Review: Tough Justice by Tee O’Fallon

Review: Tough Justice by Tee O’FallonTough Justice (K-9 Special Ops #1) by Tee O'Fallon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: K-9 Special Ops #1
Pages: 368
Published by Entangled: Amara on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

It should have been a routine investigation. Instead, DEA K-9 agent Adam “Deck” Decker watches in horror as one Denver hospital seems to be Ground Zero for overdoses of a new drug. Now Deck can only hope a certain icy, green-eyed ER doctor will help him and his canine partner track down the deadly source.

Dr. Tori Sampson has her reasons for not trusting federal agents, especially ones working for the DEA. But the rash of overdoses―including a heartbreaking case involving a teen―is alarmingly high. And the new opioid is not only extremely dangerous, it defies all the usual medical treatments. So Tori has a choice: work with the big, brawny, and annoyingly hot DEA agent…or watch more innocent people die.

Tori’s the only person who can help Deck break the case, and they’ll need to trust each other, no matter how high the tension and attraction sizzling between them runs. But with every question answered, they realize there’s something more behind these typical teen overdoses. There’s a pattern here, and a pattern can only suggest one thing. There’s a killer on the loose.

My Review:

First, and most important to a whole lot of people in my reading circle, the dog is fine at the end of the story. Actually Thor is more than fine. He seems to be the only person in this romantic suspense thriller who survives this case pretty much unscathed. Quite a few of the central humans in this story are a bit worse for wear by the time they reach their HEA.

But the dog is just fine. So rest easy and hang on for this wild ride of a case.

There’s a temptation to call Tough Justice an enemies to lovers romance, but that just doesn’t feel right. Enemies to lovers implies that the protagonists have met before and rubbed each other the wrong way, and that’s just not the case here.

When Deck (along with Thor) and Tori first collide in the story, it’s the first time they’ve ever met. The baggage they pretty much immediately start flinging at each other is not about either of them personally. It’s about what they – or rather their professions – represent.

Deck distrusts doctors – in the extreme – because his younger sister died of a drug overdose. She got hooked on opioids after an accident, when a doctor – either overworked, irresponsible, or both – prescribed pain-killers for her very real pain and injuries but didn’t pay attention to her growing dependence on the drugs.

Tori has no love for the DEA or its agents, because they used her father to make a case against a much bigger fish. But what put her pharmacist dad in their sights in the first place were corners that he shaved and mistakes that he made – both in giving away meds without prescriptions to people who needed them but couldn’t afford them – and for helping in assisted suicides before it was legal in Colorado.

Tori blames the DEA for promising her dad to help him if he testified – but they hung him out to dry when their case was made and he lost the family savings, his pharmacist’s license and spent several months in jail. Tori attributes her mother’s death to the stress of the situation.

That Deck and Tori meet in a face-off over the care of Deck’s partner agent who has OD’d on a new super-heroin through incidental contact as part of a takedown has Deck on edge. While Tori just needed to get the behemoth out of her ER so she can save his friend’s life without literally bumping into him every time she turns around in the small, frantic treatment room.

You would not think that opening scene, especially when coupled with their past history and mutual distrust, would turn into anything positive at all – let alone a romance.

But Tori has seen too many people, especially kids, die as a result of this new heroin compound. She NEEDS to do something proactive and not just reactive to help stem this tide. Deck needs Tori’s skills, first as a doctor who knows how to treat this new and deadly epidemic, and second for her contacts with patients.

He doesn’t want to violate the laws about patient privacy, but anyone who manages to survive – already a much too small percentage – and who is willing to talk to the DEA about where they bought the drug and who they got it from will get them one step closer to figuring out who is creating and dealing this particular form of death.

That they are both looking for an excuse to see each other again isn’t something that either of them is able to admit. At least not until it is very nearly too late for more than they’d ever thought they’d want.

Escape Rating B+: Tough Justice manages to combine a downright combustible romance with a deadly twisted thriller that feels so close to real you can practically feel the heat of the literally explosive climax right through your fingers as you’re holding the book.

(Even if you’re reading an ebook, which is actually kinda dangerous!)

So, on that one hand, we have a romance between two people who start out not really knowing each other and almost hating what they do know. On the other hand, once they let each other in, just a little bit, they realize that they are more alike than would first appear.

Because they’re both scared of risking their hearts, and they both cover that fear with by letting their work consume their entire lives so they don’t have to think about what might be missing. That both of them have jobs that both require intense focus AND are all about saving people just adds to the constant pressure to be the best, do the best, and forget about anything that might distract from those goals.

Like romance. Or hobbies. Or even taking the occasional vacation that isn’t mandated one way or another.

And on the other side of the equation, there’s this big, huge, deadly case that turns out to be a mission for both of them. Someone is selling a new, “improved”, even more addictive and more deadly formula of heroin called “Gray Death” because that’s what it looks like and that’s what it delivers.

As the story begins, Tori is treating the victims and Deck is hunting the perpetrator. Then they join forces and suddenly it seems like someone is after them. Only because someone IS after them. And that’s where the case ramps up and goes just a bit over the top.

