Owl’s Slumber (Trials of Fear #1) by Nicky James (audiobook) – Narrated by Adam Gold

owl's slumber

This title can be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Imagine what life would be like if panic ruled your world at the mere thought of going to bed at night. For as long as he can remember, Finnley Hollins has been crippled by his extreme phobia of sleep. Every night is a battle, and every morning isn’t without consequences. The root cause is something he’s ashamed to admit to anyone. It’s his war, and he will fight it alone.

When an unexpected turn of events lands the stunningly gorgeous Aven Woods at Finnley’s place of business, his life gets turned upside down.

All it would take is one night together for his secret to be exposed. Finnley wasn’t prepared to fall in love. More so, he wasn’t prepared for his phobia to completely consume his life. Not only is it affecting his job and his relationship, but now it’s affecting his health. What will it take for Finnley to finally admit he needs help?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

A few months ago, I reviewed Cravings of the Heart, book six in Nicky James’ Trials of Fear series, and enjoyed both the story and the excellent narration by Adam Gold. As each book in the series works as a standalone (apart from the final one), they can be listened to in any order, and as I already had a couple of the others in my Audible library, I decided to skip back to the beginning and listen to Owl’s Slumber.

Each story features a protagonist with a very unusual phobia and explores the ways in which that phobia impacts on his life, usually in an extremely negative – and often dangerous – way, and how they find love with someone who offers the kind of loving support they’ve never had before. I’m no expert on phobias of any kind (unless you count having them about moths and spiders!) but it seems to me that Ms. James approaches them in a sympathetic yet realistic way, not shying away from the very real damage the characters are incurring while also presenting them as real people who are badly misunderstood and desperately need to be properly seen if they’re to stand a chance of being able to manage their fears.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

silent sin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

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

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sundays With Oliver (Hearts & Crafts #1) by Kelly Jensen

sundays with oliver

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Two empty-nesters. Two bruised hearts. One chance to make things right.

Oliver expected to miss his daughter when she left for college, but he’s surprised by the size of the hole she leaves. Or maybe he hadn’t expected to spend his days watching grass grow and making sad cookies. Or to lose his job. Meeting Nick—the uncle of his daughter’s roommate—is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy forecast. Nick is focused, talented, and as beautiful as the dollhouses he builds. Being near him might bring light and purpose to Oliver’s life.

Nick expected to miss his niece when she left for college, but he’s still figuring out how to cope with her absence, when his brother reappears after twelve years, complicating the emotional puzzle. Then there’s Oliver, the sweet, calm, and competent man who looks at Nick like no one ever has. Spending Sundays in Oliver’s company is the balm he needs, though Nick is waiting for Oliver to decide their relationship is too much work.

But just as Nick begins to get comfortable, Oliver’s need to provide for of the people he loves threatens to pull them apart. If their relationship is to survive, they will have to learn to let go. For Oliver, this means asking himself what he really wants, this time around. For Nick, it means letting himself grieve the people who can’t come back and love the people who always will.

Rating: B+

Kelly Jensen’s new Hearts & Craft series kicks off with Sundays With Oliver, a gently moving character-driven romance featuring two men in their forties (well, one is thirty-nine, but still…) who have to deal with significant life changes, prompted, in large part, by their becoming empty-nesters.

Oliver Jurić is a wholesome kind of guy; good-humoured, self-deprecating and one of life’s caretakers. When the story begins, it’s just days before Oliver is due to take his daughter Dani to her new home in NYC where she’s going to college. It’s a huge change in both their lives, and while Oliver is excited for Dani to be going out into the world to make a life of her own, he’s sad, too, knowing her absence will leave a hole in his life he’s not sure how he’s going to fill. But that’s not the only major change on the horizon; just before moving day, Oliver loses his job and, feeling slightly ashamed and not wanting to disappoint anyone, he doesn’t say anything and allows his family to believe nothing has changed, intending to get to work on applying for other jobs once Dani is settled in her new place.

