The Deadliest Sin

the deadliest sinThe Deadliest Sin by Jeri Westerson (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: medieval mystery

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 321 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In this 15th (and final) novel in the Crispin Guest medieval noir series, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired to help the prioress of a convent discover who is behind a series of grisly murders of her nuns. They each appear to be related to the Seven Deadly Sins, begging the question of what the victims really had to hide. At the same time, Henry Bolingbroke, the exiled son of John of Gaunt, has returned to England with an army at his back. Crispin once again finds himself in a position where he has to decide whether to support the crowned king or to commit treason again, possibly paying for it with his life this time. 

For the past 15ish years, readers have followed along on adventures with Crispin Guest, former knight and lord of the realm, disenfranchised for treason when he threw in his lot with the supporters of John of Gaunt over King Richard II. He’s gone from being angry and bitter to content and even happy and loving his role as the indulgent head of a very rowdy house full of Jack’s children. He has learned that he is quite able to make a decent life for himself through his tracking skills, and has earned the appreciation of many Londoners by helping them. Certainly, he has done more good for the citizens than the sheriffs ever did, which makes him smug. So it has been fun to watch his progression over the years. 

Same with Jack. He went from being a 10 year old mongrel street urchin who seemed to be on a glide path to the gallows for thievery to a competent apprentice tracker, loving husband, and fun loving father. His character arc was almost as big as Crispin’s and it has been a joy to see how he’s grown over the years. 

Yes, these characters feel real to me. 

The mystery in this novel was a fun and twisty one, full of murder and theft and nuns! With! Secrets! It would have been a great read on its own, but I was so focused on all the stuff with Henry Bolingbroke and Richard II that the mystery sort of fell to the wayside with me on this one. Not because it wasn’t good or anything. I just wanted to know how it would all end! After the mystery was solved, I found myself covering up any part of the page I hadn’t read yet so that I wouldn’t accidentally read too far ahead and spoil myself. I think that is a mark of a terrific story. 

I could tell you how it ended. I could tell you what I thought about it. But then maybe you wouldn’t go out and read these books for yourself, and that would truly be a loss for you. I realllllly think you should read them all. You won’t be sorry you did and then, when you get to this book, you will be on tenterhooks to see what new awful thing Westerson might do to poor Crispin! And then you can mourn the last book in the series. And then you can go out and be excited to read the other books Westerson already has, and look forward to the new Tudor series she’s got in the works!

Magic Lessons

Magic LessonsMagic Lesson by Alice Hoffman (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: magical realism

Setting: New England Colonies

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 396 pp

Published by: S&S

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

At long last, the story of Maria Owens, the witch they couldn’t hang. Maria was abandoned as an infant in Essex County, England, where she was found and raised by the kind hearted Hannah Owens. Hannah taught Maria all she knew of healing and folk magic, but Maria, as it happens, was a witch by birthright. All Hannah taught to her was compounded by her latent magic talent. When a horrific tragedy occurs, Maria flees England for Curacao. There, she finds love and follows that to New England. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it magic?

I fucking love the Practical Magic series. I could probably conclude my review with that. But I’m also a sucker for a good back story, which this is. I always wanted to know what happened to Maria, how she got tricked by a man who left her, where she was from, and where she went after her failed hanging. I could talk about those things. I could talk about Maria’s history, her experiences, what she learned and taught. I could talk about the history of witch trials and women’s power. But I think it would be better for you to go read it and find out for yourself why this is such a great book. 

Favorite lines/ scenes/ characters (potential spoilers!):

  • This was true magic, the making and unmaking of the world with paper and ink (13). 
  • “Never be without thread,” she told the girl. “What is broken can also be mended” (55).
  • Tell a witch to go, and she’ll plant her feet on the ground and stay exactly where she is (164). [Yep. Don’t tell me what to do.]
  • Tell a witch to bind a wild creature and she will do the opposite (184). [I told you, don’t tell me what to do!]
  • Arnold, the horse who belongs to the peddler Jack Finney, is my favorite. He is a good boy.
  • These are the lessons to be learned. Drink chamomile tea to calm the spirit. Feed a cold and starve a fever. Read as many books as you can. Always choose courage. Never watch another woman burn. Know that love is the only answer (396).

