This month’s TBR prompt, Paranormal or Romantic Suspense, is always fun. Both subgenres cover a lot of ground, so there can be an embarrassment of riches when it comes to picking out something to read. This time around, rather than pick one subgenre, Caz went with both and read a paranormal romantic suspense novel.Lynn, on the other hand, was craving some category romance, and after a false start with a Harlequin Intrigue from the 90s, ended up finding a much more recent Harlequin Romantic Suspense that worked rather well indeed.

Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk

Like so many of the books I end up reading for the TBR Challenge each year, Jordan L. Hawk’s paranormal/romantic suspense Whyborne & Griffin series is one I’ve been meaning to read for AGES, so this prompt was just what I needed to galvanise me into reading book one, Widdershins.

Percival Endicott Whyborne comes from a very wealthy family – his father is a railroad baron – but didn’t want to go into the business (as his older brother did) and is thus somewhat estranged from his family.  His mother has been unwell for years and he doesn’t get on with his father, who disapproves of his choice to dedicate himself to comparative philology (Whyborne is fluent in thirteen languages and can read more,) scholarship and a job in the Department of Antiquities at the Ladysmith Museum in Widdershins, Massachusetts.  He keeps himself very much to himself, never really having got the hang of social interaction, and ruthlessly suppresses his attraction to men,  still haunted by thoughts of the first boy he ever loved and blaming himself for his tragic death.  He has only one real friend, Dr. Christine Putnam, a fiercely intelligent, independently minded archaeologist who won’t let him hide himself away all the time, and who, it must be said, has some of the best lines in the book:

“I will not surrender my profession simply because men throughout history have been unduly enamored of their penises!“

(this said in response to a male colleague seeking to prevent her looking at a papyrus fragment depicting a fellow “… in rather an excited state.” )

The appearance of ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty at the museum upsets Whyborne’s carefully maintained equilibrium.  Flaherty been asked to investigate the death of Philip Rice, son of the museum’s director who, the day before he died, sent a small, leather-bound book to his father which Griffin has brought to the museum – specifically to Whyborne – to have translated in order to see if its contents have any bearing on Philip’s death.  Although Whyborne is supposed to be working on deciphering some ancient scrolls which are due to be displayed in an upcoming exhibition, he agrees, wanting nothing more than to get the translation done and get rid of the handsome, too-friendly detective who is far too tempting for his peace of mind.

Whyborne’s efforts quickly reveal the book to be an Arcanorum, a book of arcane spells and alchemical treatises which details many occult rituals, not least of which is one able to bring back the dead.  As strange things start happening – from grave robbing to the appearance of mysterious and terrifying beasts, to break-ins at the museum  and the discovery of a powerful and ancient cult – Whyborne and Griffin are drawn into an investigation that will test them both to the limit and force them both to confront some of their darkest fears.

I enjoyed the story, which is immensely readable and entertaining, and I really liked the two central characters, reclusive, gawky Whyborne, and the more outgoing Griffin, whose handsome, charming exterior hides insecurities and emotional damage of his own.  While the story is related entirely from Whyborne’s PoV, the author does a terrific job of showing us Griffin through his eyes, although of course, Whyborne fails to notice the other man’s interest in him because he’s become so used to believing himself to be dull, awkward and unattractive.  But Griffin is smitten from the start; he obviously finds Whyborne’s shyness endearing and is also able to see beyond the bumbling scholar to the courageous, brilliant man beneath, his feelings made clear by the way he treats Whyborne with the sort of courtesy and respect he has never received from anyone before.

Their relationship starts as a slow, smouldering burn, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches, but after that, it moves fairly quickly – perhaps just a little bit too quickly – from that initial frisson to emotional commitment.  As this is the first book in a long running series (the eleventh and final book has just been published), the author could have perhaps taken a little more time to get them to the the ILYs.  I liked them as a couple and liked the way they come to know each other and talk about their pasts; the romance is both sweet and sexy as Griffin gradually coaxes Whyborne from his shell and Whyborne starts to allow someone beyond the emotional walls he’s so carefully constructed.  I just would have liked there to have been a little more time spent building an emotional connection between that initial slow burn and the declarations.  Delayed gratification and all that 😉

The plot, with its Lovecraftian influences and overtones, is a mix of suspense and supernatural horror, full of scary monsters, spooky goings-on (and a fair few “eeew!” moments) and a charismatic though creepy AF villain. The story is well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed among the more intimate and introspective moments, and moves inexorably towards a high-stakes climax which, while perhaps a tad predictable is nonetheless exciting.

