Husband Material (London Calling #2) by Alexis Hall

husband material

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a hotly contested rainbow balloon arch to get these two from “I don’t know what I’m doing” to “I do”.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

Rating: B+

Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material was one of my Best Books of 2020 – a masterclass in how to do Romantic Comedy right, it’s a wonderfully, warm, funny and sharply observed opposites-attract romance that has become a long-term favourite. Needless to say, I was delighted to learn that the author was writing a couple more books set in Luc and Oliver’s world, and Husband Material is one of my most eagerly anticipated books of 2022. But I wasn’t as completely bowled over and charmed by it as I’d hoped. The author’s characteristic humour and insight are still very much present, and there’s a lot to like about it, but while I enjoyed it, I can’t say I loved it. Maybe that’s on me – my expectations for this one were, admittedly, pretty high – and I suppose that’s always going to be a danger when an author writes a sequel to an incredibly popular book; we readers want more of the same (what we loved about the first book) – but different, and that’s not easy to accomplish!

It’s no secret to say that in terms of structure at least, Husband Material is a riff on Four Weddings and a Funeral, so the story is told in five sections – three weddings, funeral, wedding – that take place over the period of a few months. When the book opens, Luc and Oliver have been together for two years, they’re still in love, they’re happy together and are still recognisably the same people; Luc is still the same slightly-neurotic hot-mess and Oliver is still stoic and more than a bit emotionally repressed.

The first wedding is Luc’s best friend Bridget’s, and of course, being Bridget the whole thing cannot possibly go off without lots of drama. Just days before the wedding, her fiancé Tom disappears, someone ‘helpfully’ sends Bridget a picture of him with another woman, and it’s up to Luc to talk her down while basically ditching Oliver and a long-awaited date night and then staying with her for several days (co-dependent, much?) while things are sorted out. And then it’s Oliver who is packed off back to London on a retrieval mission when it’s discovered that nobody has brought the wedding dress to the venue. He and Luc are hardly together on page throughout this section and I felt like Luc was taking him too much for granted.

Wedding number two is Luc’s ex Miles, the guy who sold him out to the tabloids and sent him into a downward spiral. After bumping into each other on the night of Bridget’s non-gender-specific bird-do, Miles very happily introduces Luc to the vision in glitter and rainbows at his side – who then announces they’re getting married and says Luc really must come to the wedding. Luc doesn’t know what to make of it, and it’s messing with his head; does he want to go so he can prove to Miles that he’s moved on and is happy with Oliver, or should he just let it go?

But this is the catalyst for Luc starting to panic. Everyone around him is getting married, he and Oliver have been together for two years, so… shouldn’t they be getting married, too? Isn’t that the logical next step for two people who want to spend their lives together? Luc decides it is and – in typical Luc fashion and without really thinking it through – blurts out a proposal, which Oliver, of course, accepts.

Luc and Oliver are a great couple, and they travel a rocky path in this book. I love Luc’s quirky, deadpan narrative voice, and was really pleased to see that while he’s still very much him, he’s more confident and conscious of getting caught up in his head and is able to get himself out of it. Oliver, on the other hand, is struggling a bit, still having to deal with his parents’ expectations and criticisms, questioning a lot of internalised assumptions and trying to work out if the discomfort he experiences over what he describes as “the trappings of mainstream LGBTQ culture” results from negativity inherited from his parents or is simply down to his own, natural reserve. He’s working through a lot in this story, and even though he finds it difficult to talk about emotions, he tries hard to be thoughtful and honest, and most of their conversations are far more emotionally literate than before.

I liked the way each of the events makes Luc and Oliver look at aspects of their own relationship they haven’t examined so far, and I enjoyed spending time with Luc’s friends and the CRAPP crowd, the daft conversations and silly jokes and all that – but by the time the third wedding came along, I’d begun to feel like the secondary characters were taking a lot of word count away from the storyline I was really invested in (Luc and Oliver) and they felt like a distraction until it was time for the real meat of the story to kick in at around the two-thirds mark. And something I realised after I finished reading was that Luc and Oliver seem to be at odds a lot in this book – I had trouble recalling many scenes where they seemed to be truly happy. The conflicts they’re dealing with are believable, especially for people who are past the first excitement of a new relationship but are still in those early stages where they’re still learning about each other and how to actually be IN a relationship, and those are only exacerbated by the stress of planning a wedding which will suit both of them.

The story includes thought-provoking threads about queerness and community and identity, about societal expectations for committed relationships and the heteronormative nature of traditional marriage, about how much, or even whether, one should be prepared to compromise or change for a romantic partner, and how stressful relationships can be, even when you love the people on the other end of it. It’s all very interesting and well put-together, but the episodic nature of the book’s structure means I sometimes felt as though I was revisiting the same arguments without any of them being properly resolved.

