Prince of Flowers (Wild Hearts #1) by Nazri Noor (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

prince of flowers

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

He captured a fae prince. But can he capture his heart?

Lochlann Wilde walks in the shadow of his father, a legendary summoner who commanded mythical beasts in battle. But Locke isn’t legendary. He’s barely a summoner, never passing his academy’s trial of the elements.

And then he accidentally summons a fae prince with a beautiful body and a bad attitude.

Sylvan is fiery and ferocious, stronger than anything Locke has ever encountered. And hotter, too. But time is running out. Locke must tame the prince’s wild heart. If he fails his trial, he’ll lose his inheritance and ruin his family’s name.

Without Sylvan, Locke could lose his chance to become a true summoner…along with his shot at true love.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

I’m enjoying Nazri Noor’s Arcane Hearts fantasy/romance series – it’s fun and inventive with intriguing plotlines, strong worldbuilding, likeable characters, and excellent narration by Zachary Johnson. When the author announced that his new series – Wild Hearts (which is set in the same world as Arcane Hearts) – would be narrated by Greg Boudreaux, naturally I jumped at the chance to listen to and review the first book, Prince of Flowers.

Lochlann – Locke – Wilde is the oldest student at the great and ancient Wispwood Academy, having yet to earn the Crest that will mark his ‘graduation’ as a summoner. In order to earn that – and to inherit his father’s fortune – he must summon and forge a pact with a great beast of legend, but all he’s managed so far are a flock of doves, an elderly wolf and a grubby cat – not exactly a resounding success for the son of the legendary Grand Summoner Baylor Wilde. He’s not exactly the most diligent of students, it’s true, but he’s persistent, so, armed with the grimoire inherited from his father, Locke has once again ventured into the forests of Wispwood, intent on gaining his summoner’s Crest by finding his eidolon (his ideal familiar), a creature of powerful magic with whom he can form a mutually beneficial bond.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sass (Style #3) by Jay Hogan

sass

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For two years I’ve kept Leon Steadman at a safe distance, ever since the night he turned me down flatter than a pancake with a side order of syrupy disapproval. His loss. The world is full of sexy men. One and done is simply good math and efficient use of my time. Or it would be if I hadn’t been lusting after the irritating, judgemental, gorgeous, mountain of a man, ever since.

The less I see of Leon, the better. Bad enough that his tattoo business sits next to Flare, the fashion store I manage, and that he’s friendly with my boss. But now he’s apartment-sitting above the shop, as well. Every time I turn around, Leon is there. In my store. In my space. Messing with my head. Being all nice and charming and acting like maybe he’s not the biggest jerk to walk the earth, after all.

Well, I don’t want or need Leon’s apologies, but maybe if I can have him, just once, it might put an end to this ridiculous hunger that sparks every time I lay eyes on him.

Yeah, I’ll get back to you on that.

Rating: B+

Jay Hogan concludes her Style series with Sass, a warm, snarky and sexy age-gap/opposites-attract romance between the fabulous Kip Grantham, the sassy, fierce and super-capable manager of Rhys Hellier’s high-fashion store, Flare, and Leon Steadman, the gorgeous hunk who owns the tattoo parlour next door. There was a definite spark between them the minute they stepped on the page in the first book, and although it was tempered by a distinct air of frostiness on Kip’s part, it was an intensely combustible kind of spark that would have led to some serious sheet-burning had the pair of them actually made it as far as a bed. As it turns out however, they’ve never acted on their mutual attraction, spending the two years of their acquaintance barely on civil, one-word-acknowledgement terms.

Kip was attracted to Leon the moment he came through the door of Flare, a week after Kip started working there. He was the hottest thing Kip has ever seen and provided more than enough fuel for his fantasies right up until around a month later when they met at a party, and Leon rejected his invitation to do more than just chat. Kip has never made a secret of the fact that he’s not into relationships; he enjoys men, he enjoys sex and isn’t about to feel bad or apologise for it to anyone. He knows when a guy is interested in him, and Leon was definitely interested – so his rebuff was a bit of a surprise; and not only did Leon turn Kip down, he did it in a really shitty, condescending way that more than implied a disapproval of Kip’s lifestyle. Kip was – quite rightly – furious and put Leon firmly in his place before storming off.

Kip couldn’t possibly know how hard it was for Leon to say no that night. Leon had recently decided it’s time to give up what his sister-in-law calls his “whoring ways” and he’s planning to settle down. He wants the whole package, the white picket fence, kids, a dog… it’s time to focus on finding someone he can make a life with and when he meets Kip, it’s the first big test of his resolve. He’s utterly smitten with the vivacious, beautiful younger man and previously, would not have thought twice about taking him up on his offer – but even on such short acquaintance, Leon recognises the potential danger to his heart Kip represents, and sticks to his guns. He just does it in a really unpleasant way.

