Book Reviews: Booke of the Hidden by Jeri Westerson, Gone Gull by Donna Andrews and The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Booke of the Hidden
Booke of the Hidden #1
Jeri Westerson
Diversion Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-63576-050-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

To get a fresh start away from a bad relationship, Kylie Strange moves across the country to open a shop in a seemingly quiet town in rural Maine. During renovations on Strange Herbs & Teas, she discovers a peculiar and ancient codex, The Booke of the Hidden, bricked into the wall. Every small town has its legends and unusual histories, and this artifact sends Kylie right into the center of Moody Bog’s biggest secret.

While puzzling over the tome’s oddly blank pages, Kylie gets an unexpected visitor―Erasmus Dark, an inscrutable stranger who claims to be a demon, knows she has the book, and warns her that she has opened a portal to the netherworld. Kylie brushes off this nonsense, until a series of bizarre murders put her, the newcomer, at the center. With the help of the demon and a coven of witches she befriends while dodging the handsome but sharp-eyed sheriff, Kylie hunts for a killer―that might not be human.

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate towards witchy books but this one had a couple of things going for it before I even started—the description sounds awesome and I already knew I’d enjoy this because it’s written by Jeri Westerson. If you ask me, Ms. Westerson is one of those authors who is way under-recognized and I’ve been happy with everything by her I’ve ever read.

When Kylie finds that book, she does what anybody would do, she opens it. What follows—a coven of witches, a possible demon, murder and a bit of romance—turn this find into something quite out of the ordinary but Kylie keeps her cool, for the most part, and her interactions with Erasmus are often laugh out loud funny. Even the name of the town, Moody Bog, draws out a smile and, while the pacing is a little on the slow side, I chalk that up mostly to setting things up for the books to come. I came to feel really attached to the kind of creepy but appealing Moody Bog and its inhabitants and to the story that leads Kylie and her new “friends” down a most unlikely path on the way to solving the murder.

So, did Booke of the Hidden live up to its description? Yes, it certainly did and its essential differences from Ms. Westerson‘s other work make this a really fun departure from her  straightforward historical mysteries. Despite my slight aversion to witch-related stories, I’ll definitely be back for the next book in the series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Gone Gull
A Meg Langslow Mystery #21
Donna Andrews
Minotaur Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07856-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Meg is spending the summer at the Biscuit Mountain Craft Center, helping her grandmother Cordelia run the studios. But someone is committing acts of vandalism, threatening to ruin the newly-opened center’s reputation. Is it the work of a rival center? Have the developers who want to build a resort atop Biscuit Mountain found a new tactic to pressure Cordelia into selling? Or is the real target Meg’s grandfather, who points out that any number of environmentally irresponsible people and organizations could have it in for him?

While Meg is trying to track down the vandal, her grandfather is more interested in locating a rare gull. Their missions collide when a body is found in one of the classrooms. Can Meg identify the vandal and the murderer in time to save the center’s name―while helping her grandfather track down and rescue his beloved gulls?

You would think that this series would have begun to show signs of becoming stale and tired by now but that hasn’t happened. Donna Andrews has the magic touch and always seems to come up with fresh ideas and new things to laugh about but the early books still stick with me, especially particular characters beyond Meg.

This time, we have to get along without some of the old regulars (although two of my favorites, Spike the Small Evil One and Meg’s dad, are here) because Meg has gone out of town but her grandparents do a lot to make up for the missing. Meg’s blacksmithing has taken something of a back seat over the course of the series but it’s central to the story in Gone Gull as she’s agreed to teach classes for a few weeks at her grandmother’s new craft studio. Unfortunately, someone seems to have it in for the center, perpetrating small acts of sabotage, and no one is sure who’s doing it. Then Meg discovers a body and the real sleuthing begins.

I have to say the mystery to be solved isn’t as much in the forefront as the wild and quirky activities of the characters but it’s still a good one with some twists and turns to keep the reader occupied while chuckling at what’s going on. Oh, and the gull referred to in the title? That bird and Meg’s grandfather are the source of more than a few laugh out loud moments and, for me, was the icing on the cake. Having said that, I’ll be glad if we have Meg back in her usual surroundings next time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Grove Atlantic, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-8021-2689-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

As London is submerged below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds.

It doesn’t happen often but, every once in a while, I encounter a book that just leaves me cold and this is one of them. On the surface, I should have loved it because it’s apocalyptic (one of my preferred subgenres) and follows the physical as well as mental/emotional journey of a young family trying to cope with a world gone sour. To my dismay, I couldn’t connect with this in any way.

Characters, worldbuilding and plot are the three main components of any work of fiction and there is an interesting plot here in that the protagonist and her husband and baby are forced to find a way to escape the floodwaters and the devastation that has crushed London and the English countryside. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no worldbuilding; we know the water has risen to submerge much of England but that’s all we know. What caused this? A meteor strike, global warming, some dastardly act of a mad scientist, an alien attack of some sort? It’s hard to really feel what the survivors have to deal with when we know so little.

