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

when love is blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Dreams have been dashed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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 And even though some of the language and attitudes are outdated now, reading them is oddly comforting; they play out in my head like old black-and-white films from the 1940s or 1950s, with their stiff-upper-lips and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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(highlight to read) he regains his sight

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

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

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

Silent Sin by E.J. Russell (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

silent sin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When tailor Marvin Gottschalk abandoned New York City for the brash boom town of silent film-era Hollywood, he never imagined he’d end up on screen as Martin Brentwood, one of the fledgling film industry’s most popular actors. Five years later, a cynical Martin despairs of finding anything genuine in a town where truth is defined by studio politics and publicity. Then he meets Robbie Goodman.

Robbie fled Idaho after a run-in with the law. A chance encounter leads him to the film studio, where he lands a job as a chauffeur. But one look at Martin and he’s convinced he’s likely to run afoul of those same laws – laws that brand his desires indecent, deviant…sinful.

Martin and Robbie embark on a cautious relationship, cocooned in Hollywood’s clandestine gay fraternity, careful to hide from the studio boss, a rival actor, and reporters on the lookout for a juicy story. But when tragedy and scandal rock the town, igniting a morality-based witch hunt fueled by a remorseless press, the studio brass will sacrifice even the greatest careers to defend their endangered empire. Robbie and Martin stand no chance against the firestorm – unless they stand together.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

E.J. Russell’s Silent Sin is a standalone historical romance set in the Hollywood of the 1920s featuring a movie star and the man who – through a fortunate circumstance – lands a job as his driver. The author has clearly done her homework when it comes to the background of this story – about the studio system and the influence it exerted over all aspects of the lives of its stars, about the relationship between the studios and the press – and that, together with the inclusion of a number of real-life figures and events, grounds the story very firmly in its time and place. I had a couple of niggles, but overall it’s a compelling story with fantastic narration by Greg Boudreaux, and I lapped it up.

When the book begins, we meet Robbie – Robinson Crusoe Goodman – as he arrives in a place called Hollywood. He’s disappointed; he’d hoped the farmer who’d given him a lift in his truck would have taken him a bit further along the road – plus in a town, he’s unlikely to find any work of the sort that could be done by a former potato farmer from Idaho whose meagre possessions amount to the very threadbare set of clothes on his back. After spending the night in an uninhabited shack at the edge of town, a tired, hungry and thirsty Robbie walks slowly back down main street, with no real idea of what to do next. He watches, surprised, as a cowboy – wondering just what a cowboy is doing in a town where there are no cows? – strolls along the street announcing he’s just got a part in a new picture. Robbie has no idea what the man is talking about, and just as he’s about to move along, is tapped on the shoulder and turns to find an older man wearing a uniform is speaking to him. For just a second or two, Robbie panics – uniforms mean authority and Robbie has been running from the authorities for six weeks now – but the man – who says that everyone calls him Pops – tells Robbie he’s done nothing wrong and then offers to buy him breakfast. Robbie can’t believe his luck, and as they eat, Pops tells Robbie that he works at Citadel Motion Pictures and, after ascertaining that Robbie knows how to drive, offers him a job.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Lost & Found by Liv Rancourt

lost and found

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

proper scoundrelsThis title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Their scandalous pasts have left them wounded and unworthy – and hopelessly perfect together.

London, 1925

Sebastian de Leon is adjusting to life after three years spent enthralled by blood magic. The atrocities he committed under its control still weigh heavily on his conscience, but when he’s asked to investigate a series of mysterious murders, it feels like an opportunity to make amends. Until he realizes the killer’s next likely target is a man who witnessed Sebastian at his worst – the Viscount Fine.

Lord Fine – known as Wesley to his friends, if he had any – is haunted by ghosts of his own after serving as a British army captain during the Great War. Jaded and untrusting, he’s tempted to turn Sebastian in, but there’s something undeniably captivating about the reformed paranormal, and after Sebastian risks his own life to save Wesley’s, they find common ground.

