Breakout by Richard Stark

Breakout by Richard Stark
Publisher: The University Of Chicago Press
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

With Parker locked up and about to be unmasked, Breakout follows his Houdini-like escape from prison with a team of convicts. But when a new heist and new dangers—con artists, snitches, busybodies, eccentrics, and cops—loom among the dark alleys and old stone buildings of the big city to which they’ve fled, Parker soon learns that not all prisons have bars.

When a rope-in caused a pharmaceutical heist to go sour, Parker finds himself locked up. Segregated away from his two – far more reliable – co-conspirators Parker needs some luck and careful planning to select his next crew. A crew which will help him break out of the prison they all currently find themselves situated in. Can Parker turn his luck around?

I have enjoyed each and every novel in this series so far and I was thrilled that this book was no exception. Like all the other novels, this caper of Parker’s is written in a quite gritty, lean and hard-boiled manner – the story pared back to the basic essentials. And what a joy it is to find such a lean style of heist adventure. Absolutely none of the previous books are needed to be read to thoroughly enjoy this. I admit I adore this series and am glad to know all the history, but in this world of heists and criminals not much of a connection or history is needed between any of the characters really.

The plot itself is fairly simple, but I do love how Stark winds it all together and creates this vivid landscape with just the bare essentials. It’s a real talent and it’s a key element in all the Parker novels. I also really love how even though the characters work together, and there is a certain amount of loyalty there, at heart they are all individuals working toward a common goal or a shared venture. That dichotomy – separate and discreet people working cohesively together but at the same time each an island to themselves – is a real pleasure to read.

While the theme is fairly hard – there is no glossing over this is a bunch of criminals performing criminal acts – it still manages to be fairly clear and without much emotional baggage to weigh it down. There is no titillation or instability to the crimes and no glorifying or dwelling on the violence. And in many respects, I find that makes reading about it easier and nowhere near as heavy as it could be.

A classic hard-boiled style of heist novel, this is an excellent read and part of a larger series I absolutely love.

Wild Irish Yenta by Joyce Sanderly

Wild Irish Yenta by Joyce Sanderly
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Do killers, stock manipulators, and kidnappers stalk the Temple? After the body of Roberto Gomez is discovered in Temple Israel’s parking lot, Patricia Weiss, nee Reilly, exchanges her suburban-mom sneakers for gumshoes to investigate the supposed hit-and-run. Inspired by her police detective dad, Patricia feels compelled to uncover who killed the hardworking custodian and why. Before she can progress with her investigation or work on problems in her difficult marriage to a busy cardiologist, and his controlling Jewish mother, she is plunged into the Temple’s troubles. Her mentor Rabbi Deborah, who has guided Patricia through her own recent conversion to Judaism, disappears after delivering a controversial sermon in support of interfaith marriage. Despite her husband’s concerns, Patricia joins forces with her buddy Brenda. Designating themselves The Yenta Patrol, they unravel the mysteries.

Not everything is as simple as it may first appear to be.

Patricia was a memorable and likeable protagonist. She was insatiably curious about the world around her, and sometimes this led her to making decisions that her cautious husband disagreed with. I appreciated the way the author shared both of their perspectives on what are and are not acceptable risks to take in life. It made sense given the cultural differences between Patricia and Michael, and it also helped me to understand her as a character better. No one is perfect, after all, but this flaw was a good way for the audience to understand where she was coming from and why she assumed the world was a much safer place than her husband did. Novels that encourage readers to pause for a moment and think about the assumptions we all make in life before going on to reveal what happens when two people have opposite reactions to the same situation are part of the reason why I have continued to review books for so many years. Reading and reviewing are excellent ways to explore the world through other perspectives.

As much as I enjoyed learning more about Patricia and her relationships with everyone around her, I struggled with the slow pacing of this book. More time was spent exploring what various members of the synagogue thought about each other than pushing the plot forward with more clues about why Roberto Gomez died or why Rabbi Deborah disappeared. This made it difficult at times for me to remain engaged with the plot since it often took quite a while for the next important twist to be revealed.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the long process Patricia went through to convert to Judaism. There were classes to attend, holy texts to study, and cultural and religious traditions to start observing. What made it even more interesting to me was to see the wide range of reactions her conversion elicited from other members of her temple, from deep suspicions about her motives to total acceptance and everything in between those two possibilities. There was so much depth and emotion included in those passages that they sped up the reading process for me when they happened despite my earlier criticisms about the pacing.

Wild Irish Yenta kept me guessing.

