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.

Imitate the Dawn (Whitethorn Security #3) by M.A. Grant

imitate the dawn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cristian Slava and Atlas Kincaid despise each other. At least, that’s what they need everyone to believe. In truth, the charismatic vampire and his fierce bodyguard are more in love than ever. But when a powerful political faction emerges and threatens Cristian’s family, the only way into their enemy’s inner circle is without each other by their side.

From Romania to New York and beyond, though apart, their blood-bond cannot be severed—but it can be used against them. When Cristian sacrifices his life to save his family and save Atlas from having his darkest secrets revealed, only faith in that bond will keep Atlas from utter despair.

And only by facing his past will Atlas be able to accept who he is and finally defeat their most powerful enemy yet…

Death itself.

Rating: B+

The action in Imitate the Dawn, book three in M.A. Grant’s Whitethorn Security series, moves from Romania back to the US, where Atlas Kincaid and Cristian Slava need to move fast to counter the threat to their home and to save the life of Cristian’s father, who has been arrested and is being investigated by the Vampire Council. Because the trilogy is, in effect, one story divided into three, it’s essential to have read the previous books in the series before starting this one. It also means there are spoilers in this review.

In book two, Crooked Shadows, Atlas and Cristian fled to Romania following a devastating strigoi attack at the family home in upstate New York, intent on finding out who is creating and controlling the gruesome creatures. In Romania, a bloody coup deposes the ruling vampire family – allies to Decebal Vladislavic (Cristian’s father) – and the he is now suspected by the Council of being responsible for the creation of the strigoi and the attacks which led to the coup. Christian and Atlas are sure that their arch-enemies, the Wharrams (Cristian’s late mother’s family) are involved somehow, and will have to race against time to prove Decebal’s innocence and prevent the Wharrams taking over the Council.

The romance between Atlas and Cristian developed into a lasting bond which has survived everything that has been thrown at them, including betrayal, lies and physical danger, and they’re stronger together than ever. Atlas realises the strigoi were responsible for the attack on his unit years ago from which he emerged as the sole survivor, and as the story progresses, begins to suspect the truth of what happened to him. At the end of a fast-paced and action-packed story where there was peril on all sides and Atlas and Cristian were not always sure who to trust, they were were blindsided by the discovery of a truly terrible betrayal by someone who had been part of Decebal’s inner circle and whom Cristian had regarded as a good friend.

When Imitate the Dawn opens, Cristian, Atlas and their friends Daria and Radu have survived another attack by the strigoi and learned of the overthrow and murder of the territory’s ruling family. Moves are being made to close the borders, so they have to get out quickly – but before they can leave, they’re contacted by the council’s lead investigator who informs them of Decebal’s arrest and of the accusations being made against him, intending to take them in, too. It’s only when, during the ensuing fight, she gets a taste of Cristian’s blood that she can see the truth and realises that she was an unwitting instrument in the council’s machinations and offers to help Cristian and Atlas to prove that the Wharrams are working against the council and everyone on it.

Once back in the US, Atlas and Cristian have to come up with a plan to locate and destroy any remaining strigoi nests before the creatures can be used against them, and find a way to save Decebal. Their one advantage is that Helias Casimir doesn’t know that they know he’s the traitor and what he’s been doing – and they decide the first step is to return to the house to see where things stand. Knowing Helias will be suspicious, Atlas and Cristian are going to act as though they’re at each other’s throats in order to distract him and prevent him questioning their motives for returning; he’ll want to separate Cristian and Atlas and the fact they’re fighting will give him the opportunity to do it. Neither of them is happy with the idea – Cristian especially, knowing he’s going to have to be hurtful and cruel if he’s going to be at all convincing – but Atlas reassures him, reminding how much of a pain in the arse Cristian was when they first met, and how he wasn’t able to run him off despite it. The deception works. Helias moves quickly to get Atlas out of the way and to enact his plan to dispose of Cristian; Atlas and Cristian have already agreed on what’s going to happen next, and they know pretending not to suspect Helias is incredibly risky, but it’s their only chance to find out what he is really up to.