Binti: The Complete Trilogy

BintiBinti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: Earth, Ooma Uni, and spaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 358 pp

Published by: Daw

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Binti is a young woman from Earth, a member of the Himba people of Namibia. She is what is known as a master harmonizer, a person who has a skill in bringing balance to all, usually through math. Her role is to succeed her father as her tribe’s master harmonizer. However, that is upended when Binti is accepted into the prestigious Oomza Uni, an entire planet devoted to learning. Binit runs away against her parents’ wishes to study, but while her ship is en route, it is attacked by the warlike Meduse, leaving her the traumatized only survivor. Binti eventually forms a bond with Okwu, one of the Medusae from the attack, and a link is created between their two peoples, paving the way for an unusual peace.

I read these novellas in the form of an omnibus paperback, so I can’t really separate the three stories in my mind. To me, they’re all one story. But, as always, I am impressed with Okorafor’s skill in creating such rich characters and culture in a relatively short span of pages. The Himba people are not fictional; they have a long and complex culture from which Okorafor could draw. But she fleshed out the people in ways that made them entirely real. I cared about every character on the page, which is a rare thing for me. 

I loved Binti’s search for herself, her bravery in leaving the only home she’d ever known in an attempt to create a different life for herself. The act of leaving home, becoming independent, learning new things about yourself is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. I feel bad for people who never experience that in any way. 

The ways that humans and the Medusae were at conflict and how they resolved their problems is sadly still a relevant metaphor for human society as a whole. We seem plagued with people, whether groups or individuals, who only care about enriching themselves or enforcing their agenda and worldview. There isn’t enough peace anywhere. So much can be said about this but, as I’ve said for years, SFF is an ideal medium in which to discuss real-world issues. Binti is no different. There were many themes that made me think: home, community, identity, conflict, colonialism, friendship. I’m sure examinations of these themes and more could be made, and wind up longer than the book itself. I love that; books that make me think while also providing a good story are to be treasured.

Overall, I liked this story, though I think I enjoyed Okorafor’s other works that I’ve read a little more. This trilogy (plus the short story included in the omnibus edition) seemed to focus more on how to fit in social issues than how it impacts the plot, so I think there are some gaps that need to be filled. But still, the Binti trilogy is a terrific story and one I definitely recommend. 

Favorite lines:

  • Will his happiness kill him? (Okwu asked this without a hint of irony or sarcasm. Me, too, Okwu. Me. Too. Deeply suspicious of happiness.)

Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

nemesis gamesNemesis Games (The Expanse #5) by James S.A. Corey 

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaaaace! 

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 532 pp

Published by: Orbit

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In book 5 of The Expanse series, the crew of the Rocinante all go their separate ways. Temporarily, of course. The crew are family now and the Roci is home. That doesn’t mean they don’t still have business elsewhere to tend to, though, and they do. Holden is the only one who stays put; Naomi goes to Ceres Station to deal with a family  problem, Alex goes to Mars with a vague idea of getting his ex back, and Amos goes to Earth to make sure the death of someone he cared about was natural or not. Naturally, the entire solar system goes up in flames while the crew is scattered every which way.

The political situation is fraught in this entry. A radical branch of the OPA is behind the most devastating attack in history, their attempt to carve out a place for themselves within the larger political landscape. Because terrorism totally works. That was sarcasm for anyone who can’t parse Kristen-speak. 😊 Holden tries to work with Fred Johnson to reign in the violent nutjobs while, elsewhere, Alex researches why ships are going missing, with some help from Bobbie Draper. Amos makes an unexpected new friend. Or old friend, depending on how you look at it. And Naomi finds herself in the middle of everything in some strange ways.

The last few entries of The Expanse series, I have hoped for the other primary characters – Naomi, Alex, and Amos – to be point-of-view narrators. I got my wish in this novel! All of the POV characters were the crew of the Rocinante. We get a glimpse into their histories and some parts raised more questions. I learned, though, that there are Expanse novellas that dive into their past selves in more depth, so I have no doubt I’ll be reading those at some point as well. Because I am a giant sucker for a good back story. 

I like that there was a theme of family and home woven throughout. Everyone kept reflecting on home in terms of their past, but now that isn’t home, it isn’t their family. Home is where you make it, and family is who you choose. Birth and blood don’t really factor into either of those unless you want them to. I liked that the crew knows with a deep certainty that they are each other’s family. 

All in all, another fun entry in The Expanse series. Can’t wait to read the rest!

