Craft Brew (Trouble Brewing #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Assistant US attorney Dominic Price is staring down the barrel of his father’s debts. The bull’s-eye on his back makes him a threat to everyone he cares about, so when his lover wants to go public with their relationship, he bolts. Not because he isn’t in love—he can’t stomach the thought of putting Cam in danger.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne is determined to figure out what trouble Nic is running from, but devastating news from home brings him back to Boston and to the cold case that has haunted his family for two decades. Shoving aside his pride, he calls Nic for help.

Together they search for answers, navigating the minefield of Cam’s past. But when they get too close to the truth, Cam must use every skill in his arsenal to save the man he loves… before it’s too late.

Rating: B-

Although I wasn’t wild about Imperial Stout, the first book in Layla Reyne’s new Trouble Brewing series, I wanted to read book two, Craft Brew, because I was intrigued by what was clearly going to be the series’ overarching plotline, and hoped for progression. I got a little of what I wanted, but Ms. Reyne is clearly keeping her powder dry for the final book, Noble Hops, so Craft Brew focuses on a different story and shines a light on a past tragedy and a desperate search for closure.

In Imperial Stout, Assistant US Attorney and former Navy SEAL, Nic Price, discovered that his father – from whom he has been estranged ever since he came out more than twenty-five years earlier – was in hock to some pretty unsavoury characters. Knowing them to be ruthless gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want, Nic tried to keep this news to himself out of concern for those around him, especially for his lover, Special Agent Cameron Byrne. Of course, the truth will out, and Cam found out about the threats made against Nic and his father, but Nic fears for Cam’s safety should anyone discover they’re a couple, which is why he stubbornly avoids giving Cam an answer to the latter’s suggestion they move in together.

Nic has just returned from five weeks spent in San Diego covering for an absent colleague and he’s pretty much just set foot inside his front door then where’s a fire in his apartment block – in the apartment right above his – which is quickly proven to be arson. This convinces him more than ever that he can’t afford to move forward with Cam until he’s got to the bottom of things – and in the middle of all this comes really bad news for Cam. His mother has had a heart attack and is in a bad way, and he needs to go home to Boston at once. Cam is understandably cut up and preoccupied as he gets ready to head home, and Nic senses there’s something else lurking behind his concern for his mother, but it’s not the time to tackle it. Cam sets off for Boston accompanied by Jamieson ‘Whiskey’ Walker, his long-time best friend and husband of Cam’s FBI partner, Aidan Talley.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

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A Most Unsuitable Match (Sisters of Scandal #1) by Julia Justiss

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Shunned by the ton

How will she find a husband?

Part of Sisters of Scandal: After her mother’s latest outrageous affair, innocent Prudence Lattimar has fled to Bath. With her dubious background, she must marry a man of impeccable reputation. A clergyman with a title would be perfect. And she must steer clear of Lieutenant Johnnie Trethwell—his family is as notorious as hers, no matter how funny, charming and unfailingly honourable he is!

Rating: B+

Julia Justiss opens her new Sisters of Scandal series with A Most Unsuitable Match, in which a young lady tainted by a scandal not of her own making strives to obey every strict rule of society and to make herself into a pattern-card of propriety in an attempt to free herself from the unkind gossip that dogs her.  Prudence Lattimar and her twin sister Temperance (sisters of Christopher Lattimar, hero of the author’s last Hadley’s Hellions book, Secret Lessons with the Rake) are now in their early twenties but have yet to have a London Season.  There are various reasons for this – illness, mourning, a birth – but the most recent one is the worst of all; Pru and Temper’s reputations are already on very shaky ground thanks to their mother’s reputation for loose morals, and the fact that a pair of young bucks have just fought a duel over her promises to be the death knell of yet another Season. Lady Vraux is renowned for having had a string of lovers over the years and it’s common knowledge that all of her children have different fathers, only of them her husband – and gossip paints her daughters as chips off the old block.  Prudence wants nothing more from life than a husband she can at least esteem, a home and family, and to live far from the bustle of London society and its attendant gossip – but her mother’s notoriety condemns her before she so much as shows her face in society, and she despairs of ever being able have the sort of life she wants.

