Trick Roller (Seven of Spades #2) by Cordelia Kingsbridge (audiobook) – Narrated by Wyatt Baker

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It’s the height of summer in Las Vegas. Everyone believes the serial killer Seven of Spades is dead – except Levi Abrams and Dominic Russo – and it’s back to business as usual. For Levi, that means investigating a suspicious overdose at the Mirage that looks like the work of a high-class call girl, while Dominic pursues a tough internship with a local private investigator. The one bright spot for both of them is their blossoming relationship.

But things aren’t so simple. Soon, Levi is sucked into a dangerous web of secrets and lies, even as his obsession with the Seven of Spades intensifies. Dominic knows that Levi isn’t crazy. He knows the Seven of Spades is still out there, and he’ll do anything to prove it. But Dominic has his own demons to battle, and he may be fighting a losing war.

One thing is certain: the Seven of Spades holds all the cards. It won’t be long before they show their hand.

Rating: Narration: B-; Content: B+

Note: The Seven of Spades series has an overarching plotline, and all the books need to be listened to in order so as to get the most out of the story as a whole; there will be spoilers for book one, Kill Game, in this review.

Trick Roller is book two in Cordelia Kingsbridge’s gripping Seven of Spades series, which follows the hunt for a devious and enigmatic serial killer exacting vigilante justice in Las Vegas. At the end of Kill Game, the killer was apprehended, committed suicide in custody – and the case was closed. Homicide detective Levi Abrams is convinced that they got the wrong guy, but his boss refuses to listen to his protestations and has warned Levi not to attempt any further investigation; the Seven of Spades is dead and that’s an end of it.

Three months later, life goes on much as usual and Levi and his work-partner, Martine, are investigating the murder of a doctor who was in Vegas in order to attend a major medical conference. Given that the man was known to use escort services, their initial thoughts are that he was probably the victim of a trick roller, a prostitute who drugged and then stole from him. But when Levi and Martine track down the woman whose ‘company’ he’d paid for that night, that scenario begins to seem unlikely; she works through a very high-end escort agency that pays well, and certainly wouldn’t have needed to steal from a client. Once they’ve completed their interview, the detectives are sure the woman is innocent – until a stash of Rohypnol is discovered in her house, and even though she swears it doesn’t belong to her, Levi and Martine have to arrest her for the murder.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Chip and a Chair (Seven of Spades #5) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s time to lay all the cards on the table.

Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo are reunited and more committed to each other than ever, but they can’t truly move forward with their lives until the serial killer who’s been tormenting them is behind bars. When a secret burial site is discovered in the desert with the remains of the Seven of Spades’s earliest victims, that goal finally seems within reach.

But just as the net is tightening, the neo-Nazi militia Utopia launches their master plan with a devastating act of terror that changes the landscape of Las Vegas forever. As Levi and Dominic scramble to prevent the city’s destruction, they’re opposed by treacherous forces that propel them toward catastrophe. In the end, Levi’s fate may rest in the hands of the very killer he’s been hunting.

The race to save Sin City is on, and these players are going for broke. No matter how hopeless things seem, as long as they’re together and they’ve got a chip to play and a chair to sit in, they’re still in the game.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series earned a place on my Best of 2018 list, and the penultimate book, One-Eyed Royals, was actually my pick for best book of the year.  I’ve shouted from the rooftops about this series for the last six months and to say I’ve been eager to get my hands on this final instalment is one hell of an understatement!  A Chip and a Chair is, I’m delighted to say, a supremely fitting end to what has been an incredible series – a tightly-plotted, utterly gripping story full of high-stakes action, emotional highs and lows, and boasting a wonderfully developed, sexy romance between a couple of complex, well-defined and compelling characters.

As is always the case when reviewing suspense novels, I’m not going to say too much about the plot so as to avoid spoilers, but there are spoilers for the earlier books in the series in this review.