I did figure out who the villain was long before Deck and Tori – although it didn’t make sense at first. (This is one of this times when I paged to the end to see if I was right because it was driving me nuts! Also, the villain was nuts!)

The casework was painstaking in just the way I like. Linking one clue to another with a bit of luck but not too much. But once they got there, I have to say that the villain and his villainy read as more than a bit “out there”. YMMV. I expected him to be awful – after all, he is the villain. I just didn’t expect him to be “bwahaha” insane on top.

On the whole, I loved the romantic heat between Deck and Tori and the come-here-go-away progress of their romance. I found the case they were investigating to be absolutely riveting along the way, and the ending was an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride, albeit with a villain who flew off that thrill-ride and went over the top.

Still, this was a fun, absorbing read from beginning to end, and I absolutely could not put it down. It was made even better because the dog was the only character to emerge from the story without even a scratch on him – even though he helped save the day in the absolute nick of time!

TLC
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Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi PandianUnder Lock & Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery, #1) by Gigi Pandian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase #1
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Under Lock & Skeleton Key layers architecture with mouthwatering food in an ode to classic locked-room mysteries.
An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.
After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.
When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.

My Review:

Under Lock and Skeleton Key is the first book in the author’s Secret Staircase Mystery series. With that series title, it sounds like this should be a case for Nancy Drew – and it sorta/kinda is.

A grown-up Nancy Drew who grew up sharing her love of puzzle solving and misdirection with her BFF. A BFF she ghosted ten years back. A hurt they’ll both have to get over in order to get this mystery-solving partnership back together.

It’s also the story of Tempest Raj and her family’s very special construction company, Secret Staircase Construction. Because that’s what her family builds – homes and offices with hidden doors, concealed nooks and yes – secret staircases.

Tempest Raj is back home in California in her family’s eclectic, multi-ethnic and multi-family, nearly vertical piece of almost-paradise. She’s back licking her still-smarting wounds after the literal explosion of her career as a famous – and now infamous – Las Vegas stage magician. EVERYONE in the industry and on social media blames Tempest for the trick that went catastrophically wrong in both water AND fire, but Tempest is certain that the costly disaster was the result of her body-double assistant attempting to paint Tempest as a risk too dangerous to back or insure, in the hopes that said assistant could finally become the main event.

Instead the show shut down, putting everyone out of work – including said duplicitous assistant – while Tempest has been forced to retreat back home after losing her Las Vegas house along with her reputation. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, or should that be shoes, as it seems like everyone involved has threatened to sue her.

But her successful show wasn’t just her success, the money she earned allowed her to keep her family’s business, Secret Staircase Construction, afloat. Now that money is gone and she’s back home hoping that she won’t have to resort to taking a job that doesn’t exist as part of her dad’s somewhat misfit crew. A crew he can barely afford as it is.

When her dad calls her to report to a job site, she’s sure that fate has just come upon her. Instead, her dad needs her to look at the house they’re currently working on because they’ve found something that is more in her professional line than his. They’ve spotted a dead body in an enclosed space that no one has opened in a century – and none of them can figure out how it got there.

That kind of trap door illusion is just the sort of thing that Tempest specialized in, so she’s intrigued by the puzzle – at least until she’s chilled by the discovery that the dead body isn’t merely too recent to have been walled up for a century. When the wall is opened, Tempest recognizes the corpse just a bit too well. Her duplicitous assistant, Tempest’s near-duplicate, is dead – and the woman didn’t wrap her own corpse in a sack and put itself in a locked room.

The woman is dead. The biggest question in Tempest’s mind is whether she was killed for herself – or in place of the woman she resembled so strongly. It’s up to Tempest and her friends to figure out both whodunnit and who was intended to be done before the killer catches up with her!

Escape Rating A-: This cozy mystery thriller – as much of a contradiction in terms as that feels – is a mystery wrapped in an enigma enclosed in a puzzle in a way that is shot through with both magic and suspense. But the magic in Tempest’s life and in her family’s Anglo-Indian history is mostly of the stage magic variety.

This is also a mystery that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre – from Agatha Christie and John Dickinson Carr to Scooby-Doo, without ever falling into the trap of slavish imitation – no matter how many hidden switches and actual trap doors the story has built into it.

But this is not a fair play mystery, unlike so many of those classics. It’s a mystery of misdirection, both for Tempest AND for the reader. It’s also the story of how Tempest gets her own “Scooby gang” together to help her solve the mystery.

A mystery that manages to contain so many red herrings that it’s a surprise that her grandfather – an excellent cook whose lovingly described dishes are guaranteed to make the reader’s mouth water – doesn’t take the opportunity to cook them up into something delicious. (His recipes at the end of the book all sound scrumptious!)

The initial crime seems impossible – a locked room mystery that would tax Holmes’ famous logic and Poirot’s little grey cells at the same time. But the rules about locked room mysteries point the way to possibilities that make the impossible not quite so impossible. Tempest just needs to color-code those red herrings.

But the story is also hedged around with family fears and family secrets. Everyone seems to be protecting Tempest – and themselves – from a truth that no one wants to talk about. There might be a curse on their family going all the way back to their roots in India under the Raj.

