The Gentleman’s Book of Vices (Lucky Lovers of London #1) by Jess Everlee

the gentleman's book of vices

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Rating: A-

Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.

Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.

While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.

It’s only later, once Miles’ panic has receded, that he has a chance to think clearly and realises that the charming Mr. Price had been telling the truth – and that he’s given Miles plenty of information he could use against him if Miles wished to. Realising he over-reacted, Miles signs the book, and the next day, heads off to Charlie’s house carrying both the book (wrapped, of course) and a good bottle of wine by way of apology.

There’s an intense spark of lust between the pair from the get-go, and the very next day – after an amusing scene in which Miles is mistaken for a sommelier and ends up offering suggestions as to which wine and cake Charlie and Alma should have at their wedding (although in Victorian England, there would only have been one sort of wedding cake on offer – the traditional heavy fruit cake that’s still the norm today) – Charlie takes Miles upstairs to see his ‘collection’. One thing leads to another, but they’re disturbed by footsteps in the hallway before they can have sex on the floor – and Miles is spooked. He doesn’t do this, he isn’t this reckless – with very good reason – but there’s something about Charlie that is completely irresistible, and he doesn’t say no when Charlie says he’ll come to Miles’ place on Friday evening.

Miles and Charlie fall hard and fast for each other and very soon are engaged in a passionate affair. They’re open and honest from the start and don’t even try to hide the fact that there’s more to what’s happening between them than sex, so that what starts out as a mostly light-hearted sunshiny-rake-brings-love-and-life-back-to-grumpy-introvert-with-tragic-past romance quickly develops into a story that really tugs at the heartstrings. The conflict in the romance is both realistic and heartbreaking; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books I’ve read recently where I actually felt the relationship was in serious jepoardy in the final chapters (even though I knew there would be an HEA), and Ms. Everlee does a really good job of articulating the very real difficulties that Charlie and Alma – and Miles – are facing.

I have to applaud the author for the way she writes Alma, who is never demonised. Instead, she’s a clever and charming young woman who is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as Charlie is and, as a woman, has even fewer options open to her. She and Charlie obviously care a great deal for each other, and he wants to give her a good home and perhaps even children (if he can manage it), but like many well-to-do men of the time, doesn’t intend to give up his ‘other’ life. And the thing is, I couldn’t actually dislike Charlie for that; he genuinely likes Alma and wants her to be happy and secure, but also needs to to carve out a little time to be true to himself as well – and the sad thing is that he knows that ‘a little’ is all he’s ever going to be able to have. He wants to continue to see Miles after he’s married, but Miles refuses, not only because he doesn’t want to be a part of that sort of betrayal, but also because he knows that eventually Charlie will have less and less time for him and that such gradual dwindling will hurt much more than a clean break. He also clearly sees how this marriage will slowly kill Charlie, draining away his liveliness and humour and everything that makes him him – and can’t bear the thought of watching that happen.

Miles and Charlie are flawed, complicated individuals who come vividly to life, especially Charlie, who really is a ray of sunshine, so engaging and loveable that it’s easy to understand why people are so drawn to him. Their romance is beautifully written, with plenty of humour, affection and tenderness, and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching.

There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, with a lovely found family element and sense of community in the group of friends at The Curious Fox, the molly house Charlie frequents.

As I said at the beginning, this would have been an A grade review if it weren’t for the book’s ending, which is just a little too pat. And while the author does a pretty good job of evoking a strong sense of time and place, there are a few things that jar, like the use of a street name without “Street” or “Road” (which is a dead giveaway that the author is American – we would say “Holywell Street” and not just “Holywell” for example), the way Charlie’s butler speaks to him and a few turns of phrase that feel too modern.

Still, The Gentleman’s Book of Vices is an extremely accomplished and throughly engrossing début novel and one I definitely recommend to anyone looking for a new voice in queer historical romance. I gather this is the first book in a series, and am looking forward to reading more from this talented author.

How to Fake it in Hollywood by Ava Wilder (audiobook) – Narrated by Thérèse Plummer & Andrew Eiden

how to fake it in hollywood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Grey Brooks is on a mission to keep her career afloat now that the end of her long-running teen TV show has her (unsuccessfully) pounding the pavement again. With a life-changing role on the line, she’s finally desperate enough to agree to her publicist’s scheme: Fake a love affair with a disgraced Hollywood heartthrob who needs the publicity, but for very different reasons.

