Back in the Saddle by B.A. Tortuga

back in the saddle

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When David Garcia’s family suffers a loss, he comes back to New Mexico to help, leaving his life in Austin behind. He knows he has to make the best of it, so he uses his skills as a teacher to set up a daycare business on his parents’ ranch and start helping out local friends and family who need a babysitter now and then. It’s the perfect job for someone who also needs to run the small family ranch and make money to keep it afloat.

When rodeo cowboy Wiley Marquart decides to start a family, he sure doesn’t expect the barrel racer he made a deal with to up and leave him high and dry in New Mexico with both of his girls and nothing but a check once a month. He loves his kids, but starting a ranch from the ground up is tough, and he needs someone to watch the girls when he has to work the back forty or deliver a trained horse. So when he meets David, the relief if immediate. And it doesn’t hurt that after a false start or two, he likes the guy.

Between navigating family pitfalls, work disasters, and two ranches, David and Wiley start to forge a friendship, and then a lot more. But can they find a way to mesh their lives without dropping any of the balls they’re juggling, or are they destined for disaster?

Rating: C-

B.A. Tortuga is a prolific author of contemporary m/m romance, but I’ve never read anything of hers before, so when Back in the Saddle came up for review, I decided it was time to give her a try. I mean, hot cowboys, single dads… what’s not to love? Unfortunately, quite a bit.

The plot, such as it is, is a simple one. Teacher David Garcia leaves his life in Austin to go home to the family ranch in New Mexico after his brother Andy is killed in the line of duty and his father has a heart attack. He loves his job teaching at a school for kids on the autistic spectrum and his life there, but doesn’t think twice about heading home – temporarily, he thinks – to help out.

Former rodeo rider Wiley Marquart is left – almost literally – holding the baby when his ex-wife dumps their three-year-old twin girls on him without notice and heads off on the road with her country-singer girlfriend. He adores Liberty and Sierra, but being abruptly left with sole custody isn’t what he and Ash agreed; they were friends who acted as each other’s beards on the conservative rodeo circuit, and as they both wanted kids, Wiley wanted to settle down on a ranch, so they decided to get married and co-parent. But now Ash has upended his life – how is he supposed to do everything that needs doing around the ranch while being good father to two kids under five?

As luck would have it, Wiley’s nearest neighbour has started up a daycare facility from his parents’ ranch, and he comes highly recommended, so Wiley decides to give it a try the next time he needs to be kid-free to run some errands. The girls take to David right away and Wiley is not long behind; friendship and mutual attraction blossom, David is the bestest most dedicated childcarer to ever childcare (he’s practically perfect in every way!) Wiley and his girls are soon spending more time at the Garcia place than their own and… it’s a romance, you know where it’s going.

The story is pleasant enough but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Wiley and David are bland and barely two-dimensional, and everybody is so very earnest – every scene is described down to the last detail, whether it’s making breakfast or making the bed; the dialogue feels completely unnatural and everything is explained in great detail, and the repetition of phrases like “You rock!” whenever someone does something good and “Yum” whenever food is discussed stick out like sore thumbs. I don’t know anyone – let alone two grown men – who would say “Yum” about food unless they were taking the piss. And as for the “yummy” when one of them is looking at the cock he’s about to suck for the first time… I just about stopped myself from snorting tea out of my nose.

And then there is the kids’ dialogue. This is a lesson in how not to write three-year-olds talking, from the “pweeeeease” to the “mitter(mister), using “her” instead of “she” (“her coming? “Her said…) to ridiculous phrasing like “You am happy”, “Mitter luffs you!” Ugh. They sound like no three-year-old I’ve ever encountered.

