All Fired Up (Ashes & Dust #1) by Jenn Burke

all fired up burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Paranormals are dying. All over the city, with no explanation and only one thing in common: their magic is missing.

Vampire and private investigator Evan Fournier isn’t supposed to be taking on paranormal cases, but when the murderer hits close to home, he agrees to look into it. The last thing he expects is to become a target himself—and then to become irrevocably bonded to the man who just tried to kill him.

With his memory gone and his soul bonded to a stranger, former firefighter Colin Zhang wants to be anywhere else. He doesn’t have a damn clue why he just tried to kill Evan, and he didn’t even know about magic until just now. The sooner he can get back to his real life, the better.

But every time either of them tries to leave, pure agony stops them short. Forced to work with Evan or suffer the consequences, Colin must excavate the secrets buried in his missing memories while battling two rising threats: the conspiracy behind the murder, and his mutual attraction to the bond mate he never wanted.

Rating: B+

Note: There are spoilers for the Not Dead Yet series in this review.

I really enjoyed Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet series of paranormal romances and was delighted when I learned she was planning a follow-up series which would focus on ‘baby vamp’ Evan Fournier.  Evan was a troubled young man living with depression (and not doing so well) when we first met him and circumstances led to his becoming  the one of the members of the found family formed by Wes and Hudson over the course of the trilogy.  All Fired Up – book one in the Ashes & Dust series – opens around five years later and finds Evan – older, wiser and more confident in himself – in a much better place, having worked hard to get his life on track and learned to ask for and accept help when he needs it.

Evan works as a private investigator for Caballero Investigations, the firm set up by Wes and Hudson in Give Up the Ghost.  Although all the employees are paranormals, the firm takes ‘regular’ cases as well as ones involving the supernatural, but when Wes and Hudson have to travel to London at short notice due to a family emergency, Hud makes it very clear to Evan that under no circumstances is he to take on any paranormal investigations while they’re gone.  Not because he doesn’t trust Evan or to handle them, but because those are the cases that tend to go sideways quickly – and Hud is a bit (!) of a control freak and very protective of those he cares about.

But when Dr. Anika Kozlow – a witch and Evan’s doctor and therapist – comes to see him, clearly very upset, and talking about a patient who recently died under suspicious circumstances, Evan knows he won’t be able to sit this one out.  Called to visit a patient who had recently returned from a retreat for paranormals, Dr. Kozlow was shocked to see a literal shell of the woman she’d known.

“When I saw her, she wasn’t there.  I mean, her body was.  She was sitting in the recliner, breathing, he eyes open, but they were… empty.”

A diagnostic spell confirmed Anika’s suspicions:

“When I said she was empty, I wasn’t exaggerating.  Her magic – her soul – was gone.”

And she’s since discovered that several of the patients she referred to the retreat have died in the same way.

Evan decides to check himself into the Rising Sun Retreat to see what he can find out.  Everything seems above board at first; the location is great, the staff are kind and he falls in with a group of friendly fellow patients who show him the ropes.  But there’s one staff member who makes him feel uneasy, a man known only as Red – because of the red tips in his hair (which, incidentally, are nowhere to be seen on the front cover!) – a member of staff so quiet, controlled and emotionless that he’s almost robotic.  He’s pretty creepy and Evan is suspicious – but before he can find out much more, he comes dangerously close to becoming the soul-sucker’s next victim.

Firefighter Colin Zhang has absolutely no idea why he just tried to kill Evan;  the last thing he remembers is heading into a burning building to rescue someone who’d been trapped inside, and he’d rather be anywhere other than with a bunch of crazy people talking about magic and vampires and telling him it’s 2024.  It can’t be – the fire was just yesterday. In March 1990.

All Fired Up gets this new trilogy off to a great start.  The mystery is fast-paced, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and it hooked me in right from the beginning; but the big draw was getting to spend some more time with the characters I’d come to know and love from the earlier series, and to see Evan start down the road towards a well-earned HEA  – he’s been through some serious shit, and deserves to be happy.  Evan is a complex, well-rounded character and I liked his insightful and wryly down-to-earth narrative voice – a very clear contrast to Wes’ mercurial personality and deadpan snark.  Evan’s depression is realistically and sensitively portrayed; he’s fairly stable now, and although the old insecurities break through and threaten to throw him off balance from time to time, he’s very self-aware and determined not to fall back into the sort of downward spiral that almost broke him when he was younger.