Seeking sanctuary together at Wesley’s country estate in Yorkshire, the unlikely pair begins to unravel a mystery steeped in legend and folklore, the close quarters emboldening them to see past the other’s trauma to the person worth loving beneath. But with growing targets on their backs, they’ll have to move quickly if they want to catch a killer – and discover whether two wounded souls can help each other heal.

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – A-

Note: Although this is a standalone novel, it is linked to the Magic in Manhattan series; and as there are references to events that occurred in those books, there are likely to be spoilers for the series in this review.

When Allie Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series came to an end last year, I was pleased to learn that she would be writing a spin-off novel that would follow two different protagonists who had previously appeared as secondary characters in the main series. Proper Scoundrels is that spin-off, and I have to admit that much as I came to enjoy the series that spawned it, it is – so far – my favourite of the author’s novels. Plus – and this is a BIG plus – this book benefits enormously in audio from having the always excellent Joel Froomkin as narrator; the earlier series was (unfortunately) performed by a relatively inexperienced narrator who didn’t do it justice.

The action in Proper Scoundrels shifts from New York in 1925 to England later the same year, where we catch up with Wesley Collins, Viscount Fine, who is as prickly, cynical and irritable as ever. Even though he had a fairly large role to play in the events of Wonderstruck, Arthur, Rory and the gang were able to keep him in ignorance of the existence of magic – although unbeknownst to him, his Kensington home is now protected by a magical painting by the paranormal artist Isabella de Leon, which prevents other paranormals from properly seeing the house. As an extra precaution, her brother Sebastian – who has hidden himself away in London to lick his wounds after having been magically enslaved by the evil Baron Keppler – wanders past the place every so often, just to keep an eye out and make sure that Lord Fine is in no danger as a result of his connection to Arthur Kenzie and Rory Brodigan.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Woman at the Front by Lecia Cornwall

the woman at the front

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Eleanor Atherton graduates from medical school near the top of her class in 1917, she dreams of going overseas to help the wounded, but her ambition is thwarted at every turn. Eleanor’s parents insist she must give up medicine, marry a respectable man, and assume her proper place. While women might serve as ambulance drivers or nurses at the front, they cannot be physicians—that work is too dangerous and frightening.

Nevertheless, Eleanor is determined to make more of a contribution than sitting at home knitting for the troops. When an unexpected twist of fate sends Eleanor to the battlefields of France as the private doctor of a British peer, she seizes the opportunity for what it is—the chance to finally prove herself.

But there’s a war on, and a casualty clearing station close to the front lines is an unforgiving place. Facing skeptical commanders who question her skills, scores of wounded men needing care, underhanded efforts by her family to bring her back home, and a blossoming romance, Eleanor must decide if she’s brave enough to break the rules, face her darkest fears, and take the chance to win the career—and the love—she’s always wanted.

Rating: B

I associate Lecia Cornwall’s name with historical romances, although I confess I haven’t read any of her work in that genre.  The blurb for her latest book, The Woman at the Front, caught my eye because of its First World War setting; I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Northern France (pre-Covid) researching family history so it’s a period I’m particularly interested in – and the premise of a young female doctor wanting to make a useful contribution to the war effort but being thwarted at every turn promised an interesting read.

Eleanor Atherton, the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, has always longed to follow in her father’s footsteps.  In 1917, she graduated from medical school in Edinburgh near the top of her class (and thus ahead of almost 130 of her male colleagues) and has been looking forward to using her hard-earned skills in a meaningful way – but she’s derided and looked down upon for her choices at every turn.  Even her father doesn’t support her ambitions and has relegated her to menial tasks, such as doing paperwork or cleaning his surgery, while her mother constantly bemoans the fact that Eleanor will never be able to find a husband because no man wants a wife with an advanced education who refuses to stick to her ‘proper’ place in the order of things.

