Shelf Life (Hearts & Crafts #2) by Kelly Jensen

shelf life

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Good things come to those who bake.

Grayson used to love baking, but the recipe for running his parents’ café changes every day. His dad, overwhelmed by grief, is no help. They can’t even talk about Gray’s mom, let alone the failing business. Of less help is the crush Gray has on Sporty—a trainer from the local gym. Gray barely has time for his friends, let alone scratching the itch Sporty inspires.

Aaron suspects he’s not Gray’s type, meaning Gray probably isn’t into fitness, board games, or redheads. Still, that doesn’t stop Aaron visiting the café twice a week. The day Gray finally speaks to him personally could have been the start of something—if Gray hadn’t immediately suffered a heart attack.

The prescription for Gray’s recovery includes exercise, but when Aaron steps in to help, Gray is dubious. He’s never been fond of working out. The more he gets to know Aaron, though, the more they seem to have in common, especially when it comes to games. Aaron has been quietly designing his own, and when Gray shows interest, they embark on a quest to complete it together: a hero’s journey complicated by family, the demands of their careers, their fledgling relationship, and learning to be honest about what they want out of life.

Rating: B-

I really enjoyed Kelly Jensen’s Sundays With Oliver, book one in her Hearts and Crafts series. Like her This Time Forever series, Hearts and Crafts features older characters (well, in their forties) finding love, and she does it very well, creating characters and situations that feel very realistic, especially given she’s writing about people who have put down roots, who have commitments and the baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times. We met Grayson – Gray – Clery in Oliver’s book; he’s Oliver’s best friend, and he runs a small family bakery/coffee/sandwich shop that enabled him to help Oliver out when he was getting his own baking/consumables business going.

Gray moved back to Stroudsburg after the death of his mother two years earlier, to help his dad with the business, but his dad was – and is – so weighed down by his loss that he’s basically ’checked out’ and Gray has been doing everything. His real love is bread and baking, but having to deal with all the admin on top of the day-to-day business of preparing food and serving customers in a really busy shop has stretched him very thin and he has absolutely no time for himself. He’s stressed up to the eyeballs and hasn’t been feeling good for a while, but he’s ignored it, too busy to listen to what his body is telling him, until it forces him to, and he has a heart attack in the middle of the morning rush.

Aaron Asher is a personal trainer and fitness instructor at the local gym he co-owns with his sister and her wife. He’s a regular customer at Clery’s and has had a crush on Gray for quite a while, but Gray is always so busy, Aaron hasn’t managed to have an actual conversation beyond his sandwich order. He’s buying his lunch when he notices Gray doesn’t look so good; when Gray doubles over, Aaron manages to prevent him from crashing to the floor and then yells for someone to call 911.

While Grey is recovering from what he terms “All The FussTM, his friends rally round to help with the café and keep things going until Gray is well enough to return to it. He’s surpised to discover Aaron among their number; they don’t know each other at all really, although he can’t deny he’s noticed Aaron’s trim body, bright red hair and freckles whenever he’s come in for lunch, and likes what he sees. One afternoon just after closing, Gray finds Aaron still there clearing up, and surprises himself by inviting Aaron up to his apartment for a cup of coffee. Well, tea, as he’s supposed to be off the caffeine. As they chat, a little awkwardly at first, Gray starts to tell him about all the ‘rules’ he was given after leaving hospital, about the exercise he should be doing and about what he should and shouldn’t eat. This sort of thing is totally in Aaron’s wheelhouse, and he suggests that he could create an appropriate fitness program for Gray, one that will help him to build up his strength and stamina most efficiently while also being something to help him stay healthy in the long term. Gray is obviously a bit wary, but in the end agrees to give it a go.

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

A Very Merry Bromance (Bromance Book Club #5) by Lyssa Kay Adams (audiobook) – Narrated by Andrew Eiden

a very merry bromance

This title may be downloaded from Audible 

Country music’s golden boy Colton Wheeler felt the most perfect harmony when he was with Gretchen Winthrop. But for her, it was a love-him-and-leave-him situation. A year later, Colton is struggling to push his music forward in a new direction. If it weren’t about to be the most magical time of year and the support of the Bromance Book Club, he’d be wallowing in self-pity.