I liked Colin and the way he’s already starting to fit in with Evan and his found family of supernatural beings – and an actual god – although he (Colin) isn’t particularly well fleshed-out as a character.  Still, this is only the first book of three, so there’s room for more development there – and perhaps the fact that I’ve got to know Evan already via the previous series makes for an unfair comparison.  I enjoyed the book very much, although a couple of issues brought my final grade down a bit. One is that Colin doesn’t freak out very much when he finds out he’s lost thirty-four years of his life – and not only that, but that he’s been used to – at the very least – do serious harm to a number of people throughout that time.  He seems to accept both those things too easily, which was a bit odd.  And in addition to having to come to terms with what he’d been forced to do and the fact that his old life is gone, Colin has to reconsider his sexual identity. Growing up at a time when AIDS was ravaging the gay community, he chose to deny the part of him that was attracted to men, but the realisation that things have changed considerably enables him to own the truth (that he’s attracted to men and women) and act on his attraction to Evan.  I appreciated the way this realisation is brought about – but it’s something else Colin seemed to adjust to a tad too quickly.

That said, however, they make a good couple and there’s some very real chemistry between them. Both of them have suffered the loss of loved ones and will have to find ways to move forward if they’re going to be together in any real sense, and I’m looking forward to seeing their relationship develop as the series progresses.

As in Not Dead Yet, Ms. Burke sets an overarching plot in motion in this series opener.  The villain of All Fired Up gets their just desserts, but the Big Bad – the brains behind the plot to steal magic and souls from members of the paranormal community –is still out there, and will no doubt be back to cause more trouble in the following instalments.  With a sweet HFN for Colin and Evan – and the promise of more to come – All Fired Up is a terrific combination of page-turning mystery and tender romance, and is strongly recommended.

My 2019 in Books & Audio

Before I started writing this post, I took a look at the one I wrote for 2018 – My 2018 in Books & Audio – to see what I had to say about the books I read and listened to and about the things I was hoping for from 2019.  Sadly, my biggest wish – for more winners in historical romance – not only didn’t come true, but didn’t come true in spectactular fashion; I read and listened to considerably fewer historical romances in 2019 (around 60) and of those, only 15 garnered a B+ (4.5 stars) or higher (actually, that was 11 historical romances plus 4 historical mysteries), and only two made the Best of 2019 list I wrote for All About Romance.  Looking at the upcoming release lists for 2020, I can’t see that situation improving; very few of the book blurbs for upcoming HR make me want to read them.

So… what did I read and listen to instead?  My Goodreads stats show that I read and listened to 299 books and audiobooks in 2019, (that figure includes maybe a dozen or so audio re-listens), which is over 40 books more than my total for last year.

Of that total, 66 were 5 star reads/listens, 184 were 4 star reads/listens – by far the biggest category – 35 were 3 star reads/listens, and there were 9 2 stars, 1 1 star and 1 unrated DNF.

Of the 66 highest graded, around a dozen were actual A grades; I award an A- 4.5 stars but bump the star rating up to five.  (And in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a B grade story will get bumped up because of A grade narration). The 4 star ratings cover books/audios I’ve given B-, B or B+ grades, which is quite a large spectrum as it ranges from those books which are given qualified recommendations (B- is 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars) to those which are almost-but-not-quite DIKs (Desert Isle Keepers), the 4.5 stars (B+) I don’t round up.  I had around the same number of 3, 2 and 1 star ratings as last year, which is at least consistent!

The books that made my Best of 2019 list at AAR are these:

(although I cheated a bit and actually included the whole Not Dead Yet and Borealis Investivations series!)

