The Missing Page (Page & Sommers #2) by Cat Sebastian

the missing page

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When James learns that an uncle he hasn’t heard from in ages has left him something in his will, he figures that the least he can do is head down to Cornwall for a weekend to honor the old man’s parting wishes. He finds the family home filled with half-remembered guests and unwanted memories, but more troubling is that his uncle has tasked his heirs with uncovering the truth behind a woman’s disappearance twenty years earlier.

Leo doesn’t like any of it. He’s just returned from one of his less pleasant missions and maybe he’s slightly paranoid about James’s safety, but he’s of the opinion that rich people aren’t to be trusted where wills are concerned. So he does what any sensible spy would do and infiltrates the house party.

Together they unravel a mystery that exposes long-standing family secrets and threatens to involve James more than either of them would like.

Rating: B

The Missing Page is the second book to feature country doctor James Sommers and spy Leo Page, whom we first met in Hither, Page, a cosy mystery  (sort of – true cosies aren’t supposed to include sex or swearing and there’s a little bit of both here!) set in a sleepy English village a few years after the end of World War II.  That book came out in 2019, so we’ve had a bit of a wait for this sequel, but it was worth it; The Missing Page is a charming, clever and none-too serious riff on the classic Country House Mystery in which we learn more about James’ past when he visits the childhood home to which he hasn’t returned in twenty years.

By the time the book begins, Leo has been ‘lodging’ in James’ house in Wychcomb St. Mary for over a year, and they’ve settled into a kind of domesticity neither had ever thought to have, although Leo’s job as a government agent takes him away fairly often.  James is eagerly awaiting Leo’s return from his most recent mission – but shortly before he’s due back, James receives a letter advising him of the death of his uncle, Rupert Bellamy, and asking him to be present at the reading of the will at the family home in Cornwall.   James spent many summers at Blackthorn as a child following the death of his parents, but was whisked away following a family tragedy in 1927 and was never invited back.

James is greeted by his cousin Martha, who had kept house for their uncle for as long as James can remember, and finds Rupert’s surviving daughter, James’ cousin Camilla, her husband Sir Anthony – a Harley Street doctor – and their daughter Lilah, whom he’s surprised to recognise as a famous actress, already gathered together, as well as a woman he doesn’t know at all, who is introduced as Madame Fournier.  The bequests are surprisingly small, until the very end, when the family solicitor reads the final appendix stating that the bulk of the estate will go to whoever can discover what really happened to Rupert’s other daughter Rose on 1st August 1927.  Rose is widely believed to have drowned that day, although there were lots of other rumours in circulation – she took her own life, she ran off with the chauffeur or the vicar, she was murdered  – among them, but Rose’s body was never found and nothing conclusive was ever discovered.

When Leo – exhausted after a very long journey – returns to Wychcomb St. Mary to find James gone, he pays a visit to their friends, former spies Cora and Edith, hoping that perhaps he’ll find James there.  When the ladies tell him where James has gone and why, Leo becomes concerned, especially at learning James had been present on the day that Rose Bellamy is thought to have died, worried at what memories being back there might stir up. Leo wastes no time in following James to Cornwall, determined to do whatever he can to help.

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

Limelight (Vino and Veritas #15) by E. Davies (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

limelight

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Save the bees, ride a rock star.

Formerly famous…and planning to keep it that way.

After my band kicked me out, I ran away to Vermont, changed my name, and kept my head down. So far, it’s working and nobody knows who I am. Or who I was. Until I see geeky poet Caleb stumbling through his first open mic night and I can’t help rescuing him. He’s as sweet as the honey my bees make and sexy enough to make me rethink so many things. But I can’t tell him my secret, or I’ll lose the anonymous life I worked so hard to build.

Everyone warns me he’s too good to be true.

I can’t believe a gorgeous, successful winemaker like Tag is into shy, geeky little accountant me. But he helps me blossom and believe in my talent, and works his way into my heart and my bed…not necessarily in that order. I’m falling for a man for the first time, and now I know what the missing number in my equation has always been.

When lies are revealed, though, someone’s going to get stung….

Rating: Narration – A; Content – D+

It’s no secret around here that I’ll listen to Greg Boudreaux read just about anything. He’s the main reason I picked up Limelight (the fifteenth book in the multi-authored Vino and Veritas series) – and having listened to and read several of the other books in the set, I believed the story in this one should at least be fairly decent. Oh, how wrong I was. Limelight is six-and-a-half hours of no story, ridiculously contrived (minimal) conflict, overblown and sentimental dialogue and instalove – and if I hadn’t been listening to it for review, I’d have DNF’d well before the halfway mark.

The story – such as it is – is this. Some years before it begins, Tag Campbell – aka the artist formerly known as Titus Taylor – was a member of a world famous, hugely successful rock band. But when creative differences led to his bandmates forcing him out (in a very public, unprofessional and hurtful way), he ran away to Vermont, changed his name, kept his head down, and for the past few years, has run a small farm near Burlington where he keeps bees and makes mead which he sells to, among other places, the Vino and Veritas wine bar. He’s just made a delivery there one evening and is about to head out when his eye is caught by a head of bright blond curls and the young man they belong to as he steps up to the microphone on stage.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

White Trash Warlock (Adam Binder #1) by David R. Slayton (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael David Axtell

white trash warlock

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Not all magicians go to schools of magic.