Nick Zimmermann has a successful business making bespoke dollhouses – some original designs, some intricate miniature replicas of actual buildings – and every tiny item of furniture and décor inside. He’s intense and focused; he loves the work and is incredibly good at it, but he’s a very solitary person and he thrives on precision and routine. It’s clear from early on that Nick is neuroatypical, although his differences are never really labelled (ASD is mentioned once, but only in passing), and instead, the author shows us how his fascination with numbers and time, his need for rigid routine and his difficulty making eye contact contribute to his being – in his own words – “different” and “difficult to live with”. Like Oliver, Nick is facing the prospect of a lonely house once his niece Emma, his late sister’s daughter, has left for college in New York, but while Nick knows, rationally, that he’s going to miss her, he has yet to fully process the emotions that go along with missing someone.

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

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.

How to Fake it in Hollywood by Ava Wilder (audiobook) – Narrated by Thérèse Plummer & Andrew Eiden

how to fake it in hollywood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Grey Brooks is on a mission to keep her career afloat now that the end of her long-running teen TV show has her (unsuccessfully) pounding the pavement again. With a life-changing role on the line, she’s finally desperate enough to agree to her publicist’s scheme: Fake a love affair with a disgraced Hollywood heartthrob who needs the publicity, but for very different reasons.

Ethan Atkins just wants to be left alone. Between his high-profile divorce, struggles with drinking, and grief over the death of his longtime creative partner and best friend, Ethan has slowly let himself fade into the background. But if he ever wants to produce the last movie he and his partner wrote together, Ethan needs to clean up his reputation and step back into the spotlight. A gossip-inducing affair with a gorgeous actress might be just the ticket, even if it’s the last thing he wants to do.

Though their juicy public relationship is less than perfect behind the scenes, it doesn’t take long before Grey and Ethan’s sizzling chemistry starts to feel like more than just an act. But after decades in a ruthless industry that requires bulletproof emotional armor to survive, are they too used to faking it to open themselves up to the real thing?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

If you read my reviews regularly, you’ll know that m/f contemporary romance has never been something I gravitate towards, but the occasional one does catch my eye now and then, and Ava Wilder’s début romance, How to Fake it in Hollywood, is one of those. I picked it up on a whim  because I’d read a couple of reviews that intrigued me – and, okay, also because of Andrew Eiden.

On the surface, it’s your basic bad-boy meets good-girl story with a fake-dating trope thrown in, but there’s a bit more going on beneath, especially because both leads are carrying a lot of baggage which trips them up several times along the road to their eventual HFN. Grey Brooks – whose real name is Emily – is twenty-seven and has been working in front of the camera for two decades. The successful teen drama in which she’d played the lead ended eight months earlier, and although she’s done the odd bit part here and there, she’s yet to land another decent role. Together with her best friend Kamilah, Grey is drafting a script based on a best-selling novel and they’re planning to direct (Kamilah) and star (Grey) once they can get the project greenlit. Now, though, Grey is up for a role in a major fantasy franchise, but she’s been out of the spotlight for a while and profile counts in this business, so her publicist comes up with a way to increase her chances of getting the part and getting backing for the movie further down the road.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dead Serious (Crawshanks Guide to the Recently Departed #1) by Vawn Cassidy (audiobook)- Narrated by Joel Leslie

dead serious

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the business of unfinished business…

Tristan Everett has always preferred the company of the dead because they usually don’t talk back. Being a somewhat awkward introvert working as a pathologist at the Hackney Public Mortuary suits him just fine. That is, until a freak accident with a rogue ice cube and suddenly he can see ghosts. No longer content to just lie on the table and let him figure out how they died, they’re now peering over his shoulder critiquing his work and confessing their most lascivious sins before skipping off merrily into the afterlife.

Just when he thought his life couldn’t get any weirder, sassy drag queen, Dusty Le Frey, is wheeled in with a toe tag and she’s not prepared to go quietly into the light. Not only is she furious at the prospect of spending eternity in last season’s gold lame, she’s determined that he help her solve her murder.

