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October TBR Challenge – Mysteries, Suspense or Things That Go Bump in the Night!

We both went in similar directions with TBR Challenge this month. The prompt gave us a choice between paranormal and romantic suspense, and as it turns out, Caz and I both headed in the suspense direction. Caz chose a solid romantic suspense thriller with plenty of action while I went in a more humorous mystery direction. Both of us ended up enjoying our books, though. If you’re looking for some mysteries to add to the rotation before Halloween, these should give you a couple of ideas.

Against the Dark by Carolyn Crane

I haven’t read anything by Carolyn Crane before, but her romantic suspense novels come highly recommended, so I picked up this first book in her four-book series The Associates for this months’ prompt.  It’s fast-moving and well-written with some nicely steamy scenes – plus the hero is a hot, dangerously sexy maths-nerd who wears glasses.  Um.  Yeah, that right there was enough to get me interested! (Think Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters – I did! ;) )  On the downside, the romance is a bit hurried; the events of the story take place over three or four days so there’s not a lot of time to develop a relationship beyond physical attraction and the fact that the hero and heroine have to trust each other if they’re to make it to the end of the book alive.  That said though, Against the Dark was enjoyable and I pretty much blew through it in one sitting; sometimes one craves well-done hokum with fights, chases, things blowing up and crackling sexual tension, and that’s exactly what I got so I was pretty happy by the end.

Former jewel thief and expert safe-cracker Angel Ramirez has been on the straight and narrow for the last five years and now makes her living as an interior designer.  But she’s agreed to come out of retirement to pull a job with her friends and fellow thieves, Macy and White Jenny, that’s very personal to them.  A violent gang has kidnapped Macy’s Aunt Aggie, who practically raised all three of them, and is demanding the set of priceless diamonds belonging to crime lord Walter Borgola – “the biggest pimp-scumbag and God knows what else in L.A.” – as ransom.  Angel’s job is going to be to crack the Fenton Furst safe in Borgola’s bedroom; she’s one of the few people in the world who has the skills and knowledge to do it, so the ladies have got themselves into one of Borgola’s sleazy parties/orgies where they’re posing as working girls while waiting to make their move.

Cole Hawkins is one of The Associates, a shadowy organisation that is frequently used to do the jobs that can‘t be done legally or with official government sanction;  “Officially, no governments knew about them; unofficially, they were central to the international fight against crime.”  Cole has infiltrated Borgola’s operation as one of his security team, and for the past nine months has been gathering evidence and information on the sex trafficking ring Borgola is running out of Myanmar.  Cole has recently uncovered an even more sinister side to the operation;  Borgola is bringing in kids and using them in snuff movies, and there’s a new ‘shipment’ on the way, so Cole is up against it if he’s to track down the ships the kids are on, get them out of harm’s way and nail Borgola.

He knows the evidence he needs is contained within a second Fenton Furst safe which is in a hidden location in Borgola’s mansion.  Whoever cracked the safe containing the diamonds will be able to crack the second one; Cole tracks Angel down and lies in wait for her at her apartment – and pretty much blackmails her into helping him.

From then on in, things move at a cracking pace as Cole and Angel – neither of whom trusts easily – have to work together to find the safe and obtain the information Cole needs.  The romance is, as I said at the outset, perhaps a little rushed, building as it does over just a few days, but the pressure-cooker environment and close proximity in which Cole and Angel are operating, together with the smoking hot chemistry between them helps to make it if not completely believable, then at least perfectly plausible.  The plot is twisty and well-constructed, with plenty of action and edge-of-the-seat moments, especially in the last quarter, when things really do get hairy.

Angel and Cole are complex, damaged and somewhat morally ambiguous.  Angel clearly regrets her criminal past and what she sees as her inner ugliness, but her intelligence, resourcefulness and loyalty make her an engaging heroine.  I also loved the ‘girl-power’ vibe that came off her relationship with Macy and White Jenny; these women obviously know each other intimately, and care about each other deeply, and even though they’ve not pulled a job together in five years, neither of those things has gone away. Cole is an intriguing mix of alpha and beta hero, a man who’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of and is prepared to keep doing bad things if it means he gets to help people who need it.  He’s a maths genius and logistics expert, reducing problems to patterns and equations, the sort of guy who follows the paper-trail and comes up trumps – but he’s no slouch in the badassery or take-charge departments either.

