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.

You Only Love Twice (London Steampunk: Blue Blood Conspiracy #3) by Bec McMaster (audiobook) – Narrated by Sienna Frances

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

First rule of espionage: Don’t ever fall in love with your target.

Five years ago, Gemma Townsend learned the hard way what happens when you break this rule. She lost everything. Her mentor’s trust. The man she loved. And almost her life. Love is a weakness she can never afford again.

When offered a chance at redemption, the seductive spy is determined to complete her assigned task: to track down a dangerous assassin known as the Chameleon, a mysterious killer sent after the queen, whose identity seems to constantly change.

But as her investigation leads Gemma into a trap, she’s rescued by a shadowy figure she thought was dead – the double agent who once stole her heart.

A man with few memories, all Obsidian knows is Gemma betrayed him, and he wants revenge. But one kiss ignites the unextinguished passion between them, and he can’t bring himself to kill her.

Can Obsidian ever trust her again? Or is history doomed to repeat itself? Because it soon becomes clear the Chameleon might be closer than either of them realized…and this time Gemma is in the line of fire.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – A-

The books that comprise Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk and Blue Blood Conspiracy series are, to my mind, the best books to have appeared in the genre in recent years. The world-building is meticulous, the characters are all complex and well-rounded, the plotting is tight and the romances are wonderfully steamy, with lots of delicious sexual tension along the way. Her heroes are sex-on-a-stick and her heroines are kickass women who never need to remind readers how unconventional or badass they are; the author shows us everything we need to know. I’ve read all the books (bar one) in the series, and thoroughly enjoyed them all; I’d rate the series as a whole as a keeper, and haven’t awarded any of the books anything lower than a B+. In audio, however? Well, that’s a different story. The two series have different narrators; Alison Larkin narrates the London Steampunk series, and Sienna Frances – who is new-to-me – the Blue Blood Conspiracy books including You Only Love Twice, and while both are accomplished and talented performers, neither is particularly well-suited to the material or able to elevate the stories into must-listens or listen-instead-of-read books. Personally, I think a series like this – where there are more male characters than female ones – needs a male narrator. YMMV of course – Em gave high praise to Ms. Frances’ performance in her review of Mission Improper, but Ms. Frances didn’t work as well for me.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Teddy Spencer Isn’t Looking for Love by Kim Fielding

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Teddy Spenser spends his days selling design ideas to higher-ups, living or dying on each new pitch. Stodgy engineer types like Romeo Blue, his nemesis—if you can call someone who barely talks to you a nemesis—are a necessary evil. A cute necessary evil.

Working together is bad enough, but when their boss puts them both on a new high-stakes project, “working together” suddenly means:

sitting uncomfortably close on the same plane,

staying in the same hotel room—with only one bed—and

spending every waking minute together.

Turns out Mr. Starched Shirt has some hidden depths, and it’s getting harder to ignore the spark Teddy feels with every brush of their hands, with every knowing look. He might not have been looking for this connection with Romeo, but will he ever be ready to let him go?

Rating: C-

Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking for Love is a quick read that promised an enemies-to-lovers rom-com but didn’t deliver.  I really liked the author’s voice and humour  – the writing is really sprightly – and I liked the snarky, awkward and belligerently extroverted Teddy, but the romance happens so fast that it’s likely to give you whiplash, the love interest is pretty bland, and the set-up is so ridiculous that it stretched my credulity to breaking-point.

Teddy Spenser works for a small interior design company, where he spends his days (according to the book blurb) “selling design ideas to higher-ups, living or dying on each new pitch.”  Well, I’m guessing he works for an interior design company because it’s not really made clear; in fact the plot revolves around the creation of a single item – a smart vase (yes, really) – and it seemed as though that was the company’s one product as nothing else was ever mentioned.  Anyway, this vase is supposed to be all clean lines and simplicity – but while everything is working well, the housing for the software needed to run it is impinging on the design and ruining the look of it.  The project is dangerously close to the wire as far as the budget is concerned and there’s no more money to spend, so Teddy’s boss and the owner of Reddyflora tells him that he and the software engineer, Romeo Blue, have to come up with a solution fast, as she’s due to present the product to a high-profile potential investor in three days.