It’s hard for immigration attorney Gretchen not to feel a little Scrooge-ish about the excess of Christmas when her clients are scrambling to afford their rent. So when her estranged, wealthy family reaches out with an offer that will allow her to better serve the community, she’s unable to say no. She just needs to convince Colton to be the new face of her family’s whiskey brand. No big deal….

Colton agrees to consider Gretchen’s offer in exchange for three dates before Christmas. With the help of the Bromance Book Club, Colton throws himself into the task of proving to her there’s a spark between them. But Gretchen and Colton will both need to overcome the ghosts of Christmas past to build a future together.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

The guys of the Bromance Book Club take us into the festive season with A Very Merry Bromance, book five in the series, and the romance between country music star Colton Wheeler and prickly lawyer Gretchen Winthrop, a grumpy/sunshine pairing with a bit of Scrooge-y Bah! Humbug! thrown in for good measure.

Gretchen was born into one of Tennessee’s wealthiest families, but growing up in the lap of luxury was no substitute for having a family who loved and cared about her. Her father was always buried in work, her mother was more concerned with how things looked than being a good mother and her brother was… well, the less said about him, the better. She was expected to join the family business, but instead, set up her own immigration law practice – something her family still regards as a fad, even though she’s been running it for over a decade. Christmas was always a big disappointment – her mother hired people to decorate the house and install a tree and gifts were purchased by flunkeys – and after so many years of enduring something fake and cold, she decided not to bother with it. She’s estranged from her family, doesn’t have many friends and dislikes the over the top consumerism of the holiday period, preferring to keep working to help those who are far more disadvantaged than herself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

when love is blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Dreams have been dashed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(highlight to read) he regains his sight

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

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

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

Subway Slayings (Memento Mori #2) by C.S. Poe

subway slayings

This title may be purhased from Amazon

Detective Everett Larkin of New York City’s Cold Case Squad has been on medical leave since catching the serial killer responsible for what the media has dubbed the “Death Mask Murders.” But Larkin hasn’t forgotten that another memento—another death—is waiting to be found.

Summer brings the grisly discovery of human remains in the subway system, but the clues point to one of Larkin’s already-open cases, so he resumes active duty. And when a postmortem photograph, akin to those taken during the Victorian Era, is located at the scene, Larkin requests aid from the most qualified man he knows: Detective Ira Doyle of the Forensic Artists Unit.

An unsolved case that suffered from tunnel vision, as well as the deconstruction of death portraits, leads Larkin and Doyle down a rabbit hole more complex than the tunnels beneath Manhattan. And if this investigation isn’t enough, both are struggling with how to address the growing intimacy between them. Because sometimes, love is more grave than murder.

Rating: A+

Clever, insightful, romantic and utterly compelling, Madison Square Murders, the first book in C.S. Poe’s Momento Mori series, was one of my favourite books of 2021. I’ve been on tenterhooks awaiting the release of the sequel, desperately hoping that lightning would strike in the same place twice – and I’m happy to say that it did, because Subway Slayings is every bit as good as – if not even better than – its predecessor. If you like the sound of the combination of brilliant, tautly-plotted mystery and delicious slow-burn romance, this is the series for you – but while the mysteries in each book are solved, there’s an overarching plotline developing and the relationship is ongoing, so make sure to start at the beginning!

Detective Everett Larkin of the Cold Case Squad has been on medical leave to recuperate from the broken arm sustained in an attack by the ‘Death Mask Killer’ at the end of Madison Square Murders. While he was in hospital waiting for surgery, he received a packet containing an old subway token and a note, its message spelled out in cut and pasted letters (like those old blackmail notes you see in the movies!) I HAVE A BETTER MEMENTO FOR YOU. COME FIND ME.”

On the nineteenth of May, exactly fifty-nine days later (because of course, Larkin would know that) and one day before he’s due to resume active duty, Larkin is called to the Fifty-Seventh Street subway station after a decomposing body is found, stuffed in a blue IKEA tote bag, in a utility closet on the platform. He’s not sure why he’s been called when this is clearly a recent homicide, but his questions are answered when the CSU detective passes him an evidence bag containing a photograph of a teenaged girl, slumped awkwardly on one of the oak benches scattered throughout the subway system. The girl appears to be asleep – or drunk or stoned – and the photo itself looks like something that would have been developed thirty or forty years ago. The real kicker, though, is what’s scrawled across the back: “Deliver me to Detective Larkin.”