The one or two potentially interesting things about the plot are never developed. David’s grief over his brother’s death is not explored and nor is his sense that his parents would have preferred Andy over him, because Andy was the (straight) one with kids who was always intended to inherit the ranch and keep it in the family. David’s parents clearly love him and they’re close, but when they decide, pretty much on the spur of the moment, to buy an RV and go travelling because they want to escape the painful memories (about Andy) associated with the house, ON THE VERY DAY THAT DAVID HAS AN ACCIDENT AND BREAKS HIS ARM, I was appalled at their selfishness. They just bugger off, leaving him to run his daycare business and the ranch on his own when he’s injured and on pain medication! WTF?? What sort of caring person does that? Okay, so Wiley is on hand to help out, but he’s working his own place as well, and basically ends up doing the work of two, and I couldn’t believe they didn’t even consider delaying their departure, or at least offer to wait until David was feeling better. And then, towards the end, they declare they’re giving up the ranch for good and leaving it to David with the proviso that they can stay there when they need to, and not once do they ever ask David what he wants. Again – WTF? Lucky for them David has fallen for Wiley and they’ve decided they want to make a home and family there, but they didn’t know that was on the cards when they made their plans.

Back in the Saddle was disappointing to say the least. There’s no romantic chemistry between David and Wiley, all the characters are unmemorable, the kids are unbelievably twee and the whole thing is dull and overwritten. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read anything else by this author.

Down in Flames (Hot in Chicago Rookies #2) by Kate Meader

down in flames
This title may be purchased from Amazon

It was supposed to be a random hookup.

At a crossroads, my life a hot mess, I swiped right on the guy with the washboard abs and the tree-trunk thighs. His handle was Holt (yeah, really) but as soon as he opened the door, I recognized him: Hudson Grey, the hottest prospect in pro-hockey and apparently, secretly playing for my team. Not mind-blowing enough? He needed someone to punch his V-card, and I was only too happy to volunteer as tribute . . .

Then he ghosted me when it got to be too much.

A year later, my life is back on track and I’m a candidate firefighter at legendary Engine 6. While I might be new to the Chicago Fire Department, I’m a veteran in the game of steamy hookups. My No. 1 rule? No newbies. Except now Hudson has been traded to my hometown team, the Chicago Rebels, and he’s out, proud, and ready to date. And he wants my help introducing him to the local gay scene.

My messy past means I’m the worst guy to be mentoring the shy, sexy jock. But neither can I stand by and watch while others touch the man who already feels like mine.

I might have been his first, but I’m about to learn that the new guy has even more to teach me about hunger, hope, and falling hard . . .

Rating: C

Kate Meader has garnered quite a few good grades for her contemporary romances at AAR, but I’m afraid that I found her latest book, Down in Flames, just about average. The romance between a newly-out hockey star and a probationary firefighter with a chequered past is well-written, but there’s nothing new here and the characters are pretty bland. It’s also one of those m/m books where you could switch out either of the protagonists for a female character with very little trouble and it would make no real difference to the story.

The two leads – Jude Torres and Hudson Grey – meet in the short prequel – White Hot Hookup – when a very nervous and not-yet-out Hudson decides it’s time to get rid of his V-card and swipes right to set it up. The gorgeous, inked, built guy who knocks on his door is something out of Hudson’s fantasies; the sex is fantastic and everything he’d dreamed of, but Jude is a one-and-done kinda guy, and one amazing night is all he’s offering. Over the next couple of weeks however, they start messaging each other on the app, just to chat, and despite Jude’s aversion to repeats, they arrange to hook-up again. Before they can get that far though, a chance meeting sends Hudson into a panic (he’s with a teammate and worries about being outed); the planned hook-up never happens and Hudson doesn’t respond to any of Jude’s messages – he’s deleted his profile from the app. A couple of weeks later, Jude sees a post on Instagram in which Hudson announces he’s gay. It’s bittersweet, but Jude is glad he’s felt able to come out at last.

Jude and Hudson don’t see each other for almost a year. In the intervening time, Jude has continued getting his life back on track following a few years when he went completely off the rails, and Hudson has transferred from his old team in Atlanta to the Chicago Rebels. Their meeting here is certainly an unusual one; Jude and some of his colleagues from Engine 6 – where he’s a probationary firefighter – are doing the annual Polar Plunge for charity, and he sees someone in the water who looks like he’s in trouble. He’s making his way over but is beaten to it by someone else – Hudson Grey. Together, they get the other man back to the shore, but before they can do little more than acknowledge each other, Hudson leaves.

