Mark Dunn's hilarious (to me, at least) Ibid, the footnotes to a lost novel that was published in place of the novel so the publisher's loss wouldn't be total. That made me chuckle as well, for the same reason: It's playful! Too much Modren Litrachure is about as much fun to read as a root canal is to have.

Anyway, this book. I liked it for another reason: The protagonists age. They aren't 25 and 33 for the whole book. At the end of the book they're 48 and 56, explicitly stated, and have been together for 23 years. The math adds up! I damned near passed out. Too often the author doesn't do continuity like this in the world of romantic fiction.

In addition to my squeeing about the continuity thing, I need to mention the character development. As time goes by, any of us who have had any sort of long-term relationships know that the romantic urgency flies out the window at some point. You can't sustain that level of emotional excitement forever, and what takes its place in successful relationships varies. In the case of this couple, it's a shared calling/career. But as veterans of the relationship wars know, there's another powerful force that's inevitably part of the mix: Anger. People who are close, who live in close contact, inevitably rub each other the wrong way at times. In the case of Simon and Robert, the catalyst for the true, lasting anger that invades their relationship is family-based. How exactly true and accurate.

The resolution of that particular issue is just perfect. I was half in love with Author Charles before it took place, and completely infatuated after that story was finished. Oh that more romantic fictioneers would do this, would use the real stuff of living relationships to inform our fantasy of life with The One. It doesn't detract from Robert's love of Simon, or Simon's for his anchor Robert, for the story to include Robert going against Simon's well-founded and powerful desire for Robert NOT to save Simon's life.

Find bigger stakes than that. And then find another author willing to use those stakes to change the relationship the protagonists have in a new and realistic direction while still making the magical fantasy underpinnings of the story a part of that direction.

A very satisfying read. I don't give it more stars because, in the interest of fairness, I rate it based on its novelistic success and not its interconnected story success. Had it been presented to me as a set of stories, a la Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, I'd give it more stars. As it is, I give it my recommendation to relationship fiction fans in search of realism within their fantasy life, fantasy of life, and life of fantasy.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

STILL WATERS, cozy Swedish Scandicrime debut novel


STILL WATERS
VIVECA STEN
(tr. Marlaine Delargy; Sandhamn Murders #1)
AmazonCrossing
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: On a hot July morning on Sweden’s idyllic vacation island of Sandhamn, a man takes his dog for a walk and makes a gruesome discovery: a body, tangled in a fishing net, has washed ashore.

Police detective Thomas Andreasson is the first to arrive on the scene. Before long, he has identified the deceased as Krister Berggren, a bachelor from the mainland who has been missing for months. All signs point to an accident—until another brutalized corpse is found at the local bed-and-breakfast. But this time it is Berggren’s cousin, whom Thomas interviewed in Stockholm just days before.

As the island’s residents reel from the news, Thomas turns to his childhood friend, local lawyer Nora Linde. Together, they attempt to unravel the riddles left behind by these two mysterious outsiders—while trying to make sense of the difficult twists their own lives have taken since the shared summer days of their youth.

My Review: I downloaded this onto my Kindle when it was a Kindle First offering about three years ago. It finally snagged my attention. I think it finally got me because, when I opened it, I read this:
The department’s coffeemaker produced a liquid that was positively toxic. How Margit could knock it back in such quantities was a mystery. Thomas had switched to drinking tea for the first time in his life because of it.
THOMAS!! RUN!! Run fast and run far, no good can ever come from a place where the coffee is so bad that *retch* tea *shudder* is a better beverage option!

*glowers Blightyward* Y'all got nothin' to say here, Brits, you gave the world chattel slavery, John Bull, and cricket, and kept National Health Service, Cornwall, and Prince Harry!

Thomas Andreasson is from Harö in the Stockholm archipelago's unfashionable bit, or at least it wasn't fashionable when he was a lad. His world has been upended in so many ways in recent months, his life as a husband and father is over without warning or any desire for it to be so, his best friend Nora is suddenly among murderers on their shared childhood home of Sandhamn, and he's got no clues to solve the suspicious death followed by sure and certain murder, followed by *very* suspicious death and bring the killer to justice.

So he plods along, doing responsible policework, following leads that don't lead, until he is weary of the routine as well as of the whole enterprise of staying alive. We switch PoV characters a good bit in this book, but Thomas is the policeman so he gets most of the tedious legwork in the story. His senior partner, Margit, is dying to spend the short, sweet Swedish summer with her husband and teenaged daughters somewhere south. This case is foiling her desire to get away. Interestingly, Thomas has no issue with Margit being the lead in the case; he's never once shown being resentful of her authority, but once feels a bit downhearted when she corrects an error he's made...because he made the error, not because a woman corrected him. This was refreshing.

One lead, found by Thomas' lovely young colleague (and clearly intended to be love interest) Carina, takes him and Margit to a self-made man's home on Sandhamn. Thomas' past on the island makes the appearance of the house grating to him, and Margit's social conscience shows up for a pleasant interlude:
Apart from the white eaves and steps, every last piece of timber was nauseatingly green. Without the eaves and steps you could easily have imagined you were standing in front of a giant marzipan cake. Only the rose was missing.

"I’ve never seen such a fine example of nouveau riche." (said Margit)
We see that a lot on the South Shore of Long Island. It's the arrivistes buying old cottages and slapping down out-of-proportion McMansions onto their zero-lot-line dreams of seaside living. Drearily familiar to anyone living by a water feature. Thomas doesn't like the house and really doesn't like the man in it...there is something *wrong* with a person who moves to a strong, distinctive community like Sandhamn and flouts every tradition and norm that makes the place itself!

