Winter Dreams (Winter Magic #2) by Marie Sexton

winter dreams

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a player gets played?

Actor Dylan Frasier is known as one of the biggest playboys in Hollywood, infamous for seducing men and women alike. He’s also half in love with his two best friends. Unfortunately, Jason and Ben are madly in love with each other, leaving Dylan the odd man out. When Ben suggests an extended Christmas vacation at a resort modeled after his favorite 80s TV show, Dylan reluctantly agrees. Sure, his heart breaks a bit every time he sees them together, but it’s a vacation in the Bahamas. How bad can it be?

At first, the resort seems like any other. Dylan plans to work on his tan, get laid, and hunt for Hollywood’s most in-demand director – not necessarily in that order. Then he meets Connor, a tennis instructor still hurting from a bad breakup. Connor knows Dylan’s reputation and refuses to be seduced. Dylan sees Connor as just another conquest, but this tropical island isn’t as mundane as it appears. It has its own kind of magic, and it’s about to make things interesting.

Rating: A-

Back in 2020, I chose Marie Sexton’s Winter Oranges as my read for that year’s December prompt in the TBR Challenge, and really enjoyed it. It’s an unusual and charming story, a gorgeous slow-burn romance with a magical twist, and I was delighted to see that the author was writing a sequel. Often, sequels turn out to be disappointing, but I’m happy to report that Winter Dreams is even better than Winter Oranges. It’s a beautifully developed redemption story (and I’m a sucker for those!) combined with a touch of fantasy and another fabulous and emotionally satisfying slow-burn romance.

While it’s probably not essential to have read Winter Oranges before this, I strongly recommend doing so. For one thing, it’s a great read, and for another, you’ll get more detailed insight into the central relationships and character backgrounds. Please be aware that there are spoilers for that book in this review.

Actor Dylan Fraser has a reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest playboys. Relationships aren’t for him and he’s never made a secret of that – even with the only lover he ever returned to, his best friend Jason Walker. Even though Dylan knew Jason was in love with him and no matter that he knew how cruel it was, Dylan couldn’t bring himself to stay away. But two years later, things are very different. Jason is now blisfully happy with Ben (Winter Oranges is their love story), and although Dylan adores them both – is even a little in love with both of them – and knows Ben is more right for Jason than he ever was, he can’t help feeling like the odd man out, or wondering about what might have been if he’d been capable of fidelity.

When the story opens, Dylan, Jason and Ben are en route to a luxury holiday island resort in the Bahamas called Fantasy Island, like the classic eighties TV show of the same name. It is, according to the brochure, a “place where all your fantasies come true.” Jason snidely suggests Dylan’s fantasy is to fuck his way through all the guests before the month is out; laughingly, Dylan agrees, although he knows that deep down, his fantasy would be to stop being himself and become Jason or Ben for the rest of his life, which would be so much better than being him. He ruthlessly suppresses the knowledge that he’s envious of what they’ve found in each other, and knowing it’s not something he’ll ever have, he figures he might as well not bother trying to find it and continues to live up to his flagrantly promiscuous reputation.

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

The Spooky Life (Spectral Files #4) by S.E. Harmon (Audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

the spooky life

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Rain Christiansen isn’t sure he’ll ever fully understand the supernatural. But he’s finally finding his groove as a reluctant medium and cold-case detective. That’s not to say everything is going smoothly—there’s a wedding in the works, after all. He’s finally taking that enormous step with fellow detective, Daniel McKenna, and he couldn’t be happier . . . about the marriage. Not so much the wedding. The hoopla is enough to make him wish for a quick flight to Vegas and an Elvis officiant.

At least work is keeping Rain and the PTU plenty busy. Their latest case involves Hannah Caldwell, a silent ghost who can’t—or won’t—speak. She still manages to request that they find her dear friend, Cherry Parker, so that she can say goodbye. Piece of cake. Finding people is pretty high on the list of things that Rain does best.

But when it comes to ghosts, nothing is ever quite what it seems. Before long, his simple missing person’s case takes a dark and twisted turn. And Rain realizes he’s been so busy trying to protect Danny that he forgot to protect himself.

If he doesn’t turn things around—and quickly—his spooky life might be cut short for good.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C+

When we last saw Detectives Rain Christiansen and Danny McKenna – at the end of Spooky Business – they’d narrowly survived being murdered by a vengeful ghost, and just got engaged. When we encounter them again here, they’re well into planning their wedding… or rather, Danny’s mother is well into planning it and is insisting on dragging the two of them (kicking and screaming metaphorically at least) into it as well. Like the other books in the Spectral Files series, The Spooky Life combines a supernatural mystery with the ongoing development of the central relationship, but although Rain’s snarky voice is as entertaining as ever, the mystery feels a bit thin and the whole wedding-planning-thing seems, at times, to have taken over. That trope – the everyone-else-wants-to-plan-our-wedding one – is one I have little patience with; not only do I not understand why people spend a fortune on weddings, I don’t understand why two grown men in their late thirties can’t – politely – tell everyone to just butt out and let them do it their way.

Rain is on a visit to a possible wedding venue with Mrs. McKenna and quietly wishing the ground would open and swallow him up, when he notices a woman walking around under a decorative arch, a lonely ghost who seems to be in a world of her own. Managing to escape from his prospective mother-in-law and the very eager venue manager, Rain makes his way over to the spirit and introduces himself; to his surprise she doesn’t speak – usually the ghosts who find Rain won’t shut up – so he thinks that perhaps she’s ready to move on but is stuck for some reason and decides to help her to do so. When that doesn’t work, Rain realises that perhaps she can’t move on because of unfinished business and wants him to go somewhere. Sigh.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.


