A+ #BookReview: A Murder Most French by Colleen Cambridge

A+ #BookReview: A Murder Most French by Colleen CambridgeA Murder Most French (American In Paris Mystery, #2) by Colleen Cambridge
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: culinary mystery, foodie fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: American in Paris Mystery #2
Pages: 272
Published by Kensington on April 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Postwar Paris is surging back to life, and its citizens are seizing every opportunity to raise a glass or share a delicious meal. But as American ex-pat Tabitha Knight and chef-in-training Julia Child discover, celebrations can quickly go awry when someone has murder in mind . . .
The graceful domes of Sacré Coeur, the imposing cathedral of Notre Dame, the breathtaking TourEiffel . . . Paris is overflowing with stunning architecture. Yet for Tabitha Knight, the humble building that houses the Cordon Bleu cooking school, where her friend Julia studies, is just as notable. Tabitha is always happy to sample Julia’s latest creation and try to recreate dishes for her Grand-père and Oncle Rafe.
The legendary school also holds open demonstrations, where the public can see its master chefs at work. It’s a treat for any aspiring cook—until one of the chefs pours himself a glass of wine from a rare vintage bottle—and promptly drops dead in front of Julia, Tabitha, and other assembled guests. It’s the first in a frightening string of poisonings that turns grimly personal when cyanide-laced wine is sent to someone very close to Tabitha.
What kind of killer chooses such a means of murder, and why? Tabitha and Julia hope to find answers in order to save innocent lives—not to mention a few exquisite vintages—even as their investigation takes them through some of the darkest corners of France’s wartime past . . .

My Review:

According to Julia Child, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

While Child absolutely did say that, she certainly hadn’t said it yet at in 1950, the time this second book in the American in Paris Mystery series takes place, directly after the events of the first book in this delicious historical mystery series, Mastering the Art of French Murder.

Julia Child is too busy learning French cooking, living her larger-than-life life in Paris AND at the beginning of writing her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, when this series takes place.

Meaning that Julia – as much as she steals every scene in which she appears – is not the amateur detective protagonist of this series, even if she is every bit as much an American in post-war Paris as her best (fictional) friend Tabitha Knight.

Tabi probably would not entirely agree with that opening quote from Julia. It’s not fear of failure that dooms so many of Tabi’s cooking forays, it’s the fear of disappointing – yet again – her two messieurs, her elderly grandfather and his partner, her adopted Oncle Rafe.

Tabi does, however, most definitely have a what-the-hell attitude, but it seems to be increasingly focused, not on cooking but on murder. Not committing them, of course, but solving them. It’s an attitude that is immeasurably helped by just how many corpses she seemingly trips over.

The way that corpses seem to follow in her wake, and her inability to ignore the clues that bubble up before her, unfortunately looks like it’s helping police judiciaire Inspecteur Étienne Merveille into entirely too many headaches, if not an early ulcer.

Because somehow, no matter how many times Merveille warns her away, when Tabi rushes in where even angels would fear to tread, Merveille is always on hand to rescue her.

Maybe Tabi is following Julia’s three-part plan for managing men after all – no matter how many times the lady protests too much otherwise.

Escape Rating A+: If you loved the first book in this series – and who didn’t? – you will run, not walk to get this second book because it’s every bit as charming as the first. If you still need a bit of convincing, I’m going to get right to that.

But before I do, if you haven’t read Mastering the Art of French Murder and aren’t sure whether you can start the series here – you can. Everything you need to catch up does get enough of an explanation to make it work. Howsomever, that first book is delightful and delicious so even if you do start here you’ll want to go there immediately afterwards!

Yes, this review is full of squee. It’s that kind of book and that kind of series.

This time around, Tabitha gets involved in the case not because she’s a suspect, but because the murder happens literally right before her eyes – as does the second murder. Also before Julia’s eyes as well, and she absolutely can’t resist egging Tabitha on whenever she falters in her determination the least little bit.

Which is pretty much true for Julia all the way around.

The case is a twisted puzzlement – but in it’s ever increasing list of victims and in its choice of methods. Increasing both Tabitha’s and the reader’s fascination is the way that the string of murders links back to the late war, the simmering resentments of the surviving Resistance fighters and the blot on the French psyche that the collaborators represent.

Then the whole thing dives into the catacombs. Literally as well as figuratively, and the secrets that are hidden among the bones – not all of which are ancient.

When her messieurs receive a beautifully wrapped bottle of pilfered, poisoned wine – just as the first two victims did, Tabitha throws aside her remaining qualms and cautions to throw herself into an investigation that gets her thrown into the pitch black darkness of the catacombs.

Tabitha rescues herself – which is definitely part of her charm for this reader – but she’s afraid she won’t be able to run across Paris fast enough to save her messieurs. Fortunately for Tabi, her apple didn’t fall far from the family tree – and Inspecteur Merveille has been following her a LOT more closely than she imagined.

Their relationship – whatever it might turn out to be – is one of the teasingly dangling threads left at the end of this book. The mystery gets tidily wrapped up, but nearly everyone in Tabi’s life seems to think that Merveille has a tendre for her that would be worth exploring.

If it’s not obvious from all the squeeing, I would love for there to be a third book in this series and possibly more. For one thing, I have to see if Tabitha continues to follow that three-part plan of Julia’s for managing men. Tabi has the first part completed, as she actually managed to feed the man a surprisingly edible – for her at least – Croque Monsieur albeit without the bechamel sauce. Step two in Julia’s plan is to flatter the man which should be easy enough to do as he just saved her life and is quite competent at everything she’s seen of him so far.

Tabitha should have plenty of opportunities as the series continues – which I am oh so hopeful that it will. Because it looks as if investigating murders is looking more and more like it’s Tabitha’s answer to one of Julia’s instructions, to “find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”

“Bon appetit!”

Grade A #BookReview: Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen Cambridge

Grade A #BookReview: Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen CambridgeMastering the Art of French Murder (An American In Paris, #1) by Colleen Cambridge
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: culinary mystery, foodie fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: American in Paris Mystery #1
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on April 25, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Marie Benedict, Nita Prose, and of course, Julia Child, will adore this magnifique new mystery set in Paris and starring Julia Child’s (fictional) best friend, confidante, and fellow American. From the acclaimed author of Murder at Mallowan Hall , this delightful new book provides a fresh perspective on the iconic chef’s years in post-WWII Paris.
“Enchanting…Cambridge captures Child’s distinct voice and energy so perfectly. Expect to leave this vacation hoping for a return trip.” – Publishers Weekly
As Paris rediscovers its joie de vivre, Tabitha Knight, recently arrived from Detroit for an extended stay with her French grandfather, is on her own journey of discovery. Paris isn’t just the City of Light; it’s the city of history, romance, stunning architecture . . . and food. Thanks to her neighbor and friend Julia Child, another ex-pat who’s fallen head over heels for Paris, Tabitha is learning how to cook for her Grandpère and Oncle Rafe.
Between tutoring Americans in French, visiting the market, and eagerly sampling the results of Julia’s studies at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, Tabitha’s sojourn is proving thoroughly delightful. That is, until the cold December day they return to Julia’s building and learn that a body has been found in the cellar. Tabitha recognizes the victim as a woman she’d met only the night before, at a party given by Julia’s sister, Dort. The murder weapon found nearby is recognizable too—a knife from Julia’s kitchen.
Tabitha is eager to help the investigation, but is shocked when Inspector Merveille reveals that a note, in Tabitha’s handwriting, was found in the dead woman’s pocket. Is this murder a case of international intrigue, or something far more personal? From the shadows of the Tour Eiffel at midnight, to the tiny third-floor Child kitchen, to the grungy streets of Montmartre, Tabitha navigates through the city hoping to find the real killer before she or one of her friends ends up in prison . . . or worse.
“Part historical fiction, part mystery, Mastering the Art of French Murder is totally delectable entertainment.” – The Washington Post
“Certain to appeal to a broad readership, especially fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, and Cambridge’s own Phyllida Bright series.” –First Clue, STARRED REVIEW

My Review:

“Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it’s done right. Even a pancake.” So said the real Julia Child, whose larger-than-life fictional persona has barged into the life of her neighbor in Paris, fellow expat Tabitha Knight, just a few months before a murder in Julia’s building bangs into both of their lives.

