The Hollow of Fear (Lady Sherlock #3) by Sherry Thomas


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Rating: A

It seems that my reaction, whenever I finish one of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock books, is forever destined to be one of complete awe as I sit stunned, with my brain trying to catch up while I’m also trying to scrape my jaw up off the floor. I’m not sure I’m capable of forming whole sentences just yet, because DAY-UM, but the woman has a devious mind!

The Hollow of Fear is the third in the series, and it opens exactly where book two – A Conspiracy in Belgravia – left off. So be aware that what I’m going to say next is a spoiler for that book, and that there are most likely to be spoilers for the other books in this review. Readers should also know that while there is information dotted throughout that supplies some of the backstory, I’d strongly recommend reading all the books in order so as to gain a greater understanding of all the relevant events.

The plotline of Conspiracy concerned the search for one Myron Finch, who is Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother. In a surprise twist tight at the end of the book, we learned that Finch has actually been hiding in plain sight all this time, working as the Holmes family’s coachman, and this conversation continues at the beginning of Hollow. Finch explains that he’s in hiding from Moriarty because he – Finch – has something belonging to his former master and knows that death will be his punishment should Moriarty ever find him. After a daring escape – made with the aid of Stephen Marbleton (whose mother was married to Moriarty at one time) – Charlotte is making her way back to the house she shares with Mrs. Watson when a carriage draws up beside her, the door opens – and the gentleman inside gives his name as Moriarty.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Advertisements

Treacherous is the Night (Verity Kent #2) by Anna Lee Huber

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s not that Verity Kent doesn’t sympathize with those eager to make contact with lost loved ones. After all, she once believed herself a war widow. But now that she’s discovered Sidney is very much alive, Verity is having enough trouble connecting with her estranged husband, never mind the dead. Still, at a friend’s behest, Verity attends a séance, where she encounters the man who still looms between her and Sidney—and a medium who channels a woman Verity once worked with in the Secret Service. Refusing to believe her former fellow spy is dead, Verity is determined to uncover the source of the spiritualist’s top secret revelation.

Then the medium is murdered—and Verity’s investigation is suddenly thwarted. Even Secret Service agents she once trusted turn their backs on her. Undaunted, Verity heads to war-torn Belgium, with Sidney by her side. But as they draw ever closer to the danger, Verity wonders if she’s about to learn the true meaning of till death do us part . . .

Rating: B+

Treacherous is the Night is the second book in Anna Lee Huber’s latest series of post-WW1 historical mysteries featuring former secret service agent Verity Kent.  The events of this story unfold just a few weeks after those of the previous book, This Side of Murder, and if you’ve not read that, look away now, because there is a massive spoiler for the twist in that story in the next paragraph of this review.

For fifteen months, Verity believed herself to be a widow, the husband she’d married on the eve of the war having been killed in action in 1918. But during her investigation into the murders of some of Sidney’s former comrades, she made a game-changing discovery; namely that Sidney wasn’t dead at all, but had allowed everyone to believe him to be while he pursued an investigation of his own to uncover the identity of the traitor among the officers of his battalion.

After Sidney finally revealed the truth, Verity was – and still is – is a mass of conflicting emotions; relief that he isn’t dead; fury that he’d allowed her to mourn for so many months; guilt at some of things she’d kept from him during their brief reunions during the war –and their relationship is still in a state of flux when we rejoin them at the beginning of Treacherous is the Night.  They have decided to work at their marriage to see if they can make a go of it, but it’s not going to be easy for either of them.

The story opens when Verity’s good friend and former War Office colleague, Daphne Merrick, asks Verity to attend a séance with her.  Spiritualism saw a huge increase in popularity after the First World War as devastated relatives and friends of the fallen sought comfort in the idea of being able to speak to their loved ones one last time.  Verity is sceptical of the whole thing – even more so after a cruel trick that was played on her at the house party she attended in the previous book – but she knows Daphne is desperate to contact her brother, Gil, who lost his life in the early days of the war, and reluctantly agrees to accompany Daphne to the session at Madame Zozza’s.

