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.

TBR Challenge: Dangerous Ground (Dangerous Ground #1) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Special Agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt have been partners and best friends for three years, but everything changed the night Taylor admitted the truth about his feelings for Will.

Taylor agreed to a camping trip in the High Sierras — despite the fact that he hates camping — because Will wants a chance to save their partnership. But the trip is a disaster from the first, and things rapidly go from bad to worse when they find a crashed plane and a couple of million dollars in stolen money.

With a trio of murderous robbers trailing them, Will and Taylor are on dangerous ground, fighting for their partnership…and their lives.

Rating: B

I thought, when I saw April’s prompt – “freebie” – that it’d be easy to find a book to read for it, but when it came to it and I was searching my Kindle, I realised that my choices were limited by my memory; I couldn’t recall which books I’d picked up for free and which I’d paid for!  Fortunately, I remembered that I’d received a couple of free books when I signed up for Josh Lanyon’s mailing list a while back, so that solved my problem.

The Dangerous Ground series is a set of six novellas (the first was published in 2008, the last was published this year) featuring agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt.  They’re fast-moving stories – kind of like a TV episode in book form – and each instalment contains a complete mystery/investigation, but the relationship between the leads develops throughout. I knew this going in, so the abrupt ending of book one, Dangerous Ground wasn’t an issue as I knew there was more to come, and in fact, I enjoyed it so much I jumped straight into book two, Old Poison (and then bought the rest of the series.)

Taylor and Will have been partners and best friends for almost four years.  They’re very different in some ways – Will is the more settled and considered of the two, where Taylor is more impulsive – but they work well together and share a similar jaded worldview and sarcastic sense of humor.  But six weeks before Dangerous Ground opens, things between them went horribly wrong; Taylor was shot during an operation and Will is alternately furious – with Taylor for (as he thinks) carelessly looking for trouble – and beating himself up with guilt, believing it’s his fault Taylor was off his game.  The night before the shooting, Will and Taylor had gone out for a few drinks, which had ended with Taylor getting smashed and then telling Will how he felt about him. But Will turned him down.  It’s not that he’s blind to the fact that Taylor is gorgeous or that he isn’t attracted to him… but he doesn’t think the commitment-shy Taylor is a good bet for a relationship and doesn’t want to ruin what they already have.

The trouble is, that things are changing anyway and there’s nothing either of them can do about it.  Six weeks after Taylor was shot, and shortly before he’s due to return to work, Will suggests they go on a camping trip into the High Sierras… and although he hates camping, Taylor agrees.  There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for Will and he, too, thinks that perhaps they need some time to sort out where they stand with each other.

The book starts a few days into the trip when Will and Taylor stumble across the wreckage of a small plane they realise was used in the infamous Black Wolf Casino heist a few months earlier.  The only body on board is that of the pilot – who was shot in the head – and there’s no sign of the other passengers.  What they do find, however, is the loot – over two million dollars, which they decide to stash in a bear box while they make their way down the mountain to alert the authorities.  But with that much money at stake, it’s not long before Will and Taylor find out they’re not the only ones on a trip into the mountains.  Only the armed men and woman who find them are clearly not there on vacation.

The author packs a surprising amount of plot into a relatively short page count, and keeps both the plot and romantic elements of the story moving smoothly in tandem.  I liked the way the backstory – the shooting, Taylor’s drunk declaration – was drip fed throughout the early chapters, the tension between them is palpable, and there’s no denying the pair have great chemistry.  There’s a really strong sense of place in the story, too, wonderfully evocative descriptions of the scenery, the warmth of the sun, the chill in the air and the sounds of nature.  On the downside, the characterisation is perhaps a little thin, as we don’t know a great deal about Will and Taylor, but as I said, this is the first of six, so there’s room for development on that front.

Dangerous Ground is fast-paced and entertaining, the leads are engaging and the author achieves a good balance between the suspense plot and the romance, with some high stakes action and steamy love scenes along the way.  It’s a quick read, but has enough depth to have made me care about the characters and want to know more about them.  I definitely intend to read the rest of the series.

TBR Challenge: Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin #1) by Jordan L. Hawk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reclusive scholar. A private detective. And a book of spells that could destroy the world.

Love is dangerous. Ever since the tragic death of the friend he adored, Percival Endicott Whyborne has ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man. Instead, he spends his days studying dead languages at the museum where he works. So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible.

Griffin left the Pinkertons after the death of his partner. Now in business for himself, he must investigate the murder of a wealthy young man. His only clue: an encrypted book that once belonged to the victim.

As the investigation draws them closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. But when they uncover evidence of a powerful cult determined to rule the world, Whyborne must choose: to remain safely alone, or to risk everything for the man he loves.

Rating: B

Like so many of the books I end up reading for the TBR Challenge each year, Jordan L. Hawk’s paranormal/romantic suspense Whyborne & Griffin series is one I’ve been meaning to read for AGES, so this prompt was just what I needed to galvanise me into reading book one, Widdershins.