Note:  This is the second book in a row I’ve listened to by this author in which she has put a “disclaimer” in her author’s note (in the ebook version) to the effect that she’s not responsible for plot holes:

“Plot holes? Perhaps. Despite the best efforts of my beta readers, my editor, and myself, there are probably a few errors that we didn’t catch. It happens.”

Um… no. Typos can get through even the best proof readers, we know that.  But STORY CONTENT is the province of the author and it’s up to them to – in collaboration with their editor where warranted – work through any content issues so that the story proceeds smoothly.  Apologising in advance because you couldn’t be bothered to fix the plot holes you’ve created for yourself is disrespectful to your readers and lazy writing.  I’m on the fence about whether I’ll bother picking up another book by this author.

Face Blind (Glastonbury Tales #1) by J.L. Merrow

face blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When even friends look like strangers, how will he ever find love?

Corin Ferriman was left face blind by the car crash that killed his ex. Even people he’s known for years are unrecognisable to him. Running from his guilt and new-found social anxiety, he’s moved to Glastonbury, where he knows no one—or does he? Repeated sightings of a mysterious figure leave him terrified that his ghosts have followed him.

Tattoo artist Adam Merchant left Glastonbury at sixteen, escaping from his emotionally distant mother to the father who’d left them seven years previously. Now, at twenty-five, he’s come home to bring his family back together. But in a cruel twist of fate, his mother dies before he can talk to her, leaving him haunted—perhaps literally—by her memory and his unanswered questions.

When Corin and Adam meet again after an eerie first encounter, Adam lays siege to the walls Corin’s built around himself, which start to crumble. But there are ghosts haunting them both, and while Adam longs for a connection beyond the veil, Corin’s guilt leaves him in angry denial that there could be anything after death. With the liminal festival of Samhain fast approaching, neither man is sure what’s real and what’s just a trick of the mind—or maybe something worse.

Rating: B

J.L. Merrow’s Face Blind is an atmospheric tale featuring two men who are trying to come to terms with and move on from traumatic events in their pasts. Add in family secrets, some gentle humour, a little bit of mystery and touch of the paranormal, and you’ve got an interesting and entertaining romance.

Adam Merchant left home when he was sixteen, leaving behind his much older sister and the mother who never seemed to care about him, and went to live with his dad in London. He only moved back to Glastonbury a month before the story opens, taking a job at a local tattoo parlor. He came back intending to try to build some bridges with his mum – even though she never seemed to want to see him on the rare occasions he visited anyway – but she’s recently passed away. Adam was surprised to learn that she’d left him her house – the one he’d grown up in – in the will, and can’t help but think maybe it was because of a guilty conscience. He’ll never know.

A serious car accident around six months earlier has left Corin Ferriman with prosopagnosia, a condition that means he is unable to recognise people’s faces. Struggling with survivor’s guilt (his ex, who was driving the car, was killed) as well as the disorienting effects of not even being able to recognise his own face in a mirror, Corin can’t face the alternately pitying and disbelieving reactions of his acquaintances and colleagues and decides he needs to make a fresh start somewhere nobody knows him. On his first night in his new place in Glastonbury, Corin decides to celebrate his move with a takeaway and, even though it’s drizzling, heads out for a walk on the famous Tor first.

He’s part-way to St. Michael’s Tower when he sees another man, bedraggled and wearing a leather jacket, his dark hair plastered to his head, on the path ahead of him. The man appears slightly panicked as he asks Corin if he’s seen the older woman in the dark coat; and then subsides as he mumbles something about his mind playing tricks and goes on his way.

Corin is walking in town a few days later and, as he passes one of the many tattoo studios in the high street, is struck by the idea of getting inked himself. Something small and discreet might be a good idea as it would provide a defining feature for him to latch on to when he’s looking at his reflection. He steps inside the nearest shop – and is introduced to one of the artists, a dark-haired young man who smiles at Corin and starts apologising to him. Something about his voice sounds vaguely familiar, and when the man – Adam – says that he doesn’t normally go around seeing ghosts, the penny drops. It’s the guy he met on the Tor.

Adam is just a bit disappointed at the thought he’s so unmemorable, but he lets it go and sets about talking through what Corin wants and what to expect, and makes an appointment for a couple of week’s time. Adam can’t help hoping that maybe they’ll bump into each other again sooner.

There’s a definite spark of attraction between Adam and Corin, but Corin can’t see how he can ever have a relationship when everyone looks like a stranger. At first, Adam just thinks Corin is a bit skittish because of how they first met – after all, he’d probably be a bit wary of someone who thought they’d seen a ghost! But when, the next time they meet – and the time after that – Corin looks at him like he’s never seen him before, Adam can’t help feeling a bit hurt.

Corin knows exactly what Adam must be feeling, but he can’t bring himself to explain. It’s still too raw and so difficult to get his own head around sometimes, that he just doesn’t want to get into it – or to watch Adam’s expression turn from one of interest to one of pity or dismissiveness. Fortunately, however, Adam is a bright bloke, and after the fourth or fifth time of Corin looking at him like he’s a total stranger, he starts to wonder if maybe he has some kind of visial impairment, and from then on, makes a point of greeting Corin by speaking to him and identifying himself by name. I really liked that about Adam, that he’s intuitive enough to realise that it’s not all about him and subtly figures out how to help without needing to be asked. And when Corin does tell him the truth, he takes it in his stride and listens rather than making assumptions.

I don’t have any experience of prosopagnosia or know anyone who has it, but it seems to me that the author has done a good job when it comes to describing the condition and the way it affects Corin, both physically and emotionally. What were previously simple, everyday things have become difficult or even daunting, whether it’s being unsure of who is on the other side of the front door after opening it, or keeping track of who is who in a film or TV show.

