Spotlight + Excerpt: A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen

Spotlight + Excerpt: A Quantum Love Story by Mike ChenA Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, time travel
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on January 30, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The only thing harder than finding someone in a time loop is losing them.

Grieving her best friend's recent death, neuroscientist Mariana Pineda’s ready to give up everything to start anew. Even her career— after one last week consulting at a top secret particle accelerator.

Except the strangest thing a man stops her…and claims they've met before. Carter Cho knows who she is, why she's mourning, why she's there. And he needs Mariana to remember everything he’s saying.

Because time is about to loop.

In a flash of energy, it’s Monday morning. Again. Together, Mariana and Carter enter an inevitable life, four days at a time, over and over, without permanence except for what they share. With everything resetting—even bank accounts—joy comes in the little a delicious (and expensive) meal, a tennis match, giving a dog his favorite treat.

In some ways, those are all that matter.

But just as they figure out this new life, everything changes. Because Carter's memories of the time loop are slowly disappearing. And their only chance at happiness is breaking out of the loop—forever.

Welcome to the blog tour for A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen. This is another author who I discovered through participation in a blog tour, so I’m thrilled to be back again with another book and tour. I’ve already finished A Quantum Love Story and loved it, so look forward to that review late next week. But the book is coming out TOMORROW, so here’s an excerpt from the very first chapter to whet your reading appetite for the whole, quantum tangle of this story!

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen

1
Carter Cho wasn’t really into science experiments.
Otherwise, he might have completed his degree in quantum mechanics. Cooking experiments, though? Totally different, because there was a real joy to that process. But setting a hypothesis, identifying controls, and looking for…stuff?
Seriously, that seemed like such a slog.
Except for this particular Thursday morning, on the corner of a crosswalk and standing across from the world’s biggest, most advanced particle accelerator, a science experiment felt necessary.
He didn’t really have a choice. It seemed to be the only way to possibly understand or even escape his very strange predicament.
Carter checked the time on his phone, waiting for it to tick specifically to twenty-three seconds past 8:22 a.m.
At that moment, the crosswalk light would switch, signaling for pedestrians to go.
Then everything would cascade, a waterfall of specific actions by the world around him:
The person on Carter’s right would step out first.
The person behind him would wait an extra four seconds, eyes stuck on his phone.
Annoyed, the woman next to that person would let out an exaggerated sigh, move around, then rush forward six steps into the street before catching her shoe.
Then she would stumble forward, her coffee spilling. The first time he went through this, he’d noticed the spill just in time to sidestep it before continuing on.
All of these actions sat line by line on the old-fashioned paper notebook in his hands, a checklist of what was to come with the precision delivered by his photographic memory.
Science experiments all led to a result. As for this, he wasn’t quite sure what the result, or even the purpose, might be. He already knew he was in a loop of some sort, something that started the instant he woke up on Monday mornings.
And it always ended up with the huge facility across the street exploding.
The Hawke Accelerator, both a modern marvel of technology circa 2094 and also some sort of weird top-secret project that no one really understood—now also the place that would simply go boom.
Carter should know. The first time he experienced this, he was in the accelerator chamber’s observation room, right in the heart of where the go boom happened at precisely 12:42 p.m. on Thursday. Which was today, again. Just a few hours from now.
He’d been through this six times before, each time expanding his acute understanding of the details surrounding him. Usually he wrote things down at the end of the day, a memory trick he’d
learned about himself very early on that helped cement the details into place, so even when he started the loop over without any scribbled notes to organize his thoughts, his photographic memory recalled it.
But this morning, he went in reverse, writing out the exact steps as they were meant to be.
And then he’d make sure it played out that way, bit by bit.
After that, he wasn’t sure. Carter thought of his parents, their usual voices chastising him for his lack of planning and forethought, how his teenage foray into coding and hacking was more about fun than applying himself, and now look at him, simply a technician running tests and tightening screws. Even now that he’d been through this loop several times, he hadn’t bothered to call them back from their birthday messages. Part of him used the excuse that he should stay as close to the original path as possible, but he knew better.
Even if this weird loop existence meant a complete lack of consequences, calling his parents was the last thing he wanted to do.
Carter checked his phone one more time, five seconds remaining until the crosswalk kicked off the sequence. He gripped the notebook, staring at the list of things to come.
A chime came from the crosswalk. And Carter began to move.
The person on the right moved.
The man behind Carter stayed.
An exasperated sigh came from behind him. Carter kept his eyes on his notebook, counting steps in his head. “Ack,” the woman said, right when Carter sidestepped. His focus moved down to the next item on the list, then the next, then the next, not once looking up. Instead, he executed through a combination of memory and instinct, sliding sideways when a cyclist rolled by on the sidewalk and slowing down just enough to follow in a group waiting at the front entrance of Hawke.
Someone coughed, marking a time to pause and wait thirteen seconds, enough time to review the next items on the notebook still in front of him:
Front desk hands out mobile device for the David AI digital assistant.
Security guard says something about visiting group from ReLive project.
Passing scientist asks what time Dr. Beckett’s flight gets in.