Percival Endicott Whyborne comes from a very wealthy family – his father is a railroad baron – but didn’t want to go into the business (as his older brother did) and is thus somewhat estranged from his family.  His mother has been unwell for years and he doesn’t get on with his father, who disapproves of his choice to dedicate himself to comparative philology (Whyborne is fluent in thirteen languages and can read more,) scholarship and a job in the Department of Antiquities at the Ladysmith Museum in Widdershins, Massachusetts.  He keeps himself very much to himself, never really having got the hang of social interaction, and ruthlessly suppresses his attraction to men,  still haunted by thoughts of the first boy he ever loved and blaming himself for his tragic death.  He has only one real friend, Dr. Christine Putnam, a fiercely intelligent, independently minded archaeologist who won’t let him hide himself away all the time, and who, it must be said, has some of the best lines in the book:

“I will not surrender my profession simply because men throughout history have been unduly enamored of their penises!“

(this said in response to a male colleague seeking to prevent her looking at a papyrus fragment depicting a fellow “… in rather an excited state.” )

The appearance of ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty at the museum upsets Whyborne’s carefully maintained equilibrium.  Flaherty been asked to investigate the death of Philip Rice, son of the museum’s director who, the day before he died, sent a small, leather-bound book to his father which Griffin has brought to the museum – specifically to Whyborne – to have translated in order to see if its contents have any bearing on Philip’s death.  Although Whyborne is supposed to be working on deciphering some ancient scrolls which are due to be displayed in an upcoming exhibition, he agrees, wanting nothing more than to get the translation done and get rid of the handsome, too-friendly detective who is far too tempting for his peace of mind.

Whyborne’s efforts quickly reveal the book to be an Arcanorum, a book of arcane spells and alchemical treatises which details many occult rituals, not least of which is one able to bring back the dead.  As strange things start happening – from grave robbing to the appearance of mysterious and terrifying beasts, to break-ins at the museum  and the discovery of a powerful and ancient cult – Whyborne and Griffin are drawn into an investigation that will test them both to the limit and force them both to confront some of their darkest fears.

I enjoyed the story, which is immensely readable and entertaining, and I really liked the two central characters, reclusive, gawky Whyborne, and the more outgoing Griffin, whose handsome, charming exterior hides insecurities and emotional damage of his own.  While the story is related entirely from Whyborne’s PoV, the author does a terrific job of showing us Griffin through his eyes, although of course, Whyborne fails to notice the other man’s interest in him because he’s become so used to believing himself to be dull, awkward and unattractive.  But Griffin is smitten from the start; he obviously finds Whyborne’s shyness endearing and is also able to see beyond the bumbling scholar to the courageous, brilliant man beneath, his feelings made clear by the way he treats Whyborne with the sort of courtesy and respect he has never received from anyone before.

Their relationship starts as a slow, smouldering burn, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches, but after that, it moves fairly quickly – perhaps just a little bit too quickly – from that initial frisson to emotional commitment.  As this is the first book in a long running series (the eleventh and final book has just been published), the author could have perhaps taken a little more time to get them to the the ILYs.  I liked them as a couple and liked the way they come to know each other and talk about their pasts; the romance is both sweet and sexy as Griffin gradually coaxes Whyborne from his shell and Whyborne starts to allow someone beyond the emotional walls he’s so carefully constructed.  I just would have liked there to have been a little more time spent building an emotional connection between that initial slow burn and the declarations.  Delayed gratification and all that 😉

The plot, with its Lovecraftian influences and overtones, is a mix of suspense and supernatural horror, full of scary monsters, spooky goings-on (and a fair few “eeew!” moments) and a charismatic though creepy AF villain. The story is well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed among the more intimate and introspective moments, and moves inexorably towards a high-stakes climax which, while perhaps a tad predictable is nonetheless exciting.

In spite of my reservations about the romance and some aspects of the plot, I enjoyed Widdershins and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

TBR Challenge: The Broken Wing (Warrender Saga #2) by Mary Burchell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Tessa Morley has spent her entire life in the shadow of her beautiful and bewitching twin sister Tania.

Unlike Tania, whose vivacious beauty and outgoing personality have ensured that she is forever in the limelight, Tessa lacks her sister’s confidence and has always been exceedingly shy. Although blessed with the voice of an angel, and musical talent that far surpasses that of her twin, Tessa has never been given the same kind of chances as her sister because she happened to be born lame.

With the dream of a stage career out of reach, Tessa has taken work as a secretary for Quentin Otway, the arrogant and temperamental artistic director for the Northern Counties Festival who, along with famous conductor Oscar Warrender, is responsible for the gathering of significant musical talent for the festival.

Tania, determined to be cast in the festival’s production of Cosi fan tutte, convinces Tessa to ask Otway for an audition — and without warning Tessa finds herself having to deny her one great talent…her voice.