I’ve really enjoyed the tight plotting, the worldbuilding and the vividly written action scenes in this series. Once again, the author does a great job of keeping the forward momemtum going, ramping up the tension as we barrel towards a nail-biting climax that pits our heroes against family, against the Council, and into a final showdown with the strigoi. The love story has been excellent, too, as Atlas and Cristian’s chemistry-laden slow-burn romance moves from wariness and distrust to understanding, affection and love, so that by the beginning of Imitate the Dawn, they’re a solid couple, secure in their relationship and have each other’s backs without question. But because the focus of this story is on saving Decebal and preventing mass murder by the strigoi, their romance is perhaps less prominent – although their love for each other permeates the novel. The bond they already share is strengthened here, so even when they’re physically distant they’re never really apart, and there are some moments towards the end in the aftermath of the battle which really tug at the heartstrings.

The biggest problem I had with this book is that I found it difficult to get into because it’s been nine months or so since I read Crooked Shadows. As I said earlier, the series is essentially one story broken up into three parts, which makes it essential to be able to recall a lot of detail about the other instalments – and I struggled for the first three or four chapters. I accept (to an extent) that’s on me – I don’t typically have time to re-read previous books in series – but it also shows there’s a danger when you’re essentially splitting up one story into smaller parts, of your audience losing track.

In the end, though, once I got into the story I really got into it and found it a hard book to put aside. Imitate the Dawn brings the Whitethorn Security to a thrilling close and although I can’t quite push grade  for this one higher than a B+  the entire series has a place on my DIK shelf.

Contract Season (Trade Season #2) by Cait Nary

contract season

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pack of Lies (Monster Hunt #1) by Charlie Adhara

pack of lies

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Werewolf meets human. Werewolf snubs human. Werewolf loves human?

Julien Doran arrived in sleepy Maudit Falls, North Carolina, with a heart full of hurt and a head full of questions. The key to his brother’s mysterious last days might be found in this tiny town, and now Julien’s amateur investigation is starting to unearth things the locals would rather keep buried.

Perhaps most especially the strange, magnetic manager of a deserted retreat that’s nearly as odd as its staff.

Eli Smith is a lot of things: thief, werewolf, glamour-puss, liar. And now the manager of a haven for rebel pack runaways. He’s spent years cultivating a persona to disguise his origins, but for the first time ever he’s been entrusted with a real responsibility—and he plans to take that seriously.

Even if the handsome tourist who claims to be in town for some R & R is clearly on a hunt for all things paranormal. And hasn’t taken his brooding gaze off Eli since he’s arrived.

When an old skeleton and a fresh corpse turn a grief errand into a murder investigation, the unlikely Eli is the only person Julien can turn to. Trust is hard to come by in a town known for its monsters, but so is time…

Rating: A

Charlie Adhara’s paranormal/romantic suspense Big Bad Wolf series is one of my all-time favourites. With clever plotting, excellent worldbuilding, fantastic characterisation and a beautifully developed central relationship, those books had it all, and were always going to be a tough act to follow. I was delighted when I learned the author would be writing more books set in this world and that we’d get to spend more time with the snarky, enigmatic Elias Smith – a major secondary character in the earlier series. Eli was introduced in Thrown to the Wolves, where we learned he’d had a very troubled past, running with rebel packs who used and betrayed him until he was rescued and taken in by the Parks. He’s my book catnip – complex, flawed and damaged with a sharp tongue and an attitude for miles.

While this is the first in a new series, I really would recommend reading the previous books first so as to gain an understanding of how this world works; pack politics and how wolves interact (or don’t) with humans are key elements in these stories, and you’ll get a bit of background information on Eli. Plus – they’re marvellous reads and I assure you, you won’t regret backtracking!

