Wednesday, June 23, 2021

#Review - The Untamed Moon by Jenn Stark #Fantasy #Romance

Series: Wilde Justice # 7
Format: E-Galley
Release Date:  June 23rd 2021
Publisher: Elewyn Publishing
Source: Publisher
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Romance

“Swear not by the Moon, the inconstant Moon…”

Night is falling on the world of the Arcana Council, and the darkest corners of the psychic community are stirring, eager for war no matter the cost.

In a last-ditch effort to maintain the balance of magic, Justice Sara Wilde launches an all-out search for the Moon, one of the Council’s most powerful missing members. With a team that includes the darkly formidable Magician, the tech-savant Fool and the incomparable Nikki Dawes…Sara likes her odds for finding her quarry in time.

Unfortunately, she’s not alone in the hunt.

A cry for help from the depths of South America triggers Sara’s oldest enemies, the cutthroat artifact hunters of the arcane black market. In a race to find the deeply secretive, elusive Moon, the winner is promised power beyond their wildest imagination. Are these claims pure lies and moonlit fantasy? Or a sign that when the Moon is in play, nothing is ever as it seems?

The truth is deadlier than anyone expects.

Even your shadow will betray you when you hunt The Untamed Moon.

The Untamed Moon is the Seventh installment in author Jenn Stark's Wilde Justice series. Summary: Sara Wilde who once was a tarot card wielding treasure hunter, is now Justice of the Arcana Council. The Arcana Council is a group of sorcerers, some actual demigods, who are supposed to keep the magic balanced. Sara, in her position that she took over at the beginning of this spin-off series, is supposed to right wrongs perpetrated against connecteds by other connecteds. Spoiler alert: there's a whole lot of wrongs to deal with.

At the end of The Night Witch, Sariah Pelter has become Sara's right hand doing things Sara won't do. Which is where we begin the story. Sara and Sariah find themselves in Pennsauken, New Jersey which is said to be a gateway to Hell. Since Sariah and Sara both know a thing or two about Hell, both spent time there, they also know that what is happening here might be a key to what happens later in the story. Joining them there is Krieos, the Devil of the Arcana Council and its leader. It's interesting that Sariah has an ability that comes in handy more times than not. 

Sara once again proves that we, as readers, need to know what abilities her parents have since she appears to get stronger, and stronger every single time out. I am not bloviating here. She is able to do things that no other member of the Council is able to do. Especially when it comes to her connection with Armaeus, the Magician of the Arcana Council. Now, Sara and her immediate allies like Nikki Dawes, Simon the Fool, Armaeus, and yes, even Krieos have enemies at every turn. They have the Shadow Council which has been itching for a war. 

They have others who may be closer than they think whose loyalties to the Council may be more questionable than not. The story's main focus is on finding the missing Moon and the Star before their enemies do. When a ring sent by a long time artifact hunter arrives on Sara's door, she's positively sure that trouble awaits. The search for Roland Franklin begins with Sara, Simon, Nikki, and Nigel Friedman, a Brit artifact hunter and once adversary of Sara's, traveling to Peru where other groups of artifact hunters have been drawn to. Where ever Sara goes, trouble isn't that far behind. 

With the Moon not being seen for a thousand years, and enemies biting at their heels, time may be running out. Sara and her allies will fight demons, get a visit from the Syx who have become series regulars, and get introduced to a new Council member, while wondering if any of them will survive the war that is closing in on them.  I'm going to stop here as what happens in this story will rock your block off if you've read this series from the beginning. There is a shocking revelation, although it really will make sense once you've read about it.  

Alas, the author gives readers welcome news about when the next installment, The Shattered Dawn, is going to be released. Thus, we don't have to wait that long before the 8th installment is released and it should be a doozy!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

#Review - These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong #YA #Fantasy #Historical

Series: These Violent Delights # 1
Format: Hardcover, 464 pages
Release Date: November 17, 2020
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Historical

Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Serpent & Dove, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.  

These Violent Delights is the first installment in author Chloe Gong's These Violent Delights duology. This story focuses on two main characters: Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov. Once upon a time, the two were thick as thieves. But after a deep betrayal, Juliette was sent off to the States and has just returned after 4 years of being Stateside. Juliette is the heiress of the Scarlett Gang. She can speak Mandarin, Russian, French, English, Dutch, and probably others. During the time that she's been away, her cousin, Tyler, has tried to prove himself worthy to be the heir of the Scarlet Gang.
Roma Montagov is the heir of The White Flowers, a rival Russian gang, and Juliette’s first love and betrayal. Roma is the type of guy that seems tough on the outside but on the inside, he’s a softie. He has family issues; Roma’s father isn’t entirely trusting of him and someone wants to take his spot as heir. With Red Communists spreading their message among the lower classes, when people of Shanghai begin ripping out their own throats as a result of a mysterious contagious disease, talk runs around that a monster in the Huangpu river may be the source of all the catastrophes. Roma and Juliette have to work together regardless of family history to solve this mystery and save their people.
Juliette is by far the most interesting and layered character. She struggles to affirm her place as the heir of the Scarlet Gang and reconcile her western life and leanings with being back in Shanghai. Without her flapper clothes and finger waves, nobody recognizes her. The gang has no respect for her. She feels like an outsider. She has to prove herself more than Roma because of those like Tyler who are itching to punch their own tickets to the top of the food chain. And, even though there is feelings between her and Roma, she can't allow those feelings to strengthen or she'll lose all respect. 
Roma is nothing like the Romeo in Shakespeare. Although he is the heir of the White Flowers, Roma does not have the same ruthlessness as Juliette and actually tries to avoid killing others. He tries to avoid bloodshed when possible and even pushes Juliette's heart strings every chance he gets. The ending of this book is a soul crusher, and no, I am not going to spoil what happens. As a side note, Juliette’s cousins, Kathleen and Rosalind, and Roma’s two right hand men, Benedikt and Marshall, get a few of their own POV chapters as well as surprising strengths I didn't see coming. 
Since this is marketed as a Romeo and Juliette retelling, I think people’s expectations might be different from what this actually is. You can have a retelling without sticking page by page to the original script. You can create a very unusual and original story and still keep your readers attention if you have a interesting main characters as well as secondary characters. One of the parts that really are historical in nature, was the backdrop of political scheming, the influence of the Nationalists and the Communists and how the gangs are dealing with that. This war is still going on with the CCP of China and the Nationalists of Taiwan who refuse to bow and surrender.
*History Lesson: In 1920s Shanghai, the city had many foreign occupiers from the British, to the French, to Americans, to Russians, etc thanks to the French Concession and other so called treaties. French Concession was built on April 6 in 1849 after China’s loss in the Opium Wars in 1842. Shanghai, among other cities, was forced to open themselves as an international “ports of call.” In 1849, the government of Shanghai conceded a large of segment of land to the French consulate which they kept until Vichy France gave it to the Chinese. Within the concession area, it had its own laws and enforcement. Entrance by local Chinese was strictly limited. 
During that period, many Chinese artists and intellectuals took the French concession as their home. American and British settlers also flooded into this area in 1920’s. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, a number of Russian’s also moved into this area. In such land allotment, opium and gambling were main businesses in 1930’s. In 1937, the Japanese army invaded Shanghai and many residents left the city. During World War II, many remaining Shanghai residents were forced to stay at camps built by the Japanese. After 1946, the Japanese army was forced out of Shanghai and most foreign concessions were officially closed. One could legitimately say that Communism was the result of Colonialism and watch historians squirm. 

