Review: For the Love of April French by Penny Aimes + Excerpt

Review: For the Love of April French by Penny Aimes + ExcerptFor the Love of April French by Penny Aimes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, LGBT
Pages: 352
Published by Carina Adores on August 31, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An Entertainment Weekly Best Romance of Summer 2021!
“This book gave me every last one of the Intense Romance Feelings I crave.” —New York Times bestselling author Talia Hibbert

April French doesn't do relationships and she never asks for more.
A long-standing regular at kink club Frankie's, she's kind of seen it all. As a trans woman, she’s used to being the scenic rest stop for others on their way to a happily-ever-after. She knows how desire works, and she keeps hers carefully boxed up to take out on weekends only.
After all, you can't be let down if you never ask.
Then Dennis Martin walks into Frankie's, fresh from Seattle and looking a little lost. April just meant to be friendly, but one flirtatious drink turns into one hot night.
When Dennis asks for her number, she gives it to him.
When he asks for her trust, well…that's a little harder.
And when the desire she thought she had such a firm grip on comes alive with Dennis, April finds herself wanting passion, purpose and commitment.
But when their relationship moves from complicated to impossible, April will have to decide how much she's willing to want.
Carina Adores is home to highly romantic contemporary love stories where LGBTQ+ characters find their happily-ever-afters. Discover a new Carina Adores book every month!

My Review:

At the beating heart of this story is the romance between two people who might just be perfect for each other. The potential heartbreak in this romance is that just as much as their likes and dislikes, quirks and propensities align to make them a perfect match, their insecurities and emotional baggage are just as well (or poorly, depending on how you look at it) aligned to drive them apart.

Both April French and Dennis Martin are kind of new in Austin. Both have fled there, from opposite coasts, after each of them left places and lives that were just too full up of memories of everything that went wrong in their previous relationships.

April’s been in Austin just a few years, but long enough to have settled in, as much as she can, into Austin being her city and her home, with the kink club Frankie’s being the center of the life that she has carved out for herself, one painstaking piece at a time.

Dennis’ best friend Jason – rumored to be a silent partner in Frankie’s – steers him towards the club because he knows that Dennis has a place there, and that the kink community in Austin is at least one place Dennis will be able to call home.

April is a submissive whose previous long term relationship was with a Domme who abused both her love and her trust. In his last long term relationship, Dennis unknowingly abused his power as a newbie Dom over his sub because he didn’t learn how to separate the power dynamic of the play from the rest of their lives. She was drowning, he thought everything was copacetic until it all blew up in both their faces.

Both are feeling guilty and insecure. Both are starting over. When they meet for the first time, they connect instantly on multiple levels. Their kinks align perfectly. But the guilt and insecurity they carry from their previous relationships creates an emotional minefield. He’s learned enough to know that he needs clear consent at every stage. He’s afraid to push too hard out of fear that he’ll recreate the mess he caused before. He’s learned more but not nearly enough.

And April has learned to her cost that partners like her, and are interested in playing with her for a while, but that no one ever stays. She’s internalized the feeling that she is not enough, so she’s learned not to let herself get too involved, because that only ends in heartbreak.

But from the moment they meet, they each want more than just a fling, or even a friends with benefits kind of thing. In their heart of hearts, they want a happy-ever-after with each other.

And they’re both, out of their own equal and opposite baggage, afraid to reach for it.

Escape Rating A: On the one hand, For the Love of April French is some of the fluffiest fluff that ever fluffed. And that’s both in spite of AND because of the way that the story deals with a whole bunch of really serious stuff along with, under, besides and on top of its fluffy fluff. I want to say it’s like cotton candy with a Sweet-Tart center, which captures the flavor but perhaps trivializes issues that shouldn’t be trivialized and that the story does not.

