Beguiled (Betwixt and Between, #3)

by Darynda Jones
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781734385267
Series: Betwixt & Between #3
Publication Date: February 15, 2021
Pages: 254
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Feather & Leaf

Newly indoctrinated witch, and a charmling to boot, Defiance Dayne discovers there’s more to life after forty than she’d ever imagined possible. Especially since one neighbor is trying to seduce her, another neighbor is trying to steal her house out from under her, and a third neighbor is trying to get her kicked off the planet. Oh for three, but things start to look up when a new witch moves to town, one who says she’s been sent to thwart an attempt on the charmling’s life.

Dephne decides she has three things to do before she can die. Find out who killed her beloved grandmother, teach her BFF, Annette, the finer points of spellcasting before she blows up the world, and figure out how serious her relationship with the Adonis living in her basement really is. If it’s heading in the direction she’s hoping for, she can die happy. Though, admittedly, she’d rather not.

None of that will matter, however, if she can’t figure out how to foil the supernatural assassin who’s been sent to kill her. Until then, it’s business—and hopefully romance—as usual. Now if she can only figure out how to tame a lacuna wolf.

(Sort of a) Paradox: I dislike, in general, self-published books, but there are a few authors I love enough to find myself unable to stay away from them.  Ilona Andrews is one example, and Darynda Jones another.

From what I gather, this self published series is part of a larger effort by several authors to publish books whose main characters are over 40 and still living la vida loca.  Or something like that.  Regardless, I picked up the series because, like Chloe Neil, Jones can write the snark and the humor and sometimes, with a very few authors, that’s enough.

So, in spite of the self-published-ness of the series, I look forward to each one.  They’re unfettered by anything resembling an editor’s reins, which, in a paranormal story is pretty damn unfettered, but the grammar is polished and copy-edited, which goes a long way.  Given the general joie de vivre Jones’ characters usually display, the MC could as easily be 30, 40 or 50, so while the story might be meant for ‘mature’ (I hate that word when applied to my gender) women, the story would resonate with anyone.

It was a fun, flirty, fast read, easily enjoyed on a cold winter’s holiday before the slog back to working on-site begins again tomorrow.

Shadowed Steel (Heirs of Chicagoland, #3)

Shadowed SteelShadowed Steel
by Chloe Neill
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781473230606
Series: Heirs of Chicagoland #3
Publication Date: May 6, 2021
Pages: 309
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Gollancz

Elisa Sullivan is the only vampire ever born, and she bears a heavy legacy. After a sojourn with the North American Central Pack of shifters in the wilderness–where she turned a young woman into a vampire to save her life–Elisa returns to Chicago.

But no good deed goes unpunished. The ruling body of vampires, the Assembly of American Masters, is furious that Elisa turned someone without their permission, and they’re out for her blood. When an AAM vampire is found dead, Elisa is the prime suspect. Someone else is stalking Chicago-and Elisa. She’ll need to keep a clear head, and a sharp blade, to survive all the supernatural strife.

This one started out rough for me, as I generally don’t like the ‘woman in peril’ trope at all.  It’s trite and worn in all its iterations, so having the MC set up for a murder she didn’t commit and put before a kangaroo court didn’t incline me to lose myself in the narrative or plot.

Luckily I really enjoy the author’s gift of snark and dialogue, so I persevered, and the story got interesting as soon as it became clear the said MC wasn’t going to martyr herself.  I enjoyed watching the formation of the scooby gang, and the political machinations at the end were a lot of fun.  So all in all, the author pulled it off, and I await with anticipation the next one in the series.

Blood Heir (Aurelia Ryder, #1)

Blood HeirBlood Heir
by Ilona Andrews
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781641971652
Series: Ryder - Kate Daniels World #1
Publication Date: January 12, 2021
Pages: 354
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Nancy Yost Literary Agency

Atlanta was always a dangerous city. Now, as waves of magic and technology compete for supremacy, it's a place caught in a slow apocalypse, where monsters spawn among the crumbling skyscrapers and supernatural factions struggle for power and survival.

