TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

Grade: B+

I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead.  But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of  Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!

This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:

There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.

Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.

Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home.  As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed.  His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens.  Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home.  The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!”  from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.

The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.

The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original.  The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:

“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”

Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.

And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:

“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.

At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.

Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.

The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony –  and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn.  The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.

The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.

My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out.  The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing.  But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming.  In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.

Nowhere Man: Another John Pickett Novella (John Pickett Mysteries #9.5) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Having resigned his position at Bow Street, John Pickett waits in vain for someone – anyone! – to engage his services as a private inquiry agent. As weeks go by with no responses to his newspaper advertisement, he has taken to spending his days wandering idly about London rather than admit his failure to his wife.

One day, while loitering in the Covent Garden market, he wonders morosely if it might have been better had he not been born at all. Then he sees one of his former colleagues and, in an attempt to make a discreet exit, manages instead to knock himself unconscious.

He awakens to discover that his Bow Street colleague doesn’t seem to remember him, and after staggering back home to Curzon Street, he finds someone else living in the house where he lived with Julia. But still greater surprises are in store for Pickett as he attempts to navigate his way through a world in which he never existed….

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

Bedford Falls meets Regency London in Nowhere Man, a new novella in Sheri Cobb-South’s long-running series of historical mysteries featuring Bow Street Runner John Pickett.

Or more accurately, EX-Bow Street runner, because by the time Nowhere Man begins, John has resigned his position at Bow Street and has branched out on his own as a Private Inquiry Agent. But it’s been a month now, and he’s had not a single response to his newspaper advertisement – and rather than admit his failure to his (very pregnant) wife, John has taken to wandering the streets of London during the day to make it look as though he actually has something to do.

The inequality of his marriage to Lady Julia Fieldhurst is something John has always felt keenly. Julia is a wealthy young widow, and her jointure pays most of their expenses, but John has always felt uncomfortable about living off his wife. As a Bow Street Runner he had at least had a salary – albeit a modest one – but now he doesn’t even have that and feels he is contributing absolutely nothing to their marriage. He’s walking around Covent Garden one afternoon, feeling down and pretty useless and thinks – not for the first time – that maybe everyone would be better off had he never been born. Just as he thinks it, the rosy-cheeked woman selling apples from a stall opposite him tells him he’s wrong and he shouldn’t be thinking such a thing – but before he can ask her what she means, his attention is diverted elsewhere by an altercation, and in attempting to avoid it, he slips, falls, hits his head and is knocked out.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Dichotomy of Angels by N.R. Walker (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Nathaniel and Chasan are no ordinary angels.

Destiny chose them to be twin flames, fated mates. But Nathaniel has avoided Chasan for nearly a thousand years.

When sent to Earth on a mission to live and work together, Nathaniel comes face-to-face with his destiny. Short-tempered, petulant, and grumpy, he hates the idea of being fated to anyone and has chosen an existence of isolation rather than spending time with the calm, kind, and serene Chasan. But now he has no choice.

One is fire, the other is air; a true dichotomy of angels. Together they will be ignited, or they will be extinguished. This assignment will seal their fate either way.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

I read N.R. Walker’s The Dichotomy of Angels when it came out at the end of 2019 and loved it. It’s a clever, funny and poignant story about two angels who are sent to Earth on a mission, with a sexy and angsty romance at its centre, and I was delighted when I learned it was getting an audio release, too.

Nathaniel and Chasan are angels from the same order of the same hierarchy, but they’re polar opposites. Nathaniel is dark to Chasan’s light, fire to Chasan’s air and grumpy to Chasan’s tranquillity. But though they’re opposites, they share a unique bond, a twinning of souls that is incredibly rare, but the bond is not complete until they have both accepted it – and Nathaniel refuses to do so. Saint Peter doesn’t know how much longer the burn of the twin flames can be ignored before it will die out or consume both angels, and it’s time to do something about it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Immortal City (The Sacred Dark #2) by May Peterson


This title may be purchased from Amazon

I don’t remember you…

Reborn as an immortal with miraculous healing powers, Ari remembers nothing of his past life. His entire world now consists of the cold mountainside city of Serenity. Ruled with an iron fist. Violent.

Lonely.

I may never remember you…

Regaining the memories of who he once was seems an impossible dream, until Ari encounters Hei, a mortal come to Serenity for his own mysterious purposes. From the moment Hei literally falls into his arms, Ari is drawn to him in ways he cannot understand. Every word, every look, every touch pulls them closer together.

But I’m with you now…

As their bond deepens, so does the need to learn the truth of their past. Together they journey to find an ancient immortal who can give them what they both want: a history more entwined than Ari could have ever imagined, but which Hei has always known.

It’s the reason they will risk the world as they know it to reclaim who they used to be—and what they could be once again.

