Spooky Business (The Spectral Files #3) by S.E. Harmon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

spooky-business

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Being insatiably curious is a good way to end up dead.

Rain Christiansen, cold-case detective and reluctant medium, is very aware of that fact. But when infamous serial killer Thomas Kane wants to meet, there’s no way Rain can say no. He also can’t refuse Kane’s offer – find his missing wife, Delilah, and he’ll reveal the location of his victim’s bodies.

Rain has never turned down a good quid pro quo, and he doesn’t intend to start.

The hunt for Kane’s wife leads to yet another cold case, three copycat murders, and an investigation where nothing is as it seems. Soon, Rain is dealing with a ghost unlike any he’s ever dealt with before…a ghost capable of doing things he shouldn’t be able to do. How can Rain control something he doesn’t even understand? And what will he do when the unknown threatens the safety of the most important person in his life?

Rain is starting to realize that he can only battle the supernatural with the supernatural, and that is spooky business indeed.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

This third book in S.E. Harmon’s Spectral Files finds psychic and former FBI agent-turned-cold-case-detective Rain Christiansen confronting a serial killer in order to try to find out where the bodies are buried. Literally. The spookiness factor seems to increase with each book, and Spooky Business is a bit darker in tone than the previous entry in the series – and that’s fine – but I have to say there was one thing near the end that really stretched my credulity, and it seemed to me that Danny (Rain’s boyfriend) spent most of the time on the periphery of the story.

When Rain is asked by his former boss at the FBI to meet with convicted serial killer Thomas Kane, Rain, who is terminally afflicted by insatiable curiosity, agrees to make the four-hour drive to the correctional facility at which he’s being held. It’s immediately clear that Kane has no intention of telling him where he disposed of the remains of his victims; instead he tells Rain that he didn’t kill his wife Delilah Rose and asks him to find out what happened to her after she left him back in the 80s. He also insists he wasn’t responsible for all the murders attributed to him and that four of the twelve were carried out by a copycat – and tells Rain he’s being haunted and wants him to stop it. If Rain does both those things, then he’ll fess up about the bodies.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Quiet House (Black & Blue #2) by Lily Morton

The Quiet House

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Levi Black has mostly recovered from the events of a year ago. The only lingering effects are that he’s much more well known in York than he’d like to be, and he’s a lot more cautious about walking around his house naked. However, those events brought him the capricious and fascinating Blue, so he’s not complaining. On the contrary, he’s happy, in love, and looking forward to Blue finally moving in with him. And if sometimes he wonders what Blue sees in a boring cartoonist, he keeps that to himself.

Blue Billings is finally ready to throw off the memories of his past and move in with the person who means the most in the world to him. His psychic abilities have grown in the last year to his mentor Tom’s consternation, but Blue is determined to look on the bright side. He’s also focused on ignoring all the warning signs that he’s received lately.

However, even deeply buried secrets have a way of rising to the surface. And when a surprise from Blue’s past turns up and draws them away to a lonely house on the Yorkshire moors, Levi and Blue must fight for their survival once again.

Rating: B

Lily Morton’s The Mysterious and Amazing Blue Billings introduced readers to the eponymous quirky and snarky York-based ghost-tour guide, and Levi Black, a cartoonist from London who, after the death of his mother and a bad break-up, moves to York after inheriting a house near the Minster from a distant relative.  It’s a fun mix of romance and ghost story, with likeable characters, some lovely moments of poignancy and lots of the author’s trademark witty banter, and I – like many of Ms. Morton’s fans – have been eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.  The Quiet House is that book, and once again the author has penned an intriguing story and peopled it with some great characters – some we’ve met before, some who are new – and shown she’s more than able to bring the spooky when called for.

