TBR Challenge: When Love is Blind (Warrender Saga #3) by Mary Burchell

when love is blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Dreams have been dashed…

Antoinette Burney, a more than promising music student, is disappointed and furious when the famous concert pianist Lewis Freemont fails her in an exam.

To make matters worse, he tells her forthrightly that she will never make the grade as a professional pianist

Her hopes and dreams of success and notoriety are all destroyed in a single blow.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to forgive him.

But it would seem that fate has other ideas and the tables are quickly turned, making Antoinette the innocent cause of the accident that, in destroying Lewis Freemont’s sight, destroys his career as well.

Subdued by his debilitating condition and the knowledge that he will never play the piano again, Lewis quickly becomes a shell of his former self.

Horrified and remorseful, when Antoinette gets a chance to make some sort of amends — by becoming Lewis’s secretary — she seizes it with both hands.

Just when she thought life couldn’t get any more complicated, Antoinette soon finds herself falling in love with the man that only a few weeks ago, she despised.

But what will Lewis do when, as inevitably he must, he discovers who she really is?

Full of hope and broken dreams, When Love is Blind is a heartfelt tale about never giving up.

Rating: B-

I’ve read a couple of the books in Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga for the TBR Challenge, and picked up another one – the third – for this month’s prompt – “Lies”. The thing that keeps me coming back to this series is the way the author writes about music, musicians and the world of the professional performer, but the romances are tame by today’s standards, and, as I’ve remarked before, the heroes can feel like secondary characters because the stories are all about the heroine’s journey and are written from her PoV. And even though some of the language and attitudes are outdated now, reading them is oddly comforting; they play out in my head like old black-and-white films from the 1940s or 1950s, with their stiff-upper-lips and portrayals of glamourous lifestyles (okay, so this book dates from 1967, but it could easily have been set a decade or two earlier; there’s no real sign it’s the “swinging sixties”!)

The heroine of When Love is Blind is twenty-year-old aspiring concert pianist Antoinette Burnley. Having shown a prodgious talent at a young age, she’s spent pretty much all her young life making music, but all her dreams come crashing down around her ears when her idol (and long-time crush), Lewis Fremont, fails her in an exam, saying her performance is akin to that of “a clever automaton without glimmer of the divine spark.”

Deep down, Antoinette knows he’s right – somewhere along the line, she lost her connection to the heart and soul of the music and focused entirely on developing an outstanding technique – but even so, she’s deeply hurt and can’t now conceive of making a musical career. She decides to make a drastic change, and enrolls on a secretarial course.

Several months later on a day out, Antoinette finds herself in Lewis Fremont’s neck of the woods; she’s crossing the road opposite his hose when a car comes racing around the bend towards her, swerves to avoid her and spins out of control. She’d already recognised the car as that belonging to Fremont – rushing over to see if she can help, finds him alive, but unable to see and then goes to get help. Feeling scared, guilty and completely overwhelmed, she watches from afar as Fremont is carried from the wreckage, but doesn’t return to the wreckage

A few days later, Antoinette’s is offered a job as Lewis Fremont’s secretary. Her immediate response is to refuse – but then she thinks that perhaps working for Fremont and helping him in whatever way she can will atone, in some small way, for the accident, which she regards as her fault.

On her first day, Antoinette is shaken to find Fremont so subdued, so miserable and helpless, although perhaps it’s not surprising considering his life has been completely turned upside-down. He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to play for an audience ever again, his pride stinging at the idea of having to be led to the piano, “fumbling” to find his place at the keyboard. Antoinette shocks herself by immediately tells him not to be so arrogant and self-pitying – and to her surprise, Fremont actually takes her rebuke in (mostly) good part. Later, Fremont’s manager Gordon Everleigh suggests to Antoinette that she should do whatever she can to encourage him to remain positive, to excite his interest and participation – they’re united in their aim to get him back on to the concert platform

The turning point comes when Antoinette finally agrees to play for Fremont. She’d turned him down the first time he asked, but this time, she sees a way that might provide exactly the encouragement Everleigh was talking about; she agrees to play the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata but then says he’ll have to play the third, because she isn’t up to it. And sure enough, playing for her brings everything back and sets Fremont on the path back to re-entering the musical world.

The book fits the prompt because, of course, Fremont has no idea that his “Toni” as she asks him to call her, is the same girl who inadvertently caused his accident. He recalls her vaguely – he’d seen her standing in the road – and recognised her then as the student he’d failed and who had subsequently appeared at the front of the audience at several of his concerts. He believes her to have been stalking him and planning some kind of revenge, and is absolulely determined to find her, so of course, and as all liars do, Antoinette finds herself having to propogate more falsehoods in order to keep her identity a secret.

I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said, the focus on music and the way the author writes about it work really well for me, so the main reason for the middling grade on this one is that the romance is very rushed. The growing friendship between Antoinette and Fremont has a solid foundation in their mutual love of music, and of his appreciation for her good sense and willingness to challenge him and stand her ground, but the declaration (his) comes out of the blue around half way through and was one of those ‘wait – what?’ moments where I had to backtrack and check I hadn’t missed a couple of chapters.

Speaking of the things that didn’t work for me, the ending is also rushed, and the writing during the ‘accident’ scene at the beginning is really clunky; I get that it’s exposition, but it was hard to take it seriously. The same is true of the scene near the end in which

(highlight to read) he regains his sight

and from then on it’s a mad rush to the end.

