Cross Her Heart (Bree Taggert #1) by Melinda Leigh

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For more than twenty-five years, Philadelphia homicide detective Bree Taggert has tucked away the nightmarish childhood memories of her parents’ murder-suicide… Until her younger sister, Erin, is killed in a crime that echoes that tragic night: innocent witnesses and a stormy marriage that ended in gunfire. There’s just one chilling difference. Erin’s husband, Justin, has vanished.

Bree knows how explosive the line between love and hate can be, yet the evidence against her troubled brother-in-law isn’t adding up. Teaming up with Justin’s old friend, former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler Matt Flynn, Bree vows to uncover the secrets of her sister’s life and death, as she promised Erin’s children. But as her investigation unfolds, the danger hits close to home. Once again, Bree’s family is caught in a death grip. And this time, it could be fatal for her.

Rating: B+

Bestselling author Melinda Leigh introduces readers to Detective Bree Taggert in Cross Her Heart, the first book in her new series of romantic suspense novels.  It’s an excellent start, a solid, intriguing and well-paced mystery that introduces and starts fleshing out the central characters and the relationships between them at the same time as it presents a mystery that is very personal for Bree, whose tragic past is brought abruptly back to her in the worst possible way.

The book opens on a harrowing scene taking place at eight-year-old Bree’s home in Grey’s Hollow in upstate New York.  She is desperate to protect her younger siblings – Erin and baby Adam – from their violent, abusive father, as he rages at and beats their mother. Bree has managed to call the police and to keep herself and her brother and sister safe, although when the police arrive, it’s too late for their mother – and their father then turns the gun he used to shoot her on himself.

While Adam and Erin were taken in and brought up by their grandmother, Bree, who was something of a handful, was brought up by a stern cousin in Philadelphia. Looking back, Bree can see that their childhood separation has had a negative effect on their adult relationship; they’re not close, and although Erin continues to live in Grey’s Hollow, Bree has rarely been able to get past her issues to visit there, so Erin and her two kids visit Philly once a year instead.  When we meet Bree again, she- now a homicide detective with the Philadelphia PD – and her soon-to-retire partner, Dana Romano,  have just chased down a suspect when Bree picks up a panicked message from Erin saying she’s in trouble, but when she calls back, only gets voicemail.  Worried because Erin is the head down, go to work, raise her kids sort who’s never in trouble, and still unable to contact her, Bree heads to Grey ‘s Hollow – and her fears for Erin only ratchet up when she arrives at her sister’s house to see two sheriff’s department vehicles parked outside.  Something is very, very wrong.

Erin has been killed, and the chief deputy explains that their main suspect is her estranged husband, Justin, who is currently missing.  Erin’s body was found by Justin’s friend, Matt Flynn, a former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler, who was at the house to collect Justin to take him to his Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  Drugs were the cause of Justin and Erin’s split; he became addicted to pain meds following a car accident, and she didn’t want him around her kids while he was using.  But they were still seeing each other and intended to work things out, and Justin has been trying, with Matt’s help and support, to get clean.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Murder at Pirate’s Cove (Secrets & Scrabble #1) by Josh Lanyon

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Ellery Page, aspiring screenwriter, Scrabble champion and guy-with-worst-luck-in-the-world-when-it-comes-to-dating, is ready to make a change. So when he learns he’s inherited both a failing bookstore and a falling-down mansion in the quaint seaside village of Pirate’s Cove on Buck Island, Rhode Island, it’s full steam ahead!

Sure enough, the village is charming, its residents amusingly eccentric, and widowed police chief Jack Carson is decidedly yummy (though probably as straight as he is stern). However, the bookstore is failing, the mansion is falling down, and there’s that little drawback of finding rival bookseller–and head of the unwelcoming-committee–Trevor Maples dead during the annual Buccaneer Days celebration.

Still, it could be worse. And once Police Chief Carson learns Trevor was killed with the cutlass hanging over the door of Ellery’s bookstore, it is.

