Firefly Lane (Briar County #1) by Riley Hart (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams

firefly lane

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

At 43, Holden Barnett is getting along just fine. His job as a pilot keeps him from getting restless, and he’s got a man who doesn’t want promises for the future. One phone call from his estranged sister changes everything. She needs his help, so Holden drops everything and heads to Harmony, a small town in Briar County, which represents everything he’s tried to avoid in life.

Monroe Covington is 45 and happy. He loves his life – running his store, helping at his family’s farm, and spending his days with his best friend, Lindsey, and their son, Wyatt. Sure, half the town likes to forget he’s gay, and he’d love for the queer population to be bigger, but Roe makes do. He misses dating, relationships, and a man to hold at night, but at least he gets new eye candy when Holden, the brother of the woman who’s renting his cabin, shows up.

The attraction is instant, the friendship not far behind, but between Holden’s initial relationship status, family complications, and the two of them wanting different things, they’re a disaster waiting to happen…only it doesn’t feel that way, not with how much time they spend talking, laughing, and eventually, tumbling into bed, a field, or the back of a truck together. The closer they get, the more Holden realizes that just being fine isn’t enough, and Roe begins to see that his life isn’t as complete as he thought. Now, if they could only sort out the rest of it….

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

Riley Hart is the author of a large number of m/m romances, but I haven’t yet tried any of her work, so when I saw that Kale Williams was narrating her new Briar County series, I decided it was time to rectify that! The series is set in small-town North Carolina, and Firefly Lane is what I often refer to as a ‘quiet’ book – the angst level is low, and there are no silly misunderstandings or melodramatic plot devices. It’s a simple, character-driven story about two men in their forties who thought love had probably passed them by, about family being what you make it, and about having the courage to go for what you want.

Monroe Covington likes his life in small town Harmony, NC. Family is close by, he runs a successful store and his son Wyatt is a terrific kid whom he co-parents with Wyatt’s mom, Roe’s best friend, Lindsey. The only thing missing is someone to share his life with, but at forty-five, Roe realises that a long-term relationship probably isn’t on the cards, and he makes do with the occasional hook up on his trips to Asheville or Charlotte. He knows that practically everyone in town expects him and Lindsey to end up together, the fact that Roe is gay not deterring them from thinking that way; he and Lindsey decided to have a child together because they both wanted kids and a long-term relationship wasn’t on the horizon for either of them – and they went into it with their eyes open, knowing they’d be parents but not life-partners. (I had to side-eye the fact that Lindsey got pregnant “the usual way” – Roe is most definitely gay, but had sex with his female best friend. Not being a gay man, I have no idea how likely that is – I suppose it was the most cost effective option?)

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Wrangler and the Orphan (Farthingale Ranch #4) by Jackie North

the wrangler and the orphan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“Some scars run soul-deep. Some scars only love can heal.”
Brody is the wrangler at Farthingdale Ranch. He knows a lot about horses, but not a whole lot about people.

He is so broken, he cannot imagine anyone would want to love him. Then along comes Kit, a young man in need of shelter, searching for a forever home.

In Kit, Brody sees the scared young man he used to be. In caring for Kit, Brody is in over his head.

But as Brody makes room in his heart for Kit, both their lives begin to change.

Rating: C

The Wrangler and the Orphan is book four in Jackie North’s Farthingale Ranch series; I haven’t read any of the others, but although characters from the other books appear in it, this one stands alone.  It’s a hurt/comfort age-gap romance in which the two leads bond over just how far their lives mirror each other and how much they have in common, but although I generally like age-gap romances, they can be difficult to pull off successfully, and I’m afraid this one didn’t work for me.
Brody Calhoun, wrangler at Farthingdale Ranch, is preparing to head back to the ranch after running some errands in town, when he sees a young man crawling out of a basement window in the Rusty Nail bar.  Brody recognises the kid as one that his friend Clay had stopped being smacked around by the bar’s owner a while back, and it doesn’t take him long to work out that he must be running away.  Brody can’t help seeing a younger version of himself in the scared, bleeding youngster, and signals him to get in to the truck.  He’ll take him back to the ranch and… well, he doesn’t quite know what to do long-term, but for now, he’ll get him cleaned up and fed and figure it out from there.

Kit Foster is nineteen and has spent his life being neglected and abused by his dead-beat mother Katie and her endless string of boyfriends, so much so that it’s become the norm for him.  Her latest boyfriend was Eddie Piggot, owner of the Rusty Nail, but now she’s skipped town after stealing five thousand dollars from him, leaving Kit behind.   Needless to say, Eddie is furious, and takes out that fury on Kit, who, with no money and nowhere to go, has to stay put and take what’s dished out.  Until an especially vicious beating prompts him to finally get away and he squeezes out the basement window.