And it all might be just another one of those tasty red herrings.

It’s only once Tempest is able to pull a tiny thread of one of the many tangled threads in this case – in the Locked Room Library no less! – that she is finally able to tease out a solution. Not just to this convoluted case – but to the question that has been plaguing her since the day she came home. The question about what’s next for Tempest. And in working towards a resolution to the mystery, she finally finds her answer.

Tempest’s answer means that this is the beginning of what looks like it will be a fun and fascinating series – one that I am very much looking forward to exploring. In the meantime, I’ll just have to go back to some of this author’s other cozily magical mystery series. I’ve already read a bit of her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series (The Ninja’s Illusion) and now I have the perfect excuse to go back!

Review: Sweet Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden, Caitlin Crews

Review: Sweet Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden, Caitlin CrewsSweet Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates, Caitlin Crews, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Jasper Creek #3
Pages: 448
Published by Hqn on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Four half sisters create the family they’ve always dreamed of in this enchanting quartet from bestselling authors Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden and Caitlin Crews.
The Hathaway sisters might have grown up apart, but when they agree to move to Jasper Creek, Oregon, to revitalize their grandfather’s farm, it seems a straightforward decision. Until they meet their neighborhood cowboys…
Sweet-natured Teddy has never met a man worth taking a risk on, until now. Tomboy Joey has more affinity with farm equipment than men, until a brooding cowboy changes her mind. Prickly baker Georgie can’t resist the temptation of the most forbidden cowboy of all, and sparks fly between ceramicist Elliot and the grumpy single-dad rancher next door.
The sisters’ feelings are anything but simple, but with the love and support of each other, they discover that a cowboy might be the sweetest thing of all about coming home.

My Review:

The best thing that Mickey Hathaway ever did for his four daughters was to leave before any of them were ever born – although some of their mothers would disagree. And not that his absence from their lives didn’t leave a “Dad” sized hole in all of their hearts. But that’s a hole that Mickey wasn’t capable of filling – whether he was around or not.

Teddy, Joey, Georgie and Elliott, in spite of being raised all over the country by four different women, share more than their gender-obscuring names, their violet eyes and their sperm donor. They are also all the same age, 25, as their deadbeat dad impregnated all of their mothers the same year.

(There’s a story there I wish we knew a bit more of, but it’s a humdinger all the same.)

They share a heart, a yearning to make a home together, and a curmudgeonly grandfather in tiny Jasper Creek, Oregon who has just had a heart attack but claims not to want their assistance or their presence. But grumpy is Jack Hathaway’s love language, so he might just be lying.

Whether he is or not, his health scare gives his girls the impetus they need to pull up stakes from wherever they’ve been and gather at the place their hearts all call home. The place where they have always wanted to put down roots and build the life together, as sisters, that they never had growing up.

Thus Four Sisters Farm is born. The four of them, pitching together with their creative skills and boundless love to fix the old ranch house that Jack has refused to live in for over a decade, work the land that has become a bit much for the old man, and build a self-sustaining set of businesses that will keep the farm afloat and in the hands of the Hathaway family even as it brings people and money to their little town.

Along the way, each of the sisters finds their own way to a Happy Ever After that none of them ever dreamed of when their journeys began.

Escape Rating A-: The stories in Sweet Home Cowboy are all stories of love and loss. The losses come first. It’s not just that “Dad” shaped hole in all of the girls’ hearts, it’s also the messages and the messes that each inherited from the mothers – the women that Mickey Hathaway left behind.

But it’s not just the sisters. The men that get swept into their lives – or sucked into the vortex they create – have also been through emotional wringers. The individual love stories in this four-leaf clover of a book are all about finding the person who makes you stronger in your broken places.

That his girls have come home to build their futures also helps to heal Grandpa Jack, which turns out to be the icing on this very sweet and lovely cake.

My favorite story of the four was Joey’s, written by Maisey Yates, who was is the organizer for this  Jasper Creek series. Joey was the hard-nosed, practical, fix-it, “tomboy” of the sisters. She’s kind of a blunt object, and that object is usually a hammer – whether figuratively or literally. She the one who learned to stand alone and be self-sufficient at all costs, lest she be thought weak OR be let down by relying on someone who can’t be relied upon. Learning to let go enough to let someone else in is hard, but watching Joey finally figure that out was lovely. And, just as in so many of the author’s previous works, and the reason why I picked this book up in the first place, Joey’s perspective and her issues with the cowboy she falls in love with feel real and do not require a misunderstandammit to reach that HEA.

I also enjoyed Teddy’s and Elliot’s stories, although they were different in tone to Joey’s, because they were different people and occupy different places in the kaleidoscope of the Hathaway sisters. I have to say that Georgie’s story didn’t quite work for me as well as the others did.

When I started Sweet Home Cowboy I had no idea that this was book three in a series, although that didn’t impact my reading and I didn’t feel like I needed to know what happened in the earlier books in order to get stuck right into this one. All the books in the series are written by the same group of friends that wrote Sweet Home Cowboy, and are about groups of four women returning to Jasper Creek, which is near both Copper Ridge and Gold Valley, the sites of Maisey Yates’ other long-running cowboy romance series(es). So far, Jasper Creek has featured four cousins (A Cowboy for All Seasons), four friends (A Good Old-Fashioned Cowboy), and now four half-sisters. Sweet Home Cowboy turned out to be a delicious treat of a read, so now I want to go back and see what else has happened!