Worst of all, the characters are close to being cardboard cutouts when no one even has a name, just an initial. To me, this is a writing style that is almost pretentious and, coupled with the first person present tense that I so dislike, well, I just didn’t care very much. I find this happens fairly frequently when I read what’s called “literary fiction”.

The one thing that helps to lift this above the abyss is the author’s attention to the bonds between mother and child and she does that extremely well. I think perhaps that was intended to be the core theme and the apocalyptic elements just got in the way. Certainly, a lot of readers and inhabitants of the publishing world have a much more favorable reaction and, although I didn’t care much for this story, I think Megan Hunter is an author to watch..

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Book Reviews: Gin and Panic by Maia Chance and The Burning by J.P. Seewald

Gin and Panic
Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries #3
Maia Chance
Minotaur Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-10905-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Former socialite Lola Woodby is now struggling to make ends meet as a not-so-discreet private eye in Prohibtion-era New York City, along with her stern Swedish sidekick, Berta. When they’re offered a piece-of-cake job―retrieving a rhinoceros trophy from the Connecticut mansion of big game hunter Rudy Montgomery―it seems like a no-brainer. After all, their client, Lord Sudley, promises them a handsome paycheck, and the gin and tonics will be plentiful and free. But no sooner do they arrive at Montgomery Hall than Rudy is shot dead.

When the police arrive to examine the scene, they conclude that Rudy had actually committed suicide. But Lord Sudley can’t believe his friend would have done that, and there’s a houseful of suspicious characters standing by. So Lord Sudley ups the ante for Lola and Berta, and suddenly, their easy retrieval job has turned into a murder investigation. Armed with handbags stuffed with emergency chocolate, gin flasks, and a Colt .25, Lola and Berta are swiftly embroiled in a madcap puzzle of stolen diamonds, family secrets, a clutch of gangsters, and plenty of suspects who know their way around a safari rifle.

When I think back on this book, the first word that comes to mind is “charming” followed very shortly by “fun”. This is a pair of sleuths I loved spending time with and the plot and setting did a lot to hold my attention; overall, I was reminded of those lighthearted mysteries that take us back to the more innocent-seeming time of 1923.

Lola isn’t really the brains of the duo but she’s learning to adapt to her altered circumstances and her previous position in society opens doors to them while Berta has a knack for figuring things out while keeping the Lola ship steered in the right direction, so to speak. They have an unlikely friendship for their time but it really works for them and lays the groundwork for a successful detecting business. Lola’s constant companion, the furry Cedric, adds to the ambience.

The whole idea of someone asking them to “retrieve” a rhinoceros head trophy seems a bit outrageous in today’s world but it had me chuckling early on, imagining these two women having to smuggle such an item out of its current place of honor just to settle a grievance. Still, Lola and Berta are game, pun intended ;-), having no idea they’re about to land smackdab in the middle of a locked room mystery complete with dead body. A cache of diamonds and the bumbling efforts of our sleuths lead to enough adventure and madcappery to while away a very pleasant afternoon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The Burning
J.P. Seewald
Annorlunda Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-944354-26-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

George Ferris has worked hard to make a good life for himself and his family without going into the coal mines that shortened his father’s life. Now, a slow-moving catastrophe is threatening to take it all away. How far will he go to protect everything he has worked for? And will he realize what really matters before it is too late?

The first time I heard about coal fires burning under a town, years ago, I was horrified and I still am. It seems almost like science fiction and the idea that people would either have to live with such a never-ending threat or leave the homes and neighbors they had known for so long is little short of overwhelming.

George is a man who’s easy to understand because his whole way of life is undergoing a major transformation, beginning with the huge divide between him and his brother, Larry, a man who chose to leave his blue collar background behind. George takes pride in his life and it’s painful watching him have to make choices that he never wanted or expected to have to make. He’s watching his very existence, everything that makes him who he is, turn to ashes and not only because of the fire burning under his gas station. The frustrations that come with dealing with the bureaucracy that is more obstructive than helpful make George and the people around him begin to think they’ve been abandoned; as one catastrophe piles on another and another, it’s easy to see the despair George feels and his desperation to find solutions. Unfortunately, fear and a lingering denial, even self-pity, lead to some very wrong choices.

In the midst of devastation, the unbreakable but shaky bonds between George and Larry come to the fore and just may be the saving grace that the brothers need. The Burning is a short but intense story and, once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down; knowing it’s based on true events makes this a truly compelling read.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

Book Reviews: The Highwayman by Craig Johnson and Fallout by Sara Paretsky

The Highwayman
A Longmire Story
Craig Johnson
Penguin  Books, May 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2090-4
Trade Paperback

The author prefaces this Longmire novel by stating he always wanted to write a ghost story.  And now he has, thrusting Walt Longmire and his friend, Henry Standing Bear, into the middle of an enigma.  At the request of the head of the Highway Patrol, Walt and the Bear seek to determine what is happening to Rosie Wayman, who patrols a stretch of highway in the Wind River Canyon, an area where radio communication is almost nonexistent.

