Review: Hades: Sentinel Security #2 by Anna Hackett

Review: Hades: Sentinel Security #2 by Anna HackettHades (Sentinel Security #2) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sentinel Security #2
Pages: 245
Published by Anna Hackett on September 20th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

He’s a gorgeous former Interpol agent.
Tall, dark, and Italian.
He’s way out of her league, but when danger explodes around them, she finds herself on the run with the sexiest man she’s ever met.
CIA analyst Gabbi Hansley has a plan—escape her dysfunctional family, excel at her job, and build a safe, stable life for herself. Boring? Maybe, but she likes boring. When tasked to meet a security contractor and give him an encrypted drive, a quick, simple job goes terribly wrong.
Gabbi didn’t expect her contact to be the hottest man she’s ever seen. Nor was she expecting the bad guys who turn up and spray the restaurant with bullets.
After years of wading through the muck, dismantling mafia crime syndicates in Italy, former Anti-Mafia officer and Interpol agent Matteo “Hades” Mancini likes his job at Sentinel Security. He also knows he has nothing permanent to offer any woman, so he keeps things fun and temporary.
But when his dangerous past rears its head, he finds himself trapped with the tough, no-nonsense Gabbi, and on a second glance, he sees past her sensible exterior to the tempting woman beneath.
Now Gabbi and Matteo are in a race for survival. While they work to track down who’s after them, attraction burns hot and bright. Gabbi knows a man like Matteo won’t be interested in her for long, and she asks him to show her all the things she’s been missing in the bedroom. But the possessive need to keep her safe is growing in Matteo, and soon he has two mission objectives: take down the bad guys, and convince Gabbi Hansley that she’s his.
*** An action-packed standalone romantic suspense.

My Review:

CIA analyst Gabbi Hansley is a “feel the fear and do it anyway” kind of person and I love her for it. As does Hades himself. Not that either is remotely what the other expected when they first meet. It’s not just that they didn’t expect the sparks between them – they didn’t expect the bullets flying around either.

And not that Sentinel Security agency Matteo Mancini hasn’t experienced plenty of bullets flying in his general vicinity – some of them even aimed directly at him – in his work with Sentinel Security or in his previous life as an undercover anti-Mafia agent in Italy. It’s that Gabbi’s job consists of boring desk-and-computer work. Gabbi may work for the CIA but what she’s looking for out of her job is safety and financial security and as much of a buffer as she can manage to maintain between herself and her sometimes criminally dysfunctional family.

But when what was supposed to be a routine handoff from the CIA to Sentinel turns into an escape from a hail of bullets in what was – and probably will be again – one of the most expensive and exclusive restaurants in DC, Gabbi’s safe and boring life is blown to smithereens.

Especially after her mind gets blown by the sexiest man she’s ever met making her come on the floor of a stranded elevator in the aftermath. As the best method of dealing with the adrenaline crash from their escape, Matteo’s method is an absolute winner. As the final blow – pun intended – to her formerly safe and moderately sane and frequently boring life it’s just the beginning of negotiations between a man who thinks he’s not worthy of love and a woman who doesn’t believe love even exists.

He needs to keep her safe from the enemies who have reached out across the years and miles to come after him. She’s desperate to keep her heart safe from a man she is certain is utterly out of her league.

While in the background his family is worried that his work will get them killed, and hers does its level worst to keep her from escaping their determination that she continue to be their meal ticket – even if they have to sell her out to the bad guys to make it happen.

Escape Rating B+: Even though I’m still on tenterhooks waiting for Killian Hawke’s romance with the CIA agent we now know to be Devyn “Hellfire” Hayden (Gabbi’s best friend at the Agency), Gabbi and Matteo’s romance still worked for me.

And that’s all down to Gabbi’s attitude. She’s afraid. She’s very, very afraid. There are bullets flying! Her job was not ever supposed to include bullets flying – and especially not flying at her. But instead of hiding in a corner or getting behind Matteo and letting the sexy security agent protect her, she stands up and helps get other people to safety and out of the way of those flying bullets.

It’s easy to identify with Gabbi because of that attitude. Most of us probably would cower. Few people are equipped or trained to fight back in the situation in which she finds herself. But putting on her big girl panties and dealing with it, feeling that fear and doing what she can anyway? That’s a response we can all identify with and hope to emulate.

Which makes Gabbi feel within reach and her relationship with Matteo feel equally possible – even if she doesn’t see it that way.

So while Matteo is the latest in a very long lineup of the author’s sexy badasses who don’t feel worthy of being loved, Gabbi feels like something fresh, a woman who is afraid but still rises up to meet the challenge and I loved that about her character.

Her dysfunctional family, on the other hand, seriously qualified as a piece of work. Dirty, nasty work at that. The reader can see how their dysfunction played into Gabbi’s self-doubt, so it made for icing on top of an already delicious cake when they get their comeuppance at the end. As Gabbi makes tracks for a job that she will love with a man that she does love and a found family who are ready, willing and able to welcome her with open arms and a boost when she needs it.

And into that lovely bargain, Matteo manages to put his demons to rest – whether that’s in the form of putting them six feet under, into long prison sentences, or simply putting the psychological damage behind him, it makes for a lovely ending to a fun action adventure romance.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the next book will be Killian’s, but based on the hints at the end of this entry in the series, it does look like it will be a lot of sexy, romantic, adventurous fun. But in the meantime I have the next book in the Galactic Kings series, Conqueror, to look forward to!

Review: Desperation in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Desperation in Death by J.D. RobbDesperation in Death (In Death, #55) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense, thriller
Series: In Death #55
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author presents a gripping new thriller that pits homicide detective Eve Dallas against a conspiracy of exploitation and evil…
New York, 2061: The place called the Pleasure Academy is a living nightmare where abducted girls are trapped, trained for a life of abject service while their souls are slowly but surely destroyed. Dorian, a thirteen-year-old runaway who’d been imprisoned there, might never have made it out if not for her fellow inmate Mina, who’d hatched the escape plan. Mina was the more daring of the two—but they’d been equally desperate.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get away fast enough. Now Dorian is injured, terrified, and wandering the streets of New York, and Mina lies dead near the waterfront while Lt. Eve Dallas looks over the scene.
Mina’s expensive, elegant clothes and beauty products convince Dallas that she was being groomed, literally and figuratively, for sex trafficking—and that whoever is investing in this high-overhead operation expects windfall profits. Her billionaire husband, Roarke, may be able to help, considering his ties to the city’s ultra-rich. But Roarke is also worried about the effect this case is having on Dallas, as it brings a rage to the surface she can barely control. No matter what, she must keep her head clear--because above all, she is desperate for justice and to take down those who prey on and torment the innocent.