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca MayWild and Wicked Things by Francesca May
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, historical fantasy, historical fiction, paranormal
Pages: 432
Published by Redhook on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the aftermath of World War I, a naive woman is swept into a glittering world filled with dark magic, romance, and murder in this lush and decadent debut.
On Crow Island, people whisper, real magic lurks just below the surface. 
Neither real magic nor faux magic interests Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s only on the island to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. 
Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the biggest one may be her enigmatic new neighbor. 
Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of the island's extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where the boundaries of wickedness are tested, and the cost of illicit magic might be death.

My Review:

The wild and wicked things of Wild and Wicked Things weren’t quite like anything I was expecting.

That may be because both “wild” and “wicked” are in the eyes of the beholder. And there seems to be plenty of both to behold on Crow Island, somewhere mythical and magical just off the coast of England.

Part of the fascination for me in this story was the setup. This is a post-World War I story, but the variation of the Great War that this story is post of isn’t quite the one we know. Because in this version of history, the gas that killed so many in the trenches wasn’t mustard gas.

It was magic. A magic that transformed the soldiers it touched into supersoldiers with no conscience, no morals, no scruples and no fear of death. It’s only hinted at, but it seems as if it was worse than that. It certainly left behind a version of “shell shock” or PTSD that gave the survivors even more regrets and worse nightmares than they suffered in our real history. Which is definitely saying something.

But the war is over. Politically, the powers-that-be that embraced witchcraft when they needed it to prosecute the terrible war are now backing away. Magic has fallen from favor – and from legality – and faces a Prohibition that will probably be just as effective as the real Prohibition was in U.S. history. Meaning not at all.

Still, the “Lost Generation” has even more they want to forget about than in real history. And one of the places they come to do that forgetting – at least among the rich and glittering – is Crow Island, where magic has seeped into the blood and bones of the place and its people.

Annie has come to Crow Island to pack up the estate of a man she never knew. Her absent father. She’s been warned all her life against magic and has no plans to get caught up in the mystery and glamour of the island. But as that old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men (and women) often go astray.

Especially as her best friend, Bea, ran away to Crow Island and married there. Annie feels compelled to find out what happened to the girl she grew up with. And the house that is just down the beach from her rented cottages shines so brightly in the night that she can’t resist exploring, no matter how many times she’s already been warned to stay away from magic in general, and from the residents of Cross House in particular.

Because they practice magic. Also sin, debauchery and perhaps a bit of drug dealing along with the fortune telling. But definitely magic – which is to be avoided at all costs.

But for once in her life as a timid little mouse, Annie doesn’t listen to all those cautioning voices. She finds herself caught in Emmeline Delacroix’ glamorous and glittering web. Only for Emmeline to discover that she has landed a much bigger fish than she expected, and that naïve, innocent Annie has caught her as well.

Or the magic has caught them both.

Escape Rating A-: The lesson of Wild and Wicked Things is to be very, very careful what you wish for, because you might get it at a cost that is not fully revealed until it is much, much too late. Along with a reminder that some gifts most certainly do come at way too high a price.

Initially, the person who got what they wished for was Annie’s friend Bea. But Bea has refused to pay the price for her wish, is refusing to acknowledge that it was her wish in the first place, and seems to be perfectly willing to let Emmeline Delacroix pay the price for it – even if that price is Emmeline’s own life.

Then again, one of the things we learn over the course of the story is that Bea is a user and a bitch to pretty much everyone. As we learn more about Annie and Bea’s shared girlhood, and Bea’s involvement with Emmeline and Cross House, we lose pretty much any sympathy for her and end up wondering why Annie put up with her for so long or why Emmeline didn’t see right through her.

But Bea is just the catalyst for everything that happens and that she refuses to accept any responsibility for. The story is Annie’s. It’s Annie’s story of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Of coming into her own and admitting who she really is.

In a way, it’s one of those things that still felt like a mystery at the end. Was Annie a mouse because that was her nature, or was Annie a mouse because so much of her true nature was suppressed? We never do find out, although there are hints.

As Annie gets herself involved in all the things she’s not supposed to be involved in, like magic, witchcraft, murder, raising the dead and falling in love with Emmeline, she breaks out of the straightjacket her life has been contained in. It is, very much on the one hand, the making of her.

And on the other, thinking that raising the dead is a good idea that will solve all the problems they are all already in feels like seriously the wrong way to go about things. As the situation proves.

Considering the period in which this is set, it has a surprisingly gothic feel to it. Cross House has a mind of its own, and it’s a brooding one filled with darkness and secrets. The story also reminds me a lot of Amanda Quick’s Burning Cove series (start with The Girl Who Knew Too Much), with the way that the paranormal has been turned so completely dark.

