The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

I honestly have no recollection as to when or how The River of No Return got on my TBR. This happens fairly frequently but every single time this happens it feels like the Book Gods have descended from on high and mysteriously added books to my TBR in the night, knowing I’d enjoy them whenever I get around to picking it out of the hundreds. And upon reading the summary of River of No Return, I quickly figured out why the Mysterious Book Gods picked this one for me. Secret Time Travel organizations and a historical fiction love story where the characters both have interesting time travel powers?? Yes, please! Thank you, Mysterious Book Gods!

The year is 1815 and Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, is about to be killed on the battlefield. The next thing he knows the year is 2003 and he’s run over by a car. Such is life. From there he is taken in by The Guild, a secret organization of time travelers who find individuals who have jumped through time and offer them an education and place in society. But, as always, there are rules. 1. There is no return (original time) 2. There is no return (location) 3. You cannot tell anyone 4. You cannot break the rules. And with any secret organization of time travelers, opposing forces lurk in the shadows and the Guild might not be as altruistic as they seem…

Meanwhile, back in 1815, Julia Percy is mourning the death of her grandfather. Her cousin, Earl Eamon, is waging a mental war on her, keeping her locked away in what was once her home. The late Earl, you see, could manipulate time, stopping it for himself and young Julia, and the new Earl wants that power for himself. And so Julia has to figure out how to escape her confinement while also keeping her own connection to the stoppage of time a secret.

Much like time travel itself, The River of No Return is full of contractions. Spanning across multiple genres—historical romance and time travel futuristic thriller—the book struggles with how to balance its stakes. On the one hand, we have overarching time travel plot! The future itself is in grave danger and our secret organization of people pulled out of time must go on undercover missions in the past to solve it! On the other hand, we have Regency era romance where we must worry about the reputations of fair ladies and chaperones and what will the Earl of Dorchester think about how we’re planning to vote in Parliament on the corn bill?!

It’s a rather sharp contrast of motivations.

And it’s not that I dislike either of these storylines or feel that they are completely alien from each other. The fact that our two romantic leads are both from the same time period originally but have encountered the movement of time differently is an interesting dynamic that lets us avoid a lot of the cultural difference misunderstanding that plague the time travel romance sub genre. But with any book that has two or more equally held plotlines, I found myself caring much more about one over the other and why should I care that Nick’s sister is a spurned spinster at twenty-five when the future is literally falling in on itself?

Thankfully, the plot switching is more of an interwoven thread than a hard switch to and from. Both Nick and Julia have connections to the passage of time and so whenever we’re with either of them, we’re learning new and interesting details about the time travel mechanics and secret organizations threatening the safety of the future. But in order to get at that information you will probably have to sit through some wringing of hands at Regency era problems that aren’t particularly interesting or compelling. Perhaps if both Nick and Julia had arrived in the future and found themselves that way we could have better avoided these problems, but I get the feeling that the author enjoyed being in a historical setting for the majority of the book.

If there’s anything that solidified my ‘meh’ opinion, it would have to be the ending. The ending itself, out of context and in regards specifically to the relationship Nick and Julia have, is enjoyable and a nice wrapping up of loose ends, perfect if this had solely been a romance novel. But it’s not. Major plot points regarding the time travel plot are left unresolved, far too many for it to be argued cliffhanger. The author’s website mentions that she’s working on a second book, but The River of No Return was not marketed as a series. The book proclaims “a novel” on the cover, a statement that to me indicates standalone. With that in mind, the lack of closure in the ending is very disappointing. Perhaps when a second novel is written I’ll read it, because I was quite invested in the time travel world and threats set up in this book. I want to know what’s happening with The Guild and its history! Julia has connections to things that weren’t clarified! The main adversary never gets a full explanation and I need to know! But I received no answers to my questions and have no idea when the sequel will ever be written.

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Too Many Cooks; A review of Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a book that kind of defies categorization. On the surface it’s historical fiction, taking place in 1819 and revolving around the era of piracy and opium trading. But it’s also an action novel, following the somewhat unhinged pirate captain Mad Hannah Mabbot and her colorful crew as they plunder and maraud upon the high seas. …But it’s also a cooking novel, with accomplished chef and now captive Owen Wedgewood having to devise delightful dishes for Mad Hannah, going into great detail as he figures out how to simmer a soup with no working stove or spices. And much like Owen’s culinary concoctions, all of these different genres are blended together in such a way that identifying the book as any one thing is kinda hard.