The Second Blind Son

the second blind sonThe Second Blind Son by Amy Harmon (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Saylock

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Rob Shapiro

Source: my own collection 

Length: 15:58:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Second Blind Son is a sequel of sorts to Amy Harmon’s earlier novel, The First Girl Child. I say of sorts because this story ran concurrently to the events of TFGC, rather than portraying a continuation of that story. In this, the focus is on Hod, a blind man who is raised to be a Keeper of the Temple by Arwin, a cave keeper. Arwen has taught Hod how to listen, smell, feel in ways that are uncanny to help him compensate for his blindness. As a result, Hod is adept at hunting and fighting through the use of his heightened senses. He can identify the heartbeats of individual people, their specific scent, and so forth. And then one day, he rescues a girl who washes up near his cave from a shipwreck. Ghisla is the sole survivor from her people, the Songers, whose voices are ethereally beautiful, and she wants to die. Slowly, she and Hod become the best of friends and, when she uses a rune carved upon her hand, Hod is able to see. Their paths are often separated but they retain their connection through the years, through political upheaval, and across vast distances.

I loved this book so much. I really liked the way it wove into the earlier story of TFGC and made you remember events from that story alongside this new one. I hadn’t realised it was that sort of timeline, so I kind of wish I had reread TFGC before jumping into this one, but it in no way hindered the ease of following the story. It is just a thing I would have done to refresh my own memory. And yes, it can probably be read as a standalone, but I truly think readers are short-changing themselves not to read TFGC first. Not only will you become familiar with the world of Saylock, but the characters from that book who make appearances in this one are familiar and welcome. You’d miss out on that if you only read TSBS as a standalone.

The narration was excellent as well. The narrator did some different voices for various characters, but only enough to differentiate them within the scene. He didn’t go crazy with melodrama, he just read the story in an engaging way. There were times when he sounded just like Tuvok, though, so that was a bit of cognitive dissonance. I kept expecting Star Trek. 

The character development throughout was decent, though I would have liked to get more scenes with the other Daughters of the Temple. They were an important part of the story but I feel like I didn’t get to know them very well. Maybe future Saylock books will focus on them more in some way. Ghisla becomes one of the Daughters when she is forced to leave Hod’s cave and is given in lieu of a clan chieftain’s daughter to the Keepers. There, she is known as Liis of Leok and no one learns her true identity. Hod is the only one who knows her real story. Also, YAY for the book sample on Amazon having the spelling of characters’ names! I would not have gotten some right from just listening to it.

I thought it was interesting how King Banruud was a hateful, horrible person but Ghisla could help keep him from raging too much with her music. I don’t remember his madness at all from TFGC, but here it struck me as horrific, persistent tinnitus. I know that can make people crazy – mine sometimes wakes me up – but if one is already crazy and cruel to begin with, what new horrors could the condition bring about? Doesn’t make his actions at all ok, but I thought it was an interesting reading of madness. 

Keeping Hod and Ghisla apart in distance but giving them the means with which to communicate with each other was a great touch. It allowed them to grow and mature, and their relationship did likewise. The rune magic that helped them speak to one another really keeps things humming along for readers so we can sense their desire to be together but we don’t get bored by the separation. 

Probably there is a message in there about how true love doesn’t need to see to recognize one’s beloved. Or something. Ick. I don’t really do romance, though I find this sort of non-melodramatic, non-bodice-ripping romance within many fantasy novels to be entirely acceptable. 

Overall, a thoroughly lovely story, nicely paced, and I can’t wait to read more of Harmon’s fantasy novels!

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3)

abaddons gateAbaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3) by James S.A. Corey (Website, Twitter, Expanse Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 539 pp

Published by: Orbit

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this third Expanse instalment, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are freelance contractors now, parted way somewhat acrimoniously with Fred Johnson and the Outer Planetary Alliance. When one of their clients, a rather shady bunch, suddenly back out of their contract with Holden, the crew discover that they are being sued by the Martian government to get the Roci, formerly a Martian Marines battle ship, back. Coming to their rescue is Monica Stuart, a journalist from the UN Public Broadcasting, who contracts Holden on an exclusive if he takes her and her team out to a mysterious ring. The ring was constructed by the protomoluecule creature that launched itself off Venus at the end of the previous book, and it is weird. It appears to be a simple ring construct, and yet ships that go through it do not come out on the other side as expected. It’s like it’s a…stargate… 

A flotilla of ships from Earth, Mars, and the OPA is on the way to the ring to investigate, each government hoping to gain the upper hand. When a person from Holden’s past sabotages his reputation, he is forced to flee with his crew and ship through the ring. What they discover on the other side is not at all what they expected. 