My Review:

The desperation that leads to the death that brings Eve Dallas and her ever-expanding crew onto this case is one that Eve is entirely too familiar with. It’s the desperation of a girl who has been trapped into a life where she is merely an object for other people’s abuse and other people’s pleasure.

In Eve’s case, the “person” who kept her trapped and bound was her father Richard Troy. He’s dead. He’s dead because Eve’s desperation led to her killing the bastard at a point when she just couldn’t take it anymore. She was eight years old.

Mina and Dorian were kidnapped as preteens and whisked away to the Pleasure Academy, where they are being groomed and indoctrinated to become sex slaves for wealthy, influential and disgusting people, mostly men, who will take pleasure in raping them, beating them, and quite possibly even killing them if it strikes their or their so-called friends’ fancies.

In desperation, these two girls band together and attempt to escape from their well-appointed prison. Only one of them makes it. But the discovery of the other girl’s body opens up the kind of far-reaching case that will bring closure to bunch of families, freedom to a bunch of trafficked women, and visit justice upon a bunch of scumbags, one way or another, while letting Eve exorcize one or two of her own ghosts.

If she can just get one runaway girl to trust her with the truth. No matter how dangerous for the girl, and no matter how many nightmares it will give Eve along the way.

Escape Rating B+: Desperation in Death is a solid and compelling entry in the long-running In Death series – even if it is a trip to Eve and Roarke’s personal angst-factories by proxy. Or maybe because of that fact, as we get to see them work through a few more of their demons without the case reaching directly into either of their traumatizing childhoods.

Not that what Dorian Gregg and all the other girls the Pleasure Academy trafficked have experienced isn’t more than traumatic enough to give pretty much everyone on the team a few nightmares. But the lack of a specific personal connection to either Eve or Roarke makes the story a bit easier – just a tiny bit considering the subject – for the reader to get caught up in. But we’re caught the way the rest of the team is caught – wanting to catch the really, really disgustingly awful villains rather than caught up in the unspooling of yet more of either Eve or Roarke’s personal demons.

I follow this series, all 55 books and counting! because I love the found family that surrounds Eve and Roarke – including just how endlessly surprised Eve is that she has gathered a family of any kind around herself. So one of the things that made this entry in the series so much fun to read was the way that the gang really pulled together to nab the villains.

It also helped that in this case the villains were not just truly, despicably villainous, but that their villainy had nothing to do with any mental illness or trauma. They’re just awful people who need to get their just desserts. And if those just desserts get served in hell, so much the better.

This is in contrast with the previous book in the series, Abandoned in Death, which dealt with some similar crimes but came at them from an angle where everyone was traumatized including the perpetrator. I found that one hard-going because the villain’s head was one I didn’t want to be in at all and couldn’t read the parts from their perspective.

The villains in this case are so cold and dispassionate about the whole thing, and their points of view are both few and equally icy that the only peeks we needed into their heads were superficial.

In a way, this story was at one remove from both its villains and its heroes, and that made it easier to follow the action without diving too deeply into the motivations.

All of that is a way to loop back around and say this is a solid and solidly entertaining entry in the series for long-time fans. If you love Dallas and Roarke you’ll enjoy this season’s peek into their lives as much as I did.

And I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, Encore in Death, coming out in February. A little murder among the rich and famous should be just the ticket to warm up a winter night or two!

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White

Review: The Shop on Royal Street by Karen WhiteThe Shop on Royal Street (Royal Street, #1) by Karen White
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal
Series: Royal Street #1
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley Books on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first in a new spinoff series of Karen White's New York Times bestselling Tradd Street novels.
After a difficult hiccup on her road to adulthood, Nola Trenholm is looking to begin anew in New Orleans, and what better way to start her future than with her first house? But the historic fixer-upper she buys comes with even more work than she anticipated when the house's previous occupants don't seem to be ready to depart. Although she can't communicate with ghosts like her stepmother, luckily Nola knows someone in New Orleans who can--even if he's the last person on earth she wants anything to do with, ever again. Because Beau Ryan comes with his own dark past, a past that involves the disappearance of his sister and parents during Hurricane Katrina, and the unsolved murder of a woman who once lived in the old Creole Cottage Nola is determined to make her own whether or not the resident restless spirits agree...

My Review:

There’s just something about New Orleans. Not just the beignets and chicory coffee at the Café du Monde (although those beignets still loom large and delicious in my memory). It’s the hot, steamy mélange of gumbo and hurricanes – and HURRICANES – and blues and magic that seems to pervade both the area AND the history of it.

New Orleans is a place of stories – the kind of stories that are told in the light and the ones that are whispered in the dark. Which makes it the perfect place to set this combination of ghost story, cold case mystery and gothic thriller.

Nola Trenholm is named for the city, because that’s where she was conceived. (Thank goodness she wasn’t conceived in Poughkeepsie!) So the city represents her birth, but it also represents her downfall, as her first attempt at college – at Tulane University in New Orleans – ended in a haze of alcohol and addiction.

She intends for the city to be her rebirth as well. Clean, sober and with a Master’s degree in historic preservation under her belt, Nola has returned to the city with a job investigating the historical significance of buildings that may be demolished in the name of “progress”, unless her work bears compelling fruit.

Her plan is to do at least some of her preservation work very personally, by buying a historic home that is in need of TONS of professional preservation. And that’s where the mystery really begins.

The old Creole Cottage is meant to be hers. It’s not just that it calls to her in the way that some places do. It’s that it is literally intended to belong to her, at least as relayed by her grandmother Sarah from beyond the grave.

Which should be a red flag that Nola isn’t quite right in the head. But not in her family. Nola can’t see spirits or communicate with the dead, but her stepmother Melanie most definitely can, as is it told in the Tradd Street series of which this is a spinoff.

When Grandmother Sarah calls Melanie from the beyond to tell her that the house is meant to be Nola’s it doesn’t so much take care of Melanie’s many, many objections as it does move them to another sphere entirely.