For the better part of a year, Las Vegas has been the ‘home base’ for a particularly devious serial killer dubbed the Seven of Spades, because each of their victims has had a seven of spades playing card left on their body.  Right from the start, the killer cultivated a relationship – of sorts – with homicide detective Levi Abrams; he’s the one they contact, the one they’ve sometimes fed information to and the one they’ve gone to great lengths to protect.  As the books have progressed, the SoS’s partiality for Levi has led to increased suspicion among his colleagues and a growing sense of isolation from them; a man with anger management issues who struggles to keep himself under a tight rein at the best of times, Levi has been slowly unravelling and getting closer and closer to the edge of his control.

The love and support of his partner, PI Dominic Russo, has kept Levi grounded for the most part, although the couple hit a rocky patch at the end of book three, Cash Plays, after Dominic, a compulsive gambler, relapsed, his lies and manipulation driving a wedge between them.  Their break-up left both of them struggling through some of the blackest times of their lives alone, but by the end of One-Eyed Royals, they were back together, filled with a new determination to work things out between them – and at the beginning of A Chip and a Chair, they’re moving into a new apartment.  It’s been a month since the game-changing events at the end of One-Eyed Royals, and the Seven of Spades has been quiet since then – but Levi knows it’s only a matter of time before they strike again.

When a construction crew working in the desert unearths a number of bodies in various stages of decomposition, Levi and his work-partner Martine are convinced they’ve found the Seven of Spades’ first victims. Examination and testing is going to take time, but a long overdue piece of luck leads Levi to a real breakthrough in the case – just as the LVMPD is forced to turn its attention to the threat posed by the far-right neo-Nazi gang, Utopia, which has been stepping up its activities in recent weeks, instigating a string of violent hate crimes across the Las Vegas valley and causing panic among the local population. When credible evidence is found that they’re planning to mount a series of terrorist attacks, the city is thrown into chaos. Worse still, Utopia is intent on challenging the Seven of Spades – and on using Levi to get to them.

As to the rest… well, you’ll have to find out for yourself because my lips are sealed! Yes, we do find out the identity of the Seven of Spades and yes, it’s a shocker; the author cleverly presented several candidates, none of whom was more or less likely than any of the others, and I know people who have been speculating about their identity since book one. But odd as it may seem, I was so invested in the relationship between Levi and Dominic, and the way they and their circle were affected by the Seven of Spades’ actions, that learning the killer’s actual identity wasn’t my main focus; all of the possibles were people close to Levi in some way, so that whoever it turned out to be, it was going to be an incredibly harsh betrayal – and it was knowing that was coming that I found to be one of the most compelling elements of the story.

I devoured A Chip and a Chair in one sitting, and if I’d been any closer to the edge of my seat, I’d have been sitting on the floor! I was right there with Levi and Dominic as they got closer and closer to discovering the truth, my pulse racing during the spectacular, mid-book action sequence and then again as Levi, Dominic and their small band of allies – including Rebel, Dominic’s specially trained personal protection dog! – race to find the man behind Utopia’s reign of terror and prevent an atrocity the like of which Las Vegas has never seen.

And in the middle of all of it are Levi and Dominic, closer, stronger and more in love than ever, still battling their demons but thoroughly committed to working through them together and being completely open and honest with one another. I’ve said in previous reviews that I’ve been really impressed with the author’s depiction of Dominic’s addiction and that continues here; she hasn’t glossed over it just because the guys are back together and makes it clear that Dominic is still struggling and will probably continue to do so, but that he’s working hard, every day, to fight it. And there are big self-revelations for Levi, too, as he finally faces up to some long-buried truths about himself – and the final scene *sigh* – gave me All The Feels.

Cordelia Kingsbridge delivered everything I wanted – and more – in A Chip and a Chair. Nail-biting tension, fantastic, vividly-written set-pieces, a complex plot, a brilliant central dichotomy that was so audacious it made me smile and moments that reduced me to tears. I’m not going to forget Levi and Dominic – or this series – in a hurry, and if you haven’t started it yet, prepare to lock yourself away for a few days, because I guarantee that once started, you won’t be able to stop reading until the very end.

My 2018 in Books & Audio

My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks.  I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever.  Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either  story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket.  I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.

4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.

