Playing the Palace by Paul Rudnick (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael Urie

playing the palace

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After having his heart trampled on by his cheating ex, Carter Ogden is afraid love just isn’t in the cards for him. He still holds out hope in a tiny corner of his heart, but even in his wildest dreams he never thought he’d meet the Crown Prince of England, much less do a lot more with him. Yes, growing up he’d fantasized about the handsome, openly gay Prince Edgar, but who hadn’t? When they meet by chance at an event Carter’s boss is organizing, Carter’s sure he imagined all that sizzling chemistry. Or was it mutual?

This unlikely but meant-to-be romance sets off media fireworks on both sides of the Atlantic. With everyone having an opinion on their relationship and the intense pressure of being constantly in the spotlight, Carter finds ferocious obstacles to his happily ever after, including the tenacious disapproval of the queen of England. Carter and Price Edgar fight for a happy ending to equal their glorious international beginning. It’s a match made on Valentine’s Day and in tabloid heaven.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – D+

When I read the synopsis of Playing the Palace a few months back, my immediate reaction was a big, fat NOPE. (Any author who uses the term “Crown Prince” to describe the heir to the British throne and doesn’t bother to discover that while the term CAN be applied to the heir apparent to a monarch, the term is NOT used in the UK where the male heir to the throne is the Prince of Wales – gets an immediate no from me). I even put the book on my “No Way José” shelf on Goodreads! BUT. The offer of a review copy of the audiobook came my way and as, at the time, I was completely out of review copies, I thought I’d give it a try. Just to see if it could possibly be as bad as I expected.

Long story short: It is.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Cold Red (FBI Joint Task Force #2) by Fiona Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Troy Duran

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Undercover. Under fire. Under arrest….

It’s hard to save a special agent’s life with your hands cuffed behind your back.

Anna walks into the house and is met with flashbang. The FBI have her cuffed and belted into the back of their car. Two FBI agents are escorting her over the mountains of West Virginia heading to Washington, DC, for interrogation….

She was never meant to get there alive.

Flying off the side of the icy road, a car crash is Anna’s chance to escape and survive. It would be so much easier without her special forces code – no man left behind.

With injured FBI Special Agent Steve Finley in tow, it’s a cross-country cat-and-mouse game while maintaining her undercover status.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

I chose to review Fiona Quinn’s Cold Red – book two in her FBI Joint Task Force series – because I’d really enjoyed book one, Open Secretwhich I found to be a fast-paced and compelling thriller that kept me pretty much glued to it from start to finish. FBI Joint Task Force is a mini-series that falls under the author’s wider Iniquus World of “high stakes national security” (so says Ms. Quinn’s website), but although there are recurring characters who appear or are namechecked, both of these books work fine as standalones. But just to be contrary, I was a little bit disappointed that Cold Red isn’t related to Open Secret by plot or character; I’d so enjoyed the main plotline in that book that I’d hoped for more.

Anastasia Senko – Anna – is a former army ranger and current member of the Asymmetric Warfare Group, and is deep undercover as part of her mission to find out who is behind the technology being used to disrupt US military satellite communications in Syria and Iraq. The AWG has reason to believe it’s coming from Slovakia; specifically from computers belonging to the powerful Zoric family (which has links to the Russian FSB), and Anna’s facility with the Slovakian language means she’s been sent to infiltrate the Zoric family to gather intelligence. Her most recent assignment for the Zorics is to babysit Johnathan, a wealthy social-climber looking for an “in” with the Russians, who is also funding a supremacist militia group, the Southern Iron Cross.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.


When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

Nowhere Man: Another John Pickett Novella (John Pickett Mysteries #9.5) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Having resigned his position at Bow Street, John Pickett waits in vain for someone – anyone! – to engage his services as a private inquiry agent. As weeks go by with no responses to his newspaper advertisement, he has taken to spending his days wandering idly about London rather than admit his failure to his wife.

One day, while loitering in the Covent Garden market, he wonders morosely if it might have been better had he not been born at all. Then he sees one of his former colleagues and, in an attempt to make a discreet exit, manages instead to knock himself unconscious.

He awakens to discover that his Bow Street colleague doesn’t seem to remember him, and after staggering back home to Curzon Street, he finds someone else living in the house where he lived with Julia. But still greater surprises are in store for Pickett as he attempts to navigate his way through a world in which he never existed….

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

Bedford Falls meets Regency London in Nowhere Man, a new novella in Sheri Cobb-South’s long-running series of historical mysteries featuring Bow Street Runner John Pickett.

