TBR Challenge: Safe Passage by Loreth Anne White

safe passageThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Wounded government agent Scott Armstrong hated his newest assignment–baby-sitting beautiful scientist Dr. Skye Van Rijn. He missed the excitement of working in the field, his only salvation from the tragedy that haunted his dreams. But the mission turned dangerous when he discovered an evil terrorist was also after the mysterious doctor.

Skye was a genius at developing biological antidotes to new diseases. Her tender touch and warm body soon began to heal Scott’s battered heart, but the deadly secrets she hid put them both at risk, forcing them to run for their lives. As their enemy closed in, Scott had to choose between his loyalties to his job and his passion for the woman who’d saved his soul.

Rating: B-

I’m a big fan of Loreth Anne White’s romantic suspense titles (although she now seems to have moved to writing just “suspense” without the romance part) – and as I’d decided to read a romantic suspense novel for the flirting with danger prompt this month, I went for one of her early Harlequin titles. Safe Passage, originally published in 2004, boasts a gripping, fast-moving plot that has clearly been very well researched, and two interesting protagonists, but the romance is rushed – something I’ve complained about in other category-length romantic suspense novels – and includes some really wince-inducing cheesy dialogue that kept taking me out of the story.

But first things first; the plot of Safe Passage is compelling, one of those ripped-from-the-headlines stories that is scarily plausible. A deadly disease has attacked the US cattle industry and shows signs of being transmissible to humans and now, a plague of whitefly is making its way towards the US border, an epidemic that could devastate the farming industry, lead to widespread food shortages and have a catastrophic effect on trade and the financial stability of the country. Dutch etymologist Dr. Skye Van Rijn is one of those working round-the-clock to find a way to counter the infestation, and at last, she thinks she’s found it. No-one knows where the whitefly has come from and so far, no-one has found a natural predator to counteract it, so Skye has engineered one, adapting a beetle from Asia and breeding it in her lab at Kepplar Biological Control Systems. The project is in the final testing stage, but Skye’s boss is trying to rush the process, desperate to gain the literal fortune that’s going to be paid to whoever can find the solution to the infestation.

Scott Armstrong is an operative for Bellona Channel, an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to fighting bio-crime and bio-terrorism. A serious injury sustained on his last mission means Scott can no longer operate in the field, so his boss has assigned him what Scott thinks of as a babysitting gig – to keep an eye on Skye Van Rijn, a brilliant scientist with possible links to a worldwide terrorist organisation. Scott – in the guise of author, Scott McIntyre – is moving into the house next door to Skye’s and is carrying some stuff inside when he’s startled by an unfamiliar voice behind him; reacting instinctively, he barely stops himself throwing the knife he always keeps in his boot and finds himself face to face with the most striking woman he’s ever seen, a woman whose movements and body language clearly show her to be as adept at wielding a weapon as he is. Scott conceals his surprise when she introduces herself as Skye Van Rijn, his neighbour, and refuses to identify the strange hollowness he feels in his gut when she tells him she’s getting married the day after next.

Both protagonists are carrying a lot of emotional baggage, Skye as the result of the past she’s been running from for a decade, Scott from the deaths of his wife and child in an accident nine years before. The two of them are understandably wary of each other even as their mutual attraction is pulling them together; Scott wants to believe Skye played no part in the dissemination of the cattle plague and that her work into countering the whitefly epidemic is genuine, but there’s too much evidence – albeit circumstantial evidence – against her for him to be able to believe in her completely. And Skye has learned the hard way that the only person she can really trust is herself; she doesn’t want to be attracted to Scott and she doesn’t want to need his help. When her fiancé leaves her at the altar and she hares off on her Harley, Scott is compelled to find her and comfort her (while telling himself it’s his job to find out whatever he can about her) and when she realises she’s being followed and fears it’s her past catching up with her it’s to Scott she turns for help while making sure to tell him as little of the truth as possible. Scott knows she’s being deliberately evasive, and insists she levels with him so he knows what he’s getting into while also knowing he can use her fear to find out what he needs to know.

