Christmas on Firefly Hill by Garrett Leigh

christmas on firefly hill

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Firefighter Logan Halliwell doesn’t have much time for romance. A relentless work-life-balance and an expensive divorce have sucked the festive cheer from his days. All he wants is to be a good dad. A fun dad. Especially at Christmas.

He doesn’t know how lonely he is until he meets Remy Collins, a gorgeous fire dancer at a sultry summer festival.

Their instant connection blows his mind, but their fleeting encounter is over before Logan can catch his breath. One kiss and they’re strangers again. That wicked brush of lips nothing but a dream.

Long months pass. Then fate brings them together again at the summit of Firefly Hill, and absence has only strengthened the current thrumming between them. The heat. The precious chance of true happiness they both so desperately need.

Only fear stands in their way.

And Logan’s dangerous job.

It takes a tough lesson and a dose of winter magic to learn that loving each other means Christmas all year round.

Rating: B-

Garrett Leigh’s Christmas on Firefly Hill is a fairly short, emotionally charged and low-angst read that, while not heavy on the turkey or the tinsel, still has enough festive cheer to warm the cockles. It’s a bit of a trope-fest, really: there’s an age-gap, a divorced dad struggling to parent young kids, and an insta-connection, with some hurt/comfort thrown in for good measure. I liked the two leads and the quirky feel to the location, and the kids in the story read like real kids with personalities of their own rather than plot-moppets. I enjoyed the story, but can’t say it knocked my socks off.

Firefighter Logan Halliwell is moonlighting as a fire marshall at a summer festival when he first sees Remy Collins, a lithe, vibrant poi/fire dancer who is, quite literally, the most beautiful man he’s ever seen. The intense connetion pulling them towards each other at the end of the dance is like nothing either of them has ever felt – it’s so strong it really leaps off the page – and they share a brief but passionate kiss. Before they can get as far as exchanging names (or numbers) though, Logan is called away. Neither of them expects to see the other again.

Not long after that meeting, Remy suffered a serious accident which broke some bones and left him unable to perform for the rest of the season. He’s unsettled and directionless, just about making ends meet while living out of the back of his clapped-out Transit van, and the cold weather isn’t doing the residual pain in his right hip and leg any favours. He’s pinned his hopes on renting a workshop for the winter where he can pursue his other business, making jewellery and other decorative items, and to this end, he’s just about got the old van up Firefly Hill to meet “Uncle Marr”, the eccentric old gent who owns the building – and to Remy’s surprise and relief, he agrees to rent the space to him on favourable terms and tells him “the boy” – his nephew – will be in to sort out the finances.

To say Logan is surprised to learn the identity of his uncle’s new tenant is an understatement. Not a day has gone by without his thinking about the gorgeous dancer and the single kiss they’d shared – and now, here he is, the man of Logan’s dreams standing right in front of him, a blinding grin on his face.

The connection that flared between them months earlier roars back to life, as strong now as it was then, bringing with it a chance for Logan and Remy to find out how – or if – they might make room for each other in their lives. Their mutual physical attraction is not in question, but they’re very different men with messy, complicated lives and baggage that will have to be dealt with if they’re going to make a go of it.

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

Winter Dreams (Winter Magic #2) by Marie Sexton

winter dreams

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a player gets played?

Actor Dylan Frasier is known as one of the biggest playboys in Hollywood, infamous for seducing men and women alike. He’s also half in love with his two best friends. Unfortunately, Jason and Ben are madly in love with each other, leaving Dylan the odd man out. When Ben suggests an extended Christmas vacation at a resort modeled after his favorite 80s TV show, Dylan reluctantly agrees. Sure, his heart breaks a bit every time he sees them together, but it’s a vacation in the Bahamas. How bad can it be?

At first, the resort seems like any other. Dylan plans to work on his tan, get laid, and hunt for Hollywood’s most in-demand director – not necessarily in that order. Then he meets Connor, a tennis instructor still hurting from a bad breakup. Connor knows Dylan’s reputation and refuses to be seduced. Dylan sees Connor as just another conquest, but this tropical island isn’t as mundane as it appears. It has its own kind of magic, and it’s about to make things interesting.

Rating: A-

Back in 2020, I chose Marie Sexton’s Winter Oranges as my read for that year’s December prompt in the TBR Challenge, and really enjoyed it. It’s an unusual and charming story, a gorgeous slow-burn romance with a magical twist, and I was delighted to see that the author was writing a sequel. Often, sequels turn out to be disappointing, but I’m happy to report that Winter Dreams is even better than Winter Oranges. It’s a beautifully developed redemption story (and I’m a sucker for those!) combined with a touch of fantasy and another fabulous and emotionally satisfying slow-burn romance.

While it’s probably not essential to have read Winter Oranges before this, I strongly recommend doing so. For one thing, it’s a great read, and for another, you’ll get more detailed insight into the central relationships and character backgrounds. Please be aware that there are spoilers for that book in this review.

Actor Dylan Fraser has a reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest playboys. Relationships aren’t for him and he’s never made a secret of that – even with the only lover he ever returned to, his best friend Jason Walker. Even though Dylan knew Jason was in love with him and no matter that he knew how cruel it was, Dylan couldn’t bring himself to stay away. But two years later, things are very different. Jason is now blisfully happy with Ben (Winter Oranges is their love story), and although Dylan adores them both – is even a little in love with both of them – and knows Ben is more right for Jason than he ever was, he can’t help feeling like the odd man out, or wondering about what might have been if he’d been capable of fidelity.

