Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie BarnesMr. Clarke's Deepest Desire (Enterprising Scoundrels #2) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, Victorian romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #2
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

When an earl's daughter falls for a businessman in this secret identities Regency romance, she risks more than heartbreak when his connection to her past threatens her reputation...

How can he build a future with a woman whose father ruined his life?

Having recently suffered the death of her father, Rosamund Parker faces an uncertain future. Intent on retaining her independence, she plans to invest her modest inheritance. But the man whose help she seeks is as infuriating as he is handsome. For reasons she can't comprehend, he's set on thwarting her at every turn, even as he tempts her with kisses she ought not want.

Matthew Clarke needs funding for his locomotive business, but he'll not accept it from the Earl of Stoneburrow's daughter. As far as Matthew's concerned, that entire family can go hang. Unfortunately, Lady Rosamund seems to pop up wherever he goes. Ignoring the fire she stirs in him becomes an increasing challenge. But surrendering to it could prove disastrous. It could in fact ruin both their lives...

My Review:

Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desires, the second book in the Enterprising Scoundrels series after Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender (I sense a theme in the titles, don’t you?) is a delightfully frothy bit of Victorian romance with some dark notes in the background. And a whole heaping helping of insta-lust in the lush foreground.

A part of me wants to make some terrible puns about Rosamund Parker and her need to have her engines overhauled – or at least her ashes hauled, but that’s not where this story begins. In a perverse way it began way back when, when her late, lamented, dear old dad couldn’t resist forcing their housemaid to haul his – will she or nill she. And of course he fired her when she informed him that she was carrying the inevitable consequence of his actions.

Now he’s dead and buried, and the mourning period has just officially ended. The reading of his will has left his daughter in a bit of a fix of a different sort. As the daughter (and only child) of an Earl, she knew she would not inherit his title or the entailed estate. But she expected a bit more than 500 pounds. Not per annum, but in total. Along with a binding clause that her uncle, the new Earl, was not permitted to maintain or support her.

(If you’re curious, that’s just over $60,000 in today’s dollars. A more-than-decent one year’s salary, but not nearly enough for a relatively young woman to live off of for the rest of her life.)

Rosamund, who does want to marry, also wants to have enough time going about the selection process to ensure that she makes a choice that satisfies both her head and her heart. So, instead of rushing into anything or anyone she plans to invest most of her money and life off the income from her investment while she makes a considered choice.

It’s a sensible plan, which makes sense. Because Rosamund is a very sensible woman. Also a very intelligent one.

But her plans go up almost literally in smoke when she meets Matthew Clarke, the owner of A&C Locomotive. Because Rosamund and Matthew strike more sparks from each other than any one of his engines do when they screech their brakes. Not that either of them can manage much of anything except almost literally screeching at each other.

Matthew’s mother was the housemaid that Rosamund’s father forced into his bed and then out the door, leaving both mother and 12-year-old Matthew destitute. Matthew refuses to take Rosamund’s investment money – no matter how much he actually needs it. He’s still carrying that grudge – and is an absolute ass about it to Rosamund even though she has no clue what he’s so angry about.

After all, she was all of 10 at the time and it’s not exactly a subject that any father would raise with his own daughter – particularly not in the Victorian Era!

But Rosamund is determined to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry, and Matthew still does need investors. Which means that they keep meeting – and meeting – and meeting at various gatherings of industry executives and potential investors. The more often they run into each other, the more sparks that fly – no matter how little Rosamund wants to believe the truth about her beloved father.

The push-pull of their relationship, the way that they hate each other but still want each other desperately, is hot enough to fuel a locomotive or ten without the use of coal. All they need to do is give in – before they make a mistake that will haunt the rest of their lives.

Escape Rating B+: One of the things that I really enjoy about the Enterprising Scoundrels series is that the heroes all work for a living. Admittedly it’s work among the wealthy and powerful, and they’ve done well for themselves, but it’s still real work that gives them real purpose. This is a series where happiness is not just the province of the idle rich to the point where it openly questions whether the idle rich are all that happy.

