White Trash Warlock (Adam Binder #1) by David R. Slayton (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael David Axtell

white trash warlock

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Not all magicians go to schools of magic.

Adam Binder has the Sight. It’s a power that runs in his bloodline: the ability to see beyond this world and into another, a realm of magic populated by elves, gnomes, and spirits of every kind. But for much of Adam’s life, that power has been a curse, hindering friendships, worrying his backwoods family, and fueling his abusive father’s rage.

Years after his brother, Bobby, had him committed to a psych ward, Adam is ready to come to grips with who he is, to live his life on his terms, to find love, and maybe even use his magic to do some good. Hoping to track down his missing father, Adam follows a trail of cursed artifacts to Denver, only to discover that an ancient and horrifying spirit has taken possession of Bobby’s wife.

It isn’t long before Adam becomes the spirit’s next target. To survive the confrontation, save his sister-in-law, and learn the truth about his father, Adam will have to risk bargaining with very dangerous beings…including his first love.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content ; A-

David R. Slayton’s White Trash Warlock was recommended to me a while back (by Gregory Ashe, no less) so when I saw it in the Audible Plus catalogue, I pounced on it  – and I’m so glad I did, because I was completely glued to it for the entire nine-and-a-bit hours of its run-time.  The story is inventive, the central character is flawed, complex and captivating (just how I like ‘em!) and the narration is really good, so it was a win all round.

Adam Binder has low-level psychic and magical abilities that are often more of a burden than a gift.  Aged just twenty, he lives with his Great-Aunt Sue in Guthrie, Oklahoma and is estranged from the rest of his family; his father left when he was young, his mother doesn’t seem to care and he hasn’t seen his brother Robert (now a doctor in Denver) since Robert had him committed to an institution at thirteen because Adam was hearing voices.  Adam got out as soon as he turned eighteen and now spends much of his time tracking down and destroying dangerous magical artefacts and trying to find their creator, a warlock he suspects may be his father.

Given their estrangement, Robert is the last person Adam expects to hear from – even less does he expect a request for help.  Robert’s wife Annie has begun behaving extremely erratically and Robert has seen things in her behaviour that suggest to him that whatever is wrong with her may be something supernatural.  He asks Adam to come to Denver to do what he can to help; Adam is reluctant but he goes.  Whatever is wrong, Annie doesn’t deserve it – and also, he has a lead that points to the artefacts he’s been searching for originating from somewhere in Denver.

The reunion between the brothers – and Adam and their mother – is uneasy at best, but when Adam sees Annie, he realises she’s possessed by some sort of spirit entity.  A visit to the hospital where Robert works reveals a connection between it and the spirit – while he’s looking around, the spirit tries to kill Adam, and when a couple of cops inadvertently get in the way and one of them is killed,  Adam manages to save the life of the other by giving him a strand of his own life-force, making it impossible for the Reaper to claim him and unwittingly creating a bond between himself and the young police officer.

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

A Touch of Fever (Arcane Hearts #1) by Nazri Noor (audiobook) – Narrated by Zachary Johnson

a touch of fever

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Jackson Pryde was never great at wielding magic. Instead, he works as an artificer, crafting enchanted devices in the Black Market, a shadowy bazaar of wonders. But Xander Wright, the mouthy, pretentious mage next door, hates all the hammering in Jackson’s workshop.

When a chance assignment forces them to team up, they discover a terrifying predicament. Something is driving members of the magical community into murderous rages. Jackson and Xander must combine might and magic to find the source of the Fever and stop it. Can they put aside their differences long enough to end the Fever, or will they succumb to its bloodthirsty curse?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Nazri Noor has penned a number of urban fantasy series, but this is the first book of his to appear on my radar. I confess though, that the main draw was Zachary Johnson’s name listed as the narrator; I’ve only listened to him once before (in Emma Scott’s Someday, Someday, which he co-narrated with Greg Tremblay) but liked his work enough to want to listen to him again, and when this title was offered for review, I grabbed the opportunity.

A Touch of Fever is a fun romp through an interesting fantastical world inhabited by (among others) imps, merfolk, enchanters, dragons, sylphs, fae and a scene-stealing gryphon, combined with a murder mystery and a childhood friends-to-enemies-to-lovers romance between (says the blurb) a fast-talking artificer and a snarky sorcerer. Arcane Hearts is an ongoing series (book four is due for release at the end of January) and this story ends on a firm HFN; this is so far the only one of the set available in audio, but I hope the others will follow.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin

proper scoundrels

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, 1925

Sebastian de Leon is adjusting to life after three years spent enthralled by blood magic. The atrocities he committed under its control still weigh heavily on his conscience, but when he’s asked to investigate a series of mysterious murders, it feels like an opportunity to make amends. Until he realizes the killer’s next likely target is a man who witnessed Sebastian at his worst—the Viscount Fine.

Lord Fine—known as Wesley to his friends, if he had any—is haunted by ghosts of his own after serving as a British army captain during the Great War. Jaded and untrusting, he’s tempted to turn Sebastian in, but there’s something undeniably captivating about the reformed paranormal, and after Sebastian risks his own life to save Wesley’s, they find common ground.