When the story opens, Dylan, Jason and Ben are en route to a luxury holiday island resort in the Bahamas called Fantasy Island, like the classic eighties TV show of the same name. It is, according to the brochure, a “place where all your fantasies come true.” Jason snidely suggests Dylan’s fantasy is to fuck his way through all the guests before the month is out; laughingly, Dylan agrees, although he knows that deep down, his fantasy would be to stop being himself and become Jason or Ben for the rest of his life, which would be so much better than being him. He ruthlessly suppresses the knowledge that he’s envious of what they’ve found in each other, and knowing it’s not something he’ll ever have, he figures he might as well not bother trying to find it and continues to live up to his flagrantly promiscuous reputation.

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

His Last Christmas in London by Con Riley

his last christmas in london

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling for his final client won’t make leaving London easy…

Ian ~ A talented, young photographer desperate to stay in London.

Guy ~ An older, fierce food critic, determined to keep him in his city.

Ian shouldn’t be attracted to a scathing food critic like Guy Parsons, not after the last time he fell for someone older, arrogant, and gorgeous. He knows better than to let dramatic good looks sway him since his last heartbreak. Besides, he’s accepted a new job at the far end of the country and won’t be staying in London.

Having one month left doesn’t seem enough now Ian’s fallen in love with the city. Working as Guy’s photographer for December might help him afford to stay for longer, even if he hates Guy’s brand of restaurant reviewing. When Guy turns out to be worlds away from the last man Ian fell for, shared meals soon result in shared secrets and feelings.

More than attraction sparks between them as Christmas approaches. Intimate moments lead to intense passion, but is being well matched in the bedroom enough to stop the clock counting down to Ian leaving London, and Guy, for good?

Rating: A-

Romance novellas are very often hit-and-miss for me. Truth be told, the majority of them ‘miss’, usually because the characters and relationship are underdeveloped, so I generally approach with caution. But every so often, a novella or ‘shorter novel’ comes along that defies my expectations – and I’m pleased to say that Con Riley’s His Last Christmas in London did exactly that. It’s a lovely, poignant and sensual age-gap romance that hit me right in the feels and left me sighing happily when I finished it.

Twenty-four-year-old Ian Fisher has decided it’s time to give up on his dream of making a living as a freelance photographer in London and take a secure short-term job back home in Cornwall. It’s going to be a massive wrench; he loves the city and he loves his two flatmates, Seb and Patrick, but he’s making next to nothing thanks to his arsehole of a former boss – and former lover – who is holding out on giving him a reference after Ian realised the guy had been gaslighting him for ages and passing Ian’s work off as his own, and left both his employ and his bed. His confidence in his abilities has been severely shaken, and without the reference, it’s proving next to impossible for Ian to get any work, so he’s resorted to selling off some of his equipment just so he can afford his rent, even though Seb and Patrick have said they’ll spot him until he starts earning again. But Ian doesn’t want to be a drain on them, and decides it’s time to face facts, suck it up and take the six-month teaching contract he’s been offered while he works out what his next move should be.

Doing a favour for his ex is the last thing Ian wants to do, so when Lito Dixon – who is clearly partying – calls and asks Ian to “go and take some food shots” for a high-profile client, Ian’s first instinct is to say no. But realising Lito is desperate, Ian demands both his reference and three times his usual fee – it’ll keep him afloat for a little while longer – and when Lito begrudingly agrees, Ian takes the job.

Guy Parsons is a well-known restaurant critic whose reviews have often been labelled as “career-ending” and “business crushing”. Still smarting from just having to deal with one utter bastard, Ian is in little mood to deal with another, and arrives at the restaurant predisposed to dislike Parsons on sight. When he arrives, he can’t help noticing how very striking the man is – with his flow of dark hair and warm, dark eyes – and is even thrown by the hostess’ description of him as “lovely”, which Ian decides must be just a front he maintains before going in for the kill. He wastes no time in making his opinion of Guy perfectly clear when he arrives at the table, but the wind is taken out of his sails when Guy calmly (and somewhat mischievously) plays up to the hostess’ assumption that they’re a couple. Confused and surprised at the powerful attraction he’s feeling for the other man, Ian slowly lets go of his preconceptions as Guy proves himself to be funny, charming and insightful – anything but a bastard, in fact – insisting Ian joins him for dinner, giving helpful advice to the new proprietors of the restaurant, and showing genuine concern for Ian and a real appreciation for his talent.

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

In Step (Painted Bay #3) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

in step

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Karma. You reap what you sow, and Kane Martin isn’t looking for forgiveness.

But the arrival of Abe Tyler in Painted Bay has Kane dreaming of the impossible. The sexy silver fox choreographer is determined to pull Kane out from the shadows, but Abe’s career isn’t about to shift to Painted Bay, and Kane’s life is in neat little boxes for a reason.

A past he isn’t proud of.

A family he’s walked away from.

A job he doesn’t deserve.

A secret he’s ashamed of.

But life’s dance can make for unexpected partners, and learning to trust and keep up with the footwork is the name of the game.

Two steps forward, one step back.

It takes two to tango.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A

Jay Hogan’s wonderful Painted Bay series comes to a close with In Step which is my favourite book of the set and probably my favourite book of of hers full stop. It’s a poignant, emotional romance combined with a superbly-crafted tale of redemption, forgiveness and finally coming into one’s own that is both heartfelt and heartbreaking; and the always excellent Gary Furlong’s narration is absolute perfection.