I did like the two leads, though. Antoinette is a believable twenty, with all the uncertainty, self-consciousness and self-absorption that come with being young, and I was really rooting for her as she re-discovers the inner musicality she’d lost sight of, the ability to play from the heart rather from the head, and how her finding her way back to it mirrors her growth as a character. Fremont is your musical genius in the Warrender mould, a true artist at the top of his profession with the arrogance and artistic temperment to go with it – and yet he’s a fair man (he could have phrased his comment in Antoinette’s exam better, but what he said was the truth) he’s fairly down-to-earth and while he can be a but snappish at times, he’s not intentionally cruel – and I liked that Antoinette doesn’t take any crap from him. She may have started out as Fremont’s secretary, but she slowly becomes his support and his beacon of hope as he works to get back to performing.

I can’t say When Love is Blind was a resounding success, but it was worth reading.

TBR Challenge: Mr. Warren’s Profession by Sebastian Nothwell

mr. warren's profession

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lindsey Althorp, the only son of a wealthy baronet, has never worked a day in his life. Aubrey Warren was born in a workhouse and hasn’t stopped working since.

When Lindsey wins a textile mill in a game of cards, he falls at first sight for the assistant clerk, Aubrey. Lindsey is certain that Aubrey is the Achilles to his Patroclus, the David to his Jonathan. Yet Aubrey, unaccustomed to affection, refuses to be a kept man-though he isn’t immune to Lindsey’s considerable charm.

Buoyed by Lindsey’s optimism and fuelled by Aubrey’s industry, the two men strive to overcome the class gulf between them. But a horrific accident reveals a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart forever.

Rating: B+

For the Tales of Old prompt, I went for the obvious and picked up an historical romance I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is set at the end of the nineteenth century and is as much about the difficulties of two people from very different ends of the social spectrum being together as it is about the problems inherent in a relationship between two men at that time.  It’s well written – despite a few Americanisms – and obviously well-researched, the wealth of background detail carefully integrated into the story in order to create a wonderfully strong sense of time and place.

Aubrey Warren works as a clerk at a textile mill in Manchester.  He’s very good at his job, extremely diligent and hard-working – and used to doing the work of two since the other office clerk is lazy and only has the job because of his family connections.  But Aubrey is at least content – and doesn’t expect happiness.  He’s come from nothing – he was brought up in the workhouse – to a responsible position that provides him with income enough to live decently, if not well, and has dreams of one day becoming an engineer. His quiet and unassuming life is suddenly blown apart by the appearance of Lindsey Althorp, the son of a baronet, who has won the mill in a card game, and who actually takes an interest in the place, much to Aubrey’s surprise.

Lindsey had no idea of becoming involved in the business of the mill, but that changes the moment he lays eyes on the beautiful, dark-eyed clerk sitting at a desk in the office and is immediately smitten.  It’s a defining moment for Lindsey;  for the first time in his life, he feels a true and strong desire for another person, and like a bolt from the blue, it crystallises the truth – that he is, and always has been, attracted to men.  He’s well aware that’s something that must be hidden, but in the first flush of infatuation, in his overwhelming desire to see and spend time with Aubrey, Lindsey behaves less than discreetly – requesting several tours of the factory and anything else he can think of that will put him into Aubrey’s company.

While Aubrey is every bit as attracted to Lindsey as Lindsey is to him, he tries hard to distance himself, and it’s easy to understand why. He knows full well that Lindsey’s marked attention to him could have serious repercussions and knows how easy it would be for him to lose even the little he has should anyone suspect where his interest lies.  The precariousness of his situation as someone of lower social standing, without family or other support system is well articulated and well-contrasted with Lindsey’s; a relationship with another man would be risky for both of them, but Lindsey has the ‘safety net’ of family, wealth and title that Aubrey does not.  But Lindsey’s warmth, enthusiasm and sheer joy in their connection are hard to resist; it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself to feel just about anything – and before long, Aubrey can’t find it in him to deny himself the happiness he longs for.

While Aubrey and Lindsey get together somewhat quickly, there’s still plenty of relationship development going on and there’s no denying the strength of the love and affection they find in each other.  They’re from completely different worlds, but Lindsey is so wonderfully supportive of Aubrey and wants the world for him; and Aubrey, once he allows himself to love Lindsey, does so with his whole heart.  As I said at the beginning, the historical context here is well-done, with full acknowledgement of the risks of pursuing a homosexual relationship at this time, and the class difference between the two principals just makes things even more difficult. Men of equal status spending time together in public would not have been looked at askance, but a baronet’s son and a lowly clerk?  Very suspicious indeed.

So there are, of course, a lot of obstacles in the way of their HEA, from interfering and well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) friends, to a jealous and ill-intentioned colleague to a villainous blackmail plot.  There’s loss and heartbreak, but the author pulls everything together with great skill to reach a very satisfying conclusion in which Aubrey and Lindsey get their well-deserved HEA (and the villain gets his equally deserved comeuppance!)

There’s a strongly characterised secondary cast and lots of fascinating historical detail, ranging from the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Post Office boys, to advances in engineering, the work of the mill and incipient worker’s rights, in such a way that it never feels didactic or info-dump-y. However, there were a few things that stretched my credulity a bit –  for example, Lindsey’s father and sister realising he was an ‘invert’ before he did and his father’s plan to ‘protect’ him from that knowledge by not sending him off to Eton, and his sister’s habit of employing handsome, similarly inclined footmen so Lindsey could, er, sow his wild oats discreetly!  Then there’s the ease and frequency with which the characters travel between London and Manchester by train, seemingly just to spend the day there (Google tells me it takes between two and two-and-a-half hours now, but it must have been more than that back then?) and not only that, but surely Aubrey couldn’t have afforded to travel between Manchester and London and Wiltshire (where Lindsey owns a house) so often.

