TBR Challenge: Lights. Camera. Murder. (Silver Screen #1) by C.S. Poe

lights, camera, murder

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Private investigator Rory Byrne, has gained a reputation as someone the elite of New York City can trust to solve their problems quickly and quietly. So when a hotshot television producer hires him to recover a stolen script, Rory isn’t surprised that he’ll need to go undercover on the set of a historical drama. He has his hands full trying to investigate a skeptical and agitated crew while they work around the clock on The Bowery, a new show which promises to shake up the television industry.

To make a delicate situation even more complicated, the production is led by out-and-proud Marion Roosevelt and Rory is downright smitten with the handsome and talented actor. But every member of the crew and cast is a suspect in the theft. And as Rory investigates, Marion’s behavior grows increasingly suspicious. Then the murders start.

If Rory is to find the thief before The Bowery is cancelled, he’ll have to share his identity with the one man on set he can’t trust—Marion Roosevelt.

Grade: B

Lights. Camera. Murder. originally appeared in the Footsteps in the Dark anthology from 2019 (along with stories from Josh Lanyon, Dal Maclean, S.C. Wynne, Z.A. Maxfield and others) – and as I’ve had good experiences with C.S. Poe’s work lately, I thought I’d give this novella a go for the January “quickie” prompt.  I enjoyed the story, and was pleased to learn that the author is writing a sequel/series set in the same world with the same lead characters.

PI Rory Byrne has gained a reputation as the go-to guy for people who need their problems solved quickly and quietly.  He’s very good at what he does and is something of a workaholic – which accounts for his string of ex-boyfriends, most of whom left when they got fed up with playing second fiddle to his job.

The story opens with Rory being hired by a ‘hot shot’ (in Rory-speak, that’s “Royal Pain in the Ass”) television producer to investigate the theft of a script.  John Anderson is the producer of a new TV show being filmed in Queens called The Bowery – an historical drama set in turn-of-the-century New York centred around an Irish gang leader who is in a committed same-sex relationship.  Anderson is planning on branching out and has written a pilot for what he says is a bigger, edgier and better show than The Bowery – but it’s gone missing and he’s sure it’s been stolen.  The job is a bit out of Rory’s usual line – it’s on a live film set, likely an inside job, there are literally hundreds of suspects (basically the entire cast and crew) – and he only has a few days to solve the case.

So Rory goes undercover as a PA (production assistant) and immediately, all the tensions – both on and off set – hierarchies and petty politics that come with working in such a high-pressure, high-profile environment become apparent.  The key PA is an arsehole, the Production Manager clearly doesn’t like the on-set production crew, there’s obvious hostility between the director and lead actor Marion Roosevelt… nobody’s talking, everybody’s nervous – and then in the midst of it all, one of the crew is murdered.

Lights, Camera, Murder  is a well-crafted and engaging read, despite its small page-count.  The mystery is intriguing, with enough twists, turns and red herrings to keep it interesting without going over the top, and although the secondary characters are drawn with broad strokes they have depth and individuality.  Rory is the PoV character, so he’s the one we get to know the best, and he’s hard-bitten in a very noir-ish kind of way (I admit that when I first saw the cover, I though the story was set in the 1950s); he’s in his forties and has been there, done that several times, and the one constant in his life is his cat Gary (a total scene-stealer).  He isn’t too worried about his poor track record with relationships, although meeting Marion makes him start to wonder if maybe it’s time he made some changes and stopped getting in his own way.

Marion is almost twenty years younger than Rory, he’s gorgeous, charming, super-talented, sweet and savvy; he’s landed the role of a lifetime in The Bowery and feels passionately about the opportunity it’s given him to deliver a positive portrayal of a strong queer character in love.  Sparks fly between him and Rory from the moment they meet and their romance gets off to a promising start.  I confess though, that had this been a standalone and not the start of a series, I might have found it a bit rushed.

The writing flows smoothly and Ms. Poe does a great job when it comes to describing the day-to-day working of a bustling movie set.  I always enjoy her wry humour – and she gets extra brownie points for Gary the cat, whose utter “cat-ness” clearly signals someone Who Knows Cats.

Lights, Camera, Murder is an entertaining whodunit with a touch of romance, and although short, it reaches a satisfying conclusion and feels ‘complete’.  I’m looking forward to reading what the author has in store for Rory and Marion next.

Arctic Fire by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

arctic fire

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When two strangers are trapped in a blizzard, heat rises.

