This Charming Man (Stranger Times, #2)

This Charming ManThis Charming Man
by C.K. McDonnell
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781787633384
Series: Stranger Times #2
Publication Date: February 15, 2022
Pages: 499
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Bantam Press

Vampires do not exist. Everyone knows this. So it's particularly annoying when they start popping up around Manchester . . .

Nobody is pleased about it. Not the Founders, the secret organisation for whom vampires were invented as an allegory, nor the Folk, the magical people hidden in plain sight who only want a quiet life. And definitely not the people of Manchester, because there is nothing more irksome than being murdered by an allegory run amok. Somebody needs to sort this out fast before all Hell really breaks loose - step forward the staff of The Stranger Times.

It's not like they don't have enough to be dealing with. Assistant Editor Hannah has come back from getting messily divorced to discover that someone is trying to kidnap a member of their staff and while editor Vincent Banecroft would be delighted to see the back of any of his team, he doesn't like people touching his stuff - it's the principle of the thing.

Throw in a precarious plumbing situation, gambling debts, an entirely new way of swearing, and a certain detective inspector with what could be kindly referred to as 'a lot of baggage' and it all adds up to another hectic week in the life of the newspaper committed to reporting the truth that nobody else will touch.


Still a lot of fun, but not as enthralling as the first book, The Stranger Times.  Part of that, I suspect, is that it’s hard to maintain momentum over 500 pages.  The story never dragged, but it just lacked the snap the first one had.

Which makes it sounds back-handed, and I don’t mean it to; the book may have been 500 pages, but I devoured it over two days.  The writing was excellent, the plot was really good – relevant, creepy in both a supernatural and natural way – and the characters continue to charm (or not) with their eccentricities.  Because the story is told from multiple perspectives (3rd person always), the reader is able to connect a few dots before the Stranger gang can as they investigate why vampires are suddenly springing up all over Manchester when everyone agrees they’re the one thing that doesn’t exist, but not so much as to be frustrating – and when it all comes together, it’s all rather more appalling that I was expecting.

The author leaves plenty of scope for the third book; the editor of the paper is left hanging with a haunting message from beyond the veil, and nobody knows, or wants to know, what Stella is, except for Stella herself.  And the newspaper still has no bathroom.

Lots to look forward to in the next book, unfortunately, I’ll be looking forward until sometime in 2023.

The Stranger Times (Stranger Times #1)

The Stranger TimesThe Stranger Times
by C.K. McDonnell
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780552177344
Series: Stranger Times #1
Publication Date: January 6, 2022
Pages: 425
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books

There are dark forces at work in our world (and in Manchester in particular), so thank God The Stranger Times is on hand to report them . . .

A weekly newspaper dedicated to the weird and the wonderful (but mostly the weird), it is the go-to publication for the unexplained and inexplicable.

At least that's their pitch. The reality is rather less auspicious. Their editor is a drunken, foul-tempered and foul-mouthed husk of a man who thinks little of the publication he edits. His staff are a ragtag group of misfits. And as for the assistant editor . . . well, that job is a revolving door - and it has just revolved to reveal Hannah Willis, who's got problems of her own.

When tragedy strikes in her first week on the job The Stranger Times is forced to do some serious investigating. What they discover leads to a shocking realisation: some of the stories they'd previously dismissed as nonsense are in fact terrifyingly real. Soon they come face-to-face with darker forces than they could ever have imagined.


Ok, I wasn’t sure I’d like this, but it was a lot of fun.

I’m always drawn to stories about a ‘ragtag band of misfits’ (I love The Awkward Squad series and am anxious for a third one to be published in translation), and the premise of a newspaper dedicated to the weird and wonderful happenings in the world was a definite draw.  But I know nothing about C.K. McDonnell, and though I thoroughly enjoy the dry British sense of humour, I was hesitant about what a male comedian might do with it.  Let’s face it: the British can do great ha-ha humor, but they also excel in humor with a nasty, violent edge to it.

