Stone Skin (The Gargoyles of Arrington #2) by Jenn Burke

stone skin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Can he break his curse before time runs out?

Despite being cursed to sleep as a gargoyle for a hundred years, and awake for only twenty-five, Rian O’Reilly is an optimist. He knows he can find a way to break the curse through the tattooed runes he’s spent years mastering. No need to wait for this true love crap. But he hasn’t found the right combination of magic and his time is almost up. Rian isn’t ready to lose everyone and everything. Again.

Professor Logan Davis knows about loss. In the past year, he’s lost his mother, his twin, his werewolf pack, and he’s on the verge of losing his mind. So when he’s invited to Arrington to learn about a legend he’s never heard of, he jumps at the chance for a working vacation. He doesn’t expect to find a handsome gargoyle who needs his help to break a centuries-old curse—and he certainly doesn’t expect his grief to finally overwhelm him.

As Rian comforts Logan, he starts to wonder if there might be something to this true love crap after all. He’d give anything to help this gentle giant of a man, but Logan needs time to heal…and time is the one thing Rian doesn’t have.

Rating: B-

Jenn Burke’s Stone Skin is book two in her Gargoyles of Arrington series, featuring three brothers who were cursed five hundred years ago, and their search for a way to break the curse once and for all. This is a trilogy with each book featuring a different brother and love interest, but the overarching plot means it’s probably best to read all the books in order; the author does include the backstory here, but I don’t think it really works as a standalone.

In Stone Wings we met Teague, Drew and Rian, the surviving three O’Reilly brothers who were turned to stone by a witch and cursed to live out their days as gargoyles. Thanks to a counter-curse by their aunt – also a witch – they are able to return to their human forms once every century and live as human for twenty-five years after which they return to their sleep in stone. The only way to break the curse is for them to find true love – which has now happened for two of them; the eldest brother, Finnian, found his love in 1899 and, sadly, lived his life without his brothers at his side – and Drew, who fell in love with their ‘caretaker’ and assistant, Josh in Stone Wings. With less than two years to go before their next ‘sleep’ the chances of Rian and Teague finding love and returning to their human forms is becoming less and less likely.

In the previous book, we learned that Rian has been scouring the internet for information on folklore, myths and curses – basically, anything that might help them find a way to break the curse before he and Teague return to stone once more, which is due to happen in less than two years time. And he suspects that he may not even have all of that time to keep trying; recently, he’s begun sleeping for longer periods than normal, sometimes for days at a time, and is worried this is a warning that his time may be up sooner than anticipated.

Professor of Anthropolgy at the University of Victoria, Dr. Logan Davis is a world-renowned expert on folklore and legend, and has driven to Arrington in order to find out more about the Irish legend brought to the US by the O’Reilly family. He suspects the tale is probably one he’s heard before, but he hasn’t heard this family’s spin on it – and honestly, he just wanted to get away from Victoria and the sad memories that have been dragging at him since the deaths of his mother (from cancer) and younger brother (in a motorcycle accident), both within the last six months. His car breaking down on the outskirts of Arrington – where there’s no phone signal – really shouldn’t have surprised him; his frustration is just one more thing pushing him closer and closer to the edge of falling into all those unwanted emotions he’s been squashing down for so long.

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

Liar City (Sugar & Vice #1) by Allie Therin

liar cityThis title may be purchased from Amazon

A murder has Seattle on edge, and it falls to a pacifist empath—and a notorious empath hunter—to find the killer before it’s too late.

It’s the middle of the night when part-time police consultant and full-time empath Reece gets an anonymous call warning him that his detective sister needs his help. At an out-of-the-way Seattle marina, he discovers that three people have been butchered—including the author of the country’s strictest anti-empathy bill, which is just days from being passed into law.

Soon, Reece’s caller arrives: a shadowy government agent known as The Dead Man, who is rumored to deal exclusively in cases involving empathy. He immediately takes over the investigation, locking out both local PD and the FBI, but, strangely, keeps Reece by his side.