The romance between these two damaged men is sweet, if a little unevenly paced, and the storyline concerning Adam’s search for the truth about his past is intriguing. Without spelling it out, the author drops some very big hints as to the reasons for the estrangement between Adam and his mother – but of course, the reader knows only what Adam knows, so the twist comes as as much of a surprise to him as it does to us!

Also enjoyable is the well-rounded secondary cast – Adam’s boss, Sasha, his brother Declan and best friend Scratchy; these people obviously care and look out for one another and their relationships with each other and the two leads are believable and a lot of fun.

The one thing that didn’t work so well for me was the supernatural aspect of the story. I suppose setting a book in Glastonbury in late October cries out for some paranormal shenanigans, but what with the romance, Corin still working on his coping strategies and struggling with his newly-emerged social anxiety, Adam repairing his relationship with his sister and trying to find the truth about his past, there’s already so much going on that the ghostly aspect is patchy and not well developed.

Those reservations aside however, Face Blind is one of the more unusual romances I’ve read recently, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a love story that’s slightly out of the ordinary.

Trailer Park Trickster (Adam Binder #2) by David R. Slayton (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael David Axtell

trailer part trickster

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

They are my harvest, and I will reap them all.

Returning to Guthrie, Oklahoma, for the funeral of his mysterious and beloved aunt, Sue, Adam Binder once again finds himself in the path of deadly magic when a dark druid begins to prey on members of Adam’s family. It all seems linked to the death of Adam’s father many years ago – a man who may have somehow survived as a warlock.

Watched by the police, separated from the man who may be the love of his life, compelled to seek the truth about his connection to the druid, Adam learns more about his family and its troubled history than he ever bargained for, and finally comes face-to-face with the warlock he has vowed to stop.

Meanwhile, beyond the Veil of the mortal world, Argent the Queen of Swords and Vic the Reaper undertake a dangerous journey to a secret meeting of the Council of Races…where the sea elves are calling for the destruction of humanity.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B-

David R. Slayton’s White Trash Warlock introduced us to Adam Binder, a likeable, complex and damaged young man with magical abilities – but rather than making him the strongest warlock who ever warlocked, the author gave him frustratingly mediocre powers, and it was a refreshing change, in this genre, to have a lead character who is, well, pretty  ordinary.

In that book, Adam saved the life of a young cop – Vic – and in doing so, inadvertantly created a magical bond between them that means they’re able to feel each other’s emotions and sometimes even hear each other’s thoughts. Their relationship was turning romantic, Vic for the first time really accepting his bisexuality in the nature of his feelings for Adam, while at the same time realising that Adam wasn’t sure if those feelings were real or had been created along with the bond.

At the end of the book, Adam received the news that his great aunt Sue – who had taken care of him since he left the ‘school’ (read: asylum) to which he’d been committed – had died suddenly, and he went haring off back to Oklahoma without telling anyone – not his brother Bobby (with whom he’s finally starting to have a proper relationship) and not Vic who, at the beginning of the book, is understandably upset by this. He decides to follow Adam, but is waylaid by Argent (the sister of Silver, Adam’s (elven) first love) and they end up on a warped kind of road trip through the elf kingdoms and get caught up in some nasty political shenanigans. Meanwhile in Oklahoma, Adam is reunited with Sue’s daughter Noreen and his cousin Jody – who are both toxic; when an explosion kills Noreen, Adam’s investigation leads him to believe that to believe that someone – a powerful druid – is offing his relatives, and it’s up to him to work out exactly who it is and stop them.

I enjoyed Trailer Park Trickster, but wasn’t as completely captivated by it as I was by White Trash Warlock.  I like Adam and Vic as individuals and as a couple, and I liked Adam learning more about his family history, and seeing his growing maturity in the way he approaches the druid issue, but I didn’t really understand the significance of the Vic/Argent storyline at this point, other than as a device to keep Adam and Vic apart for almost the entire book.  They have only two scenes together – and one of those is of them having a row – and there is no development of their relationship here.  Given the way their bond was formed (and what it means!), Adam’s guilt about it and doubts about the nature of Vic’s feelings for him, and Vic’s determination to prove to Adam that what he feels for him is because of him, Adam, and not the bond, I’d have expected at least some further exploration of it – but there’s nothing. When Vic learns about one of the big secrets Adam has been keeping:

(spoiler – highlight to read)
that Bobby and their mother killed Binder Sr. because he was violent and likely to kill Adam, and he didn’t want Vic to know because Vic’s a cop and a straight-up guy who would need to do the right thing and arrest Bobby

he’s understandably upset (hence the row) – but they don’t really talk it through and instead, Vic decides to be okay with it after receiving a visit from

(spoiler – highlight to read)
his own father’s ghost.

The romance is so underdeveloped that the declarations that preceed the final showdown come out of nowhere and feel like they’ve been shoved in just for the sake of it. The lack of relationship development – and of character depth and development as a whole – made it difficult for me to become invested in the story. I’m aware this is an urban fantasy story with ‘romantic elements’ so I wasn’t expecting a full-blown romance, but I was hoping that the author would build upon what he’d started in book one, and he doesn’t. When the book description itself suggests that Vic may be the love of Adam’s life, I think we deserve a bit more than a blazing row and some awkward ILYs.

I found both storylines intriguing, but the stakes didn’t feel anywhere near as high as in the first book. I continue to like Adam, who is both relatable and heroic in his determination to get to the bottom of what is going on despite his fears, misgivings and insecurities, although I couldn’t help wondering how, if his magical ability is so slight – and given his powers seem to be mostly psychic in nature – he is able to defeat much stronger magic. The magical system that operates in this world lacks clarity, and Vic’s new status as a reaper, which only comes into play at the very end, is still largely unexplained.

