Prairie Bride (Dodge City Brides #1) by Julianne Maclean (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlotte North

Prairie Bride

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

A loveless marriage of convenience on the Kansas prairie turns out to be far more than she bargained for….

He’s part of the west 

Briggs Brigman has been burned once before, and the last thing he needs is a beautiful wife who will spend hours in front of the mirror, primping herself. He knows how hard the prairie can be on a woman, and all he wants is a stalwart bride who won’t complain about hauling water from the creek….

She’s a city girl with no idea what she’s in for….

All Sarah MacFarland wants is to escape her fearful life in Boston and start fresh with a new identity. Answering an advertisement for a mail order bride seems like the perfect solution, until she meets her soon-to-be husband – a ruggedly handsome, strapping farmer who leaves her breathless on their wedding night. But is it possible that two tormented souls can find happiness, when all they know is betrayal, and when trust is the only way out of a tumultuous past that simply won’t stay buried? 

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C

The mail order bride trope is a common one in Western Historical Romance, but up until now, I haven’t actually read or listened to one. When Julianne Maclean’s Prairie Bride – book one in her Dodge City Brides series – showed up with the excellent Charlotte North listed as the narrator, I decided it was time to give one a go.

Even though I have no direct experience with this trope, I’ve been around Romancelandia long enough to have been able to make a reasonable guess as to what the story would be about – and I was pretty much spot on. A young woman running from her past travels from the city to the back of beyond to marry a man she’s never seen, doesn’t expect quite the primitive standard of her new home but decides to make the best of it, falls for her husband (who is, fortunately, hot as hell) her past catches up with her, drama ensues – The End.

If by that you infer that the story is predictable – then you’re inferring correctly.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Somebody to Love (Tyler Jamison #1) by April Wilson (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding and Jack DuPont

somebody to love

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Chicago homicide detective Tyler Jamison has accepted the fact that he was born defective. Women just don’t do it for him, and he can’t contemplate any other option. So, loneliness it is.

Ian Alexander has met the man of his dreams, but the guy’s in complete denial of his sexuality. Ian’s not giving up on Tyler, though. Tyler’s a domineering, controlling force of nature…just what Ian has always craved in his bed.

When a serial killer sets his sights on Ian, Tyler will do anything to protect the much younger man. For the first time in his life, Tyler has experienced desire, and it’s for another man. How much will it take for him to become the man he was meant to be?

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: C

April Wilson’s Somebody to Love is very much a book of two halves. It starts out as a (sort of) mystery/suspense story a with Detective Tyler Jamison investigating the murder of three gay men, all killed in the same manner and therefore believed to have been killed by the same person. During the course of the investigation, Tyler meets Ian Alexander; Tyler is deeply, deeply closeted but is strongly attracted to Ian in a way he’s never been to anyone.

The first half of the story (more or less) is taken up with the hunt for the killer – although to be honest, it’s not much of a hunt – during which Ian does some very TSTL things (like asking around at the gay club the victims were known to frequent and skipping out on the police protection he’s been given in order to do so), which of course, bring out Tyler’s growly, protective side. The perpetrator is arrested by the half-way point, but this is no intricate, twisty mystery – it’s all very simplistic and obviously just a plot device to get Tyler and Ian together.

Once the serial killer plot is dispensed with, the second half of the book focuses on the romance. It’s okay but nothing special, although I did like the way Tyler’s coming out was handled; he’s forty-four (to ian’s twenty-eight) and has spent his life trying to bury the part of him that liked men, even dating (and sleeping with) women. He never found the sort of connection he was looking for, but refused to admit why, and had eventually resigned himself to being alone. I can imagine that for someone so strongly entrenched in their ways, coming to the realisation – or at last admitting the truth – would be incredibly difficult and the way things finally come to a head for Tyler is well done. Ian has some issues relating to his childhood, but they seem somewhat superficial, as if they’ve been added simply in an attempt to make him interesting. The romance as a whole is pretty run of the mill stuff.

The best thing about this audiobook is the narration. I’m not familiar with Jack DuPont, but he delivers a strong performance all round – pacing, characterisation and differentiation were all good, as were his female voices. I’m a big fan of J.F. Harding (his name on this was why I picked it up in the first place) – and of course he was excellent in every respect. Interestingly though, both men have very similar types of voices – deep and slightly husky – and actually sound alike, so I wondered why two narrators were used. Jack DuPont reads the chapters from Tyler’s PoV and J.F. Harding those from Ian’s; both men portray the other character very well (JFH’s portrayal of Tyler was perfect) and quite honestly, either of them could have carried the book on his own.

The author sets up the drama for the next book towards the end of this one – I’m not sure I’ll be picking it up as once again, the plot seems fairly contrived and based on someone doing something really stupid it’s hard to believe they would have done.

Somebody to Love isn’t the worst audiobook I’ve ever listened to, but it’s far from the best. The excellent narration kept me listening even though the worst of the eye-rolling parts, but the story is disjointed and clichéd, and the characters are bland and barely two-dimensional. It passed the time and the terrific performances meant it passed mostly pleasantly, but I don’t think I’ll be listening to this one again.