When they arrive, Verity is surprised to see Max Westfield, the Earl of Ryde also in attendance.  They exchange friendly greetings during which Verity recalls their unexplored – interrupted – burgeoning attraction, and then Max goes on to explain that he has accompanied his aunt, Lady Swaffham to the séance.  When the proceedings get underway, things go mostly as Verity had expected – until the medium greets Verity – “ma compatriote, where are you?”- and tells her that she is the spirit of Emilie, a spy and courier with whom Verity had worked on several occasions on her various missions into France and Belgium during the war.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Undue Influence : A Persuasion Retelling by Jenny Holiday

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Second chances only come around once.

Eight years ago, Adam Elliot made the biggest mistake of his life. Now that mistake is coming back to haunt him. His family’s beloved vineyard has gone into foreclosure, and the new owner is the sister of the only man he’s ever loved—the man he dumped under pressure from family and friends who thought the match was beneath him.

When Freddy Wentworth, aka the bad boy of Bishop’s Glen, left town with a broken heart, he vowed never to return. But a recently widowed friend needs his help, so here he is. He’s a rich and famous celebrity chef now, though, so everyone can just eff right off.

But some things are easier said than done. Despite their attempts to resist each other, old love rekindles—and old wounds reopen. If they want to make things work the second time around, they’ll have to learn to set aside their pride—and prejudice.

Rating: B-

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of books by Jenny Holiday (her m/m romance, Infamous is a firm favourite of mine) and as Persuasion is one of my top two Jane Austen novels (regularly trading places with Emma at the top of the list), the combination of the author and a favourite plotline was one bound to catch my eye.  In something of an embarrassment of riches, this is the second m/m re-telling of Persuasion to appear in the last few weeks (the other is Sally Malcolm’s Perfect Day).

In Ms. Holiday’s take on the story, we’re introduced to Adam Elliot, whose mother and sister have pretty much run the family business (the Kellynch vineyard) and finances into the ground and are about to decamp to stay with a friend in the Hamptons.  All the business of the foreclosure and removal has fallen to Adam, who is happy to remain in Bishop’s Glen, where he’s lived all his life, in spite of the continual urging of his oldest – and pretty much only – friend Rusty, that he should leave town and make something of his life.

Rusty stands in for the Lady Russell character as the bringer to bear of the Undue Influence of the title. Garage owner by day, Drag Queen by night, Rusty has been the only person in Adam’s life who seemed to give a damn about him – and is also the person who talked Adam into making what he now regards as the biggest mistake of his life eight years earlier.

That mistake was, of course, parting from the love of his life, Freddy Wentworth.  Widely termed the bad-boy of Bishop’s Glen (especially after the infamous town-square dick-sucking incident), Adam and Freddy met when they were both working as parking valets at a local hotel.

Adam came limping up to the valet stand and kept on going right into Freddy’s heart.

Ms. Holiday makes good use of flashbacks to tell the story of Adam and Freddy’s romance (through Freddy’s PoV), a device I enjoy when it’s done well, which is the case here.  We don’t get the story of Anne and Wentworth’s romance in the original novel, so I appreciated the fleshing out of the backstory in this way.

Back in the present, Freddy is stunned to learn that the property his sister and brother-in-law have recently purchased in what his best friend calls “the armpit of the Finger Lakes” is the one that formerly belonged to the Elliot family – and in spite of himself, he can’t help wondering what became of Adam.  In the intervening years, Freddy has made good and them some; he and his friend, Ben Captain, have opened a popular and successful restaurant in New York, and have also become a pair of TV chefs, with Freddy being the grouchy Gordon Ramsay type while Ben is the sweetly encouraging one.

Undue Influence follows the storyline of Persuasion fairly faithfully, so we’ve got the McGuires (Lulu and Henry) for the Musgroves, Ben Captain for James Benwick, who, in the original was engaged to Wentworth’s sister (who died), but who, here, has recently lost his wife, and William Ellison for William Elliot, in the original, the distant cousin who takes an interest in Anne but is later revealed to be a rather unsavoury chap.  Some events are, of necessity, omitted or truncated, but even allowing for a degree of dramatic license, I felt that many of the events occurring in the present timeline were rushed or included for the sake of it – just because they were in the original – and the secondary characters are not very well fleshed out.