Pack of Lies opens just a couple of weeks so after the end of Cry Wolf. Cooper and Park are on their honeymoon and Eli has recently moved to the retreat for runaways they’ve set up in remote Maudit Falls, which they’ve asked him to run. Late one night, Eli makes his way downstairs to the reception desk to find a very bedraggled man crawling around beneath it. Annoyed and suspiciouis, he suggests perhaps his interloper is a housebreaker, but before the man can do more than indignantly contradict him and explain that he’d had an accident a way back along the road, furious knocking at the door heralds the arrival of a woman dripping with blood and frantically insisting she’s seen the monster – she’s seen Sweet Pea, and this time, she’s got proof.

Once the chief of police shows up, Annabelle Dunlop, owner of the ski resort on the other side of the mountain, explains how she’d hurt herself running through the woods and then shows them some very grainy images taken from wildlife cameras that she insists show a figure that is not human. Chief Bucknell is sceptical and says he doesn’t really see much of anything, but Eli immediately recognises part of the image as a wolf in mid-shift. He has no idea who it is or what they might be doing there, but every wolf has a responsibility to maintain the secret of their existence – and clearly, there’s someone out there who isn’t being as careful as they should be. When everyone has left, Eli’s new medic tells him they’ve got their first guest, a young woman named Gwen who has left her rebel pack in search of sanctuary. When Gwen tells Eli that she, too, had felt an ominous presence in the woods and had run from it, Eli realises something is very wrong. Wolves are being hunted, their very existence threatened with exposure – and he decides to get to the bottom of it.

Mid-list Hollywood star Juilen Doran is grieving the loss of his younger brother Rocky, who drowned some fourteen months earlier. At the suggestion of his therapist, Julien goes into Rocky’s childhood bedroom – one they’d shared for a few years – which is where, tucked away in an old hidey-hole only the two of them had known about, Julien finds a flash drive, a notebook and a crudely drawn map of somewhere called Maudit Falls. His brother was forever off on some wild goose chase or other, convinced of the existence of all manner of cryptids and mythical beasts – Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, Nessie – and Sweet Pea, a bipedal creature reported to inhabit Blue Tail Mountain, and Julien frequently had to bail him out of trouble. He tried, repeatedly to get Rocky to see sense, but those conversations always ended in an argument. Three days after their last one, Rocky was dead. He’d taken a boat out on a perfectly clear night and never returned; there was no storm that night, the boat wasn’t damaged, and there was no real way of determining exactly how he died. After finding the notebook and map, Julien isn’t so sure his brother’s death was an accident so, filled with guilt and self-recrimination, Julien turns his back on everything – his career, his family (such as it is) and even his common sense – to follow the trail Rocky has left for him.

Eli and Julien’s shared goal of finding out exactly what is going on in Maudit Falls isn’t the only thing that draws them together, but getting to the truth is more important than an inconvenient attraction to someone they can’t afford to trust. When murder comes to their doorstep along with rumours of hidden treasure and more late-night creature sightings, they form a wary alliance – but as the secrets they’re keeping threaten to destroy their fragile connection, Eli and Julien are going to have to find a way to work together if they’re going to stand a chance of survival.

Pack of Lies is a compelling combination of clever, intricate mystery and expertly crafted slow-burn romance, and I was glued to it from start to finish. Eli and Julien are fascinating, layered characters who circle around each other amid half-truths and lies-by-omission, who yet manage to be likeable and evoke sympathy and understanding. I’ve been intrigued by Eli since his appearances in the earlier series (I said in my reivew of Cry Wolf that he was “crying out” for his own story!); his snarky, prickly demeanour obviously hides a deep vulnerability, and despite his appearance of casual confidence, he worries about being the right person for the job at the retreat and about letting Cooper and Park down. Life has been far from easy for him, and although we learn more of his history here, there’s clearly more to be revealed.

