Imitate the Dawn (Whitethorn Security #3) by M.A. Grant

imitate the dawn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cristian Slava and Atlas Kincaid despise each other. At least, that’s what they need everyone to believe. In truth, the charismatic vampire and his fierce bodyguard are more in love than ever. But when a powerful political faction emerges and threatens Cristian’s family, the only way into their enemy’s inner circle is without each other by their side.

From Romania to New York and beyond, though apart, their blood-bond cannot be severed—but it can be used against them. When Cristian sacrifices his life to save his family and save Atlas from having his darkest secrets revealed, only faith in that bond will keep Atlas from utter despair.

And only by facing his past will Atlas be able to accept who he is and finally defeat their most powerful enemy yet…

Death itself.

Rating: B+

The action in Imitate the Dawn, book three in M.A. Grant’s Whitethorn Security series, moves from Romania back to the US, where Atlas Kincaid and Cristian Slava need to move fast to counter the threat to their home and to save the life of Cristian’s father, who has been arrested and is being investigated by the Vampire Council. Because the trilogy is, in effect, one story divided into three, it’s essential to have read the previous books in the series before starting this one. It also means there are spoilers in this review.

In book two, Crooked Shadows, Atlas and Cristian fled to Romania following a devastating strigoi attack at the family home in upstate New York, intent on finding out who is creating and controlling the gruesome creatures. In Romania, a bloody coup deposes the ruling vampire family – allies to Decebal Vladislavic (Cristian’s father) – and the he is now suspected by the Council of being responsible for the creation of the strigoi and the attacks which led to the coup. Christian and Atlas are sure that their arch-enemies, the Wharrams (Cristian’s late mother’s family) are involved somehow, and will have to race against time to prove Decebal’s innocence and prevent the Wharrams taking over the Council.

The romance between Atlas and Cristian developed into a lasting bond which has survived everything that has been thrown at them, including betrayal, lies and physical danger, and they’re stronger together than ever. Atlas realises the strigoi were responsible for the attack on his unit years ago from which he emerged as the sole survivor, and as the story progresses, begins to suspect the truth of what happened to him. At the end of a fast-paced and action-packed story where there was peril on all sides and Atlas and Cristian were not always sure who to trust, they were were blindsided by the discovery of a truly terrible betrayal by someone who had been part of Decebal’s inner circle and whom Cristian had regarded as a good friend.

When Imitate the Dawn opens, Cristian, Atlas and their friends Daria and Radu have survived another attack by the strigoi and learned of the overthrow and murder of the territory’s ruling family. Moves are being made to close the borders, so they have to get out quickly – but before they can leave, they’re contacted by the council’s lead investigator who informs them of Decebal’s arrest and of the accusations being made against him, intending to take them in, too. It’s only when, during the ensuing fight, she gets a taste of Cristian’s blood that she can see the truth and realises that she was an unwitting instrument in the council’s machinations and offers to help Cristian and Atlas to prove that the Wharrams are working against the council and everyone on it.

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

Contract Season (Trade Season #2) by Cait Nary

contract season

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Brody Kellerman has a plan. First, become the best defenseman in professional hockey. Second, get over his ex-boyfriend so he can focus on his game. Hooking up with the singer at his buddy’s wedding was the perfect solution, but it was never meant to be more than a one-night stand.

Seamus Murry has never planned a thing in his life, including hooking up with a smoking-hot hockey player. Being ghosted sucks, but at least one good thing came from it—the breakout hit song of the summer. Now he’s one of country music’s brightest stars, but one slipup—or in this case, video—might cost him his career.

When their video goes viral, Brody and Seamus agree to fake a relationship. But soon it’s impossible to remember what is real and what’s pretend, and although Brody has no intention of falling for freewheeling Seamus’s charm…life doesn’t always go according to plan.

Rating: C

Although Contract Season is book two in Cait Nary’s Trade Season series, it can be read as a standalone; the principals from book one, Season’s Change, make a brief cameo appearance, but you don’t need to have read their story to understand this one. Like that book, this one gets off to a good start and I was quickly pulled into the story, but infortunately, and also like that book, things become repetitive, important issues are not dealt with and the pacing is wildly off because (once again) the HEA isn’t given time to embed; there’s so much build up and so little pay-off that it makes for a very disappointing ending.

Defenceman Brody Kellerman is known for his professionalism, his incredibly strong work ethic, his attention to detail and his intense focus. At the beginning of Contract Season, he’s recently ended a three-year relationship after his boyfriend finally got tired of hiding in the closet from all but Brody’s closest family and friends, and Brody blames his poor performance in that year’s playoffs on being distracted because of the breakup.

Seamus Murray is an up-and-coming country music star who arrived on the scene as a teenager when he appeared on an Pop Idol type TV show. Having been an awkward, gangly kid with zits and a face that took him a while to grow into, he struggles with the gap between his self image (of someone who was never particularly noticeable) and people’s expectations of him – which are based on his looks (at twenty-three, he’s seriously hot), his talent, his charm and the confidence he projects. He’s never had a relationship and he’s deeply embarrassed by his lack of sexual experience, believing he’s missed the window where it’s okay to be bad at sex and exploring. And as country music is “the one segment of the North American entertainment industry that was less queer-friendly than the Big Four sports”, Seamus – whose name is very annoyingly shortened to “Sea” – isn’t out to anyone other than his sister.

Brody and Sea meet at the wedding of two mutual friends. There’s an immediate and intense spark of attraction between them; they hook up later that night and exchange numbers before they part – but Brody, who is determined to avoid any distractions that might affect his performance on the ice, decides not to use it and ghosts Sea for months.

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

Stone Wings (Gargoyles of Arrington #1) by Jenn Burke

stone wings

This title may be purchased from Amazon

His curse can only be lifted with true love, but can true love come from a fake date?

