Penny for Your Secrets (Verity Kent #3) by Anna Lee Huber

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The Great War may be over, but for many, there are still obstacles on the home front. Reconciling with her estranged husband makes Verity sympathetic to her friend Ada’s marital difficulties. Bourgeois-bred Ada, recently married to the Marquess of Rockham, is overwhelmed trying to navigate the ways of the aristocracy. And when Lord Rockham is discovered shot through the heart with a bullet from Ada’s revolver, Verity fears her friend has made a fatal blunder.

While striving to prove Ada’s innocence, Verity is called upon for another favor. The sister of a former Secret Service colleague has been killed in what authorities believe was a home invasion gone wrong. The victim’s war work—censoring letters sent by soldiers from the front—exposed her to sensitive, disturbing material. Verity begins to suspect these two unlikely cases may be linked. But as the connections deepen, the consequences—not just for Verity, but for Britain—grow more menacing than she could have imagined.

Rating: B

Note: This title is part of an ongoing series featuring the same characters, so there will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

This third book in Anna Lee Huber’s series of mysteries featuring the intrepid Verity Kent sees our eponymous heroine and her recently returned husband Sidney investigating not one but two murders.  Penny for Your Secrets takes place just a few months following the events of book two, Treacherous is the Night, and although Verity and Sidney are on more of an even keel now than they were in that book, it’s clear that things between them are still delicately balanced . Neither of them is the same person who got married in 1914 after a whirlwind courtship, and the murder mystery storyline is underscored by the continuing exploration of Verity and Sidney’s marriage as they relearn each other and get to know they people they have become.  But their progress is impeded somewhat by the fact that both of them are still struggling to adapt to the world post-war as individuals;  Sidney with survivor’s guilt and PTSD while he tries to find his place in the world he’s come back to; Verity because she’s without a sense of purpose for the first time in years and because she’s still keeping secrets about the missions she undertook for the Secret Service.

The book opens with Verity and Sidney attending a dinner party hosted by the Marquess and Marchioness of Rockham, at which it is quickly obvious that all is not well between the couple.  Ada (the marchioness) – a friend of Verity’s – is Rockham’s second wife and was previously his mistress; they were in love when they married, but now things have soured. Rockham is rumoured to have another mistress and Ada makes no secret of her affair with Lord Ardmore, whom Verity believes holds some sort of hush-hush position within Naval Intelligence and whom Sidney pronounces “a bounder.”

After an uncomfortable dinner – at which Ada makes a very distasteful joke about shooting her husband – Verity and Sidney excuse themselves as soon as it’s polite to do so and make their way home, only to be woken in the early hours of the morning by a telephone call from an almost hysterical Ada, who tells them that Rockham is dead from a shot to the temple. The police are already on the scene and are clearly looking at Ada as their prime suspect, and while Verity believes her friend to have been guilty of poor judgment in her behaviour of late, she can’t believe her to be capable of murder, so she agrees to Ada’s request for help proving her innocence.

Just a day or so later, Verity is surprised by a visit from Irene Shaw, a former MI5 employee whom she met during the war.  Irene is desperate to find out more about the death of her half-sister Esther, who was killed during what seemed to be a burglary-gone-wrong a couple of weeks earlier.  But despite the fact that Esther’s room had been tossed, nothing was taken, which makes Irene suspect that perhaps the killer had an ulterior motive related to Esther’s wartime job in the censorship department of the Royal Mail.

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

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.

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

Fish on a Bicycle (Fish Out of Water #5) by Amy Lane

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Jackson Rivers has always bucked the rules—and bucking the rules of recovery is no exception. Now that he and Ellery are starting their own law firm, there’s no reason he can’t rush into trouble and take the same risks as always, right?

Maybe not. Their first case is a doozy, involving porn stars, drug empires, and daddy issues, and their client, Henry Worrall, wants to be an active participant in his own defense. As Henry and Jackson fight the bad guys and each other to find out who dumped the porn star in the trash can, Jackson must reexamine his assumptions that four months of rest and a few good conversations have made him all better inside.

Jackson keeps crashing his bicycle of self-care and a successful relationship, and Ellery wonders what’s going to give out first—Jackson’s health or Ellery’s patience. Jackson’s body hasn’t forgiven him for past crimes. Can Ellery forgive him for his current sins? And can they keep Henry from going to jail for sleeping with the wrong guy at the wrong time?

Being a fish out of water is tough—but if you give a fish a bicycle, how’s he going to swim?

