Rank & File (Anchor Point #4) by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

rank and file

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Senior Chief Will Curtis is as straitlaced as they come. While his fellow Sailors have partied their way through their enlistments, he’s had his eye on the prize – making master chief and retiring after 30 years of service.

Lieutenant Brent Jameson is a Navy brat turned Annapolis grad. He’s lived and breathed the military his whole life, and he knows he’s destined for great things – once he’s done paying his dues at the bottom of the ladder.

When their paths cross, both men know better than to give in to temptation, but that doesn’t stop them. It also doesn’t keep them from coming back for more, even though being discovered would sink their careers. Something has to give – Will can retire, Brent can resign, or they’ll both face court-martial.

But there’s also the option neither wants to acknowledge: jump ship and walk away from each other instead of ending their careers over a fledgling relationship. And they should probably decide before they fall in love.

Except – too late.

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – B+

I really like that the stories in the Anchor Point series all take an in-depth look at the various problems that can face those in long-term military service and that (so far) no two stories have been the same.  In this one, we’ve got a forbidden romance between an older, career enlisted Master at Arms (a Senior Chief), and a younger Lieutenant – when officer/enlisted “fraternisation” is strictly against the rules.

The two leads first meet when Will Curtis and some of his MAs are called to a domestic dispute; he arrives to find a heated situation between a husband, wife and another man, and fortunately is able to de-escalate the situation before it becomes more serious.  Lt. Brent Jameson is the other man in the situation; he met the woman on a hook-up app and had no idea she was married – which he admits later was pretty dumb of him.  Will gets him home and that’s that – except that he can’t stop thinking about the younger man, even though he’s obviously straight.

Around a year earlier, Will got out of a long-term relationship with a guy who cheated on him, and he hasn’t been interested in anyone since; deciding to get out of his funk (and to try to divert his thoughts from Brent Jameson), he goes out to the nearest thing Anchor Point has to a gay bar looking to hook-up… and who should he see there but the object of more than a few of his recent night-time fantasies.

Brent (who is bi) hadn’t been able to get Will out of his head either and he’s just as surprised to see the supposedly straight MA at a gay bar as vice-versa.  They both know it’s incredibly stupid, but the intense attraction between them is undeniable and leads to an equally intense fuck in the bathroom.  They then head back to Brent’s place to do it all over again… and realising that sex like that doesn’t come along very often, they decide to risk seeing each other again.

L.A. Witt writes sex scenes incredibly well – and there are a lot of them here, which serve to show just how sexually compatible (and combustible!) Will and Brent are, and why they keep coming back for more despite the very real risk they’re running.  But she also does a great job showing the development of an actual relationship between them and their growing feelings for one another outside the bedroom.  Of course, they’re not going to be able to continue to sneak around for ever and are bound to get caught; they both know this and think they really should stop seeing each other before they get in too deep.  The trouble is they only see that line in the sand once it’s way back in the rear-view mirror.

The dilemmas that face Brent and Will are very real and the consequences they could incur if caught are potentially career-ending. Will is career military and having served nineteen years, plans to stay in until the thirty year mark; Brent on the other hand was brought up living and breathing the Navy – his father served and so does his older brother – and was never really allowed to explore any other options for his future.  Nine years in, he’s not feeling it and tells himself that’s due to the fact that he’s still at the bottom of the ladder, and that things will get better as he starts to climb through the ranks.  But the longer he’s involved with Will, the more he starts to question that belief; and only when he finally realises what it feels like to actually want something for himself is he finally able to distinguish between what he wants and what others want for him; and I loved the way he handled the situation in every respect.

I’ve been dipping in and out of this series – I’ve listened to books 1-5 so far and plan to finish it – but Rank and File is possibly my favourite of the series so far.  Nick J. Russo does a great job with the narration; he always provides clear, distinct voices for the main characters, and differentiates well between the secondary characters, providing believable female voices when needed.  He’s extremely good in the sex-scenes as well; he doesn’t hold back but neither does he go stupidly over the top, which is important in a book like this where there’s such a lot of it!

A solid 4/4.5 stars for the story, and 4.5/5 for the narration.

TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR Challenge: Lady With a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh

lady with a black umbrella

 

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Giles Fairhaven, Viscount Kincade, does not believe his life can get much worse after his purse is stolen at an inn before he has paid his bill and when he is set upon by three ruffians in the inn yard before he can leave.

But it does grow worse when a little slip of a lady, clad only in a flannel nightgown and wielding a large black man’s umbrella, comes to his rescue and puts his assailants to rout and then–after he has left–pays his reckoning at the inn, plus the money he lost the evening before in a card game with a fellow guest, plus what he owed the barmaid with whom he spent the night. The ensuing gossip is almost too much humiliation for Giles to bear.

Yet when he finds and confronts Daisy Morrison in London, far from being cowed by his displeasure, she declares with sunny good nature that if he insists upon repaying the slight favour she was able to do for him, then he can recommend a lady sponsor to her so that she may find a husband for her younger sister among the gentlemen of the ton. Inexplicably, Giles finds himself agreeing. His troubles are only just beginning…

Rating: B-

For this month’s “Old School” prompt, I went back to 1989 and a recently (digitally) re-issued golden oldie from Mary Balogh. “Light”, “fluffy” and “farcical” aren’t words one might readily associate with this author these days, as most of her recent books (and many of her earlier ones) are quiet and introspective, often dealing with darker themes and featuring characters with complex emotional problems and baggage – which makes Lady With a Black Umbrella, with its comedic grumpy/sunshine romance and overall air of whimsy something a little different from the rest of her oeuvre.

Giles Fairhaven, Viscount Kincade, has stopped at an inn overnight to break his journey to Bath – where he’s headed in order to escort his parents back to London. In the morning however, he is unable to pay his bill (or the willing barmaid who kept him company for most of the night, or the gambling debt he accrued playing another guest at cards) because he finds that his purse has been stolen. With no alternative but to return to London so he can make arrangements to send payment to the innkeeper, he is getting ready to leave when he is set upon by three thugs.

Fortunately –or unfortunately, as he later counts it – his situation has been witnessed from an upstairs window by a young woman who refuses to stand by and watch such an unfair fight, and who rushes to his aid dressed only in a nightgown, wielding a hefty black umbrella with which she alternately beats and stabs at Kincade’s assailants. The men leave, and the viscount offers a curt thank-you and goes on his way.

Sensible, forthright, twenty-five-year-old Daisy Morrison has been running her parents’ household – and pretty much anything else that comes into her orbit – for years. Declaring herself a confirmed spinster with no intention of marrying (because she would “run” her husband – “And I do not think I could bear being married to a man who would allow himself to be dominated by me.” ) she is quite content to settle into the role of on-the-shelf chaperone, and has decided that her beautiful younger sister Rose should have a Season to find herself a husband. Rose is not particularly enthusiastic about the idea; she would much prefer a quiet life in the country – but trying to oppose Daisy is like trying to will the tide not to come in… so to London she will go.

