Color Me Lucky Giveaway Hop

Welcome to Color Me Lucky Giveaway Hop, hosted by Mama the Fox!

I’m watching two of our cats play as I write this, and thinking about how lucky all of them are. They are all rescues, and they have all found their forever home with us. They are all safe, well-fed (in one case a little TOO well-fed), comfortable, have buddies to play with and people who love them and make sure they are taken care of. The two who went to the vet over the weekend for their annual “well kitty” exams may not have been happy at the time, but they have it good and they seem to know it.

And we’re very lucky to have them. While George – who has the zoomies for the third time today so far – has provided truly excellent comic relief in this insane year, they all add to our lives with snuggles and cuddles and laughter and just plain joy. Admittedly with the occasional hairball.

Do you feel lucky? Lucky enough to win a prize in this blog hop? I’m giving away either a $10 Amazon Gift Card or  $10 in books from the Book Depository to one lucky winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Be sure to try your luck at all the other stops on this hop!

MamatheFox and all participating blogs are not held responsible for sponsors who fail to fulfill their prize obligations.

Review: Happily this Christmas by Susan Mallery

Review: Happily this Christmas by Susan MalleryHappily This Christmas by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance, women's fiction
Series: Happily Inc #6
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Mallery, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool’s Gold romances, proves there’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

There’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

Wynn Beauchene has a thriving business, a great kid and a mildly embarrassing crush on the guy next door—local cop Garrick McCabe. She’s a strong, independent woman who can’t help dreaming what-if about a man she barely knows. Until he needs her help…
Garrick’s pregnant daughter will be home for Christmas, and his house needs a woman’s touch. Garrick and his little girl were tight once and he’s hoping a small-town Christmas will bring her back to him. But thawing his daughter’s frosty attitude will take more than a few twinkle lights. Maybe sharing the holiday with Wynn and her son will remind her of the joy of family.
As the season works its magic on these wounded souls, Wynn realizes it’s time to stop punishing herself for a painful secret, while Garrick remains haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes. Will he allow Wynn to open the only gift she truly wants—his heart?
Read more in the reader-favorite Happily Inc series:Book 1: You Say It FirstBook 2: Second Chance GirlBook 3: Why Not TonightBook 4: Not Quite Over YouBook 5: Meant to Be YoursBook 6: Happily This Christmas

My Review:

I decided I wanted a happier book in the middle of this week, and it doesn’t get much happier than a trip to Happily, Inc., the little town that makes big wedding dreams come true.

But the situation that opens Happily this Christmas isn’t all that happy. And as much as Garrick McCabe wants it to change, he’s far from sure that it can. Not that he isn’t going to try his level best to make it happen.

His 21-year-old, 8-months pregnant daughter is coming to stay with him in Happily for a few weeks before Christmas, when her baby is due to be born and her husband is scheduled to return from his military deployment in Afghanistan.

Hopefully not in that order.

Garrick’s daughter Joylyn used to be his best girl, his buddy, his partner in crime and the light of his life. And those feelings used to be mutual. But somewhere in the middle of her teenage years Joylyn withdrew from him. Completely, utterly and extremely bitchily into the bargain.

He’s sure he must have done something wrong – but he doesn’t know what that something was. Joylyn refuses to tell him. She also refuses to act like a decent human being in his presence.

This visit is a chance to make things right. Of course, it could also cement the estrangement in stone.

But Garrick has a secret weapon. He enlists the help of his next door neighbor, the single-mother, business-owner and generally put-together Wynn Beauchene to help him welcome Joylyn to Happily and get her visit off to the best start possible.

Only to find himself charmed by Wynn – a feeling that is definitely mutual.

It’s a good thing that Garrick has Wynn and her teenaged son Hunter in his corner, giving Joylyn people to meet, things to do and something to think about besides missing her husband, brooding over her mistakes and continuing to treat her completely confused Dad like he’s the scum of the earth.

Which he definitely isn’t.

Joylyn has a chance to make things right, if only she’s willing to take it. Garrick and Wynn have a chance at the happy ending neither of them ever managed to have – if they’re willing to take a chance on each other – and give themselves a second chance at not just love, but life itself.

