Category Archives: Reading and reviews

Review: Hideout – Alice Vega #3 (Louisa Luna)

Alice Vega is part Lisbeth Salander, part Jack Reacher in this, the third in the series that bears her name.

Thirty years ago, Zeb Williams is a football player, and during the infamous Cal-Stanford game, takes the balls, runs off the field, and vanishes. Over the years, his disappearance has become the stuff of legends, replete with Bigfoot-like sightings. in the present day, Alice is asked to find him. For what purpose, she does not know. After initially declining, she eventually agrees to take it on, and starts out to determine where he is and what happened to him.

I’m a fan of cold cases, and I appreciated the way Alice started very methodically working through and puzzling out the details – and occasional red herrings – of Zeb’s disappearance. She lands in the tiny southern Oregon town of Ilona, a place that has seemingly become awash in traitorous white supremacists called the Liberty Boys (a not terribly subtle reference to the Proud Boys, a very real group).

As she digs, the stakes grow ever higher, and her partner Max Caplan is not and cannot be a greater presence in the case, dealing as he is with his own issues. This doesn’t deter Alice, and even after getting beaten up and told to leave town, she doggedly continues her quest to find the missing Zeb.

This is the first book in the series that I’ve read, and I didn’t feel I was missing anything crucial by not having read the first two. There’s obviously some kind of (broken) relationship between Alice and Max, and I suppose if I had read those earlier books, or if Max was involved more in this story, I would have more than a vague idea about that; however, the lack off true backstory on that didn’t bother me in the least.

The story is told with a good balance of physicality and cerebral pursuits in tracking down the missing man. Alice is also not a character who gets beaten up and then is ready to go fight more after just shaking it off. There’s a reality of her being a mere mortal that I appreciate,

Four and a half stars, rounded to five. Recommended.

Thanks to NetGalley and Doubleday for the reading copy.

Review: Unbreakable (Cari Hunter)

If you’re going to start a book, you could do worse than to make it the kidnapping of a doctor at gunpoint in a garage by a woman with multiple injuries, including a gunshot wound.

That’s how Dr. Grace Kendal meets Elin Breckinridge at the opening of the book. As they make their way out of the garage and hit the road, Grace learns at least a little about Elin, and realizes she needs some immediate medical care. She urges Elin to go to the hospital, but that option is right out.

How did we get here? Elin runs a security-related company with a friend from the Army. In flashbacks, er learn that one evening, two men burst into her home, beating her up, and taking her young daughter Amelia, nicknamed Mouse. After Elin wakes up from her beating, she finds the kidnappers want a million pounds, and they want it quickly. She starts transferring money around, which catches the attention of her friend. After finding out what’s happening, he rushes over, but she insists she has to go alone. She’s given instructions on where to go, ending up on the heath, where one of the men is waiting. Unfortunately for him, he gets his head blown off by a third party, and Elin gets shot trying to get away. She manages to elude those chasing her, and then goes on, trying to figure out how to get medical care – she very nearly goes into the ER but then spots Grace, and we wind up at the beginning.

DS Safia Faris and her partner Suds catch the case of the dead guy on the Heath. They quickly realize the scene seems wrong. Eventually, they make their way to where Elin had parked, and through CCTV from one of the homes, realize she’s been injured. The race is on for them to determine who she is. As they work the case, they get the call about Grace not appearing for her next shift, and through cameras again, find the mystery woman has taken her.

Meanwhile, Grace has removed the bullet from Elin, but Elin is still in very poor shape. As Grace is doing something in the lobby, one of the concierge people tell her an older man was in, looking for Elin, but he didn’t give the guy any info. Elin tells Grace they must leave immediately,and they do. Elin, still holding the million pounds, gets a call on the burner phone she was given, giving them the next location to be. Safia and Suds are not far behind on things.

There is no sudden instalove between Grace and Elin, and I was thankful for that, even in a “fall in love with the caregiver” trope. There is a touching love between Safia and her wife Kami (also great sounding food, courtesy of Kami’s grandmother).

It becomes fairly clear who is behind the whole thing if one pays close attention. The action keeps the book moving along, and you may find, as I did, that you read the book in a single sitting. The police procedural portion is excellent, even with a point I’d say could have been picked up earlier, and the fugitive from justice (sort of) part is likewise very good. Characters don’t suddenly start saying or acting in ways inconsistent from how they were introduced, and all the adults are adults.