Or more accurately, EX-Bow Street runner, because by the time Nowhere Man begins, John has resigned his position at Bow Street and has branched out on his own as a Private Inquiry Agent. But it’s been a month now, and he’s had not a single response to his newspaper advertisement – and rather than admit his failure to his (very pregnant) wife, John has taken to wandering the streets of London during the day to make it look as though he actually has something to do.

The inequality of his marriage to Lady Julia Fieldhurst is something John has always felt keenly. Julia is a wealthy young widow, and her jointure pays most of their expenses, but John has always felt uncomfortable about living off his wife. As a Bow Street Runner he had at least had a salary – albeit a modest one – but now he doesn’t even have that and feels he is contributing absolutely nothing to their marriage. He’s walking around Covent Garden one afternoon, feeling down and pretty useless and thinks – not for the first time – that maybe everyone would be better off had he never been born. Just as he thinks it, the rosy-cheeked woman selling apples from a stall opposite him tells him he’s wrong and he shouldn’t be thinking such a thing – but before he can ask her what she means, his attention is diverted elsewhere by an altercation, and in attempting to avoid it, he slips, falls, hits his head and is knocked out.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Midwinter Magic (Rockliffe #7) by Stella Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Celebrate among old friends … and perhaps a gate-crasher or two. There will be wassailers and kissing-boughs; music, dancing and romance; laughter and some tears. Above all, expect the unexpected because at Christmas anything can happen.

So accept your invitation for what promises to be the most talked-of house-party of 1778 … and is also a last Huzzah to the Rockliffe series.

Rating: B+

In Midwinter Magic, the final book in her Georgian-era Rockliffe series, author Stella Riley bids a heartwarming and utterly charming farewell to her cast of much-loved characters by bringing them all together for a memorable and magical Christmas celebration.  (A warning – if you’re not familiar with the six novels that precede this series finale, you’ll likely have trouble keeping track of all the characters; if that’s the case, go back to book one, The Parfit Knight and make your way through the other books; I promise you won’t regret it!)

It’s Christmas 1778, and the Earl and Countess of Sarre – Adrian and Caroline Devereux  – (The Player) have invited their closest friends to Sarre Park in Kent for the festive season.   The Rockliffes, Amberleys, Chalfonts – and their respective children – the Audleys and Wynstantons, and Caroline’s grandpa Maitland and her good friend, Lily Brassington will all be in attendance, and Adrian and Caroline are looking forward to a convivial time spent in good company.  Preparations for the house party are well under way, despite their housekeeper’s  doom-laden pronouncements that decorating the house before Christmas Eve will bring bad luck – and Adrian has tasked his closest friend Bertrand Didier with overseeing the activities and entertainment for the duration.

With the company all assembled, things get off to a wonderful start with a visit to the beach – but on their return, it seems Betsy’s dire predictions have come true;  Caroline’s pushy, social-climbing mother has arrived uninvited, and has brought Caroline’s two sisters with her.  Caroline had been planning to invite them to stay at a later date, wanting to spare her guests Mrs. Maitland’s continual toadying and thinly veiled insults.  But there’s nothing to be done; Caroline can’t send them back home and room is found for them at nearby Devereux House.

Otherwise, however, the house party continues as planned, with plenty of activities – for the adults as well as the children – overseen by the wily Bertrand, who really does seem to have thought of everything!

One of the many things I’ve always enjoyed about Stella Riley’s books is the way she creates such genuine friendships between her characters, something which is much in evidence here as we get to see so many of them interacting with each other, teasing and joking and supporting each other as all good friends should.  There are two delightful romances to be found here (the one between the more mature couple was especially nice to see), and the various Christmas traditions are skilfully and vividly integrated into the story so that you can almost smell the greenery and see the coloured ribbons on the kissing boughs.  Best of all, these are the characters we’ve come to know and love; Rock is his ducal, perceptive self, Sebastian is witty and a teeny bit naughty, Julian is charmingly distracted; and the children in the story are well-written and feel age appropriate.  There are some wonderfully entertaining set-pieces, too – a boisterous game of football on the beach, a visit to Deal Castle, an impromptu concert for the tenants and villagers – and one of the most memorable moments in the book comes when Tom – the eldest of Julian and Arabella’s wards – reads a letter he’s written about his life, and his love for his adopted father, which is incredibly poignant and quite beautifully done.