Contemporary romances traditionally end at the HEA, and to have a sequel about the same couple is fairly rare. Thankfully, there is no manufactured break-up here, just a lot of questions and adjustments and two people who adore one another trying to work out how far they can be themselves with each other, and what their future might look like. The conclusion Luc and Oliver arrive at is, perhaps, unexpected and unconventional, but it’s the right one for them, and I loved watching them talk things through and realise they’re both on the same page. The final moments had me happy-sighing, and the last line is perfection.

Husband Material really hits its stride in the ‘funeral’ section and Oliver’s speech is epic – but I can’t deny being a little frustrated in the earlier parts, for the reasons I’ve stated – not enough Luc and Oliver together and too many circular arguments and discussions. Still, Alexis Hall turns a phrase like nobody else and his ability to combine fun ridiculousness with serious soul-searching continues to impress. Husband Material definitely earns a recommendation, but in the end, it’s one of those books I wanted to love but which just missed the mark.

TBR Challenge – Plain Jane by M.C. Beaton

plain jane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s up to the servants of No. 67 Clarges Street to hatch a scheme… and arrange a match!

‘Oh, to be as beautiful as Euphemia!’ sighs plain Jane Hart when she joins her sister at No.67 for the Season, as then Lord Tregarthan might notice her… as she has noticed him and forever lost her heart.

And while it is Euphemia’s fate to flit her way through balls and into the arms of a marquis, Jane’s is to stay at home… until the Downstairs staff transform the plain Miss into the Season’s sensation and send her waltzing into a daring liaison with the man of her dreams

Rating: C+

It was a very sobering thought to realise that most of the books I own that could be considered “vintage” – and thus contendenters for my read for that prompt for the July TBR Challenge – were written and published well within my lifetime. I ended up going with Plain Jane, book two in The House for the Season series by M.C. Beaton, written under her pen-name of Marion Chesney and originally published in 1986.

Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.

67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.

Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.

Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.

The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out that the book’s age shows in the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.

In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.

Perfect Flaw by Frank Spinelli (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

perfect flaw

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A young doctor enters a world of money and beauty only to find some flaws run six feet deep.

When newly-minted Dr. Angelo Perrotta joins an exclusive concierge medical practice, he believes he has found success. His charismatic colleague, Demetre Kostas only adds to the promise of the new job. But when a series of tragic events transform his dream job into a nightmare, Angelo is confronted by disturbing accusations and the even more troubling cop, Jason Murphy. Now Angelo must unravel the secret entanglements surrounding him not just to save his career, but his life.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Frank Spinelli’s Perfect Flaw is hard to categorise. It’s a compelling character-driven story told from the perspective of a young, newly-qualified doctor whose dream job quickly turns into a nightmare that jeopardises the future he’s worked so hard to build. It has a bit of everything – mystery, romance, murder, suspense – and a very flawed, somewhat naïve, yet endearing protagonist I couldn’t help rooting for even as I was facepalming at his mistakes! It also has Cooper North at the microphone; it’ll come as no surprise when I say that was a big draw!

Dr. Angelo Perotta has joined the elite Park Avenue medical practice run by his former mentor, Dr. Anthony Stanzione, a top HIV specialist. Angelo’s best friend Tammy, who is working at a local ER, isn’t impressed and clearly thinks he’s sold out, but he’s sure it’s where he’s meant to be. Stanzione is a great doctor, the kind of doctor Angelo wants to be, and the kind of father figure Angelo – who grew up poor and fatherless – is constantly searching for. His hero worship and belief that Stanzione is infallible blinds him to the man’s flaws, especially as his own background – which the author skilfully drip-feeds through conversations and flashbacks throughout the story – makes him equally as susceptible to the lure of money and the high-life.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Eight Weeks in Paris by S.R. Lane

eight weeks in paris

This title can be purchased from Amazon

BREAKING: Lost novel of Bell Epoque Paris, The Throne, comes to the silver screen with an A-list cast. But will on-set drama doom the filming of this gay love story before it starts?

Nicholas Madden is one of the best actors of his generation. His personal life is consistently a shambles, but he’ll always have his art—and The Throne is going to be his legacy.

Then his costar walks off the runway and into rehearsal. The role of a lifetime is about to be sunk by a total amateur.

Chris Lavalle is out, gorgeous and totally green. He has thousands of Instagram followers, a string of gorgeous exes and more ad campaigns to his name than one can count. But he’s more than just a pretty face, and The Throne is his chance to prove it.

If only Nicholas wasn’t a belligerent jerk with a chip on his shoulder and a face carved by the gods.

Eight weeks of filming, eight weeks of 24/7 togetherness bring Nicholas and Chris closer than the producers had dared to dream. Chemistry? So very much not a problem. But as The Throne gets set to wrap and real life comes calling, they’ll have to rewrite the ending of another love story: their own.

Rating: C

The publisher’s blurb for this début romance from S.R. Lane drew me in immediately. Eight Weeks in Paris revolves around filming the big-screen adaptation of The Throne, a classic queer novel set in Paris during the Belle Époque, and it promised an enemies-to-lovers romance between the two stars – one a Hollywood bad boy, the other a model and influencer with little acting experience. It’s a great premise and I really wanted to love it. But I didn’t, for a number of reasons.