I’m going five stars on this one.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Scarecrow Has a Gun (Michael Paul Kozlowsky)

If you have the sudden urge to spend a couple of days hashing out the philosophical questions surrounding your memory, how it’s perceived by you versus other people, and how a not quite accurate memory can affect you, you’re in luck: there’s tons of that in this book. If you prefer to have those questions asked, but not in a drill to the center of the earth way, and to read a science fiction novel (as this is also categorized) wrapped around this, you may be slightly disappointed. I was.

First, the length. This book would have worked much better as a novella, in my opinion. There are pages in the book that could have easily been jettisoned, as they were a bit echo-ey of things already discussed, and it caused a drag in multiple places.

Second, the premise: our protagonist Sean works as a drone in a large, nameless company doing some kind of video/graphic production. Is this important? It could have been, if there was some exploration of how Sean, with a graphic-centered life at work, may have been able to remember things more accurately than someone without that focus. This was not explore, however.

The precise: There is a group of employees of this company called The Widowers Club, summoned once a year to the boss’ office. All members of the group, as the name describes, are men. I’m not sure why Mr. Ulger, the boss, only selected men for his little games, where he would tell the group to perform some inane stunt – running through a glass window, for instance.

One year, Sean, who has been summoned for several years but who has never “won”, actually does win. His prize is a box contraption with two lines that attach to the temples. This box then shows the memories of the person hooked to it. Sean has been trying his hardest to remember an attack that leaves his wife dead and Sean unable to recall the exact events surrounding the attack. Now is his chance, but he finds what he remembers doesn’t jibe exactly with what the machine is telling him. My question: why does he simply assume that Ulger is telling him the truth and the machine is more accurate than what he himself remembers?

The rest of the book proceeds with Sean trying to get to the bottom of the attack, discovering along the way that nearly all his memories have that same unsettling wrongness about them. We also meet his fiancee Hayley is entirely unlikable, and his son not much better. There’s also a female crossing guard with some serious issues. I get that she’s meant as a sort of humor device, given the inappropriate things she says and the gossip she dishes, but she comes across as annoying and doesn’t serve as much of a break from the overall rather dense story.

Eventually Sean makes it to the truth of his wife’s death, and there’s an ending that seems rather far-fetched, given Ulger’s penchant for knowing absolutely everything Sean is doing.

There’s a real lack of the science fiction component, as it isn’t clear just how the box works, or really anything about it, other than it’s the type of science fiction that exists just because. That is, it’s like warp speed in virtually any science fiction: it is simply something that exists in this universe, and doesn’t require many pages of explanation. I would have liked something, though, even just a little. A good example of how something exists in a universe without going on for many chapters about it is the Epstein drive in The Expanse books.

The philosophical question is interesting, but in this particular book it really brought things to a halt when I hit some of the denser pages of that discussion. I’d have liked to have seen some discussion of how Ulger saw this as a way to make whoever used the machine wealthy beyond belief – this wasn’t really explained, since the machine only looks backwards, not forward (so one might invest in an invention or company one might remember reading news about, only to find with a forward-looking machine that said invention or company was a bonafide winner, and one might invest in the thing/company in their current moment in the timeline, for instance). It’s easier to believe Ulger when he talks about mind control, as the machine could be programmed to serve up the memories Ulger wanted someone to believe about their past memories.

Overall, I’m rather neutral about the book, so it’s three stars out of five from me.

Thanks to Imbifrex Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Expected publication date: August 2022.

Review: Sweet Surprise (Jenny Frame)

I definitely haven’t had the best luck with books these past few weeks. I am certainly in the minority on some of them – like this one – so take that as you will.

One evening, Flora Buchanan is hurrying to her car when a group of men start hassling her. Mack Sharkey, enforcer for a crime family, happens to see it on one of the cameras inside the establishment and hurries out with some of her people to rescue Flora. Before Mack can check on Flora, she’s gone.

Then Mack spends a year and a half in prison, and it’s two years later. Is the prison part important? Nope. It seems to be there just to provide a gap, and to tell us how noble Mack is, by taking the rap and serving the time so her sister, who is head of the family, does not have to. Message received.