I needn’t have worried.  There’s an edginess to the writing that’s reminiscent of Guy Ritchies early movies (Snatch) but it’s balanced with laugh-out-loud moments more reminiscent of Yes, Prime Minister.  There were excerpts I couldn’t help but read out loud to MT, leaving him a bit miffed; he has no tolerance for the supernatural in his reading, otherwise he’d be reading this next.

The story bounces between the staff at the newspaper and the doings of the shady American in town, the former completely in the dark about what’s going on, and the latter driving them.  It all dovetails into a climax that’s awfully close to a Scooby Doo episode, but it was all good fun.

The writing was good, but McDonnell excels at the dialog, which is acerbic, crackling and fast-paced.  There’s a second book out, This Charming Man and I eyed it when I bought this one, but decided to be cautious.  I had a feeling I’d regret that, and now I’m off to find out how soon I can get my hands on it.

The Keepers of Metsan Valo

The Keepers of Metsan ValoThe Keepers of Metsan Valo
by Wendy Webb
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781542021623
Publication Date: October 1, 2021
Pages: 299
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

In Metsan Valo, her family home on Lake Superior, Anni Halla’s beloved grandmother has died. Among her fond memories, what Anni remembers most vividly is her grandmother’s eerie yet enchanting storytelling. By firelight she spun tall tales of spirits in the nearby forest and waters who could heal or harm on a whim. But of course those were only stories…

The reading of the will now occasions a family reunion. Anni and her twin brother, their almost otherworldly mother, and relatives Anni hasn’t seen in forever some with good reason are all brought back together under one roof that strains to hold all their tension. But it’s not just Anni’s family who is unsettled. Whispers wind through the woods. Laughter bursts from bubbling streams. Raps from unseen hands rupture on the walls. Fireflies swarm and nightmares stir. With each odd occurrence, Anni fears that her return has invited less a welcoming and more a warning.

When another tragedy strikes near home, Anni must dive headfirst into the mysterious happenings to discover the truth about her home, her family, and the wooded island’s ancient lore. Plunging into the past may be the only way to save her family from whatever bedevils Metsan Valo.


Wendy Webb is an author that shows up as similar/recommended for those that enjoy the ghost stories of Simone St. James, so when MT was headed to the library, I had him pick up the only title of hers currently available.  It was a quick read, done in a day, and it kept my attention with interesting main characters and rich atmosphere, but I have a couple of thoughts about the Simone St. James comparison.

Reading the acknowledgments at the end, the author states that this book came about much different from her others, that rather than starting with a particular house, The Keepers of Metsan Valo started from a desire to write about her Finnish mythological roots.  So that may, perhaps, explain why this is not a ghost story, or anything like Simone St. James.  This book is best described as Magical Realism, and its more apt comparative author would be Sarah Addison Allen, or maybe at a stretch, an edgy Heather Webber.

If I’d gone into this book with that expectation, I’d probably have enjoyed it more – it’s not a bad book, and I liked her writing enough that I’d probably read another.  The thing is, it appears that all the books she writes are the standalone type with overlapping characters.  I realised this midway through the book when one of the characters describes the synopsis of another of Webb’s titles that I recognised from prior research.  Unfortunately, the characters precedes to spoil that particular book’s plot.  The mc of this book also spoils the plot of another of Webb’s books, although not quite to the same degree, I suspect.  So if you want to try this author be aware that if you don’t start with the first of her books you may get more information about prior plots than you’d prefer.  The good news is that the town of Wharton is delightful, so reading more books set there might be enough to soften prior knowledge.

There were moments where the author got overly sentimental, and the characters all got a fairy tale happy ending which, for me, blunted my enjoyment of the book.  I like a HEA, but I prefer a realistic one, and this one was not realistic, and I’m not talking about the mystical elements.  This family came together with a lot of tension and they went away all happy-happy-joy-love with absolutely no effort in between.  It was all way too neat and pat.  Putting that aside though, there was enough to like that, as I said earlier, I’d read one more.