Note: There are spoilers for the other books in the series in this review.

We were first introduced to Kane Martin back in Off Balancebook one of the series. A loner who doesn’t really fit in, he lives quietly on the fringes of town, his bullying attack on Judah Madden back when they were at school still very much present in the memories of most of the locals. Then, in On Board, he came to work for Judah’s brother Leroy after Leroy’s mother discovered Kane sleeping in his car and immediately offered him a job. Leroy wasn’t best pleased; he’s only just begun to repair his fractured relationship with Judah, and made it a condition of Kane’s employment that Judah agreed to it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble (Winner Bakes All #2) by Alexis Hall

paris daillencourt is about to crumble

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rating: B

Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble is the second book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, which pays homage to and pokes affectionate fun at The Great British Bake-Off as some of the contestants on its fictional counterpart, Bake Expectations, fall in love throughout the weeks of the competition. The first thing anyone contemplating reading it should know is that despite the bright, cartoon cover, this book is NOT a romantic comedy.  Rather, it’s the story of a young man living with chronic, undiagnosed, and untreated anxiety who slowly falls apart and then starts to put the pieces back together, with a romantic subplot and a very tentative HFN.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to do something I don’t normally do in the body of a review, and quote from the book blurb to set the scene:

Paris Daillencourt is a recipe for disaster. Despite his passion for baking, his cat, and his classics degree, constant self-doubt and second-guessing have left him a curdled, directionless mess. So when his roommate enters him in Bake Expectations, the nation’s favourite baking show, Paris is sure he’ll be the first one sent home.

But not only does he win week one’s challenge—he meets fellow contestant Tariq Hassan. Sure, he’s the competition, but he’s also cute and kind, with more confidence than Paris could ever hope to have. Still, neither his growing romance with Tariq nor his own impressive bakes can keep Paris’s fear of failure from spoiling his happiness.

Paris is, for the most part, a sympathetic character, and it’s easy to see that he really wants to be a good person but that his fears and anxiety make him somewhat self-centred and cause him to hurt the people he cares about. His belief that he’s unloveable and ‘too much’ isn’t surprising, considering his parents seem to have dumped him at school when he was thirteen and just left him to get on with it, and he doesn’t seem to have any real grasp of why he feels and acts as he does, which results in his constantly making poor decisions and sabotaging himself. Now twenty-one, he’s studying for a degree in Classics at UCL (University College London) and doesn’t have any close family or friends he can turn to or who are in a position to really notice just how much he’s struggling with, well, everything.

Tariq Hassan is a sparkly, fabulous, unapologetically gay Muslim who knows who he is and what he wants. He’s sweet and kind and funny, with the kind of flair and self-confidence Paris utterly lacks; he’s also devout and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, which pretty much wrecks his and Paris’ first date when Paris bluntly says he doesn’t know why a guy would want to be with him (Paris, that is) if sex isn’t on the table. Naturally, Tariq doesn’t think much of that and the evening ends on a sour note, but Paris manages to apologise (eventually) and gets Tariq to give him a second chance.

Thankfully, Paris does eventually get the help he needs (although I’m not convinced he would have done so but for circumstances which make it pretty much impossible for him NOT to) and I began to enjoy him as a character. With all the fear and self-doubt receding, we get to see the real Paris underneath it all, a slightly awkward yet charming young man with a good sense of humour and a genuine desire to get better and do the work he needs to do on himself to get there. Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t happen until over three-quarters of the way through the book, and there came a point around the halfway point where I started to wish the author had included Tariq’s PoV simply to break up the full-on, full-throttle Paris-in-panic-mode spiralling. I really wish we’d been able to spend a bit more time with the healthier version of him.

Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble is a difficult book to review because it is, at times, a difficult book to read. Not only is being in Paris’ head all the time kind of exhausting – following his thought processes is like being on a train hurtling towards catastrophe in a disaster movie – but reading all the tangential inner monologues, superfluous dialogue and unfinished sentences is literally difficult and hard to follow. Coming at the book primarily as a romance reader and reviewing it for a romance book site, I have to say that the love story plays second-fiddle to Paris, his issues and his eventual personal growth. I did enjoy Paris and Tariq as a couple in the beginning and near the end; Tariq is good for Paris and helps him to see the ways in which his behaviour is not only self-destructive but hurtful to those around him, and I liked that he has some of his own moments of self-revelation towards the end, too.

Maybe it’s on me, but I was surprised when I realised Paris and Tariq were both so young. I don’t know why, but I’d expected them to be older than twenty-one and twenty, and I suspect their ages – together with everything they’re going through – internet trolls, TV fame, Paris’ mental health crisis – are part of the reason I didn’t quite buy that they would make it long-term.  (It’s difficult to believe that the no-premarital-sex thing isn’t going to be a problem down the line as well.)  The book ends on a tentative HFN, which feels right considering where Paris and Tariq are at that point, but when I finish a romance novel, I want to feel the characters are going to be together for the foreseeable future, not that they’ll have split up within a year or so.

I’m a big fan of Alexis Hall’s writing, which is always clever, sharply observed and sparklingly witty. The very Britishness of his humour absolutely resonates with me, and, as was the case with the previous book (Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake) the parts of the story that are set during the competition are a lot of fun. He writes about anxiety and depression in a sensitive and relatable way, and I appreciated the exploration of what it means to be privileged yet unhappy or devout and queer, of how it must feel to receive a diagnosis and then start on the long and often uphill road to recovery.

