TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

Grade: B+

I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead.  But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of  Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!

This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:

There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.

Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.

Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home.  As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed.  His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens.  Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home.  The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!”  from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.

The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.

The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original.  The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:

“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”

Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.

And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:

“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.

At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.

Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.

The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony –  and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn.  The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.

The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.

My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out.  The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing.  But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming.  In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Erik Bloomquist

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains….

New York, 1925

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination – and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throws the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

Allie Therin’s engaging Magic in Manhattan series sets an intriguing combination of supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance and magic amid prohibition era New York. Starcrossed is the second book, and you really do need to have read or listened to book one, Spellbound, in order to get to grips with it. I read and reviewed it in print when it came out in May 2020, and even though I HAD read book one, I found myself a bit lost to start with because there’s hardly any recapping and I wished I’d done a re-read to refresh my memory. But once I’d skimmed a few sections in Spellbound, I was up to speed and able to enjoy the story in Starcrossed.

There are spoilers for Spellbound in this review.

It’s Manhattan in 1925, and twenty-year-old psychometric Rory Brodigan works as an antiques appraiser in his aunt’s shop, earning the place a reputation as the place to go to sort out the fake from the real thing. This is because Rory’s paranormal ability means he’s able to touch an object and be transported into its history (which can also be incredibly dangerous as it’s possible he could end up trapped in that history in his mind) – and he’s something of a recluse, staying very much in the background and taking care not to reveal his ability to anyone. In Spellbound, handsome, wealthy congressman’s son Arthur Kenzie brought some letters to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop for appraisal, and through the course of the story Rory met other paranormals (Jade, a telekinetic, and Zhang, who can walk on the Astral Plane), and learned that that while Arthur has no magic himself, he’s dedicated to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it. He and Arthur also commenced a romantic relationship – although that’s not the strongest part of the story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Wonderstruck (Magic in Manhattan #3) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

New York, 1925

Arthur Kenzie is on a mission: to destroy the powerful supernatural relic that threatens Manhattan—and all the nonmagical minds in the world. So far his search has been fruitless. All it has done is keep him from the man he loves. But he’ll do anything to keep Rory safe and free, even if that means leaving him behind.

Psychometric Rory Brodigan knows his uncontrolled magic is a liability, but he’s determined to gain power over it. He can take care of himself—and maybe even Arthur, too, if Arthur will let him. An auction at the Paris world’s fair offers the perfect opportunity to destroy the relic, if a group of power-hungry supernaturals don’t destroy Rory and Arthur first.

As the magical world converges on Paris, Arthur and Rory have to decide who they can trust. Guessing wrong could spell destruction for their bond—and for the world as they know it.

Rating: B+

Wonderstruck is the third book in Allie Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series of paranormal romances set in 1920s New York, and is the best of the bunch, boasting a high-stakes, fast-paced plot, engaging characters, strong worldbuilding and a central relationship that has come on leaps and bounds since the first book.

When I reviewed the previous book (Starcrossed), I said I wish I’d thought to re-read Spellbound (book one) first, as there is very little recapping and I was at a bit of a loss to start with.  Wanting to avoid the same again, I listened to the audio version of Starcrossed shortly before beginning Wonderstruck and I’m pleased I did, because I had no problems getting into the story this time around.  (Which is to say that I’d advise anyone interested in reading Wonderstruck to do a bit of backtracking first!).  As this is a series with overarching plot-threads, there will be spoilers for the other books in this review.

When Wonderstruck opens, we find Arthur Kenzie in Montreal with his close friends, paranormals Jade, a telekenetic and Zhang, who can walk on the astral plane.  They’re there searching for a way to destroy a dangerous supernatural artefact, a pomander created using the most vile magic in existence and which has the ability to enslave non-magical minds.  Arthur has been away from New York – and from his lover, powerful psychometric Rory Brodigan – for a month and is no closer to his objective than when he started – and the lack of progress and time away from the man he loves is really trying his patience.  He knows it’s best for Rory that he stays put in New York, but he misses him dreadfully.

The news that there is to be a secret paranormal exhibit at the upcoming world’s fair in Paris offers some hope, however.  Such an exhibit might well draw the attention of someone with the knowledge to help them destroy the pomander – but a trip to Paris will mean more weeks, maybe months away from New York, and bringing Rory to Europe just isn’t an option.  Baron Zeppler, the telepath who is bent on harnessing the power of magical relics for his own nefarious purposes, is now undoubtedly aware of Rory’s existence and of the power he can wield through the Tempest Ring and his psychometry – and Arthur is determined to keep Rory as far from his evil machinations as possible.