He moved through the security gate designated for employees, taking him past the lobby threshold and over to the main hallway that split in three directions. He stopped, leaned against the wall and waited for the final item to come to pass. Nothing special or unique, just the sound of heels walking in a hurried cadence from his right to his left. Carter checked the notebook, waiting for the visitor’s David AI to speak exactly what he wrote.
“Your next meeting starts in two minutes,” the AI said from the small mobile unit in his familiar London accent. “Oops! Looks like you might be late. Should I give the meeting notice of that?”
Carter mouthed the words as the visitor spoke, his voice fading down the hallway. “No, thanks. I’ll just hurry.”
David’s simulated voice could still be heard as Carter put the notebook down, holding it at his side while considering what just happened. He wasn’t particularly religious, though part of him wondered if he’d been condemned to some sort of purgatory. The predictability of it all, the strange exactness of everything he saw playing out as written on the notebook in his hands.
The first few times, he’d felt disbelief. Then curiosity. Then amusement.
This time, well, he guessed that was the purpose of this experiment: to figure out how he felt knowing he could predict every exact movement of every person he encountered.
Disbelief, curiosity, amusement, and now the whole thing was just unnerving.
Nothing out of turn. Nothing different. Nothing unexpected.
He blew out a sigh, hands pushing back his wavy black hair. Something tugged at him, a wish for things to be different. A person walking from his left instead of his right. Or the plant behind him coming to life and biting his arm. Or a piano dropping out of the sky and smashing his foot.
Anything at all to end this.
Ten minutes passed with Carter lost in his own thoughts, but that in itself turned out to be a change. Normally, he’d take a walk to clear his head, but the list’s finality wound up freezing him. All the previous loops, he’d tried to follow his original path as closely as possible, always ending back in the observation room where the accelerator started to deteriorate and a massive blast of energy struck him. Perhaps that was the only real difference, as he’d changed spots in those final moments to see exactly where the bolt landed on the floor, even using his photographic memory to draw a precise grid of the floor panels.
What he could do with that information, he wasn’t sure. But it had to mean something.
This time, though, a weight paused him, an all-encompassing blanket that left him pondering far longer than he’d ever done.
And then it hit him: he’d deviated farther from his path than before, and nothing bad had happened.
Heck, if he wanted something bad to happen simply so it could, maybe it’d be best if he pushed farther. Or even went in the complete other direction.
At this point, he’d normally turn right, check in with the technician’s desk, grab his cart of tools and begin going through his assignments for the day. But a sharp, almost foreign defiance grabbed him.
He would turn left. He would not check in with his supervisor. Instead he’d go…
Carter’s eyes scanned, looking for the most opposite thing he could possibly do.
Of course.
His steps echoed as he pressed ahead, a strange jubilance to his feet. He moved around people milling about or talking about actual work things, practically skipping with joy until he turned to the entrance of the Hawke cafeteria and straight to the bakery station and its waft of morning pastries.
Ten minutes passed with Carter lost in his own thoughts, but that in itself turned out to be a change. Normally, he’d take a walk to clear his head, but the list’s finality wound up freezing him. All the previous loops, he’d tried to follow his original path as closely as possible, always ending back in the observation room where the accelerator started to deteriorate and a massive blast of energy struck him. Perhaps that was the only real difference, as he’d changed spots in those final moments to see exactly where the bolt landed on the floor, even using his photographic memory to draw a precise grid of the floor panels.
What he could do with that information, he wasn’t sure. But it had to mean something.
This time, though, a weight paused him, an all-encompassing blanket that left him pondering far longer than he’d ever done.
And then it hit him: he’d deviated farther from his path than before, and nothing bad had happened.
Heck, if he wanted something bad to happen simply so it could, maybe it’d be best if he pushed farther. Or even went in the complete other direction.
At this point, he’d normally turn right, check in with the technician’s desk, grab his cart of tools and begin going through his assignments for the day. But a sharp, almost foreign defiance grabbed him.
He would turn left. He would not check in with his supervisor. Instead he’d go…
Carter’s eyes scanned, looking for the most opposite thing he could possibly do.
Of course.
His steps echoed as he pressed ahead, a strange jubilance to his feet. He moved around people
milling about or talking about actual work things, practically skipping with joy until he turned to the entrance of the Hawke cafeteria and straight to the bakery station and its waft of morning pastries.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s totally fine. I, uh,” he said. She bit down on her lip, brow scrunched, though eventually they locked gazes. “I should have watched where I was going.” He gestured at the growing coffee stain on his outfit.
“You sure?”
“Absolutely. It’s work clothes. It gets dirty. No big deal.”
The woman’s expression broke, relief lifting her cheeks into a toothy grin, one of those unexpected sights that made everything a little bit better. She looked back at the group, then the coffee cup in her hands. “Damn it, I spilled a bunch. Is there a place to get a refill?”
“You’re going to the main conference room?”
“Yeah. Spent all week there.”
All week. All the times Carter had been through the loop before, even seen the names of various guest groups on schedules, and yet they’d never crossed paths—not until he did the exact opposite of his routine.
Funny how that worked.
“We finally get to see the observation room, though. In a little bit.” She held up her coffee cup. “Just need a refill somewhere along the way.”
“Café is back there,” he said, thumb pointing behind him. “Way back there.”
“Ah,” she said with furrowed brow, a conflicted look that seemed about much more than a coffee refill. “Probably should meet with the team. Not enough time.”
Not enough time. The concept almost made Carter laugh. “Well,” he said, pulling out a bag, “a donut for making you late?”
She took the bag and peaked inside, cheeks rising with a sudden smile. “I don’t usually like donuts. But these glazed ones. Simple, you know?” She shuffled the bottom of the bag to nudge the donut out the opening. “Are you sure? I spilled coffee on you.”
“Yeah. I’m, uh,” he started, pausing as their gazes lingered. “My fault for running into you.”
The wrapper crinkled as she examined it up close before taking a small bite. “I should get back to my team. Maybe they’ll hand out free coffee by the time we get to the observation room. Thanks for this.”
Carter dipped his chin, a quick farewell as he considered the inevitability of the next few hours, a march toward a chaotic and violent reset. He matched her smile, though as she turned, he pondered saying something.
Normally, he wouldn’t. But with the world exploding soon? He went with the opposite of normal.
“My name’s Carter, by the way,” he said. “Carter, the guy who gives people donuts.”
Her gaze shifted, first looking at the floor, then up at the ceiling, even at the bag on her shoulder before finally locking eyes again. “Mariana,” she said, holding up the donut bag, “the woman always looking for coffee.” She bit down on her lip before glancing around. “I’m going to tell you something completely random.”
“Okay?” Carter said slowly. “About donuts?”
She laughed, an easy, bright laugh, though her eyes carried something far heavier. “No. The group I’m with. We’re touring the facility. But I’m quitting. They don’t know yet. Today’ll be my last day. Science is great until it’s not.” Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Probably because we’ll never see each other again.” She spun on her heel, an abrupt move followed by determined steps forward.
“Not unless you need another glazed donut.”
She turned, slowing as she walked away backward, this mystery scientist who spilled coffee on him and then caught his attention. Because the idea that someone didn’t like most donuts, well, that
was as opposite as anything he’d ever encountered in his life. “Maybe that,” she said with a small grin.
“I’ll remember your name in case we do,” he said. “Mariana.”
Her fingers fluttered in a quick wave, then she turned, and Carter leaned against the wall, ignoring the people who came and went.
Mariana. Maybe he should write that down, just in case she became important. He pulled the notebook out from under his arm, only to find the pages soaked with coffee.
A pen would rip through those pages. He’d have to trust his memory to recall her name, her voice, her face. On the off chance that they ever met again.
None of it mattered anyway, but as experiments went, this morning did at least prove helpful.
Now Carter knew that he could do anything, even the opposite of normal. And that might just lead to him escaping this thing. Or, at the very least, a lot more pastries.
Mariana disappeared into the sea of people, and as she did, her words echoed in his mind. First her group went to the conference room, then the observation room above the accelerator core. He knew that space well; after all, he’d been in that same room when everything began to explode and—
Wait.
That was it. A possible connection that he’d somehow missed before. He’d been there, of all places, summoned to check some of the power conduits lining the walls as the whole thing fell apart. Could that exact space be important?
Carter’s head tilted up. Maybe the observation room held the key to everything.
And if it did, what would happen if others were caught in it too?

Excerpted from A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen. Copyright © 2024 by Mike Chen. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

About the Author:

Mike Chen is the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Brotherhood, Here and Now and Then, Light Years from Home and other novels. He has covered geek culture for sites such as Nerdist, Tor.com and StarTrek.com, and in a different life, he’s covered the NHL. A member of SFWA, Mike lives in the Bay Area with his wife, daughter and many rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter.

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Grade A #BookReview: The Missing Witness by Allison Brennan

Grade A #BookReview: The Missing Witness by Allison BrennanThe Missing Witness (Quinn & Costa, #5) by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Quinn & Costa #5
Pages: 416
Published by Mira on January 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When a key witness goes missing, Quinn and Costa must find her before a killer silences her for good…
Detective Kara Quinn is back in Los Angeles to testify against a notorious human trafficker, finally moving past the case that upended her life. But when the accused is shot by a masked man in broad daylight, the chaotic scene of the crime turns up few reliable bystanders. And one witness—a whistleblower who might be the key to everything—has disappeared.
After the prosecuting DDA is stabbed to death, it’s clear that anyone who knows too much about the investigation is in danger, and tracking down the witness becomes a matter of life or death. With government corruption running rampant and someone on the inside trying to pin anything they can on Kara, she trusts nobody except FBI special agent Matt Costa and a handful of allies.
But when explosive secrets begin to surface within the LAPD and FBI, Kara questions everything she thought she knew about the case, her colleagues and the life she left behind months ago.
Now Quinn and Costa must race to find the missing witness and get to the bottom of the avalanche of conspiracies that has rocked LA to its core…before it's too late.

My Review:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” or so Sir Walter Scott claimed – even if the quote is generally and erroneously attributed to Shakespeare. It does rather sound like one of his, after all.

The Missing Witness, both the person and the case she’s caught in the middle of, is all about those practices of deception, and the need for the FBI’s Mobile Response Team to get to the heart of those deceptions. Bloodily if necessary.

Because the case in this fifth book in the series, after The Third to Die, Tell No Lies, The Wrong Victim and last year’s Seven Girls Gone, takes LAPD Detective Kara Quinn’s temporary membership in the MRT all the way back to where it began, to the case that made LA much too hot a place for her to remain, putting her on an unwelcome vacation and pushing her straight into the path of the FBI – and into the arms of the MRT’s Special Agent in Charge, Matt Costa.

Kara has been dragged back to LA, possibly because the human trafficking case that sent her out of town is finally being brought to trial. Or, more likely because the villain of the piece wants her back in town so he can send his goons out to eliminate her – just as he’s done with all the other witnesses to his many, many crimes.

Not that both of those things aren’t true – they’re just not anything remotely like the whole entire story or any of its moduses and/or operandis.

This is a case that has always been about deception. Including covering up the fact that the case is much bigger on the inside than appears on the outside. But also because Kara’s participation at the beginning, misplaced guilt in the middle and exile at the end are all about, not the deceptions that all the perpetrators have perpetrated in order to keep the dirty deeds on the down-low. The biggest deceptions in this case are the lies that the cops who were supposed to be on Kara’s side, on her team, the people that she trusted to bring her back home to her city and her job, have been lying to her all along.

And that’s one betrayal that she has utterly no capacity to forgive.

Escape Rating A: The case in The Missing Witness was solid and compelling and confounding, all at the same time. Because it’s wrapped around something so huge, so monstrous, and so easy to hide and obfuscate, that it’s nearly impossible to see the whole of it at once.