On the other hand, Rosie begins receiving calls from Bobby Womack saying “officer needs assistance.”  The problem is that Womack, a respected highwayman who patrolled the same route, died 35 years previously.  Walt and the Bear have to determine whether Rosie really is hearing the signal, or is in need of psychiatric evaluation.  What follows during the investigation is a series of events which might be ethereal, or explained by logic in the real world.  It is up to the two men (along with the reader) to determine which.

It is a clever plot and, while it is a deviation from the 11 prior entries in the series, The Highwayman is a welcome addition to the earlier books, and it is recommended.

The 13th novel in the series, The Western Star, will be published by Penguin on September 5th!

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2017.

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Fallout
A V.I. Warshawski Novel
Sara Paretsky
William Morrow, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-0662-584-2
Hardcover

It all begins in Chicago, and ends up in Kansas, but VI Warhawski needs more than ruby read slippers to return home.  Apparently, a black retired movie star decided on a moment’s notice to leave the Windy City, ostensibly to visit the town where she grew up, dragging a young man man along to film her reminiscences with stops along the way to Lawrence, KS.  When the two seem to disappear, VI is retained by the woman’s concerned neighbors to find them.  The young man also is a person of interest in a drug theft at his place of employment, and Vicky becomes more wary when she discovers his apartment ransacked.

So off goes VI on the long drive to Kansas, tracing the woman’s journey and attempting to pick up a trace of the pair.  She visits Fort Riley, where she learns they stopped, but little else.  So Vicky continues on to Lawrence, where she encounters all kinds of obstructions, and becomes involved in all kinds of side issues, other than her original purpose to locate the actress and her photographer.

The reader has to plow through a rather dry start to the novel, about one-third the length of the book, before the plot begins to develop.  Then it turns into a complicated story that probably could have served as the basis for one or more novels.    All in all, Fallout is an interesting work and can be recommended despite these reservations because the author and the series are so deservedly popular.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2017.

A Passel of Teeny Reviews Part 1

Once again, big surprise, I find myself with
an overload of books read but not yet reviewed
so I think it’s time for a roundup or two.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Even
Colin Goodwin
2QT Limited, July 2015
ISBN 978-1-910077-60-3
Trade Paperback

This book had me chuckling quite a bit with its premise—blackmailing an English village’s cricket club to either win  a trophy or lose its playing ground. Along with this audacious crime, we have village ladies who truly appreciate the hired ringer’s skills and a shady real estate development plan. It’s all great fun even with sabotage and perhaps a little murder.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Cat in an Alphabet Endgame
The Midnight Louie Mysteries #28
Carole Nelson Douglas
Wishlist Publishing, August 2016
ISBN 978-1-943175-05-5
Trade Paperback

I confess, I put off reading this as long as I possibly could, so long I’m really embarrassed but I just did NOT want to see the end of this series I love so much. I didn’t want to know who Temple would marry, didn’t want all the little loose ends tied up in neat bows. Midnight Louie is the alpha and omega of feline sleuths and I adore his hardboiled, attitudinous self and, even knowing he was going to continue in different adventures sometime in the future, letting go was so very hard. But…I eventually had to give in and, of course, I enjoyed this book as much as all the others. Temple is distracted by thoughts of saying yes to one guy or the other, the mob has reared its ugly head, there are hints of terrorism and Louie and his Cat Pack are on the case(s). When it’s all said and done, Louie leaves us—and multitudes of Las Vegas felines—with a rousing speech and an offer of appetizers. Ah, Louie, Temple and the rest, I’m going to miss you (until you show up again).

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Memory
Sharon Ervin
The Wild Rose Press, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-5092-1290-3
Trade Paperback

Mistaken identity takes on a whole new meaning when a woman is killed and everyone thinks it’s Memory Smith. She hasn’t been run over but somebody certainly has thrown a punch at her and Assistant DA Mac McCann wants to know what’s going on with his former classmate. Did someone really mean to kill her? Memory is an odd woman but Mac is drawn to her and the mystery surrounding her supposed death. As you might expect in romantic suspense, an emotional attachment between the two of them soon takes on a life of its own but Memory may not survive long enough to see what might develop with Mac.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Crepe Factor
A Scrapbooking Mystery #14
Laura Childs with Terrie Farley Moran
Berkley Prime Crime, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-26670-0
Hardcover

Ms. Childs and Ms. Moran continue their collaboration in a charming mystery featuring the death by fork of a food critic (stick a fork in me, I’m done, anyone?) practically right in front of Carmela and Ava, sleuthing duo extraordinaire. Carmela’s previous relationship with the #1 suspect makes sticking her nose in a little dicey and her current boyfriend, police detective Edgar Babcock really wants her to stay out of his investigation but she and Ava can’t resist. A nifty whodunnit and characters that feel like old friends, not to mention a few recipes and scrapbooking tips round out this entertaining entry in the series. I always enjoy these two, especially the slightly loony Ava, and for a few hours while I’m reading one of these books, I can’t help wishing I had the patience and dedication to get into scrapbooking…but the urge passes until the next book 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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The Locket
On Dark Shores #0
J.A. Clement
Weasel Green Press, December 2016
Ebook