*Happy Harry by Barbara Lampert

*Happy Harry by Barbara Lampert
Publisher: Golden Wolf books
Genre: Non-Fiction, Animal Essays
Rating: 5 stars
Review by: Larkspur

“Nobody who loves dogs will be able to resist your book! A magnificent love story!” – Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, international bestselling author of Dogs Never Lie About Love and When Elephants Weep.

In her dog memoir “Happy Harry: A Magical Golden”, psychotherapist Barbara Lampert, a lifelong dog lover, tells the story of her beloved Golden Retriever, Harry. Like her first dog memoir, Harry’s story comes from her mostly uncensored daily journal and takes place in Malibu, California.

Harry was a genuinely free spirit – wild, and very wolf-like. Did all this contribute to his being exceptionally happy? Perhaps.

Harry was not only the happiest being Barbara’s ever known, happy to the very core of him, but also the bravest. More than once in his life, Harry had to face true adversity, and each time, Barbara would look at him in wonder, not fully understanding how a being could be so brave and at the same time continue to be so happy.

Harry literally pranced through life, with a joyous attitude that made being around him like magic. Barbara fell in love with Harry. And as you immerse yourself in Harry’s story, it’s likely you will too! Happy Harry is unforgettable!

You don’t have to be a lover of Golden Retrievers to find this story captivating, but if Goldens are your favorite dog, you will thoroughly enjoy this story about Harry the rambunctious, precocious and fun-loving Golden Retriever.

When I first saw this book about Harry, a Golden Retriever I knew I had to read it. I have raised four Goldens throughout my life and currently have Charlie, a two-year-old Golden Retriever. So many things Barbara Lampert wrote about resonated with me. I could relate to so many of her experiences with Harry. The descriptions of Harry are funny and poignant. The writing is entertaining and interesting, and I fell in love with Harry along the way. The story chronicles Harry’s life from the time he is adopted at nine weeks, until his death. Harry is a typical friendly Golden Retriever, and I enjoyed reliving Barbara’s experiences with him. Her love of dogs and how much Harry touched her heart is evident in her writing.

Barbara takes us on a thoughtful and insightful journey. It is a beautiful tribute to Harry and made me laugh at all his crazy antics and cry when his end was near. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a sweet, feel good, well written story. This story touched my heart and made me want to give my dog a hug and make sure I enjoy the time he is with me.

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The Silence of the Choir by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr

The Silence of the Choir by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
Publisher: Europa Editions
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Seventy-two men arrive in the middle of the Sicilian countryside. They are “immigrants,” “refugees” or “migrants.” But in Altino, they’re called the ragazzi, the “guys” that the Santa Marta Association have taken responsibility for. In this small Sicilian town, their arrival changes life for everybody.

While they wait to know their fate, the ragazzi encounter all kinds of people: a strange vicar who rewrites their pasts, a woman committed to ensuring them asylum, a man determined to fight against it, an older ragazzo who has become an interpreter, and a reclusive poet who no longer writes.

Each character in this moving and important saga is forced to reflect on what it means to encounter people they know nothing about. They watch as a situation unfolds over which they have little control or insight. A story told through a growing symphony of voices that ends only when one final voice brings silence to the choir.

Can you imagine what life would be like for immigrants? You don’t know the language or culture, and you are a stranger in a new land. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr immerses us into this situation with skill and sensitivity.

“The Ragazzi” show up at the doorstep of a cast of characters in a small Sicilian town based in the countryside. These people are unique, as are their new neighbors. They interact differently with them.

The Ragazzi are trying to start a new life, but things aren’t so simple. Problems come up, and readers could be moved emotionally by their plight. There are issues one may not even consider. Will the conflicts ever find resolution?

As the story unfolds, we feel tension for those involved. We are also treated to the personality quirks of those who make this tale come alive. This is an interesting book that many are sure to enjoy.

*Liar’s Point by Laura Griffin

*Liar’s Point by Laura Griffin
Publisher: Berkley
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Larkspur

Two homicide detectives must separate the puzzling truth from a growing web of lies while investigating a murder victim’s friends and lovers in Lost Beach, Texas.

Detective Nicole Lawson is fed up with her job and nonexistent love life. Her first date in months gets cut short by an urgent call from the chief of police. A body has been discovered at Lighthouse Point, and the medical examiner finds an array of strange clues. When the death is ruled a homicide, the news quickly reverberates through Nicole’s beachside hometown.

The Lost Beach police department swings into high gear. Leading the investigation is Emmet Davis, a veteran detective who is Nicole’s fiercest rival at work and also the man she has secretly harbored feelings toward for years. With Emmet calling the shots, Nicole sets out to search for leads, starting with the enigmatic yoga instructor who first discovered the body. Nicole is certain the witness knows more than she’s revealing and may even hold the key to unlocking the case.