But then there's Nora, whose roots on Sandhamn go way back before even Thomas' do. She doesn't like this new reality at all, and doesn't like the cultural shift it represents. She feels it as an affront to her core principles, as we're told directly:
It gave Nora the unpleasant feeling that everything was for sale. Everything could be bought or sold.
Sandhamn is more than a place to Nora, it's a life and a lifestyle she feels is hers down to her very core. These values agree with mine. I approve of them and wish there were more Noras in the world.

So what the hell drew her to the insensitive clod of a scion of the booboisie that she married?!
Henrik just didn’t get it. He was blind and deaf to any hint that his mother might not be the best mother-in-law in the world. Nora gave in.

Now she had been offered her dream job, and he didn’t even seem to want to discuss it. It wasn’t fair.

Why challenge Henrik, instead of paying attention to the clear signals he had given her?
I found this infuriating. Which is it, Author Sten, Nora's a modern woman or a housewife? She started their marriage with compromises on where they'd live, what he'd be expected to do as a parent, and somehow thought he'd magically divine that she was seriously convinced he'd do the same for her?! Why?! How?! Begin as you mean to go on, Nora. Was it Mary Poppins who said that first, or just most famously? Anyway, there was absolutely no reason to think Henrik would ever be anything but his parents' son, since he never made a single solitary peep of dissatisfaction with them and the way they live(d) their lives. Oh! Oh! And then there's her best friend, Thomas, whose reaction to Henrik should've made Nora run screaming:
There was an underlying distance between the two men that never quite disappeared in spite of the fact that they had known each other for a long time. Henrik’s upper-middle-class background and deeply conservative values didn’t exactly improve matters.
There's no way in hell that didn't show in Thomas' responses to Henrik over the years. So lay off the shockhorror about the way the reactionary poltroon responds to your desire to do something for yourself, lady, he's never been different and expecting him to change will only make both of you and your kids angry and upset and end up in divorce. Skip the middle bit: Get the divorce, start the new life, and make sure the kids know *why* mommy left daddy without rancorous vituperative invective flowing from you. Him, you can't affect. As should be obvious to you by now.

The two sleuths are close friends and each has made a hash of their personal life. This isn't familiar at all, is it. But it's an evergreen for a reason, since it gives the author a great line of attack to keep series readers reading. Nora's marriage is doomed, Thomas' relationship with Carina is doomed, the whole island of Sandhamn...faithless to the crime statistics for Nordic countries...will soon be hip deep in dead bodies, much more will be made of Nora's diabetes (which figures in the action but not the resolution of this book), and if there is a just and merciful gawd Nora's mother-in-law will be savagely torn to bits by ravening wild dogs on live television.

Translator Delargy, based in the UK, uses some tricks to keep the prose feeling uniquely Sten's own. One is the use of a nonstandard form of the verb "to get hold (of)", viz. "ahold." In spoken words I'm not averse to this formulation of the verb, but it abounds in this book and I found it irksome after the sixth or seventh usage. It's purely a personal twitch, no knock on the skills Delargy brought to bear on the Englishing of the book. I am on record many places as despising the unnecessary and ungainly "u"ification of perfectly simple words like "valor" and "honor" so I needn't go into why that made me flinch every time I ran across it. Delargy does a creditable job making Sten's words readable in English, and that's no mean feat, so kudos to you Madam.

The world has lots and lots of gritty Scandicrime. You can hardly open your Kindle without being offered some more gritty Scandicrime. What the world doesn't have is cozy Scandicrime. Sten's involving debut novel is both pine-scented Scandi and cozy, sense-of-place crime. I like that about it and it's what will cause me to seek out the next book in the series.

So switch your mental gears to Swedish cozy. Step out of the Vauxhall and into the Volvo station wagon.

Friday, March 16, 2018

BIRD BOX, four years late to the party but reviewed at last...and highly praised


BIRD BOX
JOSH MALERMAN

Ecco Press
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Something is out there, something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse of it, and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remains, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now that the boy and girl are four, it's time to go, but the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat--blindfolded--with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. Something is following them all the while, but is it man, animal, or monster?

Interweaving past and present, Bird Box is a snapshot of a world unraveled that will have you racing to the final page.

My Review: So I was packing this up to send to a longtime friend when I ran across a review of another Malerman, Unbury Carol, and got to thinking about whether I'd reviewed this book or not. Checking it out, turns out I never did! Well, I got it from Ecco in 2014, and that was the year I went crazy, so I guess I have an excuse.

Now that we're into 2018, we're in for a film of the book! Eric Heisserer wrote, Sandra Bullock stars, Netflix distributes the five-years-coming feature, which sold to Hollyweird before the book came out. Say what you will about Heisserer's Arrival as an adaptation of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", it was a well-written movie qua movie.

I was amazed at how proficient Malerman's prose was when I read the book. It's the artifact of a lot of rewrites and it's been guided by skilled hands. He did his mom proud. (He dedicated the book to her.) I was so happy with the way Malerman unfolded the story. He was careful to make that the sensation of reading the story...unfolding, like an origami crane being reverse engineered or a time-lapse film of a sunflower blossoming.

Malorie is one hard-luck chickie. She no sooner gets free of her hick-town upbringing than she gets caught. She no sooner tells her mama she's gonna be a grandmother than the whole world goes batshit crazy and starts killing themselves and each other. She no sooner gets to a safe haven than someone sabotages it...but this time she's got some luck! She manages to keep herself and her baby, oh and another woman's baby because why have trouble when you could have double trouble?, alive! Yay?