Thanks to spending his own child-and-young-adulthood with the abusive Daddy Frank, Brody immediately recognises the signs of similar trauma in Kit.  At seventeen, Brody was rescued by trail boss Quint McKay, who showed him care and kindness and taught him that there is good in the world; now Brody decides it’s time for him to pay it forward, and that he’ll do  whatever it takes to help Kit.

The Wrangler and the Orphan is well written, with some lovely descriptive prose, a strong element of found-family, and well-realised moments of insight and emotion that tug at the heartstrings – but the romance is problematic.  The age-gap isn’t the issue; I don’t think Brody’s age is stated, but I got the impression he’s late twenties – the trouble is that Kit reads so much younger than nineteen and for over half the book, Brody treats him more like a child than an adult.  (He calls him “youngling” half the time, which Kit says he likes, but it made me uncomfortable.) As a result, their relationship is completely unbalanced; Kit is emotionally immature, he looks to Brody for just about everything and is still learning to think for himself by the time the novel ends.  His feelings for Brody read more like hero worship than love, and I honestly couldn’t believe that someone so vulnerable and so traumatised, who finds it very hard to trust, would fall in love in just a matter of weeks – or that he was capable of that sort of emotional commitment.  I had hoped the story would take place over a longer time-span, that maybe in the second half, we’d see Kit and Brody a few years on, with both of them having addressed their issues and ready to be in a healthy relationship, but that wasn’t the case. And Kit’s seeming so much younger, together with his vulnerability and naivéte meant that when things turned sexual in the second half, I was squicked out; his and Brody’s first sexual encounter takes place after hardly any build-up and in circumstances I found both bizarre and discomfiting.

Brody is nicely drawn; he’s quiet, thoughtful and insightful, and the patience borne of his lifelong experience with horses makes him perfectly poised to help Kit, who is often likened to a skittish, wounded animal.  Kit is less well-defined though; he’s young and has experienced little outside of Katie’s neglect and abuse, so he’s something of a blank space.  I did like watching him slowly learning to fit in and become part of the ranch community and his slowly growing confidence.

Brody’s past means he knows exactly what Kit has gone through and how he’s likely to react to certain things in the present, so he makes sure to avoid rocking the boat, and his behaviour and ability to remain on an even keel is admirable.  But it’s clear that he’s never really dealt with his own trauma (has nobody at the ranch heard of therapy?!), his coping mechanisms are pretty unhealthy and he seems unwilling to attempt to find better ones or actually work through his issues.  He helps Kit to deal with his trauma, but we’re never shown Brody telling Kit about what happened to him or making the attempt to deal with it, which is another thing that makes the novel feel unbalanced.  The fact that neither Eddie nor Katie gets any sort of comeuppance also left me feeling dissatisfied.

I get the impression from the handful of reviews I’ve read that the other books in the Farthingdale Ranch series have worked better as romances and The Wrangler and the Orphan is something of an outlier.  I’ve enjoyed other books by Jackie North, so while I can’t recommend this one, I’m chalking my disappointment up to experience and will try something else of hers in the not too distant future.

Right Behind Her (Bree Taggert #4) by Melinda Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Christina Traister

right behind her

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Twenty-seven years ago, Sheriff Bree Taggert’s father killed her mother, then himself. Now Bree and her younger brother, Adam, find human bones on the grounds of their abandoned family farm. The remains are those of a man and a woman, both murdered in the same horrible way.

When the investigation determines the murders occurred thirty years ago, Bree’s dead father becomes a suspect, forcing Bree to revisit the brutal night she’s spent most of her life trying to forget. The only other suspect is an unlikely squatter on the Taggert farm who claims to know secrets about Bree’s past. When he mysteriously disappears and Bree’s niece is kidnapped, the cold case heats up.

Bree has stoked the rage of a murderer who’ll do anything to keep his identity – and motives – a secret. To protect everyone she loves, Bree must confront a killer.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content- B

Right Behind Her is the fourth book in Melinda Leigh’s series of romantic suspense novels featuring Bree Taggert, a former homicide detective who is now sheriff of Grey’s Hollow in upstate New York. While each one comprises a self-contained mystery plot, these books really do need to be read in order, so as to be able to follow and understand Bree’s journey from hard-nosed cop who never wanted to see her home town again to a woman making a life and a family there. In the first book, Cross Her Heart, Bree returned to Grey’s Hollow after the murder of her younger sister and realised she needed to stay in order to look after her niece Kayla (eight) and nephew Luke (sixteen) – even though she didn’t have the faintest idea about raising kids. As the series has progressed, we’ve seen her slowly settling into her new roles – professional and personal – although her path has been strewn with realistic obstacles, both internal and external, from dealing with the aftermath of the corruption she uncovered in the sheriff’s department to the continuing fall-out of her own personal trauma – her father was a violent man who killed her mother and then himself when Bree was just eight years old, and it’s clear that she has never really processed or dealt with it. It’s also left her very cautious about forming relationships – which means she’s spent the last couple of books keeping her love interest – investigator and K9 handler Matt Flynn – at a distance, while he begins to worry that she may never be ready or able to commit to him emotionally.