Matthew Clarke is an especially delicious hero in this mold because he’s a self-made man who has not either lost the threads of his humanity or obtained his wealth outside the law. Both of which are not uncommon backgrounds for heroes of historical romances.

What made this book downright refreshing is that even the bounder who tries to interfere with the romance between Rose and Matthew is really after Rose for her prodigious intellect and genius ideas, while her truly delectable person is icing on the cake of her splendid brain and not the other way around.

But speaking of that bounder, he’s not really a villain – at least not in the bwahaha sense that often happens. He’s out for himself and he does take advantage of a situation, but he doesn’t make the situation and he’s just not evil. Selfish and self-centered, but not beyond human reason.

So I didn’t leave this book, as I did Mr. Donohue’s Total Surrender, with the feeling that there were too many characters who did not receive the desserts they had so richly earned. If there is a villain in this piece it’s Rosamund’s father, and he’s already having that discussion with his Maker when the story begins.

I do have to say that I found the blurb for the book a bit deceptive. This isn’t really a story of secret identities. Rosamund and Matthew know exactly who each other is. She doesn’t know that he and his mother were once in service to her family – at least not at the beginning – but his business success wipes out most of that stigma. They do end up on the wrong end of a lot of social opprobrium, but it’s as a result of their actions in the present and not some hidden secret in either of their pasts.

While I’m not personally satisfied with the amount of groveling Matthew does over that incident, he does manage to screw his courage to the sticking point and fix things before it’s too late – with a whole lot of professional assistance from his soon-to-be bride. Which makes for happy endings all around – as they certainly deserved.

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori WhitakerA Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A cherished heirloom opens up a century of secrets in a bittersweet novel about family, hard truths, and self-discovery by the author of Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish.
Melanie Barnett thinks she has it all together. With an ex-fiancé and a pending promotion at a Kentucky bourbon distillery, Melanie has figured out that love and career don’t mix. Until she makes a discovery while cleaning her Jordan MX car, a scarlet-red symbol of the Jazz Age’s independent women that she inherited from her great-great-great-aunt Violet. Its secret compartment holds Violet’s weathered journal—within it an intriguing message: Take from this story what you will, Melanie, and you can bury the rest. Melanie wonders what more there is to learn from Violet’s past.
In 1921 Violet Bond defers to no one. Hers is a life of adventure in Detroit, the hub of the motorcar boom and the fastest growing city in America. But in an era of speakeasies, financial windfalls, free-spirited friends, and unexpected romance, it’s easy to spin out of control.
Now, as Melanie’s own world takes unexpected turns, her life and Violet’s life intersect. Generations apart, they’re coming into their own and questioning what modern womanhood—and happiness—really means.

My Review:

Melanie Barnett and her ‘Great Aunt Grape’ were simpatico in a way that Melanie and her judgmental, disapproving and disappointed mother were not. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the late and much lamented Violet Bond left her classic 1923 Jordan Playboy car to Melanie when she died.


1920 Jordon Playboy at Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum

What is surprising is the treasure trove of her personal papers and memories that Violet hid inside the car – just waiting for Melanie to check all the compartments and bring them to light.

As this story opens, Melanie is finally claiming that legacy, wishing that she had taken a look a whole lot earlier. But the time is now, and Melanie discovers the whole truth of Violet’s story just in time to help her decide the path she should take for her own.

In spite of her mother’s constant needling that Melanie’s choices are all the wrong ones. Inspired by Violet’s story, Melanie takes a good hard look at what she’s doing and where she’s going, and figures out that when it comes to the matter of her happiness the choices will have to be her own.

Just as Violet’s did. No matter what anyone else might think.