Adam Binder has the Sight. It’s a power that runs in his bloodline: the ability to see beyond this world and into another, a realm of magic populated by elves, gnomes, and spirits of every kind. But for much of Adam’s life, that power has been a curse, hindering friendships, worrying his backwoods family, and fueling his abusive father’s rage.

Years after his brother, Bobby, had him committed to a psych ward, Adam is ready to come to grips with who he is, to live his life on his terms, to find love, and maybe even use his magic to do some good. Hoping to track down his missing father, Adam follows a trail of cursed artifacts to Denver, only to discover that an ancient and horrifying spirit has taken possession of Bobby’s wife.

It isn’t long before Adam becomes the spirit’s next target. To survive the confrontation, save his sister-in-law, and learn the truth about his father, Adam will have to risk bargaining with very dangerous beings…including his first love.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content ; A-

David R. Slayton’s White Trash Warlock was recommended to me a while back (by Gregory Ashe, no less) so when I saw it in the Audible Plus catalogue, I pounced on it  – and I’m so glad I did, because I was completely glued to it for the entire nine-and-a-bit hours of its run-time.  The story is inventive, the central character is flawed, complex and captivating (just how I like ‘em!) and the narration is really good, so it was a win all round.

Adam Binder has low-level psychic and magical abilities that are often more of a burden than a gift.  Aged just twenty, he lives with his Great-Aunt Sue in Guthrie, Oklahoma and is estranged from the rest of his family; his father left when he was young, his mother doesn’t seem to care and he hasn’t seen his brother Robert (now a doctor in Denver) since Robert had him committed to an institution at thirteen because Adam was hearing voices.  Adam got out as soon as he turned eighteen and now spends much of his time tracking down and destroying dangerous magical artefacts and trying to find their creator, a warlock he suspects may be his father.

Given their estrangement, Robert is the last person Adam expects to hear from – even less does he expect a request for help.  Robert’s wife Annie has begun behaving extremely erratically and Robert has seen things in her behaviour that suggest to him that whatever is wrong with her may be something supernatural.  He asks Adam to come to Denver to do what he can to help; Adam is reluctant but he goes.  Whatever is wrong, Annie doesn’t deserve it – and also, he has a lead that points to the artefacts he’s been searching for originating from somewhere in Denver.

The reunion between the brothers – and Adam and their mother – is uneasy at best, but when Adam sees Annie, he realises she’s possessed by some sort of spirit entity.  A visit to the hospital where Robert works reveals a connection between it and the spirit – while he’s looking around, the spirit tries to kill Adam, and when a couple of cops inadvertently get in the way and one of them is killed,  Adam manages to save the life of the other by giving him a strand of his own life-force, making it impossible for the Reaper to claim him and unwittingly creating a bond between himself and the young police officer.

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

If You Love Something by Jayce Ellis

if you love something

This title may be purchased from Amazon

As executive chef at one of the hottest restaurants in DC, DeShawn Franklin has almost everything he’s ever wanted. He’s well-known, his restaurant is Michelin starred and he can write his own ticket anywhere he wants. Until his grandmother calls him home and drops two bombshells:

1) She has cancer and she’s not seeking treatment.

2) She’s willing half her estate to DeShawn’s ex-husband, Malik.

Make that three bombshells. 

3) That whole divorce thing? It didn’t quite go through. DeShawn and Malik are still married.

And when DeShawn’s shady uncle contests Grandma’s will, there’s only one path back to justice: play it like he and Malik have reconciled. They need to act like a married couple just long enough to dispense with the lawsuit.

Once DeShawn is back in Malik’s orbit, it’s not hard to remember why they parted. All the reasons he walked away remain—but so do all the reasons he fell in love in the first place.

Rating: B-

I’ve been meaning to read one of Jayce Ellis’ m/m romances for a while, so I was happy to pick up her latest – If You Love Something – for review. It’s an easy, sexy/sweet, low-angst read – nothing spectacular or outstanding, but the engaging writing and likeable characters kept me reading and were enough for me to be able to offer a recommendation.

Michelin-starred chef DeShawn Franklin is living his dream as Executive Chef at a trendy Washington DC restaurant.  He’s something of a local celebrity and is at the top of his profession, although the fact that as EC, he doesn’t get to cook all that often isn’t something he’d banked on, and nor are the continual requests (read: orders) from management for him to film TV segments and make public appearances.  It is what it is though, and he goes along with it with (mostly) good grace.  But a call from his beloved grandmother telling him she isn’t going to seek treatment for her cancer suddenly turns his world upside down.  He drops everything and rushes to her side – where she informs him that she’s leaving him her house – the home DeShawn grew up in – in her will, and all her liquid assets will go to Malik, DeShawn’s ex-husband.  DeShawn knows his grandmother was very fond of Malik and has stayed in touch with him, but those bequests mean she’s leaving nothing to her son, DeShawn’s uncle Robert – which Robert isn’t going to be pleased about.