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

I had a list of “also rans” that I would have included had I had more space:

Charlie Adhara’s Thrown to the Wolves was – I believe – originally to have been the final book in her Big Bad Wolf series, but she’s since announced there will be a fourth (yay!).  In TttW, we finally get some backstory for the enigmatic werewolf Park when he takes Cooper home to meet the family, together with a clever mystery, complicated family dynamics and a well-deserved HEA that’s perfectly in character. Cordelia Kingsbridge’s A Chip and a Chair was one of my most anticipated books of the year and didn’t disappoint, bringing the rollercoaster ride that was the Seven of Spades series to a rolliking, satisfying close.  KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage was (I think?) her first m/f romance; a sequel to Any Old Diamonds, it features tough-as-nails lady detective Susan Lazarus and the other half of the Lilywhite Boys in an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  Sally Malcolm’s Twice Shy is a lovely feel-good romance between a young man struggling to bring up two young children left to his care following the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, and a school teacher still dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage and career.  The romance is warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry and is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce happy sighs.

Historical Romance made another really poor showing in 2019; of the authors I’ve previously counted on to deliver really good stories full of interesting and appealing characters, only a few actually managed to do it.  KJ Charles and Mia Vincy made my Best of 2019 list, but Lara Temple (The Rake’s Enticing Proposal), Virginia Heath (The Determined Lord Hadleigh), Janice Preston (Daring to Love the Duke’s Heir) and Marguerite Kaye (The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage) all put out excellent books this year, and I enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s début, Bringing Down the Duke and am keen to read whatever she comes up with next.  I still haven’t got around to reading Julie Anne Long’s Angel in a Devil’s Arms, which has appeared on quite a few Best of lists, so I hope I’ll enjoy it when I get around to it!

I also enjoyed a few historical mysteries; Sherry Thomas (The Art of Theft), Andrea Penrose (Murder at Kensington Palace) and Anna Lee Huber (Penny for Your Secrets) released new instalments in their current series and Cat Sebastian (Hither, Page) began a new one set in an English village post WW2 that combined a cozy mystery with a simply lovely romance.

Audio

I did a very quick count the other day, and think that, for the first year ever, I actually listened to more books than I read (by a very small margin).  I counted around 150 audiobooks (and probably missed a few re-listens because I often forget to mark those at Goodreads) which is half my total of 299 reads/listens. And according to the spreadsheet I maintain of books and audios I’ve picked up for review, I had an equal number of books and audiobooks to review in 2019. I have definitely struggled, at times, to find books I want to review and have filled the gap with audiobooks.  So many are released each month, and I especially love it when backlist titles are made available for authors whose work I enjoy but stand no chance of actually getting to in print!

I chose the following as my Top Five audiobooks of the year at AudioGals:

I also cheated here by including the whole Not Dead Yet series! – which is actually the only title (titles) written in 2019; all the other books were written before last year, but didn’t come out in audio until 2019.  But that’s par for the course with audio; not all of them are released simultaneously with the print/digital versions.  The “also rans” for my audio Best of 2019 list were:

All boast top-notch performances and got at least an A- for narration, and the stories got at least a B+ each; and quite honestly, I could have substituted any of them for the list I actually posted at AudioGals; my favourites tend to change depending on how I feel from one day to the next!  Had I listened to Lily Morton’s Deal Maker before I complied my list, that would certainly have made the cut, too!

So that was 2019.  What am I hoping for in 2020?  I’d like historical romance to get back on track, but I don’t see that happening in a big way and expect to be reading even more selectively in the genre than I’ve done this year.  I’m hoping for more from Mia Vincy and will be checking out more from Evie Dunmore.  Right now, most of the good HR is coming from Harlequin Historical authors, so I’ll definitely be reading more from them. In contemporaries, I’m looking forward to two new series from Annabeth Albert (Hotshots and True Colors) as well as to catching up with her Perfect Harmony series in audio, and to making my way through Lily Morton’s backlist – I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the audio of Risk Taker (with Joel Leslie at the helm) and hope she’s planning more audio releases in 2020.  I’ll be snapping up the finale of L.J Hayward’s Death and the Devil series as soon as it comes out, nabbing more Victor Bayne (and Gomez Pugh!) in the next book(s) in Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series, and inhaling more Hazard and Somerset from Gregory Ashe. KJ Charles promises some 1920s pulp mysteries, there’s another book to come in Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series, so I’m looking pretty nicely set for the first part of 2020 in terms of reading and listening!

I’ll (hopefully) be back again this time next year to tell you now it all panned out!