The inclusion of the Maitlands and later, of Adrian’s obnoxious mother, serve to highlight that old adage that while you can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family; and their presence provides a stark contrast to the genuine warmth and affection the other characters so obviously find in their friendships and the happiness that permeates the rest of the book.

A Christmas story wouldn’t be a Christmas story without a bit of magic, and that’s here, too – albeit not in a way you might expect, and which I can’t say too much about without giving spoilers.  Suffice it to say that it’s woven carefully through the story and is sure to delight fans of the series.

Midwinter Magic is just that, a magical combination of warmth and wit, love and laughter, and a perfect conclusion to one of the best historical romance series around.

Burn You Twice by Mary Burton (audiobook) – Narrated by Melissa Moran

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Ten years ago as an undergrad, Joan Mason escaped an arsonist’s fire. Shaken, she fled the small collegiate Montana town, leaving behind friends and not looking back. Now a Philadelphia homicide detective, Joan’s trying to put her traumas to rest. It’s not easy. Elijah Weston, the classmate who torched her house, is out of prison and returning to Missoula. Gut instinct tells Joan he’ll strike again. To stop him, she must return to the past as well. To face not only the man she fears but Detective Gideon Bailey, too. The man she loved and left behind.

When a local woman dies tragically in another fire, it can’t be a coincidence. Can it be Elijah? He has a solid alibi for the night of the blaze. Reunited by the tragedy, Joan and Gideon have their doubts. So does Gideon’s sister, Ann – Joan’s old college roommate.

The investigation draws Joan and Gideon together, but it also sends them down a dangerous path – into a troubling history that Joan, Elijah, and Ann all share. As more lives go up in flames in Missoula, this town’s secrets are just beginning to rise from the ashes.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – B

I’ve read and listened to a number of Mary Burton’s romantic suspense titles, and have enjoyed their well-constructed plots, engaging characters and atmospheric writing. Burn You Twice is a standalone story, a gripping mystery with a bit of psychological suspense thrown in as listeners follow detective Joan Mason as she tries to find out the truth behind the arson attack that almost killed her and her best friend a decade earlier.

Not long after the fire, Joan left the small town in Montana where she grew up and went to live and work in Philadelphia. Now a homicide detective, she’s been put on a temporary suspension because she made an… unfortunate … arrest (her prime suspect was the daughter of a judge) while working an arson case, and decides to use that time go back to Missoula to see if she can finally get some answers to the questions about the night of the college fire that have continued to plague her over the intervening years.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Deadly Kin (Alec Halsey #4) by Lucinda Brandt (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Alec is back! Summer 1764. Alec and Selina anxiously await the birth of their first child at their estate in Kent. It should be a time of family celebration, but the death of a young poacher has Alec investigating murder. And when renovations to his sprawling manor unearth a secret burial chamber, a shocking family secret comes to light. Everything Alec thought he knew about his birth is again called into question, and with it the special bond with his irascible uncle Plantagenet.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B-

It’s been a while since Lucinda Brant released the last book in her series of Georgian-era historical mysteries featuring former diplomat, reluctant marquess and amateur sleuth Alec Halsey. (When I checked, I saw that book three, Deadly Peril, came out in November 2015.) I enjoyed the previous instalments in the series very much; Ms. Brant’s eye for period detail is remarkable, her plots are tightly written and full of devious twists and turns and she’s created a truly memorable leading man in the handsome, urbane and fiercely intelligent Halsey.

Eagle-eyed (eared?) listeners will notice that the narrator’s chair for Deadly Kin is occupied by the reliably good Matthew Lloyd Davies (who has taken over from Alex Wyndham) and I’m pleased to be able to say that his performance is top-notch.

Deadly Kin opens some months after the conclusion of Deadly Peril and sees Alec and his wife Selina residing at Alec’s family estate of Deer Park in Kent while they await the birth – any day now – of their first child. Alec’s elevation to the marquessate of Halsey is recent and not completely welcome; he had made himself a name in diplomatic circles, and is still adjusting to the change of pace that has come along with his change in status. Along with his new title, he has inherited his late brother’s crumbling Kentish estate at Delvin Park – which he has renamed Deer Park – and if were up to him, he’d pull it down and build something more modern, but Selina loves the old pile and Alec loves Selina so… renovation it is.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

See Her Die (Bree Taggert #2) by Melinda Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

New sheriff Bree Taggert is called to a shooting in a campground shuttered for the winter. But she arrives to find a perplexing crime. There is no shooter, no victim, and no blood. No one but Bree believes the sole witness, Alyssa, a homeless teenager who insists she saw her friend shot.