The thing about book series, for me, is that if they are longer than a trilogy, I tend to lose interest. Usually around book three or four. However, that isn’t close to being the case with this series. Yes, it follows the same core of characters. Yes, it has an overarching plot revolving around a weird protomolecule. But each novel has a large and diverse cast of secondary characters and a new basic plot, each different from the previous book. It isn’t a cliffhanger from one book to the next where you have to keep reading about the exact same goddamn characters over and over. Corey’s style works wonders for me.

Holden is evolving as a character in a good way. He can still be a sanctimonious bastard, but he is self-aware enough now to know it. He is making a concerted effort to be a better person, not only for himself, but for his crew, and especially his lover, Naomi. We know a bit more about Holden’s past than the other main characters, possibly because he is the captain. But we get tidbits of information about Naomi, Amos, and Alex as well. I hope we get to learn more about their past lives as the novels progress. What drove them to be on the Canterbury way back in book one? Why did they end up on a bottom-of-the-barrel ship when they all clearly have crazy skills and can do what they want in much better positions? These things, I want to know. 

The secondary cast this go round is Carlos Baca, called Bull, a security officer for the OPA. He is assigned as the security chief to the Behemoth when it heads out to the ring. He’s kind of bitter about his position since he should really have been the captain, and Fred Johnson knows it. But he’s not, because politics! Instead, some jackoff called Ashton is captain, and he seems like a skinny Trump, all ego and narcissism and demands of loyalty. We hate Ashton. But we love Bull.

Joining the Behemoth is Sam, the engineer from Tycho Station and Naomi’s best friend; Clarissa Mao, in disguise as someone called Melba Koh, who is on a private mission of vengeance against Holden for his perceived harm to her family’s good standing; and Pastor Anna, a Russian, well, pastor who is on the Behemoth because she believes God called her there to help in some way. And of course a colorful variety of various others ranging from Martian Marines to news reporters to a neurotic socialite. Each one is there for their own reasons, and each one ends up playing parts they hadn’t anticipated. 

Also, Joe Miller is a recurring presence, despite having ridden Eros on its collision course with Venus at the end of book one. So there’s that. 

The biblical and religious allusions are inescapable. I mean, it’s built right into the title. Abaddon is the Hebrew word for “place of destruction,” or hell, or the realm of the dead. Pastor Anna has a lot of things to say about the place of religion in human society, about forgiveness, and about the ways in which humans must fit in with the greater universe. It was not a “beat you over the head” sort of religious discussion. It was interesting and in the background. I’m sure others who are more inclined could find a lot more to say about it. I can, too, but find that I can’t be bothered with religion today. Suffice to say, the title is a perfect highlighting of the plot in this one. 

Themes of loyalty and bravery are front and center as well, which I’m coming to expect from this series. There are so many ways in which these characters, and those in the previous books, have displayed these concepts. I think one of the most important discussion on bravery in this instalment is when Holden figures out how scared he really is by anything to do with the protomolecule. And yet, he does whatever has to be done, despite his fear. I guess Ned Stark was right – when you’re scared, that’s the only time you can truly be brave. 

I have to take a forced break in the series to read a couple books I promised to a friend for a review, and that’s cool, but I can’t wait to get back into this series!

Interdependency

The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox (The Interdependency) by John Scalzi (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaace! And various habitats, space stations, and occasional planets

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection 

Length: 9:24:00, 8:19:00, and 8:07:00, respectively

Published by: Audible Studios

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars, both for each book and for the series as a whole

In Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, humans have managed to colonize a lot of the galaxy. They do not do this, however, through the use of any sort of FTL or warp drive. The laws of physics prevent that. They do, however, have something called the Flow, which sounds a little like wormholes through which a ship can travel and arrive at a location in a matter of days, weeks, or months, depending on distance. Ships can only enter or exit at Flow shoals, and the Flow streams only go one direction. So if a Flow stream goes from Hub, the Capital of the Interdependency, to End, the one planet that supports human life and which is at the farthest reach of the Flow streams, then they need to use a different stream from End to get back to Hub. 