Every child gets excited and exceedingly nosy when Yuletide approaches and the seven-year-old Nereia is no exception. Her father has brought her a special surprise, her Godmother, stopping off for a visit before returning to her diplomatic duties in the midst of war and a beautiful silver locket marks Nereia’s first time taking part in the Yule ceremony. This is a sweet story, very short, and a prequel to Ms. Clement‘s On Dark Shores fantasy series. I think I would have gotten more out of it if I knew anything about the series and I don’t understand the description’s reference to “there is mystery in the air…” but I spent a pleasant few minutes with this small family.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Review: The Color of Fear by Judy Alter

The Color of Fear
A Kelly O’Connell Mystery #7
Judy Alter
Alter Ego Publishing, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-9990371-0-2
Trade Paperback

From the author—

The Color of Fear marks Judy Alter’s return to mystery fiction and the Kelly O’Connell series after an absence of more than a year. This time, the indomitable Keisha narrates the short tale wherein Kelly and her family live under the threat of infant Gracie’s kidnapping. The story serves as a reprise of many of the previous novels in the series, as Keisha, in her search for the kidnapper, recalls Kelly’s earlier adventures.

Keisha remains outspoken and independent as she balances her need to protect Kelly and her family with her love for new husband, José Thornberry. Some but not all of Kelly’s friends and foes from previous stories appear here, along with such new characters as Clyde, the guard dog, and Cowboy, the homeless guy with a soft heart.

For anyone who hasn’t read all the preceding books in this series or for those who haven’t read any of them, this nifty little novella (or short story depending on your definition) can fill some of the gaps. Besides the current adventure, Keisha also shares tidbits about past exploits so we’re pretty much up to date…although, of course, reading the full length novels will offer much more. Here, we get tiny teasers.

Keisha is the standout character in this particular story, seemingly the only one except Mike, Kelly’s police captain husband, who keeps a level head in the current crisis. Threats are being made against a little baby and everyone has different ideas about who could be making these threats and why but it’s Keisha who does the most to avoid panic. Her sixth sense comes into play and her love for all these people—well, not so much for Miss Cynthia—sees her through to the end.

That end isn’t entirely satisfactory because it’s rushed and a bit out of nowhere but that’s often the case with short stories and novellas, just not enough time to flesh it out properly. This is a story that will introduce or re-introduce readers to Kelly and those in her circle and I hope to see more of these folks soon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Reviews: Mightier than the Sword by K. J. Parker and Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe by Judy Alter

Mightier Than the Sword
K. J. Parker
Subterranean Press, June 2017
ISBN 978-1-59606-817-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

An Imperial legate is called in to see his aunt, who just happens to be the empress running the civilized world while her husband’s in his sick bed. After some chastisement, she dispatches her nephew to take care of the dreaded Land and Sea Raiders, pirates who’ve been attacking the realm’s monasteries.

So begins a possibly doomed tour of banished relatives and pompous royals put in charge of monasteries like Cort Doce and Cort Malestan, to name a few. While attempting to discover the truth of what the pirates might be after, the legate visits great libraries and halls in each varied locale and conducts a romance of which he knows but doesn’t care his aunt will not approve.

With enough wit and derring-do (and luck), the narrator might just make it through his mission alive…or will he?

Mightier than the Sword is a sort of Canterbury Tale-like retelling of “Concerning the Monasteries”, the personal document of the narrator that relates how he traveled  in search of the pirates who were attacking and pillaging monasteries throughout the Empire of the Robur in medieval times.  Our somewhat reluctant hero is the nephew of Empress Eudoxia Honoria Augusta and, along the way, he spends time with his aunt’s best friend, Svangerd, Abbess of Cort Doce, and his own best friend, Stachel, Abbot of Cort Sambic as well as others before discovering the truths behind the raids.

What ends with a number of surprises is mostly a pleasant story with interludes of off-scene violence at a handful of monasteries. The surprises, though, turn everything topsy-turvy but what happens to, and because of, our narrator are what had to be to complete the story and his destiny.

K. J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt, used for his fantasy writings. I first read Holt‘s many novels that are a wacky sort of science fiction and fantasy blend chock full of humor and satire and loved them so much that, when the bookstore was open, I had an account with a British book wholesaler just so we could stock his books (and a few others). The man makes me laugh out loud so I was not surprised to see hints of his comical side in Mightier than the Sword like this exchange:

“Rabanus isn’t a Mesoge name. What do they call you back home?”

He grinned. “I’m Hrafn son of Sighvat son of Thiudrek from Gjaudarsond in Laxeydardal.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll call you Rabanus.”