Seeking sanctuary together at Wesley’s country estate in Yorkshire, the unlikely pair begins to unravel a mystery steeped in legend and folklore, the close quarters emboldening them to see past the other’s trauma to the person worth loving beneath. But with growing targets on their backs, they’ll have to move quickly if they want to catch a killer—and discover whether two wounded souls can help each other heal.

Rating: A-

Allie Therin’s Magic and Manhattan series concluded earlier this year with Wonderstruck, leaving Rory and Arthur in a good place, disposing of the evil Baron Zeppler and nicely tying up the major plotlines.  Despite a few quibbles, I enjoyed all three books, so I was pleased to learn the author was writing another novel set in the same universe, but featuring different lead characters and a different setting.  In Proper Scoundrels the action switches from New York to London (and Yorkshire), and we catch up with Lord Wesley Fine – Arthur Kenzie’s former lover – and Sebastian de Leon,  a powerful paranormal whose particular abilities made him a valuable asset to the bad guys – both of whom had major parts to play in Wonderstruck.  Although Proper Scoundrels is a standalone novel, I would strongly advise anyone thinking about picking it up to read the Magic in Manhattan series first in order to understand the character backstories and magical systems and world the author has created.

The action picks up shortly after the end of Wonderstruck, where we find Sebastian living in London, where he’s retreated to lick his wounds after spending three years enslaved by the blood magic practiced by Baron Keppler.  He’s weighed down by guilt for the things he was forced to do while under the Baron’s control and is desperate to find ways to atone.  He’s damaged, scared and alone, having deliberately distanced himself from friends and family because he believes himself unworthy of affection, happiness or redemption.

Wesley, Lord Fine, is also back in London and is at something of a loose end. Like Sebastian, he feels like an outsider, his experiences of war putting him forever out of step with those around him.   He’s a self-confessed scoundrel; jaded, cynical, arrogant and often deliberately rude, he despises nearly everyone and everything.  Despite his involvement with the events of Wonderstruck, he has no idea of the existence of magic and the paranormal world – and no inkling that his Kensington home is under magical protection or that Sebastian regularly passes by to make sure that Arthur’s aristocratic friend [isn’t] in any danger owing to his association with Arthur and Rory.

One evening, Sebastian receives a note from Jade Robbins containing a list of the dates of three recent unexplained murders and asking him to meet her.  He grasps the implications immediately – whoever is committing these murders is a paranormal; his conversation with Jade and her partner, Zhang, confirms this and also suggests the perpetrator may be the man responsible for the theft of a number of valuable and dangerous magical artefacts belonging to Sebastian’s family, the Earl of Blanshard.  And among the guests at the last party the earl held at his Yorkshire estate was Wesley, Viscount Fine.  Could he be the paranormal murderer’s next target?

Proper Scoundrels is superbly plotted and perfectly paced, and there’s what I can only describe as an overall air of confidence to the writing and storytelling that wasn’t quite there in the author’s previous work. The romance is given the time to develop and the attraction between Wesley and Sebastian made a lot more sense right off the bat than the romance between Rory and Arthur, who felt so very mis-matched until quite late in their series.  Wesley and Sebastian may be polar opposites, but  their relationship doesn’t suffer from the same feeling of inequality; the push-pull of their attraction, their individual trauma and coping mechanisms, and the amount of growth they go through as characters makes their romance – across one single title – very believable and deeply satisfying.

Wesley and Sebastian are as compelling as individuals as they are as a couple and I liked both of them very much – although it’s Wesley who really stole the show for me.  I loved his sharp and very distinctive narrative voice; he’s under no illusions about himself – unless it’s about his hard-heartedness and inability to love – and his irritation with himself over his attraction to Sebastian is funny and leaps off the page.  He’s every bit the arrogant, rude, snarky, cantankerous arsehole he was in the previous books, but there’s a depth and vulnerability to him that he’d never admit to, and he’s brave, open-minded, witty and generous to those few he truly cares about.  I enjoyed watching him decide that maybe caring for someone – and allowing someone to care for him – might be worth it after all.  Sebastian has been through a lot and is suffering from what we’d recognise as PTSD as a result, but he isn’t prepared to cut himself any slack and blames himself for all the things he did while in thrall to Baron Keppler, even though he had absolutely no choice in the matter.    He’s unfailingly kind and considerate – Jade is spot on when she calls him a “dangerous marshmallow” – and will fight to the death to protect those around him – especially sharp-tongued, non-magical viscounts  – but he’s no pushover.  I just loved watching these two lonely, damaged men slowly growing closer and allowing the other to see things about themselves they allow no-one else to see. Their chemistry is off-the-charts and they light up the pages when they’re together, Wesley’s acerbity the perfect counterpoint to Sebastian’s sweetness.

Having bemoaned the fade-to-black sex scenes in the Magic in Manhattan books because I felt the author missed an opportunity to add depth to the romance, I was pleased at the inclusion of on-page scenes of sexual intimacy here.  These moments between Wesley and Sebastian feel absolutely appropriate for the relationship and the characters and definitely add depth to their emotional connection.

While Arthur and Rory are namechecked a few times, they don’t actually appear on the page – which I think was the right decision, as this story belongs entirely to Wesley and Sebastian – I was delighted to see Jade and Zhang again; they’re terrific characters and I enjoyed their interactions with the two leads and seeing them playing important roles in the story.

