Dead Serious (Crawshanks Guide to the Recently Departed #1) by Vawn Cassidy (audiobook)- Narrated by Joel Leslie

dead serious

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the business of unfinished business…

Tristan Everett has always preferred the company of the dead because they usually don’t talk back. Being a somewhat awkward introvert working as a pathologist at the Hackney Public Mortuary suits him just fine. That is, until a freak accident with a rogue ice cube and suddenly he can see ghosts. No longer content to just lie on the table and let him figure out how they died, they’re now peering over his shoulder critiquing his work and confessing their most lascivious sins before skipping off merrily into the afterlife.

Just when he thought his life couldn’t get any weirder, sassy drag queen, Dusty Le Frey, is wheeled in with a toe tag and she’s not prepared to go quietly into the light. Not only is she furious at the prospect of spending eternity in last season’s gold lame, she’s determined that he help her solve her murder.

Suddenly Tristan finds himself thrown into a world of sequins and fake eyelashes, and worse still, he may have developed a bit of a crush on Scotland Yard’s brand new drool-worthy detective, Inspector Danny Hayes, who’s been assigned to Dusty’s murder. Oh, and as the icing on top of a really crappy cake, the killer now wants him dead too…

All he ever wanted was a simple life but suddenly he’s juggling work, a deliciously sexy detective, a stubborn ghost and a relentless murderer… and things have just gotten dead serious…

Rating: Narration  – B+; Content – D+

I was intrigued by the blurb for Dead Serious, which promised a mystery featuring a socially awkward pathologist trying to find a murderer and a romance between said pathologist and the gorgeous detective assigned to the case. The twist in the story is that the pathologist can see ghosts and is being haunted by the spirit of the murder victim, a sassy drag-queen by the name of Dusty Le Frey; it sounded like fun, and with Joel Leslie narrating, I knew I was in a safe pair of hands, so to speak.

Tristan Everett is a pathologist at the Hackney Public Mortuary in East London, and while cutting open dead bodies is probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, he likes his job and is good at it. Being a bit of an introvert, Tristan kind of prefers the company of the dead anyway – at least he doesn’t have to make idle conversation with them. He’s been persuaded to go to a leaving do at a local pub, where he catches sight of the hottest guy he’s ever seen – but before they can do much more than nod and smile at each other, Tristan somehow manages to get an ice cube lodged in his throat and, unable to breathe, chokes and passes out. When he comes to, he’s on the floor of the pub with Mr. Hottie crouching over him; feeling like an idiot, Tristan is duly wheeled away by the attending paramedics, and doesn’t think he’ll ever see his dream guy again.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Criminal Intentions S1E2: Junk Shop Blues by Cole McCade (audiobook) – Narrated by Curt Bonnem

junk shop blues

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A murdered night club mogul unlocks a web of infidelity and deceit. The most likely suspect? The daughter of the richest family in Baltimore, if only Detectives Malcolm Khalaji and Seong-Jae Yoon can piece the evidence together. The clues just aren’t lining up—but Malcolm can’t tell if he’s missing a piece of the puzzle or completely missing the mark. The McAllister case still haunts him. So many dead. So many he couldn’t save. It’s throwing him off his game.And the only one who really understands is his strange, coldly aloof partner.

A partner he can never see the same way, after a moment of intimacy that haunts him as much as the voices of the dead.

Seong-Jae Yoon is struggling in his own way. He can’t solve the case when he can’t trust Malcolm, and he can’t trust Malcolm when the grizzled old wolf is growing increasingly erratic, increasingly dangerous. What disturbs Seong-Jae is how much he needs to trust Malcolm. He doesn’t get that close. He doesn’t get that involved.

But he may have no choice, if they want to stop a powerful killer from slipping away.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

I was completely hooked into Cole McCade’s long-running Criminal Intentions romantic suspense series by the time I’d reached the end of the first chapter of book one, so was chomping at the bit to get stuck into the next one! The Cardigans introduced listeners to two very different protagonists – detectives Malcolm Khalaji and Seong-Jae Yoon – and set up what looks set to be a very slow burn romance as well as telling a tense and exciting story of the investigation into the string of murders that brings them together.