But Eleanor – who worked harder than anyone else so she’d be taken seriously, who put up with the constant bullying of the male students – refuses to be diverted from her chosen path.  When we meet her, it’s January of 1918 and she’s in a meeting with Sir William Foxleigh at the War Office, asking to be allowed to offer her services to the army hospitals in France.   Unfortunately, Sir William’s response is just the same as she’s received from just about every other man when informed she’s a doctor – distaste, disbelief and an instruction to “go home, sit down, and take up something more useful, such as knitting.”  With the war raging into its fourth year, she knows doctors are desperately needed and tries to make her case, but Foxleigh dismisses her and suggests that she should instead find a position at one of the hospitals in England that care for women and children – or if she’s set on going to France, that she should become a nurse or a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as those are “much more ladylike pursuits.” Furious and frustrated, Eleanor responds:

“I am not a nurse, Sir William, or a volunteer.  I am a doctor.”

Back at home a couple of weeks later, however, an unexpected opportunity presents itself when the Countess of Kirkswell informs Eleanor that her son Louis – a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and now the heir to the earldom following his older brother’s recent death – has been injured and is currently being treated at a Casualty Clearing Station near Arras – and then asks Eleanor to travel to France to act as Louis’ doctor and to bring him home.

Even though she knows her parents will disapprove, Eleanor jumps at the chance to do something useful, and is soon on her way to France.  Even amidst the destruction and carnage all around, and the obvious need for people with her skills and medical training, she is still viewed with disdain and suspicion by most of the medical staff – even the nurses – and instructed that she is to attend no patients other than Louis on threat of being sent back to England.  Eleanor tries to stick to this rule, but it’s hard for her to just stand by when there are people who need the help she can give – and with ever increasing numbers of wounded flooding into the CCS, it’s not long before she decides that some rules need to be broken and grabs the opportunity to finally prove herself, in spite of the inflexibility of the commanding officer and the matron.  And she does it in spectacular fashion, working as quickly, skilfully and indefatigably as any of the other doctors.

The author does an absolutely incredible job with the setting in this book.  The sights and smells, the mud, the despair, the exhaustion, the everyday heroics of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances (the bravery of the stretcher-bearers who have to venture onto the battlefields in order to retrieve the wounded while still under fire, for instance), the knowledge that no matter how many men are treated, there will be more tomorrow and the next day and the next… it’s all superbly captured and conveyed on the page and I was thoroughly immersed in the time and place.

The book is less successful as a romance, however.  Ms. Cornwall sets up a number of potential love interests for Eleanor – Louis Chastaine (the countess’ son), Scottish stretcher-bearer Fraser MacLeod and doctor, David Blair – but although it’s fairly obvious who she’s going to end up with, the romance is pretty insta-love-y.  I get that the circumstances (“there’s a war on”) don’t allow for a lot of on-page togetherness (and it makes perfect sense that way),  so while  The Woman at the Front does include a romance and an HEA, those are very much secondary to Eleanor’s struggle to make her way in the hostile, male-dominated environment of medicine in a world being torn apart by war, so I’d class the book as historical fiction with romantic elements, rather than as an historical romance.

On the negative side, the pacing is uneven and the story drags in places, and I found it hard to believe in the intense dislike displayed towards Eleanor by her family.  It turns out that her father only allowed her to go to medical school as a way of shaming her twin brother Edward, who had no interest in medicine.  Atherton expected Eleanor to fail and that failure would teach her some humility – and when she didn’t, he thought her medical training would mean she’d make a suitable doctor’s wife.  As for her brother, well he’s a self-centred prick, but I still didn’t see why he so disliked her.

And finally, a word of warning. The way Eleanor is treated by so many around her, the prejudice she encounters, the way she’s dismissed, belittled, talked-down-to – even by other women – is rage-inducing.  I have no doubt the attitudes presented are realistic, but I had to actually put the book down a time or two in order to calm down!

Despite that, however – and if you’re okay with the romance taking a back seat on occasion – The Woman at the Front is a fascinating read and one I’m recommending to anyone looking for a story featuring an engaging protagonist and a well-researched, well-realised setting.