It’s the murder of a very recent guest in the apartment shared by Julia, her husband Paul Child, her sister Dorothy (Dort) McWilliams on the “Roo de Loo” as Julia called it. A murder committed with one of Julia’s distinctive chef’s knives, making Julia, at least initially, the prime suspect in this tragedy.

But Julia is not the amateur sleuth – she was too busy with what became her lifelong obsession, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” as evidenced by the title of her first cookbook.

The amateur sleuthing is left to Tabitha Knight, a former “Rosie the Riveter” living across the street with her elderly French grandfather and her honorary “oncle”, his equally elderly best friend (and probably lover).

Tabitha and Julia have already bonded over their shared infatuation with French food and French cooking – the difference being that Julia is already extremely capable at that art while Tabitha is lucky not to burn or otherwise ruin the meals she attempts to make for her elderly ‘messieurs’ and their two spoiled pets, Oscar Wilde the tiny papillon dog and Madame X the slinky cat.

But the murder isn’t merely a curiosity for either of the women. The victim died just after leaving a party in Julia’s apartment, a guest of Julia’s sister Dort, killed by one of Julia’s knives. Tabitha rode down in the elevator with the woman, and was the last to speak with her other than her killer.

The police, in the steely-eyed persona of Inspecteur Merveille, seem convinced that either Julia or Tabitha committed the foul deed. Or so it seems to Tabitha, who grew up on a steady reading diet of Nancy Drew and other mystery stories as well as her police detective father brought home. Julia is just certain – and Julia was always certain if she was anything at all – that Tabitha will be able to solve the murder ahead of the police – and pushes her into trying.

Not that it takes much arm twisting to get Tabitha on the case. A case that leads from one murder, to a second, and a third – and even a first before the one that dragged Tabitha and Julia into the mess. A mess that, surprising to everyone but the two old men yearning for Julia’s cooking rather than Tabitha’s, leads back to the war late war in which they all, in their own way, served.

And the colder war that has just begun.

Escape Rating A: First, and most important, this was an absolutely charming, utterly lovely read as well as a captivating mystery. The way that evokes post-World War II Paris, just as the lights came back on in the City of Light draws the reader and keeps them mesmerized every step of Tabitha’s way.

And I could hear Julia Child’s voice in my head in every single bit of her dialog. She was such an iconic figure in the 60s and 70s, and so ubiquitous in seemingly EVERY promo that PBS broadcast during those decades, that even though I never watched any of her programs I STILL heard her distinctive voice every single time she barged into a scene. The character as fictionalized sounded and behaved very much as at least her public persona did and swept the reader along in her wake.

But Julia was not the star of this show, no matter how often she seemed to hold center stage in any individual scene. That honor – even if she didn’t always see it as an honor – was reserved for Julia’s fictional friend and neighbor, Tabitha Knight.

And Tabitha turned out to be a terrific point-of-view character for this story. She’s impish, impulsive and intelligent, and can’t resist being the fool who rushes into a crime scene where police have barred the way and angels rightfully fear to tread.

As much as the blurbs for this book invoke Jacqueline Winspear and her Maisie Dobbs, the character that Tabitha reminds this reader of is Mabel Canning in her first outing, A Body on the Doorstep. Both Tabitha and Mabel’s stories are set just after the ending of a World War, although not the same war, at a point where their worlds are changing and new possibilities are opening up even as others close down. Both young women choose to uproot themselves from the familiar and chart a new course for their lives, and are still in the exploratory stage of that new life and new opportunities.

And both have a fortunate knack – one that often seems unfortunate as it occurs – of tripping over murder victims and being unable to resist poking their own noses into investigations that should be left to the police.

At the same time, Tabitha’s post-war Paris is a place that, if given the opportunity at the right time, It’s almost impossible not to imagine taking that opportunity and running with it to a new life in a storied city just as it is coming back into its own after the darkness of war.

The secondary characters introduced in this first book do an excellent job of drawing the reader into and filling out the corners or Tabitha’s Paris, from her charming, elderly messieurs, their equally idiosyncratic pets, the even more idiosyncratic members of the Child household, to the implacable, unreadable Inspecteur Étienne Merveille, who looks like he will become both a thorn in Tabitha’s side – and vice versa – in the books ahead.

If not, perhaps, something more.

And then there’s Julia Child herself, much too boisterous to ever be considered merely a secondary character and certainly not a sidekick, who draws readers in with her true-to-life mannerism, her real, documented history working for the OSS in the war, and her larger-than-life presence on so many wonderful pages of this story.

The alchemy of all of the above makes this reader so very glad that a second book in this An American in Paris series, A Murder Most French, will be coming out in April. I’m anticipating its arrival with nearly as much pleasure as Tabitha’s messieurs look forward to their next delicious repast from the kitchen of Madame Child.

It’s impossible to leave this story behind without one final word from that famous chef. Fortunately for the fictional Julia Child, this quote postdates her post-War years by a considerable margin. If this had been attributed to her at the time, Tabitha might have had considerably more difficulty convincing the Inspecteur that Julia was not guilty of the murder.

According to Julia Child, “The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded, and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit.”

TLC

TLC tour schedule:

Monday, February 19th: @books_old_and_new

Tuesday, February 20th: @diveintoagoodbook

Tuesday, February 20th: @suethebookie

Wednesday, February 21st: @mrsj_readsbooks

Wednesday, February 21st: @dianas_books_cars_coffee

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Thursday, February 22nd: @amys_book_addiction

Friday, February 23rd: @bookapotamus

Friday, February 23rd: @bookgirlbrown_reviews

Saturday, February 24th: @nissa_the.bookworm

Sunday, February 25th: @pineshorelittlefreelibrary

Monday, February 26th: @donasbooks

Tuesday, February 27th: Reading Reality and @reading_reality

Wednesday, February 28th: @the.caffeinated.reader

Thursday, February 29th: @aneedleinmybookstack

Friday, March 1st: @oilycaffeinatedmama

Friday, March 1st: @whatkarinareads

Saturday, March 2nd: @cmtloveswineandbooks

Saturday, March 2nd: @ablueboxfullofbooks

Sunday, March 3rd: @lyon.brit.andthebookshelf

Review: Murder at the Serpentine Bridge by Andrea Penrose

Review: Murder at the Serpentine Bridge by Andrea PenroseMurder at the Serpentine Bridge (Wrexford & Sloane, #6) by Andrea Penrose
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #6
Pages: 361
Published by Kensington on September 27, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Charlotte, now the Countess of Wrexford, would like nothing more than a summer of peace and quiet with her new husband and their unconventional family and friends. Still, some social obligations must be honored, especially with the grand Peace Celebrations unfolding throughout London to honor victory over Napoleon.
But when Wrexford and their two young wards, Raven and Hawk, discover a body floating in Hyde Park’s famous lake, that newfound peace looks to be at risk. The late Jeremiah Willis was the engineering genius behind a new design for a top-secret weapon, and the prototype is missing from the Royal Armory’s laboratory. Wrexford is tasked with retrieving it before it falls into the wrong hands. But there are unsettling complications to the case—including a family connection.
Soon, old secrets are tangling with new betrayals, and as Charlotte and Wrexford spin through a web of international intrigue and sumptuous parties, they must race against time to save their loved ones from harm—and keep the weapon from igniting a new war . . .