Nola’s meant to have the house because she’s the one with the resources – or the sheer pigheadedness – to finally lay the ghosts haunting the cottage to rest. Nola’s historic fixer-upper is a murder house. A murder that’s tied into the one person Nola would really rather not see in her return to New Orleans.

But it’s not a coincidence that the cottage – and in some surprising ways that old murder – both belong to Beau Ryan, who once saved her from a ghost, twice saved her from the consequences of her addiction, and has the talents needed to save her yet again.

If she can bear to let him. And if he can let himself admit that, just like Nola’s stepmother Melanie, Beau Ryan can see dead people.

Escape Rating B+: As soon as I picked up a copy of this from the library last week it started calling my name – much like New Orleans itself. The combination of past and present mysteries along with ghostly and other perpetrators hiding in the shadows looked fascinating, and so it proved.

And I always love a good story set in New Orleans.

This is the first book in a new series, spun off from a previous series. Which I have not read, probably because Charleston, while a lovely historic city in its own right, doesn’t draw me the way that New Orleans does. There are plenty of cross-over characters from Tradd Street to Royal Street, but I didn’t feel like I missed too much by not having started there. Not that I might not go back when I’m next in the mood for a story like this one!

The whole point of the move back to New Orleans for Nola is to get a fresh start without her parents looking over her shoulder, which works even better for this series starter than it does for Nola herself. She’s building a new team of friends, helpers and supporters around herself in her new city so the reader gets to be introduced to all the new people and watch the “Scooby Gang” come together along with Nola.

And what a marvelously mixed bunch they are! Especially Nola’s best friend Jolene, who combines Southern Belle with Steel Magnolia, while speaking in metaphors that make perfect sense but seem to come out of an ether that only Jolene can access. Probably the same place that Jolene gets what seems to be magical talents in just about every skill a Southern Belle could possibly need or want. She’s amazing and amazingly offbeat at the same time.

But the mystery – and the ghosts – that haunt the cottage are tied to Nola’s frenemy, Beau Ryan, and especially his family and their relationship with the shady movers and shakers of the city. As Nola’s father says in every one of his best-selling mystery thrillers, there is no such thing as coincidence. And there are no coincidences in the fact that Nola’s new house, which she bought from Beau’s grandmother over Beau’s objections, is tied to Beau’s family all the way back to that long ago murder – and the consequences of that murder that keep spilling over into each generation.

While one piece of the puzzle gets resolved by the end of The Shop on Royal Street, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a long and bloody history – one that will probably take several books to resolve. As will the glimmer of a romantic possibility between Beau Ryan and Nola Trenholm – in spite of both of their intentions to stay out of each other’s way romantically and otherwise.

It will be fun – with a bit of a ghostly chill – to see all the interwoven threads begin their unraveling in the next book in the Royal Street series, The House on Prytania, coming late next spring. I always look forward to a trip to New Orleans!

Review: The Forty Elephants by Erin Bledsoe

Review: The Forty Elephants by Erin BledsoeThe Forty Elephants by Erin Bledsoe
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 350
Published by Blackstone Publishing on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Inspired by the true story of Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants, the first all-female gang of London.
London in the 1920s is no place for a woman with a mind of her own. Gang wars, violence, and an unforgiving world have left pickpocket Alice Diamond scrambling to survive in the Mint, the gritty neighborhood her family has run for generations. When her father goes to jail yet again and her scam artist brother finds himself in debt to the dangerous McDonald crime syndicate, Alice takes over. Fighting for power at every turn, she struggles to protect her father's territory and keep the people she loves safe from some of London's most dangerous criminals.
Recruited by the enigmatic Mary Carr, Alice boldly chooses to break her father's edict against gangs and become part of a group of notorious lady shoplifters, the Forty Elephants. Leaving the Mint behind, she and the other girls steal from the area's poshest department stores, and for the first time in her life, Alice Diamond tastes success. But it's not long before she wants more--no matter the cost. And when her past and present collide, there's no escaping the girl from the Mint.

My Review:

This is a story about women and power and how three particular women chose to, or were forced to, wield their power in a man’s world that dictated a place for women that none of them were willing to confine themselves to.

There are three women at the heart of this story; Kate Meyrick, the Nightclub Queen, Mary Carr, Queen of the Forty Elephants, and Alice Diamond, the de facto crime boss of The Mint, a notorious working-class AND criminal-class section of London.

The Forty Elephants were real, as were Kate Meyrick, Mary Carr and Alice Diamond. Meyrick was a female nightclub owner at a time when “ladies” at least were not supposed to frequent nightclubs – let alone own them. But in the early 1920s when this book takes place, a lot of the old rules had been buried in poorly marked graves on the continent along with a generation of England’s young men.

As this story begins, Mary Carr is the current boss of the Forty Elephants, a notorious all-girl gang of shoplifters who were the darling of the tabloids, the bane of the police, and the plague of locusts that ravaged new department stores like Selfridge’s as well as the homes and persons of people with more money than the sense not to flaunt it with easily pocketable items in public.

Alice Diamond in 1926

But this is Alice Diamond’s story, while Meyrick and Carr are both her mirrors and the stepping stones she uses to reach a pinnacle of criminal success that women were not supposed to even aspire to, let alone succeed at reaching.

It’s not a pretty story – but it is a fascinating one. All the better for being steeped in history.

Escape Rating B+: What made this such an interesting story is the way that it is Alice Diamond’s coming-into-power story in a realm that we don’t often see women conquer and that we’re not really supposed to celebrate when anyone does.

What made Alice special, at least according to this fictionalized account, was that the power she grasped and wielded wasn’t done the way that women traditionally held that kind of power. That is at least part of the purpose of Meyrick and Carr in Alice’s story. Both of them chose, or got shoved into, or submitted to the kind of power that they wielded in organizations that were female dominated, specifically by them, but were ultimately controlled by men either overtly or covertly.

They looked dominant but that was an illusion. In reality, they still operated in a man’s world and kept a woman’s place in it.

Alice takes the reins, first of The Mint and eventually of the Forty Elephants, of power as simply power. She never accepts anything less than a true partnership – or an honest war – with any of the male-dominated gangs. She works with them but not for them and never in a subservient position.

Which also means she wields control like they do and does the same kind of dirty jobs they do. Up to and including murder.