The Throne, thought lost and only re-discovered in the early 1990s, captured the imagination of movie star Nicholas Madden the moment he read it, and he’s been waiting for years for a movie to be made of it – and to star in it. Finally, his dream is coming to pass; a fantastic director has been hired and filming is about to begin, when he learns that the man cast to play the complex and pivotal role of Angelo, his character’s love interest, is a virtual newbie. To say he’s not pleased is an understatement; this project is very close to his heart and he’s furious at the thought of it being torpedoed by a complete amateur.

When Christian Lavalle – beautiful, charming, openly out-and-proud – arrives on set, Nicholas dislikes him immediately, but is told that the two of them are going to have dinner together that evening so they can get to know each other a little. Nicholas agrees very reluctantly – not that he has much choice – and is very surprised to see a certain quality in Christian that may well mean he’s not such a bad casting choice after all. He’s still not convinced Christian has the acting chops necessary to carry off such a difficult role, but he realises theman is not the “brainless, vapid airhead” he’d expected him to be.

I liked those opening scenes, and I liked the characters and the way Christian keeps overturning Nicholas’ expectations. The author sets up the animosity between them well and there’s the hint of some decent chemistry there – but somehow, I reached the end of the book and found myself wondering what I’d just read. There’s an HEA, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how Chris and Nicholas get from their initial dislike to falling in love, or even why they fall in love. The writing style is vague and, dare I say it? rather pretentious, and while I was totally on board for the idea of the two love stories – the one in the book and the one between Nicholas and Chris – running concurrently and mirroring each other – neither romance is particularly convincing, and the real life one is severely underdeveloped.

The characterisation is similarly obscure. When I started reading, I found both protagonists intriguing and looked forward to getting to know them better, but that never happened. I felt as though I was reading the book through a fog, where everything I was looking for – story, character and relationship development – was behind some sort of opaque veil and always just out of reach. It was really frustrating!

Where the book does score is in its exploration of the disadvantages of fame – how hard it is to have a private life when you’re forever in the public eye in this age of social media – and the ins and outs of filming and all the industry entails; the power plays, the on-set drama, the PR, the media, the deceptions (Nicholas is not out and his agent wants it to remain that way) and all the work that goes into film-making.

But as a romance it falls flat. Eight Weeks in Paris should have been a terrific read – a slow-burn, opposites-attract romance between two actors filming a classic queer love story in the world’s most romantic city – but unforunately, it’s none of those things.

TBR Challenge: Lost & Found by Liv Rancourt

lost and found

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A dancer who cannot dance and a doctor who cannot heal find in each other the strength to love.

History books will call it The Great War, but for Benjamin Holm, that is a misnomer. The war is a disaster, a calamity, and it leaves Benjamin profoundly wounded, his mind and memory shattered. A year after Armistice, still struggling to regain his mental faculties, he returns to Paris in search of his closest friend, Elias.

Benjamin meets Louis Donadieu, a striking and mysterious dance master. Though Louis is a difficult man to know, he offers to help Benjamin. Together they search the cabarets, salons, and art exhibits in the newly revitalized city on the brink of les années folles (the Crazy Years). Almost despite himself, Benjamin breaches Louis’s defenses, and the two men discover an unexpected passion.

As his memory slowly returns, Benjamin will need every ounce of courage he possesses to recover Elias’s story. He and Louis will need even more than that to lay claim to the love – and the future – they deserve.

Rating: B

Set in Paris shortly after the end of World War One, Lost & Found is the story of a traumatised young American doctor who returns to Paris to search for his best friend, who has been missing since before war ended. It’s the compelling story of one man’s search for so much more than an absent friend and expertly intertwines that search with a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance. The setting of post-war Paris is so perfectly captured that the city feels like a character in its own right, and the pervasive sense of melancholy adds poignancy without being overwhelming.

Benjamin Holm, a Harvard-educated doctor, and his childhood friend Elias Simmons joined up to fight before the US entered the war and travelled to the front together. But as far as Ben can recall, he returned home alone after the Armistice, and now, a year later, he’s back in Paris intent on finding Elias, whom he hasn’t seen since… he can’t quite recall. He’s easily confiused and his memory is impaired; he knows there are things he can’t remember and is frustrated by that, but the one thing he’s clear on is that he needs to find Elias. He has nothing to go on really, just a vague recollection that they’d agreed to meet up there after the war; knowing that Elias liked to paint, Ben decides to ask around the artistic community and to scour the city until he finds him. To that end, he wanders the streets, showing a battered photo of his friend to all and sundry in the hope someone will have seen him.