My Review:

As the previous book in this series, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, represented a door in Charlotte Sloane’s life closing, this sixth book in the series marks a different door in her life opening, albeit a door she believed she’d closed long ago.

In that previous book, widowed and disgraced Charlotte Sloane married the Earl of Wrexford, removing that earlier disgrace but placing herself back in the gilded cage she ran away from more than a dozen years before.

Putting her freedom to the test and the secret of her alter ego, the muckraking political cartoonist A.J. Quill, into even greater danger of exposure – with even more uncertain consequences.

The backdrop of this particular entry in the series is a combination of a very real historical event with a plausibly realistic macguffin into just the sort of case that makes Wrexford & Sloane’s adventures so very appealing.

At first, the murder victim in the prologue would seem to have nothing to do with Charlotte or even Wrex, in spite of his discovery of the corpse. But that is seldom the case in this series. The dead man, Jeremiah Willis, was an engineer of considerable repute, working for the government on a most secret project.

The late Willis’ beloved nephew, in a case of the rather long arm of coincidence, is the ward of one of Charlotte’s newly reconciled family members. It’s clear from the very first meeting that there is something rotten in the relationship between the young Lord Lampson and his guardians, Charlotte’s sister-in-law’s older sister Louisa and her husband, a Mr. Belmont of the Foreign Office.

Charlotte’s brother-in-law (let’s call him that for simplicity’s sake) is an abusive arse. Young Lampson has inherited the title Belmont expected to inherit himself, creating plenty of room for resentment right there – particularly as it appears that the abusive arse had been running up debts in anticipation of a title that he’s not going to get after all. Adding fuel to that conflagration, Lampson is black, as was his late uncle Jeremiah.

Whatever Jeremiah Willis was working on for the British government, he’s dead, the plans for his revolutionary device are missing, and all the crowned and uncrowned heads of Europe are massing in London for a celebration of Napoleon’s defeat and exile to Elba. Creating plenty of opportunity for skullduggery at the highest levels and for the greatest stakes.

It’s a recipe for intrigue – and yet more murder. With Wrex, Charlotte, the Weasels, and their whole eccentric household caught in the middle of the imminent explosion.

Escape Rating A: This was the right book at the right time, and I clearly waited enough time after Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens before diving into Wrexford and Sloane’s first investigation as a married couple. Meaning that I had an absolutely terrific reading time this time around.

As is de rigueur for this series, the historical elements are real or at least plausibly so. Certainly the Peace Celebrations – even if we know from our future vantage point that they were just a tad premature – happened as shown in the story. The scientific and engineering discoveries at the heart of this particular mystery were indeed plausible, and the foundations were as described.

While a ‘repeating rifle’ was not invented at this particular juncture, the concepts were already circulating. The problems that remained to be solved, and eventually were, were not those of ideas or invention, but rather problems of engineering. That the industrial capabilities had not yet reached a point where the machines necessary to make the rifles a truly workable product (I hesitate to use the word ‘viable’ in this instance) were not yet themselves workable.

Obviously the engineering caught up to the concept in the years to come, but they weren’t quite there at this time. But it all makes it that much easier to get into this series and this mystery, because so many of the foundational elements don’t require the willing suspension of disbelief as they are believable in their own right.

What makes this series so fascinating to follow – as much as I enjoy the historical setting – are the people and their relationships. From the very beginning in Murder at Black Swan Lane, Wrexford and Sloane have been an unconventional couple, and the found family they have gathered around them adds to that unconventionality in the best way possible.

(The title of this entry in the series may be familiar, as it pays a bit of homage to a previously-written but historically following unconventional couple, Charlotte & Thomas Pitt, whose final adventures were published in Murder ON the Serpentine.)

A big part of what makes them special is Charlotte’s alter ego as the satirist A.J. Quill, both that she does it and how she became Quill in the first place. She stepped off the path of aristocratic respectability, broke open the bars of the gilded cage of expectations for the young women of the ton, and took the road not taken by eloping with her art teacher – only to return older, sadder, wiser, widowed and broke. So she took up her late husband’s pen and became A.J. Quill, acquiring a career, a reputation, and two orphaned guttersnipes into the bargain.

And eventually, the Earl of Wrexford, adding bliss and frustration in equal measure, as the happiness of her marriage often conflicts with the frustration of having to at least appear to obey the rules she escaped as a young woman.

So, much of Charlotte’s progress in this book is the acknowledgement that there will be times she will have to put her own need for action aside in order to operate in areas that she, and only she, now has access to.

As well as dealing with the angst that she, and only she, experiences as her husband continues to throw himself into danger and the two boys she took for her own begin their own road to manhood, following right behind him – if not leading him straight into the thick of it. While knowing that she will not always be able to follow while being observed by the beady, censorious eyes of the haut ton.

In short, Murder at the Serpentine Bridge is, like all the stories so far in this terrific series, a story about change. The Napoleonic Wars may not actually have ended – although everyone believes that they have and the handwriting is very much on the wall. The old alliances and the old rivalries will shift in response to the coming rapprochement between Britain and France. This war may be ending, but new conflicts already loom on the horizon, and all sides are looking for a military advantage in those wars yet to come.

The Industrial Revolution is gearing up, pun definitely intended. The mystery that Wrex, Charlotte, and their friends face is rooted in the turning of those gears. Charlotte wants justice for Jeremiah Willis’ murder. The government needs to find the traitor in their midst, loath as they are to admit one exists. Wrex wants to make certain that Willis’ engineering marvel does not fall into the hands of his country’s enemies. And that no other bodies fall while they figure out whodunnit.

Meanwhile, everyone is chasing everyone else’s tails into danger, as the government’s intelligence services are unwilling to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing (shades of yesterday’s book) and everyone is unwittingly keeping vital clues from even their nearest and dearest.

I’m here for the wonderfully accurate historical setting, the tasty red herrings that get sprinkled throughout the mystery, and the ever-changing and developing relationships among Charlotte and Wrex’ increasing circle.

A new member of which gets added in the close of this entry in the series. We’ll see what effect the inclusion of young ‘Falcon’ has on the adventures of Charlotte’s adopted sons, Raven and Hawk, in the books to come.

Next up, Murder at the Merton Library. Which already sounds like just my kind of story!

Review: Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens by Andrea Penrose

Review: Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens by Andrea PenroseMurder at the Royal Botanic Gardens (Wrexford & Sloane, #5) by Andrea Penrose
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #5
Pages: 353
Published by Kensington on September 28, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


The upcoming marriage of the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane promises to be a highlight of the season, if they can first untangle--and survive--a web of intrigue and murder involving the most brilliant scientific minds in Regency London...

One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn't in question. But will being a wife--and a Countess--make it difficult for her to maintain her independence--not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?
Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford's first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth--he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim's involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there's no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get--or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go...

My Review:

This fifth book in the Wrexford & Sloane series represents a kind of an ending. Absolutely not the ending of the series, as there are two books in the series after this one, Murder at the Serpentine Bridge and this year’s Murder at the Merton Library. And I sincerely hope there will be more after that.

Nevertheless, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, besides being at least one specific someone’s personal ending – after all, this is a murder mystery – still represents a kind of closure to the first part or cycle of the Wrexford & Sloane series, as so many of the chickens who were barely eggs in the first book, Murder on Black Swan Lane, come home to roost in this one.

It begins, as always, with a murder. A murder that we see – as we often do in this series – enough to be certain that it is foul play and not merely a natural death without being able to identify the perpetrator.

Who does a dastardly clever job of hiding their identity through most of the story. Meaning that this is one of those mysteries where I’m happy to say that I was every bit as confused about who really done what as Wrexford, Sloane and ALL of their friends and colleagues turned out to be.