But of course, the best laid plans never pan out.  Arthur, Jade and Zhang return to New York so that Arthur can be with Rory on his twenty-first birthday, and after another failed attempt to destroy the pomander, they realise they’re going to need help.  None of them likes the idea of approaching Gwen and Ellis – the former wartime best friends of Jade and Arthur who betrayed them in Spellbound;  but after Gwen saved Rory’s life in Starcrossed, they’ve realised they have a common aim in wanting to neutralise the pomander and put Baron Zeppler out of commission.  Working on the principle that  ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ (sort of), and realising that it’s no longer safe to leave Rory in New York, the four of them – Arthur, Rory, Jade and Zhang – sail across the Atlantic and head for London.

What follows is a tense and exciting romp that kept me reading until well past my bedtime!  With Arthur hiding a terrible secret of his own, and the line between friend and enemy becoming blurred, the story moves at full pelt into the nail-biting finale, wherein our heroes are forced to battle the vilest magic of all.

Amid the thrills and spills, Arthur and Rory find time for a few tender moments, and I have to say that Ms. Therin has at last managed to convince me of their genuine attachment and absolute devotion to one another.  Previously, I found it difficult to see what a wealthy sophisticate like Arthur could see in the prickly, much younger Rory (the age gap is about eight years) who, when they first met, behaved like a complete brat towards him. Here, however, I finally bought their connection, and even though their relationship is still beset with problems of communication and trust, they feel really solid as a couple.  As in the previous books, the author doesn’t sweep aside the difficulties faced by two men attempting a romantic relationship in the 1920s, difficulties which are compounded by their vast difference in social status.  One of the major sticking points between them has always been Rory’s refusal to accept Arthur’s help or to rely on him in any way.  By now, Arthur is finding it a bit wearing, his heart heavy because he feels that Rory’s reluctance to lean on him is because Rory has always got one foot halfway out the door.  Here at last, Rory starts to realise how his attitude is hurting the man he loves;  he admitted in the last book that he would want to help Arthur were their situations reversed, but he still wasn’t able to make any concessions.  Now though, he’s grown up enough to realise it’s not weak to ask for and accept help, and I was impressed with the amount of character growth Rory exhibits in this book.

The author’s research into Prohibition Era New York is excellent, enabling her to skilfully weave the threads of her own magical world into the historical background, putting the reader squarely at a table in Jade’s speakeasy or inside Rory’s dingy room at his rat-infested boarding house.  I noted – with a smile – that she chose an International ship for the gang to travel across the Atlantic so there would be booze available!

On the downside, I did find some of the information about the relics a bit confusing, and while Zeppler is definitely eeeevil, I was never completely clear as to why he wanted to amass All the Relics and All the Magic.  World domination, I suppose, but that’s rather unoriginal!  There were a few  places it seemed there was just too much going on and too many characters on page – although I admit that might be more a ‘me’ problem than a ‘book’ problem – and a couple of plot points appeared and then disappeared, never to be seen again.

But I enjoyed Wonderstruck despite those quibbles, and was completely caught up in the story.  A compelling combination of vivid historical setting, memorable characters, fascinating magic and a heartfelt romance, It’s a fine way to end this unique series.

The Sugared Game (Will Darling Adventures #2) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It’s been two months since Will Darling saw Kim Secretan, and he doesn’t expect to see him again. What do a rough and ready soldier-turned-bookseller and a disgraced, shady aristocrat have to do with each other anyway?

But when Will encounters a face from the past in a disreputable nightclub, Kim turns up, as shifty, unreliable, and irresistible as ever. And before Will knows it, he’s been dragged back into Kim’s shadowy world of secrets, criminal conspiracies, and underhand dealings.

This time, though, things are underhanded even by Kim standards. This time, the danger is too close to home. And if Will and Kim can’t find common ground against unseen enemies, they risk losing everything.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A

Note: The Sugared Game is a direct sequel to Slippery Creatures, which should be listened to first; there are overarching plotlines running through this series, and there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Book two in The Will Darling AdventuresThe Sugared Game picks up a few months after the events of Slippery Creatures, in which former soldier Will Darling and aristocratic spy Kim Secretan foiled a dastardly plot by a shady organisation known as Zodiac to gain information that could lead to the creation of a chemical weapon – and to also prevent its ending up in the hands of the War Office, antagonising both organisations along the way.