Subtle Blood (Will Darling Adventures #3) by KJ Charles

subtle blood

This title may be purchased from Amazon’

Will Darling is all right. His business is doing well, and so is his illicit relationship with Kim Secretan–disgraced aristocrat, ex-spy, amateur book-dealer. It’s starting to feel like he’s got his life under control.

And then a brutal murder in a gentleman’s club plunges them back into the shadow world of crime, deception, and the power of privilege. Worse, it brings them up against Kim’s noble, hostile family, and his upper-class life where Will can never belong.

With old and new enemies against them, and secrets on every side, Will and Kim have to fight for each other harder than ever—or be torn apart for good.

Rating: A

Romance, drama, skulduggery and edge-of-the-seat adventure abound in this rip-roaring tale that brings the Will Darling Adventures to an absolutely magnificent close.  In Subtle Blood, KJ Charles delivers everything I wanted from this series finale – a fast-paced, tightly-plotted mystery and a well-deserved HEA for Will and Kim – with her customary wit, razor-sharp insight and masterful storytelling.

There are spoilers for the earlier books in the series in this review.

It’s been a few months since the climactic events of The Sugared Game, when Will Darling and Kim Secretan uncovered the identity of the leader of Zodiac, a dangerous criminal organisation dedicated to tearing down the structures of power by any means necessary.  But doing so saw Kim relieved of his duties – sacked – from the Private Bureau, so now he, like Will, is feeling just a little bit aimless.  Or a lot aimless.  For the time  being, Kim is helping out at Darling’s Used and Antiquarian, the bookshop Will inherited from his uncle, and has turned out to be surprisingly adept at organising the shop and acquiring profitable collections – but neither of them is really cut out for the quiet life, and they both know it.

But the peace of the life they’re building together is suddenly shattered when Kim’s older brother Lord Chingford is accused of killing financier Paul Fairfax – a fellow member of the Symposium Club – and refuses point blank to offer any form of defence.  Not because he doesn’t have one (which he kind of doesn’t), but rather because he fully expects that being the heir to a marquess means he’s untouchable and above the law, and that he doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody.  Even the police. He says he was having a nap in another room in the club when the murder took place, and that’s all he has to say on the matter.

But then Will and Kim learn that Chingford was heard having a blazing row with Fairfax earlier in the day – and Will spots a tattoo on the underside of one of the dead man’s wrists in the exact same position as those worn by the members of Zodiac.  Which begs the question… could some of its members still be at large and attempting to re-group?

KJ Charles has done her readers – and her protagonists – proud with this one.  Will and Kim find themselves up to their necks in intrigue, betrayal and murder once again, and the mystery plot is perfectly paced.  But the happenings in this story fall even closer to home than those in The Sugared Game did, and with Kim’s brother accused of murder and other developments which threaten Will’s safety, he has no alternative but to take Will home to the family pile so they can try to ferret out the truth about the murder.  And in going home, Kim is forced to interact with the two people in the world he least wants to spend time with – his father, the Marquess of Flitby, and his brother Chingford, who is thick as shit and twice as  despicable. We know from the previous book that Kim’s family life has inflicted some serious emotional damage, and that he doesn’t get on (putting it mildly!) with Fllitby and Chingford, who blatantly despise him,  blaming him for the death of his younger brother and believing him a coward because he refused to fight in the war.

As in many of her other books, the author has a lot to say about the nature of privilege, but here, she really lets rip and exposes the deeply cruel rottenness and  blatant injustice of it, showing what some men will do in order to retain power and the lengths some will go to in order to attain it.  And yet, these characters are not caricatures or cartoon villains; they’re real people who act in ways that are abhorrent and are so totally blinkered by their innate sense of entitlement that they simply cannot conceive of the need to take any consideration into account that doesn’t benefit them or to perceive that the world around them is changing.  I can’t even begin to describe how completely awful Flitby and Chingford are, in their puffed-up self-consequence and in their attitude towards Kim, who is trying to save his brother’s life (mostly because Kim doesn’t want to inherit a marquessate!) and to whom they are completely obnoxious.