War is dangerous. Witchcraft is dangerous. Love is dangerous. Mix them together and it’s all too easy to end up with a whole big ball of explosive wrong.

However, following along with Annie as she figures out all of the above may not exactly be “right” (for select definitions thereof) but it is absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 3-27-22

Suspicious George is still VERY suspicious. It’s not that we haven’t been forgiven, it’s more like he’s just petrified that we’re going to leave him again. Which is true in the long term, as now that it seems safe-ish to travel, we’ll probably do it a bit more. But we’ll always come back, which he hasn’t had a chance to learn yet. We miss them all terribly while we’re away!

But in the short term, there is plenty coming up on Reading Reality. This Friday is April 1, which means that next week is my annual Blogo-Birthday Celebration. As usual, there will be giveaways EVERY DAY, so stay tuned.

In the into each life a little rain must fall category, I’m also on call for jury duty that week. I might get called, I might not, and I won’t know until the night before. I’d prefer not to be spending my birthday at the County Courthouse, but c’est la vie!

Current Giveaways:

$!0 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Chasing Rainbows Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Let’s Get Lucky Giveaway Hop is Wendy

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds
A Review: Gouda Friends by Cathy Yardley
B Review: Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoy
A- Review: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
B Review: The Lying Club by Annie Ward
Stacking the Shelves (489)

Coming This Week:

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May (review)
Sweet Home Cowboy by Maisey Yates, Nicole, Helm, Jackie Ashenden, Caitlin Crews (blog tour review)
Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian (review)
Tough Justice by Tee O’Fallon (blog tour review)
Honey Bunny Giveaway Hop

Stacking the Shelves (489)

In amongst a LOT of fascinating looking books there’s one in here that I never expected to see. I enjoyed Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles after a bit of a rocky start in A Promise of Fire, but it sure seemed like the series wrapped up to satisfying conclusion in Heart on Fire. So I was surprised to see a FOURTH book in the series (A Curse of Queens) pop up after a four year hiatus. My curiosity bump itches, so I’m going to have to check this one out!

For Review:
The Art of Prophecy (War Arts #1) by Wesley Chu
Azura Ghost (Graven #2) by Essa Hansen
Breathless by Amy McCulloch
A Caribbean Heiress in Paris (Las Léonas #1) by Adriana Herrera
Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow
A Curse of Queens (Kingmaker Chronicles #4) by Amanda Bouchet
Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor
Don’t Know Tough by Eli Cranor
A Duke, the Spy, an Artist, and a Lie (Rogues and Remarkable Women #3) by Vanessa Riley
First Time for Everything by Henry Fry
Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd
The Foundling by Ann Leary
Hide by Kersten White
The Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish
Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett
Love, Lists and Fancy Ships by Sarah Grunder Ruiz
Mercury Rising by R.W.W. Greene
The Patron Saint of Second Chances by Christine Simon
Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li
Ramón and Julieta (Love & Tacos #1) by Alana Quintana Albertson
The Ravaged by Norman Reedus with Frank Bill
Renovated to Death (Domestic Partners in Crime #1) by Frank Anthony Polito
Sadie on a Plate by Amanda Elliot
Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall
Two Nights in Lisbon by Chris Pavone
The Unsinkable Greta James by Jennifer E. Smith
Wildcat by Amelia Morris


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

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Review: The Lying Club by Annie Ward

Review: The Lying Club by Annie WardThe Lying Club by Annie Ward
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 432
Published by Park Row on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"If you loved Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere, allow me to introduce you to your next obsession. Kim Liggett, New York Times bestselling author of The Grace Year
A tangled web of lies draws together three women in this explosive thriller of revenge, murder and shocking secrets

At an elite private school nestled in the Colorado mountains, Natalie, an office assistant, dreams of having a life like the school moms she deals with every day. Women like Brooke—a gorgeous heiress, ferociously loving mother and serial cheater—and Asha, an overprotective mom who suspects her husband of having an affair. Their fates are bound by the handsome assistant athletic director Nicholas, whom Natalie loves, Brooke wants and Asha needs.
But when two bodies are carried out of the school one morning, it seems the tension between mothers and daughters, rival lovers, and the haves and have-nots has shattered the surface of this isolated, affluent town—where people stop at nothing to get what they want.
Don't miss Annie Ward's other twisty and utterly original thriller, Beautiful Bad!  

My Review:

Everybody lies, particularly when their ex has just been murdered and they can’t remember whether or not they did it. In fact, Natalie Bellman goes into her interview with the police deciding that she’s going to be the best liar on Earth to cover up the missing bits of her memory.

And that’s where this story begins, with Natalie waking up – or coming to – in the school parking lot in the middle of a snowy night, trying to remember what she did and didn’t do. Because she had plenty of motive to push the man over a balcony.

At first, the case seems cut and dried, a case of hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Nick was respected and popular, while Natalie’s history is checkered at best.

But, as Natalie’s police interview proceeds, the reader gets a look back at Natalie’s memories of the past several months and just how things reached this particular bloody end. Initially, she still looks guilty, between her out-of-control jealousy and her alcohol and pill-induced blackouts.