Even Odds (FBI Joint Task Force #3) by Fiona Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve Marvel

even odds

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Double crossed. Double agents. Doubling down… She’s putting her heart and her life on the line.

Raine Meyers is alive today only because of the heroic efforts of the Delta Force Echo Team. It’s time to pay that debt.

As an undercover defense intelligence officer, Raine tracks a Russian threat to the Delta Force wives left vulnerable while their husbands are downrange protecting the US.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Damian Prescott, former Delta Force operator – also Raine’s former fiance – falls quite literally into the middle of her operation.

Since both the DIA and FBI have their teeth clamped onto the same crime, why not join forces? A plan is hatched to insert the two intelligence officers into the action – under the cover of a fake marriage – painting a target on Raine’s back, enticing the mole out into the open.

Damian wasn’t there when his Delta Force brothers saved Raine from the terrorists in Afghanistan…will he be there for her this time, when she’s in the sniper’s rifle sights?

Rating: Narration – D+; Content – C+/B-

Even Odds is book three in Fiona Quinn’s FBI Joint Task Force series set in her wider World of Iniquus series of interconnected romantic suspense novels. I enjoyed the previous two books – Open Secret and Cold Red, which were narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Troy Duran respectively – and was looking forward to another fast-paced, well-plotted story, but when I sat down to write this review after listening to all ten and a half hours of Even Odds, I realised I had a problem. Steve Marvel’s narration just isn’t up to the standard set by the other two performers, and it was so distracting that I just couldn’t get into the story. I got the bare bones of the plot, but I’ve probably missed some of the detail.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Undercover (Vino and Veritas #4) by Eliot Grayson

undercover grayson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Gabe wants Alec between the sheets…too bad Alec’s undercover already…

Rich kid. Party boy. Gabe is tired of the labels. He’s a smart guy, but ever since he got kicked out of grad school, people are only interested in his no-limit credit card and his pierced ears…and other places.

Tall, dark and scowling Alec hates Vermont, with its artisanal-freaking-everything and its irritating people. To be fair, most people irritate Alec, including the FBI director who sent him here to investigate a smuggling scheme involving yoga mats. 

When one of the cutest twinks Alec’s ever seen takes an interest, Alec knows there’s an ulterior motive. No one with multi-colored hair, piercings, and an ass like that would want boring, serious Alec. The kid must be up to no good. Either way, Alec can’t blow his cover. If only he could keep his hands off of Gabe long enough to find out what he’s up to…

Can they ignore their explosive chemistry long enough to foil a smuggling ring? Or will their budding relationship sink faster than a yacht full of contraband?

Rating: C+

Undercover is new-to-me author Eliot Grayson’s entry in the Vino and Veritas series set in small town Vermont.  It’s light-hearted, and readable, and it’s got a bit of a romantic suspense vibe going on, but in the end it didn’t quite seem sure what sort of story it wanted to be.  The suspense angle is way too underdeveloped, and the issues one of the characters is dealing with felt too serious for the overall cutesy tone; plus – spoiler alert – if you’re someone for whom deception is a deal-breaker, then you should probably steer clear of this one.

Grumpy FBI Agent Alec Kaminsky has been sent to investigate a drug smuggling ring operating out of a couple of yoga studios in Burlington, Vermont, a small-scale heroin operation his boss believes is getting the drugs across Lake Champlain hidden in yoga mats.

… who the hell could take drug smugglers who used yoga mats for their product seriously?

Alec asks himself.  (And so did I.)

Bored, pissed off and thoroughly disgruntled, Alec spends a bit of time most days hanging out in the bookstore at Vino and Veritas, where he peruses – and scoffs at – books in the true crime section.

Former PhD student Gabe Middleton has noticed Hot Scruffy Leather Jacket Dude leafing through the books in the true crime section and is crushing on him from afar.  But even though Gabe has never had any difficulty getting laid, actually approaching someone and talking to them is a different matter and he can’t quite work up the courage to go and talk to the guy. Instead, Gabe buys him some of the books he’s seen him looking through, and asks the clerk to give them to him the next time he comes in.

When Alec next visits the bookshop and is given the bag of books, he’s confused – and then suspicious.  Why is someone giving him books about El Chapo and Pablo Escobar?  Has Alec been made? Is someone trying to be funny?  Is someone trying to bait him?   Alec has noticed the cute guy with the purple hair and multiple ear piercings checking him out; he’s hot – even though he’s not Alec’s type.  Not at all.  (Yeah, right.) But whoever he is, Alec decides he’s exactly the sort of guy who’d sell heroin out of a yoga studio.   And that maybe he should stick close – to see what he can find out about the drug ring of course, not because he wants to get into his pants.

Not only does Alec jump to ridiculous conclusions without much foundation, he abandons them just as quickly; he has little evidence to suggest Gabe is a drug smuggler, and when he decides Gabe can’t possibly be involved, he has just as little to go on.  I was pleased that he did work out very quickly that Gabe shouldn’t be a suspect, but that was based on… Gabe’s being cute? I don’t know.