In the end, however, those are fairly minor concerns, more ‘things I noticed’ than ‘things that spoiled the book for me’.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is an enjoyable historical romance filled with interesting period detail, and Aubrey and Lindsey are a likeable couple who are easy to root for.  I really enjoyed their growth as characters and as a couple, together with the story’s focus on their deepening emotional connection and how they surmount the obstacles on their path to happiness.  If you’ve enjoyed books by KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, I’d definitely suggest giving this one a try.

TBR Challenge: Galaxies and Oceans by N.R. Walker

galaxies and oceans

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Seizing his one chance to escape, Ethan Hosking leaves his violent ex-boyfriend, leaves his entire life, and walks into the path of a raging bushfire. Desperate to start over, a new man named Aubrey Hobbs walks out of the fire-ravaged forest, alive and alone. With no ID and no money, nothing but his grandfather’s telescope, he goes where the Southern Cross leads him.

Patrick Carney is the resident lighthouse keeper in Hadley Cove, a small town on the remote Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. After the tragic death of his lover four years ago, he lives a solitary life; just him, a tabby cat, the Indian and Southern Oceans, and a whole lot of loneliness. He’s content with his life until a stranger shows up in town and turns Patrick’s head.

Patrick never expected to be interested in anyone else. Aubrey never expected to be happy. Between Aubrey’s love of the stars and Patrick’s love of the ocean, these two fragile hearts must navigate new waters. If they can weather the storm of their pasts, they could very well have a love that eclipses everything.

Rating: B+

N.R. Walker’s Galaxies and Oceans is a gently moving May/December romance between two damaged, lonely people who have good reason to be wary of falling in love.  It’s one of those books where, honestly, not very much happens apart from a couple of emotionally bruised people finding and falling for each other, but it’s so beautifully done, the chemistry between them so compelling that I was engrossed in the story from start to finish and blew through the book in just a couple of sittings.

I chose it for this month’s prompt because it’s set at the other end of the world – to me, anyway – on Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia, and actually, it fits the prompt twice over.  Not only is the story set in a remote and unusual location, one of the leads is a lighthouse keeper, and although he doesn’t live IN the lighthouse (his house is just next door), several key scenes take place there and it plays a significant role in the story.

Twenty-seven-year-old Ethan Hosking has been in a relationship with his boyfriend Anton – Canberra’s only openly gay politican – for four years.  For the last two of those, Ethan has been subjected to violence and abuse on a regular basis, but he has no family or friends to turn to, no way to escape Anton’s controlling behaviour.  When the book begins, they’ve just arrived at the remote cabin Anton takes Ethan to each time he’s beaten him up – so nobody will see the damage – and then Anton just leaves him there while he goes back to the city.  Two days later, however, a massive bush fire laying waste to the national parks west of Canberra provides Ethan with a stark choice – stay where he is and end his misery that way… or make a run for it, make Anton believe he died in the fire and make a new life for himself somewhere far, far away.

Hadley Cove is a small town – population sixty-three – on the southwest tip of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, and Patrick Carney has been the lighthouse keeper there for the past six years.  Since the death of his lover Scott four years before, he’s lived a solitary life with just his cat and the ocean for company, occasionally venturing out to watch the penguins or the seals.  Like everyone else in Hadley, he can’t fail to register the arrival of a stranger, a young man who is staying at the run-down caravan park and looking for work.  Noticing the lonely figure clad only in jeans and a hoodie (neither warm enough to withstand the wind and the cold) staring out to sea, Patrick approaches him and strikes up a conversation – and immediately recognises the deep pain in his eyes.  They part soon after – Patrick realising he doesn’t know the other man’s name – and later that day, he heads out to the caravan park to see if he can talk the owner into giving the newcomer some work.  But it appears that’s already been taken care of;  Patrick arrives to find him already hard at work and learns his name is Aubrey Hobbs.

The romance between Patrick and Aubrey (Ethan adopted his beloved grandfather’s name when he reinvented himself) is a gorgeous slow-burn as they take baby-steps towards healing and love.  Patrick never thought or wanted to find love again – and feels guilty at the prospect – but something about Aubrey draws him in; it’s very clear the younger man has had a tough time of it, but Patrick never pushes for information Aubrey isn’t ready or willing to give.  And even though he can’t tell Patrick the whole truth – he wants to, but worries about dragging Patrick into a legal minefield – Aubrey is as honest as possible and very real when he talks about his life, his fears and his passion for astronomy.  Their connection is made quickly, but trust and deeper feelings are allowed plenty of time to develop, through shared meals (Patrick is an excellent cook!), visits to the ocean to watch the penguins come ashore or see the seal colony, picnics and stargazing (the one thing Aubrey took with him when he walked away from his old life was his grandfather’s telescope) at the top of the lighthouse.