So the idea of the Forty Elephants may seem lighthearted as well as light-fingered, but even this fictionalized version of it is anything but. Still, it’s a fascinating portrait of the gangster as a young woman coming into her own and bringing other women up with her. It’s dark and gritty and occasionally gruesome but very compelling – possibly because of all of the above – and I’m glad I read it.

(Reading this has also sent me down lots of lovely internet rabbit holes, not just about the Forty Elephants but also about the TV series Peaky Blinders which I’m now extremely tempted to watch!)

Back to books – Alice Diamond is such an interesting character that this is not the only book about her on the horizon. Now that I’ve finished The Forty Elephants I’m very curious to see how Alice is portrayed in Queen of Thieves by Beezy Marsh, coming out in January.

Review: Becoming Family by Elysia Whisler

Review: Becoming Family by Elysia WhislerBecoming Family (Dogwood County, #3) by Elysia Whisler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Dogwood County #3
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on August 16, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Family is a feeling
There’s nothing like an important birthday to make a person realize all the things they haven’t accomplished. As Tabitha Steele blows out thirty candles, she makes a wish to take charge of her life. It’s a tall order, considering she doesn’t have much to show for herself since leaving military service. She works at a motorcycle shop but has never even ridden a motorcycle; she’s floundering in massage school; her social life consists of her aunt and her gym buddies; and her closest relationship is with Trinity, the service dog who helps her manage every day. She feels like an imposter in every aspect of her own life.
Playful and wild-hearted gym coach Chris Hobbs is Tabitha’s opposite. He likes to keep things fun and temporary, which is why he’s never tried to move the deepening friendship he has with Tabitha into anything more. But he’s the perfect person to help Tabitha discover her strengths. Then the sudden reappearance of his estranged brother forces Chris to face his past and the vulnerable part of himself behind the party-boy persona…and that means letting Tabitha in.
As difficult as it is for Tabitha and Chris to leave the old definitions of themselves behind, the journey is better with someone special at their sides, becoming who they’re meant to be, together.
"Sweet and sexy, packed with emotions… Romance, rescue dogs, and a side of mystery." —Trish Doller, New York Times bestselling author of Float Plan,on Forever Home

My Review:

This is my second trip to Dogwood County, after last year’s marvelous Forever Home. While the story in this entry in the series is very different from that one, they do have one thing in common. All the animals and all the people do get rescued, usually by each other. And at the end of the story all the animals are very definitely OK. (This is important! A lot of readers want to be sure that all the animals make it before they start a book. There’s even a website: Does the Dog Die, that tracks a lot more than just dogs.)

Where the action in Forever Home followed a seriously badass ex-marine who was a little too good at taking care of herself, Becoming Family is the story of the new counter help at Delaney’s classic motorcycle repair shop, Tabitha Steele, who is pretty much Delaney’s exact opposite.

Tabitha isn’t good at taking care of herself at all. Or at least she thinks she isn’t good at it, because she’s convinced that she isn’t good at or for anything at all. Tabitha always sees herself as a failure and is honestly surprised that anyone wants to be her friend.

She’s also envious of the sheer badassness of all of her friends, to the point where her 30th birthday wish is to become just as badass as they are. A task at which she does not expect to succeed, because she never does. Succeed, that is. At much of anything. At least as far as she can tell.

So Tabitha’s journey in this story is learning to tell that truth. That she’s not a failure, that she is wanted by her friends, that she has a use and a purpose and a gift and that she’s good at what she does. And doesn’t have any worse a case of impostor syndrome than anyone else on the planet.

And that she doesn’t need to become a badass because she already is one. And that her therapy dog Trinity will have her back – and her front – while she figures it out. And beyond.

Escape Rating B+: Like the previous book in this series, the story in Becoming Family fairly comfortably straddles the genre line between relationship or women’s fiction and romance. Although, at least for this reader, it’s the relationship side that steals the show.

Especially if one includes all the relationships with all the animals who steal all the scenes!

The family that is becoming – at least according to the title – is a family of choice rather than birth. Both Tabitha and her romantic interest, Christopher Hobbs, have some serious issues with their birth families. Hobbs’ was abusive. Tabitha’s was nonexistent. She was literally a foundling deposited in a church.

But they have both made families in Dogwood County. Tabitha with the woman who raised her, her beloved Auntie El, and all the people who belong to the Semper Fit fitness studio, where Hobbs works as a trainer.

The relationship side of this story is about the interconnectedness of all the friendships that began at Semper Fit. Which messily ties in the place that rescues and trains Pit Bulls like Tabitha’s Trinity. And even more messily ties in Lily’s work at the local animal shelter, from whence she brings home all the hard luck cases – and finds them homes. (The animals are all terrific but not universally well-trained, especially in puppy- and or kitten-hood.)

Which is how Hobbs and his sister Hannah end up with Lily’s hardest of hard luck cases, the sweet Lab mix puppy Gracie and her hairless guardian cat George. Honestly, George and Gracie’s story was the very best thing in this book of good things.

But the romance between Hobbs and Tabitha has a rocky start – and probably a rocky ever after as well. These are two people who have spent their lives having their boundaries attacked in one way or another. It’s great watching them both start to figure out where their lines are drawn – but it’s a battle that just isn’t realistically over when the story ends.

Although they’re certainly getting there.

So in the end this is lovely. The animals, of which there are many, all get their own HEAs. The humans are all works in progress, but progress is most definitely made. There’s a hook to a next book in the series, which is terrific because I’d love a return visit.

And in the meantime, I still have the first book in the series (Rescue You) to look forward to reading the next time I want to visit this marvelous place!

Review: Wolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna Hackett

Review: Wolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna HackettWolf (Sentinel Security #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sentinel Security #1
Pages: 306
Published by Anna Hackett on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

He’s her best friend’s older brother.

The hot, tough former Navy SEAL.

The man she’s had a crush on her entire life and now the man pretending to be her lover to keep her safe.

CEO Lainie Madden has her hands full. In charge of a growing tech company, her work and her employees are her life. She’s sworn off love, because the sad reality is that she stinks at choosing men who aren’t self-absorbed cheaters. But when she starts receiving disturbing death threats and her company’s website gets hit with relentless cyber-attacks, she’s in over her head.

What she never expected was her best friend’s bossy, rugged brother to steamroll in to play her fake boyfriend and very real protector.