The Quiet House takes place around a year after Blue and Levi were nearly killed ridding Levi’s house of a particularly dangerous and malevolent ghost.  The intervening year has seen a number of changes in their lives – good changes – with Blue working to understand and control his abilities and he and Levi becoming closer and finding their way forward as a couple.  Blue still leads his ghost tour once a week, and when the story begins, Blue notices an old man dressed all in black standing quietly at the back of his tour group. He’s far too solid-looking to be a spirit, and Blue believes he’s just a late arrival – and a stingy one at that, when he disappears without paying the fee.  Not until a day or so later does he learn what he’s seen, when his friend, employer and mentor in all things psychic, crotchety bookshop-owner Tom Pattison, explains that what he saw was a spirit – or more correctly a “crow” – a warning that trouble is on the way.

And it arrives when Levi opens the door one evening to a stranger asking to see Blue – a stranger who looks oddly familiar.  With good reason.  The man is Declan Shaw.  Blue’s absentee father.

Blue has never even met his dad seeing as how he legged it before Blue was born; he recognises him from an old photo his mother kept with her at all times.  Declan’s sudden appearance evokes mixed emotions in Blue – anger for sure, but curiosity, too; maybe Declan can fill in some of the blanks for Blue, tell him some of the things about his mother he longs to know.  But Declan shows no sign of wanting to build anything with his son; he’s there to offer Blue a lucrative job at the home of his eccentric employer, Viscount Ingram, whose massive country house on the Yorkshire Moors is reputed to be the most haunted house in England.  Ingram wants to open the house to the public as a hotel of the macabre – and he needs a psychic to tell him about the spirits he can see, to interact with them and tell him their stories.

Much to Levi’s dismay, Blue is intrigued and seriously considering the proposition.  He’s worried that Declan will hurt Blue, but when Tom reveals the house in question has a terrible reputation and that it’s haunted by some very violent sprits, it seems that there is a great deal more to worry about than Blue’s relationship with his father.  Tom and Levi know Blue is going to need all the help he can get, and together, the three of them make their way to the grand estate, where right from the off, Blue and Tom are affected by the overwhelming sense of evil that permeates the place.

And of course things go from bad to worse once they arrive.  It turns out Blue and Tom aren’t the only psychics to have been invited to unlock the secrets of this particular haunted house, and that over the past year or so, Ingram has extended the same invitation to many psychic guests  – and now it seems the spirits are seriously pissed off and that something truly powerful and evil has been awakened.  And not only that, but Blue’s worst nightmare seems to be coming true. Something is targeting Levi.

Lily Morton is known for writing funny, sexy contemporary romances with plenty of snark and plenty of steam, but in this series, she shows she’s able to turn her hand to something different.  The steam and humour are still present (albeit a little toned down), but the paranormal element of the story is the main focus, and she creates a real sense of menace and disquiet that slowly pervades the book, becoming stronger and stronger until we reach the novel’s dramatic climax.

I was delighted to see Tom get a bigger role in this story; he’s a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and a real soft spot for Blue, and I love his deadpan sense of humour.  The other secondary characters –  an eccentric viscount, a TV psychic and a couple of nasty blasts from Blue’s past – are vividly drawn, and I hope Jem, the cameraman who would rather be photographing penguins than poltergeists, will make that trip to York and meet up with Blue’s friend Will again.

The romance in this book is more low-key than before, but even though Blue and Levi have been together for a year, they have some lovely, tender moments together, and I was really pleased to see how far Blue has come since the last book, when he was skittish and insecure, used to keeping himself apart and waiting for rejection.  He’s the same whimsical, smart-mouthed so-and-so he always was, but there’s a sense of stability and equanimity in him that weren’t there before.  And Levi – sweet, caring, loveable Levi – is his anchor, the person who keeps him grounded and tethered to reality.  Their devotion to one another shines through, even in moments of insecurity and doubt.

The Quiet House is an entertaining read that boasts a winning combination of snarky psychic, lonely viscount, ghostly monks, satanic rituals and the grumpiest mentor ever.  It’s a nicely balanced mix of funny, sexy and spooky, and I enjoyed my return to the world of Black & Blue.

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

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

New York, 1925

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

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

There are spoilers for Spellbound in this review.