As the two track an ever-growing trail of violence and destruction across Seattle, Reece must navigate a scared and angry city, an irritating attraction to his mysterious agent companion, and a rising fear that perhaps empaths like him aren’t all flight and no fight after all…

Rating: A-

Allie Therin moves from East to West and from the 1920s to the present day for her new Sugar & Spice series of paranormals set in an AU Seattle. Her début series – Magic in Manhattan – is a clever and imaginative combination of romance and magical adventure set in prohibition-era New York, and I enjoyed it a lot, even though I felt the overarching plot took a while to really hit its stride. But Ms. Therin’s latest release, Liar City, comes strong out of the gate and had me hooked right from the start. The story is an intriguing, fast-paced murder mystery where nothing is quite as it seems, the lines between good and evil are blurred and you’ll find yourself thinking about who the real monsters are and who the victims. It’s a strong start to what promises to be a compelling series, but one thing I have to say right now is don’t go into this book expecting an HEA or HFN, because there isn’t one. Even though it’s published by Carina Adores (an LGBTQ+ romance publisher) and is very clearly labelled as a romance on Amazon, it is NOT a romance in the generally accepted sense. (The two leads don’t even touch deliberately – their one accidental touch knocks one of them unconscious!) That said, this is only the first book in a series and it’s clear the author is setting up a very slooooow-burn.

Reece Davis is one of only two empaths in Seattle. Empaths can read other people’s emotions, but are subject to very strict regulations – such as having to wear special gloves whenever they are out in public, which not only identify them but also prevent them from reading people should they accidentally touch them. Empaths are avowed pacifists who are incredibly sensitive to acts of violence and would allow themselves to be hurt rather than hurt someone else – but despite that they are feared and mistrusted by many, who believe they are a threat to democracy, and this has given rise to conspiracy-theorist lobby groups and think-tanks, companies like Stone Solutions (which develops and manufactures anti-empathy devices), and to a new anti-empath bill designed to strip empaths of basic civil rights.

Reece is battling yet another bout of insomnia when he gets a phone call from an unknown number telling him that his sister, who is a detective with the Seattle PD, has just landed the biggest case of her career and needs his help. When asked, the caller says he’s Evan Grayson – which means nothing to Reece – but if there’s even a chance that Jamey needs him, Reece is going to be there. Detective Briony St. James has been called to the small Orca’s Gate Marina where three people – including a US senator, the originator of the new anti-empathy bill – have been brutally murdered aboard the yacht belonging to Cedric Stone (CEO of Stone Solutions). When Reece arrives, he can see Jamey is more than a bit rattled, and when he tells her who called him, she becomes even moreso, practically marching him towards one of their makeshift tents and instructing him firmly to stay put. The name Evan Grayson clearly means something to her, but she refuses to discuss it, saying only that she’s worried he’s going to show up.

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

The God Prince (Earthborn #2) by Marian Perera

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Ranjit Blake, captain of the guard, protects his people by killing whoever threatens them. Even if the danger is Prince Sheruke, a half-human earth elemental. Sheruke can’t be harmed when he becomes a landslide or a lava flow, but Ranj tricks him into taking his human form. And at point-blank range, Ranj shoots him in the head.

Ranj immediately wishes he’d saved the bullet for himself, because Sheruke has a secret—he’s invulnerable in either form. That leaves Ranj no choice but to surrender and offer to serve Sheruke. In any capacity he desires.

Sheruke may have stone eyes and disfiguring scars, but his power and charisma make up for those—and there’s never been a human he couldn’t tame. Not even Ranj. But as the reckless gunslinger gives in to temptation, Sheruke wants even more of him. And the danger level is off the charts. Because if Ranj ever discovers Sheruke’s other secret, the one which could destroy even a Prince, Ranj will have to choose between the safety of his people and the life of the Prince who has fallen for him.