Deception is a commonly used trope in romantic suspense, and sometimes it’s used for very good reason, but I realise that for some it’s a no-no regardless of circumstance. It’s not usually a problem for me, but Scott does a couple of things that didn’t sit at all well, and I really didn’t care for Skye’s ‘how dare he lie to me’ attitude once she finds out who he really is. She’s been lying to him for just as long as he’s been lying to her and two wrongs don’t make a right. The level of deception they engage in is one of the reasons the romance didn’t work for me; another is that they go from complete strangers to ILYs in about three days, and there’s so much emphasis on how Scott/Skye ‘made him/her feel things he’d/she’d never felt before’ that my eyes hurt from the rolling.

While the romance is rushed, the plot is well done with real insight into the potential effects of eco-terrorism on the world’s agriculture and food supply. Skye’s background is fascinating and the more we learn about it and what she’s been through, the easier it is to understand her trust issues and her desire for a normal life.  I did, however, have to wonder why a supposedly brilliant and intelligent woman didn’t realise her fiancé was a dodgy bastard. Scott is more of a stereotype though; devastated by grief, he has eschewed emotional involvement – until Skye comes along and something about her starts to melt his frozen heart. *eyeroll*

With fascinating storylines, a badass heroine and movie-style climax, Safe Passageis a cut above the other category romantic suspense novels I’ve read, but the limited page count doesn’t allow the author to achieve a proper balance between the romance and the suspense plot.  Read it for the story and try not to groan too much at the cheesiness of the romance.

Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth Anne White

beneath devil's bridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

True crime podcaster Trinity Scott is chasing breakout success, and her brand-new serial may get her there. Her subject is Clayton Jay Pelley. More than two decades ago, the respected family man and guidance counselor confessed to the brutal murder of teenage student Leena Rai. But why he killed her has always been a mystery.

In a series of exclusive interviews from prison, Clayton discloses to Trinity the truth about what happened that night beneath Devil’s Bridge. It’s not what anyone in the Pacific Northwest town of Twin Falls expects. Clayton says he didn’t do it. Was he lying then? Or now?

As her listeners increase and ratings skyrocket, Trinity is missing a key player in the story: Rachel Walczak, the retired detective who exposed Pelley’s twisted urges and put him behind bars. She’s not interested in playing Clayton’s game—until Trinity digs deeper and the podcast’s reverb widens. Then Rachel begins to question everything she thinks she knows about the past.

With each of Clayton’s teasing reveals, one thing is clear: he’s not the only one in Twin Falls with a secret.

Rating: A

Beneath Devil’s Bridge is a tense, tightly-plotted and superbly-executed mystery that is very loosely based on a real-life murder that happened in British Columbia some twenty-four years ago.   It’s a compelling, absorbing read that takes a look at the impact of a brutal crime on a small, close-knit community and asks some challenging questions about the lengths to which people will go to protect those they love or about what we are capable of doing to our fellow human beings.  It comprises some difficult subjects, so potential readers should be aware that the murder itself is quite gruesome (although we don’t witness it directly) and the story contains references to bullying, grooming, paedophilia, underage sex and rape.

If it takes a village to raise a child, does it also take a village to kill one?

Fourteen-year-old Leena Rai is an outsider.  Socially awkward and plain, all she really wants is what any teenage girl wants – to belong, to have friends, to be happy.  Sadly, she has none of those things.  She’s bullied relentlessly at school and on a cold November night she is brutally murdered when she’s on her way home from a “secret” bonfire festival in the mountains north of the small town of Twin Falls in the Pacific Northwest.

When her battered body is pulled out of the river a few days later, Detective Rachel Walczak is assigned to the case, along with Sergeant Luke O’Leary, a homicide detective from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – who will bring an outside perspective (and the considerable resources of the RCMP) to the investigation.  But as Rachel and Luke start interviewing Leena’s schoolmates, and others who were at the bonfire, they immediately get the sense that something is being carefully hidden from them; the stories they’re hearing are too pat, as though they’ve been co-ordinated… but by whom? And why?  This all becomes moot however, when someone – a teacher and guidance counsellor at Twin Falls Secondary school – confesses to the crime.  The case is closed,  there’s no trial and Clayton Jay Pelley goes to prison.