Being the personal assistant to a trio of cursed gargoyle brothers who sleep for a hundred years and wake up for twenty-five wasn’t a career proposed by Josh’s high school guidance counselor, but it’s a job that he’s eminently suited for. Not to mention a job his family has been doing for generations. The brothers are truly excellent bosses, but Josh is surprised when Drew offers to pretend to be his date for his high school reunion. And even more surprised by a supposedly fake kiss that feels as real as a kiss can get

Drew and his brothers owe Josh and his family for watching over them each time they turn to stone for a hundred years, and for helping them reintegrate into the world when they wake up. The least he can do is pose as Josh’s boyfriend for a night. Even though true love can break his curse, he knows he won’t find it with Josh. Nothing that real can come from a lie. Or can it?

When the fake boyfriend situation stretches into two nights, and then more, Josh and Drew can’t fight the attraction blazing between them. There’s no harm in exploring it, right? No expectations. But when paranormal danger comes to Arrington, Josh and Drew are going to have to battle for every moment of peace…and maybe a real happily ever after too.

Rating: C+

Stone Wings is the first book in Jenn Burke’s new series of paranormal romances, The Gargoyles of Arrington, and introduces readers to the three O’Reilly brothers – Teague, Drew and Rian – who, thanks to a centuries-old witch’s curse – are condemned to live ‘in flesh’ for only twenty-five years at a time, after which they return to stone for a hundred years, until they re-awaken and go through the cycle all over again. There is only one way to break the curse, which is – in the best romantic tradition – to find true love; their eldest brother Finnian managed to break his curse at the end of their last lifetime (in 1899), but with only two years to go until their next sleep, the remaining three brothers are not too sanguine about their chances.

I really liked the premise of this story, which also features a suspense plot that begins when a new pride of mountain lion shifters arrives in the area and immediately lays claim to the O’Reilly’s territory, and while there’s an HEA for the book’s central couple, that plotline is clearly going to continue throughout the series. That, together with Rian’s search for a way to break the curse is the most compelling part of the story, because the romance is, sadly, a bit lacklustre, and the two leads are a bit bland.

After the O’Reillys saved Josh Pallesen’s great-great-great-ad-infinutum grandparents from a sinking ship, members of the Pallesen family have acted as the gargoyles’ caretakers and guardians, watching over them while they’re in their stone form and on hand to help them when they’re awake. Josh took over that job from his father and acts as a kind of personal assitant and general factorum to them all, looking after their home and helping with their businesses. In this ‘lifetime’, Teague is a cop, Rian is a tattoo artist, and Drew is a mechanic, running a successful business restoring and servicing classic cars. When the story begins, Josh has just received an invitation to his ten-year high school reunion, and is debating whether or not he wants to go. High school wasn’t a great time for him, and was made even worse when his long-term boyfriend Brandon dumped him on Prom night after telling Josh he wasn’t ambitious enough. So part of him wants to opt out and part of him wants to show that he’s doing well and stick it to all the assholes he’d grown up with. When he tells Drew about the invite and his reservations, Drew offers to be his date for the evening.

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

Pack of Lies (Monster Hunt #1) by Charlie Adhara

pack of lies

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Werewolf meets human. Werewolf snubs human. Werewolf loves human?

Julien Doran arrived in sleepy Maudit Falls, North Carolina, with a heart full of hurt and a head full of questions. The key to his brother’s mysterious last days might be found in this tiny town, and now Julien’s amateur investigation is starting to unearth things the locals would rather keep buried.

Perhaps most especially the strange, magnetic manager of a deserted retreat that’s nearly as odd as its staff.

Eli Smith is a lot of things: thief, werewolf, glamour-puss, liar. And now the manager of a haven for rebel pack runaways. He’s spent years cultivating a persona to disguise his origins, but for the first time ever he’s been entrusted with a real responsibility—and he plans to take that seriously.

Even if the handsome tourist who claims to be in town for some R & R is clearly on a hunt for all things paranormal. And hasn’t taken his brooding gaze off Eli since he’s arrived.

When an old skeleton and a fresh corpse turn a grief errand into a murder investigation, the unlikely Eli is the only person Julien can turn to. Trust is hard to come by in a town known for its monsters, but so is time…

Rating: A

Charlie Adhara’s paranormal/romantic suspense Big Bad Wolf series is one of my all-time favourites. With clever plotting, excellent worldbuilding, fantastic characterisation and a beautifully developed central relationship, those books had it all, and were always going to be a tough act to follow. I was delighted when I learned the author would be writing more books set in this world and that we’d get to spend more time with the snarky, enigmatic Elias Smith – a major secondary character in the earlier series. Eli was introduced in Thrown to the Wolves, where we learned he’d had a very troubled past, running with rebel packs who used and betrayed him until he was rescued and taken in by the Parks. He’s my book catnip – complex, flawed and damaged with a sharp tongue and an attitude for miles.

While this is the first in a new series, I really would recommend reading the previous books first so as to gain an understanding of how this world works; pack politics and how wolves interact (or don’t) with humans are key elements in these stories, and you’ll get a bit of background information on Eli. Plus – they’re marvellous reads and I assure you, you won’t regret backtracking!

Pack of Lies opens just a couple of weeks so after the end of Cry Wolf. Cooper and Park are on their honeymoon and Eli has recently moved to the retreat for runaways they’ve set up in remote Maudit Falls, which they’ve asked him to run. Late one night, Eli makes his way downstairs to the reception desk to find a very bedraggled man crawling around beneath it. Annoyed and suspiciouis, he suggests perhaps his interloper is a housebreaker, but before the man can do more than indignantly contradict him and explain that he’d had an accident a way back along the road, furious knocking at the door heralds the arrival of a woman dripping with blood and frantically insisting she’s seen the monster – she’s seen Sweet Pea, and this time, she’s got proof.