Teddy and Romeo don’t really get on, so this isn’t exactly ideal for either of them.  Although actually, it’s not so much a case of their not getting on as it is one of their never really interacting with each other very much and not knowing each other beyond a nodding acquaintance.  Teddy – who is the single PoV character – is a snappy dresser with a good eye for line and colour, Romeo wears boring dark suits and his office is devoid of any personal touches;  Teddy is confident and fairly outgoing (if a bit neurotic), Romeo is quiet and keeps himself to himself…  so it’s all pretty one-sided and the dislike is entirely in Teddy’s head.

As luck would have it, they turn out to be able to get on and work together quite well, so the enemies-to-lovers thing goes out the window quite quickly after that, as Teddy starts to see a different side to Romeo (as well as to allow himself to recognise how hot he is.)

After they present their solution to the software vs. design issue, they then discover that they’re being sent to Seattle to meet with the possible investor,  former model, creator of a lifestyle brand and fashion icon, Joyce Alexander.  Teddy can barely restrain his impulse to do a Wayne’s World “we are not worthy” while Romeo (or course) has no idea who she is.

Arrived in Seattle – to find that their hotel room has Only One Bed – the story then takes a turn into the truly ridiculous.  When Teddy and Romeo meet with Joyce, she decides she doesn’t have enough information to make a decision.  (Which isn’t surprising considering she won’t listen to Teddy’s pitch or look at any of the presentations they’ve put together.) But her concerns aren’t to do with either the design or the technology; no, she’s worried that Teddy and Romeo’s personality clash will impact the project (a personality clash that doesn’t really exist) and proposes that they should stay in Seattle for a couple more days and undertake a little test she’s devised so she can see if they possess the three key characteristics she thinks are essential to success.   (And she’s not going to tell them what those are.) This made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever and actually felt really unprofessional;  if the author was attempting “kooky”, it didn’t work.

And the thing is, even going along with that as the reason for Teddy and Romeo’s enforced proximity, the romance itself happens incredibly quickly. In the space of a week (?) they: a) decide they like each other; b) decide they like each other enough to have sex; c) meet the parents; d) decide to move in together; e) decide to get married.  And I haven’t even mentioned that Teddy appears to be hung-up on his ex – who is name-checked forty-one times (I counted) – and preoccupied with showing him how well he’s doing without him, or the fact that both characters come off as much younger than I think they’re supposed to be; Teddy’s relationship with his ex lasted a few years, so I’d guess they’re meant to be late-twenties, but they read much younger than that.

Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking for Love was a big disappointment.  Stereotypical characters (Teddy loves fashion, design and musical theatre; Romeo is black and grew up so poor his family didn’t have a TV), a romance that moves at the speed of light and an utterly ridiculous premise (a Smart Vase and a ‘Mysterious Quest’ – seriously?!) earn it a below average rating, and the only thing that saves it from a D grade is the author’s breezy, very readable style.

Holidays in Blue by Eve Morton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sometimes it takes a little ice to discover a whole lot of heat.

Cosmin Tessler is going home for Christmas. Eric Campbell is too.

Neither expected a homecoming quite like this.

When Cosmin Tessler’s radio show is canceled and Eric Campbell’s acting jobs dry up, they find themselves unexpectedly back in their old Toronto neighborhood…and back in each other’s lives years after they’d gone their separate ways. With a series of failed relationships and one ill-advised marriage behind them, both believe their chance for love has come and gone.

Luck, in the form of a massive ice storm, throws the former neighbors together again and they find themselves stranded, alone, for Christmas. Despite their difference in age, long-ago crushes and undeniable attraction prove too much to resist. But when the ice melts, only time will tell if their burgeoning romance will become just another missed chance—or a love story whose time has finally come.

Rating: C

Début author Eve Morton’s Holidays in Blue is billed by Carina Press as a “forced proximity Christmas romance” and the blurb goes on to say how the two principal characters find themselves stranded together for Christmas.  Some of my favourite seasonal romances use that particular trope, so I decided to pick up this book for review, expecting a lot of snow, a bit of awkwardness and flirting, plenty of sexual tension and a Christmassy atmosphere… and this book contains exactly NONE of those things.  Okay, so it’s an ice storm rather than snow that strands the guys together,  but when a book is billed as a “Christmas romance” I think it’s reasonable to expect it to have a) a Christmas feel to it and b) some romance in it – no?