Junk Shop Blues opens about a week since the pair started working with each other – and things aren’t going well. Neither of them is dealing well with the emotional fallout of the Macallister case, and neither of them is prepared to open up or attempt to process it with the person most able to really understand what they’re going through – each other. Malcolm is distracted and snappish and more irascible than usual, and Seong-Jae has no idea why – which, in turn, annoys him and makes him irritable, too. But the world – and crime – doesn’t stop just because they’re unaccountably pissed with each other, and they’re quickly assigned a new case – a murder at a luxury hotel.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

When Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr #17) by C.S. Harris

when blood lies

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March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.

Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

Rating: A-

I eagerly await the release of a new Sebastian St. Cyr book every year; we’re up to book seventeen with When Blood Lies and it’s one of the best of the recent instalments, a fabulous blend of whodunit and history set in Paris in March of 1815, in the days leading up to Napoleon’s escape from Elba. As the author has picked up the long-running storyline relating to Sebastian’s search for the truth about his parentage, it’s impossible to write a review of When Blood Lies without reference to earlier books in the series, so please be aware there are spoilers ahead.

For the last twenty-odd years, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin and heir to the Earl of Hendon, believed his mother Sophia – who left her marriage and England when he was a boy – was dead.  But he has recently discovered that is not the case, and in the previous book (What the Devil Knows) learned she was living in Paris, and was presently in Vienna, where negotiations between the various countries and states of Europe have been in progress for some time, as they work to rebuild following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

When this story begins, Sebastian, his wife Hero and their children are in Paris where he hopes, at long last, to meet with his errant mother on her return to the city and to finally get some answers to questions long unasked – even though he isn’t sure he’s ready to hear them.  Walking the misty banks of the Seine one evening, he’s reached the Pont Neuf when his attention is caught by a glimpse of what looks like an out-flung arm down on the river bank; he hurries down the stone steps to discover the body of a tall, slim, well-dressed woman lying motionless at the water’s edge, her pale cheek smeared with blood. Bolts of recognition and devastation hit Sebastian when the woman looks into his eyes before uttering a single word – his name.

Sebastian has his mother taken to his house in the Place Dauphine, where he and Hero tend her as best they can while they wait for the doctor to arrive – but her injuries are too severe, and all the doctor can do when he arrives is accede to Sebastian’s request that he examine the body to see if he can give him some idea as to cause of her death.  Sebastian suspects, given where she was found, that his mother may have fallen or been pushed from the bridge; the physician agrees that her injuries indicate a fall, but also tells Sebastian that she was stabbed in the back before being lifted and thrown over the parapet.  Clearly, whatever happened was no accident – but Sebastian knows so little about his mother’s life over the past two decades that he has no inkling as to why she would be murdered.  But that isn’t going to stop him from doing everything he possibly can to find out – no matter that his investigation will bring him into conflict with the most powerful families and factions in France.

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, all of them absolutely gripping, all of them very cleverly slotted together. The pacing is swift but not rushed; there’s time to absorb every new development before moving on to the next, each new piece of information often raising more questions than it answers. Sebastian learns that Sophia had been the mistress of one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals – a Scotsman to whom Sebastian bears more than a passing resemblance – who is now in Vienna negotiating on behalf of the newly reinstated Bourbons, and that after leaving Vienna, Sophia visited Napoleon on Elba before returning to Paris. But why? What’s the significance of the – now empty – jewellery case she was carrying on the night of her death? And what was she doing on the Pont Neuf that night? Sebastian and Hero have their work cut out as they search for the truth while the political situation in France hangs in the balance; the growing dissatisfaction of the populace with their Bourbon king has rumours that L’Empereur is about to return spreading like wildfire – and when the news reaches Paris that Napoleon has escaped his prison on Elba, Sebastian realises he’s running out of time… as, perhaps, is everyone around him.

When Blood Lies is an engrossing page-turner, a book I found difficult to set aside and was eager to get back to. The seamless way the author weaves her original plot threads through the fabric of history is masterful, as is the way she incorporates the various historical figures who appear throughout the tale. We see a little less of Hendon and Jarvis here – although the latter makes his presence felt in his usual inimitable fashion – but having Hero taking such a major role in the story is a big plus. She and Sebastian are so finely attuned that they appear almost able to read each other’s minds; I love the level of trust and understanding between them, and the way they bounce ideas off each other and help and support one another is wonderful to see. Sebastian goes through a lot in this book; grief for his mother, regret for their lost years together, frustration at the fact he may never now find out the identity of his biological father – which he tries to set aside while he tries to find the murderer, but his conflicted emotions are never far away and Hero is his rock.

Full of intrigue and suspense with a superbly-drawn cast of characters, a compelling leading man and packed to the gills with fascinating historical detail, When Blood Lies is another wonderful instalment in this excellent long-running mystery series. Now the waiting starts for book eighteen next year!