Rating: B

The God Prince is the second book in the Earthborn series. I haven’t read book one, and would say that there’s enough information contained in this book for the story to make sense. BUT. I see from reading reviews of the previous book, that not reading it means I’ve missed out on some details about the background to the world in which the book is set (one hundred years ago, a cruise ship from our world was lost in fog and went through a portal to another realm and the survivors settled there) so if that would bother you, then perhaps you would be better off going back to read The Beast Prince first.

Some thirty years before this story begins, the murderously insane Queen Beneath the Earth gave birth to a number of sons, who immediately clawed their way out of the earth in order to escape her and then scattered in various directions, to both get as far away from her as possible and to avoid each other. These Earthborn Princes now rule over the various townships of Avalon – some of them more ably and fairly than others – and are jealously possessive of what they regard as theirs. They spend most of their time in human form, but can also become mud, lava, sand, rock, anything that is ‘of the earth’ in the blink of an eye – and in their earth forms they’re invincible.

Ranjit Blake, Captain of the Guard in Solstice Harbor, has come to New Canton to visit his sister Sobha, and is surprised, on arrival, to see a number of townsfolk hard at work repairing damage to the town walls. Given that the town’s patron is an Earthborn Prince who is capable of making such repairs thanks to his ability to manipulate rock and stone, they shouldn’t have to do this themselves. His sister tells him that Prince Sheruke left town a few days earlier and that he was so angry when he did, that he smashed through the wall after someone had angered him, and that they’re still waiting for him to return. Then Sobha, somewhat reluctantly, tells him the identity of the human who had angered Sheruke so greatly – Peter, Ranj’s friend and former lover. Ranj immediately goes to see Peter, who doesn’t know what he did wrong to make Sheruke – never before known to raise a hand in anger – beat him and then storm off, but given that he angered their Prince, the denizens of New Canton want nothing to do with him and he’s become a pariah. Ranj is furious when he finds out what’s happened to his friend and is determined to do something about it. He decides to kill the Prince and he hatches a plan whereby he and Peter will find Sheruke and ensure he’s in his human form so that Ranj can shoot him. But his hastily conceived and ill thought-out plan goes awry when even a bullet to Sheruke’s head doesn’t do the trick. Fully expecting the Prince to kill him for the attempt on his life, Ranj braces himself for a killing blow – but it doesn’t come. Sheruke spares his life – on condition that Ranj serves him in whatever capacity he desires.

Prince Sheruke prides himself on being an enlightened and benevolent ruler. Unlike some of his brothers, who rule their people with fear and a rod of iron, he believes the people should be allowed to govern themselves and suggested the creation of a Council, which is now responsible for running New Canton. Sheruke continues to accept the town’s tribute to him as its protector, but doesn’t interfere in the day to day business of running it. But he’s keeping a secret, one that unnerves him greatly. Not only is he now invincible in his human form as well as in his earth one, his powers are increasing – and he’s started to notice other changes, too. He can’t remember lashing out at Peter and smashing through the wall or why he did it, food has lost all its taste, and he’s begun to dislike the fine clothes he’s often given as part of the town tribute. Then Ranj starts to notice certain inconsistencies as well, words and figures of speech which sound out of place and which Sheruke denies saying, actions he cannot remember… could the Prince be going mad? And if he is, who will be able stop him should he turn his anger on the people of New Canton?

I enjoyed The God Prince despite a few reservations. The author carefully ekes out the information about what is happening to Sheruke to create an intriguing mystery, but while the world building is pretty good, and the big showdown at the end is very well done, the romance between Sheruke and Ranjit is underdeveloped. Even though the author clearly knows how to build sexual tension – there are a couple of scenes where the sizzling heat between the pair could have melted my Kindle! – I never felt there was much of an emotional connection there. They spend plenty of on-page time together, they talk and banter and Ranj, although he’s effectively a servant, doesn’t take any crap while also knowing when not to push things too far. I liked that aspect of their relationship and could see an unlikely friendship developing between them, but I never really understood why Ranj fell for Sheruke and vice versa. There’s attraction there, for sure;  Sheruke quickly recognises that he’s attracted to Ranj, but doesn’t, to Ranj’s surprise, push for sex despite their status as master and servant.  In fact, he holds back, partly because Ranj is so clearly not interested and partly becuase he’s conscious of the scars running down one side of his body (inflicted by the Queen during his escape.)  The author does a good job of showing Sheruke’s feelings for Ranj growing and changing, but Ranj spends a lot of time in denial and even once the relationship has turned sexual, continues to deny there are any feelings there on his part.  There just isn’t enough real progression from ‘I’m attracted to you and want to jump your bones’ to ‘I love you’.