Twenty four years later, ambitious true-crime podcaster Trinity Scott decides to focus on the murder of Leena Rai in her latest series, and arrives in Twin Falls to speak to as many of the people involved in the original investigation as possible – including now-retired Rachel Walczak, whose health and family relationships deteriorated severely not long after the case concluded and who subsequently retired from the force.  Rachel has steadfastly refused each of Trinity’s requests, and when Trinity tells her that Pelley has agreed to speak to her, she’s incredulous.  Pelley has never spoken about the murder and the events of that night – and when, in the first of Trinity’s planned series of interviews, Pelley says he didn’t rape and kill Leena, and that her real killer is still out there, everything about the investigation is called into question.  Long-buried secrets threaten to tear apart a community already blighted by tragedy, and Rachel finds herself sucked back in, questioning her decisions, asking questions perhaps she should have asked back then, and remembering things she’d rather forget.

Written from the points of view of Rachel and Trinity and interspersed with excerpts from the interviews and podcasts, the author spins a taut thriller that moves back and forth between “then” – following the initial investigation – and “now”, the tension and momentum building inexorably in the manner of a snowball rolling down a mountain so that it quickly becomes dangerous and unstoppable.  Trinity’s interest in the Leena Rai murder opens a veritable Pandora’s Box, as layer upon layer of deception and betrayal is stripped away to reveal a truth more heartless and cold-blooded than anyone could have foreseen, and a small-town community bonded by trauma and deep, dark secrets.

At Devil’s Bridge is a powerful exploration of community, of what it means to be an outsider, of the unkindness and callousness we can so thoughtlessly offer our fellow man and of the way that only the truth – “Even if it hurts. Even takes you somewhere you don’t want to go” – can start to heal such deep-seated wounds.  The author also questions the value of things such as true-crime podcasts;  are they purely sensationalist entertainment, another form of trial by media?  Or do they have something genuine to offer – a fresh perspective, a new insight?

This is a dark, unsettling book on many levels, and it isn’t always easy to read – not only when it comes to the details about the murder, but also in its skilful examination of the worst aspects of human nature.  For all that, though, it’s absolutely riveting, the characters are well-drawn, the pacing is excellent with several good twists along the way (some I saw coming, others I didn’t), and the setting is expertly realised.

I don’t really have any negatives to offer; there’s one twist that felt just a little improbable, but I’m sure it’s no moreso than many of those found in other mysteries and it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the novel at all.

I don’t read many thrillers, but Loreth Anne White is one of my go-to authors, and I always make a point of looking out for whatever she’s coming up with next. In At Devil’s Bridge she once again delivers a thumping good read, a darkly atmospheric page-turner that had me glued to the pages, desperate to find out the truth, and running the gamut of emotions.  It’s a masterful piece of storytelling and I’m only too happy to recommend it.

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.

Audio

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!

In the Deep by Loreth Anne White


This title may be purchased from Amazon

I hope you don’t find him. And if you do, I hope he’s dead and that he suffered…

Real-estate mogul Martin Cresswell-Smith is the best thing that has ever happened to Ellie. After her daughter’s devastating death, a divorce, and an emotional breakdown, he’s helped her move as far as possible from the grief, the rage, and the monsters of her past. Ellie imagines her new home with Martin in an Australian coastal town will be like living a fairy tale. But behind closed doors is another story—one that ends in Martin’s brutal murder. And Ellie seems almost relieved…

Naturally, everyone thinks Mrs. Cresswell-Smith is guilty.

Senior Constable Lozza Bianchi has reasonable doubt. She sees evidence of a twisted psychological battle and a couple who seemed to bring out the worst in each other—adultery, abuse, betrayal, and revenge. If anything Ellie says can be believed, that is. As the case takes twist after spiraling twist, Lozza can’t shake the gut instinct that she’s being manipulated. That Ellie is hiding something. That there are secrets yet to surface. Lozza has no idea.

Rating: A

Loreth Anne White is one of my favourite authors, and I’m always ready to get stuck into a new book by her.  Her latest novel, In the Deep, is a fabulous read, a superbly constructed, clever thriller surrounding a murder that takes place in the Agnes Banks area of New South Wales, and I was pulled in straight away and hooked until the very end.

The book opens on the dramatic scene of the arrival of a murder suspect at the court where she is to be tried for the murder of her husband.  The car is greeted by angry crowds calling for justice, reporters, photographers, people waving mobile phones  – and when she and her lawyer exit the car, they’re surrounded by journalists eager for quotes.  It’s hard for her not to react to some of the horrible things being shouted at her, and as she’s swept inside, she can’t help asking herself how she’s come to be here.  When did it begin?