The thing is, she’s not the only one lying, and hers are not the only shady goings on in town. What Natalie remembers are a lot of wealthy people who are not used to taking no for an answer and completely unacquainted with having to deal with the consequences of their actions. Along with their over-scheduled, over-indulged and spoiled children.

So for quite a bit of the story, this seems like a “rich people acting badly” story and the reader starts hoping that they are all going to get their just desserts. And there’s more than a bit of anticipated schadenfreude in that reading.

As Natalie’s memories wind their way towards the present, towards her sitting with those two cops being questioned and lying her ass off, the story shifts from Natalie’s perspectives and Natalie’s memories, to that final day that she doesn’t remember – but others certainly do.

They’re all lying, but in the middle of all those lies a truth emerges and the darkness and rot at the heart of this supposedly idyllic community is exposed for all to see.

Escape Rating B: The final third of this book certainly brings on the thrills and chills as all the lies start creeping out of the shadows and getting even creepier as they go. Because what fascinates about this case wasn’t so much whodunnit as why it was done in the first place – also in the second, third and fourth places as it turns out.

The setup took a bit too long to get itself up. The portrait of the wealthy community and the rich people in it, their overindulgences and petty rivalries, went on just a bit too long, to the point where it seemed like that WAS the story and poor Natalie just went off the rails.

Which she did, over the rails, over the top and overdone. Her observations of the bad behavior all around her were way more interesting than her reflection on a relationship where she was so obviously being used in ways that seemed more typical than interesting.

Little did we, or she, know as it turned out in the end.

But that’s where the story finally went into high gear. Not just the way that Natalie, who was victimized before, ended up being victimized again, but in the way that this group, this lying club, got together even though they planned nothing together, or separately or even at all.

So this is a slow burn thriller that’s on simmer for 2/3rds of the story as the pieces are slowly and painstakingly edged together. Then the heat is turned up high and the right person gets roasted at the end.

Review: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Ogres by Adrian TchaikovskyOgres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A bleak glimpse of a world of savage tyrants, from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky in a beautiful signed, limited-edition hardcover.
Ogres are bigger than you.Ogres are stronger than you.Ogres rule the world.
It’s always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.
Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It’s always been that way. It’s the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.
But when the headman’s son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord’s son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.

My Review:

When I first saw the cover for Ogres, the image reminded me an awful lot of Mr. Hyde – as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So I went looking for popular images and the resemblance is a bit uncanny – except for that helicopter in the background of the book’s cover.

Now that I’ve read Ogres, I’ve come to the conclusion that the image is kind of a tease – or a spoiler. Perhaps a bit of both. Because Ogres is very much a “we have met the enemy and he is us” kind of story, complete with that same AHA! moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, that the monster perceived as being “the other” is really the self within. Or in this case a possible self that can be released under the right – or wrong circumstances.

As we experience this tale through the eyes of Torquell, the spoiled son of the village headman who both envies and resents the wealthy and all-powerful ogres, this seems like a rather typical hero’s journey. Torquell manages to kill one of the supposedly unbeatable ogres who rule his world and everyone is punished for it.

Evil overlords are the same all over.

But that’s when the story starts turning a corner into “Come to the dark side, we have cookies.” Literally. The ogre who “owns” Torquell starts feeding him the same food that the ogres eat – and he becomes bigger, stronger and more aggressive – just like they are.

Those cookies are baked – not just with ingredients that are forbidden to the downtrodden serfs – but with fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. An evil that Torquell recognizes when he tastes it – even as he plots to steal the knowledge of the ogres for himself.

That could have been the end of the story. But it’s not – and that’s what made it so much more fascinating than the all-too-typical hero’s journey it set out to be.

Escape Rating A-: That’s where this story, which up until this point has read as a fantasy, flips one of its switches and turns into science fiction. Because the ogres are Mr. Hyde, who once hid inside the more mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll. All it takes is a bit of genetic engineering – and a whole lot of generations to bake the system in place.

Then, just as the reader thinks they know where the story is finally going – a second switch is flipped. A switch that makes you rethink everything that came before. Because this IS a hero’s journey after all – just not the hero the reader thought it was. Not at all.

What made this story so compelling is that as much as I totally saw the first twist coming a mile away – I didn’t see the second one at all until it happened. Torquell is led very carefully along the path to discover the truth about the ogres, so once he starts learning about the history of his world that truth becomes obvious fairly quickly.

But that’s where things get interesting. Because then it starts to look a lot like a power corrupts tale, as Torquell is seduced by the equivalent of the dark side of the force that governs his world. Torquell rises – and then Torquell falls – but the story still manages to have a triumphant ending. Just not the one the reader thought they were going to get.

I usually say that books like this walk like a duck and quack like a duck because they read like fantasy right up until the point where we learn that they were science fiction all along. In the end, this one walked like a duck and quacked like a duck but somehow managed to be a platypus. It wasn’t what I expected, then it wasn’t what I expected again, and at the very end managed to surprise me yet one more time. That’s a lot of surprising plot twists to pack into one novella!