The Sharkeys have been legit for ages, it seems, but still police their territory in Glasgow. Mack, with some seed money fro the family, starts up a barber shop. And guess who has opened a candy shop right next door? Of course, it’s Flora. I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed it wasn’t a flower shop, for obvious reasons.

We find out that Flora is a bundle of mental health issues: social anxiety (same, girl!), OCD, PTSD. This was first thing to stop and wonder about: why on earth does someone with social anxiety open a store where interactions with people are not expected, but required? Not just adults, either: kids. And kids are right little monsters sometimes. It’s never really explained what the PTSD stems from, and I guess it doesn’t make any difference anyway, but I’d have liked to have known.

In any case, Mack starts up her barbering and the word starts getting out that she’s there, so business picks up fairly quickly. Flora’s shop also starts drawing people in, including Mack, who remembers saving her from the dudes in the parking lot that night. Little by little, Mack helps Flora work on her mental health issues (and later in the book, helps convince her to get to a therapist).

A pause here, and one of my complaints about the genre (or course). Mack is an (of course) superbutch. Do they all need to have superdudenames? Mack, Ben (another I read right after this), etc. Mack’s also the enforcer for the family – but we get no sense at all of what she looks like beyond her eyes, really. How tall is she? Is she a fairly large person? I mean, I know we can fill in the blanks and assume so, but every so often, I wonder what would happen if someone wrote a superbutch character with the name Gloria, who was nicknamed Glo, an who was the enforcer for a crime family, because if you got out of line or did something to the family, she’d light you up. I’d read that. I love gangster stories. But here we have Mack, a solid, one syllable named woman who is not unused to violence, caring for the shrinking violet, Flora, and getting into savior complex territory.

Second pause, this time about Flora and the obvious codependence that was ramping up. It’s not a favorite of mine, because it’s unbalanced and also toxic in general. I also find it odd that Mack deals with the uncivilized dudes who live above Flora and their harassment of her with a small spot of violence, bu Flora seems to have no real issues with that.

Third pause: I didn’t get the romance between these two. Mack references this as what got her through prison. Really? A meeting,if you can even call it that, that lasted less than ten seconds and in which the two of you shared nothing at all? I’d buy it if Mack were some kind of philosopher-warrior type, and it was the ideal of the (perhaps) true love carrying her through, but no, it’s Flora, herself, and I didn’t buy that at all.

But on we go with the story, and somewhere before chapter ten, we get the first instance of the phrase guardian angel – a phrase I came to hate because it was repeated so very many times, and spoke to that codependence. I stopped here and searched it on my Fire: 13 times! Too many, editor! But as with the last one I read, way to go, editor, with no constant drumbeat of heads snapping up!

Mack promises to always protect Flora, but actually does not: due to another crime family wanting to expand and sell drugs in Sharkey territory, the head of that family tells some lowlife that Mack tuned up before (not in the book) to go grab Flora and Isy, who has been helping out at the candy shop. He does so, and then is stuck with the two, when the boss tells him to kill them both, something he doesn’t want to do, but he knows that his boss will kill him or Mack will when she finds him.

But Flora saves herself and Isy by distracting the thug and then whacking him in the head – nothing preventing her from doing these things with adrenaline flooding her body.

No sexytimes of note, explicit or otherwise that made a blip on the page. If you’re looking for that, it isn’t here. If you’re looking for more of a slower evolution without a bunch of sex scenes that sound like human anatomy or gyno classes, though, this could do it.

HEA, etc.

My favorite character: Mack’s dachsund, Dexter.

Two stars of five. Not my thing.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Expected publication date: December 14, 2021

Review: The Christmas Proposal (Lisa Moreau)

If you’re a fan of the Hallmark or Lifetime movies, you’ll probably like this. Me? Don’t like them, didn’t much care for this. If I hadn’t been told the ages of the characters, I’d have thought they were teenagers, with the constant inner monologues.

Grace (of course her name is Grace, it’s an xmas book) is a PA to her boss and is also sleeping with her boss. Bad idea all around. Of course her boss is a soulless, soul-sucking, commitment-fearing workaholic who, by the by, is also cheating on Grace. Grace finds this out after bringing yet another cup of coffee to her. With amount of coffee this woman appears to drink, it would be cheaper to just set up a coffee station in the office and get a full time barista to handle it. But I digress. Grace stumbles out of the office crying, running into Bridget, who is there to apply for a programming job. Grace convinces Bridget to go get her purse, which she has left in her boss’ office in her haste to leave. Bridget does, and that’s the extent of their first interaction. There’s the merest whiff of instalove in the atmosphere, but that’s all.