The small secondary cast adds depth to the story and the setting is brought so vividly to life – the stormy skies, the biting wind, the fierceness and unpredictability of the ocean – that you can feel and see it all.  The writing is smooth and assured and lyrical, and I particularly liked the way Scott is present in the story, as someone who will always be important to Patrick and would want him to be happy; Patrick’s imaginary conversations with him are funny and poignant, but he never overwhelms the story and encourages Patrick to live his life.  I loved that Patrick, the lighthouse keeper, becomes the beacon who guides Aubrey to safety, and the idea of Aubrey being led to Patrick by the stars is one of the most romantic things I’ve read recently;  lost in the bush after the fire, he remembers his grandfather’s words about the Southern Cross – “the tail points south, always”.

“The Southern Cross is what brought me here.  The constellation.  I followed it, here, to this island.  To you.”

My quibbles with the story are small ones. The ending feels a bit rushed, and maybe Patrick holds on to his guilt over moving on for a tad too long, but those are the only things that didn’t quite work for me.

Heartfelt, sensual , touching and uplifting, Galaxies and Oceans is a gloriously romantic character-driven story about overcoming adversity and finding home.

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.

TBR Challenge: Tiny House, Big Love (Love Unscripted #2) by Olivia Dade

tiny house big love

This title may be purchsed from Amazon

On camera. Up close. In denial–but not for much longer…

After a relationship gone bad, Lucy Finch is leaving everything behind. Her old home, her old job, her old insecurities. Even Sebastián Castillo, her protective but intensely private friend of almost twenty years. Before she moves halfway across the country, though, she has one last request for Seb: She wants him to help her choose a tiny house on cable television. And maybe during the filming process, she can discover once and for all whether his feelings for her are more than platonic…

Sebastián would rather do anything than appear on HATV. But Lucy needs him, and he can’t say no. Not when she’s about to leave, taking his heart with her. Hiding how he feels with a television crew watching their every move will prove difficult, though–especially when that crew is doing their sneaky best to transform two longtime friends into a couple.

Tiny spaces. Hidden emotions. The heat generated by decades of desire and denial. A week spent on camera might just turn Lucy and Seb’s relationship from family-friendly to viewer discretion advised…

Rating: B+

Tiny House, Big Love is the second of Olivia Dade’s Love Unscripted books, both of which feature contestants taking part in different reality TV shows.  In this story, the show is Tiny House Trackers, in which the participants are looking to buy – you guessed it! – a Tiny House.  I have to stop here to confess that I had no idea a Tiny House was something other than “a very small house”, and had to look it up so I could understand what the heroine was actually looking for!  It’s a quick and entertaining read, the two leads are endearing and the mutual longing they feel for each other just leaps off the page, although the short page-count left me wanting to know about more of both their backstories.

Massage therapist Lucy Finch is about to take a promotion which will require her to move around the country a fair bit, and rather than finding temporary accommodation each time she moves, she’s decided to buy a Tiny Home that she can take with her wherever she goes.  Her friend, Allie, a real estate agent, encouraged her to apply to appear on the show and she’ll be the one finding Lucy three homes to view – with the expectation being that she’ll choose to buy one of them at the end of it.  Lucy asks her best friend of over twenty years, Sebastián Castillo, to be on the show, too, to help her make her choice.

It’s clear from the off that Sebastián and Lucy have long had feelings stronger than friendship for each other, but have never acknowledged the fact or acted on them.  They’ve been friends since high-school, when Sebastián, bullied because he was small for his age and because he was an immigrant, not only faced off his own bullies, but hers as well.  They kept in touch after Sebastián  moved away, exchanging loads of letters, postcards and emails; but now he’s back in Marysburg, Lucy is about to leave, and she’s wondering, somewhat wistfully, if they could ever have been more to each other than friends.

Sebastián would rather have teeth pulled without anaesthetic than appear on television, but he can’t refuse Lucy’s request for help, and agrees to appear with her on Tiny House Trackers.  He’s an intensely private person and years of bullying have left him scared to let himself be vulnerable and with a thick outer shell of implacability.  He keeps his emotions buried and under lock and key – but because he buries them doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel them deeply;  he’s determined not to give anything away in front of the cameras – or Lucy – as to the truth of his feelings for her, because he doesn’t want to influence her decision to move away – and because he doesn’t think he could handle rejection.  He’s the strong, silent type, but he shows his affection for Lucy in a hundred little ways and he’s a lovely hero – caring, protective and supportive with every bone in his body.

Lucy’s last boyfriend was a douchebag who knocked her confidence in her own judgement, and she’s still second-guessing herself more than she used to.  She’s strongly attracted to Sebastián, but his inscrutability gives her no clue as to whether he feels the same, and she doesn’t want to risk making a move and ruining the most important relationship in her life.  Sometimes she thinks he’s attracted to her, but then whatever she sees in his face is gone, leaving her wondering.

Lucy and Sebastián are likeable and endearing and make an adorable couple – although I admit I did sometimes want to shake some sense into Sebastián and tell him to wise up (but he more than makes up for his reticence in the end.)  They’re real people with real problems who struggle, but grow and learn how to make things work.  Their move from friends to lovers doesn’t feel rushed, and the aforementioned longing and UST is incredibly well done. The scenes they film for the show as they tour the houses on offer are a hoot –

The last thing she needed was either a deep-woods pot shack, a dick-festooned bus, or an Oregon Trail enthusiast’s fever dream.

– and I loved that we’re shown Lucy slowly re-learning to assert herself as she works through the selection process and reaches her decision.  I also liked the way the main story is framed with chapters from the PoVs of two of the production assistants (who really deserve their own story, because there are serious sparks there!)