Proper Scoundrels is my favourite of Ms. Therin’s books so far and I raced through it in a couple of sittings.  The two leads are compelling, well-developed characters who grab the attention right from the start, the mystery plot is well-executed and overall, it feels as though the author has taken all the really good things from the first three books and made them even stronger.  It’s my final DIK of 2021, and I have no hesitation in wholeheartedly recommending it.

TBR Challenge: The Winter Spirit by Indra Vaughn

the winter spirit

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Nathaniel O’Donnelly likes his life quiet, his guests happy, and his ghosts well-behaved.

Although a boyfriend wouldn’t go amiss. Someone to share his beautiful B&B with, even if it is in the middle of nowhere and he’s long past the wrong side of thirty. Problem is, Nathaniel’s living with a ghost who thinks he’s cupid, and whose arrows fly a little too straight.

Gabriel Wickfield had the unfortunate luck of dying before his time, and now he’s stuck trying to make romance happen to earn his right to move along. Not that he’s bored in the meantime—Nathaniel is just too easy to tease. And also a little bit scrumptious…

With the curse reaching its expiration date, Gabriel needs to make a final match this Christmas. Without it, nothing but darkness awaits.

Love can conquer all, but can it beat death?

Rating: B+

I’m not the Bah!Humbug! type, but I’m also not one to seek out Christmassy romances just because they’re set in and around the festive season, although  if I like the sound of a story and it happens to be set around Christmas then I might give it a go.  And if I do pick up a Christmas story, then I don’t want one that could be set at any time of the year, I want one that makes good use of the wintry setting and that maybe has just a little bit of Christmas magic – and Indra Vaughn’s The Winter Spirit does just that.  This little gem clocks in at under 100 pages, but it hit me right in the feels in the best possible way.

When Nathaniel O’Donnelly inherited his uncle’s worse-for-wear hotel in rural Michigan twelve years earlier, he also inherited its resident ghost, Gabriel Wickfield, who can only be seen in mirrors or highly polished surfaces, and who takes delight in needling Nate and causing mischief.  After making extensive renovations to the place, Nate re-opened it as a B&B which he now runs with the help of his long-time friend and employee Elisa Brown. With Christmas approaching, things are fairly quiet; there are only two guests staying currently, but Nate is expecting a third, who happens to be an old school friend – and Nate’s first crush – Owen Ashurst.  He and Nate haven’t kept in touch so Nate has no idea of how Owen’s life has turned out, but he can’t deny he’s just a little bit excited at the idea of seeing Owen again. He’s not looking to start something (well, not really) although he can’t deny he’s just a teeny bit interested in seeing if there might be the potential for something between them.

When Owen arrives, he’s as good-looking and charming he ever was, and he’s pleased to see Nate, too.  They talk, they share a meal and Owen makes clear his interest in Nate, but Nate isn’t feeling it – although he’s not best pleased later that night when Gabriel appears and tells him he doesn’t like Owen and doesn’t think he’s being completely honest.

The next night when Nate returns to his room, it’s to find Gabriel actually sitting in one of the rocking chairs by the window.  Gabriel has never manifested like this before – as a solid, living (and gorgeous) man – and he quietly explains to Nate that he’s able to appear outside the mirrors for short periods of time around this time of year – but doesn’t tell him any more.  Nate finds himself looking for Gabriel and wanting to spend time with him at every opportunity, and with only a couple of days left until Christmas and with what lies beyond it uncertain, Nate realises that, unlikely though it may be, he’s fallen in love with a ghost – and that he’s loved in return.  Will a once-a-year thing be enough for them, if it’s even possible?  Or is Gabriel running out of time?

The author packs quite an emotional punch into the short page-count – I freely admit to several sniffles when all seemed lost – and even though there were a few things I wish had been more detailed, I was completely captivated by the characters, the gentle humour and the intense longing that permeates the romance.  (I’m a sucker for well-done pining!)  Nate is a lovely guy who had a crappy childhood, but who has risen above that to make a good life and run a successful business. He’s a decent, kind, hard-working man possessed of an attractive quiet strength, but he’s lonely, and worries that perhaps he’s destined to remain that way.  He’s over thirty, a bit overweight (and self-conscious about it), and hasn’t had many – if any – opportunities for love and romance come his way.  He’s so very real and relatable, and it’s easy to root for him to find the love and happiness he richly deserves.  As Nate is the sole narrator we only see Gabriel through his eyes, but I enjoyed his humour and the author does a great job of showing us his obvious love for Nate.  His backstory is truly heart-breaking.

It’s hard to talk about the things I wanted more of without giving away spoilers, so instead, I’ll just say that there’s a fair bit of hand-waving at the end and no real explanation for how it works out – BUT I was so invested in the characters and their relationship that I was able to go with ‘eh, magic’ and ignore that little bit of frustration at not having all the pieces to put together.  I also didn’t quite see the need for the Owen plotline – it didn’t really serve to galvanise Nate or Gabriel into realising how they felt about each other, and I wish the page-count devoted to it had been spent developing the ending and epilogue a bit more.

But I loved the story despite its flaws – any author who can make me run the gamut of emotions in a matter of eighty-one pages deserves all the kudos.  The Winter Spirit is charming and tender and poignant and magical… and just lovely.