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Gangster (Magic & Steam #2) by C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, magic caster for the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has recovered from injuries obtained while in Shallow Grave, Arizona. Now back in New York City, Gillian makes an arrest on New Year’s Eve that leads to information on a gangster, known only as Tick Tock, who’s perfected utilizing elemental magic ammunition. This report complicates Gillian’s holiday plans, specifically those with infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly, who promised they’d ring in 1882 together.

The two men stand on the cusp of a romance that needs to be explored intimately and privately. But when Gillian’s residence is broken into by a magical mechanical man who tries to murder him on behalf of Tick Tock, he and Gunner must immediately investigate the city’s ruthless street gangs before the illegal magic becomes a threat that cannot be contained.

This might be their most wild adventure yet, but criminal undergrounds can’t compare to the dangers of the heart. Gillian must balance his career in law enforcement with his love for a vigilante, or lose both entirely.

Rating: A-

In The Gangster, the second book in C.S. Poe’s entertaining and exciting Magic & Steam series, we join Special Agent Gillian Hamilton for another exhilarating adventure, this time on his home turf of New York City.  As in the first book – The Engineer – the story is fast-paced and clever, featuring well-drawn, interesting characters and a number of vivid, expertly realised action scenes, and the author’s world-building continues to impress. Readers are immersed in a recognisable vision of Gilded Age New York, but with significant differences –  such as the magic-powered airships (the quintessential steampunk mode of transport!) that have replaced the transcontinental railroad – due to the harnessing of magic as a commodity during the so-called Great Rebellion – surely this world’s version of the American Civil War.

At the end of The Engineer, Gillian left Shallow Grave in Arizona to return to New York – but carries with him a promise from Gunner the Deadly – the outlaw with whom he’d become romantically involved – that they will see each other again on New Year’s Eve.  Gillian is alternately hopeful and anxious, desperately wanting to see Gunner again while trying to talk himself into not being too disappointed when Gunner doesn’t show.  Because what could a gorgeous, uber-confident, gun-slinging cowboy possibly see in an unprepossessing, repressed individual like Gillian?

It’s 31st December 1881, but before Gillian has to face either joy or disappointment, there’s a day’s work to be done, and on this particular day, he’s chasing down a lowlife called Fishback, a criminal known to have a penchant for killing cops and for working for some of the city’s biggest organised crime syndicates.  Gillian suspects Fishback is acting as the middle-man in the trade of weapons that use illegal elemental magic – and when he’s eventually able to question him, those suspicions are confirmed.  Fishback delivers the shipments – which originate somewhere “out West” – to Tick-Tock, a newly-arrived and widely feared crime boss/gangster who, so far, nobody has ever seen.  Not even Fishback, who tells Gillian he meets with a magical mechanical man who picks up the deliveries on Tick Tock’s behalf.

Shortly after the interview, Gillian heads to Grand Central to pick up Gunner.  He’s late, and worries that he’s missed Gunner or worse, Gunner hasn’t come at all.  But he has.  Their reunion is restrained because they’re in a public place, but Gillian is overjoyed and relieved to see the man who has occupied almost his every waking thought for the past two months.  And miraculously, it seems Gunner is pleased to see Gillian, too.

Gillian and Gunner barely have a moment to themselves (although they do put the few moments they have to very good use!) before they’re plunged headlong into a breathless game of cat-and-mouse with the most dangerous individual in the city.  And while they’re battling nightmarish mechanical men – gruesome half man/half machines with weapons surgically grafted to their bodies – fending off attacks from illegal magic and fighting for their lives in some really vivid, well-conceived action scenes, there are some lovely moments of introspection and emotional closeness, too, which cement and strengthen the connection between them.