The narration by Michael David Axtell is, again, excellent, and is mostly why I’ve bumped the rating up into the B range. His pacing and character differentiation are good, his vocal characterisations are nicely judged and the characters who appeared in book one are portrayed consistently. He does a really good job of conveying the various aspects of Adam’s character – his determination and his vulnerability – and his interpretation of Vic is good, too, with a firm steadiness to his tone that works really well to depict the confident young man he is. Mr. Axtell’s female voices are pretty good overall, and the harsh, accented delivery adopted for Noreen and Jody is a good fit for who these women are, spiteful, bigoted and all-round unpleasant.

I put off listening to this for so long because I knew it ended on a cliffhanger and decided to hold off until I could listen to book three (out in October). I’ll definitely be listening to Deadbeat Druid because, while I know I’ve said quite a few negative things in this review, I do like the characters and the stories and I really want to find out how things turn out. Fingers crossed that book will be as good as White Trash Warlock, and I’ll be able to put the disappointments of Trailer Park Trickster down to middle-book-itis.

The Stubborn Accomplice (13 Kingdoms #2) by H.L. Day

the stubborn accomplice

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A missing artifact. A kingdom of secrets. Two men versus a multitude of magical beasts.

Jack and Sebastian are on the move once more. This time, to the frozen mountains of Askophai in search of a kingdom’s missing artifact. The journey alone would be perilous enough, but how are they supposed to find something that no one can describe? And what does the mysterious man who can make himself invisible have to do with any of it?

Jack has enough of Sebastian’s secrets to deal with, without taking on a whole kingdom’s. He and Sebastian might be together, but Jack still has his doubts about their long-term future. Assuming they have one that is, given Sebastian’s penchant for walking them headlong into danger at every opportunity.

One thing’s for certain, they’re going to need an awful lot of luck to succeed in this mission and return home safely.

Rating: B+

H.L. Day’s The Reluctant Companion was a lot of fun, one of those easy, breezy reads that charmed and intrigued me while its two opposites-attract protagonists stumbled their way into fulfilling a quest and bickered their way into something that might just be love. Book two, The Stubborn Accomplice takes readers back to the world of the 13 Kingdoms and headlong into another magical adventure for quarrelsome lovers, Jack and Sebastian, who are tasked with the retrival of a mysterious artefact. Like the first book in the series, it’s a light-hearted fantasy romp filled with danger, action and snark and – also like the first book – I had a lot of fun reading it.

When we rejoin them, Jack and Sebastian are on their way to the kingdom of Ozagesia, to the city of Chastershire where they will be given further details about the item they have been charged with finding and equipped for the journey into the frozen montains of Askophai. They’re barely a few days into their journey when they’re pursued by a massive griffin, a creature that is all but extinct – and find themselves running for their lives and taking refuge in a tiny, tumbledown shack. It’s not the best shelter – especially when Jack and Sebastian see the hole in the roof! – but they should be safe in the cellar for the night, or until the creature gets fed up and goes away.

Unfortunately for them, however, with the morning comes the realisation that the griffin hasn’t gone away, but has managed to get inside, leaving them with nowhere to go except into the small tunnel leading from the cellar to… well, they don’t know where, but anywhere would be preferable to being crunched to death by a hangry beast. Jack is surprised to realise the normally gung-ho, reckless Sebastian isn’t happy about venturing into such a small, enclosed space, but they don’t have any other option, and their luck turns when they eventually emerge into lush greenery by a river.

Arrived at the inn where they’ve arranged to meet with Frederick, the envoy from Chastershire who had initially requested their help (at the end of The Reluctant Companion). They both sense that there’s something he’s not telling them, but agree not to worry about what it might be for the next couple of days while they take time to eat, sleep, relax and – well, let’s just say Jack discovers a new and very interesting use for Sebastian’s magic 😉

Once they’ve reached the castle, it doesn’t take them long to find out what Frederick’s evasion meant. While the missing artefact is something of great religious significance to the people of Osagezia, and an essential part of any official function – nobody knows what it actually IS. It’s kept in a locked chest at all times – and nobody has a key because the chest is never opened. Mildly amused (Sebastian) and extremely irritated (Jack), the two men prepare for their journey into the frozen wastes in search of something nobody has ever seen that could have been stolen by absolutely anybody in the palace. Great.

The storyline in The Stubborn Accomplice picks up immediately after the end of The Reluctant Companion, but although there’s more than enough information here to enable someone new to the series to pick up the story easily enough, I really would encourage potential readers to read the previous book first. It’s a fun read, but most importantly, it sets up the romance between Jack and Sebastian and provides valuable information about the characters and their backgrounds necessary to understanding and appreciating the way things develop here.

The chemistry between Jack and Sebastian sizzles, their banter is sharp and funny and they share some lovely tender moments, too. Jack is prickly, brave and no-nonsense, where Sebastian is gregarious, charming, and quick to act first and think later, which of course, lands them in hot water on several occasions. The author has a deft touch with the snarky banter that flies between them, which is funny and frequently to the point, but both men are struggling a bit to communicate honestly with each other and using their verbal sparring – and, often, sex – as an avoidance tactic whenever it seems their feelings for each other may be hovering too close to the surface for comfort. Sebastian may be a bit self-centred, but he’s very attuned to Jack and the way he thinks, even if he doesn’t quite understand why Jack is so miffed when his old flames want to greet him with enthusiastic lip-locks. After all, he’s Jack’s now and intends it to stay that way, so there’s no need for him to worry, is there? He fails to take into account Jack’s insecurities about his own attractiveness, his worries that someone as spectactular-looking as Sebastian will probably become bored and want to move on from a mere farm-boy when he can have – and has had – his pick of lovers from all walks of life. But Jack is so focused on what he sees as his inadequacies when compared to the other men Sebastian has been with that he fails to notice the little things that show how far gone Sebastian is for him; he knows Sebastian likes needling him, but doesn’t realise it’s because Sebastian likes that Jack challenges him and doesn’t let him get away with anything. Sebastian is similarly blind to the signals Jack gives off that he feels more for Sebastian than friendship and pleasure in the fantastic sex they have – although to be fair, Jack works hard to hide it, fearing Sebastian will reject him if he shows signs of wanting something more than casual between them. Thankfully, however, they do manage to own up to the truth of how they feel about each other… although they don’t get to bask in love’s warm glow for long when Jack unexpectedly finds out exactly why Sebastian has been so cagey about his past.

