Review: File M for Murder by Miranda James

Review: File M for Murder by Miranda JamesFile M for Murder (Cat in the Stacks, #3) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #3
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on January 31st 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Athena College's new writer in residence is native son and playwright Connor Lawton, known for his sharp writing- and sharper tongue. After an unpleasant encounter, librarian Charlie Harris heads home to a nice surprise: his daughter Laura is subbing for another Athena professor this fall semester. It's great news until he hears who got her the job: her old flame, Connor Lawton...
Fearing competition for Connor's affections, one of his admirers tries to drive Laura out of town. And then, before Connor finishes the play he is writing, he is murdered- and Laura is the prime suspect. Knowing she's innocent, Charlie and his faithful sidekick, Diesel, follow Connor's cluttered trail of angry lovers, bitter enemies, and intriguing research to find the true killer before his daughter is forever cataloged under "M"- for murderer.

My Review:

I am predisposed to like this series. The amateur sleuth is a 50-something librarian named Harris who loves his enormous cat. Said cat is excellent at providing aid and comfort (but mostly comfort) to anyone in his orbit who needs it, and sometimes serves as a great sounding board for his human.

We all talk to our cats, and we all believe that they understand at least some of what we say, and vice versa. Diesel, while rather large for a cat, because Maine Coons are very large cats, acts like a cat a bit on the high end of feline intelligence. But no more than that. One of the things I love about Diesel is that he never does anything that cats don’t do – albeit writ somewhat large. It’s not uncommon for Maine Coon cats to be three feet long from nose to tail, and for the males to top out at over 20 pounds. Diesel is a big, handsome boy with a purr that sounds like, you guessed it, a diesel engine.

And Charlie Harris is very much a librarian. I can easily identify with what he does at work, and why he does it. And also why he loves the parts of this job that he loves, and dislikes the parts he doesn’t love. He rings true as “one of us”. Except for that fascinating habit he has of getting involved in murder. Like so many fictional small town amateur detectives, he does have a gift for tripping over dead bodies and inserting himself into police investigations. It’s a knack that the local police detective finds more annoying than endearing, to say the least.

This particular case hits rather close to home. On the plus side, Charlie’s daughter Laura is home in Athena for the summer, teaching a drama class at the local college where Charlie works. On the minus side, she got the temporary gig through the influence of this year’s resident playwright at the university. And Connor Lawton is a major pain in the ass. Not just to Charlie, but to every single person he comes in contact with. He’s rude, arrogant and downright nasty to all, and no one likes him one bit.

He’s one of those people who is just such a big arsehole that no one seems to mourn him when he’s found dead in his apartment. Rather, the long line of people who might want to do him in stretches rather far.

But once Connor is out of the way, whoever is behind his death turns their gaze upon Laura Harris, and her family finds itself under threat from all sides. Charlie, as usual, feels like it’s all up to him to figure out whodunit – before the killer manages to either kill his daughter or burn down his house with everyone inside.

Escape Rating B: This series is always a good time. I got hooked when I picked up Twelve Angry Librarians, and so far I have yet to be disappointed by a single trip to Athena, Mississippi. I grabbed this one because I bounced hard off of two books, and needed something that I knew would draw me right in, and File M for Murder certainly delivered.

The mysteries in this series are definitely cozy. And not just because Diesel, like all Maine Coons, is a very furry cat. Athena, Mississippi is a small college town, and everyone pretty much does know everyone. When Charlie needs to find the dirt on someone living in town, he knows just who to ask. And when he has to do research on someone’s past doings, he knows just which library has all the resources he needs, as well as the skill to use them.

There are plenty of cat mysteries, but one of the things that I like best about this series is that Diesel is just a cat. A very big cat, but just a cat. He doesn’t do anything that cats don’t do. Even in this particular story, where there is one point where Diesel really does save the day, he does it by smelling something off and meowing about it until he gets his human’s attention. Not all of us receive letter bombs (thank goodness) but that a cat would sniff out that the thing just smells “wrong” in a big way is quite possible.

It’s not that I don’t love Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s Joe Grey series, because I do, but one talking cat mystery series is probably enough. Or at least it is for this reader.

Another thing that I enjoy about this series is that Charlie is not always the first person to solve the mystery, the best person to solve the mystery, or even the person who saves the day by solving the mystery. In Charlie’s cases, he does get in the way of the police as often as he helps them. He doesn’t always do the cliche thing of getting all the suspects together for the big reveal. Sometimes the solution is anti-climactic, and Charlie is a step behind the police. It feels more human, and more likely, that an amateur sleuth would be as much of a hindrance as a help, while it still gives the reader a chance to put the pieces together along with Charlie, mistakes and all.

If you are looking for a light, fluffy and fun mystery series, with lovely people in an interesting setting, check out Charlie and Diesel. You don’t have to start with Murder Past Due (I didn’t) – this series is just good cozy fun wherever you jump in.

Review: When All the Girls Have Gone by Jayne Ann Krentz

Review: When All the Girls Have Gone by Jayne Ann KrentzWhen All The Girls Have Gone by Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on November 29th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jayne Ann Krentz, the New York Times bestselling author of Secret Sisters, delivers a thrilling novel of the deceptions we hide behind, the passions we surrender to, and the lengths we’ll go to for the truth...
When Charlotte Sawyer is unable to contact her step-sister, Jocelyn, to tell her that one her closest friends was found dead, she discovers that Jocelyn has vanished.
Beautiful, brilliant—and reckless—Jocelyn has gone off the grid before, but never like this. In a desperate effort to find her, Charlotte joins forces with Max Cutler, a struggling PI who recently moved to Seattle after his previous career as a criminal profiler went down in flames—literally. Burned out, divorced and almost broke, Max needs the job.
After surviving a near-fatal attack, Charlotte and Max turn to Jocelyn’s closest friends, women in a Seattle-based online investment club, for answers. But what they find is chilling…
When her uneasy alliance with Max turns into a full-blown affair, Charlotte has no choice but to trust him with her life. For the shadows of Jocelyn’s past are threatening to consume her—and anyone else who gets in their way...

My Review:

Like last year’s Secret Sisters, When All the Girls Have Gone is one of Jayne Ann Krentz’s rare (and awesome) stand alone contemporary romantic suspense titles. As much as I adore her Arcane Society/Harmony series, it’s always a treat to read a stand-alone title with that same ability to enthrall me from the first page to the last. And I’m not left mourning the wait for the next title in the series. When all of those girls are finally found, we get to watch our heroine and hero virtually ride off into the sunset. Job well done.

And also like Secret Sisters, Girls is also a story about sisterhood. Both the kind that you make, and the kind that gets made for you.

Charlotte Sawyer gets dragged into this mystery because her step-sister Jocelyn has gone missing. Charlotte discovers this after she learns that one of the women who seem to be Jocelyn’s sisters-of-the-heart turns up dead – and Jocelyn can’t be found.

There are secrets within secrets in this story. One reason why so much of the action happens is the way that the police handle a series of rape cases, then rape and murder cases, and then just plain murder cases. All the victims are women. And all of the various police departments where the crimes take place choose to take the easy way out in solving, or rather not solving, each crime.

When Jocelyn was a college student, she was raped. The police first dismissed her story, did the unfortunate but all-too-usual victim blaming, and then managed to lose the box of evidence that Jocelyn so carefully arranged to have taken at the local hospital.