The guy Jude and Hudson hauled out of the freezing water – is the PR guy for the Rebels, and it’s his idea that they should get Jude in for a photo op with Hudson after Hudson is chosen by the NHL for a big campaign that focuses on new players. Hudson decides to go to see Jude at the station to apologise for blanking and running out on him, but their meeting doesn’t go well and both jump to unwarranted conclusions – Jude decides Hudson is ashamed of him and won’t want people to know they already ‘know’ each other (or how) and Hudson thinks Jude is judging him for his inexperience – and honestly, I was ready to close the book right there. Fortunately though, the misunderstandings are not allowed to drag on; Jude and Hudson clear the air, and Hudson surprises Jude by asking if he’d be able to give him some recommendations for places he can meet people – guys who might be interested in more than just hooking up. Jude is stunned by the request and then conflicted; the thought of Hudson with someone else is deeply disturbing, but he doesn’t do relationships – he’s “here for a good time, not a long time” – and even if he did, he’s absolutely not the guy for someone like Hudson Grey.

Somehow though, he can’t stop thinking about Hudson or wanting to spend time with him, and a friendship – laden with undertones of longing and attraction – develops between them and they start hanging out together. I liked this phase of the story and their relationship is nicely built, although I didn’t like Jude’s determination to ‘protect’ Hudson from men who (in his opinion) aren’t right for him. He’s a six-foot-something muscle-bound hockey player, not a diminutive damsel in distress!

There’s minimal conflict in the story, and what there is arises mostly as a result of Jude’s lack of self-esteem. A few years before, he was a wild party-boy – drink, drugs, lots and lots of sex – and his many bad choices led to his almost destroying some of his strongest friendships. He’s turned things around now, thanks to the helping hand offered by another good friend, Sam; he loves his job and is doing well, but he can’t help believing that all the shit he pulled back then means he’s nowhere near good enough for someone like Hudson, a clean-cut, clean-living guy with a pristine reputation to uphold.

Hudson has some anxiety issues – a panic attack is what initially caused him to ghost Jude all those months ago – which he mostly deals with himself (through breathing exercises) because he’s terrified that if he seeks medical help, he’ll be benched. He’s determined to do better though – by Jude and by himself – and I liked seeing him growing in confidence and coming into his own over the course of the story.

Of course, Jude’s past comes back to bite him in the arse towards the end of the book, but it happens so late that there’s never any sense that the HEA might be hanging in the balance. The way it plays out is very realistic, especially in these days of fast moving social media and viral videos, but in terms of the romance, it’s just a case of waiting for Jude to come to his senses and realise that he’s not the fuck-up he was a few years ago and that he really does deserve to be happy and loved.

Down in Flames is one of those books that’s neither good nor bad – it just… is. The characters are nice but basically unmemorable; Jude’s backstory plays a fairly large role in the story, but Hudson is quite bland – he’s gorgeous, he plays hockey, he has anxiety issues – and that’s basically all there is to know about him. The sex scenes are well written, but I skipped most of them after the first couple because they don’t have much to add to the story.

The blurb for Down in Flames trumpets “a brand new MM standalone” but according to Goodreads, it’s book two in the Hot in Chicago Rookies series, so I’m guessing “standalone” here means it’s the only queer romance in the set. In addition, the series is a kind of crossover between the Chicago Rebels (hockey) series and the Hot in Chicago (firefighters) series; there are LOTS of cameos from characters who I’m guessing got their HEAs in those books; they mostly just pop in and out and don’t carry any of the main storylines, but it does mean there are loads of names thrown around and I sometimes struggled to remember who they all were and how they related to each other and the two leads.

I can’t recommend it, but if you fancy a steamy, low-angst story about a firefighter with a shady past and a shy hockey player, Down in Flames might work better for you than it did for me.