That was two years earlier, and Kip and Leon have maintained an uneasy détente ever since. Leon has tried repeatedly to apologise for being such a dick, but Kip isn’t interested, despite the fact that Leon is the only man who has ever taken up real estate in his brain.

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

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

subway slayings

This title may be purhased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: A+

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fault Against the Dead (The First Quarto #4) by Gregory Ashe

a fault against the dead

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Drugs. Sex. Murder. And, if they can squeeze it in, graduation.

When Auggie Lopez returns to Wahredua for his senior year of college, he’s excited about the future: he’s growing his brand as an influencer, he’s almost done with school, and he’s building a life with his boyfriend, Theo. Then Auggie gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s ex—and Cart tells Auggie he’s being framed for murder.

As Auggie and Theo begin to look into the death of a local parole officer, they realize something isn’t right. A gang of armed men almost catches them while they’re searching the victim’s home, a threatening message spray-painted on the victim’s home suggests a personal vendetta, and everyone wants to know about a missing cache of money. The trail leads Auggie and Theo into the dangerous world of the Ozark Volunteers—the local white supremacists who control the region’s drug trade.

After Theo and Auggie are attacked at home, they learn that the stakes might be much, much higher: someone is determined to put a stop to their investigation, no matter what it takes. And the killer, Theo and Auggie suspect, is hiding behind a badge.

Rating: A

It’s Auggie’s final year and Theo’s last year as a grad student at Wroxall College in this final instalment in Gregory Ashe’s The First Quarto series. But of course, there’s no way it’s going to be an easy year for our favourite trouble-magnets. Not only are they once again up to their necks in a complicated and extremely dangerous murder investigation, but their romantic relationship is still undergoing teething problems and is confronted with what is possibly its toughest challenge yet – and no, I’m not talking about the scale of Auggie’s Doritos habit.

As A Fault Against the Dead is book four in a series, it won’t make much sense if you aren’t familiar with what’s gone before; the mysteries in each book are self-contained, but the central relationship is ongoing and there are a number of recurring characters and references to previous situations, so it’s best to go back to the beginning and start with They Told Me I Was Everything. Gregory Ashe’s incredible ability to tell a story, the tight, complex plots and damaged but intensely loveable main characters will make it worth your while.

The mystery plot here kicks off when Auggie unexpectedly gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s late husband’s partner on the job and Theo’s former fuckbuddy, who tells Auggie he’s been arrested for the murder of a local parole officer. Their visit to Cart in jail is awkward to say the least, but boils down to the fact that someone has framed Cart for murder – and he needs Theo and Auggie to find out who and why.

As if that wasn’t enough, their old nemesis, Detective Albert Lender, doesn’t waste any time in catching up with them after they’ve been to see Cart. To their surprise, he actually seems to want them to investigate further – although of course, it doesn’t take long for it to become apparent that there’s something in it for him, namely, a large sum of cash which has gone missing. He wants Theo and Auggie to find it.

The devious mind of Gregory Ashe has come up with a real doozy here as Theo and Auggie are plunged into the murky world of the local drug trade while the complicated web of lies, blackmail and murder becomes even more tangled and the threats to life and limb pile up. Not only is Lender breathing down their necks, they’ve got to contend with angry, violent drug dealers, a dodgy sherrif and someone who seems to have more clout and more at stake than even Lender does – who is trying to force them to stop their investigation

All that would be more than enough for any couple to handle, but Theo and Auggie are still dealing with some intensely personal issues that mean they’re really not singing from the same hymn sheet as far as their relationship is concerned. They’ve both been through such a lot in their relatively young lives, and Theo’s largely untreated trauma, specifically, is continuing to throw up barriers between them. The conflict here is signalled early on when Auggie makes an offhand comment about where they’ll be this time next year, and Theo subtly freezes. In the previous book (The Fairest Show) the conflict was mainly about the way Theo’s desperate need to keep Auggie safe was causing him to disregard Auggie’s feelings and wishes, and how Theo needed to recognise that Auggie is an adult and to start treating him as one. Theo seems to have been working on that, but the other – much bigger – issue that has always been lurking in the background, and which led to some of the poor life choices Theo has made (his drinking, his addiction to pain medication among others) finally blows up in their faces – namely his belief that, at thirty-two, he’s washed up. (In fact, he’s believed that all the way through the series.) He’s been struggling financially since his husband Ian died, he’s burdened with terrible guilt over the accident that killed Ian and left their daughter, Lana, disabled – he’s carrying guilt over the death, years before, of his brother Luke from an overdose, he’s estranged from his very conservative family because he’s gay… and then into his life comes Auggie, beautiful, charming, funny, clever (young) Auggie, so full of life and the one bright thing in Theo’s life, and all Theo has ever really done is get Auggie hurt and drag him down. (As Theo sees it.) I’m indebted to a poster over at the author’s Facebook group for their insight into Theo’s responses to trauma – of which he’s suffered great deal in a fairly short time – which helped me to a clearer understanding than I had of why Theo thinks and acts as he does, why he is so convinced he’s doing the right thing by trying to wrap Auggie up in cotton wool, or continually avoiding any discussion of their future together. He’s lost (or been rejected by) everyone he’s ever loved, and contemplating a future or happiness (or a happy future) is incredibly difficult for him because hurt and pain has been the default for so very long.

