TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

Grade: B+

I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead.  But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of  Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!

This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:

There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.

Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.

Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home.  As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed.  His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens.  Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home.  The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!”  from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.

The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.

The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original.  The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:

“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”

Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.

And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:

“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.

At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.

Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.

The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony –  and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn.  The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.

The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.

My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out.  The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing.  But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming.  In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

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

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

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

Audio

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

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

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

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

Honeytrap by Aster Glenn Gray

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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