So yes, there’s a ‘relationship’ cliffhanger at the end of the book (although the artefact plot is concluded), but the good news is that book three is out in early 2023, so there’s not too long to wait to find out what happens next. The Stubborn Accomplice is a thoroughly entertaining read featuring two engaging leads, plenty of action, feats of derring-do, a lovelorn orc, a wizardly ex and a troll who lives under (or on) a bridge. I really enjoyed it and am happy to recommend it to anyone looking for a funny, well-written and light-hearted adventure yarn.

Imitate the Dawn (Whitethorn Security #3) by M.A. Grant

imitate the dawn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cristian Slava and Atlas Kincaid despise each other. At least, that’s what they need everyone to believe. In truth, the charismatic vampire and his fierce bodyguard are more in love than ever. But when a powerful political faction emerges and threatens Cristian’s family, the only way into their enemy’s inner circle is without each other by their side.

From Romania to New York and beyond, though apart, their blood-bond cannot be severed—but it can be used against them. When Cristian sacrifices his life to save his family and save Atlas from having his darkest secrets revealed, only faith in that bond will keep Atlas from utter despair.

And only by facing his past will Atlas be able to accept who he is and finally defeat their most powerful enemy yet…

Death itself.

Rating: B+

The action in Imitate the Dawn, book three in M.A. Grant’s Whitethorn Security series, moves from Romania back to the US, where Atlas Kincaid and Cristian Slava need to move fast to counter the threat to their home and to save the life of Cristian’s father, who has been arrested and is being investigated by the Vampire Council. Because the trilogy is, in effect, one story divided into three, it’s essential to have read the previous books in the series before starting this one. It also means there are spoilers in this review.

In book two, Crooked Shadows, Atlas and Cristian fled to Romania following a devastating strigoi attack at the family home in upstate New York, intent on finding out who is creating and controlling the gruesome creatures. In Romania, a bloody coup deposes the ruling vampire family – allies to Decebal Vladislavic (Cristian’s father) – and the he is now suspected by the Council of being responsible for the creation of the strigoi and the attacks which led to the coup. Christian and Atlas are sure that their arch-enemies, the Wharrams (Cristian’s late mother’s family) are involved somehow, and will have to race against time to prove Decebal’s innocence and prevent the Wharrams taking over the Council.

The romance between Atlas and Cristian developed into a lasting bond which has survived everything that has been thrown at them, including betrayal, lies and physical danger, and they’re stronger together than ever. Atlas realises the strigoi were responsible for the attack on his unit years ago from which he emerged as the sole survivor, and as the story progresses, begins to suspect the truth of what happened to him. At the end of a fast-paced and action-packed story where there was peril on all sides and Atlas and Cristian were not always sure who to trust, they were were blindsided by the discovery of a truly terrible betrayal by someone who had been part of Decebal’s inner circle and whom Cristian had regarded as a good friend.

When Imitate the Dawn opens, Cristian, Atlas and their friends Daria and Radu have survived another attack by the strigoi and learned of the overthrow and murder of the territory’s ruling family. Moves are being made to close the borders, so they have to get out quickly – but before they can leave, they’re contacted by the council’s lead investigator who informs them of Decebal’s arrest and of the accusations being made against him, intending to take them in, too. It’s only when, during the ensuing fight, she gets a taste of Cristian’s blood that she can see the truth and realises that she was an unwitting instrument in the council’s machinations and offers to help Cristian and Atlas to prove that the Wharrams are working against the council and everyone on it.

Once back in the US, Atlas and Cristian have to come up with a plan to locate and destroy any remaining strigoi nests before the creatures can be used against them, and find a way to save Decebal. Their one advantage is that Helias Casimir doesn’t know that they know he’s the traitor and what he’s been doing – and they decide the first step is to return to the house to see where things stand. Knowing Helias will be suspicious, Atlas and Cristian are going to act as though they’re at each other’s throats in order to distract him and prevent him questioning their motives for returning; he’ll want to separate Cristian and Atlas and the fact they’re fighting will give him the opportunity to do it. Neither of them is happy with the idea – Cristian especially, knowing he’s going to have to be hurtful and cruel if he’s going to be at all convincing – but Atlas reassures him, reminding how much of a pain in the arse Cristian was when they first met, and how he wasn’t able to run him off despite it. The deception works. Helias moves quickly to get Atlas out of the way and to enact his plan to dispose of Cristian; Atlas and Cristian have already agreed on what’s going to happen next, and they know pretending not to suspect Helias is incredibly risky, but it’s their only chance to find out what he is really up to.

I’ve really enjoyed the tight plotting, the worldbuilding and the vividly written action scenes in this series. Once again, the author does a great job of keeping the forward momemtum going, ramping up the tension as we barrel towards a nail-biting climax that pits our heroes against family, against the Council, and into a final showdown with the strigoi. The love story has been excellent, too, as Atlas and Cristian’s chemistry-laden slow-burn romance moves from wariness and distrust to understanding, affection and love, so that by the beginning of Imitate the Dawn, they’re a solid couple, secure in their relationship and have each other’s backs without question. But because the focus of this story is on saving Decebal and preventing mass murder by the strigoi, their romance is perhaps less prominent – although their love for each other permeates the novel. The bond they already share is strengthened here, so even when they’re physically distant they’re never really apart, and there are some moments towards the end in the aftermath of the battle which really tug at the heartstrings.