But… it just so happens that Gabe’s father owns a yacht-manufacturing business, Middleton Marine – which is top of the list of companies whose vessels and facilities might be being used by the smuggling ring.  Alec has no alternative but to investigate and yes, getting close to Gabe would be a good way of getting access to information and the premises. The trouble is, Alec really does like Gabe and the idea of using him isn’t one he relishes at all, but he’s undercover and has a job to do.  (Which does beg the question as to what Alec and Gabe actually find to talk about during their dates, seeing as how Gabe doesn’t actually seem to DO anything with his days and Alec can’t talk about what he does with his.)

We all know where this is going and that things are going to crash and burn spectacularly at some point, so there are no real surprises in store here – unless you count Gabe crossing the line into TSTL territory near the end.

On a positive note, I really liked Gabe. He’s a sweet guy, he’s warm and lively and bubbly with a great sense of humour but a poor sense of self-worth; his family treats him like crap, his last boyfriend did a number on him and wrecked his self-confidence, and the guys he’s been with since have only wanted sex or money.  And though Alec is able to see that, and wants to show Gabe that he’s worth so much more – and readers know that Alec is really conflicted and genuinely cares about Gabe – it still didn’t sit right with me.  Gabe is finally starting to believe that there’s someone interested in him who doesn’t see him as a meal ticket or an easy lay – but instead, he’s being used in another way.  Deception in a romance isn’t an automatic no-no for me; it depends on circumstances, and the undercover agent having to play a role to do their job is common in romantic suspense.  But it didn’t work for me here.

Despite those criticisms, I zipped through the book in a couple of sittings and I enjoyed the author’s writing style, the humour and the chemistry between the leads.  Ultimately however, that wasn’t enough to compensate for the book’s flaws, and I can’t really give Undercover a recommendation.

The Dating Plan by Sara Desai

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Daisy Patel is a software engineer who understands lists and logic better than bosses and boyfriends. With her life all planned out, and no interest in love, the one thing she can’t give her family is the marriage they expect. Left with few options, she asks her childhood crush to be her decoy fiancé.

Liam Murphy is a venture capitalist with something to prove. When he learns that his inheritance is contingent on being married, he realizes his best friend’s little sister has the perfect solution to his problem. A marriage of convenience will get Daisy’s matchmaking relatives off her back and fulfill the terms of his late grandfather’s will. If only he hadn’t broken her tender teenage heart nine years ago…

Sparks fly when Daisy and Liam go on a series of dates to legitimize their fake relationship. Too late, they realize that very little is convenient about their arrangement. History and chemistry aren’t about to follow the rules of this engagement.

Rating: C+

The Dating Plan is Sara Desai’s follow-up to last year’s The Marriage Game, and like its predecessor, it’s an enjoyable – if predictable – rom-com, this time a second-chance romance/fake-relationship story.  But – also like its predecessor – it falls into some storytelling traps and incorporates some seriously overused tropes; and although I had fun (mostly) reading it, it’s not what I’d call a memorable read, and I could only assign it a middling grade.

When we meet Daisy Patel in the opening chapter, she’s in the ladies bathroom at a hotel where she’s attending a conference, trying to obtain some sanitary towels from the dispenser while simultaneously trying to ignore the fact that her most recent ex- and her most recent ex-boss are nosily sucking face in one of the stalls.  We know immediately that Daisy Is Not Like Other Girls; she describes herself as a neurotic software engineer who lives by plans and quantifiable results, a woman who wields fashion like a shield, and whose tendency to blurt out whatever was on her mind had gotten her into trouble too many times.  And just in case we didn’t get the message, she carries a tote bag with Marvel characters on it and wears Avengers underwear.

Anyway.

She’s a mega-intelligent software designer, and her current employer is Organicare, a small company that is developing sustainable, organic menstrual products, and Daisy has accompanied her boss to this conference, where they’re due to make a pitch to a group of venture capitalists in order to secure more funding.  She’s on her way back to the meeting room when she hears her name being called by a familiar voice; Salena Auntie (one of her four busybody, matchmaking but well-meaning aunts) has, through sheer (not) coincidence tracked Daisy down at the conference hotel and has a young man in tow, a friend’s son who is looking for a wife.  As Daisy makes her escape – carrying many more sanitary towels than she actually needs – she (literally) bumps into the-one-that-got-away  – Liam Murphy (aka Liam Freaking Bastard Murphy), her teenage crush and the boy who broke her heart ten years before when he stood her up for the Prom.  Needless to say, she’s hated him with a passion ever since. (When she’s not hearing his voice every day or fantasising about him every night, that is.)  I’ll say that again. She’s hated him for TEN YEARS because he didn’t turn up on Prom night.  Seriously?  It’s not as if he killed her cat or made rabbit stew from her favourite pet! Okay, so younger Daisy was devastated.  But to hold on to that for ten years seems wildly immature.  (And in case you’re wondering, yes we do find out why and yes, he had a good reason.)