In the end, I enjoyed Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble and would certainly recommend it provided you’re prepared to adjust your expectations as regards the romance. I’ve read reviews from people who also live with anxiety issues who have said they found the mental health rep very good and Paris’ experiences very relatable, but also that they found reading triggering in some instances, so please take that into account if you’re thinking about picking this one up.

Heart Unseen (Hearts Entwined #1) by Andrew Grey (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay

heart unseen

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a stunningly attractive man and the owner of a successful chain of auto repair garages, Trevor is used to attention, adoration, and getting what he wants. What he wants tends to be passionate, no-strings-attached flings with men he meets in clubs. He doesn’t expect anything different when he sets his sights on James. Imagine his surprise when the charm that normally brings men to their knees fails to impress. Trevor will need to drop the routine and connect with James on a meaningful level. He starts by offering to take James home instead of James riding home with his intoxicated friend.

For James, losing his sight at a young age meant limited opportunities for social interaction. Spending most of his time working at a school for the blind has left him unfamiliar with Trevor’s world, but James has fought hard for his independence, and he knows what he wants. Right now, that means stepping outside his comfort zone and into Trevor’s heart.

Trevor is also open to exploring real love and commitment for a change, but before he can be the man James needs him to be, he’ll have to deal with the pain of his past.

Rating:  Narration – A; Content – B

It’s no secret around here that my reading/listening preferences generally tend towards the plotty and angsty, with complex, edgy characters. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed stories that veer towards the low-drama end of the scale, and Andrew Grey’s Heart Unseen turned out to be one of those quieter, more character-driven tales that unexpectedly charmed me. Published in 2017, it’s part of a series featuring characters with disabilities; in this story, one of the leads is blind, and although I can’t say if the representation of what it’s like to live without being able to see is accurate, the author does seem to have taken care to address the issue respectfully.

Trevor Michaelson has a great life. He’s a successful businessman, he has a good relationship with his dad, good friends he likes spending time with and enjoys playing the field, his handsome face and toned body meaning he has the pick of guys at the clubs he and his friends frequent. When the book opens, Trevor and his two besties, Brent and Dean, are out at one of their favourite haunts to celebrate the end of Dean’s relationship with his manipulative ex, and be there as moral support as he gets back out there. While sitting with Brent, Trevor’s attention is caught by a stunningly beautiful man a few tables over – and he can’t take his eyes off him.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sass (Style #3) by Jay Hogan

sass

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For two years I’ve kept Leon Steadman at a safe distance, ever since the night he turned me down flatter than a pancake with a side order of syrupy disapproval. His loss. The world is full of sexy men. One and done is simply good math and efficient use of my time. Or it would be if I hadn’t been lusting after the irritating, judgemental, gorgeous, mountain of a man, ever since.

The less I see of Leon, the better. Bad enough that his tattoo business sits next to Flare, the fashion store I manage, and that he’s friendly with my boss. But now he’s apartment-sitting above the shop, as well. Every time I turn around, Leon is there. In my store. In my space. Messing with my head. Being all nice and charming and acting like maybe he’s not the biggest jerk to walk the earth, after all.

Well, I don’t want or need Leon’s apologies, but maybe if I can have him, just once, it might put an end to this ridiculous hunger that sparks every time I lay eyes on him.

Yeah, I’ll get back to you on that.

Rating: B+

Jay Hogan concludes her Style series with Sass, a warm, snarky and sexy age-gap/opposites-attract romance between the fabulous Kip Grantham, the sassy, fierce and super-capable manager of Rhys Hellier’s high-fashion store, Flare, and Leon Steadman, the gorgeous hunk who owns the tattoo parlour next door. There was a definite spark between them the minute they stepped on the page in the first book, and although it was tempered by a distinct air of frostiness on Kip’s part, it was an intensely combustible kind of spark that would have led to some serious sheet-burning had the pair of them actually made it as far as a bed. As it turns out however, they’ve never acted on their mutual attraction, spending the two years of their acquaintance barely on civil, one-word-acknowledgement terms.

Kip was attracted to Leon the moment he came through the door of Flare, a week after Kip started working there. He was the hottest thing Kip has ever seen and provided more than enough fuel for his fantasies right up until around a month later when they met at a party, and Leon rejected his invitation to do more than just chat. Kip has never made a secret of the fact that he’s not into relationships; he enjoys men, he enjoys sex and isn’t about to feel bad or apologise for it to anyone. He knows when a guy is interested in him, and Leon was definitely interested – so his rebuff was a bit of a surprise; and not only did Leon turn Kip down, he did it in a really shitty, condescending way that more than implied a disapproval of Kip’s lifestyle. Kip was – quite rightly – furious and put Leon firmly in his place before storming off.

Kip couldn’t possibly know how hard it was for Leon to say no that night. Leon had recently decided it’s time to give up what his sister-in-law calls his “whoring ways” and he’s planning to settle down. He wants the whole package, the white picket fence, kids, a dog… it’s time to focus on finding someone he can make a life with and when he meets Kip, it’s the first big test of his resolve. He’s utterly smitten with the vivacious, beautiful younger man and previously, would not have thought twice about taking him up on his offer – but even on such short acquaintance, Leon recognises the potential danger to his heart Kip represents, and sticks to his guns. He just does it in a really unpleasant way.