A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1) by Freya Marske

a marvellous light

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Young baronet Robin Blyth thought he was taking up a minor governmental post. However, he’s actually been appointed parliamentary liaison to a secret magical society. If it weren’t for this administrative error, he’d never have discovered the incredible magic underlying his world.

Cursed by mysterious attackers and plagued by visions, Robin becomes determined to drag answers from his missing predecessor – but he’ll need the help of Edwin Courcey, his hostile magical-society counterpart. Unwillingly thrown together, Robin and Edwin will discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles.

Rating: B+

Freya Marske’s inventive and impressive début, A Marvellous Light, is an enchanting blend of magic, mystery and romance set in England in 1908, in which a newly-appointed civil servant finds himself suddenly part of a mysterious and fantastical world of deadly curses, spells and secrets.   It’s a clever, well-written story featuring two attractive and strongly characterised protagonists, the magical world-building is vivid without being overly complex or subject to info-dumps, and the opposites/antagonists attract romance is nicely developed and steamy.  There are a few places where the pacing flags a bit, and the secondary characters are somewhat one-dimensional, but those issues didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Sir Robert – Robin – Blyth inherited a baronetcy upon the recent death of his father, but thanks to the profligacy of both his parents, he needs to work for a living in order to support himself and his younger sister Maud.  When the story begins, he’s just arrived at the Home Office to take up the post of Assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints, a position which opened up after the disappearance of the previous incumbent, Reggie Gatling.  Robin hasn’t got a clue what’s expected of him – he’s never even heard of the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints – and assumes his appointment must be a mistake.  On his very first morning, he meets the snappish Edwin Courcey  – liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly – who rudely demands to know where Reggie is.  Robin can’t enlighten him – and is further baffled when the other man starts talking about magic and spells and imbuement and other things that make little to no sense.  Assuming, at first, that this is some sort of joke, Robin is sceptical – until Edwin provides a physical demonstration and it’s impossible for him to disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes.  Magic is real.

Later that day, Robin has left the office and is still trying to make sense of everything he’s learned when he is accosted by a man – who appears to have no face –  who loops a glowing piece of yarn around Robin’s wrist that makes him unable to do anything other than follow where he’s led.  Two more men wearing “fog masks” await them – men who tell Robin that his predecessor hid something very important in his office and that Robin is going to help them find it.  Robin is determined to do no such thing – but then something is burned into his arm – a pattern of runes that causes excruciating pain which, he later learns, is a curse.

Robin and Edwin don’t get off to the best of starts, but after Robin arrives at work the next morning to find his office has been wrecked, he fills Edwin in on his encounter the previous night and they decide the only option is for them to work together to see if they can find out what Reggie had hidden and if Edwin can find a way to lift the curse.  Realising he needs more information than is available to him in London, Edwin invites Robin to accompany him to his family home in Cambridgeshire, where they can make use of the extensive library to research the curse, attempt to work out what happened to Reggie and discover the location of the item the fog-masked men are after.

Robin and Edwin are well-rounded and engaging characters who are like chalk and cheese, in appearance, temperament and magical ability. Robin is completely non-magical; he’s charming, spontaneous and open-hearted with a good sense of humour and an innate generosity, where Edwin is thoughtful and meticulous, somewhat closed-off and cautious. He’s a brilliant scholar with a massive amount of magical knowledge – but not much magical ability, something which causes his family members to look down on him and treat him with disdain.  His older brother is a powerful magician who bullied Edwin mercilessly when they were children and continues to do so at every opportunity, and his sister is a social butterfly who, like their parents, turns a blind eye to the way Edwin is treated and often joins in.  Robin has no family now apart from Maud; he was never close to his parents, who put on a public face of philanthropy and compassion while really caring only for themselves and who remembered Robin or his sister only when they wanted to use them to show everyone around them what wonderful parents they were.

Robin and Edwin gradually begin to develop a mutual respect and admiration; from this, a genuine friendship grows and is the basis for their romance, which is a nicely-done slow-burn.  They have terrific chemistry and I thoroughly appreciated that the author takes the time to draw out the sexual tension and give things time to breathe before they embark on a physical relationship.  There are still issues to be settled between them however; Edwin has become so used to having to lock down  his true self and hide his most vulnerable side as a form of self-preservation that he finds it difficult to trust and give of himself to Robin, no matter how much he wants to.

I liked the way magic works in the book; we’re told that magicians in England use “cradling” – a system of hand movements based on Cat’s Cradle – to cast spells, and I loved the magical house and the idea of people being magically connected to certain places.

On the downside, the pacing is a little uneven in places, the dénouement is a bit drawn out and slightly repetitive, and the secondary characters are slightly one-note – although I did enjoy Miss Morrisey and her sister (two Anglo-Indian ladies), and hope that perhaps we’ll see a bit more of Lord Hawthorn.  I would like to have learned more about the Magical Assembly and the history of magic in England – although as this is a series, perhaps those details will become clear in future instalments.

In the end, though, A Marvellous Light is a highly entertaining and very readable début novel featuring two endearing leads and plenty of gentle humour, magical shenanigans, mystery and romance.  I’m more than happy to recommend it, and will definitely be picking up the next in the series.