To avoid Salena Auntie’s matchmaking scheme, Salena impulsively introduces Liam as her fiancé – and he’s only too delighted to play along.

Liam is in San Francisco to attend his grandfather’s funeral and to oversee the setting up of a new office for the venture capital company he works for, and once that’s done, he’s set to return to New York to take up a partnership.  He doesn’t see his family often and his relationship with his older brother Brendan is strained, to say the least.  Things go from bad to worse when his grandfather’s will is read; traditionally, the family business – a distillery that’s seen better days – has been handed down from father to eldest son, and Brendan is just waiting for that to happen so he can knock the place down and sell the land to provide a cash injection for his own business.  But under the terms of the old man’s will, Liam will inherit the distillery – provided he’s married by his next birthday and remains married for a minimum of one year.  Of course, Brendan is furious and Liam is shocked… and surprised to find that he actually wants to continue his grandfather’s legacy.  But how?  Liam’s birthday is six weeks away, he doesn’t do relationships, and for something like this, he’d have to marry someone who won’t fall in love with him or want to continue with the marriage. In fact, the ideal candidate would be someone who actively hates him.

You guessed it.

Liam and Daisy make a deal.  In return for help finding an investor for Organicare (and because it will get her marriage-minded relatives off her back) Daisy agrees to marry Liam, and in order to sell it to her family, she says they should go on some dates – and even draws up a spreadsheet with dates and times and objectives.  It’s the titular Dating Plan.

I admit that the ‘I’ve-hated-you-for-ten-years’ thing bugged me a lot, but once Liam and Daisy start spending time together and interacting more naturally, I began to enjoy myself a bit more.  There’s considerable warmth and humour in the book, and while Liam comes off as a bit of a dickhead to start with, once Daisy – and we – get to spend some time with him, we see beyond that to the funny, charming and decent, vulnerable guy underneath.  I did, however, have to wonder how someone who spent a few years living on the fringes of a biker gang suddenly became a millionaire venture capitalist.  I liked Daisy’s smarts and snark, but there are contradictions to her character, too; she’s super-intelligent at some times and clueless at others, and she’s an introvert, yet she’s randomly flirty and has had lots of hook-ups.  (I’m not condemning her for them – just suggesting it doesn’t fit with her being introverted.)

There are a lot of secondary characters in the story who are really just window-dressing;  we’ve got the stereotypical marriage-obsessed aunties (four of them!) who come across as almost stalker-ish at times, and the stereotypical Irish family of drinkers, bruisers and brawlers. In places, so much information is randomly thrown out that it seems the author is so desperate to get it out there that it doesn’t matter if it interferes with the flow of the storytelling, and some of the plot-points just don’t make sense.  (Such as – how did Liam’s grandfather know he was going to die and leave enough time for Liam to get married?  Suppose he’d died the day before Liam’s next birthday? ) Fortunately, the romance itself is cute and banter-y and the sex scenes are well-written, but there’s little tension or relationship development as it’s very clear Daisy and Liam are into each other right from the start (despite Daisy’s professed hatred of Liam – which we hear about constantly!).

But despite that, I was enjoying a bit of sexy fluff until the last quarter of the book happened and ruined it.  One of the issues Liam has carried with him since childhood is a sense of unworthiness; he never went to college and doesn’t have a degree (although it’s a point of pride that he’ll be the only partner at his firm without an MBA), so of course, the author has to trot out the I-am-not-worthy-and-I-am-leaving-you-for-your-own-good trope – and I wanted to spit.  In the old days (pre-Kindle) it might even have been a wallbanger moment.

The Dating Plan is light and frothy, but ultimately lacks substance and consistency.  While we can all say of a romance, ‘it’s nothing I haven’t read before’, the best authors take those old, well-used tropes and refashion them into something new. Sadly, that doesn’t happen here.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Erik Bloomquist

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains….

New York, 1925

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination – and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throws the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

Allie Therin’s engaging Magic in Manhattan series sets an intriguing combination of supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance and magic amid prohibition era New York. Starcrossed is the second book, and you really do need to have read or listened to book one, Spellbound, in order to get to grips with it. I read and reviewed it in print when it came out in May 2020, and even though I HAD read book one, I found myself a bit lost to start with because there’s hardly any recapping and I wished I’d done a re-read to refresh my memory. But once I’d skimmed a few sections in Spellbound, I was up to speed and able to enjoy the story in Starcrossed.

There are spoilers for Spellbound in this review.

