Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ALICE PAYNE ARRIVES, first time-travel novella in what I hope and expect will be a long series

(Alice Payne #1)
Tor.com Publishing
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time.

It’s 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse.

It’s 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history―to save history―but seventy attempts later she’s still no closer to her goal.

It’s 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better!

But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new.

Little did they know, but they’ve all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.


My Review
: I love writing about an excellent alt-hist novella by a woman, about women acting to improve/change the timeline, in women's history month.

Why does there need to be a women's history month? Same reason there needs to be a Black Lives Matter movement, an LGBT Pride month, any number of other celebrations of not-white not-straight not-male not-US-centric etc etc history/achievement/identity. Y'all've had the megaphone long enough. Hand it over.

Kate Heartfield earned my delighted approval when I read her novella The Course of True Love in the five-star Shakespeare-as-fantasy anthology Monstrous Little Voices. What a pleasure it is to encounter an author whose command of the demanding art of novella-writing is so complete. Her gift for concise but not reductive prose is flatteringly highlighted in this form. With more scope than a short story, not as much elbow room as a novel, the usual fate of the novella is to exist like old Lycra workout shorts: Way too tight at entry and exit points, uselessly baggy everywhere else.

Ha, says Canadian Author Kate Heartfield, hold my soy chai latte.

This novella, single-needle tailored to fit three women who share a spirit if not a soul, tells the origin story of an eighteenth-century temporal crusader named Alice, her anchor Jane, and their twenty-second century quarry Major Prudence Zuniga of the Teleosophic Core Command. We'll start the admiration engine here: Teleosophy. Time travel, that is. "Tele-" means to, or at, a distance; "-soph-" from "sophos" means wisdom, learning, knowledge. Seeking knowledge at a distance; going far away to impart wisdom. Combined with "Core" or central point and "Command" or the illusion of control, it makes the whole concept of this story's time travel crystal clear: Traveling in time to create or control events in accordance with a master plan. Implicit in that is both hubris and desperation.

I'm putting my own words to Author Heartfield's ideas, and can't be certain they represent her thoughts, but there are others just as lovely that she explains. I'd suggest to all who belong to Goodreads that they consult Heartfield's Kindle notes, where she offers sixteen "end notes" about various inspirations and sources for tidbits in the story. I was made particularly smug by "Fleance Hall"'s note; I'd thought to myself, "Oho I see the Shakespeare-based novella wasn't an accident!" and was proved correct.

That type and level of intellectual play is a joy. The idea that someone would use the well-worn time travel trope of coming from the future to save the past in this piquant and creative way is a surprise. The demise of Netflix's extraordinarily well-made and -thought-out series Travelers had rather dispirited me as to the trope's pop-culture future. This novella, and its sequel, exist; there is a pulse in these veins, so there is hope yet!

Alice is unusual in any number of ways. Her created identity of "the Holy Ghost," a feared highwayman, as a means of avenging the powerless and simultaneously assisting the father she still adores; her secret self, lover of the young and supremely intelligent Jane; and her given existence as the dark-skinned Caribbean daughter of a well-to-do white Englishman are none of them ordinary. Alice is over thirty and unmarried. She has carefully kept it that way, despite her attraction to one particular, though completely unsuitable for marriage, man. She makes the awful discovery that a deeply unsuitable and unpleasant man wants to offer her marriage in the course of the story. Jane, no fool and surprisingly quick on the social uptake when her happiness is at stake, squashes both the intent and the desire to marry in the suitor with simple, elegant finality.

Prudence, the Major with a mission to change Time, meets these ladies in the course of the Holy Ghost's highwayman-ing. She's been through the mill, spending a decade making a serious attempt to save an unworthy-but-better-than-the-alternative man from his fate. It should tell you all you need to know that it took a decade...apparently character will out no matter what. As Prudence learns she's failed and her superiors in the Teleosophic Core Command are reassigning her, she concludes that teleosophy is not the answer to humanity's problems. A long-cherished and well-planned act of sabotage, assuring that time travel will stop and not be restarted, is her only hope. She needs someone at several points in time to execute a technological action. Jane, known to be a technological tinkerer but also a socially inept naïf, is her target for 1788, but she gets Alice instead. Alice is anything but a naïf...and anything but socially inept....

Oh dear. Things go pear-shaped in several spectacular ways, and the teleosophical implications are simultaneously dire and delicious. The second volume of the series, Alice Payne Rides, is out now. How you can resist dashing away to buy them both is beyond me.

Oh, you haven't. Addressing empty space never felt so good.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

ANY OLD DIAMONDS, first entry in the Lilywhite Boys series of caper novels

(Lilywhite Boys #1)
KJC Books
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary — so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.

The Duke's remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: he'll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec's new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman's most secret desires, and soon he's got Alec in his bed—and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what's between them... all without getting caught.