Rating: C+

I read and reviewed May Peterson’s début novel Lord of the Last Heartbeat last year, and although I liked the concept behind the story, the world it was set in, and the main characters, I found the author’s overly florid writing-style difficult to navigate; the words got in the way of the story to the extent that it was almost impossible, at times, to work out what was happening, and the language was so overblown and dense that it was hard to picture the events in my mind’s eye.

So why did I pick up The Immortal City, book two in The Sacred Dark series?  I was intrigued by the premise – an immortal being with no memories dreams of being able to regain them – and I wanted to see if perhaps the author had reined in the flowery prose and made it easier to actually understand her story without having to re-read two sentences out of every three in an attempt to make sense of what was going on.

Well, there was some success on that score because I did find The Immortal City to be more accessible than the previous book in that I found the story easier to follow; and incidentally it’s not connected to Lord of the Last Heartbeat by setting or characters (other than a couple of brief mentions of Vermagna and a “great lord of bear-souls” there), so I don’t think I missed out on anything by not being able to precisely recall the events of that book.

This one is told entirely from the point of view of Ari, a young man who, when he died, was reborn as a dove-spirit with numerous magical gifts including supernatural strength, immortality and the ability to heal others’ wounds.  Oh, and he’s got wings and can fly.  He also knows that he must have sold his memories to the powerful Lord Umber, who rules over the city of Serenity where Ari resides – but he doesn’t know why he sold them, or remember anything about his past life.  He doesn’t even know how long he’s been in Serenity, but of late, he’s been thinking more and more about the possibility of regaining his memories – not that he has the faintest idea how to go about it or if it’s even possible.  When a beautiful young man – Hei – literally falls into his arms, Ari is inexplicably drawn to him, and becomes even more preoccupied with the idea of finding out about his past.  When Ari and Hei are together it feels somehow right – but when Umber takes an interest in Hei, Ari realises that there’s more to Hei’s sudden appearance in his life than random chance, and the two are drawn into an epic battle for Serenity.

It’s fairly easy to work out who Hei is – or who he is to Ari at least – and even though we only see Hei through Ari’s eyes, the reader is made aware that he knows much more than he’s letting on.  There’s epic magic, the evilest of villains and the worldbuilding is sound – it’s not scrupulously over-detailed but not written in such broad strokes that it all feels superficial.  I liked the author’s exploration of the relationship between self and memory and knowledge; the city of Serenity comes to life in all its decadence and strange other-wordliness, and best of all, the chemistry between Ari and Hei is pretty intense and there’s  a real sense that theirs is a love that endures and never, ever gives up.

BUT.  The pacing flags in places, there are pockets of repetition and sometimes the descriptive prose gets in the way of the events playing out (again). Maybe I’m just stupid, but I didn’t quite understand what happened at the end, and – is it a spoiler when I say that Ari does regain at least some of his memories, but we never find out how he died or why he sold them? (Or at least, I can’t see that he did.)

After two books which I can only give middling grades, I’m going to say this author probably isn’t for me.  I found the storylines in both this and the previous books to be interesting, I liked the characters and the worlds in which the stories are set, but the writing just doesn’t work for me.  I feel a bit like the Emperor Joseph II, who said there were “too many notes” in Mozart’s opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, because, to my mind, this author uses too many words!  While Mozart quite correctly responded that he used as many notes as were necessary, May Peterson’s wordiness comes at the expense of clarity.  And I’m saying this as someone who is generally verbose!

Opinions on Lord of the Last Heartbeat seem to have been divided between those who loved it, and those who, like me, had issues with the writing; I suspect the same will be true of The Immortal City.  Ultimately, the book’s imaginative storyline is done a disservice by overly dense, flowery prose that leads to a lack of lucidity.

Three Fantasies by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews

three fantasies

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Note: The three novellas in this collection – two co-authored by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews, the third by Leta Blake, solo – have been previously published.

Rating: C+

Levity (previously published as Earthly Desires) and Flight (previously published as Love’s Nest) were originally part of a three part series of Gay Fairy Tales, and are, respectively, retellings and reworkings of The Light Princess, a Scottish fairy tale published in 1864, and the more well-known The Twelve Dancing Princesses, as published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.  The style of the storytelling in both works well to create the overall ‘feel’ of a fairy story, and there’s magic and true love and princes, princesses, fae and witches galore.  Oh, and lots more sex than is to be found in either of the originals!


Levity: A Gay Fairy Tale by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews (2012)

Cursed as an infant with a lack of physical and emotional gravity, Prince Efrosin can’t keep his feet on the ground or his head out of the clouds. Laughing his way through life, he’s never been weighed down by love and lust. When his tenuous tie to the earth is severed, he blows away on the wind. Rescued by Dmitri, an equally cursed woodsman, the two men are irresistibly drawn together. But Efrosin and Dmitri must fight free of their curses in order to find their fairy tale ending and live happily ever after.