Although I don’t read a lot of high fantasy, this novella called to me because of the author but it also sounded like just the sort of thing to while away a couple of hours and, besides, how could I resist a tale that has so much to do with books? 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe
A Blue Plate Cafe Mystery #1
Judy Alter
Alter Ego Publishing, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-9960131-6-1
Ebook

From the author—

Small towns are supposed to be idyllic and peaceful, but when Kate Chambers returns to her hometown of Wheeler, Texas, she soon learns it is not the comfortable place it was when she grew up. First there’s Gram’s sudden death, which leaves her suspicious, and then the death of her married sister’s lover. Kate runs Gram’s restaurant, the Blue Plate Café, but she must defend her sister against a murder charge, solve the murders to keep her business open, and figure out where the café’s profits are going. Even Kate begins to wonder about the twin sister she has a love-hate relationship with. Gram guides Kate through it all, though Kate’s never quite sure she’s hearing Gram—and sometimes Gram’s guidance is really off the wall.

Note: I read the digital copy of an old paperback edition that’s out of print but it appears the ebook listed above, with the same 2013 copyright date, is unchanged with the possible exception of some minor editing.

Judy Alter has written a ton of books including mysteries in three series and, when she wrote this one in 2013, it was the first in the Blue Plate Cafe series. Now, there are three books and it’s my own fault I lollygagged around for so long and have just now read this.

When Kate’s grandmother dies, she decides to leave her job as a paralegal—and an uncomfortable situation—and run Gram’s cafe but her twin, Donna, has her sights set on opening a bed and breakfast. That’s a good thing because the sisters are not at all alike and working closely together could be disastrous but it also adds to Kate’s growing suspicions about what really happened to Gram. Surely Donna didn’t do anything she shouldn’t, right?

Still, Donna’s attitude towards her life and family, her greed and her unrealistic ambitions are only part of Kate’s unease and Gram whispering in her head is unsettling at first until Kate begins to appreciate it. Is it possible that someone might have poisoned her? Then, when Donna is suspected of murdering her new B&B partner, all bets are off and Kate’s paralegal instincts kick in.

Now that I’ve met Kate and the people of Wheeler, I’d like to know more so I think I’ll pick up the second book as soon as I have a chance. Ms. Alter puts together a good mystery and I’m ready to see what’s happened with these folks and this little town while I’ve been dawdling 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Review: Last Breath by Karin Slaughter

Last Breath
Good Daughter .5
Karin Slaughter
Witness Impulse, July 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-274215-5
Ebook
Available soon in paperback

From the publisher—

Protecting someone always comes at a cost.

At the age of thirteen, Charlie Quinn’s childhood came to an abrupt and devastating end. Two men, with a grudge against her lawyer father, broke into her home—and after that shocking night, Charlie’s world was never the same.

Now a lawyer herself, Charlie has made it her mission to defend those with no one else to turn to. So when Flora Faulkner, a motherless teen, begs for help, Charlie is reminded of her own past, and is powerless to say no.

But honor-student Flora is in far deeper trouble than Charlie could ever have anticipated. Soon she must ask herself: How far should she go to protect her client? And can she truly believe everything she is being told?

With this being a novella, it would be far too easy to spoil things by running my mouth in my usual fashion 😉 so I’ll limit myself to just a few comments.

Charlie is SUCH an interesting character, compassionate and smart yet inherently flawed by her own past but, as is the nature of a novella, we don’t get to know her nearly well enough. Never fear, though—she’s front and center in the full-length novel, The Good Daughter, due out in just a few days. In the meantime, we get a glimpse of how the horrific event in her childhood colors her very essence and, in some ways, makes her a little less clear-sighted than she needs to be.

Is Flora what she seems to be? Maybe. Maybe not.

Ben, Charlie’s husband, just may be the nicest guy around. Instead of being a pushy, overly manly man who always has to be right, he shows himself this way:

“If you’ve got problems, I get that. Everybody has problems. But you don’t talk that way in front of your kid. Especially if it’s a girl, because you’re saying it’s okay for men to talk to women that way, and it’s not.”

…”You know, scratch that. It’s the same if you have a boy. He’s going to learn from his dad that it’s okay for boys to be assholes to women.”

And then there’s the plot, the story. All I can say is, holy crap. You’ll just have to read this yourself and, while you’re at it, become a huge Karin Slaughter fan if you aren’t already.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

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An Excerpt from Last Breath

From Chapter One

“Come on now, Miss Charlie.” Dexter Black’s voice was scratchy over the jailhouse payphone. He was fifteen years her senior, but the “miss” was meant to convey respect for their respective positions. “I told you I’m’a take care of your bill soon as you get me outta this mess.”

Charlie Quinn rolled her eyes up so far in her head that she felt dizzy. She was standing outside a packed room of Girl Scouts at the YWCA. She should not have taken the call, but there were few worse things than being surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls. “Dexter, you said the exact same thing the last time I got you out of trouble, and the minute you walked out of rehab, you spent all of your money on lottery tickets.”

“I could’a won, and then I would’a paid you out half. Not just what I owe you, Miss Charlie. Half.”