It’s only the motive that’s clear from the very beginning. As they say, the love of money is the root of all evil, and this is a case where entirely too many someones are willing to do some very dastardly deeds in order to cultivate much deeper roots of the stuff.

This case is one that both Wrexford and Sloane had hoped to pass to their friend and colleague, Head Bow Street Runner Griffin, as they’re doing their damndest not to incite any more scandals in the final weeks before their wedding.

But once one of the many villains stirring this nefarious pot – or plot – directly threatens not just Charlotte Sloane but also her ‘weasels’ – her adopted sons Raven and Hawk – there is absolutely no way that Charlotte will let go of this case until her own personal nemesis is finally brought to justice.

One way or another.

Escape Rating B+: It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that I went looking for a comfort read to round out this week, BUT, perhaps I was just a bit too quick to pick this up as it’s been less than a month since I read the last Murder at Queen’s Landing. There are REASONS I try to keep them spaced apart.

Also, Charlotte has a lot of angsty thoughts in this one. Angst that is very real, completely understandable, and doesn’t come to pass in any of the worst ways that she fears, but still, a lot of angst. As she’s our point-of-view character, it meant that the story bogged down a bit when she got lost inside her head.

Still, there ARE reasons for that angst, and they all have to do with this book circling back to all the demons raised in Murder on Black Swan Lane and resolving them – one way or another. Charlotte’s whole, entire existence is about to change with her upcoming marriage to Wrexford and he’s the only part of that situation she’s certain about. She’s going to lose a lot of freedom when she becomes his Countess, not because he’ll clip her wings, but because society will be watching her every move. A position that she ran away from when she eloped with her first, entirely unsuitable husband and isn’t at all keen to return to.

Still, where a young, unmarried woman can ruin her reputation and her prospects all too easily, a wealthy, married, Countess will merely be considered eccentric – at least as long as no one susses out her secret identity as the satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill.

Charlotte began this series as an impoverished widow with two unofficially adopted guttersnipes, an ability to blend into the shadows as another guttersnipe right alongside them, a house on the edge of dilapidation and a secret identity barely keeping the not-nearly-well-enough-patched roof over their heads. But she was free. No one noticed her, either as a poor widow or in her masquerade as Magpie the dirty orphan boy.

Everything we learned about Charlotte has changed since that first story. She was disowned by her family, but her hoped-for reconciliation with her brother is in the offing. She was exiled from society, but her marriage to Wrexford will put her right back in the thick of it.

And one of the villains in that first adventure threatened her boys, nearly got her murdered, was responsible for the death of her husband – and got away scot-free. Now that villain is back and threatening Charlotte’s life and happiness yet again.

Before Charlotte can be truly happy, all of those swords hanging over her head have to be carefully taken down, while she and Wrexford are in the midst of solving a criminal conspiracy that turns out to have more heads than Hydra. That the sheer tangle of threats coming their way makes both of them realize just how many hostages to fortune they have gathered around themselves over the course of their investigations adds to Charlotte’s worry and angst.

But also to the relief when it all, finally manages to come round right.

While I may not have fallen head over heels into this entry in the series quite as much as I have the others, I still very much enjoyed the mystery, the way it tangled its roots in both the science AND the social issues of its day, and put paid to the ‘will they, won’t they’ question once and for all.

Which means I’ll be back, maybe not the very next time I need a comfort read but certainly the one after that, with the next book in the series, Murder at the Serpentine Bridge.

Review: Murder at Queen’s Landing by Andrea Penrose

Review: Murder at Queen’s Landing by Andrea PenroseMurder at Queen's Landing (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery, #4) by Andrea Penrose
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #4
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


The murder of a shipping clerk . . . the strange disappearance of trusted friends . . . rumors of corruption within the powerful East India Company . . . all add up to a dark mystery entangling Lady Charlotte Sloane and the Earl of Wrexford in a dangerous web of secrets and lies that will call into question how much they really know about the people they hold dear—and about each other . . .

When Lady Cordelia, a brilliant mathematician, and her brother, Lord Woodbridge, disappear from London, rumors swirl concerning fraudulent bank loans and a secret consortium engaged in an illicit—and highly profitable—trading scheme that threatens the entire British economy. The incriminating evidence mounts, but for Charlotte and Wrexford, it’s a question of loyalty and friendship. And so they begin a new investigation to clear the siblings’ names, uncover their whereabouts, and unravel the truth behind the whispers.
As they delve into the murky world of banking and international arbitrage, Charlotte and Wrexford also struggle to navigate their increasingly complex feelings for each other. But the clock is ticking—a cunning mastermind has emerged . . . along with some unexpected allies—and Charlotte and Wrexford must race to prevent disasters both economic and personal as they are forced into a dangerous match of wits in an attempt to beat the enemy at his own game.

My Review:

Wrexford and Sloane are going to need the services of Professor Sudler’s mechanical Computing Engine (modeled after Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine) to calculate whodunnit and particularly why it was done in this fourth entry in the Wrexford & Sloane Regency historical mystery series.

It all begins with a murder that the police hope to put down to footpads, and an overheard conversation between friends who might – possibly, probably, unfortunately – have something to do with the dead body found on the docks at Queen’s Landing.

The dead man was a shipping clerk for the seemingly all-powerful East India Company, Bow Street, in the person of lead Runner Griffin, want Wrex to look into the mess, and Charlotte Sloane is all too rightly fearful that the conversation she overheard at her grand re-entry back into Society between her friend Lady Cordelia and Cordelia’s rather disheveled brother Woodbridge has something to do with the death.

Both Wrex and Charlotte really, truly, seriously had hoped that they were through with investigating murders, because the last one (Murder at Kensington Palace) got way too close to being one of theirs.

Charlotte now has too many hostages to fortune, too many people that she can’t bear to lose, that she rightly fears that her investigations could lead to one or more of their deaths. Surprising himself most of all, Wrex is the same, even if neither can admit that at the top of that list is their unacknowledged feelings for each other.

At the same time, they understand each other well enough to know that neither of them is going to stop rushing in where angels quite rightly fear to tread.

This case is one whose rotten heart certainly lies where no one would want to investigate, because the wealthy, powerful and highly connected East India Company is very much a law unto themselves. A law that the company has proven to be willing to enforce with deadly weaponry all around the world.

Home soil definitely not excepted.

But Wrex and Sloane follow where the case leads. In this case that leads from a much too trusting friend to a protective sister and an engineering genius in fear of all of their lives. Then is passes into the labyrinthine web of machinations and calculations at the heart of the East India Company.

It’s up to Wrexford and Sloane to find the snake at the center of this conspiracy and cut off its head before their friends become the latest in a long line of victims. Or before they do.

Escape Rating A: You wouldn’t think that it would be possible to make what is ultimately a financial crime be all that fascinating, but the machinations of arbitrage that turn out to be the center of this criminal conspiracy are both easy enough to follow and absolutely deadly in their application.

If the love of money is the root of all evil, then this evil is rooted in a group of high-ranking criminals who love money to the exclusion of all else and don’t care who stands in their way of getting it.

But, because the crime itself is a bit bloodless – even if the covering up of that crime is not – it takes Wrexford and Sloane and all of their friends more than a bit of painstaking clue hunting to reach the endgame in one only slightly bloodied piece.

Along the way, it’s very much a lesson in the heights and the sacrifices that the best of friends will undertake in order to help and support each other. Which is quite a bit of a departure from where both Wrex and Charlotte Sloane began this series in Murder at Black Swan Lake.

Which means that a big part of the appeal of this series so far has been the gathering of the ‘Scooby Gang’ around Wrex and Charlotte, a gathering that continues apace in this entry in the series.

A second factor in that appeal that also continues is the way that this series displays the dark and gritty underbelly of the glittering Regency period with a focus that is very different from its marvelous readalike series featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin.