Escape Rating B+: I was definitely in the mood for a happy book this week. I’ve read nearly all of the Happily series and really enjoyed them. The portrait of the wedding destination town, all the people who are part of the town’s primary industry, and everything that goes into pulling off those dream weddings has always been good for a smile or ten, along with the HEAs of the individual characters in each book.

So I fell into Happily this Christmas pretty quickly, even if I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around holiday romances this early in the year. On my other hand, perhaps wishing the rest of this year away is the best idea in the universe. 2020 has been pretty epic on the awful scale.

But this one wasn’t quite as happy as I was expecting. It was fascinating, but not happy. Because for the first half of the story, Joylyn feels like the main character and she is frankly a bitch. And it feels like that’s all on her.

As the story evolves, it turns out it isn’t ALL on her, but a lot of it is. Her reasons for cutting her dad out of her life are only partly her fault. And her current levels of extreme bitchiness are, while not excused, at least understandable as she’s extremely pregnant, her husband is deployed and quite honestly she’s scared about being a new mother.

But she’s also a spoiled, privileged little princess taking all of her problems out on everyone around her. When Wynn contrasts her own young motherhood, single, completely alone and utterly broke but still gamely trying to keep it together, that privilege becomes pretty clear and Joylyn starts to get over herself a bit.

Then the town, through Wynn and all of her friends, starts to take Joylyn to their hearts and her attitude finally gets better. She starts to grow up – and did she ever need to!

For a lot of the story, Joylyn and her issues overshadow the budding romance between Garrick and Wynn. But that’s also part of the story, as between Joylyn, Wynn’s son Hunter, all the holiday preparations and planning for both Thanksgiving AND Xmas, and the circle of friends and family-of-choice that Wynn gets Joylyn involved in, there are a lot of people around ALL of the time, and a lot of busy that needs to be worked through and handled.

While that handling is something that Wynn is very good at, the whole thing turns into the kind of three-ring circus that keeps its central participants, in this case Garrick and Wynn, so busy that they have enough time to acknowledge their attraction to each other, plenty of need to spend time together dealing with stuff, but not a lot of time just being together without at least part of the crowd to see if they have what it takes to turn that attraction into a real relationship.

Of course they do, but it nearly takes a village to help them figure it out.

So this entry in the series was bigger on the family and friendship aspects of living in Happily than it was the romance, but it was still – as always – a lovely read.

Review: At the Clearest Sensation by M.L. Buchman

Review: At the Clearest Sensation by M.L. BuchmanAt the Clearest Sensation (ShadowForce: Psi #4) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: ShadowForce: Psi #4
Pages: 218
Published by Buchman Bookworks on September 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Hollywood star Isobel Manella leads a charmed life in many ways: interesting roles, surrounded by friends and family, and the ability to sense precisely what those around her are feeling. Her empathic skills help her and her team shine.

Sailor and film handyman Devlin Jones enjoys the job niche he's created along Seattle's waterfront. His skills as a Jack of all trades keeps him fed, companionship can always be found, and his beloved Dragon sailboat lies moored just outside his back door.

However, when Devlin takes Isobel on an evening sail, he brings aboard far more trouble than he's ever faced before. As an assistant on her upcoming film, he thought he could just sail through the gig. Little did he know she'd completely change the uncharted course of his future.

My Review:

This was a terrific wrap up to a marvelous series. It was a great blend of action, adventure, romance and suspense and tied the entire ShadowForce: Psi series up with a neat little – if slightly bloodied – bow.

Not that I don’t expect to see some of these characters again, as side characters or walk-ons in one of this author’s future series, because I certainly do. He does that, after all, and it’s always lovely to see how people are doing.

But At the Clearest Sensation definitely wraps up the story of this very “special” group. A story that began last summer with At the Slightest Sound and continued through At the Quietest Word and At the Merest Glance to make a bootleg turn and threshold brake into its happy ending for everyone involved in the entire series.

As much as At the Clearest Sensation closes out the entire series, it is also, definitely, primarily about the romance between unofficial team leader Isobel Manella and her current movie’s location expert, Devlin Jones.

Because this series simply couldn’t close without Isobel finding her HEA.

That’s not where the story begins. Where it begins is with Isobel feeling, not like a third-wheel in her brother’s marriage with her best friend (At the Quietest Word, or a fifth-wheel to not just that marriage but her teammate Jesse’s marriage to one of brother Roberto’s fellow ex-Deltas (At the Slightest Sound), but a seventh-wheel to both of those relationships plus the newest HEA between her bestie’s stepbrother Anton and his expert-tracker fiance Kate (At the Merest Glance).