When Right Behind Her opens, Bree and her younger brother Adam – who was just a baby when their parents died – are paying a visit to their former family home, which Adam (now a very successful artist) has recently purchased. It’s hard for Bree, but she wants to be there for her brother, who is clearly looking for some sort of connection to a past he has no memory of. Privately, Bree thinks it’s better that way. As they’re leaving, Bree hears sounds coming from the nearby barn; she identifies herself and enters cautiously, only to be attacked by whoever is inside. The man runs, but Bree manages to subdue him, and once backup arrives and she hands him off, she realises the backpack he was carrying is missing. She, her deputies and Adam start looking for it, but find more than they bargained for when Bree finds the backpack – and Adam finds some old bones. Human remains that are later shown to be those of a man and a woman who were murdered around thirty years before. And the man had clearly been tortured.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Unwritten Rules by KD Casey

unwritten rules

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Zach Glasser has put up with a lot for the sport he loves. Endless days on the road, playing half-decent baseball in front of half-full stadiums and endless nights alone, pretending this is the life he’s always wanted.

The thing is, it could have been everything he ever wanted—if only he’d had the guts to tell his family, tell the club, that he was in love with his teammate Eugenio Morales. Well, ex-teammate now. When Zach wouldn’t—couldn’t—come out, Eugenio made the devastating choice to move on, demanding a trade away from Oakland. Away from Zach.

Three years and countless regrets later, Zach still can’t get Eugenio out of his head. Or his heart. And when they both get selected to play in the league’s All-Star Classic, those feelings and that chemistry come roaring back.

Zach wants a second chance. Eugenio wants a relationship he doesn’t have to hide. Maybe it’s finally time they both get what they want.

Rating: C-

I’m not a sports fan, but I do like a good sports romance, and having read the synopsis of début author KD Casey’s Unwritten Rules, I had high hopes of finding one within its pages.  But while the book gets off to a good start, I’m afraid those hopes were dashed before I got to the halfway point.  It doesn’t tread any new ground in terms of the storyline (closeted pro player worried about the effect coming out could have on his career) – and that’s fine; tropes are tropes, and it’s ultimately all about what the author makes of them.  But while KD Casey can clearly write and really knows her stuff when it comes to baseball, the book has a number of fairly big flaws that make it impossible for me to offer a recommendation.

The story is told entirely from the perspective of Zach Glasser, a catcher with the Oakland Elephants.  He’s Jewish (although not particularly observant from what I could gather), he has hearing loss in one ear, and in the first part of the story, he’s been playing in the major leagues for four years. He’s also gay and deeply closeted, he’s never had a relationship and is so terrified of anyone guessing about his sexuality that he seems  to spend his life constantly assessing and regulating his behaviour to make sure he doesn’t give himself away.  He knows he can’t possibly have a career in professional sport as an openly gay man and has told himself he’ll be able to have a life after he retires.  But that’s quite a few years away yet.

Then Zach meets Eugenio Morales, a young up-and-coming catcher at spring training, and although they’re vying for the same place on the team, Zach is asked to take the other man under his wing.  Eugenio is a fast learner; he’s also handsome and outgoing and Zach, who has never really allowed himself to get close to anyone, finds it hard to resist his overtures of friendship.  It takes Zach quite a long time to see those overtures for what they really are, however; but once he clues in, he and Eugenio (who is bi) embark upon a very secret, very passionate affair.

It’s in the book blurb, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the relationship crashes and burns. Eugenio can no longer deal with the secrecy – and Zach’s near-paranoia – and Zach, despite promises he’s made, is no closer to coming out than when they first got together.