Bridget gets hired as the boss’ new PA instead of programmer, promised that she’ll get a look after the first of the year. She accepts. Tip: never do this in the real world. Terrible bosses will string you along forever, just like an MLM scammer, promising big things just around the corner if you’re patient. If you’re good at what you do – and Bridget is – you can get a job that doesn’t involve running personal errands for your boss. Like fetching coffee every ten minutes and oh yeah, planning your boss’ marriage proposal to her girlfriend. At xmas. With three weeks to prepare. This is not a good boss.

So off Bridget goes, fetching round nth of coffee, and she happens to pick up Grace’s card from the counter there. Grace is now an event planner, and she’s just done an event at that coffee shop, dressed as an elf, for some dude proposing to his fiancee. Grace’s boss is also not a good boss, although at least she isn’t running off to fetch coffee. No, instead, she’s decorating the xmas tree in their lobby, by herself, because her terrible boss has tasked all the interns with something else. On the plus side, her boss’ boss is opening a branch in Maui, and the choice to lead it is between Grace and one other person.

Bridget calls Grace, and they talk one time. Grace says it’s impossible to plan this in a short amount of time AT XMAS when everyone does events AT XMAS, which is just like another book I read recently. Apparently it is not impossible, when one is either the xmas girl (as the other book called the woman in question) or comes from one of those Hallmark/Lifetime seasonally-named towns like Mistletoe Mountain.

Off they go, total strangers, to MM, as I’m going to call it. This was just bizarre to me. There is no way I’m going off on a five hour (or however long it was) drive to the middle of nowhere with someone I just met, when I have no family (Bridget – it means strength, as the book keeps telling us many times – was surrendered anonymously by her mother, so we can get her tragic backstory of abandonment issues) and apparently, no friends, to tell. But that would have cut the story short.

On the one road that leads to the town, there’s a violent earthquake. Strong enough to shake the roadbed so much that Graces bangs her face on the steering wheel. And strong enough to cause an avalanche that is later determined to be a landslide AND avalanche. How romantic: stuck in a small town you don’t know, with a woman you don’t know and her family, for at least a few days. Side note: while Colorado, like pretty much any mountainous place, has probably hundreds of earthquakes every year, really violent ones are rare. FYI.

Naturally, the outgoing and affable Grace, who still has rampant inner monologue-ism about an as-yet unnamed tragedy with a capital T, works on the taciturn Bridget who just wants to get this thing set up (price is not an object, which is a good thing for a dying town) and get back to designing her mobile game. Clearing the one and only road leading into town will take longer than expected, which annoys Bridget’s boss, probably because she now has to fetch her own coffee.

We get the whole Grace – Bridget love thing going on after about three days, and after about five, we get Grace’s tragic story: her girlfriend, who was a figure skater, died. In an avalanche/landslide, of course. Turns out Grace was also a figure skater, and was heading to the Olympics, but all this put the kibosh to that, and Grace hasn’t skated since.

By now they’ve also had their sexytimes, neither one of them having kissed anyone like they have the other, etc. It’s a trope, so ok. There’s a very, very strange thing during this sleeping together series: one morning, Grace wakes up early, slips out of bed, and heads down to get coffee and breakfast for the two of them. When she gets back, Bridget is awake and also somewhat distant, because she thinks Grace somehow abandoned her, like everyone else. What? Where exactly is she gong to go in a small town, when you’re staying at her sister’s inn? That was bizarre.

Also by now, their time in MM is done: the proposal stuff is set, and Bridget’s even finished her game and rebuilt the town’s web site. Man, she is efficient!

Back in LA, Bridget gets an attagirl, and she and Grace act like teens again, constantly texting cutsie stuff, telling one another how much they miss each other all day when they’re supposed to be working, etc. Bridget’s boss loves her new game, gives the programming job to her, and makes her game the number one item at some upcoming thing. Bridget takes herself over to Grace’s office to tell her the good news. But the receptionist and her big mouth tells Bridget that Grace got the job in Maui (because the other person decided not to take it, for personal reasons).