Still, The God Prince is an entertaining and well-written fantasy tale, even if the romance isn’t quite what I’d hoped for. I’m not sure if there will be more m/m entries in the series, but I’d certainly read them if there are.

My 2022 in Books and Audio

What was I listening to and reading in 2022?  My Goodreads stats show I managed 238 books overall (just over my Reading Challenge target of 225) which was split almost equally between print and audio – 52.2% ebook, 47.8% audio – and around two-thirds of my reading/listening last year was ARCs/ALCs.  (Returning to work as a teacher and continuing my freelance work as an audio proofer had a slight impact on my overall total, which is a little bit less than last year.)

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 123 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 30 3 star books, 2 2 star books and 1 DNF.

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, around 34-35 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 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total.

The books that made my Best of 2022 list at All About Romance:

Nicky James and C.S. Poe are at the top of their game right now; Rachel Reid gave Shane and Ilya the perfect send-off and I was really pleased to be able to include a début author (Jess Everlee) on the list, with her late-Victorian era queer romance. Jay Hogan has long been a must-read author, Charlie Adhara got her new Monster Hunt series off to a great start and of course no Best of the Year list of mine would be complete without at least one book by Gregory Ashe! (Although I really don’t like that cover…)

Some of favourite audiobooks of the year at AudioGals are the audio versions of some of the above titles:

The other titles I rated most highly are complete (or ongoing) series:

Another series I binged in 2022 was Cole McCade’s Criminal Intentions. Books 1-3 came out in audio (superbly narrated by Curt Bonnem- reviews of books 1& 2 HERE), and I was very quickly hooked to the fabulous combinations of dark, twisty mystery/procedurals and the super slow burn romance between the two leads. But with no sign of any more books being released in audio, I switched to print and steadily worked my way through the rest of Season One and am almost finished Season Two. I gather that the author decided to put the series on hiatus last year after some very ugly online bullying (honestly – have these people nothing better to do than to badger and berate an author because he’s not writing his books the way they want them written??) – but that he was planning to put out the remaining ten books this year. I don’t know for sure if that’s happening, but I really hope so; I love Mal and Seong-Jae and want to know how it all pans out for them.

From my didn’t-quite-make-it (the “also rans”) list:

In audio, these were the titles where I gave an A grade for narration and a B+ for the story:

I also had a lot of fun listening to Meghan Maslow’s Starfig Investigations series (narrated by the wonderful Greg Boudreaux) – a light-hearted adventure romp with a romance between a wizard and a dragon shifter, finishing up with Eden Winter’s excellent Diversion series and with the latest PsyCop story, Subtle Bodies in which Gomez Pugh continues to completely embody the character of Victor Bayne. Nazri Noor’s Fantasy/Urban Fantasy is a recent discovery – he has excellent narrators (I’ve listened to Greg Boudreaux and Zachary Johnson so far) and is very prolific, so I’ve got some catching up to do in 2023!

Other books I’m looking forward to – I’ve already read (and loved) KJ Charles’ The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (out in March) so I’m eager to read the second book in her Doomsday duology, which is out this autumn. With any luck, she’ll get stuck on whatever she’s writing next and will just write a different book while she gets unstuck! (Sorry, KJ – not that I’m wishing writer’s block on you!) There’s one more book (that I know of, maybe more) to come in Nicky James’ Valor and Doyle series plus C.S. Poe’s Broadway Butchery (May), which is absolutely one of my most anticipated books of the year. I’d love to get book four in the Magic & Steam series, too, but maybe I’m just being greedy…

Thanks for your company – here and at Goodreads (and AAR and AG) – over the past year, and for chatting about books and audiobooks with me! I’ll be back in this spot next year to see how 2023 went!