Ben is renting a small apartment in Montmartre from Madame Beatrice, a genial lady who takes more than a passing interest in her tenants and who suggests that another of them, Louis Donadieu – Ben’s downstairs neighbour – might be able to help in Ben’s search. Ben is surprised – whenever he’s encountered the handsome and enigmatic Donadieu he’s been prickly and rather abrupt – but sure enough, the next morning, he approaches Ben over breakfast and offers his help. Mme. Beatrice clearly has excellent powers of persuasion.

As the two men spend time together walking around the city, sharing meals and just talking. they begin to know and understand each other, learning about their losses and fears. Ben is glad to have Louis with him, to have the assistance of someone who knows the city so well, but there’s also something else there, an attraction that’s clear to the reader in the way Ben admires Louis’ grace and dark good looks, but which Ben ruthlessly squashes. It’s just as clear that the attraction is mutual, and that Louis is more than a little bit jealous of the loyaty and affection Ben feels for his missing friend. But Ben’s memories continue to prove elusive, and it emerges that some of those gaps are very specific; whenever he tries to recall the last time he saw Elias, how they parted, even how the war ended – nothing.  And the more he tries to remember about his relationship with Elias, the more it eludes him. It’s confusing and frustrating – and terrifying.

Ben’s amnesia and PTSD are extremely well conveyed, and there’s a very real sense that the single-mindedness of his search for Elias is his sub-conscious’ way of preventing himself from thinking about things he doesn’t want to dwell on.  Clearly,  there was something more between Ben and Elias than friendship, but that Ben has closed his mind to that possibility – which is perhaps not all that surprising given the time period – although the author shows, in subtle ways, that Ben is more aware of his sexual orientation than he admits even to himself. She does a terrific job when it comes to showing Ben’s sense of unease, the disconectedness he feels from his past and his uncertainty about his future. His frustration at not being able to remember, and later, his horror when bits of memory begin to bleed through, are palpable, and the truth of what actually happened is both terrible and heartbreaking.

Louis comes across as arrogant to start with and he’s very blunt in a way that’s actually good for Ben, because he doesn’t coddle him or hold back from making Ben think about things he doesn’t want to think about. He’s prickly but sweet and vulnerable, too, having suffered his share of loss, albeit in different ways. He had been a rising star in the ballet world until he contracted polio – which almost killed him and ended what could have been a glittering career. Even though we never get into his head – Ben’s is the sole PoV – we’re able to feel his grief and sadness at the loss, and can see that his aloofness and insistence that “men like us seldom take things seriously” are a form of self-protection, walls behind which to hide the true extent of his feelings to Ben.

Their slow-burn romance is nicely done; a tentative friendship underpinned with unacknowledged – on Ben’s part at least – attraction that evolves into more. The constant presence of Elias in the background doesn’t impinge on it or turn it into a love triangle (thankfully!); it serves as a catalyst – for Ben and Louis to spend time together and for Ben to start to rediscover his sexuality – and adds tension to the story in a way that feels natural and convincing.

While I had a few small niggles – I’m sorry, but I can never read the word “organ” without laughing (I even wrote a blog a few years back about awful euphemisms in romance novels) – I only had one major issue with the book, which is the sometimes stilted, overly formal manner Ben has of expressing himself. That sort of formaility is in keeping with the time period, it’s true, but Ben even thinks formally when he’s in his own head, and when that happened I found it difficult to feel a connection with him; he talks/thinks about himself in a way that feels as though he’s talking or thinking about someone else. This put him at something of a remove, which, for a first person protagonist we’re supposed to sympathise with, made for an odd choice.

That’s my only real reservation, however. Lost & Found is heartfelt and bittersweet, a lovely and ultimately uplifting story of love, healing and acceptance.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty 3 (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand)

off duty 3

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life happens when you’re not looking. Unfortunately, so do a lot of other things.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty Volume 3 is a collection of short stories. It includes the following:

“If Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge”

Hazard is going to get Evie the perfect toy for her birthday, no matter what. This story takes place before Relative Justice.

“Don’t Tell Your Dad”

Getting Colt settled isn’t exactly a smooth process, but you’ve got to break some eggs (or…something) to make an omelet. This story takes place before Custody Battles.

“Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”

Somers just wants to take a nap on his birthday. This story takes place before Domestic Animals.

“Responsible Adults”

Hazard and Somers chaperone a school dance. This story takes place before Father Complex.

“Under My Roof”

Hazard and Somers just want some alone time. Some adult alone time. This story takes place before Father Complex

“One Day You’ll Thank Me”

Hazard’s birthday scavenger hunt, redux. This story takes place before Final Orders.

“Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty 3”

Hazard and Somers take Colt to summer camp, and things go sideways. This story takes place after Final Orders.