Rating: B+

Jackson Rivers and Ellery Cramer are back – perhaps a little the worse for wear – in this fifth instalment of Amy Lane’s Fish Out of Water series, and they’re starting a new chapter of their lives. After being shot, stabbed and almost poisoned to death during their pursuit of Carl Lacey, the man responsible for turning trained assassins into serial killers, Jackson and Ellery have spent several months recovering from their injuries, and are, when Fish on a Bicycle opens, gearing up for the opening of their new law firm. But some injuries take longer to heal than others, and Jackson, already carrying a shedload of emotional scars that are barely scabbed over, seems only to have acquired more in the wake of the events that went down in the desert.

A Few Good Fish saw Jackson and Ellery teaming up with Ace and Sonny from the author’s Racing for the Sun and also served as the introduction to Lee Burton, a military assassin, and Ernie, his ‘witchy’ boyfriend who, besides being an awesome baker, is more than a little bit psychic. (Their story can be found in Hiding the Moon.) Fish on a Bicycle is something of a crossover story, too, in that it features Henry Worrall, brother of Dex from the author’s Johnnies series about a group of young men who work in the porn industry. I haven’t read any of those stories (although I have some on the TBR pile of dooooom!) and a number of the characters have cameo roles in this novel, but I didn’t feel I’d missed out by not having read any of their stories yet.

Henry shows up at the soon-to-be open offices of Ellery Cramer, Attorney at Law, and is clearly not happy at being there. With him is Galen Henderson, a very attractive and personable young man who explains that Henry is very likely going to be accused – wrongfully – of murder, and asks Jackson and Ellery if they’ll take on his case. Henry served almost a decade in the military but was recently railroaded out with a dishonourable discharge, and this, together with the fact that his brother runs an extremely successful (and legitimate) porn business, lessens Henry’s chances of a fair hearing. Cases like his – where prejudice is likely to prevent justice being done – are exactly the reason Ellery and Jackson have branched out on their own, and even though Henry behaves like a total dick, it’s obvious to both of them that he’s hiding something big and that beneath all the bluster, he’s pretty scared.

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

Gilded Cage (Lilywhite Boys #2) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles proves – once again – that she’s at the top of her game with Gilded Cage (the sequel to her late-Victorian-jewel-thief-caper Any Old Diamonds), which combines an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s poignant and it’s brilliantly observed, featuring wonderfully written, flawed characters who leap off the page, a villain worthy of all the boos and hisses and a high-stakes plot.

When jewel thief and one half of the Lilywhite Boys, Templeton Lane, encountered enquiry agent Susan Lazarus in Any Old Diamonds, it was clear there was a shared history between them – and that it wasn’t one that either of them remembered with fondness.  In Gilded Cage, readers learn the truth of that history – a story of young love gone badly wrong – after Templeton is accused of a double murder and Susan is the only person he feels he can turn to for help.

Against the advice of his associate Jerry Crozier – whom Templeton believes has lost his nerve since he fell in love – Templeton decides to go alone to a house in Mortlake in order to steal a set of highly valuable opals.  Things are going as planned until he enters the bedroom where the safe is located and discovers the house’s owner lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  When a terrified servant wakes the rest of the house, Templeton gets out (not before grabbing the jewels though!), evading his pursuers by swimming across the Thames (risky in the cold and dark) and then makes his way to the East End shop belonging to their regular fence, Stan, where he finds Jerry waiting for him.  Both are furious with Templeton for being so careless, not just of his personal safety, but of theirs, too, and tell him that he needs to get out of the country fast or face the hangman’s noose.  Angry and hurt at what he sees as a betrayal – although he does grudgingly admit to having cocked up big time – and unable to leave England owing to an increased police presence at the ports, Templeton needs to clear his name, which is how he ends up seeking out Susan Lazarus and hoping she won’t turn him in herself before he’s had a chance to explain.

What follows is part second chance romance part murder mystery in which the two leads are finally able to talk about their shared past while also gaining a new appreciation for and understanding of each other and who they are now.  Susan is a wonderful heroine.  Fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense, perceptive and loyal with just a hint of vulnerability she keeps well hidden, she’s not thrilled about seeing the man who broke her heart seventeen years earlier, but also knows that whatever else he is, he’s not a murderer and agrees to help him prove his innocence by finding the true culprit. And although Templeton comes across as a bit of a git to start with – his temper-tantrum over what he sees as Jerry’s ‘defection’ and new-found happiness causes Templeton to make very poor decisions and behave like a petulant kid – he is gradually revealed to be a decent, thoughtful man, his obvious respect for Susan, his acceptance of her bisexuality, and his being prepared to follow her lead (both in the investigation and in their personal interactions) more than making up for his earlier poor judgment and selfishness.

Their relationship is superbly done, the chemistry sizzles and I loved watching them talk through the issues that lie between them and find their way back to each other.  The dialogue – laced with wit and very astute social observation – sparkles, and the plot very cleverly weaves together the threads of past and present to create an immensely satisfying three-dimensional story that has fun poking fun at and playing around with genre tropes.