Review: Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoy

Review: Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoySavvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoy
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Mira on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A delicious debut rom-com about a plus-size sweetheart who gets a full-life makeover after a brutal breakup.
Savvy Sheldon spends a lot of time tiptoeing around the cracks in her life: her high-stress and low-thanks job, her clueless boyfriend and the falling-apart kitchen she inherited from her beloved grandma—who taught her how to cook and how to love people by feeding them. But when Savvy’s world starts to crash down around her, she knows it’s time for some renovations.
Starting from the outside in, Savvy tackles her crumbling kitchen, her relationship with her body, her work–life balance (or lack thereof) and, last but not least, her love life. The only thing that doesn’t seem to require effort is her ride-or-die squad of friends. But as any home-reno-show junkie can tell you, something always falls apart during renovations. First, Savvy passes out during hot yoga. Then it turns out that the contractor she hires is the same sexy stranger she unintentionally offended by judging based on appearances. Worst of all, Savvy can’t seem to go anywhere without tripping over her ex and his latest "upgrade." Savvy begins to realize that maybe she should’ve started her renovations the other way around: beginning with how she sees herself before building a love that lasts.

My Review:

Living well may be the best revenge, but that’s not exactly what Savvy Sheldon has in mind when she hatches her “Revenge Plan” after her asshat boyfriend of six years dumps her and dumps on her – but only after he finishes the delicious dinner that she lovingly cooked for him.

(There are asshats and then there are TOTAL asshats, but this dude is in a class not exactly by himself but dropped in a metaphorical vat of acid along with the douchecanoe ex-boyfriend from yesterday’s book.)

When we first meet Savvy her romantic life and her self-esteem are pretty much in freefall. It’s not just that ex leaves her, it’s not even that he was pissed that she was home late from work to cook the dinner she was making for him so that he could finish it before he walked out, but it was the way he blamed everything wrong in their relationship on her. Because she’s been neglecting everything, including herself, to put in long hours at work AND attempt to keep this bastard happy.

So on his way out the door – I wish someone had told him not to let it hit him in the ass on the way out because he just so completely deserved it – he nagged and ragged and negged on the fact that she had “let herself go” and that he deserved a better looking girlfriend and planned to trade up to someone with a supermodel body.

Savvy feels heartbroken AND a little bit guilty. So she calls her fantastic crew of loyal, true blue, ride or die girlfriends to come and help her get her head on straight and figure out what her next steps are going to be.

Her initial plan is to get a “Revenge Body” and make him regret leaving her. That plan has more than a few flaws, because he’s just not worth the effort. But Savvy is – and her friends help her to see that.

Savvy’s plan, with the help and support of her besties, is to work out that thing we all have difficulty finding – a work life balance. Because she has been putting in WAY too many hours at work chasing a promotion and neglecting HERSELF. Taking care of herself by eating better, getting back to exercising, and making time to do things with her friends and her family will make her feel better about herself.

If she manages to make Mr. Wrong jealous and snag Mr. Right along the way – well, that’s icing on the cake. A cake that Savvy will bake herself, thankyouverymuch.

Escape Rating B: The total douchiness of their exes isn’t the only thing that Savvy Sheldon and Tam Doan – or at least their stories – have in common. Both stories are straddling the fence between romance and relationship fiction, although it felt like Gouda Friends was just a bit stronger on the romance side, while Savvy Sheldon’s story is just that bit stronger on the relationship – as in relationships with people other than the love interest – side.

It’s a fun read either way. They both are. Although Savvy’s story is not a romantic comedy – in spite of the publisher’s marketing campaign. Not that it doesn’t have both funny moments and a meet cute – but the emphasis in this one is just not on the romance. It’s on the friendships.

They also both center on self-care stories. Savvy has been so focused on getting ahead at work – thanks to a lifetime of lessons from her mother on making sure that she’s financially secure and stable – that she’s lived her job and dropped the ball on self-care. She’s hasn’t been making a whole lot of healthy choices in any part of her life and that’s something she needs to get a handle on.

That the initial focus of that journey is on losing weight, and that a lot of attention gets paid to how much better she looks is my one quibble with the story. It’s an understandable impulse from Sassy’s initial perspective, but it’s not any healthier than her recent lack of self-care. The more the focus shifts from how she looks to how she FEELS the better the story feels as well. (And some readers will find Savvy’s initially constant negative reflections on her body and her weight to be triggering. Some will find it entirely too familiar and probably quite a few of us – BOTH)

As much as I was happy to see Savvy find her HEA with Spencer, for me the romance felt like the icing on that cake. The cake of this story was all wrapped around Savvy’s close relationship with her friends, the loving details of the way that they supported each other’s journeys, and the fantastic way that Savvy figured out how to nurture her dreams AND have a job she loved without sacrificing her entire life to her job. She created that magical, mystical work-life balance and that part was glorious!

Her friends were all terrific and I’d love to see everyone again in another book. After all, only Joan managed to discover her HEA along Savvy’s journey. Maggie still needs to find hers!