Auggie is coming at the relationship from completely the opposite direction. His own upbringing is driving him to want stability and commitment – although he doesn’t quite realise how those two situations are linked yet. The youngest of three brothers, all with different dads, and with a mother who is so self-centred that she doesn’t really care about any of them, he’s really been brought up by his oldest brother, Fer, who is Theo’s age, and who, despite his constant stream of funny and inventive insults, clearly adores Auggie and would do anything for him. The age gap and parental role, however, mean that Fer is just as guilty, in his own way, as Theo is of shielding Auggie, and that he, also like Theo, has tried to keep certain things and realities from Auggie in order to protect him. The instability of Auggie’s home life (which we saw some of in The Fairest Show) and dysfuctionality of his family is clearly driving his need to make plans, when Theo’s life is – and can only be – about the now. With two such diametrically opposed positions, it’s really hard to see how they are ever going to be able to reconcile them, and it’s heartbreaking to watch as the gulf between them grows, as Auggie’s frustration with his boyfriend’s attitude starts turning into resentment and Theo’s walls get thicker and higher.

Gregory Ashe is a master of writing characters you can easily fall in love with while at the same time wanting to defenestrate them, and also of being able to combine a complex plot composed of lots of moving parts with some really profound character and relationship development. He reveals so much about who these men are and where they’re coming from, often in just a short speech or moment of description, and despite the heavy subject matter, there’s still room for humour and good-natured banter, a bit of steam and moments of amazing tenderness and understanding.

A lot of that humour comes from Auggie’s interactions with Fer – who is one of those characters who has taken on a life of his own and become a firm reader favourite (many of us are really hoping Mr. Ashe can find a story for him!) – and I loved seeing a clean Chuy (the middle brother) and Auggie having a genuine, affectionate and adult conversation. It was bittersweet, though, to see the brother Chuy could have been (to both Fer and Auggie), and their big scene together is key to giving Auggie some real insight into Theo’s mindset as an addict and how that might be affecting his attitude towards the future.

Although we’re saying goodbye to Theo and Auggie – for now (they’ll be back in the planned Asheverse crossover, tentativelty titled Iron on Iron) – we leave them in a much better place, with a better understanding of each other, and an incredibly sweet demonstration on Theo’s part of his commitment to Auggie and to doing the work he needs to do on himself so that they can move forward together. Having seen them five years on in the most recent Hazard and Somerset series, he’s certainly made progress. (And speaking of H&S, Somers’ cameos in this book show we’re almost caught up with Pretty Pretty Boys in the Wahredua timeline.)

A Fault Against the Dead brings The First Quarto series to a satisfying close by way of a tense, nail-biting climax which will have readers on the edge of their seats (or reading through their fingers!) and then follows it up with a beautifully understated and hopeful HEA. Theo and Auggie have become two of my favourite Asheverse characters, so while I’m sorry to see them metaphorically riding off into the sunset into a much quieter life, I’m delighted they’ve been given the happy ending they deserve.

Small side note: I’m probably in the minority, but I’m not a fan of the new covers for the series; the type is incredibly hard to read against the dark background, and is practically invisible in thumbnails. )

The Rivals of Caspar Road (Garnet Run #4) by Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

the rivals of casper road

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

He’s in it to win it

Until he falls under his neighbor’s spell

Bram Larkspur’s rugged, sexy looks belie his fear of all things horrifying. But as Casper Road’s newest resident, he’s excited to join the annual Halloween decorating contest. The competition is keen, especially from six-time champion, architect Zachary Glass. But when enigmatic Zachary sparks a prank war, it’s game on—until one sizzling kiss turns these rivals into allies. Now only one thing scares Bram: how quickly he’s losing his heart to Zachary.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

Book four in Roan Parrish’s Garnet Run series, The Rivals of Casper Road is a sweet, charming and superbly narrated opposites-attract romance featuring two neighbours whose rivalry in the local Halloween Decorating Contest engenders a prank-war and leads to love.