Unlike the Big Bad Wolf series though, Pack of Lies is written in dual PoV, so we get to hear from Julien also, and while Charlie Adhara is one of those authors who can make a single PoV work spectacularly well, I really appreciated that. I liked Julien and enjoyed the way he so clearly cares for Eli and Eli’s feelings – and that he doesn’t hesitate when he decides to go for it with Eli. Julien has always known he’s bisexual, but has never had the opportunity to act on his attraction to men; what he’s really worried about is letting his inexperience show and not Doing It Right – but Eli soon assures him he doesn’t need to worry on that score! Their chemistry is fantastic, and the love scenes are intense and very steamy, with Julian letting out his inner dirty-talker and Eli prepared to let Julien take control.

The book ends with a firm HFN for Eli and Julien, which feels exactly right; a full-blown HEA would have felt inappropriate and I’m happy with the way things are left – with with promise of more.

Pack of Lies is a wonderful blend of mystery, romance, action and intrigue and is a superb start to this new series. I can’t wait to find out what’s in store for Eli and Julien next!

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows

a strange and stubborn endurance

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Velasin vin Aaro never planned to marry at all, let alone a girl from neighboring Tithena. When an ugly confrontation reveals his preference for men, Vel fears he’s ruined the diplomatic union before it can even begin. But while his family is ready to disown him, the Tithenai envoy has a different solution: for Vel to marry his former intended’s brother instead.

Caethari Aeduria always knew he might end up in a political marriage, but his sudden betrothal to a man from Ralia, where such relationships are forbidden, comes as a shock.

With an unknown faction willing to kill to end their new alliance, Vel and Cae have no choice but to trust each other. Survival is one thing, but love—as both will learn—is quite another.

Rating: B-

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an enjoyable fantasy romance novel in which an arranged marriage provides the spark for murder, intrigue and political shenanigans. The worldbuilding is solid, with well-developed and detailed societal customs and hierarchies, the protagonists are likeable and the central romance is tender and drips with lots of lovely UST. On the downside, the book is at least a hundred and fifty pages too long, the pacing is stodgy in places, and the mystery is too drawn out and easily resolved.

When the story begins, Velasin vin Aaro, a nobleman of Ralia, is on his way home in response to a summons from his father. He has no idea what it’s about, and hopes word has not reached home of his more… disreputable exploits; namely that he beds men rather than women, something Ralian society considers a degenerate perversion. Travelling with him is his best friend and valet Markel (who is mute); left behind is his former lover, Lord Killic vin Lato, whom Velasin dumped after discovering him cheating – again.

Not long after his arrival, Velasin discovers why he’s been brought home. His father has arranged a marriage for him with the daughter of the Tiern (Lord) of Qi-Katai in Tithenia – and Velasin knows he has no alternative but to agree to the match. The Tithenai envoy is to arrive the next day, but before Velasin can think much about what’s to come, he’s stunned and angry to hear that Killic has followed him and is asking to see him. He tries wheedling his way back into Vel’s good graces with pretty words – and when those don’t work, he resorts to sex, and won’t take no for an answer. Be warned, the assault happens on the page (it’s hard to read, but so much of what follows is built around it, it would be impossible to remove it) – and stops only when they’re seen by Velasin’s father and the Tithenian envoy, who has arrived early. Wretched, humiliated, sick to his stomach Velasin watches as Killic is run off while he is left alone in utter disgrace.

The following morning, Velasin is summoned to his father’s presence and informed that the marriage is still to go ahead. He’s surprised to see that the envoy is “one of Tithena’s third-gender souls, called kemi…” whose existence “scandalised the Ralian court”, which is rigidly traditional about everything including gender roles and women’s rights (or lack thereof). Equally surprising is the envoy’s suggestion that instead of marrying the Tiern’s daughter, Velasin might marry his son without changing the terms of the contract. Velasin’s father is aghast at the idea of his son marrying a man, but agrees – then tells Vel he can never return home again.