Haunted by what he lost in Afghanistan, Captain Jack Turner is at a crossroads. While the last place he wants to go is the Arctic, at least the routine mission gets him out from behind his new desk. But he starts off on the wrong foot with the Canadian Ranger guiding him across the forbidding and dangerous land, and Jack would rather be anywhere than sharing a tent with Sergeant Kin Carsen.

The Arctic is in Kin’s blood, and he can’t seem to leave the tundra behind. He wishes he could live openly as a gay man, but the North isn’t as accepting as the rest of Canada. Although he’s lonely, he loves his responsibility as a Ranger, patrolling the vast land he knows so well. But he’s on unfamiliar ground with Jack, and when they’re stranded alone by a blizzard, unexpected desire begins to burn. Soon they’re in a struggle to survive, and all these strangers have is each other.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

Keira Andrews’ Arctic Fire is a novella-length story (the audio clocks in at just under three hours) set in the Arctic Bay area of Nunavut (the northernmost territory of Canada). The author manages to pack in a surprising amount of character detail and a solid emotional punch for such a small page-count, and although the romance does happen quickly (over just a couple of days), it’s got the feel of a slow-burn. The descriptions of the desolate, starkly beautiful landscape and the intense cold are really evocative, making the setting stand out and almost feel like a character in itself.

Recently returned from Afghanistan, Captain Jack Turner is struggling to adjust to life stateside following the loss of someone close to him while on his last tour, as well as to deal with the burnout and nightmares that continue to haunt him after his experiences in the desert. His CO has noticed his general distraction and thinks it will be good for Jack to get back in the field, so he sends him on a five-day trip to the Arctic Tundra on a fact-finding mission relating to the Navy’s plans to establish a refuelling station around the now-abandoned former mining town of Nanisivik. Jack is not exactly thrilled at being sent to a small town in the back of beyond with nothing much to do, sub-zero temperatures… and no booze allowed. At least there’s no sand.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright (Spindle Cove #4.5) by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – Narrated by Carolyn Morris

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Miss Eliza Cade is a lady in waiting. And waiting. Because of a foolish mistake in her youth, she’s not allowed “out” in Society until her three older sisters are wed. But while she’s trying to be good, she keeps bumping elbows – and more distressingly, lips – with notorious rake Harry Wright. Every moment she spends with him, she risks complete ruin.

The sensual passions he stirs in her are so wrong…but Eliza just can’t resist Mr. Wright.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

I remembered enjoying this novella – which rounds out Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series – when it came out in print what I thought was just a few years ago. Imagine my surprise when I checked Goodreads and discovered I’d read it in 2012! Where did those eight years go?!

Anyway. I enjoyed it and was pleased to see it finally making it into audio with Carolyn Morris at the microphone; her performance of what I think is the author’s best book (A Week to be Wicked) is one of my favourites.

The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright is a novella so it’s a short listen, and it’s really a series of vignettes that span a period of around four years, detailing several meetings between the titular Mr. Wright and a young lady named Eliza Cade who made a silly mistake made when she was just fourteen (and no, it wasn’t that sort of mistake!), and because of it, her father decided to delay her society début until all her sisters were ‘out’ so as not to spoil their chances on the marriage mart.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Metahuman Files: Classified (3 novellas) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

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Here’s a little treat (well, three little treats!) for anyone (like me!) suffering withdrawal symptoms after Hailey Turner’s fabulous Metahumans Files series came to an end earlier this year – the novellas that slot into the later part of the story arc. Unsurprisingly, these won’t work as standalones as they assume listeners know who these people are and The Story So Far, so if you’re intrigued, I’d strongly recommend going back to the beginning – In the Wreckage – and working your way through the whole series. The narration is fantastic, the characters are engaging and the stories are action-packed, clever and really well-put together. (Oh, and steamy ;)) If you like military-based romantic suspense stories with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, then you really should check it out.

You can read the rest of these reviews at AudioGals.


Midwinter Magic (Rockliffe #7) by Stella Riley

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Celebrate among old friends … and perhaps a gate-crasher or two. There will be wassailers and kissing-boughs; music, dancing and romance; laughter and some tears. Above all, expect the unexpected because at Christmas anything can happen.

So accept your invitation for what promises to be the most talked-of house-party of 1778 … and is also a last Huzzah to the Rockliffe series.