The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else.  Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception.  The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them  at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver.  Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself).  Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Womanwhich I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment.  On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband which was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016.  Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Duke and An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic.  Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist.  Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out.  K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Print and Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites.   Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.

Romantic Suspense

I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop.  In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did.  There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.

The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years.  Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.

My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive.  I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again.  It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas.  Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension.  The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful;  they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it.  Their relationship goes through terrific  highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.

Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER,  one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines.  I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well.  She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top.  And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.

Audio

I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!)  My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.

I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes.  But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees.  Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.

I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others.  I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home – which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.

Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general.  Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well.  Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.


As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019?  First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please!  Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year.  I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous.  I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April.  There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book.  Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific.  I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.

Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!

Kill Game (Seven of Spades #1) by Cordelia Kingsbridge (audiobook) – Narrated by Wyatt Baker

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Homicide detective Levi Abrams is barely holding his life together. He’s reeling from the fallout of a fatal shooting, and his relationship with his boyfriend is crumbling. The last thing he’s prepared for is a serial killer stalking the streets of Las Vegas. Or how he keeps getting thrown into the path of annoyingly charming bounty hunter Dominic Russo.

Dominic likes his life free of complications. That means no tangling with cops-especially prickly, uptight detectives. But when he stumbles across one of the Seven of Spades’s horrifying crime scenes, he can’t let go, despite Levi’s warnings to stay away.

The Seven of Spades is ruthless and always two moves ahead. Worst of all, they’ve taken a dangerously personal interest in Levi and Dominic. Forced to trust each other, the two men race to discover the killer’s identity, revealing hidden truths along the way and sparking a bond neither man expected. But that may not be enough to protect them.

This killer likes to play games, and the deck is not stacked in Levi and Dominic’s favor.

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – A-

It’s not often that I get gushy about my reading and/or listening material but… OMG, Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series is one of the best things I’ve read all year!! This is romantic suspense at its very best; superbly-conceived, twisty-turny, high-stakes plots featuring two utterly compelling, flawed, complex central characters with off-the-charts chemistry and a superbly developed romance that isn’t all hearts and flowers, but which more than adequately proves the old adage about what doesn’t kill you making you stronger.

So far only book one, Kill Game, is available in audio – the series is five books in all; 1-4 are out, with the fifth due to follow next Spring – but I’m hoping the other books will become available in due course. The stories really are terrific and Wyatt Baker – a new to me narrator – acquits himself fairly well, although I there are some aspects of his performance I felt could have been stronger.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

One-Eyed Royals (Seven of Spades #4) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Shattered by their devastating breakup, Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo find themselves at war right when they need each other most. While Dominic is trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, Levi despairs of ever catching the Seven of Spades. The ruthless vigilante’s body count continues to climb, and it’s all Levi can do to keep up with the carnage.

When Levi’s and Dominic’s paths keep crossing in the investigation of a kidnapping ring with a taste for mutilation, it feels like history repeating itself. Thrown together by fate once again, they reluctantly join forces in their hunt for the mastermind behind the abductions.

But the Seven of Spades hates sharing the spotlight, and they have an ace in the hole: a new batch of victims with a special connection to Levi. Their murders send shockwaves through Las Vegas and change the rules of the game forever.

The Seven of Spades has upped the ante. If Levi and Dominic don’t play their cards right, they’ll end up losing everything.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series comprises some of the best books I’ve read this year, and if you’re a fan of m/m romantic suspense/thrillers and haven’t read them yet, then you’ve got a real treat in store.  The titular Seven of Spades is a serial killer plaguing Las Vegas, and because the series has plotlines and character relationships that stretch across all five books in the series, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review.  And this is absolutely not the place to jump in if you haven’t read the previous books.  Go back to book one, Kill Game, and then work your way here – I promise you won’t be disappointed because this series is one of the most gripping I’ve ever read.