Before they leave the inn, Daisy takes care to give the innkeeper a piece of her mind about what happened to Viscount Kincade, and then proceeds to pay his bill, his gambling debt and for his… er… entertainment the night before. After she and Rose have left, it emerges that the theft of the viscount’s purse was no accident; someone wanted to stop him getting to Bath – and is out to make life as unpleasant for him as possible. When Giles returns to town to find it awash with gossip about the fact that his debts were paid by a young woman – and that she also paid the barmaid – he’s equal parts furious and humiliated.

Daisy and Rose (who are, incidentally, the obscenely wealthy daughters of a baron who made a fortune in coal) arrive in London only to find that the relatives they had planned to stay with are out of the country (Daisy didn’t check in advance!) and so instead they head to the Pulteney Hotel while Daisy works out what to do. She is, at the advanced age of twenty-five, perfectly capable of acting as Rose’s chaperone, but without her aunt and uncle around to make the necessary introductions, Rose won’t be able to go anywhere where chaperonage would be needed.

Oops.

But Daisy is undaunted. And soon, her refusal to give up and go home pays off when, on a walk in the park, she spots the very man she had saved from a severe beating. He’s a viscount, so surely he must know a respectable female who could help introduce Rose into society?

Well, no prizes for guessing how this is going to go. I have to admit that Daisy isn’t my favourite type of heroine, but the author makes her so endearing here that it’s impossible not to like her, and I appreciated that her managing tendencies are well-grounded in her backstory. She’s is one of those characters with no brain-to-mouth filter most of the time and who doesn’t always look before she leaps but has the best of intentions and a genuine desire to help everyone and for everyone to be happy. Yes, she’s naïve, but she’s also like a breath of fresh air to Giles – who wants to throttle her or kiss her and isn’t sure which, half the time. (The number of times he imagines himself putting his hands around her neck is somewhat troubling though!). Daisy gets into scrapes constantly – leaping from the carriage to rescue a dog, berating a gentleman for trying to cheat a prostitute – and Giles dislikes her intensely. Except he doesn’t of course, eventually coming to realise that her lack of concern for the proprieties isn’t because she doesn’t know about them, but because she cares more about helping people than being correct. Daisy is improper and completely exhausting, yet somehow, Giles can’t help admiring her bravery and spirit and enjoying the time they spend together.

There’s a nice little sub-plot about Giles’ younger sister who believes herself in love with a most unsuitable swain, and a secondary romance for Rose; it’s all tightly written and moves along at quite a clip, and the author does a good job with the romance, clearly showing the growing affection between Daisy and Giles. Lady With a Black Umbrella isn’t going to win any awards for originality (it wouldn’t have, even back in 1989), but it’s a frothy confection of warmth, humour and silliness and an all-round fun read.

My Lady Quicksilver (London Steampunk #3) by Bec McMaster


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Determined to destroy the Echelon she despises, Rosalind Fairchild is on seemingly easy mission. Get in. Uncover the secrets of her brother’s disappearance. And get out.

In order to infiltrate the Nighthawks and find their leader, Blue Blooded Sir Jasper Lynch, Rosalind will pose as their secretary. A dangerous mission, but Rosalind is also the elusive Mercury, a leader in the humanist movement.

But she doesn’t count on Lynch being such a dangerously charismatic man, challenging her at every turn, forcing her to re-evaluate everything she knows about the enemy. He could be her most dangerous nemesis-or the ally she never dreamed existed.

Rating: A-

Somehow, I read Of Silk and Steam, the final book in Bec McMaster’s fabulous London Steampunk series first, then moved onto the Blue Blood Conspiracy series, so thanks to the TBR Challenge, I’ve been slowly catching up with the books I missed.  My Lady Quicksilver is book three and is every bit as good as those that preceded it, boasting a tightly-written story with plenty of intrigue and high-stakes action, a steamy antagonists-to-lovers romance, excellent world-building and a strongly drawn set of central and secondary characters.

While each book could be read as a standalone (the central storyline and romance are concluded in each book), there’s an overarching plotline that runs throughout the series, so I’d advise starting at the beginning with Kiss of Steel.  There will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

Sir Jasper Lynch, Master of the Nighthawks – London’s (sort of) police force, which is made up of rogue blue bloods (those not of the nobility who became accidentally infected with the craving virus) – has been given just three weeks to track down and arrest the mysterious Mercury, the leader of the humanist movement believed responsible for the recent bombing of the Ivory Tower, the seat of the Echelon’s power.  With two weeks left until the deadline – and knowing that the price of failure to deliver will be his life – Lynch has very little to go on, until he connects rumours of a smuggling operation with the humanist movement, and makes plans to intercept the next shipment.  On a dank, foggy night down by the river, he and his team await their moment to strike – but they’re spotted and all hell breaks loose.  During the fight, Lynch almost captures Mercury – who escapes into the enclaves beyond the city walls.  The enclaves are dangerous places – especially for a blue blood – but he follows anyway and quickly corners his quarry and makes a startling discovery.  Mercury is a woman.  A woman who attracts him and repels him in equal measure.  They circle each other metaphorically, testing each other’s mettle with the thrust and parry of their conversation until, after sharing a heated kiss, Mercury sticks Lynch with a hemlock dart and disappears.

Rosalind Fairchild took on the mantle of the humanist cause espoused by her late husband after his death some eight years previously and her secret identity is known only to a select few.  She was not, in fact, responsible for the bombing at the Ivory Tower;  a breakaway faction of mechs planned and executed it and Rosa tried to prevent it, to no avail.  Her main concern now, though, is her younger brother Jeremy, who was duped by Mordecai, the mechs’ leader, into delivering the bomb.  Rosa doesn’t know if Jeremy is dead or alive and is desperate to find out – and she decides the best way to get the information she needs is by taking a position as secretary to Sir Jasper Lynch at the HQ of the Nighthawks.  She presents herself at Lynch’s office as Mrs. Marberry and talks her way into the job – her no nonsense manner, her gumption and her ability to look him in the eye (not to mention her pretty face and soft curves) convincing him to give her the position on a trial basis.

Searching for Mercury isn’t Lynch’s only priority. The recent gruesome murders of two blueblood families – by a family member seemingly gone beserk – are mystifying and completely random, and Lynch has no real clues to go on.

The plot is engaging and well-executed as is the romance between Lynch and Rosa which is full of the sizzling sexual tension Bec McMaster writes so well.  Lynch is another of her swoonworthy heroes; handsome (of course!), honourable, intelligent and tightly controlled, he comes across as somewhat cold at first, but is gradually revealed to have a dry sense of humour and a vulnerability he keeps ruthlessly hidden.  Rosa’s backstory is heartbreaking; she and her brothers lived on the streets for a while after their mother (a thrall) died, until she was taken in and trained as an assassin and spy by her father, the evil Lord Balfour.  In the eight years since the death of her husband, Rosa has never looked at another man – she just hasn’t been interested – and her attraction to Lynch infuriates her.  She hates blue bloods and he, as the Master of the Nighthawks, answerable to the  even more hated Prince Consort, is the worst of the lot. But as she works alongside Lynch as Mrs Marberry, Rosa begins to see a different side to him and to see him as a man of compassion, with emotions he works hard to keep at bay.  She realises that she’s been wrong in tarring all blue bloods with the same brush and that some of them are actually capable and desirous of doing good.

