Review: Speculative Los Angeles (ARC)

•January 23, 2021 • Leave a Comment

The first in a new city-based series from Akashic Books, Speculative Los Angeles is a triumph. Going into this, I clearly had no concept of the breadth of genre that the term “speculative fiction” encompassed. The stories in this collection range from magical realism, to Sci-Fi, to noir, to pure horror. These are not happy stories by any stretch of the imagination, but rather they will reach inside you, grab hold of your heart, your lungs, your stomach, and tear you apart. The first few were some of the hardest to read, for me. I sobbed almost the entire way through Alex Espinoza’s “Detainment”, and “Peak TV” by Ben H. Winters scared me so much I almost tossed the entire book in my freezer. The collection ends with “Sailing that Beautiful Sea” by Kathleen Kaufman, which was hauntingly beautiful and bittersweet. As for the tales in between, they were gray and desolate, exquisitely constructed stories of alternate realities, AI, and climate disasters. I’m a huge fan of the Akashic Noir series and I cannot wait to see what Akashic comes up with next.

Out February 2, 2021. Thank you to Akashic Books and LibraryThing for the Advance Uncorrected Proof in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are entirely my own.

Review: The Bladebone

•September 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

The Khorasan Archives concludes with this exquisite novel, The Bladebone. Ausma Zehanat Khan’s skill grows with each novel she writes, and The Bladebone is her best yet. It truly is the epic conclusion her fantasy series deserves.

Ashfall is under siege. The Citadel where the Companions of Hira guard sacred texts of the Claim, faces annihilation from The One-Eyed Preacher who corrupts the religion of Khorasan in his mad quest for power. Danger comes not only from the armies besieging Ashfall and the Citadel, but also from traitors within those walls. Who can be trusted to aid Khorasan? Who of the people we’ve come to care for, to root for, will survive? How does one find hope when all seems hopeless? Ausma Zehanat Khan had me on the edge of my seat as everything unfolded. Her beautiful writing brought me to tears, had me laughing and cheering, and gave me hope.

I’ve heard her say that wrote this series to honor her Pashtun Muslim heritage, to write a story for her community without being constrained by what would suit a white audience. I’ve seen reviews from others who share her background that discuss the elements unique to their perspective, where they are able to derive an even deeper meaning from this series. I am, in all honesty, jealous. It’s like reading a religious text and being able to appreciate the beauty of the language on the surface, but missing the deeper, spiritual connection. With The Bladebone, I see that connection to heritage and religion even clearer. I think Khan has done herself and her greater community proud.

For me, the thing I love most about this series, is that the true heroes of Khorasan are bad-ass, strong women. In a reality where the rights of women that were fought for and won by strong, determined women before me are being decimated by a corrupt president who thinks himself a demigod, and the cabal of rich, white men who are complicit in his crimes and the dismantling of American democracy, it gives me hope to read books where the world can only be saved by the efforts of strong, brave, committed women, both scholars and soldiers. This is not to say that men are missing from the story, or are nothing more than token, unimportant caricatures. No, they too are fighters, but instead of ruling over women, relegating them to a lesser place, they fight alongside the Companions of Hira. They assist our heroines in the fight against The One-Eyed Preacher and The Talisman. But make no mistake, without Arian, without Sinnia, without the sisterhood that is Hira, all would be lost.

In the midst of war and chaos, the Companions of Hira fight for knowledge, for Khorasan, and for each other. If nothing else, The Bladebone gives me hope, courage, and a burning desire to fight. For that, I will be eternally grateful to Ausma Zehanat Khan.

Note: I received an advanced copy of the novel from the author. All opinions are entirely my own.

Review: The Night Swim

•August 7, 2020 • Leave a Comment

St. Martins Press is one of my favorite publishing imprints. They consistently publish novels that I can’t put down, so whenever I receive an email from them with an invitation to read a new book, I jump at the chance. Last year, I had the opportunity to read an early digital copy of Megan Goldin’s The Escape Room. It was phenomenal, and if you haven’t read it yet – GO GET IT! Having loved The Escape Room, I was thrilled to be offered the chance to read an early copy of her latest thriller. While not as successful for me as her previous novel, The Night Swim is nonetheless a compulsively readable story.