Caethari Xai Aeduria is surprised to discover that he, rather than his sister, is to be married, but at least has a little time to get used to the idea while the Ralian convoy is en route to Qi-Katai. He’s curious about his future husband, but has been able to find out little about him, and really isn’t sure what he ought to feel or how he should act when they meet. That becomes of secondary importance once Velasin arrives, however; watching from the rooftop, Cae sees the convoy enter through the city gate, and then watches helplessly as someone in the crowd rushes at Velasin with a knife – which is deflected by Markel, who bears the brunt of the strike. Hurrying to the scene, Cae almost collides with a very dishevelled and worried Velasin, who is desperate to get to Markel’s side. It’s not exactly the way Cae had envisaged meeting his betrothed.

Even before Velasin arrived in Qi-Katai, there were signs of trouble when the caravan travelling from Ralia was attacked, leaving one guard dead and others injured. The attack at the city gate is followed by one on Cae’s father – all of them pointing to there being a deep-seated anti-Ralian sentiment at large and to someone intending to destabilise the already fragile relations between Ralia and Tithena.

I was looking forward to getting my teeth into a plot filled with conspiracies and court intrigue, but the mystery plot is fairly weak, little more than a series of events, one after the other, with no real escalation or building on what has gone before, and no real investigation. Vel and Cae ask questions, but are never given the time or opportunity to act on the answers as it seems that every time they come close to doing so, another character interrupts them and sends things off in a different direction or just continues the earlier conversation without reaching any conclusions. It’s too drawn out with little happening, and then, to add insult to injury, the reveal happens literally by accident when Velasin and Cae overhear the bad guys arguing and blaming each other for not doing things properly!

The romance is easily the best thing in the book, as Cae gently tries to help Velasin work through his trauma, offering friendship and understanding and not pushing for anything more. The way they move from being strangers to forging a tentative friendship, then from friendship to absolute trust and more is really well done, with great chemistry and lots of lingering touches and longing looks that build the romantic and sexual tension.

Grading A Strange and Stubborn Endurance was tough because while the plot leaves much to be desired, the romance is lovely, and there are many other things about the book that should be celebrated. I’ve mentioned the worldbuilding already – and within that, there’s excellent queer rep that includes prominent non-binary and trans characters and a welcoming society for all. Velasin’s bewilderment at becoming part of this society is well portrayed, too; having been brought up within the strict conventions of Ralia, he finds it hard to adjust to the fact that he no longer has to hide his sexuality or be surprised at the fact that people like him are treated with respect. He has no idea what is expected of him as Cae’s husband, and is struggling to un-learn many of the things he’s been brought up to believe. He’s a more well-developed character than Cae, who thinks of himself as a bluff soldier, good in combat, not so good when it comes to reading people and politicking. Fortunately, Cae proves to be very insightful and sensitive to the needs of others, intuiting almost at once that all is not well with Velasin and determining to help him however he can. I also liked watching him get turned on by his husband’s mind on those occasions where Velasin is able to cast off his self-doubt and desire for self-effacement, and reveal his true self – inquisitive, clever, observant, a charmer who is skilled at playing the courtier and navigating his way through layers of malice and misdirection. In fact, I wish we’d seen much more of that side of him, especially as part of his journey in this book is finding his way back to being the person he was before the assault and realising he doesn’t have to let it define him.

I really wish I could give A Strange and Stubborn Endurance a strong recommendation because of all the things it gets right, but the weakness of the plot really does drag it down and the slow pacing makes it difficult to invest in the outcome – especially when it seems that sometimes, even the characters themselves have forgotten about it! The final ten percent or so is terrific, and had the rest of the book been able to sustain that level of nail-biting tension, I’d be extolling its virtues. In the end, I’m going with a low B and qualified recommendation overall – a low C for the mystery and a high B for the romance, worldbuilding, characters and representation. I’d definitely read another fantasy romance from this author – here’s hoping for something tighter next time.