Bree calls in former deputy Matt Flynn and his K-9 to track the killer and search for Alyssa’s friend. They discover the battered corpse of a missing university student under the ice in Grey Lake—but it’s not the victim they were looking for.

When two more students go missing and additional bodies turn up, Bree must find the link between the victims. She knows only one thing for certain: the murders are fueled by rage. When Alyssa disappears, Bree must race against time to find her before her witness becomes another victim.

Rating: B+

Book two in Melinda Leigh’s new series of mystery/suspense novels featuring Bree Taggert, See Her Die, opens just three weeks after the events of Cross Her Heart.  A former Philadelphia detective, Bree’s life underwent a major upheaval when she returned home to the small upstate New York town of Grey’s Hollow – somewhere that holds few pleasant memories for her – in order to investigate the murder of her sister Erin.  By the end of the book, Bree has decided to remain in Grey’s Hollow to become the guardian to Erin’s two children, Luke (sixteen) and Kayla (eight) and to take the position of Sheriff, following the departure of the previous holder of the office, whose blatant corruption had been public knowledge but whom nobody had been able to dislodge.

When See Her Die begins, Bree is still struggling to adapt to her new life and responsibilities.  She’s not sleeping well (Kayla sometimes has nightmares and has taken to creeping into bed with her at night), she’s worried about Luke, who has become very quiet and incommunicative, she’s not completely sure which of her deputies she can trust, her department is underfunded and understaffed… it’s a long list of problems to sort out all the while she’s working to ensure the safety of everyone in the local community.

A call in the early hours of the morning sees Bree heading out to a local campground that is – supposedly – closed for the winter, following a 911 call from a young woman who says she saw her friend get shot.  When Bree and her deputies arrive, there’s no sign of a body or evidence of a shooting – and no sign of the person who made the call, until Bree and one of her deputies enter one of the cabins, where they find a terrified young woman who says her name is Alyssa Vaughan and that her friend Harper was shot out in the woods.  With no body or evidence, Bree has to consider the possibility that Alyssa may have made it all up, or have committed the murder herself… but something tells her that while Alyssa is definitely hiding something, that something isn’t murder.

Meanwhile, Bree’s friend, former K-9 handler Matt Flynn, has been asked by his sister Cady to look into the disappearance of Eli Whitney, a student at the university and the grandson of an elderly lady who fosters senior dogs for Cady’s rescue centre.  Matt took medical retirement from the Sheriff’s department after he was shot in the hand in the line of duty some three years earlier, and he’s setting up a K-9 training facility – or he would, if his sister didn’t keep filling up his kennels with her rescue dogs!   He agrees to ask around to see if he can find out what might have happened to Eli.

Later that day, Bree and her team are back out at the campground, still searching for evidence of a shooting and not finding much – until they turn up a set of footprints and tracks in the snow.  At this point, Bree decides to see if they can borrow a K-9 unit from the state police – but it’s nothing doing; all their available K-9s are searching for a missing student.  With the light fading and snow threatening, her chief deputy suggests she call in Matt Flynn and Brody (his service dog) – and Bree is just a little conflicted.  On the one hand, Matt’s connection to the department is not an easy one (he was shot by a fellow deputy and still suspects it may have been deliberate), but on the other she trusts him, and it would feel great to know someone has her back.

Matt agrees to help, and before long Brody is hot on the trail and leads Bree and Matt to the cracked ice around a boat ramp where, bobbing between long, jagged sheets of ice, is a human hand.  The hand belongs to the body of a young man who is unidentifiable due to the damage done to his face, which looks as though it’s been pulverised in an act of brutal rage.  Is this the shooter?  If it is, they have yet to find the victim.  And if it isn’t the shooter, could it be the missing student?

I love watching the way Melinda Leigh sets out what are seemingly different storylines and then slowly pulls them together until they coalesce and we can see how the pieces all fit as part of the larger whole.  The plot in See Her Die is complex, clever and well-executed and Bree is a tough, likeable and relatable heroine, a woman who is juggling so many balls in the air that she has no time for a life outside of work and her newly acquired family.  I also appreciated the peek into what it takes to run a sheriff’s department in a large but sparsely populated rural area, and felt for Bree as she wondered who among her staff she could really trust.