When another person turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, Nicole sees a bizarre pattern, but no one believes her theory. Under the gun to solve the case, Nicole must put aside her tumultuous feelings and work closely with Emmet to figure out who is targeting her beloved hometown . . . before she becomes a target herself.

I’m always excited when Laura Griffin comes out with a new book because she is one of my favorite authors. She knows how to write intense, suspenseful stories that keep me quickly turning the pages to find out what will happen next.

Nicole and Emmett are the two main characters in her newest book, Liar’s Point. They are detectives working together on a case involving a murdered woman. Nicole and Emmett are dedicated and hardworking and although they are attracted to each other, they are afraid to admit their feelings.

I loved everything about this story, especially Nicloe. Nicole is a fearless and dedicated detective. She has to work twice as hard as her male peers but is still treated differently because she is a woman. She has had a crush on Emmett since high school, but she is afraid to act on her attraction because it could ruin her career.

All the characters in this story are interesting, the plot is riveting, and the writing is spot on. I enjoyed all of Emmett and Nicole’s interactions and felt the chemistry between them. This story kept me on the edge of my seat, and I wasn’t sure who the murderer was until the very end.

Beyond Mortal Bounds – Memoir of a Ghost by Gina Easton

Beyond Mortal Bounds – Memoir of a Ghost by Gina Easton
Publisher: Touch Point Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Heather Radcliffe, a successful author, is approached by Fiona, a ghost, to write Fiona’s memoir. What follows is a tale of love, betrayal, madness and the quest for atonement. It is the story of two women—one living, one dead—and the man they both love . . . and the issue of love’s ability to endure beyond death itself.

Death is the beginning, not the end.

The dialogue was smooth and believable. Often I could tell who was speaking before I finished the sentence because of how uniquely the two main characters were written. As much as they had in common, there were important differences between them that influenced how they spoke. It takes a lot of work to pull something like this off, so I must acknowledge the effort there and share my gratitude for it. This is the sort of flourish in a story that makes reading even more enjoyable than it already is.

I was surprised by how quickly Heather believed the ghosts who approached her for help. As much as I liked her innocent and trusting personality, there were times when I wondered why she didn’t make any efforts to verify what she was told and only spent a small amount of time trying to protect herself from anything in the spirit world that might try to attach itself to her. There was one scene that described a ritual she went through after talking to spirits in order to discourage them from sticking around. This reader was fascinated by that process and wished that the protagonist had spent more time describing it as well as taking additional precautions to protect herself from spirits she was still getting to know.

Some of the most memorable moments in my opinion were the ones that explored Heather’s previous lifetimes and how they helped to explain why her personality clicked so well with certain people she met in her most recent body. Reincarnation is an interesting explanation for why this happens, especially when it is explored in fiction that shows how those individuals knew each other in previous lives and why their fates have remained so tightly entwined. This is a trope I’m always happy to discover in books, and I thought Ms. Easton made good use of it here.

Beyond Mortal Bounds: Memoir of a Ghost was satisfying.

The Ares Virus by AP Bateman

The Ares Virus by AP Bateman
Publisher: Rockhopper Publishing (Kindle)
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

The gloves are off for Secret Service agent Rob Stone as his hunt for an assassin leads him to a deadly agenda too terrible to contemplate.

For years Isobel has been working as a senior lab technician at a secret government facility working with a team under her mentor’s leadership. They have finally had a breakthrough – confirming that Ares is a virus with the potential to be a game-changing weapon of mass destruction, but thrillingly also proving significant progress with Aphrodite. Aphrodite is the antidote to Ares, and has a nearly unlimited potential, possibly the answer to cure AIDS, cancer and who knows what else. But when Isobel’s mentor is killed and she uncovers a plot to use Ares in unfathomable ways, she knows it’s up to her to try and prevent this. Secret Service Agent Rob Stone is also investigating the suspicious death and he quickly realizes that Isobel holds the key to his case. Can Isobel and Rob work together to save the world?

I have to admit my taste for “world is threatened by a virus that can kill everyone” style of stories has greatly lessened since Covid, but there were just too many factors in this story that I usually love and so I was happy to give it a try. I’m quite glad I did. This is the first book featuring Rob Stone and so readers should definitely feel like they can just pick this up fresh and not worry about any links to anything previous.

Honestly, I felt the beginning was a little slow. There was certainly a lot of plot and story-arch stuff that needed to be set up, and I was hooked enough on the science and strong female lead in Isobel that I was happy to continue reading past the first few chapters. I could understand though if readers who are used to a quicker and more action orientated style of story might find their interest wane in the beginning of this book. I’d urge readers to stick with it though, I personally could feel even after the first few chapters that the pace was certainly increasing – along with the tension and sense of danger to Isobel. And once Isobel crosses paths with Rob the action really begins in earnest and the explosiveness of the plot ramps up to a crazy pace.

There were a few really good plot twists – some of which I guessed early on, some which I found to be a delightful surprise. There was a strong cast of main and secondary characters, both good and bad, and I felt the author did a good job balancing everything out and keeping all the different balls in the air. While I do feel there is nothing earth-shatteringly unique to this plotline, I do feel the author did an excellent job in making both Isobel and Rob;s characters relatable and realistic. Readers who enjoy a thriller style “race to save the world” sort of books should find this to be a book full of intrigue and one where you definitely want to keep turning the pages.

An action based, conspiracy style of virus full length novel, this is a good read from a new-to-me author. I’ll be checking out the next in the series.

The Succubus’s Prize by Katee Robert

The Succubus’s Prize by Katee Robert
Publisher: Trinkets and Tales LLC
Genre: Erotic Romance, LGBTQ, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Dicentra

Belladonna was born wrong. At least that’s what her parents, religious community, and even her beloved sister believe. Walking away from the church hasn’t helped her come to terms with her purpose in life, and when her sister is diagnosed with cancer, Belladonna has nowhere to turn…until a demon offers her a deal.

After agreeing, nothing is like she expects. There’s no fiery hell to speak of. Her soul seems to still be her own. All she’s required to do is serve. When she’s auctioned off to Rusalka, a powerful and ruthless succubus, her confusion only grows. Rusalka surprises her at every turn, even refusing to allow Belladonna to bear a child that would benefit the entirety of their territory.

Rusalka has sacrificed everything for their people. There are no lengths they won’t go to as leader…but they see something of themself in Belladonna, a familiarity that tempts beyond anything they could have dreamed. They want to keep her.

But if Belladonna can’t release her shame and step into a future where she’s living for herself instead of in service to others… Things may be over even before they begin.

I will basically read any romance books that Katee Robert writes with a fantasy element at this point, so it was a no-brainer that I picked up The Succubus’s Prize (fourth book in the A Deal with a Demon series) as soon as it was released through Kindle Unlimited. While the book maintains the author’s trademark spice and romance, she also does a great job bringing deep emotional scenes into such a short story.

If you’ve been following the series, you’ll know that bargainer demon Azazel brought five human women to the demon realm to be auctioned off to each territory’s leader in the hopes of brokering peace throughout the realm. A disclaimer for those who might not have followed the series: all of the humans made their deals of sound mind, got things out of the deal, and have protections in place such that they cannot be harmed by the respective territory leader. Some of the choices were random, however things worked a little differently for Rusalka, leader of the succubi and incubi as Azazel basically said you need to pick this specific human (Belladonna). Belladonna has been traumatized in the past, and Azazel felt that the succubi powers of sensing emotions would be the best fit to help her (compared to those of the gargoyles, kraken, or dragons). Despite that advantage, the two of them have a lot to work through before they can make true headway in the relationship (and hopefully have a child to strengthen the territory in the future).

Prior to the release of the book, the author made it clear on social media that the book deals with a lot of religious trauma. Belladonna was raised to believe she was bad because she was queer, and that she was only of value if she was of use to others. Even the deal Belladonna made that brought her to the demon realm was a sacrifice in service of someone else. Rusalka and the others in the Insomnior Court worked hard to gently get Belladonna to be more comfortable in expressing what she wants and coming out of the indoctrination her family overwhelmed her with. They also gave her the space to make sure what she was saying was what she wanted, even if they were unsure about it themselves. There were definitely some uncomfortable moments, but as a reader it was a great experience to get to see Belladonna’s journey of healing and growth. Things do feel like they end a bit abruptly given the length of the book, but I loved the epilogue and I hope we get to see more of these characters in the future.

If you’re looking for a quick monster romance book you can finish in an afternoon, this would be a great choice for you. However, if you’re looking for a longer romance tale, complete with extensive worldbuilding and more in-depth character development you might be better served looking at another title on the author’s backlist instead. We got more glimpses of Azazel and their relationship with Eve, so I’m super excited for when the final installment in the series The Demon’s Queen will come out in 2025.

*The Stranger I Wed by Harper St. George

*The Stranger I Wed by Harper St. George
Publisher: Berkley Publishing Group, Berkley
Genre: Historical, Romance
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Larkspur

New to wealth and to London high society, American heiress Cora Dove discovers that with the right man, marriage might not be such an inconvenience after all. . . .

Cora Dove and her sisters’ questionable legitimacy has been the lifelong subject of New York’s gossipmongers and a continual stain on their father’s reputation. So when the girls each receive a generous, guilt-induced dowry from their dying grandmother, the sly Mr. Hathaway vows to release their funds only if Cora and her sisters can procure suitable husbands—far from New York. For Cora, England is a fresh start. She has no delusions of love, but a husband who will respect her independence? That’s an earl worth fighting for.

Enter: Leopold Brendon, Earl of Devonworth, a no-nonsense member of Parliament whose plan to pass a Public Health bill that would provide clean water to the working class requires the backing of a wealthy wife. He just never expected to crave Cora’s touch or yearn to hear her thoughts on his campaign—or to discover that his seemingly perfect bride protects so many secrets…

But secrets have a way of bubbling to the surface, and Devonworth has a few of his own. With their pasts laid bare and Cora’s budding passion for women’s rights taking a dangerous turn, they’ll learn the true cost of losing their heart to a stranger—and that love is worth any price.

Harper St. George knows how to write a rich and satisfying story with characters that are entertaining and interesting. I loved this enchanting historical story set in the late 1800’s so much, I never wanted it to end.

Cora, the eldest of the Dove sisters, must marry a titled gentleman to gain her inheritance, so she and her two sisters travel to England to find a groom. When Cora arrives in London, she meets an assortment of potential husbands including Devenworth.

Devenworth needs a rich bride to save his ancestral home. Although he is attracted to Cora, he ultimately marries her for her dowry. They marry first and slowly fall in love as they become acquainted with each other. The more they learn about each other, the deeper they fall. However, they are afraid to let down their guard and trust each other completely.

I loved Devenworth and Cora together and enjoyed all of their encounters. Sparks would fly whenever they were together, and I found myself immediately immersed in their story. I felt like I was right there with them, and I easily connected with all the characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and can’t wait to read future stories featuring the two other Dove sisters.

Mrs. Holloway’s Christmas Pudding by Jennifer Ashley

Mrs. Holloway’s Christmas Pudding by Jennifer Ashley
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Historical, Holiday, Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

December 1882

When Cook Kat Holloway is blamed when a dinner guest mysteriously takes ill after eating one of her meals, she sets out to prove she had nothing to do with the gentleman’s sickness. She discovers a whole host of people who might wish to do away with the man, and she and her friends—Daniel McAdam, Lady Cynthia, Mr. Thanos, and various members of the household staff—begin to hunt for the would-be killer.

Simultaneously tasked with crafting the perfect Christmas feast, including the pièce de résistance, the Christmas plum pudding, Kat frantically works to finish all, fearing she’ll have to choose between stopping a murderer and cherishing her few precious Christmas moments with her daughter.

When a guess of her employer falls mysteriously ill, Mrs Holloway is irritated when her food is instantly blamed – despite the gentlemen being the only member of the dinner party having an adverse effect. Determined to not let any whispers grow and cause trouble, Mrs Holloway is determined to investigate what is really occurring. Can she and her friends work out what’s going on while Kat simultaneously plans and cooks the perfect Christmas feast and also attempts to spend a few precious moments with her young daughter.

This is the third short story I have enjoyed set in this historical world by the author. I have enjoyed them all and equally enjoy the fact that other than the same time setting they can easily be read and thoroughly enjoyed on their own merits, and they aren’t really linked other than the characters connections. While a little suspension of belief is required – I simply can’t imagine a cook interacting so freely and warmly with any of the above-stairs people, nor having the freedom of movement to investigate a crime nor make speeches about who the dastardly villain really is etc – I nevertheless found this a well-paced and thoroughly refreshing read. Kat and her love interest, Daniel were vibrant and very well written characters and with a strong cast of equally engaging secondary characters there was plenty to hook any reader.

I also feel readers who usually don’t enjoy historical stories should feel comfortable giving this book a try. The mystery is fairly simple, but there were enough layers and twists to keep me engaged and while the historical setting was lovely, I didn’t feel like our noses were pushed too hard into it. I really feel the author has done a commendable job balancing the characters, the plot and the pacing of this Christmassy story. The blossoming romance between Mrs Holloway and Daniel is quite chaste – merely a few kisses – so readers more used to reading mystery shouldn’t find the romance aspect to the plot too overpowering.

Readers who are unsure whether to dip their feet into the connected full-length series should absolutely give this novella a try – for the cheaper price and shorter length I think it’s a lovely gateway into the world and series by this author and is in and of itself a thoroughly enjoyable short story. Recommended.