The author sets up the conflict early on, and then drip-feeds information about the characters and their backstories, slowly revealing the truth about these two flawed and damaged characters, their loneliness, their guilt and their determination to do what they believe to be right.  The sparks fly between Lynch and Rosa right from the start; it’s an attraction neither of them wants or can afford, but it won’t go away, no matter how hard they try to ignore it.  The staid and principled Lynch is very much in lust with Mercury, but is also falling for Mrs Mayberry; he struggles with the fact he’s attracted to two women, while Rosa is unable to resist him, even though she knows she’s heading for trouble.

My Lady Quicksilver is another gripping read in what is one of the best series of paranormal romances of recent years. Lynch and Rosa are fully-formed, three-dimensional individuals with flaws and insecurities who, despite their difficult pasts, have grown into strong, determined individuals who will do whatever they must in pursuit of their goals.  The sexual chemistry between them burns up the pages, the banter is excellent and the romance is both tender and sexy as hell (chess, anyone?! Phew!)

If you haven’t read this series yet, then do yourself a favour and get started.  You can thank me later 😉

Quickie Reviews #5

I always mean to do these more regularly but… you know, life. Anyway, like many people right now, I’ve got a bit of extra time on my hands, so I’ve pulled together short reviews of a bunch of books and audiobooks I’ve read and listened to over the past few months but haven’t written full-length reviews for. If you’re looking for a read or listen to keep you company over the next few weeks, maybe you’ll find some inspiration here.


Two Man Station by Lisa Henry

Gio Valeri is a big-city police officer who’s been transferred to the small outback town of Richmond with his professional reputation in tatters. His transfer is a punishment, and Gio just wants to keep his head down and survive the next two years. No more mistakes. No more complications.

Except Gio isn’t counting on Jason Quinn.

Jason Quinn, officer in charge of Richmond Station, is a single dad struggling with balancing the demands of shift work with the challenges of raising his son. The last thing he needs is a new senior constable with a history of destroying other people’s careers. But, like it or not, Jason has to work with Gio.

In a remote two-man station hours away from the next town, Gio and Jason have to learn to trust and rely on each another. Close quarters and a growing attraction mean that the lines between professional and personal are blurring. And even in Richmond, being a copper can be dangerous enough without risking their hearts as well.

Rating: B

With two cops as leads, I’d thought this might be more of a mystery/suspense story, but it isn’t; rather it’s a fish-out-of-water tale as a disgraced big city cop relocates to a small rural community and discovers that policing there is very different to the sort of thing he’s used to. Lisa Henry evokes the small town/back of beyond atmosphere really well – although this town isn’t at all small really; Jason and Gio’s “beat” covers a massive area, but it doesn’t boast all that many inhabitants.

Amid the series of vignettes as to the various disputes the pair are called upon to work through is the relationship that gradually grows between them. They get off to a rocky start because of what Jason has heard about Gio’s reason for relocating (that he was an informant who got another officer dismissed from his job), but as they work together and get to know each other, Jason starts to wonder if that’s the whole story. (Of course, it isn’t).

Jason is a widower with a ten-year-old son, and is only just realising that he really needs to make proper childcare arrangements. Before, his two neighbours – a young couple with kids of their own – would always pick up the slack and were happy to help out when Jason had to answer a call at night or worked long shifts – but now they’ve moved away, he’s struggling to reconcile the demands of the job with his job as a father.

The slower pacing works and I enjoyed the book overall, although I would have liked a stronger romance. There’s a definite attraction between Jason (who is bi) and Gio, but a few pages before the end, Jason tells Gio he’s still in love with his dead wife (and he’s still wearing his wedding ring), which was unexpected and seemed a really odd move; and although they’re still together six months down the line (shown in the epilogue) it felt to me as though there was more to be said about their relationship. There are no ILYs – which is fine when I feel that the characters are committed to each other – and I don’t necessarily need the mushy stuff, but their emotional connection wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for by the end.

Even so, I’m giving this four stars because I really did like the story and the characters. I’m going to pick up the next book soon.


Leaning into the Fall by Lane Hayes

Narrated by Nick J. Russo

Nick Jorgensen is a quirky genius. He’s made a fortune in the competitive high-tech field with his quick mind and attention to detail. He believes in hard work and trusting his gut. And he believes in karma. It’s the only thing that makes sense. People are difficult, but numbers never lie. In the disastrous wake of a broken engagement to an investor’s daughter, Nick is more certain than ever he isn’t relationship material.

Wes Conrad owns a thriving winery in Napa Valley. The relaxed atmosphere is a welcome departure from his former career as a high-rolling businessman. Wes’s laid-back nature is laced with a fierceness that appeals to Nick. In spite of his best intention to steer clear of complications, Nick can’t fight his growing attraction to the sexy older man who seems to understand him. Even the broken parts he doesn’t get himself.

However, when Wes’s past collides with Nick’s present, both men will have to have to decide if they’re ready to lean into the ultimate fall.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

Nick is a tech genius who doesn’t do well in social situations and frequently comes across as an arsehole; Wes is more than a decade older and considerably more chilled than Nick, but seems to just ‘get’ him – even the parts of himself Nick doesn’t fully understand. I liked the way their relationship developed; laid-back Wes is a great foil for Nick, who is sometimes driven to the point of obsession and oblivious to everything around him. There’s plenty of hot sex, but there’s an emotional connection, too -Nick has never clicked with anyone the way he has with Wes, and realises that for the first time ever, he’s developing feelings for someone that go beyond work or friendship.

The conflict comes fairly late in the book and although it seems a little contrived, it does actually fit with Nick’s character – he gets worked up and anxious easily and does tend to blurt the first thing that comes into his head, and the ‘black moment’ works because of it.

Nick J. Russo narrates and does a great job!


Setting the Hook by Andrew Grey

Narrated by Greg Tremblay

William Westmoreland escapes his unfulfilling Rhode Island existence by traveling to Florida twice a year and chartering Mike Jansen’s fishing boat to take him out on the Gulf. The crystal-blue water and tropical scenery isn’t the only view William enjoys, but he’s never made his move. A vacation romance just isn’t on his horizon.

Mike started his Apalachicola charter fishing service as a way to care for his daughter and mother, putting their safety and security ahead of the needs of his own heart. Denying his attraction becomes harder with each of William’s visits.

William and Mike’s latest fishing excursion starts with a beautiful day, but a hurricane’s erratic course changes everything, stranding William. As the wind and rain rage outside, the passion the two men have been trying to resist for years crashes over them. In the storm’s wake, it leaves both men yearning to prolong what they have found. But real life pulls William back to his obligations. Can they find a way to reduce the distance between them and discover a place where their souls can meet? The journey will require rough sailing, but the bright future at the end might be worth the choppy seas.