We then skip back to just over a year earlier, and to the discovery of a dead body in a swampy channel off the Agnes River.  Senior Constable Lauren – Lozza – Bianchi has reason to believe it to be that of property developer Martin Creswell-Smith, who was last seen heading out to sea in his boat four days earlier.  Which begs the question – if he’d gone overboard at his last known position ten klicks out to sea, how has his body come to be tangled up in a clump of illegal crab-pot lines in the Agnes Basin?  When Lozza and her fellow officer inspect the body more closely, they can see it’s been mutilated – clearly Creswell-Smith’s death was no accident.

Skipping back almost another year, we meet Ellie Hartley, a young woman whose life fell apart following the death by drowning of her three-year-old daughter Chloe.  Ellie blames herself for what happened; her marriage broke down under the weight of grief and guilt and Ellie became dependent on drugs and alcohol.  But she’s gradually emerging from that dark place of tragedy and despair and now, at the beginning of a new year, is determined to make a new beginning for herself.

That new beginning gets underway quickly after Ellie meets the handsome, charming Martin Creswell-Smith.  He’s in Vancouver seeking investors for his latest project – the development of a luxury resort in New South Wales – and over the following months, Martin drops in and out of Ellie’s life, whisking her away on exotic, romantic vacations at a moment’s notice, his attentiveness and understanding making her feel special  and wanted.  After they marry – at Ellie’s suggestion  – while they’re in Vegas on one of their whirlwind trips, Ellie packs up her old life and moves with Martin to Australia.

Which is when things start to go very, very wrong.

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot, which is diabolically clever, and will work best if you go in knowing as little as possible.   I think I can safely say that it’s fairly obvious to the reader right from the start that Martin isn’t at all what he seems, but that’s just about all you’re going to get from me!

Loreth Anne White has penned a fast-paced, gripping tale of psychological suspense that will slowly tie you up in knots, each turn of the screw ratcheting up the tension and the stakes that little bit more.  The characters are complex and three-dimensional; none of them are particularly likeable, but they’re compelling nonetheless, and at the centre is Ellie, riddled with insecurities and battling addiction, an unreliable narrator who should, given what she’s been through, elicit the reader’s sympathy, but who has an edge to her that means we’re never quite sure if she’s killer or victim.

One of the themes running through the book is that of misdirection, the ability of the trickster “to make us all look at thing one way while something is slipped past us another way.”  The author brilliantly uses such devices herself to tell the reader one thing and show them another, to imply that characters are one thing, and then another – and ultimately, to deliver a real coup de grâce towards the end which was so utterly brilliant that I put down my Kindle to give her a round of applause.

“The magician is much the same as a storyteller-a trickster who uses misdirection, sleight of hand, to manipulate a person’s beliefs about the world.”

Everything else about the book works wonderfully, too, from the structure – the split between Ellie’s story “Now” and “Then”, interspersed with scenes of the murder investigation – to the vividly described locations, which enable the reader to feel the sweltering heat and humidity, see the bizzare flying foxes, hear the screeching of the Kookaburras and smell the Eucalyptus trees.  I also appreciated those moments of insight the author offers into the perception of mental illness and those who have survived it.

In the Deep is a remarkable piece of storytelling, a riveting tale of emotional manipulation, betrayal and palpable fear that will keep you glued to its pages from first to last.

Note: This book contains one scene (not graphic) of sexual assault and the implication that others have taken place.

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!

In the Dark by Loreth Anne White

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

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

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

The Dark Bones by Loreth Anne White

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s come back to solve the mystery of her father’s death and confront her own dark past.

When Detective Rebecca North left her rural hometown, she vowed never to return. Her father’s apparent suicide has changed that. The official report is that retired cop Noah North shot himself, knocked over a lantern, and set his isolated cabin ablaze. But Rebecca cannot believe he killed himself.

To prove it, she needs the help of Ash Haugen, the man she left behind. But Rebecca and Ash share more than broken hearts. Something darker lies between them, and the investigation is stirring it back to life. Clues lead them to the home of Olivia West and her deeply troubled twelve-year-old daughter, Tori. The child knows more about the murder than anyone can imagine, but she’s too terrified to say a word.

And as a cold-blooded killer resurfaces from the past, Rebecca and Ash begin to fear that their own secrets may be even harder to survive.