Escape Rating B+: I picked up A Matter of Happiness because I loved the author’s first book, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish. I liked A Matter of Happiness quite a bit, but it didn’t quite match up to the first book, although I think that the nostalgia of its Cincinnati setting pulled a bit more at my personal heartstrings than this one did. But I think that’s a ‘me’ thing and not a commentary on either book. A Matter of Happiness was definitely worth the read.

Like Millicent Glenn’s story, this one also exists in two time frames – but it is also told by two rather different people. Melanie’s story is set in pre-COVID 2018 (I have a feeling that authors are going to avoid the COVID years a LOT because they were just SO WEIRD). Melanie is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. The man she thought she’d marry thought that she would be happy to give up her career for his big promotion. But that promotion was taking him to Silicon Valley, and her career is in the Kentucky bourbon industry, which necessitates that she live, unsurprisingly, in her home state of Kentucky.

And now she’s sworn off men, devoting herself to her career, pursuing a promotion to management at the company she’s been working at for several years. She hopes that if she reaches a management position that her striving, seeking, disapproving mother will finally be proud of her.

But she’s found her great-aunt’s diary in the hidden compartments of that old car. A diary of Violet Bond in the 1920s, in her 20s, at a crossroads in her own life. Going off to Detroit to get a job in the burgeoning automobile industry, living on her own by her own wits and on her own wages, pursuing a career and swearing off men – albeit for different reasons than Melanie.

Melanie sees a bit of her own journey in her beloved great-aunt’s story. And we see a bit of our own in both of theirs. And in reading about the choices and the sacrifices that her aunt made in order to live the life she wanted, Melanie finds her own way forward.

Along with a secret that changes her perspective on how both she – and her mother – see their past and their places in a family they thought they knew.

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Review: Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne

Review: Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca ThorneCan't Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy
Series: Tomes and Tea #1
Pages: 451
Published by Rebecca Thorne on September 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

All Reyna and Kianthe want is to open a bookshop that serves tea. Worn wooden floors, plants on every table, firelight drifting between the rafters… all complemented by love and good company. Thing is, Reyna works as one of the Queen’s private guards, and Kianthe is the most powerful mage in existence. Leaving their lives isn’t so easy.
But after an assassin takes Reyna hostage, she decides she’s thoroughly done risking her life for a self-centered queen. Meanwhile, Kianthe has been waiting for a chance to flee responsibility–all the better that her girlfriend is on board. Together, they settle in Tawney, a town that boasts more dragons than people, and open the shop of their dreams.
What follows is a cozy tale of mishaps, mysteries, and a murderous queen throwing the realm’s biggest temper tantrum. In a story brimming with hurt/comfort and quiet fireside conversations, these two women will discover just what they mean to each other… and the world.

My Review:

I picked this up because once I knew it existed, I couldn’t resist buying it and reading it instantly. Why? Because everything about this book practically screams that it’s following in the cozy fantasy footsteps of Travis Baldree’s completely marvelous Legends & Lattes – and I adored that book. It is absolutely the perfect comfort read for our very uncomfortable times.

But at the moment there’s no sequel on the horizon – and I very much wanted more of the same. At least more in the same vein. Which is when Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea poured its way into my reading consciousness.

When we first meet Reyna and Kianthe, they’ve been together for two years. Except not together being together. They both have important jobs with big responsibilities, so running away together to open their combined dream tea shop and bookstore is never more than just that – a dream.

But, as the saying goes, a good job won’t love you back. That’s particularly true in Reyna’s case. She’s one of Queen Tilaine’s elite guards – which sounds like a really awesome and important job. The problem is that Queen Tilaine is a tyrant to her people, a bully to her staff, and a sadistic psychopath to pretty much everyone pretty much all of the time. A psychopath with the power to indulge all of the worst traits of her psychopathy – so she does.

That someone comes to court to assassinate her isn’t exactly a surprise as it happens on the regular. That Reyna stops the would-be assassin is also par for this court’s course. That Reyna gets wounded in the process of stopping said assassin is all in a day’s work. That the Queen she has served all her life tells the assassin and the entire court just how little Reyna’s life is worth to her is also, unfortunately, all too “normal”.