Ethan Atkins just wants to be left alone. Between his high-profile divorce, struggles with drinking, and grief over the death of his longtime creative partner and best friend, Ethan has slowly let himself fade into the background. But if he ever wants to produce the last movie he and his partner wrote together, Ethan needs to clean up his reputation and step back into the spotlight. A gossip-inducing affair with a gorgeous actress might be just the ticket, even if it’s the last thing he wants to do.

Though their juicy public relationship is less than perfect behind the scenes, it doesn’t take long before Grey and Ethan’s sizzling chemistry starts to feel like more than just an act. But after decades in a ruthless industry that requires bulletproof emotional armor to survive, are they too used to faking it to open themselves up to the real thing?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

If you read my reviews regularly, you’ll know that m/f contemporary romance has never been something I gravitate towards, but the occasional one does catch my eye now and then, and Ava Wilder’s début romance, How to Fake it in Hollywood, is one of those. I picked it up on a whim  because I’d read a couple of reviews that intrigued me – and, okay, also because of Andrew Eiden.

On the surface, it’s your basic bad-boy meets good-girl story with a fake-dating trope thrown in, but there’s a bit more going on beneath, especially because both leads are carrying a lot of baggage which trips them up several times along the road to their eventual HFN. Grey Brooks – whose real name is Emily – is twenty-seven and has been working in front of the camera for two decades. The successful teen drama in which she’d played the lead ended eight months earlier, and although she’s done the odd bit part here and there, she’s yet to land another decent role. Together with her best friend Kamilah, Grey is drafting a script based on a best-selling novel and they’re planning to direct (Kamilah) and star (Grey) once they can get the project greenlit. Now, though, Grey is up for a role in a major fantasy franchise, but she’s been out of the spotlight for a while and profile counts in this business, so her publicist comes up with a way to increase her chances of getting the part and getting backing for the movie further down the road.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Love, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael Crouch

love, hate and clickbait

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Shake some hands. Kiss some coworkers.

Cutthroat political consultant Thom Morgan is thriving, working on the governor of California’s presidential campaign. If only he didn’t have to deal with Clay Parker, the infuriatingly smug data analyst who gets under Thom’s skin like it’s his job. In the midst of one of their heated and very public arguments, a journalist snaps a photo, but the image makes it look like they’re kissing. As if that weren’t already worst-nightmare territory, the photo goes viral—and in a bid to secure the liberal vote, the governor asks them to lean into it. Hard.

Thom knows all about damage control—he practically invented it. Ever the professional, he’ll grin and bear this challenge as he does all others. But as the loyal staffers push the boundaries of “giving the people what they want,” the animosity between them blooms into something deeper and far more dangerous: desire. Soon their fake relationship is hurtling toward something very real, which could derail the campaign and cost them both their jobs…and their hearts.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B+

You’d think that a book with a title like Love, Hate & Clickbait and a cutesy cartoon cover would be an equally cutesy rom-com – but you’d be wrong. Personally speaking, I’m glad it didn’t turn out to be a cutesy rom-com; I’ve had quite enough of those TYVM, most of them neither comedic nor romantic. Love, Hate & Clickbait is an antagonists-to-lovers workplace romance set in the office of a governor looking to make a presidential run, so these characters are not immediately likeable, the humour is fairly dark and the sarcasm is biting – and I was Here For It.

Political consultant Thom Morgan is brilliant, driven and completely ruthless. He’s in his element working in the office of the governor of California – he thrives on the wheeling and dealing (and double-dealing) and is looking forward to running the governor’s presidential campaign. The one blot on the otherwise perfect landscape is having to deal with the team’s data analyst Clay Parker, who might be a technical whizz but acts and dresses like he’s still in college and is infuriatingly smug with a chip on his shoulder to boot. When Clay inadvertently disrupts the entire office’s internet connection at a really crucial moment, Thom snaps and loses his temper, pushing Clay against the wall in a threatening manner and insulting him – then heads off to work out a strategy for dealing with their boss’ latest gaffe – a homophobic remark made when she didn’t realise she could be overheard.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Season’s Change (Trade Season #1) by Cait Nary

season's change

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Olly Järvinen has a long way to go. He’s got a fresh start playing for a new team, but getting his hockey career back on track is going to take more than a change of scenery. He’s got to shut his past out and focus. On the game, not on his rookie roommate and his annoyingly sunny disposition—and annoyingly distracting good looks.

All Benji Bryzinski ever wanted was to play in the big leagues, and he’s not going to waste one single second of his rookie season. Yoga, kale smoothies and guided meditation help keep his head in the game. But his roommate keeps knocking him off track. Maybe it’s just that Olly is a grumpy bastard. Or maybe it’s something else, something Benji doesn’t have a name for yet.