As upsetting as the situation is, Tessa is willing to bear the hurt for the sake of her sister, whom she loves dearly, but then it seems Tania will even rob Tessa of the man she loves. Her only consolation comes in the form of Oscar Warrender, whose keen ear identifies Tessa’s skill and who insists that for the first time in her life Tessa must take centre stage. Will Otway see Tessa for who she really is? Or is she doomed forever to be overshadowed by her sister?

NOTE: I don’t know why the cover depicts someone playing the violin when the heroine is a singer.

Rating: B-

For this month’s Kicking it Old School prompt, I went back to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen novels set in the world of classical music that were originally published by Mills & Boon in the 1960s and 70s.  I read the first book, A Song Begins for a TBR Challenge prompt last year and haven’t yet got around to reading any more, although I own several of them, so this seemed like a good opportunity to play catch up.  The events of book two, The Broken Wing (originally published in 1966), take place about six months after those of A Song Begins and are focused around a prestigious music festival.  The principal characters are the festival’s director, Quentin Otway (who is, of course, both brilliant and demanding), and his super-efficient assistant/secretary, Tessa Morley, who – it’s obvious straight away – is infatuated with Quentin, just as it’s obvious that he has no idea of it.

Tessa and her twin sister, Tania, are like chalk and cheese.  They’re not identical twins, in either looks or personality; Tania is a vibrant go-getter and their former actress mother’s favourite, while Tessa is quiet and shy, her reticence always making her an afterthought at home.  Tessa isn’t jealous of Tania though, although she does get annoyed by her frequent self-absorbtion; the relationship between the sisters is well written and presented as something that has many different shades.  Tania isn’t the evil twin and Tessa isn’t the put-upon doormat; there are elements of that in there, yes, but both are protective of each other in their own way and Tania does take pride in Tessa’s achievements, despite her tendency to steamroller her way through life.  Both are talented singers, too, although Tessa  – sure has no hope of a stage career on account of her being lame and walking with a limp – hides her light under a bushel while Tania is doing fairly well in the field of comic opera and operetta.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Tania ‘persuades’ Tessa to get her an audition for the part of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte which is being mounted at the Northern Counties Festival with Oscar Warrender conducting.  Tessa isn’t wild about the idea, especially when Tania insists that she – Tessa – must, under no circumstances, let on that she sings as well.  Tania knows Tessa has the better voice, but is also sure that her vivacity and stage presence will carry her through; and sure enough, Tessa gets her the audition and Tania gets the part.  It seems at this stage that Quentin is quite bowled over by her – although the more canny Oscar Warrender isn’t quite as impressed with Tania and already suspects that there is more to Tessa than meets the eye.

One of the things I always notice when I read much older books like this one is the way in which the hero is almost a secondary character; they’re very heroine-centric novels and we only get to see the object of her affections through her PoV.  And viewed with modern eyes, those heroes can sometimes be unappealing; at best overbearing, at worst, dictatorial, and there’s no question that Quentin doesn’t always behave well to Tessa in this book.  He says some hurtful things, usually without realising it (and I’m not sure if that doesn’t make it worse!), but at other times, he seems quite in tune with her, and he isn’t too proud to admit when he’s wrong and apologise for it.  And although the parallels between ‘damaged’ Tessa (the way her disability is portrayed and spoken of is distasteful) and the little figurine of the angel with the broken wing that Quentin keeps on his desk is howlingly obvious, there’s something about the way they bond over it that is rather sweet and which also indicates a degree of affection on Quentin’s side that Tessa is unaware of.  He can be thoughtless, but his ability to show vulnerability and to own up to his mistakes meant I liked him overall.

Tessa could easily have been something of a doormat, but she isn’t.  Yes, she puts up with Quentin’s dickishness, but he’s paying her wages and she has a job she loves and she’s not quite ready to tell him where he can stick it.  And she’s not afraid to call him on it when he’s being inconsiderate or let him know when he’s pissed her off; she’s one of those quiet heroines who can only be pushed so far, and I liked that about her.  I didn’t, however, like the way she was so preoccupied with her ‘lameness’.  She walks with a slight limp (she doesn’t appear to need a stick) but in spite of her vocal talent – which, according to Warrender (an expert) is worth cultivating – has ruled out any sort of musical career for herself on account of it.  Um.  I worked in the classical music biz for several  years and met and worked with a number of opera singers, many of whom were hardly built to be rushing around a stage!  And as Warrender says, a limp wouldn’t preclude Tessa having a concert career.  I suppose there had to be some sort of reason for Tessa not to want to be a singer; it’s just that this one is, and pardon the pun, rather lame.

Compared to many of today’s romances, The Broken Wing is pretty sedate, but its richly realised setting – which is once again permeated by the author’s love for and knowledge of opera and classical music – and clear, precise prose, are definite points in favour. Even taking into account the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to continue with the series.