Tiny House, Big Love is a delightful contemporary romance with lots of gentle humour and awesome friends-to-lovers pining.  It’s short, sweet, sexy and well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

TBR Challenge: Marked by Fire by Mia West

marked by fireThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Eighteen-year-old Arthur burns for two things: a warrior’s ink, and Bedwyr, his older brother’s shieldmate.

Though the warlord’s son is beyond his reach, a Saxon incursion finally brings Arthur’s chance at the tattoo that will brand him a fighter.

But when he abandons his training in the heat of battle, his reckless ambition costs Bedwyr his sword hand.

Once, Bedwyr trusted in two things: he was a warrior, and the presumed heir of Uthyr.

Now, reeling from injury and sent away by his father, he’s lost everything. The last person he wants to see is the cub who ignited his disastrous instinct to protect.

Especially when he arrives with Bedwyr’s armor and a dangerously hopeful scheme to restore him to his rightful place.

Rating: B-

I really had to wrack my brains to recall if I already had a book that would fit this month’s prompt of “unusual”, and I was coming up with a big blank – until I found Mia West’s Marked by Fire, book one in her Sons of Britain series, and decided that an m/m romance set in sixth century Wales definitely fit the bill!

Ms. West has mined Arthurian legends and given them a new slant, so that while the characters are mostly familiar, they don’t always fit the roles we may be used to seeing them in – for instance, Arthur isn’t the son of Uther Pendragon (or Uthyr, the Pen y Ddraig) and Bedwyr, who is often related to the sidelines in the myths, has a central role – and given there are so many legends and so many variations on them, I had no problem with that.  This is certainly not the Camelot of chivalric legend and the Lady of the Lake; no, this is the Dark Ages, mere decades since the Romans departed Britain, and life is tough and brutal.  The author does an excellent job capturing the feel of the period – it’s dark and gritty and very real – and of setting up the network of relationships that will populate her version of the story.

Eighteen-year-old Arthur ap Matthias is restless, hotheaded and eager to prove himself in battle and impress not only his leader, Uthyr, but also Uthyr’s son Bedwyr, who Arthur has watched and longed for from afar for years.  His chance comes when a small band of Saxons is spotted advancing into Cymru, but he fails to heed instructions and his recklessness has dire consequences – and in trying to defend him Bedwyr loses a hand.  His survival is in doubt, but Matthias – who is the village healer – is able to save him. (The author doesn’t sugarcoat the treatment he undergoes, so there are some scenes that might not be for the squeamish!). Arthur is distraught and desperate to beg Bedwyr’s forgiveness, but Bedwyr point blank refuses to see him.  Of course he’s furious with Arthur for costing him his sword hand, but he’s fearful, too – what use is a warrior who cannot fight?  Bedwyr’s worst fears come true when his father banishes him to a small shepherd’s hut outside the village.

Uthyr summons Arthur and makes it clear he expects Arthur to pay a price for causing Bedwyr’s injury.  Arthur at first thinks Uthyr is going to take his own right hand, and is shocked when Uthyr tells him to take his and Bedwyr’s armour to the hut and that he’s going to retrain Bedwyr to fight with his left hand – and that he must not, under any circumstances, tell Bedwyr that Uthyr sent him.  Relieved and pleased to have a chance to make amends, but worried Bedwyr will refuse to see him, Arthur nonetheless sets out for the hut, determined to do whatever it takes.

Bedwyr has pretty much given up and succumbed to self-pity when Arthur turns up, and he wants nothing to do with him.  But Arthur is stubborn and determined, and – begrudgingly – Bedwyr starts to acknowledge him and then to take an interest in what he’s come there to do.  A tentative friendship forms, and as the days pass, Bedwyr begins to pull himself out of his funk and to become the man – and warrior – he has always been meant to be, while Arthur’s remorse and desire to do right by Bedwyr engenders a new maturity and self-control.  And as Bedwyr comes to know Arthur as a man and not just as his best friend’s foolhardy younger brother, he takes his first step towards accepting the truth of his desires.  (Although the fact he has a bit of a crush on Matthias at the beginning of the book made his growing interest in Arthur a bit… ick?  I had to blank that out!)

Marked by Fire is a well-paced and enjoyable story with a strong setting and engaging, flawed characters who are both trying to learn from their mistakes and have undergone considerable growth by the end.  The romance between Arthur and Bedwyr is a slow-burn, and I enjoyed their progress from awkwardness to dawning friendship, playfulness and trust as their attraction to one another strengthens.  They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are nicely steamy, but I’d like there to have been a little more depth to their relationship overall.  That said, their story continues in book two (Bound by Blood); this one ends on an HFN (with a final scene that is a bit of a cliffhanger) so there is clearly more to come and I’m intrigued enough to want to know what happens next, so I’ll be reading that at some point.

TBR Challenge: Switched by N.R. Walker

switched

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Israel Ingham’s life has never been easy. He grew up in a house devoid of love and warmth. Nothing he ever did was good enough. The fact Israel is gay just added to the long list of his father’s disappointments.

Then a letter from Eastport Children’s Hospital changes everything. A discovery is made, one of gross human error. Twenty-six years ago two baby boys were switched at birth and sent home with the wrong families.

Sam, Israel’s best friend, has been his only source of love and support. With Sam beside him every step of the way, Israel decides to meet his birth mother and her son, the man who lived the life Israel should have.