This is a nerd romance. And it’s a BDSM romance that emphasizes the romance while not shortchanging either the BDSM or the sexual aspects of their relationship. It’s an interracial romance, as Dennis is black and April is white. It’s also a romance between a transwoman and a cis man. As the icing on the surprisingly sweet cake of all of the above, it is also, briefly – very briefly – a secret workplace romance, which turns out to be the straw that very nearly breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

There’s also an explicit message about not just acknowledging your own baggage but actually dealing with your own crap, because no one else can do it for you. They can support you through the hard parts, but they can’t pick up your emotional baggage and process it on your behalf. If you don’t do it for yourself, if you don’t learn to love and care for yourself, whoever and whatever and however you might be, you won’t truly be a fit partner for anyone else.

And that’s a message of universal applicability that doesn’t get the attention it deserves in romance. A happy ever after won’t heal your emotional wounds. Working on your own emotional scars gets you ready for an HEA.

Not that, in this story, both April and Dennis don’t have a few extra pieces of emotional baggage to deal with because of the ways that societal expectations and limitations impact them because of their identities. Something which gives them each an insight into the shape of what the other faces without having much knowledge of details of it.

An exploration that feels like it’s handled both well and not so well at the same time. For example, each knows that the other faces a metric buttload of microaggressions – and all too often macroaggressions – without knowing the details until they get slapped in the face with exactly what the other faces.

The way that this got dealt with was the one thing in the story that got handled both well and not so well. It feels fair to say that the author probably assumed that readers wouldn’t know every detail about what it’s like to live as a black man or as a white transwoman and/or a member of the kink community and every other detail of those lives that makes them different. We may have some knowledge and hopefully a lot of empathy but not full knowledge of absolutely everything.

The method for dealing with those different perspectives and levels of knowledge was to tell the story in the first person, first from April’s perspective and then from Dennis’. As Dennis has more to learn because he didn’t learn what he should have about being a Dom in addition to what he needs to know to be the right partner for April, his point of view is more informative for those of us who are less aware. But the story is more April’s journey than Dennis’ so we start with her point of view and stay with it for the first half or so of the story. Then we switch and see the exact same events from his perspective.

It’s a bit jarring, because we go back in time several months on that start over. I think it would have worked better as a storytelling device if they’d alternated perspectives chapter by chapter or event by event.

Both perspectives are necessary, because we see more from her perspective but we learn more from his. Still the switches between them are just awkward. And very much on my other hand, as rough as those changeovers were they give the reader way more than a glimpse into the minds of a transwoman in a cis world, and a Black man in a largely-white world, both in the kink community and in general. That the author covers this territory at all, and covers it well, is noteworthy and absolutely adds to the reader’s empathy for these characters.

So the roughness of the changes between perspectives, which is a writing thing and not a story thing, is enough to drop the rating from an A+ to an A because at that level I start getting a bit picky about the writing things.

But the story, oh this fluffy, romantic, wonderful story is so very worth reading. It’s the kind you finish with a smile on your face and possibly even a bit of a happy song in your heart.

Considering that this is the author’s debut novel, the whole thing is beautifully awesome and I can’t wait to read more of her work! But first, you get to experience a bit of this wonderfully fluffy romance with this excerpt from the first chapter. Enjoy!

Excerpt from For the Love of April French

April French was having what she considered to be a good night. She was lonely and she was horny, but the lovely thing about Frankie’s, even on a Wednesday, was that she was probably not the only one. And the welcome wagon gambit was working. New doms always responded well to a little attention. She wondered how many of the hookups in her limited sexual history it accounted for—post-transition, of course. Her sexual history pre-transition was not only limited but singular.

On second thought, that was a depressing thing to contemplate. She decided to steer her mind back to the present, because her present was damn good-looking. He was Black, looked to be about her age, dark-skinned and tall, with narrow hips and shoulders that were probably narrower than hers, too.

There were clear hints of lean muscle under his suit, and the suit looked expensive. She didn’t really care about the name brand, but she had to admit the cost was reflected in how well it draped his body. He had short-cropped, wiry hair and that sexy kind of two-day stubble thing happening. A reassuring bass voice and an unreadable calm that made his face a handsome mask. The tightly wound dominants were almost always the most fun to see come unraveled with desire.

“So. You can flirt,” she said, trying to keep her voice even despite the smile tugging the corners of her mouth. It wouldn’t do to tip her hand just yet about how attractive he was. “And you wear nice suits. What else should I know about you?”