That was two years earlier, and Kip and Leon have maintained an uneasy détente ever since. Leon has tried repeatedly to apologise for being such a dick, but Kip isn’t interested, despite the fact that Leon is the only man who has ever taken up real estate in his brain.

When Sass opens, Rhys and his partner Beck are about to leave for New York – for work, and then for a short break – leaving Kip in charge of Flare. While they’re away, the space above Leon’s shop (which he rents from Rhys) is going to be converted into a proper studio for Rhys, and Leon, who has been camping there while his house purchase is completed, is going to have to go to stay with his parents for a few weeks. He gets on well with his family, but still isn’t looking forward to it; but when Alec and Hunter (Strut) hear about it, they offer Leon the use of their apartment (above Flare), as they, too, are going to be away for a few weeks.

Kip is… well, ‘ugh’ might best describe his reaction to that news. It’s bad enough that he has to see Leon and deflect his attempts at conversation every now and then, but having him living upstairs and walking through the shop to get there… he’s not wild about the idea.

The chemistry between Kip and Leon is electric from the start, and Jay Hogan does a terrific job with building their slow-burn romance, which starts out with small, thoughtful gestures on Leon’s part, such as bringing Kip coffee or his favourite pastries when he knows he hasn’t been able to find time to eat, and builds into a friendship in which the two men come to feel comfortable enough around each other to talk about things they’ve never really spoken about with anyone else and most importantly, about the things that have lain between them for the last couple of years. Both have suffered trauma and loss; seven years before, Leon’s twin sister was killed in a car accident and he’s struggled, ever since, to really come to terms with it, while Kip has been estranged from his family for a decade because they disapprove of his lifestyle and for reasons the author reveals gradually as the story progresses.

I’ve said this before, but one of the things you can rely on in a Jay Hogan romance is that the characters speak and act like adults, they support each other and, for the most part, they communicate. There are no silly misunderstandings or contrived drama; the conflict in the romance arises organically and as a result of who these characters are, and while Sass is, perhaps, a less angsty read than the other books in the series, it’s far from lightweight and the author nonetheless tackles some difficult issues with her customary sensitivity and understanding.

Both leads are likeable, but this is Kip’s show. Vibrant, funny and blisteringly snarky, he made an impact the moment he stepped onto the page in Flare, and his force-of-nature personality has made him a series favourite. The author does a good job of showing why Kip eschews relationships, his deeply rooted fear of abandonment telling him it’s easier to just avoid setting himself up for it. And despite being a spitfire and having a natural talent for organisation and innovation, deep down, he’s insecure about taking the formal managerial role that Rhys is urging him towards. He’s doing the job already while Rhys focuses on his designing, but while on the one hand he knows he’s damn good at what he does, on the other, he doesn’t quite believe he can handle it, worrying secretly that being “mouthy as shit with a dangerous dose of charm” is no compensation for his lack of education or qualifications. Watching Leon gently bolster him and boost his confidence is lovely; he’s wonderfully supportive, helping Kip to think problems through and to find and own his belief in himself, but that support doesn’t only go one way. Kip stands beside Leon, too, helping him to better understand his family’s concern for him and untangle a complicated and sensitive family situation.

I have to make mention here of the character of Drew, the young trans man we first met in Flare; now nineteen, he’s really growing into himself and shows signs of becoming a force to be reckoned with. His friendship with Kip is superbly written; their snarky back-and-forth provides some of the book’s funniest moments, and their obvious affinity and genuine care for one another is lovely to see.

Sass is a terrific character-driven romance and a great series finale, and although it didn’t quite hit DIK level for me (I would have liked a bit more grit overall), I really enjoyed it and am more than happy to give it a strong recommendation.

You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince by Timothy Janovsky

you're a mean one matthew prince

This title may be purchased from Amazon

BRING A LITTLE JOY TO THE WORLD? NOT TODAY, SANTA.

Matthew Prince is young, rich, and thoroughly spoiled. So what if his parents barely remember he exists and the press is totally obsessed with him? He’s on top of the world. But one major PR misstep later, and Matthew is cut off and shipped away to spend the holidays in his grandparents’ charming small town hellscape. Population: who cares?

It’s bad enough he’s stuck in some festive winter wonderland—it’s even worse that he has to share space with Hector Martinez, an obnoxiously attractive local who’s unimpressed with anything and everything Matthew does.

Just when it looks like the holiday season is bringing nothing but heated squabbles, the charity gala loses its coordinator and Matthew steps in as a saintly act to get home early on good behavior…with Hector as his maddening plus-one. But even a Grinch can’t resist the unexpected joy of found family, and in the end, the forced proximity and infectious holiday cheer might be enough to make a lonely Prince’s heart grow three sizes this year.

Rating: B-

Timothy Janovsky’s You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince is one of those fish-out-of-water stories wherein a spoiled brat is sent away to some backwater they wouldn’t normally set one toe of their Louboutins in and finds meaning, purpose, and often, love as well. It’s a story we’re all read hundreds of times before (and as this one is set around the Christmas period, there are plenty of very obvious references to the most famous meanie-finds-humanity tale of all time), but while the story is decently executed and the characters are likeable, it doesn’t really have anything that sets it apart from the other gazillion stories that employ the same theme.