Israel and Sam become closer than ever, amidst the tumultuous emotions of meeting his birth family, and Sam finds himself questioning his feelings toward his best friend. As Israel embraces new possibilities, he needs to dissect his painful relationship with his parents in order to salvage what’s left.

Because sometimes it takes proof you’re not actually family to become one.

Rating: B

The phrase “you must have been switched at birth!” is often said as a good-natured jibe between siblings, but that’s the exact premise of N.R. Walker’s Switched, the story of a young man who, at twenty-six, discovers he’s not his parents’ biological child due to a hospital mix up.  One could – perhaps – be excused for thinking that a premise like that would lead to an overly contrived or melodramatic story, but Switched is neither of those things.  It’s an emotional and angsty read that combines one man’s path to self-discovery with a heartfelt and sexy friends-to-lovers romance, and although there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me,  I enjoyed it a lot.

Coming out as gay in his teens was just one in a long string of disappointments Israel Ingham ‘inflicted’ on his parents.  Even now, when he’s doing what was always expected of him and working as junior executive manager in his father’s company – the position he’s long been groomed for – he’s well aware that nothing he does is – or will ever be – good enough for them.  It’s frustrating, but he’s kind of learned to live with it.  He’s good at his job, he has some great friends, plenty of sex when he wants it… his life is good and he’s learned not to wish for something he’ll never have – a normal and loving relationship with his parents.

When the book opens, Israel is irritated at having to take time out of his work day to attend what he assumes is some sort of fundraiser at Eastport Children’s Hospital in Sydney.  But that misapprehension is quickly corrected when he and his parents are met by a lawyer – who informs them that Israel is not their biological son.  He and another male child, born on the same day, were accidentally switched, and the mix-up has only recently come to light.  While his father is busy ranting and raving and his mother just sits there, expressionless,  Iz’s heart is racing and his mind is spinning.  Could this be the reason he’s never felt as though he truly belonged in his family?  Could he, at some deep, subconscious level, have understood that he wasn’t truly part of it?

Iz is – unsurprisingly – completely thrown by this revelation.  He’s angry and scared and confused, he feels he doesn’t know who he is any more, doesn’t know how to feel or what to do about… well, pretty much anything.  Luckily for him, his best friend Sam is there for him, just as he’s always been, and makes it clear that no way is he letting Iz go through this alone.  He drops everything to be with him and to be whatever he needs – someone to pull him out of his funks, someone to make him laugh, someone to forcibly ‘kidnap’ him for the weekend to provide a distraction … Whatever Iz needs, Sam is there.  They’ve been friends since their schooldays and are obviously very close;  it’s also obvious – to the reader, if not to Israel (who has no clue) – that Sam feels a lot more for him than friendship.

The author does a good job weaving together the three central relationships in the story – Iz and Sam’s romance, Iz’s burgeoning relationship with his biological family, and his ongoing relationship with his parents.  His anger and frustration, his confusion over his identity, his feelings of validation almost, as he realises that there’s a reason he never felt as though he belonged, his need to work out who he is and where he belongs now, all are very well conveyed and I really felt for Iz as he flounders while trying to process it all, and slowly – with Sam’s continued support – starts to make sense of it.

One of the things I like about friends-to-lovers romances is that moment when one person starts seeing the other in a new light, and watching Iz slowly starting to see Sam as an attractive man and not just as his best mate was one of my favourite things about this story.  Their romance is a bit of a slow burn in that respect – and there’s some frustrating miscommunication along the way as Iz starts to think he’s too dependent on Sam (which he is, really) and that maybe if he puts some distance between them the attraction he’s begun to feel will fizzle out. (Good luck with that!)  Fortunately, this isn’t allowed to go on for too long, and Iz does get his head out of his arse before too long.  Unfortunately,  however, it’s as the result of what I term the ‘third-party-nudge’, and I’m not a great fan of stories where it takes an observation by someone else to galvanise one of the protagonists into action.

That’s my main quibble about the romance though – otherwise, it’s sweet and hot, and Sam and Iz are obviously perfect for one another. The UST is delicious; even though the story is told entirely in Iz’s PoV, Sam’s longing for something more with his friend is palpable – and the evident affection, trust and understanding between them is just lovely to see.

Also lovely – Israel finally getting his wish for a real family, one that loves and accepts him unconditionally.  Donna, Nick and his other siblings (a brother and sister) are warm, welcoming, genuine people and I really enjoyed their interactions.  Iz’s other family is not neglected in the story, and we see him working out how he wants to relate to them in future.  Despite their lack of attention and affection and everything else his parents put him through, he makes it clear that he’s willing to try to work things out rather than completely cutting ties with them – and by the end of the book it appears that they are willing to make the effort, too.  It’s clear that they’re unlikely ever to have a close, touchy-feely relationship, but there’s a sense of hope that they can build something better than before.

Switched is a well-written story that examines the nature of family and belonging in a poignant and thought-provoking way, and the romance between Israel and Sam is nicely done.  Despite a few reservations I enjoyed the story and the characters, and would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a romance with an unusual storyline.

TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

Grade: B+

I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead.  But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of  Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!

This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:

There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.

Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.

Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home.  As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed.  His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens.  Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home.  The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!”  from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.

The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.

The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original.  The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:

“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”

Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.

And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:

“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.

At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.

Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.

The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony –  and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn.  The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.

The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.

My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out.  The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing.  But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming.  In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.