Thankfully however, all this loathesomeness is outweighed by the deeply affectionate, loving relationship shared by Will and Kim, who have, over the course of the series, gone from a relationship based on attraction and an inequality borne of distrust to one of sincere trust and mutual understanding that has put them on a much more even footing.  In the previous book, we learned more about Kim’s past and how it damaged him; here, Will has to face up to some home truths about his past and his coping mechanisms, and it’s a testament to how strong they are as a couple that he can do this with Kim steadfastly at his side.  Their romance really is a thing of beauty – these strong, stubborn but broken men have come to really know and understand each other – and themselves – in ways that allow them to be vulnerable with each other and to face whatever life throws at them secure in the knowledge that they’re in it together. There are some gorgeously romantic and loving moments between Will and Kim in the story that show just how far they’ve come, both individually and as a couple, during the time we’ve been privileged to spend with them, and the moment when Kim communicates what he wants from their relationship is just heart-meltingly lovely.

Oh, and I can’t end this review without giving a quick shout-out to the awesome Phoebe and Maisie, who return to give the chaps an extremely useful helping hand. Not only are they superb characters in their own right, but the friendships between them and Will and Kim are so strongly written that the deep affection lying between them all simply leaps off the page.

If you’ve been following The Will Darling Adventures, then I know you’ll be eager to snap up Subtle Blood straight away, and if you’ve been waiting for the series to be completed, then now’s the time to get stuck in.  Just make sure you clear yourself plenty of alone-time because once you start, I guarantee you won’t want to stop until the very end!

Clever, witty, sharply observed and beautifully romantic, Subtle Blood is a stonking read and an un-putdownable tour de force by an author at the very top of her game.  I’m sorry to say goodbye to Will and Kim but I’m also so very glad to have made their acquaintance and that they’ve been given such a fantastic send-off.  Definitely one for the keeper shelf and the Best of 2021 list.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Erik Bloomquist

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains….

New York, 1925

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination – and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throws the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

Allie Therin’s engaging Magic in Manhattan series sets an intriguing combination of supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance and magic amid prohibition era New York. Starcrossed is the second book, and you really do need to have read or listened to book one, Spellbound, in order to get to grips with it. I read and reviewed it in print when it came out in May 2020, and even though I HAD read book one, I found myself a bit lost to start with because there’s hardly any recapping and I wished I’d done a re-read to refresh my memory. But once I’d skimmed a few sections in Spellbound, I was up to speed and able to enjoy the story in Starcrossed.

There are spoilers for Spellbound in this review.

It’s Manhattan in 1925, and twenty-year-old psychometric Rory Brodigan works as an antiques appraiser in his aunt’s shop, earning the place a reputation as the place to go to sort out the fake from the real thing. This is because Rory’s paranormal ability means he’s able to touch an object and be transported into its history (which can also be incredibly dangerous as it’s possible he could end up trapped in that history in his mind) – and he’s something of a recluse, staying very much in the background and taking care not to reveal his ability to anyone. In Spellbound, handsome, wealthy congressman’s son Arthur Kenzie brought some letters to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop for appraisal, and through the course of the story Rory met other paranormals (Jade, a telekinetic, and Zhang, who can walk on the Astral Plane), and learned that that while Arthur has no magic himself, he’s dedicated to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it. He and Arthur also commenced a romantic relationship – although that’s not the strongest part of the story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.

Audio

When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

Honeytrap by Aster Glenn Gray

This title may be purchased from Amazon

At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet and an American agent fall in love.

Soviet agent Gennady Matskevich is thrilled when he’s assigned to work with American FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne. There’s just one catch: Gennady’s abusive boss wants him to honeytrap his American partner. Gennady doesn’t want to seduce his new American friend for blackmail purposes… but nonetheless, he can’t stop thinking about kissing Daniel.

FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne is delighted to get to know an agent from the mysterious Soviet Union… and determined not to repeat his past mistake of becoming romantically involved with a coworker. But soon, Daniel finds himself falling for Gennady. Can their love survive their countries’ enmity?