When Kara Quinn opened this case and this can of worms not quite a year ago, it was about sweatshops and human trafficking and scum who are so rich and so well connected it seems like they can even buy forgiveness from the FBI

But Kara tipped over a huge, gigantic rock, and the things that crawled out from underneath it have tentacles reaching from the Mayor’s Office to the County Board of Supervisors to the LAPD and the LA Office of the FBI – and that’s just for starters.

So Kara left town so that the case against one human trafficker could get pulled together without her body ending up in the middle of it. But that’s not the case her friends and mentors at the LAPD are investigating. They’re investigating the much bigger monsters that crawled out from under that rock – and they’re keeping Kara out of town for her own good – or so they believe.

Their cause is righteous, but their methods are not. To the point where the left hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing – or who the left hand is killing along the way.

At its heart, this is a case about political corruption, greed and graft, and the way all those things have intersected within the morass that has been called the Homeless Industrial Complex.

But white collar corruption and fraud cases are huge and complicated. There are so many moving parts that it’s difficult to get people to understand what’s at stake and who has been staked. So an awful lot of bad has happened but it’s been hard to even get the public’s attention OR to get a District Attorney to prosecute.

Murder cases, on the other hand, are easy to reduce to the soundbite of a gunshot.

What makes this story so compelling, is the way that Kara’s pursuit of the original murder and trafficker is used as a vehicle to get us inside, to get us to care about the larger but much more amorphous corruption case that has been hiding in plain sight all along.

And the way that even though a measure of justice gets served, we still feel the depths of the betrayals Kara suffers, that the people she once believed had her back have been lying to her all along in their belief that she wouldn’t have been willing to serve the same justice they were.

Which leads to the epic conclusion of The Missing Witness, a conclusion that is certainly the ending of the story arc of the first five books in this thrilling, suspenseful series, but hopefully will lead to much more to come. Because I’ve loved this whole series and I absolutely do not want it to end!

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle Sagara

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle SagaraShards of Glass by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Elantra
Pages: 512
Published by Mira on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Academia, once an elite proving ground for the rulers of the world, has been frozen for centuries. Now its strange slumber has ended, and a new Chancellor, an orange-eyed dragon, has reopened its lecture halls and readied its dorms. In order to thrive once more, however, the Academia needs fresh blood—new students with a passion and talent for learning.
One such student, Robin, has the perfect recruit in his friend Raven, an orphan who lives in the dangerous Warrens. Robin grew up in the Warrens, and he wouldn't have made it if not for Raven. He knows she’ll be safe at the Academia, where her unusual gifts can be appreciated.
But when students start turning up dead, the campus threatens to collapse completely. Raven and Robin will not let that happen to their new home…if they can survive long enough to figure out who—or what—is trying to kill them.

My Review:

Shards of Glass is a bit of a side story in the marvelously interwoven, intricately-plotted, and long-running Chronicles of Elantra series. It takes us deep into the heart and soul (and yes, it most certainly has one, literally as well as figuratively) of the formerly lost and presumed destroyed Academia, the institution that was found hidden in a misty pocket of Elantra’s fiefs in Cast in Wisdom.

The Academia, both in its function as a school and repository of knowledge, and in the person of its sentient building, majordomo, administrator and caretaker, Killianas, is slowly recovering from its long, well, let’s call it a coma.

But it seems, at least at first, that someone or something or some force or all of the above is trying to prevent or at least delay that recovery. By way of murdering the students. That is not a situation that either the Chancellor, the Dragon Lord Lannagaros, or Killianas himself can allow to continue – not if they’re doing their jobs and/or following the purposes their hearts have called them to.

Which is where Robin, his friend Raven, and the woman they call the ‘grey crow’ wing their way into this considerably disturbed nest of learning and scholarship. Initially, they seem to be a bit at cross-purposes. Giselle, the information broker and ‘grey crow’ of the downtrodden slum known as the Warrens, just wants to get paid for bringing a new student to the Academia. Robin, once a denizen of those Warrens, wants to bring his friend Raven to the Academia, where she’ll be safe and warm and fed and be able to learn more things – just as he is.

But Robin is not safe at all, and neither is the Academia. Since it is Raven’s duty to keep Robin safe, she comes to the Academia to save him. And it. And all of the students who have come to call the place home.

Someone is murdering the students. Or something. Or magic. Or all of the above. No one is sure how they are being killed – or if the students are the intended victims. Or why its happening. Or who might benefit – or think they benefit – from the blood and the chaos.

Raven only cares that Robin is safe. So that he can fulfill a duty he hasn’t been allowed to remember. Which will bring an end to hers – whether her duty ends in success or failure, it will end in blood and tears either way.

Or will it?

Escape Rating A+: I began reading the Chronicles of Elantra in 2011, at which point the series was already seven books in. I have a distinct memory of where we were living and exactly what the room looked like as I read them – the series made that much of an impression and I was so completely hooked. My first official review of the series here at Reading Reality was for book 7, Cast in Ruin.

But, and it is an unfortunately large but in this case, as much as I love the series – and I very much still do – at this point in the main series, last year’s book 17, Cast in Eternity, it’s gotten harder and harder to get into each successive entry as the backstory has gotten bigger, more convoluted and considerably both denser AND more sprawling as it’s gone along. (I have audio for both book 16, Cast in Conflict and Cast in Eternity and have hopes the whole thing will work better for me that way.

But I love the series. I really, really love it. Which is what made both the Wolves of Elantra prequel series (The Emperor’s Wolves and Sword and Shadow), as well as this latest book, Shards of Glass, so good, so much fun, and so much easier to get stuck into.

The Wolves of Elantra is a prequel series, so it can serve as an intro to the Chronicles, but it’s also an excellent way to slip back into Elantra without having to hold all the details of everything in one’s head.

Shards of Glass, on the other hand, is a side story within the Chronicles. It sets a story almost entirely within the formerly lost Academia that was rediscovered in Cast in Wisdom and expands upon that setting and that setting pretty much alone. And it’s a fantasy mystery, which makes it all just that much better, as I love the fantasy mystery blending AND the story is contained enough within the now-mostly-functional Academia that one again does not need to remember all the ins and outs of all of Kaylin Nera’s many, many unexpected ‘adventures’ to happily get ensconced in this one.

Kaylin, the protagonist of the main Chronicles series, isn’t even a side character in Shards of Glass. She’s mentioned – as she should be all things considered – but this is most definitely NOT her story.

Instead, Shards of Glass takes the reader into the heart of that formerly lost Academia, where school is finally back in session after over a millennia of abeyance. The school, both as an institution and in the person of its sentient building and grounds, Killianas, is recovering.

At first, it seems like it’s flailing around its mystery – or at least all the characters within it are flailing, including the Dragon Chancellor and the Giant Spider Librarian. (The varieties of species, histories and perspectives are a huge part of what make the Chronicles of Elantra so much fun. The Dragons are particularly acerbic and wry, but then they can afford to be.)

A big part of the flailing is that there are so many possible motives for the murders and so little ability to settle on which one is correct. The flailing keeps falling apart on, not the classic mystery question of ‘Why benefits?’ but more a matter of who is believed to benefit or who believes they benefit and none of those possible avenues of investigation resolve to the same set of possible motives or suspects.

And of course they all turn out to be wrong – and wrong in a way that is buried in the legends of the deep past and will cause catastrophic destruction if they’re not sussed out in time and by the right people.

So Shards of Glass, both in the way the story works itself and the way it dives deeply into one of Elantra’s fundamental institutions, both fits perfectly into the way the series as a whole works and yet still introduces – or reintroduces – the reader to a small enough corner of the vastness that it’s possible to get completely stuck into the whole thing without remembering all the details of what came before.

On top of all of that, it’s a beautiful story about the power and saving grace of friendship, and that was just wonderful. Shards of Glass is worth the read for that factor alone and I’m so very glad I read it. Hopefully, by the time the next book in the main Chronicles of Elantra series, Cast in Atonement, comes out next August I will have caught back up to that last couple of books in the series that I missed.