The Christmas Leap (Festive Fakes #2) by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

the christmas leap

This title may be downloaded from Audile via Amazon

Fake romance shouldn’t feel this real….<
Will: I’ve never been with a man.

Sure, I’ve thought about it. Wondered. Daydreamed. Imagined. But I wasn’t ready to take the leap.

I have a reputation as a “ladies’ man”. No one has any idea how curious I am about men—not even my openly bi best friend. Make that former best friend. Michael ghosted me, and I have no idea why.

Michael: The man I love is straight.

It hurt like hell when I had to distance myself from Will. I’ve tried desperately to grow up and get over him, but my carefully constructed life just fell apart—and Will rushes to my rescue.

Now we’re pretending to be a couple to impress his boss at a holiday retreat. We’re holding hands and hugging.

We’re sharing a bed.

And Will just kissed me.

Is my best friend falling in love with me after all?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

I can take or leave Christmas-themed romances but I do pick up a few each year, especially if they’re by favourite authors. Keira Andrews’ The Christmas Deal from 2019 is a sweet, sexy fake-relationship story with engaging characters, lots of warm fuzzies and a well-deserved HEA; I enjoyed it very much and was quick to pick it up in audio the following year. I was really pleased when I learned the author would be returning to that world – now entitled Festive Fakes – for a follow-up story, also a romance that starts out with a fake relationship, although this time the leads are two long-time friends who have drifted apart.

At the beginning of The Christmas Leap, Michael Davis returns home with what he thinks is the perfect Christmas tree for the home he shares with his boyfriend Jared, only to overhear a phone conversation between Jared and his sister in which he says he’s been planning to break up with Michael for months – that he should never have let their relationship go on for as long as it has, in fact – but that he’s not going to do it until after Christmas because he knows how much Michael is looking forward to it. Deeply hurt, angry and confused, Michael walks; he gets into his car with nothing but the clothes on his back and drives without any destination in mind. All he knows is he has to get away. And as if life hasn’t thrown enough crap at him, his car breaks down on a snowy, deserted road and it’s going to be hours before the breakdown service can get there. Cold, lonely and miserable, there’s only one person Michael wants to call – his former best friend Will, the man he’s crushed on since college – and who, in a desperate attempt to get over him, Michael has ghosted for two years.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Spooky Life (Spectral Files #4) by S.E. Harmon (Audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

the spooky life

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Rain Christiansen isn’t sure he’ll ever fully understand the supernatural. But he’s finally finding his groove as a reluctant medium and cold-case detective. That’s not to say everything is going smoothly—there’s a wedding in the works, after all. He’s finally taking that enormous step with fellow detective, Daniel McKenna, and he couldn’t be happier . . . about the marriage. Not so much the wedding. The hoopla is enough to make him wish for a quick flight to Vegas and an Elvis officiant.

At least work is keeping Rain and the PTU plenty busy. Their latest case involves Hannah Caldwell, a silent ghost who can’t—or won’t—speak. She still manages to request that they find her dear friend, Cherry Parker, so that she can say goodbye. Piece of cake. Finding people is pretty high on the list of things that Rain does best.

But when it comes to ghosts, nothing is ever quite what it seems. Before long, his simple missing person’s case takes a dark and twisted turn. And Rain realizes he’s been so busy trying to protect Danny that he forgot to protect himself.

If he doesn’t turn things around—and quickly—his spooky life might be cut short for good.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C+

When we last saw Detectives Rain Christiansen and Danny McKenna – at the end of Spooky Business – they’d narrowly survived being murdered by a vengeful ghost, and just got engaged. When we encounter them again here, they’re well into planning their wedding… or rather, Danny’s mother is well into planning it and is insisting on dragging the two of them (kicking and screaming metaphorically at least) into it as well. Like the other books in the Spectral Files series, The Spooky Life combines a supernatural mystery with the ongoing development of the central relationship, but although Rain’s snarky voice is as entertaining as ever, the mystery feels a bit thin and the whole wedding-planning-thing seems, at times, to have taken over. That trope – the everyone-else-wants-to-plan-our-wedding one – is one I have little patience with; not only do I not understand why people spend a fortune on weddings, I don’t understand why two grown men in their late thirties can’t – politely – tell everyone to just butt out and let them do it their way.