As is the case in every. Single. One. Of. These. Books, instead of just hanging around, waiting for Grace and talking to her about it – as an adult would – Bridget decides that Grace doesn’t care after all, and is abandoning her, and storms out, not replying to any of Grace’s calls or texts. When Grace shows up at her apartment, Bridget is stony, kicks her out. Grace heads back to MM to be with her family at xmas, and Bridget – after the boss’ heart grows five sizes on the last day before the holiday and she tells Bridget her own little story about commitment – heads off to MM as well.

Grace has decided to skate in the xmas eve benefit, which has become a huge event, and Bridget has missed that, but finds Grace and apologizes. They have one of those touchy feely moments that are all so common these days about how they’ll always talk to one another about everything, the town is saved, Bridget proposes to Grace, they both move from LA to MM, Bridget working remotely and Grace teaching skating, and they live HEA.

It may sound like I don’t enjoy stories of strangers thrown together. There are as many romantic stories of this nature as there are more macabre ones (Strangers on a Train, And Then There Were None) and they can work. But it seems in some genres – like romance, straight or LGBTQ+ – authors are sometimes so very keen to hit the beats, or story notes/tropes, that the story is either not good, or there’s way too much of some elements that send it not quite over a cliff, but just into my not favorite pile. Bridget isn’t just abandoned, she’s abandoned by everyone. Grace wasn’t just a skater, she was set to be an Olympian. The two of them didn’t just get caught in an earthquake and stranded by an avalanche, Grace’s former girlfriend died in an avalanche. There’s pathos for your story and there is PATHOS, and sometimes – a lot of times – less is more.

Two and a half stars of five, rounded down to two. This just didn’t do it for me, sorry.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Expected pub date: December 14, 2021.

Review: Pathway to Love (Radclyffe)

There are times when you can parachute into a series and it will be fine, and there are times – like this – that reading the series from the beginning is almost a requirement to understand most of what is going on, who the characters are, and what their history is. The upside to a recurring cast of characters is that they do have that history, between themselves, with the community, and so forth. The downside is that in books such as this one, there are so very many characters who get page time, that even attempting to give histories would take a lot of time and bog things down. So, no real history is given for the regular characters, only the new addition, and you’re left wondering, assuming you care about all the characters.

This entry features a new addition, Bennett Anderson, an orthopedic surgeon tapped to head up the new sports medicine division at the hospital (which is populated by characters from the previous books). She has signed on for a year contract, but the book makes it sound like the job is meant to be long term. Why have a director of that department for a year if you’re just going to have to start looking for another director almost immediately? That didn’t make much sense to me. Neither does having a Trauma 1 designated hospital in the middle of nowhere, really. Also, this is yet another small town that seems to be overrun by women, or at least the hospital seems to be, and most of them seem to be lesbians. That’s unrealistic, but I let it go because that’s what the genre needs from time to time.

Bennett “call me Ben” Anderson is also a former basketball player, who briefly had a stint in the WNBA, but (her “tragic backstory”, a requirement, because no one can just live an ordinary life) is that she had to leave pro ball because her father was dying, then got better, then died for real, a result of his alcoholism. She went to med school afterwards, and was hired by the hospital.

Courtney Valentine is a resident in the general surgery department at the hospital. Apparently, she’s been a member of the community forever, given her interactions with the other characters, and has a booty call buddy who also works at the hospital. Her tragic backstory: dad was out of the picture growing up. Court first meets Ben when she is walking to the hospital for her shift and finds Ben shooting hoops solo at a playground. Court. Basketball. Get it?

They meet for real at the hospital, and each thinks the other is attractive. Court winds up as Ben’s resident that morning as various cases roll in. They keep evaluating one another as the day goes on. There are approximately a zillion characters introduced at the hospital, most of whom are women, and who a new reader (like myself) will probably have a hard time keeping track of and distinguishing from one another.

At some point, Court is on the Life Flight (or equivalent) helicopter, heading out to a bad car accident. Her cousin is seriously injured thanks to two idiots in their trucks racing (PSA: don’t be an asshole. If you want to compare dicks, just whip them out instead of potentially injuring yourself or others by street racing.) They rush Val to the hospital, and Ben and Court operate to repair Val’s leg.

There’s another subplot about a couple of teenagers working out their first date, and one of those teens is a transman (Blake) who is trying out for the men’s basketball team. There is the usual school bully getting in his face, and a bi football player who wouldn’t mind a date or three with Blake.