After things had died down, Will and Kim went to the pub a few times and spent another fantastic night together – and even though Will knows Kim is unreliable and untrustworthy, and that it’s the height of stupidity to hope, he’d started to think that maybe there was a chance that things between them might actually be going somewhere. Until Kim just disappeared without a word. Two months later, Will has not seen anything of Kim and he’s still angry; angry with Kim for being such a bastard, but angry at himself, too, for being so damn gullible as to think there could be anything between a man like him and a man like Kim other than a few drinks and a few fucks.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.

Audio

When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

Honeytrap by Aster Glenn Gray

This title may be purchased from Amazon

At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet and an American agent fall in love.

Soviet agent Gennady Matskevich is thrilled when he’s assigned to work with American FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne. There’s just one catch: Gennady’s abusive boss wants him to honeytrap his American partner. Gennady doesn’t want to seduce his new American friend for blackmail purposes… but nonetheless, he can’t stop thinking about kissing Daniel.

FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne is delighted to get to know an agent from the mysterious Soviet Union… and determined not to repeat his past mistake of becoming romantically involved with a coworker. But soon, Daniel finds himself falling for Gennady. Can their love survive their countries’ enmity?

Rating: A-

Aster Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap is a compelling and unique story that charts the development  of the  unlikely relationship between an American FBI agent and a lieutenant in the Red Army (and possible KGB agent) over a period of around thirty-five years.  It’s extremely well-written, and the author does an amazing job of exploring the cultural and ideological differences between the societies in which the two men live in a way that is thought-provoking without being preachy or didactic.  The leads are multi-faceted, flawed but likeable men, and their romance is a very slow burn that evolves organically from the tentative and then genuine friendship that grows between them; it’s quietly understated yet full of longing and boasts some truly beautiful moments of poignancy and real, complex emotion.

It’s 1959, and FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne Is assigned to investigate what is believed to have been an attempt to assassinate Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev while he was on a recent visit to the US.  Daniel is going to be temporarily partnered with Lieutenant Gennady Matskevitch in order to diffuse the tensions over Russian accusations of a cover up.  Daniel’s boss tells him to befriend Matskevitch and to show him America in the best possible light during their travels.

Matskevitch is given official instructions to keep an eye on his American partner and use his assignment as a way to gather intelligence about American investigative methods.  Unofficially, however, he’s told to honeytrap the American agent in order to gather blackmail material.

Thus begins a months-long road-trip through small towns and large cities, from rural to industrial America, during which Daniel and Gennady go from initial suspicion to a tentative friendship which gradually turns into something more, something that will endure for over three decades and will survive long separations, betrayal, political upheaval, marriage, divorce and family tragedy.

In 1959, Daniel is twenty-seven, and Gennady twenty-four, and the only thing they really have in common – of which they are of course totally unaware at the beginning – is that they exist in a world that holds strict views as to what a man should be and who he should love.  Otherwise, the gulf between them is huge;  their countries are enemies and they’ve been instructed to spy on one another, so the idea there could be any real trust or friendship between them is a non-starter.  It would do neither of them any good and can go nowhere; and it could actually be dangerous both professionally and personally.

But after spending months together on the road and in cramped motel rooms, learning things about each other and bantering about the advantages and flaws of their respective countries, it’s impossible to keep their distance from each other, and although they both know it’s a bad – probably disastrous – idea, they fall into a warm and affectionate friendship.  From that friendship emerges a strong and genuine attraction that neither man really knows what to do with; Daniel knows he’s attracted to men as well as women (he had a sexual relationship with his previous work-partner, which is how he ended up being given the sort of assignment usually given to a ‘problem’ agent) while for Gennady, fooling around with men is something that has happened rarely and only while drunk.  The way they fall for each other is gorgeous and incredibly sweet, the UST is delicious and the author has created a real, deep emotional connection between them, a romance that doesn’t rely on the grand gesture but which is instead built on a foundation of lots of little ones, small moments and actions that show the depth of their feelings for one another.