Now her best friend is dead, and Jocelyn is off the grid. When private investigator Max Cutler picks up the case, he starts looking into the last days of the dead woman. The police think she died of a drug overdose. Because that’s the way the scene has been framed, and that’s the easy way out. Max is certain her death was murder. Especially since someone took all her electronics.

As Max investigates the death of Louise Finch, Charlotte comes looking for Louise, her step-sister’s best friend. Because Louise sent Jocelyn a very mysterious package, and now that Jocelyn is off the grid Charlotte can’t deliver it.

Max ties Louise’ death to Jocelyn’s disappearance, and Charlotte inserts herself into his case – and into his life. Louise’ cousin wants to find out what happened. Charlotte wants to locate Jocelyn. And from there the search expands outward, as Charlotte and Max begin to look into the women in Jocelyn’s circle, and the ultra secret “Investment Club” that Jocelyn refused to let Charlotte enter.

The search balloons outward, from Louise to Jocelyn to the other women and the cause that brought them together. And it contracts inwards, all the way back to Jocelyn’s long ago rape, and the man that thought he got away with it.

But he didn’t.

Escape Rating A-: This is a page turner. Ironically, both the hero and heroine think of themselves as plodders, the kind of people who just put one foot in front of the other and don’t lead very exciting lives. To the point where Charlotte’s ex-fiance broke their engagement five days before the wedding because he said she was boring. In reality, he’s a commitment-phobic douche, but we’ll get back to him.

Both Charlotte and Max are emotionally scarred. Charlotte by the douchey-ex. Also in a small way, her step-sister Jocelyn who keeps trying to protect Charlotte even though they are both adults. Jocelyn interprets Charlotte’s optimism and faith in others as naive stupidity. And they are both wrong.

Max’s history is tragic, and he’s still hunting for the man who nearly killed him and his brothers when they were children. He’s managed to make a life for himself, but things are pretty rough around the edges. But whatever Max and Charlotte are, they are anything but boring. Especially to each other.

Charlotte and Max ground each other. And they are both eminently sensible people in so many ways. Neither of them panics, not even when the situation is extremely dire. But the story isn’t all practicality. The more time they spend together, the more they see that they have the basis for a relationship, if they can manage to reach for it. Which they eventually do, in their own practical, and extremely satisfying, way.

The investigation is one that starts with nearly all unknowns. But Max’s specialty is plodding with incredible sparks of insight. He keeps going, doing the work, until he gets a sudden breakthrough and the pattern emerges. The pattern here takes a while to emerge, but the search keeps the reader frantically flipping pages the whole way. One of the neat things about the way this story was written is that we don’t see into the murk surrounding this case until Max and Charlotte do.

This is romantic suspense, so there is finally a happy ending. But before we get there, we have the inevitable point where the heroine is in extreme danger. One of the things that made the development of the relationship between Max and Charlotte so much fun to read was that Charlotte’s practicality means that she very much participates in her own rescue. The damsel may be in distress, but she is far, far from helpless.

I have one tiny quibble with this story. I said that Charlotte’s ex was a douche, which he was. He comes back during this story. His rebound went back to her ex, and he’s just sure that Charlotte will be grateful to take him back. Charlotte is rightfully pissed, and shows it. Good on her. But his behavior felt just enough over the top that I kept expecting him to reappear and be tied into the skullduggery. He felt unresolved. For me, it felt like an unfulfilled variation on Chekhov’s Gun. Instead we had Chekhov’s Ex standing in the corner, possibly waiting to be slapped – as he so richly deserved.

But I had a ball with this book, and found myself picking it up at odd (sometimes very odd) moments, just so I could read a couple more pages. Isn’t that what bathrooms are for?

Review: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

Review: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry ThomasA Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock, #1) by Sherry Thomas
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Lady Sherlock #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on October 18th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

USA Today bestselling author Sherry Thomas turns the story of the renowned Sherlock Holmes upside down…   With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society.  But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.   When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her. But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

My Review:

I love Sherlock Holmes pastiches, so when I saw the eARC of A Study in Scarlet Women, I was instantly intrigued. Sherlock Holmes has been adapted in so many different directions, from the very different modern TV incarnations of Sherlock and Elementary to the slightly off-tangent House to the married Holmes in Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series along with the fantasy version in the late Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy series and Neil Gaiman’s award-winning A Study in Emerald.

While there was a well-known series by Carole Nelson Douglas that features Irene Adler (“the woman” from A Scandal in Bohemia) as a Sherlock Holmes-type detective, I’ll admit that I can’t find a citation for an actual female Holmes, although I know I’ve read them.

A Study in Scarlet Women is just that – it posits Sherlock Holmes as a woman who uses Sherlock Holmes as a nom-de-guerre to shroud her work in an air of mystery, and to keep both the police and the criminal element from dismissing her as merely a female. The rendering of Sherlock Holmes, nee Charlotte Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet Women is contemporaneous with the original Sherlock Holmes canon. One of the elements that is both fascinating and frustrating about A Study in Scarlet Women is that Charlotte Holmes does not feel anachronistic to her era at all. She is forced to deal with all of the prejudices and restrictions that surrounded young women of that era, and find a way around them.

While she does get a bit luckier than is probably likely, even her solutions fit within the time-frame. She hides who she really is behind a fictional “brother”, and conducts many of her consultations via the post, the better to hide her physical self.

Part of the frustration in this book is that those restrictions were very, well, restrictive. Charlotte’s solution to the problem of getting out from under her parents’ control while not putting herself under the control of a husband is ingenious. She reckons with all of the consequences to herself, but neglects to factor murder into her calculations. Not that she committed one, nor has anyone in her family, but that her disgrace gives her sister and her parents a reason to commit one, and puts them under suspicion of having done so.

Her first case arises from a need to clear their names, as well as to see justice done.

There is a Watson, and her origins (yes, her) are even more fascinating than Holmes, both in the ways that they do and do not follow the original character. Mrs. Watson, a well-to-do widow, comes to Charlotte’s rescue when she is at her most desperate, and finds a common cause and a new lease on life assisting in Charlotte’s investigations.

Where Dr. John Watson was a veteran of the Afghan war, Mrs. John Watson is the widow of an Army doctor who was killed in, of course, the Afghan War. However, Mrs. Watson, nee Joanna Hamish Redmayne, is also a former actress and retired denizen of the demimondaine, and therefore a scarlet woman. As is Charlotte, who arranged to have herself “ruined” to escape the strictures of upper-middle-class respectable and restricted womanhood.

It is these two scarlet women, with the help of Charlotte’s somewhat reluctant childhood friend, and an even more desperate police detective, who discover the link between a series of seemingly unrelated murders, and get Charlotte’s family off-the-hook.

It is the beginning of what I hope will be a brilliant career for Charlotte, make that Sherlock, Holmes.

Escape Rating B+: As I said at the beginning, this story is both fun and frustrating, sometimes in equal measure. Because it posits a female Sherlock Holmes during the Victorian Era, the character and the reader are forced to deal with the upper-class-Victorian restrictions on women’s, particularly young women’s, lives and movements. The first third of the book has to feature Charlotte’s solution to this particular quagmire, and its immediate consequences. It’s a situation that shows Charlotte’s resolution and self-knowledge, but for 21st century readers it’s fairly ugly. It feels realistic, but no fun at all to read through.

