Relative Justice (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #1) by Gregory Ashe

relative justice

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An impossible son. An impossible murder.

The honeymoon is definitely over.

When Emery Hazard and his husband, John-Henry Somerset, arrive home from their honeymoon, they’re shocked (understatement of the year) to find a boy waiting for them on their doorstep. Colt, fifteen and eager to pick a fight, claims to be Hazard’s son. It’s almost a relief, then, for Hazard and Somers to be called out to assist the Dore County Sheriff’s Department with what seems to be an impossible murder: a man has been found stabbed to death in a stretch of woods, and the only set of footprints in the soft ground belong to the victim.

The more Hazard and Somers learn about the dead man, the more confusing the case becomes. While searching his home, they discover a secure room from which several high-end computers have been stolen. A woman makes a daring theft as the house is being secured and escapes with valuable documents. The dead man’s neighbor, who found the body, is obviously lying about how she discovered him. And something very strange is going on with the victim’s sons, who are isolated at school and seem to have found their few friends through the youth group at a local church–and in a close relationship with the hip, young, attractive pastor.

An attempt on Colt’s life leaves Hazard’s (possible) son in the hospital. When Hazard and Somers learn that the attack came after Colt tried to investigate the murder on his own, they realize he is now in the killer’s crosshairs, and Hazard and Somers must race to uncover the truth. The results from the paternity test aren’t back yet, but father or not, Emery Hazard isn’t going to let anyone harm a child.

Rating: A

Relative Justice is book one in Gregory Ashe’s latest series to feature Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset, Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand, and even though it’s the start of a new series, it’s most definitely NOT the place to start if you’ve never picked up a H&S book before.  Going back to start at Pretty Pretty Boys – eleven books and quite-a-few novellas ago – may seem like a daunting prospect, but I promise it’s well worth it, and by doing that you’ll gain a much greater understanding of the characters and their relationship, which has been through many, many ups and downs – and I suspect there are likely more to come!

Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.

After surviving both major relationship issues AND being the target of a deranged killer, by the end of The Keeper of Bees (the final book in the previous series) Hazard and Somers finally made it down the aisle.  But nothing is ever simple where these two are concerned, and they return from their honeymoon to find a dark-haired teenaged boy waiting on the doorstep who promptly announces to them that he’s Hazard’s son.

Jet-lagged and tired after a long journey, Hazard… doesn’t handle the news well and has a minor meltdown, insisting that whoever this kid is there is absolutely NO WAY he can be his father and the boy must be running some sort of scam, while Somers tries to be the voice of reason and to calm things down before they get any worse. He insists they can’t just leave the kid on the street and says he should stay the night at least, so they can all get some sleep and then work out what to do in the morning.  Hazard is still fuming, and stomps out – but only as far as neighbours Noah and Rebeca’s place where he starts to calm down and to think rationally about what to do next.

When he’s made some calls – and learned that unless the boy – Colt – can stay with them for the time being, he’ll have to go to a group home or a residential facility – Hazard decides he can stay put for a short while, at least until the results of the paternity test he’s taken come back, and he takes Colt to enrol at the High School.  In the meantime, Somers – now Chief of Police Somerset – has been approached by Sheriff Engels for help investigating a rather baffling murder, and is specifically asked to involve Hazard as well.

When they arrive at the scene, it quickly becomes apparent to both of them why Engels has requested their help – a man has been stabbed to death in a forest some distance out of town, but there is no sign that another person was involved, even though the wounds couldn’t have been self-inflicted.  It’s an impossible murder, but – as usual with a Gregory Ashe mystery – there is no shortage of suspects once the investigation gets going, from the skeevy girlfriend who claims the victim left her everything in his will, including the custody of his two boys, to the neighbour with whom he was involved in a dispute about land boundaries, to the new pastor who gives off a really dodgy vibe.  Add in the audacious theft of an important piece of evidence while police are actually  on the scene and the two douchebag detectives from the sheriff’s department who are only too keen to stir up trouble for our heroes, and the stage is set for another complex, clever mystery that doesn’t pull its punches when it gets down to the nitty and the very gritty.

And while Hazard and Somers are trying to untangle all the threads surrounding the murder, Hazard is slowly getting to grips with what it really means to be a father.  He makes a lot of mistakes and sometimes he’s really harsh, yet in the midst of it all, there’s no question that he’s trying hard to do the right thing. And Somers is simply awesome in supportive husband mode.  As to whether Colt is who he says he is… well, I’m not telling, because really, in the end, it doesn’t matter.  The theme of family – of what makes one and what you do as part of one – is the important thing, and the author completely nails the complicated dynamics that abound in the family Hazard and Somers are choosing to make. The characterisation of Colt is spot on – a perfect angry, surly teen who pretends not to care but who really cares so much and desperately wants to impress his chosen role model.

There’s a lot going on in this story, yet it never feels rushed or under-developed; the pacing is just right and the author balances his various story threads with supreme skill and confidence.  As well as the mystery and the Colt storyline, there are some fabulous cameos from Hazard’s mother, who is a terrific grandmother and helper, and Theo Stratford, now Dr. Stratford (so clearly, he finished that thesis!) and a teacher at the High School – and I can’t forget Shaw who, while he doesn’t actually appear, nonetheless caused several snorts of laughter in absentia (Somers using the idea of inviting him for a visit as a threat when Hazard is being mean is priceless!)  I was also pleased to see Nico again – yes, really! – he’s grown up a lot and clearly wants to be a good friend to Hazard.  I like the idea of his working for Hazard’s agency and think he’ll be good at his new job, but there are also hints that not all is well with him, and I really want him to be okay.