Eight years ago, Julie Lennart left Atlanta to find out who she was. Now she's back with a new face, a new magic, and a new name-Aurelia Ryder-drawn by the urgent need to protect the family she left behind. An ancient power is stalking her adopted mother, Kate Daniels, an enemy unlike any other, and a string of horrifying murders is its opening gambit.

If Aurelia's true identity is discovered, those closest to her will die. So her plan is simple: get in, solve the murders, prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled, and get out without being recognized. She expected danger, but she never anticipated that the only man she'd ever loved could threaten everything.

While I’m a huge fan of the Kate Daniels and Iron Dog series, and liked all the characters an awful lot, I’ve never been super-excited about a book or series dedicated to Kate’s daughter Julie, but I liked her and Derek enough to be interested in picking it up.

The hardest part of a spin-off series for me, is the first half of the first book; it’s always a long, drawn-out slog for the veterans of the series because of the necessary background information for the new readers.  It makes the story start off so slowly, and Blood Heir is no exception.  I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I was bored until page 178 or so, when the dynamics of the plot finally got interesting.

I’m also feeling a little ambivalent about Julie’s transformation.  I liked her quite a bit the way she was, and I’d have enjoyed her story more had she remained as she was.  Instead she’s been transmogrified into a super-beautiful, super-magical badass and while I guess I can understand the authors’ enjoying the range this allows them, I think I’d have found a story about Julie being a badass without the superlatives even more interesting.

I’ll admit to being a tad more intrigued about Derek’s evolution, but perhaps that’s because it’s more mysterious (so far).  Either way though, it feels as though the authors’ have just created an imitation of Kate and Curran – right down to what will obviously be the series arc – and it short-changes what were fascinating characters previously.

For all my hurrumphing though, it was a very readable story I was able to knock-off in just a couple of days.  I liked it enough to read a second one whenever in the far off future it should arrive, in hopes that the deadly dull (but necessary) world building has been gotten through and the second book will allow for a more interesting read.

D-Day Girls (Audio)

D-Day Girls (Audio)D-Day Girls
by Sarah Rose
ISBN: 9780451495105
Published by Crown on April 23, 2019
Genres: History, Military, World War II, Biography & Autobiography, Women, Political Science, Intelligence & Espionage
Pages: 400

In 1942, the Allies were losing, Germany seemed unstoppable, and every able man in England was on the front lines. To “set Europe ablaze,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose spies were trained in everything from demolition to sharpshooting, was forced to do something unprecedented: recruit women. Thirty-nine answered the call, leaving their lives and families to become saboteurs in France.

In D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose draws on recently de­classified files, diaries, and oral histories to tell the thrilling story of three of these remarkable women. There’s Andrée Borrel, a scrappy and streetwise Parisian who blew up power lines with the Gestapo hot on her heels; Odette Sansom, an unhappily married suburban mother who saw the SOE as her ticket out of domestic life and into a meaningful adventure; and Lise de Baissac, a fiercely independent member of French colonial high society and the SOE’s unflap­pable “queen.” Together, they destroyed train lines, ambushed Nazis, plotted prison breaks, and gathered crucial intelligence—laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion that proved to be the turning point in the war.

Rigorously researched and written with razor-sharp wit, D-Day Girls is an inspiring story for our own moment of resistance: a reminder of what courage—and the energy of politically animated women—can accomplish when the stakes seem incalculably high.

In the midst of my May Re-Reading Binge, I did manage to finish one new book, and it’s one I’ve been trying to get from my libraries for the last year, at least.

D-Day Girls chronicles the experiences of some of the first women who joined the British war effort in WWII as spies and collaborators with the French Resistance.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite all I’d hoped.  Part of the reason might have been the audio format.  While the author gave a solid performance, she reads aloud the same way I do, and I don’t like the way I read aloud, because I’m trying to add life to the words and I suck at it.  I’m not saying Sarah Rose sucks, but it definitely seemed as though she wasn’t totally comfortable doing it, either. The book’s narrative also jumps around a lot between people, times and places, something I can take in stride when I read, but when I listen, becomes a lot more challenging.