And we need to see the consequences of Charlotte’s tough decisions and all of their unfortunate direct consequences for Charlotte until she very nearly hits rock-bottom. It’s only at that point that she is rescued by the equally unconventional Mrs. Watson, and her story really begins.

Because Watson in this case is older and has more experience of the world, Holmes and Watson are much more nearly equal than some of the popular misconceptions about the pair. This Watson is no dunderhead. She is not the genius that Holmes is, but her acting ability, knowledge of the social strata and ability to understand people makes her a partner rather than a mere sidekick. Especially since Mrs. Watson provides the initial funds for the entire enterprise!

As the story unfolds, the reader gets to play a game of “spot the character” as we determine who in this new version is playing the parts that are familiar from the original canon. For example, the author of the stories will not be Watson, but Charlotte’s sister. It’s a fun game and I enjoyed figuring out who was who.

The case was every bit as convoluted, and the solution every bit as difficult, as any of the original Holmes’ cases. The clues may be there from the beginning, but determining whodunnit and why is an effort that takes both Charlotte and the reader the entire story.

One part of A Study in Scarlet Women troubles me just a bit. As is famously known, the original Sherlock Holmes seems to have had no truck with emotion of any kind. Until the version of Holmes portrayed in the Mary Russell stories, Holmes and romance have seemed to be, not merely on different continents, but on far distant planets from one another.

There is not exactly a romance in A Study in Scarlet Women, but there’s not exactly not one either. Charlotte’s childhood friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton, is clearly the man she should have married. And very much vice-versa. But they didn’t realize it until much too late, after Ingram was not only married but had discovered that his wife had only married him for his money and title. It is not a happy marriage, or even a companionable one. But Ingram is an honorable man, perhaps to a fault. The amount of unresolved sexual tension between Ingram and Charlotte is enough to light London for a month through a pea-souper fog. I wonder how this conundrum will get resolved as the series continued.

I wonder even more why it was necessary to introduce a romantic element for Holmes in the first place. Hopefully we’ll see in future entries in the series.

Review: Apprentice in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Apprentice in Death by J.D. RobbApprentice in Death (In Death, #43) by J.D. Robb
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, papaerback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, thriller
Series: In Death #43
Pages: 375
Published by Berkley on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Lieutenant Eve Dallas returns in a fast-paced new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author J. D. Robb. 
Nature versus nurture...
  The shots came quickly, silently, and with deadly accuracy. Within seconds, three people were dead at Central Park’s ice skating rink. The victims: a talented young skater, a doctor, and a teacher. As random as random can be.
Eve Dallas has seen a lot of killers during her time with the NYPSD, but never one like this. After reviewing security videos, it becomes clear that the victims were killed by a sniper firing a tactical laser rifle, who could have been miles away when the trigger was pulled. And though the locations where the shooter could have set up seem endless, the list of people with that particular skill set is finite: police, military, professional killer.
Eve’s husband, Roarke, has unlimited resources—and genius—at his disposal. And when his computer program leads Eve to the location of the sniper, she learns a shocking fact: There were two—one older, one younger. Someone is being trained by an expert in the science of killing, and they have an agenda. Central Park was just a warm-up. And as another sniper attack shakes the city to its core, Eve realizes that though we’re all shaped by the people around us, there are those who are just born evil...

My Review:

This was not the book I planned to review today, but I caught a cold and found myself looking for a book that would suck me in and keep me glued to the page from first to last. I needed something that would take me effortlessly out of myself for a few hours. So I listened to the siren song in my stuffed up head and bought a copy of the new In Death book. I’m always happy to catch up with my favorite futuristic cop shop, whether the mystery is a winner or merely a sideshow. I like these people and am always happy to see how they are all doing. Especially Galahad.

The case in this one has a tiny bit of a ripped from the headlines feel, even though the book takes place in a fictionalized 2062. The NYPSD finds itself hunting for an LDSK who is attempting to cover their agenda with collateral damage – a tactic that only leads to more bodies and more clues for Eve and company to investigate.

The acronym LDSK is in use today, in our early 21st century world. And it’s a shame and a sadness that it needs to exist at all. An LDSK is a Long Distance Serial Killer – someone who sets up in a sniper’s nest and picks off their targets from long-range. This is never an opportunistic crime, because it takes weeks and months of planning to scout out and secure potential nests. In order to shoot accurately at such extreme ranges calls for the coldest of cold blood.

The police work in this case involves sorting the tiny grains of wheat from mountains of chaff.

There are very few people who are capable of the hit at the Central Park Ice Rink that opens this story. Three shots, three victims, from high above and more than a mile away. The shooter has to have used a long-range tactical rifle. The skills to use one and the ability to obtain one narrow the possible field. The shooter was either current or former military, police or professional assassin.

Or trained by one of the above.

In a city of urban high-rises and urban density like New York (the city hasn’t changed much in the intervening decades), isolating the sniper’s nest comes down to finding one perfect needle among hundreds of haystacks. Even with the assistance of Roarke’s fancy IT skills, there is still a lot of pavement pounding and door-knocking involved.

A lucky break gets them a suspect. Two suspects. And the race is on to catch the killer before they kill again. And again. But not again.

Escape Rating A-: I’m probably a bit prejudiced about this one. I needed something like this to take me away from my snotty nose and constant cough, and it blissfully did the job for five hours or so. Consider me grateful.

While Roarke’s IT skills help shorten the door knocking and pavement pounding, in the end it is good police work that solves this case, and it feels like the kind of police work that could feature in an early 21st century police procedural just as well as a mid-21st century one.

Search for links among the multiple victims. Figure out what, and who, they had in common. Find the nest. Dig for witnesses, and pray it doesn’t involve any actual digging. Search for a motive, even a twisted one. Keep an open mind so that the clues lead to the killer rather than an assumption about the killer leading to the clues.

And all the while, keep the team together as the chase goes on, the pressure mounts and the body count goes up.

naked in death by J.D. RobbWhat I love about this series, whether the individual case is thrilling or good or just ho hum, is the team and family-of-choice that has gathered around Eve and Roarke, both because of who they are and sometimes in spite of what Eve in particular says she wants. For a woman who began her story in Naked in Death with very little except the job, she has created a surprisingly large circle of people who she loves and who love her in return. Her constant surprise, occasional consternation and unexpected joy that this is so always warms the heart.

This is one of those cases where Eve sees herself in the killer. There but for the grace of God might have gone Eve, and it is something that haunts her frequently.

This is also a case about mentorship and fatherhood, whether surrogate or biological. What makes one man choose to warp his child beyond humanity? What makes one man pick one someone out of the pack to be child, student and legacy? So as Eve chases the killer, she finds herself looking at the relationships in her own life. What made Feeney pick her out of the sea of cops, all those years ago, and help shape her into the officer she is? What made Summerset pick Roarke, and let them save each other? And what made her choose Peabody?

And how the hell did she escape from what her father tried to make her? And why didn’t this killer?

echoes in death by jd robb These are the kind of questions that keep this reader coming back for more. I can’t wait for Echoes in Death, coming in February. A hot book to warm a chilly winter’s night.

Cass Rant on Demand: Wild Embrace by Nalini Singh

Cass Rant on Demand: Wild Embrace by Nalini SinghWild Embrace (Psy-Changeling, #15.5) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Psy-Changeling #15.5
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on August 23rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The “alpha author of paranormal romance”* presents a stunningly sensual collection of four all-new Psy-Changeling novellas, in which taboos are broken, boundaries are crossed, and instincts prove irresistible...