Chapter OneOne

In the heart of Scarlet Gang territory, a burlesque club was the place to be.

The calendar was rolling closer and closer to the end of the season, the pages of each date ripping free and blowing away quicker than the browning tree leaves. Time was both hurried and unhurried at once, the days becoming scarce yet dragging on for far too long. Workers were always hurrying somewhere, never mind whether they truly had a destination to pursue. There was always a whistle blowing in the background; there was always the constant chugging noise of trams dragging themselves along the worn tracks grooved into the streets; there was always the stench of resentment stinking up the neighborhoods and burrowing deep into the laundry that waved with the wind, like shop banners outside cramped apartment windows.

Today was an exception.

The clock had paused on the Mid-Autumn Festival—the twenty-second of the month, according to Western methods of day-keeping this year. Once, it was customary to light lanterns and whisper tales of tragedy, to worship what the ancestors revered with moonlight cupped in their palms. Now it was a new age—one that thought itself above its ancestors. Regardless of which territory they stood upon, the people of Shanghai had been bustling about with the spirit of modern celebration since sunrise, and at present, with the bells ringing nine times for the hour, the festivities were only getting started.

Juliette Cai was surveying the club, her eyes searching for the first signs of trouble. It was dimly lit despite the abundance of twinkling chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the atmosphere dark and murky and wet. There was also a strange, sodden smell wafting under Juliette’s nose in waves, but the poor renovations seemed not to bother the mood of those seated at various round tables scattered throughout the club. The people here would hardly take notice of a small leak in the corner when constant activity consumed their attention instead. Couples were whispering over decks of tarot cards, men were shaking one another with vigor, women were inclining their heads to gasp and shriek in recollection of whatever story was being told over the flickering gaslight.

“You look rather woeful.”

Juliette didn’t immediately turn in haste to identify the voice. She didn’t have to. There were very few people who would approach her speaking English to begin with, never mind English with the flat tones of a Chinese mother tongue and the accent of a French upbringing.

“I am. I am perpetually filled with woe.” Only then did she crane her head, her lips curling up and her eyes narrowing at her cousin. “Aren’t you supposed to be onstage next?”

Rosalind Lang shrugged and crossed her arms, the jade bangles on her slender brown wrists clinking together.

“They cannot begin the show without me,” Rosalind scoffed, “so I am not worried.”

Juliette scanned the crowd again, this time with a target in mind. She found Kathleen, Rosalind’s fraternal twin, near a table at the back of the club. Her other cousin was patiently balancing a tray full of plates, staring at a British merchant while he tried to order a drink with exaggerated gesticulations. Rosalind was under contract here to dance; Kathleen showed up to wait tables when she got bored, and took a measly wage for the fun of it.

Sighing, Juliette dug out a lighter to keep her hands occupied, releasing the flame, then quenching it to the rhythm of the music gliding around the room. She waved the small silver rectangle under her cousin’s nose. “Want?”

Rosalind responded by pulling out a cigarette tucked within the folds of her clothing.

“You don’t even smoke,” she said as Juliette angled the lighter down. “Why do you carry that thing around?”

Straight-faced, Juliette replied, “You know me. Running around. Living life. Committing arson.”

Rosalind inhaled her first puff of smoke, then rolled her eyes. “Right.”

A better mystery would have been where Juliette even kept the lighter. Most girls in the burlesque club—dancer or patron alike—were dressed as Rosalind was: in the fashionable qipao sweeping through Shanghai like a wildfire. With the outrageous slit down the side revealing ankle to thigh and the high collar acting like a choke hold, the design was a blend of Western flamboyance with Eastern roots, and in a city of divided worlds, the women were walking metaphors. But Juliette—Juliette had been transformed through and through, the little beads of her pocketless flapper dress swishing with every movement. She stood out here, that much was certain. She was a bright, burning star, a symbolic figurehead for the vitality of the Scarlet Gang.

Juliette and Rosalind both quietly turned their attention to the stage, where a woman was crooning a song in a language that neither were familiar with. The singer’s voice was lovely, her dress shimmering against dark skin, but this was not the sort of show that this sort of cabaret was known for, and so no one save the two girls at the back was listening.

“You didn’t tell me you would be here tonight,” Rosalind said after a while, smoke escaping her mouth in a quick stream. There was betrayal in her voice, like the omission of information was out of character. The Juliette who had returned last week was not the same Juliette that her cousins had waved goodbye to four years ago, but the changes were mutual. Upon Juliette’s return, before she had even set foot back into the house, she had heard talk of Rosalind’s honey-coated tongue and effortless class. After four years away, Juliette’s memories of the people she had left behind no longer aligned with who they had become. Nothing of her memory had withstood the test of time. This city had reshaped itself and everyone in it had continued moving forward without her, especially Rosalind.