But as is always the case with Mr. Ashe’s books, what sets Relative Justice apart from the crowd is the fantastic characterisation and superb combination of relationship development, humour, laser sharp insight into what makes these people tick, and the way all the emotions – the angst, the frustration, the pain, the love – are perfectly realised on the page.  Hazard and Somers have come such a long way since we first met them, and now, are more solid than ever, despite the challenges they experience in this book (and the realisation of what being fathers of two is going to do to their sex life!).  The way they work together professionally has always been a delight to watch, and here, we get to see them each bring their own particular strengths to the situation at home, Somers’ people skills and his deep understanding of everything Hazard, and Hazard’s formidable intelligence and unshakeable loyalty to those he loves.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again;  I am in awe of Gregory Ashe’s ability to consistently craft books of such high quality (and at such a rate.)  I don’t know how he does it, I’m just incredibly glad – and very grateful – that he does.  Relative Justice is an incredibly strong start to what promises to be another fantastic series featuring two of my all-time favourite characters.  I can’t do anything other than offer the strongest of recommendations.

Note:  Themes of child abuse and neglect feature prominently (although there’s nothing graphic) in this story.

Conscious Decisions of the Heart (More Heat Than the Sun #2) by John Wiltshire (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

conscious decisions of the heart

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Ben Rider and Nikolas Mikkelsen learn that danger comes in all shapes and sizes and often in places you least expect it. Nikolas’ dark past calls to him, inexorably dragging him back into its seductive embrace.

While he goes on an errand of mercy to Russia, Ben travels to Denmark to learn Nikolas’s language. Convinced Russia’s vastness will swallow Nikolas, Ben doesn’t see the enemy much closer to home. Thinking he has lost Nikolas, Ben then makes a terrible decision that threatens to destroy everything they have together.

Focused on this very personal horror, bound by a new level of commitment, they have no idea that a greater threat is coming. And when it arrives, it changes everything – even the definition of commitment.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

When I reviewed Love is a Stranger, book one in John Wiltshire’s More Heat Than the Sun series, I said that I suspected I was in for a run of enjoyable hokum over the course of the set of (so far) eight-books – fast-paced and frequently bonkers plotlines that require a large suspension of disbelief and an epic love story featuring two complex, damaged individuals. Well, now I’ve listened to book two, Conscious Decisions of the Heart, I can say with certainty that’s definitely the case. The plot moves swiftly and is twistier than a twisty game of Twister, the connection between Ben and Nik is growing deeper, they still have lots and lots of sex (although Nik, despite his immense fortune, never seems to buy any lube), and while they aren’t always nice, they’re nonetheless completely irresistible. But there are a few things in this one that made me more than a bit uncomfortable; there are a couple of mysoginistic rants that are not cool and an instance of non-con which is kinda shocking. The pacing around the middle flags a bit, the plot meanders, and Ben and Nik are emotionally exhausting, but despite all that, I’m completely addicted.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Madison Square Murders (Memento Mori #1) by C.S. Poe

madison square murders (2)

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Everett Larkin works for the Cold Case Squad: an elite—if understaffed and overworked—group of detectives who solve the forgotten deaths of New York City. Larkin is different from others, but his deduction skills are unmatched and his memory for minute details is unparalleled.

So when a spring thunderstorm uproots a tree in Madison Square Park, unearthing a crate with human remains inside, the best Cold Case detective is assigned the job. And when a death mask, like those prominent during the Victorian era, is found with the body, Larkin requests assistance from the Forensic Artists Unit and receives it in the form of Detective Ira Doyle, his polar opposite in every way.

Factual reasoning and facial reconstruction puts Larkin and Doyle on a trail of old homicide cases and a murderer obsessed with casting his victims’ likeness in death. Include some unapologetic flirting from Doyle, and this case just may end up killing Everett Larkin.

Rating: A

Madison Square Murders, the first book in C.S. Poe’s new Memento Mori series, is a compelling read featuring an intriguing, cleverly constructed mystery and one of the most unusual lead characters I’ve ever come across, a neuroatypical detective in New York City whose unique memory condition makes him an outstanding detective while at the same time causing him to struggle with anxiety, social interaction and the ability to function properly at even a basic – what most of us might consider ‘normal’ – level.

When a crate containing human remains is unearthed after a tree in Madison Square Park is uprooted by a spring thunderstorm, Detective Everett Larkin of the Cold Case Squad is called to the scene.  The remains are clearly not new or recent, and although Larkin will have to wait for official confirmation, initial findings indicate that the deceased was a young man in his twenties – and most unusually, there’s what appears to be a bronze casting of a face tucked in near his feet.  It’s an impressive piece of work artistically – but there’s no way of knowing if it’s a cast of the victim’s face or of someone totally unrelated.  The CSU at the scene suggests the casting is a death mask – and that Larkin should get in touch with Detective Ira Doyle, one of NYPD’s small team of forensic artists, to get some expert advice.

Ira Doyle is something of a surprise to Larkin.  Optimistic, flirtatious and always ready with a quip and a smile, he proves not only to be a talented artist and knowledgeable about his subject, but also very competent detective, able to keep up with Larkin’s not-always-easy-to-follow thought processes and not fazed by his… quirks.  Doyle sets to work straight away, and in less than twenty-four hours, his facial reconstruction coupled with Larkin’s deep-dive into hundreds of missing person reports has enabled them to give a forgotten man his identify back and to work out that they’re investigating a murder that took place twenty-two years earlier.  As Larkin and Doyle dig deeper, it becomes apparent that this wasn’t the killer’s first or only victim; nor was this the first or only death mask to have been made. They’re looking for an as yet unidentified serial killer.