The story is split into three sections; the first is the longest, taking up around two-thirds of the book, and it’s where the relationship and romantic development takes place.  Of course, given the time period and the serious external obstacles to any relationship between Daniel and Gennady, a convincing HEA (or HFN) is difficult to achieve and the author wisely opts not to try to contort reality or the personalities she has established for her characters in order to make one.  After they part in 1960, they don’t meet again until 1975, when Gennady is sent to Washington D.C on a two year posting.  Life has changed for both of them, but is no less complicated.

[spoiler title=”Show spoiler”]

Daniel is married with two young children by this point, (Gennady is also married, and on the verge of divorce) and Daniel’s wife, an artist, is fully aware of his bisexuality and the nature of his relationship with Gennady, and encourages their affair – which I admit I found a bit unrealistic and overly convenient.

[/spoiler]

Their feelings for each other are as real and strong as ever, but they both know Gennady’s time in the US is finite, which makes their reunion, wonderful as it is, rather bittersweet.

The final section, set in 1992 after Glasnost and the splitting up of the Soviet Union, is squashed into the final ten percent of the book and is rushed.  It feels almost like an afterthought rather than an epilogue; there is an HEA/HFN, but it’s left right to the last minute so there’s no time for it to fully sink in before the book ends.

That – and the unrealistic element I mentioned under the spoiler bar – are the reasons this book isn’t a flat-out A; but it deserves the highest praise for its characterisation and relationship and character development. Daniel and Gennady are superbly drawn, fully-rounded characters it’s easy to like and root for and their romance is – for the most part – beautifully done.  Daniel is genuine and warm-hearted, a bit idealistic and a romantic at heart, while Gennady is possessed of a quick, dry wit, and his enthusiasm for American experiences and fascination with everything new he learns is infectious and totally endearing.  Their discussions about the differences between the US and the USSR are clever and insightful (and often dryly funny); Gennady’s reactions to Americanism and capitalism are interesting, and even though we never see him at home in the USSR, the author does convey a strong sense of what his life there is like.

Honeytrap is a clever,  engrossing read that’s unlike anything I’ve read before.  It’s not perfect – the pacing is uneven and the time jumps are a bit hard to adjust to – but it’s still one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’ll certainly be looking for more from this author.

Best Laid Plaids (Kilty Pleasures #1) by Ella Stainton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Scotland, 1928

Dr. Ainsley Graham is cultivating a reputation as an eccentric.

Two years ago, he catastrophically ended his academic career by publicly claiming to talk to ghosts. When Joachim Cockburn, a WWI veteran studying the power of delusional thinking, arrives at his door, Ainsley quickly catalogues him as yet another tiresome Englishman determined to mock his life’s work.

But Joachim is tenacious and openhearted, and Ainsley’s intrigued despite himself. He agrees to motor his handsome new friend around to Scotland’s most unmistakable hauntings. If he can convince Joachim, Ainsley might be able to win back his good name and then some. He knows he’s not crazy—he just needs someone else to know it, too.

Joachim is one thesis away from realizing his dream of becoming a psychology professor, and he’s not going to let anyone stop him, not even an enchanting ginger with a penchant for tartan and lewd jokes. But as the two travel across Scotland’s lovely—and definitely, definitely haunted—landscape, Joachim’s resolve starts to melt. And he’s beginning to think that an empty teaching post without the charming Dr. Graham would make a very poor consolation prize indeed…

Rating: C+

Best Laid Plaids is the first book in a new series of historical romances set in 1920s Scotland by début author Ella Stainton.  The blurb promised a romance between an eccentric former academic who trashed his career when he announced he could talk to ghosts and a war veteran turned PhD student who is writing his thesis on the power of delusional thinking, and a road-trip around Scotland’s lovely—and definitely, definitely haunted—landscape.  It sounded like a winning combination.  But perhaps my expectations were too high;  I was hoping for creepiness and chills akin to those in The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal or Spectred Isle – but it was all pretty insipid with nary a fright in sight, and the opposites-attract romance is basically a book-long case of insta-lust with no real relationship development to go with it.

Joachim Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn) is a psychologist preparing to write his PhD thesis on the manifestation of delusions in those otherwise accounted as sane.   His friend and mentor  Dr. Stuart Graham arranges for him to stay at his family home in Fifeshire, in order to spend some time with his brother Ainsley, “a certified genius with no sense of self-preservation, whatsoever”, who committed career suicide a couple of years earlier when he admitted he spoke to ghosts on a daily basis.  Joachim is prepared to meet an eccentric; he doesn’t expect to be greeted by the most gorgeous young man he’s ever seen – or to be propositioned by him.