Bramble Larkspur left Olympia, Washington after his boyfriend and former best friend betrayed him in the worst way, leaving him “a broken person who had to get away in order to keep things together.” He – accompanied by his yellow Labrador, Hemlock – has just moved to 667 Casper Road in Garnet Run, and on his first morning there, he takes an early morning walk around the neighbourhood and then returns to his new home and takes a seat on the porch to watch Casper Road wake up. He sits there quietly whittling (something he’s done since he was ten), and it’s not long before his new neighbours are saying hello and stopping to chat. The subject of the annual Halloween Decorating Competition quickly comes up, and Bram thinks it sounds like fun. He’s just asked when he should get started, when a man emerges from the house diagonally opposite (which is, of course, number 666!) – a very striking man dressed in a suit and tie even though it’s a Saturday – who comes over and introduces himself as Zachary Glass.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Spooky Life (Spectral Files #4) by S.E. Harmon (Audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

the spooky life

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Rain Christiansen isn’t sure he’ll ever fully understand the supernatural. But he’s finally finding his groove as a reluctant medium and cold-case detective. That’s not to say everything is going smoothly—there’s a wedding in the works, after all. He’s finally taking that enormous step with fellow detective, Daniel McKenna, and he couldn’t be happier . . . about the marriage. Not so much the wedding. The hoopla is enough to make him wish for a quick flight to Vegas and an Elvis officiant.

At least work is keeping Rain and the PTU plenty busy. Their latest case involves Hannah Caldwell, a silent ghost who can’t—or won’t—speak. She still manages to request that they find her dear friend, Cherry Parker, so that she can say goodbye. Piece of cake. Finding people is pretty high on the list of things that Rain does best.

But when it comes to ghosts, nothing is ever quite what it seems. Before long, his simple missing person’s case takes a dark and twisted turn. And Rain realizes he’s been so busy trying to protect Danny that he forgot to protect himself.

If he doesn’t turn things around—and quickly—his spooky life might be cut short for good.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C+

When we last saw Detectives Rain Christiansen and Danny McKenna – at the end of Spooky Business – they’d narrowly survived being murdered by a vengeful ghost, and just got engaged. When we encounter them again here, they’re well into planning their wedding… or rather, Danny’s mother is well into planning it and is insisting on dragging the two of them (kicking and screaming metaphorically at least) into it as well. Like the other books in the Spectral Files series, The Spooky Life combines a supernatural mystery with the ongoing development of the central relationship, but although Rain’s snarky voice is as entertaining as ever, the mystery feels a bit thin and the whole wedding-planning-thing seems, at times, to have taken over. That trope – the everyone-else-wants-to-plan-our-wedding one – is one I have little patience with; not only do I not understand why people spend a fortune on weddings, I don’t understand why two grown men in their late thirties can’t – politely – tell everyone to just butt out and let them do it their way.

Rain is on a visit to a possible wedding venue with Mrs. McKenna and quietly wishing the ground would open and swallow him up, when he notices a woman walking around under a decorative arch, a lonely ghost who seems to be in a world of her own. Managing to escape from his prospective mother-in-law and the very eager venue manager, Rain makes his way over to the spirit and introduces himself; to his surprise she doesn’t speak – usually the ghosts who find Rain won’t shut up – so he thinks that perhaps she’s ready to move on but is stuck for some reason and decides to help her to do so. When that doesn’t work, Rain realises that perhaps she can’t move on because of unfinished business and wants him to go somewhere. Sigh.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.


Note:  This is the second book in a row I’ve listened to by this author in which she has put a “disclaimer” in her author’s note (in the ebook version) to the effect that she’s not responsible for plot holes:

“Plot holes? Perhaps. Despite the best efforts of my beta readers, my editor, and myself, there are probably a few errors that we didn’t catch. It happens.”

Um… no. Typos can get through even the best proof readers, we know that.  But STORY CONTENT is the province of the author and it’s up to them to – in collaboration with their editor where warranted – work through any content issues so that the story proceeds smoothly.  Apologising in advance because you couldn’t be bothered to fix the plot holes you’ve created for yourself is disrespectful to your readers and lazy writing.  I’m on the fence about whether I’ll bother picking up another book by this author.

Petty Crimes by Eden Winters

petty crimes

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Why can’t life give him a break?

Five years ago, Jerry Wilkerson was running with a biker gang, making mistake after mistake, till he ended up in the hospital with a gunshot wound, facing criminal charges for drug distribution. On top of everything, he’d fallen in love with the narcotics agent who took them all down. Or rather, with Cyrus Cooper, the man that agent pretended to be.