Rating: C+

Prince Efrosin is cursed to a life devoid of physical or emotional gravity.  Always tethered, lest he float away and become lost forever, he floats – literally – through life without a care in the world, unable to experience any of the weighty emotions, or even to understand them, which often leads to his responding to such things in a completely inappropriate manner.  The only place he’s different is in the water, where his late mother’s magical gift prevents him from floating away and enables him to experience emotions more normally.

Carried away by the wind one day, he’s rescued from a tree by a handsome woodsman named Dmitri, who was cursed by a witch to be unable to ever leave the land in which he lives.  He’s bound to the earth and able only to imagine all the far off places he would love to see.  Thus Levity is the story of how the earth-bound woodsman and gravity-less prince find freedom and love.

It’s all quite silly – it’s a fairy tale! – but it’s entertaining and there’s plenty of hot sex if that’s what you’re here for (although the lubeless shagging on the riverbank… ouch?).  Like most fairy tales, there’s an evil witch putting a spanner in the works, a rescue to be performed and a sacrifice to be made before our heroes can reach their HEA, which – also like most fairy tales – is a sufficiently gruesome one (it put me in mind of Ashputtel’s sisters trying to get the slipper to fit!)  Levity is cute, sexy and imaginative, and, despite the title, not without some heavier themes.


Flight: A Gay Fairy Tale by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews (2013)

There’s no greater mystery in the kingdom than where Prince Mateo’s sisters disappear to each night. The king is determined to discover where they go and issues a challenge to all the nobles to help him learn their secret. Hoping to protect them, Mateo hides beneath a magic cloak and follows his sisters to an enchanted world of fairies and lusty delights.

Ópalo has waited years to finally meet his human lover. But while Mateo soon succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh, he refuses to surrender his heart so easily. As their worlds collide, Ópalo has to risk everything to win his man forever.

Rating: C

The longest of the three stories, Flight follows the storyline of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, although in this version, there are eleven princesses and one prince, who has not been included in the mysterious nightly excursions that ruin his sisters’ shoes!  When the King issues a decree that whoever can find out where his daughters are going at night can marry any of his children (including Mateo) Mateo is furious at the idea that he could be offered up as a reward and decides to find out what is going on himself.

Ópalo is the youngest of the twelve fae princes and princesses who await their human brides every night.  His bride has not so far arrived, but his patience is rewarded when, at last, Mateo appears.  For three days and nights (time works differently in fairy land!) Ópalo woos Mateo; unlike his brothers and sister, he warns Mateo not to eat anything while he’s there, as otherwise, he’ll be permanently bound to Ópalo.  Mateo is momentarily outraged at the thought that his sisters have been unwillingly enchanted, but Ópalo is quick to reassure him that they ate the fairy cakes they were offered completely of their own volition.  He knows Mateo is his fate, but wants him to want to be with him; and Mateo makes it clear early on that his heart and his love are his to give, and that he’s determined to make his own decision.

That was the most interesting aspect of the story, and it was kind of a double-edged sword.  I liked the emphasis that Mateo placed on making his own choices, but on the other, his refusal to admit that he and Ópalo are destined – and his insistence on not wanting to love anyone – caused Ópalo unnecessary hurt.  That didn’t stop them from having lots of energetic sex though 😉

There’s a dramatic denouement that sees Mateo forced to make a choice – but even then, he’s not all in with it – and the ending was something of an anticlimax; it just seemed to fizzle out and we never got to see Mateo actually commit.  Flight started well but got a bit repetitive around the middle and the ending was disappointing.


Angel Undone: An Urban Fantasy by Leta Blake (2016)

The Archangel Michael is tired. He fought wars and shoved his brother Lucifer out of heaven all before the Dark Ages rolled around. His role as protector of Israel now encompasses all of humanity, and while he performs his job perfectly, there’s little personal joy in it.

Until one night in a bar when he meets Asher.

Michael isn’t sure what it is about the vulnerable, self-deprecating Asher that calls to him, but something about his restrained depths, gentle smiles, and encyclopedic knowledge of flowers tugs at Michael in a way that can’t be denied. Too bad romance isn’t part of his mission.

Rating: B-

This story by Leta Blake isn’t a fairytale retelling; rather, it’s a modern fable – sort of.  The Archangel Michael is frequently sent to Earth to help or protect humans, and on the night this story opens, he’s been instructed to connect with Asher Rosenthal, a depressed, lonely forty-year-old man who has lost his job and been rejected by his family after coming out.  He’s drinking heavily on the verge of making a decision that could cost him his life; Michael steps in and engages him in conversation, and very soon and finds himself in the grip of an intense attraction, the like of which he hasn’t felt in centuries.  He’s done his job and saved Asher… but for Michael, one night isn’t enough and even though he knows he shouldn’t, he arranges to see Asher the next night. And the next.  Even though he fears his Father’s wrath and being cast out, Michael can’t give Asher up.