Rating: A-

Aster Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap is a compelling and unique story that charts the development  of the  unlikely relationship between an American FBI agent and a lieutenant in the Red Army (and possible KGB agent) over a period of around thirty-five years.  It’s extremely well-written, and the author does an amazing job of exploring the cultural and ideological differences between the societies in which the two men live in a way that is thought-provoking without being preachy or didactic.  The leads are multi-faceted, flawed but likeable men, and their romance is a very slow burn that evolves organically from the tentative and then genuine friendship that grows between them; it’s quietly understated yet full of longing and boasts some truly beautiful moments of poignancy and real, complex emotion.

It’s 1959, and FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne Is assigned to investigate what is believed to have been an attempt to assassinate Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev while he was on a recent visit to the US.  Daniel is going to be temporarily partnered with Lieutenant Gennady Matskevitch in order to diffuse the tensions over Russian accusations of a cover up.  Daniel’s boss tells him to befriend Matskevitch and to show him America in the best possible light during their travels.

Matskevitch is given official instructions to keep an eye on his American partner and use his assignment as a way to gather intelligence about American investigative methods.  Unofficially, however, he’s told to honeytrap the American agent in order to gather blackmail material.

Thus begins a months-long road-trip through small towns and large cities, from rural to industrial America, during which Daniel and Gennady go from initial suspicion to a tentative friendship which gradually turns into something more, something that will endure for over three decades and will survive long separations, betrayal, political upheaval, marriage, divorce and family tragedy.

In 1959, Daniel is twenty-seven, and Gennady twenty-four, and the only thing they really have in common – of which they are of course totally unaware at the beginning – is that they exist in a world that holds strict views as to what a man should be and who he should love.  Otherwise, the gulf between them is huge;  their countries are enemies and they’ve been instructed to spy on one another, so the idea there could be any real trust or friendship between them is a non-starter.  It would do neither of them any good and can go nowhere; and it could actually be dangerous both professionally and personally.

But after spending months together on the road and in cramped motel rooms, learning things about each other and bantering about the advantages and flaws of their respective countries, it’s impossible to keep their distance from each other, and although they both know it’s a bad – probably disastrous – idea, they fall into a warm and affectionate friendship.  From that friendship emerges a strong and genuine attraction that neither man really knows what to do with; Daniel knows he’s attracted to men as well as women (he had a sexual relationship with his previous work-partner, which is how he ended up being given the sort of assignment usually given to a ‘problem’ agent) while for Gennady, fooling around with men is something that has happened rarely and only while drunk.  The way they fall for each other is gorgeous and incredibly sweet, the UST is delicious and the author has created a real, deep emotional connection between them, a romance that doesn’t rely on the grand gesture but which is instead built on a foundation of lots of little ones, small moments and actions that show the depth of their feelings for one another.

The story is split into three sections; the first is the longest, taking up around two-thirds of the book, and it’s where the relationship and romantic development takes place.  Of course, given the time period and the serious external obstacles to any relationship between Daniel and Gennady, a convincing HEA (or HFN) is difficult to achieve and the author wisely opts not to try to contort reality or the personalities she has established for her characters in order to make one.  After they part in 1960, they don’t meet again until 1975, when Gennady is sent to Washington D.C on a two year posting.  Life has changed for both of them, but is no less complicated.

[spoiler title=”Show spoiler”]

Daniel is married with two young children by this point, (Gennady is also married, and on the verge of divorce) and Daniel’s wife, an artist, is fully aware of his bisexuality and the nature of his relationship with Gennady, and encourages their affair – which I admit I found a bit unrealistic and overly convenient.

[/spoiler]

Their feelings for each other are as real and strong as ever, but they both know Gennady’s time in the US is finite, which makes their reunion, wonderful as it is, rather bittersweet.