Twenty-one-year-old Matthew Prince has it all – good-looks, wealth and internet fame thanks to the regularity with which his antics end up on the gossip sites. His latest – the impulsive purchase of an island (yes, you read that right) following a recent break up has finally brought his parents to say enough is enough and put their collective foot down. To prevent a possible PR disaster, he’s sent to spend a month with his maternal grandparents at their cabin in Wind River in downright stifling, middle-of-nowhere western Massachusetts. And as if things aren’t bad enough, he learns he’s to be sharing a room – with bunk beds, no less – with Hector Martinez, a former student of his grandfather’s, to whom he offered temporary accommodation when it looked like Hector wasn’t going to be able to afford to finish college.

Matthew certainly appreciates the eye candy, but it becomes quickly apparent that the down-to-earth Hector is not the slightest bit impressed or awed by Matthew.

“For someone whose last name is Prince, you’re not very charming.”

He’s not used to being so easily dismissed, but then realises it doesn’t matter, because he’s already plotting ways to get back to NYC in time to throw his famous New Year’s Eve bash alongside his bestie, Bentley. But when his plan to sneak away is foiled – by Hector, no less – Matthew realises he’s stuck there until he does what his parents have sent him there to do – grow up and prove to them that he can behave like a responsible adult. The perfect opportunity to do just that presents itself when the organiser of the town’s annual charity gala is unable to undertake the job due to illness. When his grandmother suggests that perhaps Matthew should lend a hand, he just about manages to conceal his horror at the idea of becoming involved in what is undoubtedly the sort of thing he would never (normally) be seen dead at – until Hector subtly reminds him of something he’d rather his grandparents didn’t know about (his plan to go to spend his time in Wind River at the local hotel instead of staying with them.) Matthew decides he’ll pitch in and plan the gala – after all, planning parties is his ‘thing’ (he even copes with his anxiety attacks by planning events in his head) – but first, he’s got to switch gears and plan something that the people of the town will like, rather than something he thinks they should like.

Thankfully, Hector is on hand to point Matthew in the right direction and soon Matthew finds himself starting to enjoy making connections with the townsfolk and, for the first time in many years, enjoying the Christmas season. He’d always loved that time of year as a kid, but by the time he was thirteen, the joy had been sucked out of it, replaced by false sentiment and illusions of family togetherness – and expensive gifts that were somehow supposed to make up for the loss. It’s been a long time since he’s let himself feel anything approaching his youthful love for the season, but working on the gala with Hector alongside him – having a silly Christmas cookie baking competition and debating the merits of the various Christmas movies (the Muppets win every time!) – helps Matthew begin to find the comfort and joy he thought he’d lost. Along the way, he gets to know himself, too, learning who Matthew Prince is and what he could become away from the city, the wealth, the labels and the fair-weather friends.

Matthew is likeable despite his initial snobbishness, because the author does a good job of balancing the bratty attitude and behaviour with a good sense of humour and hints that behind the glitz, glamour and designer clothes, he’s struggling. His GAD (general anxiety disorder) is sensitively and realistically portrayed and the author skilfully explores what it’s like to be someone in the public eye and media spotlight simply because your parents are famous – and to be the child of parents who have little time for you – so that it’s easy to feel sympathy for Matthew and root for him to find his way through all the crap in his life to find happiness.

The festive, small town setting is well done, and the secondary characters are all nicely rounded – even Matthew’s parents, who are never demonised, instead coming across as flawed people who have made poor choices. That said, Matthew’s mother does something inexcusable in the last part of the story – and even though it’s clearly born of fear, it’s tough to get past.

Matthew’s romance with Hector is cute, and I liked how supportive Hector is once they get past that initial antagonistic phase, but the romance does play second fiddle to Matthew’s journey. Hector is a great guy – he’s funny, compassionate, sexy and sweet – but the story is more about Matthew growing up, learning to take responsibility for himself and his life and breaking out of the patterns he’s fallen into. (The couple of sex scenes barely require the ‘warm’ rating, by the way.)

I had a bit of trouble grading this one, mostly because I suspect I’m not really the target audience for a book like this, and so, while it has a lot going for it, for me, it hits that ‘just above average, but seen it all before’ area. The writing is strong, Matthew’s internal dialogue is a great mixture of poignant and funny, and his character growth is easy to follow, but the middle of the book is a bit slow and the Crisis Moment in the last section feels contrived and obvious.

In the end, there’s nothing actually wrong with You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince – it’s cute and fluffy and full of Christmas cheer (extra Brownie points for two characters bonding over a love of The Muppet Christmas Carol) but it didn’t wow me or have anything really new to offer. It’s a head/heart thing; I can see perfectly well that there’s a lot about the book that some people will absolutely love – but I wasn’t feeling it, which is why I’ve ended up giving it a B-. It might not be something I feel I can recommend to readers who have similar tastes to mine – but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will enjoy it more than I did.

Face Blind (Glastonbury Tales #1) by J.L. Merrow

face blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When even friends look like strangers, how will he ever find love?

Corin Ferriman was left face blind by the car crash that killed his ex. Even people he’s known for years are unrecognisable to him. Running from his guilt and new-found social anxiety, he’s moved to Glastonbury, where he knows no one—or does he? Repeated sightings of a mysterious figure leave him terrified that his ghosts have followed him.

Tattoo artist Adam Merchant left Glastonbury at sixteen, escaping from his emotionally distant mother to the father who’d left them seven years previously. Now, at twenty-five, he’s come home to bring his family back together. But in a cruel twist of fate, his mother dies before he can talk to her, leaving him haunted—perhaps literally—by her memory and his unanswered questions.