TBR Challenge: Delicious by Sherry Thomas


This title may be purchased from Amazon

He has risen from the gutters to become a powerful man–London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand in the House of Commons. She is a woman who spends her days in the kitchen. A chance encounter changes both their lives, but she disappears at dawn, leaving behind no name, no address, and only a pair of muddy galoshes.

Ten years later, the last thing Stuart Somerset expects, as he arrives at his new country estate following the unexpected death of his elder brother Bertie, is to fall in love with the delicacies from the kitchen of Madame Verity Durant, Bertie’s mysterious and notorious cook. Little does he know, Madame Durant and his lost beloved are one and the same, and he stands to lose his hard-won respectability were he to follow the yearnings of his heart.

Rating: C

It’s no secret that I’m a massive Sherry Thomas fangirl. I’ve read almost every one of her books, and when it came to this month’s TBR prompt of Backlist, I decided to read one of the two (I think) historical romances of hers I haven’t yet read – Delicious, from 2008.  Billed as a kind of Cinderella story, it features a celebrated – even notorious – cook and a highly-respected MP who reunite after they spent a night together ten years earlier, but though I like second-chance romances and I love Sherry Thomas’ writing, the story didn’t work for me at all.  In fact, it was just plain… odd.

I’ll admit to being a bit confused through the first few chapters, but one thing that is apparent early on is that gourmet chef/cook Verity Durant is not exactly what she seems.  Infamous throughout English society because of her (supposed) loose morals, she was the mistress of her employer Bertie Somerset for a time, although that relationship ended ten years before and she remained at Fairleigh Park as his cook.  Bertie dies at the beginning of the book, and his estate is inherited by his estranged half-brother Stuart, a hard-working lawyer and up-and-coming politician who is tipped as a future Prime Minister.  And the man with whom Verity shared one single night of passion ten years earlier.

Verity has mixed feelings upon learning that Stuart will be coming back into her life. She knows there is little reason for them to meet but is still in love with him even after all that time, and she wants to give him a gift, one she realises has been ten years in the making – happiness on a plate.

But unlike his half-brother, who was a real foodie, for Stuart, food is a necessity, something to fuel his body and to prevent hunger.  All he wants is to eat his first dinner as the owner of Fairleigh Park in peace and quiet while he reads his newspaper.  But from his very first mouthful of soup, he’s distracted:

The sip turned into an explosion of flavors on his tongue, rich, deep, pure, like eating the sunshine and verdure of a fine June afternoon.  Startled, he did something he almost never did – putting down his newspaper when he dined alone – and stared into the soup.

A mouthful later, he’s sent the soup away, seeing his enjoyment of it as an indulgence and a weakness.  But as the days pass, he finds himself unable to stop thinking about Madame Durant, fantasising about her even though at this point, (he thinks) he has never even met her.   Oh, and he’s just become engaged to a young woman with whom he’s been friends for a number of years and who he believes will make a good political wife.

But basically, that’s the story, Stuart fighting against seduction by proxy – the proxy being Verity’s amazing and incredibly culinary creations – while Verity simultaneously wants him to love her and actively avoids letting him see her and realise who she is.

The author makes good use of flashbacks to fill in the backstory, so we get to witness the first meeting between Verity and Stuart, the circumstances of their night together and what happened afterwards. But – and here is one of the book’s biggest problems – it was just ONE night, and the entire romance in the present is predicated on that single encounter.  It’s intensely passionate to be sure, but it’s basically insta-love, and when you add to that the fact that Verity and Stuart don’t really interact all that much in the present timeline (and when they do, they don’t see each other’s faces until right at the end), well, I found their romance really difficult to buy into.

Another problem is with the way the conflict in the romance is resolved.  Stuart’s fiancée is happily taken care of (there’s an excellent secondary romance which I liked more than the main one), but even then, Verity’s reputation will spell the end of Stuart’s political career, unless … well, a secondary character does a complete volte face and turns into a deus ex machina.

I didn’t connect with either Stuart or Verity.  Hints are dropped early on that Verity was born into an aristocratic family but was estranged from them at sixteen; she’s had a tough time of it and the fact she’s made something of herself in the face of such adversity really is admirable, but I just couldn’t become invested in her.  And I’m not sure how I feel about the fact she slept with brothers. (Okay, half-brothers, but still…) As for Stuart… two hours after finishing the book I’m trying to recall something about his personality, but other than his determination not to enjoy Verity’s cooking, and an obsession with her that springs out of nowhere, I can’t remember much.  And speaking of cooking, I really didn’t care for was the way in which the food was described as magical and life-altering and… so much hyperbole that I started skimming those parts.

I did like the secondary romance, which was funny and tender, and I think my favourite parts of the story were those when Stuart began to reappraise his relationship with Bertie, to whom he’d been really close when they were boys.  But it’s a bad sign when, in a romance novel, the love stories that are the most interesting don’t involve either of the two principal characters.

A C grade is the best I can do for Delicious – and I can’t remember the last time a Sherry Thomas book got anything lower than an A grade from me.  It’s always a sad day when I have to write a negative review of a favourite author,  but I’ll just have to chalk this one up to experience and move on.

TBR Challenge: Imagine by Jill Barnett

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After years imprisoned on Devil’s Island for a murder he never committed, escaped convict Hank Wyatt knows how to survive and believes his luck has finally changed. But when he stows away on board a ship destined to sink, his luck turns bad. He doesn’t know if he can last an hour when he is marooned on a deserted island with a beautiful, know-it-all blonde attorney and three orphaned children. Suddenly looking out for number one doesn’t seem to be enough.