Rating: A

The Off Duty books in Gregory Ashe’s Hazard and Somerset series comprise sets of short stories that are take place between the full-length books in the series and feature the guys during their downtime. It’s always a refresthing change to be able to spend time with Hazard and Somers when they’re not in life-or-death situatons, and I love that we get to see them in quieter moments of simple domesticity where their love for each other and the degree to which they get each other really shine through. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, they’re always completely and utterly them, which goes to show just how much their creator understands them and cares about them. There’s always humour to be found in an H&S book, but in these shorts, the author lets his talent for comedy have full-rein whether it’s in the wonderful banter we’ve come to know and love, in the titles of the documentaries Hazard is fond of watching, or in the daft situations they often find themselves in.

In this collection… the guys find out just how difficult it can be to find some alone time with a teenager in the house… All John really wants for his birthday is a nap, but actually getting one proves impossible… and Emery Hazard chaperones the school dance like it’s 1899… I loved seeing Somers and Colt teaming up for Hazard’s birthday scavenger hunt, and in the new story in the collection – Off Duty 3 – Hazard and Somers take a very reluctant Colt to summer camp – only to end up stranded and battling a group of drug dealers, ably assisted by Theo and Auggie. (I’m SO excited for the continuation of their story in books 3&4 of the First Quarto serie. ) But, as usual, just when you think our guys are going to be able to take things easy for once… it looks like there’s a new face in town who’s going to complicate matters!

All these stories (bar the last one) were previously made available via the author’s newsletter but I always enjoy dipping in and out of the Off Duty stories once they’re collected together as well.

A must for all Hazard and Somerset fans.

Father Complex (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #4) by Gregory Ashe

father complex

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Having a father can be hard. Being a good one might be even harder.

The call-out for the double homicide, when it comes, is a strange one: two men gunned down in a motel room, no witnesses, no real clues. Even stranger, the men were enemies, and no one seems to know why they were in that motel room together. And stranger still, people won’t stop calling John-Henry Somerset, telling him he needs to find some answers—preferably nice, easy ones—fast.

Hazard and Somers set out to learn what happened, but they quickly find themselves mired in shifting factions: the ultraconservative political machine of the Ozark Volunteers; a liberal activist group protesting the local gun show; a reclusive fundamentalist church; even a hint of Mexican drug cartels. The further they press their investigation, the clearer it becomes that the killer—or killers—wants something, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.

As Hazard and Somers struggle to find the truth, they face trouble at home as well. Their foster-son, Colt, has received a letter from his estranged father, the same man who attacked Colt and Somers in their home. Worse, Colt seems open to more communication, which leaves Hazard grappling with his fears for Colt and his helplessness against a world that seems to be conspiring to take his foster-son away.

But when a pair of gunmen come after Hazard at home, two things are crystal clear: he’s going to get to the bottom of these murders, and he’ll do anything to keep his family together.

Rating: A

Note:  This book is part of a long-running series which really needs to be read in order; there are spoilers for earlier books in this review.

With Father Complex, we’re heading into the home straight of this third Hazard and Somerset series, Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand.  The guys have been through a significant number of major life changes since we first met them; the original series saw them uneasily reconnecting after more than a decade, starting to work through the various issues between them and – eventually – falling in love.  In A Union of Swords, they’re adjusting to life as a couple with all its ups and downs,  learning how to be in a relationship and then getting married; and in Arrows in the Hand they return from their honeymoon to find themselves becoming ‘insta-parents’ to a troubled teen and working – not always successfully – to redefine and remake their family unit.  There are never any easy answers – these are complex, flawed, very human characters with individual baggage that often has a very real impact on their relationship and family dynamics, from Somers’ need to be liked and his desire to prove himself to his father (regardless of the fact that Glennworth Somerset is an arsehole), to Hazard’s PTSD and the anger issues that have been surfacing more and more frequently in his relationship with their foster son Colt, many of them arising as the result of his complicated relationship with his own – now deceased – father.

But through it all, there’s never been any doubt that these two love each other deeply; they get each other like nobody else ever has (or will) and best of all, they Put In The Work; it’s not easy and often it’s not pretty (they really do know how to push each other’s buttons) but every victory is all the sweeter for being hard won, and one of the many highlights of the series is the way Hazard and Somers are continuing to change and grow while remaining recognisably the same guys we met in Pretty Pretty Boys.

The mystery in Father Complex kicks off when Somers receives the news of a double homicide at a run-down motel, two men shot and killed, no witnesses and no real clues.  After the events of the previous book, Somers is taking on board the fact that his role as Chief of Police means trusting his team to do what they’re supposed to and that he can’t become personally involved in every investigation, so when Dulac asks him to come to the motel to take a look around, Somers initially refuses.  However, learning that one of the victims was engaged to Naomi Malsho – Somers’ former sister-in-law and one of the leaders of the ultra-right wing Ozark Volunteers (and a perennial thorn in his and Hazard’s sides) – and that the other was a liberal activist and son of a family deeply involved in local politics starts the alarm bells ringing.  Sure enough, it’s not long before his father is on the phone demanding he ‘handle’ it, and fast.