Review: Cursed at Dawn by Heather Graham

Review: Cursed at Dawn by Heather GrahamCursed at Dawn: A Novel (The Blackbird Trilogy, 3) by Heather Graham
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook
Genres: paranormal, suspense, thriller
Series: Blackbird Trilogy #3
Pages: 304
Published by Mira on August 22, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Dracula lives—and he’s hunting for his bride.
Vampires may not walk among us, but FBI agents Della Hamilton and Mason Carter know real monsters exist. They’ve witnessed firsthand the worst humankind has to offer. They’re still catching their breaths after the apprehension of two such monstrous killers when they’re met with horrific news. Stephan Dante, the self-proclaimed king of the vampires, has escaped from prison, followed only by a trail of blood.
All too familiar with Dante’s cruelty, Della and Mason know the clock is ticking. But as Dante claims more victims, a chilling message arrives. The vampire killer seeks his eternal bride—Della herself. Playing into Dante’s desires might be the only way to stop the carnage once and for all, assuming they can outwit him. Della is confident the agents have the upper hand, but Mason knows every gamble runs the risk of not paying off, and this time, the consequences could be deadly.

My Review:

The story of the Blackbird Trilogy, Whispers at Dusk, Secrets in the Dark and this final book in the trilogy, Cursed at Dawn, is the story of one very long, dark night for the members of Blackbird – at least in the metaphorical sense because the action in this paranormal romantic suspense series takes place over more than one night – and on more than one continent.

When the series began in Whispers at Dusk, the original members of Blackbird, Special Agents Della Hamilton and Mason Carter were tasked with tracking down a serial killer calling himself the ‘King of the Vampires’ who led them on a not-so-merry chase from the bayous of Louisiana to Castle Bran in Transylvania and all points in between until he was brought to justice.

Or so they believed. Although maybe it was more like hoped even then.

The second book in the series, Secrets in the Dark, takes place while Stephen Dante was awaiting trial in a secure U.S. facility. Blackbird, now a fully international team, traveled to London to track down one of Dante’s apprentices, a man who decided that since he couldn’t beat the so-called ‘King of the Vampires’ using the ‘King’s’ own tricks of the trade he’d be better off appropriating a much older title from a much scarier killer, and took to calling himself the ‘King of the Rippers’ as he stalked Whitechapel and decorated the same streets with a fresh coating of blood and gore.

Blackbird caught him as well, and was taking a few days of well-earned R&R when they learned that Stephen Dante had orchestrated his escape from prison and was on the loose yet again, using his tried and true methods of charming or bribing a new network of acolytes and informations, stalking a new brace of beauties he intended to kill, and yet again with Agent Della Hamilton in his sights with an eye to making her his final victim.

Only this time he’s come to Edinburgh, Scotland, a city full to the brim with history, mystery and magic, abounding in ghost stories and banshee myths, with a twisty layers of buried geography that Dante knows like the back of his hand.

But so do the ghosts of Scots long ago, haunting the city from all the way back to the time of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, who are more than willing to help the living fight one more righteous battle against evil.

Dante believes he is all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful, but the ghosts level the playing field for Blackbird with powers that he can neither imagine nor counter. Even as they help to bring his reign of terror to a crashing end.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve enjoyed the entire Blackbird Trilogy, and certainly have been caught up in each entry as soon as I started it, but I liked this one just a tick better because we spent next to no time in Stephen Dante’s head, nor that of any of his proteges. His is not the point-of-view I want to experience. I want to see the case through the investigators’ eyes to watch as the solution fits and starts and eventually falls into place. I don’t need to see the bodies drop to be caught up in the drama and terror, I just need to know they’ve fallen – which we certainly do in this story.

Although it probably helped a bit that there are few actual deaths in this entry in the series. Dante and particularly his minions, keep snatching people but he’s made too many mistakes, he’s let the Blackbird team, especially Della Hamilton, get to know him a bit too well, and this time around they manage to get there in time to save people considerably more of the time.

Which makes this one more about the psychological terror that they know he’s going to strike again – and has and does – than the actual horror of quite so many of his staged tableaux of pale, cold, bloodless, ‘sleeping’ beauties.

(But speaking of what has come before, although the Blackbird Trilogy is an offshoot of the Krewe of Hunters series, you don’t have to read that to get into this. There’s just the right amount of catching up infodumping that Cursed at Dawn probably stands alone – but it would be better to start with Whispers at Dusk to see the team come together.)

The Blackbird Trilogy is a combination of paranormal romance and romantic suspense, and it’s a combo that holds a near and dear place in my reading heart. We began with watching Della and Mason find each other, set against the backdrop of the team coming together and following Dante’s trail of blood and death. As the trilogy has continued, it’s been fun to watch more members get swept into the action, as they band together to track an intelligent, organized and elusive – also illusive – killer.

The trilogy is riveting from its bloody beginning to its killer’s crushing end. Justice has been served after a harrowing investigation, and it’s righteous. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Blackbird, and I know I’ll pick up the Krewe of Hunters again whenever I’m looking for more deliciously chilling paranormal romantic suspense.

Review: Secrets in the Dark by Heather Graham

Review: Secrets in the Dark by Heather GrahamSecrets in the Dark: A Novel (The Blackbird Trilogy, 2) by Heather Graham
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense, thriller
Series: Blackbird Trilogy #2
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on July 25, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Over a century after Jack, a new Ripper is on the loose.
Following in the footsteps of notorious serial murderer Jack the Ripper, a killer is stalking the streets of London. The self-dubbed Ripper King strikes at night, leaving a trail of eviscerated bodies in his wake. Fresh off a case with potential ties to the recent rash of killings, FBI agents Della Hamilton and Mason Carter are all too familiar with a slayer set to rule with a lethal fist. And they’ll stop at nothing to end his reign.
The killer’s MO may be nothing new, but his desire to be infamous makes him dangerous. Della and Mason know it’s only a matter of time before their investigation emboldens this new Ripper, forcing the agents to work quickly before another woman winds up dead. But now that the heat is on, their game of cat and mouse takes an unexpected turn, leading Della and Mason into a deadly trap they never saw coming…

My Review:

There are characters that never die. Some are fictional, as yesterday’s review of a brand new Sherlock Holmes pastiche proves. Some, however, are completely factual – or at least as much facts as are known – and they seem to have a life of their own.

Especially those who were into the business of killing in a really splashy way. Like Jack the Ripper. Who would have been a contemporary of, and might even have been identified by, the above mentioned Sherlock Holmes. If both of them had been factual, that is.

(If that idea appeals, take a look at either Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye or Sherlock Holmes & the Ripper of Whitechapel. I digress.)

Secrets in the Dark, however, presents a modern-day Ripper going head to head (or heads) with a much different breed of detective – the new international branch of the Krewe of Hunters, codenamed Blackbird.

Blackbird, in the persons of FBI agents Mason Carter and Della Hamilton, forms the heart of an investigative team that includes agents seconded from Britain, France, Norway with connections to and sanctions from Interpol, to hunt down and apprehend serial killers crossing international borders to carry out their grisly ‘work’.

In the first riveting book in the Blackbird trilogy, Whispers at Dusk in addition to ‘getting the band together’ and Mason and Della getting romantically together, Blackbird brought the notorious ‘Vampire Killer’ to justice in the U.S.

Or so they believed.

But Stephan Dante, AKA the ‘Vampire Killer’, wasn’t just a serial killer – as frightening as that thought is. He was every bit as expert in finding others just as disaffected, disillusioned and downright psychotic as himself, and training them in his methods. Not just his methods of killing, but in his all-too-successful methods of denying the police even a scintilla of trace evidence for forensics to sink their investigative teeth into.

Now that the Vampire Killer is behind bars, one of his best (worst, most-adept, all-of-the-above dammit) apprentices has decided it’s his time to shine. Jack the Ripper is back, leaving a trail of bloody corpses in the back alleys of modern-day Whitechapel, taunting the police and the public by way of both old-fashioned letters and new-fangled social media. Promising a spree that will put his old mentor in the shade and make the original Jack’s gruesome trail seem downright tame in comparison.

Blackbird has the new Jack in their sights, just as they did his old teacher. They’re getting closer than he believes – in spite of his ability to hide in plain sight and follow their every move.

Escape Rating B+: This was a bit of the right book at the right time. I did fall straight into the story because I already knew the characters and the premise after the first book, Whispers at Dusk, and I did find it a compelling read, but I did have a couple of niggles along the way, which I’ll get to in a minute.

First, and not a niggle at all, you do not need to have read the entire Krewe of Hunters series from which this is a spinoff to get into Blackbird. I’m certain of this because I haven’t. By the nature of the team and the way they work with local police liaisons, there’s always a natural opportunity to give any newbies, whether in story or reading the story, to get caught up enough to make it work.

I think one probably does need to read the first Blackbird book, Whispers at Dusk, because the events and circumstances follow directly on from Whispers, and Whispers has done the heavy-lifting of getting the team together and putting Mason and Della into both their working AND their romantic partnership.