At the end of book three, Cash Plays, Detective Levi Abrams and his lover, PI Dominic Russo, crashed and burned in a pretty spectacular way.  Dominic, a compulsive gambler, doesn’t see his addiction as an illness, believing instead that it’s a personal weakness he just has to be strong enough to conquer.  Because of this, he hasn’t really sought out the right sort of help (or much of it), and when a case he was working put him in the way of starting to gamble again in order to maintain his cover, he fell very quickly back into old habits.  One of the things Cordelia Kingsbridge does spectacularly well in these books is explore the motivations and thought processes of an addict, and she shows very clearly the processes of self-deception and denial Dominic goes through in order to convince himself there’s nothing wrong and he can stop gambling after the case is over.  And while Dominic is becoming increasingly self-absorbed and desperate to hide his relapse from Levi, Levi is going through hell courtesy of his increasing frustration over the lack of progression in the Seven of Spades case and the growing suspicion of his colleagues. In yet another Machiavellian turn, the killer is targeting the men who beat Levi so viciously over a decade earlier and were never punished, and the SoS’s fascination – obsession – with Levi and the similarities in their psyches pointed out by the  FBI profiler in the previous book are driving a wedge between him and those around him. He’s hanging on to his volcanic temper and his sanity by the merest thread, his professional reputation is being gradually eroded and he’s more afraid than ever of what he might do if he’s pushed too far.  And he’s going through it alone and without the support of the man he loves.

Levi and Dominic split up after an epic row at the end of Cash Plays, and at the beginning of One-Eyed Royals a few months later, are still apart… although they can’t keep their hands off each other and continue to have sex on a fairly regular basis.  These hook-ups inevitably end badly, but they just can’t quit each other.  Levi vowed to make Dominic’s life a living hell until he stopped gambling, and he’s making good on that promise, having him blacklisted from practically every casino in the city and making sure Dominic is hounded by cops every time he turns around.   Levi has always had a capacity for ruthlessness; he’s sarcastic, abrasive and there’s no doubt some of his actions and words are downright cruel – yet I couldn’t exactly blame him for them most of the time.  (And Dominic isn’t completely blameless in the cruelty department, either.) Levi is furious with Dominic; not because he’s relapsed but because of the lengths he’s gone to hide it from him – and because Dominic can’t (or won’t) admit his gambling has become a problem again.

In each of the books in the series so far, the author has cleverly developed two seemingly disparate plotlines only to gradually merge them during the course of the story, and that’s no different here.  The Seven of Spades is continuing their vigilante crusade, the city’s rival gangs are still jostling for position and Dominic’s latest case is proving extremely frustrating.  Hired to look into the possibility of fraud or sabotage at Kensington Insurance Group, a company that specialises in providing insurance against kidnap and ransom for high-ranking executives, his client is unhelpfully cagy, unwilling to brief Dominic on all that he needs to know.

On top of all the stress of the stalled SoS investigation and of Dominic’s descent back into addiction, Levi picks up another murder case, this time seemingly unconnected to the Seven of Spades, in which the victim has had one eye surgically removed.  When a young woman, a high-powered executive, arrives at the station and tells him how she was kidnapped and had the same procedure – her eye sent to her family and colleagues as an unmistakable message – it’s clear there’s more to the murder than at first appeared.  It transpires that both she and the dead man were insured by Kensington, which throws Levi and Dominic into each other’s orbits once again, and they reluctantly have to work together in spite of the seemingly irreconcilable differences that lie between them.

Cordelia Kingsbridge once again weaves a compelling suspense plot and ratchets up the tension as the SoS’ latest killing spree strikes really close to home for Levi.  But the relationship between the leads is the big draw in this series, and in this book, the angst-o-meter is cranked up to eleven.  Both men are hurting; Levi knows Dominic is his bashert, his soulmate, and he feels totally bereft without him, while Dominic is so far down the rabbit hole of denial, his feelings of worthlessness stoking his need for the rush gambling gives him, that he can’t and won’t seek the help he needs.  It seems there’s no hope for them until another shocking development pushes Levi one more step closer to the edge and finally brings the truth home to Dominic; and in a brilliant yet disturbing set-piece near the end in which they’re pitted directly against the Seven of Spades, they prove once and for all that they’re stronger together than apart.