After escaping the oppressive heat and awful smells down in the tunnels, but not so easily escaping the many and relentless associations – of both his own past and of the many unsolved murders his HSAM won’t let him forget – Larkin calls in expert help in the form of Ira Doyle of the Forensic Artist Unit, who confirms Larkin’s suspicions about the age of the photo but also realises something else. The girl on the bench isn’t asleep. She’s dead. And later that evening, Larkin makes an important connection with one of the cold cases that haunts him almost more than any other, the murder, on the nineteenth of May 1997, of eighteen-year-old Marco Garcia who was pushed in front of a train… at the Fifty-Seventh Street station.

“Today is the twenty-third anniversary of Marco’s death. Once is chance. Twice is coincidence.” Larkin looked up and finished with “Three time’s a pattern.”

The mystery element of Subway Slayings is clever, meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating, but it’s disturbing, too, because as Larkin and Doyle dig deeper, their discoveries lead them to more victims, all of them from one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and to a truly despicable network of people who are only too willing to exploit them. (Please note – there is nothing graphic on page, but crimes against children and young people are central to the plot.)

At the same time as the author is building her intricate mystery, she’s also presenting us with some of the most amazing  character and relationship development I think I’ve ever read. We’ve already seen how Larkin’s HSAM (hyper superior autobiographical memory) affects him in every aspect of his life; how he can become hyper focused, how difficult it is for him to remember small, day-to-day details that cause no problem for most of us, how hard he finds social interaction, how his condition makes him an embarrassment to some (his parents and soon-to-be-ex husband) or a fascinating curiosity (his doctor) – while not one of them either cares or wants to know what it’s really like to live with a brain that can never forget or switch off. How in the eighteen years since the traumatic brain injury that caused it, nobody has ever asked if he’s okay. Nobody – until now. Until Ira Doyle.

“… in eighteen years, I’ve never been happy having HSAM. Until now. Because I don’t ever want to forget how you make me feel.”

Their romantic relationship is the slowest – and sweetest – of slow burns, but it’s absolutely perfect for who these people are and where they are in their lives. They don’t do more than kiss on the page, but their chemistry is such that it feels as steamy as a full-on sex scene, and their strong emotional connection is intense and totally believable. If ever a couple deserved the label ‘soulmates’, it’s this one. Right from the start, Doyle has recognised in Larkin something to be cherished and cared for, and the way he does both those things, his patience and simple, undemanding acceptance of Larkin and everything he is, is an utter joy to read. Doyle is one of those people whose presesnce and smile can light up a room; he’s warm and charming and funny – and very, very good at what he does, with an innate ability to put people at their ease and encourage confidences in a way Larkin can never do. There were hints in the previous book, though, that there’s a lot of grief and pain lying behind that equanimous exterior, and in this one, this finally clicks into place for Larkin, and he realises that this man he’s coming to care for a very great deal – maybe even to love – is still sometihng of a mystery to him.

For being such a decorated officer, Larkin really was a piss-poor detective when it came to understanding the one man, potentially the only man, who’d come to matter.

There is an incredibly insightful passage – too long to quote here in full – in which Larkin thinks about the way contemporary society views death, especially the death of children (Doyle lost his daughter, Abigail, some years earlier – we still don’t know what happened), how people just don’t ask, or don’t listen to those who are grieving, because they can’t handle it – and realises just how deeply Doyle’s hurt must run, that his constant activity and congenial, sunshiny demeanour are covering up a broken heart.

When they’d all turned their backs, because a child’s wake was too much to see, a father’s cries too difficult to hear, there’d been no one left to listen.

The funeral pall had been draped.

The mourning veil lowered.

And Ira Doyle had become… a mystery.

My heart broke a little, then, too. In fact, it broke a little several times while I was reading this book; I was completely and utterly floored by the degree of emotional intelligence and pinpoint insight that leaps from its pages in a way that is absolutely consistent with its characters and their situation. This isn’t authorial pontificating or info-dumping, it’s focused and woven into the very fabric of who these men are – broken, but doing the best they can in a world that doesn’t really understand them – or want to.