The idea of someone attempting to recreate the historical Ripper killings, whether by location or method or both, is neither new nor even completely fictional. The Yorkshire Ripper, AKA Peter Sutcliffe, was clearly a more northerly copycat who operated between 1975 and 1980. Not long ago at all.

But the Ripper King of the Blackbird Trilogy is thankfully fictional – and also totally out of his gourd. The reader does get to take a few trips into his head – and I’d rather have skipped those bits. I read this kind of suspense to see the competent team catch the killer so that part wasn’t my cuppa. It wasn’t too much or too far over the top, but I’d have enjoyed the book more without.

I also wish the killer hadn’t focused on Della exactly the way that his mentor did. I also wish the team had at least one more female agent on it. I can’t put my finger on why, but it bothers me that there don’t seem to be any other female agents except for background characters.

(I recognize that’s a me thing and may not be a you thing.)

So I liked this as much as I did the first book in the Blackbird Trilogy, Whispers at Dusk, and I certainly got into it every bit as fast and stayed stuck in it just as hard to the very end. More than enough that I’m looking forward to see this case get wrapped up in Cursed at Dawn later this month!

Review: The Third to Die by Allison Brennan

Review: The Third to Die by Allison BrennanThe Third to Die (Quinn & Costa #1) by Allison Brennan
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Quinn & Costa #1
Pages: 550
Published by Mira on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

An edgy female police detective... An ambitious FBI special agent. Together they are at the heart of the ticking-clock investigation for a psychopathic serial killer. The bond they forge in this crucible sets the stage for high-stakes suspense.
Detective Kara Quinn, on leave from the LAPD, is on an early morning jog in her hometown of Liberty Lake when she comes upon the body of a young nurse. The manner of death shows a pattern of highly controlled rage. Meanwhile in DC, FBI special agent Mathias Costa is staffing his newly minted Mobile Response Team. Word reaches Matt that the Liberty Lake murder fits the profile of the compulsive Triple Killer. It will be the first case for the MRT. This time they have a chance to stop this zealous if elusive killer before he strikes again. But only if they can figure out who he is and where he is hiding before he disappears for another three years. The stakes are higher than ever before, because if they fail, one of their own will be next...

My Review:

I fell hard for this compelling mystery/suspense/thriller series a couple of years ago when I got utterly absorbed in the second book in the series, Tell No Lies, without ever having read the first. My absorption and compulsion has not wavered a bit after reading the third book in the series, The Wrong Victim, and even the recent fourth book, Seven Girls Gone, still without having gone back to this first book in the Quinn & Costa series.

My recent vacation presented a golden opportunity to rectify that omission, to go back and read where it all began. And what a beginning it was!

LAPD Detective Kara Quinn is on a forced vacation back in her tiny home town of Liberty Lake, Washington. At least Kara believes it is merely a mandatory vacation, and it’s not like she doesn’t have plenty of leave to burn and an equal amount of job and life related PTSD that she’s totally unwilling to acknowledge – let alone deal with.

That there is crap going on back in LA that will be resolved ‘better’ in her absence – for select and bureaucratic definitions of ‘better’ and questionably ‘better’ for whom – is something that her boss is keeping from her. And he’s probably right to do so.

Which doesn’t make actually taking a vacation any easier for Kara, who would much rather be working than thinking of all the crap that went wrong in her most recent case. No matter how happy she is to spend time with her grandmother who lives outside the tiny town.

Kara doesn’t exactly WANT to discover a dead body on the shores of Liberty Lake. But that doesn’t stop her from seizing the opportunity to assist the FBI’s understaffed and still not fully together Mobile Response Team when it rolls up to investigate the murder.

Because the body that Kara found has all the hallmarks of being the first in the latest round of murders committed by the infamous Triple Killer. An organized serial killer who seems to have made no mistakes so far, to have left no clues and no trace evidence behind, as he carries out his mission. Even though, at least so far – the FBI’s best profiler can’t determine what that mission is.

All that is known is that once every three years, beginning on March 3, the Triple Killer murders three seemingly random victims, three days apart. Then goes dormant for three years, only to start again in a different city, in a different state, leaving the same calling card – three bodies, killed by the single stroke of a double-sided blade from left shoulder to right hip, crossed by three post-mortem cuts across the abdomen, with the body displayed in a ceremonial fashion in a place where it will be discovered eventually but not immediately.

It’s a race against time as FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt Costa and his barely together Mobile Response Team invade tiny Liberty Lake in the desperate hope of finding the Triple Killer before he completes his mission and retreats into the shadows for another three years.

Costa needs all the help he can get. Kara needs a case to keep her mind occupied while she waits to discover what is happening with the case back in LA. And the killer is compelled to complete his self-appointed mission at all costs.

There aren’t going to be any winners in this one, as there have already been too many deaths. Keeping the body count from getting any higher, is going to have to be win enough for Quinn & Costa.

If they can.

Escape Rating A: I’m not at all sure that the blurb for this one even begins to do it justice, but the book was everything I hoped it would be. And I came into it with some damn high hopes!

The Third to Die had every single thing that I loved in the later books in this series, with the added element of putting the team together that can be so much fun when it’s done right – as it is in this first book in the Quinn & Costa series.

(Sometimes the heavy lifting of getting the team in place can really bog down a first series book, but that absolutely was NOT the case here. My perspective may be a bit skewed because I’ve already read the later book so I’ve seen this team together, which leads me to the conclusion that you really can start this series anywhere and buckle up for a seriously compelling ride no matter where you begin.)

One of the things I love about this series is the stellar ‘competence porn’. Costa, his hand-picked team, and ‘volunteer’ Quinn are all top-notch in their fields of expertise, and it shows in the way the case goes from a thin file on an elusive killer to a full profile over the course of a few, short, intense days.

And while that profile is built by the team’s crack profiler still back home in DC, the way the case gets broken so that profile can be built comes primarily from Quinn’s uncanny ability to think very far outside the box. Her investigative instincts combined with her outsider perspective means that she asks questions that no one has ever asked before – because she doesn’t know which questions have and have not been asked and doesn’t really care whose toes she steps on along the way.

Which leads back to that last case in LA, but not yet. (The case comes up in the next three books in the series, and it looks like the issues – or at least some of them – are going to be investigated more thoroughly – if not resolved – in the fifth book in the series, The Missing Witness, which, dammit, I’m going to have to wait until January for.)

What keeps The Third to Die moving at its breakneck pace – in spite of its length – is the ticking clock the team is driven by every single minute. The Triple Killer kills on March 3, March 6, and March 9. Kara Quinn discovers the body on the morning of March 3. The team has to get from Washington DC to Washington state and hit the ground running, with less than 72 hours until the next body drops. They have no leads, no motives, no suspects. And not just one but two local jurisdictions who are less than thrilled with the FBI operating on their turf without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

So it’s political, and it’s desperate, and it’s a race against time every step of the way. And it’s impossible for the reader – or at least this reader – to stop turning pages until it’s done.

Review: Whispers at Dusk by Heather Graham

Review: Whispers at Dusk by Heather GrahamWhispers at Dusk: A Novel (The Blackbird Trilogy, 1) by Heather Graham
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense, thriller
Series: Blackbird Trilogy #1
Pages: 320
Published by Mira on June 27, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

When darkness falls, there’s nowhere to hide.
Four bodies have been discovered along Europe’s riverbanks, placed with care—and completely drained of blood. Pinpricks on their throats indicate a slender murder weapon, but DNA found in the wounds suggests something far more sinister. Tasked with investigating, the FBI recruits Agents Della Hamilton and Mason Carter to Blackbird, an international offshoot of the Krewe of Hunters. If you want to catch a vampire killer, you need agents who can speak with the dead.
The pair travel to Norway, where the shadowy forests of Lillehammer reveal a gruesome scene. The killer is thirsty for more victims, and the bloodless trail soon leads Della and Mason to a group that believes drinking blood is the key to immortality. To catch the culprit of such an intimate crime, the agents will have to get close. Mason’s already lost one partner; he’s not ready to risk Della as bait. But sometimes justice requires a sacrifice…

My Review:

Bram Stoker used every myth and legend of blood-drinking ghouls – and there were plenty of them – and added just a pinch of history (and a tiny pinch at that) to create his legendary blood-sucking monster, Count Dracula.

The vampire killer that the latest members of the Krewe of Hunters are chasing, on the other hand, just cribbed off of Hollywood to create his own version of that legendary villain. Which does not make him any less frightening or any less of a monster.