Madison Square Murders was a hard book to put down!  The mystery is superbly constructed and satisfyingly complex without being either overcomplicated or too easily unravelled, and there’s a lovely opposites-attract romance building between Larkin and Doyle that’s very clearly based on the solid foundations of genuine mutual respect and understanding.  But what really puts this book into the DIK bracket is the characters, especially Larkin, who is a fantastic protagonist and unlike anyone I’ve ever read before.  He’s fiercely intelligent and doesn’t make a secret of it, but personally, he’s a hot mess, unsure, deeply damaged and finding it increasingly difficult to keep it together.  His HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory) is often (thoughtlessly) admired by others, but for him it’s not so much a gift as it is a curse. It means he’s unable to forget a single tragedy or misfortune once he’s learned of it, the “rolodex” in his mind always moving and flipping between one association and the next, while his short term memory is hopeless and he can’t function from one hour to the next without a detailed daily plan.  Not helping matters right now is his disintegrating marriage; Larkin is starting to realise that his husband doesn’t really know him and doesn’t want to – possibly that he never wanted to – and despite all his promises that Larkin wouldn’t have to hide his quirks at home, seems to have believed all along that Larkin could and would change. The way the author illuminates Larkin’s inner world is simply brilliant; his words and thoughts, his feelings, his insecurities and his deep-seated need to be seen and understood, all are expertly – sometimes heartbreakingly – well communicated and bring this unique character vividly to life.

Ira Doyle is the perfect foil for him despite their outward differences. In complete contrast to Larkin, Doyle is laid-back and charming with a killer smile, but as Larkin very quickly discerns, he’s also whip-smart and a very good detective as well as a talented artist.  More importantly, Doyle seems to instinctively know just the right thing to say or do to stop Larkin spiralling or make him feel comfortable when he becomes overloaded by impressions and associations, and Larkin slowly starts to realise that here, in a person he’s known for less than three days, he’s found someone who sees him more clearly than anyone ever has – even his husband.  He also works out that there’s more to Doyle than his bright smile and easy-going manner would suggest, that the reason he’s so good at putting Larkin at ease is that he has his own demons to slay, that he, too, has suffered loss and heartbreak – it’s just that he’s much better at hiding it.  Doyle may not be as obviously colourful a character as Larkin, but he’s no mere sidekick and is equally well-written and fleshed-out.

The story takes place over just a few days, but the progress of the relationship is perfect, not too fast, not too slow, but a careful progression from colleagues to friends to the possibility of more in the future, and the mystery reaches a satisfactory conclusion – although (and I should be used to this from Ms. Poe by now!) there’s a cliffhanger designed to lead into the next book.

Madison Square Murders is a cracking read and a terrific series opener.  Book two can’t arrive soon enough!

Nothing But Good by Kess McKinley (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

nothing but good

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Special Agent Jefferson Haines puts the “order” in law and order. Meal kits. Gray suits. Consistent reps at the gym. But all his routines are thrown into chaos when he’s called in to catch a serial killer whose MO is the stuff of urban legend: the Smiley Face Killer.

Dripping paint. Wicked slashes for eyes. The taunting curl of a smiling mouth. After years evading capture, the serial killer is back again. As Jefferson races to stop the next attack, the investigation leads to the one man he thought he’d never see again, Fred “Finny” Ashley.

Finny has his own theories about the killer. And they’re pretty good. Maybe too good. Now, with his career on the line, Jefferson has to figure out if his onetime best friend is the culprit or the next victim.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Kess McKinley’s début novel Nothing but Good is a well-constructed and enjoyable mystery/procedural in which a tightly controlled, buttoned-up FBI agent investigating a number of serial murders encounters an unexpected complication in the form of the former best friend on whom he’d had a huge crush. I read this one when it came out back in May, and when I saw that Kirt Graves was narrating the audio version, I decided to revisit it.

Special Agent Jefferson Haynes and his partner, Special Agent Caroline Pelley, are called in when the body of a young man is pulled out of the water in Boston Harbour, another victim of the “Smiley Face Killer”, so-called because he leaves a very distinct calling card which, in this case, is a huge painted smiley face on the wall just by where the body was found. The SFK has killed a number of young men – all of them found in bodies of water – over the last decade, but has so far eluded capture.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Concrete Evidence (Evidence #1) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicol Zanzarella and Greg Tremblay

Concrete Evidence 2021

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She wants revenge. He wants her.

Blackballed from underwater archaeology after accusations of artifact trafficking, Erica Kesling has a new job and a new life on the other side of the country and is working to clear her name. She’s closing in on her goal when she’s distracted by a sexy, charismatic intern who makes her want something other than revenge. But Lee Scott is no intern. He’s looking for the lead conspirator in an international artifact smuggling scheme, and Erica is his prime suspect. He’ll do whatever it takes to win her trust and get her to reveal her secrets, even seduce her.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content- B-

I’ve read/listened to and reviewed most of the books in Rachel Grant’s romantic suspense Evidence series, and they’re among my favourites in the genre – sexy, intelligent and fast-paced with well-drawn, interesting characters and storylines that sometimes feel as though they’re taken from tomorrow’s headlines! The first book – Concrete Evidence – is one of the few books in the series I haven’t read, and I’d intended to listen to the audio at some point, but after AudioGals reviewed it back in 2014 and said that the narration wasn’t very good, I instead put the book on the TBR pile of doom.

Unfortunately, the book is still there – so I was delighted when I saw a newly recorded audiobook version crop up at Audible, narrated by Nicol Zanzarella – who has narrated all the other Evidence books – and Greg Tremblay (whose work on the author’s Flashpoint series sent me down a Tremblay/Boudreaux shaped rabbit hole I still haven’t emerged from!). For anyone wondering, the author’s website indicates that she has made a few small revisions and added an epilogue previously only available as bonus material.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Uncharted (Survival Instincts #2) by Adriana Anders

uncharted
This title may be purchased from Amazon

Hotshot pilot Leo Eddowes is afraid of nothing and no one. So when she’s asked to evacuate a man from the wilds of Alaska, she doesn’t hesitate. But with enemies in close pursuit and the weather turning sour, what should have been a simple mission quickly shifts to disaster.