Somers brings Hazard in to help with the investigation, and they’ve really got their work cut out trying to figure out why two men with such strongly opposed views were even in the same room to begin with, and then following a winding trail down some dangerous paths and into confrontations with participants at the local gun show, the members of a fundamentalist church/cult and the Ozark Volunteers (Gregory Ashe is a master at writing seriously fucked-up and creepy characters who really make your skin crawl!),  as connections slowly begin to emerge and weave themselves together into an ever expanding web of lies and deceit – with Naomi somehow in the middle of it. It’s an incredibly complex but incredibly well-executed plot as the significance of each seemingly unconnected and confusing clue is revealed and the full picture slowly comes into view.  Watching Hazard and Somers work together so intuitively and seamlessly is always a delight, and I thoroughly appreciate the way they can do that even when they’re at odds off the job.

Tensions are running high at home, especially after Colt receives a letter from his deadbeat dad that pushes Hazard’s curiosity and protective instincts through the roof, and the pair are butting heads even more than usual. I’m sure anyone who has parented a teen will recognise many of the arguments and thought-processes at work here, and it’s tough to watch these two people who so badly want to love and be loved continually hurt each other.  Colt’s a teenager doing what teenagers do, but also, he’s a kid who has never been able to rely on anyone but himself, and who is, deep down, terrified that eventually Hazard will leave him, just as every other adult in his life has done – so he keeps on challenging him and pushing boundaries, which is his mixed-up way of checking that Hazard cares enough about him to keep loving him regardless.  And Hazard, well, sometimes he behaves every bit as badly as Colt does, rising to the bait every time even as he tells himself to be the adult, doing or saying exactly the wrong thing even though he knows it – and doing it anyway.  Unfortunately, this tendency is spilling over into his relationship with Somers, too – especially professionally, where he screws up the investigation or endangers them on several occasions because he can’t keep his mouth shut or his temper under control.  (I really hope he’s going to get some help with his anger issues soon!  If he carries on like this he’s heading for a meltdown of epic proportions.)

After the heartache of watching Somers floundering so badly in the previous book, I was delighted to see him finally starting to get to grips with his new role and moving towards finding a proper work/life balance in this one.  I don’t envy his role as referee in the ongoing Emery-Colt battles, but he’s on much more of an even keel here and is on hand to provide support and a badly needed voice of reason.

The cast of regulars is augmented by North and Shaw, who show up as the unlikeliest cavalry ever – and who inject some quite ridiculous (but needed) light-heartedness into the story.  All is clearly not well with Dulac and Darnell, despite their outward show of having patched things up, and I’m still worried about Nico, who seems to be swinging from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.  With only one more book in the series to go, it might be a bit much to hope there’s room for those issues to be resolved alongside what (from the preview chapter I read) looks set to be an explosive finale… but if anyone can do it, Gregory Ashe can.

Father Complex is another gripping and unputdownable read from a writer at the top of his game, a tough, complex mystery with a rollercoaster ride of breathless emotion on the side.

When Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr #17) by C.S. Harris

when blood lies

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March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.

Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

Rating: A-

I eagerly await the release of a new Sebastian St. Cyr book every year; we’re up to book seventeen with When Blood Lies and it’s one of the best of the recent instalments, a fabulous blend of whodunit and history set in Paris in March of 1815, in the days leading up to Napoleon’s escape from Elba. As the author has picked up the long-running storyline relating to Sebastian’s search for the truth about his parentage, it’s impossible to write a review of When Blood Lies without reference to earlier books in the series, so please be aware there are spoilers ahead.

For the last twenty-odd years, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin and heir to the Earl of Hendon, believed his mother Sophia – who left her marriage and England when he was a boy – was dead.  But he has recently discovered that is not the case, and in the previous book (What the Devil Knows) learned she was living in Paris, and was presently in Vienna, where negotiations between the various countries and states of Europe have been in progress for some time, as they work to rebuild following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

When this story begins, Sebastian, his wife Hero and their children are in Paris where he hopes, at long last, to meet with his errant mother on her return to the city and to finally get some answers to questions long unasked – even though he isn’t sure he’s ready to hear them.  Walking the misty banks of the Seine one evening, he’s reached the Pont Neuf when his attention is caught by a glimpse of what looks like an out-flung arm down on the river bank; he hurries down the stone steps to discover the body of a tall, slim, well-dressed woman lying motionless at the water’s edge, her pale cheek smeared with blood. Bolts of recognition and devastation hit Sebastian when the woman looks into his eyes before uttering a single word – his name.

Sebastian has his mother taken to his house in the Place Dauphine, where he and Hero tend her as best they can while they wait for the doctor to arrive – but her injuries are too severe, and all the doctor can do when he arrives is accede to Sebastian’s request that he examine the body to see if he can give him some idea as to cause of her death.  Sebastian suspects, given where she was found, that his mother may have fallen or been pushed from the bridge; the physician agrees that her injuries indicate a fall, but also tells Sebastian that she was stabbed in the back before being lifted and thrown over the parapet.  Clearly, whatever happened was no accident – but Sebastian knows so little about his mother’s life over the past two decades that he has no inkling as to why she would be murdered.  But that isn’t going to stop him from doing everything he possibly can to find out – no matter that his investigation will bring him into conflict with the most powerful families and factions in France.