Making a deal with the Southeastern Narcotics Bureau kept Jerry out of jail, sending him undercover as Brody Jenson, a petty criminal able to get into places other agents can’t. He’s satisfied with his life—or would be if he wasn’t still longing for someone who never existed.

Then a man steps out of his dreams and into his life, who’s everything Jerry ever wanted.

Except for the part where Jerry might have to arrest him.

Rating: B+

Way back in February (it feels like a very LONG time ago!) in AAR’s blog post about Best Belated Reads of 2021, one of my choices was Eden Winters’ nine-book Diversion series, which coupled an extremely well-crafted opposites-attract romance with some superbly-well conceived and written mystery/suspense plots. I listened to the series, and if you do audiobooks and enjoy romantic suspense, I highly recommend it (you can get the whole series in 3 box sets at time of writing – bargain!). It’s become an all-time favourite, so I was delighted when the author announced she was writing another book set in that world, this time, putting a secondary character from the series into the spotlight. Petty Crimes is a thoroughly entertaining read with a clever plot, an engaging central character and a steamy romance; and although it can be read as a standalone, you’ll enjoy the relationship dynamics more if you’ve read at least some of the Diversion books.

A few years earlier, Bo Schollenberger – now the boss at the Southern Narcotics Bureau’s Division of Diversion and Control (the government agency responsible for rooting out criminality in the pharmaceutical industry) – went undercover with a dangerous biker gang in an operation that almost cost him his life. One member of the gang was Jerry Wilkerson, a nineteen-year-old kid who kind of drifted into hanging around with them and developed a massive crush on Bo’s alter-ego, Cyrus Cooper. In the climax of that story, Jerry helped save Bo and Lucky’s lives and got shot in the process; waking in hospital, he was offered the chance to get his life back on track by tesitfying against the gang members and then working for the SNB. Five years later he’s mostly working undercover as lowlife Brody Jenson, a petty criminal whose skillset lay in crawling into the city’s underbelly, lifting the rocks to find the worms beneath and who has turned being underestimated into an art form. He’s good at his job, but he’s also struggling a bit; living a double life is tiring and lonely, and he even finds himself starting to confuse Brody with Jerry at times.

After wrapping his current case, Jerry – as Brody – heads to his local bar, just to be seen around. Nursing a solitary drink, Jerry spies a few familiar faces – and one new and very interesting one, a tall, dark, gorgeous leather-clad biker he certainly wouldn’t mind getting up close and personal with. He keeps a surreptitious eye on the guy – no hardship – for a while, watches him score from a local dealer and then leave. Oh, well.

Bo and his husband Lucky (Jerry’s immediate boss) bring Jerry in on a new case involving an opoid medication being prescribed regularly and without due diligence by a number of doctors who are clearly in the pay of the pharmaceutcal company manufacturing it. ‘Brody’ is set up with an appointment with one of those doctors where he’s to plead severe knee pain owing to an injury and walk away with some evidence in the form of a prescription. Sure enough, he’s given one for a new, highly addictive painkiller without so much as an examination, but when he exits the pharmacy after getting the scrip filled, he notices a black Harley Davidson across the street, identical to one he’d spotted at the scene of an op just a day or so earlier, its rider’s face concealed behind a smoked face shield.

Jerry decides it’s time to find out who’s been tailing him, so he heads back to the bar and sure enough, the hot biker is there, shooting pool. A few heated glances later, Jerry and the mystery man are in the alley out back, and Jerry’s getting the best blow job of his life. When it’s over, the guy gives him a kiss and disappears – until a few days later when he plops himself down next to Jerry at the bar, introduces himself as Nico di Silva, and asks Jerry to arrange a private meeting with Bo and Lucky.

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

Home Work (Life Lessons #3) by Kaje Harper (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding

Home Work Audio2This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Murder, trauma, and raising children—who said love was easy?

Mac and Tony thought the hard part was over. They’re together openly as a couple, sharing a home and building a life with their two kids. It’s what they dreamed of.

But daughter Anna struggles with the changes, Ben is haunted by old secrets, Mac’s job in Homicide still demands too much of his time, and Tony is caught in the middle. It’ll take everything these men can give to create a viable balance between home and work. Especially when life refuses to give them a break.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

Home Work is the third book in Kaje Harper’s fabulous mystery/romance Life Lessons series, and as it’s a continuation of Tony and Mac’s story, is not a standalone. This is a series that should be listened to in order and there are spoilers for the story so far in this review.