And there’s only one way out.

When Elias Thorne disappeared, he was America’s most wanted. Now he’s spent more than a decade in one of the most remote places on earth, guarding a dangerous secret. Leo’s arrival, quickly followed by a team of expert hunters, leaves him no choice but to join forces with her—and run. Neither is prepared for their reluctant partnership to flare into something as wild and untamed as the frozen world around them…but as desperately cold days melt into scorchingly hot nights, Leo and Elias must learn to dig deep, trust in each other, and forge a bond as strong as the forces of nature.

Rating: C

I haven’t read Whiteout – the book that precedes Uncharted in Adriana Anders’  Survival Instincts series – but although there is an overarching plotline running through the series, there’s enough information provided here for a newbie to jump into the story without feeling lost, so Uncharted can be read as a standalone.  It’s my first experience with this author, and unfortunately, I can’t say I was all that impressed; the writing is solid, the story is intriguing and the set-pieces are well-written, but the central characters are bland and never came to life, the romance is lacklustre and while most romantic suspense requires some suspension of disbelief, way too much of it is required here.

Leo Eddowes is former military, a pilot with a unit from an elite private security company tasked with locating the man believed to be in possession of one of only two extant samples of a deadly virus.  She and her team had been in Antarctica in Whiteout, where they barely survived a confrontation with a… team of scientists and mercenaries tasked with stealing and testing a deadly virus by Chronos Corporation, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.  She and her team have moved their search for the virus and the man believed to have it to Alaska, but have been unable to locate either of them – and now her team has left and she’s had to stay behind owing to a bout of food poisoning or a stomach bug; whatever it is, she’s not in top condition and just wants to sleep it off and go home.  She’s not allowed to do either of those things however, because old Amka, one of the women from the town of Schink’s Station won’t stop pounding on her cabin door.  When Leo, groggy and still sick, opens the door, Amka tells her that another team from Chronos will arrive any minute and demands Leo fly out to bring her godson safely home.  Believing that godson to be the man in possession of the only remaining sample of the virus, Leo shucks off her grogginess (or tries to), and goes with Amka to find the town’s only remaining air transport – a small light aircraft from the 1940s that’s obviously been cared for, but which has seen better days.

Elias Thorne is one of America’s Most Wanted, a former US Marshal set up to take the fall for mass murder – including the deaths of his own parents – and he’s been in hiding for the last decade.  A static-laden phone call from Schink’s Station alerts him to the fact that trouble is on the way and tells him “she” is on her way to get him – but he has no idea who “she” is and doesn’t know if “she” is part of a rescue or of another group who is after him. Then he watches, helpless, as a small plane is shot down and crashes into the frozen lake; Elias makes his way carefully across the ice to see if he can help the pilot, only to be confronted by a woman in the cockpit pointing a gun at his head.

Uncharted gets off to a flying (sorry!) start and the author does a really good job of setting the scene, ramping up the tension as Leo sets off on her rescue mission and in setting up the mystery surrounding Elias. The descriptive writing is evocative and helps build a picture in the reader’s mind of the terrain and locations that the couple encounter throughout the story, and there are some really tense moments as Leo and Elias find themselves on the run from the mercenaries who are out to capture them and the virus.

Unfortunately however, after the initial excitement of the crash and then a couple of narrow escapes, the lack of actual plot became apparent.  I’d reached the halfway point, and nothing new was happening other than Leo and Elias wandering around Alaska going from one life-threatening situation to another as they tried to outsmart and outrun the people hunting them   I know that’s the plot of many romantic suspense novels and I’ve probably read and enjoyed some of them, but without strong, engaging characters who made me want to root for them, and without much in the way of chemistry or romantic development between them,  Uncharted got boring very quickly and the read became a real slog to the finish.

As for the amount of suspension of disbelief required… first of all, we’ve got Leo, who is decidedly unwell and describes herself as “hardly able to see straight”  yet still getting into and flying an unfamiliar plane;  after the crash, she’s clearly sustained a head injury and/or concussion, yet she’s walking and running and lifting heavy equipment.  Elias is shot and sustains a bad wound to his side, and yet he, too, is very quickly back on his feet and doing all manner of energetic and dangerous things.  I understand that an adrenaline rush can enable an injured person to carry on doing things they perhaps shouldn’t be able to do for a little while, but it seemed as though the author felt the need to justify the fact that these two people were still walking, running, hanging off cliffs and whatever else while on their last legs for most of the book by constantly reminding us of Leo’s illness and Elias’ injuries, and it felt ridiculous rather than edge-of-the-seat exciting.
As for the romance, well it’s all insta-lust and I honestly couldn’t work out what these two people saw in each other.  We’re told Leo and Elias are attracted to one another but I never felt any real degree of emotional connection between them – and don’t get me started on the ‘we’re running for our lives, but let’s shag anyway thing’, which is one of my biggest pet peeves ever.  Also – when the most interesting character in your romantic suspense novel is the villain, you’ve got a problem.

Uncharted was a dreary reading experience  – after the first few chapters, I just wasn’t motivated to pick it up and it took me more than twice as long to read as it should have.  Maybe I’ll try another romantic suspense novel by Adriana Anders, maybe I won’t.  But I certainly can’t recommend this one.

Codirection (Borealis: Without a Compass #4) by Gregory Ashe

codirection

This title may be purchased from Amazon

They killed a girl to keep their secrets. They won’t stop there.