Ainsley is immediately taken with the big, braw man from Durham – and immediately mistaken as to his identity, believing him to be the man with whom his best friend Barley is infatuated.  Barley has asked Ainsley to ascertain if the object of his affections is attracted to men and Ainsley sets about his task with gusto, until the penny drops and he realises he’s made a horrendous mistake.  Fortunately, his visitor doesn’t run away screaming, and, the misunderstanding cleared up, they talk about why Joachim is there, and Ainsley offers to drive him to a few places legend says are haunted.   Perhaps, if he takes Cockburn to see spirits that even sceptics can see, he’ll have to admit that Ainsley isn’t mad.  After all, if he’s there to use Ainsley for his research, it’s only fair that Ainsley gets to use him back.

That’s the set up, and most of the events of the story take place over the next few days as Ainsley and Joachim embark upon their ghostly tour.  They start in a medieval road buried under the city of Edinburgh, then move to a remote field where there’s a Thing In A Hedge whose “presence makes you feel as though you’re slipped inside an icy cold nog and you’ll never get out.”  But just telling me that doesn’t make it so; I was waiting for something truly spooky to happen… and it didn’t.  In fact, the only thing that happens on that night is Ainsley and Joachim getting it on in a tent.   Which they then proceed to do at pretty much every opportunity – although no more tents are involved!

The characters themselves are quite charming, but as I write this review, I’m having trouble recalling what actually happens in this story. Ainsley and Joachim look for ghosts and have a lot of sex is the best I can come up with. Ainsley is handsome and mercurial, witty and winsome, with a penchant for tartan and bawdy jokes; he’s highly intelligent, earned his doctorate at twenty-four, and is a leading expert on British folklore. Joachim is his opposite, both physically and temperamentally, taciturn where Ainsley is talkative, circumspect where Ainsley is impulsive. Both men are struggling – Ainsley with guilt over the death of his brother and because he’s itching to get back to his research and writing, Joachim because he’s still grieving the loss of his wartime lover and despairs of ever finding that sort of connection again – and Ainsley is obviously more than ‘eccentric’; he has what we’d today recognise as ADHD and often has difficulty remaining focused and in the now.

But even though Joachim works out ways to help Ainsley with his concentration quite quickly, there is no sense of a real emotional connection between the pair. Reading the teaser chapter for book two, I see Ainsley and Joachim are the leads once again, so why rush them into bed (and so often)? A series allows time for an author to develop an actual relationship and for lots of lovely sexual tension; instead, we get sex scene after sex scene, each one stretched over two chapters (the author seems to think we have to read each one from both PoVs). It’s true that they both tell themselves that this is only a week-long fling, so I suppose one could argue they’re getting it while they can (!) But it’s still too much too soon. They don’t really talk until fairly late in the book – about the effect that the publication of Joachim’s thesis could have on Ainsley’s life and mental state, or the fact that they’re developing feelings for one another and don’t want things to end between them (and can’t admit it) – and I couldn’t help wishing that they’d stopped fucking long enough to have an actual substantive conversation.

There was one thing about the writing that drove me completely nuts. Ainsley – who is auburn-haired – is constantly referred to as “the/his ginger”. I’m not sure when the word “ginger” started to be used as a noun rather than an adjective, but I suspect it’s more recently than 1928. But historically accurate or not, it’s overused to a ridiculous degree. I also had issues with some of the terminology – Joachim isn’t at “school”, he’s at university – and we don’t “shift” when driving, we change gear. Then there’s the name Cockburn, which I’m guessing the author chose for comedy value despite knowing its correct pronunciation – but as it’s written down any potential joke falls flat and isn’t remotely funny.

Best Laid Plaids had great potential, but falls down in the execution. If you take out all the sex scenes, there might be enough material left over to fill a novella; the plot is sketchy to say the least, there aren’t many ghosts (and they’re not all that scary) and I wasn’t convinced there was much more than physical attraction between the leads until really, really late on. On the plus side, the characters are engaging and they make a good couple, their differences complementing one another – and when the ghosts do actually show up, they provide some really poignant and emotional moments.