“It was very last minute.” Over at the back of the club, the British merchant had started pantomiming to Kathleen. Juliette gestured toward the scene with her chin. “B├ába is getting tired of some merchant called Walter Dexter pushing for a meeting, so I’m to hear what he wants.”

“Sounds boring,” Rosalind intoned. Her cousin always had a bite to her words, even when speaking with the driest intonation. A small smile perked at Juliette’s lips. At the very least, even if Rosalind felt like a stranger—albeit a familiar one—she would always sound the same. Juliette could close her eyes and pretend they were children again, sniping at each other about the most offensive topics.

She sniffed haughtily, feigning offense. “We can’t all be Parisian-trained dancers.”

“Tell you what, you take over my routine and I’ll be the heir to this city’s underground empire.”

A laugh burst from Juliette, short and loud in her amusement. Her cousin was different. Everything was different. But Juliette was a fast learner.

With a soft sigh, she pushed away from the wall she was leaning upon. “All right,” she said, her gaze latched on Kathleen. “Duty calls. I’ll see you at home.”

Rosalind let her leave with a wave, dropping the cigarette to the ground and crushing it under her high-heeled shoe. Juliette really ought to have admonished her for doing so, but the floor couldn’t have gotten any dirtier than its current state, so what was the point? From the moment she stepped into this place, five different sorts of opium had probably smeared into her soles. All she could do was push through the club as gingerly as possible, hoping the maids wouldn’t damage the leather of her shoes when they scrubbed them clean later tonight.

“I’ll take it from here.”

Kathleen’s chin jerked up in surprise, the jade pendant at her throat gleaming under the light. Rosalind used to tell her that someone was going to snatch such a precious stone if she wore it so obviously, but Kathleen liked it there. If people were to stare her throat, she always said she would rather it be because of the pendant than the bump of her Adam’s apple underneath.

Her startled expression quickly smoothed into a smile, realizing it was Juliette sliding into the seat opposite the British merchant.

“Let me know if I can get anything for you,” Kathleen said sweetly, in perfect, French-accented English.

As she walked away, Walter Dexter’s jaw dropped slack. “She could understand me this whole time?”

“You’ll learn, Mr. Dexter,” Juliette began, swiping the candle from the center of the table and taking a sniff of the scented wax, “that when you assume someone cannot speak English right off the bat, they tend to make fun of you.”

Walter blinked at her, then cocked his head. He took in her dress, her American accent, and her knowledge of his name.

“Juliette Cai,” he concluded. “I was expecting your father.”

The Scarlet Gang called itself a family business, but it did not stop there. The Cais were the pulsing heart, but the gang itself was a network of gangsters and smugglers and merchants and middlemen of all sorts, each and every single one of them answering to Lord Cai. Less-enthused foreigners would call the Scarlets a secret society.

“My father has no time for merchants with no credible history,” Juliette replied. “If it’s important, I will pass along the message.”

Unfortunately, it appeared that Walter Dexter was far more interested in small talk than actual business.

“Last I heard, you had moved to become a New Yorker.”

Juliette dropped the candle back onto the table. The flame flickered, casting eerie shadows over the middle-aged merchant. The lighting only deepened the wrinkles in his perpetually scrunched forehead.

“I was only sent to the West for education, regrettably,” Juliette said, leaning back into the curved couch seat. “Now I’m old enough to start contributing to the family business and whatnot, so they dragged me back kicking and screaming.”

The merchant didn’t laugh along to her joke, as Juliette had intended. Instead, he tapped his temple, ruffling his silver-patched hair.

“Hadn’t you also returned for a brief period of time a few years ago?”

Juliette stiffened, her grin faltering. Behind her, a table of patrons erupted with uproarious laughter, collapsing in mirth over some comment made among themselves. The sound prickled at her neck, sweeping a hot sweat over her skin. She waited for the noise to die down, using the interruption to think fast and scramble hard.

“Just once,” Juliette replied carefully. “New York City wasn’t too safe during the Great War. My family was worried.”

The merchant still didn’t drop the subject. He made a noise of consideration. “The war ended eight years ago. You were here a mere four previous.”

Juliette’s smile dropped entirely. She pushed her bobbed hair back.

“Mr. Dexter, are we here to discuss your extensive knowledge of my personal life, or did this meeting actually have a purpose?”

Walter blanched. “I apologize, Miss Cai. My son, he’s your age, so I happened to know—”

He cut himself off upon noting Juliette’s glare. He cleared his throat.

“I requested to meet with your father regarding a new product.”

Immediately, despite the vague word choice, it was quite clear what Walter Dexter was referring to. The Scarlet Gang was, first and foremost, a network of gangsters, and there was seldom a time when gangsters weren’t heavily involved with the black market. If the Scarlets dominated Shanghai, it was hardly surprising that they dominated the black market, too—decided the comings and goings, decided the men who were allowed to thrive and the men who needed to drop dead. In the parts of the city that still belonged to the Chinese, the Scarlet Gang was not simply above the law; they were the law. Without the gangsters, the merchants were unprotected. Without the merchants, the gangsters would have little purpose or work. It was an ideal partnership—and one being threatened continually by the growing power of the White Flowers, the one other gang in Shanghai that actually had a chance at defeating the Scarlets in black market monopoly. After all, they had been working at it for generations.

“A product, hmm?” Juliette repeated. Her eyes swiveled up absently. The performers had switched, the spotlight dimming as the first opening notes from a saxophone played. Adorned in a brilliant new costume, Rosalind sashayed into view. “Remember what happened the last time the British wanted to introduce a new product into Shanghai?”

Walter frowned. “Are you referring to the Opium Wars?”

Juliette examined her fingernails. “Am I?”

“You cannot possibly blame me for something that was the fault of my country.”

“Oh, that’s not how it works?”

It was Walter’s turn to look unimpressed. He folded his hands together as skirts swished and skin flashed on the stage behind him.

“Nevertheless, I require the help of the Scarlet Gang. I have bulk amounts of lernicrom to be rid of, and it is certain to be the next most desired opiate on the market.” Walter cleared his throat. “I believe you are seeking an upper hand right now.”

Juliette leaned forward. In that sudden motion, the beads on her dress clinked together frantically, clashing with the jazz in the background. “And do you really think you can give us an upper hand?”

