Imperial Stout (Trouble Brewing #1) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Layla Reyne spins off from her pulse-pounding Agents Irish and Whiskey books with Imperial Stout , the first installment in the Trouble Brewing series

It’s a good thing assistant US attorney Dominic Price co-owns a brewery. He could use a cold one. Nic’s star witness has just been kidnapped, his joint operation with the FBI is in jeopardy, his father’s shady past is catching up with him and the hot new special agent in San Francisco is the kind of distraction best handled with a stiff drink.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne has his own ideas about how to handle Nic, but his skills are currently needed elsewhere. The by-the-book FBI agent goes deep undercover as a member of an infamous heist crew in order to save Nic’s witness, break up the crew and close the case before anyone else gets hurt. Nic in particular.

Things heat up when Cam falls for Nic, and the witness falls for Cam. As the crew’s suspicions grow, Cam must decide how far he’s willing to go—and how far into his own dark past he’s willing to dive—to get everyone out alive.

Rating: C

I enjoyed Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey romantic suspense novels, and was delighted when the author announced she would be writing a spin-off series featuring two of the prominent secondary characters from those books, Assistant US Attorney (and former Navy SEAL) Dominic Price, and Special Agent Cameron Byrne, one of the FBI’s top kidnap and rescue specialists.  I’ve been looking forward to Imperial Stout (book one in the Trouble Brewing series) for some time, so I really wanted to love it… but sadly, I didn’t.  Many of the things that worked so well in the previous books are absent here; the principals and their backstories are underdeveloped, and while Nic and Cam have chemistry in spades, there’s no emotional connection or sense of a relationship developing between them.  Add to that the large suspensions of disbelief required by the sometimes frenetically paced plot, and I came away from the book feeling disappointed.

Imperial Stout opens in media res as we find Nic and Cam in the middle of an operation to apprehend a gang intending to steal a number of priceless Serbian artefacts from recently arrived dignitary Stefan Kristić and his wife.  But something goes wrong, Anica Kristić is killed, and most of the gang gets away – but not before someone starts shooting at the van containing Nic and the surveillance team.  Nic gets to show his badass ex-SEAL side by taking out the shooter, but it’s too late to save the operation, which has gone badly sideways.  When their informant is kidnapped and Nic’s boss – an all-round pompous git and complete idiot – manages to screw up their scheme to rescue her (I had to ask myself how the hell such a stupid man had managed to keep such a high-powered job), they are left with only one option. The exhibition featuring the Serbian artefacts is only days away from opening, and if Cam and Nic are to apprehend the gang, rescue their informant and bring Anica Kristić’s murderer to justice, they need to put someone on the inside; and Cam, whose murky past seems to have prepared him for such a role, is the best choice.  It’s not going to be easy, and Cam has reasons of his own for being apprehensive, but it’s him or no one and time is running out.

Running alongside this storyline is the one that looks set to run throughout the series, in which Nic discovers that his father, real estate magnate Curtis Price, is up to his eyeballs in debt to some not-very-nice people. Nic and his father haven’t spoken a word to each other in twenty-seven years – ever since Nic came out – but the man to whom Price owes a small fortune isn’t interested in that. If he can’t use Nic as leverage against his father, then he’ll force Nic to pay what his father owes.

Imperial Stout had a lot of potential, but very little (if any) of it is fulfilled, and it seems that character development has been sacrificed for the sake of the plot which, it has to be said, is rather superficial. While Nic and Cam featured in the previous series, they were secondary characters, so I’d hoped Ms. Reyne would be starting afresh as it were, re- introducing them to readers as leads and allowing us to get to know them at the same time as the suspense plot gradually unfolded and brought them together. Instead, we’re told they shared a passionate kiss a few weeks earlier (at Aidan and Jamie’s wedding), and from both their PoVs, we know they want more; but lots of mental lusting is no substitute for watching two people forge a strong emotional connection as they get to know and invest in one another.

I said earlier that a rather large suspension of disbelief is required when reading Imperial Stout, and I found myself frequently taken out of the story as I came across something that seemed completely implausible. For example – I confess I’m not all that up on how the American law-enforcement and justice systems work, but is it usual for an Assistant US Attorney to be present (and armed) during a take-down? And then for him to take an active role in the investigation? Isn’t his job to gather facts and evidence and build a case and present it in the courtroom after the operation is concluded? I know the lawyer-as-investigator is a common character in police procedurals, which contributed to the overall feeling I had that I was reading something akin to a TV cop show, with its almost break-neck pacing and action-fuelled set pieces. Cam infiltrates a supposedly dangerous criminal gang with ease in a matter of hours; he’s up on all the latest ways to crack safes, pick locks and hack electronic security, and his fear that he risks crossing a line he hasn’t crossed in twenty years seems melodramatic and highly unlikely.