Perhaps even a bit more so, as he seems to have all the mesmerizing charm of those movie villains, as well as an uncanny ability to choose “apprentices” who can be persuaded to carry on his work with just the right promises of infamy and immortality couched in cult-like justification.

But this serial killer is absolutely not a “real” vampire – even if he is a blood-sucking fiend. He’s still only human – and crazy like a fox.

The Krewe of Hunters is a very special unit of the FBI, as established in the first book in the long-running series, Phantom Evil. As part of the FBI, the Krewe operates in the United States, based out of New Orleans. But this wannabe vampire killer is operating in Europe. Mostly. So far. But not for long.

With murders attributed to this madman scattered from London to Paris to Lillehammer in Norway – when this story begins – Interpol and the various local police agencies are in the hunt up to their necks – so to speak – when the FBI assigns two new members of the Krewe to the international team hunting the killer.

Or killers.

Although the Krewe often deals with supernatural crimes, there isn’t anything woo-woo about the vampire killer – no matter his method of draining the blood of his victims. But that doesn’t mean that the special abilities that the Krewe’s members have won’t come to excellent use in this hunt.

Agents Della Hamilton and Mason Carter, both new to the Krewe, are able to see – and speak to – ghosts. A talent that is going to help them catch this killer before any more of his victims join the dead.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I was looking for something with more of a romantic suspense vibe, I had vague memories of having read at least a few of the early books in the Krewe of Hunters series, and this looked like a good place to jump back in.

And so it proved.

The Krewe of Hunters series is 38 books and counting, and I’ll admit I didn’t feel like starting back near the beginning. At least not right now, although I certainly liked this more than enough for the series to go into my comfort reads rotation. But I don’t remember any more of the setup than is provided in this first book in the new Blackbird subseries, so you don’t need to be familiar with the Krewe to start here.

Whispers at Dusk struck me as a combination of Jayne Ann Krentz’ contemporary entries in her Arcane Society/Harmony series, as the team has a mix of psychic or other special talents which are useful to solving the case without necessarily being integral to it. The quick flash and hot burn of the romance between Della and Mason also has a similar vibe to the romances in that series. At the same time it blends the putting the band together and police procedural aspects of Andrea Kane’s Forensic Instincts series (another series I need to get a round tuit to get back to!)

The case in this one is taut and chilling. While no one – at least on the police side – is fool enough to believe there’s a real vampire, the idea that a serial killer has chosen to strike fear by mimicking one is bad enough. That the killer is training others in his methods and leaving a cult of killers in his wake is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies, vampire or no.

What keeps the reader on the edge of their seat is the relentless pace of the story, as the killer leads the newly-formed team on a not-merry-at-all chase from one remote and historically significant location to another, from Lillehammer to the Orkneys to the swamps around Lake Pontchartrain, leaving clues and victims in their wake while dropping hints of their next kill and their intent to make Della their crowning achievement – either by turning her to their ‘dark side’ or leaving her drained corpse as a final monument to their twisted genius.

This one is a creeping, blood-sucking thrill ride from beginning to end. I will absolutely be back for the second installment in this suspenseful chase for next in this series of serial killers with in twist in Secrets in the Dark, coming next month!

Spotlight + Excerpt: Cassandra in Reverse by Holly Smale

Spotlight + Excerpt: Cassandra in Reverse by Holly SmaleCassandra in Reverse by Holly Smale
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, time travel romance
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on June 11, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


If you had the power to change the past…where would you start?

Cassandra Penelope Dankworth is a creature of habit. She likes what she likes (museums, jumpsuits, her boyfriend, Will) and strongly dislikes what she doesn't (mess, change, her boss drinking out of her mug). Her life runs in a pleasing, predictable order…until now.• She's just been dumped.• She's just been fired.• Her local café has run out of banana muffins.
Then, something truly unexpected happens: Cassie discovers she can go back and change the past. One small rewind at a time, Cassie attempts to fix the life she accidentally obliterated, but soon she'll discover she's trying to fix all the wrong things.

Welcome to the blog tour for Cassandra in Reverse by Holly Smale. I’ll be reviewing this book later this month, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of a teaser to whet ALL of our reading appetites!

Here’s how Cassandra’s story starts…(Excerpt from the first chapter of Cassandra in Reverse by Holly Smale)

WHERE DOES A STORY START?

   It’s a lie, the first page of a book, because it masquerades as a beginning. A real beginning—the opening of something—when what you’re being offered is an arbitrary line in the sand. This story starts here. Pick a random event. Ignore whatever came before it or catch up later. Pretend the world stops when the book closes, or that a resolution isn’t simply another random moment on a curated timeline.

  • But life isn’t like that, so books are dishonest.
  • Maybe that’s why humans like them.
  • And it’s saying that kind of shit that gets me thrown out of the Fentiman Road Book Club.

Here are some other things I’ve been asked not to return to:

  • The Blenheim Road Readers Group
  • A large flat-share I briefly attempted in Walthamstow
  • My last relationship
  • My current job

   The final two have been in quick succession. This morning, Will—my boyfriend of four months—kissed me, listed my virtues out of nowhere and concluded the pep talk by ending our relationship.

   The job situation I found out about eighty seconds ago.

   According to the flexing jaw and flared nostrils of my boss, I’ve yet to respond to this new information. He seems faint and muted, as if he’s behind a pane of thick frosted glass. He also has a dried oat on his shirt collar but now doesn’t seem the right time to point it out: he’s married—his wife can do it later.

   “Cassie,” he says more loudly. “Did you hear me?”

   Obviously I heard him or I’d still be giving a detailed report on the client meeting I just had, which is exactly what I was doing when he fired me.

   “The issue isn’t so much your work performance,” he plows on gallantly. “Although, Christ knows, somebody who hates phone calls as much as you do shouldn’t be working in public relations.”

   I nod: that’s an accurate assessment.

   “It’s your general demeanor I can’t have in this office. You are rude. Insubordinate. Arrogant, frankly. You are not a team player, and do you know what this office needs?”

   “A better coffee machine.”

   “That’s exactly the kind of bullshit I’m talking about.”

   I’d tell you my boss’s name and give him a brief description, but judging by this conversation, he isn’t going to be a prominent character for much longer.

   “I’ve spoken to you about this on multiple occasions— Cassandra, look at me when I’m talking to you. Our highest-paying client just dropped us because of your quote, unquote relentlessly grating behavior. You are unlikable. That’s the exact word they used. Unlikable. Public relations is a People Job. For People People.

   Now, just hang on a minute.

   “I’m a person,” I object, lifting my chin and doing my best to stare directly into his pupils. “And, as far as I’m aware, being likable is irrelevant to my job description. It’s certainly not in my contract, because I’ve checked.”

   My boss’s nostrils flare into horsiness.

   I rarely understand what another human is thinking, but I frequently feel it: a wave of emotion that pours out of them into me, like a teapot into a cup. While it fills me up, I have to work out what the hell it is, where it came from and what I’m supposed to do to stop it spilling everywhere.

   Rage that doesn’t feel like mine pulses through me: dark purple and red.

   His colors are an invasion and I do not like it.

   “Look,” my boss concludes with a patient sigh that is nothing like the emotion bolting out of him. “This just isn’t working out, Cassie, and on some level you must already know that. Maybe you should find something that is better suited to your…specific skill set.”

   That’s essentially what Will told me this morning too. I don’t know why they’re both under the impression I must have seen the end coming when I very much did not.

   “Your job has the word relations in it,” my boss clarifies helpfully. “Perhaps you could find one that doesn’t?”

   Standing up, I clear my throat and look at my watch: it’s not even Wednesday lunchtime yet.

   Relationship: over.

   Job: over.

“Well,” I say calmly. “Fuck.”

So that’s where my story starts.

It could have started anywhere: I just had to pick a moment. It could have been waking up this morning to the sound of my flatmates screaming at each other, or eating my breakfast (porridge and banana, always), or making an elaborate gift for my first anniversary with Will (slightly preemptive).

   It could have been the moment just before I met him, which would have been a more positive beginning. It could have been the day my parents died in a car accident, which would have been considerably less so.

   But I chose here: kind of in the middle.

   Thirty-one years into my story and a long time after the dramatic end of some others. Packing a cardboard box with very little, because it transpires the only thing on my desk that doesn’t belong to the agency is a gifted coffee mug with a picture of a cartoon deer on it. I put it in the box anyway. There’s no real way of knowing what’s going to happen next, but I assume there will still be caffeine.