Rating: B+

When I picked up Loreth Anne White’s The Dark Bones for review, I wasn’t aware that it was linked to one of her earlier books, A Dark Lure, in which a young woman who was abducted and repeatedly assaulted is making a new life for herself in rural Canada only to have to face the prospect that her abductor may still be at large.  But never fear; it’s perfectly possible to read The Dark Bones as a standalone as the author brings new readers quickly up to speed, and the plots in both books are self-contained, so there’s no real overlap.

When Rebecca North left her small Canadian home town, she moved to Ottawa, where she has built herself a successful career in the white-collar crimes unit with the RCMP.  She hasn’t been home in years and doesn’t have plans to do so, until her father, a retired police officer – calls her out of the blue to tell her that he knows she was lying about an event that happened twenty years earlier, and that he needs to talk to her urgently.  He’s clearly drunk – he’s rarely been sober since the death of his wife – and Rebecca’s about to go into court, so she puts him off, promising she’ll  call him soon… but she can’t put his words out of her mind.  Her father is referring to the day she’d found the man she loved stumbling along a country road, bruised and bloody, a long gash down one side of his face he’d attributed to a riding accident – but why is he asking about it now?

The next day, Noah North is found dead in his home, all the evidence pointing to his having set fire to his remote cabin and then shot himself.  The police are convinced it’s suicide, and the coroner’s report seems to bear that out, but Rebecca isn’t satisfied.  Her father may have been overly fond of drink, but she doesn’t believe he was suicidal, especially given what he’d said the last time they’d spoken; that he’d found new evidence in an old case he’d worked – and that he thought he was being watched.  She decides to do a bit of investigating of her own, and in the process discovers that her father was looking into the disappearance, twenty years earlier, of an old schoolmate of hers.  Evidence given at the time said that Whitney Gagnon and her boyfriend were seen getting onto the bus heading out of town – but it seems that evidence was false, and Noah was convinced that the young couple were killed before they could leave.  If that’s true – who murdered them and why?  And could someone have killed Noah because he was getting too close to the truth?

This cold case stirs up a myriad of long-buried feelings for Rebecca, not least of which is guilt over the fact she didn’t visit her father often because she couldn’t bear to run into her former boyfriend Ash Haugen, the man she loved, and the man who broke her heart twenty years earlier.  Now she’s back, and meeting Ash is unavoidable – but more than that, it seems that every investigative road leads to him. He was the last person to have seen Noah North alive – and some witnesses suggest they were arguing – and she can’t ignore Noah’s words during that final call “he lied – you both lied”. Because while Rebecca’s lie backed up Ash’s about the riding accident, he never told her the truth about the injury to his face – which was sustained the very same day Whitney and her boyfriend were seen getting ready to leave town.

I was completely engrossed by the storyline of The Dark Bones and by the way the author so skilfully juxtaposes past and present events, giving us glimpses – in flashback – of the events of twenty years before, and linking them to the current investigation into Noah North’s death.  Her descriptions of the landscape of this area of rural Canada are incredibly vivid, enabling the reader to easily picture the locations she describes, and her portrait of small town life – where everyone knows everyone else and one only has to sneeze to have three people on the doorstep proffering hot soup and Lemsip within the hour – is simultaneously charming, menacing and claustrophobic.  I liked Rebecca and Ash, although I never felt I got to know them deeply; Rebecca fled when Ash broke her heart but never really got over him, while Ash was forced to give up on his dreams because of a single mistake that changed the course of his life.  The strong undercurrent of deep longing and hurt running between them is palpable from the moment they see each other again; and while I’m often sceptical of stories in which romantic feelings endure for years even when the couple in question doesn’t see each other throughout their separation, the strength of the connection between Rebecca and Ash practically leaps off the page and helped me to get past my usual side-eye of the trope.   In fact my main criticism of the book stems from the fact that I’d have liked a little more exploration of their relationship in the now, especially in the light of what we learn about Ash’s difficult past.

The pacing in the first part of the novel is perhaps a little slow, but I didn’t find that to be a problem at all; in fact, I really appreciated the time spent on setting up the situations and introducing the secondary cast (some of whom were central to A Dark Lure, which I intend to pick up as soon as I can).  The Dark Bones is a wonderfully atmospheric, multi-layered and well-constructed mystery from a real master of her craft; it will draw you in and keep you intrigued from first page to last.