Much as it pains me to say it, I can’t really recommend Imperial Stout to fans of m/m romantic suspense, although I’ll probably read the next book because I’m intrigued by Nic’s storyline and want to see how it plays out. I’ll cross my fingers and hope that Craft Brew – due out this October – marks a return to form for Ms. Reyne.

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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.

Dinner Most Deadly (John Pickett Mysteries #4) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

dinner most deadly

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, returns from Scotland restless and out of sorts, her friend Emily Dunnington plans a select dinner party with half a dozen male guests from whom Julia may choose a lover.

But Emily’s dinner ends in disaster when one of her guests, Sir Reginald Montague, is shot dead.

When Bow Street Runner John Pickett is summoned to Emily’s house, he is faced with the awkward task of informing Lady Fieldhurst that their recent masquerade as a married couple (Family Plot) has resulted in their being legally wed.

Beset by distractions – including the humiliating annulment procedure and the flattering attentions of Lady Dunnington’s pretty young housemaid – Pickett must find the killer of a man whom everyone has reason to want dead.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B+

Note: This review contains spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the charming young Bow Street Runner John Pickett continues apace with the fourth full-length novel in the series, Dinner Most Deadly. It’s another enjoyable mix of murder-mystery and romance, but here, the romantic angle is as much the focus as the mystery, as John and the love of his life, Lady Julia Fieldhurst, struggle to deal with the ramifications of their recent masquerade as Mr. and Mrs. Pickett in book three, Family Plot. This instalment is particularly angsty in terms of their continuing relationship; John has been in love with Julia since they met in book one, In Milady’s Chamber, and while it’s taken Julia longer to realise the truth of her feelings for the thoughtful, insightful and achingly sweet young man who is so devoted to her, she is finally starting to see them for what they really are. But… a viscountess and a thief-taker who earns the princely sum of twenty-five shillings a week? The social divide between them is too great to permit even the merest nodding acquaintance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Compromised by the Prince’s Touch (Russian Royals of Kuban #1) by Bronwyn Scott

compromised by the prince's touch

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An irresistible royal seduction…

Daring Prince Nikolay Baklanov feels London is worlds away from his life of battle and revolution in Kuban. But then the Russian ambassador’s daughter, beautiful Klara Grigorieva, approaches him with her father’s dangerous proposition…

Since her mother’s death, Klara has complied with all her father’s wishes. She’s virtuous, polished – a Society lady through and through. But meeting dashing Prince Nikolay awakens a rebellious passion in Klara…a passion that only this man can satisfy!

Rating: B

I’ve had a bit of a hit-and-miss relationship with Bronwyn Scott’s books. I’ve enjoyed some and been less enthused about others, but I’m pleased to say that Compromised by the Prince’s Touch – which is the first book in her new Russian Royals of Kuban series – falls very squarely into the ‘hit’ column. Ms. Scott has crafted a story of romance and intrigue boasting a well-constructed a plot full of political scheming and high-stakes manouevering that skilfully blends fact and fiction to create a highly entertaining story.

Exiled from his home of Kuban (in Southern Russia on the Black Sea and bordering the Crimean Peninsula) Prince Nikolay Baklanov now lives in London with three of his closest friends, all of whom have also been banished from their homeland. He wants to make a new life for himself in England, although he feels as though he is merely treading water; he misses Kuban – the language, the food, the traditions, the people – and the knowledge that he can never go back still rankles, especially as his exile was forced upon him by the actions of others. He currently works as a riding instructor at a prestigious London stable and plans to set up his own riding school as soon as he can find an appropriate property. His clientele seems mostly to consist of young debutantes who can barely sit a horse properly and seem to think they’re there to giggle and cast flirtatious glances his way, so when he sees that the daughter of the Russian ambassador has booked a lesson with him, he anticipates more of the same.