Olly and Benji spend all their time together—on the ice, in the locker room, in their apartment—and ignoring their unspoken feelings isn’t making them go away. Acting on attraction is one thing, but turning a season’s fling into forever would mean facing the past—and redefining the future.

Rating: B-

Season’s Change is the début novel from Cait Nary, a sports romance set in the world of professional hockey that follows veteran (at twenty-four!) player Olly Järvinen and rookie Benji Bryzinski through a hockey season as they go from roommates to friends to lovers.  It gets off to an incredibly strong start and I was utterly captivated by the characters and their UST-laden and slightly angsty slow-burn romance, but around the two-thirds mark, things began to slow down and became repetitive. Had the book ended as strongly as it began, it would have been an easy DIK, but as it is, I had to knock the grade down for a number of unresolved issues and most of all, the way what had been such a promising romance limps along to a not-completely-satisfying HFN.

When we meet him at the beginning of the book, Olly is a mess.  He’s been playing professional hockey for three years, and is just starting out with the Washington Eagles, but weeks of not sleeping and not eating properly on top of extreme anxiety and stress following an incident at his previous team in Minnesota mean he’s not in a good place physically or mentally.  He’s determined to push through it though, to make a fresh start and leave the past behind, to – as his Dad has so often said – toughen up, and focus on getting his career back on track.

Benjy is twenty-one and all he’s ever wanted to do is to play hockey.  He might be “just a dumbass from Duncannon, Pennsylvania”, but he’s bright, he’s keen and he’s determined to make the most of every minute of his rookie season.  He hits it off with his teammates straight away, although his new roommate Olly Järvinen takes a bit longer to warm up to him.

Season’s Change is a friends-to-lovers story which, as I said at the beginning, starts extremely well.  Olly has some serious issues to deal with, which the author reveals gradually to have stemmed from a homophobic roommate and coach in Minnesota who bullied and assaulted him when they found out he was gay. By this point, he’s absolutely terrified of anyone else finding out about his sexuality, and he fervently believes he can’t be queer and be a hockey player, so he’s decided he’s got to put that part of himself on the back-burner until he retires.  It’s been fairly easy to do that; despite spending so much time around well-built attractive men, he’s never been tempted to hook up with any of them… until now.  Benjy is all sunshine to Olly’s gloom; he’s honest and good-natured and funny (and hot) and becomes a very good friend, someone Olly can turn to and lean on when he’s at his lowest.   But Benji is straight – and even if he wasn’t, he’s off limits.

The progression of Olly and Benji’s relationship in the first part of the book is very well done.  Their friendship is superbly written and their romance is a fantastic slow-burn with lots of longing and chemistry and sexual tension that leaps off the page.  I loved it.

But things start to fall apart in the last third of the book – which means it’s difficult to talk about specifics because we’re into spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best!  The biggest problem is that the romance, having been built up so beautifully in the first part of the story, stalls and doesn’t go anywhere until the very end.  There’s too much repetition and extraneous detail taking up word-count that should have been used to bring the romance to a satisfactory conclusion instead of the flimsy HFN it gets at pretty much the last minute.  In a book of almost 400 pages, there should have been plenty of time for the author to get the leads together and show us a happier Olly doing a better job of managing his mental health and realising he can have all the things he’s dreamed of having with Benjy.  We don’t get to see them navigating life as a couple and truly being themselves, and we don’t get the chance to relax and be happy for them before the book is over.  Given everything they go through, they don’t get the ending they deserve, and that’s a crying shame.

It bothered me that when Olly and Benji finally start a sexual relationship, Olly thinks it’s just a case of them ‘helping each other out’ and that Benji is straight and will eventually find a woman he wants to be with.  He never tells Benji he’s gay – in fact, they never talk about what they’re doing at all – and I found it hard to believe that Benjy never once wonders if Olly is queer.  And Benjy talks about having fooled around with guys before and having had threesomes with girls and guys, but it never occurs to him that he might be bisexual until the very end.

Highlight to read spoiler:

Speaking of threesomes… There’s one in the book, and it felt like a scene of dubious consent.  Benji brings home a woman and convinces a very sad, very drunk Olly to have a threesome (MFM – she blows Olly while Benjy fucks her.)  Olly has never been with a woman in his life and has never wanted to, and is so distressed  in the morning that he immediately throws up and spends days after avoiding Benji.  I didn’t see the point of it and it felt unnecessary cruel given everything Olly is going through.  It made me really uncomfortable.