As I said at the beginning, perhaps part of my disappointment with the book can be accounted for by too-high expectations. But that doesn’t excuse the focus on sex at the expense of relationship and plot or the writing quirks that should have been ironed out during the editing process.

I can’t quite recommend Best Laid Plaids, but I might read the next book to see if the author is able to develop her ideas and characters more successfully next time.

The Sugared Game (Will Darling Adventures #2) by K.J. Charles

It’s been two months since Will Darling saw Kim Secretan, and he doesn’t expect to see him again. What do a rough and ready soldier-turned-bookseller and a disgraced, shady aristocrat have to do with each other anyway?

But when Will encounters a face from the past in a disreputable nightclub, Kim turns up, as shifty, unreliable, and irresistible as ever. And before Will knows it, he’s been dragged back into Kim’s shadowy world of secrets, criminal conspiracies, and underhand dealings.

This time, though, things are underhanded even by Kim standards. This time, the danger is too close to home. And if Will and Kim can’t find common ground against unseen enemies, they risk losing everything.

Rating: A

Note: The Will Darling Adventures is a trilogy with overarching storylines and in which character and relationship development takes place throughout, so it’s advisable to read the books in order.  There are spoilers for book one, Slippery Creatures, in this review.

K.J. Charles’ trilogy of Will Darling Adventures continues with book two, The Sugared Game, a perfectly-paced and superbly plotted mystery that sees soldier-turned-bookseller Will Darling and disgraced aristocrat and (probable) spy Kim Secretan working together once again to foil a dastardly plot.  It’s pure Boy’s Own Adventure, albeit with sex and violence, richer characterisation and insightful social commentary.

At the end of Slippery Creatures, Will and Kim had prevented some dangerous information from falling into the hands of Zodiac, a secret organisation determined to destroy the fabric of society,  and had managed to antagonise both Zodiac and the War Office along the way.  After it’s over, they’d been to the pub a few times, spent another night together and, even though Will is well aware that Kim is an expert liar, devious  and completely unreliable, he’d thought that perhaps there was a chance of things between them actually going somewhere.

But  by the time The Sugared Game begins, Will has seen neither hide nor hair of Kim for almost two months, and is seriously pissed off.  He keeps telling himself he should have known better than to hope for anything more from a man like Kim but still, he’s… hurt.  And angry with himself for thinking there could ever be anything between them other than a few drinks and a few fucks.

As the book opens, Will and his best friend Maisie Jones are going for an evening out at the High-Low Club.  Will has never heard of the place, but Maisie has chosen it because one of her customers gave her a voucher for a free bottle of bubbly – and according to Phoebe Stevens-Prince (Kim’s fiancée and a friend of both Will and Maisie’s) the band is good and it’s “awfully glamorous in a seedy way.”

As the book opens, Will and his best friend Maisie Jones are going for an evening out at the High-Low Club.  Will has never heard of the place, but Maisie has chosen it because one of her customers gave her a voucher for a free bottle of bubbly – and according to Phoebe Stevens-Prince (Kim’s fiancée and a friend of both Will and Maisie’s) the band is good and it’s “awfully glamorous in a seedy way.”

It certainly is that.  There’s a dope dealer upstairs together with several shady sorts, and the management don’t seem to take kindly to Will looking around; in fact, when the club’s proprietor  introduces herself, Will gets the distinct impression he’s being threatened. Needless to say, he and Maisie decide not to go there again.

One evening a few days later, Will returns home and sees a strip of light beneath his bedroom door.   Braced for the worst – maybe Zodiac has come for him – he arms himself with his trusty (and deadly) Messer knife, flings the door open… to discover Kim, cool as a cucumber, sitting in his armchair reading a book.

Kim, being Kim, starts in on a story to explain his presence, but Will has learned enough about his erstwhile lover to be able to tell when he’s lying – and when he’s up to something.  Realising Will isn’t going to accept less than honesty, Kim admits that he’s been keeping an eye on the High-Low Club for a while now and tells Will it’s linked to Zodiac somehow.  More than that, a colleague of his – a specialist in following financial trails – died recently in a manner Kim suspects was not at all accidental, after he had identified a number of profitable and highly illegal operations being run out of the club that he suspects are being used to finance Zodiac.

That’s all I’m going to reveal about the plot, because the mystery is clever and absolutely gripping, with twists and turns you won’t see coming.  The plot turns out to have stakes that go far beyond the thwarting of a criminal gang and which prove devastatingly personal for Kim, and he and Will are going to have to use every ounce of their wit and ingenuity to keep ahead of the game – and make it out alive.