Rating: B

Murder at Pirate’s Cove is the first book in a new series of cozy mysteries by Josh Lanyon – a kind of Adrien English meets Jessica Fletcher if you will! All the ingredients of the genre are there – a small village community, eccentric characters, dastardly doings and an intrepid hero; in this case one who ends up at the wrong end of a murder investigation!

Screenwriter Ellery Page left New York and his cheating boyfriend for the small Rhode Island resort town of Pirate’s Cove when he inherited a bequest from his great-great-great aunt Eudora. That bequest consisted of the town’s mystery bookshop, Crow’s Nest, and a rambling (and ramshackle) late-Victorian era house just outside town, and Ellery, feeling the need to make a change, has thrown himself into running the shop and renovating the house. He likes Pirate’s Cove, although he’s still something of an outsider, and is determined to make a go of things there… although three months in, he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be able to afford to stay if business doesn’t start to pick up soon.

Walking back to the shop from the pub late one evening, Ellery is surprised to see the lights are on – and even more surprised to find a dead body – dressed in a pirate costume – lying on the floor. Trevor Maples – a local property developer who was pressuring Ellery to sell Crow’s Nest – was a nasty piece of work, and the fact that he and Ellery were overheard in an altercation on the day Maples died means things don’t look too good for our hero. When the chief of police, Jack Carson (a former LAPD Homicide detective) makes it clear that Ellery is currently the number one suspect, Ellery decides that if the police aren’t looking for the real killer, then he’ll have to find something to persuade them to look elsewhere – and maybe even prove his own innocence. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that someone is actively trying to frame Ellery for the murders – but who, and why?

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Spice King (Hope & Glory #1) by Elizabeth Camden (audiobook) – Narrated by Pilar Witherspoon

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Gray Delacroix has dedicated his life to building his very successful global spice empire, but it has come at a cost. Resolved to salvage his family before it spirals out of control, he returns to his ancestral home to save his brother and sister before it’s too late.

As a junior botanist for the Smithsonian, Annabelle Larkin has been charged with the impossible task of gaining access to the notoriously private Delacroix plant collection. If she fails, she will be out of a job and the family farm in Kansas will go under. She has no idea that in gaining entrance to the Delacroix world, she will unwittingly step into a web of dangerous political intrigue far beyond her experience. Unable to deny her attraction to the reclusive business tycoon, Annabelle will be forced to choose between her heart and loyalty to her country. Can Gray and Annabelle find a way through the storm of scandal without destroying the family Gray is fighting to save?

Rating: Narration – C+; Content: B

I haven’t read or listened to anything by Elizabeth Camden before, but one of my fellow reviewers at All About Romance is a big fan of her work, and after reading the synopsis of the author’s latest release, The Spice King, I decided to give it a try. It proved to be an entertaining listen; the writing is smooth and flows beautifully, the story has obviously been very well-researched, and the characters are engaging and three-dimensional.

Gray Delacroix has spent much of his life abroad in service to his family’s business, Delacroix Global Spice, finding new and unique flavours to excite the palate and building on the work done by his late father in restoring the family fortunes after the Civil War. But his success hasn’t come without a price. He’s tired, he suffers regular bouts of ill-health due to malaria, and he feels he has neglected his younger half-siblings, who, he feels, have been overindulged during his absences and have become rather spoiled and aimless as a result. He has also decided that, at forty, it’s time for him to settle down and have a family – and life – of his own.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

In the Dark by Loreth Anne White

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A secluded mountain lodge. The perfect getaway. So remote no one will ever find you.

The promise of a luxury vacation at a secluded wilderness spa has brought together eight lucky guests. But nothing is what they were led to believe. As a fierce storm barrels down and all contact with the outside is cut off, the guests fear that it’s not a getaway. It’s a trap.

Each one has a secret. Each one has something to hide. And now, as darkness closes in, they all have something to fear—including one another.

Alerted to the vanished party of strangers, homicide cop Mason Deniaud and search and rescue expert Callie Sutton must brave the brutal elements of the mountains to find them. But even Mason and Callie have no idea how precious time is. Because the clock is ticking, and one by one, the guests of Forest Shadow Lodge are being hunted. For them, surviving becomes part of a diabolical game.