Devlin is all up in the politics of the period, while Wrex’ focus is on the scientific foment occurring at the same time. Sudler’s engine is just a bit earlier than Charles Babbage’s on which it is modeled, but not by much. And Babbage did accomplish the goal that Sudler sets for himself merely a decade later. The steam engine that Wrex’ friend Sheffield invests in was equally real.

And, as we all observe every day in our own time, advances in technology bring vast amounts of change to the human condition, not all of it good, not all of it bad, but all of it capable of changing the status quo well past the point of society’s ability to contain or even mitigate its effects.

All of which is reflected in the changes in Wrex’ and Sloane’s lives and in the crimes that they solve. This series is its own kind of historical mystery magic, and this entry in the series is absolutely no exception!

Two final notes before I leave you to pick up the Wrexford & Sloane series for yourself. First, there was a bit in the middle where I thought I’d read this book before because something was a bit too familiar. That was the result of a combination of resemblances. The tea/silver/opium triangle at the heart of the financial shenanigans was not only real history, but it was also part of the skullduggery in R.F. Kuang’s recent Babel. Combine that with the surreptitious search of Professor Sudler’s country retreat, whose setup and result resembles a similar scene in Candace Camp’s A Rogue at Stonecliffe, and I had a minute there where I thought I’d forgotten an entire book. If your reading tastes are similar to mine, I hope I’ve saved you that same minute of consternation.

But speaking of bookish resemblances, Murder at Queen’s Landing ends on a proposal signifying great changes to come, very much like the endings of Laurie R. King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women and Dorothy L. Sayers’ classic Gaudy Night.

Which means that I’ll be picking up the next entry in this series, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, to learn exactly what those great changes will be, the next time I’m in search of a comfortingly murderous read!

Review: Murder at Half Moon Gate by Andrea Penrose

Review: Murder at Half Moon Gate by Andrea PenroseMurder at Half Moon Gate (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery) by Andrea Penrose
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #2
Pages: 360
Published by Kensington on March 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A wealthy lord who happens to be a brilliant scientist . . . an enigmatic young widow who secretly pens satirical cartoons . . . a violent killing disguised as a robbery . . . Nothing is as it seems in Regency London, especially when the Earl of Wrexford and Charlotte Sloane join forces to solve a shocking murder.
When Lord Wrexford discovers the body of a gifted inventor in a dark London alley, he promptly alerts the watchman and lets the authorities handle the matter. But Wrexford soon finds himself drawn into the murder investigation when the inventor's widow begs for his assistance, claiming the crime was not a random robbery. It seems her husband's designs for a revolutionary steam-powered engine went missing the night of his death. The plans could be worth a fortune . . . and very dangerous in the wrong hands.
Joining Wrexford in his investigation is Charlotte Sloane, who uses the pseudonym A. J. Quill to publish her scathing political cartoons. Her extensive network of informants is critical for her work, but she doesn't mind tapping that same web of spies to track down an elusive killer. Each suspect--from ambitious assistants to rich investors, and even the inventor's widow--is entwined in a maze of secrets and lies that leads Wrexford and Sloane down London's most perilous stews and darkest alleyways.
With danger lurking at every turn, the potent combination of Wrexford's analytical mind and Sloane's exacting intuition begins to unravel the twisted motivations behind the inventor's death. But they are up against a cunning and deadly foe--a killer ready to strike again before they can recover the inventor's priceless designs . . .

My Review:

Everyone has secrets. Everybody lies. Everybody dies. When the Earl of Wrexford practically trips over direct evidence of the latter on his way home from drinking at his club, he’s not all that interested in poking his nose into either of the former, at least not as long as it looks like the man’s death was the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and not having enough money on his person to convince the footpads to leave him alone – or at least alive.

It’s only in the cold and entirely too bright light of the next morning, coping badly with his hangover from the drinking of the night before, that Wrex learned that he knew the man whose corpse he discovered, and that his recollections of the crime scene don’t jibe AT ALL with the official determination of a robbery gone wrong.

Or at least not the usual kind of robbery. Someone slit the seams of the dead man’s clothing to hunt for something secreted in the lining. Something like papers.

Considering that the late Elihu Ashton was a genius engineer who had purportedly invented a way of making a more powerful steam engine, and that the patents for that revolutionary invention had not yet been filed, there are plenty of motives for his murder.

In Regency England, steam is the power that is driving the burgeoning industrial revolution. There’s money to be made in anything that increases the power and efficiency of steam engines.

But the money that will be made will line the pockets of the investors. The rich will get richer. And the workers who will lose their jobs and their livelihoods as the inevitable result of all that efficiency have no hope and no choices.

Unless they turn ‘Radical’ and break the machines that are taking away their work and their dignity. Or unless someone is using them to divert suspicion from yet another rich man’s grab for more money and more power.

Wrex may not want to be involved in another murder, and he swears that he’s a man of science who doesn’t even have a heart other than as an efficient pump for his circulatory system. But Charlotte Sloane seems to have infected him with her inability to let an injustice stand – even if her own secrets get exposed along the way.

Along with his.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up, so soon after finishing Murder at Black Swan Lane, because I was still searching for comfort reads after last week and kind of wanted to stay in Sebastian St. Cyr’s world after Friday’s review of Why Kings Confess. But reading books in a series too close together doesn’t work as well for me as I always hope it will, so I turned to Wrexford & Sloane, which is very much the same world, just seen through a different set of characters who therefore have a different perspective on the same point in time.

Although St. Cyr and Wrexford are both aristocrats in Regency England, and quite literally occupy the same social strata (Wrexford has already inherited his Earldom while St. Cyr hasn’t yet) Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, investigates murders that touch on the powers that be – sometimes all the way up to the Prince Regent himself – or at least his household.

Wrexford is a man of science, a member of the Royal Academy, and his circle of friends and influence is vastly different. Where St. Cyr is often focused on the Napoleonic Wars and the destruction they have left in their wake, Wrexford is more focused on the advances of the scientific community and the social unrest that seems to follow the change and upheaval of society that is its result.

And if Wrexford isn’t sufficiently focused on that change and upheaval, his friend, the artist and satirist A.J. Quill is more than happy to point him in the right direction.

At the heart of this story, both the mystery and the situation that surrounds it, is change. The change in working conditions that has sparked the radical political movement, the Luddites that violently oppose change, and the further widening gap between the titans of the new industry and the human beings who are its true engine. And the changes of life and circumstance that have caught up Charlotte Sloane, AKA A.J. Quill, even as she and Wrex get themselves caught up in another murder investigation.

Charlotte Sloane is determined that Bow Street doesn’t take the easy way out, blaming the radical workers for a series of murders that have more to do with money than politics. Wrex is caught between preventing a miscarriage of justice and preventing Charlotte and her young charges from becoming victims of yet another villain’s machinations.

While each wonders whether the other has a heart after all, and whether they can find their way to each other in spite of the barriers between them. But first they have to survive the bloody mess they’ve landed themselves in this time. With the able assistance of their friends, and colleagues, and especially the Weasels.

The first and most obvious readalike for Wrexford & Sloane is still, by far and away, Sebastian St. Cyr. If you like one you’ll like the other and vice versa. But now that I’m two books in with Wrexford & Sloane, the elements that set the two apart have become more apparent, and that’s most definitely an excellent thing.

At the same time, this series has also brought other historical mysteries to mind, especially Lady Sherlock and Mary Russell. Charlotte Sloane’s situation has turned out to be much like Charlotte Holmes’ in the Lady Sherlock series, although I believe that Sloane’s solution is likely to be a bit more traditional than that particular Holmes. And for any reader who loved the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, the ending of Murder at Half Moon Gate has more than a passing resemblance to the conclusion of A Monstrous Regiment of Women and I am most definitely here for it.