Rating: Narration: A; Content B

Sweet character-driven romance between a workaholic businessman, groomed by his parents to take over the family engineering firm, and the owner of the boat he charters a couple of times a year to go fishing.

A bad storm following William’s latest fishing trip leaves him stranded in Florida for a few days; Mike invites him to stay with him (he lives with his mother and ten-year-old daughter) and the nacent attraction they’ve both been feeling for years now becomes impossible to ignore or resist.

They’re from very different worlds, but no matter how strong the emotions growing between them, Mike’s life is in Florida and William’s is in Rhode Island. Yet the months apart after William’s last visit only prove to both of them that there’s something between them worth exploring, and both men have to decide how much they’re prepared to sacrifice in order to be together.

It’s nto going to win any prizes for originality, but Setting the Hook is an enjoyable story featuring likeable characters, and of course, Greg Tremblay’s narration was flawless.


Red Dirt Heart by N.R. Walker

Charlie Sutton runs Sutton Station the only way he knows how; the way his father did before him. Determined to keep his head down and his heart in check, Charlie swears the red dirt that surrounds him – isolates him – runs through his veins.

American agronomy student Travis Craig arrives at Sutton Station to see how farmers make a living from one of the harshest environments on earth. But it’s not the barren, brutal and totally beautiful landscapes that capture him so completely.

It’s the man with the red dirt heart.

Rating: B

Lovely and just what I needed right now.

Charlie Sutton is just twenty-five but is now the owner of the 2.58 million acre Sutton Station in the Northern Territory, Australia. He loves what he does, even though he knows he’s likely to spend his life alone; he’s gay and closeted, his late father having insisted that “no fairy” was ever going to be able to run Sutton Station and that it needed a “real man”. Yes, his father was an arsehole, but those words struck so deep that Charlie – although he’s doing a terrific job – can’t seem to see beyond them.

Enter Travis Craig, an agronomy student from Texas who has come to Sutton to see how things are done as part of an exchange programme. Travis is handsome, confident and, as quickly becomes clear to Charlie and his staff, knows his way around horses and cattle; he settles in quickly, becoming part of the team and establishing friendships with the others, but Charlie tells himself he must keep his distance.

There’s not a lot of angst in this one (a bit of very plausible drama in the second half worked well to ramp up the tension) and it’s mostly the story of Charlie learning to let go of his father’s bigotry and be his own man, and finally allowing himself to believe it’s possible for him to live his life with a loving partner by his side.

There are some great secondary characters (I loved Ma, who rules the kitchen with a rod of iron… or spatula, whatever) and the author’s descriptions of the Outback setting, the “red dirt”, the night skies, the sunsets are fabulous.

If you’re looking for a simple, well-written story that will transport you somewhere else for a few hours, this could be just what you’re after.


The Prince and his Bedeviled Bodyguard by Charlie Cochet

Prince Owin

Being a fierce predator – not at all adorable, despite my graceful stature – the last thing I needed was a bodyguard. Especially a wolf shifter, whose presence alone was an insult to my princely principles. 

As prince of the Ocelot Shifters, I prided myself on my infallible feline instincts, uncompromising dignity, and flawless fashion sense. If having a canine follow me around at all times wasn’t bad enough, I now faced the most important moment of my entire life. 

The time had come to prove I was worthy of my crown. If only I could find a way to get rid of the pesky bodyguard…

Grimmwolf

When the king of All Shifters asked me to guard Prince Owin, I admit I had no idea what to expect. Cat shifters tend to be a little intense, not to mention kinda cranky. Owin was no exception, though he seemed crankier than most. 

Being his bodyguard was proving to be one of the greatest challenges of my life, but not nearly as great as convincing him there was something special between us. 

When Owin was tasked with a perilous quest to prove his worth, I was determined to keep him safe, even if the same couldn’t be said of my heart.

Rating: Narration: A; Content B-

I wanted something short and sweet and this definitely fit the bill. The prince of the ocelot shifters has to team up with his bodyguard, a wolf shifter, to fulfil a quest set him by the king of all shifters… of course, they spar like cat and dog (!) and shenanigans ensure.

It’s not deep and the worldbuilding is minimal, but it’s a helluva lot of fun, especially in audio where Greg Boudreaux demonstrates once again that he’s a master of comic timing (and just about everything else when it comes to narration!)

Quick, fun and sexy – just what I was looking for, and I’ll probably pick up more audios in the series as they become available.


Sergeant Delicious by Annabeth Albert

Soon to be ex-marine Xavier has a bright future as a firefighter. But stationed far from home, he’s lonely and homesick for more than just his favorite foods. Thinking ahead to his homecoming, he responds to an ad seeking a date for a special gourmet dinner, but he doesn’t anticipate an immediate connection with the intriguing foodie who placed the ad.

Food writer Damien is looking for his big break, and reviewing an uber-exclusive secret restaurant may be exactly what he needs if he can score a date to go with him. He doesn’t expect to enjoy corresponding with Xavier quite so much, nor is he prepared for his powerful surge of lust for the hot marine.

However, Damien’s had more than his share of bad luck when it comes to romance, but Xavier is determined to win Damien over. Course-by-course, they fall deeper into like. When they finally give into their passion, sparks fly. But is it a flash in the pan or the recipe for lasting love?

Rating: B-

A sweet and sexy short story previously published in a charity anthology, Sergeant Delicious begins with soon-to-be demobbed Xavier answering an ad from “fun foodie guy” (a food writer) who wants someone to go with him to an upmarket dinner on Valentine’s day. The first part of this short story/novella shows the pair getting to know each other a bit via email, which makes the attraction they experience when they meet more believable. Both men are likeable and down-to-earth, and one of the things I really appreciate about novellas when they’re done well, is that the shorter page count doesn’t leave room for silly misunderstandings and other distracting plot points; and this is one of those that’s done well. The author doesn’t allow Damien’s hang-ups to get in the way (in fact, making good use of them! *wink*) and devotes all her page time to building the relationship between the leads.

A quick, fun (and did I mention sexy?) read.


Bitter Pill by Jordan Castillo Price

Narrated by Gomez Pugh

There’s a new drug on the streets called Kick. The side effects are so brutal, most folks only try it once…unless they’re psychic. Then they do it until it kills them.

Psychic medium Victor Bayne is well acquainted with pharmaceuticals, from the Auracel that blocks his ghosts to the Seconal that offers him a blissful nights’ sleep. But he’s managed to steer clear of street drugs…so far.

Jacob Marks has a medicine cabinet filled with every over-the-counter remedy known to man, but none of them are doing much for his mood—and his long, fruitless days of combing through records at The Clinic are taking a heavy toll.
But their lackluster investigation does have one silver lining: a front row seat at The Clinic when the first Kick overdose comes in. And as scary as the drug might be, if it truly does augment psychic ability, the appeal is not lost on Vic.