Suddenly Tristan finds himself thrown into a world of sequins and fake eyelashes, and worse still, he may have developed a bit of a crush on Scotland Yard’s brand new drool-worthy detective, Inspector Danny Hayes, who’s been assigned to Dusty’s murder. Oh, and as the icing on top of a really crappy cake, the killer now wants him dead too…

All he ever wanted was a simple life but suddenly he’s juggling work, a deliciously sexy detective, a stubborn ghost and a relentless murderer… and things have just gotten dead serious…

Rating: Narration  – B+; Content – D+

I was intrigued by the blurb for Dead Serious, which promised a mystery featuring a socially awkward pathologist trying to find a murderer and a romance between said pathologist and the gorgeous detective assigned to the case. The twist in the story is that the pathologist can see ghosts and is being haunted by the spirit of the murder victim, a sassy drag-queen by the name of Dusty Le Frey; it sounded like fun, and with Joel Leslie narrating, I knew I was in a safe pair of hands, so to speak.

Tristan Everett is a pathologist at the Hackney Public Mortuary in East London, and while cutting open dead bodies is probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, he likes his job and is good at it. Being a bit of an introvert, Tristan kind of prefers the company of the dead anyway – at least he doesn’t have to make idle conversation with them. He’s been persuaded to go to a leaving do at a local pub, where he catches sight of the hottest guy he’s ever seen – but before they can do much more than nod and smile at each other, Tristan somehow manages to get an ice cube lodged in his throat and, unable to breathe, chokes and passes out. When he comes to, he’s on the floor of the pub with Mr. Hottie crouching over him; feeling like an idiot, Tristan is duly wheeled away by the attending paramedics, and doesn’t think he’ll ever see his dream guy again.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Bruise-Black Sky & Death’s Ink-Black Shadow (More Heat Than the Sun 5&6) by John Wiltshire (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

The Bruise-Black Sky and Death’s Ink-Black Shadow may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Bruise-Black Sky

It’s either a brave or a stupid person who threatens anything Nikolas Mikkelsen loves.

Ben usually overlooks Nikolas’ occasionally jarring dissonance. Not this time. A deep rift, a terrible lie, separates them. Eleven thousand miles from Nikolas, in New Zealand, it’s bitter winter as Ben films the tragic story of a post-apocalyptic gladiator, a victim of his own personal darkness. But on receiving a death threat, Ben suspects the truth of actor Oliver Whitestone’s suicide. Someone doesn’t want this movie made. It’s fortunate for Ben, therefore, that dissonance is a state of unrest, a longing for completion. As if Nikolas would stay at home in disgrace while Ben Rider-Mikkelsen becomes the target of a crazed stalker….

Death’s Ink-Black Shadow

“Learn to love death’s ink-black shadow as much as you love the light of dawn.”

Yeah? Well, Nikolas doesn’t do early mornings.

It takes a certain kind of courage to live as if favoured by the Gods, ignoring the ever-present ghosts of your past – or perhaps not bravery, but arrogance. And maybe not even that. Ben genuinely believes that the past is behind them – that they deserve to enjoy the life they have created. So it’s not hubris that leads him to overlook the signs that Nikolas does not share his faith, it’s love. But Nikolas knows something is coming. He can’t stop it; he can only decide how he will choose to face it. And without Ben’s support, he is entirely alone.

Rating: Narration – A+;  Content – B (B-/B+)

Following on from being stranded in Siberia and family betrayal (The Bridge of Silver Wings), and the undercover and amnesia storylines of This Other Country, the plot of this fifth More Heat Than the Sun book is a bit tame by comparison. As always, the real meat of these novels is found in the relationship between Nik and Ben, but the plot used to frame it this time round (in book five) – a murder/mystery – isn’t very interesting and the reveal is both confusing and unsatisfactory.