Gillian and Gunner are both likeable, compelling characters it’s easy to invest in and root for.  In The Engineer, it was obvious there was more to Gillian than met the eye, and here the author sheds more light on what he’s hiding.  It’s also clear that he’s keeping some big, dark secret that he’s ashamed of and afraid of, something he seems to be desperately trying to atone for that has convinced him he’s unworthy of love or affection and that he doesn’t deserve good things in life.  He’s desperately lonely, rigidly controlled and hides himself in plain sight, but keeping himself hidden (in more ways than one) for over a decade is starting to take its toll, and at times we get a glimpse of a man close to the edge, someone dangerous and volatile.  But he’s also endearingly shy and charming with a dry sense of humour and a clearly defined sense of right and wrong… although the line between them has blurred a bit since he met Gunner.

Self-possessed, sexy Gunner is the perfect foil for Gillian, injecting some calm into his hectic life.  He encourages Gillian to embrace who he is and what he wants, providing solid support and reassurance on personal issues and has his back without question when they have to face off with the bad guys.  He’s not a great talker, but when he does have something to say he’s usually to the point and incredibly insightful; he sees Gillian in a way nobody else has, and has discerned things about him that no-one else seems to have noticed – that Gillian is a great deal more powerful than he lets on, and that there’s something devastating and immensely painful in his past.  But he knows better than to push for details; he’s prepared to bide his time and wait for Gillian to tell him the truth.

The Gangster is a terrific blend of tender romance and rollicking adventure yarn that will have you ‘heart-eyes’ and on the edge of your seat by turns.  The mystery is nicely done, with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers guessing, and I liked the glimpses we got of Gillian’s work life and of his relationship with his boss – who, he’s only just worked out, may possibly be harbouring a tendre for him. The author’s descriptions of the New York locations are really evocative, and her depictions of the mechanical men and Gillian’s amazing feats of magic are inventive and full of imagery so vivid and colourful as to create a lasting impression in the mind’s eye.  And best of all, the love story is never pushed aside in favour of the plot; there are some wonderfully loving moments between Gillian and Gunner, and even though the story takes place over just a few days, by the end, they’ve admitted that they want more from each other and there’s a new, deeper level of intimacy between them.  Which is when Ms. Poe drops one helluva bombshell that had me (mentally) screaming  “nooooooooooooo!” and searching frantically to see if I could find a release date for book three!

So, yes, there’s a cliffhanger, but don’t let that put you off.  The Gangster is a thrilling and utterly captivating instalment in the Magic & Steam series, and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the release of book three, The Doctor.  I hope it’s not too long a wait!

Wonderstruck (Magic in Manhattan #3) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

New York, 1925

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

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Engineer (Magic & Steam #1) by C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton is a magic caster with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam. He’s sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona, to arrest a madman engineer known as Tinkerer, who’s responsible for blowing up half of Baltimore. Gillian has handled some of the worst criminals in the Bureau’s history, so this assignment shouldn’t be a problem. But even he’s taken aback by a run-in with the country’s most infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly.

Gunner is also stalking Shallow Grave in search of Tinkerer, who will stop at nothing to take control of the town’s silver mines. Neither Gillian nor Gunner are willing to let Tinkerer hurt more innocent people, so they agree to a very temporary partnership.

If facing illegal magic, Gatling gun contraptions, and a wild engineer in America’s frontier wasn’t enough trouble for a city boy, Gillian must also come to terms with the reality that he’s rather fond of his partner. But even if they live through this adventure, Gillian fears there’s no chance for love between a special agent and outlaw.

Rating – B

The Engineer is the novella-length first instalment in C.S. Poe’s Steampunk AU Magic & Steam series, and it’s an entertaining mash up of magic, steampunk and Wild West historical. Magic caster and Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam Gillian Hamilton is sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona to apprehend a dangerous ‘mad-scientist’ engineer by the name of Milo Ferguson aka The Tinkerer, who is wanted for a number of illegal uses of steam energy and magic.  We’re plunged straight into the action as Gillian arrives in Shallow Grave and finds himself being shot at before he’s so much as identified himself. He’s surprised to find he has an ally in his skirmish with Ferguson, a handsome cowboy clad in all in black he later recognises as the mysterious vigilante gunslinger known only as Gunner the Deadly – who is also a wanted criminal.