Once the chief of police shows up, Annabelle Dunlop, owner of the ski resort on the other side of the mountain, explains how she’d hurt herself running through the woods and then shows them some very grainy images taken from wildlife cameras that she insists show a figure that is not human. Chief Bucknell is sceptical and says he doesn’t really see much of anything, but Eli immediately recognises part of the image as a wolf in mid-shift. He has no idea who it is or what they might be doing there, but every wolf has a responsibility to maintain the secret of their existence – and clearly, there’s someone out there who isn’t being as careful as they should be. When everyone has left, Eli’s new medic tells him they’ve got their first guest, a young woman named Gwen who has left her rebel pack in search of sanctuary. When Gwen tells Eli that she, too, had felt an ominous presence in the woods and had run from it, Eli realises something is very wrong. Wolves are being hunted, their very existence threatened with exposure – and he decides to get to the bottom of it.

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

Home Grown Talent (Creative Types #2) by Joanna Chambers & Sally Malcolm

home grown talent

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Are you for real?

From the outside, it looks like model and influencer Mason Nash has it all—beauty, fame, and fortune. With his star rapidly rising, and a big contract up for grabs, Mason’s on the verge of hitting the big time.

When an opportunity arises to co-host a gardening slot on daytime TV with his ex’s brother, Owen Hunter, Mason is definitely on-board. And he intends to use every trick in the book to make the show a hit—including agreeing to his ruthless producer’s demand to fake a ‘will-they/won’t-they’ romance with his co-host…

Owen Hunter is a gardener with a huge heart and both feet planted firmly on the well-tilled ground. He’s proud of the life he’s built and has absolutely no desire to be on TV—yet somehow he finds himself agreeing to do the show.

It’s definitely not because he’s interested in Mason Nash. The guy might be beautiful—and yeah, his spoiled brat routine presses all Owen’s buttons in the bedroom—but Owen has no interest in a short-term fling with a fame-hungry model.

As the two men get closer, though, Owen starts to believe there’s more to Mason than his beautiful appearance and carefully-curated online persona—that beneath the glitz and glamour is a sweet, sensitive man longing to be loved.

A man Owen might be falling for. A man who might even feel the same.

But in a world of media spin and half-truths, Owen is dangerously out of his depth. And when a ridiculous scandal explodes online, with Owen at its heart, it starts to look as though everything he thought was real is built on lies—including his budding romance with Mason…

Rating: A-

Joanna Chambers and Sally Malcolm earned a DIK from me for their first collaboration, Total Creative Control, a funny, sexy grumpy/sunshine romance set in the world of television production. Now they’re back with its sequel, Home Grown Talent, an opposites-attract romance between a cinnamon roll and a “lemon tart” (this NEEDS to be a new trope!) that takes a long hard look at the intrusiveness of social media and the behind-the-scenes toxicity found in certain types of broadcast media. The characters are loveable, complex and fully-rounded, their romance is beautifully written and although the story is perhaps a little more serious in tone than the previous one, it’s every bit as full of warmth, humour and feels.

Owen Hunter (older brother of Lewis from book one) is a private and very down-to-earth sort of guy with a big heart and a desire to smooth the way for those he cares for. He runs a successful landscaping and gardening business, and, okay, so maybe he isn’t loved up like Lewis and his boyfriend Aaron are – they’re just a bit sickening in their lovey-dovey-ness – but he’s happy for them and content with his life, even though he wouldn’t mind finding someone to share it with. He’s been attracted to the gorgeous Mason Nash – Lewis’ ex – for a while, but has resigned himself to the fact that beneath the beautiful exterior, Mason is probably shallow and a bit dull. Even if he wasn’t and Owen ever got up the courage to actually ask him out, no way would a guy like Mason look twice at a guy like him.

Mason makes a pretty good living as a model and is good at his job, but it’s not something he ever envisaged himself doing and can’t say he likes it all that much. The main thing is that it pays well and he needs to keep earning good money so he can support his mother and younger sisters, but he’s looking to move on from modelling. He’s working on building his Instagram numbers so he can attract more lucrative sponsorship deals and has just picked up a temporary presenting gig on the health, beauty and fitness segment of a magazine TV show called Weekend Wellness. If rumours are to be believed, one of the main presenters is leaving, and Mason hopes maybe something permanent will open up for him there.

Lewis invites Owen to an awards dinner, and even though it’s not really Owen’s scene, there’s no way he’s going to miss out on his little brother getting recognition for his work on his TV show, Leeches. He doesn’t know anyone else at their table – other than Mason, who is there as the guest of Leeches’ lead actor – and is surprised when Misty Watson-King, the producer of Weekend Wellness, takes an interest in him. Owen is astonished when she suggests that maybe he would consider taking part in the gardening segment she wants to add to the show, and although he insists he’s not the TV type, Misty won’t let it go, delighted with her idea that the slot should feature Owen teaching basic gardening techniques to a total newbie. Mason.

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

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows

a strange and stubborn endurance

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Velasin vin Aaro never planned to marry at all, let alone a girl from neighboring Tithena. When an ugly confrontation reveals his preference for men, Vel fears he’s ruined the diplomatic union before it can even begin. But while his family is ready to disown him, the Tithenai envoy has a different solution: for Vel to marry his former intended’s brother instead.

Caethari Aeduria always knew he might end up in a political marriage, but his sudden betrothal to a man from Ralia, where such relationships are forbidden, comes as a shock.

With an unknown faction willing to kill to end their new alliance, Vel and Cae have no choice but to trust each other. Survival is one thing, but love—as both will learn—is quite another.

Rating: B-

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an enjoyable fantasy romance novel in which an arranged marriage provides the spark for murder, intrigue and political shenanigans. The worldbuilding is solid, with well-developed and detailed societal customs and hierarchies, the protagonists are likeable and the central romance is tender and drips with lots of lovely UST. On the downside, the book is at least a hundred and fifty pages too long, the pacing is stodgy in places, and the mystery is too drawn out and easily resolved.

When the story begins, Velasin vin Aaro, a nobleman of Ralia, is on his way home in response to a summons from his father. He has no idea what it’s about, and hopes word has not reached home of his more… disreputable exploits; namely that he beds men rather than women, something Ralian society considers a degenerate perversion. Travelling with him is his best friend and valet Markel (who is mute); left behind is his former lover, Lord Killic vin Lato, whom Velasin dumped after discovering him cheating – again.