The year is 1819 and Owen Wedgewood, skilled and acclaimed personal chef for tea trader Lord Ramsey witnesses the brutal murder of said lord by pirate captain Mad Hannah Mabbot, who then kidnaps Wedgewood, demanding that every sunday he use his culinary skills to cook a delightful meal for her. As the time of his imprisonment grows, Wedgewood learns more and more about the pirate crew, from the mute and deaf cabin boy Joshua, to the asian siblings Bai and Feng, to the lumbering giant of a man known as Mr. Apples and, of course, Captain Mabbot herself, all while the crew chases down the elusive pirate known only as the Brass Fox.

As you might have picked up, there’s a lot happening in this book. You have Owen’s imprisonment and potential escape attempts, you have the relationships and secrets between the differing crew members, you have Owen’s weekly culinary challenge, his developing relationship with Mabbot, Mabbot’s relationship with the Brass Fox, why she killed Lord Ramsey, a whole opium farming plot… there’s a LOT going on. And unfortunately, as happens with many tightly stuffed books, I didn’t care about a lot of the subplots. Or even portions of the main plot.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder just has too much going on. I was invested in Owen’s imprisonment and developing relationships with members of the crew, and loved the foody parts of the book. But whenever we’d cut back to Mabbot’s hunt for the Brass Fox and her personal vendetta against the opium trade… I just tuned out, wishing we could go back to developing our characters and Owen figuring out how to make an elegant dish out of stale wheat and eel. The book, however, was much more invested in the Brass Fox and opium plot which resulted in me being filled with boredom reading more backstory and history of opium that I just didn’t care for.

There was one other major road block when it came to this book and that was the writing itself. Cinnamon and Gunpowder is told from the point of view of Owen himself as he accounts the tale of his capture and imprisonment and the terrors he endured therein. And oh boy… Owen really is melodramatic. ::ahem::

Sleep is impossible; the swells churn my stomach, and my heart scrambles to free itself from my throat. My anxiety provokes a terrible need to relieve myself, but my chamber pot threatens to spill with every lurch of this damned craft. I use a soiled towel for my ablutions, the very towel that was on my person when I was cruelly kidnapped just days ago. To see my employer, as true and honest a gentleman as England ever sired, so brutally murdered, without the opportunity to defend himself, by the very criminals he had striven so ardently to rid the world of, was a shock I can hardly bear. Even now my hand, which can lift a cauldron with ease, trembles at the memory.

The whole book is written this way. It makes sense for Owen’s character as he’s a fairly upper class prissy english cook, but there were many times I almost quit the book due to the writing style. The only place where the writing style seemed to properly mesh for me was when he’d describe the dishes he was cooking. The flowery descriptors really helped the reader visualize all aspects of the cooking process and I found myself readily being able to imagine how a dish would have tasted by the time I was done reading.

So if I didn’t care about the main pirate plot and I didn’t like the writing style, why bother finishing the book? Well, for all of its faults, and there are many, I really enjoyed the characters of Cinnamon and Gunpowder. I liked the twins Bai and Feng, I liked Joshua, I loved Mr. Apples, I liked the over-talkative cook that Owen replaces and I loved Mabbot herself. Watching Owen grow from melodramatic Englishmen to honorary pirate was fun! Seeing the other pirates grow and change due to his sensibilities was well written and great character development. Everything relating to pure pirate life and the reasons for why everyone joined up with Mabbot had me eagerly reading each page. And how often do you see the pirate/kidnapped trope reversed so that the pirate is the lady and the trembling delicate flower is the man? That reversal alone made the book worth reading through.

I’m not entirely certain who this book is for. Romance readers will be frustrated at how little romance is in it, action readers will be bored by Owen, and foodies will be bored with how few and far between the cooking sections are. Historical fiction fans might like it, but if you’re knowledgeable of the time period it takes place in I’m not certain the story will withstand such scrutiny. It has some great moments but they’re just that, moments. The majority of the book I found myself wishing we were ignoring this Brass Fox business and just telling a fun tale about a kidnapped chef stolen away by pirates.

[Cover art designed by Jennifer Carrow and illustrated by Mark Strutzman]