Oh, and the streams are beginning to collapse.

This is a problem because, as the title implies, every human habitat is interdependent upon each other for survival. The places where humans settled are all, with the exception of End, not compatible with human life. They’re either on tidally locked moons and planets, too hot or too cold to survive, or on space habitats in orbit somewhere. The Interdependency is organized around Guild Houses, each of which have a monopoly on a certain aspect of manufacturing things needed to sustain life. Once the Flow streams collapse, everyone will be well and truly fucked. 

Enter an inexperienced Emperox, Cardenia Wu Patrick (Imperial name Greyland II), a young woman who was never supposed to be Emperox and only became so when her half brother the Imperial heir died in an “accident.” The various noble Houses think this will be a good thing because they expect to be able to manipulate her. The main houses of Wu (the hereditary Imperial house as well), Lagos, and Nohamapetan, are the political powerhouses and are out for blood and profit. Also, I listened to these, so I may be WAY off on how the names are spelled. Just saying.

The Houses of Lagos and Nohamapetan are particular enemies. On one run between Hub and End, Kiva, the Lagos representative to the Guilds, learns that her House’s entire crop on End had been sabotaged and she naturally suspects the Nohamapetans. Having just spent 9 months in the Flow traveling to End, Kiva is righteously pissed because now she will have spent the best part of 2 years on a trip that is profitless. Kiva soon learns, however, that there is something wrong with the Flow and she ferries a young noble and Flow physicist, Marce Claremont, back to End to meet with the Emperox and come up with a plan to save the billions of people dependent on the Flow for survival. She also comes up with a way to make money on an otherwise failed venture, as one does. 

There’s a lot of politics in this story, but Scalzi makes it fun! Kiva is definitely my favorite character. She’s so thoroughly outspoken and rude and it’s just delightful. She’s also crazy skilled at strategy and politics and is the best person the Emperox could possibly have in her corner. Cardenia is sweet – on the outside. Then she manages to deflate the machinations of everyone conspiring against her, which is especially fun when she hamstrings the Nohamapetans. Really, the characters in this series are the best thing about it. Yes, the overarching story is bomb, and is very Scalzi-ish. But, as Renay Williams wrote, the central characters are all women, and they’re all truly awesome in their own ways. 

Also, the trilogy covers a lot of ground that lovers of sci-fi space operas will appreciate seeing, happily updated with a lot of modern thought, because actual colonialism is gross. There’s far-flung human colonization, empire, the ways in which all these things are connected and, like, interdependent on each other. It is really a good commentary on a lot of our actual current events and politics. I have screamed for years that sci-fi is the ideal medium in which to discuss and analyse current events; Scalzi’s trilogy is further proof. 

As I mentioned above, I listened to The Interdependency trilogy on audiobook. Wil Wheaton did a phenomenal job narrating. I honestly think it is one of his best performances. His timing and tone were spot on and turned elements of the book that were already amusing into laugh out loud hilarity. I loved listening to these books so much that when the third one ended, I wanted to start the series all over again. I didn’t, only because I have so very many audiobooks to listen to that I haven’t even touched yet. But I did go and buy the trilogy in paperback, even though I swore I wouldn’t buy any more books until I get through more of my TBR and cull ones I know I’m not going to read ever again. 

I can’t wait to read these again, and I can’t wait to see what Scalzi publishes in the future. If you haven’t read, or even better, listened to, this series yet, you are really missing out!

Star Trek Discovery: Wonderlands

Disco WonderlandsWonderlands by Una McCormack (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 333 pp. It’s only half evil.

Published by: Gallery Books (18 May 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Remember in the first episode of Discovery’s third season? When Burnham came plummeting out of the sky and figured out she made it nearly 1000 years into the future and her mission to stop Control from annihilating sentient life was successful? And she landed practically on Book? Then there was that year-long jump between the first and second episodes? Remember that? This is the story of that year in between. 

Michael Burnham is lost and alone in more ways than one at the beginning of this book. She’s almost a thousand years into the future from her point of view, the Federation is shattered, and Starfleet is more a figment of the imagination than a real institution. The economy is money-based and everyone is looking out only for themselves. Philanthropy on any appreciable scale is nonexistent and there are violent wannabe kings of local regions, plotting and betraying and backstabbing their way to the top of the pile. In other words, the polar opposite of the society Burnham is accustomed to. And the Discovery is nowhere to be found.