He quickly discovers his error, however, when he returns to the training arena to find his pupil already mounted – and wearing breeches, no less – more than competently putting a splendid black mare through her paces. Nikolay is immediately suspicious; this young woman is already an extremely good rider, so what can she expect him to teach her? As the daughter of a powerful Russian diplomat, could she have an ulterior motive? Are the Kubanians searching for him? Could she have been sent to smoke him out?

Klara Grigorieva has indeed been sent by her father to ‘vet’ Nikolay.  The prince has been in London for two months, and has not yet called on the ambassador – but Grigoriev wants information about his intentions and his loyalties.  The ambassador is at the head of a small group of disaffected Russian nobility and military men who are planning to engineer a revolution and having a man like Nikolay as one of their number – a man of great courage, a natural leader able to inspire loyalty in the troops – would give them a massive advantage.  It will also give them an obvious scapegoat should things go awry.

But Nikolay is far from stupid and is well aware of the reasons for which he is being ‘courted’.  He is reluctant to be dragged back into Russian politics, but recognises that it may be impossible to avoid it or simply refuse to take sides. Much as he wants to see the outmoded, backward ways of his beloved country changed and modernised, he knows he is likely being set up to take a fall; but if he declines to involve himself, he stands – at best – to lose the new life he has envisaged for himself and at worst, to lose his life altogether.

Since the death of Klara’s English mother, it has been her father’s aim to bring up and educate his daughter as befits her station as a member of the English ton and then to secure her an excellent marriage.  Intelligent, quick-witted and a good judge of character, Klara has proved herself to be extremely useful to Grigoriev in his work, her ability to draw people out and to assimilate and relay information providing insights that he might not be able to obtain from other sources.  She has always taken pride in the fact that her father includes her in his life in this way – which is unusual among people of her station – but when she begins to realise exactly why she has been sent to get to know Nikolay, and the danger their acquaintance poses to him, Klara begins to reassess her situation and to wonder if she is merely a pawn in her father’s schemes and not a beloved daughter after all.

Nikolay and Klara are attracted to each other from their very first meeting, but both are guarded, Nikolay especially, as he is immediately suspicious of Klara’s motives for seeking him out.  For her part, Klara is enjoying her role as her father’s confidante and the chance it gives her to flirt with such a dangerously attractive and vital man.  But as the story progresses, and Klara begins to realise that her association with Nikolay has drawn him into a life-threatening situation, she becomes determined to protect him at all costs – even if it means she can never see him again.

There’s a lot of plot going on in this novel, but I enjoy stories featuring politics and intrigue and Ms. Scott does a very good job of keeping the storyline focused and of continually raising the stakes for our two protagonists.  Nikolay is reluctant to lower his guard around Klara, but the more he gets to know her as opposed to the ambassador’s daughter, the more he finds to like and admire about her.  The romantic chemistry between the couple is strong and the love scenes are sensual, but the best parts of their relationship are those snatched moments when they can just be together, such as the night Nikolay takes Klara into the Russian ex-pat community in Soho, which is full of local colour and vivid descriptions that paint a wonderfully detailed, exotic picture in the mind’s eye.

Such stories usually demand a villain, and there’s a particularly nasty one here in the form of the Duke of Amesbury, an unscrupulous and ruthless man who is set to make a huge profit by selling arms to the revolutionaries and who is determined to obtain the spirited Klara for himself.  There are a few times he’s in danger of veering into cartoonish, moustache-twirling territory, but  mainly, he’s nasty and creepy; it’s clear he poses a very real threat to Klara and is prepared to ruin Nikolay by any means necessary.

I suspect that some may feel the romance is a little overshadowed by the other plot elements in this book, but speaking as one who enjoys romantic suspense novels, the balance between the romance and the intrigue here is just about right.  I enjoyed Compromised by the Prince’s Touch and will definitely be on the lookout for subsequent books in the series.

TBR Challenge: Tangled by Mary Balogh

tangled

ONE MAN HAUNTED HER PAST…
Her beautiful eyes flashing with hate, Rebecca faced Lord David Tavistock. He had come back, wounded but still vibrantly, sensually alive, from the Crimean War. Julian Cardwell, her sweet, gentle bridegroom–and David’s foster brother–had not. She blamed wild, reckless David for Julian’s decision to enter the Queen’s Guards, and for the devastating loss of her perfect young husband, whose memory even now broke her heart and filled her dreams.