Most of this story deals with Michael’s conflicting thoughts and desires, and while Asher is sweet (and there’s plenty of angelic sexytimes!) he’s not especially well-developed.  I enjoyed the scenes between Michael and Lucifer, who Michael asks about what it’s like to truly fall (if this was a movie, he’d have all the best lines (!) and steal every scene he was in). Lucifer never passes up a chance to provoke Michael into rebellion against their Father, but even though he’s supposed to be the bad guy, he does listen to Michael and try to help him out.

Angel Undone ended up being my favourite of the three, and I would have given it a higher rating had it not been for the sudden time-jump near the end.  I’m not sure what the author was trying to achieve – a last minute bit of conflict, perhaps? But whatever it was, it felt off, and I knocked half a grade point off because of it.  I found the premise an interesting one and would have liked it to have been more thoroughly explored, together with more development in terms of the romance and the characterisation of Asher.


I’ve read and listened to several books by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews over the last year or so and they’re both firmly on my radar as authors whose work I enjoy and will always look for. But these novellas, while well-written and imaginative, didn’t quite hit the spot.  I enjoyed reading them, but they’re not stories I’m likely to revisit.

TBR Challenge: Imagine by Jill Barnett

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After years imprisoned on Devil’s Island for a murder he never committed, escaped convict Hank Wyatt knows how to survive and believes his luck has finally changed. But when he stows away on board a ship destined to sink, his luck turns bad. He doesn’t know if he can last an hour when he is marooned on a deserted island with a beautiful, know-it-all blonde attorney and three orphaned children. Suddenly looking out for number one doesn’t seem to be enough.

San Francisco attorney Maggie Smith wants to have a good cry. Thoroughly modern, wealthy, and bright, her unwanted holiday turns bad when she is suddenly cast in the role of mother and forced to battle wits and hearts with the most arrogant, pig-headed man she’s ever met.

Fate has thrown this makeshift family Robinson together, and kismet tosses in a 2000 year-old floating bottle filled with magic. Is the chance for a love more powerful than they could ever imagine only a wish away? Father Goose meets Donovan’s Reef in this funny and tender historical romance about misfits who find that life might not be so bad after all…if they can do the impossible, and find a way to be family.

Rating: C+

Many romance series feature siblings, but for the Family Ties prompt, I decided to go for a ‘found family’ story, and Jill Barnett’s Imagine (originally published in 1995 and reissued in 2017) fit that bill perfectly.

It’s 1896, and in San Francisco, successful, hard-working attorney Margaret Huntington Smith has been urged by her father, a judge, to take a well-deserved vacation.  Knowing she won’t go unless given a push (in the best way) he’s brought her a first class ticket for a cruise to “French Oceania – Tahiti, the Cook Islands and more – A little taste of paradise for a daughter who works too hard.”

In the penal colony of Leper’s Gate on Dolphin Island, Hank Wyatt (imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit) has spent four years doing hard labour and enduring horrific cruelty, and when he sees a chance for escape he takes it. Disguised as a priest, he makes his way to Port Helene on the other side of the island where he stows away aboard a steamship.

But Hank’s luck has run out.  That night, there’s a terrible storm and the ship goes down; Hank and the woman and three young orphans he rescues are the only survivors.

So what we’ve got is what the book blurb describes as “a makeshift family Robinson” consisting of a rough-and-ready ex-convict, a very proper female attorney and three children (two girls and a boy) aged two, five and eleven.  (Oh, and an obstreperous goat they later name Rebuttal – because she keeps butting Hank in the butt.)

There’s a sort of African Queen Bogey/Hepburn vibe between Hank and Margaret (whom he nicknames Smitty) – although I don’t remember Bogart’s Charlie being quite so deliberately rude to Hepburn’s Rosie – and the pair are frequently at loggerheads, usually over Hank’s insistence that he knows best and Margaret should just worry about cooking meals and looking after the children.

Fortunately, and in spite of his attitude – in which, let’s face it, he’s very much a man of his time – the author succeeds in making Hank a likeable character.  Hidden deep inside behind the dismissiveness and crass behaviour is a caring man who has been battered about by life and learned early on that aspiration only leads to disappointment. But he proves himself to be kind, capable of laughing at himself, and also – to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s – to be good with the children. He needs some prodding to do the right thing at times, but he steps up when needed, teaching five-year-old Theodore to swim and to fish and becoming a father-figure to a boy who desperately wants a Dad.  Something Hank never had.

Margaret’s mother died when she was young, so she was brought up by her father, who taught her to believe in herself and that she could do anything she wanted if she worked hard enough.  She’s whip-smart and determined, likes to think things through and to find logical solutions to problems… although as she quickly discovers, none of those things really work all that well when confronted with an energetic toddler and a troubled eleven-year-old for whom she can’t seem to do anything right.