Echo of Silence
In a deep-sea station, Tazia Nerif has found her life’s work as an engineer, keeping things running smoothly. But she wants nothing more than to break down the barrier of silence between her and her telekinetic Psy station commander...

Dorian
A changeling who can never shift lives a life of quiet frustration—until he learns how to let his leopard come out and play...

Partners in Persuasion
Still raw from being burned by a dominant female, wolf changeling Felix will never again risk being a plaything. But for dominant leopard Dezi, he’s the most fascinating man she’s ever met. She just has to convince this gun-shy wolf that he can trust the dangerous cat who wants to take a slow, sexy bite out of him…

Flirtation of Fate
Seven years ago, Kenji broke Garnet’s heart. Now the wolf packmates have to investigate the shocking murder of one of their own. And the more Kenji sees of the woman Garnet has become, the deeper he begins to fall once more. But even his primal instincts are no match for the dark secret he carries...
*Booklist, starred review

Hello again! Long time, no see. Who’s up for a Cass Rant On Demand™? Clearly the person who baited me with another dip into the Psy-Changeling world. An anthology this time. Be warned, there shall be spoilers and snark ahead.

Anyone want to place bets on how many stories involve a psychic woman being saved by the mighty powers of the changeling cock?

Echo of Silence: Now wait just a moment here. What atrocity is this? A poor woman being left alone in the world to fend off the attentions of this nightmarish man-creature that respects her culture. Be warned, the following exchange may shock you.

“I can’t discard who I am like it’s an old coat.”

“I understand,” Stefan said, having already guessed at Tazia’s value system after so carefully noting every single thing about her in the year they’d worked together. “Your cultural mores are no more or less irrational than the protocol under which my people are conditioned.”

To add insult to injury, he takes this a step further by valuing her talents as an engineer.

“Your skills are necessary.”

Typical Psy. Without exposure to Changeling packs, he hasn’t yet learned that it is his job to threaten his crush (Lucas), violate her bodily autonomy (Vaughn), belittle her life choices (Clay), and piss all over her loyalty to her family (Dorian). Though I guess the latter isn’t necessary since her brother seems to have missed out on the Riley Kincaid Lecture Series: Your Sister’s Vagina is Your Property. 

Of course he’s a former Arrow. Apparently the only school on this planet that teaches how to respect women is the one with a regular torture regimen.

“No grease streaks for once,” she said, nervous.

“I have a confession.” He rose from the bed. “I only used to say that to have an excuse to speak to you. Sometimes you didn’t have grease on your face. I lied.”

Stefan, Stefan, Stefan. Pick up the phone, and give DarkRiver a call. Nate will be happy to explain to you how to infantilize the woman you are romantically interested in. Then you won’t need to worry about conversational icebreakers. (+)

Dorian. This entry is an absolute joke. It’s basically deleted scenes from prior novels, loosely compiled and told from the POV of one racist misogynist fucktard.

Anyone interested in the first time Clay met the pack? Or want to see Dorian briefly interact with the sister that was fridged before the first book? Maybe you want to know how Lucas feels about Dorian being able to shift? Anyone? Bueller? (-)

Partners in Persuasion: Here we have a recently retired supermodel, who is really into fashion and flowers, but just can’t seem to relate to women. In fact, he is so shy around them that he refuses to even make eye contact. Thankfully he has no trouble whatsoever relating to or engaging with men, so when a butch woman puts the moves on him, he tentatively agrees to give it a shot. She’s mannish enough for it to work out.

She tried to shift closer, was stopped by the way they were seated, his upper body twisted to meet her kiss. Placing her hand on his throat,  she—

He wasn’t there any longer, having jerked away to the other side of the trunk. Reeling, she tried to think what she’d done,

I hate to break it to you Dezi, but you didn’t do anything wrong. He freaked out as soon as you got close enough for him to realize you didn’t have a cock.

We’re 15 books into this series, and there hasn’t been one single queer-identified character. All we get is a shy,flower-arranging fashion model who, contrary to pages of internal monologue about how it’ll never work, deciding to hook up with Idgie Threadgoode. Give me a fucking break. Is there an previous entry in the series I missed that covers how the Psy discovered the “gay gene” and managed to suppress it from appearing in the population? (-)

Flirtation of Fate: One self-centered man baby, who firmly believes his feelings outweigh those of any and all females in his life. They will get over their shit. He is the only one who can wallow.

“You knew how awful she was to me, how she made my life a living hell, and you not only took her to prom, you dated her for a year!”

A befuddled expression on his face. “I know you two didn’t like each other, but I thought it was, you know, girl stuff.”

Let that be a lesson to all you menfolk out there. It is completely acceptable to bang a hot bully, even as she is emotionally tormenting your best friend. Teenage girls aren’t at all prone to depression and suicide in situations like this. It’s just girl stuff. Feel free to ignore it.

wild-embrace-uk-editionThe – ahem – romance between these two only appears to deepen with time. After man baby gets his jollies plowing her nemesis, he leads her on, ditches her at her birthday party to bang another girl, spends years tormenting her professionally, and ultimately decides for her that her only purpose in life is to breed. Because yeah. That is how you demonstrate your love for your true mate. Fuck this noise. (-)

In sum, only bother with the first story.

Before I move on to the grading, I need to spend just one moment addressing the cover-shaped elephant in the room. What is with the US covers?! The US cover screams P-O-R-N. Which it really isn’t. There is sex in every story, but it’s only painful when the author is forcing two clearly queer characters into a hetero-normative relationship. If you decide to buy this anthology for the first story, order it from the UK. Even man-baby’s pink hair is preferable to Mr. Nipples.

Escape Rating: D for Down With the Douchebaggery!

 

Marlene’s Notes: Cass is absolutely right about the UK vs. US covers. I always hate the US covers. The UK covers are always lots better.

Howsomever, much as I agree about the covers, I disagree about the series in general and this book in particular. For a considerably more positive take on Wild Embrace, check out my joint review with E over at The Book Pushers.

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider Robinson

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider RobinsonMindkiller by Spider Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, thriller
Pages: 246
Published by Berkley on November 1st 1983
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Time Pressure comes a pulse-pounding tale of action and suspense as two men and a woman search for--and find--the ultimate frontier of experience. "The new Robert Heinlein . . ".--New York Times.

Guest Review by Amy:

Norman Kent has had enough of life; his experiences in the war, his failed marriage, his dead-end career…and in the opening words of this tale, he’s ready to end it all. But an unfriendly stranger gets in the way of his plan, and he returns to his apartment, only to find his sister there, whom he’d not seen in years and years. Shortly, she disappears abruptly, without a trace.

Hop forward a few years, and a clever, tech-savvy burglar who doesn’t know his own name finds a woman with a wire in her skull, trying to kill herself with pleasure. He pulls her back from the brink, only to go on a crusade with her against the forces that created the pleasure addiction of “wireheads.”

Spider Robinson’s brain just doesn’t work like the rest of ours, I don’t think; if you’ve ever read any of his Callahan’s stories, you’ll understand; in those books he deals in puns and wild stories, while giving the reader a peek into a community of people where “shared joy is increased, shared pain is lessened,” a notion that has created substantial communities of fans here and there around the digital world (full disclosure: I am a member of one such community). The New York Times’ review of this book pinned the label “the new Robert Heinlein” on Robinson, but as a Heinlein fan, I’m not quite going to agree to that; Heinlein fans will enjoy this tale, and feel right at home with Spider Robinson’s style, but it’s…different, in ways I can’t quite put my finger on.