Gunner and Gillian call a temporary truce and decide to work together to capture the Tinkerer, facing his deadly, gloriously bonkers inventions (steam-powered spider-legged Gatling guns! Massive armoured locomotives! Lightning bullets!) in some high-stakes action scenes that are cinematic in scope.  The world-building is solid with clear explanations of how magic works in this world, and of the hierarchical structure – although I suspect, given something Gillian discovers near the end, there is more to come on that score.

The author packs a lot of story and character development into this fast-paced novella.  Gillian is the PoV character, so Gunner is rather enigmatic, but he nonetheless has a considerable impact on Gillian’s outlook and the way he views his government job, making him see that perhaps there isn’t such a great gulf between them after all, and that they’re both operating in grey areas rather than in the starkness of black and white.

The characters are quirky and engaging, and the author creates a strong connection between them despite the short page count. Gillian is an extremely powerful magician, but is otherwise insecure and struggles with his sexuality, keeping himself apart and denying himself the solace of human touch so as not to engender rumours among his colleagues.  Gunner is a gorgeous and enigmatic bad-boy who turns out to be quite different to what Gillian expected, a kind of latter day Robin Hood who makes no bones about the fact that – “Sometimes bad men die when I do good. I don’t regret that.”  Meeting Gunner kicks Gillian’s libido into gear and once he realises his interest is returned he decides to go for it; they have great chemistry, and even though we don’t get into Gunner’s head, it’s clear that he’s rather smitten with Gillian as well, and that he sees beyond the reserved exterior to something of who he really is inside.

There are hints that there’s more to Gillian than meets the eye, and I’m intrigued to find out more about him and his considerable magical abilities. As this is an ongoing series, there’s no HEA in this book, but it ends on a firm HFN for Gillian and Gunner and the promise of more adventures to come.  The Engineer was a quick and absorbing read, and I’m looking forward to reading The Gangster, the next instalment in the series.

Guarding His Melody (Enhanced World #4) by Victoria Sue (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Deaf since childhood, Sebastian Armitage had a promising musical future until his dreams were shattered when he transformed at 12 years old.

In a world where enhanced humans are terrorized and imprisoned, his life shrinks around him even more as he suffers the torment of his father’s experimental research to enable him to hear.

Gray Darling – struggling with the scars left by his experience in Afghanistan – agrees to provide short-term personal protection when anonymous threats escalate into assault on those closest to Seb.

As the lines between protection and attraction blur, Gray and Seb can’t ignore the intense feelings drawing them together. But secrets and betrayals might prove deadly, unless Gray is willing to risk it all. And Seb must find the strength to make his own future and sing his own song…

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B-

Victoria Sue’s Enhanced World series features a group of characters with special abilities known as (surprise, surprise!) the Enhanced. Most of the books in the series centre around a specially created Florida-based FBI unit that partners an Enhanced with a regular human, but Guarding His Melody (book four) is an offshoot of the main series which means it’s perfectly possible to listen to it as a standalone. The author does a good job of making it possible for new listeners to jump in here, giving all the necessary backstory without info-dumping, but for the purposes of this review, here’s a quick rundown. The Enhanced are humans who, in childhood or adolescence, suddenly develop special abilities, which range from super strength to the ability to become invisible, walk through walls, destroy metal, x-ray vision … it’s a long list and there’s no way of knowing beforehand who will transform, let alone what their powers might be. The only things all Enhanced have in common are 1) an identifying facial mark or scar which appears literally overnight when they undergo their transformation; 2) when they transform, their parents are given the choice to keep them in their households or send them away – a disturbing number take the latter option; 3) they are feared and viewed with suspicion, distrust and even hatred by the ‘normal’ public, and 4) they don’t have the same rights as everyone else.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

From London, With Love (London Steampunk #6) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

With London finally at peace, there is only one threat remaining to the stability of the monarchy…. The queen is without an heir.