The author does a good job of pulling this unexpected family gradually together, in creating the chemistry between Hank and Margaret, and showing Margaret’s confusion at how she can possibly be attracted to a man she doesn’t particularly like.  Much of the comedy comes from Margaret’s ineptitude at those supposedly feminine tasks of looking after the children and cooking; she’s hopeless at the latter and burns everything – even after several weeks when I’d have thought a woman of her intelligence would have worked out how NOT to burn the fish Hank and Theodore caught.  Which begs the question – what did they actually eat?  Apart from bananas and coconuts, and later in the book, some oysters, there’s not much attention devoted to that.

Anyway.   I liked a lot about this story; the verbal sparring between Hank and Margaret is fun, the children are nicely developed as individuals rather than plot-moppets, and there are some really touching scenes as both Hank and Margaret start to bond with them.  The romance is nicely done, too; Margaret and Hank are like chalk and cheese, and what starts out as a physical attraction is given time to grow into a friendship and then more.  So why haven’t I given the book a higher grade?

Put simply – the genie.

Even though he appears in the prologue, I’d completely forgotten about him.  I became caught up in the story of Hank’s escape – which is quite a feat of ingenuity – and the drama of the shipwreck and rescue, their journey to the island and their first days trying to get used to their situation and each other, then – poof! – Muddy appears in a puff of purple smoke, and the whole thing went downhill.  Okay, so credit to the author for not having the first wish – or second – be ‘get us off this island’ – but it was obvious that he was going to end up playing Deus ex Machina at some point.   Apart from that function, I honestly couldn’t see the point of including him in the story.

Had it not been for that, I’d have given the book a higher grade, but it just didn’t work for me.  I read paranormal and fantasy romances, so the idea of magical beings isn’t the issue; it’s the dropping in of one into an otherwise non-magical setting for no apparent reason (other than to get them off the island when the author was ready).

Imagine was an entertaining read that had a lot going for it, but I can’t deny I was disappointed overall, especially as it had such a strong start.  But YMMV – there are plenty of 4 and 5 star reviews around for this one. so obviously it will work better for some readers than others.

Thief of Dreams (Court of Dreams #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Twenty brides. One prince. Who will survive when the competition turns deadly?

When Prince Keir of the Court of Dreams sends out a summons in search of a bride, the Wraith King sees a chance to steal the powerful Dragon’s Heart. He sends his best thief, Zemira Az Ghul, to penetrate the court as one of the potential brides.

All Zemira wants is freedom from the chains that bind her to the king, and if she finds the relic she’ll have it. But the Court of Dreams is more dangerous than she ever expected, and Zemira must soon choose between her freedom—and her heart.

Rating: B-

Thief of Dreams, book one in Bec McMasters Court of Dreams series originally appeared in the Of Thrones and Crowns anthology in 2019 and was republished separately earlier this year.  It’s novella length and sets up the storyline that will (I suspect) run throughout what I believe is going to be a trilogy, so while Thief of Dreams does contain a complete story, it also ends with something of a cliffhanger,  and serves as an introduction to the overarching plot.  The author sets up the main romantic pairing – and if the chemistry hinted at here is continued, then I can’t wait for the rest! – and while I was a bit disappointed things didn’t progress very far on that front, I was also pleased that the author wisely decided there wasn’t time for bedroom scenes or an HEA in the 126 pages that comprise this instalment.

As was the case with the author’s recent Promise of Darkness, I found the first person, present tense narration off-putting.   I understand why first person is necessary in a story like this – it seems to be the preferred style for YA and many contemporary romances – I just don’t care for it, and it took me a while to get used to it.  Actually, it took me longer than it should have done to read 126 pages, and that was partly because of my dislike of this narrative style (and partly because I was listening to an amazing audiobook and didn’t want to stop!)

Once I got back to Thief of Dreams, however, I found it bears all the hallmarks of a Bec McMaster read; a kick-ass heroine, a dangerous, sexy hero and extensive worldbuilding done in a way that flows naturally and never feels like an info-dump; there was (I think) one point at which I felt I was reading a list rather than information that unfolded naturally.  BUT – while the author generally disseminates the information subtly, there’s a LOT of it to absorb here concerning the various fae courts and magic systems, and it all feels a bit rushed and superficial.