As if all this news isn’t enough of a bombshell, there’s one more important thing DeShawn needs to know in order to be prepared for the trouble Robert will inevitably stir up.  Although he and Malik filed for divorce seven years before, there was a problem with the paperwork and the divorce never actually went through.  He and Malik are still married.

After the (not)divorce, Malik Franklin returned home to help run his struggling family restaurant alongside his brother James and sister Sheila.  He’s never told his family about his marriage to DeShawn, mostly because it was over before he came out to them as gay, and coming out was difficult enough, without having to explain his marriage – and why he wasn’t married any longer.  He’s never really got over DeShawn and tells himself that letting him go all those years ago was the right thing to do.  Back then, DeShawn was a talented sous chef with big ambitions and bigger dreams, and when things started to take off for him, Malik realised he could never be the husband DeShawn needed, especially as he wasn’t ready to come out.

“I couldn’t let him give up his future to deal with my present.  He deserved so much more.  And the only way I could give it to him was to let him go”.

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

Crash Site (Fiona Carver #2) by Rachel Grant

crash site

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Fiona Carver has landed a dream assignment: conducting an archaeological inventory of Ruby Island, a privately owned, pristine gem in the Caribbean. Two months in paradise exploring and mapping a lush rainforest, vast caves, and a seventeenth-century star fort and following up on legends of hidden Spanish gold. Add a simmering reunion with wildlife photographer Dean Slater and it’s enough to take Fiona’s breath away. But the sparkle fades when Dean’s arrival is met with sudden, terrifying danger.

Reunited and determined to see the project through, Fiona and Dean find themselves in a swirl of intrigue as they delve into the complex history of the unspoiled refuge, now a tropical haven for billionaires and their secrets. But the work isn’t easy, as someone appears determined to kill the project—by any means necessary.

As betrayal casts tropical storm clouds over Ruby Island and treasured friendships dissolve into distrust, one thing becomes clear: Fiona and Dean are trapped in a dangerous paradise.

Rating: B

The second in Rachel Grant’s Fiona Carver series, Crash Site is the sequel to 2021’s Dangerous Ground, and it picks up around nine months after the events of the first book.  Although the mystery/suspense plot here is self-contained, the central relationship between the two leads was left unresolved at the end of Dangerous Ground, so I’d advise anyone interested in this one to read that first.  And that being the case, there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Naval Archaeologist Fiona Carver has landed herself a dream job on the gorgeous, privately owned (and fictional) Ruby Island in the Caribbean where, together with two other archaeologists, she has been employed to conduct an archaeological inventory of the island and its seventeenth century fort –which comes complete with legends of hidden Spanish gold.  Fiona has known its wealthy owner Jude Reynolds (the island has been owned by his family for generations) for over a decade, from when they met as fellow students at archaeological field school – although they’re not exactly friends; she went on a date with him back then but he behaved like a complete tosser and she hasn’t seen him since.  But the Ruby Island job was just too good to pass up – especially as Jude’s wealth means there will be no budget worries, and he genuinely cares about the work.  He also seems to be working hard to convince Fiona that he’s not the same selfish, entitled brat he was back then – but Fiona isn’t sure how to feel about that.  Sure, Jude is handsome and rich, he’s interested in her and understands her work… but she’s hung-up on someone else.

Wildlife photographer Dean Slater had been on the remote Alaskan island of Chiksook trying to find out what happened to his missing brother Dylan when he and Fiona found themselves stranded in a hostile environment and forced to rely on each other in order to survive (Dangerous Ground). The adrenaline-fuelled days they spent together engendered a real trust and closeness between them, and fed the flames of the mutual attraction that had sparked between them from their first meeting – although a basic incompatibility in their approach to sex and relationships seemed destined to separate them.  Dean is unwilling to risk experiencing the hurt and devastation he felt on the death of his beloved wife from a brain tumor a decade earlier and made it very clear that he doesn’t do relationships, while Fiona has never been one for NSA sex or short-lived flings. It’s clear by the end of the book that they’re head-over-heels for one another, but Dean is adamant that he’s not about to break his no relationships rule and they part, both of them obviously unhappy and not expecting to see each other again.

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

Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin

proper scoundrels

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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: A-

Allie Therin’s Magic and Manhattan series concluded earlier this year with Wonderstruck, leaving Rory and Arthur in a good place, disposing of the evil Baron Zeppler and nicely tying up the major plotlines.  Despite a few quibbles, I enjoyed all three books, so I was pleased to learn the author was writing another novel set in the same universe, but featuring different lead characters and a different setting.  In Proper Scoundrels the action switches from New York to London (and Yorkshire), and we catch up with Lord Wesley Fine – Arthur Kenzie’s former lover – and Sebastian de Leon,  a powerful paranormal whose particular abilities made him a valuable asset to the bad guys – both of whom had major parts to play in Wonderstruck.  Although Proper Scoundrels is a standalone novel, I would strongly advise anyone thinking about picking it up to read the Magic in Manhattan series first in order to understand the character backstories and magical systems and world the author has created.