Criminal Intentions S1E1: The Cardigans by Cole McCade (audiobook) – Narrated by Curt Bonnem

Criminal Intentions S1E1

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When a string of young queer men turn up dead in grisly murders, all signs point to the ex-boyfriend – but what should be an open-and-shut case is fraught with tension when BPD homicide detective Malcolm Khalaji joins up with a partner he never wanted. Rigid, ice-cold, and a stickler for the rules, Seong-Jae Yoon is a watchful presence whose obstinacy and unpredictability constantly remind Malcolm why he prefers to work alone. Seong-Jae may be stunningly attractive, a man who moves like a graceful, lethal bird of prey…but he’s as impossible to decipher as this case.

And if Malcolm doesn’t find the key to unravel both in time, another vulnerable young victim may end up dead.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

For those unfamiliar with Cole McCade’s long-running Criminal Intentions series (and to explain the long-winded title!) the series was conceived as kind of a TV show in book format, with one book the equivalent of one episode in a twelve-thirteen episode season. There are currently two complete seasons and season three – the final one, I believe – is underway. The same two protagonists feature throughout; each book boasts a self-contained mystery, there are overarching elements that run through each season, and the central relationship evolves as the seasons progress. CI:The Cardigans, then, introduces those protagonists – homicide detectives Malcolm Khalaji and Seong-jae Yoon – and marks the start of their working relationship as they investigate the murder of a number of young gay men. This is very much a setting-the-stage book in terms of the characters – they’re very intriguing and I’m eager to find out more – and while there’s little more than a whiff of a potential romance (and it’s barely even that), I do know that it happens eventually and I enjoyed this book enough to be prepared to wait and see how it pans out.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Spirited Situation (Ghostly Guardians #1) by Louisa Masters

spirited situation

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When you can talk to ghosts, things are bound to get spirited.

The ghosts have been there since before I can remember. When I was a kid, they doted on me, but as I got older, they got more demanding. I’ve spent my whole life seeing and talking to dead people and trying to pretend I’m not, because the living just don’t understand. Nobody wants to be around the freak who claims to see ghosts.
Until I go to Mannix Estate.

Once a private country home, then a posh hotel, it was closed after a suspicious incident but is now an immersive historic experience. It’s also haunted AF, and everyone knows it. Finally, I’ve found a place to work and live where I can be useful. Where I’m actually wanted.

There are only two problems: I spent a hot, sweaty, satisfying night with Ewan the blacksmith before I knew we’d have to work together. Everyone knows sex with colleagues is a bad idea, right? Even if he’s the world’s most ripped cinnamon roll.

Plus, the ghosts are keeping secrets. There’s something going on that’s not normal, even for a haunted estate. And I suspect that when the truth comes out, I’m the one who’ll have to deal with it… and it won’t be good.

Rating: B-

Louisa Masters’ Spirited Situations is the first in a new series of paranormal romances entitled Ghostly Guardians.  It’s a fun, light-hearted read with a spooky vibe and a fun cast of characters, and I enjoyed the author’s lively, easy-to-read style – although if you’re looking for a story that’s going to scare the pants off you and make you want to hide behind the sofa, this isn’t it.

Josh’s lifelong ability to see and hear ghosts has seriously screwed up his life in a number of ways.  He’s never alone, and it can be really difficult for him to distinguish between the living and the dead – as ghosts look like regular people to him – and many’s the job or roommate or boyfriend he’s lost because he (as they thought) started talking to thin air, or because the sudden appearance of a ghost has made him jump for no reason… and learning to drive is a big no-no; he could end up with a car full of ghostly distractions or ghosts jumping out into the road in front of him as a joke and… just no.  Being constantly surrounded by ghosts who are so delighted that he can see and hear them that they can’t leave him alone is exhausting, and he’s tired of not fitting in or being able to have anything approaching a normal life.  But he’s hopeful that might change soon; he’s applied for a job at the Mannix Estate, an old country house that is now a museum and immersive historic/re-enactment experience that is reportedly “haunted as fuck”.  It’s this last part that is the real attraction for Josh:

“… if a staff member should happen to be caught talking to “nobody”, he could claim to have been chatting with a ghost, wink wink, and the guests would probably think it was part of the whole “immersive” experience.