As is always the case with this author, the writing is superb, the characters are fully-rounded, flawed individuals, and the whole novel is permeated by a wonderful sense of time and place.  Most impressive of all is Susan, a woman who faces the same challenges and restrictions faced by all women at the time (late 19th century) with regard to personal freedom and independence, but who is nonetheless forging her own path as best she can, and the HEA is both original and perfectly in character as well as being thoroughly satisfying.  My one criticism of the story is that because most of the investigation takes place off-page, the sense of urgency – Templeton stands to hang if found guilty, after all – isn’t quite as strong as it should have been.

Although the book works perfectly well as a standalone, there are some lovely shout-outs to both the Sins of the Cities and the Society of Gentlemen; Templeton Lane is really James Vane, whose Great Uncle was Richard Vane –  the mention of the slender, elderly man who taught Templeton the art of silent footsteps was just lovely! – and we get a little peek into the home life of Susan’s ‘guvnors’, Nathaniel Roy and Justin Lazarus, who is clearly as much of a shifty bastard as he ever was.

Gilded Cage is a fantastic read and one no fan of historical romance should miss.  K.J. Charles is one of the very few writers in the genre who really understands it, and given the current deplorable state of HR in general, a true gem like this is not to be missed.

 

The Monuments Men Murders (The Art of Murder #4) by Josh Lanyon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Someone is watching. Someone is waiting.

Despite having attracted the attention of a dangerous stalker, Special Agent Jason West is doing his best to keep his mind on his job and off his own troubles.

But his latest case implicates one of the original Monuments Men in the theft and perhaps destruction of part of the world’s cultural heritage – a lost painting by Vermeer. Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander Emerson Harley wasn’t just a World War 2 hero, he was the grandfather Jason grew up idolizing. In fact, Grandpa Harley was a large part of what inspired Jason to join the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

Learning that his legendary grandfather might have turned a blind eye to American GIs “liberating” priceless art treasures at the end of the war is more than disturbing. It’s devastating.

Jason is determined to clear his grandfather’s name, even if that means breaking a few rules and regulations himself – putting him on a collision course with romantic partner BAU Chief Sam Kennedy.

Meanwhile, someone in the shadows is biding his time…

Rating: Narration: B; Content: B+

Josh Lanyon’s The Art of Murder series has an overarching plotline and the central romance evolves over the course of the books, so it’s advisable to listen to them in order to so as to fully appreciate the progression of both. It also means there will be spoilers for the other titles in this review of The Monuments Men Murders, (book four), so proceed with caution if you haven’t yet read or listened to them.

In book one of the series, The Mermaid Murders, Special Agent Jason West of the FBI Art Crimes Team was temporarily partnered with Senior Special Agent Sam Kennedy – chief of the Behavioural Analysis Unit and something of a legend in the bureau – to work the case of a missing girl. The pair didn’t hit it off, Kennedy plainly unhappy at being partnered up at all, let alone with an art crimes specialist, Jason irritated and angry at Kennedy’s high-handed arrogance. Over the course of the book, the pair began to appreciate each other’s skills and to like each other – and even when they didn’t, they shared an undeniable and intense chemistry that led to a couple of passionate hook-ups. The book ended with their agreeing to get together again when they could which, given their jobs are in distant parts of the country, they knew was unlikely to be often. In the books since, they’ve fallen in love and are pursuing a long-distance relationship, which isn’t easy for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Sam has always been something of a lone wolf; at forty-six he’s at the pinnacle of his career and is – and always has been – utterly dedicated to his job to the exclusion of pretty much all else. Falling for Jason has upset his carefully maintained balance, and he’s found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that he’s finally found something – someone – who means as much, if not more, to him as his job. Jason understands Sam’s commitment, and in fact shares it; he’s every bit as dedicated to his job as Sam is to his, and just as much in love, but he knows he’ll never really come first with Sam and seems continually waiting for him to call a halt to… whatever this thing is between them.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

This audiobook may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: B+

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Declination (Borealis Investigations #3) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Shaw and North are together. Finally. After eight years of knowing each other and loving each other and slipping past each other, they’ve finally told each other how they feel. Borealis Investigations is growing, and they have a major prospective client on the line. Everything is finally moving the way it should.

Until the night Shaw receives a phone call telling him that Detective Jadon Reck, his former boyfriend, has been attacked.

At the request of Jadon’s partner, Shaw and North begin an investigation into the attack. But nothing is at it seems. City police are working to cover up evidence faster than Shaw and North can find it, and the motive for the attack seems impossible to unravel.

When a conspiracy of dirty cops takes action against Shaw and North, the two detectives realize they are running out of time. They have to get answers about the attack on Jadon before they lose their own lives. But Shaw knows there are things worse than death. And one of them has come back for him, to finish what he started seven years before.