Unlike Temperance, who would much rather go adventuring abroad hunting antiquities than stay in England hunting a husband, Prudence decides to try her luck in Bath.  With the London Season starting, society in Bath will be a little thinner on the ground, but there will still be plenty to do and, no doubt, some eligible gentlemen who might prove to be to her liking.

Lieutenant Lord John Treadwell, youngest son of Marquess of Barkley, has recently returned from service in India and is visiting his aunt in Bath while he recuperates from a leg wound.  After seven years in the army, he’s planning on resigning his commission and going into business; as the fourth son of a spendthrift father, he has to support himself by his own efforts, in spite of society’s horror at the idea of a gentleman working for his living.  His aunt would be happier if he’d take the time-honoured approach of marrying an heiress, but Johnnie won’t hear of that.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

One-Eyed Royals (Seven of Spades #4) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Shattered by their devastating breakup, Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo find themselves at war right when they need each other most. While Dominic is trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, Levi despairs of ever catching the Seven of Spades. The ruthless vigilante’s body count continues to climb, and it’s all Levi can do to keep up with the carnage.

When Levi’s and Dominic’s paths keep crossing in the investigation of a kidnapping ring with a taste for mutilation, it feels like history repeating itself. Thrown together by fate once again, they reluctantly join forces in their hunt for the mastermind behind the abductions.

But the Seven of Spades hates sharing the spotlight, and they have an ace in the hole: a new batch of victims with a special connection to Levi. Their murders send shockwaves through Las Vegas and change the rules of the game forever.

The Seven of Spades has upped the ante. If Levi and Dominic don’t play their cards right, they’ll end up losing everything.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series comprises some of the best books I’ve read this year, and if you’re a fan of m/m romantic suspense/thrillers and haven’t read them yet, then you’ve got a real treat in store.  The titular Seven of Spades is a serial killer plaguing Las Vegas, and because the series has plotlines and character relationships that stretch across all five books in the series, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review.  And this is absolutely not the place to jump in if you haven’t read the previous books.  Go back to book one, Kill Game, and then work your way here – I promise you won’t be disappointed because this series is one of the most gripping I’ve ever read.

At the end of book three, Cash Plays, Detective Levi Abrams and his lover, PI Dominic Russo, crashed and burned in a pretty spectacular way.  Dominic, a compulsive gambler, doesn’t see his addiction as an illness, believing instead that it’s a personal weakness he just has to be strong enough to conquer.  Because of this, he hasn’t really sought out the right sort of help (or much of it), and when a case he was working put him in the way of starting to gamble again in order to maintain his cover, he fell very quickly back into old habits.  One of the things Cordelia Kingsbridge does spectacularly well in these books is explore the motivations and thought processes of an addict, and she shows very clearly the processes of self-deception and denial Dominic goes through in order to convince himself there’s nothing wrong and he can stop gambling after the case is over.  And while Dominic is becoming increasingly self-absorbed and desperate to hide his relapse from Levi, Levi is going through hell courtesy of his increasing frustration over the lack of progression in the Seven of Spades case and the growing suspicion of his colleagues. In yet another Machiavellian turn, the killer is targeting the men who beat Levi so viciously over a decade earlier and were never punished, and the SoS’s fascination – obsession – with Levi and the similarities in their psyches pointed out by the  FBI profiler in the previous book are driving a wedge between him and those around him. He’s hanging on to his volcanic temper and his sanity by the merest thread, his professional reputation is being gradually eroded and he’s more afraid than ever of what he might do if he’s pushed too far.  And he’s going through it alone and without the support of the man he loves.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Fair Game (All’s Fair #1) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A crippling knee injury forced Elliot Mills to trade in his FBI badge for dusty chalkboards and bored college students. Now a history professor at Puget Sound University, the former agent has put his old life behind him, but it seems his old life isn’t finished with him.