For all the darkness of the mystery and the exploration of grief and loss, Subway Slayings is certainly not without its lighter moments. Doyle’s gentle sense of humour, Larkin’s deadpan snark and their good-natured banter are much in evidence, and their quiet moments together – some of Larkin’s thoughts about Doyle are achingly beautiful – really are food for the heart and soul.

The Memento Mori series is shaping up to become one of my favourite series ever. The plots are clever and complex with lots of moving parts that C.S. Poe skilfully corrals into something gripping and cohesive, the two leads are damaged and intensely loveable and their evolving relationship is a thing of beauty.

Subway Slayings left me with the best kind of book hangover and goes straight on to the keeper shelf – it will undoubtedly be making an appearance on my Best of 2022 list. Book three, Broadway Butchery, is set for release in Spring 2023; I’ll be counting the days.

You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince by Timothy Janovsky

you're a mean one matthew prince

This title may be purchased from Amazon

BRING A LITTLE JOY TO THE WORLD? NOT TODAY, SANTA.

Matthew Prince is young, rich, and thoroughly spoiled. So what if his parents barely remember he exists and the press is totally obsessed with him? He’s on top of the world. But one major PR misstep later, and Matthew is cut off and shipped away to spend the holidays in his grandparents’ charming small town hellscape. Population: who cares?

It’s bad enough he’s stuck in some festive winter wonderland—it’s even worse that he has to share space with Hector Martinez, an obnoxiously attractive local who’s unimpressed with anything and everything Matthew does.

Just when it looks like the holiday season is bringing nothing but heated squabbles, the charity gala loses its coordinator and Matthew steps in as a saintly act to get home early on good behavior…with Hector as his maddening plus-one. But even a Grinch can’t resist the unexpected joy of found family, and in the end, the forced proximity and infectious holiday cheer might be enough to make a lonely Prince’s heart grow three sizes this year.

Rating: B-

Timothy Janovsky’s You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince is one of those fish-out-of-water stories wherein a spoiled brat is sent away to some backwater they wouldn’t normally set one toe of their Louboutins in and finds meaning, purpose, and often, love as well. It’s a story we’re all read hundreds of times before (and as this one is set around the Christmas period, there are plenty of very obvious references to the most famous meanie-finds-humanity tale of all time), but while the story is decently executed and the characters are likeable, it doesn’t really have anything that sets it apart from the other gazillion stories that employ the same theme.

Twenty-one-year-old Matthew Prince has it all – good-looks, wealth and internet fame thanks to the regularity with which his antics end up on the gossip sites. His latest – the impulsive purchase of an island (yes, you read that right) following a recent break up has finally brought his parents to say enough is enough and put their collective foot down. To prevent a possible PR disaster, he’s sent to spend a month with his maternal grandparents at their cabin in Wind River in downright stifling, middle-of-nowhere western Massachusetts. And as if things aren’t bad enough, he learns he’s to be sharing a room – with bunk beds, no less – with Hector Martinez, a former student of his grandfather’s, to whom he offered temporary accommodation when it looked like Hector wasn’t going to be able to afford to finish college.

Matthew certainly appreciates the eye candy, but it becomes quickly apparent that the down-to-earth Hector is not the slightest bit impressed or awed by Matthew.

“For someone whose last name is Prince, you’re not very charming.”

He’s not used to being so easily dismissed, but then realises it doesn’t matter, because he’s already plotting ways to get back to NYC in time to throw his famous New Year’s Eve bash alongside his bestie, Bentley. But when his plan to sneak away is foiled – by Hector, no less – Matthew realises he’s stuck there until he does what his parents have sent him there to do – grow up and prove to them that he can behave like a responsible adult. The perfect opportunity to do just that presents itself when the organiser of the town’s annual charity gala is unable to undertake the job due to illness. When his grandmother suggests that perhaps Matthew should lend a hand, he just about manages to conceal his horror at the idea of becoming involved in what is undoubtedly the sort of thing he would never (normally) be seen dead at – until Hector subtly reminds him of something he’d rather his grandparents didn’t know about (his plan to go to spend his time in Wind River at the local hotel instead of staying with them.) Matthew decides he’ll pitch in and plan the gala – after all, planning parties is his ‘thing’ (he even copes with his anxiety attacks by planning events in his head) – but first, he’s got to switch gears and plan something that the people of the town will like, rather than something he thinks they should like.