Other smaller niggles. This is a sports romance, and I know that hockey fans will probably disagree with me, but there is too much hockey stuff in the last third of the book.  I freely admit I’m not into sports (and know next to nothing about ice hockey) BUT my issue isn’t so much with the inclusion of sports-related detail – I accept that a story built around hockey will have stuff about hockey in it! – it’s that it uses valuable word count that could instead have been spent building a proper HEA for Olly and Benjy.

Probably going along with the ‘hockey stuff’ is the ‘bro speak’; maybe it’s accurate, but I found it irritating (and sometimes incomprehensible!), and the same is true of Benjy’s tendency to, like, use the word “like” in every, like, sentence.

Assigning a final grade to Season’s Change was difficult.  The first two-thirds is DIK standard, the central characters are engaging and their romance – up until they start having sex – is gorgeous and frustrating and they have chemistry by the bucket-load . The author creates a wonderful team camaraderie, the writing is strong overall and Olly’s anxiety and fears are presented skilfully and sympathetically.  The complicated family dynamics are well done, too – Olly has one of those pushy ‘hockey dads’ who is always on at him to do more and do better, and Benjy’s sister is in a toxic relationship and can’t or won’t admit it. This plotline doesn’t reach a firm conclusion, but that feels realistic and I liked the way Ms. Nait handles this complex situation.

But while Season’s Change has a lot of really good things going for it, the final third and the ending drop down into C territory, so I’m going with a low-end B overall.  It’s worth checking out if you’re into hockey romances and looking for a new author to try, but I can’t recommend it without reservations.

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun (audiobook) – Narrated by Vikas Adam & Graham Halstead, with Cassandra Campbell

the charm offensive

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date 20 women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

Rating:  Narration – A; Content – A-

I defy anyone not to be completely charmed by Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive. It’s a warm, witty romance that offers an insightful story of self-discovery featuring a pair of captivating, superbly crafted lead characters and a lively, wonderfully diverse secondary cast. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, but it’s so much more than that; I generally think of rom-coms as light-hearted and fairly insubstantial, and this certainly isn’t the latter. It’s most definitely romantic, and it packs plenty of gentle humour, but it’s got a more serious ‘feel’ than the average rom-com, taking a sensitive and nuanced approach to neurodiversity and mental health issues as the two protagonists figure out who they are and what they really want – and of course, fall in love along the way.

Dev Deshpande is a life-long romantic who, for the past six years, has worked as a producer on the reality dating show Ever After, crafting the perfect happy ending for his contestants. Despite the recent break-up of his long-term relationship, Dev still believes in fairy tales and happy endings and still wants the hearts and the flowers and the whole shebang for himself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Unwritten Rules by KD Casey

unwritten rules

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Zach Glasser has put up with a lot for the sport he loves. Endless days on the road, playing half-decent baseball in front of half-full stadiums and endless nights alone, pretending this is the life he’s always wanted.

The thing is, it could have been everything he ever wanted—if only he’d had the guts to tell his family, tell the club, that he was in love with his teammate Eugenio Morales. Well, ex-teammate now. When Zach wouldn’t—couldn’t—come out, Eugenio made the devastating choice to move on, demanding a trade away from Oakland. Away from Zach.

Three years and countless regrets later, Zach still can’t get Eugenio out of his head. Or his heart. And when they both get selected to play in the league’s All-Star Classic, those feelings and that chemistry come roaring back.

Zach wants a second chance. Eugenio wants a relationship he doesn’t have to hide. Maybe it’s finally time they both get what they want.

Rating: C-

I’m not a sports fan, but I do like a good sports romance, and having read the synopsis of début author KD Casey’s Unwritten Rules, I had high hopes of finding one within its pages.  But while the book gets off to a good start, I’m afraid those hopes were dashed before I got to the halfway point.  It doesn’t tread any new ground in terms of the storyline (closeted pro player worried about the effect coming out could have on his career) – and that’s fine; tropes are tropes, and it’s ultimately all about what the author makes of them.  But while KD Casey can clearly write and really knows her stuff when it comes to baseball, the book has a number of fairly big flaws that make it impossible for me to offer a recommendation.

The story is told entirely from the perspective of Zach Glasser, a catcher with the Oakland Elephants.  He’s Jewish (although not particularly observant from what I could gather), he has hearing loss in one ear, and in the first part of the story, he’s been playing in the major leagues for four years. He’s also gay and deeply closeted, he’s never had a relationship and is so terrified of anyone guessing about his sexuality that he seems  to spend his life constantly assessing and regulating his behaviour to make sure he doesn’t give himself away.  He knows he can’t possibly have a career in professional sport as an openly gay man and has told himself he’ll be able to have a life after he retires.  But that’s quite a few years away yet.