“That’s very generous, but half of nothing is nothing.” She waited for him to come up with another excuse, but all she heard was the distinct murmur of the North Georgia Men’s Detention Center. Bars being rattled. Expletives being shouted. Grown men crying. Guards telling them all to shut the hell up.

She said, “I’m not wasting my anytime cell-phone minutes on your silence.”

“I got something,” Dexter said. “Something gonna get me paid.”

“I hope it’s not anything you wouldn’t want the police to find out about on a recorded phone conversation from jail.” Charlie wiped sweat from her forehead. The hallway was like an oven. “Dexter, you owe me almost two thousand dollars. I can’t be your lawyer for free. I’ve got a mortgage and school loans and I’d like to be able to eat at a nice restaurant occasionally without worrying my credit card will be declined.”

“Miss Charlie,” Dexter repeated. “I see what you were doing there, reminding me about the phone being recorded, but what I’m saying is that I got something might be worth some money to the police.”

“You should get a good lawyer to represent you in the negotiations, because it’s not going to be me.”

“Wait, wait, don’t hang up,” Dexter pleaded. “I’m just remembering what you told me all them years ago when we first started. You remember that?”

Charlie’s eye roll was not as pronounced this time. Dexter had been her first client when she’d set up shop straight out of law school.

He said, “You told me that you passed up them big jobs in the city ’cause you wanted to help people.” He paused for effect. “Don’t you still wanna help people, Miss Charlie?”

She mumbled a few curses that the phone monitors at the jail would appreciate. “Carter Grail,” she said, offering him the name of another lawyer.

“That old drunk?” Dexter sounded picky for a man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. “Miss Charlie, please can you—”

“Don’t sign anything that you don’t understand.” Charlie flipped her phone closed and dropped it into her purse. A group of women in bike shorts walked past. The YWCA mid-morning crowd consisted of retirees and young mothers. She could hear a distant thump-thump-thump of heavy bass from an exercise class. The air smelled of chlorine from the indoor pool. Thunks from the tennis courts penetrated the double-paned windows.

Charlie leaned back against the wall. She replayed Dexter’s call in her head. He was in jail again. For meth again. He was probably thinking he could snitch on a fellow meth head, or a dealer, and make the charges go away. If he didn’t have a lawyer looking over the deal from the district attorney’s office, he would be better off holding his nuts and buying more lottery tickets.

She felt bad about his situation, but not as bad as she felt about the prospect of being late on her car payment.

The door to the rec room opened. Belinda Foster looked panicked. She was twenty-eight, the same age as Charlie, but with a toddler at home, a baby on the way and a husband she talked about as if he was another burdensome child. Taking over Girl Scout career day had not been Belinda’s stupidest mistake this summer, but it was in the top three.

“Charlie!” Belinda tugged at the trefoil scarf around her neck. “If you don’t get back in here, I’m gonna throw myself off the roof.”

“You’d only break your neck.”

Belinda pulled open the door and waited.

Charlie nudged around her friend’s very pregnant belly. Nothing had changed in the rec room since her ringing cell phone had given her respite from the crowd. All of the oxygen was being sucked up by twenty fresh-faced, giggling Girl Scouts ranging from the ages of fifteen to eighteen. Charlie tried not to shudder at the sight of them. She had a tiny smidge over a decade on most of the girls, but there was something familiar about each and every one of them.

The math nerds. The future English majors. The cheerleaders. The Plastics. The goths. The dorks. The freaks. The geeks. They all flashed the same smiles at each other, the kind that edged up at the corners of their mouths because, at any time, one of them could pull a proverbial knife: a haircut might look stupid, the wrong color nail polish could be on fingernails, the wrong shoes, the wrong tights, the wrong word and suddenly you were on the outside looking in.

Charlie could still recall what it felt like to be stuck in the purgatory of the outside. There was nothing more torturous, more lonely, than being iced out by a gaggle of teenage girls.

“Cake?” Belinda offered her a paper-thin slice of sheet cake.

“Hm,” was all Charlie could say. Her stomach felt queasy. She couldn’t stop her gaze from traveling around the sparsely furnished rec room. The girls were all young, thin and beautiful in a way that Charlie did not appreciate when she was among them. Short miniskirts. Tight T-shirts and blouses opened one button too many. They seemed so frighteningly confident. They flicked back their long, fake blonde hair as they laughed. They narrowed expertly made-up eyes as they listened to stories. Sashes were askew. Vests were unbuttoned. Some of these girls were in serious violation of the Girl Scout dress code.

Charlie said, “I can’t remember what we talked about when we were that age.”

“That the Culpepper girls were a bunch of bitches.”

Charlie winced at the name of her torturers. She took the plate from Belinda, but only to keep her hands occupied. “Why aren’t any of them asking me questions?”

“We never asked questions,” Belinda said, and Charlie felt instant regret that she had spurned all the career women who had spoken at her Girl Scout meetings. The speakers had all seemed so old. Charlie was not old. She still had her badge-filled sash in a closet somewhere at home. She was a kick-ass lawyer. She was married to an adorable guy. She was in the best shape of her life. These girls should think she was awesome. They should be inundating her with questions about how she got to be so cool instead of snickering in their little cliques, likely discussing how much pig’s blood to put in a bucket over Charlie’s head.