The action picks up shortly after the end of Wonderstruck, where we find Sebastian living in London, where he’s retreated to lick his wounds after spending three years enslaved by the blood magic practiced by Baron Keppler.  He’s weighed down by guilt for the things he was forced to do while under the Baron’s control and is desperate to find ways to atone.  He’s damaged, scared and alone, having deliberately distanced himself from friends and family because he believes himself unworthy of affection, happiness or redemption.

Wesley, Lord Fine, is also back in London and is at something of a loose end. Like Sebastian, he feels like an outsider, his experiences of war putting him forever out of step with those around him.   He’s a self-confessed scoundrel; jaded, cynical, arrogant and often deliberately rude, he despises nearly everyone and everything.  Despite his involvement with the events of Wonderstruck, he has no idea of the existence of magic and the paranormal world – and no inkling that his Kensington home is under magical protection or that Sebastian regularly passes by to make sure that Arthur’s aristocratic friend [isn’t] in any danger owing to his association with Arthur and Rory.

One evening, Sebastian receives a note from Jade Robbins containing a list of the dates of three recent unexplained murders and asking him to meet her.  He grasps the implications immediately – whoever is committing these murders is a paranormal; his conversation with Jade and her partner, Zhang, confirms this and also suggests the perpetrator may be the man responsible for the theft of a number of valuable and dangerous magical artefacts belonging to Sebastian’s family, the Earl of Blanshard.  And among the guests at the last party the earl held at his Yorkshire estate was Wesley, Viscount Fine.  Could he be the paranormal murderer’s next target?

Proper Scoundrels is superbly plotted and perfectly paced, and there’s what I can only describe as an overall air of confidence to the writing and storytelling that wasn’t quite there in the author’s previous work. The romance is given the time to develop and the attraction between Wesley and Sebastian made a lot more sense right off the bat than the romance between Rory and Arthur, who felt so very mis-matched until quite late in their series.  Wesley and Sebastian may be polar opposites, but  their relationship doesn’t suffer from the same feeling of inequality; the push-pull of their attraction, their individual trauma and coping mechanisms, and the amount of growth they go through as characters makes their romance – across one single title – very believable and deeply satisfying.

Wesley and Sebastian are as compelling as individuals as they are as a couple and I liked both of them very much – although it’s Wesley who really stole the show for me.  I loved his sharp and very distinctive narrative voice; he’s under no illusions about himself – unless it’s about his hard-heartedness and inability to love – and his irritation with himself over his attraction to Sebastian is funny and leaps off the page.  He’s every bit the arrogant, rude, snarky, cantankerous arsehole he was in the previous books, but there’s a depth and vulnerability to him that he’d never admit to, and he’s brave, open-minded, witty and generous to those few he truly cares about.  I enjoyed watching him decide that maybe caring for someone – and allowing someone to care for him – might be worth it after all.  Sebastian has been through a lot and is suffering from what we’d recognise as PTSD as a result, but he isn’t prepared to cut himself any slack and blames himself for all the things he did while in thrall to Baron Keppler, even though he had absolutely no choice in the matter.    He’s unfailingly kind and considerate – Jade is spot on when she calls him a “dangerous marshmallow” – and will fight to the death to protect those around him – especially sharp-tongued, non-magical viscounts  – but he’s no pushover.  I just loved watching these two lonely, damaged men slowly growing closer and allowing the other to see things about themselves they allow no-one else to see. Their chemistry is off-the-charts and they light up the pages when they’re together, Wesley’s acerbity the perfect counterpoint to Sebastian’s sweetness.

Having bemoaned the fade-to-black sex scenes in the Magic in Manhattan books because I felt the author missed an opportunity to add depth to the romance, I was pleased at the inclusion of on-page scenes of sexual intimacy here.  These moments between Wesley and Sebastian feel absolutely appropriate for the relationship and the characters and definitely add depth to their emotional connection.

While Arthur and Rory are namechecked a few times, they don’t actually appear on the page – which I think was the right decision, as this story belongs entirely to Wesley and Sebastian – I was delighted to see Jade and Zhang again; they’re terrific characters and I enjoyed their interactions with the two leads and seeing them playing important roles in the story.

Proper Scoundrels is my favourite of Ms. Therin’s books so far and I raced through it in a couple of sittings.  The two leads are compelling, well-developed characters who grab the attention right from the start, the mystery plot is well-executed and overall, it feels as though the author has taken all the really good things from the first three books and made them even stronger.  It’s my final DIK of 2021, and I have no hesitation in wholeheartedly recommending it.

Burning Season (Wild Ones #3) by Rachel Ember

burning season

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The year is 1972. Dylan Chase is nineteen, and most days he’s lucky enough to ride a tough bronc, have a beer with his friends, and maybe even sleep under the stars on his family’s third-generation cattle ranch.