The way Malorie survives is astoundingly grim. I don't honestly know why she kept going. To do what, accomplish what? Blindfolds are the only protection from seeing whatever it is that makes normal people do violent and abnormal things. She and the two kids are almost always blindfolded it seems. But is this a way to live? Malorie asks herself this all the time, but appears to reach no answer and by default keeps herself and Boy and Girl alive. (That's what she calls them, not me being cute. After all who needs names in a group of three?)

So there it is...post-apocalyptic set-up par excellence. I was drawn in to Malorie's living arrangements and compromises and was rocked along by the pace of the story. I am really impressed by Ecco's production of the actual physical book. The cover is a lovely photo of the titular birds; the jacket has a cut-out to the bird image; the title page has a wonderfully creepy tree motif that the chapter titles echo. It's all of a well-thought-out piece. It gives the novel a very evocative and appropriate book to home itself in.

What a treat it was to read it. I can see that it's got terrific film potential. I'm not at all surprised that it's ended up at Netflix, it's a perfect fit for their catalogue. I hope you'll read the book, and expect that if you do, you'll want to see the film.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

UNNATURAL, fourth in the Enlightenment series of Joanna Chambers' Late-Regency novels


UNNATURAL
JOANNA CHAMBERS
(Enlightenment #4)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Captain Iain Sinclair has looks, charm, military honours—even the favour of the king himself. He has everything—everything, that is, except the friendship of the one man whose good opinion he has ever cared for, scientist, James Hart.

James has loved Iain all his life, but after the last disastrous encounter between them, he vowed to accept no more crumbs from Iain’s table. If Iain cannot be the lover James wants, then James will have no more to do with him.

Disenchanted with his career, and miserable without James in his life, Iain decides to leave military service and embark upon a new career in India. Before he leaves England behind, though, he is determined to try one last time to reconcile with his dearest friend.

An invitation to a country house party from James’s sister provides the perfect opportunity to pin James down and force him to finally listen to Iain’s apology. But when Iain discovers that an apology is not enough—that James is not willing settle for less than a lover—he is forced to reconsider everything: his life, his future career, and most of all, his feelings for James.

My Review: A series that ends with a secondary character's starring role in a series novel is a very strong series indeed. This book takes a character from book 2 of the main series, Enlightenment, and gives him a star turn. Captain Iain Sinclair is King George IV's aide-de-camp, responsible to the newly enthroned Prinny for managing the flow of people seeking his attention all the while serving his army masters as a spy on His Pathetic Majesty's private life and thoughts.

Characteristically for the charismatic and unprincipled Iain, it's the tedium and not the moral questionability of his job that drives him to resign his commission in His Majesty's Army. Dealing with the Royal Twit's sulks, tantrums, and crotchets makes Iain crazy. He does it for three years because he's ashamed to let go of the army career that has enabled him to feel his father's mildest, most conditional affection every once in a way.

You see, Iain had the bad taste to be gay. He's a younger son, so there aren't dynastic consequences. But his father, already disappointed in his own life, puts extra weight on Iain and feels he was sorely let down by him on a horrible occasion back before discovering the lad's gayness. He speaks awful, hateful words to his son, and essentially does his dead-level best to be hateful and terrible to him as often as possible. This is made easier for "Father" Dear as his personal and familial disappointments are constantly laved in the (un-)balm of alcohol. Iain is only slightly redeemed by his Army commission and his tales of derring-do in battle.

But then the Napoleonic Wars end. Being an aide-de-camp to the King...well...not quite so exciting as battlefield stuff, though goddesses know that most fathers of that era would be kvelling over their son's closeness to the Royal Person. Not Iain's, no indeed. Where does Iain turn for his affections to be returned?

His best friend, the younger but more intelligent James Hart. Jamie has hero-worshipped his dashing, sophisticated older friend most of his life. Their mothers and older sisters are fast friends. Their proximity and their mutual admiration lead the usual places for young gay boys in the country with no other objects of desire. But only after the older Iain has some experience under his belt, having been away in the Army and all. And James gets a first-hand look at what Iain has learned! Mind=blown.

So what if Iain isn't the marrying kind and his country mouse is?

When we meet Iain in the series universe it is as a fellow debauchee of starchy David Lauriston's rakehell true love, Lord Murdo Balfour. The King's Scottish tour was organized to keep the fat old fool busy while the *real* governing class gets on with drawing a plan to keep peace and foster stability in all of Europe. (It was remarkably successful.) The fool's progress through Scotland was Iain's worst nightmare and his resignation came shortly after it was over. Iain is still hurting from James' inability to be just friends with the man he loves and idolizes. After one truly gorgeous lovemaking session, a romantic and loving scene described by Author Chambers in her trademark spare and evocative style, Iain has severe collywobbles and runs away, comme d'habitude. James is...done, through, out of patience with his beloved's assholish behavior, both at that moment and later when James runs Iain to ground to have it out with him in fashionable London's bordello of choice for sodomites. (Doubly funny since the sin of the Sodomites was lack of hospitality to strangers, and what could *possibly* be more hospitable than a bordello?! That lack of the hospitable spirit's why ol' Yhwh rained fire and brimstone down on 'em. Look it up! It's right there in that Bible the homophobes beat us up with.)

This novel's structure shifts points of view between the men as well as time-shifts between past and present. That can feel a little seasick at times. There is one section of the men at a fight that I skimmed...I don't like boxing...plus it went on a bit long. But in the moments that make the series of novels work, the quiet and private moments of two young men flouting every tradition and every custom they've been raised to uphold and revere, Author Chambers delivers the goods and then some.