Cosmin Tessler and Eric Campbell lived across the street from each other maybe twenty years before but never really knew each other that well, because Cosmin is around a decade older and moved away while Eric was still in school.  But the age gap didn’t stop Eric from developing a crush on Cosmin, and it was thanks to watching Cosmin and his boyfriend making out one night (in the front seat of the bf’s car) that kind of cemented his suspicions that he wasn’t completely straight.

Eric became an actor and for a while starred in a (not-very-good) TV show, but seems now to spend most of his time failing auditions and narrating audiobooks, while Cosmin went on to become a teacher, writer, and radio personality.

The pair meet again – very briefly – when Eric is tending bar at the radio station’s Christmas party.  Cosmin has just received the news that his contract is not being renewed so he goes to the bar for a drink.  He’s been thinking all night that Eric looked familiar but wasn’t able to place him;  Eric re-introduces himself, but Cosmin is quite rude to him and leaves.

They don’t see each other again until around a quarter of the way into the book, after Cosmin returns to his family home intending to sort through his recently deceased father’s possessions (and to look for the papers relating to his adoption) and Eric goes home for Christmas a few days early (his family is away visiting his sister, but will be back by Christmas Eve).  Hearing the news of a coming ice storm on the radio, Eric, who doesn’t realise George Tessler has died, decides to go over there to check the old man is okay, and is pleasantly surprised to be greeted by Cosmin instead. The ice storm sets in quickly after that, and strands them together for a couple of nights.

That’s the set up, but what follows is far more the story of one man coming to terms with his father’s death and the other working through his feelings over his failed marriage than it is a romance.  The author has some interesting things to say about grief and loss and moving on, but it’s very… cerebral (which does fit with Cosmin’s character), and while I did enjoy Cosmin’s journey as he comes to learn and understand his father more than he had done in life, it does give the story a more melancholy feel than I expected.

Cosmin’s story is the dominant one and we get a lot more insight into his situation than into Eric’s, but he has a journey to make, too. In his case, it’s learning to forgive himself for some of the things he did which led to the breakdown of his marriage, and to stop seeing himself in terms of failure.

Holidays in Blue does have some things going for it – the writing is generally good  and sometimes lyrical (although some of the sex scenes felt as though the author wasn’t comfortable writing them), but the pacing is off; sometimes things move really slowly, and at others, they go from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye.  An example – Cosmin and Eric don’t really interact until the twenty-three percent mark; at thirty-three, they’re making out and talking about fucking.  If I’d had a print book, I think I’d have been flipping through the pages looking for the missing chapters!

The biggest problem with it, however, is that the romance is a complete non-starter.   There’s no chemistry between Cosmin and Eric, no real connection and very little by way of romantic development.  At a rough estimate, they spend about half the book apart (possibly a bit more) and  I didn’t feel I got to know either of them outside of Cosmin’s grief and Eric’s self-recrimination – and I didn’t feel they got to know each other outside of that either.  Plus, they’re not “stranded, alone, for Christmas”.  They spend two days and nights together (before Christmas) and then go their separate ways until the reunite in the penultimate chapter.

Ultimately, the book tries to be too many things and loses sight of the one thing that should have been front and centre.  There’s a sub-plot concerning a friend of Cosmin’s whose daughter has an eating disorder and who has to be admitted to hospital, and another about Eric and an unexpected windfall (and the way he spends the money he inherited made no sense to me whatsoever).  The book addresses a lot of important issues – grief, adoption, infidelity (there’s no cheating in the story) unemployment, anorexia, to name a few, but it’s too much for a book of just over two hundred pages, and it’s the romance that suffers and is squeezed out.

When it comes down to it, this isn’t a romance novel; it’s a story of self-discovery and learning to move on after loss that happens to have a romantic sub-plot. (And not a very good one at that).  Needless to say, I can’t recommend it.

All That Remains (Lancaster Falls #3) by R.J. Scott (audiobook) – Narrated by Sean Crisden

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Federal Agent Lucas Beaumont has an agenda – get himself assigned to the case of the apparent serial murders at Lancaster Falls, find out who the murderer is, and then lay the ghosts that haunt his grandfather to rest. In the midst of a horrific murder investigation, the only peace he gets is from simple moments in a warm kitchen, talking to hotel owner, Josh. Attraction to the easygoing man is something he didn’t expect; in doing so, he opens himself to hurt, but at the same time, he begins to fall in love.