“I can’t believe their make-up,” Belinda said. “My mother almost scrubbed the eyes off my face when I tried to sneak out with mascara on.”

Charlie’s mother had been killed when she was thirteen, but she could recall many a lecture from Lenore, her father’s secretary, about the dangerous message sent by too-tight Jordache jeans.

Not that Lenore had been able to stop her.

Belinda said, “I’m not going to raise Layla like that.” She meant her three-year-old daughter, who had somehow turned out to be a thoughtful, angelic child despite her mother’s lifelong love of beer pong, tequila shooters, and unemployed guys who rode motorcycles. “These girls, they’re sweet, but they have no sense of shame. They think everything they do is okay. And don’t even get me started on the sex. The things they say in meetings.” She snorted, leaving out the best part. “We were never like that.”

Charlie had seen quite the opposite, especially when a Harley was involved. “I guess the point of feminism is that they have choices, not that they do exactly what we think they should do.”

“Well, maybe, but we’re still right and they’re still wrong.”

“Now you sound like a mother.” Charlie used her fork to cut off a section of chocolate frosting from the cake. It landed like paste on her tongue. She handed the plate back to Belinda. “I was terrified of disappointing my mom.”

Belinda finished the cake. “I was terrified of your mom, period.”

Charlie smiled, then she put her hand to her stomach as the frosting roiled around like driftwood in a tsunami.

“You okay?” Belinda asked.

Charlie held up her hand. The sickness came over her so suddenly that she couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was.

Belinda knew the look. “It’s down the hall on the—”

Charlie bolted out of the room. She kept her hand tight to her mouth as she tried doors. A closet. Another closet.

A fresh-faced Girl Scout was coming out of the last door she tried.

“Oh,” the teenager said, flinging up her hands, backing away.

Charlie ran into the closest stall and sloughed the contents of her stomach into the toilet. The force was so much that tears squeezed out of her eyes. She gripped the side of the bowl with both hands. She made grunting noises that she would be ashamed for any human being to hear.

But someone did hear.

“Ma’am?” the teenager asked, which somehow made everything worse, because Charlie was not old enough to be called ma’am. “Ma’am, are you okay?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you. You can go away.” Charlie bit her lip so that she wouldn’t curse the helpful little creature like a dog. She searched for her purse. It was outside the stall. Her wallet had fallen out, her keys, a pack of gum, loose change. The strap dragged across the greasy-looking tile floor like a tail. She started to reach out for it, but gave up when her stomach clenched. All she could do was sit on the filthy bathroom floor, gather her hair up off her neck, and pray that her troubles would be confined to one end of her body.

“Ma’am?” the girl repeated.

Charlie desperately wanted to tell her to get the hell out, but couldn’t risk opening her mouth. She waited, eyes closed, listening to the silence, begging her ears to pick out the sound of the door closing as the girl left.

Instead, the faucet was turned on. Water ran into the sink. Paper towels were pulled from the dispenser.

Charlie opened her eyes. She flushed the toilet. Why on earth was she so ill?

It couldn’t be the cake. Charlie was lactose intolerant, but Belinda would never make anything from scratch. Canned frosting was 99 percent chemicals, usually not enough to send her over the edge. Was it the happy chicken from General Ho’s she’d had for supper last night? The egg roll she’d sneaked out of the fridge before going to bed? The luncheon meat she’d scarfed down before her morning run? The breakfast burrito fiesta she’d gotten at Taco Bell on the way to the Y?

Jesus, she ate like a sixteen-year-old boy.

The faucet turned off.

Charlie should have at least opened the stall door, but a quick survey of the damage changed her mind. Her navy skirt was hiked up. Pantyhose ripped. There were splatters on her white silk blouse that would likely never come out. Worst of all, she had scuffed the toe of her new shoe, a navy high-heel Lenore had helped her pick out for court.

“Ma’am?” the teen said. She was holding a wet paper towel under the stall door.

“Thank you,” Charlie managed. She pressed the cool towel to the back of her neck and closed her eyes again. Was this a stomach bug?

“Ma’am, I can get you something to drink,” the girl offered.

Charlie almost threw up again at the thought of Belinda’s cough-mediciney punch. If the girl was not going to leave, she might as well be put to use. “There’s some change in my wallet. Do you mind getting a ginger ale from the machine?”

The girl knelt down on the floor. Charlie saw the familiar khaki-colored sash with badges sewn all over it. Customer Loyalty. Business Planning. Marketing. Financial Literacy. Top Seller. Apparently, she knew how to move some cookies.

Charlie said, “The bills are in the side.”

The girl opened her wallet. Charlie’s driver’s license was in the clear plastic part. “I thought your last name was Quinn?”

“It is. At work. That’s my married name.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Four and a half years.”

“My gran says it takes five years before you hate them.”