There is a love nest scene...the young men coming into a prepared love nest for the first time...that made me smile as wide as anything I've ever read. There was an al fresco scene that caused a mild attack of the vapours. There was a moment between two siblings that made me sadly aware that very few gay people in this country, and in this world, have real families. There were deeply affecting scenes in almost every chapter (every if you're more boxing tolerant than I am). This is an historical novel with gay main characters, though, and make no mistake. Romantic yes, romance no. It's closer to a romance than the main trilogy, which I'd call a long historical novel, is, but still not enough of the beats of a genre romance are there for that subset of readers.

I went into the read expecting that to be the case so I was not jolted by the lacks and absences. If you'll set aside romance novel ideation and think of the books as historical novels, I suspect you'll thoroughly enjoy the reads.

ENLIGHTENED, third Joanna Chambers historical novel in the Enlightenment series


ENLIGHTENED
JOANNA CHAMBERS
(Enlightenment #3)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: David Lauriston has been recuperating at Lord Murdo Balfour’s Laverock estate for the last five months. At Laverock, he has regained his health and confidence and has found—with Murdo—more happiness and contentment than he has never known before.

David is all too aware that some day soon he will have to leave Laverock—and Murdo—and return to his legal practice in Edinburgh, just as Murdo will have to return to his life in London. But when David’s mentor, Patrick Chalmers, asks David to return to Edinburgh to visit him on his deathbed, it seems that day has come sooner than either David or Murdo would have wished.

Chalmers begs David to undertake one last piece of business for him: to secure the future of Chalmers’s daughter Elizabeth. But to carry out his old mentor’s wishes, David must travel to London, with Murdo.

No sooner have the two men arrived in the capital than they encounter Murdo’s ruthlessly manipulative father, who reveals a shocking secret that rocks David to his foundations. What’s more, when David discovers Elizabeth is facing far greater danger than even her father feared, he is determined to help her, no matter the cost to his own safety.

As the stakes rise, it is Murdo who must choose what he is prepared to sacrifice to keep David at his side, and ask whether there is any possibility of lasting happiness for men like them.

My Review: Yes indeed, this is the way to end a series/long book. A completely satisfying and inevitable ending that managed to come about in a logical and challenging way.

The lead-up to the ending ain't half bad, either, but it's this ending...won't spoiler it for y'all, the Antispoilerization Brigade gets downright violent...that explains why I connected with this series of just-post-Regency-set books.

How to explain without giving the show away...geez...this is as rough as explaining what the fuss about non-masturbatory orgasms is to one who has never had one...okay, lemme see here, you know how your intimate loved one has this set of things you know they do and do well? Your Lovely Other, as a Kiwi friend of mine refers to her partner, operates in this expected way and you're happy with that (or you're the Remodeler and should be excoriated and shunned, if you don't like the house don't buy it), even proud of the high end of the range of behaviors.

Then comes the day when there's a lot at stake, the high end of the range that you love in them isn't going to solve all the problems but hey, pobody's nerfect, and...

...

...they come ripping through good enough and fly up to jaw-dropping otherworldly excellence-cum-terrifying gut-wrenching omigawd-we're-gonna-die recklessness...

...

...and there you are arms outstretched to catch them when the inevitable fall comes, praying you're strong enough to keep them at least alive...

...

...and they land light as a feather next to you, take your hand, smile and say, "shall we go home now, dear?"

And that, my friends, is that. You will never, ever look at another human being without thinking, "you poor miserable sod, My Very Own Love doesn't know you're alive but can't wait to get home to *me*," with a smug, superior smirk on your nasty little unfairly-lucky-rotter face.

Fortunately we have fiction to take us there. It's not the most common IRL experience, is it. This series/fairly long novel gave me that experience. Read the three main novels and it's just possible it might give you the same one. I encourage you to try at least volume 1, Provoked.

*cue evil cackle and commence addictive reading in 3...2...1...*

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

BEGUILED, second Enlightenment novel by Joanna Chambers


BEGUILED
JOANNA CHAMBERS
(Enlightenment #2)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Two years after his last encounter with cynical nobleman Lord Murdo Balfour, David Lauriston accidentally meets him again in the heart of Edinburgh.

King George IV is about to make his first visit to Edinburgh and Murdo has been sent North by his politician father to represent his aristocratic family at the celebrations.

David and Murdo’s last parting was painful—and on Murdo’s part, bitter—but Murdo’s feelings seem to have mellowed in the intervening years. So much so, that he suggests to David that they enjoy each other’s company during Murdo’s stay in the capital.
Despite his initial reservations, David cannot put Murdo’s proposal from his mind, and soon find himself at Murdo’s door—and in his arms.

But other figures from David’s past are converging on the city, and as the pomp and ceremony of the King’s visit unfolds around them, David is drawn into a chain of events that will threaten everything: his career, his wellbeing, and the fragile bond that, despite David’s best intentions, is growing between him and Murdo.

My Review: One quote to rule the book:
A man will fight for hate for a long time, but he will fight for love to the death.

Every single moment of this entry into the series is about Murdo's hate for the way his world wants him to behave, and his love for David, which is (he very much fears) unreciprocated.

It is also about how deeply David detests his weakness of character that forbids him to turn his face to his true love and say, simply and directly, "I love you, Murdo."

These men fight like wounded Spartans at Thermopylae for the victory of love...for others, straight others at that...and end up with a situation neither could've planned, predicted, laid a course for, and that perfectly suits their almost desperate hunger for space and time to revel in the love they share but can't quite figure out how to make manifest.