The youthful romance between Adam and Freddy is sweetly adorable and they have great chemistry; Freddy is clearly deeply smitten and takes every opportunity he can to spend time with Adam, even going so far as to walk home with him, even though he lives miles in the opposite direction, and he shows a side of himself to Adam that he never shows anyone else.  Present-day Freddy tries hard to keep telling himself he hates Adam for throwing him over eight years earlier, but it doesn’t take very long for him to admit to himself that’s BS and that he wants a second chance.

The book’s biggest problem, however, is with the reason for Adam and Freddy’s split, which just isn’t strong enough to explain away the eight year separation of two people who so clearly loved each other and, equally clearly, have never really stopped.  This is always going to be the biggest stumbling block in any modern retelling of this story, because the reasons Anne Elliot gave up her Frederick Wentworth aren’t ones that would work dramatically nowadays.  She was young and from a well-to-do, snobbish family and Wentworth was, at the time, a mere midshipman with neither wealth nor prospects. A young woman in the early nineteenth century was subject to the wishes of her family and Anne was persuaded, by familial and monetary considerations, to reject the man she loved.  In the twenty-first century, those reasons are not believable ones, and unfortunately, Ms. Holiday hasn’t been able to come up with something else which satisfactorily accounts for Adam and Freddy’s separation.

I enjoyed Undue Influence and I liked Adam and Freddy, but the weakness of the pivotal plot point was impossible to ignore.  I’m not sure if my knowledge (and love for) Persuasion is a positive or negative thing; if I’d come to this as an m/m contemporary romance without familiarity with the source material, might I have enjoyed it more?  I’m not sure, because that plot point is still weak – perhaps even weaker if one doesn’t know the reasons given in the original story – and in any case, I can’t “unread” the other novel, so it’s a moot point.

I’m giving this one a cautious recommendation overall; it has a lot going for it in terms of the writing, the romance and the central characters, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s let down by the big flaw in the premise.

TBR Challenge: The Tyburn Waltz by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Julie expects she will end up dangling on Tyburn gallows,hanged as a thief.

Ned expects he will die on the battlefields of the Peninsula, hanged as a spy.

But then Julie takes on the trappings of a lady, and Ned unexpectedly becomes an earl, both players in a deadly game that will take them from the heights of London society to the depths of the Regency underworld — a game in which not only necks are risked, but hearts as well.

Rating: B

Finding a book in a series to read for this month’s prompt proved a bit harder than I’d anticipated.  Oh, I’ve got plenty of series books, but I realised that most were in series I’d either completed or not started yet, so my option was pretty much limited to picking up the first in a series.  I was going back and forth on my Kindle trying to work out what I fancied reading and actually started one or two other books before finally settling on Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz.  Ms. MacKeever has a fairly large backlist of traditional regencies, but this book – the first in her Tyburn Trilogy (which has yet to be completed) – dates from 2010 and is a little bit sexier and somewhat darker than her trads.

When she’s just fourteen – as near as she can guess, anyway – street urchin Jules is caught stealing some silver teaspoons, imprisoned in Newgate and will most likely hang for the crime.  But she’s offered a deal; release in exchange for working for the infamous Cap’n Jack – the mysterious, seemingly omnipotent lord of London’s criminal underworld.  It’s Hobson’s Choice; Jules agrees, and for the next four years, she lives comfortably, and is given lessons in refinement and deportment so that she can move easily among the upper classes.

Ned Fairchild, Earl of Dorset, is a rather reluctant earl, having come into the title upon the unexpected death of his cousin.  Until then, he’d been an Exploring Officer (a spy of sorts) in Wellington’s army in Spain, a dangerous life, but one he’d relished.  Back in England, he and his closest friend, Kane, Lord Saxe, are still working for the government – but mostly Ned is bored by the round of balls, parties, visits to clubs and his mistress that seem to comprise his life and longs for something more.