Circumstances naturally dictate that Burnham adapt to her new environment, and she does, though reluctantly. She convinces Book to help her get on her feet and get the lay of the land. She gets herself a tiny, tiny little ship of her own. She finds a Starfleet holdout in the form of one Aditya Sahil, the de facto commander of Starbase Devaloka. Burnham, being who she is, manages to browbeat everyone into at least trying things her way sometimes, just for kicks, and usually they are pleasantly surprised. It is a nice little lesson in playing nicely with others. 

This was also a rather sad book. Not sad as in pathetic. Sad as in fucking sad. She misses her chosen family, her friends, her society where everything really was better despite the Klingon War. She misses knowing the basics of technology, even though she’s the quickest study ever and gets up to speed in a flash. She misses her ship. It is an interesting commentary on how we contemplate the future. Star Trek is known for its optimism. Discovery has, from the start, turned that optimism on its head; that very darkness is why I love this series so much. Utopia doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t without its struggles. Without that darkness, how would we ever know the light or the good? To me, that is what this series is good at – showing the good that is possible even if it isn’t there yet. 

I even wrote about this very thing about a year and a half ago for StarTrek.com. See? This Is Why Starfleet Needs Gabriel Lorca. *I* wrote it first, not that individual from Den of Geek who apparently read MY article, nicked my idea, and rewrote it a couple months ago. Fuck her.

Anyway.

There were several smaller missions, or side quests if you like, throughout the novel. Burnham (and usually Book as well) go off on various aid missions to give help to various groups. Very much in line with Star Trek ethics. I wish these could have been longer, or had a standalone book devoted to them like in the good old days of numbered Trek novels. But I suppose, because this was only one book, those side quests had to be truncated for the sake of expediency.

It is ok, though, since the novel’s true strength is in its character development. So far, all the Disco books, actually, have done a brilliant job at giving us the character development and back stories we know and love from other Trek series. I loved getting to see how Michael grew and changed in her new time, and how she tries to change it as well. I loved getting to know Book a little better. And Grudge is certainly the best character in the whole thing. 

I think the overarching theme in this story is that, when you can’t go home or have no home to go to, then you make a home as best you can, with the best people you can find to gather round you. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

“They’re not doing anyone any harm.”

“Mostly harmless.” He laughed. “There are worse epitaphs, I suppose.” 

[High five to McCormack for that nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide…! 😀 ]

Concrete Rose

Concrete RoseConcrete Rose by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: YA

Setting: Garden Heights

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Dion Graham

Source: my own collection

Length: 8:17:00

Published by: Harper Audio (12 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Concrete Rose is the sequel story to Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This tells the story of Maverick Carter when he was a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Maverick always expected that he would grow up to be in a gang like his dad. His future as a gang member seemed cemented when he learns that the baby of one of his classmates is also his. Selling drugs seems to him to be the only way to make enough money to make ends meet, support his son, and help his mother with their bills. When his girlfriend Lisa also becomes pregnant, Maverick understandably freaks out. He assumes he will never amount to anything and so why NOT join a gang and sell drugs? His part time job working for Mr Wyatt’s store has shown him that “honest work” doesn’t pay anything. When Maverick suffers a catastrophic loss, he finds that life takes you in directions you never expected and that the help we might need is right there with us if we can open our eyes enough to see it.

So, I loved this book. I have loved all of Angie Thomas’s books so far, which is a record not even Neil Gaiman holds with me. This is a sequel to THUG but you don’t have to have read that one to get this one. I love how she weaves in bits of her other novels throughout the narrative. For example, when Lisa’s mom kicks her out of the house, she goes to stay with Miss Rosalie and takes her friend Brenda’s bedroom. When Brenda comes to visit with her new baby, they all get a kick out of meeting baby Khalil. That hit me right in the feels when I realized it is Khalil from THUG. Little tidbits like that really bring the story to life and serve as sort of an insider’s view for those of us who have read the other books, but it isn’t necessary to get the story. It is fully standalone. 

The power of names is a strong theme throughout the story as well. Maverick names his son Seven because it is the number of perfection, and to him, his son is perfect. Maverick says his father named him so because he wanted him to be a freethinker and independent. The course of the narrative leads Maverick all over but he does eventually live up to his name, though not at all in the way he expects. 