Former SEAL and CIA agent Nick “Wolf” Garrick is second in command at Sentinel Security. He’s spent most of his life fighting and protecting others, proving he’s nothing like the ex-con who fathered him. He’s also spent years ignoring his scorching attraction to his little sister’s best friend. Lainie is sweet, fresh, smart…and off limits.

But when he finds out she’s in danger, it flips a switch inside him. Whatever the risk, whatever it takes, even pretending that they’re lovers, he’ll protect Lainie and take down the person hunting her.

The more time Lainie and Nick spend together, the more the lines blur. As danger swirls around them, their pretend relationship starts to feel very real. But Nick doesn’t do relationships and Lainie doesn’t want to get hurt again…

My Review:

Sentinel Security picks up where Norcross Security leaves off. At least in time. As this first book in the Sentinel Security series opens, the action moves from the Norcross’ West Coast to Killian Hawke’s East Coast. But the story does not pick up with whatever Killian Hawke does or doesn’t have going on with the frenemy/nemesis Federal Agent who has him gritting his teeth and cursing her name whenever she inserts herself into one of his cases.

I believe that the author is torturing all of her fans, including this one, by teasing the leader’s romance – the one I always like best – while drawing out the anticipation. Because this first book in the Sentinel Security series is all about Killian’s second-in-command and the woman who has had him wrapped around the axle for a whole lot longer than he’s ever been willing to admit.

Lainie Madden is the CEO of a growing tech company. A company which is suffering from an escalating series of cyber attacks just as Lainie is receiving an equally escalating series of threatening messages. Thinking those two escalations are connected does not take the services of an elite security company like Sentinel Security.

But Lainie Madden is, and has been since childhood, Nola Garrick’s best friend. And Nola Garrick is Nick Garrick’s little sister. Lainie has had a crush on Nick since she was 12 – when Nick was 18 and before he started his career with the SEALs and the CIA doing things that he’d have to kill someone if they learned about them.

That 6-year age gap loomed large when Lainie was growing up, but she’s all grown up now and has been for quite some time. She’s never forgotten her feelings for Nick, and has never found a man even remotely his equal. Nick’s never gotten Lainie out of his head or his heart.

The problem there, of course, is that if they start anything and it doesn’t work out – something that honestly neither Lainie or Nick expects because neither of them have all that great a track record with relationships – the person who will be hurt the most is Nola.

And neither of them wants that – even more than they want each other.

But those threats scare Nola a whole lot more than they do Lainie. So Nola calls her big brother and assigns him the task of protecting her bestie, whether that bestie believes she needs protection or not, whether she can bear to be that close to Nick or not, whether she and Nick can resist jumping each other’s bones long enough to get the villain caught or not.

Because they can’t. And they don’t really want to resist, either. The question is whether they can calm their own demons long enough to see if what has been simmering between them for so long has even half a chance of lasting longer than it takes to bring Lainie’s stalker to justice.

Escape Rating B+: As much as I referenced the author’s earlier series at the top, it’s not required to read the earlier series to get into this one. But it is fun! Especially when, as occurs in the climactic takedown in this book, characters from previous series show up to help save the day. It’s always lovely to see how everyone is doing after becoming so involved in all their lives.

But the first book in any of her series is always a great place to start – and to get hooked so that you can’t resist picking up the rest. Any one of Anna Hackett’s books should be considered as a gateway drug for ALL the others! This particular dark side has both cookies and yummy books!

I digress just a bit.

This is an action adventure romance series, so it’s not a surprise that someone – usually, admittedly, the heroine but not always – ends up in danger and the hero – or a team of heroes – has to rescue her. And that in the end, there is a happy ever after where that heroine falls for one member of that team and very much vice versa – after a bit of resistance, of course.

What makes this entry in the author’s lineup so much fun, at least for this reader, are two things. One is the delicious taboo-yet-not-really nature of the romance. Now that they are unattached adults, there’s absolutely no reason why Lainie and Nick can’t get together and scratch their mutual itch. But once upon a time there very much was. And the slightly forbidden yet not nature of their relationship adds just that little bit of delicious extra tension to the mix.

The second thing is the character of Lainie herself. I loved that she was a workaholic to the max who was dedicated to her company and her career. I loved her ambition and her drive and her putting her work first in her life. Not because it’s healthy, as Lainie has definitely taken her workaholism way too far for that. But because it’s so very real and it made Lainie real as well.

And it also ran a bit counter to stereotype, as we see PLENTY of workaholic heroes, and see them being celebrated for it, in fiction and in real life. But women – not so much. So I really loved that part.

Speaking of Lainie, I also liked that she was never damselfied. She’s in danger, and she hadn’t planned to ask Nick for help. Not because she had her head in the sand, as so many damsels do, but because she was working on it with very good people, and trusted her own people to have her back. That her stalker was seriously next-level put the situation out of her control – but not because she was being stupid about it.

Lainie also doesn’t do anything to sabotage her protection once it’s established. Again, things happen out of her control, because that’s the point of the whole story, but she doesn’t go wandering around on her own after ditching her bodyguard – or anything else equally stupid.

In other words, I enjoyed this because I really liked Lainie as a character and absolutely wanted her to get her HEA – which she earns, deserves and very much does. Nick seems like very yummy icing for a cake she’s already baked herself, and that’s my favorite flavor of romance.

But speaking of yummy, I was just a teensy bit disappointed that I didn’t get Killian’s romance to kick off the series. And I’m probably not going to get it in the next book either, as Killian sends one of Sentinel Security’s other agents, Matteo, off to DC to pick up something from the CIA at the end of Wolf. But it could be a case of Killian avoiding contact with his Federal nemesis. We’ll see next month!

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea AbdullahThe Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
Narrator: Nikki Massoud, Sean Rohani, Rasha Zamamiri
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Sandsea Trilogy #1
Pages: 480
Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Hachette Audio, Orbit Books on May 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
Neither here nor there, but long ago . . . 
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan's oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie's past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

My Review:

“Neither here nor there, but long ago…” or so the storytellers begin their best tales. Of which The Stardust Thief is most definitely one.

Loulie al-Nazari is the legendary Midnight Merchant, an infamous smuggler of magic relics left behind in the world of humans by the powerful, dangerous and deadly jinn. But she has a secret – of course she does. She finds the jinn relics that she sells to discerning buyers at extravagant prices with the help of a jinn relic of her own – along with the able assistance of her taciturn bodyguard, Qadir. Who is one of the hated and feared jinn, hiding in very plain sight. Only Loulie knows Qadir’s true identity – not that she knows even as much of that identity as she believes she does.