Rating: B+

In Midwinter Magic, the final book in her Georgian-era Rockliffe series, author Stella Riley bids a heartwarming and utterly charming farewell to her cast of much-loved characters by bringing them all together for a memorable and magical Christmas celebration.  (A warning – if you’re not familiar with the six novels that precede this series finale, you’ll likely have trouble keeping track of all the characters; if that’s the case, go back to book one, The Parfit Knight and make your way through the other books; I promise you won’t regret it!)

It’s Christmas 1778, and the Earl and Countess of Sarre – Adrian and Caroline Devereux  – (The Player) have invited their closest friends to Sarre Park in Kent for the festive season.   The Rockliffes, Amberleys, Chalfonts – and their respective children – the Audleys and Wynstantons, and Caroline’s grandpa Maitland and her good friend, Lily Brassington will all be in attendance, and Adrian and Caroline are looking forward to a convivial time spent in good company.  Preparations for the house party are well under way, despite their housekeeper’s  doom-laden pronouncements that decorating the house before Christmas Eve will bring bad luck – and Adrian has tasked his closest friend Bertrand Didier with overseeing the activities and entertainment for the duration.

With the company all assembled, things get off to a wonderful start with a visit to the beach – but on their return, it seems Betsy’s dire predictions have come true;  Caroline’s pushy, social-climbing mother has arrived uninvited, and has brought Caroline’s two sisters with her.  Caroline had been planning to invite them to stay at a later date, wanting to spare her guests Mrs. Maitland’s continual toadying and thinly veiled insults.  But there’s nothing to be done; Caroline can’t send them back home and room is found for them at nearby Devereux House.

Otherwise, however, the house party continues as planned, with plenty of activities – for the adults as well as the children – overseen by the wily Bertrand, who really does seem to have thought of everything!

One of the many things I’ve always enjoyed about Stella Riley’s books is the way she creates such genuine friendships between her characters, something which is much in evidence here as we get to see so many of them interacting with each other, teasing and joking and supporting each other as all good friends should.  There are two delightful romances to be found here (the one between the more mature couple was especially nice to see), and the various Christmas traditions are skilfully and vividly integrated into the story so that you can almost smell the greenery and see the coloured ribbons on the kissing boughs.  Best of all, these are the characters we’ve come to know and love; Rock is his ducal, perceptive self, Sebastian is witty and a teeny bit naughty, Julian is charmingly distracted; and the children in the story are well-written and feel age appropriate.  There are some wonderfully entertaining set-pieces, too – a boisterous game of football on the beach, a visit to Deal Castle, an impromptu concert for the tenants and villagers – and one of the most memorable moments in the book comes when Tom – the eldest of Julian and Arabella’s wards – reads a letter he’s written about his life, and his love for his adopted father, which is incredibly poignant and quite beautifully done.

The inclusion of the Maitlands and later, of Adrian’s obnoxious mother, serve to highlight that old adage that while you can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family; and their presence provides a stark contrast to the genuine warmth and affection the other characters so obviously find in their friendships and the happiness that permeates the rest of the book.

A Christmas story wouldn’t be a Christmas story without a bit of magic, and that’s here, too – albeit not in a way you might expect, and which I can’t say too much about without giving spoilers.  Suffice it to say that it’s woven carefully through the story and is sure to delight fans of the series.

Midwinter Magic is just that, a magical combination of warmth and wit, love and laughter, and a perfect conclusion to one of the best historical romance series around.

An Enchanting Regency Christmas (anthology) by Edith Layton

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The long-awaited second anthology of Edith Layton’s Regency romance Christmas stories includes four heart-warming tales. Originally published in separate anthologies, and out-of-print for many years, these holiday novellas by legendary Regency romance author Edith Layton are in one volume for the first time ever! This collection includes the following stories:

The Earl’s Nightingale
The Hounds of Heaven
The Rake’s Christmas
The Dark Man

Rating: B-

Back in the day, historical romance fans new Christmas was around the corner when Signet published its annual anthology of Christmas stories by some of its most popular and most beloved authors.  Those original books are long since out of print – although second-hand copies can still be found – but some of the authors (or their estates) are now making their stories available in digital formats. Edith Layton’s daughter has been republishing her mother’s novels and short stories over the past few years, and follows up last year’s six-story anthology It’s a Wonderful Regency Christmas with An Enchanting Regency Christmas, which brings together another four previously published Christmas stories.