The story is told in two timelines – “three years earlier”, charting the development of Zach and Eugenio’s relationship from their first meeting, and then the “present day” sections which show them getting their second chance after a long separation.  I liked the structure, which means we get to see both first and second-chance romances unfold on the page and it generally works well, although the second-chance romance doesn’t feel as well fleshed-out as the first.  And that leads me to one of my major issues with the novel as a whole, which is that the romance is pretty lacklustre.  I never really connected with the characters or felt the connection between them because there just isn’t enough of who they are outside of baseball; we spend all of the book in Zach’s head, but I couldn’t tell you much about him, and Eugenio’s characterisation is even sketchier. As a result I never understood what attracted them to each other – other than a mutual interest in baseball.  Their chemistry is lukewarm at best, and practically all the time they spend together in the first timeline is spent with Zach terrified about someone finding out about then; his fear of discovery permeates the entire story and I found it exhausting at times.  I’m not belittling the very real prejudice still faced by gay athletes in professional sport, but in most sports romances, there’s room for some lightness and the joy of making that important connection, of really being seen – but this is just unrelenting fear and gloom and Zach getting in his own way.  (I didn’t blame Eugenio one bit for getting out.) And there’s no let-up in the second timeline, which revolves around Zach’s fears of what will happen when he comes out.  A lot of the time, Eugenio feels like an afterthought and I came away from the book feeling as though what I’d read wasn’t a romance so much as it was a story about one man’s journey to self-acceptance.  The ending is abrupt and something of an anti-climax, and I’m not sure I ever got used to the third person present tense narrative, which seemed like a really odd choice.

But the biggest problem I had with the book is that it’s very baseball-heavy – and I know nothing whatsoever about baseball.  Okay, it’s a sports romance, so there’s going to be some actual sport in it, but this isn’t like Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series or Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s Him books, where the hockey is present in such a way that even a sports-hater like me can enjoy the story without needing to know too much about hockey.  In Unwritten Rules, there is hardly a page without some reference to baseball on it, and while the author does a wonderful job of putting the reader there in the stadium dirt with the players, the rest of the time I was completely lost amid technical terminology and talk of triple-and-double-As, stats, opt-outs, trades and various playing techniques.  This meant I had no idea what was at stake for these characters and as a result, couldn’t understand their motivations and decisions.  At best it was incomprehensible and at worst it was boring, and I skimmed entire pages of baseball-talk because I had no hope of working out what it meant or why it was important/relevant.  I felt like I was reading the book from a distance through a sheet of thick glass. Of course, this is a highly personal thing – if you understand the sport, you may well get more out of the book than I did, although that doesn’t negate the other problems I’ve outlined.

What makes it all the more disappointing is that KD Casey is obviously a talented writer, but she gets so bogged down in the minutiae of baseball that the characterisation and romance are sorely neglected.  As a result, Unwritten Rules is a book that will probably only appeal to a very small, niche audience – and I’m afraid that audience doesn’t include me.

Survival Instinct (Cerberus Tactical K9 series #1) by Fiona Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by James Cavenaugh

survival instinct

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Military training won’t help when the enemy is a force of nature….
All Major Dani Addams wanted when she started up that trail was to mourn and honor her fallen friend. She has no way of knowing the weather is about to turn on her in the worst possible way – or that she’s about to meet a man who will change her entire life.

Ex-SEAL Trip Williams and his K9 Valor were brought in to rescue a film crew that got caught in the storm. He isn’t expecting Dani. But once he finds her, he will keep her safe…even if he has to disobey direct orders and fight Mother Nature herself.
All Dani and Trip have to do to get to happily ever after is weather the storm. Should be simple, right? If only….

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – D

In one of our recent Currently Playing chats behind the scenes at AudioGals, I mentioned that I’d just listened to Fiona Quinn’s Survival Instinct and what a disappointment it was. Kaetrin responded that she’d listened to it as well and had enjoyed it – and as life would be very boring if we all liked the same things, I suggested we expand my initial review to include her thoughts and comments, as her views might resonate with some listeners and mine with others. So here’s our first ever joint review!

Caz: I’m sorry if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but Fiona Quinn’s Survival Instinct – book one in her Cerberus Tactical K9 series – turned out to be yet another in a sadly long line of romantic suspense stories that are neither romantic nor suspenseful. I’ve listened to and enjoyed a few books by this author, but basing my decision to pick this one upon past listens was a bad one in this instance, because after a strong start, it went rapidly downhill and never recovered.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Gentleman Tutor by Harper Fox (audiobook) – Narrated by Callum Hale

a gentleman tutor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For Frank Harte, impoverished schoolteacher, January in London means a yearly fight to survive. A former soldier, his injuries have barred him from all but the lowest paid posts, and the cold incapacitates him still more.

The chance to work as tutor to Viscount Gracewater, son of the famous big-game hunting Earl, comes as a lifeline to Frank. The Earl’s Knightsbridge mansion is huge, elegant – and, most temptingly, kept warm from basement to attics. Viscount “Scapegrace” Gracie, used to foreign climes, is delicate. He’s also wild, charming, and only five years younger than Frank himself. His innocence and feckless good nature soon endear him to the quiet, reserved tutor. But the Earl’s house is a dark one beneath its bright veneer, and the Viscount is in the thrall of unscrupulous Arthur Dickson, a handsome, brutal parasite who’ll stop at nothing to retain his power over Gracie’s heart and soul.