I enjoyed this second instalment in the series just as much and possibly more than I did the first one, and that’s saying a lot!  I devoured it in one or two sittings, once again completely caught up in the story and the setting, captivated by the characters and relishing the development of the relationship between Will and Kim, who, despite Kim’s untrustworthiness and their total unsuitability, can’t keep away from each other.

The Sugared Game offers further character development and a greater understanding of what makes both men tick. Will knows he’s been changed by war, but here, he’s beginning to admit more to himself about that change, to realise that has an uncivilised streak that wants someone to ask him to infiltrate night-clubs and kick people’s heads in. In the last book, he was the innocent bystander getting caught up in a dastardly plot; this time around he goes in with his eyes wide open because he wants to stick it to the bad guys.  And Kim, still his funny, snarky, clever self, finally tells Will something of his past and his motivations, displaying a raw and touching vulnerability as he does so.  Although, being Kim, it doesn’t mean he reveals quite all…  and when Will figures out what he’s holding back, he’s  – understandably – furious with him.  But when push comes to shove, he’s got Kim’s back, and although there are several unresolved issues by the time the book ends, their relationship is in a much better place than before.

I’ve said before that while “book twos” in trilogies frequently suffer from “middle book-itis” (just treading water until the final instalment), that’s never been a problem with K.J. Charles, and in fact some of her book twos have been the best in their series (A Seditious Affair and An Unnatural Vice for instance).  Well, The Sugared Game is certainly not treading water. It’s a terrific follow up to Slippery Creatures, a tautly-written, compelling, high-stakes mystery with a vividly realised setting, a romance that’s coming along quite nicely, villains you can love to hate, heroes you can cheer for, murder, larceny, deception, betrayals – and plenty of cups of tea.

Slippery Creatures (Will Darling Adventures #1) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic secondhand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else. Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan – charming, cultured, oddly attractive – steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger. And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again. But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides – and Kim is the only man who can help.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A

Note: This story contains mention of chemical weapons and deadly disease.

I always enjoy it when an author sets out to deliberately write a pastiche or homage to a particular type of book. It’s something that goes beyond employing specific tropes; it’s as much to do with evoking the style of writing and the era in which the story is set as it is with whichever elements of storytelling are involved, and there are few authors who can do this sort of thing as well as K.J. Charles. Her Sins of the Cities series is a fantastic homage to the three-volume Victorian sensationalist novel, while The Henchmen of Zenda is an energetic (and marvellously tongue-in-cheek) retelling of a classic that not only conjures up the spirit of the original but adds several layers to the level of characterisation and plot. Her latest series – The Will Darling Adventures – is a trilogy set shortly after the First World War written in the style of 1920s pulp fiction, featuring rip-roaring adventure, dastardly plots and evil masterminds pitted against tough, heroic types who triumph against the odds.

One of our heroic types here is Will Darling, a former soldier who returns from war to find a world that has moved on without him. Unable to find work – as was the case for so many of those who survived the carnage of 1914-18 – Will is close to destitution when he is taken in by his uncle (his namesake) who is the owner of Darling’s Rare and Antiquarian bookshop in London. The plan is to train Will to eventually take over the business, but just a couple of months later, Darling senior is dead and has left Will in possession of the shop and flat above.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains…

1925 New York

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination—and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throw the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: B

Allie Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series continues with book two, Starcrossed, which begins shortly after the climactic events of the previous book (Spellbound) and finds Rory and Arthur facing off against a powerful and terrifying enemy intent on forcing Rory to unlock the secrets of an incredibly dangerous relic.

Starcrossed is a direct sequel to Spellbound, and the author doesn’t spend much (if any) time recapping the events of the previous book, so it doesn’t stand alone. That’s not a complaint per se – long recaps of ‘previously on…’ can be tedious and I’m glad Ms. Therin doesn’t go there – but on the other hand, it’s been a year since I read Spellbound, and I think I might have been able to get into Starcrossed more easily than I did had I re-read it first.