While in town to cover a rape trial for her true crime podcast, Rachel Krall is pulled into an investigation of another death that occurred in the same small coastal North Carolina town 25 years earlier. Goldin’s prose is smooth and she draws the reader in immediately. This is a book that is difficult to put down. She crafts the characters and the story so skillfully that you HAVE to know the jury’s verdict in the rape trial and you desperately want to know what truly happened to Jenny Stills a quarter of a century earlier.

I think, for me, where this falls short of The Escape Room, is that I was able to figure out the whodunnit, and the answer made me both angry and sad. I also think that I’m not in the best headspace for reading books that are so centered around rape. This was a hard book for me to read, for all that it was well-written and timely. I can’t wait to see what Goldin writes next. I’m sure it will be unputdownable.

Oops and August TBR

•August 7, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Apparently, I haven’t posted since February?! So much for doing better at the blog this year. Part of the issue has been constant problems with the iPad version of WordPress. If I didn’t have to drag out my laptop, I’d be more inclined to post regularly. The other issue – well, it’s 2020 people. The world has gone to hell and the US doesn’t appear to be coming out of this pandemic any time soon.

I’ve managed to read quite a bit still, this year, and I’m honestly shocked that I haven’t posted about a couple of the best books. I promise I’ll do that soon (if I can figure out the new desktop version of WordPress – that’s a big IF), but today – two posts. I managed to clear my NetGalley backlog by the end of last year. I don’t request books because I don’t have a big enough following on any platform to ensure that a publisher will grant my requests and I hate rejection. However, I have a problem with NetGalley’s “read now” button and a couple of my favorite publishers/imprints send me invitations, and I can’t seem to turn those down. This would be less of a problem if 2020 hadn’t also come with physical challenges – my eyes are not handling screens well, so trying to read digital copies has been nearly impossible for most of this year, meaning I’m once again facing a large NetGalley back log. I’ve decided that August is my month to fix that, because (a) I found my old Kindle Touch, which is the only ereader that doesn’t have a light (don’t argue with me about the Paperwhite – I own two and they both have blue light and glare outside), and (b) I CAN download my NetGalley titles onto the Touch, which means I can read digital ARCs again without pain and added stress on my eyes. YIPPEE!!

As of August 1st, the titles in the image were the extent of my NetGalley queue. This week, I’ve bailed on one, finished another (the subject of today’s second post), and added two more thanks to an email from NetGalley with a read now button that I could not resist. Wish me luck! I’m hoping to get through the top two rows, at least, this month, and finish up the list in September.

Review: The Unexpected Spy by Tracy Walder

•February 25, 2020 • Leave a Comment

The Unexpected Spy

Disclaimer: I received an email from St. Martin’s inviting me to read a book billed as a fast-paced memoir that reads like a fiction book. The email went on to say that the book “starts out when Tracy goes straight from Delta Gamma to the CIA”. I have to support a fellow DeeGee, so I clicked the pre-approval button right away and started reading. The opinions below are entirely my own. Cover image from NetGalley. Set to publish 2/25/2020.

Memoirs are tricky, and they are a genre a rarely enjoy, but I love spy thrillers, so I had high hopes. Tracy Walder begins with a note about the fact that she had to have CIA approval to write her book and the CIA reviewed her book before it was allowed to be published. Despite careful writing to avoid classified subjects, the CIA did find sections that needed to be deleted. Rather than rewrite the story to create a more cohesive narrative, Walder elected to leave the blacked out sections. This causes my main gripe with this book, and the primary reason I’ve given it 3 stars. The redacted sections disrupt the flow of the story, and especially early on, seem like a plot device, a ploy to manufacture interest in the story she is allowed to tell. It feels like lazy storytelling, especially where the overall writing style seems simplistic, with a lot of telling instead of showing. I would have appreciated more depth to the narrative, as the majority of the book felt shallow, superficial. I don’t know how much of that is Walder’s style versus the style of Jessica Anya Blau, and how much was missing story that Walder is not allowed to tell.