In Breaking Cover, Tony and Mac were faced with a number of difficult choices after Tony became the legal guardian of six-year-old Ben, the boy to whom he’d been a father in all but name since his birth. With Tony, a single, gay man, under intense scrutiny due to the ensuing custody case and not wanting to lie about their relationship, Mac faced some incredibly difficult decisions, which culminated in his coming out at work, then moving in with Tony and Ben and bringing his five-year-old daughter, Anna, to live with them.

Now, the four of them are a family, although life is far from plain sailing. Anna is struggling to adjust from living with her (ultra-conservative) aunt, Ben is doing better but clearly holding back about something that’s bothering him, Mac is still letting his job run his life – and Tony is stuck in the middle, working full-time, running their home and doing the bulk of the childcare, and he’s frazzled. He’s never been one to hold back when something is important to him and he wishes Mac was around more often do his share of all those mundane tasks that go along with making a home and family – but Mac is having a tough time at work, dealing with the fall out of coming out and colleagues who, once friendly, are now openly hostile, and Tony doesn’t want to add to the stress Mac is already under by pressuring him to be home (or home on time) more. But Tony knows things can’t go on this way forever – the problem is finding the right time to address it. If, given how much of Mac’s identity and sense of self is tied up with his being a cop, there is ever going to be a right time.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Safe Passage by Loreth Anne White

safe passageThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Wounded government agent Scott Armstrong hated his newest assignment–baby-sitting beautiful scientist Dr. Skye Van Rijn. He missed the excitement of working in the field, his only salvation from the tragedy that haunted his dreams. But the mission turned dangerous when he discovered an evil terrorist was also after the mysterious doctor.

Skye was a genius at developing biological antidotes to new diseases. Her tender touch and warm body soon began to heal Scott’s battered heart, but the deadly secrets she hid put them both at risk, forcing them to run for their lives. As their enemy closed in, Scott had to choose between his loyalties to his job and his passion for the woman who’d saved his soul.

Rating: B-

I’m a big fan of Loreth Anne White’s romantic suspense titles (although she now seems to have moved to writing just “suspense” without the romance part) – and as I’d decided to read a romantic suspense novel for the flirting with danger prompt this month, I went for one of her early Harlequin titles. Safe Passage, originally published in 2004, boasts a gripping, fast-moving plot that has clearly been very well researched, and two interesting protagonists, but the romance is rushed – something I’ve complained about in other category-length romantic suspense novels – and includes some really wince-inducing cheesy dialogue that kept taking me out of the story.

But first things first; the plot of Safe Passage is compelling, one of those ripped-from-the-headlines stories that is scarily plausible. A deadly disease has attacked the US cattle industry and shows signs of being transmissible to humans and now, a plague of whitefly is making its way towards the US border, an epidemic that could devastate the farming industry, lead to widespread food shortages and have a catastrophic effect on trade and the financial stability of the country. Dutch etymologist Dr. Skye Van Rijn is one of those working round-the-clock to find a way to counter the infestation, and at last, she thinks she’s found it. No-one knows where the whitefly has come from and so far, no-one has found a natural predator to counteract it, so Skye has engineered one, adapting a beetle from Asia and breeding it in her lab at Kepplar Biological Control Systems. The project is in the final testing stage, but Skye’s boss is trying to rush the process, desperate to gain the literal fortune that’s going to be paid to whoever can find the solution to the infestation.

Scott Armstrong is an operative for Bellona Channel, an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to fighting bio-crime and bio-terrorism. A serious injury sustained on his last mission means Scott can no longer operate in the field, so his boss has assigned him what Scott thinks of as a babysitting gig – to keep an eye on Skye Van Rijn, a brilliant scientist with possible links to a worldwide terrorist organisation. Scott – in the guise of author, Scott McIntyre – is moving into the house next door to Skye’s and is carrying some stuff inside when he’s startled by an unfamiliar voice behind him; reacting instinctively, he barely stops himself throwing the knife he always keeps in his boot and finds himself face to face with the most striking woman he’s ever seen, a woman whose movements and body language clearly show her to be as adept at wielding a weapon as he is. Scott conceals his surprise when she introduces herself as Skye Van Rijn, his neighbour, and refuses to identify the strange hollowness he feels in his gut when she tells him she’s getting married the day after next.