Not long after his arrival, Velasin discovers why he’s been brought home. His father has arranged a marriage for him with the daughter of the Tiern (Lord) of Qi-Katai in Tithenia – and Velasin knows he has no alternative but to agree to the match. The Tithenai envoy is to arrive the next day, but before Velasin can think much about what’s to come, he’s stunned and angry to hear that Killic has followed him and is asking to see him. He tries wheedling his way back into Vel’s good graces with pretty words – and when those don’t work, he resorts to sex, and won’t take no for an answer. Be warned, the assault happens on the page (it’s hard to read, but so much of what follows is built around it, it would be impossible to remove it) – and stops only when they’re seen by Velasin’s father and the Tithenian envoy, who has arrived early. Wretched, humiliated, sick to his stomach Velasin watches as Killic is run off while he is left alone in utter disgrace.

The following morning, Velasin is summoned to his father’s presence and informed that the marriage is still to go ahead. He’s surprised to see that the envoy is “one of Tithena’s third-gender souls, called kemi…” whose existence “scandalised the Ralian court”, which is rigidly traditional about everything including gender roles and women’s rights (or lack thereof). Equally surprising is the envoy’s suggestion that instead of marrying the Tiern’s daughter, Velasin might marry his son without changing the terms of the contract. Velasin’s father is aghast at the idea of his son marrying a man, but agrees – then tells Vel he can never return home again.

Caethari Xai Aeduria is surprised to discover that he, rather than his sister, is to be married, but at least has a little time to get used to the idea while the Ralian convoy is en route to Qi-Katai. He’s curious about his future husband, but has been able to find out little about him, and really isn’t sure what he ought to feel or how he should act when they meet. That becomes of secondary importance once Velasin arrives, however; watching from the rooftop, Cae sees the convoy enter through the city gate, and then watches helplessly as someone in the crowd rushes at Velasin with a knife – which is deflected by Markel, who bears the brunt of the strike. Hurrying to the scene, Cae almost collides with a very dishevelled and worried Velasin, who is desperate to get to Markel’s side. It’s not exactly the way Cae had envisaged meeting his betrothed.

Even before Velasin arrived in Qi-Katai, there were signs of trouble when the caravan travelling from Ralia was attacked, leaving one guard dead and others injured. The attack at the city gate is followed by one on Cae’s father – all of them pointing to there being a deep-seated anti-Ralian sentiment at large and to someone intending to destabilise the already fragile relations between Ralia and Tithena.

I was looking forward to getting my teeth into a plot filled with conspiracies and court intrigue, but the mystery plot is fairly weak, little more than a series of events, one after the other, with no real escalation or building on what has gone before, and no real investigation. Vel and Cae ask questions, but are never given the time or opportunity to act on the answers as it seems that every time they come close to doing so, another character interrupts them and sends things off in a different direction or just continues the earlier conversation without reaching any conclusions. It’s too drawn out with little happening, and then, to add insult to injury, the reveal happens literally by accident when Velasin and Cae overhear the bad guys arguing and blaming each other for not doing things properly!

The romance is easily the best thing in the book, as Cae gently tries to help Velasin work through his trauma, offering friendship and understanding and not pushing for anything more. The way they move from being strangers to forging a tentative friendship, then from friendship to absolute trust and more is really well done, with great chemistry and lots of lingering touches and longing looks that build the romantic and sexual tension.

Grading A Strange and Stubborn Endurance was tough because while the plot leaves much to be desired, the romance is lovely, and there are many other things about the book that should be celebrated. I’ve mentioned the worldbuilding already – and within that, there’s excellent queer rep that includes prominent non-binary and trans characters and a welcoming society for all. Velasin’s bewilderment at becoming part of this society is well portrayed, too; having been brought up within the strict conventions of Ralia, he finds it hard to adjust to the fact that he no longer has to hide his sexuality or be surprised at the fact that people like him are treated with respect. He has no idea what is expected of him as Cae’s husband, and is struggling to un-learn many of the things he’s been brought up to believe. He’s a more well-developed character than Cae, who thinks of himself as a bluff soldier, good in combat, not so good when it comes to reading people and politicking. Fortunately, Cae proves to be very insightful and sensitive to the needs of others, intuiting almost at once that all is not well with Velasin and determining to help him however he can. I also liked watching him get turned on by his husband’s mind on those occasions where Velasin is able to cast off his self-doubt and desire for self-effacement, and reveal his true self – inquisitive, clever, observant, a charmer who is skilled at playing the courtier and navigating his way through layers of malice and misdirection. In fact, I wish we’d seen much more of that side of him, especially as part of his journey in this book is finding his way back to being the person he was before the assault and realising he doesn’t have to let it define him.

I really wish I could give A Strange and Stubborn Endurance a strong recommendation because of all the things it gets right, but the weakness of the plot really does drag it down and the slow pacing makes it difficult to invest in the outcome – especially when it seems that sometimes, even the characters themselves have forgotten about it! The final ten percent or so is terrific, and had the rest of the book been able to sustain that level of nail-biting tension, I’d be extolling its virtues. In the end, I’m going with a low B and qualified recommendation overall – a low C for the mystery and a high B for the romance, worldbuilding, characters and representation. I’d definitely read another fantasy romance from this author – here’s hoping for something tighter next time.

Two Tribes by Fearne Hill

two tribes

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s 1995, and troubled seventeen-year-old Matt Leeson harbours three passions: indie music, wartime history, and the posh boy he sits next to in maths class. Not in that order. One of those passions is closely guarded, along with a few other secrets Matt tucks away. Such as his abusive father, the cramped run-down flat he calls home, and the futility of his dreams to escape both.

Twenty-five years later, and plodding Dr Alex Valentine, recently divorced, is looking back on a life less lived. On his failed marriage and the dull bore he’s become, on the empty, lonely weekends stretching ahead. And, in a corner of his mind, wondering what could have been, if only a slender, raven-haired young man hadn’t so abruptly vanished all those years ago.