Josh is nervous, but the interview goes well, despite the presence of a ghost sitting in and continually yelling at Kieran, the interviewer and manager at the estate.  Josh has to work hard to make out he doesn’t see or hear her – and is stunned when Kieran calmly tells him that everyone at the estate can see the ghosts, that there’s something about the place that enables them to sometimes manifest.  Josh can’t believe what he’s hearing – and gladly accepts the job.  At last, he’ll be somewhere he doesn’t feel so out of place all the time, somewhere he can let down his guard and be himself.  This has the potential to be life-changing for him and he’s determined to make a success of it.

Things are complicated however, when Josh is being shown around the grounds and sees the familiar face of the big, muscly guy he’d picked up in a bar the night before, fucked all night and then run out on in the morning so he could get to the interview on time.  It turns out that Ewan is the estate’s blacksmith – and even though the attraction they’d acted on the night before is as strong as ever, Josh isn’t going to risk losing his perfect job and the chance to have a (mostly) normal life by getting involved with a colleague.  Or that’s the plan, at least.  But you know what they say about the best laid plans…

The first part of the book breezes by as Josh settles in and we get to meet the secondary cast of humans and quirky ghosts, an odd bunch who bicker and tease but would clearly do anything for one another.   I liked that we were given time to get to know them all before the plot kicks in, and that they’re all very distinct personalities.  The two leads are likeable, although Josh is the more strongly characterised of the two. He’s sweet and he’s been through a lot; I enjoyed seeing his confidence grow once he accepted nobody would ridicule him for seeing ghosts and that he could actually be useful to both them and his human colleagues.  Ewan is a big, brawny hottie and I liked that he’s so protective and caring towards Josh, but honestly, he’s pretty two-dimensional, and I’m hard pressed to remember much about him.   The chemistry between them is decent, but the romance is basically insta-love and I don’t understand why, when this is only the first in a series, the author has to have them suddenly throw ILYs around with no real build up when it would have been much more satisfying to have developed the relationship and built to an HEA across two or three books.

Despite that, Spirited Situation is entertaining, and Ms. Masters does a good job of building a growing sense of unease in the second half when the spooky stuff comes into play and we start to learn the truth about what’s in the basement!  The book has a lot going for it – the characters, the gentle humour, the plot and the author’s assured writing style – but the weakness of the romance means I had to drop the final grade down a bit.  I can’t give Spirited Situation a wholehearted recommendation, but I enjoyed it enough to say that it’s worth a look if you adjust your expectations and take it for the warm and spirited (!) bit of fun it is.

The Missing Page (Page & Sommers #2) by Cat Sebastian

the missing page

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When James learns that an uncle he hasn’t heard from in ages has left him something in his will, he figures that the least he can do is head down to Cornwall for a weekend to honor the old man’s parting wishes. He finds the family home filled with half-remembered guests and unwanted memories, but more troubling is that his uncle has tasked his heirs with uncovering the truth behind a woman’s disappearance twenty years earlier.

Leo doesn’t like any of it. He’s just returned from one of his less pleasant missions and maybe he’s slightly paranoid about James’s safety, but he’s of the opinion that rich people aren’t to be trusted where wills are concerned. So he does what any sensible spy would do and infiltrates the house party.

Together they unravel a mystery that exposes long-standing family secrets and threatens to involve James more than either of them would like.

Rating: B

The Missing Page is the second book to feature country doctor James Sommers and spy Leo Page, whom we first met in Hither, Page, a cosy mystery  (sort of – true cosies aren’t supposed to include sex or swearing and there’s a little bit of both here!) set in a sleepy English village a few years after the end of World War II.  That book came out in 2019, so we’ve had a bit of a wait for this sequel, but it was worth it; The Missing Page is a charming, clever and none-too serious riff on the classic Country House Mystery in which we learn more about James’ past when he visits the childhood home to which he hasn’t returned in twenty years.

By the time the book begins, Leo has been ‘lodging’ in James’ house in Wychcomb St. Mary for over a year, and they’ve settled into a kind of domesticity neither had ever thought to have, although Leo’s job as a government agent takes him away fairly often.  James is eagerly awaiting Leo’s return from his most recent mission – but shortly before he’s due back, James receives a letter advising him of the death of his uncle, Rupert Bellamy, and asking him to be present at the reading of the will at the family home in Cornwall.   James spent many summers at Blackthorn as a child following the death of his parents, but was whisked away following a family tragedy in 1927 and was never invited back.