The Earl’s Nightingale

(originally published in A Regency Christmas Carol, 1997)

Grade: B-

A charming story with just a little bit of Christmas magic, The Earl’s Nightingale is about finding happlness where you least expect it.  Eliza Dumont, a gently-born young woman who supports herself and her mother by giving music lessons, needs to raise some money urgently and has no alternative but to pawn the gift left her by her late grandmother, a bejewelled, mechanical bird in a golden cage.  It breaks her heart to do so; it’s the last thing her grandmother gave her, and with it, the old lady left a letter telling her that the bird will bring her happiness.

Frauncis, the Earl of Elliott, is looking for a gift to give a respectable young lady for Christmas.  He knows the lady in question is expecting a betrothal ring, but he is not about to meet those expectations; still, he needs to send something appropriate.  When he sees the mechanical bird in the corner of the shop, he realises he’s found the perfect gift, and sends it to the  young lady – who is so angry at not receiving the gift she’d hoped for that she throws the cage across the room and gives it to her servant. Who sells it on…

When Eliza returns to retrieve the bird, she’s devastated to discover it’s been sold.  She pays a visit to the Earl to offer to buy it back, and he, of course is unable to oblige.  But he’s instantly smitten with Eliza and promises to retrieve it for her – except, as he discovers, it’s not that simple.  Over the next few days, he and Eliza track down the bird, and as they do, they draw closer and eventually, Eliza discovers that the bird has bought her happiness after all.

The Hounds of Heaven

(originally published in A Regency Christmas, 1998)

Grade: B-

This story isn’t so much a romance as it is the story of a man taking stock of himself and his life and opening himself up to what it means to be worthy – and capable – of love.

Wealthy, charming, titled and handsome, Lord Thadeus Rose, London’s most eligible bachelor., has decided it’s time to marry and has chosen himself a suitable bride.  Miss Helena Thatcher is beautiful, intelligent, sensible and well-bred, young enough to bear children but not an empty-headed schoolroom chit who will bore him silly.  So when he proposes to her, he’s stunned by her rejection, and doesn’t understand the reasons behind it

Stumbling home after drowning his sorrows, Thadeus is set upon by footpads – but is saved by a puppy (a large puppy, admittedly) who subsequently ‘adopts’ him and refuses to leave his side.  As Thadeus learns how to care for something other than himself, and as the dog’s unconditional love begins to show him how wonderful it feels to be loved, he comes to appreciate and understand the importance of the most human of emotions, and to know what he needs to do in order to win the heart of his lady.

The Rake’s Christmas

(originally published in A Regency Christmas, 1995)

Grade: B

I love a good poor-relation-gets-the-guy tale, and this is definitely a good one.  It’s my favourite story in this collection, and in it we meet, Ian, Viscount Hunt, a young man lately returned from the Peninsula war who has thrown himself into a life of hedonistic pleasures as a way of distracting him from sad memories.  He is approached by Lord Shelton, an older man and a confirmed rake and invited to attend a house-party over the Christmas season at Moon Manor, the home of a distant relative of his. Ian is a little wary – he doesn’t know Shelton other than by reputation – but allows himself to be persuaded.  On the way, Shelton is called away owing to an emergency, leaving Ian to attend the party without him.

Eve Thomkins is the poor relation, taken in for Christmas by her aunt and uncle but already looking forward to getting away from their forced and somewhat humiliating generosity, and to her upcoming twenty-fifth birthday, after which she need never spend Christmas with them again.  When Viscount Hunt arrives, the sense of kinship feels as their eyes meet for the first time startles her, making her wish, just once, that she could be even vaguely eligible, as the other young ladies are.

Hunt’s broodingly handsome looks naturally gain him the attention of all the young ladies at the party, although his somewhat intimidating manner cows most of them – apart from Eve with whom he occasionally lets his guard down.  Over the days that follow, he finds himself seeking Eve out – telling himself that what he really wants to do is warn her of Lord Shelton’s designs on her – but instead just enjoying her company and conversation.  And Eve, who is preparing to take up the mantle of ‘eternal spinster’ is determined to enjoy this last hurrah of time spent with an attractive man.

Eve and Ian are likeable and fully-fleshed out in a way that doesn’t always happen in novellas, and this story is the most ‘Christmassy’ in overall feel, incorporating many of the traditions of the festival, with its mistletoe and holly-gathering parties, yule log hunt, wassail and carolling.  The author packs a lot of emotional punch into this one, and the ending, while not exactly a surprise, nonetheless left me smiling.