Because the very first hit never killed anyone.

Where did Kick come from? Why is it so addictive? And why is everyone at The Clinic acting so darn shady? That’s what Vic intends to find out. And if he’s lucky, he can also expose a shadowy figure from Camp Hell.

Unfortunately, the demons of his pill addiction might prove just as deadly as his long-buried history. He thought he’d managed to ditch that pernicious habit. But what if it was only lurking in the shadows, waiting for the best time to rear its ugly head?

Rating: Narration: A; Content A-

Gah, I love this series so much, and it seems to get better and better! So much going on here besides the actual plot, about the investigation into a deadly psyactive drug (Kick) that is killing psychics. I’m loving Vic’s character growth, especially over the last few books as he’s finally realising what it’s like to work with people who respect him and is really gaining in confidence as a result. He still can’t quite believe it, and is still as endearingly self-deprecatingly shambolic as ever, but we – and Jacob of course – see it and appreciate it. And I like that we get to see Jacob’s more vulnerable side; he’s one of those people who, by virtue of his good looks, imposing physique, intelligence and charisma has come up against little in his life that he hasn’t been able to deal with, but that’s changing, and although he’s still very much the Jacob we all know and love, that extra dimension to him is great to see.

Vic and Jacob’s relationship continues to grow and their love for each other to deepen; they get to work with Zig and Carolyn again, and we get some closure for one of the characters who’s been around since book one; Jackie, the ghost who spasmodically haunted Vic’s old appartment. Her story is a tragic one, and the author does an amazing job in the scenes where Vic and Jacob find out the truth of what happened to her and then help her to move on – they’re incredibly poignant and Gomez Pugh is simply brilliant in them and captures every single drop of emotion.

On the subject of Mr. Pugh – his portrayal of Vic is so absolutely perfect that it’s easy to forget sometimes just how good he is at the rest of it. He can produce an amazing variety of character voices for what is, after eleven books, a large secondary cast, many of whom have appeared in several books throughout the series, and his inventiveness (and consistency) is remarkable.

And – whoa, that ending! When’s the next book out?!

Gentleman Wolf (Capital Wolves #1) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An elegant werewolf in Edinburgh…

1788. When Lindsay Somerville, the most elegant werewolf in Paris, learns that the man who held him in abject captivity for decades is on his way to France, intent on recapturing him, he knows he must leave the Continent for his own safety. Lindsay cannot take the risk of being recaptured—he may have been free for a century but he can still feel the ghost of his old chains under his fine clothes.

… on a mission…

While he’s in Edinburgh, Lindsay has been tasked with acquiring the “Naismith Papers”, the writings of a long-dead witchfinder. It should be a straightforward mission—all Lindsay has to do is charm an elderly book collector, Hector Cruikshank. But Cruikshank may not be all he seems, and there are others who want the papers.

… meets his match

As if that were not enough, while tracking down the Naismith Papers, Lindsay meets stubborn architect Drew Nicol. Although the attraction between them is intense, Nicol seems frustratingly determined to resist Lindsay’s advances. Somehow though, Lindsay can’t seem to accept Nicol’s rejection. Is he just moonstruck, or is Nicol bonded to him in ways he doesn’t yet understand?

Rating: B+

After a few recent forays into contemporary romance, Joanna Chambers returns to historicals and to the city of Edinburgh for her latest novel, Gentleman Wolf, the first in her Capital Wolves Duet.  As the title suggests, this is a story with a touch of the paranormal, although the paranormal elements are fairly low-key, so if you’re looking for a full-blown shifter story, it might not be the book for you.  I should also point out that there is no HEA – or even HFN – in this book, but the second part of the duet (Master Wolf) is due to be published in early 2020, so there’s not too long to wait for the conclusion to the story.

When readers first meet Lindsay Somerville, he’s an abject slave; imprisoned, debased and badly used by a master he has no power to disobey and unable to end his suffering by seeking his own death. A former soldier in the Covenanter army, Lindsay was captured and brought before Duncan MacCormaic who, in a cruel act of frustration and warped revenge, turned Lindsay into a two-natured creature, a man with a powerful beast inside him that the moon could draw out.  Chained and forced to wear a silver collar that prevents his inner wolf from ever finding its way out, Lindsay knows that nothing awaits him but further pain and degradation – until something he’d never dared hope for happens and he’s rescued by a couple he can immediately identify as wolves from their scent.  They take Lindsay to Europe, and although time and distance lessen the unwanted bond between him and his ‘maker’, MacCormaic continues to make attempts to recapture him.

Over a century later finds Lindsay living contentedly in Paris with his rescuers, Francis Neville and his dear friend Marguerite.  It’s been a decade since Duncan last tried to find him, but Marguerite has news that chills Lindsay to the bone; Duncan is on his way to Paris and is expected to arrive in a matter of weeks.  To make sure Lindsay is well away by then, she asks him to undertake some business for her in Edinburgh, namely to meet with collector Hector Cruickshank and negotiate the purchase of a series of documents known as the Naismith Papers, a set of notes and papers pertaining to a number of witch trials that had taken place throughout Scotland some two hundred years earlier.

So Lindsay returns to Edinburgh, surprised to find the place still feels and smells like home after an absence of more than a hundred years, but also keen to complete his task and return to Paris once it’s safe for him to do so.  He arrives at the appointed time for his meeting with Cruickshank only to find another gentleman also waiting – and is completely unprepared for the coup de foudre that strikes him at sight of that other man, who introduces himself as Drew Nicol, the architect who has designed a house for Cruickshank in the rapidly growing New Town area of Edinburgh.

Lindsay is utterly smitten with the handsome but somewhat dour Mr. Nicol and decides to amuse himself a little by attempting to draw the man out.  At this stage, even he doesn’t quite understand what amounts to a near compulsion to find ways to spend time in Drew’s company, and his initial attempts to do so come off as just a bit selfish, as Drew is clearly uncomfortable with Lindsay’s amorous overtures.  I admit I was reminded a little of the pairing of the hardworking, closeted lawyer David Lauriston with the worldly, pleasure-seeking aristocrat Murdo Balfour employed to such good effect in Ms. Chambers’ earlier Enlightenment trilogy, although here, the PoV character is the hedonistic Lindsay rather than the quieter and obviously unhappy Drew.

Just as Lindsay is strongly drawn to Drew, so the reverse is true, no matter how torn Drew is over his attraction to a man, let alone one so obviously not of his world and who has already made clear his intention to leave the city in a few short weeks.  The author develops their relationship beautifully as Drew hesitantly allows himself to acknowledge his wants and needs and to act on them, imbuing their interactions with a palpable longing and sensuality that considerably heightens the poignancy of the book’s ending.

The secondary cast isn’t large, but Francis, Marguerite and Wynne, Lindsay’s devoted manservant, are all well-defined and have important roles to play within the story; and as always, the author’s descriptions of the Edinburgh of the time bring the place so wonderfully to life in all its ugliness and splendour that it’s like another character in the book.