Most of the book – about 70% on my Fire – takes place in the 24 hour-ish period that opens Court and Ben’s story. There is no real middle to this book, and the requisite disagreement/issue between lovers/Major Thing/”dark night of the soul” that would inhabit the end of the middle and lead into the final act takes up about four pages – and once again, it’s an issue that could easily be solved by the two characters just talking to one another. The last 30% is rushed, which for some reason seems to be a trend of many of the books I’ve read lately. Ben and Court get their sexytimes on, having gone from “hey, she’s attractive and nice” to “take me to bed, you hunka hunka burning love” in next to no time. I suppose that’s a little better than instalove/instalust meet cute thing, but it’s a little jarring because all we’ve seen of their romance, such as it is, has basically been in the course of less than a week.

And suddenly, it is about a month later! We don’t know this because we get some kind of clue to that or a chapter heading that says it from the author – we only know it because there’s a surgery referenced that took place a month ago. The two mains have moved in with one another, and they’re happy, as required by the genre.

What we do not get is anything more on any of the other characters, like Blake. Given the prominence of the basketball tryouts in the book, I wanted to see how things were going, since we’ve jumped ahead a month. How did Blake’s date go? Is the hot football player still flirty? Did Blake make the team?

It may not be Cecil B. DeMille and his cast of thousands, but there are far too many characters given page time here. Maybe leaving some threads undone is common in this series, but I’m not a fan of introducing a bunch of characters and focusing on them as much as or more than the main characters and it is disappointing when toward the end, the only thing we’re really seeing is the two mains and the sexytimes that go with the nectar of new love.

No sex until the end, but it is slightly graphic in each episode if one of your metrics is that point.

Only two stars of five on this one from me. Sorry, the way the story was told and the pacing just put me off. Hats off for no snapping of necks (“her head snapped up”) in this one, though.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Appeal (Janice Hallett)

A very real warning up front: if you do not care for epistolary novels (stories told primarily in the form of letters, emails, and other documents), you will absolutely not like this book.

On the other hand, if you’re a fan of, or at least welcome to, the epistolary novel, as I am, and have the patience to keep track of all the characters and the details of the story itself, you will be well rewarded by an outstanding debut novel that is almost perfect and told entirely in documents alone.

The setting is a small town in England, and the story begins with a legal team introducing documents, so we know we are are actually closer to the end of the story than the beginning. We then dive into the tale from the beginning (documents-wise), where a small theater troupe is about to cast and present a play. One of the members, however, has gone MIA, and several people are emailing wondering what’s happening.

The truth is sad: his granddaughter has been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. There is a very new and experimental treatment the family wants to try, but it’s very expensive. There is some fundraising, but also people skeptical of this treatment. Eventually, someone winds up dead, and that’s when the book ramps up.

I won’t go further into details about the plot from there, as it’s much too easy to get into spoilers. I will name the one quibble I have with the book: someone presenting documents of a case is expected to weed out the things that are not particularly relevant to the incident under investigation, and there are a few too many of those still left in that don’t add anything to the story.

Beyond that, it’s a twisting, surprising case, and well worth a read.

A solid four out of five stars.

Expected publication date: January 25, 2022

Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Humbug (Amanda Radley)

Humbug is both an opposites attract and an age gap romance, and I use the term “romance” loosely Ellie Pearce, statistician extraordinaire toiling away as a drone writing reports that have nothing to do with her degree at a very large, eponymous recruiting firm cofounded and run by Rosalind Caldwell, who is seen as an ice queen and who is somewhat feared by the employees who work for her. Rosalind knows Ellie only by her nickname “Christmas Girl”, so dubbed because Ellie is one of those people who keeps christmas year round, her desk a riot of decorations and her music that of the season. But just so we know it isn’t tacky, we’re told Ellie listens to choral music and that she is involved in a christmas chorus each year.

One day, Rosalind comes marching down to the second floor to tell Ellie to pack up her stuff and haul herself up to one of the higher floors. This terrifies Ellie, as she’s deathly afraid of heights. But Ellie does as she’s told, and her new job is to be Rosalind’s assistant and take over the planning for the company christmas party, a Very Big Deal each year. Ellie digs in, only to find the previous assistant has sabotaged everything: canceling all vendors, caterers, and the space they had reserved.