He returns home late one night to find his fifteen-year-old sister, Lady Clea, out of bed and waiting for him, proudly showing him what looks to be a young woman wrapped in a curtain and tied to a chair in his library.  Clea explains that she – with the help of his batman, Bates – caught a housebreaker; Ned sends her to bed, intending to find out what he can about the young woman’s intentions, but she’s too quick for him, and knocks him over the head with an ornamental statue before absconding out of the window – with the statue, and without the curtain.

Shortly after this, Jules is manoeuvred into a situation as companion to Lady Georgiana Ashcroft.  As Miss Julie Wynne, she accompanies her mistress to a number of society events, where she’s instructed to steal various items from the hosts. She has no idea to what end, just knows that she’s got to follow Cap’n Jack’s orders quickly and without drawing attention to herself.  She’s engaged in stealing a glove from the bedroom of the wife of the French Ambassador when she’s confronted by the Earl of Dorset who idly wonders if she’s lost something.  She tries to bluff her way out of it, but quickly realises its futile; he’s recognised her and he’s clearly not going to let her get away this time.  She’s worried he’s going to report her to the authorities and is surprised when he doesn’t, instead asking her to meet him again so they can talk further.  Ned quickly realises there’s more going on that meets the eye, and assigns Bates to keep an eye on Julie, to protect her from whomever has her under his control.

The romance between Ned and Julie is a fairly slow-burn, and the author does a great job of building the attraction that thrums between them from their very first meeting. They’re both extremely likeable; Ned is a terrific hero – handsome, clever and compassionate, he’s impressed by Julie’s tenacity and gumption as much as he’s attracted to her and is determined to keep her safe at all costs. Julie has an old head on her young shoulders – not surprising, considering she grew up on the streets – she’s quick-witted and independent, although she’s sensible enough to recognise when she needs help and to ask for it.  Their interactions are lively and entertaining, they have great chemistry and their relationship moves at a good pace, while they’re also trying to work out exactly who Cap’n Jack is and what he’s up to.  The mystery element of the novel is intriguing and unfolds gradually, with the reader finding clues and information at the same time as the characters, which certainly helps to build the suspense.

The story is set against the backdrop of the state visit which doesn’t really have a lot to do with the plot, although it does provide a number of events at which our heroes can interact, and allows the injection of a little light comedy in the forms of Lady Georgiana and Ned’s cousin, the dowager Countess, who are sworn rivals and always trying to score points off each other.  There are some other intriguing secondary characters as well; Ned’s friend Kane is a notorious rake, his sister, Clea is clever, vivacious and has a Latin quote handy for every occasion, and the coolly collected and lovely French spy, Sabine worked with Ned and Kane during the recent war.

After all those positives however, comes the negative; the final quarter of the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the rest of it.  The reveal about Cap’n Jack is weak and anti-climactic, and although everything is neatly wrapped up – and it’s not all rainbows and happy bunnies – the book seems to have run out of steam, and the author throws in a couple of plot points (like the one about Ned’s cousin pushing him to get married) which add little (if anything) to the story as a whole.

The Tyburn Waltz is, on the whole, a well-executed, funny and sensual romantic adventure story, and even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to read the other books in the trilogy.

Fade to Black (Krewe of Hunters #24) by Heather Graham (audiobook) – Narrated by Luke Daniels

fade to black

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Where dreams go to die…

Starring in a cult TV show was a blessing for Marnie Davante, especially now that her former fame could support her future dream of starting a children’s theater. So she’ll work the convention circuit. But then a costar is brazenly murdered in front of her. With a killer who vanishes into thin air with seemingly inhuman skill, and strange events plaguing Marnie, she feels she can’t even trust her own senses.

Although his dear departed parents were famous actors, PI Bryan McFadden is about as far from Hollywood as you can get. The former military man is reluctant to get involved in such a bizarre case, but it quickly becomes obvious that Marnie is in grave danger, and he is compelled to help. It’s unclear if the killer is an obsessed fan or something more sinister. Could the show’s cast be cursed? How can Bryan keep Marnie safe when it becomes apparent there’s a force determined to make this her final curtain call?