Molly Harper Audio-fest

With the end of the school year approaching, I needed to listen to something light and fun while battling traffic and disinfecting iPads – Molly Harper is sure bet in this department, no matter whether it’s one of her series, or a standalone.

Since all three of the reads, which would fall under the novella category, were solid 3.5 stars, I’m just going to put them all in one post.

Shifters in the NightShifters in the Night
by Molly Harper
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Mystic Bayou #5
Publication Date: January 1, 2021
Pages: 403
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Audible Originals

Lia Doe came to Mystic Bayou for one simple reason: to get her job done. Namely, to build a housing complex for all the new residents flocking to town since word of its supernatural population got out. But from the moment Lia arrives, it’s clear that nothing about the job is going to be simple.

First, there’s the mysterious guy she meets in the middle of the night while they’re both cavorting in their alternate forms. Spending time with shape-shifters is nothing new to Lia, but there’s something special about Jon Carmody…and the magical pull she feels whenever he’s near. There’s also a sense of homecoming and belonging in Mystic Bayou that makes her want to stick around - despite the dangers brewing from mysterious forces.

Will Lia complete her project with her heart unscathed, or will her life shift forever?


Probably the one I enjoyed least out of all three, though it still held my attention.  I really like Amanda Ronconi’s narration, but Jonathon Davies is not a favourite.  I have to say, in fairness, this was one of his better performances.  Mostly, I just enjoyed visiting Mystic Bayou again.

Peace, Blood, and UnderstandingPeace, Blood, and Understanding
by Molly Harper
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Half-Moon Hollow #15
Publication Date: January 1, 2019
Pages: 410
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Audible Originals

Ever since Jane Jameson took over running the Vampire Council for Half-Moon Hollow, things have been a little unorthodox, and that doesn’t sit well with the head office. Who would have thought vampires were so into bureaucracy and tradition?

Enter a vamp from corporate who’s determined to unseat Jane and get the council back on track - which means no more of this Kentucky neighborliness and mixing with humans, werewolves, witches, or anything else.

But Jane’s not interested in going back to the bad old days when the council was mired in corruption and tended to "accidentally" eat people now and again, but she might be in over her head this time. Good thing there’s a pretty new face in town who just might be the perfect distraction and help save Jane’s career.


This is the one I enjoyed the most out of the three, because I’m a long time fan of not only Half-Moon Hollow, but the general format of the books.  Each chapter starts with an excerpt from the book that shares its title with the current story.  So Peace, Blood, and Understanding is the name of the book within the book, and its excerpts are relevant to the theme of the story.  I’m not sure that was coherent, but suffice it to say I enjoy the extra boost of wry wit these bring with them.

Pasties and Poor DecisionsPasties and Poor Decisions
by Molly Harper
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 2020
Genre: Fiction, Romance
Publisher: Audible Originals

Anastasia Villiers has hit rock bottom. And that rock is named Espoir Island.

Abandoned by her disgraced investment banker husband who liquidated all of their assets and fled the country, Anastasia is left with nothing - except for Fishscale House, a broken-down Queen Anne in the Michigan hometown she swore she’d left for good.

If Ana quickly renovates and flips the dilapidated building, she can get back to Manhattan and salvage her life. The problem? The only person on the island with historical renovation cred is Ned Fitzroy - Ana’s first love - who insists she help him with the labor herself. As Ana gets reacquainted with Ned, and her hometown, she realizes home may be just what she’s always wanted.

Previously published in the I Loved You First anthology.


This is a stand alone novella, apparently original to a multi-author anthology.  It’s also a little bit of a diversion for Harper.  The character is older, with grown kids, and living the B-list reality star life in New York City when her husband is indicted by the Federal Government and takes off with her Pilates instructor to an island lacking a US extradition treaty.    There’s no Southern anything here; it’s a solidly mid-western character, and Ronconi did a great job with it.  The story goes exactly the way you’d predict it would – absolutely no surprises – but it was a pleasant diversion.

Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Vol 1: The Captain of the “Pole-star”

The Valancourt Book of ​Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories: Volume OneThe Valancourt Book of ​Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories: Volume One
by Tara Moore (Editor)
Rating: ★★½
isbn: 9781943910564
Publication Date: January 1, 2016
Pages: 291
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Valancourt Books

The first-ever collection of Victorian Christmas ghost stories, culled from rare 19th-century periodicals

During the Victorian era, it became traditional for publishers of newspapers and magazines to print ghost stories during the Christmas season for chilling winter reading by the fireside or candlelight. Now for the first time thirteen of these tales are collected here, including a wide range of stories from a diverse group of authors, some well-known, others anonymous or forgotten. Readers whose only previous experience with Victorian Christmas ghost stories has been Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” will be surprised and delighted at the astonishing variety of ghostly tales in this volume.


 

I love me some Conan Doyle, but not this one.  I’m not a fan of Arctic settings, nor of stories that take place at sea, so this was a double whammy against me liking it.  Add to that, it isn’t really a spooky ghost story, so much as a second hand account of ghost sightings and their results.

In my opinion, Conan Doyle’s The Haunted Grange of Grosthorpe is a far superior ghost story.

One Fine Fae (Mystic Bayou novella, #4.5)

One Fine FaeOne Fine Fae
by Molly Harper
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Mystic Bayou #4.5
Publication Date: January 1, 2020
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Audible Originals

Charlotte McBee knows she’s in for a challenge when she accepts a job as midwife for a dragon and a phoenix shifter. Being a fairy herself, it isn’t the supernatural world that scares her. It’s the thought of delivering a giant metal dragon’s egg, which has her gritting her teeth in pain for poor Jillian, the anxious mother-to-be.

While preparing for the big event, a handsome town resident catches her eye. Leonard is kind, charming, and a little bit mysterious. He’s also suffering from a highly unusual condition brought on by an ancient fairy curse, and he’s too wary of Charlotte to allow her to get close.

Will love overcome fear before the end of her assignment?


 

So I thought I’d closed my Audible account last year, but it turns out, nope, I didn’t.  One of their emails got through the spam filter last week and informed me that I had 12 credits sitting there.  Of course, I had to use them all before I shut the account for good, so I went on a bit of a spree and bought a bunch of titles, and I made sure Molly Harper’s books accounted for at least a few.

One Fine Fae is, really, not a 4 star read – it’s closer to a 3.5 star, but I think Amanda Ronconi does such a fabulous job with the narration of these that she gets the .5 star bump.  Jonathan Davis narrates the male POV and I rather wish he didn’t.  He reads awkwardly, often mangling sentences with his oddly placed pauses, and he’s terrible at female voices.

The story itself is about what you’d expect from a novella: short and shallow, relying on established characters for any real depth while the newbies have their meet cute and establish a relationship.  There’s no tension, or plot, other than the birth of Gillian’s daughter, who is half dragon and half phoenix, and that wasn’t at all tense.

All in all, just a light and amusing way to kill a few hours while driving and ironing.

Synchronized Sorcery (Witchcraft Mystery, #11)

Synchronized SorcerySynchronized Sorcery
by Juliet Blackwell
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780593097953
Series: Witchcraft Mystery #11
Publication Date: July 6, 2021
Pages: 335
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Strange things are happening in Lily Ivory’s San Francisco. First, she finds a vintage mermaid costume which dates from the 1939 San Francisco’s Treasure Island World’s Fair – and which gives off distinctly peculiar vibrations. Next, she stumbles upon a dead man in the office of her predecessor, and as the community’s new leader, she feels compelled to track down the culprit. Just when Lily thinks things can’t get any stranger, a man appears claiming to be her half-brother, spouting ideas about the mystical prophecy involving San Francisco and their family…

When the dead man is linked to the mysterious mermaid costume, and then yet another victim is found on Treasure Island, Lily uncovers ties between the long-ago World’s fair and the current murders, and begins to wonder whether the killer might be hiding in plain sight. But unless Lily can figure everything out in time, there may be yet another body floating in San Francisco Bay.