Thankfully, Hector is on hand to point Matthew in the right direction and soon Matthew finds himself starting to enjoy making connections with the townsfolk and, for the first time in many years, enjoying the Christmas season. He’d always loved that time of year as a kid, but by the time he was thirteen, the joy had been sucked out of it, replaced by false sentiment and illusions of family togetherness – and expensive gifts that were somehow supposed to make up for the loss. It’s been a long time since he’s let himself feel anything approaching his youthful love for the season, but working on the gala with Hector alongside him – having a silly Christmas cookie baking competition and debating the merits of the various Christmas movies (the Muppets win every time!) – helps Matthew begin to find the comfort and joy he thought he’d lost. Along the way, he gets to know himself, too, learning who Matthew Prince is and what he could become away from the city, the wealth, the labels and the fair-weather friends.

Matthew is likeable despite his initial snobbishness, because the author does a good job of balancing the bratty attitude and behaviour with a good sense of humour and hints that behind the glitz, glamour and designer clothes, he’s struggling. His GAD (general anxiety disorder) is sensitively and realistically portrayed and the author skilfully explores what it’s like to be someone in the public eye and media spotlight simply because your parents are famous – and to be the child of parents who have little time for you – so that it’s easy to feel sympathy for Matthew and root for him to find his way through all the crap in his life to find happiness.

The festive, small town setting is well done, and the secondary characters are all nicely rounded – even Matthew’s parents, who are never demonised, instead coming across as flawed people who have made poor choices. That said, Matthew’s mother does something inexcusable in the last part of the story – and even though it’s clearly born of fear, it’s tough to get past.

Matthew’s romance with Hector is cute, and I liked how supportive Hector is once they get past that initial antagonistic phase, but the romance does play second fiddle to Matthew’s journey. Hector is a great guy – he’s funny, compassionate, sexy and sweet – but the story is more about Matthew growing up, learning to take responsibility for himself and his life and breaking out of the patterns he’s fallen into. (The couple of sex scenes barely require the ‘warm’ rating, by the way.)

I had a bit of trouble grading this one, mostly because I suspect I’m not really the target audience for a book like this, and so, while it has a lot going for it, for me, it hits that ‘just above average, but seen it all before’ area. The writing is strong, Matthew’s internal dialogue is a great mixture of poignant and funny, and his character growth is easy to follow, but the middle of the book is a bit slow and the Crisis Moment in the last section feels contrived and obvious.

In the end, there’s nothing actually wrong with You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince – it’s cute and fluffy and full of Christmas cheer (extra Brownie points for two characters bonding over a love of The Muppet Christmas Carol) but it didn’t wow me or have anything really new to offer. It’s a head/heart thing; I can see perfectly well that there’s a lot about the book that some people will absolutely love – but I wasn’t feeling it, which is why I’ve ended up giving it a B-. It might not be something I feel I can recommend to readers who have similar tastes to mine – but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will enjoy it more than I did.

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

trailer part trickster

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sailor’s Delight by Rose Lerner

sailor's delight

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Self-effacing, overworked bookkeeper Elie Benezet doesn’t have time to be in love. Too bad he already is—with his favorite client, Augustus Brine. The Royal Navy sailing master is kind, handsome, and breathtakingly competent. He’s also engaged to his childhood sweetheart. And now that his prize money is coming in after years of delay, he can afford to marry her…once Elie submits the final prize paperwork.

When Augustus comes home, determined to marry by the end of his brief leave, Elie does his best to set his broken heart aside and make it happen. But he’s interrupted by one thing after another: other clients, the high holidays, his family’s relentless efforts to marry him off. Augustus isn’t helping by renting a room down the hall, shaving shirtless with his door open, and inviting Elie to the public baths. If Elie didn’t know better, he’d think Augustus didn’t want to get married.