“Well, I just moved here,” he said. “Which you also knew. My name is Dennis. I came here from Seattle.”

She nodded, as Aerith set down a new Painkiller in front of her. “I’m April. Grow up out there?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Illinois, actually. Little tiny town.”

“Oh hey,” she said, her smile shifting to be a little less flirtatious and a lot more genuine. It was always a treat to meet someone from the same basic context; someone she could count on to get it. Not that she expected to spend much time talking about growing up in the Midwest, but it was still a nice bonus. “Ohio. I went to school out East, though, and worked there for a while.”

He laughed. “So a lot like me, but in the opposite direction. UC Santa Barbara.”

She bobbed her head. “Wesleyan.”

They exchanged graduation years; she guessed he was probably thirty-five or thirty-four to her thirty-two. “What took you out there?” he asked.

“It was as far away as I could get without driving into the

ocean,” she said with a laugh. “And they had good financial aid. You?”

“About the same, about the same. Lots of loans, in the end.” She nodded as he went on. “While I was getting my masters, a couple of my friends got a start-up going and brought me in, and we headed up the coast to Seattle.”

“Ooh,” she said. “A techie. I should’ve known.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Well, most of the folks who come here from the West Coast are,” she said. Especially the ones who could afford that suit.

“You’re right, anyway. I was the support team, not the talent, though. My degree’s in technology management.” He sipped. “Start-up life isn’t for the long haul, so I came here to take a job as CTO for a small firm. What about you?” he asked.

She fidgeted with the little straw in her drink, then drew it out. Chomped a cherry deliberately. “Poli-sci major. I don’t use it, though.”

“Hm.” His eyes watched her mouth. Good. “So weird, isn’t Austin where they have that political particle accelerator?”

He was smirking at his pun, and she snorted. “Queeons and Kingons?” At his blank expression, she added, “You don’t read Terry Pratchett, do you?”

He shook his head. “No, I was just teasing.”

Her smile snatched at the corners of her mouth again. “Teasing’s okay.” She was fighting herself not to relax fully into the moment, to keep up her boundaries until they crossed the preliminary hurdles. This might not be anything, yet. But he was cute, and he was funny, and he was—so far—gentle. She thought she could really like this guy. She knew she liked the way his eyes settled on her, the weight his gaze seemed to have.

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen KlagesPassing Strange by Ellen Klages
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, LGBT, magical realism
Pages: 220
Published by Tor.com on January 24, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World's Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer "authentic" experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other's as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.

My Review:

This is a short, sweet, lovely and magical story that tells its tale by going full circle. It starts in the present, goes back in time to show how that present came to be, and then returns to the present to explore the ultimate result of those past events.

And it’s absolutely beautiful in its telling.

It’s also a story about San Francisco as a liminal place, a city that is the threshold of many times and places and states and statuses without being a part of any of them. Or being a part of all of them, as the case may be. (New Orleans feels like another such place, which may be why so many urban and/or dark fantasy stories are set there)

There are multiple interstices in the San Francisco of 1940, where the bulk of the story, its past, are set. 1940 was, of course, the eve of World War II in the United States, while the war was already fully engaged elsewhere. History stood on a threshold. San Francisco’s own history also seems to be on a threshold of another kind, as the Great Fire of 1906 is still within living memory but is fading in the city’s consciousness as the coming war takes its place.

San Francisco itself is always on a threshold, as a port city and gateway between the East and the West. It’s population occupies multiple thresholds, as the upper-crust denizens of Nob Hill and the densely packed citizens of Chinatown both do and don’t live in the same city – with the tourists in the middle looking to view the exotic sites on all sides.

The characters of this story are also liminal. They are living on thresholds between respectability and what that time and place referred to as “deviance”. They all make their living on the margins of their world, presenting multiple pretenses to society while only able to be themselves among their own kind.

They are all women who love other women. Some dress as men, some dress as women, some are completely androgynous, and all skirt the edge of the law, sometimes by subterfuge, sometimes by bravado. Always balanced on a knife’s edge between living their authentic lives and a prison sentence.