A new home, a fresh start, a chance to do things right this time—and Shaw and North are determined to make it work. But the night of their housewarming party, things don’t go as planned. A reporter arrives, wanting to talk to North about his ex-husband, his father, and a criminal syndicate. No sooner have they gotten rid of her than another unwanted guest appears: a street boy named Nik, whom Shaw met months before, begging them to help him find his missing friend, Malorie.

Retracing Malorie’s steps, North and Shaw learn about the dangerous demimonde of runaway teenagers. Their investigation takes them into the path of men and women who have learned to profit off the suffering and abandonment of children: shelters, clinics, labor brokers, and pimps.

Meanwhile, North’s Uncle Ronnie is set on revenge, and his target this time is North’s father. As North struggles to track down Ronnie and put an end to the danger, he finds himself considering a deal with the devil, and the offer might be too good to pass up.

When North and Shaw find Malorie’s body, evidence suggests she was murdered—and that her death is connected in some way with a truck stop halfway across the state. But as they draw closer to the truth, the danger grows. The people who killed Malorie have the Borealis detectives in their sights, and North and Shaw must race to save their own lives before the killers can strike again.

Rating: A-

Note: There are spoilers for the previous Borealis books in this review.

Well.  Here we are at the concluding instalment of Gregory Ashe’s Borealis: Without a Compass series, and what a ride it’s been!  We’ve watched North and Shaw solve crimes of course, but these books are so much more than well-written and suspenseful mysteries, and our two protagonists have also gone through heartbreak and serious soul-searching while facing incredible danger at the hands of some truly despicable individuals, but at last, and after all the horrible things they’ve been through – and inflicted on each other – they’re back where they belong (i.e. together) and are making a determined effort to move forward as a committed couple.

In the months since the events of Redirection, North and Shaw have bought a house together, and we rejoin them on the day of their housewarming party – which ends abruptly when local reporter Belia Lopez arrives and opens a massive can of worms by telling North that Tucker (from whom he is now, thankfully, divorced) is claiming he was framed for his assault on Shaw, and that North, David McKinney, Borealis and Shaw’s family are all mixed up in a criminal syndicate operating in the city. Needless to say, North is not impressed and tells her – in his own inimitable fashion -to get lost.

Shortly after they’ve got rid of Belia, they’re interrupted by another unexpected visitor hammering on their door and demanding their help.  We met Nikshay (Nik) in Indirection; he’s a teenager living (and working) on the streets whom Shaw spoke to while he and North were trying to track down a suspect, and although Shaw told Nik he should come to them if he needed help, he never did.  Until now.  He’s worried about his friend Malorie, who has gone missing, and he wants North and Shaw to find out what’s happened to her.  As it so often goes with these two, Shaw is keen to help while North is more sceptical; the difference is that they’re now both trying hard to see the other’s point of view and to compromise… but of course they end up agreeing to see what they can do.

Gregory Ashe writes some of the most compelling and clever mysteries in the genre and he isn’t afraid to take them to some dark and gritty places.  In this story, North and Shaw start out by going to the shelter for homeless teens where Nik and Malorie met, and soon find themselves coming face to face with the harsh reality of the dangers faced by so many kids living on the streets, and the half-hearted, ineffectual efforts made to try to protect them.  Their search leads to a trail of blackmail, embezzlement and murder, to the exposure of the exploitation of some of society’s most vulnerable individuals at the hands of pimps, dealers and cheap labour networks… and worst of all, by those who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Meanwhile, that scumbag Ronnie is still out for revenge on North for engineering his arrest (at the end of Misdirection) – and after his attempt to get at North through Tucker failed, Ronnie has now turned his attention to North’s dad.  Desperate to get Ronnie out of their lives for good, North considers a Faustian bargain – the full implications of which are not yet clear.

North and Shaw have been through a lot in this series – and I’m not just talking about the injuries they’ve sustained!  There were potential pitfalls and fault-lines in their relationship back at the end of the first Borealis series, and many of those came home to roost in this one.  Both men are carrying a lot of emotional baggage – North’s relationship with his obnoxious father is seriously messed up, and he’s a survivor of domestic abuse; Shaw was traumatised by an attack that nearly killed him, and he struggles under the weight of his family’s expectations – and their long-suppressed feelings for each other perhaps gave them unrealistic expectations of what being a couple would be like.  In this series, they’ve been forced to face up to the fact that their relationship wasn’t working (and why)  – and it’s made for some pretty tough reading.

By the time Codirection begins, they’re in a much better place personally than they have been for quite some time, and while things are far from perfect, they’ve decided they want to make a life together and have recognised that they each have work to do if they’re going to make that happen.  But there’s still a sense that they’re not quite on the same page when it comes to the way they think of and approach their relationship, and that translates to an underlying sense of unease at times, a disconnect that it seems they haven’t really acknowledged or understood.  Then comes an incredibly simple but profoundly insightful ‘lightbulb moment’ – a single piece of dialogue, really – when everything falls into place, and it’s masterful.

Mr. Ashe has interwoven the mysteries and the character and relationship development in these books with incredible skill, pulling readers with him through a real gamut of emotions with his unique mix of razor-sharp insight and the ridiculous humour and banter that characterise the way North and Shaw interact with each other.  He also gifts fans of his work with a wonderful cameo appearance by Wahredua’s favourite PI – and Shaw’s best, best friend (well, in Shaw’s mind anyway) – that is simply priceless.