Dylan’s life would be perfect if it weren’t for his forbidden itch. An itch he’s only scratched once… with Bo, a hitchhiker he never thought he’d see again. When Bo shows up as the new hire at a neighboring ranch, Dylan is sure his almost-perfect life is about to implode.

After the calves are driven out to the spring pastures, Bo will move on to California. Dylan just has to hold it together until then… if he can.

But Bo can soothe a restless horse with a touch and keeps a battered book of poems in his saddle bag. And the more Dylan learns about him, the more he wants Bo—and the less he wants Bo to go, damn the risk.

Rating: B

I’ve categorised Rachel Ember’s Burning Season as an historical romance – although it feels utterly weird to use the word ‘historical’ to describe a story that takes place during my lifetime!  Set in 1972 (when I was eight!) it’s the third published book in the author’s Wild Ones series, but is the first chronologically; I believe the two leads appear as secondary characters in the first two books (which I have yet to read)  but it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Burning Season is a quiet, uplifting story about being brave and being yourself, with a sweet and sensual romance of at its centre.

Bronc rider Dylan Chase is nineteen and while he’s pretty sure he’s queer, he hasn’t ever had the chance to explore his sexuality.  While away from home on a trip to Texas to take part in the rodeo, he decides to visit a club he’s heard about, a club for men who ‘like’ men – but he gets part of the way there and loses his nerve.  On the drive back to his motel, he picks up a hitchhiker, Bo Bailey, who is headed to the rodeo to try to find a job.  There’s an immediate frisson of attraction between them, which leads to some steamy, stolen moments that bring both revelation and sorrow.  Dylan has never been with a guy, but the connection he feels with Bo – and the sex – is like nothing he’d imagined.  But they’re unlikely to ever meet again.

Fate, however, has other ideas.  Dylan and his friend Glen are about to depart to head back to Nebraska and home when Glen realises he’s lost his wallet and decides to go back to the rodeo grounds to see if anyone has found it.  Waiting for Glen in the truck, Dylan dozes off, only to awaken once they start moving again – and to discover they’ve picked up a familiar passenger.  It turns out Bo found Glen’s wallet and was already asking around to find who it belonged to so he could return it; he and Glen got chatting and Glen offered Bo some temporary work on his dad’s ranch, which borders the one owned by Dylan’s family.

The thought of being able to spend time with Bo produces a mixture of fear and elation in Dylan.  Being gay in 1972 isn’t illegal, but in the sort of conservative, close-knit community Dylan comes from, it’s not acceptable and coming out would certainly make life difficult and could even put him at risk.  Dylan doesn’t want anyone to know the truth about him – and Bo makes it clear he has no intention of saying anything to anyone – but Dylan also can’t help being excited at the thought of being around Bo for longer and maybe getting to do … more of what they’d done the night they met.

The romance between Dylan and Bo is a sweet slow-burn with lots of well-written longing and sexual tension, and I enjoyed watching the pair get to know each other and their relationship transition from heady infatuation and sexual exploration to love over the following weeks.   Bo is, perhaps, wise beyond his years, but I liked his combination of calm and fierceness; he’s very laid back in many ways, but is no pushover and firmly believes that there’s nothing at all unnatural in his attraction to men (this is 1972, remember) and in his desire to do whatever is best for Dylan – even if it means not being able to be with him openly.  There’s a strong emotional connection and plenty of chemistry between them, although as the story is told almost entirely through Dylan’s PoV*, Bo does remain somewhat enigmatic throughout.  But this is really Dylan’s story and the author does a great job presenting him as a complex, rounded character who is torn between loyalty to his family and the life he’s always believed he’d have (and resigned himself to) and the sudden and new prospect of living a different, more honest and open one with someone he loves at his side.

The family dynamics are well-done, too, the loving, tight-knit, multi-generational family unit containing the sorts of fault-lines and conflicts that we can all relate to, and the author’s gift for evocative description shines through as she paints a detailed picture of the landscapes and the day-to-day life of the folks on a ranch.  In fact the only part of the setting I can fault is the chronological one;  apart from the absence of mobile phones and computers, there’s nothing that really screams “1972” to me – although I freely admit that, as a non-American, and someone completely unfamiliar with how ranchers and cowboys live, there may well have been indicators I missed.

The secondary cast, from Dylan’s dictatorial grandfather (whose machinations and manipulations are a large reason for those conflicts and fault-lines I mentioned) to his exasperated and grouchy brother Rob and best friend Glen, is well-drawn and adds richness to the story, and while there is period-appropriate homophobia, it’ mostly implied, which makes it more impactful when it happens (briefly) on the page.

The epilogue set fifty years in the future (i.e, now) is cute, as we check in with a much older Bo and Dylan, and also acts as a teaser for the next book in the series, so there’s a little bit of a cliffie, but it’s not one that will affect your enjoyment of the story.

This isn’t Rachel Ember’s first published book, but she’s a new-to-me author and definitely one whose work I intend to read more of.  Burning Season is a beautifully written, charming and poignant love story featuring engaging, well-drawn characters and a skilfully realised setting.  I’m happy to recommend it.