Rain is on a visit to a possible wedding venue with Mrs. McKenna and quietly wishing the ground would open and swallow him up, when he notices a woman walking around under a decorative arch, a lonely ghost who seems to be in a world of her own. Managing to escape from his prospective mother-in-law and the very eager venue manager, Rain makes his way over to the spirit and introduces himself; to his surprise she doesn’t speak – usually the ghosts who find Rain won’t shut up – so he thinks that perhaps she’s ready to move on but is stuck for some reason and decides to help her to do so. When that doesn’t work, Rain realises that perhaps she can’t move on because of unfinished business and wants him to go somewhere. Sigh.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Note:  This is the second book in a row I’ve listened to by this author in which she has put a “disclaimer” in her author’s note (in the ebook version) to the effect that she’s not responsible for plot holes:

“Plot holes? Perhaps. Despite the best efforts of my beta readers, my editor, and myself, there are probably a few errors that we didn’t catch. It happens.”

Um… no. Typos can get through even the best proof readers, we know that.  But STORY CONTENT is the province of the author and it’s up to them to – in collaboration with their editor where warranted – work through any content issues so that the story proceeds smoothly.  Apologising in advance because you couldn’t be bothered to fix the plot holes you’ve created for yourself is disrespectful to your readers and lazy writing.  I’m on the fence about whether I’ll bother picking up another book by this author.

Contract Season (Trade Season #2) by Cait Nary

contract season

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: C

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

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

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

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

In the intervening time, Sea writes and records a smash-hit song about being ghosted, and Brody is traded to the Nashville Bucks – and moves to Sea’s home town. They meet again at a fundraiser and despite Sea’s hurt and Brody’s guilt over the ghosting, the attraction between them burns as hot as it did the first time and they head back to Sea’s house to hook up again. This time, it doesn’t go well and Sea – fearing he will somehow reveal his inexperience – kicks Brody out. They both think that’s that – until a couple of suggestive photographs of them taken at the fundraiser are leaked, followed shortly afterwards by footage (from the neighbour’s security camera) of them kissing outside Sea’s house. Their management teams immediately go into damage control mode, and suggest that Brody and Sea should pretend to date, the thinking being that two guys in a committed relationship may be more acceptable to the… conservative sports and country fans than two guys who were just hooking up.

A lot of this early part of the book works really well. The chemistry between Brody and Sea sizzles, the forced outing is handled sensitively, and I appreciated the attention given to the reservations both men have about being ‘the first openly gay hockey player/country singer’. I also liked that the author addresses the point that although the reactions from teammates and other artists are largely positive, Brody and Sea are never quite sure if that support is genuine or simply a way of avoiding being savaged on social media.

Brody and Sea are talented, hard-working individuals at the top of their game; they’re likeable and their connection is believable. But on the downside, Brody has practically no personality; all we really know of him is his tendency to single-mindedly focus on perfection to the exclusion of all else. The author tells us he’s understanding and amazing and well-balanced, but some of the things he says and does are very inconsiderate, and honestly, there were several points at which I thought Sea should just move on. There’s more depth to Sea, who is struggling with his professional image vs. his self-image and possibly an element of imposter syndrome, but he’s guilty of giving off a lot of mixed signals.