A young man has gone missing from campus and as a favor to a family friend, Elliot agrees to do a little sniffing around. His investigations bring him face-to-face with his former lover, Tucker Lance, the special agent handling the case.

Things ended badly with Tucker, and neither man is ready to back down on the fight that drove them apart. But they have to figure out a way to move beyond their past and work together as more men go missing and Elliot becomes the target in a killer’s obsessive game…

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – B+

Eighteen months (or so) ago, I listened to and reviewed the third book in Josh Lanyon’s All’s Fair series (Fair Chance), and having enjoyed it, planned to go back and listen to the first two books in the series. Well, it’s taken me a while, but I got there eventually! Because I’d already listened to book three, I knew the identity of the villain in Fair Game, but even so, it took me until I was around half way through until I remembered (!) and I was fully engaged by the story anyway, so that didn’t present a problem.

When FBI agent Elliot Mills sustained a debilitating knee injury, he opted to leave the bureau rather than spend the rest of his time there stuck behind a desk. He now teaches history at Puget Sound University, and enjoys it, but he’s still struggling a little to adjust to his new life, one in which he’s often in pain, can’t do some of the things he used to … and which lacks the sort of excitement he used to experience on a regular basis. Out of the blue, his father – a former history professor and rather infamous anti-establishment political activist – asks Elliot to look into the disappearance of a student (the son of his best friend), and Elliot agrees to ask around and see what he can find out. The first problem he has to surmount though is the fact that the lead agent on the case is his former lover, Special Agent Tucker Lance. They parted acrimoniously after Elliot was shot, and haven’t seen each other since; and while Elliot tells himself they didn’t have much of a relationship or much in common besides sex, he still feels Tucker’s loss “like a huge chunk of his life had been ripped out by the same bullet that put him out of a job.”

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Band Sinister by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet — but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles has made no secret of the fact that her latest book, Band Sinister, is an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, and in it she has great fun playing in the trope-pit of regency romance and turning quite a few of them on their heads.  We’ve got the stranded-injured-sibling trope; the man-of-the-world-falls-for-country-innocent trope; the oops-I-(not so)-accidentally-wrote-you-as-the-villain-in-my-racy-book trope – and those are just the ones I can remember of the top of my head.  I’m sure I’ve missed some.

But trope-tastic as it is, Band Sinister still manages to delight, breathing life into the tried-and-tested by virtue of Ms. Charles’ sharp wit, deft hand and obvious love for the genre.

The storyline is a simple one.  Siblings Guy and Amanda Frisby live a secluded life in the village of Yarlcote, just a few miles from Rookwood Hall, the country estate of Sir Philip Rookwood.  The Frisbys and the Rookwoods are all but mortal enemies, owing to the fact that Sir James Rookwood (elder and now deceased brother of the present holder of the title) ran off with Guy and Amanda’s mother some years earlier, driving their father to drink and an early grave.  He left them completely dependent on their aunt, a dictatorial and unsympathetic woman who supports them for the sake of appearances rather than because she has any love or affection for them.

When the story opens, Guy is reading the manuscript of the gothic novel Amanda has just had published – and is rather appalled to discover that she has modelled her villain – in physical appearance anyway – on Sir Philip Rookwood, and some of the other characters in the book on his friends.  Sir Philip and his set have the most dreadful reputations as degenerates and rumour has it that the ‘Murder’ – as the group is known – is a kind of hellfire club that engages in orgies, satanic rituals and other reprehensible activities.  When Amanda expresses the wish that they might actually visit to find out for themselves, Guy is appalled.  He wants nothing to do with Rookwood, but circumstances conspire against him when Amanda is thrown from her horse while riding on Sir Philip’s land, and badly injured – which means Amanda gets her wish to visit the hall, although under less pleasing circumstances than she would have liked.