After Rory single-handedly prevented the destruction of Manhattan by using the powerful relic to which he is now bound, a ring that can control the wind, Arthur took him out of the city to the Kenzie estate in upstate New York, ostensibly to let him rest but also in hopes of getting to spend a bit more time with him.  Unfortunately, this hasn’t really happened as Arthur’s family seems to have scheduled his every waking moment and his attention is almost always required elsewhere.  Rory is disappointed although not surprised.  He still finds it hard to believe that a man like Arthur – handsome, sophisticated and from a wealthy, well-connected family – could see anything in a scrawny, nameless nobody from Hell’s Kitchen, but he’s working on it.

A couple of days before they’re due to return to the city, Arthur receives news that a relic – a lodestone – is missing from the inventory of the possessions of the late Luther Mansfield (a business mogul who had traded in dangerous magical artefacts).  Arthur is eager to get back to Manhattan, but is obligated to attend his brother John’s fundraiser (John is an alderman looking to a Senate run) where he encounters Mansfield’s lawyer, who is nervous and cagey and speaks vaguely of seeing inexplicable things before clamming up and telling Arthur to forget it.  A day later, Arthur is disturbed when John tells him about a dream he’d had, of Arthur during the war in a situation Arthur has never revealed to anyone.  Someone is using magic on his brother and, as later becomes clear, on Arthur, too, when his dreams, ones he’s had since the war, take on a grotesque, nightmarish quality they’ve never had before.

Magic induced dreams, missing artefacts, a relic imbued with the worst, most vile kind of magic, and the reappearance of old enemies all combine to propel the story towards a tense, exciting climax as Rory and Arthur confront a terrifying figure from Arthur’s past – and receive help (of a sort) from a most unexpected quarter.

As in the previous book, the setting of Prohibition Era New York is evoked really well, and I enjoyed meeting Jade and Zhang again, together with Sasha and Pavel – a powerful alchemist who has become trapped in his own magic – about whom I grow increasingly curious.  The author sets up her different story threads well and draws them skilfully together, although the pacing lags a bit in the middle with the focus on the sub-plot concerning Arthur’s wartime ex, an English viscount whom Arthur’s family want him to escort around the city and accompany to a society wedding.  Rory is jealous (of course) and (inadvertently) destroys things because he’s unable to control his growing magical powers, while  Arthur is obviously very torn between his familial obligations and his desire to live his own life. He’s forever having to rush off in the middle of important plot developments because he has to be somewhere else, and although his frustration at this is palpable, it cuts down on his page time with Rory to the extent that I sometimes felt they spent more time apart than together.

I like both characters, and am pleased that while Rory has left some of his brattishness behind, he’s still a quick-tempered adorable grump who will absolutely take down anyone who threatens Arthur’s safety.  I like his straightforwardness, his determination and his vulnerability, and that he’s slowly starting to believe that Arthur really does see him as someone worth loving.  I appreciated that Ms. Therin doesn’t sweep aside the issues affecting their relationship, which aren’t simply limited to the fact that homosexuality was illegal at this time.  The class difference between them is just as insurmountable a problem;  outside their small circle of friends, Rory and Arthur need reasons to spend time together in a way that, as Arthur’s ex quite rightly points out, Arthur doesn’t need in order to spend time with a man of his own social class.

But for all of their lovely, understated declarations and passionate kisses, I don’t really get a ‘lovers’ vibe from these two.  As in the first book, it’s kissing and innuendo and then fade-to-black – and while I absolutely support an author writing their story their way, I can’t help but feel there’s something missing in Arthur and Rory’s relationship as it’s written.  Love scenes can be valuable tools to show the development of trust that comes with being sexually intimate with someone, and sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.  I’m not saying there should be pages and pages of explicit sex scenes, and I certainly don’t think an author who isn’t comfortable writing sex should be forced to do so because it’s ‘expected’.  I’ve read books where I wish the author hadn’t gone there and have felt the story would have worked just as well without.  I just don’t think that’s the case here, and that the opportunity to create a deeper connection between the characters has been missed.

The plot is complex and carefully constructed, and the big set scene at the end is vividly depicted; the writing is generally good overall, although Ms. Therin has the habit of using awkward contractions, such as Arthur’d  said his parents had it built or Harry’d given paid work to him – which look odd and unnatural on the page.

Even with the reservations I’ve expressed, Starcrossed is an entertaining read featuring likeable characters, a strongly evoked period setting and an intriguing storyline.  If you enjoyed Spellbound, then you’ll probably enjoy this, too, and like me, will be looking forward to book three, Wonderstruck, next year.