Graveyard Shift (Not Dead Yet #3) by Jenn Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Ghost/god Wes Cooper and his not-life partner, vampire Hudson Rojas, have settled into cohabitation in an upscale part of Toronto. So what if their hoity-toity new neighbors haven’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat for the paranormal pair? Their PI business is booming, and when a suspect they’ve been tailing winds up in the morgue, it’s alongside a rash of other shifters in apparent drug-related fatalities.

Now Wes and Hudson must connect the dots between the shifter deaths and an uptick in brutal vampire attacks across the city. Throw in a surprise visit from Hudson’s niece—who may or may not be on the run from European paranormal police (who may or may not exist)—and guardianship of a teen shifter who might be the key to solving the whole mystery (if only she could recover her memory), and Wes and Hudson have never been busier…or happier.

But when a nightmare from Hudson’s past comes back to haunt him, their weird, little found family is pushed to the brink. Mucking this up would mean Hudson and Wes missing their second chance at happily-forever-afterlife…

Rating: A

 

Graveyard Shift is book three in Jenn Burke’s original and entertaining Not Yet Dead series of paranormal romances, and is a satisfying and poignant send off for Wes, Hudson and their found-family of witches, vampires and other supernatural beings.  While each book in the set could work as a standalone, I’d advise reading them in order so as to gain the best understanding of the events and character backstories that have led them to the point at which we meet them again in Graveyard Shift.  If you haven’t yet started the series, please be advised that there are spoilers for the other books in this review.

It’s been almost a year since not-ghost Wes Cooper was reunited with his ex-boyfriend, Detective Hudson Rojas, thirty years after they split up.  Almost a year since Wes was turned into a god when he, Hudson and their friends foiled an attempt by a demon to return to the living plane, and almost a year since Hudson retired from the Toronto PD to become a private investigator.  Following the events of the previous book, Wes and Hudson are living together in their new home – a large house with plenty of room for the new family they’ve created – the business is going well, they’re very much in love and they’re living their best not-lives, happier than they’ve ever been.

When the story begins, Wes and Hudson are on a stakeout at the behest of Ren Oshiro, vampire and a former… associate of Hudson’s who’s become something of a friend in recent months.   Walter Gordon is a junior accountant in a firm Ren owns who has recently begun buying things he shouldn’t be able to afford and Ren wants to know if he’s stealing from the company. Wes and Hudson follow Gordon to a restaurant and Wes – in his ghostly form – observes him receiving a package that looks like it contains drugs.  Dealing would certainly explain Gordon’s new-found wealth, and Wes and Hudson continue to follow him until he loses control of his car, crashes  into a tree and dies on impact.

Before they can really think too much about what happened, Wes and Hudson return home to find a few random visitors on their doorstep, something that’s become a regular occurrence since news of Wes’ godhood circulated among the paranormal community.  Two of their visitors are the Garcias, a shifter couple anxious for news of their daughter, who disappeared a couple of days earlier; and the third introduces herself as Priya Rojas.  Hudson’s niece.  Whom he hasn’t seen in years.

When Wes and Hudson discover that there have been several drug overdoses in the shifter community over the past week, they start to realise that there’s something seriously wrong.  ‘Normal’ drugs don’t work on supernatural creatures – even when taken in huge amounts, their magic protects them from the worst effects – so for five shifters to die of overdoses within a week of one another is suspicious (to say the least) and can’t be a coincidence.  Someone is manufacturing a drug tailored specifically to paranormals… but is it designed to get them high?  Or kill them?

And as if a spate of shifter deaths caused by an unknown drug from an unknown source isn’t bad enough, Hudson’s former boss, Katrina Li, calls the pair in to consult on a series of recent murders which, from the detail in the photos she shows them, were committed by vampires.  Worse still, the MO appears identical to that in the series of murders that saw Hudson going undercover twenty years earlier with what, at the time, he believed was a biker gang – and which saw him being turned into a vampire against his will by the gang’s leader, Pike.  But Hudson killed Pike and the whole band when he eventually managed to free himself from his sire’s influence – so it’s not possible that Pike could be responsible for this latest murder spree.  But if not him… then who?