Zemira Az Guhl wants nothing more than freedom from the chains that bind her to her father, the Wraith King Beyond the Shadowfangs.  For almost all her life, she has been the kingdom’s most successful thief, able to pluck the last coin from a miser’s purse while he’s watching it, forced to do her father’s bidding in hope of his eventually returning the half of her soul he stole from her at birth.  At last, the opportunity she has waited for is offered her – the king will grant her the rest of her soul if she will steal the Dragon’s Heart from the legendary Court of Dreams.  Zemira is aghast.  Nobody knows where the Court of Dreams resides; its prince tore it from the mortal world long ago and even if its location was known, it’s impossible to enter the court without Prince Keir or his guards knowing, even for her.  But the Prince has sent out a Summons – an invitation to every fae princess in the land – and this is Zemira’s way in.  She must take the place of one of the more obscure of the potential brides, avoid the Prince’s notice as much as possible, locate the heart and steal it.  It’s not exactly going to be a walk in the park.

Of course nothing goes to plan.  Zemira’s plan to avoid Keir’s notice backfires – she’s the one ‘princess’ not falling over herself to win him, so naturally, she’s the one who intrigues him the most.  The other princesses – a bunch of ‘mean girls’ if ever I saw one – start getting picked off, one-by-one by unknown creatures, and a final and hurtful betrayal puts Zemira’s quest at risk and turns her fate in a different direction.

I enjoyed the story, the murder-mystery aspect to the plot is resolved here and there is clearly more to come – but book two isn’t out until 2021, so I hope I’ll remember to look for it! There’s a definite spark of attraction between Zemira and Keir and their flirtations are swoony, but I felt there was something missing in the characterisation, and the first person PoV didn’t allow me to connect with Keir at all.

If I were grading Thief of Dreams purely on its own, I’d probably give it a C+/C.  The writing is solid and the ideas are good, but overall, it feels rushed, the hero is peripheral and the romance doesn’t really get off the ground.  As the introduction to a new series however, I’m upping that to a B- because there’s a lot of potential I’m hoping will play out as the series progresses.  To be honest though, I sort of wish I’d waited to read this until I could jump into book two straight afterwards.

Apple Boy (The Quiet Work #1) by Isobel Starling (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After a traumatic event, Winter Aeling finds himself destitute and penniless in the backwater town of Mallowick. He needs to travel to the city of Serein and impart grave news that will bring war to the Empire, but without a horse, money, and with not a soul willing to help him, he has no choice but to line up with the common folk seeking paid work on the harvest.

As wagons roll into the market square and farmers choose day laborers, Winter is singled out for abuse by a brute of a farmer. The only man who stands up for him is the farmer’s beguiling son, Adam, and on locking eyes with the swarthy young man Winter feels the immediate spark of attraction.

Winter soon realizes there is a reason he has been drawn to Blackdown Farm. The farmer possesses a precious item that was stolen long ago from Winter’s family, and he determines to retrieve it. He also cannot take his eyes off Adam, and as the young man opens up Winter can’t help wondering if Adam is just kind or his kind!

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C

Isobel Starling’s Apple Boy is book one in a series of fantasy romantic adventures entitled The Quiet Work, set in the fictitious land of The Empire of Osia. In this story, a lordling and a farm boy set out on a journey, and end up uncovering a political conspiracy and discovering something about themselves that will change them forever. The story is quite interesting, but the pacing is slow until near the end, and I felt the whole thing could have been shortened by a third and none of the important plotlines would have been lost. I’ll also warn prospective listeners that the book ends on a cliffhanger – although it seems that the next one will feature different characters in main roles.

Our PoV character in Apple Boy is Winter Aeling, son of the Duke of Thorn, who, for reasons not yet explained, has arrived in the small town of Mallowick with only the clothes on his back and no way of getting home unless he can earn some money to pay for transportation. He gets work at an orchard run by the despotic farmer Col Sewell, where his eye is immediately caught by Sewell’s handsome son, Adam. Also catching his eye is the ring the farmer wears, which not only bears Winter’s own family crest, but also contains a magical Star-fall stone. Over the next few days, Win manages to spend some time with Adam – enough to recognise that he likely shares Win’s sexual preferences – but can’t allow his attraction to the other man to prevent him from leaving the farm to travel to the capital city of Serein in order to speak to the Great Council there. When he leaves – having managed to swipe the Star-fall – Adam insists on going with him, and Win then explains why it’s so important for him to get to Serein and how he came to be in Mallowick. Win had been aboard ship on his way to visit his uncle Ivon when he discovered that the ship – the Trojan Star – was carrying slaves. Appalled, Win refused to stay silent and foolishly confronted the captain about it with the result that both he and his valet were thrown overboard – and only Win survived. So now, he wants to inform the Great Council about the slaves, in the hope that perhaps its powerful members can find a way to free them and punish whoever is responsible for their transportation.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The King and His Vigilant Valet (Paranormal Princes #3) by Charlie Cochet

This title may be purchased from Amazon

JEAN

The past has a way of catching up with you, even if you are immortal. I’ve spent thousands of years as the valet and companion to the powerful King of All Shifters. It has been my honor and duty to protect, serve, and advise him. I never intended to fall in love with him. My past is filled with death and bloodshed, but I never once regretted keeping Alarick safe. Now an evil I thought long gone has resurfaced, determined to kill Alarick and plunge the world into chaos. Saving Alarick means revealing the truth about myself. I don’t know what’s worse, failing to protect the king I love, or watching him turn away from me in disgust when he discovers what I really am.