Those looking for instalove will be disappointed. Those looking for some kind of meaningful romance to develop through the book will likewise be disappointed. If it weren’t for Rosalind’s 12-year old daughter, the two of them would rarely speak, and only about business – and mainly about the christmas party. It’s only in the last third of the book that anything really crops up, and as with a couple of Radley’s books I’ve read, the ending feels a littler artificial and a lot rushed. As with those books, I’d have been willing to read a longer book with those threads teased out a little.

I’ll give the book points for no instacure for Ellie’s fear of heights, and points for Rosalind and Ellie’s bestie to give her the experience of the party on the roof without actually taking her to the roof.

Three out of five stars.

Publication date: December 14, 2021

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: On the Rocks – Swizzle Stick Romance #2 (Georgia Beers)

This is the second book in the Martini book series, but it is not necessary to read the first in order to enjoy this. It stands alone just fine.

Grace Chapman is in the middle of a somewhat contentious divorce and her young son Oliver has become the epitome of the problem child. His teacher at school, Vanessa Martini, has called Grace and arranged a parent-teacher conference.

Their first meeting is, thankfully, NOT instalove. Sure, they each think the other is attractive, but Grace feels that Vanessa is judging her because she can’t control Oliver, and Vanessa….seems to actually feel that way, when she finds out the kid is caught in the middle – just as she herself was, when her father left (cue the childhood trauma bell, as now the dad is completely out of her life, even though he still lives in the same town).

Vanessa and Grace wind up in the same place quite often, just by chance, and run into one another several times at martini’s, the bar owned by Vanessa’s cousin. Once out of the parent-teacher school vibe, they realize they are attracted to one another, but Vanessa is concerned about how it would look, ethics-wise, if she started seeing the mother of one of her students. Side note here, from someone who has lived in small towns off and on: even it’s just casual, everyone is going to know. That’s just the nature of small town life.

One day, while Grace is at work at the flower shop, Vanessa pops in and asks her out for real, and Grade’s crusty old boss approves, leaving Grace astonished.

The one issue I have with this is the same I have with most: communication. Grace’s issue with her ex husband’s insensitivity about Grace’s time and possible life could have been solved sooner. After he’s had discussions with both Grace and Vanessa, he does a complete 180 that would please whichever editor at Bold Strokes is in love with peoples’ heads snapping up or around. There’s never a point where Grace has a heart to heart with Oliver, which would have been worth at least a page or so.

They’re adults about getting really involved with one another – UHaul involved -which is a breath of fresh air. They decide to wait until the end of the school year, when Oliver will no longer be in Vanessa’s class.

There are some kisses, and there is some sex, but it’s not over the top graphic if that’s a metric you use to decide what to read.

A solid four of out five stars.

Publication date: December 14, 2021

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Fresh Grave in Grand Canyon (Lee Patton)

Very nearly DNF this. SPOILERS

My initial reaction: this book made me a little angry. Category-wise, it was billed as a mystery. The summary makes it seem a mystery. Do not be fooled. It is not. Well, most of it is not. And the people…

Ray O’Brien volunteers to go on a rafting research trip with his pal Jenny Bridger, who is leading a science-gathering, after she winds up a man (person) down. It’s a trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. His role? Not much: just help out. His stepfather was some kind of psycho, so of course his academic life is consumed by studying the neuro effects of that. He meets Duke first, who is skinny dipping in the same water hole he just got out of. Of course there’s an instant attraction. Two tropes: violent, abusive past, and instalust if not instalove.

The larger group: Jenny, the team leader, who of course is apprehensive about her first team lead job, feeling guilty about missing her daughter Amelia’s graduation, because the trip has to start the same day. Trope: working mother has to choose between job and family. Other trope: she’s divorced.

Carol Carne, longtime activist volunteer and pediatric nurse, and her husband Jack, fat, rude insurance salesman, and of no value to the trip, really. Trope: alcoholic, bigoted, horndog husband ogling a teenaged girl; saint of a wife who abides him.

Duke, Park Ranger, who served in the military as a peacekeeper in the Balkans and lost his left arm there. Trope: Tough guy with a sensitive heart of gold. And also PTSD.

Annette & Tess, two female students,also volunteers. Trope: Sexy Tess draw’s Jack’s eye.