Wes and Hudson are plunged back into a world of trouble, with danger coming at them from all directions, and it’s not always easy to work out who is friend and who is foe.  With someone killing shifters, the sudden appearance of a load of brand new baby vampires, the even more unexpected appearance of the Order of the Onyx Shield, (the paranormal police), the presence of demons and werewolves… there’s a lot going on in this story, but Jenn Burke does an absolutely fantastic job of keeping things moving as she skilfully pulls her various plot-threads together.  I won’t lie – there are some intense and upsetting scenes in this book (I was in tears at least once) and at times, it seems as though our heroes are going to break under the strain and the weight of grief, but Wes, Hudson and their band are stubborn fuckers who don’t give up easily, and it’s time for Wes, “god of who knew, winning hearts and minds since 2019” to come into his own.

The story is fast-paced and utterly compelling, but once again, what sets this book – and this series – apart from your run-of-the-mill mystery or paranormal novel are the characters and the relationships that have evolved between them.  Wes, Hudson, Lexi, Evan and Isk have bonded together to form a family of sorts and Hudson, estranged from his blood-family and someone who’s been alone for the past couple of decades, has gone from that grumpy loner to a guy who is tuned into his family and happy beyond words to have those connections.  (He’s still grumpy sometimes though – which Wes generally thinks is cute;) ) And then there’s Wes;  funny, endearing, vulnerable and snarky Wes, who loves his people fiercely and has grown a lot throughout the series, having moved from not wanting to know much about the paranormal world he’s a part of to learning to accept the godhood that was thrust upon him at the end of Not Dead Yet and how to use his magic. Like Hudson, he’s grown from a man who lived his life mostly in isolation to one who has gained a family and friends he would do anything to protect.  And now it’s time for him to step up, to make some difficult decisions… and he’s simply awesome.

Graveyard Shift delivered everything I’ve come to expect from this series; an exciting, fast-paced plot, detailed worldbuilding, superbly developed characters and relationships and plenty of humor and snark with a side of steam.  I can’t deny that I would love to read more stories set in the Not Dead Yet universe, but if this is the last we’re going to see of Wes and Hudson, then this is a brilliant farewell and I’m absolutely delighted to have been able to join them on  their journey back to one another.

Not Dead Yet (Not Dead Yet #1) by Jenn Burke (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Dying isn’t what it used to be.

Wes Cooper was dead. Then he wasn’t-though he’s not exactly alive, either. As an immortal not-ghost, he can transition between this world and the otherplane, which makes him the perfect thief for hire. For 70 years he’s made a “living” returning items to their rightful owners, seeing his fair share of the bizarre in the process. But he’s never witnessed murder. Until now.

His latest mission brings him more than he bargained for: a very-dead actor who is definitely going to stay that way. It’s just Wes’s luck that his ex-boyfriend, Detective Hudson Rojas, is assigned to the case. Hudson broke Wes’s heart years ago – and could again, given he’s rocking a hot silver-fox look that shouldn’t be legal.

As they work together to track down the murderer before anyone else gets hurt, it becomes clear Wes and Hudson have unfinished business. And when a secret Hudson’s been keeping threatens more than just their happiness, it might mean the end of their not-life together – permanently.

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: A-

I know some audio listeners who prefer not to listen to books they’ve already read in print, but I’m the opposite – if I enjoy reading something, I’m always up for experiencing it again, and as I don’t have much time for re-reading, audio is the perfect way for me to return to a favourite story. Of course, sometimes I don’t do that because there are some narrators I dislike listening to, but when a favourite book gets paired up with a favourite narrator – Bring. It. On! Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet is a funny, sexy and exciting paranormal romantic mystery with a unique premise; I loved it when I read it earlier this year, and loved it just as much in audio – which, given it’s narrated by the ever fabulous Greg Boudreaux – will come as a surprise to exactly no-one.

Wes Cooper is a ghost. Well, no, he’s not. But he’s not alive either. Back in 1933, he was shot and killed by his lover Michael (in a suicide pact gone wrong), but Michael’s sister was a witch who cast a spell to bring Wes back to life. The spell worked wonderfully – in fact, it worked TOO well, because not only did it bring Wes back, it made him immortal and left him with the ability to exist in both the living plane and the otherplane, the shadowy place between the living world and the world beyond, and to effortlessly slip between the two.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Give Up the Ghost (Not Dead Yet #2) by Jenn Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The bigger they are, the harder they maul.