The Girl in the Moss (Angie Pallorino #3) by Loreth Anne White

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Disgraced ex-cop Angie Pallorino is determined to make a new start for herself as a private investigator. But first, she and her lover, newly promoted homicide detective James Maddocks, attempt a quiet getaway to rekindle a romance struggling in the shadows of their careers. The peace doesn’t last long when human skeletal remains are found in a nearby mossy grove.

This decades-old mystery is just what Angie needs to establish her new career—even as it thrusts her and Maddocks back into the media spotlight, once again endangering their tenuous relationship.

Then, when Angie’s inquiry into the old crime intersects with a cold case from her own policing past—one that a detective on Maddocks’s new team is working—the investigation takes a startling twist. It puts more than Angie’s last shot at redemption and a future with Maddocks at risk. The mystery of the girl in the moss could kill her.

Rating: B+

In this final instalment in her trio of novels featuring Angie Pallorino, Loreth Anne White delivers another compulsively readable, complex mystery that hooks your interest from the get-go and gradually tightens its grip until you literally can’t put the book down.   It’s like reading a snowball; an impactful start sees it start rolling down the hill, gradually getting larger as it picks up and encompasses other clues, plot-threads and information and travels faster and faster until it hits bottom to reach an explosive and immensely satisfying dénouement.  Here, that snowball starts rolling when former detective Angie Pallorino and her boyfriend, Detective James Maddocks are taking a four day trip down the Nahamish River on a quiet, romantic getaway.  It’s been a tough few months for Angie, who was busted down to a desk job after she was judged to have used excessive force to take down a serial killer.  Furious and frustrated, Angie broke the twelve-month probation imposed upon her and went rogue, continuing to work on the case of the bar-code girls (in book two, The Lullaby Girl) which also led her to her discovering the truth about her parentage and true identity as the daughter of a sex-trafficker and major crimelord.  Unable to return to the job she loved, Angie is trying to pick up the pieces of her life, and is now working towards getting her PI license, but given the intense publicity generated by the news of her identity, her backstory as the “angel’s cradle baby” and her part in bringing down a major sex-trafficking ring, there are almost no PI agencies willing to hire her (she’s too high-profile) so she can get the required number of hours under her belt she needs before she can branch out on her own.

Things between Angie and Maddocks are uncertain, too.  He’s the golden boy of the Metro Victoria PD and has been appointed to head up a prestigious new task-force while she is struggling to find out who she is if she isn’t a cop.  She knows she loves Maddocks and wants to be with him, but Angie is subconsciously pulling back – and Maddocks knows her well enough to realise it but is worried that she’ll run if she gets the chance.  Their relationship isn’t in the best place, but they hope that a little time spent together with nothing to interrupt or distract them will get them back on track.  Unfortunately, that is not to be when on their last night at the camp, a skeleton is found near the banks of the river.  It’s going to be the morning before local law-enforcement can get to such a remote location and secure the scene, so Maddocks and Angie spend what should have been a romantic evening, complete with gourmet dinner, wine and hot tub, camped out next to a crime scene.

The remains are eventually identified as belonging to a young woman named Jasmine Gulati who died while on a fishing trip on the Nahamish some twenty-four years earlier.  She had been part of a group of women anglers who were taking part in a documentary being filmed by Rachel Hart, who had chosen her subjects to be from different walks of life and in different stages of their lives.  Much as the producers of shows like Big Brother do today, Rachel had hoped that their differences would produce interesting viewing – but after Jasmine’s death, the project was canned and the documentary never appeared.

A while later, Angie is surprised to receive a phone call from a retired judge, Jilly Monaghan, who explains that Jasmine was her granddaughter and offers Angie a large fee if she will find out what really happened to her.  Her death has been ruled accidental, but the judge wants to know if that is really the case or not; either way, she wants the closure that knowing the truth will bring.

Angie’s investigation soon leads her to suspect that Jasmine’s death wasn’t an accident at all, and as she digs deeper, she exposes the web of secrets, lies and conspiracies that have lain buried in the small community of Port Ferris for almost twenty five years.  The mystery is gripping; tightly constructed and incredibly well-written, and the author makes fantastic use of her wilderness setting, which is both beautiful and terrifying, at the same time brilliantly conveying the insular nature of a small, close-knit community such as this one.  The men resent Angie and what they see as her interference, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their own.  It would be easy to laugh at this unsophisticated group of ‘hillbillies’ but no, they’re actually extremely disturbing and Angie is in real danger, probably more than she’s ever been, considering that she’s no longer a cop and doesn’t have the weight of authority behind her – or a gun.