San Francisco attorney Maggie Smith wants to have a good cry. Thoroughly modern, wealthy, and bright, her unwanted holiday turns bad when she is suddenly cast in the role of mother and forced to battle wits and hearts with the most arrogant, pig-headed man she’s ever met.

Fate has thrown this makeshift family Robinson together, and kismet tosses in a 2000 year-old floating bottle filled with magic. Is the chance for a love more powerful than they could ever imagine only a wish away? Father Goose meets Donovan’s Reef in this funny and tender historical romance about misfits who find that life might not be so bad after all…if they can do the impossible, and find a way to be family.

Rating: C+

Many romance series feature siblings, but for the Family Ties prompt, I decided to go for a ‘found family’ story, and Jill Barnett’s Imagine (originally published in 1995 and reissued in 2017) fit that bill perfectly.

It’s 1896, and in San Francisco, successful, hard-working attorney Margaret Huntington Smith has been urged by her father, a judge, to take a well-deserved vacation.  Knowing she won’t go unless given a push (in the best way) he’s brought her a first class ticket for a cruise to “French Oceania – Tahiti, the Cook Islands and more – A little taste of paradise for a daughter who works too hard.”

In the penal colony of Leper’s Gate on Dolphin Island, Hank Wyatt (imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit) has spent four years doing hard labour and enduring horrific cruelty, and when he sees a chance for escape he takes it. Disguised as a priest, he makes his way to Port Helene on the other side of the island where he stows away aboard a steamship.

But Hank’s luck has run out.  That night, there’s a terrible storm and the ship goes down; Hank and the woman and three young orphans he rescues are the only survivors.

So what we’ve got is what the book blurb describes as “a makeshift family Robinson” consisting of a rough-and-ready ex-convict, a very proper female attorney and three children (two girls and a boy) aged two, five and eleven.  (Oh, and an obstreperous goat they later name Rebuttal – because she keeps butting Hank in the butt.)

There’s a sort of African Queen Bogey/Hepburn vibe between Hank and Margaret (whom he nicknames Smitty) – although I don’t remember Bogart’s Charlie being quite so deliberately rude to Hepburn’s Rosie – and the pair are frequently at loggerheads, usually over Hank’s insistence that he knows best and Margaret should just worry about cooking meals and looking after the children.

Fortunately, and in spite of his attitude – in which, let’s face it, he’s very much a man of his time – the author succeeds in making Hank a likeable character.  Hidden deep inside behind the dismissiveness and crass behaviour is a caring man who has been battered about by life and learned early on that aspiration only leads to disappointment. But he proves himself to be kind, capable of laughing at himself, and also – to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s – to be good with the children. He needs some prodding to do the right thing at times, but he steps up when needed, teaching five-year-old Theodore to swim and to fish and becoming a father-figure to a boy who desperately wants a Dad.  Something Hank never had.

Margaret’s mother died when she was young, so she was brought up by her father, who taught her to believe in herself and that she could do anything she wanted if she worked hard enough.  She’s whip-smart and determined, likes to think things through and to find logical solutions to problems… although as she quickly discovers, none of those things really work all that well when confronted with an energetic toddler and a troubled eleven-year-old for whom she can’t seem to do anything right.

The author does a good job of pulling this unexpected family gradually together, in creating the chemistry between Hank and Margaret, and showing Margaret’s confusion at how she can possibly be attracted to a man she doesn’t particularly like.  Much of the comedy comes from Margaret’s ineptitude at those supposedly feminine tasks of looking after the children and cooking; she’s hopeless at the latter and burns everything – even after several weeks when I’d have thought a woman of her intelligence would have worked out how NOT to burn the fish Hank and Theodore caught.  Which begs the question – what did they actually eat?  Apart from bananas and coconuts, and later in the book, some oysters, there’s not much attention devoted to that.

Anyway.   I liked a lot about this story; the verbal sparring between Hank and Margaret is fun, the children are nicely developed as individuals rather than plot-moppets, and there are some really touching scenes as both Hank and Margaret start to bond with them.  The romance is nicely done, too; Margaret and Hank are like chalk and cheese, and what starts out as a physical attraction is given time to grow into a friendship and then more.  So why haven’t I given the book a higher grade?

Put simply – the genie.

Even though he appears in the prologue, I’d completely forgotten about him.  I became caught up in the story of Hank’s escape – which is quite a feat of ingenuity – and the drama of the shipwreck and rescue, their journey to the island and their first days trying to get used to their situation and each other, then – poof! – Muddy appears in a puff of purple smoke, and the whole thing went downhill.  Okay, so credit to the author for not having the first wish – or second – be ‘get us off this island’ – but it was obvious that he was going to end up playing Deus ex Machina at some point.   Apart from that function, I honestly couldn’t see the point of including him in the story.

Had it not been for that, I’d have given the book a higher grade, but it just didn’t work for me.  I read paranormal and fantasy romances, so the idea of magical beings isn’t the issue; it’s the dropping in of one into an otherwise non-magical setting for no apparent reason (other than to get them off the island when the author was ready).

Imagine was an entertaining read that had a lot going for it, but I can’t deny I was disappointed overall, especially as it had such a strong start.  But YMMV – there are plenty of 4 and 5 star reviews around for this one. so obviously it will work better for some readers than others.