But it’s the straw that breaks Reyna’s willingness to sacrifice herself for a Queen who will not only never appreciate her service, but will, in fact, actually send her into harm’s way even at times when it’s not necessary just because she can. Because she needs to remind everyone of her power over their lives at every single turn.

So Reyna runs away. From the Queen, from the Palace, from her duties as a guard. That’s treason in the Queendom, and Reyna knows it. She just hopes she can outrun it – at least for a little while.

Which is where Kianthe comes in. Kianthe, the most powerful mage in the entire world, loves Reyna every bit as much as Reyna loves her. While Kianthe has duties to that world that she can’t completely leave behind, she CAN leave behind all the bureaucracy that goes with it. They can live their dream, that dream of a bookshop for Kianthe that brews and sells specialty teas crafted by Reyna.

So they do. They run away to the tiny border town of Tawney, ‘appropriate’ a dilapidated house from a gang of dead bandits, and open their store. They expect trouble to find them eventually, and they’re ready for it.

The dragon invasion that comes first they weren’t expecting at all.

Escape Rating B+: The author calls out her debt to Legends & Lattes in her ‘Acknowledgements’ at the end of the book, so it seems right in line to compare the book in hand to the work that directly inspired it.

While there’s a romance at the heart of both stories, the romances themselves are very different. Reyna and Kianthe are an established couple when the story begins, so instead of seeing their tentative steps toward romance, what we have here is more of a hurt/comfort story – as one or the other of them is either wounded or emotionally wrecked at many points in the book. The relationship that they are navigating, sometimes well and sometimes very badly – as people do – is the metamorphosis from a long-distance relationship to a live-in one that also includes owning a business together. So those story beats are different but lovely in their own way.

The biggest difference between Treason and Legends is that Treason mixes a LOT more epic fantasy elements with its cozy story of opening a business in a small magical town. The ‘marriage’ between the coziness and the epic doesn’t always go as smoothly as the relationship between Reyna and Kianthe does.

At the same time, the overall arc of the series looks like it’s going to be powered by those dragons. They are both a huge – literally – menace to the town and the source of an equally deep mystery that Kianthe and Reyna will have to solve over subsequent books in the series.

The one – very large – fly in the otherwise honey sweetness of this book is Queen Tilaine herself. On the one hand, the border straddling nature of Tawney adds a lot to the setting of the story. It’s disputed territory between the Queendom and its neighbor Shepara. But it’s also far enough from both capitals that the inhabitants have made their own brand of peace with their neighbors, leaving the antipathy between the rulers AND the religions of the home countries far behind and well out of everyday life. Which is all absolutely fascinating and it should be fun to watch how that works out as the series continues.

But very much on the other hand, Queen Tilaine herself is a gigantic problem. She’s the real villain of this piece, and she suffers from serious villain fail. She’s so far over so many tops that she’s just BWAHAHA evil with no redeeming characteristics and nothing to let the reader see that she’s the hero of her own story – as villains generally see themselves. It’s not just that she’s evil, but the way that she’s evil means that her country is barely functioning and she has enemies on all sides looking to overthrow her. In other words, there are huge reasons why assassination attempts happen on the regular, and they’re all at least somewhat righteous.

Tilaine is a bigger looming threat over Reyna and Kianthe than the dragons – and that’s saying something. The dragons are actually more sympathetic and they make more sense!

As much as I enjoyed the story, Tilaine’s particular brand of BWAHAHA and the way it was dealt with didn’t work for me nearly as well as the dragons – or as well as every other part of the story. Your reading mileage may vary.

Overall, I have to say that while Treason doesn’t quite get the same amount of lightning into the bottle that Legends did, it is very much a worthy successor to it – especially as a second book in the Tomes & Tea series is already in the works. So it tided me over quite nicely for a few hours, and now I want more of both!

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!