And this is the story of the last survivor of that strangely beautiful time and place, honoring her promises to those she left behind. Or perhaps they left her. And that’s the beauty, and the magic, of the whole thing.

Escape Rating A: This was lovely, and I wouldn’t have minded a whole lot more of it. But the story that is here is very choice indeed.

I came into Passing Strange both for its historical elements and for its dip into magical realism, as well as for its sidelong glance at the pulps of the Golden Age of SF. And I’m a sucker for the kind of story that comes full circle as this one does.

But I stayed for the characters. The indomitable Helen, the artist Haskel, the writer Emily and the cartomagical Franny. Because it’s their magic, all of them together, that powers the story.

These four women, and two friends who I must admit were not as memorable, form a “Circle” that gives them a place to be themselves and provides support when the world, as it did and does, railed against them for who and what they were. (Not that this has changed nearly enough in the intervening decades.)

On the one hand, this is very definitely a love story. It’s the romance between Haskel and Emily, and displays just how much society was against them as well as just how much they were for each other – and for their circle of friends. Their romance becomes the heart of the magic that creates the mystery.

A mystery that Helen exploits in the present, both to get her revenge on a dealer who swindled a friend, and to make sure that her friends are taken care of, as she promised them so long ago.

With Franny’s magic giving just a hint of just how much that is strange and wonderful still exists in the world. (A bit more of Franny’s story, with a tiny bit more explanation of her map-magic, is, well, not explained exactly but illuminated a bit, in the very short story Caligo Lane, available for a free and quick read at Tor.com.)

In the end, Passing Strange is a haunting thing, a look back on a world that was, a view of a group of women who not merely survived but thrived with a little bit of magic and help from their friends, ending with a surprising bit of epically chilled revenge served with a promise and kiss goodbye.

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah GaileyUpright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, LGBT, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.

"That girl's got more wrong notions than a barn owl's got mean looks."

Esther is a stowaway. She's hidden herself away in the Librarian's book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her--a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

My Review:

I was expecting this to remind me of the stories of the Pack Horse Library Project, stories like The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars. And it certainly feels like Upright Women Wanted was at least partially inspired by that history.

What I wasn’t expecting was the crossing with The Handmaid’s Tale (which I confess I STILL have not read) or a reversal of The Gate to Women’s Country, especially in a setting that reminds me of even more surprisingly American War and Junkyard Cats. A future that is so FUBAR that the means and standards of living have gone backwards, because war is hell and the entire country is being sacrificed to it one bit at a time.

There’s also a heaping helping of George Orwell’s 1984 to add to the mix, but in a really subversive way. In the world of the Upright Women, Big Brother doesn’t actually need to watch everyone all the time. The propaganda of the ubiquitous and extremely carefully curated “Approved Materials” has created a society where “Big Brother” has been more or less successfully uploaded into each individual’s own brain without them being consciously aware of it.

What makes this story so fascinating is the way that its protagonist, Esther, is such a marvelously conflicted example of all of the ways in which those Approved Materials both have and have not taken – and what she does about it.

Esther is queer in a world where the only stories she sees about women like herself are stories where people like her, or people who are in any way different from the accepted world order, are punished or dead or mostly punished and dead.

She’s fled her town after being on the sharply pointed receiving end of one such object lesson. Her best friend and lover has been hung, by Esther’s own father – the local sheriff – for having been caught in possession of Unapproved Materials. Reading anything not approved by the state is a hanging offense.

While Esther is still “safe” for certain select values of safe, she is all too aware of the writing on her wall. She can hide what she is and pretend to be subservient to the man her father has picked out for her – or she can run. Everything she has read has led her to believe that she will come to a bad end no matter what she does, but at least if she runs she might not bring the consequences of her supposed evil to her town.

And she might have a chance to atone for her “sins”. So she smuggles herself aboard the Librarians’ wagon, believing that in their service she will find a way to live and serve the state without being put in the way of the temptation she can’t make herself resist.

But the Librarians are nothing like what she thought they were, nothing like what all the Approved Materials that she has read, that the Librarians themselves have brought to her town, have led her to believe.