As well as for the next book in the Wrexford & Sloane series, Murder at Kensington Palace, the next time I’m looking for a comfort read that introduces itself with a corpse.

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Review: A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah WeatherspoonA Cowboy to Remember (Cowboys of California #1) by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Cowboys of California #1
Pages: 357
Published by Dafina Books on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

An Oprah Magazine Best Romance Novel of 2020
In this brand-new series from award-winning author Rebekah Weatherspoon, a charming cowboy and his sleeping beauty find their modern-day happily ever after . . .
With a headline spot on a hit morning show and truly mouth-watering culinary skills, chef Evie Buchanan is perched on the edge of stardom. But at an industry party, a fall lands Evie in the hospital—with no memory of who she is. Scrambling to help, Evie’s assistant contacts the only “family” Evie has left, close friends who run the luxury dude ranch in California where Evie grew up. Evie has no recollection of them—until former rodeo champion Zach Pleasant walks into her hospital room, and she realizes his handsome face has been haunting her dreams . . .
Zach hasn’t seen Evie in years—not since their families conducted a campaign to make sure their childhood friendship never turned into anything more. When the young cowboy refused to admit the feelings between them were real, Evie left California, making it clear she never wanted to see Zach again. Now he refuses to make the same mistake twice. Starting fresh is a risk when they have a history she can’t recall, but Zach can’t bear to let go of her now. Can he awaken the sleeping beauty inside her who might still love him?

My Review:

To open this happy week, I have the first of several books that are supposed to have happy endings. This one certainly did!

But it doesn’t have a happy beginning. At all. It’s going to take a lot of changes for celebrity chef Evie Buchanan to reach her happy place. Changes in attitude and changes in latitude.

I also just realized that this is a bit of a holiday romance. It’s not that the holidays turn out to be a big deal in this one, and certainly no one gets snowbound, but the holidays are occurring in the background as the story goes in in the foreground.

Let me explain…

The story here is a second chance at love romance with one hell of a twist. Amnesia stories are usually fodder for daytime soap operas, but after an “accident” at a holiday party, Evie Buchanan is living one. The amnesia story, that is, although possibly the soap opera as well.

She “fell” down the stairs, hit her head – badly – and can’t remember a damn thing about anything at all. Her roommate, her personal assistant and her agent all gather round, but can’t help her regain her memories – if she’ll get them back, all or even at all.

Evie’s been pretty close-mouthed about the details of her life before they all met her. All they know is that she’s an only child, her parents and other relatives are deceased, and she seems to have no life outside her work as a celebrity chef and star of The Dish, her daytime cooking show.

Evie doesn’t recognize them, and they don’t know any details of her previous life. Except for the name of her “only in case of deadly emergency” contact, Jesse Pleasant. Whatever their relationship might be or have been. His tangential presence in Evie’s contact list if seemingly not her actual life is all they have to go on.

And that’s where the second chance at love story comes into this story. Not with Jesse. Jesse is the big brother that Evie doesn’t otherwise have. Jesse’s brother, very much on the other hand, was the one that broke Evie’s young heart and sent her on her quest for fame, fortune and a lot of hard work as a chef.

The Pleasant family, with their exclusive “dude ranch”, hotel, spa and wedding venue in California, are the temporary answer to all of Evie’s problems. She can go back to where she grew up, be taken care of by the family who nearly adopted her, and stay out of New York City while her friends at home take a stab at figuring out whether Evie was just unlucky or the victim of something more sinister.

But as dangerous as NYC might be for a woman with a career to protect but no idea who she is or used to be, the risk to Evie’s unprotected heart is even greater in California, spending time with a man who has invaded her dreams like no one ever has. Zach Pleasant is either the key to bringing back Evie’s memory – or the reason she had so much to forget.

Escape Rating B+: I started this book because I was still looking for a happy ending. Not that Friday’s book didn’t admirably fill that bill – rather it did it so well that I wanted a little bit more.

So I turned, technically I returned, to A Cowboy to Remember – and just as it is for Evie and Zach, the second chance at romance was the winner. Also my second time picking up the book and giving it a second chance was a winner.

I had started this once but put it down the first time. Probably because I was looking for happy and didn’t find it in the story’s opening. When we first meet Evie, she still has all of her memories and doesn’t seem to be happy about either her past or particularly her present.

Picking the story up in the aftermath of her “accident” was just what I needed. It turned out that her life-changing injury was, in a perverse way, exactly what Evie needed as well. Not remembering her life gave her the chance to start over and look at herself from the outside. Just as I didn’t enjoy reading her unhappiness in the beginning, she didn’t like what she saw as she looked in the mirror at her old self.

There are several things going on in this story, and they all work together to bring that happy ever after home, not just for the holidays, but for always.

First, there’s that whole amnesia thing. It’s been the fodder for so many soap opera melodramas that it’s difficult to do it for real – or even for something real-ish rather than over-the-top. But in this story it lasts just long enough to not fall into anything stupid or silly and it does work to give Evie a once-in-a-lifetime chance to re-evaluate her life, the dreams she thought she had, and the dreams she believed she’d lost long ago.

The way that her relationship with Zach comes back to life turned out to be bittersweet rather than just sweet – and that feels like the way it should have been. The first time around, they were both young, they both screwed up, and neither of them ever got past those events or each other.

This is a do-over. Evie knows that they almost had it all the last time around, but screwed things up instead. But she doesn’t remember the details of what happened, so she isn’t still replaying in her head all the awful things they said to each other. Still, she hasn’t let them go so much as they’ve temporarily let her go. Zach remembers everything, is worried that someday there will be one hell of a reckoning, but can’t resist attempting to build the relationship they should have had long ago.

But they can’t have anything real until they catch up to each other, and the wariness of waiting for that other shoe to drop, the bitterness when it does and the difficulty of working through the past and the present provides the romantic tension in the story and gives it a surprisingly realistic chop of near-finality, making their eventual HEA hard earned and hard won.

A big part of the charm of this story was the way that Jesse and Zach’s family scooped Evie up and brought her back home to the place she’d grown up and the family that helped raise her. The relationships among the Pleasant family were beyond pleasant, and their re-adoption of Evie was heartwarming, particularly the re-kindling of the motherly/grandmotherly relationship between Jesse and Zach’s grandmother Leona and Evie. A relationship that Evie needed quite frankly even more than she needed the romance – and she needed that pretty damn bad.

It’s a good thing that Jesse and Zach’s family is so much more than merely “Pleasant” as the series looks like it follows the Pleasant sons. The next book in the series, If the Boot Fits, features Jesse and Zach’s youngest brother Sam, the one who followed Miss Leona into the acting business. I’m looking forward to reading it as it’s been praised to the skies everywhere, but the one I’m really hoping for is Jesse’s book. He’s kind of a quiet giant and it’s going to be fun to see him fall!

Review: Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson

Review: Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. AndersonDeath Warmed Over (Dan Shamble, Zombie PI, #1) by Kevin J. Anderson
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Dan Shamble Zombie PI #1
Pages: 309
Published by Kensington on August 28th 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.org
Goodreads

"A darkly funny, wonderfully original detective tale."--Kelley Armstrong
Single Dead Detective Seeks Clue
Ever since the Big Uneasy unleashed vampires, werewolves, and other undead denizens on the world, it's been hell being a detective--especially for zombie P.I. Dan Chambeaux. Taking on the creepiest of cases in the Unnatural Quarter with a human lawyer for a partner and a ghost for a girlfriend, Chambeaux redefines "dead on arrival." But just because he was murdered doesn't mean he'd leave his clients in the lurch. Besides, zombies are so good at lurching.
Now he's back from the dead and back in business--with a caseload that's downright unnatural. A resurrected mummy is suing the museum that put him on display. Two witches, victims of a curse gone terribly wrong, seek restitution from a publisher for not using "spell check" on its magical tomes. And he's got to figure out a very personal question--Who killed him?
For Dan Chambeaux, it's all in a day's work. (Still, does everybody have to call him "Shamble"?) Funny, fresh, and irresistible, this cadaverous caper puts the P.I. in R.I.P. . ..with a vengeance.
"Wickedly funny, deviously twisted and enormously satisfying. This is a big juicy bite of zombie goodness. Two decaying thumbs up!"--Jonathan Maberry
"Anderson has become the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino in the fantasy adventure genre."--The Daily Rotation
"An unpredictable walk on the weird side. Prepare to be entertained." --Charlaine Harris

My Review:

After reading, and rolling on the floor laughing over the short story Eye of Newt in the Shadowed Souls collection, I just couldn’t resist diving into the rest of the series. And I’m glad I stopped resisting.