My Review
: Three instances of the vile, not-to-be-countenanced w-bomb. Two heinous, one of those so so so horrible (ON THE LAST PAGE!) it alone cost that quarter-star dock. One actually not that awful.

I can not believe I just typed that.

The cover art of this book makes me smile big'n'pretty. I'd've read it just to have that on my Kindle, had I known nothing of KJ Charles's previous ouevre. (I did...see my The Magpie Lord et seq. reviews.) But lucky me, this is vintage Charles! This is a lovely excursion into late Victorian London via a young, hard-up aristocrat who finds some jewel thieves to do his wicked stepmother dirt by relieving her of an £11,000 (about £150,000 today) diamond parure.

Hijinks ensue...as always...but let me just warn you that there are quite some several events on the way to resolution that cause the sensitive reader some serious collywobbles. I came close to invoking Cthulhu's attention to Author Charles during one or more of those moments (e.g., 63%, 86%), pulling back from the brink of madness barely in time. After all, we're taught from the cradle to praise Cthulhu...He hasn't noticed you yet. So. There's that.

But what a treat the good bits were. I am a sucker for Dominant/submissive romantic reads. This is clearly something Author Charles gets to the tips of the typing digits. These scenes are just flat wonderfully imagined, created, and inserted into the narrative. (Yes, that was me *not* making the dirty double entendre. You're welcome.) In this book, the submissive's consent and limits are so deftly woven into the narrative that I had to flip back to be sure they were there (even when they weren't one memorable time). Yeah, that's my story and you can't prove that's not why there's a finger-dent in my Kindle's screen.

Which brings me to a point I should make very clear: I am not recommending this to my heterosexual acquaintances. You will blench and clutch your pearls at least four times. Not straight safe! No! Don't!

Then there's the other great pleasure of this read. The big one, maybe, since it's something I like in series reads. We're dealing with new stories populated by characters from books past...but honest and truly, that's not a requirement to understand the motives and impulses front and center in this book. The relationships are there, but they aren't foregrounded. Whatever you need to know in order to enjoy this story is put there on the page, economically but unstintingly.

Anyone into the D/s lifestyle will find a welcome, sensitive aura of acceptance here (as in The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, which is also excellent); anyone inclined to read MM romantic fiction should already know Author Charles's work; but don't hesitate to adventure into these waters, caper-story readers. At its heart, Author Charles has given us a well-made caper with twists and turns to satisfy all but the sexually squeamish among us.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

THE GRAVE'S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, somewhat befuddling ninth Flavia mystery

(Flavia de Luce #9)
Delacorte Books
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Flavia is enjoying the summer, spending her days punting along the river with her reluctant family. Languishing in boredom, she drags a slack hand in the water, and catches her fingers in the open mouth of a drowned corpse.

Brought to shore, the dead man is found to be dressed in blue silk with ribbons at the knee, and wearing a single red ballet slipper.

Flavia needs to put her super-sleuthing skills to the test to investigate the murder of three gossips in the local church, and to keep her sisters out of danger. But what could possibly connect the son of an executed killer, a far too canny police constable, a travelling circus, and the publican's mysteriously talented wife?

My Review: Not the best entry in the series. The subplot about the poet was underused; the subplot about the kid, Hob Nightingale, was rushed through and gave nothing useful to the resolution; Carl Pendracka is mentioned but not meaningfully (being American, I suppose he was destined not to be anything except comic relief); I liked Dieter's cameo...but really, is there any point to mangling the book? It's the NINTH in a series by an 80-year-old accidental author!

The major news, at least for me, comes from the author's announcement month before last of the CBC TV series based on the books. I can't imagine how they'll make this into anything like the fun thing the reads are; somehow it seems unlikely they'll find a Flavia, but it's not my job to do any of it so good luck to 'em all.

If you're not already a series fan, don't start here. If you stalled out around book seven, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, as I did, it's worth keeping on. If your stall came earlier in the series, maybe it's not for you. This book won't, in my never-humble opinion, change anyone's mind one way or another.

The issue really is about the sense I have that Author Bradley is losing control of, or interest in, his subplots. The Nightingale family is at best sketched in; Flavia's discursive ruminations on chemistry are foregrounded; in fact, quite a lot of verbiage that feels to me like filler is Flavia's tangential blahblahblah. Some of that is charming, and too much (where I feel this book's iteration of it falls) is tedious and takes page time away from more important or, at least to me, interesting subjects to cover. Some of them, like the aforementioned Nightingale family, could very reasonably be seen as crucial to the plot and therefore the scanted attention to them and their history is a significant defect. I felt the same way about Undine's sketchy appearances after being introduced. At least she's mentioned again in this book.

Well...everything has its time, and permaybehaps the time for Flavia has ended. The next book, likely to be the last, has not come too soon.