The final section, set in 1992 after Glasnost and the splitting up of the Soviet Union, is squashed into the final ten percent of the book and is rushed.  It feels almost like an afterthought rather than an epilogue; there is an HEA/HFN, but it’s left right to the last minute so there’s no time for it to fully sink in before the book ends.

That – and the unrealistic element I mentioned under the spoiler bar – are the reasons this book isn’t a flat-out A; but it deserves the highest praise for its characterisation and relationship and character development. Daniel and Gennady are superbly drawn, fully-rounded characters it’s easy to like and root for and their romance is – for the most part – beautifully done.  Daniel is genuine and warm-hearted, a bit idealistic and a romantic at heart, while Gennady is possessed of a quick, dry wit, and his enthusiasm for American experiences and fascination with everything new he learns is infectious and totally endearing.  Their discussions about the differences between the US and the USSR are clever and insightful (and often dryly funny); Gennady’s reactions to Americanism and capitalism are interesting, and even though we never see him at home in the USSR, the author does convey a strong sense of what his life there is like.

Honeytrap is a clever,  engrossing read that’s unlike anything I’ve read before.  It’s not perfect – the pacing is uneven and the time jumps are a bit hard to adjust to – but it’s still one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’ll certainly be looking for more from this author.

Best Laid Plaids (Kilty Pleasures #1) by Ella Stainton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Scotland, 1928

Dr. Ainsley Graham is cultivating a reputation as an eccentric.

Two years ago, he catastrophically ended his academic career by publicly claiming to talk to ghosts. When Joachim Cockburn, a WWI veteran studying the power of delusional thinking, arrives at his door, Ainsley quickly catalogues him as yet another tiresome Englishman determined to mock his life’s work.

But Joachim is tenacious and openhearted, and Ainsley’s intrigued despite himself. He agrees to motor his handsome new friend around to Scotland’s most unmistakable hauntings. If he can convince Joachim, Ainsley might be able to win back his good name and then some. He knows he’s not crazy—he just needs someone else to know it, too.

Joachim is one thesis away from realizing his dream of becoming a psychology professor, and he’s not going to let anyone stop him, not even an enchanting ginger with a penchant for tartan and lewd jokes. But as the two travel across Scotland’s lovely—and definitely, definitely haunted—landscape, Joachim’s resolve starts to melt. And he’s beginning to think that an empty teaching post without the charming Dr. Graham would make a very poor consolation prize indeed…

Rating: C+

Best Laid Plaids is the first book in a new series of historical romances set in 1920s Scotland by début author Ella Stainton.  The blurb promised a romance between an eccentric former academic who trashed his career when he announced he could talk to ghosts and a war veteran turned PhD student who is writing his thesis on the power of delusional thinking, and a road-trip around Scotland’s lovely—and definitely, definitely haunted—landscape.  It sounded like a winning combination.  But perhaps my expectations were too high;  I was hoping for creepiness and chills akin to those in The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal or Spectred Isle – but it was all pretty insipid with nary a fright in sight, and the opposites-attract romance is basically a book-long case of insta-lust with no real relationship development to go with it.

Joachim Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn) is a psychologist preparing to write his PhD thesis on the manifestation of delusions in those otherwise accounted as sane.   His friend and mentor  Dr. Stuart Graham arranges for him to stay at his family home in Fifeshire, in order to spend some time with his brother Ainsley, “a certified genius with no sense of self-preservation, whatsoever”, who committed career suicide a couple of years earlier when he admitted he spoke to ghosts on a daily basis.  Joachim is prepared to meet an eccentric; he doesn’t expect to be greeted by the most gorgeous young man he’s ever seen – or to be propositioned by him.

Ainsley is immediately taken with the big, braw man from Durham – and immediately mistaken as to his identity, believing him to be the man with whom his best friend Barley is infatuated.  Barley has asked Ainsley to ascertain if the object of his affections is attracted to men and Ainsley sets about his task with gusto, until the penny drops and he realises he’s made a horrendous mistake.  Fortunately, his visitor doesn’t run away screaming, and, the misunderstanding cleared up, they talk about why Joachim is there, and Ainsley offers to drive him to a few places legend says are haunted.   Perhaps, if he takes Cockburn to see spirits that even sceptics can see, he’ll have to admit that Ainsley isn’t mad.  After all, if he’s there to use Ainsley for his research, it’s only fair that Ainsley gets to use him back.