Then Zach meets Eugenio Morales, a young up-and-coming catcher at spring training, and although they’re vying for the same place on the team, Zach is asked to take the other man under his wing.  Eugenio is a fast learner; he’s also handsome and outgoing and Zach, who has never really allowed himself to get close to anyone, finds it hard to resist his overtures of friendship.  It takes Zach quite a long time to see those overtures for what they really are, however; but once he clues in, he and Eugenio (who is bi) embark upon a very secret, very passionate affair.

It’s in the book blurb, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the relationship crashes and burns. Eugenio can no longer deal with the secrecy – and Zach’s near-paranoia – and Zach, despite promises he’s made, is no closer to coming out than when they first got together.

The story is told in two timelines – “three years earlier”, charting the development of Zach and Eugenio’s relationship from their first meeting, and then the “present day” sections which show them getting their second chance after a long separation.  I liked the structure, which means we get to see both first and second-chance romances unfold on the page and it generally works well, although the second-chance romance doesn’t feel as well fleshed-out as the first.  And that leads me to one of my major issues with the novel as a whole, which is that the romance is pretty lacklustre.  I never really connected with the characters or felt the connection between them because there just isn’t enough of who they are outside of baseball; we spend all of the book in Zach’s head, but I couldn’t tell you much about him, and Eugenio’s characterisation is even sketchier. As a result I never understood what attracted them to each other – other than a mutual interest in baseball.  Their chemistry is lukewarm at best, and practically all the time they spend together in the first timeline is spent with Zach terrified about someone finding out about then; his fear of discovery permeates the entire story and I found it exhausting at times.  I’m not belittling the very real prejudice still faced by gay athletes in professional sport, but in most sports romances, there’s room for some lightness and the joy of making that important connection, of really being seen – but this is just unrelenting fear and gloom and Zach getting in his own way.  (I didn’t blame Eugenio one bit for getting out.) And there’s no let-up in the second timeline, which revolves around Zach’s fears of what will happen when he comes out.  A lot of the time, Eugenio feels like an afterthought and I came away from the book feeling as though what I’d read wasn’t a romance so much as it was a story about one man’s journey to self-acceptance.  The ending is abrupt and something of an anti-climax, and I’m not sure I ever got used to the third person present tense narrative, which seemed like a really odd choice.

But the biggest problem I had with the book is that it’s very baseball-heavy – and I know nothing whatsoever about baseball.  Okay, it’s a sports romance, so there’s going to be some actual sport in it, but this isn’t like Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series or Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s Him books, where the hockey is present in such a way that even a sports-hater like me can enjoy the story without needing to know too much about hockey.  In Unwritten Rules, there is hardly a page without some reference to baseball on it, and while the author does a wonderful job of putting the reader there in the stadium dirt with the players, the rest of the time I was completely lost amid technical terminology and talk of triple-and-double-As, stats, opt-outs, trades and various playing techniques.  This meant I had no idea what was at stake for these characters and as a result, couldn’t understand their motivations and decisions.  At best it was incomprehensible and at worst it was boring, and I skimmed entire pages of baseball-talk because I had no hope of working out what it meant or why it was important/relevant.  I felt like I was reading the book from a distance through a sheet of thick glass. Of course, this is a highly personal thing – if you understand the sport, you may well get more out of the book than I did, although that doesn’t negate the other problems I’ve outlined.

What makes it all the more disappointing is that KD Casey is obviously a talented writer, but she gets so bogged down in the minutiae of baseball that the characterisation and romance are sorely neglected.  As a result, Unwritten Rules is a book that will probably only appeal to a very small, niche audience – and I’m afraid that audience doesn’t include me.

Nothing But Good by Kess McKinley (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

nothing but good

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Special Agent Jefferson Haines puts the “order” in law and order. Meal kits. Gray suits. Consistent reps at the gym. But all his routines are thrown into chaos when he’s called in to catch a serial killer whose MO is the stuff of urban legend: the Smiley Face Killer.

Dripping paint. Wicked slashes for eyes. The taunting curl of a smiling mouth. After years evading capture, the serial killer is back again. As Jefferson races to stop the next attack, the investigation leads to the one man he thought he’d never see again, Fred “Finny” Ashley.

Finny has his own theories about the killer. And they’re pretty good. Maybe too good. Now, with his career on the line, Jefferson has to figure out if his onetime best friend is the culprit or the next victim.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Kess McKinley’s début novel Nothing but Good is a well-constructed and enjoyable mystery/procedural in which a tightly controlled, buttoned-up FBI agent investigating a number of serial murders encounters an unexpected complication in the form of the former best friend on whom he’d had a huge crush. I read this one when it came out back in May, and when I saw that Kirt Graves was narrating the audio version, I decided to revisit it.