And can't admit they share because Rules and Reasons. Well, as you'd expect in a romantic novel, the Rules go right out the door and the Reasons fly out the window behind them. The plot device for this to happen is quite bittersweet, involving loss and pain for starchy little prig David, whose quite fragile heart is at odds with his armor-clad and spike-encrusted Sense of Honour. Murdo is, as always, staunch in his defense of David's well-being even when it hurts him quite deeply to privilege the twerp's sense of ma'at over his own desperate needs. They are, after all, of different classes and from radically (!) different kinds of families. Dynastic and political pressures apply to Murdo that simply pass lower-class David's ken. But one thing we all know: In books, Love Conquers All.

Eventually.

The historical aspects of the series please me, the characters are limned economically if, at times, a bit repetitively...one more of Murdo's "fractional relaxation"s and Imma cut a bitch....and the timelessness of men's cowardliness in the face of vulnerability makes volume 3 a must-read. Goodreads reviewer Heather_k described the series as one long novel. I concur. Start at the beginning, read to the end; it's also got a short fiction entry, Seasons Pass, which is best read for free before reading this book. It explains in detail the way Murdo ends up in Edinburgh at the Royal Tour.

It also sets up the fourth book of the trilogy, much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy of five books, which I hope you'll get hooked enough to want to read.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

HOARFROST, sixth Whyborne & Griffin paranormal romp...set in Gold-Rush era ALASKA!


HOARFROST
JORDAN L. HAWK
(Whyborne & Griffin #6)
Kindle edition
$4.99 available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sorcerer Percival Endicott Whyborne and his husband Griffin Flaherty have enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of peace and quiet. Unfortunately, the calm is shattered by the arrival of a package from Griffin’s brother Jack, who has uncovered a strange artifact while digging for gold in Alaska. The discovery of a previously unknown civilization could revive the career of their friend Dr. Christine Putnam—or it might kill them all, if the hints of dark sorcery surrounding the find are true.

With Christine and her fiancé Iskander, Whyborne and Griffin must journey to the farthest reaches of the arctic to stop an ancient evil from claiming the life of Griffin’s brother. But in the rough mining camp of Hoarfrost, secrets fly as thickly as the snow, and Whyborne isn’t the only sorcerer drawn by the rumors of magic. Amidst a wilderness of ice and stone, Griffin must either face his greatest fear—or lose everyone he loves.

My Review: And here is where everything changes.

The first words of this book, Griffin's words which marks the first big change, are:
Pa was dead.
POW just like that you, the series' reader on through this sixth entry, are busted in the chops. The long history of Griffin and his adoptive father is now over. The possibility of a reconciliation is gone forever. Now Griffin has to find a way to forgive. Forgiveness is vital to an injured, abused child. It doesn't always mean restored relationships. But Griffin is now past the point where that can happen.

First words of the first page. THAT is bravery, Author Hawk.

Will it surprise you to learn that Griffin's revelation is but the first painful wrench in this journey? I thought not. Griffin's father's memorial service, as he was asked by his adoptive mother not to attend the funeral, brings comfort to Griffin from the depths of the sea that Widdershins abuts, and allows him to hope in his desolated heart that the letters his father returned to sender unopened will finally reach the hard, unforgiving heart of the old man via their smoke.

The events of the book begin on a beach in Widdershins and end on a dockside in Alaska, and there is not one moment of downtime anywhere along the way. We're treated to mushing across the frozen tundra, spelunking for relics of an ancient civilization, sibling and familial rivalries that can never fully be resolved, and meetings with old enemies that change the course of countless lives. Whyborne and Griffin are, through it all, steadfastly each others' rock and refuge. Their misunderstandings are all based in the intense desire of the lover to protect the beloved at all costs. Their ultimate challenge is always "how can I be sure my own true love is safe? how can I make him safe first, then whole, then happy?"

The answers are, for the first time, given in chapters told from alternating points of view. It's about time that Author Hawk gave Griffin some real, extended attention. I welcome this new format. Also welcome is Griffin's newfound brother Jack. He's got possibilities, and I hope we'll see him again. The memory he shared of giving his coat to Griffin as he was taken in by a different family, one that wasn't like Griffin's, was deeply moving.

If my previous warblings of pleasure haven't convinced you to give the series a try, this one won't either. But you are missing a treat.

PROVOKED, first in the Enlightenment series of historical novels featuring David Lauriston and Lord Murdo Balfour


PROVOKED
JOANNA CHAMBERS
(Enlightened #1)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, lawyer David Lauriston tries to maintain a celibate existence while he forges his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world.

But then, into his repressed and orderly life, bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. And as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway. Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But Murdo is not the only man distracting David from his work. Euan MacLennan, the brother of a convicted radical David once represented, approaches David to beg him for help. Euan is searching for the government agent who sent his brother to Australia on a convict ship, and other radicals to the gallows. Despite knowing it may damage his career, David cannot turn Euan away.

As their search progresses, it begins to look as though the trail may lead to none other than Lord Murdo Balfour, and David has to wonder whether it’s possible Murdo could be more than he seems. Is he really just a bored aristocrat, amusing himself at David’s expense, or could he be the agent provocateur responsible for the fate of Peter MacLennan and the other radicals?

My Review: I'd rate this lower if I hadn't been prepared for the modest sexual content. What there was the author did well and it wasn't gratuitous or inorganic. I was sure the story needed to be in that place at that moment; I was sure the characters were true to their established motivations; in the end, it wasn't about dissatisfaction that I've read from a few other reviewers. I suspect the issues arose from what I was inclined to see as "instaluuuv" between men of radically (!) different stations in Regency life.