Review: Gouda Friends by Cathy Yardley

Review: Gouda Friends by Cathy YardleyGouda Friends (Ponto Beach Reunion #2) by Cathy Yardley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic comedy
Series: Ponto Beach Reunion #2
Pages: 304
Published by Montlake on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Two high school BFFs reunite and endeavor to fix each other’s lives in this geeky romance from the author of Love, Comment, Subscribe.
Tam Doan dumped her boyfriend after he threw away her gourmet cheese. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than that, but the point is, he had it coming. Newly single and unemployed, Tam calls up her best friend from high school and utters the emergency code word—goldfish. Next thing she knows, she’s on a plane back home.
Josh O’Malley was a troubled, unconfident teenager. Now he’s the successful owner of a multimillion-dollar ghost kitchen. Tam, his high school BFF and fellow member of the Nerd Herd friend group, was instrumental in building his self-esteem. When she calls him out of the blue, he jumps at the chance to return the favor.
Josh and Tam immediately get to work fixing her life—but again, it’s complicated. Their close friendship was always a lifeline between them; a blooming romance might confuse things. Still, at least one thing is for certain: their chemistry is un-brie-lievable.

My Review:

The question isn’t “Who Moved My Cheese?” when Tam Doan trudges into the apartment she’s been sharing with her boyfriend for the past six years after a “terrible, horrible, no-go0d, very bad day” with a suitcase she never got to use for a business trip she got to arrange but not take with a company that has burned out her last nerve.

She expects to find her extra-special treat, her saved for emergencies gouda cheese shipped to New York City from her favorite premium cheese maker in Seattle in the back of the refrigerator. She does not expect to find her boyfriend of six years sleeping with his ex in their bed.

Howsomever, she finds the douchecanoe in the bed and no cheese in the fridge. And it’s the last of all the damn straws and her give-a-fuck is completely broken. She’s too tired, hangry AND pissed to notice whether her heart is broken as well.

All she’s certain of is that she’s outta there – for good. And that she feels free. Also broke, lonely and not sure where she’s going to spend the night because her ex has isolated her from all of her friends and she rightfully doesn’t trust their mutual friends – meaning his – as far as she can throw them. Or him.

So she calls her ride or die bestie from childhood, high school AND college, the one person who not merely promised to always be there for her but who has always delivered. She calls Josh O’Malley back home in Ponto Beach California (near San Diego) and uses their codeword for “Need help NOW!” And Josh delivers, as he always has and always will.

In this case a plane ticket from NYC to San Diego. She has the weekend off, he has a place she can stay. Along with 48 hours to help her figure out who moved her cheese in the metaphorical sense, help her figure out what her cheese actually IS these days, and give her the space and tools she needs to find it and get it back.

Just like she did for him when he sent the code five years ago. It’s not so much that he’s paying it back or forward, because their friendship is much deeper than that. It’s that he’s always been there for her, she’s always been there for him, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.

Even if part of the cheese that both of them still need to find is whether they can navigate their way into the relationship that everyone they grew up with has thought they had all along.

Escape Rating A: This friends into lovers with just a slight touch of fauxmance turned unexpected romance was a delight – and the inevitable cheesy lines and even cheesier jokes just added to the fun!

As funny as it is that Tam leaves her douchecanoe ex more over the cheese than the cheating, it’s not really about the cheese. Well, as it turns out, it kind of is about the cheese. In all the best ways all along the way of this delightful romance.

First, it’s about his lack of respect for Tam’s stuff, which is really just a symptom of his lack of respect for Tam’s whole entire self. It just takes the cheese to make her finally see it. Or finally admit it to herself. The relationship has been toxic all along, while Tam has made excuse after self-effacing, self-sabotaging excuse rather than admit that everything about her life in New York was a poor choice she backed into out of fear of failure.

Taking that impulsive, life-saving trip back to Ponto Beach is Tam’s chance at making a fresh start. All she has to do is find a new job and a place to live while ignoring her ex’s attempts to drag her back into his mess, along with the voices of her family telling her that she has to take any job in order to be safe and secure if never as successful as she should be. No pressure!

But what Tam NEEDS is to figure out what she really wants. It’s exactly what she did for Josh five years ago, when Josh hit rock bottom and she helped him find his own bliss. Now it’s his turn to help her – and he’s all in for it.

All they both have to do is find a way to preserve their life-saving and soul-deep friendship while moving it to the next level. A possibility that scares both of them more than half to death.

I picked up Gouda Friends because I loved the author’s Fandom Hearts series (start with Level Up and be prepared for a sweet, funny, geeky blast!). Gouda Friends feels like it takes everything I loved about that series and well, leveled it up. Josh and Tam – and their entire Nerd Herd – are geeky and nerdy in all the best ways, but now they are adults doing their best at adulting and still relying on the friends who have seen them through EVERYTHING in their lives.

One of the things I loved about this romance is just how huge a role friends and friendships play in their HEA. This is a romance with a GINORMOUS side of relationship fiction and the combination was just wonderful. It’s also terrific that as much as I loved the Nerd Herd, it’s not necessary to have read the first book in the series (Love, Comment, Subscribe) in order to get right into Gouda Friends. But now that I have read this one, I definitely want to read that. And the next book in this series, Ex-Appeal, hopefully later this year. There are plenty of Nerds in that Herd who still need to find their HEAs and I’m definitely here for it!