   “Oh shit!” My colleague Sophie leans across our desks as I stick a wilting plant under my arm just to look like I’m not leaving another year of my life behind with literally nothing to show for it. “They haven’t fired you? That’s awful. I’m sure we will all miss you so much.”

   I genuinely have no idea if she means this or not. If she does, it’s certainly unexpected: we’ve been sitting opposite each other since I got here and all I really know about her is that she’s twenty-two years old and likes tuna sandwiches, typing aggressively and picking her nose as if none of us have peripheral vision.

   “Will you?” I ask, genuinely curious. “Why?”

   Sophie opens her mouth, shuts it again and goes back to smashing her keyboard as if she’s playing whack-a-mole with her fingertips.

   “Cassandra!” My boss appears in the doorway just as I start cleaning down my keyboard with one of my little antiseptic wipes. “What the hell are you doing? I didn’t mean leave right now. Jesus on a yellow bicycle, what is wrong with you? I’d prefer you to work out your notice period, please.”

   “Oh.” I look down at the box and my plant. I’ve packed now. “No, thank you.”

   Finished with cleaning, I sling my handbag over my shoulder and my coat over my arm, hold the box against my stomach, awkwardly hook the plant in the crook of my elbow and try to get the agency door open on my own. Then I hold it open with my knee while I look back, even though—much like Orpheus at the border of the Underworld—I know I shouldn’t.

   The office has never been this quiet.

   Heads are conscientiously turned away from me, as if I’m a sudden bright light. There’s a light patter of keyboards like pigeons walking on a roof (punctuated by the violent death stabs of Sophie), the radiator by the window is gurgling, the reception is blindingly gold-leafed and the watercooler drips. If I’m looking for something good to come out of today—and I think I probably should—it’s that I won’t have to hear that every second for the rest of my working life.

   It’s a productivity triumph. They should fire people for fundamental personality flaws more often.

   The door slams behind me and I jump even though I’m the one who slammed it. Then my phone beeps, so I balance everything precariously on one knee and fumble for it. I try to avoid having unread notifications if I can. They make my bag feel heavy.

Dankworth please clean your shit up

   I frown as I reply:

Which shit in particular

   There’s another beep.

   Very funny. Keep the kitchen clear

It is a COmmUNAL SPaCE.

   It wasn’t funny a couple of weeks ago when I came down for a glass of water in the middle of the night and found Sal and Derek having sex against the fridge.

   Although perhaps that is the definition of communal.

   Still frowning, I hit the button for the lift and mentally scour the flat for what I’ve done wrong this time. I forgot to wash my porridge bowl and spoon. There’s also my favorite yellow scarf on the floor and a purple jumper over the arm of the sofa. This is my sixth flat-share in ten years and I’m starting to feel like a snail: carrying my belongings around with me so I leave no visible trace.

   I send back:

OK.

My intestines are rapidly liquidizing, my cheeks are hot and a bright pink rash I can’t see is forming across my chest. Dull pain wraps itself around my neck, like a scarf pulled tight.

   It’s fascinating how emotions can tie your life together.

   One minute you’re twelve, standing in the middle of a playground while people fight over who doesn’t get you as a teammate. The next you’re in your thirties, single and standing by the lifts of an office you’ve just been fired from because nobody wants you as a teammate. Same sensations, different body. Literally: my cells have cunningly replaced themselves at least twice in the interim.

   The office door swings open. “Cassandra?”

   Ronald has worn the same thing—a navy cashmere jumper—every day since he started working here a few months ago. It smells really lovely, so I’m guessing there must be plural. He walks toward me and I immediately panic. Now and then I’ve caught him looking at me from the neighboring desk with an incalculable expression on his face, and I have no idea what it could be. Lust? Repulsion? I’ve been scripting a response to the former for a month now, just in case.

I am honored by your romantic and/or sexual interest in me given that we’ve only exchanged perfunctory greetings, but I have a long-term boyfriend I am almost definitely in the process of falling in love with.

   Well, that excuse isn’t going to work anymore, is it.

   Ronald clears his throat and runs a large hand over his buzz-cut Afro. “That’s mine.”

   “Who?” I blink, disoriented by the grammar. “Me?”

   “The plant.” He points at the shrubbery now clutched under my sweaty armpit. “It’s mine and I’d like to keep it.”

   Ah, the sweet, giddy flush of humiliation is now complete.

   “Of course,” I say stiffly. “Sorry, Ronald.”

   Ronald blinks and reaches out a hand; I move quickly away so his fingers won’t touch mine, nearly dropping the pot in the process. It’s the same fun little dance I do when I have to pay with cash at the supermarket checkout, which is why I always carry cards.

   I get into the lift and press the button. Ronald now appears to be casually assessing me as if I’m a half-ripe avocado, so I stare at the floor until he reaches a conclusion.

   “Bye,” he says finally.

   “Bye,” I say as the lift doors slide shut.

And that’s how my story starts.

   With a novelty mug in a box, a full character assassination and the realization that when I leave a building I am missed considerably less than a half-dead rubber plant.

Excerpted from CASSANDRA IN REVERSE. Copyright © 2023 by Holly Smale. Published by MIRA, an imprint of HarperCollins.

 

About the Author:

Holly Smale is the internationally bestselling, award-winning author of the Geek Girl (soon to be a Netflix series) and The Valentines teen series, which have sold 3.4 million copies worldwide. In January 2021, Holly was diagnosed autistic at the age of 39. Suddenly a lot of things made sense. Holly regularly shares, debates about, and celebrates neurodiversity on Twitter and Instagram @holsmale. Cassandra in Reverse is her adult debut and was named A Reese’s Book Club Pick, an Amazon Editors’ Top Pick of the Month, and a June Must Listen on Apple.

Social Links:
Author Website: https://www.hollysmale.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/holsmale
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/holsmale/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5824402.Holly_Smale

Review: Seven Girls Gone by Allison Brennan

Review: Seven Girls Gone by Allison BrennanSeven Girls Gone (Quinn & Costa, #4) by Allison Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Quinn & Costa #4
Pages: 443
Published by Mira on April 25, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For three years, women have been disappearing—and eventually turning up dead in the small bayou town of St. Augustine, Louisiana. Police detective Beau Hebert is the only one who seems to care, but with every witness quickly silenced and a corrupt police department set on keeping the cases unsolved, Beau’s investigation stalls at every turn.
With nobody else to trust, Beau calls in a favor from his friend on the FBI’s Mobile Response Team. While LAPD detective Kara Quinn works undercover to dig into the women’s murders and team leader Matt Costa officially investigates the in-custody death of a witness, Beau might finally have a chance at solving the case.
But in a town where everyone knows everyone, talking gets you killed and secrets stay buried, it’s going to take the entire team working around the clock to unravel the truth. Especially when they discover that the deep-seated corruption and the deadly drug-trafficking ring at the center of it all extends far beyond the small-town borders.

My Review:

To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Something is rotten in the parish of Broussard,” specifically in the town of St. Augustine, in the heart of the Louisiana bayou.

When we first meet St. Augustine detective Beau Hebert, there are already five women dead, one missing and presumed the same, and a man has just committed murder in front of an entire crowd of folks mostly waiting for their turn in a bar that EVERYONE in town knows is a front for the local brothel and illegal drugs distributor.

There’s a lot going on, all of it bad, and looking like it’s going to get worse. Detective Hebert is pretty damn certain that his boss, the chief of police, is in on the whole mess past his wallet and up to his neck, and that there’s a fix in with the District Attorney. Between the two of them, nothing ever gets done and no one ever gets brought up on charges no matter how much evidence Hebert brings in.

Because it all disappears somewhere along the way.

At the end of his rope, feeling like his time is running out one way or another, with no one to turn to, Hebert phones a friend. An old friend from his days in the Navy, who just so happens to be a member of FBI Special Agent in Charge Mathias Costa’s Mobile Response Team.

Hebert thinks all he needs is someone to talk to – because he has too many hostages to fortune in the parish to rock the very rotten boat. But friends don’t leave friends out on a limb all alone, so Costa’s entire team makes their way to the heart of the bayou to dredge up all the muck that’s obscuring what’s at the bottom of the filthy water.

Along with all the alligators lurking among the corrupt powers that be in this tiny town. The thing about gators is that they bite. What those antediluvian descendants of dinosaurs don’t know – at least not yet – is that Costa and his team bite back.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up for two reasons. First and foremost, because I fell straight into the plot and the team dynamics of this bunch when I read the second book in the Quinn & Costa series, Tell No Lies. I couldn’t put that one down, and the same was true of the third book in the series, The Wrong Victim. So I went into this one expecting a compelling thriller – and I mostly got that.