They say that the truth will set you free. The truth certainly sets Esther free. But first she has to learn to recognize it for herself.

Escape Rating A-: There’s a part of me that found this story to be just a bit of a tease. This is a novella, so it is relatively short. The points of the story are sharp, laser-focused even, but we don’t ever find out how this future version of our world got to be the way it is, or even much in the way of details of exactly how it is – even though it feels like a not-too-far-out-there possibility from where we’re standing. But I always want to know more about how things ended up this way. I’d love to revisit this world to learn more.

But even though I didn’t get to learn the history lessons of this place, the story still has plenty to teach.

The first lesson of this story is never to mess with librarians. And that’s a fantastic lesson to learn – or so says this librarian. I’m also terribly glad that this lesson about librarians is all about the subversive nature of information. And the way that these librarians are using the appearance of conforming to participate in a revolution. Or at least a rebellion.

So yes, this is a story about a plucky resistance versus at least a repressive empire if not a completely evil one. As far as we know, there’s no Palpatine here, just a whole lot of people going along to get along to keep themselves safe. There’s just no place for anyone who can’t move in the proper lockstep and the punishment for not marching in step is death.

The second lesson is about not believing what you read. Instead of “trust, then verify” the lesson is “verify, then trust”. And to always examine everything you see and hear and read to figure out why you’re being told what you’re being told and who benefits from you believing it. Because it usually isn’t you. And no one can say that this particular lesson doesn’t have a hell of a lot of applicability in the here and now.

The most important lesson is the one about self-acceptance. Esther goes from believing that she must be evil because that’s what she’s always been taught, to accepting that she is who she is meant to be, and that who she loves is her right. And that she has every right to fight for who and what she wants and that those horrible lessons that the state tried to install are not the truth of her – not at all.

And while that lesson of self-acceptance is explicitly about queer self-acceptance, there’s a lesson there for all of us, particularly those of us living while female. Because society has boxes for all us, and those boxes don’t fit a lot of us in all sorts of ways. Accepting that not being the kind of woman that society seems determined to force us to be is an important but necessary lesson we all need to hear – a hell of a lot more often than we do.

Review: Back in Black by Rhys Ford

Review: Back in Black by Rhys FordBack in Black (McGinnis Investigations, #1) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: LGBT, mystery, suspense
Series: McGinnis Investigations #1
Pages: 200
Published by Dreamspinner Press on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

There are eight million stories in the City of Angels but only one man can stumble upon the body of a former client while being chased by a pair of Dobermans and a deranged psycho dressed as a sheep.

That man is Cole McGinnis.

Since his last life-threatening case years ago, McGinnis has married the love of his life, Jae-Min Kim, consulted for the LAPD, and investigated cases as a private detective for hire. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the shocking discovery of a dead, grandmotherly woman at his feet and the cascade of murders that follows, even if he should have been used to it by now.

Now he’s back in the dark world of murder and intrigue where every bullet appears to have his name on it and every answer he digs up seems to only create more questions. Hired by the dead woman’s husband, McGinnis has to figure out who is behind the crime spree. As if the twisted case of a murdered grandmother isn’t complicated enough, Death is knocking on his door, and each time it opens, Death is wearing a new face, leaving McGinnis to wonder who he can actually trust.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a book titled Dirty Kiss, in which ex-LAPD-turned-private-investigator Cole McGinnis investigated the case of a cheating wife who put the sex in sexagenarian – with leather on it. Also a whip and thigh-high boots, because the lady wasn’t merely cheating on her husband, she was cheating on him as a dominatrix for hire. When Cole discovered her shenanigans, she came after him with a shotgun – and almost got him.

Fast forward a few years. Cole is now happily married to the man he met during the course of that first book. They’ve been good years – and they’ve also been fairly peaceful years for Cole, Jae and their friends and family.

When Cole trips over the leather-clad corpse of that senior-citizen dominatrix while running from two dobermans and a guy in a sheep costume who has just been caught in flagrante delicto in an abandoned house, Cole’s peace is definitely at an end. And not just because he needs brain bleach to remove the image of the sheep chasing him with his “flagrante” flopping out of the front of that sheep suit.