It’s Manhattan in 1925, and twenty-year-old psychometric Rory Brodigan works as an antiques appraiser in his aunt’s shop, earning the place a reputation as the place to go to sort out the fake from the real thing. This is because Rory’s paranormal ability means he’s able to touch an object and be transported into its history (which can also be incredibly dangerous as it’s possible he could end up trapped in that history in his mind) – and he’s something of a recluse, staying very much in the background and taking care not to reveal his ability to anyone. In Spellbound, handsome, wealthy congressman’s son Arthur Kenzie brought some letters to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop for appraisal, and through the course of the story Rory met other paranormals (Jade, a telekinetic, and Zhang, who can walk on the Astral Plane), and learned that that while Arthur has no magic himself, he’s dedicated to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it. He and Arthur also commenced a romantic relationship – although that’s not the strongest part of the story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Duke’s Runaway Bride (Regency Belles of Bath #3) by Jenni Fletcher

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From shopkeeper…

To Duke’s wife

When Beatrix, Duchess of Howden, writes to her estranged husband offering a divorce, she’s stunned when he arrives on her doorstep with a different proposition: a six-week marriage trial! Quinton Roxbury seems cold and inscrutable, but Beatrix gradually realises his rough exterior hides a heavy burden. As their connection deepens, dare she trust him with her own scandalous past and risk the marriage she never knew she wanted?

Rating: C+

Having really enjoyed the previous book in Jenni Fletcher’s Regency Belles of Bath series (Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer) I decided to continue on to book three – The Duke’s Runaway Bride – the story of a marriage-of-convenience that doesn’t quite go according to plan.  It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, but was quite charming once it hit its stride – only to go off the rails in the final quarter with the sudden appearance of a contrived sub-plot in order to create some last-minute conflict that felt like so much padding.

In the previous book we met ‘Belinda Carr’ a young woman who seemed down on her luck and was taken in by the ladies of Belle’s Biscuit shop.  Sensing there was more going on than met the eye, Henrietta and Nancy didn’t press Belinda for information, offering her friendship and a roof over her head.  At the end of the book, however, she told Nancy the truth – that she’s really Beatrix Roxbury, the Duchess of Howden, and that she’d run away on her wedding day, intending to stay with her former governess in Bath – only to find she’d married and moved away.  Beatrix explains the circumstances – her uncle sold her and her fortune to the duke in exchange for a title and consequence-by-association, and she was given no say in the matter.  She met the duke only once before their wedding day and although he seemed decent enough, she didn’t want to marry him.  Three months later, she feels guilty because he’s probably worried about her, so she writes to him (very much against Nancy’s advice) to tell him that she’s alive and well and living in Bath – and suggests they get an annulment or a divorce.

For Quinton – Quin – Roxbury, being Duke of Howden in the year since the death of his father has been a nightmare.  The late duke nearly bankrupted them and Quin is working hard to turn things around while also overseeing all the projects for improvement he can now afford thanks to Beatrix’s money. His younger brother seems set on becoming a wastrel like their father, his mother complains incessantly, his younger siblings fight all the time… he’s beset on all sides and the only way he can deal with it is by locking away his own emotions and presenting a calm, unruffled face to the world.

He located his errant wife some time before he receives her letter, but thought it best to wait for her to come to him.  Now that she has, he travels to Bath to see her and discuss her proposals, both of which are absolutely out of the question.

When she meets Quin again, Beatrix is completely thrown by his lack of anger and animosity towards her.  Instead, he listens to her and shows a clear understanding of her situation; he apologises for not paying more attention to her before their wedding and assures her he had no idea she was unwilling, but he is also honest and upfront about having been in desperate need of her fortune to save his family estates.  Not knowing how to react in the face of her husband’s calm demeanour, Beatrix confesses to a youthful indiscretion in the hope that it will encourage him to divorce her – but it doesn’t work.  Quin calmly reiterates that he will not seek a divorce and makes a counter-proposal.  Beatrix should come to live at Howden Hall for a period of three months – just so she can make sure she’s making the right decision (about staying in Bath) – and if, at the end of that time, she doesn’t want to remain, he will agree to a separation.  Quin obviously hopes he will be able to talk her into staying, but Beatrix’s mind is made up.  She wants her independence and her life at the Biscuit shop, among the people she’s come to regard as family – but she whittles Quin down to a period of six weeks and agrees to go, with no intention of allowing herself to be swayed.

I had trouble warming to Beatrix at first. There’s no question that she’s had a hard time of it; her uncle and aunt treated her like a commodity, she had no freedom, no friends – even her clothes were chosen for her.  Yet here’s Quin – who would technically have been well within his rights to have dragged Beatrix away kicking and screaming – taking her opinion into account and giving her options, and she isn’t prepared to even meet him halfway.  He understands her desire for independence and her misgivings about marriage – he even offers to return the rest of her dowry to her should they decide to separate.  The only thing he will not agree to is a divorce – and he has good reasons for not wanting to mire his family in the scandal a divorce would inevitably entail.  I found Beatrix’s intransigence to be a bit immature.

Once they arrive at Howden, however, and Beatrix sees what Quin is dealing with– especially from his mother who is a total bi-… er… gorgon – she starts to soften towards him and eventually to admit that while she wants to remain in Bath to bake biscuits, to be Quin’s duchess is to be a very lucky woman – not because of his material possessions, but because he’s a good, decent man who deserves to have the affection and support of those around him.