Something I missed early on in this book was that time was jumping back and forth; we begin Norman’s story in 1994-1995, and are jumping to 1999 for the story of the burglar and the wirehead. Once I caught onto that, things started to make a little more sense for me, and I raptly followed both plots, wondering when and how they would converge, and when an antagonist would appear. Once a name was mentioned in both plots, things kind of clicked into place–no other explanation fits the facts at hand, so if you’re watching for it, you’ll figure it out before our protagonists do. Naturally, if you miss it, Robinson helpfully provides an intrusion between the story lines, in the form of Norman’s ex-wife Lois, to help you pull it all together. The apparent climax is not-unexpected, but even here, when you think you’ve got it figured out, the author gives us a lovely new twist, right at the end. Jarring, yes, but utterly necessary, and provided a way to tidy up several loose ends still dangling.

Escape Rating: A. Unlike Heinlein, who aggressively pursued a world that got better over time, and where characters pushed for that, Spider Robinson gives us a world that has clearly spiralled downward; our heroes show no particular desire to turn it around; they’re just trying to deal with it. There is no ultra-rich Howard Family pulling the strings to make things better, just avarice and dog-eat-dog individualism, easily recognizable in our own world at times. Our heroes are hard-boiled pragmatists, jaded by the world around them; so much so that when the burglar Joe heard young Karen talking about her crusade to go after the inventors of the wirehead technology, he thought she was crazy. But Karen had lived rough herself, and was willing to play hardball to do what must be done, and for reasons he doesn’t quite grasp, Joe joins her, because–for the first time he can remember–he actually cares about someone!

Our cast of characters is well-developed, every one of them with clear motivations, and rich description. Once I got past the time-hopping confusion of the first couple of chapters, I was able to track what was happening, and the story moved along crisply, without a lot of needless embellishment. A little bit of a thriller and a little bit of dystopian sci-fi, mixed in just the right proportions with engaging characters, made this a real page-turner for me. If you’re looking for a classic dystopian novel with a great thriller thrown in the mix, I heartily recommend Mindkiller.

Review: This Gun for Hire by Jo Goodman

Review: This Gun for Hire by Jo GoodmanThis Gun for Hire (McKenna Brothers, #1) by Jo Goodman
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print
Genres: historical romance, western romance
Series: McKenna Brothers #1
Pages: 361
Published by Berkley on April 7th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jo Goodman, a premier writer of western romance and the author of In Want of a Wife, is back with a sensational new novel for fans of Linda Lael Miller and Joan Johnston.  He’s got a job to do…Former army cavalryman Quill McKenna takes pride in protecting the most powerful man in Stonechurch, Colorado: Mr. Ramsey Stonechurch himself. But the mine owner has enemies, and after several threats on his life, mines, and family, Quill decides to hire someone to help guard the boss’s daughter. Only problem is the uncontrollable attraction he feels toward the fiery-haired woman who takes the job. …but she’s a piece of work. Calico Nash has more knowledge of scouting and shooting than cross-stitching, but she agrees to pose as Ann’s private tutor while protecting her. But between her growing attraction to Quill and the escalating threats against the Stonechurches, Calico will soon have a choice to make—hang on to her hard-won independence or put her faith in Quill to create the kind of happy ending she never imagined…

My Review:

When I saw this title, I assumed, as one does, that the gun that was for hire was attached to a guy. However, that is marvelously not so, and is only the first of many wonderful surprises in this trope-bending western romance.

This is also a scenario that I’ve seen before, but by moving it to a historical western setting, it makes a lot of the normally tried-and-true tropes fresh and new. Calico Nash is, first and foremost, an original, and it is her story and her unexpected point of view that make it so much fun.

While we generally think of bounty hunters and security agents in the “Wild West” as having been men, there’s no logical reason why some couldn’t have been women. Certainly, the first female Pinkerton Agent, Kate Warne, precedes the setting of This Gun For Hire by a couple of decades. So Calico Nash, while not likely, is certainly plausible enough to make this story interesting without tripping the willing suspension of disbelief.

When Calico Nash and Quill McKenna first meet in a whorehouse, neither of them is exactly what they seem. And while both of them seem more than competent at dealing with a bunch of villains, they also both seem not to like each other much.

Looks, as they say, can be deceiving.

So when Quill needs to find a way to protect the daughter of the man he is body-guarding, Calico is the first and only solution that comes to mind. He knows she can protect Ann Stonechurch, and he knows that Calico can pretend to be anything she needs to be to make her surreptitious protection effective.

He also knows that he wants to see Calico again, whether he is fully admitting that to himself or not.

So while Quill is guarding mining baron Ramsey Stonechurch by pretending to be just his lawyer, Calico protects Ann by pretending to be her teacher. And both Quill and Calico pretend that their inevitable liaison is just due to propinquity and shared danger, and has no deeper feelings involved.

Calico also tries to pretend that she has no deeper feelings that could be involved. Not just because it’s never happened before, but because she never believed it could happen to her at all.

Meanwhile, both Quill and Calico are forced to pull their charges out of danger, over and over again. Ramsey Stonechurch is being threatened by person or persons unknown, who seem to be interested in either unionizing his miners or creating a more ‘equitable” distribution of profits between the mining baron and his employees.

Ann Stonechurch is being threatened purely as a way to rattle her father. And it’s working.

But while Quill and Calico are busy looking for outside threats, they overlook the proverbial viper in the family’s bosom. And no one expects that the villains they thwarted all the way back in Act 1 could possibly make common cause with the one they face at the mine.

It’s a mistake that could cost them their lives.

devil you know by jo goodmanEscape Rating A-: I picked this up because so many of my fellow book addicts over at The Book Pushers absolutely raved about it. I wanted to get in on today’s joint review of the followup book, The Devil You Know, and I just couldn’t go there without reading the first book first.

Not that each book doesn’t stand perfectly well on its own, but it was so much fun to read them back to back. The Old West probably wasn’t ever like this for women, but dagnabbit, it should have been.

Calico is just a terrific heroine. She became a bounty hunter and security guard because she both worshiped her father and tried to live up to his image. Badger Nash was a bounty hunter and scout for the U.S. Army, and he taught his daughter everything he knew – which was a heck of a lot. When he died on the trail, she finished up his last job for him, took the reward money, and never looked back.

Calico’s knowledge of what women usually do in the “Wild West” comes from two nearly contradictory resources – the Army wives who manipulate and dissect life in remote Army postings, and the whorehouse where Quill finds her handling security. She knows what hides behind civilized behavior, and she’s pretty cynical about the roles that women are supposed to play. She can fake it if she has to, but she’s never going to be anyone other than who she is.

And she’s become almost as much of a legend as Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane.

The irony in the relationship that blossoms between Calico and Quill is that Calico never pretends with Quill. He always sees her exactly as she is. She may dissemble in front of others, but with him she is always her authentic self. Quill, on the other hand, is hiding layers within layers from the beginning of the story until very nearly the end.

This is also a story where much of the romance occurs in, and is punctuated with, intelligent banter. These two fall in love because they “get” each other, even if that phrase wouldn’t have been used at the time. They spark each other’s best wits, and it is fun to watch.