I also love this series for its ‘competence porn’ aspects. I was in the mood for something where the protagonists knew what the hell they were doing and weren’t worrying about the consequences of doing it. I was certain that was something I’d get in this series and I was pretty much all in.

The only thing keeping this from being an A+ like the previous two books is that the question about whether the relationship between Mathias Costa and Kara Quinn is merely friends-with-benefits, all hidden on the down-low because of their working relationship, or whether it’s going to be an actual ‘Relationship’ with a capital ‘R’ got a bit too angsty and had a bit too much of an impact on both of their behaviors during this case.

Which had all the angst it needed without throwing the emotional baggage they are both lugging around about romance into the mix.

The case itself had me on the edge of my seat because of the way the stakes start out high and just keep getting higher. And because even from the opening, it’s obvious to EVERYONE that someone – or several someones – have committed horrible crimes and that someone powerful is doing more terrible things to keep those crimes covered up.

The question that plagues Beau Hebert at the beginning, and Costa’s entire team once they get there, is exactly who to pin what on. Because someone keeps making the evidence disappear – right along with any potential witnesses. But there are so many motives and so many victims that the air is as thick with suspects as it is with humidity.

And there’s a traitor in their midst muddying the already murky waters, as well as a terrible question. As horrible as the situation is, and as frightened as every single person in town seems to be of pretty much everything – and rightfully so, if Costa and his team do manage to clean out the gators is anyone going to be left with the strength and the will and the sheer moxie to prevent the whole damn parish from sinking back down into the mire?

But that’s not Costa’s job. His job is to arrest the perpetrators with enough evidence to make the charges stick all the way to long jail terms – and to protect his team at all costs. Before all is said and done, and for once more is done than said and not the other way around, that cost almost becomes too high to pay.

While the team wraps up this case with a VERY satisfactory bow at the end, it does not read as if the Quinn & Costa series is anywhere near finished – which is an excellent thing! But there is not currently a next book in the series listed, I have hope there will be one. I am hooked on this author, so I’m very happy that the author has an upcoming standalone thriller, North of Nowhere (due out this August) to tide me over while I wait!

Review: Vampire Weekend by Mike Chen

Review: Vampire Weekend by Mike ChenVampire Weekend by Mike Chen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal, vampires
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on January 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Being a vampire is far from glamorous...but it can be pretty punk rock.
Everything you've heard about vampires is a lie. They can't fly. No murders allowed (the community hates that). And turning into a bat? Completely ridiculous. In fact, vampire life is really just a lot of blood bags and night jobs. For Louise Chao, it's also lonely, since she swore off family ages ago.
At least she's gone to decades of punk rock shows. And if she can join a band of her own (while keeping her...situation under wraps), maybe she'll finally feel like she belongs, too.
Then a long-lost teenage relative shows up at her door. Whether it's Ian's love of music or his bad attitude, for the first time in ages, Louise feels a connection.
But as Ian uncovers Louise's true identity, things get dangerous--especially when he asks her for the ultimate favor. One that goes beyond just family...one that might just change everything vampires know about life and death forever.

My Review:

Vampires don’t sparkle. Everybody knows that’s a complete fabrication. Totally fictional. Also slightly ridiculous.

As Louise Chao has discovered over the decades, most of the things that people thought they knew about vampires are every bit as mythical as that sparkle. And Louise ought to know. She’s been a vampire for those same decades. For her, being a vampire isn’t remotely glamorous, nor is she accumulating wealth. She certainly doesn’t have super-strength or any other super-senses.

She’s absolutely not draining innocent – or even not so innocent – victims dry every night. Not only is that frowned upon – with extreme prejudice – by the vampire community, but honestly it’s not nearly as easy as it looks to bite someone in the carotid artery. The angles are just all wrong and the fangs aren’t nearly as sharp as fiction would have one believe.

For Louise, being a vampire is an endless search for night jobs to pay the bills while scrounging for safe sources of blood to stave off starvation. Her only solace is the best dog in the world, Lola.

Her best human friend died in a car crash just before COVID really sunk its teeth into the human population and psyche. Her Aunt Laura, the only family who ever accepted her as her punk rock, non-conforming self, died years ago and left her the house they shared in San Francisco.

It’s a lonely life. When the local blood supplies start running low, literal starvation is just a metaphor – although a gnawing, achingly, empty metaphor – for the starvation of the heart and spirit that Louise is already living in.

Until her self-imposed isolation is invaded by her long-lost family. Two of them. A middle-aged man who seems vaguely familiar, and a teenage boy who reminds Louise so very strikingly of the young, rebellious music loving rebel she used to be. And deep in her bruised heart, still very much is.

Ian needs a refuge from his mother’s impending death that will give him just a bit more distance and perspective than the bad attitude he’s currently fronting as his defense against the world. Louise isn’t able to admit it, even to herself, but she needs somebody to connect her to the world that might otherwise pass her by. She needs more than just a shitty job and a refrigerator full of blood bags.

All she has to do is let herself connect. To this teenager who needs a safe place to be himself. To the self that she left behind. And to the community that is willing to make her life a whole lot easier – and just a bit closer to some of those powers she thought were myths – if she’ll just let all of them in.

Escape Rating B+: Louise’s journey in Vampire Weekend is a combination of “no matter where you go, there you are” and “who do you want to be when you grow up?” Because Louise hasn’t. Grown up, that is. And that not-grown-up self has been dragging behind her and holding her back for decades. When Ian drops into her life – and all the landmines in her past that he unwittingly brings with him – she’s forced to reckon with who she once was and the baggage she’s still carrying from that person.

(One thing about all those vampire myths to get out of the way before anyone gets skeeved about Louise’s relationship with Ian. Vampires in Louise’s world are all asexual. The genetic and biological change of human to vampire kills off all the chemistry that creates both arousal and sexual gratification. Another vampire myth shot down.)

What makes Louise’s journey interesting is that her vampiric existence has meant that she hasn’t had to move on from the traumas of her family of origin. She hasn’t grown up because she hasn’t had to. So everything she took with her from her parent’s house when she left is still festering. When Ian and his grandfather drop into her life, because they’re part of the family that rejected both her and her beloved Aunt Laura, she has to finally process her shit because Ian is tangential to it and his grandfather is a bigger part of it than she even recognizes.

While the heart of this story is Louise’s growing relationship with Ian and her reconciliation with her own past, there’s another story woven into its edges that moves toward center stage as it progresses.

When there are vampires, it seems as if there are always politics and this story is no exception. At first the larger vampire community is on the periphery of Louise’s life – and that’s where she wants them to stay. But the blood supply is suddenly dwindling and she needs that network of support to locate supplies. And they need her – but not in any of the ways that she is worried about or that the reader expects.

That political angle felt a bit tacked on, to the point where its resolution seemed like a bit of a deus ex machina for the issues that brought Ian into Louise’s life in the first place. Not badly, and it made a certain kind of sense for the resolution of the whole story, but it just wasn’t as solid as Louise’s journey and Ian’s impending grief – although it does eventually tie into both.

This is not the first time that vampires have been into music, and not even the first story mixing vampires with some variety of rock and roll. The book The Vampire Lestat features the titular vampire fronting a rock band. And the WVMP series (starts with Wicked Game) by Jeri Smith-Ready (which took me forever to dig out of memory) is all about a radio station where the DJs are vampires who only play the music of the era when they were turned.

There is also a real band named Vampire Weekend. This isn’t about them, although there are a couple of in-jokes that refer to the real band, just as there are in-jokes featuring Louise’s beloved punk rock and rock music in general. I would imagine that an appreciation of those jokes and knowledge of that scene in general would add just that little something extra to the reader’s appreciation of the story. Howsomever, as someone who was not into punk in particular the story is still terrific. I’m not sure you need to be a fan of any genre of music in particular, as the heartbeat of the story is about loving music, particularly live performances, and needing it to be a part of your life. YMMV.

In the end, Vampire Weekend was a delightful surprise. It wasn’t any of the things I was expecting, much in the way that the author’s Light Years From Home wasn’t quite any of the things that I expected when I picked it up (and loved it!) either. But both stories are about families and making peace with them as well as yourself. Both have just the right touch of bittersweetness to tug at the heartstrings. And both are are terrific reads!