Immortal not-ghost Wes Cooper and his vampire partner, Hudson Rojas, have it all—rewarding private investigation work, great friends and, most important, a love that’s endured. But ever since Wes sent a demon screaming back to the beyond, his abilities have grown overpowering and overwhelming. He’s hiding the fact that he’s losing control the best he can, but it’s hard to keep anything a secret for long when your partner’s a former cop…and especially when your partner’s a former cop who wants to move in together.

When all hell literally breaks loose in Toronto and superstrength ghosts are unleashed on Wes and his friends, he and Hudson are thrown into a case unlike any they’ve seen before. To save the city, Wes needs to harness his new power…and find some answers. But when he gets them, the solution to fix it all could mean losing everything.

Rating: A-

Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet earned a place on my keeper shelf earlier this year for many reasons, not least of which were the great storytelling, excellent worldbuilding, memorable characters, snappy dialogue and unusual premise.  Wes Cooper was murdered in 1933 by his lover Michael, but was resurrected by Michael’s sister – a witch.  Somehow, she overdid it, not only bringing Wes back to life, but making him immortal, which changed his life in many ways apart from the obvious one.  He’s made a living as a ‘retrieval specialist’, using his ability to slip between the living plane and the otherplane (which exists between the living and the dead), to sneak in and out of places others cannot access in order to recover items for interested parties.  Witnessing a murder while in the otherplane was the kicking off point for Not Dead Yet, which saw Wes reconnect with the love of his life, detective Hudson Rojas, and then work with him to solve the murder, making some truly disturbing discoveries along the way.  As Wes and his rag-taggle band of friends and allies fought together to prevent a powerful demon taking corporeal form, something even weirder than usual happened to him, and at the end of the story he realised that his (mostly low-level) magical powers had somehow been increased to a massive degree – and he’s not entirely sure if he’s strong enough to control them.

Give Up the Ghost opens some months after those events, and Wes still hasn’t told Hudson or his best friend, Lexi, what happened to him.  It’s not that he’s deliberately holding out on them, it’s just that, what with one thing and another – Hudson’s retirement from the Toronto PD, setting up their new PI agency, settling into being a couple again, Lexi needing to rest following the clean-up after their battle with the demon, and helping their friend, Evan, to come to terms with his part in it – basically, there just hasn’t been a good time.  And now, months later, it feels too weird to bring it up.  Plus, Wes is a master at avoidance and decides he’s better off not knowing exactly what the Crown of Osiris did to him, because that way he can hide from it.  But he’s struggling; not only to keep the secret, but to keep his powers under control and his fears at bay – and it’s taking its toll on him.

A bunch of “weird shit” happening at their local coffee shop is the first clue that something is badly wrong.  Wes, Lexi and Evan arrive to discover the place overrun by imps, who must be coming through some sort of crack or portal into the living plane – but from where?  Imps don’t exist in the otherplane, so they must be coming from Beyond, the place where spirits pass after death and where demons live – but in order to do that, the imps must have been summoned.  But by whom – and why?  Before Wes can contemplate that, however, he and the others must seal the breach – and not for the first time, he berates himself for not coming clean about his enhanced magic, as he instead of doing it himself, he has to channel some of his magic into Lexi so that she can close it.

Wes wants to find out what happened – after all, they’re investigators now, right? – but Hudson insists they’re not the paranormal police and wants to leave it alone.  Things between Wes and Hudson have been a bit on edge for a while; Hudson wants them to move in together (again) but Wes keeps turning him down, scared that Hudson will find out the truth about his magic and everything will change between them.  Even though he’s well aware that his own experience now strongly parallels what happened to Hudson when he was turned (into a vampire), Wes still can’t bring himself to reach out. He’s terrified that Hudson will look at him differently and that their relationship will fall apart. Again.

When Lexi receives a phone call from Kee, a friend who runs a shelter for homeless LGBTQIA teens, telling her that some of the kids there report having seen ghosts, she and Wes head over to Aurora House to see what’s going on. Kee tells them about a mirror that spontaneously shattered, a resident who watched scratches appear on his arm, one who felt someone nudge him as he walked down the stairs… and Wes is immediately on the alert.  It’s not unusual for ghosts to want to communicate with the living, but for them to persist when it’s clear that none of the living around them are sensitive enough to be able to do it?  That bothers him.  He’s bothered even more by the fact he can see ghosts in his normal, human state, which isn’t something he’s ordinarily able to do.