I how Mr Wyatt was a father figure to Maverick, teaching him some transferable skills and encouraging him with tough love. Mr Wyatt talks a lot about his garden, especially his roses, which are stronger than they seem and can grow anywhere, even through concrete. I assume the title, and the theme of hidden strength, is inspired by the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. Maverick has that strength and his life could easily have been ceaseless heartbreak and danger. But he chooses to do what he thinks is best for his family, and his losses to date have shown him what he DOESN’T want for them or for himself. He is brave enough to try something that is out of his realm of experience, and like the rose, he learns that he can bloom. “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.” 

I could really go on about this book all day but I will just stop before I actually do so. If you haven’t read any of Angie Thomas’s books, you are really missing out. This would be a good place to start, but honestly I think you should read THUG first. This one will have more of an emotional impact if you know Starr’s story already. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The apple don’t fall far from the tree, but it can roll away from it. It simply need a little push.
  • We left the roses untouched. I expected them to be dead by now, but they got blooms as big as my palm. … “What I tell you? Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.”

Spiteful Bones (Crispin Guest #14)

Spiteful BonesSpiteful Bones by Jeri Westerson (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fiction/ medieval noir

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 178 pp

Published by: Severn House (1 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this 14th instalment of Westerson’s Crispin Guest medieval noir series, some fun characters from the past feature in this story. Nigellus Cobmartin has inherited his father’s house upon the death of his older brother. He and his lover, the delightful John Rykener (under the guise of Eleanor) are in the process of restoring it, the house having fallen into disrepair. The workers discover a gruesome scene – a skeletonized body tied up within the walls of the manor house. It is determined that the body belonged to a former servant who the Cobmartin household thought stole a relic and then took off with the wife of another servant. At the same time, Nigellus and John are victims of extortion, under threat of their lifestyle being exposed if they fail to pay the unknown villain. But nothing is as it appears at first glance, and so Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, find themselves on the hunt for an extortionist who may also be a murderer. 

The character development over the course of this series has been excellent. Crispin is now in his forties and is beginning to feel the effects of a hard and active life, though he rails against it. Jack is taking on more of the lead role in the sleuthing duo and is the image of a young and vital man. There were a few times that he saved Crispin’s neck, literally and figuratively, and while it was lovely to see, I also miss little boy Jack even as I revel in the upstanding man he has become.

Crispin himself has long since accepted that he is no longer nobility and has made a family for himself with Jack, Jack’s wife Isabel, and their growing brood of children. He seems content enough with his lot and takes pleasure in the simple joys in life in ways he was unable to do before. One of his greatest joys is in his son, Christopher, who he is unable to acknowledge. His friends, too, are his joy, and he throws himself into investigating who would murder a friend’s servant, driven to protect those he loves. 

As always, Westerson creates vivid scenery in her settings. It is easy to picture the sights (and, unfortunately, the smells!) of the Shambles and other places in medieval London. The strength of her descriptive writing is exceptional and that, along with complex character development, have made Westerson one of my favorite authors. She creates characters readers genuinely care about and then develops them into rich and multidimensional people, even secondary characters. Take, for example, Nigellus Cobmartin and John Rykener. Nigellus is a fictional character, but Rykener was a real man who dressed as a woman and was a whore and a skilled embroideress. Their relationship, while it may seem implausible to us given the time period they were from, could well have happened. Rykener was listed as having a husband in one of the documents Westerson referenced, though the man was not named. Why not let the husband be Nigellus? There have always been LGBT people, even if they had been vilified, shunned, or even killed at various points in history. A lack of understanding does not mean they didn’t exist, and there is plenty of documentation to prove it. I think it is really important to discuss social issues in all their many elements, but literature is an ideal medium in which to do so. Readers get to know both Rykener and Nigellus over the course of a few books, and can see them as people rather than ideas, mere figures on a page, or solely by their sexual identity. Having other characters like Crispin sometimes struggle with how they see Rykener helps create depth but also gives a nuanced examination of our own society. A long-winded way to say that I love their relationship, the characters themselves, and how Westerson approached it.

I was sad while I was reading this story because I had thought it was the final entry in the Crispin Guest series. But I was wrong! There is one final adventure to share with Crispin, Jack, and friends, The Deadliest Sin, which Westerson’s website says will be released in 2022. 

In the meantime, I highly recommend this book, as well as the rest of the series, to anyone who loves a good, complex, brooding protagonist and a delightful cast of secondary characters.