ONE PROMISED HER A FUTURE…
His blue eyes shadowed by dark secrets, David had come to claim the woman he had always loved. All his life he had protected the charming Julian, hiding the truth from Rebecca about the women Julian dallied with, the child he had fathered, the scandalous way he died. Now David offered Rebecca a life of privilege and wealth…as his wife. She wanted a marriage of convenience, but he intended to awake her deepest passions, to make her forget Julian Cardwell…and to find in his bed all the ecstasy of a man’s true love.

Rating: B

August’s TBR Challenge prompt is “Kickin’ it old-school” and it’s a prompt I always enjoy as it gives me the opportunity to pick something from the TBR Pile of Doom, which still looms large next to the bed. I went for Tangled by Mary Balogh, a standalone title originally published in 1991 which features a somewhat unusual premise; one I haven’t read before although I’m sure this isn’t the only book to have made use of it. I see that the book has engendered very mixed reactions over the years, and although I can understand why, I enjoyed it, principally because Mary Balogh is so skilled at portraying the emotional lives of her characters in a way that makes them feel very real to the reader.

The book opens as Lady Rebecca Cardwell is saying a fond farewell to her husband, Julian, before he departs with his regiment for Malta, and then the Crimea. He is accompanied by his foster brother, David, Viscount Tavistock, whom she dislikes and blames for Julian’s joining the army. Julian is eagerly reassuring his anxious wife that he will be in no danger, and it’s clear that he is keen to be on his way and sees the whole thing as an adventure.

The glimpses we see of Julian’s life in the army very quickly reinforce those initial impressions of his character. We learn some of his and David’s backstory, and see that Julian is one of those happy-go-lucky types who breeze through life with no care for anyone but himself. He’s not evil, per se, just incredibly selfish and immature. But his devil-may-care attitude, and particularly his womanising eventually has disastrous consequences which ultimately result in his death.

David returns home a decorated war hero, haunted by the death of the man he’d loved like a brother, and looking to settle down to a useful life at his country estate. He very quickly realises that Rebecca is in a difficult situation; even though she regards the Earl of Harrington as a father, she is not actually related to him and since his remarriage, feels the awkwardness of being the house’s former mistress in the presence of its new one. David has been in love with Rebecca for years, since long before she married Julian, and even though he knows that she will never love him, he offers her marriage, telling her that he can provide her with a home of her own and a purpose in life. He makes it clear, though, that while he is proposing a marriage of convenience, he wants a wife to share his bed and, hopefully, give him children.

Initially, Rebecca is stunned and turns him down. She doesn’t really like David, believing him guilty of a slew of misdemeanours in his youth and of having fathered a bastard child and refused to marry the mother. Yet she has to admit that since his return, she has seen a much quieter and more thoughtful man, and believes that perhaps he has outgrown his youthful exuberance. She also can’t deny that the prospect of a home of her own and having tasks to fill her days is an attractive one, so she eventually agrees to David’s proposal, assuring him that she will be a good wife to him and that once she is married to him, she will put Julian out of her thoughts.

At first, David thinks he has made a fairly good bargain, although his father is sceptical and warns him that he wants more than Rebecca will be prepared or able to give him. The marriage takes place and the newlyweds travel to their new home where Rebecca is delighted to discover that there is plenty for her to do and looks forward to being useful and taking her place as the foremost lady of the local community.

But their married life gets off to a rocky start. Rebecca’s version of “being a good wife” is letting her husband do as he wishes in bed with no thought for her own wants – and David is bewildered. He knows Julian and Rebecca were very much in love and thinks Rebecca must have experienced passion; but not only does she not respond to him, it’s clear she is having to force herself to endure his lovemaking. David believes that she is deliberately holding herself back from him because she doesn’t love him and because, in spite of her promise not to think of Julian, she is doing just that. Their relationship becomes incredibly strained until, after their third night together, David snaps, says some cruel things and then tells Rebecca he won’t be bothering her again.

Rebecca is equally confused. She has been brought up to believe that sex is for a husband’s pleasure and for procreation, and that she should just lie there and let him get on with it. She is surprised by her attraction to David, but is ashamed of her response to his kisses and lovemaking, feeling things she’s never felt before and desperate to control herself to make sure he isn’t disgusted by her wantonness. But after that night, she finds she misses the bonding that had begun between them in bed and also that she needs the reassurance of David’s presence there, and of his lovemaking, too. The couple settles into a way of life that sees them living and working together as little more than business partners, but Rebecca wants a real marriage and has no idea how to achieve it while David distances himself from her; his jealousy of Julian and the guilt, the secrets and the lies that shadowed their relationship distort his view of the situation and lead him to believe that Rebecca is disgusted by him. It’s a stalemate for quite some time until at last, it seems as though they have finally found a way through … which is when (of course) disaster strikes.