Everyone’s happy, and Isobel is happy for all of them. But as the empathic member of their Psi group, all that happy is more than a bit overwhelming to someone who isn’t sure she’ll ever have the time to find hers.

At least not until Devlin whisks her away for a quiet sail around Puget Sound in his Dragon sailboat. For one evening, Isobel is just “Belle”, and not either the movie star or the leader of the elite ShadowForce. An illusion that nearly shatters the next morning when she discovers that the charming stranger who took her sailing is actually part of the movie crew that she has to “boss” as executive producer and co-director.

But Devlin, the one person whose emotions Isobel can’t read, is able to read Isobel and her team like a book. His “school of hard knocks” education allows him to observe all the little “tells” that reveal that Isobel and her team are something just a bit outside the ordinary.

He’s also all too aware that even in the tightest group, everyone needs someone who is first and foremost in their corner. He’s all ready to be that for Isobel, even before a crazed killer sets his sights on the only light that shines in his own personal darkness.

Escape Rating A-: That grade is kind of for this book and kind of for the series as a whole, because the ShadowForce: Psi series reads like a single story broken into four reading-bite-sized parts. This is one where the emotional payoff for Isobel’s story isn’t complete unless you’ve read from the beginning.

But since the individual parts are short and sweet with just the right touch of danger and suspense, the series makes for a great little binge read.

This series is a mixture of action adventure and romantic suspense, and does an excellent job on both sides of that rather tricky equation. It’s also very much a romance of equals, something that is difficult to do well – but it is one of the hallmarks of this author’s writing. It’s a big part of what I read him FOR.

This entry in the series combines movie-making, stunt-driving, found family, adventure, suspense and Seattle into a satisfying romance that puts the heroine in just the right amount of danger AND lets her be part of her own rescue. Isobel is part of a team, and all of the team participates in that rescue, but she is never a damsel in distress.

As someone who lived in Seattle for a few years, the way that the characters toured so much of the city while scouting locations for the film shoot read like the place I knew – although I’m grateful I moved away just before the demolition of the old Alaskan Way Viaduct began. Which created a traffic nightmare while it was going on.

I loved watching Isobel and Devlin fall for each other, in spite of both of their best intentions not to get serious. Their romance, although it doesn’t take a lot of days, still managed to take up enough space in the story to allow both the reader and the characters to feel it happen.

At the same time, the resolution of the suspense part of the story felt a bit abrupt, but on the other hand I can’t see how it could have been any other way. And I’m very glad that Isobel wasn’t kidnapped or worse. She needed to rescue herself, not BE rescued, because that’s not who the character is.

And the heroine in jeopardy plot is seriously old and stale, while this book definitely is not. But now that the ShadowForce is all wrapped up, I can’t wait to see what adventures this author will take me on next!

.

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. FordThe Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“The best mingling of history with historical magic that I have ever seen.”—Gene Wolfe In a snowbound inn high in the Alps, four people meet who will alter fate.
A noble Byzantine mercenary . . .
A female Florentine physician . . .
An ageless Welsh wizard . . .
And an uncanny academic.
Together they will wage an intrigue-filled campaign against the might of Byzantium to secure the English throne for Richard, Duke of Gloucester—and make him Richard III. Available for the first time in nearly two decades, with a new introduction by New York Times-bestselling author Scott Lynch, The Dragon Waiting is a masterpiece of blood and magic.“Had [John M. Ford] taken The Dragon Waiting and written a sequence of five books based in that world, with that power, he would’ve been George R.R. Martin.” —Neil Gaiman

My Review:

The Dragon Waiting is the best book that you’ve probably never heard of – but should have. And it’s what Tor Essentials is all about.

That last is possibly literal, as it feels as if this is the one book above all others that the publisher really, truly, sincerely wanted to try and bring back into print. If this is the inspiration for the imprint, or even just a part of it, it was all worth it.

There’s a story in that, and I’ll get to it. But first, there’s a story.

A wizard, a mercenary, a vampire and a spy walk into a tavern. And come out of it trying to change the world.

That’s been done, or something similar. In a way, it sounds like the opening to Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, where a disparate group of desperate people band together to overthrow an empire.