Both protagonists are carrying a lot of emotional baggage, Skye as the result of the past she’s been running from for a decade, Scott from the deaths of his wife and child in an accident nine years before. The two of them are understandably wary of each other even as their mutual attraction is pulling them together; Scott wants to believe Skye played no part in the dissemination of the cattle plague and that her work into countering the whitefly epidemic is genuine, but there’s too much evidence – albeit circumstantial evidence – against her for him to be able to believe in her completely. And Skye has learned the hard way that the only person she can really trust is herself; she doesn’t want to be attracted to Scott and she doesn’t want to need his help. When her fiancé leaves her at the altar and she hares off on her Harley, Scott is compelled to find her and comfort her (while telling himself it’s his job to find out whatever he can about her) and when she realises she’s being followed and fears it’s her past catching up with her it’s to Scott she turns for help while making sure to tell him as little of the truth as possible. Scott knows she’s being deliberately evasive, and insists she levels with him so he knows what he’s getting into while also knowing he can use her fear to find out what he needs to know.

Deception is a commonly used trope in romantic suspense, and sometimes it’s used for very good reason, but I realise that for some it’s a no-no regardless of circumstance. It’s not usually a problem for me, but Scott does a couple of things that didn’t sit at all well, and I really didn’t care for Skye’s ‘how dare he lie to me’ attitude once she finds out who he really is. She’s been lying to him for just as long as he’s been lying to her and two wrongs don’t make a right. The level of deception they engage in is one of the reasons the romance didn’t work for me; another is that they go from complete strangers to ILYs in about three days, and there’s so much emphasis on how Scott/Skye ‘made him/her feel things he’d/she’d never felt before’ that my eyes hurt from the rolling.

While the romance is rushed, the plot is well done with real insight into the potential effects of eco-terrorism on the world’s agriculture and food supply. Skye’s background is fascinating and the more we learn about it and what she’s been through, the easier it is to understand her trust issues and her desire for a normal life.  I did, however, have to wonder why a supposedly brilliant and intelligent woman didn’t realise her fiancé was a dodgy bastard. Scott is more of a stereotype though; devastated by grief, he has eschewed emotional involvement – until Skye comes along and something about her starts to melt his frozen heart. *eyeroll*

With fascinating storylines, a badass heroine and movie-style climax, Safe Passageis a cut above the other category romantic suspense novels I’ve read, but the limited page count doesn’t allow the author to achieve a proper balance between the romance and the suspense plot.  Read it for the story and try not to groan too much at the cheesiness of the romance.

Unstable Connections (Valor & Doyle #3) by Nicky James

unstable connections

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Missing children are reappearing, and ties to a thirty-year-old cold case can’t be ignored.

Between his shaky, brand-new relationship with reformed office playboy Detective Aslan Doyle, his sister’s case going from cold to hot overnight, his father insisting on being involved, and his boss breathing down his neck, Detective Quaid Valor is on edge.

The stress of the case is impacting Quaid’s whole life. He isn’t eating or sleeping, and every time he and Aslan are together, he is overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, which threaten to ruin the one good thing he has. Aslan’s patience seems unending until something happens to turn his life upside down too.

Can their relationship survive the personal and professional pressures they’re facing, or will it crash and burn?

Between media rumors and unstable connections, Quaid and his team need to work quickly to piece together a complicated case before more children fall victim to their unknown serial kidnapper. Maybe once everything is solved, Aslan and Quaid will have time to work on their rocky relationship and find stable ground once again.

Rating: A

Wow – that was intense! This latest instalment in Nicky James’ Valor and Doyle series had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish; Unstable Connections is another compelling read that once again weaves together an absolutely gripping mystery plot with the continuing development of the relationship between the leads who, at the end of Elusive Relations, agreed they wanted more from each other than just sex, and are now a couple.

This series needs to be read in order so as to fully understand the relationship dynamics, and while each of the previous books has featured a self-contained mystery, certain overarching plotlines that have been bubbling along in the background reach a conclusion here, so this is not the place to jump in. Oh, and Spoilers Ahoy!

At the end of the previous book, the author dropped one helluva bombshell when eight-year-old Lili Vacari, who had been missing for four months, suddenly reappeared – and was carrying the backpack belonging to Quaid’s sister, who was abducted thirty years earlier. This news – naturally – hits Quaid incredibly hard, and sends him deep down a rabbit hole to the point of obsession; he’s not eating or sleeping well, he’s at his desk more often than not, and his colleagues are becoming concerned for him. It’s his partner, Eden, who finally calls in the big guns – Aslan – but while he’s just as concerned, he’s not sure how much more he can do. He knows Quaid and how much this case means to him, and is doing his absolute best to provide as much support as he can. He encourages Quaid to eat and sleep, offers the best type of distraction – sex – and someone to bounce ideas off… but he knows there are lines he can’t – and shouldn’t – cross. Quaid’s a grown man, Aslan isn’t his keeper, and he’s not about to torpedo their relationship by “taking a stance on Juniper”. He does, however, manage to drag Quaid away from the office on this particular Saturday – his birthday – long enough to get some sleep and get spruced up for dinner with his dad. Aslan is a bit nervous about meeting Abraham Valor in a social setting and as his son’s boyfriend; the two of them know each other by sight and reputation of course, but unfortunately for Aslan, his reputation as the department playboy means Valor Sr. sees him as someone else who might hurt Quaid. But after some initial frostiness, things settle and they begin to enjoy their meal – then a call from Quaid’s partner Eden throws another rock into the pond. Another missing little girl has just been found in the same location as Lily – and there’s no way this is a coincidence. Somehow the disappearances of these three little girls – Juniper, thirty years ago, Lily, and now Evelyn Rice – have to be connected, but how?