That mattered a great deal more then than it does now. Not that it doesn't now, it definitely does, but then it was an issue front and center in every act of daily life. How Balfour comes on to David is completely believable. How David responds, and how he feels, is also completely believable.

That Murdo Balfour argues for the pragmatic accommodation of self to society is unremarkably in character; that David starchily stands for conformity to the harshest possible code of actions while suffering for it is also unremarkably in character for his Presbyterian upbringing. A sect that preached predestination...your soul's salvation was not earned or even earnable since God decided the identity of the 144,000 saved at the beginning of time....wasn't likely to produce anything but the most craven sorts of lickspittles.

What made the read pleasurable for me was the sense that the men were genuinely, if ineptly and obtusely, falling for the person wearing the pretty face that neither could quite unsee. David's red hair, Balfour's dark eyes, David's slightness and Balfour's height and heft...timelessly, opposites do indeed attract. But the characters, the bits that have to fit if a passion is to alter its bell curve towards love's more complex shapes, do match. The men are motivated by their respective and surprisingly similar sense of honor.

It's just a pity that David's sense of humor is so impaired at the expense of that sense of honor.

Not for the squeamishly heterosexual.

Monday, March 12, 2018

BLOODLINE, fifth Whyborne & Griffin Lovecraft-flavored paranormal adventure


BLOODLINE
JORDAN L. HAWK
(Whyborne & Griffin #5)
Kindle edition
$4.99 available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Between his bullying father and dissolute brother, Percival Endicott Whyborne has quite enough problematic family members to deal with. So when his sister returns to Widdershins asking for help solving the mystery of a derelict ship, Whyborne is reluctant to get involved. Until, that is, a brutal murderer strikes, leaving Whyborne and his lover Griffin no choice but to take the case.

The investigation leads them deep into a conspiracy of blackmail, murder, and darkest sorcery. But worst of all are the secrets held within the family itself, one of which will destroy everything Whyborne believed to be true, not only about his family, but about himself.

My Review: Guinevere, Lady Gravenwold, is Whyborne's elder sister. She was never on his side as a child locked in battle with Stanford, his lout of a louse of a lush of an older brother. As such she didn't and doesn't loom large in his life, being a married and titled English matron. She is, nevertheless, the vector for an abrupt and painful change in Whyborne's life and in his loving relationship with Griffin. She brings the Endicott twins, Theo and Fiona, English scions of the matrilineal ancestry shared by Whyborne's siblings. They're everyhting a country bumpkin American cousin expects English aristocrats to be: Sophisticated, glamorous, amorous (at least Theo is, noticing Whyborne "like a dessert he wants to sample" according to Griffin's sour, unimpressed take on things), and very, very eager to make their American relatives among their social conquests.

Social, and other, kinds of conquests. Many other kinds.

This entry in the series is a very different beast from the others. Yes, Whyborne still lies-by-omission to a worried Griffin about his "dabblings" into sorcery. Yes, Griffin still tries his best to stop Whyborne from taking ridiculous risks with life and limb, since he as a former Pinkerton understands how quickly a controlled situation can unravel into monstrous chaos. He's got the mental scars to prove it. But what makes this entry's stakes higher is the extremely close position of each of the story's lines to Whyborne's most beloved and cherished people.

Guinevere's biggest surprise for Whyborne is her knowledge that he's a sorceror. The Endicott twins' biggest surprise for Whyborne is their true identities. Griffin's biggest surprise for Whyborne is that he loves his Ival (awful nickname, I'd prefer "Percy" if I were Whyborne) completely and unswervingly. And it should tell you something major about this book that those aren't spoilers significant enough to rate as problematic within the events of this book.

The true nature of Widdershins is revealed. The true fate of the Whyborne family comes to fruition. The true nature of Whyborne's sorcerous powers blasts through any remaining walls of fear to be brought fully into his intimates' lives.

A new people, the ketoi, play their most significant role to date. The beauty of their existence is heart-hurting by the end of the book.

Author Hawk has made these books cumulative in their emotional effect. Read them in order. And I strongly recommend you read them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

ALL THESE WORLDS is the end of our fun tour of the Bobiverse


ALL THESE WORLDS
DENNIS E. TAYLOR
(Bobiverse #3)
Worldbuilders Press
$4.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Being a sentient spaceship really should be more fun. But after spreading out through space for almost a century, Bob and his clones just can't stay out of trouble.

They've created enough colonies so humanity shouldn't go extinct. But political squabbles have a bad habit of dying hard, and the Brazilian probes are still trying to take out the competition. And the Bobs have picked a fight with an older, more powerful species with a large appetite and a short temper.

Still stinging from getting their collective butts kicked in their first encounter with the Others, the Bobs now face the prospect of a decisive final battle to defend Earth and its colonies. But the Bobs are less disciplined than a herd of cats, and some of the younger copies are more concerned with their own local problems than defeating the Others.

Yet salvation may come from an unlikely source. A couple of eighth-generation Bobs have found something out in deep space. All it will take to save the Earth and perhaps all of humanity is for them to get it to Sol — unless the Others arrive first.

My Review: When the limitations of a single human lifespan are removed from a sentient being's development, what will happen? Will the being go mad, become frozen emotionally, decide to destroy the Universe and see what happens next?

Bob Johansson finds out.

I am jealous of Bob, I am happy Author Taylor decided to write Bob down, and I am all done with the series of novels explaining the Bobiverse. Kinda sorta wish I wasn't but I am, and I think a lot of y'all should pack a Kindle with these three novels and light out for the Bobiverse right quick. The reason is that, in reading the books in order, you'll come to realize that Author Taylor doesn't have a high opinion of the species and still makes a concerted effort to save us. He doesn't consign us to the scrapheap of history with a shrug and a ~meh~.