The portal in the coffee shop, ghosts haunting places they’d never been when alive and trying to communicate in the living plane – and then, the appearance of Michael, who is clearly trying to warn Wes about something; all these things point to some sort of movement or tear in the fabric of the boundaries that exist between the different planes.  And the more Wes, Hudson and their friends discover, the clearer it becomes that it’s imperative the breach is sealed once and for all… and that there’s only one way to do that. And only one person who can do it.  But at what cost?

Give Up the Ghost is a terrific sequel to Not Dead Yet, full of all the ingredients that made that first book such a great read.  The storyline is compelling, suspenseful and heartbreaking – I choked up near the end! – the characters are well-defined and complex, with flaws that make them seem that much more real, and the relationships between them are brilliantly drawn.  Wes and Hudson are going through the sorts of teething troubles experienced by many couples, none of which is helped by the fact they’re both keeping secrets; but though things sometimes seem rocky, they’re both committed to making things work between them this time around.  They’re great characters – individually and together – and I continue to enjoy Wes’ very distinctive voice and the way he’s still growing as a character and working to break out of his long-ingrained habit of self-interest. Even though he can sometimes be frustrating, his awareness of his flaws is truly appealing, as is his fierce desire to protect those he loves, Hudson and his ‘found family’.

Give Up the Ghost is a fantastic blend of romance, humour, chills and suspense and is, fortunately, one of those rare sequels that’s as good as the first in the series. Both books are going to be sitting right next to each other on my keeper shelf, and I’m eagerly awaiting Graveyard Shift, which is set for release later this year.

Not Dead Yet (Not Dead Yet #1) by Jenn Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Dying isn’t what it used to be.

Wes Cooper was dead. Then he wasn’t—though he’s not exactly alive, either. As an immortal not-ghost, he can transition between this world and the otherplane, which makes him the perfect thief for hire. For seventy years he’s made a “living” returning items to their rightful owners, seeing his fair share of the bizarre in the process. But he’s never witnessed murder. Until now.

His latest mission brings him more than he bargained for: a very-dead actor who is definitely going to stay that way. It’s just Wes’s luck that his ex-boyfriend, Detective Hudson Rojas, is assigned to the case. Hudson broke Wes’s heart years ago—and could again, given he’s rocking a hot silver-fox look that shouldn’t be legal.

As they work together to track down the murderer before anyone else gets hurt, it becomes clear Wes and Hudson have unfinished business. And when a secret Hudson’s been keeping threatens more than just their happiness, it might mean the end of their not-life together—permanently.

Rating: A-

For some reason, I’ve been gravitating towards paranormal romances lately, most often ones featuring characters involved in law enforcement, which was the immediate appeal of Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet.  It’s the first in a new series in which one of the protagonists is, as the title suggests, Not Dead.  Although he’s Not Alive either, which is certainly a unique twist and not something I’ve come across before.  Not Dead Yet is a hugely enjoyable read featuring two well-rounded principals, an intriguing mystery, and a slow-burn romance; I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked it up, but it turned out to be a winner and I’m definitely on board for the rest of the series.

In 1933, Wes Cooper was shot and killed by his lover, Michael.  But Michael’s sister was a witch and, unable to accept what her brother had done, cast a spell to bring Wes back to life – but not only did it resurrect him, it made him immortal, something that’s changed his life in lots of small ways as well as the one  big one.  Wes will never age physically and because of this, he never – well, almost never – embarks upon close friendships or relationships, knowing there’s only so long he can use the excuse of having good genes to explain away his unchanging appearance.  He’s had to move around and change his identity every ten years or so in order to stop people wondering about him, and his only real friends have been the generations of witches from the family who brought him back from the dead.  Even so, he’s flesh and blood; he lives in the world as we know it, but he also retains a link to the otherplane, the place where the dead go before moving on, and where some of them linger, usually in hopes of concluding unfinished business.

Wes uses his ability to slip between the planes of existence to earn a living, sneaking into people’s private spaces as a ghost to recover items for interested parties – heirlooms they want back, contracts they shouldn’t have signed and even information they can use for blackmail.  He’s treading a fine line; technically he’s committing theft, although he prefers to think of it as ‘retrieval’, but because of the nature of what he does, he has a very strictly defined set of business practices designed to protect him and his identity; clients come to him via a sophisticated set of referrals and anonymous messages, and he never meets directly with any of them.  And their targets are usually shady types, people who’ve done things that are not-so-nice, making them dangerous to be around.