There’s an intriguing secondary plotline in which Maddocks sets up a new cold case unit placing Angie’s former partner, Kjel Holgerson, at its head.  This storyline serves to bring us back neatly to some of the events of The Drowned Girls, but it also opens up the possibility of more stories set in this ‘universe’;  I would certainly not be averse to reading more about the enigmatic and oddly endearing Holgerson.  I also liked the author’s subtle exploration of the ethics of cold cases; in a situation such as this one, where one family needs closure, another is ripped apart, so it’s difficult – or impossible – to achieve a balance.  But Angie is, as ever, focused on finding the truth, no matter how hard it is.  Her own experiences have taught her that it’s better to know and deal than to deny, and ultimately, the needs of justice have to be served.

My one niggle about the book is that Maddocks is (necessarily) MIA for almost all of it, even though there’s no question he’s a huge presence in Angie’s life and her desire to come to him as a woman who knows who she is and where she’s going is the impetus for her becoming involved in the Gulati case.  Still, the brief glimpses we get of their relationship are well done, and while I’d have liked a bit more of them together, I think they needed the short separation in order to remind one another of exactly what they have together.

A complex, atmospheric thriller with a pervading sense of menace, especially in the second half, The Girl in the Moss is a terrific finale to a terrific series, and I really hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Angie, Maddocks, Holgerson – and Jack-O.

The Best of 2017 – My Favourite Books of Last Year.

It’s something of a tradition to put together a “favourite books of the year” list around Christmas and New Year – I’m a little late with mine this year, but here’s the Best of 2017 list I put together for All About Romance.  Did any of them make your Best Books of 2017 list?

I had to make some really tough choices – here are some of the books that also deserved a place on the list, but which I just couldn’t fit in!

The Lullaby Girl (Angie Pallorino #2) by Loreth Anne White

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Detective Angie Pallorino took down a serial killer permanently and, according to her superiors, with excessive force. Benched on a desk assignment for twelve months, Angie struggles to maintain her sense of identity—if she’s not a detective, who is she? Then a decades-old cold case washes ashore, pulling her into an investigation she recognizes as deeply personal.

Angie’s lover and partner, James Maddocks, sees it, too. But spearheading an ongoing probe into a sex-trafficking ring while keeping Angie’s increasing obsession with her case in check is taking its toll. As startling connections between the parallel investigations emerge, Maddocks realizes he has even more than Angie’s emotional state to worry about.

Driven and desperate to solve her case, Angie goes rogue, risking her relationship, career, and very life in pursuit of answers. She’ll learn that some truths are too painful to bear, and some sacrifices include collateral damage.

But Angie Pallorino won’t let it go. She can’t. It’s not in her blood.

Rating: A-

I have been eagerly awaiting the next release in Loreth Anne White’s new Angie Pallorino series ever since I finished the first book, The Drowned Girls. Not only did that book contain an extremely compelling and densely plotted mystery surrounding a serial killer nicknamed ‘The Baptist’ and an international sex-trafficking ring, but it also introduced us to the eponymous heroine, a dedicated, hard-working cop in the Metro Victoria PD sex-crimes unit whose ball-busting, lone-wolf ways have never made her popular with her male colleagues and upon whom the six years she has spent delving into the minds and activities of some seriously sick individuals has started to take its toll. She’s been in something of a downward spiral for the last couple of years and in the grip of what seems to be an ever strengthening self-destructive streak; the death of her partner and of the child they were trying to save some months earlier has thrown her even more off balance, and on top of all that, a complicated family situation had spawned doubts about her origins and caused Angie to start to question everything she has ever known about herself.

The Drowned Girls ended with a mystery solved and a group of bad guys taken down, but with Angie uncertain about her future, both personally and professionally. The story of her search for the truth about her past really gains momentum in The Lullaby Girl, but if you haven’t read the previous book, a lot of what’s happening here is unlikely to make sense; these books need to be read in order, and because I’ll be referring to some plot points from the first book, there are spoilers for it in this review.