It will come as no surprise when I say that Beatrix and Quin do eventually fall for each other.  They have good chemistry and are a well-matched pair; but the will-she/won’t she go back to Bath question wasn’t enough to make for a particularly interesting romance.  The most vibrant parts of the story involved the brattish behaviour of Quin’s mother and sister – I came to look forward to watching them have tantrums because it livened things up a bit! Until Beatrix pulled a Mary Poppins and turned them into one, big happy family at one fell swoop.

But my biggest issue with the book as a whole is the fact that there just isn’t enough story to fill the page count.  The ILYs have been exchanged by three-quarters of the way through, and Beatrix’s decision as to whether she’s going to stay or not is clear. So the author introduces a last-minute conflict just for the sake of it – which is then resolved so easily that it needn’t have been there at all.

As in Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer, the final chapter sets up the next story in the series, which will feature the fiery Nancy and her would-be-beau, who have been striking sparks off each other like mad whenever they’ve appeared in the other books.  Here’s hoping those sparks will make for a stronger romance than The Duke’s Runaway Bride did.

Best Laid Plans (Garnet Run #2) by Roan Parrish

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Charlie Matheson has spent his life taking care of things. When his parents died two days before his eighteenth birthday, he took care of his younger brother, even though that meant putting his own dreams on hold. He took care of his father’s hardware store, building it into something known several towns over. He took care of the cat he found in the woods…so now he has a cat.

When a stranger with epic tattoos and a glare to match starts coming into Matheson’s Hardware, buying things seemingly at random and lugging them off in a car so beat-up Charlie feels bad for it, his instinct is to help. When the man comes in for the fifth time in a week, Charlie can’t resist intervening.

Rye Janssen has spent his life breaking things. Promises. His parents’ hearts. Leases. He isn’t used to people wanting to put things back together—not the crumbling house he just inherited, not his future and certainly not him. But the longer he stays in Garnet Run, the more he can see himself belonging there. And the more time he spends with Charlie, the more he can see himself falling asleep in Charlie’s arms…and waking up in them.

Is this what it feels like to have a home—and someone to share it with?

Rating: C

I enjoyed the previous book in this series, and was pleased when I learned that big-hearted, slightly awkward Charlie Matheson would be getting a story.  Better Than People was warm and lovely, with a well-developed romance and well-rounded characters, and I’d hoped for more of the same here – but while there are glimpses of that warmth and loveliness, there’s not enough to hide the fact that the characterisation is sketchy and the plot is practically non-existent.  There are lots of sweet moments between the two leads and I liked certain aspects of their relationship, but the whole thing is patchy and not on a par with the other books I’ve read/listened to by this author.

Best Laid Plans opens as Rye Janssen, unemployed and recently homeless, is driving from Seattle to Wyoming. He’d been couch-surfing with friends since he was evicted from his apartment, and when he got a phone call, completely out of the blue, from a lawyer telling him he’d inherited a house from a grandfather he’d never met, Rye thought must be a prank.  But he soon realises it isn’t, and although it means leaving the only place he’s ever really called home, he packs up his few belongings (the most precious of which is his cat, Marmot) gets in his hunk-o-junk car, and off he goes.  When he finally arrives, tired after a long drive, the misgivings he’d been harbouring about leaving Seattle  come back in full force; the house is in such a terrible state of disrepair, it’s a wonder it’s still standing.

But turning around and going back to Seattle just isn’t an option, so Rye decides to fix up the house – somehow – and the following day (and after looking up some ‘how-to’ videos on You Tube) drives to the hardware store in Garnet Run to buy what he needs.

Charlie Matheson (brother of Jack from Better Than People) is one of life’s natural caretakers and truly does love to help people.  When Rye first turns up in the store, Charlie is immediately struck by just how gorgeous he is; although as he soon discovers, the man’s prickly, standoffish manner doesn’t match his swoonworthy looks.  He’s itching to help because that’s kind of what Charlie does, but he’s also really concerned for Rye’s safety.  After a few days of watching Rye come and go with a new mountain of purchases each time, Charlie finally manages to get him to agree to let him take a look around the place. It’s an uphill struggle; Rye doesn’t trust easily and has become so used to doing everything for himself that he finds it hard to let go and accept help.  But eventually he comes to see that Charlie really does want to help for no other reason than that he… wants to help, and from there, their friendship starts to take off.

The book gets off to a good start, but things start to derail not long afterwards. Before long, I was scratching my head asking myself how an adult with any pretension to common sense could think it would be possible to fix up a house in the state described a) on his own and b) at minimal cost.  We’re told Rye is broke, so how does he buy all the stuff from Charlie’s store?   But basically, after Rye has got over his scowly-leave-me-alone phase as far as Charlie and accepting help are concerned, it’s pretty much plain sailing. Rye gets a bank loan with spectacular ease. The renovations go well.  Rye (who has temporarily moved into Charlie’s place) and Charlie become a couple with ease, too, falling into a relationship without there being any real consideration given to the massive power imbalance of Charlie supporting Rye financially.