But the story of The Dragon Waiting is both a lot closer to actual history – and a lot farther – than Tigana. Because this is alternate history that builds off of real history, real events and real people – although none of them ever quite committed any of these acts. That we know of.

This is a story about a Byzantine Empire that not only never fell, but grew and changed and continued to swallow up countries that became independent of either Rome or Byzantium in the history that we know. But this Byzantium remained on top of the world because it didn’t embrace Christianity. Instead, it continued the old Roman policy of allowing conquered people to retain their old beliefs and old gods.

And there’s magic. There’s certainly magic in the writing – honestly. But there’s magic in the world. Not a lot. There are not a lot of real practitioners of what we would consider real magic. But there are a few, and they can move mountains. Or dragons.

Or topple empires.

Escape Rating A+: This is going to be one of those reviews where how I feel about the book is inextricably tied into what I think of the book. Because of the circumstances of this particular book and my reading – and re-reading – of it.

The Dragon Waiting was originally published in 1983. I still have my old mass market paperback copy, which I’ve moved more times than I care to count. It’s a book that loomed large in my memory, although I only read it the once – and that nearly 40 years ago.

I hung onto my paperback because the damn thing went out of print, and I KNEW I’d want to re-read it someday. But the book didn’t just go out of print, it went into intellectual property hell as the author died (much too soon, having left not nearly enough behind) and no one seemed to know who owned the rights to this book. That saga is detailed here and here, and it’s a terrific mystery/quest story all by itself!

But the book, oh the book! I remembered The Dragon Waiting as being completely awesome, but hadn’t gotten back to it in a VERY long time. So, on the one hand I couldn’t wait to get a copy and re-read it, and on the other, when the time came I had a terrible approach/avoidance conflict. I wanted to read it again, but I needed it to be as awesome as I remembered, and I had no way of knowing if it would be.

1983 is a long time ago. I was a different person then, and the book spoke to me then for reasons that are now long in my past. The question of whether it would still speak to me, and whether it held up as the excellent read I remember it being, loomed large in my mind – to the point of being a reading block.

I’m happy to say that it IS every bit as good now as my memory says it was then. That’s not nostalgia talking – well, maybe a bit – but because it’s still a cracking good story.

What’s different is that the things it reminds me of, like Kay’s Tigana, and also his Sarantine Mosaic, were written after The Dragon Waiting. So while it feels like Dragon was influenced by those books, it’s actually the other way around. The two things that feel like influences on Dragon that actually might have been are T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (published in 1958) and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which began with The Crystal Cave in 1970.

The King
2016 Based on x-ray of King Richard III

But the thing that I kept coming back to as I read The Dragon Waiting was Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time. So much of the framing story of that book is dated, but the central mystery, the intellectual investigation into the question of Richard III and what happened to the “Princes in the Tower” still resonates. And it fits into The Dragon Waiting like a key into a lock in spite of differences in genre.

Because the conclusion in The Daughter of Time was that Richard’s behavior as postulated in Shakespeare and common perception makes no sense whatsoever. The story of The Dragon Waiting gives it that sense.

And a whole rollicking story of magic and empires to go along with it. A story that was every single bit as readable and complex as it was when it was first published.

I’m left with a few thoughts that don’t quite fit into a review of the book. Ford died in 2006, six years before Richard III’s remains were discovered under that carpark in Leicester. But when The Dragon Waiting was first published in 1983, Ford was 26. I remember who and what I was at 26 and am astonished and amazed at his achievement. As I was reading the book that he wrote, we were the same age. Literally, as he was born five days after me. I’m still a bit speechless at that thought, as I did not nearly have my shit together at 26 and am gobsmacked at the way that he did. I wish he left behind more work, but I’m grateful that what there is will be re-published – there just wasn’t nearly enough.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 9-27-20

Sunday Post

Today is the first day of Banned Books Week, and it seems more appropriate than ever. Because censorship is one of the tools of tyranny. It may seem as if the point of Banned Books Week is to talk about the books that have been banned or challenged, and it is. But it’s really about the idea that someone else can restrict what you read – because restricting reading, and restricting what is available to read – is one of the many tools that authoritarian governments use when they want to keep their people ignorant and unthinking. Think about it. And READ!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Fabulous Fall Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in An Apple a Day Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

A+ Review: The Silence of the White City by Eva Garcia Saenz
B- Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky
A++ Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
A- Review: Burning Roses by S.L. Huang
B+ Review: Remember Me by Mario Escobar
Stacking the Shelves (411)

Coming This Week:

The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford (review)
At the Clearest Sensation by M.L. Buchman (review)
The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry (review)
Color Me Lucky Giveaway Hop
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (review)

Stacking the Shelves (411)

Stacking the Shelves

For our regularly scheduled George picture we have George and his butt. Really we have George and his reflection as he lounged just outside my office the other day, with part of him “live” and part the reflection in the glass. He does blend into the wood floor quite nicely!