An air of foreboding permeates the entire novel and only increases when Lindsay finally meets the shifty Cruickshank, who is clearly up to no good. The pacing is fairly leisurely on the whole, but it never drags as we build towards a shocking climax that leaves Drew and Lindsay at odds despite the nature of the bond that’s already developed between them.

Gentleman Wolf is a highly entertaining and engrossing read and one I can recommend wholeheartedly.  The writing is beautifully atmospheric, the characterisation is excellent, the story is most intriguing and the ending is equal parts frustrating and heart-breaking. I’m really looking forward to learning how everything plays out in Master Wolf when it’s released in January.

Hither, Page (Page & Sommers #1) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A jaded spy and a shell shocked country doctor team up to solve a murder in postwar England.

James Sommers returned from the war with his nerves in tatters. All he wants is to retreat to the quiet village of his childhood and enjoy the boring, predictable life of a country doctor. The last thing in the world he needs is a handsome stranger who seems to be mixed up with the first violent death the village has seen in years. It certainly doesn’t help that this stranger is the first person James has wanted to touch since before the war.

The war may be over for the rest of the world, but Leo Page is still busy doing the dirty work for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence service. When his boss orders him to cover up a murder, Leo isn’t expecting to be sent to a sleepy village. After a week of helping old ladies wind balls of yarn and flirting with a handsome doctor, Leo is in danger of forgetting what he really is and why he’s there. He’s in danger of feeling things he has no business feeling. A person who burns his identity after every job can’t set down roots.

As he starts to untangle the mess of secrets and lies that lurk behind the lace curtains of even the most peaceful-seeming of villages, Leo realizes that the truths he’s about to uncover will affect his future and those of the man he’s growing to care about.

Rating: B+

Cat Sebastian has become known for her queer historical romances set in the nineteenth century, so Hither, Page is a bit of a departure in that it is set in Post-WW2 England. The sleepy Cotswold village of Wychcomb St. Mary is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else, is in each other’s business, and gossip abounds, but also where people pull together and look out for one another in times of trouble.  Hither, Page is billed as the first in the Page & Sommers series, and is a cosy mystery wherein a country doctor traumatised by war and a world-weary, rootless spy team up to work out who is responsible for a couple of murders.

Leo Page, a spy working for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence services is an orphan who was recruited more than a decade earlier by British Intelligence and has been getting his hands dirty on their behalf ever since. He has no family, no friends to speak of – those just aren’t compatible with the sort of life he leads – but when he’s sent to the village of Wychcomb St. Mary, ostensibly to look into the death of a woman who worked for a former army officer suspected of selling military secrets, he begins to find his priorities shifting, regardless of whether he wants them to or not.

Doctor James Sommers grew up in Wychcomb and returned there after the war, hoping to find refuge from the memories of the devastating memories that continue to haunt him.  His PTSD can hit unexpectedly, but for the most part he’s getting by, tending to the villagers and making a home among them, but the news of the death of one of their own disturbs him more than he cares to admit. After everything he’s seen and done, all he wants is a settled, orderly life, one where he’d take any and every reminder that people were capable of something other than reducing one another to piles of meat.

The mystery in the book is well done and moves at a good pace, but really, it’s secondary to the characters, a motley crew of quirky, well-rounded individuals who have been affected by the war in some way, from Marston a former patient of James’, who now lives in an old gamekeeper’s cottage and keeps himself to himself to the Misses Pickering and Delacourt, a pair of elderly spinsters who live on the outskirts of the village, to the vicar and his permanently harried wife, and the former evacuee Wendy, who was sent to the village to wait out the war but has never returned home.

Mildred Hoggatt was found dead following a dinner party at Wych Hall, home of Colonel Bertram Armstrong.  She was drugged, and then pushed down a flight of stairs, and while she was a bit of a busybody, there seems to be no real motive for her murder. Leo arrives in time to attend her funeral – and there notices the local doctor, who seems familiar.  Unusually, Leo is working using his own name, but has taken on the persona of an office worker snatching a few days holiday in the area to study the local church architecture.  His easy manner and good humour, together with the fact that many of the locals are just dying to share their theories about Mildred’s death with someone new, mean it doesn’t take him long to ingratiate himself and get people talking.

James recognises Leo – although he’s damn sure that wasn’t his name back then – from a night in France in 1944 when he was suddenly called away to patch up a man dressed as a member of the French Resistance.  James realises immediately that the other man must be some sort of government agent who has come to Wychcomb to look into more than the death of a mere charwoman, but he has absolutely no desire to become involved.  He resents the intrusion of more death and devastation into the quiet life he craves, but when it emerges that Mildred left Wendy a large sum of money, and that it could lead to Wendy being the prime suspect in the murder, he’s compelled to act.  He can’t let an innocent – if rather eccentric – girl be wrongly accused, so he decides to help Page, even though it goes against his inclination and better judgement.

The relationship between the two men is nicely developed and carries equal weight (as the mystery) in the story. There’s an instant spark of attraction between them, but even though it doesn’t take either of them long to discern where the other’s preferences lay – and Leo doesn’t waste any time in flirting with James – this is 1946 and they still have to be careful.  And although James is grateful to still be able to feel the stirrings of attraction, he is reluctant to become involved with a man for whom deception and betrayal are a way of life.

Both James and Leo are well-developed characters and I liked them individually and as a couple.  James is a lovely man – quiet, considerate and compassionate – but he’s the first to acknowledge that he’s not quite right in the head, and wonders if he’ll ever be able to leave his demons behind him.  By contrast, Leo is outgoing and garrulous, but it’s all an act.  He’s spent so long pretending to be whoever he had to be for whatever job he was assigned that he doesn’t know who Leo Page really is.  But for the first time in his life, he’s starting to want to find out – to  find out what it’s like to have friends, to belong somewhere, with someone – and to realise that he’s been missing out on so many of life’s simple pleasures.

I did think that the romance progressed a tad quickly – especially as this is going to be a series – but on the other hand, these are two men who know only too well that life is short and not to be taken for granted, so it works.  Cat Sebastian has done a great job of creating the atmosphere of an English country village worthy of a Christie novel – which sadly makes the (albeit infrequent) Americanisms (“gotten”, “trash” etc.) stick out like sore thumbs – but the writing is excellent and very perceptive. Page and Sommers make a great sleuthing team and I’m looking forward to reading more in the series.

Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan #1) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

1925

New York

Arthur Kenzie’s life’s work is protecting the world from the supernatural relics that could destroy it. When an amulet with the power to control the tides is shipped to New York, he must intercept it before it can be used to devastating effects. This time, in order to succeed, he needs a powerful psychometric…and the only one available has sworn off his abilities altogether.

Rory Brodigan’s gift comes with great risk. To protect himself, he’s become a recluse, redirecting his magic to find counterfeit antiques. But with the city’s fate hanging in the balance, he can’t force himself to say no.