There is also a suspense element to this story. Quill and Calico are both on the job because there is a threat hanging over the head of Ramsey Stonechurch. Their job is both to protect the family and to figure out where the threat is coming from and eliminate it. Whatever the reader or both Quill and Calico think of Ramsey Stonechurch, his daughter is certainly innocent.

Ramsey Stonechurch is an interesting character himself, because he does not fall into the stereotype. At first we think he must be a typical overbearing robber baron, but first impressions deceive (somewhat) and he is much more nuanced than first appears.

While I sort of figured out who was probably behind some of the threats fairly early on, the author does a good job of concealing means and especially motive until the very end. I knew who it must be, but not the whys or the wherefores. I also couldn’t see this person as being the motivator behind all events, it just didn’t seem likely for most of the story. I kept looking for a bigger evil who just wasn’t there.

Calico’s character makes This Gun for Hire a trip to the “Wild West” as it should have been.

Review: Til Death Do Us Part by Amanda Quick

Review: Til Death Do Us Part by Amanda Quick'Til Death Do Us Part by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley on April 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The author of the New York Times bestseller Garden of Lies returns to Victorian London in an all-new novel of deadly obsession.   Calista Langley operates an exclusive “introduction” agency in Victorian London, catering to respectable ladies and gentlemen who find themselves alone in the world. But now, a dangerously obsessed individual has begun sending her trinkets and gifts suitable only for those in deepest mourning—a black mirror, a funeral wreath, a ring set with black jet stone. Each is engraved with her initials.   Desperate for help and fearing that the police will be of no assistance, Calista turns to Trent Hastings, a reclusive author of popular crime novels. Believing that Calista may be taking advantage of his lonely sister, who has become one of her clients, Trent doesn’t trust her. Scarred by his past, he’s learned to keep his emotions at bay, even as an instant attraction threatens his resolve.   But as Trent and Calista comb through files of rejected clients in hopes of identifying her tormentor, it becomes clear that the danger may be coming from Calista’s own secret past—and that only her death will satisfy the stalker...

My Review:

This is a stand alone Amanda Quick title, and I don’t think there’s been one of those in forever. So if you are looking for a way to get into her work, or if you’ve read her as either Jayne Ann Krentz or Jayne Castle and want to find out if she’s just as good doing historical (she is!) this is a great place to start.

‘Til Death Do Us Part starts out with a very creepy Gothic feel to it, and the suspense continues to build, even though it doesn’t follow all the traditional Gothic patterns. The hero is just as brooding and scarred as in any Gothic, but the heroine, righteously frightened as she is, still participates fully and effectively in her own rescue.

The story both exploits the Gothic tropes and turns them on their pointy little heads. And the story incorporates all the chills and spookiness of her Arcane Society series, without tripping over into the paranormal, just in case that’s not your cuppa.

While mediums and seances were a big fad during the Victorian era, and they are exploited in this story, everyone involved at least tacitly acknowledges that all of the so-called mediums are charlatans. Often very good charlatans, but fakes and frauds nonetheless.

Both our hero and heroine in this book are outside the norms for their society, but are emblematic of the types of characters that Quick employs to such terrific effect in her work.

Calista Langley operates what she calls an “introductions” agency. While many scurrilous rumors label it as a high-class brothel and her as the madam, that is far from the case. What she provides is a respectable location and atmosphere where properly vetted single women and single gentlemen can meet for an evening of intellectual stimulation and intelligent conversation. She, in the person of her brother, investigates every prospective “member” in advance, to make sure that they are exactly what they say they are – single, respectable and reasonable. Absolutely no fortune hunters get through her doors.

One left her nearly at the altar, and Calista is doing her best to provide other young women with options that she didn’t have.

Trent Hastings is a successful author of detective serials. (Think of him as a young and better looking Arthur Conan Doyle, without the “trip” to the fairies) But there is certainly a place inside Trent where he and his detective hero meet. Trent has also been truly heroic – he saved his sister from a dire fate by taking the acid meant for her on his face and body. The scars have made him a recluse, or so his family believes.

But Trent has done well for himself and his family, and the sister that he saved is now a “member” of Calista’s exclusive salons. In visiting Calista to ascertain whether or not she is taking advantage of his now well-to-do younger sibling, he finds himself attracted to the fiery Calista. And when he discovers that she needs help solving a mystery that is affecting her own life, he insists on offering his services as an investigator.

Calista needs the help, and desperately. Someone is sending her death tokens with her initials carved on them. The perpetrator has even managed to leave one in her bedroom, but no one is certain how he got there. Calista knows that she is being not merely followed, but stalked.

While someone is creeping around Calista behind the scenes, her former almost-fiance has let himself back in the front door, pursuing Calista and insisting that she feels something for him other than contempt. That he is married now, to the fortune he was hunting a year ago, does not seem to deter him from his pursuit of Calista. But the presence of Trent Hastings in her life certainly does.

Calista and Trent find themselves as unlikely partners in the chase for a cold, calculating killer who has been preying on young, lonely women for at least year. But when the hunter becomes the hunted, the chase leaves a wide trail of murder and destruction that leads straight to Calista’s door.

Escape Rating A: As is fairly obvious from the opening of the review, I loved this book. I kept picking it up at odd moments throughout the day, just to find out a little bit more about how they were doing, and what progress they were making in the hunt for the killer.

As far as the suspense angle in this case, there were plenty of very tasty red herrings, and I probably took a nibble at all of them. There were so many possible suspects, and all of them seemed more than plausible in one way or another. It was logical to look at Calista’s rejected club members, and it was equally logical to look at where all of the “memento mori” (death trinkets) were coming from. Trent and Calista brought different things to their partnership, and they worked together well.

I also enjoyed Trent and Calista as characters. They were both a bit anachronistic, but not so much as to trip the willing suspension of disbelief. After all, we know of someone who had a public career very like Trent’s in Arthur Conan Doyle. It was possible to create a best-selling private detective series and serialize in the papers. That everyone knows who Trent is and has an opinion on his story and characters feels quite plausible. After all, Conan Doyle got so sick of the attention to Holmes that he killed him off just to get the man out of his life.

Calista’s situation feels a bit more on the edge of just barely plausible. On that other hand, a woman on her own, raising her young brother, would have had to have found a unique way to make a respectable living – careers for women were non-existent in the 19th century. And Calista’s life history gives her insight into the pattern of the serial killer by providing her with empathy about the victims. She knows what it is like to be alone and vulnerable, with no family and friends to protect her and support her even in the emotional sense. The lonely and forgotten can be easy prey for someone who shows them a scrap of affection and regard.

The thing that fascinated me about the suspense angle was the serial killer. Jack the Ripper can’t possibly have been the first serial killer. He was just “lucky” enough to begin his career at the dawn of mass media and instant communication. But before there was any real psychological study of human beings, how would one go about determining that the murderer being chased had done it before and would do it over and over again because that was their modus operandi? Putting together the bizarre pieces of this case is good scary fun for the reader.

And there’s a romance. Trent and Calista stumble into each other’s lives. Neither of them believes that love and marriage is for them. Trent simply fears that no woman will be able to look past his scars. Calista has been forced to become an economically independent woman, and has discovered that she likes it. Marriage for her means giving up her freedom, and having little to no recourse if she chooses badly, as she very nearly did. Trent needs to make her believe that he not only loves her, but that he loves and respects her for who she truly it, and not for the role she might fill in his life.