Mazen bin Malik is the second son of the Sultan. He’s been sheltered to the point of imprisonment for most of his life, while his older brother Omar has become their father’s heir, not just to the throne in the hazy future, but even now to their father’s position as the leader of the infamous ‘Forty Thieves’ – jinn killers who steal and murder on behalf of their leader, the prince they call ‘King’.

Mazen would rather be one of the storytellers in the souk. At least that way he’d have some freedom – and some purpose.

They shouldn’t have anything in common – a smuggler and a prince. But they are both people who hide their real selves behind masks; the Midnight Merchant is a persona Loulie puts on, while Mazen bribes the palace guard so he can escape the confining safety of his palace prison.

They meet in the souk, where Loulie is wandering incognito as Layla, while Mazen is pretending to be Yusuf the storyteller. Where Mazen is ensorcelled by a jinn, and Loulie can’t resist following their trail where it leads.

It leads to the palace. Not directly, and certainly not in a way that either expects. But the Sultan coerces the Midnight Merchant into finding a jinn king’s relic for him, deep in the desert, and sends his older son, Omar along to ‘protect’ her – and ensure she comes back with the prize.

But Omar has schemes of his own, so he trades places with Mazen, using a relic to switch their identities. He sends one of his ‘Forty Thieves’, Aisha bint Louas with the disguised prince as a bodyguard.

As the adventure bleeds into one danger after another, and their journey comes to feel more like a trap than a quest, they begin to learn the hidden truths about themselves and each other. Only to discover that not a single one of them is what they seemed, or what they thought they were, when they set out.

And that as many times as each of them promises themselves and each other that they will not run away – at least not this time – they are forced to accept the truth that “he (or she) who runs away lives to fight another day.” If only because they must in order to prevail against the powerful forces, both human and jinn, who stand in their way.

Escape Rating B+: I’m having the same kind of mixed reaction to writing this review as I did to reading this book. Which doesn’t explain anything at all, does it? The dilemma I’m having is that I loved the story, but did like or empathize with many of the characters, and it’s a real conundrum.

The story is utterly fascinating. The jinn (or djinn or genies) are such powerful mythical and mystical creatures. This story posits a much more nuanced interpretation of the jinn, and much of what happens is based on a fundamental dichotomy in that interpretation. Humans have been taught that jinn are dangerous and evil and hate humanity. Jinn, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of myths and legends about the first encounters between themselves and humans. Encounters in which the humans coveted the jinn’s powers and murdered them indiscriminately, as they still do. Some jinn do kill humans, but it’s more often in self-defense than outright murder.

As the story continues, it certainly seems like the jinn perspective is more likely the true one – particularly based on the behavior of the humans that Loulie and Mazen meet along the way.

But the story is a nearly endless ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ kind of story, as one near-death adventure – and escaping therefrom – leads directly into another. Much as the tales that Shafia – who we know as Scheherazade – told to the Sultan to keep him from killing her. This adventure is clearly intended to remind readers of One Thousand and One Nights, as it should. Shafia was Mazen’s mother, and the Sultan of the famous story was his father.

It’s the truth of that tale, as well as so many other truths, that Mazen, Loulie and their companions must discover on their dangerous quest.

Speaking of the party, that’s where I felt conflicted. The story is told in the first person, from three different points of view; Loulie, Mazen and Aisha. I listened to the audio for about 90% of the book, and the three narrators made the differences in their perspectives quite clear. They all did an excellent job of portraying their respective characters. The problem I had was that I found that both Loulie and Mazen spent a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, self-flagellation and adolescent angst. Not that their situations weren’t more than worthy of some considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth – because they are in deep sand up to their necks. It’s more that because the story is told from inside their heads, it got repetitive. If I’d been reading instead of listening I’d have skimmed through those bits.

So I loved the adventure. This story is a thrill-a-minute ride with plenty of fascinating exploration of this world. The way that the legends come to life was absolutely riveting. But the one character I really liked and wished I had more of was Qadir, and he’s the one really important perspective we don’t have in the first person – or nearly enough of at all.

But I have hope – in a slightly twisted way. The Stardust Thief is the first book in a trilogy, although the second book doesn’t even have a title yet, let alone a publication date. It can’t come nearly soon enough because this first book doesn’t exactly end. Like the other adventures in this book, like the adventures Shafira told the Sultan, this one ends just as our heroes have jumped out of yet another frying pan but are still in freefall before they land in the inevitable fire.

It’s going to be a long, nail-biting wait to find out how hot things get in the next installment!

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan MalleryThe Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love. 

My Review:

Six months after their decision to move their businesses in together, Ashley, Bree and Mikki are all pretty happy with the results. Between the new, more central, beachfront location, and the synergy between Bree’s bookshop on one end, Mikki’s gift shop on the other and Ashley’s cupcakery in the middle, traffic is up, profits are up and all three businesses are booming.

Howsomever, on the personal front, while Ashley believes she’s happy with her live-in boyfriend Seth, and Bree is certain she’s happy with using men for sex as long as she’s up front about her unwillingness to commit for more than a night or two. Meanwhile Mikki believes that she’s content with the company of Earl – her vibrator.

Their business successes are real. Their romantic contentment, on the other hand, is considerably more questionable as each of their respective illusions crash and burn in different and unexpected ways.

Bree meets someone who makes her wish she wasn’t too damaged to let anyone into her heart ever again. Ashley discovers that her perfect boyfriend has commitment issues of his own – he claims to want to be with her forever but refuses to even consider marriage. While Mikki’s realization that a vibrator is far from enough finds her leading not one but two men on while believing she’s doing no such thing.

The story of the Boardwalk Bookshop and its three proprietors is the story of what happens after things fall apart. And how they help each other put everything back together. Not the same as before. Not necessarily and certainly not completely better. But getting up and putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it is until it gets just a bit easier. Because they have each other.

Escape Rating B+: Although this book is being billed as a romance, the heart of the story isn’t the romances. The heart of the story is the friendship. It’s not that love doesn’t lift them up, it’s that the love between these women who began as strangers is what gives them the support to make those romances possible.