Edwardian secrets burgeon as Frank begins a battle to free his student, confronting along the way the knowledge that he’s losing his own heart to this brilliant and beautiful young man.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

Harper Fox’s A Gentleman Tutor is a standalone historical romance with a gothic tinge; a poor tutor goes to work at a grand house (although this one is in Kensington and not on the wild and windy moors!) and is caught up in a battle for the heart and soul of his tutee. I have it in print but – (you guessed it!) – haven’t got around to reading it yet, so I jumped at the chance to listen to and review the audio version. Narrator Callum Hale is new to me, and although it took me a little while to get used to him, he acquits himself well and I’d certainly listen to him again.

Impoverished schoolteacher Frank Harte is facing a cold and difficult winter. A leg wound sustained during military service in India has left him with a severe limp (and other problems) and proves a bar to finding a better-paid position, so he works two jobs, teaching at a boys’ school in Shoreditch during the day and teaching dockhands to read and write three nights a week. He is barely keeping body and soul together, having to make continual trade-offs as to what essentials he can afford. Until recently, his long-time best friend Cyril was in similar circumstances, but he inherited a fortune on the recent death of his father, money that is now allowing him to move in higher circles than previously, and when the book opens, he’s sought Frank out to tell him that he’s recommended his services to the Earl of Gracewater, who is looking for a tutor to prepare his twenty-one-year-old son for Cambridge.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

To Catch a Fallen Leaf (Rossingley #2) by Fearne Hill

To Catch a Fallen Leaf

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Take one shy French gardener, mix in a naughty aristocrat, add a splash of water, a dash of sunshine, and wait for love to grow.

If only it were that easy.

Reuben Costaud counts his blessings daily. His run-in with crime is firmly behind him. He has a wonderful job gardening on the Rossingley estate, a tiny cottage all to himself, an orphaned cat named Obélix, and a friendly bunch of workmates. The last thing he needs is a tall, blond aristocrat strolling across the manicured lawns towards him.

Falling in love is not part of his plan.

Viscount Aloysius Frederick Lloyd Duchamps-Avery, Freddie to his friends, is in big trouble with everyone, from his father and his modelling agency, to his controlling older boyfriend. Seeking solace and refuge, he escapes to Rossingley and his adored cousin Lucien, the sixteenth earl. To take his mind off his woes, Lucien finds him a job with the estate gardening team.

Mutual attraction blossoms amongst the gardening tools, and Freddie charms his way through Reuben’s defences. But as spring turns to summer and Freddie’s London life collides with their Rossingley idyll, Reuben’s trust in him is ruptured. Will their love flourish or is it destined for the compost bin?

Rating: C+

Fearne Hill is a new-to-me author, and having heard good things about the first book in her Rossingley series, (To Hold a Hidden Pearl), I decided to try the second, To Catch a Fallen Leaf.  It’s a cute romance about second chances and the family you make, but sadly, I can’t say that it was a complete success.  I liked the setting, the found-family element and the gardening theme (I’m not a great gardener myself but I love visiting them at stately homes!); but while the protagonists are engaging, the romance lacks chemistry, and the Big Mis near the end just made me groan.

The series is set on the estate in the south of England owned by Lucien Duchamps-Avery,  who became the sixteenth Earl of Rossingley on the tragic deaths of his older brother and his young family.  Lucien’s closest relatives are his now his uncle, an MP, and his cousin Aloysius Frederick Lloyd Duchamps-Avery aka Freddie (who is incorrectly referred to as a viscount for some reason.)  Freddie is a highly sought-after model, who, at the beginning of the book, has rather allowed a typically high-octane, fast-moving lifestyle to get the better of him, and a massive scandal is about to break over his recent arrest in New York for possession of an illegal substance and public vagrancy after a drunken, coke-fuelled binge left him slumped over on the pavement outside Macy’s.   Even worse, Freddie’s father is the Home Secretary, known to take a particularly hard stance on drugs and crime, and Freddie’s slip could jepoardise his career.

After returning to England, Freddie takes himself off to Rossingley and Lucien – the only person in Freddie’s life who’s given a damn since the death of Freddie’s mother when he was twelve – who tells him to stay there rather than checking into some ghastly high-end rehab clinic.  Freddie is grateful and relieved, and looks forward to a quiet time of rest and recuperation, but that isn’t quite what Lucien has in mind. He suggests that Freddie will soon grow bored with nothing to do and basically – but oh, so nicely – tells him he’s to join the estate groundskeepers and that the fresh air and exercise will do him good.

Reuben Costaud has been a gardener at Rossingley for just under a year, and he loves everything about being there – his job, his little cottage, his cat and the guys he works with, including one nicknamed Gandalf who is coaching him for his English GCSE exam.  Reuben is French and came to England after being released from a ten-year stint in prison (we don’t find out what he was in for until late on); he’s determined to make something of himself and plans to enrol in Agricultural College later in the year, hoping that maybe one day, he’ll be able to take over the care of the grounds at Rossingley.