* The prologue – which details the initial meeting between Bo and Dylan -is told from Bo’s perspective and was originally released as the novella Sweat, Leather and Lipstick.

Crooked Shadows (Whitethorn Agency #2) by M.A. Grant

crooked shadows

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Everyone has secrets. Especially those who live in the shadows.

Cristian Slava doesn’t fear much. After he was betrayed by the man he called an uncle, leaving upstate New York for the Carpathian Mountains of his childhood is more a matter of practicality than fear. With him is Atlas Kinkaid, a former marine turned fierce bodyguard…and fierce lover, albeit a hell of a complicated one.

Cristian’s cunning is tested by the politics and intrigue of the vampire families of Romania, and the warm welcome he and Atlas were assured of quickly turns to ash as they race to unravel the mystery of an old friend’s disappearance. Searching for the missing vampire draws them into a web of betrayal and half-truths that reaches further than Cristian ever could have imagined, and they uncover a string of grisly murders that bear a striking similarity to the attack that changed Atlas’s life forever.

Stalked by the past and uncertain of the future, Cristian learns he does have something to fear after all…

Losing the man he loves.

Rating: A-

Crooked Shadows is the second intriguing and exciting instalment in M.A. Grant’s paranormal/urban fantasy Whitethorn Security series, and as it picks up immediately after the first book – Rare Vigilance – ended, I’d strongly advise reading that before jumping into this one or you’ll be a bit lost.

Note: There are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Rare Vigilance ended with its two protagonists, Cristian Slava and Atlas Kincaid, about to go on the run following an attack by the strigoi – a terrifying creature that even vampires fear – at Cristian’s family home.  Barely escaping with their lives, they need to find whoever is controlling the strigoi, stop them, and in the process, prove that Cristian’s father isn’t responsible for their creation and prevent his overthrow by the ruling Council. They’re both convinced that the Wharrams – Cristian’s mother’s family – are behind the increased strigoi activity and the attack on Decebal Vladislavic’s nest, and they travel to Romania intending to find out more about the creatures and to seek help from Decebal’s allies there.

It’s apparent from the moment they arrive that neither of those things is going to be easy.  Cristian and Atlas have to navigate the complex and dangerous politics of the vampire world at every turn, never knowing who to trust and forever looking over their shoulders for the next betrayal.  The author does a fantastic job here of creating and sustaining an atmosphere of uncertainty and near-paranoia and conveying just how exhausting and knife-edged a situation the two men are facing.  Their first port of call is to meet with Voivode Mehai, a former associate of Decebal’s who, if not precisely a friend, should at least offer Cristian basic courtesy and safe passage through his territory.

But even more bad news awaits them.  Mehai’s son Radu – a friend of Cristian’s – disappeared while investigating a recent spate of attacks and killings in their territory, attacks which result in injuries which could only have been caused by strigoi – and now the Council is about to pay Mehai a visit not to help, but to attempt to assign blame for the current rise in violence to him and his leadership.  With the Council members – including Theo Wharram – due to arrive any day, it’s imperative that Atlas and Cristian leave as soon as possible. The timing of the Council’s visit and Radu’s disappearance can’t be coincidental; if Radu has learned something that could help Mehai prove his innocence to the Council, they’d want him out of the way.  Cristian tells Mehai that he and Atlas will search for Radu, hoping to bring him back in time for whatever information he’s found to be of use.

M.A. Grant really ramps up the action in this book; there’s danger on all sides and Atlas and Cristian are forced to confront some of their deepest fears and to rely on each other as never before.  The relationship they began to develop in Rare Vigilance is still on somewhat shaky ground emotionally – for a number of reasons – and everything they go through in this story really pushes at its boundaries and tests its limits.  This book is more action-focused than the previous one, but it does include some solid relationship development, with a deeper, stronger connection gradually forming between the two men as they face ordeal after ordeal together.

The PoV in this book switches to Cristian (Rare Vigilance was told solely from Atlas’ perspective) which brings him into much sharper focus than before, when he was quite enigmatic for most of the story.  When I reviewed that book, I said that there were hints at a different man behind the cocky exterior, and those words are borne out here as we see a much more thoughtful, gentler side to Cristian.  He’s clearly head-over-heels for Atlas but fears Atlas doesn’t feel as deeply for him, and I loved seeing that vulnerable side of Cristian, and how he tries so hard to be patient and open with Atlas, and encourage a similar openness in him.  He worried that bringing Atlas back to the place he and his unit were attacked was bound to bring back horrific memories that would trigger Atlas’ PTSD, but he will do whatever is necessary to keep Atlas safe – from his nightmares and from whatever creatures are lurking in the woods.

I really enjoyed this instalment in the series, but there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me.  The first part is a little slow in places, and although I absolutely love stories that feature intrigue and political manouevering, I occasionally had trouble keeping track of who was who and how they related to each other.  And then there’s the sudden switch from Cristian’s to Atlas’ PoV at around the 90% mark.  For spoilery reasons I won’t go in to, there was no other way for the author to continue the story, but it was jarring nonetheless.