The constant grappling between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers wasn’t a secret. Far from it, in fact, because the blood feud was not something that raged only between those with Cai and Montagov to their name. It was a cause that ordinary members loyal to either faction took on personally, with a fervor that could almost be supernatural. Foreigners arriving in Shanghai to do business for the first time received one warning before learning of anything else: pick a side and pick it fast. If they traded once with the Scarlet Gang, they were a Scarlet through and through. They would be embraced in Scarlet territory and killed if they wandered into the areas where the White Flowers reigned.

“I think,” Walter said softly, “that the Scarlet Gang is losing control of its own city.”

Juliette sat back. Underneath the table, her fists tightened until the skin over her knuckles became bloodless. Four years ago, she had looked at Shanghai with glitter in her eyes, blinking at the Scarlet Gang with hope. She hadn’t understood that Shanghai was a foreign city in its own country. Now she did. The British ruled a chunk. The French ruled a chunk. The Russian White Flowers were taking over the only parts that technically remained under Chinese governance. This loss of control was a long time coming—but Juliette would rather bite off her own tongue than admit it freely to a merchant who understood nothing.

“We will get back to you regarding your product, Mr. Dexter,” she said after a long moment, flashing an easy smile. She let out her exhale imperceptibly, releasing the tension that had tightened her stomach to the point of pain. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

The entire club fell into a hush, and suddenly Juliette was speaking too loudly. Walter’s eyes bugged, latching on to a sight over Juliette’s shoulder.

“I’ll be,” he remarked. “If it isn’t one of the Bolshies.”

At the merchant’s words, Juliette felt herself go ice-cold. Slowly, ever so slowly, she turned around to seek Walter Dexter’s line of sight, searching through the smoke and shadows dancing at the entranceway of the burlesque club.

Please, don’t let it be, she pleaded. Anyone but—

Her vision turned hazy. For a terrifying second, the world was tilting on its axis and Juliette was barely clinging to its edge, moments away from taking a tumble. Then the floor righted itself and Juliette could breathe again. She stood and cleared her throat, concentrating all her might on sounding as bored as possible when she stated, “The Montagovs emigrated far before the Bolshevik Revolution, Mr. Dexter.”

Before anybody could take note of her, Juliette slinked into the shadows, where the dark walls dimmed the sparkling of her dress and the soggy floorboards muffled the clicking of her heels. Her precautions were unnecessary. Everyone’s gaze was firmly latched on Roma Montagov as he wound his way through the club. For once Rosalind was carrying out a performance that not a soul was paying attention to.

At first glance it could have seemed like the shock emanating from the round tables was because a foreigner had walked in. But this club had many foreigners scattered throughout the crowd, and Roma, with his dark hair, dark eyes, and pale skin could have blended in among the Chinese as naturally as a white rose painted red amid poppies. It wasn’t because Roma Montagov was a foreigner. It was because the heir of the White Flowers was wholly recognizable as an enemy on Scarlet Gang territory. From the corner of her eye, Juliette was already catching sight of movement: guns pulled from pockets and knives pointed outward, bodies stirring with animosity.

Juliette stepped out of the shadows and lifted a hand to the closest table. The motion was simple: wait.

The gangsters stilled, each group watching those nearby in example. They waited, pretending to go on with their conversations while Roma Montagov passed table after table, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

Juliette started to creep closer. She pressed a hand to her throat and forced the lump there down, forced her breath to become even until she wasn’t on the verge of panic, until she could wipe on a dazzling smile. Once, Roma would have been able to see right through her. But four years had gone by now. He had changed. So had she.

Juliette reached out and touched the back of his suit jacket. “Hello, stranger.”

Roma turned around. For a moment it seemed as if he hadn’t registered the sight before him. He stared, his gaze as blank as clear glass, utterly uncomprehending.

Then the sight of the Scarlet heiress washed over him like a bucket of ice. Roma’s lips parted with a small puff of air.

The last time he’d seen her, they had been fifteen.

“Juliette,” he exclaimed automatically, but they were no longer familiar enough to use each other’s first names. They hadn’t been for a long while.

Roma cleared his throat. “Miss Cai. When did you return to Shanghai?”

I never left, Juliette wanted to say, but that wasn’t true. Her mind had remained here—her thoughts had constantly revolved around the chaos and the injustice and the burning fury that broiled in these streets—but her physical body had been shipped across the ocean a second time for safekeeping. She had hated it, hated being away so intensely that she felt the force of it burn into a fever each night when she left the parties and speakeasies. The weight of Shanghai was a steel crown nailed to her head. In another world, if she had been given a choice, perhaps she would have walked away, rejected herself as the heir to an empire of mobsters and merchants. But she never had a choice. This was her life, this was her city, these were her people, and because she loved them, she had sworn to herself a long time ago that she would do a damn good job of being who she was because she could be no one else.

It’s all your fault, she wanted to say. You’re the reason I was forced away from my city. My people. My blood.

“I returned a while ago,” Juliette lied easily, checking her hip against the vacant table to her left. “Mr. Montagov, you’ll have to forgive me for asking, but what are you doing here?”

She watched Roma move his hand ever so slightly and guessed that he was checking for the presence of his hidden weapons. She watched him take her in, slow to form words. Juliette had had time to brace herself—seven days and seven nights to enter this city and scrub her mind free of everything that had happened here between them. But whatever Roma had expected to find in this club when he walked in tonight, it certainly hadn’t been Juliette.

“I need to speak to Lord Cai,” Roma finally said, placing his hands behind his back. “It’s important.”

Juliette took a step closer. Her fingers had happened upon the lighter from within the folds of her dress again, thumbing the spark wheel while she hummed in thought. Roma said Cai like a foreign merchant, his mouth pulled wide. The Chinese and the Russians shared the same sound for Cai: tsai, like the sound of a match being struck. His butchering was intentional, an observation of the situation. She was fluent in Russian, he was fluent in Shanghai’s unique dialect, and yet here they were, both speaking English with different accents like a couple of casual merchants. Switching to either of their native tongues would have been like taking a side, so they settled for a middle ground.

“I imagine it must be important, if you’ve come all the way here.” Juliette shrugged, letting go of the lighter. “Speak to me instead, and I’ll pass along the message. One heir to another, Mr. Montagov. You can trust me, can’t you?”