What definitely hurt my rating of this book was the fact that I’d already read/listened to A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, which chronicles the life of Virginia Hall, another woman who served Great Britain, and then the US, organising and running French Resistance.  Purnell covers a few of the other players, but only as they were connected to Virginia Hall, and her time jumps were far less frequent, making it an easier book for me to fall into and one that affected me deeply.

Those two caveats aside, the book is a worthwhile read and Rose’s dedication to her subject comes through clearly in her writing.  These women meant something to her beyond being historical subjects, and her efforts to bring them to life for the reader (or listener) shine through, audio or not.  While Virginia Hall made it through the war relatively unscathed, these women were not so fortunate, and what they experienced and persevered through (especially Odette), made me want to go fetal in a corner and rock.

Books like this are widely considered Pop History, but I’ve never thought that was an insult; books like these are as important as the academically important History Books, because they remind us that history isn’t just about the wars and the battles and the generals who fought them.  It’s about the cultures and societies and people who live through them, and Pop History books about women remind us that women have been stepping up, getting it done, and often giving their lives in the effort, long before Feminism became A Thing, and they’ve been doing it in spite of mens’ efforts to hold them back.  That’s what I love about the women of historical importance: they never asked for permission or validation, they just did what needed to be done.  And I love these books for bringing them out of obscurity.

I have many heroes of both genders, but almost without exception, the women who are my heroines are the ones that stepped up and led by example, and the D-Day Girls join their ranks.



2021: From slumping to binging, my (half) year of bi-polar reading

Well, those of us on a little plot of land at the bottom of the world we like to call Melbourne are in the middle of our 4th hard lockdown as officials try to nail down an Indian variant that escaped out of hotel quarantine in Adelaide.  The poor man who served as the virus’s escape route did everything right: 14 days of quarantine, and 3 (4?) negative tests, only to find out after making his way home to Melbourne that an infected person on his hotel floor opened their door more or less 12 minutes earlier than he did to collect their meal.  How much does that suck?  The government ought to give that poor man a refund.

Anyhoo, this lockdown has been different for me.  Whereas previous lockdowns found me restless and lacking any desire to follow normal routines, leading to a massive, prolonged reading slump that lasted well into April, the start of #4 found me completely on the other end of the spectrum.  I’ve been binge reading at epic levels, to the detriment of almost everything else.  They’ve all been re-reads of favorite urban fantasy series, back-to-back, with no breaks in between.  33 books covering 3 series in a little less than 24 days.  Whew.  I’m a little shell-shocked, but mostly, I’ve run out of urban fantasy series to re-read and I’m not yet in a mystery mood.

I’m not going to re-review any of these books, though I’m using this as an opportunity to bring over the original reviews (if they exist) from my BookLikes archive, so apologies in advance for the mini flash flood coming your way.  What I will say here is that of the three series I’ve re-read:  Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, the Alpha and Omega spin-off series and Darynda Jones’ Grim Reaper series, Brigg’s hold up the best over time.  Jones’ Charlie Davidson is still a favorite, and the writing is still enjoyable, but I didn’t realise until reading all 13 back to back just how close to paranormal romance the series sits.  I tried to read Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series but couldn’t muster enthusiasm after the 1st book; her writing just doesn’t hold up that well, though later books might improve – I can’t remember.

For anyone who might be wondering how our new family member is going:  she’s hell on 4 paws.  Also sweeter than anything and a massive fan of playing fetch, and even more oddly, water.

Fortune and Glory – Tantalizing Twenty-seven (Stephanie Plum, #27)

Fortune and Glory: Tantalising Twenty-SevenFortune and Glory: Tantalising Twenty-Seven
by Janet Evanovich
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781472246196
Series: Stephanie Plum #27
Publication Date: November 10, 2020
Pages: 304
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Headline Review

When Stephanie's beloved Grandma Mazur's new husband died on their wedding night, the only thing he left her was a beat-up old easy chair... and the keys to a life-changing fortune.

But as Stephanie and Grandma Mazur search for Jimmy Rosolli's treasure, they discover that they're not the only ones on the hunt. Two dangerous enemies from the past stand in their way-along with Gabriela Rose, a dark-eyed beauty with a taste for designer clothes.