Rating: A

Loreth Anne White is one of my favourite authors of romantic suspense so I’m always ready to jump into a new book by her.  In the Dark is perhaps a little different to her other books; it’s more of an ensemble piece and more suspense than romantic suspense. There IS a romantic angle, but it’s very low key, although the UST thrumming between the two leads is very present and nicely done.  I found it to be a completely compelling read that grabbed me and pulled me into the story right away; as is clear from the synopsis, it’s a kind of riff on or homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but Ms. White takes that original template and works with it to produce something both familiar and different at the same time.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This audiobook may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Miss Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Miss Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Miss Haas’ stock-in-trade.

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: B+

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is one of those books that defies categorisation. Part sci-fi/fantasy, part paranormal, part mystery, it’s what might have resulted had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got drunk one night in company with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett – slightly bonkers, devastatingly witty and wholly entertaining – and I was utterly captivated by all ten-and-a-half hours of it. Alexis Hall is a supremely talented wordsmith, and if I were to give examples of all the turns of phrase that had me grinning like an idiot – hand-curated whelks, anyone? – laughing out loud or simply marvelling at the elegance of the prose or the precision of the well-aimed barbs, I’d be here all day. So to spare you that, I’ll do my best to encapsulate this wonderfully weird story in a thousand words or thereabouts.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Art of Theft (Lady Sherlock #4) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Rating: A-

The Art of Theft is the eagerly awaited fourth book in Sherry Thomas’ superb series of historical mysteries starring Charlotte Holmes, a most unusual young woman whose keen, logical mind and incredible deductive skills would have been completely disregarded in Victorian England had she not invented the infirm but brilliant brother Sherlock who is – in name only of course – the greatest detective the nation has ever seen.  While each book in the series has a central mystery that is solved by the end, there are a number of overarching plot-threads and recurring characters which mean it’s probably not the best idea to pick up The Art of Theft without having read the other novels in the series; readers will get much more out of the wonderfully intricate characterisation and the various relationships between the characters by starting at the beginning with book one, A Study in Scarlet Women.   Because of the way the books are interlinked, there will be spoilers for the rest of the series in this review.

The aftermath of the tumultuous events of The Hollow of Fear sees Lord Ingram Ashburton in the country looking after his children, Mrs. Watson in Paris with her niece, Miss Olivia Holmes nearing the completion of her Sherlock Holmes story, and Miss Charlotte Holmes helping to settle her eldest sister, Bernadette, whom she removed from a home, into her new surroundings.  It’s a brief period of quiet that is broken when Charlotte receives a request for help from someone identifying  themselves only as A Traveler from Distant Lands.

Deciding she needs a distraction – from caring for her sister and from pondering the shifting nature of her relationship with her long-time friend (and now, former lover) Lord Ingram – Charlotte arranges to meet this traveler, correctly assuming the request for help to have come from a woman in need.  Her visitor proves to be none other than an Indian maharani, who also turns out to be the first client ever to decline to use Sherlock Holmes’ services.  Charlotte immediately deduces that this is because the maharani needs someone who is able to do more than investigate; and her supposition is borne out not long afterwards when she and Mrs. Watson – who has confessed to Charlotte that she and the maharani had been lovers once upon a time – visit the maharani at her hotel to offer their assistance.

The lady is still resistant, but when Charlotte most ably demonstrates that she does indeed possess the skills the maharani needs to help with her current predicament, she explains that she is being blackmailed, and that she has been given specific instructions as to what to do in order to receive a packet of letters she does not wish seen by unfriendly eyes.  Every yuletide, an exclusive and extravagant art sale is held at Château Vaudrieu, just outside Paris.  The cream of French society flocks there, as do art connoisseurs, manufacturers, millionaires and princes from around the world – and the maharani’s letters are hidden in the back of a painting by Van Dyck.  She needs someone to steal the painting in order to retrieve the letters – and given the château’s location and the amount of security that surrounds the event, it will be no easy task.