It was a laughable question. Her words said one thing, but her cold, flat stare said another—One misstep while you’re in my territory, and I’ll kill you with my bare hands. She was the last person he would trust, and the same went the other way.

But whatever it was that Roma needed, it must have been serious. He didn’t argue.

“Can we…?”

He gestured to the side, into the shadows and the dim corners, where there would be less of an audience turned toward them like a second show, waiting for the moment Juliette walked away so they could pounce. Thinning her lips, Juliette pivoted and waved him along to the back of the club instead. He was fast to follow, his measured steps coming closely enough that the beads of Juliette’s dress clinked angrily in disturbance. She didn’t know why she was bothering. She should have thrown him to the Scarlets, let them deal with him.

No, she decided. He is mine to deal with. He is mine to destroy.

Juliette stopped. Now it was just her and Roma Montagov in the shadows, other sounds muffled and other sights dimmed. She rubbed her wrist, demanding her pulse slow down, as if that were within her control.

“Jump to it, then,” she said.

Roma looked around. He ducked his head before speaking, lowering his voice until Juliette had to strain to hear him. And indeed she strained—she refused to lean any closer to him than she had to.

“Last night, five White Flowers died at the ports. Their throats had been torn out.”

Juliette blinked at him.


She didn’t mean to be callous, but members of both their gangs killed each other on the weekly. Juliette herself had already added to the death toll. If he was going to put the blame on her Scarlets, then he was wasting his time.

And,” Roma said tightly, clearly biting back if you would let me finish, “one of yours. As well as a municipal police officer. British.”

Now Juliette frowned a little, trying to recall if she had overheard anyone in the household last night muttering about a Scarlet death. It was strange for both gangs to have victims on scene, given that larger killings usually happened in ambushes, and stranger still for a police officer to have been pulled down too, but she wouldn’t go so far as to say it was bizarre. She only raised an eyebrow at Roma, disinterested.

Until, continuing onward, he said, “All their wounds were self-inflicted. This wasn’t a territory dispute.”

Juliette shook her head repeatedly to one side, making sure she hadn’t misheard him. When she was certain there was nothing jammed in her ear, she exclaimed, “Seven dead bodies with self-inflicted wounds?”

Roma nodded. He placed another look over his shoulder, as if merely keeping an eye on the gangsters around the tables would prevent them from attacking him. Or perhaps he didn’t care to keep an eye on them at all. Perhaps he was trying to avoid looking straight ahead at Juliette.

“I’m here to find an explanation. Does your father know anything of this?”

Juliette scoffed, the noise deep and resentful. Did he mean to tell her that five White Flowers, one Scarlet, and a police officer had met up at the ports, then torn out their own throats? It sounded like the setup of a terrible joke without a punch line.

“We cannot help you,” Juliette stated.

“Any information could be crucial to discovering what happened, Miss Cai,” Roma persisted. A little notch between his eyebrows always appeared like a crescent moon whenever he was irritated. It was present now. There was more to these deaths than he was letting on; he wouldn’t get this worked up for an ordinary ambush. “One of the dead was yours—”

“We’re not going to cooperate with the White Flowers,” Juliette cut in. Any false humor on her face had long disappeared. “Let me make that clear before you proceed. Regardless of whether my father knows anything about last night’s deaths, we will not be sharing it with you and we will not be furthering any contact that could endanger our own business endeavors. Now, good day, sir.”

Roma had clearly been dismissed, and yet he remained where he stood, glaring at Juliette like there was a sour taste in his mouth. She had already turned on her heel, preparing to make her exit, when she heard Roma whisper viciously, “What happened to you?”

She could have said anything in response. She could have chosen her words with the deathly venom she had acquired in her years away and spat it all out. She could have reminded him of what he did four years ago, pushed the blade of guilt in until he was bleeding. But before she could open her mouth, a scream was piercing through the club, interrupting every other noise as if it operated on another frequency.

The dancers onstage froze; the music was brought to a halt.

“What’s going on?” Juliette muttered. Just as she moved to investigate, Roma hissed out sharply and caught her elbow.

“Juliette, don’t.”

His touch seared through her skin like a painful burn. Juliette jerked her arm away faster than if she had truly been set alight, her eyes blazing. He didn’t have the right. He had lost the right to pretend he had ever wanted to protect her.

Juliette marched toward the other end of the club, ignoring Roma as he followed after her. Rumbles of panic grew louder and louder, though she couldn’t comprehend what was inciting such a reaction until she nudged aside the gathering crowd with an assertive push.

Then she saw the man thrashing on the ground, his own fingers clawing at his thick neck.

“What is he doing?” Juliette shrieked, lunging forward. “Somebody stop him!”

But most of his nails were already buried deep into muscle. The man was digging with an animal-like intensity—as if there was something there, something no one else could see crawling under his skin. Deeper, deeper, deeper, until his fingers were wholly buried and he was pulling free tendons and veins and arteries.

In the next second, the club had fallen silent completely. Nothing was audible save the labored breathing of the short and stout man who had collapsed on the floor, his throat torn into pieces and his hands dripping with blood.

Monday, June 21, 2021

#Review - Haunted Homicide by Lucy Ness #Mystery #Cozy

Series: A Haunted Mansion Mystery (#1)
Format: Paperback, 336 pages
Release Date: September 29, 2020
Publisher: Berkley
Source: Library
Genre: Mystery & Detective / Amateur Sleuth

Avery Morgan has been hired to breathe new life into the Portage Path Women’s Club, but first she’ll have to deal with a dead body and a meddling ghost.

Avery Morgan has had a harrowing first week on the job as manager of the Portage Path Woman’s Club. Not only is she in charge of a grand old home with a mountain of maintenance problems and scheduling nightmares—thanks to a recent fire in the Marigold meeting room—but she’s also got Muriel Sadler to deal with. Muriel is the current president of the club, the one “nay” vote when the rest of the board voted “aye” to hiring Avery.

After a morning of dealing with another one of Muriel’s snits and a meeting with the delicious and delightfully unsettling Ben Harkness, who will be handling renovations in the fire-damaged portions of the house, the last thing Avery needs is for one of the fuses to blow. Again.