First love. Teenage love. It should be nothing more than an opening chapter, right? A short prologue even, before the real test of adulthood begins.

But what if that chapter never closes?

Rating: A-

Fearne Hill’s Two Tribes is a funny, touching and heartrending romance set across three decades in which we follow two teenagers from the Midlands as they fall in love (think Heartstopper but with class differences and a lot more snark and swearing!), are separated by circumstance and reunite twenty-five years later. It’s beautifully written with an absolutely wonderful sense of time and place; I was a bit older than the two protagonists in 1995, when the first half of the story is set, but the picture the author paints is no less a recognisable one, the attitudes, the language, the overall feel of that time – it’s all wonderfully (and sometimes uncomfortably) familiar.

Seventeen-year-old Matthew Leeson is extremely bright. He’s funny, he’s sharp, he’s gobby, a bit of a troublemaker at school – and he’s also gay, a secret he works incredibly hard to keep, making sure to act like one of the lads when it comes to all the shit they talk about girls and sex. He lives on a crappy council estate with his abusive father, neglectful mother and siblings he doesn’t have much to do with, and his real family is his two best mates, Phil and Brenner, who are as different from each other as they are from Matt, but the three of them are solid and look out for each other.

Alex Valentine is Matt’s opposite in every way. He lives in a nice house, with parents who love and encourage him, he’s doing well at school (although not as well as Matt) and has a good university place lined up (he’s going to be a doctor), he’s popular, plays for the school rugby team… in short, he’s everything Matt isn’t and everything Matt shouldn’t want.

Matt and Alex have very little to do with each other at school, until Alex ends up getting a detention (because of something Matt and his mates do) and afterwards, as Matt is walking to the bus stop in the pissing rain, Alex pulls up alongside him in the zippy little car he shares with his sister and offers Matt a lift home. Wary, but preferring it to getting drenched, Matt accepts, and proceeds to take the micky out of Alex’s in-car CD collection (Boyz 2 Men, Celine Dion, Wet Wet Wet – they’re Alex’s sister’s – really!) before asking to be dropped off somewhere miles from the estate, not wanting Alex to see the shithole he lives in. Not long after this, Matt and Alex end up sitting next to each other in maths; Matt realises Alex isn’t great at it (not as good as he is, anyway) and starts coaching him a bit. As the lesson is the last of the day, Alex offers Matt another lift; Matt again doesn’t let Alex drive him to his home. During more maths coaching and more lifts home, Matt and Alex develop an unlikely friendship (and Matt decides he also needs to improve Alex’s taste in music!). Weeks and months pass as Matt realises that what he’s feeling for Alex is something way beyond friendship, but Alex is straight and even if he weren’t, he’s way out of Matt’s league.

That all changes after a night out in town when, after they’ve been to a Pogues gig and are wandering around, Alex pulls Matt into a shadowy doorway and kisses him. It’s awkward – it’s wonderful – it’s terrifying. The weeks that follow are the happiest of Matt’s life – until a tragedy rips his world apart and sends him running.

This first part of the story – almost half – takes place in 1995 (in Matt’s PoV), then we jump to 2005 for a short middle section told in both PoVs, and then to the ‘now’ in Alex’s PoV. I won’t say too much about the plot, but if you’ve read the blurb, you’ll know that it’s twenty-five years before Alex and Matt meet again, and we discover that life has not been especially kind to either of them, albeit in different ways. Alex is recently divorced with a teenaged son and wondering if, at forty-two, life has passed him by. Maybe his ex-wife was right about him being too staid and boring… but he can’t help wondering, at times – what would his life have been if his beautiful, dark-eyed boy hadn’t vanished without a trace all those years ago?

Matt and Alex are brilliantly drawn, complex and very real, in both teenage and ‘grown-up’ incarnations. Matt is a scrappy, prickly smart-arse who does whatever he needs to do to hide his sexuality behind a wall of don’t-give-a-shit toughness, but inside, he’s broken, ashamed of his home and his parents – his dad knocks him around and beats his mum – his aspirations to go to university and make himself a better life blocked by his drunkard arsehole of a dad who backhands him and tells him no way is he poncing around at fucking university and he’s getting a job and putting in a manual shift like every other Leeson bloke before him.

Even as a teen, Alex is a bit straight-laced, but he’s really kind, with a wry sense of humour, and his confusion over what it means that he wants to kiss Matt even though he like girls is really well expressed.  (This is a time when, although homosexuality is no longer illegal, prejudice is rife and Section 28 is still in force, which would have made it incredibly difficult for kids questioning their sexuality to find help and information.) They’re very different, but they balance each other; Alex’s steadiness grounds Matt, and Matt’s exuberance helps Alex loosen up a bit.

The rekindling of their youthful romance comes with a lot of baggage that needs to be dealt with, but the author builds their relationship and portrays the emotions between them so incredibly well in the first half of the book, that it’s easy to believe they’ve never really stopped loving each other, despite everything that’s happened to them over the intervening twenty-five years. If I have a complaint it’s that the ending is perhaps a little rushed, but that’s probably only because I didn’t want to leave Matt and Alex so soon; they’ve still got hurdles to get over, but the book leaves them in a good place, on a poignant, yet hopeful note that love really will help them find a way.

Two Tribes is compelling and beautiful, full of warmth, humour and genuine, heartfelt emotion that is never overdone. The secondary cast is terrific – Matt’s two best friends are incredibly well-written – a pair of loveable dickheads whose hearts are in the right place – and the friendship between them is perfectly judged. Alex’s son, Ryan, is likeable and well-rounded – a realistic teenager and not at all a plot moppet – and their father/son relationship is totally believable. There are some darker themes in the story (depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm) but they’re handled in a sensitive manner and are neverused gratuitously.

It’s a wonderful book – you’ll laugh, you’ll sniffle and you’ll feel as though your heart will break – but Matt and Alex’s eventual HEA is all the sweeter for the tough road travelled to get there. Highly recommended.