And we have books. The lists seem to be getting shorter as the year winds down. OMG does this year need to wind down! Did anyone have “Zombie Hurricane” on their 2020 bingo card? Who knew that was even a thing?

For Review:
Beneath the Keep (Queen of the Tearling #4) by Erika Johanson
A California Christmas (Silver Springs #7) by Brenda Novak
Call of the Bone Ships (Tide Child #2) by RJ Barker
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
A Lady’s Formula for Love (Secret Scientists of London #1) by Elizabeth Everett
Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish by Tori Whitaker
The Necessary Beggar by Susan Palwick
No Sleep Till Wonderland (Mark Genevich #2) by Paul Tremblay
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
Savage Legion (Savage Rebellion #1) by Matt Wallace
Siege of Rage and Ruin (Wells of Sorcery #3) by Django Wexler
A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein
Waiting for the Night Song by Julie Carrick Dalton



Review: Remember Me by Mario Escobar

Review: Remember Me by Mario EscobarRemember Me: A Spanish Civil War Novel by Mario Escobar
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Thomas Nelson on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From international bestseller Mario Escobar comes a 20th-century historical novel of tragedy and resilience inspired by Spain’s famed Children of Morelia and the true events that shaped their lives.
Historians refer to the Spanish Civil War as one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century. In 1937, at Mexico’s request and offer, nearly 500 children from Spain—remembered as Los Niños de Morelia—were relocated via ship to Mexico to escape the war’s violence. These children traveled across the sea without their families and were expected to return at the war’s end. No one could have foreseen another world war was on the way—or that that Franco’s regime would prevent the children from coming home. These enduring conflicts trapped the children in a country far from their homeland, and many never made it back.
Remember Me is Mario Escobar’s novelization of these events, as told by a fictional survivor—one of the children of Morelia—who looks back upon his life after making the long and devastating journey across the Atlantic. This story explores the endurance of the human spirit as well as the quandary of a parent’s impossible decision, asking: At what cost do you protect your child in the face of uncertainty?

My Review:

I picked this book up because I was moved by Children of the Stars and was hoping for something similar. And it is that, a fictionalized account of real history, and real history of roughly the same period.

In other words, I was expecting a story where fiction is the lie that tells the truth – in this case the truth about the very real children of Morelia, the nearly 500 children who were sent out of the Spanish Civil War to Mexico in the hopes that they would be safe.

There are all kinds of versions of safe, however. They were safe from the direct effects of the war – and its immediate aftermath. Many of the children were the sons and daughters of the left-leaning Popular Front government. Which was defeated by Franco and his right-leaning Nazi supported Nationalists. Who brutally suppressed the left after their victory. Which meant that their parents weren’t safe either during or after the war. The children weren’t exactly safe either – but neither were they being shelled.

The Spanish Civil War is often referred to as a dress rehearsal for World War II, as the countries who became the Allies supported the Republican government of the Popular Front, while the Axis supported the Nationalists.

And just as happened elsewhere before and even during that war, parents tried their best to keep their children safe – or at least as safe as possible. That meant that parents faced a terrible choice – to keep their children with them, to do their own best to keep them safe in a country that was the front for war, or to send them away in the hopes that they would be safer far from the battlefield.

The story in Remember Me is the story of those children sent to Mexico under the sponsorship of the Mexican government. And while the experiences of the children of Morelia were not as brutal as the Stein brothers endured in Children of the Stars as young Jewish orphans trekking across a Nazi-dominated Europe that hunted them in order to exterminate them, it was far indeed from the safety and security that their parents had hoped for.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard book. It’s hard because what happens to the children of Morelia is both all too horrible and all too familiar. On the one hand, this was a history that I wasn’t familiar with in its particulars, although the outline of it is part of many stories that happened during the war, from the children of London shipped to the countryside to escape the Blitz to the Kindertransport that rescued 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany and other countries in the months prior to World War II to the Danish resistance movement’s evacuation of over 90% of the country’s Jewish population to Sweden.