Stephanie may be in over her head, but she's got two things that Gabriela doesn't: an unbreakable bond with her family and a stubborn streak that will never let her quit.

She'll need both to survive because this search for "fortune and glory" will turn into a desperate race against time with more on the line than ever before.

Let’s take it as read that this 27th instalment is in most ways exactly like the first 26th.  Nowadays, there’s something comforting in a series being an ‘old reliable’ and the Plum series can always be counted on for Grandma Mazur defying her age, Lulu doing something outrageous, and at least one FTA that’s a total nut-job.

But I especially enjoyed this one because there was 100% more Ranger than there have been the past however many books, and while I like both of the male characters, I especially like Ranger and his ability to allow Stephanie to fly her flag of tenacious ineptitude with an astonishing degree of equanimity.  He never tries to change her or thwart her and he supplies her with an endless number of cars to destroy in new and creative ways.  You have to like that in a man.

I also enjoyed the treasure hunt, though it often got lost in the larger scheme of Stephanie’s what-am-I-doing-with-my-life rift, which if anything in this series is getting old, it’s this.  I’m not one that insists she chose one man over the other, or that she even choose at all, but I would be exceedingly happy if she’d just come to terms with who she is and own it.  I have faith that Evanovich could make this happen without altering the foundation of the series.

I enjoyed the ending quite a bit and I enjoyed the parallels to Indiana Jones, even though realistically they were weak; I love that Stephanie chose Indiana Jones over Lara Croft, though I can’t exactly say why, as I like and admire both characters.  Probably the academic bent is what puts IJ in the lead, though I’m digressing.

Anyway – another fun book in a series that’s dependable in the best ways; I have other series to read when I want to be surprised, or challenged, but I love Plum because I can count on a laugh or three, endearing characters, and a rollicking fun adventure.

Calculated Risks (InCryptid, #10)

Calculated RisksCalculated Risks
by Seanan McGuire
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780756411817
Series: InCryptid #10
Publication Date: February 23, 2021
Pages: 433
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: DAW Books

Just when Sarah Zellaby, adopted Price cousin and telepathic ambush predator, thought that things couldn’t get worse, she’s had to go and prove herself wrong. After being kidnapped and manipulated by her birth family, she has undergone a transformation called an instar, reaching back to her Apocritic origins to metamorphize. While externally the same, she is internally much more powerful, and much more difficult to control.

Even by herself. After years of denial, the fact that she will always be a cuckoo has become impossible to deny.

Now stranded in another dimension with a handful of allies who seem to have no idea who she is–including her cousin Annie and her maybe-boyfriend Artie, both of whom have forgotten their relationship–and a bunch of cuckoos with good reason to want her dead, Sarah must figure out not only how to contend with her situation, but with the new realities of her future. What is she now? Who is she now? Is that person someone she can live with?

And when all is said and done, will she be able to get the people she loves, whether or not they’ve forgotten her, safely home?

I knew, after finishing the last book, Imaginary Numbers, that I probably wouldn’t rate this one highly in my personal ranking of InCryptid books, and I wasn’t wrong.  Math, multiple dimensions, alien planets – none of these are guaranteed to make me giddy with anticipation, but Sarah has always been one of my favorite characters, so I counted on my investment in the characters to see me through.

They almost didn’t.  So. much. explication.  The first half of the book was crushed under the weight of repetition about what a cuckoo is, what it means to be a cuckoo, the inherent amorality of cuckoos.  What little survived was further smothered by Sarah’s guilt and constant mea culpas.  Which were contradictory, by the way, as on one page she’s explaining that the equation at the end of the first book was sentient enough to fight against its own destruction, and malevolent enough to exact its revenge on her by – SPOILER ALERT! – excising Antimony’s and Arnie’s memories of just her, and on the next page she’s saying she did it, that she chose to do it so they wouldn’t miss her when she was dead.  Either way, the constant self-flagellation was way over-played.