Charlie could not imagine ever hating her husband. She also couldn’t imagine keeping up her end of this under-stall conversation. The urge to puke again was tickling at the back of her throat.

“Your dad is Rusty Quinn,” the girl said, which meant that she has been in town for more than ten minutes. Charlie’s father had a reputation in Pikeville because of the clients he defended—convenience store robbers, drug dealers, murderers and assorted felons. How people in town viewed Rusty generally depended on whether or not they or a family member ever needed his services.

The girl said, “I heard he helps people.”

“He does.” Charlie did not like how the words echoed back to Dexter’s reminder that she had turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in the city so that she could work for people who really needed her. If there was one guiding ethos in Charlie’s life, it was that she was not going to be like her father.

“I bet he’s expensive.” The girl asked, “Are you expensive? I mean, when you help people?”

Charlie put her hand to her mouth again. How could she ask this teenager to please get her some ginger ale without screaming at her?

“I enjoyed your speech,” the girl said. “My mom was killed in a car accident when I was little.”

Charlie waited for context, but there was none. The girl slid a dollar bill out of Charlie’s wallet and finally, thankfully, left.

There was nothing to do in the ensuing silence but see if she could stand. Charlie had fortuitously ended up in the handicapped stall. She gripped the metal rails and shakily pulled herself up to standing. She spat into the toilet a few times before flushing it again. When she opened the stall door, the mirror greeted her with a pale, sickly-looking woman in a $120 puke-spotted silk blouse. Her dark hair looked wild. Her lips had a bluish tint.

Charlie lifted her hair, holding it in a ponytail. She turned on the sink and slurped water into her mouth. She caught her reflection again as she leaned down to spit.

Her mother’s eyes looked back at her. Her mother’s arched eyebrow.

What’s going on in that mind of yours, Charlie?

Charlie had heard this question at least three or four times a week back when her mother was alive. She would be sitting in the kitchen doing her homework, or on the floor of her room trying to do some kind of craft project, and her mother would sit opposite her and ask the same question that she always asked.

What is going on in your mind?

It was not contrived to be a conversation starter. Her mother was a scientist and a scholar. She had never been one for idle chitchat. She was genuinely curious about what thoughts filled her thirteen-year-old daughter’s head.

Until Charlie had met her husband, no one else had ever expressed such genuine interest.

The door opened. The girl was back with a ginger ale. She was pretty, though not conventionally so. She did not seem to fit in with her perfectly coifed peers. Her dark hair was long and straight, pinned back with a silver clip on one side. She was young-looking, probably fifteen, but her face was absent of make-up. Her crisp green Girl Scout T-shirt was tucked into her faded jeans, which Charlie felt was unfair because in her day they had been forced to wear scratchy white button-up shirts and khaki skirts with knee socks.

Charlie did not know which felt worse, that she had thrown up or that she had just employed the phrase, “in her day.”

“I’ll put the change in your wallet,” the girl offered.

“Thank you.” Charlie drank some of the ginger ale while the girl neatly repacked the contents of her purse.

The girl said, “Those stains on your blouse will come out with a mixture of a tablespoon of ammonia, a quart of warm water and a half a teaspoon of detergent. You soak it in a bowl.”

“Thank you again.” Charlie wasn’t sure she wanted to soak anything she owned in ammonia, but judging by the badges on the sash, the girl knew what she was talking about. “How long have you been in Girl Scouts?”

“I got my start as a Brownie. My mom signed me up. I thought it was lame, but you learn lots of things, like business skills.”

“My mom signed me up, too.” Charlie had never thought it was lame. She had loved all the projects and the camping trips and especially eating the cookies she had made her parents buy. “What’s your name?”

“Flora Faulkner,” she said. “My mom named me Florabama, because I was born on the state line, but I go by Flora.”

Charlie smiled, but only because she knew that she was going to laugh about this later with her husband. “There are worse things that you could be called.”

Flora looked down at her hands. “A lot of the girls are pretty good at thinking of mean things.”

Clearly, this was some kind of opening, but Charlie was at a loss for words. She combed back through her knowledge of after-school specials. All she could remember was that movie of the week where Ted Danson is married to Glenn Close and she finds out that he’s molesting their teenage daughter but she’s been cold in bed so it’s probably her fault so they all go to therapy and learn to live with it.

“Miss Quinn?” Flora put Charlie’s purse on the counter. “Do you want me to get you some crackers?”

“No, I’m fine.”

Excerpt from Last Breath by Karin Slaughter. Copyright © 2017 by Karin Slaughter. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Karin Slaughter is one of the world’s most popular and acclaimed storytellers. Published in 36 languages, with more than 35 million copies sold across the globe, her sixteen novels include the Grant County and Will Trent books, as well as the Edgar-nominated Cop Town and the instant New York Times bestselling novel Pretty Girls. A native of Georgia, Karin currently lives in Atlanta. Her Will Trent series, Grant County series, and standalone novel Cop Town are all in development for film and television.

Catch Up With Our Author:

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

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