Being with Arthur is dangerous, but Rory’s ever-growing attraction to him begins to make him brave. And as Arthur coaxes him out of seclusion, a magical and emotional bond begins to form. One that proves impossible to break—even when Arthur sacrifices himself to keep Rory safe and Rory must risk everything to save him.

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

Rating: B

The synopsis for Allie Therin’s début novel  Spellbound caught my attention immediately.  Supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance, magic and an unusual setting -1920s Manhattan – it all looked like a recipe for a great read, and for the most part, it was.  The story pulled me in right away, I was impressed by the worldbuilding, the plot is intriguing, I liked the characters, and the setting is vividly described; pretty much everything about the book works, although I had a few issues with the central romance.

Twenty-year-old Rory Brodigan is a psychometrist, possessing a unique talent that allows him to touch an object and discover its history.  More accurately, the object pulls his mind into its history and there is often a very real possibility that it may never be able to return to the present.  Feeling himself to be something of a freak – and following a scrying that went badly wrong – he’s become something of a recluse and lives with his aunt, an antiques dealer in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.  Thanks to Rory’s talent – which they are careful to keep secret – she has built a reputation for being able to distinguish real artefacts from fake ones, which is what brings congressmen’s son Arthur  Kenzie to her shop with a rush job he’s prepared to pay handsomely for.

A veteran of WW1, Arthur is the scion of an incredibly wealthy, well-connected, New York family.  He’s handsome, well-educated, sophisticated – and lonely, taking pains to keep his relationships casual, infrequent and usually outside the US.  During his wartime service, he learned of the existence of magic courtesy of two of his closest friends – both of whom he saw die horribly – and although he doesn’t possess a scrap of magic of his own, he’s dedicated himself to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it.  He’s received word that an extremely dangerous and powerful artefact is on its way to New York, possibly into the hands of a fearsome enemy; and with it due to arrive any day, he’s racing against time to find someone with the necessary talent to be able to help him and his small band of allies to find it.  Having heard of someone in Hell’s Kitchen who has been uncannily accurate in discerning the provenance of various items, he prepares a test – a set of skilfully forged letters that he says he needs authenticated straight away – and takes them to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop.

When – unimpressed – she meets with Arthur the next morning to give him the news – all the letters are fakes – he explains he wasn’t wasting her time, but was instead assessing her suitability for another, much bigger job.  He gives her a case containing a relic packed inside a secure, lead-lined box, a ring that has defeated his associates’ attempts to assess its power or purpose  – but before he can explain, he’s called away, and leaves her with instructions not to open the box until he arrives at the shop so they can discuss it further.   It’s this relic – a ring that can control the wind – that ultimately reveals the truth to Arthur and brings him and Rory together.  Unable to resist taking a look inside the case – wondering what the rich arsehole who brought them a bunch of fake letters could possibly want this time – Rory opens the ring box, touches the relic, and is immediately pulled into a vision from which he very nearly doesn’t make it back.  Livid, he telephones Arthur Kenzie to tell him where he can stick his ring, and Arthur, realising the ring box has been opened, rushes to the shop to find out what’s going on.  Realising eventually that Rory is the psychometric, Arthur and his closest friends and allies – Jade, a telekinetic and Zhang, an astral walker – band together to protect him and his unique gift from those who would abuse it.

Rory, however, doesn’t want anything to do with them.  He’s rude and abrasive and mistrustful; life has taught him that’s the only way to stay safe, and when we learn more of his past, it makes perfect sense that he would be slow to trust – and fortunately for him, Arthur and his friends aren’t going to give up on him that easily.  He pushes them away – or tries to – at almost every opportunity, even as his attraction to the handsome and urbane Arthur grows stronger.

The story is well conceived and well executed, and the author does a fabulous job of integrating the prohibition era setting and the details of her secret magical world into it.  I enjoyed learning about the existence of relics and their power, of the use of magic for good and evil and of the prejudices facing supernatural beings in the society in which they live.  The main secondary characters are easily as interesting as the leads; Arthur’s principal allies Jade and Zhang are well-developed characters whose presence is integral to the suspense plot.  The first part of the book was a five-star read, easily, and I flew through it, eagerly immersing myself in the world Ms. Therin has created.  But somehow, the second half of the book didn’t quite live up to the first.  The plot – in which Arthur faces a devastating betrayal at the same time as he, Rory, and their allies must race to save Manhattan from spectacular destruction – is tense and exciting, but the villains were somewhat underdeveloped.  I also had a problem with the romance, because try as I might, I found it difficult to see what the gorgeous, sophisticated and world-weary Arthur saw in Rory who, while only eight years younger than him (Arthur is twenty-eight) often acts more like someone in his mid-teens than a young man of twenty.  I understood Rory’s prickly nature – his backstory is heartbreaking – and I understood Arthur’s natural instinct to protect; they do have chemistry, but Rory’s brattish behaviour goes on too long, and when he does eventually drop it, the couple goes from zero-to-sixty in the blink of an eye.  This is a series, so there was no real need for things to progress quite so quickly – and the book’s single sex scene is all build-up and then fades to black, which is a missed opportunity for relationship development.  When done properly, intimate scenes are an excellent way of showing the connection between characters, something which was sorely needed here given Rory’s trust issues and the way he treats Arthur for the first part of the book.

Despite those reservations however, Spellbound was an impressive début and a truly enjoyable read.  I liked the found-family quality of Arthur’s relationships with Jade and Zhang, and Rory’s with Mrs. Brodigan (who turns out to be a bit of a badass in her own right!), and the diversity of the cast, which felt right for the location and time period, was another big plus.  The book ends with a firm HFN for Arthur and Rory, and a clear indication that there’s more to come, so I’ll definitely be picking up book two when it comes out next year.

Her Deadly Secrets (Wolfe Security #2) by Laura Griffin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She alone may hold the key to finding a vicious murderer…

Private investigator Kira Vance spends her days navigating the intricate labyrinth of Houston’s legal world. But, however shadowy its players and dark its secrets, the last thing she expects is for a meeting with her top client to end in a bloodbath. The police have no suspects but one thing is clear: a killer has Kira in his sights.

Fiercely independent, Kira doesn’t expect – or want – help from anyone, least of all an unscrupulous lawyer and his elite security team. Instead, she launches her own investigation, hoping to uncover the answers that have eluded the police.

But as Kira’s hunt for clues becomes more and more perilous, she realizes that she must take help wherever she can find it if she wants to stay alive…

Rating: B-

Her Deadly Secrets is the second in Laura Griffin’s Wolfe Securityseries which débuted last year with Desperate Girls.  Unlike the author’s long-running Tracers series, in which the stories revolve around the workings of a high-tech crime lab, and thus have a strong focus on forensics, the Wolfe Security novels feature the operatives of an elite private security company and their protectees, and have more of a straightforward murder/mystery vibe.  I’ve enjoyed a number of books by this author, but while the suspense storyline in this one is well-done, the romance is really disappointing and quite honestly, the story would have worked perfectly well without it.