Stray Fears (DuPage Parrish Mysteries #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Declan Winters

stray fears

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Elien Martel is a survivor, but surviving, he’s beginning to discover, isn’t the same thing as living. In the house he shares with his much older boyfriend, Elien spends his days trying to stay as far away from living as possible. Living, he has learned, means that sooner or later you’ll get hurt.

When a member of Elien’s support group dies under strange circumstances, though, Elien finds himself in a web of bizarre coincidences. The responding officer turns out to be another member of Elien’s support group—a man named Mason, who has made no effort to hide his dislike of Elien. Then, just a few days later, Mason tries to kill Elien in front of dozens of witnesses.

As violence ripples through Elien’s world, he begins to suspect that the coincidences are not coincidences at all. Something is at work behind the cascade of tragedies, something vicious and intelligent. Something that has wanted Elien for a long time.

To defeat it, Elien will have to do what he fears most and face the darkness in his own past. Worse, he’ll have to take the risk of trying to live again.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

Gregory Ashe’s paranormal/horror novel Stray Fears is a spooky tale featuring two engaging, flawed characters and a clever mystery plotline which draws on Louisiana folklore for inspiration. I read and enjoyed it when it was published last year, and was pleased to see it coming to audio with Declan Winters narrating; I’ve enjoyed his work in C.S. Poe’s Magic & Steam series and was looking forward to a similarly strong performance here.

The story centres around a support group for people with PTSD, and when it begins, a meeting is in progress. Elien Martel is one of the attendees, a young man of twenty-two whose life was ripped apart a year earlier when his elder brother shot their parents and then himself. Mired in grief and guilt, Elien is a mess; volatile, sarcastic and filled with self-loathing, he lives with his much older boyfriend Richard – a psychiatrist and therapist – whose equanimity and refusal to rise to Elien’s frequent baiting and have a damn good row irritate Elien no end.

Quite honestly, Elien seems like a total dick much of the time, but his sharp tongue belies a genuine kindness and wit, and he’s surprisingly good with the other members of the group, showing them the sort of patience and compassion he doesn’t extend to himself. When the group leader – who is a colleague of Richard’s – asks Elien if he’ll check up on fellow group member Ray, who hasn’t been doing so well lately, Elien agrees without question.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

House on Fire (Ashes & Dust #2) by Jenn Burke

house on fire

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s done fighting his attraction to the sexy vampire…

To say former firefighter Colin Zhang is struggling to accept his new life would be a vast understatement. He’s bound to a vampire he didn’t choose, living in a house filled with creatures better left to the imagination—there’s a lot to resent. As much as he tries, he doesn’t resent Evan—far from it. But he needs to know that what he feels is real and that requires breaking their bond. No matter the cost.

Vampire private investigator Evan Fournier is more than willing to explore his connection with Colin, but the crisis at hand keeps getting in the way. Their bond makes it dangerous for them to be apart, so he’s forced to put the other man at risk while he investigates the latest in a series of murders. If he doesn’t find the killer soon, the paranormal community will seek retribution on all humans, not just the guilty ones.
As the tensions escalate, Evan and Colin find solace in each other and their growing attraction. But if their bond is broken, attraction—even love—might not be enough to keep them safe.

Rating: B-

Note: There are spoilers for previous books in this review.

Jenn Burke’s Ashes & Dust  – a sequel/spin off to the Not Dead Yet series – got off to a strong start earlier this year with All Fired Up, which finds Wes, Hudson and Evan running a successful PI business in Toronto five years after the end of Graveyard Shift.  This series puts “Baby Vamp” Evan Fournier into the spotlight as the PoV character, and All Fired Up introduced a new love interest for him in the form of Colin Zhang – a firefighter who was believed to have died in the 1990s but who had actually been kidnapped and held captive by a witch who forced him to suck the magic from other supernatural beings.   I’d strongly suggest anyone thinking about reading this one should start at the very beginning with Not Dead Yet, as there are a lot of recurring characters in these stories and you’ll understand the relationship dynamics more easily.

It’s been five months since the events of All Fired Up, and Evan is no closer to discovering the identity of whoever was behind the operation at the Rising Sun Retreat.  During those months, Colin and Evan have begun adjusting to their mistakenly-formed bond, although Evan recognises it’s a lot easier on him than on Colin, who has to spend most of his days just hanging out in the Caballero Investigations offices instead of getting out and making a new life for himself (if Colin and Evan get too far apart physically, the bond causes them excruciating pain).  Evan recognises that his feelings for Colin probably go deeper than Colin’s for him, but is determined to give Colin the space he needs to work things through and not to push him into anything he’s not ready for.  When Colin asks if it might be possible to break the bond, Evan is dead set against it; for one thing it could be very dangerous, for another – he believes Colin won’t want to be with him without it.

The lives of everyone in the Westerson-Rojas household has been further complicated by the addition of Hudson’s brother Lance, whom Hudson has brought to live with them.  Lance has no idea about the paranormal world, so they all have to work hard to keep him in the dark, even though Hudson knows he really should tell him the truth.  But when videos showing shifters actually shifting headlined with messages such as “this is not special effects” and “they are all around us” begin circulating, it’s clear that Evan and the gang have far more to worry about than someone letting something slip in front of Lance.