I can’t deny though, that there were a few WTF? moments along the way, such as Cole telling Angel that her abilities as an interior designer somehow meant she could “see things we can’t” (huh?  She can tell a bad guy by the quality of his laminate flooring?) or when Cole’s not-so-inner maths-nerd surfaces during sex scenes; “Women had been equations before this,” or “This woman … made his sigmas and coefficients swirl in a tornado.”  – ouch?

Still, hot nerds are my catnip and I enjoyed Against the Dark for the sexy, escapist fun it was. I’m definitely planning to read the other books in the series.

Grade: B                     Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Maggie Needs an Alibi by Kasey Michaels

While my paranormal reading waxes and wanes, romantic suspense has been a steady favorite with me. For some reason, though, I kept starting books and setting them aside this month. I finally happened upon Maggie Needs an Alibi, first in a series from Kasey Michaels. I know Michaels’ writing primarily from her historicals, so I was curious to see what she would do with suspense.

As it turns out, this novel is more a comedic mystery with a dash or several of romance, rather than straight-up romantic suspense. Maggie Kelly is a historical romance author turned historical mystery writer, and the story here centers on her Regency-Era detective and his sidekick coming to life. When Maggie created her gorgeous prima donna of a hero, Alexandre Saint Just, she wasn’t planning on sharing a small apartment with him. But suddenly, there he is.

Sharing tight quarters with a larger than life romantic mystery hero is quite…something. Maggie is a thoroughly modern 21st century woman and she has her fair share of habits that most too-perfect heroines would shun, including smoking. She also lives and talks like more than a few work-from-home folks I’ve encountered in real life so I warmed to her early on. At her best, she is human, imperfect and kind of refreshing. And frankly, the opening scene which shows Maggie buried deep in her writing was fabulous. However, she does at times work too hard to keep the wisecracks coming so her dialogue will likely induce the occasional eye roll.

So, where’s the mystery? Well, Maggie has an ex named Kirk who is frankly kind of a jerk. He broke the heart of her editor, also one of Maggie’s best friends, before womanizing his way around New York and finding his way to Maggie – and then doing more womanizing. He is constantly trying to worm his way back into Maggie’s bed, but she isn’t having any of it. This would normally be just an annoyance, but as it happens, Kirk is Maggie’s publisher so she has to deal with him professionally.

When Kirk comes to dinner at Maggie’s apartment and winds up dead, the game is afoot. Needless to say, Maggie is a prime suspect. She did cook and serve dinner to the deceased not long before his collapse, after all. As the net tightens around Maggie, Saint Just and his friend Sterling are determined to unmask the real culprit. As much as Saint Just may point out that Maggie’s imagination created them and therefore he and Sterling are dependent upon her, it will be obvious to the reader that the characters have completely taken on life of their own. And then there’s the obvious growing attraction between Saint Just and Maggie. This book isn’t properly a romance, but there’s plenty of promising romantic tension here. Given the dynamic between Maggie and the investigating detective in this novel, there may even be a hint of a love triangle developing.

At its best, this book is good fun. Saint Just is the perfect Regency gentleman, and while he may have been quite a catch among the ton, he’s a little out of place in modern-day New York City. Watching him (sort of) adapt while not losing the character Maggie gave him in her novels gives readers more than a few clever moments. At times, some of Saint Just’s antics feel a little contrived, but if you’re in the mood for the slightly campy, this book will suit nicely. A few of the gags involving Maggie’s aspiring actor doorman and Maggie’s reaction to her fans truly made me cringe, but those were the main off-putting notes in an otherwise fun tale.

If you like your mysteries fast-moving, funny and a little bit over the top, you will probably enjoy Maggie Needs an Alibi. My recent reading has tended to dark psychological thrillers and gothic-tinged mysteries, so this fun story was a nice change of pace.

Grade: B-                   Sensuality: Subtle

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

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