Crooked Shadows is otherwise a terrific follow-up to Rare Vigilance.  It’s thrilling and sexy, with plenty of high-stakes action as well as some lovely, tender moments between the two leads. Be warned, however, that it ends on a real humdinger of a cliffhanger, one that is sure to complicate our heroes’ lives still further and plunge them into yet more danger in book three.  I’ll definitely be here for that when it’s released in 2022.

Not So Silent Night by H.L. Day

not so silent night

This title may be purchased from Amazon

One grumpy patient. One unconventional nurse. Twenty-two reindeer later.

Things aren’t great for Xander Cole. It’s Christmas, he’s fractured his pelvis on a skiing trip he never wanted to go on, and his on/off boyfriend is most definitely off. No wonder he’s not exactly full of festive cheer.

Ferris Night isn’t having much luck either. His plan to take a break from work before starting a new job has been wrecked by a flooded flat. With nowhere to stay, he grabs the opportunity for a job as a live-in nurse with both hands. After all, how hard can it be?

Xander doesn’t need a nurse. Especially one who’s far too flirty, far too attractive, far too into Christmas, and far too good at getting his own way. But Ferris has never faced a challenge that couldn’t be overcome with a bit of charm and perseverance. It doesn’t matter how attractive Xander might be. He’s immune. Maybe.

As banter and sparring between the two men turn into more, a nurse might not be needed, but both men could be in for a fresh start to the new year.

Rating: B

Looking for a cute, frothy and fun Christmassy love story with a grumpy/sunshine pairing, lots of humour, a gazillion pink and purple reindeer and an Avengers/Star Wars Nativity set?  You are?  Good!  Look no further than H.L Day’s Not So Silent Night, a delightfully witty and charming  romance that is just the thing for whiling away a few hours on a dark, winter evening.

Model Xander Cole never wanted to go on a ski-ing trip to the Swiss Alps – he’d rather have been on a beach in Acapulco working on his tan and drinking cocktails – and only agreed to go because he couldn’t face the amount of sulking his on/off boyfriend Harvey would have subjected him to otherwise. It turns out Xander should have stuck to his guns; an accident on the slopes sees him land in hospital with a fractured pelvis.  His brother Miles escorts Xander back to England, and offers to spend Christmas with him; but Xander refuses, knowing how much Miles wants to see his kids, who live with their mother in Spain.  He hasn’t seen Harvey since he made a whirlwind visit to his hospital room on the way to his next booking, so Xander is looking forward to a pretty lonely Christmas.

Ferris Night, a nurse at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, gets back to his flat after finishing his last ever shift at St. Thomas’  (he’s moving to a new job in January) to find the place flooded as the result of a leak upstairs.  His new place won’t be ready for him to move into for a few weeks, and he’s reluctant to stay with his mum, whose sleazy boyfriend has made it clear on numerous occasions that he wouldn’t mind shagging both mother AND son.  Ferris resigns himself to a few nights couch-surfing with friends, not a particularly enticing prospect so close to Christmas.  But then a phone call from a friend of a friend of a friend (etc.) offers a solution to his problem – this friend urgently needs a live-in nurse for his brother, who has fractured his pelvis.  Ferris is surprised when he meets Miles – he’d expected someone a lot older – and more surprised when he learns Xander is something of a celebrity.  Not that it bothers him.  It’s a job and, more importantly, a roof over his head.

That’s the set up for this thoroughly entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud romance – and while it’s certainly nothing I haven’t read before, the author has a wonderfully deft touch with the characters and the humour, and it was exactly what I needed at the end of a hectic day.  Ferris is almost relentlessly cheerful as he ‘bullies’ Xander into doing his physical therapy exercises, and quickly realises that winding him up is the best way to pull Xander out the funk of grumpiness he’s fallen into.  I loved watching him catching Xander off-guard and plotting ways to startle and cajole him into laughter or enjoyment; the author keeps him just the right side of irritating, because it’s so obvious that Xander really needs someone to remind him that he’s allowed to be himself, that he doesn’t have to be perfect all the time – and that ‘himself’ is worthy of being loved.

The scenes where Xander realises Ferris is decorating-by-stealth for Christmas are a hoot, and while the teasing and snarky banter between the couple is terrific, the quieter moment of tenderness, affection and insight are really well-done, too.  Even though the story takes place over just a couple of weeks, the fact that the two men spend pretty much every waking moment together throughout that time helps make their falling in love so quickly that much more believable.  There’s very little conflict – and what there is, is visible a mile off – but it doesn’t drag on too long and gives both characters the chance to realise just how strong their feelings for one another have become.

Not So Silent Night is cute, light-hearted and fun from start to finish, one of those books that will make you giggle and leave you with a smile on your face.  The characters are likeable, the dialogue is clever and genuinely funny, and there’s plenty of festive spirit to warm the cockles!  If you’re a fan of Lily Morton’s books, I think you’ll enjoy this – as will anyone looking for a sweet but sexy story full of Christmas cheer.