In the middle of all this, Colin decides he wants to contact his former fiancée, Cynthia, thinking that he owes her an explanation about what happened to him all those years ago, and that maybe it will give both of them some closure.  Cynthia drops a bombshell of her own, telling Colin that when he ‘died’, she was a few weeks pregnant and that they have a son, CJ, who has always known that Colin is his real dad.  The news hits Colin like a punch to the gut – his anger and grief at everything he’s lost are very well portrayed – but he and Cynthia both agree that it’s for the best that they don’t tell CJ the truth.

To talk about the other plotlines in the book would be heading into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that there’s more hurt and heartbreak on the horizon for our heroes when there’s a horrific murder close to home and Evan finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place – his loyalty to Hudson, and his love for Colin.

I enjoy spending time with these characters and was pleased to re-visit them, but House on Fire is obviously a ‘middle book’ with a lot of set-up and few answers.  The novel feels disjointed and episodic; we move swiftly from one event to the next, but none of them are given much more than a cursory explanation before we move on to the next one.  And the romance between Evan and Colin still feels a bit superficial; it’s been five months since they met and accidentally forged their bond, but I’m not seeing much more than a surface physical attraction there, and as we’re never in Colin’s head I get no sense of how he’s dealing with everything he’s been through – losing thirty-four years of his life, forming a magical bond with a complete stranger, and then having his first same-sex relationship – or even if he IS dealing with it. He and Evan share a bed and have sex, but it seems that any relationship progression (and I’m not actually convinced there’s been any as I don’t feel any real emotional connection between them) has taken place off the page.  In my review of the previous book, I said that Colin wasn’t particularly well-fleshed out as a character, but as it was the first book, there was room for that to happen – but I can’t say that it does.  Colin gets a lot of on-page time (because he has to be where Evan is) but because we never get his perspective and he doesn’t have much dialogue it’s hard to understand his character and equally hard to understand exactly why Evan is falling for him.  There’s no doubt that Colin trusts Evan implicitly – even though he doesn’t appear to understand him at all at one crucial point in the story – but I don’t get the same ‘meant-to-be’ vibe from them that was there between Wes and Hudson from the start.

I can’t deny being a bit disappointed in House on Fire, although it’s got good bones – I just wish there had been some more meat on them.  I enjoyed catching up with everyone, the plotlines are all intriguing and the author delivers some real emotional gut-punches while continuing to show Evan’s growing confidence in himself and his abilities, both as a PI and as a worthy second-in-command to the King of All the Vampires.  But be warned; the major plotlines are unresolved and there’s a cliffhanger ending, so you might want to wait to read this until you can dive straight into the final book, Out of the Ashes next year.  I’m giving House on Fire a qualified recommendation because I’m invested in this group of characters and I enjoyed the book in spite of its flaws.

A Veiled and Hallowed Eve (Soulbound #7) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

a veiled and hallowed eve

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Death is the last lover you will ever know.

SOA Special Agent Patrick Collins has lived a life full of lies, and it has finally caught up with him. There’s no denying his past any longer, not after giving up the truth to save himself from a murder charge. But truth alone can’t set Patrick free, and time is running out to stop the Dominion Sect from turning his father into a god.

Jonothon de Vere knows survival isn’t a guarantee, but he’s desperate to keep Patrick safe, even as hope slips through his fingers. With the future unknown, Jono will follow Patrick wherever he goes, even to Salem, where a family reunion reveals a bitter secret that was never going to stay buried.

With New York City under control of their god pack, Patrick and Jono must fall back on every alliance they’ve brokered to fill the front lines of a war coming directly to the city streets. The veil is always thinnest on Samhain, and what awaits them on the other side is the stuff of nightmares. For when it tears, all hell will break loose, and the gods will be summoned to face a reckoning the world isn’t ready for.

The stakes have never been higher, failure has never been so deadly, and the Fates have never been kind to heroes. Patrick knows that better than anyone—because everything has a price, every debt always comes due, and it’s finally time for Patrick to pay his.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

It’s always sad when a long-running series comes to an end, so listening to A Veiled and Hallowed Eve, the seventh and final instalment in Hailey Turner’s Soulbound series was a bittersweet experience. I’ve been looking forward to the conclusion of this inventive and epic story, the big showdown between our heroes and their mortal enemies, but reaching The End also means saying goodbye to Patrick, Jono, Wade and all the other characters who’ve been with them on their amazing journey. It’s hard to think there will be no more books about them – but I have seven superb stories and audiobooks to re-listen to, thanks to this talented author/narrator duo.

I’ve said this before but it probably bears repeating: the books in this series need to be listened to in order so as to fully understand the complex storylines and the development of the various characters and their relationships, so if you’ve not been following the series, then this review will likely make very little sense to you. It’s also impossible to review this book without some reference to the previous ones, so there are spoilers ahead.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Brightest Star in Paris by Diana Biller

the brightest star in paris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Amelie St. James is a fraud. After the Siege of Paris, she became “St. Amie,” the sweet, virtuous prima ballerina the Paris Opera Ballet needed to restore its scandalous reputation, all to protect the safe life she has struggled to build for her and her sister. But when her first love reappears looking as devastatingly handsome as ever, and the ghosts of her past quite literally come back to haunt her, her hard-fought safety is thrown into chaos.