In this moment of US national history, it's probably more than I'd be able or even willing to do, so it made my days a bit brighter. I'm happy to be jollied along by the greater generosity of a Man with a Plan. And so, I suspect, might other guys be. And I stress the "guys" part—this is a Guy Book in every particular. There are very few female characters and only one, Bridget, is at all developed. Even she is a guy in a woman suit.

Bridget does provide something unique to the Bobiverse...she has a family, kids who grow into beings both like and unlike her. Her relationship with those kids as all the parties age...Bob, in his own way, ages as well...makes for some excellent drama and some astonishing emotional resonances with readers over 50.

I'm also at the point in life where another factor of the Bobiverse, the meditation on personal immortality and the options it provides, is particularly interesting to me. I don't think I'm quite as eager for it at my age as I would have been at Bob's age (31) when he dies. I'm not saying it doesn't have a huge upside. I'm saying that I now feel as well as see the downside, the inevitable losses and griefs piling up under the carpet until the Karastan is basically a blip on the Everest of stuff not dealt with. Author Taylor goes there, as well, and I suspect it's a subject of newfound interest to the intended audience for the book.

The idea of family comes in for some particularly inventive workouts in the Bobiverse. One of the intriguing things about immortality, particularly in Bob's form of multiple "clones" of his conscious mind branching from the moments of separation, is the expanded family sense it offers. Each new generation of Bob-clones is one more removed from Original Biological Bob, then Replicant Bob, then the cloned Bob-minds that cloned Bob-minds that now clone Bob-minds...yet all have perfect digital recall of the "ancestral" Bobs to the moment of their awareness as individuals begins.

Mind-blowing, isn't it? Think on it: generations of sibling-selves with your character! Every facet would be fully explored, of course, like all siblings each unique individual would seek to become different, to distinguish itself from all the others around it. In effect, though the clones would start with certain memories as a base of contact with all the other sibling consciousnesses, as the generations of cloning take place the point of commonality would be deeper and deeper under the sense of personal uniqueness.

It would be fascinating to see this play out! I wanna be in the Bobiverse, dammit!

Except, of course, for the Bobiversal solution to the Fermi Paradox ("where is everybody?"), the Others. A better monster-movie villain I ain't never read. Scary. Don't deny yourself the simultaneous pleasure and fear of experiencing the Bobiverse! Like, now!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

NECROPOLIS, fourth Whyborne & Griffin Lovecraftian paranormal suspense novel


NECROPOLIS
JORDAN L. HAWK
(Whyborne & Griffin #4)
Kindle edition
$4.99 available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Introverted scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne has spent the last few months watching his lover, Griffin Flaherty, come to terms with the rejection of his adoptive family. So when an urgent telegram from Christine summons them to Egypt, Whyborne is reluctant to risk the fragile peace they’ve established. Until, that is, a man who seems as much animal as human tries to murder Whyborne in the museum.

Amidst the ancient ruins of the pharaohs, they must join Christine and face betrayal, murder, and a legendary sorceress risen from the dead. In the forge of the desert heat, the trio will either face their fears and stand together—or shatter the bonds between them forever.

My Review: Book four in a series is a tricky point. There's a reason most of the fantasy/genre publishing world has been dominated by trilogies: We're mostly sick of the joke by the time we get to book three. Even of characters that are delightful and daisy-fresh and involved in unique endeavors, by the time we've read 300,000 words-plus about them, we're in full fatigue mode. It's the same reason there are danger points in marriages, cliffs that TV shows fall over, serial entrepreneurs.

We get bored.

So in a series of books that's about a pair of lovers becoming a couple, learning about themselves, each other, their families, and oh yeah by the way those monsters under your bed? totally real, how do we do the Bore-Me-Not Rhumba? At about the pace the men involved do it, per Author Hawk. Whyborne's antics in the first three books have led his gawky, scholarly self down some most unusual paths, and Griffin is deeply concerned for the safety and sanity of his mate. Their adventure in this book leads them to follow Christine, the token real girl, to the deserts of Egypt in order to thwart Nyarlathotep coming to Earth. (That's one of Lovecraft's Elder Gods, in case you're wondering.)

But the trip to Egypt is Whyborne's worst nightmare! Griffin, well, traveling is nothing to his former-Pinkerton self. He's quite looking forward to it...except he's worried about his beloved Whyborne, whose studies in sorcerous spells make him much more than a little nervous:
If the man couldn’t make an argument one way, he’d find another.
Welcome to marriage, Whyborne. Griffin is completely invested in you, your health, your survival. His happiness depends on your maintenance of all those things. He's going to argue with you about your behaviors when he sees you acting counter to what he knows is your best interest. That it isn't what you think is your best interest is what keeps marriages alive.

As is also bog-standard normal for long-term love, Party of the first part might as well be looking at a fun-house mirror for all the resemblance their self-image bears to Party of the second part's vision of them:
Griffin had once called me brave, but I couldn’t imagine how he would possibly think it. I feared everything: talking to strangers, leaving Widdershins, humiliating myself in public…the list went on and on. There was nothing for a man such as Griffin, who as a Pinkerton foiled bank robberies and chased down hardened criminals, to admire in me. But he thought otherwise, mad as it sounded, and his belief made me want to be that man, the one he could admire.
The bright face of being in love. How common a feeling, to want the beloved to be pleased with us! And how seldom we see that the beloved is looking squarely at us and seeing the strength that it takes to move in the face of fear. Griffin sees Whyborne's best in seeing his behaviors and knowing the fears and failings behind them:
How you burn, bright enough it almost blinds me. But I can’t look away.
And how often the beloved already is, far more than we ever credit or even believe when we're told as Griffin directly says to Whyborne above, possessed of our secrets and infatuated by our strength in the face of them.