Note: This is an expanded/extended version of the novella of the same name that was originally published as part of the Winter Wonderland giveaway at the beginning of 2021.

TBR Challenge: The Winter Spirit by Indra Vaughn

the winter spirit

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Nathaniel O’Donnelly likes his life quiet, his guests happy, and his ghosts well-behaved.

Although a boyfriend wouldn’t go amiss. Someone to share his beautiful B&B with, even if it is in the middle of nowhere and he’s long past the wrong side of thirty. Problem is, Nathaniel’s living with a ghost who thinks he’s cupid, and whose arrows fly a little too straight.

Gabriel Wickfield had the unfortunate luck of dying before his time, and now he’s stuck trying to make romance happen to earn his right to move along. Not that he’s bored in the meantime—Nathaniel is just too easy to tease. And also a little bit scrumptious…

With the curse reaching its expiration date, Gabriel needs to make a final match this Christmas. Without it, nothing but darkness awaits.

Love can conquer all, but can it beat death?

Rating: B+

I’m not the Bah!Humbug! type, but I’m also not one to seek out Christmassy romances just because they’re set in and around the festive season, although  if I like the sound of a story and it happens to be set around Christmas then I might give it a go.  And if I do pick up a Christmas story, then I don’t want one that could be set at any time of the year, I want one that makes good use of the wintry setting and that maybe has just a little bit of Christmas magic – and Indra Vaughn’s The Winter Spirit does just that.  This little gem clocks in at under 100 pages, but it hit me right in the feels in the best possible way.

When Nathaniel O’Donnelly inherited his uncle’s worse-for-wear hotel in rural Michigan twelve years earlier, he also inherited its resident ghost, Gabriel Wickfield, who can only be seen in mirrors or highly polished surfaces, and who takes delight in needling Nate and causing mischief.  After making extensive renovations to the place, Nate re-opened it as a B&B which he now runs with the help of his long-time friend and employee Elisa Brown. With Christmas approaching, things are fairly quiet; there are only two guests staying currently, but Nate is expecting a third, who happens to be an old school friend – and Nate’s first crush – Owen Ashurst.  He and Nate haven’t kept in touch so Nate has no idea of how Owen’s life has turned out, but he can’t deny he’s just a little bit excited at the idea of seeing Owen again. He’s not looking to start something (well, not really) although he can’t deny he’s just a teeny bit interested in seeing if there might be the potential for something between them.

When Owen arrives, he’s as good-looking and charming he ever was, and he’s pleased to see Nate, too.  They talk, they share a meal and Owen makes clear his interest in Nate, but Nate isn’t feeling it – although he’s not best pleased later that night when Gabriel appears and tells him he doesn’t like Owen and doesn’t think he’s being completely honest.

The next night when Nate returns to his room, it’s to find Gabriel actually sitting in one of the rocking chairs by the window.  Gabriel has never manifested like this before – as a solid, living (and gorgeous) man – and he quietly explains to Nate that he’s able to appear outside the mirrors for short periods of time around this time of year – but doesn’t tell him any more.  Nate finds himself looking for Gabriel and wanting to spend time with him at every opportunity, and with only a couple of days left until Christmas and with what lies beyond it uncertain, Nate realises that, unlikely though it may be, he’s fallen in love with a ghost – and that he’s loved in return.  Will a once-a-year thing be enough for them, if it’s even possible?  Or is Gabriel running out of time?

The author packs quite an emotional punch into the short page-count – I freely admit to several sniffles when all seemed lost – and even though there were a few things I wish had been more detailed, I was completely captivated by the characters, the gentle humour and the intense longing that permeates the romance.  (I’m a sucker for well-done pining!)  Nate is a lovely guy who had a crappy childhood, but who has risen above that to make a good life and run a successful business. He’s a decent, kind, hard-working man possessed of an attractive quiet strength, but he’s lonely, and worries that perhaps he’s destined to remain that way.  He’s over thirty, a bit overweight (and self-conscious about it), and hasn’t had many – if any – opportunities for love and romance come his way.  He’s so very real and relatable, and it’s easy to root for him to find the love and happiness he richly deserves.  As Nate is the sole narrator we only see Gabriel through his eyes, but I enjoyed his humour and the author does a great job of showing us his obvious love for Nate.  His backstory is truly heart-breaking.

It’s hard to talk about the things I wanted more of without giving away spoilers, so instead, I’ll just say that there’s a fair bit of hand-waving at the end and no real explanation for how it works out – BUT I was so invested in the characters and their relationship that I was able to go with ‘eh, magic’ and ignore that little bit of frustration at not having all the pieces to put together.  I also didn’t quite see the need for the Owen plotline – it didn’t really serve to galvanise Nate or Gabriel into realising how they felt about each other, and I wish the page-count devoted to it had been spent developing the ending and epilogue a bit more.

But I loved the story despite its flaws – any author who can make me run the gamut of emotions in a matter of eighty-one pages deserves all the kudos.  The Winter Spirit is charming and tender and poignant and magical… and just lovely.