Special Agent Jefferson Haynes and his partner, Special Agent Caroline Pelley, are called in when the body of a young man is pulled out of the water in Boston Harbour, another victim of the “Smiley Face Killer”, so-called because he leaves a very distinct calling card which, in this case, is a huge painted smiley face on the wall just by where the body was found. The SFK has killed a number of young men – all of them found in bodies of water – over the last decade, but has so far eluded capture.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Nothing But Good by Kess McKinley

nothing but good

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Special Agent Jefferson Haines puts the ‘order’ in law and order. Meal kits. Gray suits. Consistent reps at the gym. But all his routines are thrown into chaos when he’s called in to catch a serial killer whose M.O. is the stuff of urban legend: the Smiley Face Killer.

Dripping paint. Wicked slashes for eyes. The taunting curl of a smiling mouth. After years evading capture, the serial killer is back again. As Jefferson races to stop the next attack, the investigation leads to the one man he thought he’d never see again, Fred ‘Finny’ Ashley.

Finny has his own theories about the killer. And they’re pretty good. Maybe too good. Now, with his career on the line, Jefferson has to figure out if his one-time best friend is the culprit or the next victim.

Rating: B

Given its polished writing and confident authorial voice, I’d have been hard pressed to guess that Nothing But Good is Kess McKinley’s first published book.  It’s a very promising début; a strongly written, well-paced mystery/procedural with a touch of romance set in Boston that revolves around the search for a serial killer who has been operating – and eluding capture – for years.

Special Agent Jefferson Haines and his partner, Special Agent Caroline Pelley, are called in when the body of a young man is pulled out of the water in Boston Harbour.  In the normal way of things, the investigation into the homicide would be handled by the Boston Police Department, but this murder is marked as anything but normal by the presence of the signature painted on the wall behind the corpse; a crude black circle of paint several feet in diameter filled in with jagged yellow swaths of paint. Inside that, two thick black slashes for eyes and a single curled line for the mouth.  It’s a well-known calling-card and has been for the last ten years; the Smiley Face Killer is at work again.  Whoever this person is, they’ve become something of an urban legend, said to hunt down young men and lure them to their deaths in bodies of water.

Jefferson and Caroline begin their investigation by looking at the other murders now believed to be the work of the same killer and start to build a profile, realising that all the bodies have been discovered in and around the upper Charles River Basin and Boston Harbour and that the SFK must be very familiar with that part of the city.   After hours spent scrutinising security footage, Jefferson realises that the killer must be holding his victims somewhere before killing them – or after – and then transporting the bodies by boat, and if that is the case whoever it is must be a pretty experienced sailor.  For Jefferson, watching hours of video and pouring over maps is no substitute for actually walking the crime scenes to get a better understanding of where everything played out, so the next step is for him and Caroline to liaise with the various local government agencies including the DUP – Boston Department of Urban Planning – and the DPM, the Massachusetts Department of Parks Management – and arrange for ongoing cooperation with the investigation.

The first of these meetings is with the Commissioner of the DPM, but when Caroline and Jefferson arrive, she’s running late and instead her Chief of Staff comes to greet them – and Jefferson’s world tilts on its axis.  His former college roommate – and the man he now realises he’d been in love with – Finny (Fred) Ashley is standing in front of them, looking every bit as shocked as Jefferson feels.   He and Finny had been best friends throughout their college years until they had a massive row shortly before graduation and haven’t seen each other since.  Jefferson said some pretty nasty things at the time – and judging from Finny’s reaction, he’s still pissed.

The mystery in Nothing But Good is compelling, the author skilfully works in a number of possible suspects and the search for the killer will keep readers guessing right up until the reveal.  I particularly appreciated the way the procedural aspect is presented here; so often in print and on-screen stories of this type, the less glamorous aspect of the job (the boring grunt work!) is just ignored or glossed over, but that’s not the case here, and the author does a good job of incorporating those aspects of law enforcement work without getting bogged down in it, and combining them with the action and the romance.