Josh is struggling to keep the Falls Hotel, even with every cent he has invested in its upkeep. The one thing keeping him above water is the not entirely legal work he does on the side – a steady income that not even his son knows about. When the FBI takes over his hotel for the duration of the Hell’s Gate serial killer case, Josh is faced with the real possibility that Lucas will not only discover his secret but also steal his heart.

When tragedy hits Josh and his son, and when it seems all hope is lost, can Lucas rescue them both?

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – C-

All That Remains is the third and final book in RJ Scott’s series of romantic suspense novels set in the small Pennsylvania town of Lancaster Falls, and it neatly wraps up the overarching mystery storyline begun in What Lies Beneath and continued through Without a TraceEven though I was disappointed with both the story and narration in the latter book, I decided to listen to All That Remains in hopes that Without a Trace had been suffering from middle-book-itis, and that the series finale would be a stronger listen. Plus, I wanted to find out whodunit!

The series has an overarching plot, so if you still like the sound of it after reading my reviews (!) then this isn’t the place to start. There are spoilers for the previous books in this review.

The discovery of several sets of human remains in a sink hole in Lancaster Falls leads to speculation that one of the bodies is that of Casey McGuire, a young man who went missing a decade earlier, and whose disappearance is still felt keenly by all in the community. The previous book (Without a Trace) focused on the investigation as to whether or not Casey was one of the murder victims and who might have killed him; All That Remains picks up the story shortly after the events of that book, when an FBI team headed by Special Agent Lucas Beaumont arrives in the town to work the investigation into what looks like a string of serial murders of young women.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Ends of the Earth by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Jason Kellerman’s life revolves around his eight-year-old daughter. Teenage curiosity with his best friend led to Maggie’s birth, and her mother tragically died soon after. Only 25 and a single dad, Jason hasn’t had time to even think about romance. Disowned by his wealthy family, he’s scrimped and saved to bring Maggie west for a camping vacation. The last thing Jason expects is to question his sexuality after meeting a sexy, older park ranger.

Ben Hettler’s stuck. He loves working in the wild under Montana’s big sky, but at 41, his love life is non-existent, his ex-boyfriend just married and adopted, and Ben’s own dream of fatherhood feels impossibly out of reach. He’s attracted to Jason, but what’s the point? Besides the age difference and Jason’s lack of experience, they live thousands of miles apart. Ben wants more than a meaningless fling.

Then a hunted criminal on the run takes Jason’s daughter hostage, throwing Jason and Ben together in a dangerous search through endless miles of mountain forest. They’ll go to the ends of the earth to rescue Maggie – but what comes next? Can they build a new family together and find a place to call home?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C

I’ve enjoyed a number of books by Keira Andrews over the last year or so and have definitely become a fan of her writing, so seeing lots of her novels coming out in audio over the past few months has given me a great opportunity to catch up with some of the titles I’ve missed. I loved Semper FiThe Christmas Deal (recently released in audio with John Solo narrating) and Beyond the Sea – and I hoped to love Ends of the Earth which, from the sound of the blurb, promised a romantic suspense storyline. Sadly, however, I can’t report success with this one; the narration is stellar of course, but the story is weak and in places feels like it’s a cheesy made-for-TV movie.

Single dad Jason Kellerman has taken his eight-year-old daughter Maggie on the camping trip of her dreams, to the (fictional) Glacier National Park in Montana.  Jason isn’t really a fan of camping, but Maggie is the apple of his eye, and there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her.  It’s been just the two of them more or less since she was born; Amy, Jason’s best friend at high school, asked him to take her V-card and despite using protection something went wrong and she ended up pregnant.  Not long after Maggie was born, Amy and her parents were killed in a car accident, and Jason has raised his daughter alone, giving up his dreams of art college and becoming estranged from his (sort of) well-meaning but interfering parents.

On their first day at the campsite, Jason and Maggie are going on a tour led by one of the park rangers, Ben Hettler, who is friendly and informative and really good with Maggie, answering all her many questions along the route.  Jason can’t help being just a bit distracted by the handsome older man’s muscular physique, even as he tells himself the same thing he’s always told himself whenever he’s noticed a fit guy’s body – that it’s aesthetically pleasing to his artist’s eye.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.