Queen Alexandra is done with marriage, but as always, the Duke of Malloryn has a plan. With Malloryn insisting upon an heir for the realm, Alexandra reluctantly agrees to accept a husband. But who? With Europe’s most eligible bachelors in London to attend her exhibition, she finds herself pining for the only man who has never betrayed her. The only man she wants. And the one man she cannot have.

A queen’s duty is never done.

Alexandra’s feelings for her dearest friend Sir Gideon have always been warm, but a stolen kiss pushed a friendship into dangerous waters. How can she explain that she has never known desire before? How can she stand to be in the same room as Gideon, without betraying her feelings? And how can she marry someone else?

But there’s an assassin on the loose, and while she may currently be at odds with Sir Gideon, he’s the only man who can save both her wounded heart—and the future of the realm. Foreign princes and meddling dukes, bedamned.

Rating: B-

Bec McMaster’s fantastic London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series reached a breathtakingly exciting close back in February 2019 with Dukes are Forever, wrapping up the overarching plotlines and giving the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn his HEA, leaving the Company of Rogues all happily settled as they continue in their mission to protect their queen and the realm.

But the author wasn’t quite done, and shortly afterwards, gifted her newsletter subscribers with From London, With Love, a long-ish novella (now available to buy) in which the long-suffering Queen Alexandra gets her very own HEA as well.  It’s a story readers had been asking for, and because it’s definitely one for followers of the series, it will make little sense if you haven’t read at least some of the novels that precede it.

When we first met Alexandra in the original London Steampunk books, she was nothing more than her husband’s puppet; the Prince Consort kept her drugged up and docile while he and the ruling Echelon pursued ruthless policies against the non-blue blood denizens of London, keeping the humans, mechs and wervulfen beaten down and using them as fodder for the draining factories that supported blue blood society.  At the end of that series, the Prince Consort was killed, the regime was overthrown, and by the time the Blue Blood Conspiracy series opened three years later, the Queen is recovered and is once more on the throne and ruling with the help of a much more tolerant and even-handled council comprised of her staunch allies (Malloryn, Barrons and Mina, Lynch, Blade etc.).  But as the books in that series showed, the throne is still vulnerable and the political situation, while improving, is still not completely stable.  From London, With Love opens as Malloryn puts a proposal to Alexandra, one she doesn’t care for at all – namely, she needs to marry and produce an heir or name her successor. Should something happen to her before either of those things is done, it could ignite a(nother) civil war.

“I’m tired of war.  I want to take a bloody holiday with my wife without the palace going up in flames.”

Alexandra might not like it, but she sees the wisdom of Malloryn’s words and agrees to seek a husband; at least this time, she will be choosing for herself and marrying on her own terms.   What she doesn’t know is that the wily Malloryn already has someone in mind…

Sir Gideon Scott has been a true friend to Alexandra throughout the worst years and is a trusted advisor and sounding board.  Alexandra is strongly attracted to him and he to her, but he’s a commoner as well as being another human –and Alexandra is sure that the council will oppose her taking a human – and the leader of the Humanist movement, no less – as her husband.

Before Alexandra can take any husband, however, it becomes clear that an assassin has her in their sights, and with the court full of visiting princes and dignitaries from around the world, it falls to Malloryn, Sir Gideon and the CoR to ensure the Queen’s safety and who wants her dead.

The shorter page count means an overall paring down in terms of both plot and romance here.  There are still some vivid action scenes and the stakes are still high, but the romance isn’t quite as convincing as in the other books.  Sir Gideon is a terrific hero; handsome, intelligent and loyal, and Alexandra is a nice mix of confident and vulnerable. I liked them together and Gideon is just what Alexandra needs but I didn’t feel that deep connection between them that exists between the other couples in the series.  They have chemistry for sure, and although I didn’t at first much like Alexandra’s solution to overcoming her fear of physical intimacy, I did like the way Gideon was so careful and respectful of her wishes, and how he wouldn’t let her push herself too far.