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, all of them absolutely gripping, all of them very cleverly slotted together. The pacing is swift but not rushed; there’s time to absorb every new development before moving on to the next, each new piece of information often raising more questions than it answers. Sebastian learns that Sophia had been the mistress of one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals – a Scotsman to whom Sebastian bears more than a passing resemblance – who is now in Vienna negotiating on behalf of the newly reinstated Bourbons, and that after leaving Vienna, Sophia visited Napoleon on Elba before returning to Paris. But why? What’s the significance of the – now empty – jewellery case she was carrying on the night of her death? And what was she doing on the Pont Neuf that night? Sebastian and Hero have their work cut out as they search for the truth while the political situation in France hangs in the balance; the growing dissatisfaction of the populace with their Bourbon king has rumours that L’Empereur is about to return spreading like wildfire – and when the news reaches Paris that Napoleon has escaped his prison on Elba, Sebastian realises he’s running out of time… as, perhaps, is everyone around him.

When Blood Lies is an engrossing page-turner, a book I found difficult to set aside and was eager to get back to. The seamless way the author weaves her original plot threads through the fabric of history is masterful, as is the way she incorporates the various historical figures who appear throughout the tale. We see a little less of Hendon and Jarvis here – although the latter makes his presence felt in his usual inimitable fashion – but having Hero taking such a major role in the story is a big plus. She and Sebastian are so finely attuned that they appear almost able to read each other’s minds; I love the level of trust and understanding between them, and the way they bounce ideas off each other and help and support one another is wonderful to see. Sebastian goes through a lot in this book; grief for his mother, regret for their lost years together, frustration at the fact he may never now find out the identity of his biological father – which he tries to set aside while he tries to find the murderer, but his conflicted emotions are never far away and Hero is his rock.

Full of intrigue and suspense with a superbly-drawn cast of characters, a compelling leading man and packed to the gills with fascinating historical detail, When Blood Lies is another wonderful instalment in this excellent long-running mystery series. Now the waiting starts for book eighteen next year!

Criminal Intentions S1E1: The Cardigans by Cole McCade (audiobook) – Narrated by Curt Bonnem

Criminal Intentions S1E1

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When a string of young queer men turn up dead in grisly murders, all signs point to the ex-boyfriend – but what should be an open-and-shut case is fraught with tension when BPD homicide detective Malcolm Khalaji joins up with a partner he never wanted. Rigid, ice-cold, and a stickler for the rules, Seong-Jae Yoon is a watchful presence whose obstinacy and unpredictability constantly remind Malcolm why he prefers to work alone. Seong-Jae may be stunningly attractive, a man who moves like a graceful, lethal bird of prey…but he’s as impossible to decipher as this case.

And if Malcolm doesn’t find the key to unravel both in time, another vulnerable young victim may end up dead.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

For those unfamiliar with Cole McCade’s long-running Criminal Intentions series (and to explain the long-winded title!) the series was conceived as kind of a TV show in book format, with one book the equivalent of one episode in a twelve-thirteen episode season. There are currently two complete seasons and season three – the final one, I believe – is underway. The same two protagonists feature throughout; each book boasts a self-contained mystery, there are overarching elements that run through each season, and the central relationship evolves as the seasons progress. CI:The Cardigans, then, introduces those protagonists – homicide detectives Malcolm Khalaji and Seong-jae Yoon – and marks the start of their working relationship as they investigate the murder of a number of young gay men. This is very much a setting-the-stage book in terms of the characters – they’re very intriguing and I’m eager to find out more – and while there’s little more than a whiff of a potential romance (and it’s barely even that), I do know that it happens eventually and I enjoyed this book enough to be prepared to wait and see how it pans out.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening (Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters #2) by Marguerite Kaye

lady armstrong's scandalous uk

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Hers was a body of marble…

Until he brought it to life

Since her tyrannical late husband ruined her reputation, Lady Mercy Armstrong has been longing to reinvent herself. The perfect opportunity presents itself when rebellious self-made man Jack Dalmuir presents a daring proposition—a fake dalliance that will change society’s view of her! Only her cavorting with the handsome Scotsman ignites a passion that could change their lives for ever…

Rating: B

For this second book in her Victorian Era Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters series, Marguerite Kaye returns briefly to her Armstrong family, albeit a generation on, and shows the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the person of the deceased but obnoxious-from-beyond-the-grave Lord Harry Armstrong.  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening opens on the day of the reading of the late Lord Armstrong’s will at which his two brothers (twins) and his wife, Mercy (née Carstairs), are to be present.  It’s very clear that the Armstrongs’ seventeen year marriage was anything but happy, and that the deceased was cold, domineering and unkind, traits that became more pronounced as the years went by and Mercy failed give him the all-important son and heir. (Because of course it was her fault.)