Husband Material (London Calling #2) by Alexis Hall

husband material

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a hotly contested rainbow balloon arch to get these two from “I don’t know what I’m doing” to “I do”.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

Rating: B+

Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material was one of my Best Books of 2020 – a masterclass in how to do Romantic Comedy right, it’s a wonderfully, warm, funny and sharply observed opposites-attract romance that has become a long-term favourite. Needless to say, I was delighted to learn that the author was writing a couple more books set in Luc and Oliver’s world, and Husband Material is one of my most eagerly anticipated books of 2022. But I wasn’t as completely bowled over and charmed by it as I’d hoped. The author’s characteristic humour and insight are still very much present, and there’s a lot to like about it, but while I enjoyed it, I can’t say I loved it. Maybe that’s on me – my expectations for this one were, admittedly, pretty high – and I suppose that’s always going to be a danger when an author writes a sequel to an incredibly popular book; we readers want more of the same (what we loved about the first book) – but different, and that’s not easy to accomplish!

It’s no secret to say that in terms of structure at least, Husband Material is a riff on Four Weddings and a Funeral, so the story is told in five sections – three weddings, funeral, wedding – that take place over the period of a few months. When the book opens, Luc and Oliver have been together for two years, they’re still in love, they’re happy together and are still recognisably the same people; Luc is still the same slightly-neurotic hot-mess and Oliver is still stoic and more than a bit emotionally repressed.

The first wedding is Luc’s best friend Bridget’s, and of course, being Bridget the whole thing cannot possibly go off without lots of drama. Just days before the wedding, her fiancé Tom disappears, someone ‘helpfully’ sends Bridget a picture of him with another woman, and it’s up to Luc to talk her down while basically ditching Oliver and a long-awaited date night and then staying with her for several days (co-dependent, much?) while things are sorted out. And then it’s Oliver who is packed off back to London on a retrieval mission when it’s discovered that nobody has brought the wedding dress to the venue. He and Luc are hardly together on page throughout this section and I felt like Luc was taking him too much for granted.

Wedding number two is Luc’s ex Miles, the guy who sold him out to the tabloids and sent him into a downward spiral. After bumping into each other on the night of Bridget’s non-gender-specific bird-do, Miles very happily introduces Luc to the vision in glitter and rainbows at his side – who then announces they’re getting married and says Luc really must come to the wedding. Luc doesn’t know what to make of it, and it’s messing with his head; does he want to go so he can prove to Miles that he’s moved on and is happy with Oliver, or should he just let it go?

But this is the catalyst for Luc starting to panic. Everyone around him is getting married, he and Oliver have been together for two years, so… shouldn’t they be getting married, too? Isn’t that the logical next step for two people who want to spend their lives together? Luc decides it is and – in typical Luc fashion and without really thinking it through – blurts out a proposal, which Oliver, of course, accepts.

Luc and Oliver are a great couple, and they travel a rocky path in this book. I love Luc’s quirky, deadpan narrative voice, and was really pleased to see that while he’s still very much him, he’s more confident and conscious of getting caught up in his head and is able to get himself out of it. Oliver, on the other hand, is struggling a bit, still having to deal with his parents’ expectations and criticisms, questioning a lot of internalised assumptions and trying to work out if the discomfort he experiences over what he describes as “the trappings of mainstream LGBTQ culture” results from negativity inherited from his parents or is simply down to his own, natural reserve. He’s working through a lot in this story, and even though he finds it difficult to talk about emotions, he tries hard to be thoughtful and honest, and most of their conversations are far more emotionally literate than before.

I liked the way each of the events makes Luc and Oliver look at aspects of their own relationship they haven’t examined so far, and I enjoyed spending time with Luc’s friends and the CRAPP crowd, the daft conversations and silly jokes and all that – but by the time the third wedding came along, I’d begun to feel like the secondary characters were taking a lot of word count away from the storyline I was really invested in (Luc and Oliver) and they felt like a distraction until it was time for the real meat of the story to kick in at around the two-thirds mark. And something I realised after I finished reading was that Luc and Oliver seem to be at odds a lot in this book – I had trouble recalling many scenes where they seemed to be truly happy. The conflicts they’re dealing with are believable, especially for people who are past the first excitement of a new relationship but are still in those early stages where they’re still learning about each other and how to actually be IN a relationship, and those are only exacerbated by the stress of planning a wedding which will suit both of them.

The story includes thought-provoking threads about queerness and community and identity, about societal expectations for committed relationships and the heteronormative nature of traditional marriage, about how much, or even whether, one should be prepared to compromise or change for a romantic partner, and how stressful relationships can be, even when you love the people on the other end of it. It’s all very interesting and well put-together, but the episodic nature of the book’s structure means I sometimes felt as though I was revisiting the same arguments without any of them being properly resolved.

Contemporary romances traditionally end at the HEA, and to have a sequel about the same couple is fairly rare. Thankfully, there is no manufactured break-up here, just a lot of questions and adjustments and two people who adore one another trying to work out how far they can be themselves with each other, and what their future might look like. The conclusion Luc and Oliver arrive at is, perhaps, unexpected and unconventional, but it’s the right one for them, and I loved watching them talk things through and realise they’re both on the same page. The final moments had me happy-sighing, and the last line is perfection.

Husband Material really hits its stride in the ‘funeral’ section and Oliver’s speech is epic – but I can’t deny being a little frustrated in the earlier parts, for the reasons I’ve stated – not enough Luc and Oliver together and too many circular arguments and discussions. Still, Alexis Hall turns a phrase like nobody else and his ability to combine fun ridiculousness with serious soul-searching continues to impress. Husband Material definitely earns a recommendation, but in the end, it’s one of those books I wanted to love but which just missed the mark.

Elusive Relations (Valor and Doyle #2) by Nicky James

elusive relationsThis title may be purchsed from Amazon

Life was easier when rival detectives, Quaid Valor and Aslan Doyle, kept to their own sides of the building. They could forget the one glorious night they’d shared and move on.