At the end (where I may have squealed with delight) Ms. Kingsbridge sets the scene for the final book in the series with considerable aplomb, promising an exciting showdown between our heroes and the enigmatic killer who has so far eluded them.  I know there are lots of theories out there as to the identity of the Seven of Spades, but I confess to having no idea whatsoever and I’m quite happy to wait for the reveal in A Chip and a Chair when it comes out later this year.

The Seven of Spades series has quickly become a firm favourite, and while part of me wishes I’d read it earlier, another part is glad I picked it up near the end so that I haven’t had to wait between instalments.  I love the characters, the plotlines, the humour, the angst and the tenderness; Cordelia Kingsbridge has consistently maintained an incredibly high standard throughout the series, and I’m eagerly anticipating more of the same come December.

Cash Plays (Seven of Spades #3) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In this game, the stakes are life or death.

The Seven of Spades is back with a vengeance — the vigilante serial killer has resumed their murderous crusade, eluding the police at every turn. But a bloodthirsty killer isn’t the only threat facing Sin City. A devious saboteur is wreaking havoc in Las Vegas’s criminal underworld, and the entire city seems to be barreling toward an all-out gang war.

As Detective Levi Abrams is pushed ever closer to his breaking point, his control over his dangerous rage slips further every day. His relationship with PI Dominic Russo should be a source of comfort, but Dominic is secretly locked in his own downward spiral, confronting a nightmare he can’t bear to reveal.

Las Vegas is floundering. Levi and Dominic’s bond is cracking along the seams. And the Seven of Spades is still playing to win. How many bad hands can Levi and Dominic survive before it’s game over?

Rating: A-

Cash Plays is the middle book of a five book series, and it’s a game-changer.  Cordelia Kingsbridge amps up the tension and the angst to the max in terms of the hunt for the dangerous, enigmatic serial killer, the Seven of Spades, and also within the relationship between our two central characters, homicide detective Levi Abrams, and PI Dominic Russo.  The killer is clever, calculating and bit-by-bit chipping away at Levi’s sanity, forcing him to confront the demons he’s tried to bury for years and those that are nearer the surface, pushing him to doubt himself at every turn and bringing him closer and closer to the edge.  Dominic, meanwhile, is facing demons of his own which are bleeding away his self-esteem and eroding his sense of self; by the end of Cash Plays, both Levi and Dominic are in very dark places and readers are left wondering how they will ever find their way out of the shadows.  And back to each other.

When the man believed to be the serial killer the Seven of Spades committed suicide at the end of Kill Game,  the case was closed, leaving Levi angry and frustrated, because he knew that they’d got the wrong man and that the real killer was still at large.  He’d begun to investigate further on his own time despite being warned to stay away, but at the end of Trick Roller, the Seven of Spades made their presence known in spectacular fashion and Levi was proven right.  The case is re-opened, but it’s still maddeningly dead-ended as there are no new leads to follow and it seems as though the SoS will never be caught.  Levi’s feelings of helplessness are sparking old, traumatic memories that only intensify his current frustration with the case; he’s never been the most popular guy on the team, but thanks to the way the SoS has singled him out, many of his colleagues are viewing him with suspicion, and Levi’s own erratic behaviour is serving to alienate them from him further.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough – the profile of the SoS put together by the FBI not only describes the killer to a T – it fits Levi perfectly as well.

Levi’s partner, Dominic Russo, is now a fully-licensed private investigator and has been taken on one of Las Vegas’ most prestigious firms.  He’s working on a missing persons’ case; Jessica Miller, a bright, smart young woman suddenly dropped out of college and was – so her parents believe – pressured into running away by her boyfriend.  Dominic’s inquiries lead him to discover that the boyfriend is every bit as unsavoury as Jessica’s parents believe, and that she is practically a prisoner, watched 24/7 by armed criminals and stuck in a large, walled compound it’s going to be difficult to break her out of.  No way is Dominic going to leave her there  – but it turns out the risks associated with the case are even higher than he’d imagined, and he’s going to be pushed to his limits… and maybe beyond.