The story is told entirely from Jefferson’s PoV, and he’s an engaging narrator.  He’s a highly competent, dedicated agent and is a bit buttoned up;  he hasn’t had many romantic partners  and isn’t a fan of one-nighters (it’s never explicitly stated, but as he talks about needing to have an emotional connection before feeling sexual attraction I’m guessing he’s demisexual) and his most important relationship is the one he has with Caroline.  They’ve worked together for a few years and even – coincidentally – live in the same building, so they spend quite a lot of time together outside work, and know each other pretty well.  I liked the way Jefferson’s character is established in the early part of the book – as reserved, a bit of a stickler for routine and utterly committed to his job – because it helps to make clear just how far his reunion with Finny unsettles him, a reaction that doesn’t go unnoticed by Caroline, who is the one to point out that just because Jefferson and Finny have history, it doesn’t mean Finny shouldn’t be on their list of suspects.

The tension between Jefferson and Finny is nicely done and the author skilfully drip-feeds the details as to what happened between them over a few chapters, but doesn’t draw things out too much.  It’s clear that whatever it was, Jefferson screwed up and knows it, and that it still affects Finny quite deeply, but while they’re both appealing characters and I liked them together, the romance isn’t as well developed as I’d have liked.  We’re told a bit about their former friendship and how important it was to both of them, but once they’ve resolved their differences in the present day, they pick up pretty much where they left off, which seemed a bit unlikely given they haven’t spoken a word to each other for eight years.  There’s also a sex scene towards the end of the book which felt like it was shoe-horned in for the sake of it; it didn’t really add anything to the story or relationship.

But despite those criticisms, I enjoyed Nothing But Good, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who, like me, is always on the look-out for good romantic suspense novels.  It’s fairly short, but it’s tightly-plotted, the prose is sharp, the relationships are well-written and the characters are likeable and well fleshed-out.  I’m looking forward to reading more from this talented author.

A Lady’s Formula for Love (Secret Scientists of London #1) by Elizabeth Everett (audiobook) – Narrated by Elizabeth Jasicki

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What is a Victorian lady’s formula for love? Mix one brilliant noblewoman and her enigmatic protection officer. Add in a measure of danger and attraction. Heat over the warmth of humor and friendship, and the result is more than simple chemistry – it’s elemental.

Lady Violet is keeping secrets. First, she founded a clandestine sanctuary for England’s most brilliant female scientists. Second, she is using her genius on a confidential mission for the Crown. But the biggest secret of all? Her feelings for protection officer Arthur Kneland.

Solitary and reserved, Arthur learned the hard way to put duty first. But the more time he spends in the company of Violet and the eccentric club members, the more his best intentions go up in flames. Literally.

When a shadowy threat infiltrates Violet’s laboratories, endangering her life and her work, scientist and bodyguard will find all their theories put to the test – and learn that the most important discoveries are those of the heart.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – C

I’ve always loved historical romance, and although I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find historicals to enjoy (so much HR right now features twenty-first century people in costume) I still look out for new authors to try. Elizabeth Everett’s début romance, A Lady’s Formula for Love, was getting quite a bit of advance buzz, narrator Elizabeth Jasicki is experienced in the genre – although I don’t think I’ve listened to her before – so I decided to give this one a go, and… I really wish I could tell you it was great. But I can’t.

The widowed Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, is a brilliant chemist and the founder of Athena’s Retreat, ostensibly a social club for ladies, but really a place for them to indulge their passion for science and to undertake research, somewhere they can use their brains and display their intelligence freely without having their ideas belittled by men. But word has leaked out about the true purpose of the club, and Violet has received threats against her and the club that her stepson William, Viscount Greycliff (who is a government agent) suspects originate from a radical, anti-government group. Grey has to be away from London for a few weeks, so he engages Arthur Kneland, a former colleague and experienced protection officer, to act as bodyguard for Violet while he’s away.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Rogue to Remember (League of Scoundrels #1) by Emily Sullivan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After enduring five interminable seasons, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of shallow London society, her boring little life, and her uncle Alfred’s meddling. When he demands she accept a proposal by the end of next season or else he will choose a husband for her, she devises a plan: create a scandal shocking enough to make her unmarriageable and spend her spinsterhood far enough away in the countryside where no one will ever recognize her.

Alec Gresham hasn’t seen Lottie since he left his childhood friend without a word five years ago. So he’s not surprised to find her furious when he appears on her doorstep. Especially bearing the news he brings: her uncle is dying, her blasted reputation is still intact, and Lottie must return home. As they make the journey back to her family estate, it becomes increasingly clear that the last five years hasn’t erased their history, nor their explosive chemistry. Can Lottie look past her old heartache and trust Alec, or will his secrets doom their relationship once again?

Rating; B-

This historical romance début from Emily Sullivan shows promise, but despite its good points (likeable characters with great chemistry and well-written love scenes) the book is ultimately derailed by a lack of focus and clear direction, uneven pacing, nonsensical plot points and some poor editing.  That the author’s ability to actually write shines through is what earns A Rogue to Remember book a (very) cautious recommendation – she’s worth checking out, because if those problems can be eliminated, then she could very well become an author to watch.