The villain of the piece is fairly obvious (despite the presence of the Red Herring designed to throw is off the scent!), but the mystery storyline is entertaining, and affords opportunities for some of the Rogues to become involved in the hunt for the would be assassin.

And speaking of the Rogues, I loved seeing them all again – their wonderful dynamic and camaraderie hasn’t changed – and I especially enjoyed getting to see Malloryn and Adele happily  snarking at each other (and seeing just how well Adele knows her husband).  Malloryn is the same hard-arse he always was but he lets his softer side out a bit more, and I really appreciated the fact that he actually listens to Adele and Gemma when they tell him that he hasn’t always dealt with Alexandra as kindly or as well as he could have done – and then that he has the balls to admit his mistakes and apologise for them.

From London, With Love may not be a personal favourite, but it’s a fun read, with a little bit of everything that has made this series so addictive. The best part of all may have been the very end, when it started to look as though Ms. McMaster was setting up a new series… which she confirms in her author’s note.  The action will shift to the Russian Blood Court and the Scandinavian Wervulfen in her forthcoming London Steampunk: Blood Court series; the bad news is that we’ll have to wait a year or two, but I’ll definitely be here read to gobble it up whenever it appears!

My 2020 in Books & Audio

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

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

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

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

Audio

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

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

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

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

Cry Wolf (Big Bad Wolf #5) by Charlie Adhara

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Agent Cooper Dayton never thought anything could be harder than solving murders. Until he had to plan a wedding. After taking down an old adversary, Agent Cooper Dayton of the Bureau of Special Investigations has earned a break. Not that planning a wedding to his sexy shifter partner, Oliver Park, is necessarily stress free, but it’s better than worrying about the ominous warning, delivered months ago, that Cooper’s life is in danger.

When he’s dragged to an event by his family, Cooper braces for an awkward evening, but instead finds himself in the middle of an ugly feud between Park’s ex and a rebel pack leader. What was supposed to be a quick outing turns into a full-blown murder investigation after the pack leader ends up dead, Park’s ex goes missing, and Cooper and Park are sent a series of disturbing wedding gifts that are somehow connected to it all.

The list of potential suspects is long, and with the bodies piling up, Cooper must turn to the one person he trusts the least: the villain he’s already put behind bars once and who has nothing to lose by lying and everything to gain if Cooper is out of the picture—for good.

Rating: A

Cry Wolf is the fifth instalment of Charlie Adhara’s paranormal/romantic suspense Big Bad Wolf series,  and I started reading it with mixed feelings;  eagerness at the thought of another story featuring Cooper and Park, and sadness at the thought of having to say goodbye to them, because I thought this was to be the final book in the series.  But having finished it, I’m now hopeful that we’re going to be gifted with yet more stories set in this world, because Cry Wolf sets up some extremely interesting potential plotlines, especially in relation to the things we learn about the hierarchy of wolf society, reminds us of a number of important unanswered questions, AND brings back a charismatic secondary character who – it seems to me – is crying out for an HEA of his own.  So please, Ms. Adhara, can we have some more?

Note:  Minor spoilers ahead for previous books in the series.

At the very end of Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, the newly engaged Cooper and Park received the unsettling news that Dr. Emily Freeman, the scientist who absconded with scientific proof of the existence of werewolves at the end of Thrown to the Wolves, had broken into their apartment, surrendered herself into custody and is refusing to speak to anyone but Cooper.  Cry Wolf opens a week later as Cooper goes to see her; she tells him he’s in great danger and says she’ll tell him who’s coming for him in exchange for a deal that will grant her a new identity and see her released without charge.  When Cooper doesn’t show a great deal of concern she takes great delight in taunting him about how little he really knows about werewolves and their way of life, and then clams up.