In spite of my reservations about the romance and some aspects of the plot, I enjoyed Widdershins and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Grade: B           Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

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

The Killer You Know by Kimberly Van Meter

I started reading romance with historicals and romantic suspense, and these two categories still have a soft spot in my heart. So, when I saw that this month’s prompt was one to read either romantic suspense or paranormal, I immediately started looking through my suspense books. After a disaster of a DNF, I ended up with a 2017 release, The Killer You Know by Kimberly Van Meter.

I’ve read Van Meter before, and I remember thinking that even though her plotting doesn’t always work for me, she does really interesting things with characterization. The plotting in this novel was much tighter than in earlier books of hers I’ve read, which was a big plus. The characters took a little while to convince me, but I’m glad I stuck with them because once things got going in this story, I could really appreciate them.

The hero, FBI Agent Silas Kelly, grew up in the rural town of Port Orion, Washington. The unsolved murder there of his younger brother tore his family apart, and all of them left town as adults, never to return. The murder of a teenage girl whose body was found in the same spot as Silas’ brother makes him wonder if perhaps the two seemingly unrelated crimes could be connected. He knows that he cannot rest unless he at least tries to get a look at the investigation, so he takes leave from his job in the Chicago Bureau, and heads west.

When he gets to Port Orion, he finds that the crusty old sheriff who mentored him as a grieving teen is still in charge, and Sheriff Mankins reluctantly lets Silas be involved with the investigation. This brings Silas quickly into contact with Quinn Jackson. Quinn is a young reporter at the lackluster local paper, but she is determined to move on to bigger and better things outside of her tiny town. Silas and Quinn soon butt heads, but end up joining forces to look into the case. The levelheaded Silas can’t stand the press due to past experience, but he’s also quick to figure out that Quinn has a certain credibility as a longtime local that he no longer has after having been gone from Port Orion for many years. It doesn’t hurt that Quinn’s drive and energy draw Silas right in.

At first, I had trouble liking either of the leads. Silas felt a little too much like the outsider butting in to a local investigation where his personal agenda created conflicts. As the story moves along, though, I came to like his methodical ways. Sometimes his feelings cloud his viewpoint, but he is willing to listen to Quinn, respects her cleverness and powers of observation, and he is not opposed to letting his mind be changed.

Quinn starts off a bit feisty, and she sometimes comes off in early chapters as just rebelling for the sake of rebelling. However, she is obviously smart and driven. She’s also only 24, and has a lot to learn. As readers, we get to see some of that learning and sense of perspective developing over the course of the book, and that made me appreciate Quinn more. By the end of the book, I rather liked her.

In terms of relationship, we have the usual police-press tensions, but the even bigger source of conflict comes from the age and life experience gap. Silas’ age is a little unclear from the text, but he’s obviously somewhere between 32 and 34, and it’s mentioned that he has only ever dated women near his own age. Quinn, on the other hand, is 24 and while she’s dated around, it’s only been in her limited circle of friends in Port Orion. There’s definitely a gap there, and one of the things that lifted this book for me was the manner in which the characters address the issue rather than pretending it isn’t one. Quinn is also very frank about her wants and needs, and I found that refreshing. Doormat heroine, she is not.

Lastly, while I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, I did want to mention a plotting choice made by the author near the end of this novel that I really liked. Unlike many romantic suspense thrillers that I’ve read where the bad guys gets caught, the leads have victory sex and everyone rides off happily into the sunset, the author in this book shows readers a more realistic aftermath. We see what it is like to have a killer known to everyone in a small town be unmasked and how that “closure” affects both hero and heroine on an emotional level, both personally and in the development of their relationship. There is some side drama with a sheriff’s deputy that was upsetting (CW: animal abuse) and really unnecessary, but I was impressed with how the author handled the ending of this story otherwise. While there were some moments that pulled me out of the early chapters and some side drama that contained disturbing elements that didn’t really move the story along, I otherwise quite enjoyed this book.

Grade:    B      Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

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