As I’ve said, the story starts strongly, but the more I read, the more I realised I was basically in the middle of one very loooooong Big Mis in which the characters would meet, connect and admit that they liked each other – and then one would say something dumb and hurtful, the other would bring the shutters down, they’d mutually ignore each other for a bit while obsessing over each other and thinking about how the relationship was doomed from the start because they’re so inexperienced/can’t afford any distractions – rinse and repeat. It goes like this for practically the entire book, so that by the time I was just getting into the second half, I was already mentally screaming at them to just TALK TO EACH OTHER. By two-thirds of the way through, I was thinking that they were so bad at communicating and so dysfunctional that any relationship between them was destined for disaster and that they probably shouldn’t be in one. Of course, this is a romance novel so they DO get together – but not until 93% into the story, when they have a single conversation about how they’re finally ready to give a relationship a try, they have sex and then BAM! it’s the epilogue set several months later in which they appear to have worked out all their problems and are in love. Er… what? After pages and pages of mixed signals, miscommunication and non-communication – I’m asked to believe these two are in it for the long haul without seeing them work through ANY of their issues or even saying “I love you” for the first time?

Sorry Ms. Nary – your readers deserve better than that.

In addition, I was really bothered by the way Sea’s drinking problem is glossed over. It’s clear he uses alcohol as a way of avoiding things, and that he frequently drinks heavily and often to the point of blacking out; the way it’s written, his relationship with alcohol is clearly poised to become a serious disorder. Near the end he confides in his manager about it and asks for help. (That he has other mental health issues is kind of hinted at but never really explored.) We’re told his manager gives him the names of some therapists, and later, that Sea is seeing one of them – yet he still knocks back two neat whiskies before he and Brody have their badly needed conversation! It’s great that he realises he has a problem and needs help, but because this happens so late, we never see him putting in any of the work to sort himself out and never see Brody getting to be a supportive partner.

There is so much the author could have done with this story. Brody and Sea both have incredibly demanding, high-profile, high stress careers that involve a lot of travel and time apart and they both have baggage they need to unpack, but instead of addressing those issues and having them working on communicating better and on how to make a relationship work, all we get is a continual cycle of misunderstandings, hurt feelings and ignoring one another until the next time.

One last thing that (probably disproportionately) annoyed me – the shortening of “Seamus” to “Sea”. The author has him explain that it’s pronounced “Shay” – so why not spell it like that? I know literally no one who shortens “Seamus” to “Sea”; a quick Google search found that Seamus is usually shortened to “Shay” or “Shae”or “Shea” as, presumably, anyone who spelled it “Sea” would get fed up with people calling them “see”. I can only guess it’s so Brody could enter Sea’s phone number using a wave emoji… which has no relevance to the plot whatsoever.

I looked back at my review of Season’s Change while I was writing this, and unfortunately, most of the things I criticised there are still present here; unresolved issues, poor pacing, repetitiveness and the really flimsy and unsatisfying HEA. I do still think Ms. Nary is a good writer, but there is too much reliance on issues at the expense of the development of the characters and their relationship – and when those issues aren’t even explored or dealt with properly, then it’s another nail in the book’s coffin. Contract Season is a second middling experience with this author (and earns an even lower grade than her début), so I’m not sure if I’ll be picking up her next book.

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

stone wings

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: C+

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

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

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

On the night itself, things are going fairly well when Josh’s prick of an ex- turns up – with a husband in tow. The husband – Arie – turns out to be lovely, the prick… well, he’s still a prick, just an even bigger one. Drew and Josh’s one fake date turns into two when Arie invites them to dinner with him and Brandon – who gets very drunk and comes on to Josh. Needless to say, Drew is not amused. When Josh’s mother finds out Josh and Drew are ‘dating’, to Josh’s surprise, she encourages their relationship. He’d expected a lecture about not letting himself get hurt; instead she says that even if Josh isn’t The One for Drew (neither of them believes he is), and as it’s going to hurt, regardless of their relationship status when the time comes for Drew to return to stone, perhaps they should simply enjoy spending time together while they can. Josh and Drew are quick to see the wisdom of those words.

Fake dating turns immediately to friends-with-benefits, but too little time is spent on developing the romance or the characters; Josh and Drew are pretty colourless and there’s little romantic or sexual chemistry between them. In the Plus column, the overall concept behind the series is inventive and the plot involving the witch and the shifter gang is intriguing – it’s this aspect of the story that I found most compelling and is likely to encourage me to continue with the series.