Rating: Narration – B : Content – D+

While Fade to Black is billed as (wait for it!) twenty-fourth in Heather Graham’s Krewe of Hunters series, there is (fortunately) no need to have read or listened to any of the others, as the novel is basically a standalone. I’ve been on a bit of a romantic suspense kick lately and the synopsis – a story of murder involving cast members of a cult TV show – sounded interesting, so I requested a review copy, hoping for a suspenseful, steamy listen with complex characters and some high-stakes action.

Sigh. You guessed it. I got pretty much the opposite. No romance to speak of – just a couple of very short, almost fade to black (see what I did there? :P) sex scenes – stereotypical characters and a plot as exciting as watching grass grow. Fortunately however, the narration by Luke Daniels was engaging enough to keep me listening, although I really wish he’d been given better material to work with.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Scandal Above Stairs (Kat Holloway #2) by Jennifer Ashley

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Priceless artwork has gone missing from the home of a wealthy baronet, and his wife stands to take the blame. When Kat’s employer asks for help in clearing her friend’s name, Kat trades her kitchen for the homes of Mayfair’s wealthiest families.

Soon antiques are disappearing not only from the extravagant households of connoisseurs and collectors, but from the illustrious British Museum. As the thefts increase in frequency, Kat calls upon her friend Daniel McAdam, who has already set himself up in a pawnshop on the Strand as a seedy receiver of stolen goods. When a man is murdered in the shop, Kat must use all of her wits to see that the thieves are caught and justice is done.

Rating: C+

Scandal Above Stairs, the second book in Jennifer Ashley’s series of historical mysteries featuring the no-nonsense cook, Kat Ashley, takes place a few months after the events of book one, Death Below Stairs, and sees our intrepid heroine once again embroiled in the search for a killer, aided by her love-interest – the enigmatic Daniel McAdam – his son James, and her new assistant, Tess Parsons. It’s a well-written ‘cosy’ mystery, and the reviews I’ve seen have been overwhelmingly positive – but I have to confess to being a bit bored until about the last quarter of the book when the pacing, which is pretty pedestrian throughout, finally picks up as we head into the dénouement and resolution of the central plotline.

It’s been a couple of months since Kat helped Daniel to foil a plot to assassinate the Queen, and she’s just a little bit miffed that she hasn’t seen or heard from him in all that time. She still doesn’t know much about him other than that he’s a chameleon who can blend in with workmen, toffs and all the social spectrum in between, and that he must be working for the police or some other government agency. In Death Below Stairs, he promised that one day he’d tell her everything – but that time obviously hasn’t arrived yet. But Kat isn’t one to mope over a man – she knows Daniel must be alright because James would have told her if he wasn’t, and she goes about her normal business as usual – cooking for the Bywaters, now in residence at Lord Rankin’s Mayfair home (they are his cousins) and Lady Cynthia (his sister-in-law), who continues to wear men’s suits, smoke cheroots and, with her small group of like-minded friends, to infiltrate such bastions of masculine privilege as gentleman’s clubs and gaming houses whenever they can.

Well aware of Kat’s sleuthing talents, Lady Cynthia asks if Kat will help a friend of hers, whose husband has accused her of stealing some valuable paintings in order to pay off her gambling debts. On the pretext of visiting the house’s cook – most servants in grand houses knew each other –Kat accompanies Lady Cynthia to the home of Lady Clementine Godfrey to see what she can see – and it doesn’t take her long to work out exactly what’s going on and announce that Sir Evan Godfrey is selling the paintings himself because he’s in need of funds.

The mystery doesn’t end there, however. Before the visit, Kat had found Daniel again, this time working as the proprietor of a dingy pawnbrokers in the Strand where, he tells her, he’s been placed in order to investigate the recent thefts of a number artefacts and antiquities from museums that have never made it into exhibitions and have been put into storage and forgotten. Not long after this, a dead body is found in Daniel’s shop, and it doesn’t take long for Kat to realise that Daniel’s investigation and her previous observations about the Godfreys’ missing paintings are somehow linked.