The West End Slasher has returned.

Rating: A-

Note: This is a series featuring overarching plotlines so there will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Declination, the third book in Gregory Ashe’s terrific Borealis Investigations series featuring private investigators North McKinney and Shaw Aldrich. While these stories are predominantly mysteries, there’s a strong romantic thread running through them, too; and although the main mystery plots in each of the previous books has been tied up by the end, there are overarching storylines running throughout all three novels in the set which mean that they really should be read in order so as to fully understand the nature of the relationship between the two leads and the important backstory which underpins the plot.

North and Shaw are best friends as well as business partners, and they share a complicated and troubled history.  We’ve watched them yearn for each other, burn up the pages with unresolved sexual tension and deliberately avoid talking about their feelings for one another for two books, but that changed at the end of the last one, and when Declination opens, North and Shaw are – at last – a couple.  Things are far from ideal however, as Shaw continues to suffer the anxiety and panic attacks during sex which started following his involvement with a duplicitous client who tried to kill him.  Shaw has wanted North so badly for so long that he fears losing him should the other man ever work out just how messed up he is, so Shaw is trying to deal with his issues on his own while desperately trying to prevent North from finding out the truth.

The main plot thread that has run through the series concerns the identity of the West End Slasher, the serial killer who, eight years earlier, killed Shaw’s boyfriend in a vicious attack that also left Shaw critically injured.  Shaw has long been convinced that the wrong man was imprisoned for the Slasher’s crimes, and at the end of Orientation (book one), he came into possession of a video clip that gave him his first real lead in tracking down the actual murderer. When the supposed Slasher was killed in prison the day before Shaw was due to visit him, and when, during their last investigation, he and North kept running up against members of the St. Louis PD’s LGBT task force who were obviously hiding something and wanted to get North and Shaw out of the way, Shaw became even more convinced of the existence of a police cover-up.  And at the end of Triangulation, North and Shaw were sent a message that was an unmistakable threat.  Detective Jadon Reck, Shaw’s ex, arrived on their doorstep, beaten and bloody, with a photograph of North pinned to his jacket and the words “he’s next” carved into his chest.

The events of Declination take place a few months after those of the previous book. After catching up with a small-time thief they’ve been asked to take into the Circuit Attorney’s office, North and Shaw bump into Jadon, who is back at work, but obviously not doing so well. That night, Shaw receives a call from Jadon’s work partner, who tells him that Jadon has been hospitalised following another attack – and this time is in a really bad way. The police are trying to spin it as a suicide attempt, but Shaw is convinced that Jadon has been targeted because of his association with him and North and their continued search for the truth about the West End Slasher.

While Shaw is struggling (and often failing) to process so many things – about the attack years before, about what happened with Matty Fenmore, about his feelings for North – North is coming to realise that even though he and Shaw have lived practically in each other’s pockets for years, Shaw is slowly turning into someone he doesn’t know. Concerned about the toll the investigation is taking on the man he loves, North tries to persuade Shaw to take a step back and work with one of their new clients while North continues the investigation into the Slasher, but Shaw can’t. His need to get to the truth is too tangled up with the trauma of the attack and his desire to just be ‘normal’ again; he’s become fixated on finding the killer, seeing it as a way of achieving some sort of closure and getting his life back. (I admit that I couldn’t help wondering why Shaw wasn’t getting professional help; he mentions a therapist, but from North’s dismissive reaction, I inferred the therapist wasn’t very good!)

Amid the chaos of betrayal, corruption and murder, with North and Shaw not knowing who they can trust and that a step in the wrong direction could mean it’s their last step, Gregory Ashe brings the Slasher plotline to a close in a heart-breaking, shocking and completely unexpected manner. He’s an excellent plotter; even the most random of threads often turns out to have significance and he weaves them skilfully in and out of the narrative to create a complex, satisfying whole that kept me on the edge of my seat. He’s equally adept at character and relationship development, and continues to steer North and Shaw’s romance in a positive direction while also making it clear that they’ve got a long way to go, and I liked the honesty of that. There’s no question these two are committed and deeply in love, but they know they have work to do to build a life together and they’re prepared to do it. Mr. Ashe also writes wonderful dialogue and the banter between North and Shaw is sharp and funny, even as it serves to provide insight into their minds and relationship, and to demarcate the dynamic between them at the same time as it propels the story forward.

Declination is a clever, fast-paced and absorbing novel that brings this storyline to a nail-biting close, and leaves North and Shaw in a good place (together) and on the brink of a new direction in their careers. But this isn’t the last we’re going to hear of them; the book ends with… not really a cliffhanger, but definitely a hint of more to come, and I’m very much looking forward to it.