An increasingly fraught Levi and his colleagues are also faced with an impending turf war between the three gangs who operate in the area – and it doesn’t take Levi very long to suspect that they’re being set up; that someone is pulling strings and setting gang against gang in an escalating series of incidents designed to cause maximum damage and instil fear into the local population.

As in the previous books, it gradually becomes apparent that Levi’s and Dominic’s seemingly diverse cases are related, and the author pulls her story threads together in an incredibly skilful – and ultimately devastating – manner  I don’t want to go into detail because readers need to be able to savour the tight, complex plotting for themselves, but I do want to say how impressed I’ve been with the way Ms. Kingsbridge explores the mentality of addiction in these stories.  Her background in social work perhaps makes her expertise in this area unsurprising, but even so, she is able to bring home to the reader exactly what is driving Dominic; his motivations and thought-processes, in a precise way that is easy to understand without trivialising the very serious nature of what he’s going through.

Her treatment of Levi’s issues and deep-seated insecurities is similarly well done and in both cases the men’s problems feel real and properly related to their personalities; Levi suffered a severe trauma in his twenties which ultimately prompted him become a cop and it’s clearly something that haunts him and continues to inform many of his decisions and actions.

Cash Plays is a difficult book to read at times, simply because of what Levi and Dominic go through, but I want to emphasise that this is no “let’s torture the heroes because I can”, hurt/comfort trope-y sort of book.  The emotional instability and pain both men experience in this story doesn’t just appear from nowhere; it’s firmly rooted in who they are, and the fact that the rest of the plot doesn’t just stop while they indulge in a bit of navel-gazing makes the story and the characters feel that much more real.  The stakes are high in terms of the story, too, with rival gangs starting to tear Las Vegas apart and Dominic’s need to rescue the young woman from an abusive situation; there’s no time to take a breath, and both men are being pushed to breaking point.

I have to make quick mention of Stanton Barclay, Levi’s ex, who plays a small but significant role here.  He and Levi split in Kill Game when it became clear to Levi that they wanted very different things from life; it’s equally clear that Stanton still loves Levi but has accepted his decision to leave.  In the hands of a lesser author, Stanton could have become a whiny or evil ex type, which I always think is a bad move, as it causes the reader to wonder why the hero was with him in the first place.  Instead, Ms. Kingsbridge makes Stanton a sympathetic character, and there’s a wonderful scene near the end where Levi goes to see him to apologise (for the breakup and other things that happen during the course of the book) that is so emotionally open and beautifully written that it brought a lump to my throat.

Cash Plays is another thrilling, engrossing instalment in the Seven of Spades series; the ante is upped to the nth degree, emotions and tensions run incredibly high and you’ll very likely feel emotionally drained after you finish it.  The book ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, but fortunately you can jump straight into book four, One-Eyed Royals, which promises to be every bit as much of an emotional rollercoaster ride as this one.

 

Trick Roller (Seven of Spades #2) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s the height of summer in Las Vegas. Everyone believes the serial killer Seven of Spades is dead—except Levi Abrams and Dominic Russo—and it’s back to business as usual. For Levi, that means investigating a suspicious overdose at the Mirage that looks like the work of a high-class call girl, while Dominic pursues a tough internship with a local private investigator. The one bright spot for both of them is their blossoming relationship.

But things aren’t so simple. Soon Levi is sucked into a dangerous web of secrets and lies, even as his obsession with the Seven of Spades intensifies. Dominic knows that Levi isn’t crazy. He knows the Seven of Spades is still out there, and he’ll do anything to prove it. But Dominic has his own demons to battle, and he may be fighting a losing war.

One thing is certain: the Seven of Spades holds all the cards. It won’t be long before they show their hand.

Rating: B+

I pretty much inhaled the first four books in Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series over a  couple of days; the series has been recommended to me several times and I managed to grab an ARC of the fourth book which finally galvanized me into getting my arse into gear to read the others!  (My review of book one, Kill Game, is HERE). It’s a series with an overarching story so the books must be read in order, and while that plotline – concerning the chillingly effective serial killer nicknamed the Seven of Spades because they always leave a seven of spades playing card on their victims – takes a bit of a back seat in this second book, it’s nonetheless bubbling away quite steadily in the background.