Reuben is adorable. He’s smitten with Freddie straight away, but thinks Freddie is way out of his league and Freddie is utterly charmed by Reuben and offers to help him with the other subjects he’s studying.  He wants a reason to spend time with Reuben, it’s true, but he also genuinely wants to help – and anyway, he has no idea if they’re even batting for the same team.

Of course that question is answered before too long as Reuben decides to make the most of whatever time he can have with Freddie, and Freddie slowly starts to sort himself out and to work out what he wants and what are the most important things in life.

There’s a strong secondary cast, notably Lucien (who is such a scene-stealer!) and his partner Jay, and the other gardeners, who are all well-defined,  with a great sense of camaraderie between them based on typical British Bloke-y Banter. Freddie’s father is an insensitive upper-class twat and I was pleased when Freddie stood up to him at last.

But I had a few problems with the novel that brought the grade down to just middling.  Firstly, although we see Freddie and Reuben spending time together and getting to know each other, and feeling attraction towards one another, there’s little real chemistry between them, so the romance feels flat and underdeveloped.  I liked them as friends; the way Freddie is so supportive of Reuben and sincere in his admiration for Reuben’s desire to do better is just lovely, but they didn’t work for me as lovers.  And the darker themes the author tries to inject into the novel are awkwardly juxtaposed with the overall tone of light and fluffy; Reuben was sexually assaulted in prison and clearly has lingering issues as a result, but they’re mostly glossed over, and I found it hard to believe that someone as innocent as he was – and is – could have spent ten years behind bars and not have come out with some hard edges or developed a protective shell.  And then there’s Freddie’s problem with booze and drugs, which he dispenses with quite easily because, he tells us, he was never really an addict, so giving them up is no biggie. There’s not much by way of character development either; although Freddie does grow up a bit, he and Reuben are essentially the same people at the end as they are at the beginning.

As for the Big Mis near the end … *heavy sigh*.  It’s painfully contrived and relies on Reuben immediately jumping to conclusions with no evidence – although it does prompt a fantastic scene between Reuben and his workmates in which they make it clear just how protective of him they’ve become.  Also – I couldn’t work out how the shit-stirrer got to Rossingley to shoot his mouth off before Freddie got back.

So To Catch a Fallen Leaf is a bit of a mixed bag.  I liked the premise and I liked the characters and the humour, but the story doesn’t flow well and the lack of chemistry between the leads sank the romance.  There are things to enjoy here, but they aren’t enough on their own to earn this one a recommendation.

Uncharted (Survival Instincts #2) by Adriana Anders

uncharted
This title may be purchased from Amazon

Hotshot pilot Leo Eddowes is afraid of nothing and no one. So when she’s asked to evacuate a man from the wilds of Alaska, she doesn’t hesitate. But with enemies in close pursuit and the weather turning sour, what should have been a simple mission quickly shifts to disaster.

And there’s only one way out.

When Elias Thorne disappeared, he was America’s most wanted. Now he’s spent more than a decade in one of the most remote places on earth, guarding a dangerous secret. Leo’s arrival, quickly followed by a team of expert hunters, leaves him no choice but to join forces with her—and run. Neither is prepared for their reluctant partnership to flare into something as wild and untamed as the frozen world around them…but as desperately cold days melt into scorchingly hot nights, Leo and Elias must learn to dig deep, trust in each other, and forge a bond as strong as the forces of nature.

Rating: C

I haven’t read Whiteout – the book that precedes Uncharted in Adriana Anders’  Survival Instincts series – but although there is an overarching plotline running through the series, there’s enough information provided here for a newbie to jump into the story without feeling lost, so Uncharted can be read as a standalone.  It’s my first experience with this author, and unfortunately, I can’t say I was all that impressed; the writing is solid, the story is intriguing and the set-pieces are well-written, but the central characters are bland and never came to life, the romance is lacklustre and while most romantic suspense requires some suspension of disbelief, way too much of it is required here.

Leo Eddowes is former military, a pilot with a unit from an elite private security company tasked with locating the man believed to be in possession of one of only two extant samples of a deadly virus.  She and her team had been in Antarctica in Whiteout, where they barely survived a confrontation with a… team of scientists and mercenaries tasked with stealing and testing a deadly virus by Chronos Corporation, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.  She and her team have moved their search for the virus and the man believed to have it to Alaska, but have been unable to locate either of them – and now her team has left and she’s had to stay behind owing to a bout of food poisoning or a stomach bug; whatever it is, she’s not in top condition and just wants to sleep it off and go home.  She’s not allowed to do either of those things however, because old Amka, one of the women from the town of Schink’s Station won’t stop pounding on her cabin door.  When Leo, groggy and still sick, opens the door, Amka tells her that another team from Chronos will arrive any minute and demands Leo fly out to bring her godson safely home.  Believing that godson to be the man in possession of the only remaining sample of the virus, Leo shucks off her grogginess (or tries to), and goes with Amka to find the town’s only remaining air transport – a small light aircraft from the 1940s that’s obviously been cared for, but which has seen better days.