Stone Wings is an easy, fast read and I enjoyed it, even though the romance was disappointing. I liked enough about the plot and storytelling to continue with the series – the final chapter of this book sets up Rian’s story and I have my suspicious as to whom Teague is going to end up with – but on the basis of this one, I’ll be lowering my expectations for those romances a bit and focusing on the plot.

Crossing Borders (Blackbridge Security #10) by Marie James (audiobool) – Narrated by Jacob Morgan & Teddy Hamilton

crossing borders

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Although I take my job very seriously—being the resident charmer, the man responsible for helping clients with security, all the while making it look like I’m the newest love interest of insanely gorgeous women—it looks like it’s all fun and games. I’m getting paid to go on dates to some of the most glamourous places all around the world after all, but at the end of the day, it’s still work.

When the assignment is over, I walk away—usually with a smile and another notch in my bedpost, but who am I to turn down the perks?

This new assignment should be no different. I can play any role handed to me. Hell, I love a new challenge. Only Archer Bremen is different…and not just for the obvious reasons.

His British accent hits me in a way I never expected. The scowl on his face makes me think of a million things I could do to make it fade. His smile tells me that this new assignment is going to change everything….

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – C

I really wish North American authors would learn that there is NO SUCH THING as a British accent, and would stop using it when they really mean an (RP) ENGLISH accent.  Calling it a British accent is like me saying that someone from Brazil has an American accent – because they’re from America! 

Crossing Borders is the tenth and final (and only m/m) book in Marie James’ Blackbridge Security series; no prizes for guessing why I’d skip over the first nine to pick this one up. It’s perfectly possible to listen to it, as I did, as a complete newbie to the series because while characters from the other books make cameos and references are made to past/concurrent events, there’s only one event that has a real impact on this story (and is dealt with in this story), so provided you don’t mind hearing from characters you haven’t met before, it’s all fine. The other good news is that – of course – the narration is excellent – the bad is that these two fabulous performers have yet to find new material that is the best use of their considerable talent.

That said, Crossing Borders is at least a step up from the last book they narrated that I tried to listen to (I gave up at 25% because I was so BORED) and on the last book they narrated that I reviewed; in fact it started really well, so that for the first half I thought I’d be looking at a solid B grade for the story. But, alas, the second half rehashes the same misunderstandings over and over again, includes a totally ridiculous plot point, and generally loses its way, ignoring some of the interesting things I thought were being set up to show character insight and growth.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Showstopper (Vino and Veritas #17) by Regina Kyle (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North & Iggy Toma


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

I swore I wouldn’t do this again. Mix sports, school, and sex. But right now the only thing standing between me and the NHL is six feet of frenemy packed into a pair of form-fitting jeans that have me thinking all kinds of things I shouldn’t. Mostly how to get him out of them.

I don’t just want Kolby. I need him. Because I’ve got to pass this theater class—yeah, I said theater—if I’m going to keep my spot on the team. When tutoring sessions turn into dates-not-dates over Shipley Cider at Vino and Veritas, I realize it’s going to be harder than I thought to keep my hands on my stick and off of Kolby. Worse, I think I might be falling for him. But I’m not ready for that. I want to keep this thing between us on the down-low for now.

But Kolby hates secrets. Especially his own . . .

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – C

Regina Kyle’s Showstopper is the – I’ve honestly lost count – book in the Vino and Veritas** series, but fortunately, all the books are standalones with the odd cameo appearance by characters from some of the other books, so you can absolutely listen to them in any order. This one is a fairly run-of-the-mill New Adult/Contemporary Romance between two students at Moo U in Burlington, one of them a recent arrival and star hockey player, the other a hard-working, happy-go-lucky drama student. The narration by Cooper North and Iggy Toma was the big draw for me (surprise!) and they do a great job, but even they can’t disguise the fact that the story is a bit over-long or make up for a crass plot-point in the second half.