When Guy receives the news of Amanda’s situation, he’s doubly panicked – terrified because she’s been hurt and worried for her reputation, which has already got a few dents in it courtesy of their mother’s exploits and a youthful indiscretion.  Guy goes to the hall with the intention of taking her home immediately, but is dissuaded by the doctor attending on her – a friend of Sir Philip’s – who explains that her injury is such that moving her could prove fatal.  Guy accepts the wisdom of that, but he’s not happy, especially as it’s impossible to persuade any woman of suitable consequence to come to the hall to act as chaperone.

Given the bad blood between their families, Guy is torn between gratitude to his host for allowing Amanda to remain at his home, and determination to remain aloof and retain his animosity.  That, however, soon becomes difficult when Guy comes to realise that Philip and his friends are nowhere near as black as they are painted and have in fact encouraged the gossip about them that has given them all such tarnished reputations.  (Especially Lord Corvin who lives to be talked about!)  The Murder (and once we learn the names of Philip’s friends, it’s easy to work out the reason behind that appellation) is actually a group of free-thinking, like-minded friends who gather to engage in spirited (and to Guy’s tender ears, alarming) debate, enjoy each other’s company and love who they wish without having to continually look over their shoulders.  It’s a real eye-opener for Guy, who at first isn’t sure how to take anything he sees or hears; dinner table discussions are about anything and everything from art and literature to science and the newly emerging theories which seem to disprove the Bible’s account of creation (shocking!) and are stimulating and fascinating – and he can’t help but be drawn in by the liveliness of the discussion and by the conviviality of his surroundings.

He also can’t help being drawn to Philip, whose kindness and generosity are completely unexpected, and whose attractiveness and desire for Guy are equally so.

Philip holds these gatherings for his friends in order to give them all a safe haven from the strict conventions of society.  He met his two closest friends, Lord Corvin and John Raven, when they were all unwanted or forgotten ten-year-olds and the three of them forged lifelong bonds.  Friends – and friends-with-benefits when they want to be – they love each other deeply, and the openness and honesty of their relationship is superbly conveyed, teasingly affectionate and full of the perfect amount of snark.

I really enjoyed all the characters, a disparate group that encompasses a diversity of racial and sexual orientation – a former slave, a bisexual viscount, a Jewish doctor, a married couple in which ‘Mrs.’ is trans FtM, a black composer and his violinist lover – even those we meet only briefly add richness and colour to the story and are beautifully crafted.  Amanda Frisby is wonderfully bright and spirited and I was so glad that she got her own happy ending, too.  Philip is intelligent, charming, kind, and forward-thinking, with a well-developed conscience that owes nothing to society and everything to his own inner compass.  He is turning over much of his land to the production of sugar beet with a view to creating a home-grown sugar industry which will remove the necessity for importing so much sugar produced by slave labour – a laudable ambition but an uphill struggle given that his tenant farmers are resistant to change.  Guy is perhaps a little passive at times, but he’s far from being the “plank” Philip originally believes him to be; he’s quiet and unassuming, but ferocious and passionate in defence of the things that are important to him. My heart broke for him a bit when it became clear how lonely he was and had always been, and I loved watching him gradually break out of his shell and begin to truly live.

The romance between Philip and Guy is sweetly sensual, and witnessing the development of their mutual attraction as they navigate the waters of their new relationship was a complete delight.  And it’s not just about the physical; Guy is seduced as much by the new ideas to which he is exposed and to the new experience of acceptance and being part of a friendship  as he is by Philip’s more sensual approaches, which are heartfelt and honest,  with an explicit focus on consent.  Their romance is also conducted within the parameters of their other important relationships; in Philip’s case, with Corvin and Raven, in Guy’s with Amanda – and the fact that they both understood and accepted those relationships made their HEA that much stronger.

Band Sinister is a wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights.  It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.  It’s not often you get impassioned debate about geology, women’s rights and religion, dirty talk derived from Latin, and information about the ins-and-outs of sugar beet farming in the same book, but Ms. Charles incorporates everything quite naturally and with great aplomb – and I loved it from start to finish.  Brava!