Charlie is a big teddy-bear with anxiety issues who genuinely likes helping people, but his life has been far from easy.  Probably the best thing about the book is the way the author explores the effect being burdened with huge responsibilities at a young age can have on a person.  My heart really hurt for Charlie when the full extent of what his life had been and what he’d given up and missed out on became apparent; that he’d had to become an adult and a parent when he was still grieving and was little more than a child himself, and how he wasn’t able to experience young adulthood – college, dating, finding out about yourself – in the way that most of his contemporaries did.  I liked Charlie’s relationship with Jack and how it changed  – even though it took Rye saying some rather harsh home-truths to get there.

As I said at the beginning, the romance is underdeveloped.  I couldn’t quite see what Rye and Charlie saw in each other beyond their obvious physical attraction to one another, and they didn’t seem particularly sexually compatible either. Apart from some teenaged fumbling years ago, Charlie has never had sex or been in a relationship and has no idea how to go about it;  so it’s up to Rye to take the lead there, which he does, while paying careful attention to Charlie’s wants and needs, which is all well and good. But the sex scenes, while steamy enough, sort of appear out of nowhere, and I was surprised at the direction they took considering Charlie’s inexperience. (YMMV of course).  And the other big problem overall is that there is practically zero conflict in the book.  Rye and Charlie have a small fight in the latter part of the novel that is sorted out a few pages later – which might be how it sometimes goes in life, but it makes for a rather dull romance novel.

And then there’s what Rye decides to do with his house, as he’s going to live with Charlie for good. This veers into spoiler territory, so if you don’t want to know, then look away now.

He decides to turn it into a cat shelter. Now, I LUURVE cats – I am absolutely a cat person –  but even the presence of a gorgeous Maine Coon (*sigh*) and cute, shoulder-perching moggy didn’t mean that I wanted to read several chapters (the last quarter of the book, give or take) about building and opening a cat shelter.

I had started to feel, earlier on, that there wasn’t enough substance to the story in this one to fill a full-length book, and that just confirmed it.

I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, and the parts I did like just couldn’t make up for the lacklustre plot and thin characterisation. Sadly, Best Laid Plans is a miss, which saddens me, because I’m a fan of Roan Parrish’s work.  I’ll just have to hope for better next time.

Special Ops Seduction (Alaska Force #5) by Megan Crane


This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s the last woman he ever wanted to see again…

After an official operation turned deadly, Jonas Crow began a new life in Grizzly Harbor with Alaska Force. But when fellow soldier Bethan Wilcox joins the group, she forces him to remember things he actively prefers to forget. That’s unforgivable enough. But now the two of them are forced together on a mission to uncover deadly secrets tied to their complicated past, and with the heat between them at a boil, forgiveness is the least of his worries…

And the only woman he needs.

Bethan Wilcox, one of the first women to make it through Army Ranger school, didn’t join Alaska Force to deal with Jonas’s foul temper. Or her own errant attraction to him. Thrown together in a race against the clock, they have to pretend to be a couple and play nice to throw the enemy off their scent. She knows better than to let their pretend love feel real…especially while time is running out.

Jonas has always been good at saving the world. But it’s Bethan he needs to save this time around—if she doesn’t save him first.

Rating: C+

Special Ops Seduction is the fifth book in Megan Crane’s Alaska Force series of romantic suspense novels and I picked it up mostly because I’d enjoyed the previous book (Delta Force Defender) and because I liked the premise of the romance in this one – two tough-as-nails special operatives who have an uneasy history have to pose as a couple in order to gain much-needed intelligence pertinent to their current mission.  Unfortunately however, the suspense plot, while quite compelling, doesn’t really get going until around three-quarters of the way into the book, the hero has as much personality as a plank of wood (which is partly intentional, but still makes him very difficult to relate to or like) and the middle section of the book is kind of all over the place and failed to hold my attention.

Bethan Wilcox is the only female member of the elite Alaska Force, which is comprised of former special forces operatives who wanted to continue to fight the good fight after they left the military.  As one would expect of a former Army Ranger, she’s strong, tough and fiercely competent; a woman operating in a man’s world, Bethan works harder, longer and with more intensity and determination than anyone, conscious she can never let her guard down and compartmentalising the different sides of her personality.  A fearsome hardass is the face she shows to everyone on the team; behind the locked door of her cabin home is the only place she allows herself to indulge in her softer side and be wholly herself.

Big, brooding, taciturn and deliberately unknowable, Jonas Crow is a perennial thorn in Bethan’s side.  He’s one of the founding members of Alaska Force and is known for his ability to be almost invisible – in the sense that he somehow does the exact opposite of attract attention – and for being utterly implacable and completely unemotional; more machine than man.  He and Bethan have a history that goes way back, well past the eighteen months she’s been with Alaska Force – a past he refuses to talk about or acknowledge, but one which clearly makes him uncomfortable (insofar as he feels any emotions about anything).   I have to admit here that given the way it’s built up, I expected this history to be something incredibly shocking – but it isn’t.  Bethan saved Jonas’ life following a bomb attack in the desert and kept him alive until help arrived; he apparently told her all sorts of things he now regrets saying as he drifted in and out of consciousness and – er… that’s it.  He behaves like a total dick to her for eighteen months because Mr. Big, Bad ‘n’ Broody is pissed he got saved by a girl.