Note: This is an ongoing series in which the central relationship develops from book to book; as such, this is not the place to start, and there will be spoilers for earlier books in this review.

You can read the rest of this (dual) review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge – What Remains by Garrett Leigh

what remains

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Web designer Jodi Peters is a solitary creature. Lunch twice a week with his ex-girlfriend-turned-BFF and the occasional messy venture to a dodgy gay bar is all the company he needs, right?

Then one night he stumbles across newly divorced firefighter Rupert O’Neil. Rupert is lost and lonely, but just about the sweetest bloke Jodi has ever known. Add in the heady current between them, and Jodi can’t help falling hard in love. He offers Rupert a home within the walls of his cosy Tottenham flat—a sanctuary to nurture their own brand of family—and for four blissful years, life is never sweeter.

Until a cruel twist of fate snatches it all away. A moment of distraction leaves Jodi fighting for a life he can’t remember and shatters Rupert’s heart. Jodi doesn’t know him—or want to. With little left of the man he adores, Rupert must cling to what remains of his shaky faith and pray that Jodi can learn to love him again.

Rating: B+

Garrett Leigh’s What Remains is a touching, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story about a couple who are forced to rebuild their lives and relationship after one of them is involved in a serious accident. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages so this month’s “Blue Collar” prompt gave me the excuse to push it to the top of the TBR because one of the leads is a fireman, although his job doesn’t feature heavily in the story.

Late at night one Boxing Day Jodi Peters stumbles, somewhat worse for wear, out of the dodgy gay bar just round the corner from his home in Tottenham (North London). He’s started walking (none too steadily) when he a fight breaks out in front of the pub up the road and he  watches as the pub’s bouncer – tall, blond and the hottest guy Jodi has ever seen – breaking it up. Sitting at the bus stop opposite (although he doesn’t need to catch a bus), Jodi watches calmly through his buzz until the police have arrived to pick up the troublemakers; he’s still there when the pub closes. The bouncer – whose name is Rupert – approaches Jodi and asks if he’s alright, and when Jodi says he lives just round the corner, offers to see him home. It’s well past midnight, but Jodi can’t quite bring himself to say goodnight and invites Rupert in for a coffee; they get talking and Rupert admits that he’s only recently come out – and that it hasn’t gone down well with his family. Jodi can sympathise. He’s bisexual but has only really become comfortable with the part of him that’s attracted to guys in the last couple of years. Rupert is gorgeous, he’s a bit awkward and a lot sweet, and Jodi is completely smitten. After sharing a passionate kiss – Rupert’s first with a bloke – they part, but not before Jodi tells Rupert to come by the next day and maybe they can pick up where they left off.

It’s a month before Rupert and Jodi meet again, and over pizza and a cuppa, they fill each other in on their jobs – Jodi’s a web-designer, Rupert’s a fireman – and talk about their lives in general – Rupert has a daughter with his ex (who is a bit of a cow, frankly), while Jodi’s most recent ex- girlfriend is now his best mate. The chemistry and attraction crackles between them and over the following weeks and months they get to know each other, and being with Jodi helps Rupert to start to feel better about himself and being himself. They’re head-over-heels for each other; they eventually move in together, Jodi gets on well with Rupert’s daughter and they’re very happy for the next four years – until Jodi sustains a TBI (traumatic brain injury) after being hit by a car.

I really liked the way the first part of the book is structured as we switch between timelines, seeing, in a series of vignettes, the progression of Jodi and Rupert’s relationship from their first meeting up until the point everything undergoes that devastating change, alternating with Rupert’s thoughts and feelings as he sits at Jodi’s bedside waiting and hoping for him to wake from his coma. I like flashbacks as a narrative device when they’re done as well as they are here, and the author does a great job of rounding out their past relationship before going on to contrast it so strongly with what happens next.