Dr. Benedict Moore has never forgotten the girl who helped him embrace life after he almost lost his. Now, years later, he’s back in Paris. His goals are to recruit promising new scientists, and maybe to see Amelie again. When he discovers she’s in trouble, he’s desperate to help her—and hold her in his arms.

When she finally agrees to let him help, they disguise their time together with a fake courtship. Soon, with the help of an ill-advised but steamy kiss, old feelings reignite. Except, their lives are an ocean apart. Will they be able to make it out with their hearts intact?

Rating: B

The Brightest Star in Paris is the follow up to Diana Biller’s 2019 début, The Widow of Rose House.  I haven’t got around to reading that one, but I gather that the books are linked by virtue of the fact that the hero of Brightest Star – Doctor Benedict Moore – is the brother of Sam from Rose House, and Alva, its heroine, is a good friend of this book’s heroine, Amelie.  Despite those connections however, the stories in each book are separate and I had no trouble reading this one as a standalone.  It’s rather lovely – beautifully written with a melancholy tinge, dealing with themes of grief and loss at the same time as it details the second-chance romance between Amelie and Benedict – but there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me that mean I can’t give it a higher grade.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1878, although there are a few flashback chapters that date back to twelve years earlier, when Benedict and Amelie first met.  This was after Benedict returned from serving as a medic in the American Civil War, so haunted by his experiences that his family is deeply concerned for his health and spirits.  Meeting Amelie, a bright, enchanting young woman who overflows with positive energy and completely captivates him, helps him find a renewed sense of purpose and start on his road to recovery;  the pair fall in love, but (for reasons not made clear until much later in the book) Amelie sends him away and he leaves to return to America with his family. Just a few years later,  Amelie and the people of Paris face terrible hardships resulting from the Franco Prussian WarThe Siege of Paris and the bloody fall of the Paris Commune in 1870-1; these events effect profound changes on her life, as she is forced to do whatever is necessary in order to survive and take care of her much younger sister, Honorine.

Now, though, she’s the darling of Paris.  Prima ballerina – étoile – at the Paris Opéra, Amelie is ‘St. Amie’, widely known and loved for her perfection, both on stage and off, a paragon of virtue in a world in which dancers were generally regarded as one step up from prostitutes.  Her pristine image hasn’t come without a price, however; as she’s worked her body hard to attain peak physical condition so she’s also worked hard to create a very specific image, one she now has to maintain at all costs.

But that has become less and less easy over time, and she’s come to realise, too, that her dancing, while flawlessly polished, is form over substance, unemotional and just… not her.  And then there’s the additional problem of a damaged hip, another secret she needs to maintain if she’s to continue to dance – for only another two years – until she has enough money to be able to retire comfortably and continue to provide for Honorine.

By the time Benedict returns to Paris in 1878 in order to attend a medical conference, he has become a specialist in the field of brain science and has been named as the head of the prestigious new United States Institute for Brain Research.  He hasn’t quite decided whether he will seek out Amelie or not when fate conspires to put him in her path on his very first day in the city.  Both of them are stunned – and Benedict can see that Amelie isn’t exactly overjoyed to see him.

Just after the unexpected encounter with Benedict, which has stirred up all sorts of deep, conflicting feelings, Amelie goes to do some barre practice, and as she’s working, she’s joined by a member of the corps de ballet, a young woman whose name she can’t immediately recall.  After working silently for a while, they exchange a few words, and Amelie leaves, thinking no more of it until the next day when she learns that the body of the very same dancer – Lise Martin – was pulled from the Seine that morning – and that she has been dead for at least three days.  But how can that be?  Amelie spoke to her just the night before so it’s impossible… unless she’d had a conversation with Lise Martin’s ghost.

Amelie reaches this conclusion a little quickly perhaps, but even she admits there’s a difference between believing in ghosts and actually seeing one – and her ability to see one seems to open up a door or gate, as Lise’s spirit is quickly joined by those of two other women Amelie had known.  She’s sure she needs to do something for them, something to help them find peace, but she doesn’t know what that is, and the spirits themselves either can’t or won’t tell her.  She needs help, and reaches out to Benedict, who she knows will believe her, given his own family’s experiences with the spirit world.  Benedict is, of course, immediately on board with this, and suggests that he should pretend to court her, as it will allow them to spend time in each other’s company while they work out what the spirits want without giving rise to gossip which might tarnish her reputation.

There’s much to enjoy here, from the complex and superbly characterised Amelie, to the snarky interactions between the ghosts, to the author’s depictions of what life was like for Amelie in a Paris torn to pieces by war and devastation, which are stunningly good and utterly heartbreaking.  The paranormal element of the tale is skilfully incorporated and works well within the context of the story, and the romance is a sweet slow-burn.  I liked seeing how Benedict learns to respect Amelie and her choices, despite how much he longs to ride in and save and protect her.   But although there’s no question they care for each other very much, and I felt the depth of the affection between them, the ‘spark’ of attraction is somewhat muted.

One of the things that caused me to lower my grade a bit is the pacing, which flags around the middle of the book, but which, in the final chapters, gallops towards the end so fast that I was in danger of whiplash.  The second-half appearance of the unconventional and slightly bonkers Moore clan means the disappearance of the ghost plotline for a bit, and while it’s true that their arrival does inject a bit of necessary humour and light into the story, the juxtaposition feels jarring.