When Wes is in the otherplane, he isn’t able to see clearly into the living world, seeing instead a series of shapes and shadowy images that don’t allow him to pick out any details, which is why he’s slow to realise he’s witnessing the final stages of a murder. He’s on a job at the home of a famous actress, realises too late what’s going on and is rooted to the spot by fear and indecision. The murderer has a shadow like nothing Wes has ever seen – dark grey, with jagged edges and surrounded by an aura of danger – all of it signalling this is something he does not want to mess with.

Still, he feels guilty and ashamed that he did nothing to help the victim, and this eventually compels him to try to help bring the killer to justice. But where to start? Going to the police will reveal his presence at the murder scene – but maybe there’s a way to approach them through… unofficial channels. In the 1980s, Wes dated a cop, Hudson Rojas, for five years, and okay, they split up a bit acrimoniously – mostly because of Hudson’s unwillingness to put his relationship before his job – but he’s one of the few people Wes ever told about his abilities and if he’s still around, perhaps he’d be willing to use Wes’ information in the investigation.

After thirty-three years, their reunion is – unsurprisingly – an awkward one. At fifty-eight, Hudson is still gorgeous, a fit, hot, silver-fox, but he’s grown up in a way that Wes still hasn’t, for all that Wes is over a hundred years old. Hudson listens carefully to Wes’ story, but makes it clear he’s not interested in catching up or making small talk; his dismissive attitude irritates Wes, but even so, Wes agrees to help by accompanying (as a ghost) Hudson as he interviews suspects, looking for anyone whose silhouette matches that of the killer. As they work together, Wes and Hudson have to navigate the tricky waters of their shared past and deal with all the baggage that still lies between them, and… let’s just say that there are some big surprises in store.

The world-building in Not Dead Yet is skilfully done, with the story existing in a world that is recognisably our own but which also incorporates a parallel paranormal universe. Ms. Burke does a great job of defining the capabilities of the various supernatural characters she introduces, setting clear restrictions and boundaries, such as the fact that a witch can never cast a spell for personal benefit, or the limitations on Wes’ ability to shift between planes and from place to place. The mystery is really intriguing and kept me guessing right up until the final chapters, and there are some great twists, turns and revelations along the way.

The relationship between Wes and Hudson is extremely well developed, and they’re very strongly characterised as individuals, too. Wes sometimes comes off as rather immature – in spite of his actual age – which is something that is brought home to him when he first meets Hudson again, and which he struggles with throughout the story. The author does a great job in showing how Wes’ social isolation – firstly as a kid growing up in a hostile environment and then as something imposed on him by his immortality – has led to his habit of self-interest and looking after number one, and then in showing his character growth as he at last acknowledges these traits and pushes through his fears in the attempt to do better.

Hudson is equally strongly defined, a dedicated cop who has been around the block (and then some) a few times, but who has never forgotten Wes over the years, and their rekindling relationship is a delicious slow-burn. It’s never explicitly stated that Wes is demisexual, but from references to the infrequency with which he experiences sexual attraction and the way he experiences it – usually only when he’s emotionally invested – and the fact he’s only been sexually attracted to two men in his long lifetime (Michael and Hudson) would seem to indicate that to be the case. And I loved that Hudson knows how attraction works for Wes and is mindful of that as they resume a physical relationship.

There’s a great secondary cast, too, notably Wes’ best friend Lexi (the great-granddaughter of the witch who brought him back from the dead) and Evan, a ‘baby’ (recently turned) vampire, both of whom I hope to see more of in future books.

Not Dead Yet is a really entertaining read, and one I’m definitely recommending. I was excited to find such a unique premise (in Wes’ not-dead-ness) and all in all, it’s a thrilling, funny, insightful and sexy read, one I devoured in a couple of sittings. The main plotline is wrapped up by the end although there are some intriguing threads left for the remainder of the series; and while Wes and Hudson have found each other again, I suspect there’s more to come for them as a couple. I’m really looking forward to the next instalment, Give Up the Ghost, which is due out this summer.