I’m not going to say any more, only that the author pulls it all together brilliantly as Aslan, Quaid and his colleagues in the MPU slowly begin to piece together the full picture by combining new information with everything Quaid has gained over years of painstaking research into his sister’s case. Juniper’s disappearance has been the framework for Quaid’s entire career; he followed his father’s footsteps into the police force and then became a detective in the Missing Persons Unit with the aim of preventing other families from going through what his did, and to be able to continue to investigate his sister’s disappearance with a view to getting some answers and closure for his dad.

Quaid’s tunnel vision has not only got him into hot water with his boss, who is close to pulling him off the case, it’s also causing problems in his fledgling relationship with Aslan. They’ve spent hardly any time together since deciding to give a relationship a try, but fortunately for Quaid, Aslan is a good guy who knows how much this case means to Quaid and is doing his absolute best to support him through it. Still, it’s hard to watch Quaid running himself into the ground – and to see what being so stressed out is doing to him psychologically. Aslan knows Quaid’s ex did a real number on him and seriously damaged his self-esteem, and knows that isn’t something that can be fixed overnight, but this case is also confirming just how many of Quaid’s insecurities and feelings of inadequacy can be traced back to Juni’s abduction when he was just six years old; how his fears of abandonment all stem from being pretty much forgotten in all the furore that surrounded it and then the breakdown of his family when his mother left a few months later. Aslan knows how much Quaid fears not being enough, that he believes that showing vulnerability is unattractive and that his neediness will drive Aslan away – but he’s prepared to wait out the storm because he’s recognised that what he has with Quaid – and the man himself – is worth it. But it’s not going to be easy.

While everything in Quaid’s life has been turned upside down, Aslan is also having a tough time balancing life and work as he and his partner Torin Fox find themselves juggling almost more cases than they can handle. I liked the realistic approach here; Aslan might want to drop everything to help Quaid, but he can’t because he has his own job to do, and to have it otherwise would have stretched my creduilty a bit too far. The pressure they’re both under is palpable and the author does a fantastic job of building the tension throughout this story; there’s little let up, and even when Quaid and Aslan do get some alone time, there’s a constant sense of unease, especially on Quaid’s part, as he allows his insecurities to start to get the better of him. And then, out of the blue, comes something with the potential to shatter Aslan’s world, too – no spoilers, but your heart will be in your throat and if you’ve got any nails left by this point, you won’t have many left after!

There are a number of other interesting relationships in the story, principally Quaid’s with his dad, which has so far seemed loving and solid, but is here revealed to have been built on some pretty shaky foundations. Abraham Valor’s guilt over what happened to his daughter is buried deep and has never been addressed – he and Quaid never talk about Juniper – and some of the effects of that guilt and its long denial are quite ugly.

I loved the way Quaid’s colleagues – his partner Eden and two other MPU detectives, Allison Bright (Torin’s crush – watching him flounder like a schoolboy trying to ask her on a date is so cute!) and Erik Travolta – rally round with support, and even Costa Ruiz, the IT specialist who, in the previous book, came across as a homophobic dickhead, turns out to be a good guy in the end; maybe he’s never going to go on a Pride march, but he and Quaid establish a good working relationship peppered with snarky banter, and there’s the sense that they might actually come to like each other one day.

Unstable Connections further cements the Valor and Doyle Mysteries as an all-time favourite series, and will undoubtedly be making an appearance on my Best of 2022 list. The plotting is tight, the pacing is swift and relentless and Nicky James does a fantastic job of wrapping up all the plotlines she’s seeded throughout. This events of this story really put Valor and Doyle’s romantic relationship to the test, and while they clearly still have a way to go, there’s every indication that they’ll get there. Plus, I’m a sucker for the player-falls-hard-and-forever trope, and Aslan shows himself to be boyfriend material of the highest calibre.

So it’s on to the DIK shelf for this one – and looking ahead to January 2023 and the release of book four, Inevitable Disclosure. It can’t come soon enough!