The Gilded Scarab (Lancaster’s Luck #1) by Anna Butler (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

the gilded scarab

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Captain Rafe Lancaster is invalided out of the Britannic Imperium’s Aero Corps after crashing his aerofighter during the Second Boer War, his eyesight is damaged permanently, and his career as a fighter pilot is over. Returning to London in late November 1899, he’s lost the skies he loved, has no place in a society ruled by an elite oligarchy of powerful Houses, and is hard up, homeless, and in desperate need of a new direction in life.

Everything changes when he buys a coffeehouse near the Britannic Imperium Museum in Bloomsbury, the haunt of Aegyptologists. For the first time in years, Rafe is free to be himself. In a city powered by luminiferous aether and phlogiston, and where powerful men use House assassins to target their rivals, Rafe must navigate dangerous politics, deal with a jealous and possessive ex-lover, learn to make the best coffee in Londinium, and fend off murder and kidnap attempts before he can find happiness with the man he loves.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Sad to say, but Anna Butler’s name wasn’t even on my radar when I saw The Gilded Scarab crop up at Audible, but Gary Furlong’s name on the cover together with a quick peek at the reviews on Goodreads convinced me to take a punt – and I’m glad I did. It’s the first book in a trilogy with a steampunk-y vibe set in an AU Victorian era and it’s full of excellent period detail (many of the historical events of the time are referenced), strong worldbuilding, and boasts a fully three-dimensional and thoroughly engaging lead character.

In this world, the Britannic Imperium is ruled, under the monarch, by eight Convocation Houses which hold all the political power. They divide government departments between them and staff them with members of their own Houses or of the Minor Houses allied to them. Captain Rafe Lancaster is a minor scion of one of those Minor Houses, who, instead of becoming an equally minor government official, decided to join the Aero Corps, much to the annoyance of his family. He’s become one of the Corps’ best – if not THE best – aeronauts; he’s well-liked and a bit of a dare-devil (sometimes a troublemaker) but when push comes to shove, he’s the man for whatever job the Corps wants to throw at him. When the book opens, he’s fighting in South Africa (in the equivalent of what we know as the Boer War) when the famous ‘Lancaster’s Luck’ finally runs out, and his aerofighter is shot down while on a mission. Rafe survives the crash with mostly cuts and bruises, but the head injury he sustains damages his optic nerve which means his vision is no longer fit for military service, and he is medically discharged.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Winter Dreams (Winter Magic #2) by Marie Sexton

winter dreams

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a player gets played?

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

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

Rating: A-

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

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

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

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

Within hours of arriving, Dylan has made a start on his ‘fuck everyone on the island’ quest, but after only a few days of having all the sex he wants, he starts to feel bored and on edge. He decides it’s time to get started on the other reason he came to the island – to track down a big-name movie director who winters there and charm – or fuck, whatever is needed – his way into his latest movie.

After a workout at the gym, Dylan heads to the nearby café for lunch and his interest is snagged by a guy sitting alone at another table. Dylan wanders over to ask him if he can buy him a drink, but the guy throws Dylan off his stride when he asks if his uncle has put Dylan up to trying to pick him up. Dylan has no idea who this uncle is and says so; the guy – Connor – relaxes a bit and lets Dylan buy that drink. As they’re chatting and Connor makes it clear that he’s not going to have sex with him, Dylan realises that he actually wants to spend time with the other man, even if it is just for the thrill of the chase. Connor suggests a game of tennis later that afternoon – still adamant that he’s not going to be seduced – and Dylan becomes even more determined to ‘woo’ Connor into bed.