I enjoyed the story, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that for a book categorised as romantic suspense, the romance here is peripheral at best.  Matt is a lovely guy and he and Bree have great chemistry, so the lack of romantic development was a bit of a disappointment – BUT what we do get here is them working together again and I loved watching the professional side of their partnership develop.  Matt is such a wonderful support for Bree when she needs it, he’s a cool head in a crisis and, as Bree admits to herself, he’s smart and often sees connections she’s overlooked; they’re a great team, and it definitely seems that things are progressing on the romantic front by the time the book comes to a close.

In spite of the little bit of disappointment I experienced over the lack of romantic progression, I enjoyed See Her Die very much.  The principals are likeable, the secondary cast is nicely drawn, the mystery is compelling, and it all adds up to a thoroughly entertaining read.  I’ll definitely be back for book three when it’s released in Spring 2021.

The Silence (Columbia River #2) by Kendra Elliot

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A man is savagely murdered outside Portland, and Detective Mason Callahan finds blood-spatter evidence that tells a troubling story. Files reveal the murder victim, Reuben Braswell, was a radical conspiracist. In his home, investigators find pages of diatribes against law enforcement as well as ties to Mason’s fiancée, FBI special agent Ava McLane. The victim was her informant—and had strong reasons to be paranoid.

To Ava, Braswell’s rants were those of a wearying and harmless man…until they collide with her investigation into the murders of police officers and finding the connection becomes urgent. Meanwhile, Braswell’s brother and Ava’s twin sister both disappear, and disturbing acts of sabotage target Ava’s personal life.

For Mason and Ava, the brutal crimes and escalating mysteries create a perfect storm for a terrorist conspiracy that becomes dangerously personal—one that has yet to claim its last victim.

Rating: B

The Silence is book two in Kendra Elliot’s Columbia River series, but I don’t think I missed out on anything in terms of the plot by not reading the previous book, The Last Sister. Although the two principals in this story have featured in other books by the author – they’re an engaged couple – the mystery plot is completely self-contained, so you’d have no problems reading this as a standalone.

Detective Mason Callahan of the Oregon State Police is called to the scene of a particularly brutal murder at a house on the outskirts of Portland. Rueben Braswell was killed with a blunt instrument and his body was mutilated – the face bashed in, most of the fingers cut off and strewn around – which, if not for the fact that he was found in his own home, would normally have indicated that whoever killed him was trying to conceal his identity. Officers are carrying out a routine search of Braswell’s home when one of them finds a folder on his desk containing pages of anti-law enforcement rants and conspiracy theories – and blueprints of a building, the local courthouse, that indicate a bomb is set to detonate there that afternoon. As Mason gets on the phone to alert others to the threat, he and his partner notice one particular name among Braswell’s papers – that of Special Agent Ava McLane. Mason’s fiancée.

Ava isn’t having the best day either. She’s just about to leave for work when a young man she doesn’t know arrives on her doorstep and introduces himself as Brady Shurr – the man her troublesome – and troubled – twin sister Jayne had left a local drug and alcohol rehab centre with eight months earlier. Ava’s history with her wayward sister is complicated – it’s probably more detailed in the books in the Callahan and McLane series, but the author includes enough detail here for new readers to be able to catch up quickly. Basically, Jayne is selfish, conscienceless and manipulative – but she’s still Ava’s twin and no matter how much Ava wishes she could simply wash her hands of her… she can’t. Shurr tells Ava that Jayne has disappeared, and while Ava is intensely sceptical and is inclined to believe it’s yet another instance of her sister’s cruel and careless behaviour, when Shurr tells her that Jayne had told him to contact Ava if she ever disappeared, alarm bells start ringing in Ava’s head.

Things go from bad to worse when she arrives at the office to find out about the bomb threat and about Braswell’s murder. Braswell had been an informant of hers, although she’d quickly realised he had a huge chip on his shoulder about law enforcement and that he really just wanted someone to vent to. He’d insinuated he was associated with various anti-government factions, but most of their few meetings had yielded nothing useful; and at their last one, Braswell had crossed a line by grabbing her, and she’d walked away. Now Ava asks herself if she’d been too hasty – but she knows he never mentioned anything about a bomb.

When Mason and Ray arrive at the courthouse, the place is heaving with LEOs. They’re wading through the crowd when suddenly, shots are fired, chaos erupts and Mason realises the truth – there IS no bomb; the warning was a ploy to draw out cops and kill as many of them as possible.