Sticks and Stones (Cut and Run #2) by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux (audiobook) – Narrated by Sawyer Allerde

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Six months after nearly losing their lives to a serial killer in New York City, FBI Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett are suffering through something almost as frightening: the monotony of desk duty. When they’re ordered to take a vacation for the good of everyone’s sanity, Ty bites the bullet and takes Zane home with him to West Virginia, hoping the peace and quiet of the mountains will give them the chance to explore the explosive attraction they’ve so far been unable to reconcile with their professional partnership.Ty and Zane, along with Ty’s father and brother, head up into the Appalachian mountains for a nice, relaxing hike deep into the woods… where no one will hear them scream. They find themselves facing danger from all directions: unpredictable weather, the unrelenting mountains, wild animals, fellow hikers with nothing to lose, and the most terrifying challenge of all.

Each other.

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – B

Book two in the Cut and Run series, Sticks and Stones is a slightly different animal to the previous book, but was no less enjoyable. While our heroes have to face a number of suitably dangerous – and potentially life-threatening – situations, the storyline here is more character focused and the whole thing felt less ‘flabby’ than book one.

After a traumatic case which they barely came out of alive, FBI agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett are temporarily suspended from field work while they recover – physically and mentally. But things aren’t going as well as they should, and Zane, in particular, is likely to fail his psychiatric evaluation, meaning his FBI career is in the balance. Ty – who is like a kid on a sugar high at the best of times – is bouncing off the walls and eager to get back to work, so an enforced vacation isn’t exactly high on his wish list, but when his boss suggests – strongly – that he goes home to visit his family in West Virginia, and also makes clear he expects him to take Zane with him in order to try to help him sort himself out – Ty realises what’s at stake and wants to help.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

NOTE: NOT AVAILABLE DIGITALLY IN THE US. The book is being published in the US in June 2019 under the title The Poison Thread

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth.

Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless.

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted to have the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Rating: B

Laura Purcell first came to my attention as the author of a couple of very fine pieces of historical fiction, and earlier this year, I awarded her fabulous, spooky supernatural/gothic mystery The Silent Companions DIK status at AAR  and gushed about it to everyone who crossed my path!  I’ve been waiting eagerly to read her next novel The Corset, another mystery set in Victorian England, this time, featuring two very different women who are brought together in the gloomy surroundings of a London prison.

Dorothea Truelove is pragmatic, intelligent and privileged.  She is heiress to a considerable sum, but continually resists her father’s attempts to find her an eligible husband, preferring instead to concentrate on her scientific interests and the young, most definitely ineligible policeman with whom she is in love.  Dorothea has become fascinated by phrenology  – a pseudoscience that posited that a person’s character could be determined by the measurements of their skull and that personality, thoughts and emotions were located in certain specific regions of the brain – and is furthering her knowledge by visiting female inmates at Oakwood Gate Prison.  She is keen to meet the latest new arrival, a sixteen-year-old girl called Ruth Butterham who has confessed to the murder of her employer and several other people, and to study the size and shape of her skill, believing her research could help “devise a system to detect, scientifically, without a doubt, all evil propensities in the young” and thereby a way of preventing them from becoming criminals.

Ruth Butterham couldn’t be more different to Dorothea.  A talented seamstress, Ruth’s life has been blighted by tragedy, poverty and horror; when her father commits suicide, she and her sick mother are forced to seek help from Mrs. Metyard, a popular modiste for whom Ruth’s mother often does piece-work.  In desperation, Ruth’s mother more or less sells Ruth to Mrs. Metyard, believing that a roof over her head and regular meals will be better for Ruth than anything she can provide, which is why, aged just twelve, Ruth finds herself subjected to abuse and exploitation alongside four other girls, all of them terribly mistreated, half-starved and regularly beaten.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.