All that said, however, I enjoyed The Brightest Star in Paris a lot and would certainly recommend it in spite of my reservations. It’s extremely well written, and while at times is extremely sad, Amelie’s spirit and determination really do shine through and the eventual HEA is hard won and well deserved.

TBR Challenge: A Stitch in Time (Thorne Manor #1) by Kelley Armstrong

a stitch in time

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.
Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past.

Rating: B

Kelley Armstrong is primarily known as a writer of thrillers and suspense novels, so a timeslip paranormal with a distinctly gothic-y feel about it is something of a departure for her.  A Stitch in Time set in and around an old manor house on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, is an entertaining mash-up of time-travel and paranormal romance, and although I have a few reservations, they didn’t impact on my overall enjoyment of the story.

Thirty-eight-year-old Bronwyn Dale, a history professor at the University of Toronto, returns to England for the first time in twenty-three years in order to take possession of Thorne Manor, the house in which she spent many of her childhood summers, which has been bequeathed to her by her recently deceased aunt.  The house holds many happy memories for Bronwyn, but unfortunately, her final memory of it is a horrific one. Aged fifteen, she witnessed the tragic death of her beloved Uncle Stan, who fell to his death from a balcony, and was so deeply traumatised by it that she hasn’t set foot in the place since.

It’s clear from the beginning, however, that this is only the barest of bones of the story of Bronwyn’s association with Thorne Manor. Ever since she was a small child, she was somehow able to slip back in time, where she met William Thorne, a boy her own age, and the son of the house.  Every summer when Bronwyn visited, she spent as much time with William as she could, never thinking to conceal the truth of where she came from (as a young child it never occurred to her to do so), and William never questioning the truth of her assertion that she came from the future.  After her parents’ divorce, she wasn’t able to visit for a decade, but when she was fifteen, she did go back – and her friendship with William started to become something more.  But their burgeoning romance was shattered by the death of Bronwyn’s uncle who, she insisted, she had seen pushed to his death by a ghost – a veiled woman all in black.  When Bronwyn was found, crying and screaming by her uncle’s body, babbling about ghosts and a boy from the past, she was whisked her away and effectively committed to a mental health facility where the doctors explained her stories as the hallucinations of a vivid imagination, and the boy she’d fallen in love with as nothing more than the desperately needed imaginary friend of an only child who’d spent her summers in an isolated country house.

Bronwyn never forgot William, even though she now accepts he – and the ghosts – were all in her head. But being back at the Manor brings back so many memories of William and their time together that she starts to wonder if it any of it had been real – a question answered when she awakens one morning to find herself in an unfamiliar bed beside an unfamiliar man with a very familiar voice.

I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just say that the mystery revolves around the ghosts Bronwyn sees both inside the house and out on the moors.  The veiled woman appears to Bronwyn and lets her know that she wants her – Bronwyn – to find out who killed her – and with the help of the caretaker’s wife, who is something of an expert on local history and folklore, Bronwyn begins to untangle a one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old mystery about the deaths of two young women and a boy who disappeared on the moors.  Or did they?  And what, exactly, is William’s involvement in all this?  In the present day, stories and rumours abound about the “Mad Lord of the Moors”, who is reputed to have killed a number of young women – and even in William’s day, it seems there was unsavoury gossip about him.  Just how well does Bronwyn really know this man – once the the boy she’d loved, and now a man with secrets.

Ms. Armstrong does a great job of setting the scene in the first half of the book, and of giving us time to get to know Bronwyn and William and watch them falling in love all over again.  Their romance is nicely done; their connection is strong right from the start, and it’s easy to believe that they’ve never forgotten each other and that their rekindled feelings are genuine.

There are some wonderfully creepy moments throughout the book, but they’re used sparingly to start with, which makes them all the more spooky when they do occur.  Then in the last quarter of the book, the author turns everything upside down and makes us doubt – alongside Bronwyn – all the things we’ve worked out so far.  And I didn’t guess the identity of the villain of the piece until the very last moment before the reveal.

As to those quibbles I mentioned… well, we don’t ever know why Bronwyn is able to see ghosts and travel through time, she just IS; and the ‘rules’ that apply to the time travel are pretty flimsy.  For reasons that are never explained, it only goes one way and William isn’t able to travel to the twenty-first century.  I liked William as a hero a great deal – he’s charming and sweet and a bit shy – but he’s also just a bit too good to be true and feels too modern in his outlook, especially when it comes to his having no problem with the woman he loves needing to be away for weeks and months at a time to pursue her career.  The author does go some way to explaining William’s unconventionality, but it felt a bit contrived.  And the reasons given as to why William and Bronwyn can’t be together in the long term don’t make much sense; it seemed like they were negotiating a long-distance relationship rather than talking about how to be together ‘across time’ and I didn’t really buy that whole ‘I can’t move to another country to be with him’ thing that was Bronwyn’s stumbling block, especially as her late husband had done exactly that.

But those things aside, I did enjoy the ghost story and the romance, and would certainly recommend A Stitch in Time to anyone looking for a hauntingly atmospheric, sexy and spooky read this Halloween season!