The conclusion to the long-running Ronnie storyline is both satisfying and shocking (my Goodreads update reads – “Well.  I didn’t see THAT coming!”) and I can’t help but think there’s some future fallout to come as a result of what happens.  Because, yes, I’m reliably informed this isn’t the last we’re going to see of North and Shaw 🙂

Codirection is another must-read from Gregory Ashe, a superbly plotted, high-stakes mystery with twists and turns a-plenty and more intricately crafted red herrings than you can shake a stick at.  Borealis: Without a Compass has been one wild ride, and while it’s been hard to watch “these dumb boys” (as North and Shaw are affectionately known by Ashe fans!) do dumb things, it’s also been a delight to spend time with them again.

Dangerous Ground (Fiona Carver #1) by Rachel Grant

dangerous ground grant

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Archaeologist Fiona Carver has unfinished business in the Aleutian Islands. After an emergency evacuation cut her first expedition short, she’s finally back. But time is not on her side as she races to finish documenting the remnants of a prehistoric village, recover missing artifacts, and track down missing volcanologist Dylan Slater.

Having bluffed his way onto Fiona’s team with fake credentials, wildlife photographer Dean Slater is willing to risk more than federal prison to find his missing brother, but he needs Fiona’s help. She knows the inhospitable terrain better than anyone.

When the two set out together on a perilous journey, it becomes more than a recovery mission. In their fight for survival, nature isn’t the only threat. They aren’t the only ones on the hunt. Mile by dangerous mile, someone is hunting them.

Rating: B

Given the number of disappointing romantic suspense reads I’ve experienced lately, it’s no understatement to say that I’ve been very eagerly awaiting the next book from Rachel Grant, someone I know I can rely on to deliver a fast-paced and tightly-plotted story of mystery and suspense alongside a well-developed steamy romance.  Dangerous Ground is a little bit of a departure for her however, in that it’s the first of a series that will feature the same central couple, so I want to make it clear that there’s no HEA –or even HFN – in this book, although I’m sure our hero and heroine will get there eventually.  Actually, I’m pleased to see an author of m/f romantic suspense taking this approach; most of the really good RS I’ve read lately has been m/m in series in which each book features a self-contained suspense plot while the character and relationship development is ongoing.  So I was in no way put off by the lack of a concrete ending for the protagonists in Dangerous Ground and have high hopes for the further progression of their relationship in subsequent books.

Another reason I always look forward to Ms. Grant’s books is the way she so skilfully draws on her  background in history and archaeology to produce stories that are incredibly well-researched and informative about the various aspects of conservation/preservation/exploration that she includes in them, and this is no exception.  Civilian naval archaeologist Fiona Carver is part of the team assigned to produce an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) of the new submarine base the US Navy wants to build in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska.  Five weeks before the story begins, Fiona had made a very significant discovery – that of a prehistoric village on Chiksook Island  – but before she was able to do any further excavation, an emergency evacuation was ordered.  Expecting to be back in a few days, she took as many precautions as she feasibly could with the equipment she had available at the time, but now, five weeks later, she fears the site may have been destroyed.  Dangerous Ground opens as she is returning to Chiksook along with a few members of the original team, and a couple of newcomers she hasn’t met before, one of whom is ornithologist Bill Lowell. Objectively, Fiona can see Bill is gorgeous (she mentally nicknames him “Hot Bird Man”)  – but she can also see he’s one of those men who is well aware he’s attractive, and shuts down his attempts at flirting while trying her best to remain friendly.  She doesn’t do field flings (or any type of fling, really) and isn’t about to change her stance on that, no matter how good-looking or charming the guy is.

Wildlife photographer Dean Slater’s twin brother Dylan, a volcanologist, was one of Fiona’s team-mates on the previous expedition, but Dean hasn’t seen him since his supposed return from Chiksook Island.  The last email Dean received from him stated that he was going off the grid for a few months, but that email came from a generic work email address rather than Dylan’s personal account and Dean is certain Dylan wouldn’t just go off like that without at least talking to him beforehand or leaving him some contact details.  And when he gets stonewalled by both the Navy and their contracted engineering company, he becomes increasingly suspicious.  Worried for his brother’s safety, Dean ‘borrows’ the name of an ornithologist he’d worked for years ago and blags his way onto the team.  It’s risky – if he’s found out he could face going to prison – but there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his brother.

The person Dean is most interested in meeting is Fiona Carver.  Dylan’s emails had been full of her and he’d said she was his girlfriend, so surely she must know something?  Yet she shows no sign of knowing anything, and Dean dislikes what he interprets as a total lack of concern for her boyfriend.  Yet despite that – and the fact that she’s “Dylan’s girl” – he can’t help being drawn to her.  She’s beautiful, sure, but there’s more to it than that; there’s a passion for her work, a competence and assurance and fierce intelligence that impress and captivate him.

The first quarter or so of the book is fairly slow going as we’re introduced to the two leads and the author starts to lay out some of the clues that may – or may not – relate to Dylan’s disappearance. Fiona does have some suspicions about what may have happened to him, although she’s wary of making unfounded accusations and doesn’t at first realise his personal safety is at stake.  There are things about Bill that don’t add up, an uncomfortable feeling about a last-minute replacement on the team, and all this, together with her worries over the fact that she may have unintentionally contributed to the destruction of a hugely important ancient site, contributes to a growing sense of unease she just can’t shake off.  The author does a fabulous job of creating and gradually building an atmosphere full of apprehension and suspicion as Fiona starts to wonder who she can trust.  Then things take a sudden and dangerous turn for the worse, and Fiona and Dean find themselves stranded together with no way off the island and no way to survive the harsh conditions unless they can find a way to work together.  But overcoming their mutual mistrust is the last of their worries when they realise that there may be someone else on the island – someone who wants to make sure they never leave it.