When Corin and Adam meet again after an eerie first encounter, Adam lays siege to the walls Corin’s built around himself, which start to crumble. But there are ghosts haunting them both, and while Adam longs for a connection beyond the veil, Corin’s guilt leaves him in angry denial that there could be anything after death. With the liminal festival of Samhain fast approaching, neither man is sure what’s real and what’s just a trick of the mind—or maybe something worse.

Rating: B

J.L. Merrow’s Face Blind is an atmospheric tale featuring two men who are trying to come to terms with and move on from traumatic events in their pasts. Add in family secrets, some gentle humour, a little bit of mystery and touch of the paranormal, and you’ve got an interesting and entertaining romance.

Adam Merchant left home when he was sixteen, leaving behind his much older sister and the mother who never seemed to care about him, and went to live with his dad in London. He only moved back to Glastonbury a month before the story opens, taking a job at a local tattoo parlor. He came back intending to try to build some bridges with his mum – even though she never seemed to want to see him on the rare occasions he visited anyway – but she’s recently passed away. Adam was surprised to learn that she’d left him her house – the one he’d grown up in – in the will, and can’t help but think maybe it was because of a guilty conscience. He’ll never know.

A serious car accident around six months earlier has left Corin Ferriman with prosopagnosia, a condition that means he is unable to recognise people’s faces. Struggling with survivor’s guilt (his ex, who was driving the car, was killed) as well as the disorienting effects of not even being able to recognise his own face in a mirror, Corin can’t face the alternately pitying and disbelieving reactions of his acquaintances and colleagues and decides he needs to make a fresh start somewhere nobody knows him. On his first night in his new place in Glastonbury, Corin decides to celebrate his move with a takeaway and, even though it’s drizzling, heads out for a walk on the famous Tor first.

He’s part-way to St. Michael’s Tower when he sees another man, bedraggled and wearing a leather jacket, his dark hair plastered to his head, on the path ahead of him. The man appears slightly panicked as he asks Corin if he’s seen the older woman in the dark coat; and then subsides as he mumbles something about his mind playing tricks and goes on his way.

Corin is walking in town a few days later and, as he passes one of the many tattoo studios in the high street, is struck by the idea of getting inked himself. Something small and discreet might be a good idea as it would provide a defining feature for him to latch on to when he’s looking at his reflection. He steps inside the nearest shop – and is introduced to one of the artists, a dark-haired young man who smiles at Corin and starts apologising to him. Something about his voice sounds vaguely familiar, and when the man – Adam – says that he doesn’t normally go around seeing ghosts, the penny drops. It’s the guy he met on the Tor.

Adam is just a bit disappointed at the thought he’s so unmemorable, but he lets it go and sets about talking through what Corin wants and what to expect, and makes an appointment for a couple of week’s time. Adam can’t help hoping that maybe they’ll bump into each other again sooner.

There’s a definite spark of attraction between Adam and Corin, but Corin can’t see how he can ever have a relationship when everyone looks like a stranger. At first, Adam just thinks Corin is a bit skittish because of how they first met – after all, he’d probably be a bit wary of someone who thought they’d seen a ghost! But when, the next time they meet – and the time after that – Corin looks at him like he’s never seen him before, Adam can’t help feeling a bit hurt.

Corin knows exactly what Adam must be feeling, but he can’t bring himself to explain. It’s still too raw and so difficult to get his own head around sometimes, that he just doesn’t want to get into it – or to watch Adam’s expression turn from one of interest to one of pity or dismissiveness. Fortunately, however, Adam is a bright bloke, and after the fourth or fifth time of Corin looking at him like he’s a total stranger, he starts to wonder if maybe he has some kind of visial impairment, and from then on, makes a point of greeting Corin by speaking to him and identifying himself by name. I really liked that about Adam, that he’s intuitive enough to realise that it’s not all about him and subtly figures out how to help without needing to be asked. And when Corin does tell him the truth, he takes it in his stride and listens rather than making assumptions.

I don’t have any experience of prosopagnosia or know anyone who has it, but it seems to me that the author has done a good job when it comes to describing the condition and the way it affects Corin, both physically and emotionally. What were previously simple, everyday things have become difficult or even daunting, whether it’s being unsure of who is on the other side of the front door after opening it, or keeping track of who is who in a film or TV show.

The romance between these two damaged men is sweet, if a little unevenly paced, and the storyline concerning Adam’s search for the truth about his past is intriguing. Without spelling it out, the author drops some very big hints as to the reasons for the estrangement between Adam and his mother – but of course, the reader knows only what Adam knows, so the twist comes as as much of a surprise to him as it does to us!

Also enjoyable is the well-rounded secondary cast – Adam’s boss, Sasha, his brother Declan and best friend Scratchy; these people obviously care and look out for one another and their relationships with each other and the two leads are believable and a lot of fun.

The one thing that didn’t work so well for me was the supernatural aspect of the story. I suppose setting a book in Glastonbury in late October cries out for some paranormal shenanigans, but what with the romance, Corin still working on his coping strategies and struggling with his newly-emerged social anxiety, Adam repairing his relationship with his sister and trying to find the truth about his past, there’s already so much going on that the ghostly aspect is patchy and not well developed.

Those reservations aside however, Face Blind is one of the more unusual romances I’ve read recently, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a love story that’s slightly out of the ordinary.

When the River Rises (Wild Ones #5) by Rachel Ember

when the river rises

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cam has always had a soft spot for dangerous guys. Not that he gets much action, dangerous or otherwise. He never managed to outgrow his baby fat, and the most interesting thing about him is his 4.0 GPA.