Elias Thorne is one of America’s Most Wanted, a former US Marshal set up to take the fall for mass murder – including the deaths of his own parents – and he’s been in hiding for the last decade.  A static-laden phone call from Schink’s Station alerts him to the fact that trouble is on the way and tells him “she” is on her way to get him – but he has no idea who “she” is and doesn’t know if “she” is part of a rescue or of another group who is after him. Then he watches, helpless, as a small plane is shot down and crashes into the frozen lake; Elias makes his way carefully across the ice to see if he can help the pilot, only to be confronted by a woman in the cockpit pointing a gun at his head.

Uncharted gets off to a flying (sorry!) start and the author does a really good job of setting the scene, ramping up the tension as Leo sets off on her rescue mission and in setting up the mystery surrounding Elias. The descriptive writing is evocative and helps build a picture in the reader’s mind of the terrain and locations that the couple encounter throughout the story, and there are some really tense moments as Leo and Elias find themselves on the run from the mercenaries who are out to capture them and the virus.

Unfortunately however, after the initial excitement of the crash and then a couple of narrow escapes, the lack of actual plot became apparent.  I’d reached the halfway point, and nothing new was happening other than Leo and Elias wandering around Alaska going from one life-threatening situation to another as they tried to outsmart and outrun the people hunting them   I know that’s the plot of many romantic suspense novels and I’ve probably read and enjoyed some of them, but without strong, engaging characters who made me want to root for them, and without much in the way of chemistry or romantic development between them,  Uncharted got boring very quickly and the read became a real slog to the finish.

As for the amount of suspension of disbelief required… first of all, we’ve got Leo, who is decidedly unwell and describes herself as “hardly able to see straight”  yet still getting into and flying an unfamiliar plane;  after the crash, she’s clearly sustained a head injury and/or concussion, yet she’s walking and running and lifting heavy equipment.  Elias is shot and sustains a bad wound to his side, and yet he, too, is very quickly back on his feet and doing all manner of energetic and dangerous things.  I understand that an adrenaline rush can enable an injured person to carry on doing things they perhaps shouldn’t be able to do for a little while, but it seemed as though the author felt the need to justify the fact that these two people were still walking, running, hanging off cliffs and whatever else while on their last legs for most of the book by constantly reminding us of Leo’s illness and Elias’ injuries, and it felt ridiculous rather than edge-of-the-seat exciting.
As for the romance, well it’s all insta-lust and I honestly couldn’t work out what these two people saw in each other.  We’re told Leo and Elias are attracted to one another but I never felt any real degree of emotional connection between them – and don’t get me started on the ‘we’re running for our lives, but let’s shag anyway thing’, which is one of my biggest pet peeves ever.  Also – when the most interesting character in your romantic suspense novel is the villain, you’ve got a problem.

Uncharted was a dreary reading experience  – after the first few chapters, I just wasn’t motivated to pick it up and it took me more than twice as long to read as it should have.  Maybe I’ll try another romantic suspense novel by Adriana Anders, maybe I won’t.  But I certainly can’t recommend this one.

I’m Only Wicked With You (Palace of Rogues #3) by Julie Anne Long

I'm only wicked with youThis title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s the battle-hardened son of a bastard, raised in the wilds of New York. She’s the sheltered, blue-blooded darling of the London broadsheets, destined to marry a duke. Their worlds could only collide in a boardinghouse by the London docks…and when they do, the sparks would ignite all of England.

Nothing can stop Hugh Cassidy’s drive to build an American empire…unless it’s his new nemesis, the arrogant, beautiful, too-clever-by-half Lady Lillias Vaughn. The fascination is mutual. The temptation is merciless. And the inevitable indiscretion? Soul-searing—and the ruination of them both. Hugh’s proposal salvages Lillias’s honor but kills their dreams for their futures…until they arrive at a plan that could honorably set them free.

But unraveling their entanglement inadvertently uncovers enthralling truths: about Lillias’s wounded, tender heart and fierce spirit. About Hugh’s stunning gentleness, depth, and courage. Soon Hugh knows that as surely as he’d fight a thousand battles to win her…the best way to love Lillias means breaking his own heart.