KING ALARICK

As King of All Shifters, my powers are connected to the cosmos, and I have been around since the dawn of time. There are few things that can kill me. Unfortunately, one of those things has escaped its prison and is set to destroy me. The only weapon that can defeat this creature is the Scythe of Kronos, which has been missing for nearly as long as I have lived. When Jean and I set out on a quest to find the scythe, questions I had long ignored must now be answered. What is Jean’s connection to this evil? Why will he trust me with his life but not his secrets? As my most trusted valet, and my greatest friend, surely nothing that happens along this perilous journey can change what I feel in my heart for him. Or can it?

Rating: B-

Cute, well-written fluff is something we could probably all do with at the moment, and this third instalment in Charlie Cochet’s fun fantasy Paranormal Princes series certainly delivered on all counts.

I recently listened to book one, The Prince and His Bedeviled Bodyguard, and was immediately intrigued by the glimpses we were given of the relationship between Alarick, King of All the Shifters and his valet/companion, Jean.  There was obviously something more than a master-servant relationship between them; equally obviously, Jean was desperately in love with Alarick who it seemed was completely oblivious to that fact.  (And also completely oblivious to a lot of things!)

I haven’t read the second book, (although I intend to – or more likely, I’ll listen to it when it comes out) but was able to jump into this one without any problems; events from previous books are mentioned and some characters recur (most notably Grimm and Owin – who is still fierce (!) – from the first), but this works  as a standalone.

King Alarick is immortal and if not quite a god, is pretty close to being one.  He’s ancient (although doesn’t look a day over thirty-five!) and has, for the last few millennia been accompanied almost everywhere by his blind valet, Jean, Lord Elrich, who is utterly devoted to him.  But even Alarick doesn’t know the truth about his friend and companion; Jean has kept a dark secret for thousands of years, and it looks as though he is going to have to reveal it if he is to keep Alarick safe – even though doing so could cause the man he loves to turn from him in disgust.

The reader is thrown into the action right from the first page when it emerges that a creature – probably the only one in existence with the ability to do so – is out to kill Alarick, and that the only weapon that can defeat it is the Scythe of Kronos.  The problem is that the Scythe has been missing for almost as long as Alarick has been alive, and nobody knows where it is.  Like the characters in the previous books, Alarick and Jean set out on a quest of sorts to find it, and along the way, readers discover the truth about Jean’s mysterious past and watch as Alarick finally gets a clue (!) and realises that love has been staring him in the face for millennia.

The King and His Vigilant Valet is novella length, and packs in a lot of story, but if you’re expecting carefully crafted and intricate world-building, you won’t find that here.  The focus is firmly on the characters and their romance and some things are hand-waved (such as the fact that when these characters shift their clothes magically disappear and reappear). The story relies on the reader having knowledge of fantasy/paranormal novel conventions and of some Greek mythology, although there’s nothing too obscure here.  Alarick is adorably clueless a lot of the time, especially when it comes to framing an apology 😉 and Jean is the perfect foil for him. All in all this is a quick, fun, light-hearted read with minimal angst, lots of action, plenty of banter and a nice amount of steam.

I Buried a Witch (Bedknobs & Broomsticks #2) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cosmo Saville adores his new husband but his little white lies—and some very black magic—are about to bring their fairytale romance to an end. Someone is killing San Francisco’s spellcasters—and the only person Cosmo can turn to—the man who so recently swore to love and cherish him—isn’t taking his phone calls..

The only magic Police Commissioner John Joseph Galbraith believes in is true love. Discovering he’s married to a witch—a witch with something alarmingly like magical powers—is nearly as bad as discovering the man he loved tricked and deceived him. John shoulders the pain of betrayal and packs his bags. But when he learns Cosmo is in the crosshairs of a mysterious and murderous plot, he knows he must do everything in in his mortal power to protect him.

Till Death do them Part. With their relationship on the rocks, Cosmo and Commissioner Galbraith join forces to uncover the shadowy figure behind the deadly conspiracy…

Can the star-crossed couple bring down a killer before the dark threat extinguishes love’s flame?

Rating: B-

I Buried a Witch is the middle book in Josh Lanyon’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks trilogy, a series of fantasy/mystery/romance novels set in and around San Francisco and featuring witch and antiques dealer Cosmo Saville and his husband, John Joseph Galbraith, the Commissioner of Police.