The biggest problem I had with this book is that I found it difficult to get into because it’s been nine months or so since I read Crooked Shadows. As I said earlier, the series is essentially one story broken up into three parts, which makes it essential to be able to recall a lot of detail about the other instalments – and I struggled for the first three or four chapters. I accept (to an extent) that’s on me – I don’t typically have time to re-read previous books in series – but it also shows there’s a danger when you’re essentially splitting up one story into smaller parts, of your audience losing track.

In the end, though, once I got into the story I really got into it and found it a hard book to put aside. Imitate the Dawn brings the Whitethorn Security to a thrilling close and although I can’t quite push grade  for this one higher than a B+  the entire series has a place on my DIK shelf.

Stone Wings (Gargoyles of Arrington #1) by Jenn Burke

stone wings

This title may be purchased from Amazon

His curse can only be lifted with true love, but can true love come from a fake date?

Being the personal assistant to a trio of cursed gargoyle brothers who sleep for a hundred years and wake up for twenty-five wasn’t a career proposed by Josh’s high school guidance counselor, but it’s a job that he’s eminently suited for. Not to mention a job his family has been doing for generations. The brothers are truly excellent bosses, but Josh is surprised when Drew offers to pretend to be his date for his high school reunion. And even more surprised by a supposedly fake kiss that feels as real as a kiss can get

Drew and his brothers owe Josh and his family for watching over them each time they turn to stone for a hundred years, and for helping them reintegrate into the world when they wake up. The least he can do is pose as Josh’s boyfriend for a night. Even though true love can break his curse, he knows he won’t find it with Josh. Nothing that real can come from a lie. Or can it?

When the fake boyfriend situation stretches into two nights, and then more, Josh and Drew can’t fight the attraction blazing between them. There’s no harm in exploring it, right? No expectations. But when paranormal danger comes to Arrington, Josh and Drew are going to have to battle for every moment of peace…and maybe a real happily ever after too.

Rating: C+

Stone Wings is the first book in Jenn Burke’s new series of paranormal romances, The Gargoyles of Arrington, and introduces readers to the three O’Reilly brothers – Teague, Drew and Rian – who, thanks to a centuries-old witch’s curse – are condemned to live ‘in flesh’ for only twenty-five years at a time, after which they return to stone for a hundred years, until they re-awaken and go through the cycle all over again. There is only one way to break the curse, which is – in the best romantic tradition – to find true love; their eldest brother Finnian managed to break his curse at the end of their last lifetime (in 1899), but with only two years to go until their next sleep, the remaining three brothers are not too sanguine about their chances.

I really liked the premise of this story, which also features a suspense plot that begins when a new pride of mountain lion shifters arrives in the area and immediately lays claim to the O’Reilly’s territory, and while there’s an HEA for the book’s central couple, that plotline is clearly going to continue throughout the series. That, together with Rian’s search for a way to break the curse is the most compelling part of the story, because the romance is, sadly, a bit lacklustre, and the two leads are a bit bland.

After the O’Reillys saved Josh Pallesen’s great-great-great-ad-infinutum grandparents from a sinking ship, members of the Pallesen family have acted as the gargoyles’ caretakers and guardians, watching over them while they’re in their stone form and on hand to help them when they’re awake. Josh took over that job from his father and acts as a kind of personal assitant and general factorum to them all, looking after their home and helping with their businesses. In this ‘lifetime’, Teague is a cop, Rian is a tattoo artist, and Drew is a mechanic, running a successful business restoring and servicing classic cars. When the story begins, Josh has just received an invitation to his ten-year high school reunion, and is debating whether or not he wants to go. High school wasn’t a great time for him, and was made even worse when his long-term boyfriend Brandon dumped him on Prom night after telling Josh he wasn’t ambitious enough. So part of him wants to opt out and part of him wants to show that he’s doing well and stick it to all the assholes he’d grown up with. When he tells Drew about the invite and his reservations, Drew offers to be his date for the evening.

On the night itself, things are going fairly well when Josh’s prick of an ex- turns up – with a husband in tow. The husband – Arie – turns out to be lovely, the prick… well, he’s still a prick, just an even bigger one. Drew and Josh’s one fake date turns into two when Arie invites them to dinner with him and Brandon – who gets very drunk and comes on to Josh. Needless to say, Drew is not amused. When Josh’s mother finds out Josh and Drew are ‘dating’, to Josh’s surprise, she encourages their relationship. He’d expected a lecture about not letting himself get hurt; instead she says that even if Josh isn’t The One for Drew (neither of them believes he is), and as it’s going to hurt, regardless of their relationship status when the time comes for Drew to return to stone, perhaps they should simply enjoy spending time together while they can. Josh and Drew are quick to see the wisdom of those words.

Fake dating turns immediately to friends-with-benefits, but too little time is spent on developing the romance or the characters; Josh and Drew are pretty colourless and there’s little romantic or sexual chemistry between them. In the Plus column, the overall concept behind the series is inventive and the plot involving the witch and the shifter gang is intriguing – it’s this aspect of the story that I found most compelling and is likely to encourage me to continue with the series.

Stone Wings is an easy, fast read and I enjoyed it, even though the romance was disappointing. I liked enough about the plot and storytelling to continue with the series – the final chapter of this book sets up Rian’s story and I have my suspicious as to whom Teague is going to end up with – but on the basis of this one, I’ll be lowering my expectations for those romances a bit and focusing on the plot.

Pack of Lies (Monster Hunt #1) by Charlie Adhara

pack of lies

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Werewolf meets human. Werewolf snubs human. Werewolf loves human?