Cole feels an obligation to Adele Brinkerhoff and her husband Arthur. The original case was resolved satisfactorily for all concerned, but it did, in a very roundabout way, bring him to Jae and his current happiness.

And no one else is going to get justice for the old lady. Not just because of the spill of manufactured diamonds next to her corpse, but because her past is even shadier than her previous moonlighting as a dominatrix would suggest.

But even before Cole takes on the case, his peace is shattered – along with the victim’s house and the victim’s husband. When the assailant starts shooting up the neighborhood, including Cole and his friend and brother-in-law Bobby Dawson, Cole becomes even more determined to get to the bottom of a case that seems to be every bit as weird as the first time he tangled with Adele and Arthur Brinkerhoff all those years ago.

And even more deadly.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely adored this book. To the point where I’m desperately trying not to just sit here and squee for endless pages. But that’s not particularly informative – dammit.

Part of my glee about this book is just how much fun it is to see Cole, Jae and all their friends and family – found and otherwise – again. Especially Jae’s cat Neko, who is the cattest cat who ever catted.

But in all seriousness, something that is difficult to maintain in the face of the truly unbelievable messes that Cole gets himself into, the arc of Cole’s first series left everyone in a good place and came to a cathartic and well-earned resolution. I didn’t expect to see them back, but I’m so happy to see them back.

(You don’t need to read the first series to get into Back in Black – although that first series is wonderful. But seriously, Back in Black is the start of a new series, and it has a different feel to the first one. However, Cole does an excellent job of providing enough backstory info as it goes to get new readers into his life and his world, and to get series fans caught up on anything they might have forgotten.)

Enough time has passed between the end of the final book in that series, Dirty Heart, that life has moved on, mostly for the better, for Cole and Jae and their circle. The biggest change is that Cole and Jae have been married for a few years. (That story is told in the blog tour for Back in Black and began here at Reading Reality last week.) It’s not just Cole and Jae that have found their HEA – Cole’s brother Ichi and his friend Bobby (the protagonists of Down and Dirty) have also married, making Cole and Bobby brothers-in-law to the surprise of them both, if not necessarily to the delight of either of their husbands.

Because Cole and Bobby tend to lead each other into trouble, including gun-toting would-be assassins, and that’s just what happens in Back in Black.

But unlike the previous series, which leaned more towards romantic suspense, Back in Black and the McGinnis Investigations series fall firmly onto the mystery side of that suspense. Cole starts by doing a security check for a friend-of-a-friend (Rook Stevens from Murder and Mayhem) and literally trips over a former client’s dead body – while being chased by the sheep and the dobermans.

From that hilarious but inauspicious beginning, the case and the story are off to the races. It’s up to Cole, along with his police contact Dell O’Byrne, to determine not just whodunnit but also why it was done. An investigation which seems to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma and covered in a painter’s drop cloth.

Meanwhile Cole and Bobby find themselves dodging assassins, sometimes not terribly well. Assassins who seem determined to take them out of the picture before Cole discovers what the picture actually is.

And the entire story is told from Cole’s wry, snarky and frequently self-deprecating first-person perspective. In a voice that elicits groans and laughter in equal proportions, even if the laughter is all too often the result of some truly atrocious gallows humor.

On the other hand, it’s the voice of the man who got chased by a sheep. And two dobermans. And to whom stuff like that just keeps happening. Cole doesn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble clearly has his address on its GPS and has zero problem hunting him down and shooting at him. Over and over again.

Of course Cole does eventually solve the case. Which turns out to be nothing like anyone, not Cole and not the reader, expected when he tripped over that first body. But Cole, with more than a little help from his friends, gets the job done in his own inimitable style.

Considering the life he’s led, Cole McGinnis really should know better than to ask the universe, “what’s the worst that can happen?” because the universe is likely to take that question as a challenge.

On the other hand, just thinking about that is a fantastic way to end Cole’s first investigation in his new series, Back in Black, because that means there will be more. Hopefully lots, lots more!