Angie is on suspension from duty following her take-down of The Baptist. He had kidnapped and intended to murder the teenaged daughter of Angie’s lover, Detective James Maddocks, and although Angie had saved both their lives by killing Spencer Addams – the man behind the nickname – she has been accused of using excessive force in order to do so, having shot the man eight times over. At the time, Angie had been gripped by a troubling vision of a little girl in a pink dress, a vision that had been haunting her for some time and which she now strongly suspects is related to long-suppressed memories.

While she waits to find out if she still has a career or not, Maddocks is heading up the investigation into the so-called “barcode girls”, six young women who were rescued from a luxury yacht that operated as a floating brothel.  The women are all teenagers, of a similar age to Maddocks’ daughter, Ginny; they’re terrified, traumatised and are being cared for in hospital while Maddocks and his team – which includes Angie’s rather odd and enigmatic former partner, Kjel Holgersen – start to piece together the evidence and try to work out exactly where they came from and the route taken by the traffickers.

Angie is, understandably, frustrated and angry at being pulled from the case she had a big hand in blowing wide open and she also can’t help being jealous of the fact that Maddocks is heading up the investigation.  She’s also scared at the fact that she just might be falling in love with him; she’s been emotionally closed off for so long that the thought of allowing herself to feel something for him terrifies her. And although she recognises all these things – fear, jealousy, frustration – for what they are, she is in danger of allowing them to get the upper hand and of pushing Maddocks away for good.

While she waits for a decision about her career, Angie starts in earnest on the search for information about her true identity.  She believes herself to be the ‘Angel’s Cradle child’ who was left at a local hospital in 1986, aged around four.  (An Angel’s Cradle is a way for desperate mothers to leave their unwanted children somewhere safe without fear of being tracked down and identified.)  While it was more usual for newborns to be put in such places, this one saved Angie’s life; she was bundled in there by a woman she believes was her mother amid a gun battle in the street which killed a cop and injured a bystander.  She meets with one of the nurses who was on duty that night – Christmas Eve 1986 – and then makes contact with the widow of the detective who worked the case of the shootings, who is, miraculously, able to supply Angie with some valuable information and evidence her husband had ‘appropriated’ from his office before, according to protocol back then, it was destroyed.

Unable to believe her luck, Angie engages the services of a high-end, top-quality forensics lab to see if they are able to obtain any DNA evidence using the more sophisticated methods now available, but unfortunately, her relief at having some potential leads is destined not to last long. Having been told she will be on probation for twelve months in a desk job, and that there is no guarantee she will be reinstated to her old position at the end of it, Angie is furious and seriously thinks of quitting.  But she realises that if she can stick it out, she will retain access to police databases, labs and contacts that she might be able to make use of in order to help her to find out who she really is and where she came from.  But when, on her first day, Angie receives a visit from two officers from the RCMP demanding she turn over everything to them, she faces having the rug pulled out from under her yet again.  The officers are investigating the likely murder of a child following the discovery of a dismembered foot encased in a purple trainer which was washed up at the beach near the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal.   Forensic testing reveals the DNA to be identical to Angie’s – which stuns her.  The only possible explanation is that she must have had a twin sister – could she be the little girl in pink of Angie’s memories and visions?  Could hers have been the voice urging Angie to “Comeum playum dum grove”?

All this happens within the first few chapters, and Ms. White has set the stage for an enthralling story in which the two different threads – Angie’s search for clues as to her identity and Maddocks’ investigation into the Barcode Girls – are gradually and inexorably woven together to produce a truly gripping and un-putdownable read.  Angie isn’t always the easiest character to like, but her need for answers is understandable and literally jumps off the page, so strongly articulated as it is by the author.  Angie relentlessly goes her own way, even when warned that she could well be putting her life in danger; it’s not her finest moment, perhaps, but she has reached the stage where she feels so unmoored, so needful of regaining a sense of identity that she is prepared to look death in the face if she must in order to find her true self.

Angie’s romantic relationship with Maddocks takes a bit of a back seat here; their time together is fairly brief, and it’s clear that they’re both struggling to work out exactly what is going on between them. The complications added by their work situation  – with Maddocks being on the inside and Angie pushed out – only make things more difficult, forcing Angie to admit that walking away would  be the easier option.  But is that what she really wants?

The Lullaby Girl is a terrific blend of complex, cleverly-plotted mystery and suspense with a nice dash of romance thrown in for good measure, and I’m sure that if you enjoyed the first book, then you’ll love this one.  I can’t wait to see what Loreth Anne White has in store for Angie next.