Bree is the one who comes into the story with the most damage. Her famously intellectual parents saw her as an interruption to their work and were not in the least bit shy about reminding her of that fact. Looking for love and acceptance, she married a man who made her feel important because he needed her to take care of him, not because he either loved her or respected her. She tries to say she’s not capable of falling in love, but what she really means is that she’s too afraid to risk her heart again so keeps people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to hurt her. Bree is the one who needs the most help and the most healing, but it’s not going to happen unless she is able to admit that she’s just plain scared.

Ashley’s initial damage is old and scarred over and she’s learned to deal with it reasonably well. Her older brother barely survived a hit and run accident. While her parents were taking care of him, she learned to take care of herself. Her habit of compromising her own needs because others’ were so much greater makes her cling too long to a relationship that just isn’t working because she’s so used to giving up what she wants for others. When she can’t this time she’s crushed. (And IMHO he’s an asshat.)

I have to admit that I found it easier to empathize with Bree and Ashley than I did Mikki. She’s so competent in her business and so ditzy in her personal life that I didn’t enjoy her parts of the story as much as the others – although her frequent conversational gaffes about Earl were hilarious. But Mikki’s dilemma is that she’s considering remarrying her ex-husband while dating someone else. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, what are second marriages to the person you divorced? The triumph of hope over experience AND knowledge? I know it does happen in real life but in her situation it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting herself out of the mess that she’d unwittingly gotten herself into required lots of uncomfortable conversations and a whole lot of groveling.

All in all, this is a charming story about three women who help each other to be strong in their broken places – sometimes even in spite of themselves. So come for the champagne-fueled walks on the beach, and stay for the healing power of friendship. It’s all here in The Boardwalk Bookshop.

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda Quick

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda QuickWhen She Dreams (Burning Cove, #6) by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #6
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Return to 1930s Burning Cove, California, the glamorous seaside playground for Hollywood stars, mobsters, spies, and a host of others who find more than they bargain for in this mysterious town.
Maggie Lodge, assistant to the reclusive advice columnist known only as Dear Aunt Cornelia to her readers, hires down-but-not-quite-out private eye Sam Sage to help track down the person who is blackmailing her employer. Maggie and Sam are a mismatched pair. As far as Sam is concerned, Maggie is reckless and in over her head. She is not what he had in mind for a client but he can't afford to be choosy. Maggie, on the other hand, is convinced that Sam is badly in need of guidance and good advice. She does not hesitate to give him both.
In spite of the verbal fireworks between them, they are fiercely attracted to each other, but each is convinced it would be a mistake to let passion take over. They are, after all, keeping secrets from each other. Sam is haunted by his past, which includes a marriage shattered by betrayal and violence. Maggie is troubled by intense and vivid dreams--dreams that she can sometimes control. There are those who want to run experiments on her and use her for their own purposes, while others think she should be committed to an asylum.
When the pair discovers someone is impersonating Aunt Cornelia at a conference on psychic dreaming and a woman dies at the conference, the door is opened to a dangerous web of blackmail and murder. Secrets from the past are revealed, leaving Maggie and Sam in the path of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

My Review:

When I first visited Burning Cove, back in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I wasn’t expecting it to become a series – but I’m very glad that it did!

Burning Cove is kind of a liminal place, and the 1930s were a liminal time. Burning Cove is in California, a place where dreams are made and lost and found. It is an offshoot of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the heart of all that dream making machinery at a time when movies and their magic were blossoming into their heyday.

While the 1930s were a time when the world was holding its breath. WW1 was in the rearview mirror, but its avatars are men and women in their 30s – in the prime of their powers and their adulthood – no matter what shadows darken their pasts or their futures. But the world is also on the brink of war, at least for those with eyes to see, while the world’s economy is still in shambles, feeding the causes and hatreds of the war about to be born.

Among all those dreams, visions and nightmares, it seems fitting that Burning Cove has become a center of dream powers, dream research and possibly dream control. Or, in this particular entry in the series, fulfilling a couple of con artists’ dreams of avarice.

And onto that stage, in this 6th entry in the series, step Maggie Lodge and Sam Sage. Maggie is a lucid dreamer with a realistically cynical view of the pros and cons of her talent. In control, she can wield it like a weapon, out of control it can be used as a weapon against her. As too many in her past have already attempted.

Sam is a private detective, still reeling from the hard knocks of divorce from a woman he never should have married, and being fired from his job as an LA police detective for being too good and too incorruptible at his job. He also happens to be the only private detective in Maggie’s tiny California town who is sober at 9 in the morning. He’s sure the job, whatever it is, will be better than divorce work.

Maggie hires Sam to investigate the blackmail attempt directed at her employer, the advice columnist known as “Dear Aunt Cornelia” in newspapers all around the country. Cornelia is out of the country on an around the world cruise, leaving Maggie with her house, her column and her checkbook to take care of any business while Aunt Cornelia, AKA Lillian Dewherst, is away from home.

Sam, Maggie and the erstwhile blackmailer converge on Burning Cove, where a dream research conference – or con game – is being held under the auspices of the suspiciously glitzy Guilfoyle Institute.

Maggie’s suspicions are already heightened, as the scientific legitimacy of what is obviously a con game or even a pyramid scheme is being shored up by the participation of a real dream scientist who once attempted to drug Maggie and experiment on her talents under the guise of “therapy”.

Sam is just as suspicious, because the Guilfoyles are so obvious about their intentions to fleece the attendees – at least according to a hunch that is so strong that it might well be a talent on its own.

And because the would-be blackmailer is found dead of a drug injection on opening night.

Escape Rating B+: Burning Cove straddles a whole bunch of genre lines. In a nutshell it’s historical paranormal romantic suspense, with pretty much the entire kitchen sink encompassed by those genres in evidence.

When She Dreams is the 6th book in this series, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to get into this one. While a couple of main characters from previous entries in the series turn up as side characters in this book, they are far from the focus and are not an intimate part of any of the events. The true continuing element of this series is the location, and since it neither has any dialog nor participates in any romance, not having visited before isn’t a problem for first time visitors.

The paranormal element to this series, as it is to much of the Jayneverse as the author (Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz) calls it, revolves around Maggie’s dream talent. She’s not the first character in these interconnected worlds to manifest a psychic power related to dreams and nightmares, and I’d be willing to bet she won’t be the last, either.

It’s not like that particular talent isn’t hotly debated in real life, after all.