Death Warmed Over is the first book in the Dan Shamble, Zombie PI series, and it both sends up and inhabits the noir detective genre at the same time. This story sets up the series, and it does it in the classic in media res convention, where the action has already begun and it is up to our hero to bring us up to speed on all that action.

At this point in Dan’s life, and the life of his world, the “Big Uneasy” is ten years in the past. Adjustments have been made, although there is still plenty to be worked out.

Ten years ago, a bizarre and hopefully unique event occurred, where the planets were just in the right (or wrong) positions, and a virgin cut her finger over an original copy of the Necronomicon, resulting in an extreme rearrangement of the powers of the universe. Specifically, the dead came back to life. Or unlife as the case may be.

There were so many zombies rising from their graves, ghosts returning to their haunts, and vampires coming out of their coffins that even the monsters who had been hiding in plain sight for centuries (hello vampires! and werewolves) decided that it was time to show the world who, and what, they truly were.

Dan Chambeaux was making a decent living as a private investigator in the Unnatural Quarter when, as so often happens to noir-ish private eyes, he got a little too close to some seriously nasty truth, and somebody shot him. Right between the eyes.

In the old days, before the Big Uneasy, that would have been the end of the case. But things are different now. People in general have about a 1 in 75 chance of becoming zombies, but the odds are much more likely (let’s not get into better and worse) for murder victims, along with suicides. A few days after his funeral, Dan clawed his way out of his grave and went right back to work on his own case. Along with all the other cases still on his desk – including that of the murder of his girlfriend, who was now a ghost as well as his office manager.

So Dan, along with his ghost girlfriend Sheyenne and his human business partner Robin Deyer, are on the case. Actually several cases, as Robin is a lawyer with a soft spot for nearly lost causes and a mania for taking precedent setting cases in the fields of undead law.

As Dan always says, “the cases don’t solve themselves”. But while he is helping Robin with a werewolf divorce case and a mummy suing the museum that owns his sarcophagus for his freedom, he is also looking into the operations of a bigoted “Humans First” group while dodging the smarmy sales pitch of an persistent adman selling “necroceuticals” meant to spruce up the undead.

When all the cases, new and old, converge, Dan finds himself at the wrong end of a gun. Again. But this time he has everything to gain and much, much less to lose. After all, you can only die once.

Escape Rating A-: While Death Warmed Over isn’t quite the laugh riot that was Eye of Newt, I didn’t expect it to be. It does, however, retain a marvelous undercurrent of gallows humor that can sustain a series. I certainly intend to find out.

The concept of a newly undead detective investigating his own death has been done before, and even done before with an urban fantasy/noir detective. If you are curious about a vampire version, hunt for a copy of P.N. Elrod’s  Bloodlist. The setting is real-world Prohibition Chicago, and Jack Fleming is a much more hardened gumshoe than Dan Shamble, but the concept is definitely there.

Back to Dan Shamble…

Part of the fun of this series is the very well-done world-building. The author has taken our world and shaken it up in a whole lot of ways that are both funny and serious at the same time. People, it turns out, are still people, whether they are dead or alive or something in the middle. Working out ways for the monsters among us to coexist creates a lot of opportunity for both humor and social commentary.

There are also a lot of sly jokes centering around the horror genre and its convention. That the new publisher of spellbooks is Howard Phillips Publishing, and that their motto is, “We love our craft” is a joke that makes the reader smile if they get it, but if they don’t, it doesn’t stop the story from still being funny in the right spots.

A lot of this particular story revolves around the human desire to look better, smell better and generally buy into the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industry in a way that probably hurts all of our wallets in the real world. It’s also an impulse that seems to transcend death, as all of the undead are just as interested in covering up that graveyard aroma as the rest of us are about the smell of sweat. But following the money isn’t enough to solve this case.

In the end, the story rises (or possibly falls, but not for this reader) on whether or not the reader likes Dan’s “voice”, because it is his story. It is told from his perspective, and it is first-person singular, so inside his head and with his running commentary. We only see what Dan sees, and we only know what Dan knows. As he’s only been a zombie for a month, he’s still learning how his new world works, and so are we.

And it’s one hell of a fun ride.

Review: A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev + Giveaway

Review: A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev + GiveawayA Change of Heart by Sonali Dev
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Series: Bollywood #3
Pages: 352
Published by Kensington on September 27th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

“A rising talent.” —Booklist
Dr. Nikhil 'Nic' Joshi had it all—marriage, career, purpose. Until, while working for Doctors Without Borders in a Mumbai slum, his wife, Jen, discovered a black market organ transplant ring. Before she could expose the truth, Jen was killed.
Two years after the tragedy, Nic is a cruise ship doctor who spends his days treating seasickness and sunburn and his nights in a boozy haze. On one of those blurry evenings on deck, Nic meets a woman who makes a startling claim: she received Jen’s heart in a transplant and has a message for him. Nic wants to discount Jess Koirala’s story as absurd, but there’s something about her reckless desperation that resonates despite his doubts.
Jess has spent years working her way out of a nightmarish life in Calcutta and into a respectable Bollywood dance troupe. Now she faces losing the one thing that matters—her young son, Joy.  She needs to uncover the secrets Jen risked everything for; but the unforeseen bond that results between her and Nic is both a lifeline and a perilous complication.
Delving beyond the surface of modern Indian-American life, acclaimed author Sonali Dev’s page-turning novel is both riveting and emotionally rewarding—an extraordinary story of human connection, bravery, and hope.

My Review:

This may possibly be the angstiest romance I have ever read. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing – it just is. Be prepared to have your nerves jangled and your heartstrings jerked while reading.

Speaking of heartstrings, this is a story about hearts. Transplanted ones, that is. Also livers, kidneys and lungs, but mostly hearts. It’s also about finding ways to move past the most horrible things that life can possibly throw at you, and learning to live again.

But mostly hearts.

Dr. Nikhil Joshi is drinking himself into a very early grave. He used to be a hot-shot doctor with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres – MSF) until his wife and fellow MSF doctor Jennifer Joshi was raped and murdered in front of him.

That was two years ago, and he’s been pickling himself ever since. He’s stuck somewhere in that anger and denial stage of grief, and it’s slowly killing him. He’s angry with himself for being forced to watch her die but surviving, and he’s also just plain angry at Jen for all the secrets she kept from him – the same secrets that got her killed.

Jen was investigating illegal organ trafficking, with the assistance of the Mumbai Police. Someone was using her organ registry to find poor people and cutting them up for the cash value of their parts. It’s sick and disgusting. It’s also a very, very profitable business. Jen got in their way and got killed for it.

Nic can’t forgive her secrets, and he can’t forgive himself.

Somewhere out there is the evidence that Jen died for. There are a whole host of people who have been waiting for Nic to get his head out of his alcohol-soaked ass and start hunting for it. Some of those people need the evidence to make sure it gets buried along with Jen. Some people need it to finally get out from under being blackmailed by the first set of people.