Technical issues aside, there is a lot to enjoy here. I appreciated Walder’s insight into the operations of the CIA and FBI. It’s clear that she loved her job at the CIA and still has a strong sense of loyalty to that organization. I was horrified by her experiences at Quantico, and am thrilled to see that she has moved into another job that she loves, where she can continue to do good and make a difference.

The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas – Review

•February 24, 2020 • Leave a Comment

The Red Sphinx

My #YearofDumas continues with this lost sequel to The Three Musketeers: The Red Sphinx. Because this hadn’t been published when I originally read The Three Musketeers, this is my first time reading this particular sequel. I really enjoyed it.

Last month, even though I own a Lawrence Ellsworth translation of The Three Musketeers, I opted for the Richard Pevear translation. The difference between the two styles is fascinating to me, and just goes to show how much can be changed in the feel and flow of a novel by translators. Unfortunately, I cannot speak or read French, so I cannot read these in their original language, which is a shame. While I enjoy the work of both translators, I feel like Pevear’s work is a bit clunky, and while it may be truer to the French in a word-for-word translation, it doesn’t flow as well as Ellsworth’s, and I’m a little sorry I didn’t opt for the Ellsworth translation of Musketeers.

As for the story itself, I have to admit I was a little thrown off by the cover blurb and by the treatment of Cardinal Richelieu. I thought this was going to center more on the actions of the Comte de Moret, but this is much more a story of Richelieu, at least, until the abrupt end of the original manuscript. In The Three Musketeers, he is very much the villain. In The Red Sphinx, Dumas appears to look on the Cardinal with a fonder eye, emphasizing his support of Louis XIII, and his skills as a statesman. I wonder if this reflects a shift in attitude based on age and life experience and is something that I’d like to research more. The Comte de Moret is also more of a side character, albeit an important one. “The Dove”, which is a short epistolary story, which Ellsworth chooses to include as a conclusion to The Red Sphinx, is a series of letters between Isabelle de Lautrec and the Comte. It’s as fitting an end as any, I suppose, since it appears Dumas never finished the book himself.

That abrupt ending and the addition of “The Dove” as the conclusion is what brings me to the 4 star rating instead of 5. The completely different style of storytelling in The Dove compared to the main text is jarring. It doesn’t help that I was not at all interested in the love story between the two characters whose exchange of letters we read. The other issue I had, and it’s one I have with all of Dumas, is that there are SO MANY CHARACTERS. I find it difficult to keep everyone straight. Those two criticisms aside, The Red Sphinx is a highly entertaining adventure tale full of intrigue, sword fights, and a fair bit of chaste romance. I think that’s why I love Dumas so much. There is so much joy in the writing. I can’t wait to (re)read more!

Nairobi Noir – edited by Peter Kimani – Review

•February 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Nairobi Noir-silvered

Another phenomenal entry in the Akashic Noir series, Nairobi Noir is one the publisher can be proud of. Almost all of the 14 stories are exquisitely written. I appreciated that only one of these had the kind of violence that I find truly disturbing, and even though I’m not sure they all fall under the “noir” category, they were enjoyable stories that created a vivid sense of place and people. This is probably one of the top two Akashic Noir collections I’ve read. There were only two that disappointed me. The rest were wonderful, even if they didn’t all meet my expectation of “noir”. “The Hermit in the Helmet” by Ngugi was Thiong’o was more of a fable than something I would expect to read in a collection of noir, but I absolutely loved it. “A Song from a Forgotten Place” by Troy Onyango was probably the darkest, most heartbreaking story here. “She Dug Two Graves” by Winfred Kiunga and “Plot Ten” by Caroline Mose were probably my favorites.

Thank you to Akashic Books and LibraryThing for the free Early Reviewers copy in exchange for my honest review.

Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown – ARC Review

•February 20, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Taylor Brown is a truly gifted author. His prose is evocative and lyrical. He paints vivid pictures that draw you into the world of the novel. The characters he creates are unique, well-developed, believable entities. I thought Gods of Howl Mountain was unbeatable, and while Granny May will always be one of my favorite characters, Pride of Eden is every bit as gorgeous and compelling. My only quibble is that there is a scene where a dog dies. I understand why it’s in there, as it deeply affects one of the characters. However, it is usually my deal breaker, where I quit reading a book. It is a testament to Brown’s skill that, while I skimmed that part of the chapter to get past that moment, I could not toss the book aside.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an early copy in exchange for my honest review. The book releases March 17, 2020 and I will definitely buy a finished copy, and probably a few for friends, too.

The Blackhouse by Peter May (audiobook review)

•February 5, 2020 • Leave a Comment

The Blackhouse

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed this audiobook. The writing is compelling, the pacing is good, the plot never feels bogged down, and the solution to the crime wasn’t easily guessed. The audio narrator was also very good. I appreciate listening to books where there are words that I couldn’t pronounce on my own, such as the Gaelic character and place names in this tale.

Edinburgh detective, Fin Macleod, hasn’t been back to his birthplace on the Isle of Lewis in 18 years. He’s called in to assist in the investigation of a brutal murder with similarities to a previous, unsolved case in Edinburgh. Fin must face his past, and the people he left behind.

And this is where we come to my complaint with many crime writers, especially the UK writers I’ve read in recent years. I will try to avoid spoilers, but it may be best if you stop reading here and pick up the book yourself, if you are interested in crime novels. As I said, I enjoyed it, whatever that says about me, and I recommend it to fans of Tartan Noir or crime novels in general, BUT…






Why do so many crime writers feel compelled to make their crimes the result of dark, heartbreaking family secrets? Ann Cleeves does this with her novels, as well as the TV shows based on her novels and characters. They often leave me in tears. Peter May does this as well, in this book. I suppose it adds a level of verisimilitude, and reinforces the idea that these crimes could happen anywhere, in any town, if they can happen in small, remote village. That doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. If I have to find a silver lining, it’s that I can feel a little better about myself, knowing that my brain didn’t jump to the conclusion that May did with the resolution of this novel, but it’s a small consolation. It’s a dark, dangerous world, and all too often, the villains are hiding in plain sight, masquerading as neighbors and friends and “good people”. But, just once, I’d like the perpetrator in one of these novels to be a true psychopath, someone purely evil, born that way, not made due to horrible childhood trauma. I don’t want to understand the why the criminal commits their heinous crimes. I don’t want to be sympathetic. Can’t I just have a murderer to hate? Is that really so much to ask?

Review: The Blue Eye by Ausma Zehanat Khan

•January 2, 2020 • Leave a Comment

The Blue Eye

I’ve been trying to figure out what to put in this review. It’s difficult because (a) I love Ausma Zehanat Khan, so writing a thoughtful review that is more than just fan-girling is hard, and (b) there’s so much going on in this book and this series that I want to both avoid spoilers, but still convince people to read the books. It is a series that among people I know is underrated and under-read.

The Blue Eye is book three in The Khorasan Archives, a Fantasy series that features a unique magical structure, strong female protagonists, and a Middle Eastern setting that I can’t get enough of in the genre. Many characters are morally gray, with often selfish motives, but the truly evil villains, like The One Eyed Preacher and his followers known as the Talisman, call to mind the horrors of modern religious zealots, which lends an eerie realism to the series.

The Blue Eye is dark. There’s still no happy ending, at least not yet, and nearly everyone’s motives are suspect. Our heroines suffer greatly. Previously concealed identities are revealed and the answers are shocking. It’s action packed, and there were many moments when I read on with my heart in my throat, fearing for my favorite characters.

I think the thing I love most about this series, though, is something that has become even clearer in this third installment. The system of magic and power is tied to The Claim, the sacred religious text of all Khorasan. As a reader, the idea of words and stories, whether fables or histories, being the center of strength and power, is beautiful and relatable. I am both looking forward to the final installment of The Khorasan Archives, which *should* be out later this year, and dreading it. I am sure there will be more loss, more heartbreak, but I am hopeful that Khan will end the series on a high note and that Good will triumph over Evil. I’m willing to send her chocolate and all the cat pictures she could possible want, if she’ll take bribes.