Kira Vance is a hard-working private investigator with a number of cases and clients on her books,  the most important of which is the one she’s working on for her mentor, Ollie Kovak, whose services are used regularly by the high-end Huston law firm of Logan & Locke.  Brock Logan, well known for defending wealthy people accused of serious crimes, is defending Gavin Quinn, a doctor accused of murdering his wife, and Ollie has asked Kira to meet him at Logan’s house in order to review an important break in the case.  Kira hasn’t been there long when all hell breaks loose;  someone comes in the front door, shoots and kills Ollie, shoots at Logan and Kira and then gathers up as many of their phones, files and laptops as possible before getting out.

Though shaken, Kira is determined not to fall apart, and equally determined to find out who killed Ollie and why.  The stolen laptops and files must mean that the killer was after information relating to the Quinn case – but Kira has no idea what exactly Ollie had been working on before his death or what information he’d wanted to pass on to her that evening.  The one thing she’s does know is that finding answers to both those questions is imperative if she’s to get to the truth.

Logan asks Kira to take over from Ollie on the Quinn case, and after she agrees, informs her that now she’s part of his team, she’ll be accorded the same sort of round-the-clock protection as the rest of them.  Kira isn’t at all happy about this; she has to be able to act independently and spontaneously in order to do her job so the last thing she needs is to be followed around by guys who “look like the Avengers.”  But she agrees reluctantly, intending to bend the rules if necessary.

Kira’s detail is headed up by Jeremy Owen, who has just returned from a job that went from bad to worse and had been hoping for a bit of down-time after his long-haul flight.  He’s bummed when he realises that isn’t going to happen, but he’s a professional and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.  He immediately senses his new protectee wants nothing to do with him – but that’s tough.  He’s got a job to do and he’s going to do it whether she likes it or not.

When Kira gets over being miffed at needing a bodyguard, she soon realises it’s something she can use to her advantage, getting Jeremy to accompany her to various places she needs to go and finding him to be an extremely useful sounding board for her ideas and theories.  They develop a good working relationship as they work to track down clues and put pieces of the puzzle together to eventually realise that the murder of Ava Quinn and impending trial has opened a whole other, much more dangerous, can of worms.

While part of the narrative is told from Kira and Jeremy’s points of view, we also get the PoV of Charlotte Spears, the detective assigned to investigate Ollie’s murder.  She’s tough, no-nonsense and clever; dedicated to her job, she’s a terrific investigator and someone who trusts her instincts and weighs things up carefully.  She’s frustrated by the fact that there are things Kira obviously isn’t telling her, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of doing her job or of being prepared to accept the information Kira does give her and look into it. I liked the way we’re shown her coming to many of the same conclusions as Kira but via a different route.

So… I liked the investigation plotline and I liked that the story features two independent and very determined women, but the book falls down when it comes to the romance, which is perfunctory at best, superfluous at worst.  There’s no chemistry between Jeremy and Kira and no sexual tension; their first kiss happens completely out of the blue with no build up or reasoning behind it other than that they’ve both acknowledged that the other person is attractive, and the sex scene towards the end  seemed to have been thrown in mostly to satisfy the demands of the ‘romance’ part of the ‘romantic suspense’ label.  Quite honestly, I’d much rather read a mystery/suspense novel without a romance (provided I knew that’s what I’d signed up for) than one in which the romance is so poorly developed and executed.

In fact, this is something I’ve been finding more and more often in romantic suspense novels lately.  With a few notable exceptions (Rachel Grant and Loreth Anne White come to mind) nearly all those I’ve read recently contain romances barely deserving of the label.  I like a good suspense plot, but I expect a good balance between the romance and the suspense in a romantic suspense novel, and that’s not something I’ve found very often of late – not in m/f romantic suspense, anyway. In m/m, however, it’s a different story, because some of the best romantic suspense around right now is to be found there. Seven of SpadesFish Out of WaterBig Bad WolfHazard and Somerset  – to name but a few – are all terrific series and strike the right balance between the two elements, perhaps because the romances get to develop over several books rather than just one single title.

Anyway.

I’m giving Her Deadly Secrets a qualified recommendation because even though the romance was a non-starter, I really did enjoy the plot and the way the author gradually pulled everything together.  I’ll continue to read Laura Griffin’s books because I like her writing and there’s no questioning her skill in constructing complex, intriguing plotlines and creating likeable characters.  I’ll just have to remember to adjust my expectations when it comes to the romance part of this particular romantic suspense series.

Too Hot to Handel (John Pickett Mysteries #5) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When a rash of jewel thefts strikes London, magistrate Patrick Colquhoun deploys his Bow Street Runners to put a stop to the crimes. The Russian Princess Olga Fyodorovna is to attend a production of Handel’s Esther at Drury Lane Theatre, where she will wear a magnificent diamond necklace. The entire Bow Street force will be stationed at various locations around the theatre – including John Pickett, who will occupy a box directly across from the princess.

In order to preserve his incognito, Pickett must appear to be a private gentleman attending the theatre. Mr. Colquhoun recommends that he have a female companion – a lady, in fact, who might prevent him from making any glaring faux pas. But the only lady of Pickett’s acquaintance is Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, to whom he accidentally contracted a Scottish irregular marriage several months earlier, and with whom he is seeking an annulment against his own inclinations – and for whom he recklessly declared his love, secure in the belief he would never see her again.

The inevitable awkwardness of their reunion is forgotten when the theatre catches fire. In the confusion, the Russian diamonds are stolen, and Pickett is struck in the head and rendered unconscious. Suddenly it is up to Julia not only to nurse him back to health, but to discover his attacker and bring the culprit – and the jewel thief – to justice.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B

This fifth John Pickett mystery is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series in that our hero spends a rather large part of it unconscious, leaving his lady-love, Lady Julia Fieldhurst to the bulk of the sleuthing when it comes to solving the mystery of some missing diamonds. That said though, John is nonetheless a major presence in Too Hot to Handel, and Joel Froomkin’s hugely entertaining narration kept me engaged throughout, so I didn’t feel the slightest bit short-changed.

Note: There will be spoilers for earlier books in the series in this review.

It’s three months since Bow Street Runner John Pickett said farewell to the woman he fell in love with almost a year earlier, and a matter of weeks before the case for the annulment of the “irregular marriage” they inadvertently contracted in Scotland comes before the ecclesiastical court. At the end of the previous book, Dinner Most Deadly, he declared his love for Lady Julia Fieldhurst, but also said that they should not meet again; he has always known that the huge gulf in their stations makes any relationship between them impossible, and it’s become too painful for him to keep spending time with her while knowing she can never be his. For Julia it’s been three long, colourless months and none of her usual activities hold much interest for her any more. Even a night out at the theatre is dull until, on the way out, she hears a distressed older lady claiming that her jewels have been stolen. Recalling that the Duchess of Mallen’s rubies had also disappeared while that lady was at the theatre, and that they had been recovered by the Bow Street force, Julia suggests sending for a Runner, and for a few brief minutes, is excited at the prospect of seeing John again – only to come crashing down when someone else appears in his stead.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.