James is greeted by his cousin Martha, who had kept house for their uncle for as long as James can remember, and finds Rupert’s surviving daughter, James’ cousin Camilla, her husband Sir Anthony – a Harley Street doctor – and their daughter Lilah, whom he’s surprised to recognise as a famous actress, already gathered together, as well as a woman he doesn’t know at all, who is introduced as Madame Fournier.  The bequests are surprisingly small, until the very end, when the family solicitor reads the final appendix stating that the bulk of the estate will go to whoever can discover what really happened to Rupert’s other daughter Rose on 1st August 1927.  Rose is widely believed to have drowned that day, although there were lots of other rumours in circulation – she took her own life, she ran off with the chauffeur or the vicar, she was murdered  – among them, but Rose’s body was never found and nothing conclusive was ever discovered.

When Leo – exhausted after a very long journey – returns to Wychcomb St. Mary to find James gone, he pays a visit to their friends, former spies Cora and Edith, hoping that perhaps he’ll find James there.  When the ladies tell him where James has gone and why, Leo becomes concerned, especially at learning James had been present on the day that Rose Bellamy is thought to have died, worried at what memories being back there might stir up. Leo wastes no time in following James to Cornwall, determined to do whatever he can to help.

Cat Sebastian has crafted an intriguing story full of difficult family dynamics and long-held secrets, and she sustains the mystery right up until the last moment;  I certainly didn’t work out the truth until just before the reveal.  There’s a strongly defined set of secondary characters, from Martha the drab poor-relation, to Sir Anthony, the know-it-all who clearly looks down on James, and the mysterious Madame Fournier – and James and Leo themselves continue to be easy to enjoy and root for.  James is a genuinely good man, quiet and easy-going, happy with his quiet country life after the horrors of war and with Leo, while Leo operates more in shades of grey than in black and white and has been struggling more and more to reconcile the life he has with the life he wants.  Leo still finds it difficult to credit that a man as good as James could actually want to be with someone with such a murky past as his, but the obvious care and affection they have for each other permeates every page, and I loved watching them working together on the investigation, their different approaches and outlooks complementing each other.  The author cleverly explores James’ past through his interactions with his family members, and I particularly enjoyed Leo’s typical cynicism and the way he’s so protective of James.   As far as their relationship goes, they’re at that awkward stage where both of them want more but aren’t sure what the other is willing or able to give, but thankfully, there are no silly misunderstandings and they both realise that although they still have issues to work on, they want to work through them together.

The Missing Page is one of those books that’s easy to sink into and feels almost like a warm hug, but I do have a few niggles.  It’s generally on the slow side and doesn’t have the same kind of forward momentum as Hither, Page and while I did like the mystery, it’s not very high-stakes, especially not for our heroes.  As with the last book, the author has done a very good job with the English setting, but the odd Americanism still creeps in (“muffler” instead of “scarf” for example). Finally, I was confused as to the timeline; Hither Page takes place in 1946 and the date for this is given as 1948, but then I read James thinking of Leo: “They had only met a little over two months ago”.  To be fair, I did have an ARC, so I’m hoping this will have been corrected/clarified in the finished version, but it did make me scratch my head.

All in all, however, The Missing Page is an easy, enjoyable read featuring two engaging leads, and I’m pleased to recommend it to anyone who likes their mystery with a side of romance.  I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Mr. Page and Dr. Sommers.

Don’t Look Now by Mary Burton (audiobook) – Narrated by Hillary Huber, Alan Carlson, Kirt Graves, Heather Firth, Zara Eden & Joyce Oben

don't look now

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Austin homicide detective Jordan Poe is hunting a serial killer she fears is the same man who assaulted her sister, Avery, two years ago. The details line up: the victims are the same age, same type, dead by the same grim MO. Luckily Avery survived. But the terrible memories linger, making Jordan more determined than ever to stop this monster in his tracks.

Texas Ranger Carter Spencer isn’t one to poach on a detective’s territory. Yet no matter how resentful a capable lone wolf like Jordan is, when she is attacked at a third crime scene and suffers a trauma that leaves her with limited vision, it’s up to Carter to help Jordan navigate a world she no longer recognizes. He needs her instinct, her experience, and her fearless resolve to crack this case. A case that’s about to get even darker.

A stranger is watching. He’s closing in on his ultimate prey. And no one but the killer can see what’s coming.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – B-

Mary Burton’s Don’t Look Now is a standalone suspense/police procedural novel in which a homicide detective has to confront the possibility that the serial killer she’s now trying to apprehend may be the same person who assaulted her younger sister a couple of years earlier. The book gets off to a bit of a slow start and I almost put it aside to return to later, but it picked up after a few chapters and became a lot more interesting.