When Jake shows up, tall, brooding, and in leather, he seems to have stepped straight out of Cam’s fantasies. Except he’s not here to ask Cam out—he’s a bodyguard sent by Cam’s crime-boss aunt.

Her enemies don’t care that Cam has no interest in the family business, so Cam reluctantly agrees to go into hiding, not realizing Jake’s safe house is a thousand miles away on a remote Nebraska farm, where Jake sheds his leather jacket and handgun for a cowboy hat and a horse.

Maybe Cam has no choice but to trust Jake with his safety. But as the summer wears on in this strange land of wild mustangs, old grudges, and thunderstorms, does he dare trust Jake with his heart?

Rating: B

When the River Rises is the fifth book in Rachel Ember’s Wild Ones series, and it’s a sweet and sensual second-chance romance between the mysterious Jake Chase and Cameron Kosta, the young man Jake is charged with protecting. The events of this book take place in two different timelines – one in the present (in Jake’s PoV), the other two years earlier (in Cam’s) – and because there is a little bit over overlap with some of the events in book four (As the Tallgrass Grows), we get to see a couple of the scenes from that book from Jake’s perspective and learn how they fit into the bigger pitcure. Although Cam and Jake’s story is self-contained, I’d strongly advise reading the other books in the series so as to gain a better understanding of the complicated family dynamics and the unresolved plotlines that are concluded here.

Despite the fact that his aunt Edith is head of the local motorcycle gang. Cam Kosta lives a quiet, routine kind of life; he keeps out of Edith’s way and she keeps out of his and that’s the way Cam likes it. He has good friends, is enjoying training to be a teacher and although he’s yet to find a special someone, his life is pretty good. He’s out with friends one night when the bad boy of his dreams – dark haired, wiry, leather-clad, hot – saunters into the bar he’s at; taking his courage in both hands, Cam approaches him, they get talking and a bit flirty, and Cam thinks things are going well – until the guy suddenly brushes him off. Embarrassed, Cam beats a hasty retreat intending to go home, but before he can get to his car, he’s attacked by two men. Terrified, Cam tries to avoid the kicks and punches when they stop suddenly and he sees Jake is fighting with them. When one of them draws a gun, Jake brazens it out, and the guys run off at the sound of distant sirens. Jake hustles Cam away, explaining that Edith sent him to keep an eye on him.

Jake takes Cam to his dad’s remote, dilapidated trailer in Nebraska, where they can lie low until such time as it’s safe for them to go back to LA. Cam slowly begins to adjust to his new surroundings, doing what he needs to do in order to feel comfortable (he likes things clean and precise, and was teased for it a lot when he was younger) and starting to enjoy the slower, simpler pace of life. He and Jake spend a couple of months there together, the spark of mutual attraction that had lit between them back in the bar that first night growing into something more lasting as their enforced proximity promotes a closeness and understanding that grows into love. But Cam’s dreams of happy ever after are shattered when he wakes up one morning to find Jake gone.

Two years pass and Cam doesn’t see Jake during all that time – not until the day he sees him being arrested and taken away in the back of a police car. In the intervening time, we learn (from Jake, in his PoV) that he’s working for the FBI as an informant or inside-man, and that he’s almost reached the end of his part of whatever bargain he’s made. While in custody, he receives the visit from Johnny Chase (his cousin) and Owen (his childhood best friend) we saw in  As the Tallgrass Grows. He’s surprised to see them considering he’s the black sheep of the family (sort of) and has been estranged from Bo and Dylan for some time, but is annoyed at the same time, worrying they might screw up the operation and cause him to have to spend more time doing the FBI’s dirty work.

After Jake is released, he’s surprised to get a text from Cam giving him a time and place to meet, and although knows it’s a bad idea, the pull Cam exerts is as strong as ever, and he can’t not go. Cam is clearly still pissed over Jake’s disappearing act two years before, but even so, he invites Jake to stay at his place until everything blows over. Jake knows he doesn’t deserve Cam’s generosity and ruthlessly squashes any hope that maybe Cam might still feel some affection for him – he doesn’t deserve that either and still can’t tell Cam why he left or what he’s doing now. Their second-chance romance gets off to a rocky start, but it’s immediately clear that they’re still both hung up on each other, no matter how much they wish they weren’t.

Rachel Ember’s writing is understated and thoughful, her characters are complex, likeable and well-drawn and she has a real gift for scene-setting in a way that brings both landscape and community to life. I enjoyed getting to know Cam and Jake and watching their slow-burn romance unfold (twice!), and was pleased to finally have answers to some of the questions posed in the earlier books. The downside to that, though, was that I had to go back to them in order to refresh my memory!

I liked the alternating timeline/PoV structure, which helps to build tension and anticipation, although I have to admit that sometimes I was frustrated by it because I wanted to know what happened next in one storyline before switching to the other. That only happened once or twice though, and on the whole the structure works very well. My only major criticisms of the book as a whole are that the issues between Jake and his family are wrapped up a little too quickly and mostly off page, and I’d have liked more clarity as to why Cam was targeted and by whom – his aunt being a gang-leader is thrown in and kind of glossed over which made it feel a bit contrived.

But in the end, the well-crafted characters, their obvious chemistry and personal growth, and the skillful interweaving of plotlines and complex family relationships mean that, despite the reservations I’ve expressed, When the River Rises merits a strong recommendation.