But the rescue itself is only part of this particular story, which is wrapped in the particular circumstances in Spain during and after the Civil War, and of the conditions that the children faced in Mexico.

And quite probably elsewhere, because the story of what the children went through reads like a combination of Lord of the Flies with all the old sayings about power corrupting. Much of what happened read like it could be attributed to people who had power over the children while they were in Mexico either being venal or neglectful or having their own axe to grind. Or multiple axes, as Spanish colonial oppression was not that far in Mexico’s past that there weren’t people who wanted to punish the children for the sins of their figurative grandparents. There was also conflict with the Catholic Church that just added to the issues. Many of the children were secular, having been raised in left-leaning revolutionary families. The Catholic Church in Mexico was very powerful, and there was a fair amount of pious skullduggery involved, with children who still had parents being assigned as orphans to the Church.

The money that was intended to support the children was siphoned into multiple pockets, the people put in charge of the children had no idea how to take care of them, and the facility ended up being run by the bullies. Parts of that story, awful as they are – and they are awful – felt both sad and predictable.

Human beings often suck. While wartime may make some rise to the occasion, it also makes the sucky even suckier.

This is reading like a downer, and that feels appropriate. While it ends on a hopeful note, that didn’t feel like the tone for much of the story. And I’ll admit that I am not in a hopeful mood this week, and this was probably not the right book at the right time, as compellingly readable as it is. And it certainly is.

In the end, the book this reminded me of more than any other was not the author’s Children of the Stars but rather The Brothers of Auschwitz. While a bit of that is the period setting, it is mostly due to the way that both stories are unflinching in their look at a terrible history, and in their emphasis on the ongoing cost of that history to its surviving victims.

TLC
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Review: Burning Roses by S.L. Huang

Review: Burning Roses by S.L. HuangBurning Roses by S.L. Huang
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"S. L. Huang is amazing."—Patrick Rothfuss
Burning Roses is a gorgeous fairy tale of love and family, of demons and lost gods, for fans of Zen Cho and JY Yang.
Rosa, also known as Red Riding Hood, is done with wolves and woods.
Hou Yi the Archer is tired, and knows she’s past her prime.
They would both rather just be retired, but that’s not what the world has ready for them.
When deadly sunbirds begin to ravage the countryside, threatening everything they’ve both grown to love, the two must join forces. Now blessed and burdened with the hindsight of middle age, they begin a quest that’s a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality."

My Review:

Just how many fairy tales can one story retell at the same time?

While the graphic novel series Fables may have answered that question by combining ALL of the Western fairy tales in one story, but it’s a story that requires 22 collected editions to encompass.

Burning Roses answers the question a bit differently. It combines the Western fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood with a bit of Goldilocks and the Three Bears AND Beauty and the Beast and personifies them in Rosa, a Latina woman who has fled her home and family by going east to China. Where she becomes hunting partners with Hou Yi, a woman who is the personification of a Chinese fairy tale.

They are both middle-aged, they are both hunters, and they are both hunted. Or haunted. Or perhaps more than a bit of both.

Then the author packed the entire glorious tale into a novella. That’s a lot of packing, but the result is lovely. And haunting.

At first, it seems like a simple story. And in the present, it kind of is. Rosa with her rifle and Hou Yi with her bow and arrows are the ones who come to the aid of remote villagers when monsters come calling.

They’re both a bit past their prime – maybe more than a bit – and they need each other to take care of a job that they each, once upon a time, used to manage quite well on their own. But they are all the villagers have and they get it done.

But their past, individually rather than collectively, is complicated. And painful. And they’re both hiding from it – and hiding it from each other. Theirs is a relationship filled with silences where the truth is hidden.

Until the firebirds come for Hou Yi.

Not directly, because that would be too easy.

Instead, Hou Yi’s nemesis has sent the firebirds to hunt the local villagers, knowing that Hou Yi will be the one to respond, and then he’ll have her in the sights of his own arrows, whether they are made of magic, or wood, or memories.