The Dark Man

(originally published in A Regency Christmas III, 1991)

Grade: C-

This is the story I liked least out of the set; it’s about an engaged couple who fall out and get back together again, but it isn’t particularly romantic.  Like The Hounds of Heaven, it focuses more on the hero’s journey to self-awareness, but it isn’t anywhere near as charming as that story.

When Eve Swanson discovers that her fiancé, the Earl of Poole, has a mistress (as well as a bevy of former mistresses amongst the ton) she knows all too well that it’s ‘the done thing’ among men of their class, but finds it difficult to handle the normality of it –  especially the idea of coming face-to-face with his former lovers and being expected to behave as though it’s nothing.  When she breaks their engagement, she’s sent off in disgrace to stay with her grandmother in the north of England, while Poole kicks his heels in London and comes to the realisation that what Eve had said about his always following the rules and expectations was true and that he needs to be true to himself if he’s to attain his heart’s desire and win her back.

This tale focuses a little more on New Year and its traditions than on Christmas, and that’s all nicely done, but the story feels rushed and the end of it is a bit nonsensical.

As I usually find to be the case with anthologies, An Enchanting Regency Christmas is a bit of a mixed bag.  But overall, it’s an enjoyable collection that is sure to provide plenty of warm fuzzies and feelings of good cheer over the festive season.

Let’s Connect by Kelly Jensen

A year after his divorce, Daniel Stroman has decided that he’s too young to die—or fuse permanently with his couch. But when he downloads the dating app “Let’s Connect” and starts dating, his success/fail ratio isn’t encouraging until he gets a connection request from Robin.

Everything about Robin’s profile is different, from the bright little bird he’s using as an avatar to the long and thoughtful answers he’s written for the standard questions. He’s witty, funny, and easy to talk to. Robin could be his perfect match. But Robin is holding something back.

Then again, so is Dan—beginning with the seven-year crush he’s carried for his best friend, Trevor. Sadly, except for one brief moment, they’ve never been single at the same time.

Or have they?

Rating: B+

Kelly Jensen’s Let’s Connect was originally written as a serial for the author’s newsletter subscribers, but now she’s collected the instalments together and published them as a novella.  It’s a charming, funny and poignant story about a fifty-year-old divorcé who alternates between wondering if life and love have passed him by and feeling as though he’s too young to give up on finding love and someone to share his life with.

Dan Stroman has been divorced for a year, and he’s obviously been struggling – with being single again, and with life in general. He’s neglected his business and spent more time than he should have clinging to his couch, but his best friend Trevor (on whom Dan has had a crush for years) has encouraged him to get back into the dating game, and pretty much stood over him while Dan downloaded the Let’s Connect app and created a profile.  Dan does indeed connect with a few guys, but the in-person dates range from disastrous to simply not-what-I’m-looking-for, and he’s almost ready to give up when he receives a message on the app from Robin, who responds to the question “what’s the most interesting thing about you?” with a short essay about odd socks that is “the most bizarre yet sweet collection of words Dan had ever read.”

Dan is immediately struck by the personality  – funny, self-deprecating and distinctly quirky – that comes through in Robin’s words.  After they’ve exchanged a few messages on the app, Robin suggests they try a virtual date – they’ll both cook the same meal, and watch a movie together – and it goes well.  Robin is easy to talk to and Dan feels comfortable with him – and over the weeks they spend chatting, he realises that his interactions with Robin have helped him to see that he IS ready to move forward and take the next step with someone.  But… who is the right someone?

Let’s Connect is short, but it’s a lovely read that possesses considerable depth and insight.  I really enjoyed Ms. Jensen’s recent This Time Forever series, in which most of the principal characters were in their forties and fifties, and here, she continues to highlight the very different issues that can arise when a more mature person is looking to find a new relationship, and does it in a very appealing and perceptive way.

Dan is the PoV character, although there’s a very satisfying epilogue which switches the perspective to the man in his life.  Let’s Connect is short, sweet, and absolutely delightful, and happily, I see that Ms. Jensen is planning on writing more in this world.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty Volume 2 by Gregory Ashe

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Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty Volume 2 is a collection of short stories. It includes the following:

John-Henry Somerset: Sold!
Somers enters a charity bachelor’s auction without telling his boyfriend. This story takes place before The Rational Faculty.