She grabs her handy flashlight and heads into the basement, where she stumbles across Muriel’s body. She also stumbles across an unexpected helper, Clemmie Bow, the ghost of a young woman who was accidentally killed in the building almost a hundred years ago.

Together Clemmie and Avery are determined to solve Muriel’s murder before the killer sends Avery to join Clemmie on the other side.

Haunted Homicide is the first installment in author Lucy Ness's Haunted Mansion Mystery series. 29-year-old Avery Morgan left home in Lily Dale, NY to take a job managing the Portage Path Women’s Club in Ohio, hoping for a fresh start. She is to take up the position of business manager for the Portage Path Women's Club hoping to revitalize the historical club. But things aren't exactly smooth. The club is faltering, membership is dwindling, a member claims she accidentally set a fire to a room where the clubs records are kept which now needs to be restored, and the clubs President was outvoted in hiring Avery for the position because she wanted someone else. 
To make matters worse, not only is she in charge of a grand old home with a mountain of maintenance problems and scheduling nightmares with a dwindling staff thanks to Muriel's backstabbing, but things are going to get even worse. After a morning of dealing with Ben Harkness, who will be handling renovations in the fire-damaged portions of the house, the last thing Avery needs is for one of the fuses to blow. Again. She grabs her handy flashlight and heads into the basement, where she discovers Muriel's body. 
She also stumbles across Clemmie Bow, flapper ghost of a young woman who was accidentally killed in the building almost a hundred years ago. The murder just adds another strike against the PPWC, and the remaining board members ask Avery to see if she can help figure out who murdered Muriel. Curiously, about everyone associated with Muriel and the club has a motive for murder. To make things even more twisted, Avery's room is trashed and personal items are missing. As Avery and her new ghost friend start digging around to find the truth, things get even darker and the club's reputation might take an unrecoverable hit. 
Can Avery solve whodunit with the help of Clemmie  She will have help from Sergeant Alterman, known to his friends as Oz, and some of the women from the Portage Path Woman’ Club who may or may not have their own secrets to hide. This story doesn't have a romance angle, but it is more than likely there will be one in the near future.
This review is based on a complimentary book I received from NetGalley. It is an honest and voluntary review. The complimentary receipt of it in no way affected my review or rating.

Chapter 1

You’re not wearing that, are you?“

Just inside the massive double doors that led into the Portage Path Women’s Club, I froze, dropped the suitcase I was carrying, and automatically looked from where Muriel Sadler stood tapping the toe of one expensive pump against the marble floor down to my outfit.

Black pants.

Red scoop-necked T-shirt.

Black flats.

Yes indeed, it looked like I was wearing that. In fact, I’d been wearing it since early that morning when I loaded up my car outside of Cassadaga, New York, and drove the 170 miles to Portage Path, Ohio, thirty miles south of Cleveland. The outfit was comfortable and, thank goodness, it was forgiving. Just ask the double mocha latte I’d picked up at a drive-through outside of Erie and promptly spilled down the front of me.

The good news? Mocha blends pretty well with red, and the morning sun was behind me.

”It’s nice to see you again, Ms. Sadler.“ Oh yeah, my voice was as dazzling as the crystal chandelier that hung high above us in the two-story entryway. I added a smile to go with it when I stepped forward, my hand extended. ”I didn’t think I’d see you until later this afternoon.“

”Obviously.“ She looked me up and down, but she didn’t take my hand. In fact, Muriel’s top lip curled and left a smudge of rose-petal pink lipstick on her dentures. Muriel was five feet nothing and as big around as a strand of angel hair pasta. She was dressed in a matching brocade jacket and skirt in the same delicate shade of blue as her hair. A touch of understated blusher on her cheeks. A couple rings that were sparkling but not too gaudy. A brooch pinned near her left lapel, a swirling loop of letters crafted in gold that caught the morning sunlight and flashed in my eyes.


Portage Path Women’s Club.

My new employer.

I told myself not to forget it and kept my smile firmly in place. I might be the new kid on the block, but I was no dummy. The next day would be my first on the job as the club’s business manager, but I already knew the lay of the land-I had impressed every single member of the club’s board in the in-person interview that had gotten me the job.

Everyone but Muriel.

Luckily, she was just one vote, even if she was club president.

And I knew I would need her backing if I ever hoped to accomplish anything and keep the job, the decent salary, and the chance to start out fresh in a place that was nowhere near my lovable (but crazy) aunt Rosemary and her lovable (but crazy) friends and the retreat center back in Lily Dale, New York, that they’d just opened and wanted me to run. Don’t get me wrong; I like a challenge as much as the next type A person. It should be noted, though, that I do not like challenges that involve Rosemary’s wacky ideas about all things woo-woo, including spirit visitations and astral projection. She may be my mother’s only sister, and yes, she raised me. I will even go so far as to admit that I share her DNA when it comes to blue eyes, honey-blonde hair, and a soaring height of five feet ten inches, but believe me, that’s where the similarities between me and Rosemary end. She’s a medium, see. Which has nothing to do with size, and means she talks to the dead.

Me talking to the dead? Not so much.

And let me say, that suits me just fine.

While I was thinking about all this and considering my options (which were basically zero because, like I said, my job was all about keeping the members of PPWC happy, starting with Numero Uno herself), Muriel was watching me closely. She had eyes the color of the massive wooden front desk, where, starting the next day, I’d station myself and make sure the club ran like a well-oiled machine. I’d welcome members and their guests, schedule club activities that included everything from book discussion groups to a classic movie club, work to bring in revenue by securing outside conferences and events at the old mansion that was the club’s home, and deal with staff and members.

Including Muriel Sadler.

Yeah, by this time, my smile was a little stiff around the edges.

No matter. Smiling to beat the band, I grabbed my suitcase. ”I’ll just head upstairs to my suite and get settled,“ I told Muriel. ”I’ll meet you back down here and we can have lunch together like we planned last time we talked.“

”Oh no!“ She latched onto my arm. ”There’s no time for that. And no time for you to change, either.“ Another look at my outfit. Another curl of the lip. ”We need to get up to Marigold and be ready when he arrives.“

”It’s a little soon to be badgering Avery, don’t you think?“ The front door opened and slapped shut, and in spite of the fact that Muriel’s fingers dug into my skin, I was able to turn just in time to see Patricia Fink sail into the entryway like the Queen Mary approaching the dock. She, too, was one of the club’s board members, one of the women who’d supported my hiring. I certainly didn’t know her well, but in the times I’d talked to her, I’d learned she was a force to be reckoned with.