Watching them overcome their skepticism leads to a lovely happy ending for all.

Joint Review: The Obsession by Nora Roberts

Joint Review: The Obsession by Nora RobertsThe Obsession by Nora Roberts
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Pages: 464
Published by Berkley on April 12th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The riveting new novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Liar.
Naomi Bowes lost her innocence the night she followed her father into the woods. In freeing the girl trapped in the root cellar, Naomi revealed the horrible extent of her father’s crimes and made him infamous.
Now a successful photographer living under the name Naomi Carson, she has found a place that calls to her, thousands of miles away from everything she’s ever known. Naomi wants to embrace the solitude, but the residents of Sunrise Cove keep forcing her to open up—especially the determined Xander Keaton.
Naomi can feel her defenses failing, and knows that the connection her new life offers is something she’s always secretly craved. But as she’s learned time and again, her past is never more than a nightmare away.

Our Review:

Marlene: While I absolutely adore the In Death series that Roberts writes as J.D. Robb (even when the current entry is not so great) her Roberts books are a bit hit or miss for me. Sometimes they absolutely draw me in, and sometimes they are just okay. Without the continuing “family” of In Death, they don’t always work, or at least not for me. While you can probably guess where I’m leading, it’s time to let my co-reviewer get a few words in.

Amy: I take a slightly different view of Roberts’ work from Marlene’s; for me, she’s a go-to girl, with utterly reliable reads (well, almost all the time.) Most any of her books will at least get a good look, if not a full read. I tend to find myself falling into her trilogies (as my recent review of Blue Dahlia, and my forthcoming review of Black Rose point out), but this standalone piece gave Roberts plenty of time to tell us a thoroughly involved story. I have a sneaking suspicion that Marlene and I may run in completely different directions on this review!

Marlene: I found the opening sections of this story completely absorbing. The tale of what Naomi did when she was a girl, grabbed me and shook me, hard. The background of Naomi’s fear of her emotionally abusive father, her restlessness, her shattering loss of innocence, was very atmospheric and completely riveting. We’re with her on that dark journey, and we shake, cower and soldier on when she does. As the story in the past continues, we feel for her as she and her family try to find a way to get past the evil that flourished in their midst. While I wouldn’t have wanted to have read through all the intervening years, when the story shifted from the past to Naomi’s present, it lost its urgency for me.

Amy: I concur; the backstory at the beginning was incredibly rich, and attention-getting. Roberts had a *lot* of pages to tell us that story, so we had a better sense of the personae than usual. Like you, the “jump-take” to the present time struck me as a little bit jarring. There were loose ends that hadn’t been tied up for me, like what happened in the years after her mother’s passing, and how she came to be the wanderer we meet in the present day.

Suddenly involving Naomi in that huge house, and the precise spot where we joined the present day, just struck me as a little out-of-character, like there were useful bits of the story that got skipped. Roberts quickly recovers from that stumble, in my mind, though, and starts getting us involved with the locals.

Marlene: I liked the locals and the whole atmosphere of the town that Naomi finds herself settling in. The way that she was introduced to them gradually also worked very well for introducing them to us. I will confess that the dog she finally named Tag drove me crazy. Not because I didn’t love him, but because he reminded me so very much of a situation in another book. (After much searching, I finally figured out that it was in Jaci Burton’s Make Me Stay, where the hero gets adopted by a dog who is eventually named “Not My Dog” because the human always responds to any comments or questions about “his dog” by asserting that “he’s not my dog.”)

But the situation with the dog was somewhat symbolic of the story for me. While I liked the locals, and obviously loved the dog, so much of this part of the story felt a bit too familiar. They were all nice people but it didn’t feel like there was much different going on from too many small-town romances and romantic suspense titles that I’ve read before. So while I enjoyed watching Naomi put together her dream house, for this reader it went on a bit too long.

Amy: Anyone who expects a formulaic romance author as prolific as Nora Roberts to *not* have a formulaic section–well. This was, to me, kind of expected, and I’d spend the first big section of the book wondering when the extras would start showing up. When we got here, I kind of knew, and it was a comfortable spot…okay, here’s where we meet The Man, and The Helpful Other Man, and The Man’s Best Pal, and so on. Roberts did a good job of making what could be a whole stage full of cardboard cutout people at least *somewhat* interesting; our hero Xander–what a name!–jumps off the page fairly quickly. But once we got those folks identified, I started to wonder what on earth she was gonna do with all those pages–where’s the conflict gonna come from? Turned out, when it came time for that, she threw me a curve that totally blew me away.

Marlene: Yes, there is always a formula, and I expected one here. I think what threw me with this particular formula was that I believe that if I looked hard enough, I’d find a very close approximation to this exact story in one of the In Death books. (I looked, I think it’s New York to Dallas) It felt like I’d read a bit too much of this too close together before.

I did like Xander a lot. I wish we saw a bit more of what makes him tick, because he’s really interesting. He owns/is the local car mechanic, is in a very good cover band, half-owns the local bar and owns a couple of buildings. His journey must be pretty interesting all by itself. I also liked Kevin and Janey. Both that she found an adopted brother and best friend, but that the romantic tension in the story was about Naomi and someone other than the guy fixing her house.

However when the suspense element seriously kicks in, at 55% of the book on my kindle, the suspense factor went out the window for me. I knew instantly exactly who the villain was. To me, it was a grand case of “Chekhov’s gun” and there was simply no second choice. It had to be who it was, and it was. My only questions from that point were how was he going to get caught and how much damage would he do along the way.

Amy: I agree with you about Xander–he seemed like a really neat guy, and not–like some bodice-rippers–too good to be true, but a guy who’d worked hard and had some talent and lucky breaks. I’d have loved to hear more about that. But when it comes to the suspense, that’s where we start to differ. Now, to be fair, I’ve not read but one of the J. D. Robb books, and that was long, long ago. I totally did not have any sense of our villain, and kept wondering if anyone had thought to call up the prison in New York to see if that monster of a father of hers had escaped! Finally, someone said, “he’s in prison, and will be forever,” or something similar, and that’s when I started to get an inkling. It took me quite a while to sort out the villain.

Marlene: I’ll admit that I don’t know quite how I was so certain it wasn’t daddy. If it had been, I believe that someone would have called Naomi the minute the scum got out of prison, if it hadn’t been all over the news. This is someone who is, after all, never getting parole in this or his next several lifetimes. No prison break equaled “not daddy dearest”. I did have a momentary flitting thought that Naomi’s brother might have gone “dark side” but that didn’t feel right either. Not to mention that little brother became an FBI profiler. That left Mr. Chekhov’s Gun sitting on the mantelpiece of the past, just waiting to be taken down and set off.

Amy: “Every memorable element must be necessary and irreplaceable,” sure. Chekhov’s Gun. True enough, but for me, the first meeting with our villain just *wasn’t* that memorable, other than the odd circumstance they found themselves in just then. I was rather tied up in what was going on there, and he was–in my mind–a schoolmate, nothing more. I started to “get it” when Naomi’s brother and the local cops started to connect the dots, showing what a prolific monster our villain really was–as bad, perhaps, as daddy dearest.

…and that’s when, like you, I started to wonder how they’d catch him, what sort of trap they’d have to set, or if he’d catch Naomi and force Xander and a Cast Of Friends to do something Amazingly Heroic.