I am not normally a fan of stories in which so many misunderstandings and secrets abound, but I did enjoy Tangled. True, there were times I wanted to beat both protagonists over the head with a big stick and tell them to just be honest with each other; but somehow, Mary Balogh has made their reluctance to confide in each other believable. It’s frustrating to read at times, but is understandable, especially given that Rebecca’s upbringing has conditioned her to propriety and submission and that David is driven to protect the people he cares about. The deeper emotions are brilliantly illuminated, and the author has very skilfully illustrated the importance of sex in the development of the central relationship. Without it, David and Rebecca are almost strangers, and because they are both hiding things from each other, they don’t have any other way in which to achieve closeness on an emotional level.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without giving away spoilers for the last third, but there are several places in that final section of the story that deliver a real emotional punch to the gut, as David and Rebecca struggle to adjust to a huge upheaval just as they were beginning to make something real out of their marriage. I especially liked the way in which the author shows that Rebecca is falling in love with David while being completely unaware of it, and how she shows the depths of his quiet, unrequited love for his wife, but as individuals, they are complex, flawed and not always easy to like. Rebecca puts Julian on a pedestal and is unable – or unwilling – to see any of the shortcomings of which the reader – and David – is aware. She elevates him practically to sainthood after his death, and there are times when her continual harping upon his perfection gets very irritating. David, too, is not without his faults; for the most part, he’s one of those honourable, quiet men who are driven to protect, but I did have to ask myself how he could bear to let so many people think badly of him for so long. But with those things said, both characters feel very much like products of their time, and I applaud Ms. Balogh for creating and keeping them that way in spite of the sometimes negative effect on their overall appeal.

While the secret-keeping is frustrating and the central characters could sometimes be a bit irritating, my principal criticism of Tangled is with the ending. Granted, the outcome was a foregone conclusion if David and Rebecca were to get their HEA, but the action that leads up to it is so completely out of character for the person concerned, that I had to read and accept it as a necessary plot device rather than a natural direction of the story.

This is an angsty and emotional book, and I can understand that the secrets, misunderstandings and – for want of a better word, passivity – of the protagonists may mean it is not one that everyone will like. But the depth of the emotion contained within its pages and the skilfully developed, strong connection between the protagonists are sufficiently compelling as to allow me to overlook any weaknesses and commend it as an absorbing and thought-provoking read.

APOLOGIES…

miss piggy headdesk

… To anyone who is trying to access some of my older reviews that link to All About Romance. Because of the site re-do, many of the old links now no longer work, which means that I’m about to undertake the rather laborious task of either replacing the links or cutting and pasting in the entire reviews.

In the meantime, if you click on a review from before 1st July and it takes you to a “page not found” page at AAR, please just go to the AAR Home Page and do a Power Search for the title you’re looking for.

I will get there eventually, but I’ve written well over 300 reviews for AAR, so obviously, it’s going to take me a while.

Is that a banana in your pocket… or are you just pleased to see me?

bacall

A few weeks ago, I read a book – which I enjoyed very much – that prompted me to write a post about the different euphemisms which those of us who read romantic novels frequently see used on a regular basis during the … “romantic interludes”… which take place between the hero and heroine between the sheets, up against doors, on floors, on tables, on rugs… and so on.

If you’re not a fan of sex scenes in your romance novels, then you might want to look away now, because this is a post about the language used to describe those steamy moments. So be warned that there will be several rude words and naughty phrases from here on out.

Back in the day when I used to read (and write) fanfiction, I remember reading some truly execrable sex scenes. You know the sort – the ones where you know the author was trying to burn up the screen but ended up causing widespread hilarity. There is a fine line to tread between something being hot or being funny, and while it is certainly going to be the case that one person’s turn-on is another’s unbridled amusement, I find that there are certain words and/or phrases, or an overall ‘feel’ that is guaranteed to make me giggle rather than get hot under the collar.

You can read the rest of the post over at All About Romance. Please feel free to join the discussion and post your favourite – or not – examples 🙂