Pretty and Pink and Perfect
Hazard plans a toddler’s birthday party. This story takes place before The Rational Faculty.

Pride Slays Thanksgiving
Hazard and Somers prepare for their first Thanksgiving as a couple. This story takes place before Police Brutality.

Santa: A Cultural Hegemony
Hazard is volun-told to dress up as Santa. This story takes place before Transactional Dynamics.

Valentine’s in Six Beats
Hazard executes his do-over for Valentine’s. This story takes place before Wayward.

Emery’s Birthday Scavenger Hunt
Somers plans the perfect birthday for Hazard . . . or so he thinks. This story takes place before The Keeper of Bees.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty
A series of six vignettes featuring Hazard and Somers on a Caribbean vacation. This story takes place after The Keeper of Bees.

Rating: A

This is the second set of short stories featuring Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset in their off-time. Most of them have been available to subscribers to the author’s mailing list, but the final set of vignettes, Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty are new, and take place after the events of The Keeper of Bees, the final book in the Union of Swords series.

The first of the stories takes place between Criminal Past at the end of the first series and The Rational Faculty, and they follow the guys through the timeframe of the series, each one usually taking place between books – and they’re full of classic Hazard and Somers banter and snark as well as showing them at their most couple-y and loving. We’ve got Hazard obsessing over the perfect birthday party for Evie, (he is SUCH a great Dad!), Somers up against Nico in a bachelor auction, and my personal favourite, a wonderful Valentine’s Day Do-Over in which Hazard pulls out all the stops to make the day as special and romantic for Somers as possible.

It’s always a pleasure to read about Hazard and Somers in situations where they’re not being shot at, beaten up or having a major relationship crisis; these stories provide wonderful glimpses into their ‘ordinary’ daily lives and give us – and them – a bit of respite from the chaos and danger that they invariably attract in the full-length novels. Plus, there’s a real sense that the author has fun writing these and it also showcases just how well he knows (and loves) these characters.

The final set of stories is new and given the note on which The Keeper of Bees ended was just what I wanted to read next. But be warned, Mr. Ashe drops one helluva bombshell – one I did NOT see coming – at the end of the last one! So now it’s just a case of waiting to see how the guys handle this latest upheaval in their lives in their next series – Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand. I can’t wait.

Thief of Dreams (Court of Dreams #1) by Bec McMaster

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Twenty brides. One prince. Who will survive when the competition turns deadly?

When Prince Keir of the Court of Dreams sends out a summons in search of a bride, the Wraith King sees a chance to steal the powerful Dragon’s Heart. He sends his best thief, Zemira Az Ghul, to penetrate the court as one of the potential brides.

All Zemira wants is freedom from the chains that bind her to the king, and if she finds the relic she’ll have it. But the Court of Dreams is more dangerous than she ever expected, and Zemira must soon choose between her freedom—and her heart.

Rating: B-

Thief of Dreams, book one in Bec McMasters Court of Dreams series originally appeared in the Of Thrones and Crowns anthology in 2019 and was republished separately earlier this year.  It’s novella length and sets up the storyline that will (I suspect) run throughout what I believe is going to be a trilogy, so while Thief of Dreams does contain a complete story, it also ends with something of a cliffhanger,  and serves as an introduction to the overarching plot.  The author sets up the main romantic pairing – and if the chemistry hinted at here is continued, then I can’t wait for the rest! – and while I was a bit disappointed things didn’t progress very far on that front, I was also pleased that the author wisely decided there wasn’t time for bedroom scenes or an HEA in the 126 pages that comprise this instalment.

As was the case with the author’s recent Promise of Darkness, I found the first person, present tense narration off-putting.   I understand why first person is necessary in a story like this – it seems to be the preferred style for YA and many contemporary romances – I just don’t care for it, and it took me a while to get used to it.  Actually, it took me longer than it should have done to read 126 pages, and that was partly because of my dislike of this narrative style (and partly because I was listening to an amazing audiobook and didn’t want to stop!)

Once I got back to Thief of Dreams, however, I found it bears all the hallmarks of a Bec McMaster read; a kick-ass heroine, a dangerous, sexy hero and extensive worldbuilding done in a way that flows naturally and never feels like an info-dump; there was (I think) one point at which I felt I was reading a list rather than information that unfolded naturally.  BUT – while the author generally disseminates the information subtly, there’s a LOT of it to absorb here concerning the various fae courts and magic systems, and it all feels a bit rushed and superficial.