Adam has recently transferred to Moo U (for reasons he wants to keep under wraps) but because his transfer happened so late, most of the classes he wanted to take are full and he’s ended up having to take Improvisation. Desperate to swap it for something else, he goes to the registrar’s office to arrange it, but is annoyed when the cute guy he speaks to – whom Adam mentally labels “Hot Work-Study Guy” – refuses to make the change. HWSG explains that it’s not that he doesn’t want to help, there just isn’t any other option, but Adam doesn’t believe him, thinking it’s some kind of passive-aggressive way of making life difficult because HWSG doesn’t like jocks.

**Goodreads lists it as #17

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge – Plain Jane by M.C. Beaton

plain jane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s up to the servants of No. 67 Clarges Street to hatch a scheme… and arrange a match!

‘Oh, to be as beautiful as Euphemia!’ sighs plain Jane Hart when she joins her sister at No.67 for the Season, as then Lord Tregarthan might notice her… as she has noticed him and forever lost her heart.

And while it is Euphemia’s fate to flit her way through balls and into the arms of a marquis, Jane’s is to stay at home… until the Downstairs staff transform the plain Miss into the Season’s sensation and send her waltzing into a daring liaison with the man of her dreams

Rating: C+

It was a very sobering thought to realise that most of the books I own that could be considered “vintage” – and thus contendenters for my read for that prompt for the July TBR Challenge – were written and published well within my lifetime. I ended up going with Plain Jane, book two in The House for the Season series by M.C. Beaton, written under her pen-name of Marion Chesney and originally published in 1986.

Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.

67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.

Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.

Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.

The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out that the book’s age shows in the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.

In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.

Chrysalis (The Formicary #1) by S.E. Harmon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kai Rubio


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Waking up in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head is bad. Finding out I have amnesia is far worse. My memory is practically wiped. I don’t know why someone wants me dead. Hell, I don’t even know my name. They say my name is Christian Cross. Too bad that name means nothing to me.

I haven’t forgotten everything, though. Grayson Laurie has always been my kryptonite, and it would take more than a bullet to the brain to forget him. He assures me that I’m imagining the distance between us, but I know better. I just don’t know how to fix it. I console myself that at least I’ve reached rock bottom and things can’t get worse…until they do.

My life is a tangled mess of lies and deceit. The more I learn about myself, the less I want to know. I want nothing more than an honest future with Gray, but the past isn’t about to let me go without a fight.

Fortunately, I’m starting to realize that fighting is my specialty.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – C

I liked the sound of the storyline of Chrysalis, book one in The Formicary duo, so as I’ve enjoyed books by S.E. Harmon in the past and even though the narrator is new-to-me, I decided to give the audiobook version a go. Please be aware that Chrysalis ends inconclusively and that the story continues in the second book, Cross, which I believe will be released in audio in late August. (It’s available in print already.)

So, that premise. A man wakes in a hospital bed after almost dying from a gunshot wound to the head, and has absolutely no idea who he is, or who wants him dead. The one thing he can remember is the name of his boyfriend – Grayson Laurie, a doctor at the hospital. When Gray finally comes to see him, he tells the man that his name Christian Cross – but that doesn’t ring any bells or bring anything back. Gray continues to visit him, but Christian is confused by the coolness and distance between them, and he’s stunned when Gray finally, and not without some bitterness, tells him they broke up over four years earlier. Christian barely has time to grasp that when Gray also tells him that Chris is the one who left, and although he never said why, it’s clear Gray believes it’s because Chris was cheating and wanted to be with someone else. After this bombshell, Chris doesn’t expect to see Gray again, which is a bummer as, right now, he’s the only link Chris has with his past – but Gray does return, although it soon becomes clear that he has about as much idea of what Chris has been doing with his life as Chris himself does. Which is, obviously, not a lot. When a man Chris doesn’t recognise enters his hospital room and tells him they’re together – implying he’s the reason Chris left Gray – Chris is even more convinced that something is wrong and decides enough is enough. He’s been in the hospital two weeks and is no closer to finding out anything about what he’s been doing or why someone would try to kill him – it’s time to get out of there and start looking for answers.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.