Charlotte is certain that the maharani has not told them everything, but even so, she enlists the help of Lord Ingram and Mr. Stephen Marbleton, and soon they, together with Mrs. Watson and Olivia are crossing the channel and travelling to Paris, where they will meet up with one of Lord Ingram’s friends and allies, Lieutenant Attwood.  An initial reconnaissance mission of the château undertaken by Mr. Marbleton and Lord Ingram reveals that there Is much more going on there than preparations for a masquerade ball and grand art sale. Before long our intrepid band is plunged into something  that goes far beyond simple blackmail – and which will once again see them pitting their wits against the mysterious Moriarty, the shadowy criminal mastermind whose very existence has slowly become irrevocably intertwined with that of our protagonists.

If you’ve followed the series – and have followed my reviews of it – you may be asking yourself why I’ve not graded this book quite as highly as the last couple.  I did struggle with the grading because this whole series is more than a head and shoulders above almost every other similar series out there, and Sherry Thomas’ writing is so wonderfully clever and precise.  I liked pretty much everything about the book – the developments in the relationship between Stephen Marbleton and Olivia, which is plagued by seemingly insurmountable difficulties;  the inclusion of a past, lesbian love affair for Mrs. Watson and the subtle discussions of colonialism and the British Raj; and I was pleased to see Charlotte starting to face up to the truth of her feelings for Lord Ingram, and the uncertainty she’s feeling as to how they can return to their old, comfortable association now they’ve been (albeit very briefly) lovers. The mystery is as detailed, complex and well-executed as ever, and I enjoyed the ensemble nature of the story – including the appearance of Lieutenant Leighton Attwood from the author’s My Beautiful Enemy (and a nice nod to that novel’s heroine).  But after the drama of The Hollow of Fear and its late-book revelations about Lord Ingram’s (soon-to-be ex-) wife, his brother’s betrayal, and the steps forward and steps back in the complicated relationship between Lord Ingram and Charlotte, The Art of Theft sometimes felt as though it was treading water somewhat. The characters face physical danger, for sure, but the stakes simply don’t seem as high for them personally as in the previous book and I wasn’t as completely gripped by this story as I was by previous instalments.  I suspect Ms. Thomas is keeping her powder dry, though.  Looking at the bigger picture; with the middle book (The Hollow of Fear) of a five book series reaching a high point in the story arc,  it makes sense that following book (The Art of Theft) would be a kind of ‘interlude’ or transition before heading into the finale, which I am sure is going to be a corker, given the cliffhanger at the end of the last chapter of this one!**

Still, with all that said, The Art of Theft is a cracking tale, a sophisticated, fantastically well-conceived mystery featuring richly-detailed settings and fully rounded, multi-faceted characters whose relationship are drawn with considerable skill and insight. It may not be my favourite of the series, but it’s still a terrific read, and one I’m more than happy to recommend.

**Note: Since this review was posted, the author has informed me that she has plans for more than five books in total, and that “book 3 isn’t the middle of the arc, but more like the turning point at the end of act 1.”

A Grave End (Bodies of Evidence #4) by Wendy Roberts

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A woman died years ago, and the body’s still missing.

Julie Hall’s conscience tells her she needs to use her skills to help a grieving family find their daughter’s long-missing remains. The problem is, Alice was last seen in Julie’s hometown—a place so full of traumatic memories, the very idea of returning there nearly paralyzes Julie.

Clear boundaries help Julie overcome her fears and take the job. She’ll go all out with her search, but only for one week. An end date in sight will ease the anxiety she and her FBI boyfriend have about the price she’ll have to pay to do the right thing.

Despite a growing sense of foreboding as she hits one dead end after another, Julie is driven to keep looking for Alice. But after receiving vile threats and with her self-imposed deadline looming, Julie realizes she was right to be afraid—and she worries she may not survive this case.

Rating: B-

A Grave End is the fourth – and possibly final? – book in Wendy Roberts’  series of suspense novels featuring Julie Hall, a young woman who has the ability to locate dead bodies using a pair of dowsing rods.  Julie is a complex, prickly character; an alcoholic in recovery, she’s the survivor of a particularly brutal childhood during which she suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her grandmother.  She got away from her small home town of Blaine, Washington, as soon as she possibly could and simply the thought of going back there is enough to send her into a tailspin – but she now finds herself unable to refuse a request from a dying man desperate to find the remains of his daughter-in-law, a former schoolmate.