Not content with being a domestic tyrant in life, however, Lord Armstrong has one last dig at his wife in the most appalling way, attaching a codicil to his will and insisting it be read aloud.  In it, he accuses her of having an “obstinate and determined failure to provide [him] with an heir” and denounces her as “a disgrace to the gentle sex… and not fit to be a wife.  Lady Mercy Armstrong is frigid.  Engage with her at your peril.”  Mercy knows very well that the new Lord Armstrong and his brother will waste no time in making sure their late brother’s words are reported in the press and about society, whose members will no doubt relish the opportunity to gossip and gloat to their heart’s content.

One year later, and Mercy is finally out of morning for the husband who oppressed and belittled her.  She’s spent the last year living quietly in the country with her brother Clement, a scholar, but has decided it’s time to get on with her life.  She’s realised the one of the reasons for her late husband’s spitefulness was because he wanted to make sure she spent the rest of her life alone as a form of revenge – but she’s determined to make the most of her new-found freedom and independence and most of all, have some fun.

A chance meeting with Jack Dalmuir, a successful Glaswegian engineer, seems as though it will offer Mercy just the opportunity she wants.  On the very day her morning ends, Mercy finds herself – somewhat tipsily and very uncharacteristically – sharing some of the details of her life and her husband’s cruelty, finding in Mr. Dalmuir a concerned and sympathetic listener who encourages her in her desire to make a fresh start.

“Enjoy yourself, kick over the traces a bit.  Do some of the things that you’ve always wanted to.”

More than that, he offers to help if he can, proposing to serve as her escort should she need one, and the pair make arrangements to meet again when they are both in London.

Marguerite Kaye is one of the few writers of historical romance around who regularly writes stories featuring non-titled heroes, instead opting to write about military men or men of business and enterprise, of which Jack Dalmuir is one.  He’s a self-made man who runs his own engineering firm, and he and Mercy meet when Jack is travelling to London in order to oversee the installation of the steam engines built by his company into two new water pumping stations.  He’s attractive, intelligent and has a clear life plan mapped out; he’s dedicated to his business and intends to remain so for some years yet before turning his attention to taking a wife – a strong, practical woman from a similar background to his own – and perhaps starting a family.

Jack and Mercy are both single and neither is in the least interested in marriage, so there can be no harm in their going on outings and spending time together.  They enjoy each other’s company and for Mercy, being with a man who does not seek to judge or oppress her is a revelation.  Yet there’s an undeniable attraction between them that’s impossible to deny, and as their association continues, both realise that they’re getting in deeper than they had ever intended.

As is always the case with a Marguerite Kaye book, her meticulous historical research shows itself in the way she so skilfully weaves interesting background detail throughout her stories. Here, we’re treated to descriptions of the London docks, a visit to a Holborn pie stall and to the Scottish countryside around Glasgow, and to discussion of how Jack’s innovations will help to transform lives.  The romance is beautifully written and the chemistry between Jack and Mercy is terrific, the focus firmly on their growing feelings for each other at the same time as Mercy, with Jack’s unwavering support and encouragement,  is growing into the confident, strong woman she was always meant to be.

I’m going to put this next part under a spoiler tag, as it’s a subject that’s come up around here a few times and something readers may appreciate knowing about in advance.

SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO READ –
In the last part of the book, Mercy, who has believed herself barren, discovers she’s pregnant.  It’s not a plot device I particularly like and I confess that when I realised this was the direction the book was taking, my heart sank.  BUT.  Consider sticking with it, because Ms. Kaye actually makes it work better than most.  She makes it clear just how ignorant Mercy was and how she’d been more or less browbeaten into believing her childlessness couldn’t possibly be her husband’s fault.  She doesn’t use the pregnancy as a convenient way to provide the book’s HEA, instead showing the protagonists working through their issues about marriage.  Mercy’s determination never to marry again is well cemented into the story and completely understandable, and the way she’s torn between wanting to preserve her independence and do the best for her child is well articulated.  She could leave town and have her baby somewhere nobody knows her, but she’s fully cognisant of the stigma that would be borne by her child should its illegitimacy be discovered, and also of how unfair it would be to Jack to deprive him of the opportunity to be part of his son or daughter’s life.  There’s also never any question of Mercy not telling Jack she’s pregnant; there are frayed tempers and a few harsh words between them at one point, but otherwise, they talk and act like the adults they are to work things out – and in doing so, to realise how much they really mean to each other.

I had a few niggles with the story, mostly relating to the way Mercy so easily talks to a perfect stranger about her marriage, but overall,  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening is an intelligently written, emotionally satisfying and sensual romance featuring two engaging protagonists who, while from opposite ends of the social spectrum, are perfect for one another.  I enjoyed it, and am happy to recommend it to anyone looking to read a well-researched historical romance that feels properly grounded in the period in which it is set.