But when Aslan is called to a homicide and discovers one of the victims has a personal history with Quaid, he knows a confrontation is inevitable.

When news about the case spreads, Quaid can’t help but get involved. He wants answers; if not for himself, then for the families of the victims.

Joining Aslan and his partner, Quaid uncovers more than he bargained for—too many secrets and lies in a case that is dangerously personal.

Plus, the more time he spends with Aslan, the harder it is for Quaid to ignore his attraction to the playboy detective.

Aslan, who doesn’t believe in repeats, can’t seem to stop flirting with the grumpy MPU detective, and his rules go out the window as they’re drawn deeper into the case.

But what happens when one more night turns to two, and two turns into three?

Does Quaid want to risk his heart again?

Has Aslan developed feelings?

Can they put a stop to their fun and walk away?

Do they want to?

Rating: A

Detectives Quaid Valor and Aslan Doyle return in this second book in Nicky James’ latest series of romantic suspense novels, this time teaming up to investigate a homicide that hits very close to home for Quaid. Elusive Relations is every bit as compelling a read as Temporary Partner, with a cleverly constructed, twisty plot and some very welcome forward momentum in the slow-burn relationshiph between the two leads.

Note: As Elusive Relations is a direct sequel, it’s advisable to read Temporary Partner first. There are spoilers for that book in this review.

It’s been six weeks since Aslan Doyle and Quaid Valor solved the case of a missing infant – and since the explosive night they spent together. Despite the intensity of the sexual attraction sparking between them, it was a poor decision in so many ways – they’re like chalk and cheese in practically every respect. Aslan is a player who never does repeats while Quaid has never been into the hook-up scene and prefers to have a connection with his partners; Quaid prides himself on his self-control and logicality, Aslan is more of a go-with-the-flow type who does what he has to do to get the job done. Added to that, the detectives in homicide and the missing persons unit really don’t get on – which is another in a long list of complications neither man wants or needs.

During those six weeks, Aslan and Quaid have seen each other only in passing and are both telling themselves it’s for the best, even though they’re finding it really difficult to put that night behind them. At work though, it’s business as usual for Aslan, while Quaid and his partner are on a temporary re-assignment to cold cases, affording Quaid a bit of time to continue looking into the disappearance of his older sister some two decades earlier.

Aslan and his partner Torin Fox are called to the scene of the brutal murder of a young man who was so badly beaten as to be practically unrecognisable. The victim was in bed with a partner at the time; the other man was also very badly beaten but is still alive – just barely – and has been taken to hospital. The detectives learn that he’s the owner of the house, Jack Pilkey, and that according to the neighbours, he regularly brings guys home, but rarely the same one twice. As Aslan and Torin are looking around, a distant memory nags at the back of Aslan’s mind; seeing a photo of Pilkey crystallises his suspicions. Jack Pilkey is Quaid’s cheating, manipulative douchebag of an ex-boyfriend.

Quaid is at the courthouse when he gets a call from Jack’s distraught parents who tell him what’s happened. After visiting the hospital to find out what he can, he goes back to HQ, intent on talking to Aslan and Torin. Quaid knows he’s not thinking rationally, but it’s the only thing that makes any sense to him right now. He’d told Aslan he wasn’t going to go back to Jack after their latest break-up, and he hasn’t, but no longer being Jack’s boyfriend doesn’t negate the fact that someone he’d once been close to has been hurt or stop him wanting to find the person responsible.

Aslan is surprised to see Quaid approaching him – homicide and MPU keep to their own parts of the building and the demarcation lines are clear – and for just an instant the sight of Quaid sends a spark of excitement flashing through him. He can’t afford to show it, however, and falls back on his usual cockiness as deflection, but Quaid doesn’t rise to the bait this time. Instead he asks to be allowed to help with the investigation; he dated Jack for over a year and might be able to provide is useful insight into things others might overlook. Aslan is sceptical – he thinks Quaid is too close to be objective – but in the end, agrees to keep him updated and for him to act as a kind of consultant on the case, provided their superiors are on board.

Nicky James has once again penned a tightly-plotted mystery that takes some unexpected twists and turns as Aslan, Quaid – and Torin (who is a fantastic secondary character and side-kick) – work through interviews and evidence to piece together the bigger picture. I was impressed with the way she’s found such a plausible way for Valor and Doyle to work together again, with Quaid acting as a consultant rather than being able to partner Aslan, as well with the fact that I had no idea whodunnit until the reveal.

Also impressive is the way she balances the romance and the suspense parts of the story. With Quaid and Aslan in close proximity once again, it becomes more and more difficult for either of them to ignore their mutual attraction, or the fact that there’s something deeper growing between them. Aslan has been out of sorts ever since their last hook-up, for reasons he can’t – or won’t – admit to himself, and Quaid is still struggling with his tendency to attach greater importance to sex than he should and knows he’s setting himself up for a world of hurt should he take up Aslan’s invitation for a repeat. Yet they’re drawn to each other despite their differences, and there’s some fantastic relationship development going on here; the two men open up to each other about some deeply personal issues and have some really heartfelt conversations that further cement the connection between them. Quaid is still downright prickly at times, and Aslan hasn’t lost his ability to be an arsehole, and watching them allow themselves to be vulnerable around each other and starting on that road towards falling in love is very satisfying. The flirty banter and humour I enjoyed in the first book is still very much in evidence, and I loved those little moments when Aslan works hard to make Quaid smile in spite of himself, and how proud he is when he succeeds – it’s wonderfully, ridiculously cute.

These two still have a huge number of issues to work on between them, but by the end of this book there’s every indication that they’ll get there – together with a big hint as to the direction the next in the series is going to take.

Fun, sexy, clever and romantic Elusive Relations is an enthralling read featuring two complex and engaging leads, a superbly drawn secondary cast and a thoroughly intruguing plot that had me glued to it from start to finish. I’m eagerly awaiting more from Valor and Doyle some time later this year.