At twenty-four, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of London Seasons and the marriage mart.  After causing a scandal when she publicly rejected the suitor her uncle favoured (the heir to an almost bankrupt earldom who wanted her fortune), she decided enough was enough and set out to ruin her reputation so as to put herself beyond the pale.  Sent out of the country on a trip to Italy with a battleaxe of a chaperone – and also with a warning from her uncle that she’ll be married to a man of his choosing before the year is out – she gives the chaperone the slip and leaves behind a note saying (or strongly implying) that she’s run off with her Italian lover.  She hasn’t, of course; instead, she poses as a widow and heads for the cottage in the small Tuscan village where her late parents had spent their honeymoon.  She’s leased it for a year and intends to live a quiet but independent life there. (The fact she’s planned to live in Italy without being able to speak more than a few words of Italian bugged me right off the bat.)

Lottie has managed this quiet independent existence for a few months when, out of the blue, she receives a visit from someone she hasn’t seen in years – Alec Gresham, the boy she’d grown up with, and the young man who’d broken her heart when he left England without a word five years earlier.  Alec was her uncle’s ward, and was groomed by him for a career as a spy (Lottie’s uncle Sir Alfred appears to be a mild-mannered eccentric, but is actually a ruthless government spymaster) – even though Alec’s real interest was ancient history and he wanted to pursue an academic life.  Alec and Lottie were both orphans and they had something of an idyllic childhood, growing together as they grew up, and slowly falling in love.  But when Alec asked for permission to marry Lottie, Sir Alfred refused, telling Alec he’d ruin his life if he didn’t leave the country immediately and start working as one of his agents. Between the scandal of his birth and his complete lack of funds, Alec was convinced he could never give Lottie the life she deserved and scurried off with his tail between his legs.

Now, five years later, Alec has been sent to bring Lottie back to England because her uncle is seriously ill and probably dying.  Lottie isn’t happy to see him (even as she can’t deny that even after five years and serious heartbreak she’s still attracted to him) and is even less so to hear that the news of her flight with her imaginary lover has been hushed up and her reputation is still more or less intact. After many argumentative exchanges (all dripping with lust and longing), Lottie agrees to return on condition they stop off in Venice.

The next part of the story is the road-trip (and yes, there’s Only One Bed, accidental (post-bathing) ogling and lots of lusty imaginings – oh, and that one time Lottie can see “the sizeable bulge at the front of his trousers” even though Alec has his back to her. #editingfail.)  But in general, it’s nicely done with some good descriptive prose, and I appreciated the non-English setting.  When Lottie and Alec get to Venice, the author introduces one of Alec’s colleagues for no good reason (other than to signal ‘next hero’, I presume) together with a spy-plot in which Alec is ordered to cozy up to a French widow with connections to a German arms dealer.  There’s a fight to the death (well, almost) and a daring escape, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and while I suppose it’s intended to show us exactly why Alec is The Best Spy Evah (according to Sir Alfred, he has “the best instincts I’ve ever seen”) – it actually makes him seem rather inept.  And the final chapters, after Lottie returns to England, veer off into melodrama territory, with a dastardly plot to force Lottie into marriage and the introduction of a traitor who has been selling information to the enemy, a last-minute plotline that comes and goes so quickly it might as well have not been there at all.

Lottie and Alec are likeable individually and make a good couple, and the author writes their yearning for each other extremely well. The sexual tension between them is palpable, and the childhood friendship, while only glimpsed a handful of times comes across strongly.  I liked Lottie’s spirit and the way she challenges Alec without being one of those ‘look at how unconventional I am!’ heroines, and while Alec frustrated me at times, he’s a sexy, brooding hero (hello, hot history professor!), a decent man trying to do the right thing by the woman he loves.

I realise I’ve said quite a few negative things here, so you’re probably wondering why I’m giving this book a low-level recommendation.  Well… if you strip away the extraneous spy plot, there’s a decent romance here.  The pacing is uneven – the first half of the book is set-up and there’s too much introspection and not enough interaction – and the aforementioned nonsensical plot points and inconsistencies were annoying.  But it’s clear that Emily Sullivan can write and knows how to tell a story; what she needs to do now is work on honing that skill to sharpen her focus on the romance, incorporate fewer plotlines and weed out those inconsistencies I’ve mentioned.  A Rogue to Remember is a promising début despite its flaws, and I hope Ms. Sullivan is given the time and space to further develop her talent as a writer.