But Hou Yi does not chase the firebirds alone. She and Rosa work together to track them. Along the way, they finally tell each other their versions of the truths they ran away from. Only to discover that those truths have been chasing them all along.

Escape Rating A-: The thing about novellas is that they need to pack a big story into a small package. often it works (Driftwood, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, The Empress of Salt and Fortune) but occasionally it doesn’t.

Burning Roses works because it mines backstories that we know, twists them a bit, adds something new, and weaves it all into a new whole thing. But those bits we know give it the weight it needs to make the story complete.

We don’t need all the details of any of the hinted at fairy tales, the suggestions are enough to give Rosa’s story resonance. It’s not a stretch to see Goldilocks as a right bitch. Those poor bears. Or to see the Beast as an abuser grooming his next victim. The original Grimm’s fairy tales were much grimmer than the sanitized versions that were popularized – or Disneyfied.

Even with Hou Yi’s story – which I did not know before reading Burning Roses – there’s a sense that there’s a deeper story there than she tells either Rosa or herself, and that all we have to do is find it. (It’s easy to find, it’s in Wikipedia)

But those originating tales are in Rosa’s and Hou Yi’s past, while the story we have is in their present. And that’s an entirely different story. It’s a “what happens after the happily ever after” story, even though neither of the tales of their youthful adventures ends happily.

And that’s the point. Those stories didn’t end well, and they are both living in the aftermath. An aftermath that each of them attributes to their own actions. An aftermath where they blame themselves for everything that went wrong.

They’re both running away from that blame. And they’re both running away from the lives and the loved ones they have left. Because they feel undeserving.

What they discover in this story is a kind of redemption. And it’s earned..

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina WalschotsHench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, urban fantasy
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy? As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.
So, of course, then she gets laid off.
With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.
Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.
It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

My Review:

Hench is decadently delicious villainous competence porn.

I loved every page of it. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t a bit squicked out at some of Anna’s decisions. But then, so is Anna. She just goes ahead and does them anyway – and generally does them very, very well.

Still, she makes us wonder what she might have been – and we’re supposed to. That’s part, but only part, of her story.

In a way, Anna’s story is the behind-the-scenes of what would happen if the Avengers – and all of the other superhero stories, were real life. Because that entire mess in the first Avengers movie, where Loki and his forces seriously mess up New York City? There would be one hell of a lot of collateral damage.

How much will it cost to clean all that up? Who pays for all of the many hospitalizations and years if not decades of physical and psychological therapy that all the survivors are going to need? Who pays all their bills while they’re incapacitated? We’re meant to think that the villains got their just desserts, but the ordinary people who just happened to be on one of the skyscrapers that got crashed or trashed – what about them?

There have been superhero stories before where society has taken a look at that damage and decided that it just isn’t worth it, like the marvelous After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Even The Incredibles, under its golly-gee-whiz-bang, begins in a place where all the supers have been forced to stand down for everyone else’s own good.

In a whole lot of ways, Hench takes that story and backtracks it into a story of supervillain vs superhero vs the tyranny of spreadsheets, and gives us a story about all the “little people” who stand behind a superhero or supervillain. After all, someone has to do the jobs that Gru assigned to his Minions in the Despicable Me series.

I could say that this is a story where one of those minions becomes a supervillain in their own right. Or certainly rises from being merely a hench to an actual kick, meaning a sidekick. Because this isn’t Leviathan’s story. It isn’t Supercollider’s story, either.

It’s the story of Anna, a hench caught in the middle between a supervillain and a superhero, who decides to get her life back by taking down that superhero the only way she can – with spreadsheets.

Escape Rating A++: There are two ways to read this story. One is that it is simply a delightful supervillain vs. superhero story where the villain actually wins. Sorta/kinda. But on the surface this is a romp and it’s easy to ignore the collateral damage of Anna’s actions, or blame them on her opponents – as superhero stories generally do.

And that’s the level I initially read the story at, because I was looking for a world to sink into for a few hours, and Hench certainly provided that escape.

But that’s not all there is to the story.

The first layer underneath is still a lot of fun stuff about the world in which superheroes and villains operate. That while creatures like the Minions make for fun cartoons, in a world of real supers there would be real work that would need to get done.