Eventually, Cooper, Park and their boss dismiss Freeman’s claims as just another attempt to manipulate Cooper, meaning he can get back to quietly freaking out about planning his and Park’s wedding.  Marriage isn’t a thing in the werewolf community, but Park is so head-over-heels in love with Cooper, he’ll do whatever it takes to make him happy and enthusiastically accepted his proposal.  But being unfamiliar with the concept of weddings and how to actually go about getting married, Park has left all the planning up to Cooper, who wants it to be perfect and is practically paralysed into indecision as a result.  (Gah! – he luuuuuurves Park so damn much and he wants to show that he knows what a big statement Park is making by undergoing such a very human ritual, but how does he say that with flowers?  Or a ring? Or a big wedding? Or a minutely curated guest list? Or a hundred other possibilities he really can’t decide on?)

The reappearance of Eli, Park’s ex, gives Cooper something else to think about. Eli is being blackmailed by someone from the distant past he’s worked hard to put behind him, someone from his days running with rebel packs who betrayed him horribly, leaving him trapped in fur with people who kept him in chains until the Park pack found him, rescued him and took him in.  It all happened years ago, but Eli recently received a letter threatening to send evidence of his involvement to the big packs he and his fellow rebels stole from unless Eli pays him.  Refusing to let this person control him again, Eli has tracked him down and discovered that he’s working as – of all things – a zookeeper in DC, and he asks Cooper for his help in finding the evidence, which he suspects is hidden somewhere at the zoo.

Cooper and Park visit the zoo next day to see what they can find out and it’s not long before they’re up to their necks in trouble.  The body of Eli’s blackmailer is found floating in the sea lion pool, four long slashes on his torso that remind Cooper uncomfortably of those on his own body, the face a horrific rictus of elongated bone and tightly stretched skin that is neither man nor wolf.  Eli goes into hiding, not prepared to take the rap for something he didn’t do, leaving Cooper and Park even more determined to help him and prove his innocence.  But trouble seems to follow them, in the form of yet more strangely part-transformed dead wolves, and a nosy FBI agent – who happens to be Cooper’s ex-partner… and ex-lover.

Charlie Adhara once again delivers a clever, fast-moving, intriguing and twisty mystery that is full of red herrings, suspicious characters and dead ends, while continuing to expand the world she’s created, bringing in wolf lore and mythology, setting up a three-way power struggle between the ruling packs, the rebels and the WIP (Wolf Independence Party) – and placing Cooper right in the middle of it.  And she combines all this with some truly stellar character and relationship development, skilfully eschewing the sort of manufactured drama that sometimes occurs in series featuring an established couple.  Cooper is a complex and endearing PoV character, and his evolution throughout the entire series has been spectacular; he’s still very much the man we met in The Wolf at the Door – prickly, sarcastic, and socially awkward – but while he remains those things, he’s become someone who has learned to face his insecurities and to communicate fully and honestly with his partner. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve adored watching his transformation from that insular loner who didn’t realise his own worth to a man who loves and is loved utterly and completely, and has come to realise he’s stronger than he’d ever believed.  And even though we never get into Park’s head, the author does a fantastic job of showing us how his character is evolving, too, learning to accept his own dark past and becoming a committed romantic partner.  Cooper and Park are one of my favourite pairings, a real odd-couple whose differences and imperfections somehow make them a perfect fit.  Through it all, Ms. Adhara is keeping this series fresh and exciting, and even after five books, I’m nowhere near tired of reading about these characters.

I also enjoyed the presence of Cooper’s family in this book, and watching him getting on so well with his brother Dean and building a relationship with his father. Things between them were somewhat fragile back in The Wolf at Bay, and neither of them is naturally inclined to openness, but it was lovely to watch Ed being so supportive and Cooper accepting it and getting to know him better.

Cry Wolf is a swoonworthy blend of humour, tenderness and heartfelt passion, a fantastic addition to the Big Bad Wolf series, and possibly my favourite of the lot.  The mystery is brilliantly done and kept me fully engaged from start to finish and I continue to adore Cooper and Park individually and as a couple; they’re flawed, multi-layered, loveable characters whose love for each other shines through no matter what.  Given all the loose ends and potential plot threads that emerge in this book, I’m extremely hopeful that this isn’t the end, and am eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Cooper and Park’s adventures!