To cap it all off, Augustus’s fiancée arrives in town, senses that Elie has a secret, and promptly accuses him of embezzling. Has Elie’s doom been sealed…or is there still time to change his fate?

Rating: B-

I’ve read and positively reviewed several of Rose Lerner’s historical romances here, so I was excited when I saw that she had a new m/m historical coming out and eagerly snapped up a review copy. Sailor’s Delight is loosely linked by character to The Woman in the Attic, but it doesn’t share any storylines, so can absolutely be read as a standalone.

Eleazar Benezet is a Navy Agent – a job which involves looking after the financial and legal affairs of naval men and officers while they’re away at sea. Among his numerous clients is sailing master Augustus Brine, whom Elie has known for more than a decade… and been sweet on for just as long. When the book opens, Elie is surprised and delighted to learn that Brine’s ship has docked a couple of weeks early and that he will be coming ashore for the first time in two years; Elie is eager to see him, but also dreads it, because he knows that Brine is planning to marry the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for several years during this period of shore leave. The wedding will take place as soon as Brine can afford it, which will be once he receives his share of the prize money from the Vliegende Draeck, a Dutch merchant ship captured in 1809, but which, thanks to various court appeals, has yet to be paid. Now, however, the court cases are over and it’s simply a matter of finalising the accounts – which Elie has been putting off doing for weeks.

Elie knows he should have finished by now and that it shouldn’t have taken him this long, but… Brine’s marriage will likely mean the end of their close friendship, and Elie can’t deny that part of the reason for the delay is simply his own selfishness at wanting to have Brine as his client and friend for a bit longer, and to continue to dream about the possibility of something he knows is never going to happen. But he is going to procrastinate no longer. Rosh Hashanah is over and the Days of Awe are beginning, so it’s the perfect time to make amends for the wrong he has done Brine in failing to move the matter forward in a more expeditious manner.

Elie and Brine are tw of the nicest men you could ever meet – they’re sweet but totally clueless! Elie is the sole PoV character, so we only see Brine through his eyes, and the author does a good job of showing the reader lots of little things that Elie doesn’t see that make it clear that Brine is equally smitten (such as the fact he’s clearly studied the customs of and pays attention to the observances of Elie’s Jewish faith). Despite that, however, I never really connected with Brine as I did with Elie.

This book has a lot going for it. The detail of Elie’s job is fascinating and the elements of Jewish culture are deeply and skilfully embedded into the story; I liked the way the passing of time is marked by the use of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, and by the various wardroom toasts at the head of each chapter. I enjoyed spending time with Elie’s large and loving family, and I was impressed with the subtle but impactful way in which the author tackles the issue of the anti-semitism Elie faces. But the romance is a bit lacklustre, mostly because the mutual pining and Elie’s obliviousness about Brine’s true feelings (and vice versa) goes on for too long, and so much of the story is concerned with Elie’s guilt over procrastinating about the prize money and his determination to make amends.

I appreciated the way Ms. Lerner counters stereotypes in the characterisation of Brine’s fiancée, Sarah Turner. Her arrival in Portsmouth certainly complicates matters and causes an even greater degree of misunderstanding between Elie and Brine, but I liked her; she’s a no-nonsense, independent woman who clearly has Brine’s best interests at heart – and has known for a while that those interests do not lie with her. Yet Elie and Brine are continually at cross-purposes and can’t seem to have a proper conversation about her. Brine feels duty-bound to marry Sarah because she looked after his parents before they died; Elie is sure Brine wants to marry Sarah and tries hard to assure her of that fact, even as it kills him to do so. It takes so long for Elie and Brine to have an honest conversation that I was beginning to wonder whether it would happen at all; this is a long-ish novella, coming in at around two hundred pages, but the confessions of love don’t come until the final chapter, and it’s rushed and doesn’t deliver the kind of emotional satisfaction I want from an HEA.

If you’re looking for a low-angst, incredibly well-researched historical romance featuring an engaging, realistic principal character and lots and lots of pining, Sailor’s Delight could well be the book for you. But for me, even though I thoroughly appreciated the informative and well-crafted historical backdrop and the way the story is so firmly grounded in Jewish customs and culture, it was a little bit too low-key.

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