 

I don’t know if this just wasn’t one of her best ones, or I just wasn’t feeling it.  Things at work have been pretty damn dismal the last couple of weeks, so it’s entirely possible it was just my sour mood colouring my enjoyment of a normally favorite series.  But there was a little something; some slowness, or lack of focus, to the plot, that kept me from really losing myself in it.  And her familiar was acting like a spoiled brat throughout the book, something that at the best of times I have no patience with.

But still, probably more me than the book.

The Cats Came Back (Magical Cats Mystery, #10)

The Cats Came BackThe Cats Came Back
by Sofie Kelly
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780399584596
Series: Magical Cats Mystery #10
Publication Date: January 1, 2018
Pages: 294
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

 

This is an adorably fun series about two magical cats and a likeable group of humans, but this entry was very average for me, mainly because I anticipated every plot development and who the murderer was well before it’s reasonable to have guessed.

That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say – it’s not a bad read, it just wasn’t as cleverly plotted as others in the series.

The Ex Hex

The Ex HexThe Ex Hex
by Erin Sterling
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780063027473
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 320
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Romance
Publisher: HarperCollins

 

A departure for me, as this book is all about the romance, not a mystery plot that masks a little romance on the side.  But Whiskey in the Jar’s review made it sound cute and a lot of fun, so I grabbed it from my library.

It was fun, and it was cute.  I liked the N. Georgia setting and the brand of witchiness the story relied upon (think more Bewitched, less later-seasons-Charmed).  It was a nice change to read about a romantic hero that was Welsh instead of the tried and true Scottish or Irish male.

I mostly liked the relationships; the dynamic between Vivienne and her aunt and cousin, and especially the relationship between Rhys and his brothers.  The dynamic between Rhys and Simon, the father, felt forced and, the way it’s written here, kind of useless, as it really goes nowhere.

The narrative banter was the most enjoyable part of the book for me (that and the fact that the cat got a voice).  The banter kept me reading, even though I skimmed the romance and the angst, but that’s not the book, that’s just me.

Overall exactly what I was hoping for.

 

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2021, and I read it at night, with my little book light for ambiance, making it work for Read by Candlelight or Flashlight; I was all ready to do the candle light, but I remember Easter-cats first confrontation with a candle flame, and her singed whiskers.  Pikachu has insanely long whiskers and an insatiable curiosity that didn’t bode well for the candlelit reading.

On the Edge (Novel of the Edge, #1)

On the EdgeOn the Edge
by Ilona Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780441017805
Series: Novel of the Edge #1
Publication Date: September 29, 2009
Pages: 336
Genre: Fiction, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

 

Well, it just goes to show you: people change and you should never say never.  I read this book back in 2016 and my review from that reading was … unfavourable, ending with my declaration that I’d never read the book again.

Shows you what I know.  I not only read it again, I liked it better than I did the first time.  It’s still a little too PNR for me, but I found it easier to get into the story, the setting and the characters.  Maybe because I’d already read it and had a vague recollection of not liking the romantic interest, I found him less unbearable than I expected to, and the non-consent issues didn’t feel as egregious this time around, only typically arrogant.

I can’t really say why, except maybe I’ve read more Ilona Andrews’ since, or my mood was more receptive to the story.  Who knows?  But I went from rating this 3 stars and never reading it again, to rating it 4 stars and buying a copy of it for my shelves.  Along with the other 3 book in the series.

 

I’ve been intending to read this since I ordered it back in July, but its arrival during Halloween Bingo was fortuitous;  it’s a great fit for the Relics and Curiosities square.  The story line centers on a powerful artefact from a previous civilisation that eats magic and spits out something very akin to a demon hound.