I liked the way Ms. Ashley laid out her different plot elements and then gradually drew them together, and I was pleased to learn a little more about Daniel – although it is a very little and we’re no closer to knowing exactly who he’s working for and why. Kat continues to be an admirable heroine, a woman who’s worked hard to get where she is and who is determined to succeed in spite of the lousy hand life dealt her in the form of a bigamist ‘husband’, and I liked the new character of Tess, the young woman – a former thief – sent to her by Daniel when he learned Kat was short-handed in the kitchen. Tess is prickly to start with but soon proves to be a quick learner and a genuine help and support to Kat, both in the kitchen and in her investigating. The author does an excellent job of setting her story very firmly in late Victorian London, and her descriptions of the locations, whether a Mayfair mansion or the dingier London streets, are vivid.

There’s something (still) brewing between Lady Cynthia and Daniel’s good friend Elgin Thanos (a scholar and mathematical genius), but Kat and Daniel’s relationship here is pretty static. It’s clear they care deeply for one another, but neither of them is in a position – or hurry – to change anything at this stage, which, while it makes sense given their situations in life, is just a bit frustrating. I’m aware this is a mystery novel rather than a love story, but given the author has chosen to include a romance on the side, I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of Daniel – and of him Kat together.

As I said at the beginning, I had issues with the slow pacing of the novel, which made it difficult for me to fully engage with the story for around half of the book. There’s also a fair bit of telling-not-showing going on; and while the descriptions of the food Kat prepares are mouthwatering, there are too many of them – as I said in my review of Death Below Stairs, I felt as though I was being hit over the head with reminders that Kat Is A Cook. The biggest problem, however, is that when I sat down to write this review a day or so after I finished reading, I found I could recall very little about the plot – not even the identity of the villain – and had to look at the notes on my Kindle to refresh my memory. The pace quickens in the final chapters and the eventual reveal is a good one, but it all came too late to save the book, which, ultimately, I found lacklustre and unmemorable.

Judging from the positive reactions to the novel elsewhere, it seems that perhaps this is one of those occasions when ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, but I can only recommend Scandal Above Stairs to devotees of ‘cosy’ mysteries. If you like your mysteries served up with a little more tension and a little more romance, this is probably not for you.

Dinner Most Deadly (John Pickett Mysteries #4) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

dinner most deadly

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, returns from Scotland restless and out of sorts, her friend Emily Dunnington plans a select dinner party with half a dozen male guests from whom Julia may choose a lover.

But Emily’s dinner ends in disaster when one of her guests, Sir Reginald Montague, is shot dead.

When Bow Street Runner John Pickett is summoned to Emily’s house, he is faced with the awkward task of informing Lady Fieldhurst that their recent masquerade as a married couple (Family Plot) has resulted in their being legally wed.

Beset by distractions – including the humiliating annulment procedure and the flattering attentions of Lady Dunnington’s pretty young housemaid – Pickett must find the killer of a man whom everyone has reason to want dead.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B+

Note: This review contains spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the charming young Bow Street Runner John Pickett continues apace with the fourth full-length novel in the series, Dinner Most Deadly. It’s another enjoyable mix of murder-mystery and romance, but here, the romantic angle is as much the focus as the mystery, as John and the love of his life, Lady Julia Fieldhurst, struggle to deal with the ramifications of their recent masquerade as Mr. and Mrs. Pickett in book three, Family Plot. This instalment is particularly angsty in terms of their continuing relationship; John has been in love with Julia since they met in book one, In Milady’s Chamber, and while it’s taken Julia longer to realise the truth of her feelings for the thoughtful, insightful and achingly sweet young man who is so devoted to her, she is finally starting to see them for what they really are. But… a viscountess and a thief-taker who earns the princely sum of twenty-five shillings a week? The social divide between them is too great to permit even the merest nodding acquaintance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals