Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard

Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard
Pub. Date: December 3, 2019
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Minotaur!)
Summary: Natalie Lockhart always knew she was going to be a cop. A rookie detective on the Burning Lake police force, she was raised on the wisdom of her chief-of-police father. These cases will haunt you if you let them. Grief doesn’t come with instructions. But the one thing her father couldn’t teach her was how to handle loss. Natalie’s beloved sister was viciously murdered as a teenager, and she carries the scars deep in her heart. Although the killer was locked up, the trace evidence never added up, and Natalie can’t help wondering―is the past really behind her?

As the newest member on the force, Natalie is tasked with finding nine missing persons who’ve vanished off the face of the earth, dubbed “the Missing Nine.” One night, while following up on a new lead, she comes across a savage crime that will change everything.

Daisy Buckner―a popular schoolteacher, wife to a cop, and newly pregnant―lies dead on her kitchen floor. As Natalie hunts for Daisy’s killer in the wake of the town’s shock, her search leads to a string of strange clues―about the Missing Nine, about Daisy’s secret life, and reviving fresh doubts about her sister’s murder.

As the investigation deepens, Natalie’s every move risks far-reaching consequences―for the victims, for the town of Burning Lake, and for herself.
Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Despite releasing novels since the 90s, Alice Blanchard is a totally new-to-me author. Somehow I completely missed her – even in high school when I exclusively read mysteries (and I have a feeling that, if her earlier work is anything like Trace of Evil, high school Leah would have gobbled them up!)

Trace of Evil is the first in a new series which introduces the reader to rookie cop Natalie Lockhart. As the daughter to a chief-of-police, Natalie always knew she wanted to sign onto the force one day. Under her father’s wing, Natalie soaked in his wisdom, but there was one thing her father couldn’t teach her: how to cope with tragedy, especially one that hits too close to home.

Natalie’s older sister had been brutally murdered when Natalie was young. Though a suspect was locked away, bits of evidence ate away at the back of Natalie’s mind. Twenty years later, on her sister’s Deathaversary, echoes of Natalie’s past comes back to haunt her: a beloved school teacher, the best friend of Natalie’s other sister, is also found viciously attacked and left for dead in her kitchen. As Natalie digs deeper into the investigation, a stack of cold cases dubbed “the Missing Nine” seem to share startling similarities.

While Trace of Evil is a December release, I truly feel this is best read during the early days of Autumn. Not long after I received an early copy, I found myself being drawn to it and by mid-October I was sinking into its pages. By sheer coincidence, I discovered this book is set in the town of Burning Lake and was responsible for sentencing three women to death after labeling them witches. Centuries later, no one bats an eye at the number of covens in town and it’s practically a rite of passage for the high school girls to begin practicing Wicca. This isn’t a supernatural book by any means, but witchcraft and lore make up a surprising amount of the story’s foundation.

A month and a half after finishing the book, I’m finding myself at a loss for words. I did enjoy the story while reading, but it was more atmospheric than gripping drama and the big reveal at the end seemed like it came out of nowhere – and not in a good way. I felt the culprit was selected for shock value.

Although the ending did nothing for me, I enjoyed the time I spent with Trace of Evil and look forward to what comes next. I absolutely love sinking into a good mystery in the winter, but I believe this one would work best as a Fall read, as there’s so much of the plot that revolves around witches and witch trials of centuries past.

weekly wrap-up 12/1

Happy December! Only 31 days left in this year, this decade. I’ve been SEVERELY lax this year with blogging and the job I started in the beginning of January can only be blamed for so much. I’m determined to get back into the swing of things, and what better way than to ease in with a weekly wrap-up?

Yesterday was Matt’s birthday! The big 3-1. I’m older and for the blessed few months until my birthday rolls around again, all the you’re old jokes cease, ha! We had a pretty low-key day: I’ve mentioned before that after Cars & Coffee ends for the season, we still regularly meet up with our group and yesterday we did just that. The coffee shop posted their Christmas drinks (Mrs. Claus: eggnog + toasted marshmallow, The Nutcracker: toffeenut + caramel with caramel drizzle, Hansel & Gretel: gingerbread + vanilla were just a few!). Afterwards we all had brunch and then on the way home, a few of us stopped by McLaughlin Distillery. Local friends, they’re a farmers market staple and are VERY happy to provide samples. I don’t drink, so I was more than happy to look around the place, but their flavors are so interesting: pickle moonshine, jalapeno moonshine, maple whiskey, among many others.

• If you’re a long-time follower, you might remember a recipe I posted last year (oddly enough, exactly one year ago today): blueberry cinnamon roll bake. Matt LOVES this stuff and it’s so easy. I whipped up a batch as a birthday breakfast treat!

• After several days devoted to food, I had been itching for something a bit healthier. This spaghetti squash with spinach artichoke cream sauce from Hummusapian was JUST what I needed. Not only was this dish incredibly simple to make (the hardest part was trying to slice open the squash!) and made enough for several days of leftovers! Bonus: it’s vegan and gluten-free!

• I’m shocked by the number of books I read in November: 21! The break down: 5 e-books/e-ARCs, 14 print, and 2 audiobooks. By far my favorites of the month were Johnny Marciano’s delightfully fun Middle Grade graphic novel series, Klawde, Evil Alien Warlord Cat, Tessa Arlen’s Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, and Lisa Jewell’s newest, The Family Upstairs.

MISSED SOMETHING THIS WEEK? I shared 4 Christmas/winter mini reviews and the latest from April Hunt, Lethal Redemption, an FBI thriller involving cults and second-chance romances. SO good!

THIS WEEK ON INSTAGRAM I am living in cozy sweaters all season and highlighted Lethal Redemption.

Lethal Redemption by April Hunt

Lethal Redemption by April Hunt
Pub. Date: November 26, 2019
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Forever!)
Summary: Top FBI profiler Grace Steele was just a girl when she escaped the Order of the New Dawn, and she’s spent the last seventeen years trying to forget her time there. But when private security firm Steele Ops needs her help extracting a young woman from the secretive cult’s clutches, she’s all in. Even though the mission requires posing as the fiancée of the only man who’s ever broken her heart.

It’s been nine years since Cade Wright turned his back on his childhood sweetheart, and he’s never stopped regretting it. Now that they’re forced to work together, he knows this is his opportunity to show Grace how much he’s changed. But the deeper they get pulled into New Dawn, the clearer it becomes that the demons still haunting Grace are very real, and Cade will have to risk everything to keep her safe . . . including his own life.
Genre: Romantic Suspense

Seventeen years ago, Grace Steele managed to escape the Order of the New Dawn, a cult that promised a Utopian way of life. Only 13 at the time, Grace fled everything she had ever known, begged her mother to leave with her. It was only through the help of another deserter that Grace made her way to her aunt’s house and it was in that house she was raised and loved by a family she had never known.

Seventeen years later, Grace is now a top FBI profiler specially requested for a secret mission: the public believes Sarah Brandt, the Vice President’s daughter, is studying art abroad. In reality, she has found her way into the Order. Whether she went willingly or not is anyone’s guess, but Brandt has personally asked for Grace’s assistance in bringing his daughter home. To do so requires facing her past – in more ways than one.

While Lethal Redemption is the second book in the Steele Ops series, it can easily be read on its own – I’m a newcomer to Grace and her rowdy bunch of cousins, but fell right in with their antics. Grace and her best friend Zoey grew up right alongside the four Steele boys…and Zoey’s brother, Cade. From the time Grace showed up at Aunt Cindy’s door, Cade had been her main source of comfort. As they grew, that friendship developed into something more, until the day Cade seemingly abandoned Grace to reenlist for another four years, leaving her alone. That was nine years ago and Grace isn’t yet ready to face Cade and what happened to them all those years ago.

Now Grace and Cade are thrown together to gain admittance to the Order and bring Sarah home. The Order of the New Dawn that Grace remembers from seventeen years ago was fairly primitive, at the time Teague Rossbach – Father Teague – seemed to have an aversion to technology, and Grace is counting on that aversion to have only strengthened over the years. Unfortunately, they quickly realize Rossbach is far more cautious than in the past: the perimeter of the compound is ringed with security cameras (as are all the dorms and cabins) and he’s equipped a team with a small armory. For this plan to work, they’re going to have to be smart.

For a romance novel, Lethal Redemption is a fairly substantial size, my copy clocking in at just over 350 pages, yet it reads shockingly fast! Typically the world building, the introduction of characters and their backstories tends to be a bit slow until the story picks up with the action, but here I found the chapters racing by, regardless of whether Zoey and Grace were eating pretzels at the mall or being chased through the woods by an elite military team.

There’s one throwaway line that, at the time, seemed crucial to the plot and I thought it would resurface later in a Big Reveal. However, that never happened and it’s been driving me crazy ever since finishing the book. That said, I’m so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one!

My introduction to April Hunt’s work could not have gone better. Lethal Redemption is an action-packed novel full of intrigue, cults, and a rambunctious family. Although this is a sequel, new readers (like me) can jump right in without any prior knowledge of the previous book – though after having read this one I will FOR SURE be going back for Deadly Obsession. If you enjoy second chances at love that pack a punch, look no further than this book!

4 Christmas/Winter Mini Reviews

As the grinchiest Grinch who ever Grinched, I am baffled – absolutely baffled – by the amount of holiday-themed books I’ve read recently. Who am I??

Today I want to share my thoughts on a few of those reads!

The Christmas Wish by Melinda Curtis | November 26, 2019 HUGE thank you to Forever for a copy!
The Christmas Wish introduces readers to Sunshine Valley, Colorado, namely, to three well-meaning – and meddling? – widows who have dubbed themselves the Sunshine Valley Matchmakers Club. Their goal? Give Cupid a little nudge or two in the right direction.

This novella opens with the ladies seated around a table playing cards when the topic of love comes up. They offer their suggestions for their targets and take a vote, ultimately selecting a young widow named Rosalie. After losing her cop husband in the line of duty, Rosalie has sworn off all thoughts of moving on, instead throwing herself into her dream, opening a pet shop. The locals call new-to-town Everett Scrooge behind his back. He has his own thoughts on romance, after his wife took to stealing from the town’s coffers – between his divorce and the police investigation, he lost just about everything and has no plans whatsoever to stick around in a place called Sunshine.

While the three older woman seem to be the driving force of this series, they really didn’t appear much in this story. Instead, Rosalie and Everett were the main focus, along with some suspenseful moments to break up the romance, and – the best part: puppies. The ending here was overly cutesy and Hallmark movie (I’m the grinchiest of Grinches, remember?), but I enjoyed The Christmas Wish much more than I expected! A second teaser novella will be out in February, followed by the first novel, Can’t Hurry Love in March.

Night of the Scoundrel by Kelly Bowen | November 26, 2019 HUGE thank you to Forever for a copy!
It’s no secret that I am a major fan of Kelly’s Devils of Dover series. It was a no-brainer that I’d jump at a novella! Especially one that’s a crossover featuring characters from her Season for Scandal novels.

This wintery read provides backstory for the mysterious King – no one knows his true name or where he came from, but they all can agree on one thing: you do not want to get on his bad side. Adeline wields a knife with the grace of someone who had the finest of instructors, yet she follows men into dark alleys and rents rooms in the seediest of areas. King and Adeline both have an end game in their sights: he’s out for revenge, she wants to reclaim her birthright, and in order for them both to get what they want, they must work together.

I’m not sure what happened here, but Night of the Scoundrel didn’t work for me. I found my attention waning far too often, to the point where it took an entire day to read a slim 100-page novella. Though there were moments I enjoyed (the art auction, for example), there were more moments that seemed to drag.

The Christmas Keeper by Jenn McKinlay | October 29, 2019 HUGE thank you to Berkley for a copy!
When her boss derails her career in one effective blow, Savannah is at a loss. All her work has been credited to her boss and there’s nothing she can do to prove otherwise. In an attempt to rebuild her professional reputation, she heads back to her hometown to work publicity for her best friend’s romance bookstore. The minute Joaquin laid eyes on Savannah, he told his buddy Ryder she was the one, that he would be married to her by Christmas. Unfortunately, Savannah cannot stand the brash cowboy, no matter how good-looking he is.

Despite the seemingly uplifting blurb, The Christmas Keeper had some shockingly heavy moments. Joaquin’s parents were killed in a car accident which also left his little sister with a brain injury that, despite being in her 20s now, has her responding to the world through a child’s eyes. All thoughts for his future were immediately put on hold with the loss of his parents; he left school and came home to raise his sister. After Jaoquin and Savannah overhear a conversation, they decide to work together to save their friends’ store – and in doing so, Savannah realizes there’s more to the cowboy than she first thought.

Although I really liked this book, the main characters had awful nicknames: Quino and Savy. And EVERYONE called them these names. Even other character who had never met them before. I hated, h a t e d, these nicknames (though I guess Savy was ten times better than Joaquin’s other name for her: Red). I also had some concerns with how Joaquin’s sister was portrayed. Apart from that, this one was great and I look forward to more!

A Guinea Pig Nutcracker by Alex Goodwin | October 8, 2019 HUGE thank you to Bloomsbury for a copy!
Following on the success of A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice, A Guinea Pig Romeo & Juliet, A Guinea Pig Oliver Twist, and A Guinea Pig Christmas Carol, comes A Guinea Pig Nutcracker. In a short 50-odd pages, the reader gets a brief overview of the story though it’s so ingrained in pop culture that I really don’t feel anyone will be missing any of the details.

What really shines here are the photographs. So. Stinkin’. Cute. There’s a whole cast of guinea pigs along with the names of the performers: Sherlock played a violinist, Poppy was the Nutcracker Prince, Bear was a Sugar Plum Fairy. Adorable animals in clothes kills me and this book was no exception. The dresses! The crowns! The tutus! At the very end there’s a tiny Behind the Scenes page, detailing the set design and costumes, the patience required to capture each shot. The final page really sealed the deal for me: it promotes spreading the love by rescuing animals and even mentions there are some centers devoted entirely to guinea pigs!

If you want a super sweet, sure-to-please Christmas gift, A Guinea Pig Nutcracker is a easy pick!

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

The Curious Case of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland
Pub. Date: October 29, 2019
Source: e-ARC via publisher (Thank you, St. Martin’s Griffin!)
Summary: Ailsa Rae is learning how to live. She’s only a few months past the heart transplant that—just in time—saved her life. Now, finally, she can be a normal twenty-eight-year-old. She can climb a mountain. Dance. Wait in line all day for tickets to Wimbledon.

But first, she has to put one foot in front of the other. So far, things are as bloody complicated as ever. Her relationship with her mother is at a breaking point and she wants to find her father. Then there’s Lennox, whom Ailsa loved and lost. Will she ever find love again?

Her new heart is a bold heart. She just needs to learn to listen to it. From the hospital to her childhood home, on social media and IRL, Ailsa will embark on a journey about what it means to be, and feel, alive. How do we learn to be brave, to accept defeat, to dare to dream?
Genre: Contemporary

Twenty-eight-year old Ailsa Rae has never moved out of her mother’s flat. She barely graduated college. She’s never held a job. Until recently, Ailsa didn’t know if she would live to see the following day. Born with a heart condition that was a death sentence to babies born just a few years before her, Ailsa has spent more time in the hospital than out, has been through multiple surgeries, and has blue-tinged skin as a result of the lack of oxygen her body is receiving.

Everything miraculously changes when she receives the news she never expected to hear: she’s going to receive a heart. That someone had to die so that she could live is something Ailsa tries not to dwell on; instead she blogs. Blogs about life in the hospital, blogs about her condition, blogs about her dearest friend – her first boyfriend – who recently lost his own battle. But now that she’s suddenly received the gift of life, what is she going to do? What do you do when you never expected to see tomorrow, let alone a lifetime from now?

The initial chapters left me hesitant. I honestly wasn’t sure I even wanted to continue with the book. Ailsa comes across so much younger than her 28 years – but I realized that’s completely understandable. She never got to experience a normal childhood, her time at college consisted of what she termed “after parties,” hot tea in the morning while her friends detailed everything she missed the night before. Her mother is practically attached to Ailsa’s hip (again, understandable, as she’s spent nearly three decades expecting her daughter to die any day). She’s never had a job, never been more than a few hours away from home in case of an emergency. Naturally she would have led an extremely sheltered life.

Once I pushed through those beginning chapters, however, I breezed through this book during a workday (shh!) That this 400+ page novel was such a quick and engaging read that I was able to read it while working should definitely say something! I think it certainly helps that the majority of the novel is comprised of Ailsa’s blog posts.

After receiving an award for her blog, Ailsa is invited to do a radio appearance and meets a fellow transplantee: a wildly famous (aka unknown to Ailsa), ridiculously good-looking actor named Sebastian, who until recently was on a Dancing with the Stars-esque show. He blew off an itch in his eye as nothing, a bit of dirt perhaps, until it got worse. Seb nearly lost his eye, were it not for a cornea transplant.

A friendship slowly develops between the pair: Seb is able to be just a regular guy, Ailsa is free to share her worries and complaints (just because she has a new chance at life doesn’t mean she’s happy every waking minute). Their friendship-turned-romance was really sweet and Seb genuinely seemed to care for Ailsa, despite tabloids pointing out he could have his pick of any model.

Tango lessons, a production of Romeo and Juliet, flashbacks of time with Lennox in the hospital, and learning how to become an adult all received plenty of screen time so to speak. One subplot I didn’t care for was Ailsa’s search for her biological father. She never knew him growing up and once she learned she was actually going to have a future, she decided to track him down. I really didn’t care about this, especially when the end result was so lackluster. The other aspects of the story, however, were great.

Don’t let the size of The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae scare you off: it’s an extremely fast read that I was able to get through in a sitting. While at work! Blog entries, newspaper articles, and emails all make this a breeze of a novel. While I could have done without one major subplot, I enjoyed the time I spent with these characters – though any time Ailsa’s condition was highlighted, I kept thinking of Diane Chamberlain’s The Dream Daughter, one of my favorites of 2018 and a novel that also featured a daughter with a fatal heart condition. Despite the age of the characters, I can easily see The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae appealing to a YA audience, due to both the voice and subject matter: growing up, first love, and hospital romances seem to be a favorite trope of the genre.

The Bodies in the Library by Marty Wingate

The Bodies in the Library (First Edition Library Mystery #1) by Marty Wingate
Pub. Date: October 8, 2019
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Berkley!)
Summary: Hayley Burke has landed a dream job. She is the new curator of Lady Georgiana Fowling’s First Edition library. The library is kept at Middlebank House, a lovely Georgian home in Bath, England. Hayley lives on the premises and works with the finicky Glynis Woolgar, Lady Fowling’s former secretary.

Mrs. Woolgar does not like Hayley’s ideas to modernize The First Edition Society and bring in fresh blood. And she is not even aware of the fact that Hayley does not know the first thing about the Golden Age of Mysteries. Hayley is faking it till she makes it, and one of her plans to breathe new life into the Society is actually taking flight–an Agatha Christie fan fiction writers group is paying dues to meet up at Middlebank House.

But when one of the group is found dead in the venerable stacks of the library, Hayley has to catch the killer to save the Society and her new job.
Genre: Cozy Mystery

Hayley Burke has landed a mystery lover’s dream job: curator of the late Lady Georgiana Fowling’s library full of first editions from the Golden Age of Mysteries. Christie, Queen, Gardner, Chandler. The only problem? Hayley’s interest lies with Jane Austen’s work; she couldn’t tell Hercule Poirot from Sam Spade. In an effort to prove her worth (particularly to the formidable secretary, Mrs. Woolgar), Hayley introduces ideas, hoping to bring new members into the declining First Edition Society.

One idea that instantly takes off is inviting a group of writers to use the estate for their weekly meet-ups. The members are all Agatha Christie fans – and their stories are fan fiction. Zombies battling with Tommy and Tuppence, an aging Miss Marple reunites with a long lost daughter, Poirot discovers magical powers. Despite Mrs. Woolgar’s adamant protests, Hayley knows Lady Fowling would have delighted in the group, as she was something of a fan fiction writer herself in a time before fan fiction had a name.

All is well until one morning when a member of the group is found dead. In the library. And with both Hayley and Mrs. Woolgar living in apartments in the mansion, they begin to wonder if more than their jobs is on the line: could they be next?

The moment I heard about this series I was ecstatic. A mystery focusing on a group of Agatha Christie fan fiction writers?? Sign me up!

I’ll admit Hayley wasn’t my favorite. Most cozies I read features characters my age (or, lately, younger than me this is fine everything’s fine I’m not sobbing). I was fully expecting the same to be said for Hayley – she certainly acted like someone younger – only to be massively shocked when I learned that, not only was she in her 40s, but that her daughter is in college. She doesn’t come across as a legitimate adult, especially not one old enough to have a child in their 20s! She felt so much younger than that and this immaturity led me to struggle to warm up to her.

There’s a hearty cast of characters within these pages, from Hayley and Mrs. Woolgar to the writers group (each of whom are prominently featured) to the police and love interests. While each one had their own voice, there were a few that obviously came across as villains. From the start they acted shifty or straight up rude, making it clear who the reader should be rooting for (in the romance plot, for example).

The mystery itself was intriguing and kept me guessing, though the reveal ultimately wasn’t a big shock, in fact I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. I loved that the writers were constantly butting in with their own theories and beliefs that they knew better than the actual detectives because they wrote mysteries.

The Bodies in the Library is a fun start to this new series. Though the main character never grew on me as much as I had hoped (and I wasn’t a huge fan of her daughter either, for that matter), the story itself kept me entertained and flipping the pages. I’m looking forward to see where the story goes from here!

Blog Tour: The Art of Theft by Sherry Thomas

The Art of Theft (Lady Sherlock #4) by Sherry Thomas
Pub. Date: October 15, 2019
Source: e-ARC via publisher (Thank you, Berkley!)
Summary: As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Charlotte Holmes spends her days solving crime under the guise of her fictitious brother Sherlock. Murders are cracked and missing persons are found without batting an eye, but Charlotte’s latest case is like none she has ever encountered before: stealing a priceless piece of art and destroying the secret letters hidden under the canvas.

Unfortunately, I feel this review will be fairly short and to the point: I nearly abandoned The Art of Theft very early on once I realized this is a series that heavily relies on the reader having already read the previous novels. Because I hadn’t, I was left floundering for a good portion of the early chapters until I found my footing. Previous cases are referred to and the characters’ relationships to one another are all expected to be understood.

Once the thievery came in, however, my focus returned and I thoroughly enjoyed the plot. A French chateau, a ball that serves as an art auction (mostly legit), a secret hallway with hidden peepholes in bedrooms (all the better to blackmail you with, my dear), this was the story I had been looking forward to, not the seemingly endless talk of Charlotte’s garish wardrobe, her taste for desserts, or her “maximum chin tolerance.” Judging from early reviews, this isn’t the first book to discuss Charlotte’s weight or diets – the woman on the cover was not how I pictured Charlotte from her descriptions.

There are a few romance storylines here that held my interest, but I believe I would feel far more for these characters had I read the previous three books.

While I wouldn’t say The Art of Theft is a bad read, it’s certainly not newbie-friendly. Lady Sherlock is a series that all but demands the reader have an intimate knowledge of the events and characters introduced in the previous novels as there’s little to no recaps or explanations. It’s because of this that I had a hard time getting into the book, though the actual mystery kept me entertained. Fans already familiar with the series are sure to find much more pleasure in this one than I did.