Julien Doran arrived in sleepy Maudit Falls, North Carolina, with a heart full of hurt and a head full of questions. The key to his brother’s mysterious last days might be found in this tiny town, and now Julien’s amateur investigation is starting to unearth things the locals would rather keep buried.

Perhaps most especially the strange, magnetic manager of a deserted retreat that’s nearly as odd as its staff.

Eli Smith is a lot of things: thief, werewolf, glamour-puss, liar. And now the manager of a haven for rebel pack runaways. He’s spent years cultivating a persona to disguise his origins, but for the first time ever he’s been entrusted with a real responsibility—and he plans to take that seriously.

Even if the handsome tourist who claims to be in town for some R & R is clearly on a hunt for all things paranormal. And hasn’t taken his brooding gaze off Eli since he’s arrived.

When an old skeleton and a fresh corpse turn a grief errand into a murder investigation, the unlikely Eli is the only person Julien can turn to. Trust is hard to come by in a town known for its monsters, but so is time…

Rating: A

Charlie Adhara’s paranormal/romantic suspense Big Bad Wolf series is one of my all-time favourites. With clever plotting, excellent worldbuilding, fantastic characterisation and a beautifully developed central relationship, those books had it all, and were always going to be a tough act to follow. I was delighted when I learned the author would be writing more books set in this world and that we’d get to spend more time with the snarky, enigmatic Elias Smith – a major secondary character in the earlier series. Eli was introduced in Thrown to the Wolves, where we learned he’d had a very troubled past, running with rebel packs who used and betrayed him until he was rescued and taken in by the Parks. He’s my book catnip – complex, flawed and damaged with a sharp tongue and an attitude for miles.

While this is the first in a new series, I really would recommend reading the previous books first so as to gain an understanding of how this world works; pack politics and how wolves interact (or don’t) with humans are key elements in these stories, and you’ll get a bit of background information on Eli. Plus – they’re marvellous reads and I assure you, you won’t regret backtracking!

Pack of Lies opens just a couple of weeks so after the end of Cry Wolf. Cooper and Park are on their honeymoon and Eli has recently moved to the retreat for runaways they’ve set up in remote Maudit Falls, which they’ve asked him to run. Late one night, Eli makes his way downstairs to the reception desk to find a very bedraggled man crawling around beneath it. Annoyed and suspiciouis, he suggests perhaps his interloper is a housebreaker, but before the man can do more than indignantly contradict him and explain that he’d had an accident a way back along the road, furious knocking at the door heralds the arrival of a woman dripping with blood and frantically insisting she’s seen the monster – she’s seen Sweet Pea, and this time, she’s got proof.

Once the chief of police shows up, Annabelle Dunlop, owner of the ski resort on the other side of the mountain, explains how she’d hurt herself running through the woods and then shows them some very grainy images taken from wildlife cameras that she insists show a figure that is not human. Chief Bucknell is sceptical and says he doesn’t really see much of anything, but Eli immediately recognises part of the image as a wolf in mid-shift. He has no idea who it is or what they might be doing there, but every wolf has a responsibility to maintain the secret of their existence – and clearly, there’s someone out there who isn’t being as careful as they should be. When everyone has left, Eli’s new medic tells him they’ve got their first guest, a young woman named Gwen who has left her rebel pack in search of sanctuary. When Gwen tells Eli that she, too, had felt an ominous presence in the woods and had run from it, Eli realises something is very wrong. Wolves are being hunted, their very existence threatened with exposure – and he decides to get to the bottom of it.

Mid-list Hollywood star Juilen Doran is grieving the loss of his younger brother Rocky, who drowned some fourteen months earlier. At the suggestion of his therapist, Julien goes into Rocky’s childhood bedroom – one they’d shared for a few years – which is where, tucked away in an old hidey-hole only the two of them had known about, Julien finds a flash drive, a notebook and a crudely drawn map of somewhere called Maudit Falls. His brother was forever off on some wild goose chase or other, convinced of the existence of all manner of cryptids and mythical beasts – Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, Nessie – and Sweet Pea, a bipedal creature reported to inhabit Blue Tail Mountain, and Julien frequently had to bail him out of trouble. He tried, repeatedly to get Rocky to see sense, but those conversations always ended in an argument. Three days after their last one, Rocky was dead. He’d taken a boat out on a perfectly clear night and never returned; there was no storm that night, the boat wasn’t damaged, and there was no real way of determining exactly how he died. After finding the notebook and map, Julien isn’t so sure his brother’s death was an accident so, filled with guilt and self-recrimination, Julien turns his back on everything – his career, his family (such as it is) and even his common sense – to follow the trail Rocky has left for him.

Eli and Julien’s shared goal of finding out exactly what is going on in Maudit Falls isn’t the only thing that draws them together, but getting to the truth is more important than an inconvenient attraction to someone they can’t afford to trust. When murder comes to their doorstep along with rumours of hidden treasure and more late-night creature sightings, they form a wary alliance – but as the secrets they’re keeping threaten to destroy their fragile connection, Eli and Julien are going to have to find a way to work together if they’re going to stand a chance of survival.

Pack of Lies is a compelling combination of clever, intricate mystery and expertly crafted slow-burn romance, and I was glued to it from start to finish. Eli and Julien are fascinating, layered characters who circle around each other amid half-truths and lies-by-omission, who yet manage to be likeable and evoke sympathy and understanding. I’ve been intrigued by Eli since his appearances in the earlier series (I said in my reivew of Cry Wolf that he was “crying out” for his own story!); his snarky, prickly demeanour obviously hides a deep vulnerability, and despite his appearance of casual confidence, he worries about being the right person for the job at the retreat and about letting Cooper and Park down. Life has been far from easy for him, and although we learn more of his history here, there’s clearly more to be revealed.