We’re plunged right in to the deranged world of the serial killer in the prologue, which depicts the gruesome assault and death of their latest victim. It’s not blood-and-guts gory and I’m not squeamish, but I did find it made for uncomfortable listening. I’m sure that was the intention, but I’m starting to become tired of the way so many thrillers use sickening violence against women as a basic premise. That’s a different issue however and I’m not going to discuss it here; I chose to listen to Don’t Look Now knowing the storyline and I’m not going to diss it on account of a plot point I knew about in advance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

House on Fire (Ashes & Dust #2) by Jenn Burke

house on fire

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s done fighting his attraction to the sexy vampire…

To say former firefighter Colin Zhang is struggling to accept his new life would be a vast understatement. He’s bound to a vampire he didn’t choose, living in a house filled with creatures better left to the imagination—there’s a lot to resent. As much as he tries, he doesn’t resent Evan—far from it. But he needs to know that what he feels is real and that requires breaking their bond. No matter the cost.

Vampire private investigator Evan Fournier is more than willing to explore his connection with Colin, but the crisis at hand keeps getting in the way. Their bond makes it dangerous for them to be apart, so he’s forced to put the other man at risk while he investigates the latest in a series of murders. If he doesn’t find the killer soon, the paranormal community will seek retribution on all humans, not just the guilty ones.
As the tensions escalate, Evan and Colin find solace in each other and their growing attraction. But if their bond is broken, attraction—even love—might not be enough to keep them safe.

Rating: B-

Note: There are spoilers for previous books in this review.

Jenn Burke’s Ashes & Dust  – a sequel/spin off to the Not Dead Yet series – got off to a strong start earlier this year with All Fired Up, which finds Wes, Hudson and Evan running a successful PI business in Toronto five years after the end of Graveyard Shift.  This series puts “Baby Vamp” Evan Fournier into the spotlight as the PoV character, and All Fired Up introduced a new love interest for him in the form of Colin Zhang – a firefighter who was believed to have died in the 1990s but who had actually been kidnapped and held captive by a witch who forced him to suck the magic from other supernatural beings.   I’d strongly suggest anyone thinking about reading this one should start at the very beginning with Not Dead Yet, as there are a lot of recurring characters in these stories and you’ll understand the relationship dynamics more easily.

It’s been five months since the events of All Fired Up, and Evan is no closer to discovering the identity of whoever was behind the operation at the Rising Sun Retreat.  During those months, Colin and Evan have begun adjusting to their mistakenly-formed bond, although Evan recognises it’s a lot easier on him than on Colin, who has to spend most of his days just hanging out in the Caballero Investigations offices instead of getting out and making a new life for himself (if Colin and Evan get too far apart physically, the bond causes them excruciating pain).  Evan recognises that his feelings for Colin probably go deeper than Colin’s for him, but is determined to give Colin the space he needs to work things through and not to push him into anything he’s not ready for.  When Colin asks if it might be possible to break the bond, Evan is dead set against it; for one thing it could be very dangerous, for another – he believes Colin won’t want to be with him without it.

The lives of everyone in the Westerson-Rojas household has been further complicated by the addition of Hudson’s brother Lance, whom Hudson has brought to live with them.  Lance has no idea about the paranormal world, so they all have to work hard to keep him in the dark, even though Hudson knows he really should tell him the truth.  But when videos showing shifters actually shifting headlined with messages such as “this is not special effects” and “they are all around us” begin circulating, it’s clear that Evan and the gang have far more to worry about than someone letting something slip in front of Lance.

In the middle of all this, Colin decides he wants to contact his former fiancée, Cynthia, thinking that he owes her an explanation about what happened to him all those years ago, and that maybe it will give both of them some closure.  Cynthia drops a bombshell of her own, telling Colin that when he ‘died’, she was a few weeks pregnant and that they have a son, CJ, who has always known that Colin is his real dad.  The news hits Colin like a punch to the gut – his anger and grief at everything he’s lost are very well portrayed – but he and Cynthia both agree that it’s for the best that they don’t tell CJ the truth.

To talk about the other plotlines in the book would be heading into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that there’s more hurt and heartbreak on the horizon for our heroes when there’s a horrific murder close to home and Evan finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place – his loyalty to Hudson, and his love for Colin.