Moving on.

The book opens really strongly with Bethan, Jonas and other members of the team on a mission to rescue Iyara Sowande and her brother – a brilliant biochemist widely touted as the world expert on a new form of chemical warfare – and get them both well away and to a safe-house.  Their mission is successful – although not without a couple of hiccups – and all goes to plan afterwards, until a few days later, they learn that the Sowandes are missing.

Here’s where the plotting gets a bit… tenuous.  There are apparently five men who could either have arranged for the Sowandes to be kidnapped OR have made a deal to gain access to Tayo Sawande’s research  – three high-ranking military officers and two Fortune 500 CEOs – and by a stroke of luck, all five of them are to be present at the wedding, in two weeks’ time, of Bethan’s sister, Ellen.  (Bethan’s father is also a high-ranking military officer, so they’re all members of that particular Boys Club).  Bethan doesn’t get on with her family and spends as little time with them as possible; her father is Air Force (she joined the Army to rebel against him), her mother disapproves of her because she’s not good at “the serious girl stuff” (telling her once that she was worried Bethan would show up at an event wearing fatigues) and her sister, well, they don’t have much of a relationship because Bethan’s hardly around.   So Bethan is about to go undercover in her parent’s home – as herself.  When Jonas volunteers to be her date for the week, Bethan is as surprised as everyone else.

Around half the story is taken up with the visit to Bethan’s home and the lead-up to the wedding.  We – and Bethan – finally get to see a different side of Jonas, although his one-of-the-lads act is just as much of a fake persona his usual day-to-day one.  He’s starting to struggle to keep his mask in place around Bethan though, and it’s not long before tempers flash and walls come tumbling down; but desperate, heated kisses and wall-banging sex aren’t enough to keep those walls from going up again almost immediately afterwards.  There’s definitely chemistry between Jonas and Bethan, but their relationship is severely underdeveloped, and while I could see what Jonas saw in Bethan – her competence, her abilities, her big-heart – I was at a loss as to what Bethan saw in Jonas, other than he’s hot.

In fact the best part of that section of the story was watching Bethan reappraise her family situation and realise that perhaps she’d misread it and misread them;  I was pleased she found a way she could be herself and have her family back in her life.

As I said at the beginning, the final section is where pretty much all the action is, but as with the previous book, the lead up to the HEA had me scratching my head.  It’s hard to say much without spoilers, but Bethan makes an assumption that directly contradicts something she and Jonas had said to each other just hours before, and it’s such an obvious way of manufacturing a delay to the HEA that it made me really cross.

I dithered a bit over the grade for this one, because while I really liked Bethan and her journey towards reconciling with her family and realising she could have both them and her job, this is supposed to be a romantic suspense novel and neither of those elements works all that well.  Jonas is one of those typically strong, silent, alpha types, but he’s almost entirely a one-note character – all about being dead inside and having no feelings and not wanting to think about Bethan in any way, shape or form. It’s like he’s TOO badass to have an actual personality, which made it hard to root for them to be together, because I couldn’t get a handle on him – and Bethan deserved better than someone who treated her like shit for years, especially considering she’d saved his life.

So I’ve reached the conclusion that while Special Ops Seduction has its good points, there aren’t enough of them – and certainly not enough of them in the romance or the suspense departments  – to merit  a recommendation.

One Time Only by Lauren Blakely (audiobook) – Narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Jacob Morgan

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Ever hear the story about the bodyguard who falls for the rock star?

Yeah, it never ends well.

Each day I remind myself that it’s my job to protect Stone. And nowhere in the job description does it say I should lust after the charismatic, charming man.

Especially since we’re opposites.

But every night I spend with him the dangerous, off-limits attraction grows more intense.

Until one night in a limo when we combust.

One time only will have to be enough. One scorching, forbidden night.

Because the mistakes from the past are chasing me. And if I give in again, I’ll lose everything.

But sometimes you grab hold of the desire. And other times, the desire takes hold of you.

No matter the cost.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C-

Teddy Hamilton and Jacob Morgan have only recorded a handful of books together, but thanks to their performances in the much-loved Him/Us/Epic from Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, they’ve become something of m/m narrating royalty. I listen to Mr. Hamilton fairly frequently, and he’s a firm favourite here at AG – although I have to confess that I’ve hardly listened to Mr. Morgan at all; not because I don’t like his voice or his work, but because he doesn’t record often – if at all – in the genres I tend to enjoy.

So I was really excited to learn the pair was teaming up again for Lauren Blakely’s latest m/m story One Time Only, a romance between hot, openly bisexual rock star Stone Zenith (yes, really) and his equally hot, ex-marine bodyguard, Jackson Pearce – and they are both, of course wonderful.

The story? Not so much.

In fact, the most notable thing about the story in One Time Only is its absence.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.