The second part of the story is told in linear fashion, and it starts from the moment Jodi wakes up calling for Sophie, his ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend. Jodi thinks he and Sophie are still a couple and he has no idea who Rupert is or that he’s bisexual – all he knows is frustration and annoyance that this bloke he doesn’t know – and doesn’t want to know – is hovering over him instead of Sophie. Jodi has lost the memories of the last five years of his life, and you can feel Rupert’s heart breaking every time Jodi rejects him – especially as he’s not at all kind or subtle about it. He’s a completely different person to the one who fell for Rupert and his personality changes are really well portrayed – before the accident, he’s funny, hard-working and almost obsessively neat; after it, he’s an aggressive slob who lashes out all the time and can’t be bothered with even the most basic cleanliness – personal and in his surroundings.

The weeks go by and there’s no sign that Jodi is regaining any of his memories of Rupert or the life they’d built together over the past four years. Rupert’s quiet devastation is palpable, but he does whatever he has to do in order to stay strong and not to fall apart, accepting his role-change from partner to carer without complaint. Maybe he’s a bit too good to be true, but in his PoV, we’re privy to his frustration and sorrow and anger, and to the mental toll the situation is taking on him – but he has to lock it down to be able to keep caring for Jodi, no matter how cold or uncaring Jodi is. Like anyone pushed to their limits, however, there does come a point when Rupert starts to wonder if things are ever going to change and if he’s going – somehow – to have to move on.

Without giving away too much, the eventual HEA in this story is really well done, and I liked, very much, that it’s not the HEA you might expect in that there’s no magical cure for Jodi’s memory loss. Instead, we get to watch Jodi and Rupert slowly finding their way back to each other as Jodi, through determination and hard work, accepts the things that have changed, begins to regain control of his life and, eventually, and with Rupert’s constant love and support, makes a new one.

What Remains is a compelling read and one I enjoyed a great deal. The two leads are, for the most part, likeable and sympathetic, and the insight into how such a life-changing injury affects not only the injured but also their loved ones, is articulated very well. There’s humour, warmth and hope sprinkled in among the darker, angstier moments so that the story is never mired in misery, and I always love reading dialogue that feels familiar in its rhythms and idioms – I feel I’m reading about people I could conceiveably have met or lived down the road from. If you’re in the mood for some hurt/comfort and a rocky path to happiness, I definitely recommend this one.

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.

Dead Draw (Perfect Play #1) by Layla Reyne (audiobook) – Narrated by Christian Leatherman

dead draw
This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a marriage of convenience is the only play left…

Special Agent Emmitt Marshall knows how to:
Wear a cowboy hat.
Hack anything.
Win at chess.
Fall in love with emotionally unavailable men.
He even knows the perfect play to catch the terrorists who killed his mentor.

Special Agent Levi Bishop doesn’t know how to:
Move on after his wife’s death.
Help his grieving son.
Pay off his mountain of debt.
Fix the mess some cowboy cyber agent made of his case.
The same cowboy who proposes a marriage of convenience to stop a common enemy.

Marsh is either the answer to Levi’s prayers—or a handsome nightmare in a Stetson.
Levi doesn’t know.
But both men do know their cases and lives are at a dead draw.
There’s only one play left…
I do.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

I’ve said before that Layla Reyne’s books can be hit or miss for me, so I was pleased to find that Dead Draw, the first book in her new Perfect Play series, was mostly a hit. It’s fast paced, with plenty of action and a steamy central romance, and although loosely tied to the Fog City series, and one of the principals appeared as a secondary character in her standalone novel, What We May Be, there are no overlapping story threads, so a new listener could start here with no problems.

Special Agent Emmett Marshall, a legal attaché with the FBI, has been working to bring down the group of terrorists responsible for the death of his best friend and mentor some three years earlier, but a serious mis-step sees him screwing up an FBI operation in the US. His intention had been to try to flush out the people funding the terrorists, but instead, he ends up sending them to ground and completely blowing eighteen months of hard graft put in by Special Agent Levi Bishop and his team, who have been hot on the trail of a group of people traffickers.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.