There are a few bigoted RVers next to the crew as they get feed and do final prep for rafting. Of course they are crude, and Jack joins in with them. One of them calls Tess a n******, and Duke a “crip”, furter suggests there are quotas being met. Trope: the bigotry of the world one might think to escape on a rafting trip, but alas, rude,crude, bigoted Jack is along for the ride.

Glen, the river guide, who is given over to pontificating about how people are destroying the planet. Carol does this as well, but it seems Glen is the one carrying the trope of ecoterrorist onto the river.

Tycho, an oarsman, brought by Glen. Trope: the cute boy the girls moon over. Also given to ecorants, because he lives with Glen.

Hannah Pinch, camp cook and Jenny’s soon-to-be ex-mother in law, with whom she has a better relationship than she does with Faith’s son. Trope: yeah, that.

Faith Brittle, director of a Montana college’s Women’s Studies Program, oarswoman and guide. Trope: Militant feminism and demonization of men.

Take all the tropes, put them on boats, and send them down a river. Have Trope Bigoted Jerk get tossed out of his raft on the first rapids sequence. When they stop for the night, get a little lecture about Trope Men are B-A-D, have some discussion about bullying, how people are ruining the planet, and discuss Duke’s enlistment in the Army and deployment. Oh, throw a little science in there now and again, since that’s supposed to be why they’re there.

Wash, lather, repeat.

Finally, at the 70% mark, get around to the murder that’s featured so prominently in the blurb. Jack’s either had his head hit, or he’s hit his head while falling/stumbling or something. Tess is on the beach, and for some reason her bikini top is loosened or off. Duke is first to the scene, and he reties Tess’ top, then for some odd reason, drags Jack’s body about ten feet or so. And this is the part where I got mad, after sitting through all these social things the author clearly wanted to say. o they need to be said? Yes. Are they important things? Absolutely. Did they need to be said like this, instead of in, say, a nonfiction book, instead of with a half-hearted murder thrown in? Nope.

In a world obsessed with images and videos, and the one time you would absolutely want to take either pictures and/or videos, and preferably both – like when there’s been a murder (maybe) or a death by misadventure (maybe) – no one in your entire party thinks to do so? Or at least, with all the science nerds in the group who are used to drawing mud layouts or strata, at least make some sketches of the scene, not a single brainiac thinks to do so? Come on. Nothing at all is done to preserve the scene. But you know what does happen?

Everyone with the ability and in the right place to do so wants to take the credit/blame for the murder of a terrible man. Carol, his wife, she wants the blame. Then Glen, then Duke. There’s even a brief discussion of Tess having done it, without remembering. Jenny decides she and Ray will talk to everyone, but by this time, they’ve all been talking amongst themselves, and both of them act like they’re never spoken to another human being in this instance.

In the end, they dig a shallow grave – the “Fresh Grave” of the title – put Jack in it, and move on, intending to get to a particular spot in the river, which is the next it of civilization (sort of, it’s the next station on the river). There is a Canadian group about a day behind them. Do they wait and say anything to the Canadians, or ask them if they can use their satphone to call ahead (Jenny’s crew lost theirs into the water when shooting some rapids; Duke finds it, but it’s a goner)? Nope. They let the Canadians go ahead an then they mount up and head downriver.

Keep in mind, this is all at the 70% mark when Jack is killed. That leaves next to no time, book-wise, to get to the bottom of it, and the only bottom of it we have is a bunch of conflicting confessions. in the end, no one is blamed, they report Jack’s death as misadventure, and that’s it.

I wanted to like it. Small group, killer among us, rafting in sometimes dangerous conditions, with a hundred things that could go wrong, and basically cut off from civilization? That should be a great story. Unfortunately, we got a lot of social justice and environmental stuff, and the afterthought of a murder. None of the characters really moves past the trope tied around their necks except, ironically, Jack, who winds up killed because he’s the epitome of a bunch of things wrong with the world today.

As a sidenote: the Ray/Duke romance is not, really. They share one kiss, and usually snuggle up in their sleeping bags when stopping for the nights, but every other chance to be alone is interrupted. There’s a slight hint of things going somewhere at the end, but Ray lives elsewhere, so who knows. This is an undeveloped subplot.

It seems the author couldn’t make up their mind as to what they really wanted to write. If it was about all the social stuff, I’d give it maybe 3.5 stars. As a mystery, I’m giving it two stars out of five. Sorry.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.