Julie is very much in love with her boyfriend, FBI Agent Garrett Pierce, whom she met in the first book in the series.  They live together and are committed to each other – and at the end of the previous book, A Grave Peril, they exchanged rings, although Julie is adamant she doesn’t want to get married, and Garrett – who is a widower – respects that decision.  Julie is, however, still struggling with the demons of her past, and six months before A Grave Endbegins, went on a bender one night when she’d gone to a bar to meet with an informant.  If the guilt over falling off the wagon wasn’t bad enough, somehow she managed to lose her ring, which is one of a matching pair and irreplaceable – and to make things even worse, she has no real memory of that night, other than of meeting a man with striking green eyes and going outside with him… and she can’t be sure she didn’t betray Garrett in the worst way possible.

So Julie isn’t in the best of places when she receives the request to find Alice Ebert’s remains.  But back when they were in school, Julie realised that, even though she and Alice didn’t have a lot to do with one another, one thing they did share was the fact that the adults in their lives were physically abusive, and Julie felt that made a kind of bond between them.  So she feels she owes it to the other woman to try to find out what happened to her and to at the very least, ensure that her body is at last laid to rest.  Her first step is to travel to the Ozette Correctional Center to visit Alice’s husband, Roscoe, who was convicted of her murder.  Roscoe has always protested his innocence, in spite of the fact that Alice’s blood was found in his truck, and after hearing again the story of the night Alice was killed, Julie agrees to think about taking on the task.

Leaving the facility, Julie heads towards the home of a woman who had contacted her via her website asking for help in locating her daughter, who recently disappeared.  As the weather worsens and the rain starts to fall in torrents, Julie’s rods – which are next to her in the passenger seat – take a violent swing to the side, and she knows there’s a body around there somewhere, most likely in the deep ditch by the side of the road. Another motorist pulls up and offers to help, introducing himself as Raymond Hughes as Julie prepares to head down into the ditch to investigate.  Sure enough there’s the body of a young woman down there, and after Julie has called it in, Ray, who is rather too friendly and enthusiastic for her peace of mind, tells her that he’s a psychic and that he’d actually recommended the missing girl’s family get in touch with her to see if she could help.  He goes on to suggest that maybe he and she could work together sometime, but by then, all Julie wants to do is to get home.  Before she can leave, however, she’s severely rattled when, after shaking hands, Ray tells her something he can’t possibly know, something about the night she fell off the wagon.

Julie decides she’ll give herself a week to come up with a solid lead as to what happened to Alice, and if after that, her investigation is going nowhere, she’ll accept defeat.  Going back to Blaine is hard, but the conflicting picture she’s getting of Alice and the veiled hostility of many in the community convince Julie that the generally accepted story concerning Alice’s death is the wrong one and make her even more determined to find Alice and bring her some peace.

I enjoyed A Grave End, and especially liked the way Julie’s character has evolved.  She’s still abrasive and not the easiest person to warm to, but she’s making good progress in dealing with her issues; she has regular sessions with a mental health professional, she has developed a strong relationship with her friend Tracey (who is her complete opposite!) and Garrett is her lodestone (although we don’t see very much of him here, he’s rarely far from Julie’s thoughts).  The fact that she is finally able to return to her home town is a big step; she probably wouldn’t have been capable of it before now, and the way she is able to deal with the way some of the townsfolk treat her shows a lot of determination and strength.  The plot is well-put together, but the secondary plotline – in which Julie falls victim to a whack-job who put me in mind of Norman Bates – just didn’t work for me.  I’ll admit that there’s one surprise I hadn’t forseen, but otherwise, it’s a bit clichéd and the identity of the villain is pretty obvious.

Still, the central mystery is intriguing and the author does a great job when it comes to creating that slightly creepy, everyone-in-everyone-else’s-business atmosphere typical of small towns.  I knocked off half a grade point for the weak sub-plot, but if you’re following the series, then A Grave End leaves Julie and Garrett in a good place, and the whole series is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for suspense novels featuring a different kind of heroine.