Rating: C+

I reviewed this one jointly with my fellow All About Romance reviewer Evelyn North; she liked it a lot more than I did and gave it an A, whereas I couldn’t go higher than a C+. I didn’t care much for the heroine, and while I did like the hero, there’s nothing worse tnan a romance in which you feel one half of the central couple doesn’t “deserve” the other, which was where I ended up on this one.

You can read our review HERE

The Sign of the Raven (Ash & Juliana #2) by L.C. Sharp

the sign of the raven

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The London ton protect their own. Even when it comes to murder. 

“There’s been an incident.”

In the finer circles of 1749 London, incident is apparently the polite way to describe discovering a body with a gruesome wound and no sign of the killer. But for newlyweds Lady Juliana and Sir Edmund “Ash” Ashendon, it’s a chance to track down the culprit and right a wrong—something they are both intimately familiar with.

Indeed, it is the only thing they are intimately familiar with. For the moment.

Though their marriage may be one of convenience, there’s nothing convenient about learning the victim has ties to a name from their past: the dreaded Raven. And the Raven isn’t the only danger they face. The aristocracy protects its own, and in London’s darkest corners, no one wants to be unmasked.

With Juliana’s life on the line, time is running out for Ash to find the killer before their marriage comes to an inconveniently bloody end.

Rating: C+

Opening around a year after the events of the previous book (The Wedding Night Affair), The Sign of the Raven, the second book in L.C. Sharp’s series of historical mysteries set in Georgian London sees husband and wife Ash and Juliana looking into the suspicious death of a nobleman at a firework display.  Like the previous book, this story benefits from a strong sense of time and place and two very engaging leads whose evolving relationship is one of the book’s main draws – but the slow pacing meant I found it difficult to get into and the mystery was so simplistic that I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ by the end.

Please note that this review contains spoilers for the previous book in the series.  While it’s not essential to have read that first, I’d advise it, as it provides important background information about the two principals and their relationship.

Sir Edmund Ashendon is with his family – his wife and his siblings – at a firework display at Vauxhall Gardens when a member of staff summons him to the scene of “an incident”.  The incident in question is actually a dead body – that of a man lying face down on the ground, blood still seeping from the bullet wound to his back.  By the look of his clothing and possessions, the man is obviously well-to-do, but neither Ash nor Juliana can identify him.  An examination of his pockets yields little of interest other than some tokens made of a dull, silvery metal with something stamped on the surface –  and it’s not until Juliana’s parents put in an appearance, disapproval radiating from them, that Ash and Juliana can put a name to the victim – Lord Coddington.

The name rings a bell for Ash; he’s heard of Coddington and his “exploits” – a fondness for gaming hells and running up debts among them.  At first, the gossip puts Coddington’s death down to a robbery gone wrong, but Ash isn’t so sure; too many things don’t add up, and when another gentleman is murdered, Ash and Juliana find themselves setting an elaborate trap to catch the killer.

Unfortunately, after a strong set-up, the pacing starts to flag and there is little progress for the first half of the story.  I did, however, enjoy the introduction of some important new secondary characters – Ransom, the nosy journalist whom Juliana very cleverly recruits to ‘Team Ash’ – and pickpocket and scoundrel  Cutty Jack, who can recruit any number of urchins to be Ash’s eyes and ears on the less salubrious streets of London.  I enjoyed reading about the development of Ash and Juliana’s relationship, too, but the mystery here is weak and didn’t really capture my interest.

In fact, the most interesting part of it is the involvement of the eponymous Raven, the mysterious and dangerous criminal mastermind who rules London’s underworld with a rod of iron.  He’s been a thorn in the side of London’s lawmakers for some time, and here, he and Ash are set up as major antagonists.  I’d begun to suspect the truth of his identity – but only just before the reveal, which certainly puts the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons – or, indeed, ravens – for future entries in the series.

It’s clear that the marriage of convenience Ash and Juliana embarked upon in the previous book has evolved into a strong friendship, and that by the time this book begins, they’re on the cusp of more. For the first time ever, Juliana has someone in her life who genuinely cares for her and her welfare, and Ash is delighted to see his wife growing into herself and recognises that his feelings toward her are changing – but although their relationship has come on in leaps and bounds, what we see here is the result of progress that has happened mostly off page, in that year between stories, and I have to say that I felt a little bit cheated by that.

Once again, the story is very firmly grounded in mid-eighteenth century London, whether the action is taking place in a palatial mansion, a bustling coffee house or the worst of the slums, and those who enjoy their mysteries served with a good helping of historical background are sure to appreciate the author’s skilful way of incorporating interesting historical detail into the story.

Unfortunately however, the stodgy pacing and the lacklustre mystery mean this outing for Ash and Juliana isn’t as strong as the first.  I can’t quite recommend The Sign of the Raven, but I’m going to keep an eye out for future instalments and hope the next one grabs my attention more than this one did.