I enjoy spending time with these characters and was pleased to re-visit them, but House on Fire is obviously a ‘middle book’ with a lot of set-up and few answers.  The novel feels disjointed and episodic; we move swiftly from one event to the next, but none of them are given much more than a cursory explanation before we move on to the next one.  And the romance between Evan and Colin still feels a bit superficial; it’s been five months since they met and accidentally forged their bond, but I’m not seeing much more than a surface physical attraction there, and as we’re never in Colin’s head I get no sense of how he’s dealing with everything he’s been through – losing thirty-four years of his life, forming a magical bond with a complete stranger, and then having his first same-sex relationship – or even if he IS dealing with it. He and Evan share a bed and have sex, but it seems that any relationship progression (and I’m not actually convinced there’s been any as I don’t feel any real emotional connection between them) has taken place off the page.  In my review of the previous book, I said that Colin wasn’t particularly well-fleshed out as a character, but as it was the first book, there was room for that to happen – but I can’t say that it does.  Colin gets a lot of on-page time (because he has to be where Evan is) but because we never get his perspective and he doesn’t have much dialogue it’s hard to understand his character and equally hard to understand exactly why Evan is falling for him.  There’s no doubt that Colin trusts Evan implicitly – even though he doesn’t appear to understand him at all at one crucial point in the story – but I don’t get the same ‘meant-to-be’ vibe from them that was there between Wes and Hudson from the start.

I can’t deny being a bit disappointed in House on Fire, although it’s got good bones – I just wish there had been some more meat on them.  I enjoyed catching up with everyone, the plotlines are all intriguing and the author delivers some real emotional gut-punches while continuing to show Evan’s growing confidence in himself and his abilities, both as a PI and as a worthy second-in-command to the King of All the Vampires.  But be warned; the major plotlines are unresolved and there’s a cliffhanger ending, so you might want to wait to read this until you can dive straight into the final book, Out of the Ashes next year.  I’m giving House on Fire a qualified recommendation because I’m invested in this group of characters and I enjoyed the book in spite of its flaws.

The Sign of the Raven (Ash & Juliana #2) by L.C. Sharp

the sign of the raven

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The London ton protect their own. Even when it comes to murder. 

“There’s been an incident.”

In the finer circles of 1749 London, incident is apparently the polite way to describe discovering a body with a gruesome wound and no sign of the killer. But for newlyweds Lady Juliana and Sir Edmund “Ash” Ashendon, it’s a chance to track down the culprit and right a wrong—something they are both intimately familiar with.

Indeed, it is the only thing they are intimately familiar with. For the moment.

Though their marriage may be one of convenience, there’s nothing convenient about learning the victim has ties to a name from their past: the dreaded Raven. And the Raven isn’t the only danger they face. The aristocracy protects its own, and in London’s darkest corners, no one wants to be unmasked.

With Juliana’s life on the line, time is running out for Ash to find the killer before their marriage comes to an inconveniently bloody end.

Rating: C+

Opening around a year after the events of the previous book (The Wedding Night Affair), The Sign of the Raven, the second book in L.C. Sharp’s series of historical mysteries set in Georgian London sees husband and wife Ash and Juliana looking into the suspicious death of a nobleman at a firework display.  Like the previous book, this story benefits from a strong sense of time and place and two very engaging leads whose evolving relationship is one of the book’s main draws – but the slow pacing meant I found it difficult to get into and the mystery was so simplistic that I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ by the end.

Please note that this review contains spoilers for the previous book in the series.  While it’s not essential to have read that first, I’d advise it, as it provides important background information about the two principals and their relationship.

Sir Edmund Ashendon is with his family – his wife and his siblings – at a firework display at Vauxhall Gardens when a member of staff summons him to the scene of “an incident”.  The incident in question is actually a dead body – that of a man lying face down on the ground, blood still seeping from the bullet wound to his back.  By the look of his clothing and possessions, the man is obviously well-to-do, but neither Ash nor Juliana can identify him.  An examination of his pockets yields little of interest other than some tokens made of a dull, silvery metal with something stamped on the surface –  and it’s not until Juliana’s parents put in an appearance, disapproval radiating from them, that Ash and Juliana can put a name to the victim – Lord Coddington.

The name rings a bell for Ash; he’s heard of Coddington and his “exploits” – a fondness for gaming hells and running up debts among them.  At first, the gossip puts Coddington’s death down to a robbery gone wrong, but Ash isn’t so sure; too many things don’t add up, and when another gentleman is murdered, Ash and Juliana find themselves setting an elaborate trap to catch the killer.