It's a pallid but similar investment that the series reader makes in the series. This danger point, book four, sinks many a series under the weight of its tics and crotchets. Whyborne, our PoV character, is monumentally self-absorbed. The woman-ness of a lady isn't really an excuse for Whyborne's inability to see her, a new character in this book's, interest in him:
Her smile offered me no clues. “Very good indeed,” she affirmed, before turning back to the wall and leaving me to my confusion. ... I opened my mouth to ask what she meant. At the same moment, she leaned forward and kissed me.
And thus is a silly git shocked, shocked I say, by the mere existence of women aware of his desirability! It's played for comedy, and truthfully I've been Whyborne more than once in my life (it shames me to admit), but it's part and parcel of Whyborne's least appealing trait. It's very much at the fore here. It's a crotchet that could sink the series easily, as I found my eyes rolling without conscious volition...except Author Hawk got there ahead of me.

One of Griffin's refrains has been his concern for the effects of Whyborne's researches on his safety. Whyborne's counter is always, "look at how many times it's saved our bacon!" And this point is inarguable, but to one side, of Griffin's concern. Deflecting attention is a survival thing for Whyborne, growing up in a terribly dysfunctional family. It's been working fine until now, but Griffin and Christine are in much more danger than ever from multiple sources. All the sources are magical. All of them demand that Whyborne override Griffin's loving concern for his safety. All of the threats also demand that he de-absorb himself in his own head and notice, really and truly notice *in*the*moment* that his friends are real even when he's not paying attention to them.

About this time, most authors of series fail. They don't let the character that needs to grow make the leap. Author Hawk does, I'm very happy to say, and does so very explicitly. It is the reason I will read books five and up. I've included the quote as a spoiler, so look no farther down unless you're game for a spoiler.

******************************************SPOILER BELOW******************************************

REALLY AND TRULY THERE'S A SPOILER DOWN THERE


******************************************************************************************************************************

LAST CHANCE TO LOOK AWAY

******************************************************************************************************************************

Whyborne, afraid for his loved ones' continued safety after the supernatural enemies they faced down in this book, makes the following vow:
But I wasn’t helpless. And given the dark turns our lives had taken, the horrors we’d faced, it was my responsibility to arm myself as well as I might against any future threats. If we survived tonight, I’d stop pretending to be a dilettante and throw myself fully into the study of the arcane arts. I’d become a true sorcerer.
And now let the shenanigans commence. *gleeful hand-rubbing*

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

FOR WE ARE MANY, second Bobiverse book in a totally geekfest series


FOR WE ARE MANY
DENNIS E. TAYLOR
(Bobiverse #2)
Worldbuilders Press
$4.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Bob Johansson didn't believe in an afterlife, so waking up after being killed in a car accident was a shock. To add to the surprise, he is now a sentient computer and the controlling intelligence for a Von Neumann probe.

Bob and his copies have been spreading out from Earth for 40 years now, looking for habitable planets. But that's the only part of the plan that's still in one piece. A system-wide war has killed off 99.9% of the human race; nuclear winter is slowly making the Earth uninhabitable; a radical group wants to finish the job on the remnants of humanity; the Brazilian space probes are still out there, still trying to blow up the competition; And the Bobs have discovered a spacefaring species that sees all other life as food.

Bob left Earth anticipating a life of exploration and blissful solitude. Instead he's become a sky god to a primitive native species, the only hope for getting humanity to a new home, and possibly the only thing that can prevent every living thing in the local sphere from ending up as dinner.

My Review: This entry in the three-book series is less of a romp than the first because, of course, because the territory is no longer new or fresh; but it's still a hoot and a holler. I had such a great time going back to the Bobiverse! These books are a pleasure to me because their humor resonates with me:
At times like this, I wondered if I hadn’t gone a little overboard with the level of detail in my virtual-reality environment. There was no reason for me to even have nether regions, let alone for them to pucker.
And that should tell you what you need to know about the suitability of the series to your reading needs. If that neither makes you laugh nor gives you a sense of the subject of the books, best you pass them by.

This installment brings us past the previously known Bobiverse...the bubble of space that Bob's previously created new selves have gone off to explore...and into contact with more new species. There are new threats, new ways of getting the heck rid of old threats, and plenty of the old threats come around again:
I sincerely hoped that in the fullness of time, they’d have the opportunity to get all bent out of shape about environmentalism.
Seems that "intelligence" is a menace...and maybe VEHEMENT had a point. (Bobiversals will get that.) But there's nothing like a replicant on a mission to make the Universe safe for sentient life. The Bobs come through this book without a hint of middle-book-itis. The action doesn't slack. The stakes don't falter. The pace of the book doesn't dilly-dally and the Bobs, bless 'em, don't shilly-shally as they tackle problems on a greater-than-human timescale. I can't spoiler stuff since the Anti-spoiler Activists get so stroppy about it. But I can say that there's no good reason for someone who liked the first book not to get the second ASAP and there's no reason for someone who didn't like the first book to even consider this one.

As for me, I'm on to book three and might even have bumped this one up a rating point had it not been for the clear affection and acceptance herein shamelessly flaunted for a lifeform utterly unworthy of it:
The cat’s A.I. was realistic, right down to the total lack of loyalty.