Ava is given permission to work as part of the task force looking into the court house shooting, and I appreciated that the author addresses the potential conflict of interest by making it clear she’s on board under special circumstances; so often in novels like this, things like that are handwaved away. Mason’s investigations into Braswell’s murder reveal he had a brother he didn’t get along with – yet his car was seen parked in his driveway just days earlier. Could Shawn Braswell have killed his brother? Could he have been responsible for the shootings? Or are the two cases completely unrelated?

There’s a lot going on in The Silence, but the story never feels rushed or cluttered, and Ms. Elliot crafts a complex and fast-paced thriller as she juggles her various plot threads and begins to skilfully weave them all together. The investigations into the murder and shootings are nicely balanced by familial storylines, which provide some depth to Ava’s character, and the whole thing is slick, well-paced and engaging.

On the downside, I have to admit to feeling just a little bit disappointed because Ms. Elliot is generally billed as an author of romantic suspense, and the romance in this story has already happened (in the Callahan and McLane series), so it’s a kind of tying up of loose ends for the central couple. I liked Mason and Ava, but this is a plot- rather than character-driven story, and I didn’t feel as though I actually got to know either of them that well.

Those quibbles aside, The Silence was a suspenseful and entertaining page-turner with plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing. It’s the first book I’ve read by Kendra Elliot, but I will definitely read her again.

Untouchable (Blake Harte Mysteries #1) by Robert Innes

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Harrison Baxter lives on a farm with his parents, on the outskirts of the village of Harmschapel. It’s picturesque, idyllic and tranquil – but Harrison is far from happy. His parent’s marriage is strained to say the least and on top of that, his boyfriend, Daniel, has been mentally and physically abusing him for years. After he finds himself with one bruise too many, Harrison has had enough. But when he plucks up the courage to finally end his violent relationship, Harrison’s life is changed forever when Daniel is found murdered in the most bizarre circumstances.

Detective Sergeant Blake Harte has moved to Harmschapel after his own relationship ended in tatters. But moving to a quiet village after working his way up the ranks in a city brings its own set of problems and Blake soon finds himself at odds with new colleagues who aren’t used to his style of policing. But when he is called upon to investigate the mysterious and impossible murder at Halfmile Farm, Blake finds himself facing the most challenging case of his career.

So how can Daniel have been shot in a locked shed that nobody could possibly have escaped from?

Is anybody really Untouchable?

Rating: C+

A quick, enjoyable read and start to this series of mysteries set in a small town somewhere in the north of England/countryside outside Manchester.

After discovering his boyfriend of five-years cheating on him (with a woman), DS Blake Harte requests a transfer out of Manchester CID and ends up moving to the village of Harmschapel. On his first day, he’s thrown straight into the most unusual case the local police department has seen; a man who was locked in a shed with only one way in and out and only one key dies of three gunshot wounds.

The victim was Daniel Donaldson, who had gone to visit his boyfriend, Harrison Baxter at his home – his parents’ farm – because Harrison wanted to end their four-year relationship. Since the death of his father two years before, Daniel’s behaviour had become increasingly violent and erratic, and finally Harrison has decided he’s been his boyfriend’s punching bag for long enough.

When Harrison delivers the news, Daniel, who is more than half-drunk, grabs him by the throat and shoves him against the wall; Seth, Harrison’s father, enters the room at this point and pulls Daniel off, then frogmarches him out of the house and locks him in the shed while he calls the police.

That’s the set-up; an intriguing locked room mystery that doesn’t play out quite as one might expect, and a solid introduction to the unconventional Blake Harte, his colleagues and some of the locals who will no doubt appear in the rest of the series. (No romance as yet, but there are clear indications that one is waiting in the wings ;)) The author sets up some interesting professional relationships and conflicts, but I did think there were some holes in certain aspects of police procedure; for instance, the ‘interview’ whereby one of Harte’s colleagues is clearly desperate to fit up Harrison for the crime felt like I was in an episode of The Sweeney, and I was just waiting for him to snarl “You’re goin’ daaaahn!” And then when Harte’s boss pretty much tells him to cut the guy some slack and warns him not to take his (Harte’s) new-fangled policin’ methods too far (my italics) I had to go back and read that bit again to make sure I’d read it correctly, because I thought he should have been saying the exact opposite.

There were also a number of typos and grammar issues that stuck out; they’re mentioned in other reviews, and although the book was published in November 2016 originally, there appears to have been no attempt made to fix them.

But with all that said, I still enjoyed the story – and the fact that I was able to get through it in an afternoon. I’ll probably read more of the Blake Harte Mysteries.