Unfortunately, after a strong set-up, the pacing starts to flag and there is little progress for the first half of the story.  I did, however, enjoy the introduction of some important new secondary characters – Ransom, the nosy journalist whom Juliana very cleverly recruits to ‘Team Ash’ – and pickpocket and scoundrel  Cutty Jack, who can recruit any number of urchins to be Ash’s eyes and ears on the less salubrious streets of London.  I enjoyed reading about the development of Ash and Juliana’s relationship, too, but the mystery here is weak and didn’t really capture my interest.

In fact, the most interesting part of it is the involvement of the eponymous Raven, the mysterious and dangerous criminal mastermind who rules London’s underworld with a rod of iron.  He’s been a thorn in the side of London’s lawmakers for some time, and here, he and Ash are set up as major antagonists.  I’d begun to suspect the truth of his identity – but only just before the reveal, which certainly puts the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons – or, indeed, ravens – for future entries in the series.

It’s clear that the marriage of convenience Ash and Juliana embarked upon in the previous book has evolved into a strong friendship, and that by the time this book begins, they’re on the cusp of more. For the first time ever, Juliana has someone in her life who genuinely cares for her and her welfare, and Ash is delighted to see his wife growing into herself and recognises that his feelings toward her are changing – but although their relationship has come on in leaps and bounds, what we see here is the result of progress that has happened mostly off page, in that year between stories, and I have to say that I felt a little bit cheated by that.

Once again, the story is very firmly grounded in mid-eighteenth century London, whether the action is taking place in a palatial mansion, a bustling coffee house or the worst of the slums, and those who enjoy their mysteries served with a good helping of historical background are sure to appreciate the author’s skilful way of incorporating interesting historical detail into the story.

Unfortunately however, the stodgy pacing and the lacklustre mystery mean this outing for Ash and Juliana isn’t as strong as the first.  I can’t quite recommend The Sign of the Raven, but I’m going to keep an eye out for future instalments and hope the next one grabs my attention more than this one did.

Near You by Mary Burton (audiobook) – Narrated by Melissa Moran

near you

This title may be dowloaded from Audible via Amazon

Forensic psychologist and single mother Ann Bailey has joined forces with Montana Highway Patrol officer Bryce McCabe. An expert in untangling the motives of depraved minds, Ann is tasked to help solve the mystery of two murdered women doused with gasoline and set aflame.

It’s not hard for Ann to be reminded of the charismatic Elijah Weston, who served a decade in prison for arson – a crime that nearly cost Ann her life. Elijah may have been exonerated, but the connection to these rage killings is impossible for Ann to ignore. One of the victims has been identified as an obsessed Elijah groupie. Elijah has obsessions, too. Ever since Ann returned to town, he can’t take his eyes off her. And as a mother with a secret, she’s the perfect victim for an infatuated psychopath.

The deeper Ann and Bryce’s investigation goes, the nearer they get to each other and to danger. After another murder hits close to home, Ann fears a clue is hidden in her own past. Only one thing terrifies her more than the reveal of her long-held secret. It’s that the secret itself has put Ann into a killer’s line of fire.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – B

Mary Burton’s Near You is the sequel to last year’s Burn You Twice, and it continues the story of two women who were best friends in college and who survived an arson attack that almost killed them both. The previous book focused on Joan Mason, who moved away from Missoula and became a detective in Philly; in Near You, the focus switches to her friend Ann Bailey, who remained in Montana, married her college boyfriend, and continued to live there with her husband and their son – until the devastating events of Burn You Twice ripped her family apart.

There are spoilers for Burn You Twice in this review.

Sergeant Bryce McCabe of the Montana Highway Patrol is enjoying a rare day off at home at his ranch when he receives a call from the local sheriff asking for his help investigating a particularly gruesome homicide. He arrives at the scene to find the charred remains of a woman who is later revealed to have been stabbed several times before having the skin of her face removed, and then doused with gasoline and set alight – exactly as in the case of the victim of an identical murder around a month earlier. Shortly after Bryce’s arrival, Joan Mason – who has taken the position of death investigator for the medical examiner – arrives and makes the same connection; it’s she who suggests they involve Dr. Ann Bailey, a professor of forensic psychology at the University of Montana, whose expertise in the field could be invaluable in getting into the mind of the killer. In the absence of much by way of physical evidence, Bryce is inclined to agree.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.