That’s where Anna and her friends and colleagues come in. They are all henches. Or meat. Henches are functionaries, hanging around to make the supervillain look important, doing the jobs that any large organization needs to get done. Meat are muscle, the people who make the supe look deadly and dangerous. They all effectively sign up to be cannon fodder if an encounter with a supe goes badly.

They are there to do a job, and quite often a job that could be done as easily in a non-supe organization. Which, come to think of it, might have every bit as evil a purpose as the average supervillain. Which is kind of the point.

Anna and her friends are just regular people doing regular jobs who just happen to be doing that job for supervillains. The portrait of their lives, their work and especially their friendships underpins the whole story with a sense of reality.

They’re real folks doing an unreal job.

But dig deeper, and there’s even more about the nature of heroism and villainy, and who decides which is which. That Supercollider believes that superheroes create their own nemeses feels truer than true. He created his own downfall with his own actions, and he was enabled by organizations that have a vested interest in protecting the labeling of heroes vs. villains at any cost.

Because, in the end, it turns out that they create both.

Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky

Review; The Seventh Perfection by Daniel PolanskyThe Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Daniel Polansky returns with The Seventh Perfection, an innovative, mind-bending fantasy mystery
When a woman with perfect memory sets out to solve a riddle, the threads she tugs on could bring a whole city crashing down. The God-King who made her is at risk, and his other servants will do anything to stop her.
To become the God-King's Amanuensis, Manet had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and mind to the peak of human performance. She remembers everything that has happened to her, in absolute clarity, a gift that will surely drive her mad. But before she goes, Manet must unravel a secret which threatens not only the carefully prepared myths of the God-King's ascent, but her own identity and the nature of truth itself.

My Review:

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this book, but I don’t believe this was it. Actually I don’t believe I would ever have expected this – particularly as I’m still not exactly sure what this was.

Somewhere in the middle I thought it was a story about history being written by the victors. In the middle, it certainly seems that way.

As Manet searches the country for the secret of the holographic locket she mysteriously received, we observe that her country seems to have deliberately expunged its past in favor of the present moment. And that her search digs into a past that few remember and fewer even want to.

The act of remembering the time before the Revolution that overthrew the Divine Empress – now referred to as the Anathema – and raised up the God-King Ba’l Melqart – seems to have become an act of defiance. Even for Ba’l Melqart himself.

Which led me to my second thought about what this story is, a story about the circle of life turning into a cycle of death, as the entire country embodies the saying about those who don’t remember the past being condemned to repeat it.

Ba’l Melqart doesn’t remember his own past, not even why he had the locket sent to Manet.

Manet, on the other hand, can do nothing but remember. Everything. Always. Forever. It’s what the seventh perfection has trained her to do. She’s been trained to be both slave and memory for the God-King who can no longer remember much of anything.

Because that’s what the ascension to the throne costs. The loss of who he once was.

He was once Manet’s father, even if his memories of her mother, their legendary romance, and Manet’s own birth are just a hazy dream. When he remembers at all.

Manet was set on a search for a truth that costs her dear, and that no one seems to want her to find. But what is truth in a land where everyone but Manet herself, seems to be trained to forget?

Escape Rating B-: In the end, The Seventh Perfection reads more like an experiment than a story. The problem for this reader is that I read for the story, and in this book the story is more teased than realized.

Part of that is due to the nature of the experiment itself. This is an experiment in voice, specifically that the entire thing is written in the second person. Manet is never “I”, we never hear her words or delve into her thoughts.

Manet is a vessel of memory. She remembers every single thing she sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels. Someday it will drive her mad. If she survives – which is questionable at many points in the story.

The story, such as it is, is Manet conducting a series of interviews with people – and occasionally not-exactly-people – who are supposed to know something about the image in the locket and the person it might represent. The legendary revolutionary Amata. The God-King’s one true love. And seemingly Manet’s mother.

But we don’t hear Manet ask questions. Or know what she thinks about what she hears. Instead, we read the responses that people make to her questions, and are left to assume what Manet must have asked and said. We could be wrong.

In the end, I’m left with the feeling that I was looking for a tiny epic (it’s a short book) but am left with hints of a tragedy. Not necessarily Manet’s tragedy, as she embarked on her quixotic quest willingly. Or at least her quest wasn’t a tragedy, although its result may turn out to be one.

But Manet might not think so. We’ll never know. But I wish I knew more about Manet’s world. The hints that I got were tantalizing.