Zemira Az Guhl wants nothing more than freedom from the chains that bind her to her father, the Wraith King Beyond the Shadowfangs.  For almost all her life, she has been the kingdom’s most successful thief, able to pluck the last coin from a miser’s purse while he’s watching it, forced to do her father’s bidding in hope of his eventually returning the half of her soul he stole from her at birth.  At last, the opportunity she has waited for is offered her – the king will grant her the rest of her soul if she will steal the Dragon’s Heart from the legendary Court of Dreams.  Zemira is aghast.  Nobody knows where the Court of Dreams resides; its prince tore it from the mortal world long ago and even if its location was known, it’s impossible to enter the court without Prince Keir or his guards knowing, even for her.  But the Prince has sent out a Summons – an invitation to every fae princess in the land – and this is Zemira’s way in.  She must take the place of one of the more obscure of the potential brides, avoid the Prince’s notice as much as possible, locate the heart and steal it.  It’s not exactly going to be a walk in the park.

Of course nothing goes to plan.  Zemira’s plan to avoid Keir’s notice backfires – she’s the one ‘princess’ not falling over herself to win him, so naturally, she’s the one who intrigues him the most.  The other princesses – a bunch of ‘mean girls’ if ever I saw one – start getting picked off, one-by-one by unknown creatures, and a final and hurtful betrayal puts Zemira’s quest at risk and turns her fate in a different direction.

I enjoyed the story, the murder-mystery aspect to the plot is resolved here and there is clearly more to come – but book two isn’t out until 2021, so I hope I’ll remember to look for it! There’s a definite spark of attraction between Zemira and Keir and their flirtations are swoony, but I felt there was something missing in the characterisation, and the first person PoV didn’t allow me to connect with Keir at all.

If I were grading Thief of Dreams purely on its own, I’d probably give it a C+/C.  The writing is solid and the ideas are good, but overall, it feels rushed, the hero is peripheral and the romance doesn’t really get off the ground.  As the introduction to a new series however, I’m upping that to a B- because there’s a lot of potential I’m hoping will play out as the series progresses.  To be honest though, I sort of wish I’d waited to read this until I could jump into book two straight afterwards.

Quickie Reviews #6

Another batch of shorter-than-usual book and audio reviews 🙂

Will & Patrick Wake Up Married Series by Leta Blake and Alice Griffiths

Narrated by John Solo

After a drunken night of hot sex in Vegas, strangers Will Patterson and Dr. Patrick McCloud wake up married. A quickie divorce is the most obvious way out—unless you’re the heir of a staunchly Catholic mafia boss with a draconian position on the sanctity of marriage. Throw their simmering attraction into the mix and all bets are off!

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

I read the Wake Up Married series last year and picked up the audios when they were whispersynced. Once you get past the daft premise, this is an entertaining, often very funny and sometimes moving story with two strongly characterised, appealing leads. Patrick – with his complete lack of filter – is a hoot, but I liked that he was just “this is me – take it or leave it”, while Will lacks confidence in just about everything apart from his ability to do his job, which is incredibly important to him. Both of them have emotional baggage to deal with – Patrick has become extremely successful despite an awful childhood; Will can’t see that the relationship he was in for several years was emotionally abusive and only added to his already deep-seated insecurities about his personal attractiveness and self-worth. His blindness about his ex is irritating, but it also works to show just how far he’s been manipulated and how his self-doubt has been fostered.

John Solo’s narration doesn’t always work for me; he’s good, but he has this weird way of suddenly going into what I term “movie-trailer-announcer-mode” when his speech loses natural rhythms and he emphasises words oddly – it usually happens in sex scenes or when the characters are thinking about sex, and other times of heightened tension or emotion. I don’t know whether he didn’t do that as much here, or if I just didn’t notice it as much once I got used to it, but he delivers a really good performance in this and his interpretations of Will and Patrick are especially good and fit their characters perfectly. Will is softly spoken, Patrick is more abrasive and his dialogue has a harsher edge. The secondary characters are well-differentiated and if it weren’t for that odd quirk I mentioned, he’d be on my list of all-time favourite narrators.

Valor on the Move by Keira Andrews

Narrated by Iggy Toma

Growing up gay in the White House hasn’t been easy for Rafael Castillo. Codenamed “Valor” by the Secret Service, Rafa feels anything but brave as he hides in the closet and tries to stay below the radar in his last year of college. His father’s presidency is almost over, and he just needs to stick to his carefully crafted plan. Once his family’s out of the spotlight, he can be honest with his conservative parents about his sexuality and his dream of being a chef. 