The Kite by N.R. Walker

the kite

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Ex-Australian Specialist Response Group leader, Tim “Harry” Harrigan, has been running covert ops for almost a decade. A lone wolf, he’s single-handedly taken down terrorists and national security threats, or so he thinks. He’s been in the game far too long, and when he sees a familiar threat, he knows his time is up.

Asher Garin is a dangerous man. A man without loyalty, a man without a nationality, without a country, without a home. He’s also a mercenary for hire to the highest bidder. His next job is a face he recognises, and after a tip-off, he learns he too is a marked man.

It’s a different game now, and Harry and Asher have a better chance at surviving if they stick together. But it’s not just the game or the rules that have changed. The stakes have too.

Because on their own, they had nothing to lose. Together, they do.

Rating: B+

N.R. Walker’s The Kite is a fast-paced action flick in book form in which the world’s two deadliest assassins find themselves forced to work together when they discover they’ve been marked for death themselves. I admit, I was expecting the romance in this one to be a tough sell – these are two lone wolves who don’t trust easily (if at all), have never been in a relationship or had anything resembling a ‘normal’ life, and I thought perhaps there might not be time in a single story to make a believable transition from walled-off tough guy to man-in-love. But while the progression from lust to love is perhaps a little fast, the chemistry is terrific and the strong emotional connection the author creates was enough to convince me that they were in it for the long haul by the end.

It’s been years since Tim Harrigan – known as Harry – has set foot on Australian soil; so long that he’s almost forgotten what home feels like. A highly trained operative for the Australian Specialist Response Group, Harry has been running covert ops for years, single-handedly eliminating terrorists and threats to national security on behalf of the Australian government, no questions asked. The whys and wherefores are none of his business. He’s in Madrid following his most recent mission when he realises he’s being followed – and if someone’s after him, it can only mean one thing. He’s the mark. Shit.

Trying to evade his pursuers, Harry enters a building at the end of an alley, runs up the stairs and along at roof level before jumping down onto a balcony – when he’s grabbed and pinned against a wall in a darkened hall, a hand covering his mouth. Instinctively, Harry puts his gun to his assailant’s head, even as he registers the cool metal pressed against his own temple. It’s only a few seconds before the “I’ve lost him” and sound of fading footsteps outside mean Harry can take a breath – which is when he realises just who got the drop on him. It’s Asher Garin – the only other man on the planet good enough to take Harry out. So… why didn’t he?

“You and me; double hit. They want us dead. You’re a kite, and your government just cut you loose.”

Asher shows Harry the assignment details on his phone screen; locations, dates, names, photographs, just like any of the thousands Harry has received over the years. Except the photos are of him and Asher. But who put out the hit and why? Who has Harry really been working for all these years? And will Harry and Asher be able trust each other enough to find out the truth – or will they kill each other first?

You’ll have to suspend your disbelief a bit – although probably no more than with Bond, Bourne or Ethan Hunt – as Harry and Asher race across countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East trying to work out who wants to get rid of them while staying one step ahead of them. The pacing is fast and the stakes are high, and fortunately, they’re not completely alone; while Harry has always worked for his government, Asher has been a gun for hire to whoever could afford it, working through a handler he refers to only as “Four” a reclusive genius who works behind the scenes to help them however he can.

Harry and Asher are a classic grumpy/sunshine pairing – although that doesn’t mean that the sunshine-y one is any less deadly! Asher is all smart-mouth and snarky flirtatiousness, he’s charming, talkative and knows just how to push Harry’s buttons and drive him round the bend. But behind all that is a very lonely man who has never known what it is to belong anywhere or with anyone, and his backstory is truly heartbreaiking. Like Harry, Asher has never believed he could ever have a ‘normal’ life, or that he would ever want such a thing, but lately, he’s been thinking about it more and more – what it might look like and how he might achieve it. Harry is Asher’s opposite in many ways – physically imposing and wearing a permanent scowl, he, too, is trying to find his way after his world is upended. For the past few years, Harry realises, he’s been working for the bad guys, helping them to make shady deals to line their own pockets and taking out the competition. It’s a lot to take in, but the more he learns the more there’s no denying that what Asher is telling him is true – and that his last three three targets were not who he’d been led to believe they were.

N.R. Walker is an author whose work I generally enjoy, but her last couple of contemporary romances haven’t really worked for me, so the change of direction in The Kite was a welcome and successful one. I liked Harry and Asher’s dynamic, Asher’s ability to see past Harry’s defences, the way Harry tries so hard not to like him but can’t help doing so, and the trust that develops between them. Their relationship starts out as an uneasy alliance born of expediency, and Harry is determined to ignore the attraction that sparks between them and to resist Asher’s flirting and obvious overtures – but of course, he can’t. The attraction is very much mutual and when the inveitable happens, the sex is pretty explosive – Asher likes it rough and views arguments as foreplay – and of course both men are convinced it’s nothing more than convenient stress relief. The way they progress from fuck-buddies to lovers is nicely done, with neither of them really noticing it until it’s too late and they’re all in.

I really enjoyed The Kite and could quite happily read more books about Harry and Asher, although there are a couple of things that caused me to lower my final grade a little. The first time the men have penetrative sex is a result of Asher goading Harry to such an extent that it feels as though Harry has been forced into giving Asher what he wants (plus, dry anal is not sexy!) Then there’s the mysterious Four, who is something of a deus ex machina character, an incredibly wealthy computer whizz who can do pretty much anything from his hideaway island in the Pacific. His presence in the story doesn’t take anything away from the tension or the dangers Harry and Asher face, but I can’t deny that sometimes, he’s just a bit too… convenient.

The Kite is one of those books you can just swtich off and kick back with, an action-packed, faintly ridiculous adventure about two hot assassins that’s funny and sexy with a great grumpy/sunshine dynamic, excellent banter, a well-executed adventure plot and a very satisfying HEA. I had a great time reading it and am happy to recommend it.