Dangerous Ground is a strong start to this new series, boasting a unique setting, smart and interesting characters and fascinating background detail.  Fiona is a terrific heroine; she’s smart, capable and courageous, and I very much liked that she’s not afraid to own up when she’s scared and then pushes herself through it.  Dean is harder to like to start with – he’s pushy and a bit smarmy when he’s pretending to be Bill, although I kind of gave him a pass because the author makes it so very clear just how much he loves Dylan – who is his only family.  He’s basically a decent guy forced to take desperate measures although he does do and say some dumb things, especially in his persistence in believing that Fiona and Dylan are an item when she repeatedly tells him otherwise.  And while I sort of understood the reasons for his playboy lifestyle and aversion to relationships, his ‘love kicked me in the guts and I want nothing more to do with it’ stance is rather stereotypical and it got old fast.

I always come away from a Rachel Grant book having learned something new, but there’s a bit of information overload in this one and I have to admit that some of the technical detail and overly obvious ‘teaching moments’ took me out of the story a few times.

Dangerous Ground is an intriguing, suspenseful mystery with an intricate, well-woven plot, well-written action sequences and an engaging heroine. The romance is clearly going to be a slow burn and I can’t deny that the ending is somewhat abrupt, but I enjoyed it despite my criticisms, and I’ll definitely be back for book two, Crash Site, when it’s released early in 2022.

An Absence of Motive (Raising the Bar Brief #1) by Maggie Wells

an absence of motive uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He was an outsider…and the only man she could trust

Attorney Marlee Masters’ brother was murdered. Proving it means working with Sheriff Ben Kinsella and facing down the nasty whispers in their rural Georgia town. But a stalker’s vowing retribution if the two don’t end the investigation. Ben won’t abandon Marlee in her hour of need, but will she have to place herself in even more peril to catch the killer?

Rating: B-

Maggie Wells is the author of a number of contemporary romances and when I noticed her name attached to a new Harlequin Intrigue romantic suspense series, I decided to give her a try.  An Absence of Motive has an interesting and fairly well developed plot, and I liked the set up, but the romance – once again – seems to have fallen victim to the limited page count because it’s almost non-existent, the couple of kisses the couple share are really shoe-horned in, and the same is true of the book’s only action scene, which is kinda blink-and-you’ll-miss-it right near the end.

Former DEA Agent Ben Kinsella was forced to leave Atlanta after an undercover operation that resulted in the death of a close friend and in his identity becoming known to the drug ring he’d infiltrated. He’s since relocated to the small Georgia town of Pine Bluff and taken up a position as sherrif, nominated for the job by the town’s most influential resident, Henry Masters, whose forebears founded Masters County and the lumber business that employs many of the local residents.  When the book opens, Ben has just been called to the scene of the death of a young man named Cliff Young – a foreman at Timber Masters and a close friend of Henry Masters’ late son, Jeff – out at his family’s cabin on Sawtooth Lake.  Ben is waiting for the ME to arrive when Masters bursts into the cabin, followed by a gorgeous woman whose body language screams her wish to be anywhere else.  Masters introduces her as his daughter Marlee, a newly qualified attorney, and tries to get Ben to give him some of the details of the case – but Ben politely sidesteps his questions, refusing to confirm or deny anything until he has more information.

Marlee Masters has no plans to give in to her father’s overbearing ways and return to Pine Bluff to run – or help him to run – Timber Masters.  That had always been the role earmarked for her brother Jeff, but Jeff’s suicide a few months earlier has left a hole that Masters now expects Marlee to fill.  Which she has no intention of doing – she’s got her sights set on making a career and life for herself in Atlanta.

When Cliff’s death is ruled a suicide, Marlee can’t help but start wondering if maybe her brother’s death – he took his own life at their family property on Sawtooth Lake – was no suicide, and that perhaps there is something far more sinister at work than mere coincidence. She takes her concern to Ben, but with no evidence whatsoever to go on, they’re at something of a dead end. When she’s tasked with looking into documentation relating to Timber Masters’ property holdings, Marlee starts noticing things that don’t add up – mass evictions for seemingly bogus reasons, development deals for property on Sawtooth Lake – and becomes even more convinced that Jeff’s death and Colin Young’s were not suicides and that they’re somehow connected.

The mystery in An Absence of Motive is well thought-out and although it moves fairly slowly, the pacing means there are no silly leaps of logic and that everything feels as though it’s progressing in a logical manner. The two leads are likeable, if not all that well fleshed out – I liked that Marlee transcends the poor-little-rich-girl trope, and Ben’s background and his observations on being a man of colour working as an LEO are interesting and relevant. There’s also a sub-plot about someone stalking Marlee and then spreading unpleasant rumours about her – and about her and Ben – which increases the tension and illustrates the claustrophobic, small-town setting. What works less well, however, is the romance between Marlee and Ben, which is severely lacking in chemistry and is perfunctory at best, and the supposed ‘twist’ at the end relies too much on coincidence. The climactic action scene seems almost as though it’s an afterthought, and the ending feels rushed – which was disappointing after such a promising start.

I liked the mystery in An Absence of Motive, and I liked the two leads, even though their romance is a bit lacklustre. I’m offering a low-level recommendation with that proviso – the mystery works better than the romance. I’ll keep searching for a Harlequin Intrigue title that gets the balance right.

TBR Challenge: The Murder Between Us (A Noah & Cole Thriller #1) by Tal Bauer

the murder between us

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It was just one night.
It was just one mistake.

FBI Agent Noah Downing had questions about his sexuality that a single night in Vegas should have answered. But dawn finds him on a plane back to Iowa, back on the trail of a vicious serial killer who disappeared six years ago and has suddenly resurfaced. There’s nothing like a murder investigation to escape an existential crisis.