Patricia was squat, muscular, and younger (a relative word) than most of the other women I’d met at PPWC. She was dressed sensibly in tweed pants and an ochre blazer, the color a perfect match to the autumn leaves on the tree that shaded the front door. I’d gone through two extensive phone conference calls and one in-person interview before I’d been offered the job and in that time, I’d found out Patricia did not suffer fools gladly.

I was lucky to have her on my side.

”Give the poor girl a break, Muriel.“ As expertly as if she did it all the time-and for all I know, she did-Patricia saved me from Muriel’s clutches by untangling Muriel’s hand from my arm. ”From the looks of her, I’d say she just got out of the car. It’s too soon to start harassing her. And besides, she’s not even supposed to officially start the job until tomorrow.“

Now that her hands were free, Muriel gripped them at her waist. ”All well and good, but we’ve got to get up to Marigold. The restorationist will be here in a little while.“ Her gaze slid ever so briefly to mine. ”It’s a business meeting. Which explains why we’re dressed appropriately.“

I’ve worked in the hospitality industry all my adult life and just for the record, I’m twenty-nine. That’s a lot of years of bussing tables, taking orders, working behind the front desk of a hotel, setting up business meetings and catering menus, and (the worst of the worst) wedding planning. I was used to biting my tongue. Being gracious. Keeping my mouth shut and my smile in place.

But honestly, there’s only so much anyone can take.

I had just opened my mouth to cut Muriel off at the knees when Patricia intervened.

”Marigold is a disaster, our records were nearly destroyed, and the only thing you can think about is what Avery is wearing?“ Her snort told Muriel she didn’t need an answer. ”By the time we’re done up there, we’re all going to smell like smoke and Muriel, that pretty little Armani suit of yours is going to get as ashy as hell. Looks like when it comes to knowing what to wear, Avery is the only one of us with any sense.“

It was, apparently, the first Muriel thought of this, because her face paled and her hand slipped down the delicious fabric of her jacket-a loving, protective touch.

All well and good. While she composed herself, I had a chance to turn to Patricia and ask, ”What’s going on?“

”You don’t know, do you? Well, you wouldn’t. It happened just last week. After you’d already been hired.“ The front door opened again and Gracie Grimm slipped in. Another member of the board, Gracie was proud of telling people she was ”older than dirt,“ and that because of it, she was the club’s historian. ”No wonder,“ I’d heard her chuckle. ”I’m the only one left who remembers most of the club’s history!“

Just as I’d seen her the last time I was there, Gracie was dressed all in gray. With her tiny hands and feet and a little bit of an overbite, she reminded me of a mouse.

I’m not sure how, but Gracie knew exactly what Patricia was talking about and jumped right into the conversation.

”It’s the fire, dear,“ Gracie said, closing in on me. I couldn’t decide if it was her shoes or her voice that squeaked. ”Just a week ago. Up in the Marigold Room. Awful thing.“ She shook her head, and her neatly styled silver hair bobbed around her chin. ”So many of the old papers destroyed.“

I remembered seeing the room when I’d toured the club before my final interview. Sure I was a newbie, but that didn’t make me feel the loss any less keenly. ”That’s terrible! What happened?“

Gracie and Patricia exchanged looks. Muriel’s left eyebrow slanted.

”Accident,“ Patricia said.

”So unfortunate.“ Gracie’s eyes were gray too, and they welled with tears.

”Ridiculous.“ Muriel spit out the word. ”If it wasn’t for Agnes Yarborough being such a careless-“

When the door opened again, Muriel swallowed her words.

Something told me it didn’t matter. From the way Agnes Yarborough’s lips pinched when she joined us, I could tell she’d heard what we were talking about.

”Is he here yet?“ Agnes asked. Obviously, he wasn’t, but she looked around anyway, as if the mysterious he might be crouched behind my desk or peering at us over the mahogany bannister of the stairway that led up to the second floor. Agnes wasn’t as old as Gracie. She wasn’t as young as Patricia. In fact, Agnes had one of those timeless faces, wrinkle free, that made it impossible to tell for certain just how old she might be. Then again, I remembered what she’d told me when I was there for my interview-Agnes’s mother had once been president of the club. Her grandmother had once been president of the club. Age aside, Agnes had pedigree, and an air about her that said she came from money and privilege.

She was obviously right at home at PPWC.

”He said eleven o’clock,“ Patricia informed Agnes.

Muriel sniffed. In a ladylike way, of course. ”That’s what he said last time. And he showed up at nearly half past.“

”It’s not like it matters.“ Gracie glanced around. The Carnation Room, where members played cards, was just down the hallway, empty at this time of day. The Rose Garden Restaurant was just beyond that-a place for members and their guests to dine-and from the way the waitress stood at the front reception desk with her hands clutched behind her back and the mother of all bored expressions on her face, my guess was she wasn’t expecting anyone for lunch anytime soon. In fact, she might not be expecting anyone at all except me and Muriel, and our luncheon appointment wasn’t for another hour and a half.

Gracie’s voice was heavy. Her shoulders heaved. ”It’s not like we’re doing anything else around here these days, anyway.“

Call me crazy (and just for the record, Aunt Rosemary did when she learned I was taking a real job over the one she’d offered at the woo-woo retreat), but I just couldn’t stand there and watch the pall settle. Okay. All right. I knew what these women knew. The once-thriving PPWC was down on its luck. Back in the day, membership stood at more than two thousand. And now? Well, I knew the number because I’d seen the books, and I’d seen the books because I wanted to know what I was getting into, and once I knew what I was getting into…

Well, remember what I said.

I’m always up for a challenge.

These days, the PPWC numbered exactly eighty-nine members.

The mansion went empty and unused for days at a time.

The various special interest groups that used to fill the rooms to put together puzzles or host tea parties or work on their needlework or talk politics and history were down to only a few members, most of them too elderly or infirm to show up if the weather wasn’t perfect, the time wasn’t just right to work around their naps, or they happened to not be laid up with one ailment or another.