Like most of the InCryptid books, once you get past the half-way mark, things start to get interesting.  Just by sheer virtue of the fact that there was less wailing and more action, more progress being made in the plot.  But the introduction of Greg really livened things up, and the speed of plot progression made even an other-dimension, alien planet sound interesting to me.  Sarah’s angst over the capacity problem irked me, because she was back to the whole woe-is-me schtick when the solution to the problem was painfully obvious – but at least it lasted only a few pages before the lightbulb clicked on, and then it was all action as the end was neigh.  And it turned out the end was much neigh’er than I’d thought – a short story at the end of the book had the actual story ending much sooner than I expected, making it feel like an abrupt, albeit happy, ending.

I still enjoy the series and I’ve learned to just put up with the first half of each book to get ‘to the good stuff’, so I’ll likely pick up the next one.  Or maybe, after having braved alien planets, I’ll go back and read Antimony’s story, carnival settings and all.  Maybe.

Wild Sign (Alpha and Omega #6)

Wild SignWild Sign
by Patricia Briggs
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780356513683
Series: Alpha and Omega #6
Publication Date: March 18, 2021
Pages: 359
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Orbit Books

In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It's as if the people picked up and left everything they owned behind. Fearing something supernatural might be going on, the FBI taps a source they've consulted in the past: the werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham. But Charles and Anna soon find a deserted town is the least of the mysteries they face.

Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerous - and it has met werewolves before.

Given recent challenges of life, I’d forgotten all about this book coming out until I saw it on the shelves, which just goes to show how un-nerving the times are; this is one of my top 5 current series favorites, and normally I’m counting down until release day, with the hardcover on pre-order.

No matter – I found it and I have it and I’ve read it, and as always I find it intolerable that I’ll have to wait another 2 years for the next book, which I’m assuming was foreshadowed at the end of this one.  If so, I guess Samuel will finally get a bit more page-time.

I enjoyed the book as much as the others with one caveat:  I do not understand this need Briggs has developed over the last half-dozen books or so to incorporate violence against animals.  I mean, yes, I get it – black witches, feed off pain, suffering, yada, yada.  But what’s with the focus on black witches over so many books?  Even though she pretty much always mentions it after the fact, not making the reader live through it, she’s a talented enough writer that the stink of it remains and leaves me feeling rotten.  That’s not why I read these books.

I read them for Charles and Bran.  Charles because I thoroughly enjoy the incorporation of his Native American heritage in the story lines (though I wish there was more), and Bran because I find him endlessly fascinating.  So much history and so much darkness to have overcome, and to be such a thorough master of himself, owning everything he is, is just catnip to me.

The plot of Wild Sign got my hopes up that we’d be seeing more Native American beliefs worked into the plot, but alas, this mystery seemed not to really have much basis in any known mythology, or else, Briggs felt disinclined to name it.  But she more than made up for it with the inclusion of Tag, Sasquatch(es), and a cross over with Coyote.  The book also goes a little deeper into Charles being witchborn on his father’s side, and events in Wild Sign force him to tap into this darker, more dangerous reserve of power.

Overall it was a good story, though not one of the best ones.  Saying that, it’s still better than average, and has me hankering for a re-read of the earlier books.

Havenfall (Havenfall, #1)

by Sara Holland
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781526621962
Series: Havenfall #1
Publication Date: March 3, 2020
Pages: 304
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Proof that I can’t resist a free book?

One of the schools I work at is near a small independent bookstore they try to do business with whenever possible.  Last week I went into the staffroom – something I try to generally avoid at all costs – and there were boxes of books on all the tables that said “free”.  Seems the local bookshop was cleaning house and these were all the advanced reader copies that had been accumulating in their back room.  I grabbed one on Elizabeth von Arnim, and because it’s been sooo long since I’ve gotten any new books, I lingered and pawed through them all and finally thought ‘what the hell?’ and grabbed this one.  YA Fantasy is usually more miss than hit with me, but did I mention how long it’s been since I’ve had a new book?

I have to say, it wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t amazing but it held my attention nicely after a rather weak and tedious start.  The second half of the book really morphed into something worth reading and I give points to Holland for sneakily weaving an Important Societal Lesson into the story about the power of perceptions and propaganda to alter history.

It wasn’t so good that I’m curious about what comes next, but it was good enough that should I stumble across the second book I’d probably pick it up.