The books don’t really stand alone as there’s an overarching storyline, (and the previous book raised more questions than it answered!) so if you haven’t read book one, Mainly by Moonlight, then you’ll be a bit lost if you start here; and it also means there will be spoilers in this review.

Mainly by Moonlight introduced readers to the world of the Craft (as Cosmo and his fellow witches refer to themselves) and its hierarchy; Cosmo is pretty high up in the pecking order, being the son of the witch next in line to be Crone (chief witch!), the Duchesse d’Abracadantès.  Cosmo is preparing to marry the man he’s fallen head-over-heels in love with in just a few short weeks, and to say that the duchesse is not at all happy about her son’s decision to marry an ordinary mortal would be a massive understatement.  She drops a bombshell when she tells Cosmo that John is under a love-spell; Cosmo is furious and insists that the spell be lifted immediately, even if it does mean that there’s a chance he’ll lose the love of his life.

While Cosmo is looking for signs that John is falling out of love with him, he’s also dealing with a number of troubling incidents ranging from the murder of a business rival to the sudden disappearance of one of his oldest friends, to another close friend being put into a coma following a hit-and-run, and to top it all, discovers the existence of a secret organisation whose activities threaten the entire Craft.  As the day of the wedding draws closer, Cosmo is relieved to discover that John doesn’t want to call it off, even though Cosmo can’t ignore the subtle changes that have started to take place in their relationship.  He’s so deeply in love that he carelessly ignores the warning signs that perhaps entering into marriage without having told John the truth about himself is not the best idea.

At the beginning of I Buried a Witch, Cosmo and John return home from their honeymoon in Scotland and are starting to settle into their new home.  Sadly, however, it’s not long before things between the newlyweds become strained and Cosmo is forced to admit that he has no-one but himself to blame for the tension between them.  When he discovers that several members of the local Wiccan community have been murdered in various gruesome ways, Cosmo wants to be allowed to help with the investigation; his knowledge of Wiccan customs, together with his witchy insight and understanding of possible motives surely make him the person best placed to provide the sort of information the police will need, but John makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that he doesn’t want Cosmo going anywhere near the investigation.  Cosmo, of course, is having none of it, and the shit hits the fan when, during an argument, he tells John the truth about himself.

John, utterly stunned and furious at the deception, packs his bags and leaves that night.

Cosmo is devastated but not ready to give up on his marriage quite yet, even though John refuses to see or speak to him. While he tries to find a way to repair the damage, Cosmo can’t help continuing to look for solutions to the various magical conundrums that surround him. Who is the so-called Witch Killer and how are they connected to the murder (in book one) of Seamus Reitherman? Who is responsible for the hit-and-run that almost killed his friend? And worse, who is trying to kill him? Combined with some of the questions left over from the first book, there’s a lot to unravel here, and clearly some of these questions won’t be answered until the final book in the series, Bell, Book and Scandal.

I continue to like Cosmo as a character; he’s made mistakes and doesn’t always listen to good advice, but he’s smart and funny and kind-hearted, and I really want him to get the HEA he wants and deserves. The trouble is that at the moment, I’m not convinced that John is the man for him. In my review of Mainly by Moonlight, I said I recognised hints that there was more to John than meets the eye; the fact that he seemed able to deflect much of Cosmo’s magic appeared to be important, and I was eager to find out why, but the reason given here – if it’s the real reason – is almost an afterthought and does nothing to shed light on John’s character. In fact, he continues to be overbearing and dismissive of Cosmo; the scene in which John expects Cosmo to deal with the contractors coming to build a pool at the back of their house when Cosmo has said, explicitly, that he’s terrified of water and doesn’t want a pool left me wondering (again) what on earth Cosmo sees in him. But then, John will do or say something that indicates he really does care a great deal for Cosmo, and I’m rooting for them to find their way back to one another. In fact, there’s something of an epiphany for Cosmo when he finally realises that theirs has never been a relationship between equals and that if they’re to have any chance at a future together, he must stop trying to be someone he’s not and start to assert himself – and most importantly, be himself.

I dithered a bit when it came to assigning a final grade for this book. I was caught up in the story and in spite of my reservations about John, I ended up really wanting him and Cosmo to work out their differences and make a fresh start. But then perhaps that’s a testament to the author’s skill; she’s created two very different characters in John and Cosmo, and in spite of the fact that one of them is much easier to like than the other – I usually find it difficult to enjoy a romance in which I feel one character doesn’t really deserve the other – has written them and their relationship in a way that has me wanting things to work out for them. I might not love John, but I believe, honestly and truly, that Cosmo does – and that makes me at least want to like him. So it’s a low-level recommendation from me for I Buried a Witch; I’m invested enough to want to see all the mystery elements brought to a conclusion and to see how John and Cosmo are able to come back from their separation and make their tentative reunion into something solid, so I’ll be picking up the final book in the trilogy when it’s released in the Spring.