It was a sad commentary on a modern problem-how to make a dinosaur like a women’s club relevant in a society that was all about high tech and life that moved at the speed of light.

And exactly what I’d been hired to handle.

I gave myself a shake and a firm reminder not to forget it, and while I was at it, I reminded myself that (well, maybe not officially at that moment, but soon enough) I was in charge. The club was faltering? Membership numbers were abysmal? Nobody cared anymore about things like camaraderie, card games, and the intelligent exchange of ideas?

Well, I was going to change all that.

There was no time to start like the there and then.

My head high and my shoulders back, I scooted behind my desk, the better to peer at the screen of the computer there.

”Jack Harkness.“ I read the name on the day’s calendar, then looked from one woman to the other. ”He’s the restorationist?“

As one, they nodded.

”We need estimates,“ Muriel said.

”And a plan,“ Patricia agreed.

”And he’s a looker!“ Gracie gave me a wink.

”So until this restorationist gets here,“ I said, ”how about you fill me in. There was a fire last week. I got that much. What happened?“

A tear slipped down Gracie’s cheek.

Color rushed into Patricia’s face.

Muriel’s skin, already pale, blanched even further until I could see every vein in her neck and cheeks like cold blue rivers.

It was Agnes who finally spoke up.

Well, if snuffling, sniffling, then bursting into tears qualifies as speaking up.

”It was all my fault,“ Agnes wailed. ”I did it. I started the fire. And I…“ She sucked in a breath that made her words bounce around even more. ”I nearly got killed!"

Chapter 2

By the time we got Agnes calmed down (it wasn’t easy), it was fifteen minutes past eleven, but since there was no sign of the restorationist, I took the bull by the proverbial horns, told the waitress in the empty restaurant that we needed a pot of tea and we needed it pronto, and settled Agnes in the chair nearest to my desk. One by one, Muriel, Gracie, and Patricia pulled over chairs too, theirs clustered around Agnes’s in the sort of tight little circle I’d seen Aunt Rosemary use when the folks she called querents gathered around waiting for her to tap into the mumbo jumbo that supposedly connects her to the Other Side.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

#Review - The Princess Knight by G.A. Aiken #Fantasy

Series: The Scarred Earth Saga # 2
Format: Kindle, 370 pages
Release Date: November 24, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Fantasy

In New York Times bestselling author G.A. Aiken’s gripping new fantasy romance series, the Blacksmith Queen must confront armies and pretenders desperate to take her new-won crown. But with the Princess Knight at her side and a centaur warrior clan at her back, she’ll risk everything for victory . . .
Gemma Smythe dedicated her life to the glory of battle. With her fellow War Monks, she worshipped the war gods, rained destruction on her enemies, and raised the dead when the fancy took her. Until her sister Keeley became the prophesied Blacksmith Queen, and Gemma broke faith with her order to journey to the Amichai Mountain and fight by Keeley’s side.
The Amichai warriors are an unruly, never-to-be-tamed lot, especially their leader-in-waiting, Quinn. But when the War Monks declare support for Gemma’s ruthless younger sister Beatrix, the immaturity of her key ally is the least of Gemma’s problems. She has to get to the grand masters, dispel their grudge against her, and persuade them to fight for Keeley and justice. If her conviction can’t sway them, perhaps Quinn’s irritating, irreverent, clearly unhinged, ferocity will win the day . . .

The Princess Knight is the second installment in author G.A. Aiken's The Scarred Earth Saga. This story digs deeper into the background of Gemma, sister of Queen Keeley Smythe, and Monk Knight of the Order of the Righteous Valor who worships the War God Morthwyl. When Gemma left home 10 years ago, she dedicated her life to the Order after giving up her plans of following in her sister and mothers footsteps. She has vigorously trained and fought for her God but was prevented from being promoted by a jackboot with an axe to grind. 

But when the events of the previous book happen and a prophesy of a Blacksmith Queen is made known and coming true, she drops everything to go to her family as the late King's heirs will kill Keeley, Gemma's sister, before letting her come to power. Gemma is very different from her sister in many ways. Where Keeley, who carries a huge hammer, accepts everyone and offers no judgement and has demon wolves who follow her everywhere. Gemma is paranoid and sees danger in every corner. She also has a hard time at letting anyone in or near her heart. Gemma also has the ability to raise the dead.

Then there's Amichai warrior Quinn of the Scarred Earth Clan whose people have allied themselves with Keeley, Queen of the Western lands. Amichai's are centaurs who can take human form. Quinn does everything he can to break the ice surrounding Gemma's heart. He tells his cousins and brother that Gemma actually adores him. Both Gemma and Quinn could be a bit ridiculous at times, but it just added to the overall fun of the story. The eventual romance between Gemma and Quinn takes backstage amid the battles, the politics, the plans and every new character that appears.

Gemma, Keeley, and their allies discover that someone is tearing through houses of worship and stealing their artifacts. Since Beatrix worships to no God, that leaves only one person to blame; Cyrus who has his own army and plans on attacking Keeley when he has enough support behind him. Gemma decides that it is time to put away her past and pull together as many allies as she can to stand with Keeley. That includes walking back into the den of the beast and asking the Monk Knights for help.

There is part of this story that is from Beatrix's part, and let's just say that this girl is cold as ice and lacking any soul or emotions. She literally tried to kill her older sister who did nothing but be supportive of her for her entire miserable life. One of the sisters has to die, and we all know who I am hoping for to fall. We also get Ainsley, the 19-year-old sister of Keeley and Gemma who seems to have been ignored by her family. She's grown up to be a remarkable young woman who excels with her bow and arrow, and it's a good thing too since Ainsley becomes an important cog in the story's overall resolution. 

One could honestly say that the story took too much time away from Keeley, but seemingly introduces the next villain in the series who appears out of nowhere along with several dragons looking for a certain queen who shall remain nameless for fear of spoilers. I am sad that we haven't had a new book in this series since November of 2020. Yes, I know what the world was dealing with folks. I'm just saying that there absolutely needs to be a third installment in this series to resolve the presence of a new character who arrived in style.