That’s the set up, and most of the events of the story take place over the next few days as Ainsley and Joachim embark upon their ghostly tour.  They start in a medieval road buried under the city of Edinburgh, then move to a remote field where there’s a Thing In A Hedge whose “presence makes you feel as though you’re slipped inside an icy cold nog and you’ll never get out.”  But just telling me that doesn’t make it so; I was waiting for something truly spooky to happen… and it didn’t.  In fact, the only thing that happens on that night is Ainsley and Joachim getting it on in a tent.   Which they then proceed to do at pretty much every opportunity – although no more tents are involved!

The characters themselves are quite charming, but as I write this review, I’m having trouble recalling what actually happens in this story. Ainsley and Joachim look for ghosts and have a lot of sex is the best I can come up with. Ainsley is handsome and mercurial, witty and winsome, with a penchant for tartan and bawdy jokes; he’s highly intelligent, earned his doctorate at twenty-four, and is a leading expert on British folklore. Joachim is his opposite, both physically and temperamentally, taciturn where Ainsley is talkative, circumspect where Ainsley is impulsive. Both men are struggling – Ainsley with guilt over the death of his brother and because he’s itching to get back to his research and writing, Joachim because he’s still grieving the loss of his wartime lover and despairs of ever finding that sort of connection again – and Ainsley is obviously more than ‘eccentric’; he has what we’d today recognise as ADHD and often has difficulty remaining focused and in the now.

But even though Joachim works out ways to help Ainsley with his concentration quite quickly, there is no sense of a real emotional connection between the pair. Reading the teaser chapter for book two, I see Ainsley and Joachim are the leads once again, so why rush them into bed (and so often)? A series allows time for an author to develop an actual relationship and for lots of lovely sexual tension; instead, we get sex scene after sex scene, each one stretched over two chapters (the author seems to think we have to read each one from both PoVs). It’s true that they both tell themselves that this is only a week-long fling, so I suppose one could argue they’re getting it while they can (!) But it’s still too much too soon. They don’t really talk until fairly late in the book – about the effect that the publication of Joachim’s thesis could have on Ainsley’s life and mental state, or the fact that they’re developing feelings for one another and don’t want things to end between them (and can’t admit it) – and I couldn’t help wishing that they’d stopped fucking long enough to have an actual substantive conversation.

There was one thing about the writing that drove me completely nuts. Ainsley – who is auburn-haired – is constantly referred to as “the/his ginger”. I’m not sure when the word “ginger” started to be used as a noun rather than an adjective, but I suspect it’s more recently than 1928. But historically accurate or not, it’s overused to a ridiculous degree. I also had issues with some of the terminology – Joachim isn’t at “school”, he’s at university – and we don’t “shift” when driving, we change gear. Then there’s the name Cockburn, which I’m guessing the author chose for comedy value despite knowing its correct pronunciation – but as it’s written down any potential joke falls flat and isn’t remotely funny.

Best Laid Plaids had great potential, but falls down in the execution. If you take out all the sex scenes, there might be enough material left over to fill a novella; the plot is sketchy to say the least, there aren’t many ghosts (and they’re not all that scary) and I wasn’t convinced there was much more than physical attraction between the leads until really, really late on. On the plus side, the characters are engaging and they make a good couple, their differences complementing one another – and when the ghosts do actually show up, they provide some really poignant and emotional moments.

As I said at the beginning, perhaps part of my disappointment with the book can be accounted for by too-high expectations. But that doesn’t excuse the focus on sex at the expense of relationship and plot or the writing quirks that should have been ironed out during the editing process.

I can’t quite recommend Best Laid Plaids, but I might read the next book to see if the author is able to develop her ideas and characters more successfully next time.