The tennis match is followed by dinner, which leads to more conversation and to Connor opening up to Dylan about his recent break-up with a guy he thought he loved, but who turned out to be using him to get ahead. After dinner, Dylan gets to walk Connor back to his bungalow – but that’s where the night ends, after a chaste kiss to the forehead. More not-dates – tennis and dinner, sightseeing and dinner – follow, and Dylan realises he’s started not to care that sex isn’t on the table; he’s enjoying being with Connor and enjoying everything about him – he’s fun to be with, he’s sexy and intriguing – and Dylan is not at all interested in being with anyone else. Startled, he realises he could actually be falling for Connor – he wakes up every morning wanting to see him and hates saying goodnigh every evening – but he’s terrified, too. He’s not cut out for monogamy – he knows what he is and how he operates, and is sure it’s only a matter of time before he screws it all up.

The slow-burn romance is beautifully done here; the growing connection between Dylan and Connor is superbly written, and although Dylan’s is the sole PoV, his perspective is so rich and perceptive that I never once felt there was anything lacking. Connor is a great foil for him, level-headed where Dylan is impulsive, quieter and introspective where Dylan is outgoing – and they’re good for one another, Dylan encouraging Connor to come out of his shell a little, and Connor helping Dylan to see himself a little differently.

Dylan wasn’t a particularly likeable character in Winter Oranges, selfishly hurting Jason over and over, so the author set herself quite the challenge to redeem him and make him the hero of his own story. She rises to that challenge admirably, however, slowly peeling away layer after layer of Dylan’s character to reveal the real man beneath the party-boy exterior he uses to deter anyone from getting close, and the unacknowledged and untreated trauma in his past that has informed so much of the man he has become. That man is incredibly complex – so very self-aware yet stuck in a never-ending spiral of self-loathing and unable to see a way out – and Ms. Sexton does a fantastic job of showing us that he’s far more than the smooth seducer of reputation, and that beneath it all, he’s in a pretty bad place. No spoilers, but it’s made clear that Dylan’s road to breaking the cycle he’s fallen into is not going to be easy, and that it’s an ongoing process – which felt very realistic.

The fantasy element in Winter Dreams is perhaps less prominent than in its predecessor, but it packs quite the emotional punch. Ben has correctly defined the premise of the old TV show as “be careful what you wish for”, with the characters’ fantasies taking them down paths they hadn’t considered and then having to stay the course to get their just reward. It seems this Fantasy Island is doing the same thing as, in dreams, Dylan and Connor are shown possible futures, ways their lives could turn out depending on the choices they make. I absolutely loved this device; it’s clever and impactful but doesn’t overwhelm the story or have the feel of some kind of deus ex machina; the romance develops organically and is very much character-driven.

While all this is going on, the author also takes time to bring some closure to the relationship between Dylan and Jason – or rather, to one particular phase of their relationship and move it into the next one. Despite his avowed rejection of romantic love, there’s no question that Dylan was in love with Jason and that he just refused to see it. Now, he’s filled with regrets, and even though he is happy that Jason has found love with Ben, he’s a bit jealous, too, and there’s a sense that Jason is not especially happy in their friendship. I was so pleased to see that friendship being repaired and becoming stronger and deeper; as Dylan finds love with Connor, he’s able to see his love for Jason and Ben for what it truly is, a real and true friendship that will last forever. And on a side note, I loved Dylan choosing Ben to help him at the end; for all his faults, one of Dylan’s better qualities is his desire to make other people feel good about themselves, and he knew that showing his trust in Ben would would make a huge difference to his (Ben’s) self-esteem.

Winter Dreams exceeded my expectations all round. All the relationships in the story are beautifully written and the central romance is passionate and full of chemistry with a deeply satisfying emotional connection at its core. Looking at my ‘read’ shelf on Goodreads, I see this is only the second book by Marie Sexton I’ve read – something I clearly need to rectify! In the meantime however, this one goes on to my keeper shelf, and is very highly recommended.

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

the spooky life

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C+

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

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

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

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

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

face blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

trailer part trickster

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the stubborn accomplice

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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