Jess Koirala needs it because someone is threatening her seven-year-old son. She’ll do anything to protect little Joy, including convincing Nic that she is in contact with Jen’s spirit because she received Jen’s transplanted heart. Finding Jen’s evidence will set Jess free. And Joy.

But when she starts her twisted mission, Jess has no idea that unearthing the past will bring Nic back to the present. And falling in love was definitely not part of her mission plan. Or his.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a roller-coaster ride for the emotions from its stormy beginning to its cathartic end. After everything we go through with Nic and Jess, we need to experience not just the romantic happy ever after, but the wrapping up of all the loose ends as good mostly triumphs and evil gets a big slice of its just desserts.

bollywood affair by sonali devThis story is a very loose follow up to the author’s first two books, A Bollywood Affair and The Bollywood Bride (both group reviewed over at The Book Pushers). It is not, however, necessary to have read those to get all the characters in A Change of Heart. But they are both a lot of fun, and A Bollywood Affair in particular is utterly joyous and highly recommended.

However, while the reader would not be missing much by not having read the first two books, it does sometimes feels like the suspenseful part of A Change of Heart is lost somewhere in the murky darkness. Some of that is necessary. Jess doesn’t know who is pulling her strings, or why. Only that the person is very dangerous and seriously threatening. This figure remains in the shadows all the way through. We think we know who it might be, but are never positive.

In front, we have almost a caricature of a thug. While he is the prime suspect for Jen’s murder, he is not the prime mover for Jess’ journey. So we are left with a bit of a puzzle, even at the end. As is Jess.

Jess is an amazing character. As her layers slowly get peeled back, we see the events that made her who she is, and just how much she has had to overcome. Even though there is much weighing her down, she still struggles towards the light. And in much of her slow revelation to Nic, we hear the voice of so many women who have been victimized and abused merely because they are female. Jess keeps trying, and circumstances that are outside her control keep beating her down – and then blaming her for everything that is done to her. We hear the voice of every institution that blames victims, “she asked for it”, “it’s all her fault”, “what can she expect when she looks like that” and more. And worse.

Nic blames Jen for her death. She was fighting a terrible evil. And yes, she should have told her husband she was working with the police. But it wasn’t her fault she was killed. It was the fault of the man who murdered her. And the system that covered up for him. But never hers. This is just one of many things that Nic needs to get past, if not over, so that he can live again.

The surprising thing is that a romance grows out of the circumstances that throw Jess and Nic together. There are so many lies at the beginning. Jess is, of necessity, holding so much back. That they manage to reach past all of that for healing and love is amazing. And makes for a very powerful story.

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~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Sonali is giving away 2 copies of A Bollywood Affair & The Bollywood Bride to lucky entrants on this tour.

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Review: The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe KennedyThe Pages of the Mind (The Uncharted Realms #1; The Twelve Kingdoms #4) by Jeffe Kennedy
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Twelve Kingdoms #4, Uncharted Realms #1
Pages: 432
Published by Kensington on May 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

An Orphan's Throne
Magic has broken free over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human…and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos.
Dafne Mailloux is no adventurer--she's a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne's ability with languages, her way of winnowing the useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.
Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no tongue she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner-queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her country, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets written there than even Dafne could suspect…
Praise for The Mark of the Tala
"Magnificent…a richly detailed fantasy world." --RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars, Top Pick
"Well written and swooningly romantic." --Library Journal, starred review

My Review:

crown of the queen by jeffe kennedyI have, for the most part, adored Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series. Ami’s book, The Tears of the Rose, was the lone exception, because Ami spends the first half of the book as a spoiled princess bitch. While she gets much, much better, the first half of the book drags a bit.

As much as I loved the bridge novella featuring librarian Dafne Mailloux, The Crown of the Queen, Dafne’s own story in The Pages of the Mind drove me batty. I loved the beginning, and liked the end, but in this case it’s the middle that gave me fits.

Let me explain…

Dafne has been the librarian at Castle Ordnang for decades. Her family held the land and castle that formerly sat on the same spot, but when High King Uorsin decided that Castle Columba would be the seat of his new throne, the end was inevitable. He conquered the castle, razed the building, and built his capital in its place. Daphne was the only member of her family to survive the siege. While she may be, as she says, “ a demon on documents” in her early years it was her ability to hide in plain sight that saved her life over and over.

That and the fact that Queen Salena charged her with caring for her daughters, the princess Ursula, Ami and Andi. Ursula is now High Queen, after the events in The Talon of the Hawk and The Crown of the Queen. It is Daphne’s task to be Ursula’s adviser.

talon of the hawk by jeffe kennedyDafne has always been an observer and recorder. That’s what librarians do. So Daphne is more surprised than anyone when Ursula tasks her with the position of ambassador, first to the island kingdom of Nahanau, and then to the court of Dasnaria. Nahanau has been damaged by the movement of the magical barrier that formerly surrounded the Tala, and Dasnaria is the home of Ursula’s lover Harlan. His people might ally with the Twelve, now Thirteen Kingdoms, or might attempt to conquer them instead. The Kingdoms are still recovering from the late King’s treachery and tyranny, Ursula needs to stave off that possible war.

So off Dafne goes, with Harlan’s older brother Prince Kral as escort and guide.

We expect treachery, or at least some double-dealing on Kral’s part. It seems to be what the Dasnarians are known for. So when Kral essentially hands Dafne over to King Nakoa KauPo as either a hostage, sex slave or unwilling bride, readers are not totally surprised.

But the twists and turns that overtake Dafne’s fate from that point forward change the course of her life into directions she never expected. And is never sure that she wants or can even accept.

Escape Rating B-: I loved the beginning. Dafne’s life as librarian turned adviser fit right in with the snippets of her character we have seen in the earlier books. She has been working all of her life towards seeing Ursula crowned High Queen. And she not only expects the job of Royal Adviser, but is totally prepared and qualified for it.

She enjoys being the power behind the throne, and doesn’t see herself as powerful at all. She is merely an instrument of Ursula’s power. And she’s very, very good at it.

But when she is effectively abandoned at the Nahanau court, the story, along with Daphne’s personality, went temporarily off the rails for this reader. Because the story devolved into both the fated mate trope and the magic peen fallacy. That it turns out that both of these issues are actually manipulated into being by a third party redeems things somewhat, but not completely.

Dafne seems to become completely enslaved to sex with King Nakoa, to the point where she loses all her sense at many points. Yes, this sometimes happens when people discover how good sex can actually be, but that level of crazy usually happens earlier in their lives. Dafne is old enough that she believes she is no longer capable of bearing children. Becoming that mushy-headed just didn’t feel right.

For a significant part of the story, Dafne understands little to nothing of the language around her. The Nahanaus speak a language that is not derived from any of the several that Dafne knows. So there is a big portion of the story where a person who is only comfortable when in full possession of all the knowledge available has none to work with. It feels off-character when Dafne is forced to resort to stereotypical feminine wiles that she has never relied upon in order to get information felt wrong.

There is also a huge power imbalance in this relationship. Nakoa essentially kidnaps Dafne and keeps her prisoner. That she falls for him in these circumstances where she is totally dependent on him smacks of Stockholm Syndrome. Which does get called out later in the story, and then all too easily dismissed.

It turns out that everyone in this situation is being manipulated by a third party, one whose eventual advent into the story is explosive enough to kick the story back on track.

One of the things that I liked best about the previous entries in this series is that the princesses did not need to change who they were to find fulfillment and happiness, or to find their equal in love. Dafne has to change completely to get through most of her adventures. It’s only at the end where she goes back to being the intellectual powerhouse that is her true self.

At the end of this story, there are several people still on the loose who seriously need to get their comeuppance, particularly Kral. While events turned out for the best, his duplicity still needs to be accounted for. And I look forward to reading all about it in The Edge of the Blade.