It’s definitely not part of Rafa’s plan to get a new Secret Service agent who’s a walking wet dream, but he’s made it this long keeping his desires to himself. Besides, it’s not like Shane Kendrick would even look at him twice if it wasn’t his job. 

Shane’s worked his way up through the Secret Service ranks, and while protecting the president’s shy, boring son isn’t his dream White House assignment, it’s an easy enough task since no one pays Rafa much attention. He discovers there’s a vibrant young man beneath the timid public shell, and while he knows Rafa has a crush on him, he assures himself it’s harmless. Shane’s never had room for romance in his life, and he’d certainly never cross that line with a protectee. Keeping Rafa safe at any cost is Shane’s mission. 

But as Rafa gets under his skin, will they both put their hearts on the line? 

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C

Nothing new to see here, but an easy quick listen with Iggy Toma doing the honours in the narrators’ chair, and I’d listen to him read the phone book, so…

I generally enjoy May/December romances but in the best ones (like Annabeth Albert’s At Attention or N.R Walker’s The Thomas Elkin Series), the younger protagonist is generally more mature than their years and has a bit of life experience behind them. The problem here is that Rafa, at twenty-one, feels much younger. He’s lived in the White House for seven years (since he was fourteen) and has been pretty sheltered; some of that is undoubtedly due to the fact that he’s closeted and hasn’t wanted to draw the media spotlight by going out with guys, but he comes across as naive. I did like that he was appreciative of the people whose job it was to keep him safe though – so many of these types of bodyguard stories have the protectee trying to give their details the slip all the time and getting into danger as a result, and at least Rafa doesn’t do that. The coming out scene was pretty intense and the emotion – both in the author’s words and the performance – when Rafa was talking about the marriage bill his father had passed really shone through.

So 3 stars for the story, 4.5 for the narration. I might listen to the sequel at some point.

Spring Strings by Lily Morton

Malachi Booth is a supermodel. He’s used to moving about the world, sleeping with whoever takes his fancy and watching the money roll in. The last place he expects to find himself is on a run-down farm in Cornwall, but a bad bout of bronchitis means that he’s stuck there. The only compensation for this dismal state of affairs is that the farmer is very good looking, even if he’s the grumpiest person that Malachi has ever met.

Cadan Landry’s farm has been in his family for hundreds of years but that doesn’t make it any easier to make ends meet. As a consequence, Cadan could be called grumpy. Most men would consider a supermodel collapsing at their feet while dressed in the skimpiest pair of briefs ever made to be a sign of good fortune. Cadan just resents the fact that the young man is taking up space in his cow field.

These two men are from different worlds, but can they ever meet in the middle?

Rating: A-

Utterly delightful.

It’s the rare novella that can offer all the things this one does – off-the-charts chemistry, a well-developed romance, interesting backstories and strong secondary characters – so to find all that here was a very welcome surprise. (Although at 162 pages, this is more of a short novel; there are books billed as novels that come in at a similar page count!)

Spring Strings is an opposites-attract romance between a Cornish farmer and a supermodel, a pairing that absolutely Should Not Work. When beautiful Malachi Booth meets hunky but grumpy Cadan Landry, it’s snark-at-first sight (this is Lily Morton, queen of snark after all!) and sparks fly. When Malachi ends up staying at Cadan’s farm to recuperate following an illness, the pair gradually start to re-assess their preconceptions about each other and a cautious friendship develops, albeit a sexually-charged one.

Malachi is brilliantly written; he’s cynical and closed off and comes across as a total diva to start with, but the thing is that he knows he’s demanding and difficult and looks on it as part of his job, which makes it easy to like him in spite of it. Ms. Morton makes a number of very pertinent and serious observations about the world he moves in beneath the banter, and also gives him a backstory that completely explains the choices he’s made. And Cadan is a genuinely good man but is struggling and pretty much working himself into the ground because of a poor choice he made in the past (although that doesn’t make the situation he’s in his fault).

Watching the pair of them gradually letting down their guards and allowing the other to know him was just lovely, and I especially loved that Malachi had, at long last found somewhere and someone with whom he could really be himself.

Short, sweet and snarky, but with plenty of depth to make it more than a simple piece of fluff, and just the ticket if you’re looking for a pick-me-up in book form.