FBI profiler Cole Kennedy is still reeling after finding a heart-stopping connection with a seemingly perfect man, only for him to vanish. When he’s sent to Iowa to profile the killer terrorizing America’s heartland, he finds more questions than answers – both about the murderer and about Noah, the last man he ever expected to see again.

A twisted secret stretches between Cole and Noah, tangled with questions they both have about each other. But now, thrown together, they’ll have to unravel the killer’s profile and follow his trail… back to the very beginning, to where everyone’s questions are answered once and for all.

Rating: B+

With a prompt like “Secrets and Lies”, my mind immediately flew to romantic suspense and a book I’ve wanted to read for a while but, as usual, haven’t managed to squeeze in yet.  Tal Bauer’s The Murder Between Us boasts a couple of well-drawn and engaging protagonists, an intriguing plot and provides the sort of balance between romance and plot I’ve been missing in so many of the m/f romantic suspense titles I’ve read recently.

Special Agent Noah Downing has been struggling with his sexual identity for many years.  He thinks he’s gay but has never felt able to explore that side of himself and has instead filled his life with work and, since his divorce, looking after his teenaged daughter Katie, who has recently come to live with him.  When the book opens, he’s decided it’s finally time to give himself permission to be himself, even if it’s just for one night;  he ventures to the bar of the hotel he’s staying in with a view to… well, he doesn’t really know what, and is about to leave when his eye is caught by an attractive blond man who makes his way over and offers to buy him a drink.  He introduces himself as Cole, they start chatting and Noah is surprised at how comfortable he feels and how much he enjoys Cole’s company.  There’s a lot of chemistry and a definite sense of connection between them right from the start, and after the best evening out Noah has had in a long time – maybe ever –  they spend a wonderful, passionate night together that answers all Noah’s questions about his sexuality.

They arrange to have dinner together the next night, but not long after Noah gets back to his room in the morning, he’s called back home to Des Moines and he leaves straight away – without stopping to call Cole and tell him why he can’t make their dinner date.

The reason for Noah’s abrupt departure is the brutal murder of the Sherrif of Boone County and his daughter by the same person believed responsible for the deaths of a number of bright, accomplished young female college and university students several years before.  Noah led the task force charged with apprehending the Coed Killer, but whoever it was took care to leave no clues and no forensics –  then disappeared without a trace and was never caught.  But it appears that after a gap of six years, the Coed Killer is back – and this time, not only is he targeting young female college students, he’s killing their fathers too.  Noah makes his way to the home of Bart Olsen and his daughter Jessie, where it appears Jessie was strangled and then her father was killed as he tried to intervene.  As if the murder of a fellow LEO isn’t bad enough, the Olsens aren’t the only victims of the newly returned serial killer.  Three months earlier, another young woman was strangled in her home, and although at the time, it was believed her obsessive boyfriend was responsible, Noah now believes her to have been another victim of the Coed Killer.  He knows the pressure to catch them is going to be intense – his boss instructs him to get a task force up and running and Noah asks him to request a profiler form the BAU – “the best profiler they’ve got.”

Dr. Cole Kennedy is still smarting over Noah’s non-appearance the day after their fantastic night together, and is starting to think that maybe the intensity of the desire he’d seen in Noah’s eyes had been more for the experience Cole offered him than for Cole himself.  It’s been quite some time since a guy has got so under his skin so quickly and he’d really wanted the chance to explore their connection further – even if it had been just dinner and no more.  But Noah made his feelings quite clear by blowing him off so rudely, and Cole has to forget him.  Which only makes the irony of his being headed to join a task force in Noah’s home state that much richer.

Well, yes, we all knew where this was going, but the ‘oh, shit’ moment is nicely done.

Both men have to work to hide their shock when Cole walks into the conference room where Noah’s team is assembled.  Noah is obviously scared of being outed and does everything he can to keep Cole at a distance, and while Cole realises why Noah is being so stand-offish,  he’s also angry at the way Noah treated him, and wants answers – and I can’t say that I blamed him.

Fortunately however, this stalemate doesn’t last for too long, and the men manage to find the opportunity to talk about what happened.  Noah doesn’t have a great reason for not calling Cole the day he left, but they talk it out, and decide they’d like to try to see more of each other while Cole is in town, but they’ll take it slow and maybe Cole can help Noah through coming out if that’s what he wants to do.

I liked the fact that the book focuses on the relationship before the suspense plot comes into play, as it really helps the reader to get a handle on Noah’s character in particular. His yearning to be able to live as his true self is palpable, but the reasons hemming him in aren’t easily dealt with, from his concern that he could lose custody of his daughter to worry about how his colleagues would treat him if they knew he was gay.  He’s a bag of nerves and a bit highly-strung at times (!), but thankfully Cole is there to ground him; he knows who he is and is secure in himself both personally and professionally, he’s kind and perceptive and it’s clear from the start that he really cares about Noah and wants him to be happy.  If I have a criticism about the romance it’s that it’s a bit reliant on insta-love in the way these two fall head-over-heels for each other so quickly, but somehow the author makes it work.

The suspense plot is tense and well-paced, with plenty of twists and turns and a bit of gruesome detail here and there (no worse than you’ll find in most novels of this type, though).  As with the romance, I had a niggle or two – at one point I did have to wonder if Cole really was “the best profiler” the FBI had because he missed something I thought was obvious (and I’m rubbish at working out whodunit!) – but even so, I was completely hooked by the story as a whole and couldn’t put the book down, so I’m inclined to be forgiving 😉

The Murder Between Us delivered pretty much everything I want in a romantic suspense novel; an  interesting mystery, strongly characterised protagonists and a romance with plenty of sparks and sexual chemistry.  Yes, there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me, but overall, it was a compelling read, and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel, The Grave Between Us, as soon as I can.