Trick Roller focuses strongly on developing the relationship between our two leads – homicide detective Levi Abrams and Dominic Russo, a former army Ranger, who works as a bounty hunter (sorry – bail enforcement agent!) by day and a barman by night – but it also contains a well-executed mystery plot which once again leads to Levi and Dominic working together as their two seemingly different cases converge.  This time, Levi and his partner, Martine, are called to investigate the murder of a doctor who is in Vegas with colleagues for a major medical conference.  Given that the man was well known for making use of hired company, their initial thoughts are that he was the target of a trick roller, a prostitute who drugged him and then stole from him.  But after they track down the woman in question, that scenario seems highly unlikely – she came from a very high-end escort agency and certainly wouldn’t have needed to commit robbery.  Once Levi and Martine have interviewed her, they’re both pretty sure she’s innocent – until a search team finds a stash of Rohypnol in her house that she insists doesn’t belong to her.

Meanwhile, Dominic has begun working towards acquiring his Private Investigator’s license and is starting out small with the sort of ‘bread-and-butter’ case often taken on by the prestigious firm he’s interning with.  The client is sure her husband is having an affair and wants proof, which shouldn’t be too hard to obtain – until the husband leads Dominic and his partner to a casino. Dominic, a compulsive gambler, has been on the wagon for two years, but the craving to give in and start gambling is so incredibly strong… he manages to fight it off and then calls the first person who comes to mind – Levi.  Their conversation is honest and one they need to have; it highlights the growing bond between them, and it speaks volumes that Dominic is prepared to put his need for help above his pride and that he wants Levi to be the one to offer that help.

But Levi is struggling with demons of his own. At the end of Kill Game, the Seven of Spades case was closed after the main suspect (at the time) was caught and subsequently committed suicide.  Levi and Dominic know he wasn’t the guy, but Levi’s boss has warned him to steer clear and move on – yet he can’t.  He knows it’s only a matter of time before the killer strikes again, and he is using every minute of his spare time to pursue his own investigation on the quiet, without even telling Dominic, with whom he’s been in a relationship for three months. Levi is a storm of intriguing contradictions, cool on the outside and boiling hot within, aggressive as fuck in certain situations and painfully shy in others, the sort of guy who projects cold aloofness, but has a volcanic temper he can barely keep a lid on. His control has been slipping ever since he was forced to kill a suspect holding a child as hostage several months earlier, and his frustration over the Seven of Spades case has made things worse.  He’s become obsessive, even going so far as to create a kind of shrine dedicated to everything he knows and can find out about the elusive killer.

Not only are the individual investigations in these stories captivating and exciting in their own right, Levi and Dominic are two of the most charismatic, compelling characters I’ve read about in quite some time.  As a couple they’re fabulous together; their chemistry is off the charts, and it’s clear they both care a great deal for one another.  But both are terribly, terribly flawed; Levi has serious anger-management issues he finds difficult to deal with at the best of times, and his feelings of frustration and impotence when it comes to the Seven of Spades case are making him evenly more tightly wound than usual – and Dominic is a compulsive gambler who, it becomes clear, hasn’t quite got as much of a handle on things as he thinks he has.

Trick Roller is a taughtly-written, sexy, gritty romantic thriller, and Ms. Kingsbridge draws her seemingly disparate plotlines together with incredible skill while also spending a good deal of time developing the central characters and their relationship.  I never felt as though one element of the story had been sacrificed for the sake of the other, and that can be a difficult balance to achieve.  The novel is perhaps not quite as full of heart-pounding action as Kill Game, but that feels right, a little like some calm before the storm that’s unleashed at the end of the book to be carried into the next.  The final chapters are simply brilliant – a nail-biting courtroom battle in which a prosecutor attempts to tear Levi apart on the witness stand, followed by the Seven of Spades making their presence felt in no uncertain terms, vindicating Levi, but also making it clear that anyone who messes with him won’t live long to regret it.

All bets are off.  Indeed.