Unlike the Big Bad Wolf series though, Pack of Lies is written in dual PoV, so we get to hear from Julien also, and while Charlie Adhara is one of those authors who can make a single PoV work spectacularly well, I really appreciated that. I liked Julien and enjoyed the way he so clearly cares for Eli and Eli’s feelings – and that he doesn’t hesitate when he decides to go for it with Eli. Julien has always known he’s bisexual, but has never had the opportunity to act on his attraction to men; what he’s really worried about is letting his inexperience show and not Doing It Right – but Eli soon assures him he doesn’t need to worry on that score! Their chemistry is fantastic, and the love scenes are intense and very steamy, with Julian letting out his inner dirty-talker and Eli prepared to let Julien take control.

The book ends with a firm HFN for Eli and Julien, which feels exactly right; a full-blown HEA would have felt inappropriate and I’m happy with the way things are left – with with promise of more.

Pack of Lies is a wonderful blend of mystery, romance, action and intrigue and is a superb start to this new series. I can’t wait to find out what’s in store for Eli and Julien next!

Dead Serious (Crawshanks Guide to the Recently Departed #1) by Vawn Cassidy (audiobook)- Narrated by Joel Leslie

dead serious

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the business of unfinished business…

Tristan Everett has always preferred the company of the dead because they usually don’t talk back. Being a somewhat awkward introvert working as a pathologist at the Hackney Public Mortuary suits him just fine. That is, until a freak accident with a rogue ice cube and suddenly he can see ghosts. No longer content to just lie on the table and let him figure out how they died, they’re now peering over his shoulder critiquing his work and confessing their most lascivious sins before skipping off merrily into the afterlife.

Just when he thought his life couldn’t get any weirder, sassy drag queen, Dusty Le Frey, is wheeled in with a toe tag and she’s not prepared to go quietly into the light. Not only is she furious at the prospect of spending eternity in last season’s gold lame, she’s determined that he help her solve her murder.

Suddenly Tristan finds himself thrown into a world of sequins and fake eyelashes, and worse still, he may have developed a bit of a crush on Scotland Yard’s brand new drool-worthy detective, Inspector Danny Hayes, who’s been assigned to Dusty’s murder. Oh, and as the icing on top of a really crappy cake, the killer now wants him dead too…

All he ever wanted was a simple life but suddenly he’s juggling work, a deliciously sexy detective, a stubborn ghost and a relentless murderer… and things have just gotten dead serious…

Rating: Narration  – B+; Content – D+

I was intrigued by the blurb for Dead Serious, which promised a mystery featuring a socially awkward pathologist trying to find a murderer and a romance between said pathologist and the gorgeous detective assigned to the case. The twist in the story is that the pathologist can see ghosts and is being haunted by the spirit of the murder victim, a sassy drag-queen by the name of Dusty Le Frey; it sounded like fun, and with Joel Leslie narrating, I knew I was in a safe pair of hands, so to speak.

Tristan Everett is a pathologist at the Hackney Public Mortuary in East London, and while cutting open dead bodies is probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, he likes his job and is good at it. Being a bit of an introvert, Tristan kind of prefers the company of the dead anyway – at least he doesn’t have to make idle conversation with them. He’s been persuaded to go to a leaving do at a local pub, where he catches sight of the hottest guy he’s ever seen – but before they can do much more than nod and smile at each other, Tristan somehow manages to get an ice cube lodged in his throat and, unable to breathe, chokes and passes out. When he comes to, he’s on the floor of the pub with Mr. Hottie crouching over him; feeling like an idiot, Tristan is duly wheeled away by the attending paramedics, and doesn’t think he’ll ever see his dream guy again.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Fractured Souls (Fallen Messengers #1) by Ava Marie Salinger (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Kydd

fractured souls

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Cassius Black moves to San Francisco for a fresh start, the angel’s hopes of staying below the radar of the supernatural organizations that oversee the otherworldly and magic users in the city are dashed when he stumbles across a dead body in the sewers. His grim discovery soon puts him in the sights of the Argonaut Agency and Francis Strickland, the bureau director who knows his darkest secrets.

Morgan King and his team of Argonaut agents have been on the hunt all summer for the culprits behind a series of gruesome killings that have rocked the city. Killings that bear sinister hallmarks of human sacrificial rituals where the victims’ souls have been stolen. When Fate puts Cassius in Morgan’s path, he realizes the angel everyone likes to call The Devil may very well be the only person who can help them track down the murderers.

Morgan and Cassius soon find themselves crossing paths with a mysterious warlock whose actions evoke disturbing echoes of an incident from Cassius’s past. Cassius and Morgan must work together to defeat their common enemy and save the city from destruction, all while fighting their growing attraction.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – B

Fractured Soulsis the first book in Ava Marie Salinger’s Fallen Messengers urban fantasy series in which angels and demons fell to Earth some five hundred years ago. The world the author has created is fascinating, the worldbuilding is really good, and the plot is fast-paced and action packed, but the storytelling is hampered by the introduction of too many characters at once (making it hard to keep track of who is who and who they all work for), and the romance is underdeveloped.

Like all the Fallen, Cassius Black, the most feared angel of them all, has no idea of who he was before. For years, he’s been doing his best to live under the radar and avoid interaction with the various magical and supernatural organisations that have been nothing but trouble for him in the past. Recently re-located from London to San Francisco, Cassius has taken on the job of looking for a missing cat and finds much more than he bargained for when he stumbles across said cat – a demon cat – down in the sewers, hiding from a huge Lucifugous demon that’s snacking on some human remains. After dispatching the demon, Cassius is able to see the disturbing signs of some sort of black magic ritual involving the dead man – clearly the Lucifugous didn’t kill the human. But if he didn’t – who did?

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.