What makes Maggie, and the other women in Burning Cove so fascinating is her realistic grasp on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world at a time when it’s all too easy for a woman to be overlooked, ignored, or in Maggie’s case, locked up for “her own good” by people who claim to love her and have her best interests at heart.

Maggie is a fighter who comes by her distrust of the world in general and men in particular unflinchingly honestly. She has carved out an independent life for herself against the odds, and she’s determined to maintain that independence, and the reader likes her all the better for it.

Sam is not as interesting a character as Maggie is. Maggie sparkles, and it’s easy to see why Sam is attracted to her, even if we don’t see a whole lot of evidence of that attraction until fairly far into the book. But he is a worthy partner for her in the investigation, and not just because he’s able to reluctantly admit that they are partners whether that’s what he planned on or not.

What does sparkle is the way that Sam and Maggie close in on this case that did not originally look like a whole, entire case. It goes from blackmail to murder to fraud to murder to obsession and then reaches back into the past to yet more murder. Following in Maggie’s footsteps as she and Sam unravel the clues one dark and dangerous step at a time makes for a terrific, page-turning thriller, clinging to the edge of one nightmare after another.

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau Black

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau BlackMirror Lake by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #3
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The third novel in the Shady Hollow mystery series, in which Vera Vixen takes on her most challenging case yet: solving the murder of a rat who appears to still be alive.

Change is afoot in Shady Hollow, with an unusually tense election shaping up between long-serving Chief of Police Theodore Meade and Vera's beau, Deputy Orville Braun. But the political tension takes a back seat when resident eccentric Dorothy Springfield becomes convinced her beloved husband, Edward, is dead, and that the rat claiming to be him is actually a fraud.
While most of the town dismisses Dorothy's rants as nothing more than a delusion, Vera has her doubts. More than a few things don't add up in the Springfield household, but Vera will have to tread carefully, since, with Orville's attention on the election, she may be more exposed than ever.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

And we’re back in the very cozy, slightly twee village of Shady Hollow for one more bloody (as in there’s actual dripping blood) mystery among this (mostly) charming group of people who just happen to be animals.

Don’t let that bit fool you. All stories are about people – even if they claim they’re not. Because people are all we know how to be – and we’re the ones writing the story.

Adora Springfield is dead – but this isn’t about her. Except when it is. Adora was, all things considered, adored by pretty much everyone in Shady Hollow and the neighboring, even smaller community of Mirror Lake. She lived a long life and contributed a lot to both communities. She’ll be mourned and she’ll be missed. And she left an estate worth killing for, tied up in an estate-planning tangle that is going to require both a lawyer and an investigative journalist to unravel.

Chief of Police Theodore Meade is a deadbeat. Not exactly, as he’s earning a decent salary as the leader of Shady Hollow’s two-bear police department. But he’s not doing the job. At all. Pretty much ever. He’s too “busy” fishing, leaving all the policing in town to his deputy-bear Orville Braun.

And Orville is pretty much sick of doing all the work and not being sure whether or not he’s getting any of the credit.

The case and the campaign both revolve – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise – around the person of investigative reporter and fox-about-town Vera Vixen. As a reporter for the local newspaper, the death of one of the town’s leading lights and the first contested campaign for Police Chief in years are both juicy stories that Vera is itching to dig her way into and write all about.

But Orville and Vera are romantically involved, even as they butt heads over pretty much every case. She can’t cover his campaign – no matter how much her boss wants her to use her “inside track” to get the real scoop. Her boss is GREAT at selling newspapers but LOUSY at journalistic ethics.

It’s Vera’s search for a bit of legal cover to protect her job with that leads her into the Springfield case. A case that Orville – and the rest of the town – refuse to see as a real case at all.

Dorothy Springfield, known to all and sundry as “Dotty” for her occasional flakiness, has returned from tending to her now-late mother-in-law and taking care of the funeral arrangements to cause a very public scene by claiming that her husband is NOT her husband. That her real husband is dead and whoever this rat (literally, the Springfields are the wealthiest rats in town) may look like her beloved Edward but he is absolutely NOT her Edward.

Everyone is certain that Dotty is just being dotty again. Vera has doubts. Initially little ones, as Dotty’s reputation has definitely preceded her – but doubts that are worth digging into because they’ll make an excellent story.

A story that nearly gets Vera killed. Again.

Escape Rating B+: This was not the book I originally planned to finish the week with, but that one (Last Exit) turned out to be a bit more book than I had time to chew at the end of this week. (I’m listening to the audio and it’s good but it’s also longer than I thought. The best laid plans of mice, men and book reviewers and all that.)

So I returned to Shady Hollow for one more lovely if murderous time. And it turned out to be a charming way to finish out the week.

On its surface, Mirror Lake is a typical cozy mystery set in a typical if somewhat twee small town. That all the people are animals adds to its charm for me, but may add to its twee-ness for others. YMMV but I like visiting the place.

The two cases are the bread and butter of this kind of story. A minor conflict between the townsfolk, a case of everyone in town knowing everyone else’s business and maintaining their assumptions about the people they know so well, and a twisty little bit of murder, with an amateur sleuth in the middle of entirely too many things for probability to have any bearing whatsoever.

(I always think that Cabot Cove and Midsummer County must have such a ridiculously high homicide rate that newcomers would stay far, far, away – but they never do.)

Series like Shady Hollow, whether featuring humans or animals-as-humans, are more about the town and its inhabitants than it is about the murders that take place. Which is a good thing in Mirror Lake as I figured out whodunnit long before the big reveal at the end.

The fun in the story is watching it all work itself out. Vera is both determined and dogged (whatever her species might be), but she’s also compassionate and caring and has invested herself thoroughly in her new home of Shady Hollow. As an amateur investigator, operating mostly on her own, she’s also very much a “fools rush in” type, putting herself in extreme danger in every book because she tends to figure out whodunnit by poking her nose into the killer’s business without being aware that she’s THAT close to the solution.

Which makes following Vera a lot of fun as she drops into Joe’s Mug for life-giving coffee, consults her best friend, bookstore owner Lenore for advice and crime-solving hints, and flirts and fights with her bearish beau whenever they both have a break between cases.

Unfortunately, this is the last – so far, at least – full length novel in the Shady Hollow series. There’s one very short novella, Evergreen Chase, left to go. It’s a holiday story, so I think I’ll save it for when fall starts to nip the air. Or whenever I need a bit of Vera’s animal magnetism.