Marlene: You’re absolutely right. When originally introduced, our villain was not terribly memorable. However he did set off Naomi’s creep-o-meter just enough to get her to write her own version of her story for the New York Times. But to quote both Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

It couldn’t be daddy dearest, it couldn’t be little brother, which left Mr. Chekhov’s Gun as the last man standing. And once I was sure it was him, at, as I said, 55% of the book, it was a long wait and a few too many dips into his very nasty mind before he was finally given his just desserts. While I know that logically it would take the FBI and local law enforcement a bit more effort to gather evidence than my semi-logical leap, that process wasn’t entertaining enough for me.

Amy: I enjoy police procedurals on television, even when I *know* that our heroes will all go home at the end of the forty-five minutes with the bad guy behind bars. So for me, watching the dots get connected was kind of entertaining; it did fill in the holes for me about why it *wasn’t* her father or some other previously-unmet person. One thing I’ll agree with you fully on here–that dude was *creepy*. His headspace was a truly messy place, and I always felt a little…dirty, I guess…after peeking into his thoughts. Not someone I’d want to be around, at all.

But for me, maybe I’m a little one-dimensional, but the only way I’d have picked up on our villain as quickly as you did would have been if we’d seen something like him leaving her a nastygram that says, “You’ve not heard the last of me, Naomi!” or something similar. I’m *good* at suspending disbelief like that.

Marlene: Clearly, one result of this review for me is that I probably will stay away from Roberts’ non-In Death books for a while. I love the police procedural aspects of that series, because I’m invested in all of the characters that make up the “family of choice” that readers follow in the series. In this particular book, the dot connecting, while very necessary for the resolution of the story, went on just a bit too long for me. Your mileage, as they say, may vary, and in this case obviously does. That’s what makes joint reviewing a book so much fun.

In summary, there were parts of The Obsession that I liked, particularly the stage-setting in Naomi’s past. But once the story moved to the present day, it felt a bit dragged out to me. I liked the characters, especially the “not my dog” named Tag, but the suspense plot lacked suspense. I figured out “whodunnit” much, much too early.

Marlene’s Escape Rating for The Obsession: B-

Amy: There were a lot of likable bits in The Obsession for me. As someone who *doesn’t* read a lot of suspense stories, there was more of it than I’m used to, so I was able to let go and enjoy that part of the process. Our characters were interesting and engaging, and I would have loved to learn more about them. The backstory was one of the strongest parts of this story for me as well. I was a little jarred by the switch to present-day, and the following few chapters hit me as just a little bit *too* formulaic–I expected it, but it just seemed a little out of place for an otherwise-engaging story.

Amy’s Escape Rating for The Obsession: A-

Guest Review: Blue Dahlia by Nora Roberts

Guest Review: Blue Dahlia by Nora RobertsBlue Dahlia by Nora Roberts
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: In the Garden #1
Pages: 353
Published by Berkley on October 26th 2004
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Three women meet at a crossroads in their lives, each searching for new ways to grow--and find in each other the courage to take chances and embrace the future.

Stella has a passion for planning that keeps her from taking too many risks. But when she opens her heart to a new love, she discovers she will fight to the death to protect what's hers.

Guest review by Amy:

In the contemporary romance genre, there just isn’t anyone quite like Nora Roberts. As a critic, it is easy, on the surface, to say, “ho hum, another Nora Roberts contemporary/supernatural romance trilogy,” but that would do this brightest of stars in the pantheon a grave disservice. Every time I pick up a new one of her trilogies, I find new reasons to love Roberts’ writing–in the formulaic framework of “three women, three love stories, supernatural puzzle to solve,” she always finds new ways to entertain and challenge me.

Blue Dahlia is no exception.  In the first two chapters, we are given crucial backstory–an insane woman, who dies lonely after her only child is stillborn, and a young mother who loses her husband, the centerpiece of her life, in a tragic accident. Then, we cut to Memphis in modern times, and our story is off and running.  Stella Rothschild is a planner, a horticulturist, and a mom of two rambunctious young boys. She set her career aside when her first son was born, but when husband Kevin dies in a plane crash, she picks it right back up. A year or so after the accident, she moves from Michigan back to Memphis, where her father and stepmother live, and where she was born, to start anew.

The Harper family has been among the scions of Memphis society for generations, but Roz Harper is not content to attend fancy balls and teas; she has started a nursery business near the great old mansion, and it’s a growing concern; she needs a manager. It’s a match made in heaven, as she turns over a wing of the huge old house to Stella and her children for a time, and they set to work. On the day they move in, Roz tells Stella about the Harper Bride:

“I meant to ask who else lives here, or what other staff you have.”

“It’s just David.”

“Oh? He said something about being outnumbered by women before we got here.”

“That’s right. It would be David, and me, and the Harper Bride.”

Roz carried the luggage inside and started up the steps with it. “She’s our ghost.”

“Your…”

“A house this old isn’t haunted, it would be a damn shame, I’d think.”

The Bride seems to be a pleasant enough being; she sings a lullabye to Stella’s sons at night, and doesn’t appear threatening, merely sad.

Stella gets to work organizing and improving the business at the nursery, but she finds the landscape designer to be the most frustrating man! Logan just won’t do his paperwork, he comes and grabs stock for his projects without telling her, and he’s just plain abrasive! For his part, he’s not fond of the Yankee-come-lately who’s wanting him to actually sit in an office and do paperwork!

Once we’ve got our setting and personae in place, the progress is almost as predictable as the sunrise; I sha’n’t elaborate for you, but it goes where you’d expect with a few not-unpleasant twists along the way, including meeting our third-woman for this trilogy, a young, very pregnant distant relative of Roz who turns up on her doorstep late one night. We also find that the Harper Bride is a bit insane–she gets anxious and more-threatening when Stella starts seeing more to Logan than the irritation he started out being.

black rose by nora robertsEscape Rating: A+. Too many “supernatural romances” these days just do not appeal to me–werewolves and sparkly vampires are just not my thing. But a ghost story, a mystery, an ancient curse…now those, even my deeply-agnostic soul can sink her teeth into. Nora Roberts has given us a conventional ghost story. No one knows who the Bride is, nor why she came to haunt Harper House, and this first entry in the series does little to resolve that–I expect as I read Black Rose and Red Lily, all of that will be resolved. As usual, I can make guesses about who the other two women get attached to in subsequent books, but it’s not completely transparent yet. The book is jammed with Southern charm, and the odd sayings that Southerners often have make plenty of appearances.

The big prize of Blue Dahlia, for me, though, was our heroine Stella. By nature, like Stella, I am a very detail-oriented, planning-centered person. I like my lists, my catalog of details, and my orderly progression of plans. In Stella, I found a woman who could be…me. The keystone of romance authorship, for so many great authors, is to make the heroine someone the reader can identify with, some who is Just Like Them. The frustrations of raising children alone are things I understand, having single-parented my own children, and her irritations with the too-handsome, but too-cavalier Logan are things that I can find totally believable. At one point in the book, Logan looked up Stella’s father and stepmother, and went to their home without telling Stella what he was doing, in order to ask her father’s permission to marry her. I thought to myself, “Stella is going to kick the gong when she finds out about this,” and sure enough, she did.  I thought that not because it was predictable writing–but because that’s what I would do in her shoes.

Blue Dahlia is top-shelf Nora Roberts, definitely worth a read. I rushed out the next afternoon after finishing it to crawl over my usual used-bookstore haunts to find Black Rose, and can’t wait to read it!