Husband Material (London Calling #2) by Alexis Hall

husband material

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a hotly contested rainbow balloon arch to get these two from “I don’t know what I’m doing” to “I do”.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

Rating: B+

Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material was one of my Best Books of 2020 – a masterclass in how to do Romantic Comedy right, it’s a wonderfully, warm, funny and sharply observed opposites-attract romance that has become a long-term favourite. Needless to say, I was delighted to learn that the author was writing a couple more books set in Luc and Oliver’s world, and Husband Material is one of my most eagerly anticipated books of 2022. But I wasn’t as completely bowled over and charmed by it as I’d hoped. The author’s characteristic humour and insight are still very much present, and there’s a lot to like about it, but while I enjoyed it, I can’t say I loved it. Maybe that’s on me – my expectations for this one were, admittedly, pretty high – and I suppose that’s always going to be a danger when an author writes a sequel to an incredibly popular book; we readers want more of the same (what we loved about the first book) – but different, and that’s not easy to accomplish!

It’s no secret to say that in terms of structure at least, Husband Material is a riff on Four Weddings and a Funeral, so the story is told in five sections – three weddings, funeral, wedding – that take place over the period of a few months. When the book opens, Luc and Oliver have been together for two years, they’re still in love, they’re happy together and are still recognisably the same people; Luc is still the same slightly-neurotic hot-mess and Oliver is still stoic and more than a bit emotionally repressed.

The first wedding is Luc’s best friend Bridget’s, and of course, being Bridget the whole thing cannot possibly go off without lots of drama. Just days before the wedding, her fiancé Tom disappears, someone ‘helpfully’ sends Bridget a picture of him with another woman, and it’s up to Luc to talk her down while basically ditching Oliver and a long-awaited date night and then staying with her for several days (co-dependent, much?) while things are sorted out. And then it’s Oliver who is packed off back to London on a retrieval mission when it’s discovered that nobody has brought the wedding dress to the venue. He and Luc are hardly together on page throughout this section and I felt like Luc was taking him too much for granted.

Wedding number two is Luc’s ex Miles, the guy who sold him out to the tabloids and sent him into a downward spiral. After bumping into each other on the night of Bridget’s non-gender-specific bird-do, Miles very happily introduces Luc to the vision in glitter and rainbows at his side – who then announces they’re getting married and says Luc really must come to the wedding. Luc doesn’t know what to make of it, and it’s messing with his head; does he want to go so he can prove to Miles that he’s moved on and is happy with Oliver, or should he just let it go?

But this is the catalyst for Luc starting to panic. Everyone around him is getting married, he and Oliver have been together for two years, so… shouldn’t they be getting married, too? Isn’t that the logical next step for two people who want to spend their lives together? Luc decides it is and – in typical Luc fashion and without really thinking it through – blurts out a proposal, which Oliver, of course, accepts.

Luc and Oliver are a great couple, and they travel a rocky path in this book. I love Luc’s quirky, deadpan narrative voice, and was really pleased to see that while he’s still very much him, he’s more confident and conscious of getting caught up in his head and is able to get himself out of it. Oliver, on the other hand, is struggling a bit, still having to deal with his parents’ expectations and criticisms, questioning a lot of internalised assumptions and trying to work out if the discomfort he experiences over what he describes as “the trappings of mainstream LGBTQ culture” results from negativity inherited from his parents or is simply down to his own, natural reserve. He’s working through a lot in this story, and even though he finds it difficult to talk about emotions, he tries hard to be thoughtful and honest, and most of their conversations are far more emotionally literate than before.

I liked the way each of the events makes Luc and Oliver look at aspects of their own relationship they haven’t examined so far, and I enjoyed spending time with Luc’s friends and the CRAPP crowd, the daft conversations and silly jokes and all that – but by the time the third wedding came along, I’d begun to feel like the secondary characters were taking a lot of word count away from the storyline I was really invested in (Luc and Oliver) and they felt like a distraction until it was time for the real meat of the story to kick in at around the two-thirds mark. And something I realised after I finished reading was that Luc and Oliver seem to be at odds a lot in this book – I had trouble recalling many scenes where they seemed to be truly happy. The conflicts they’re dealing with are believable, especially for people who are past the first excitement of a new relationship but are still in those early stages where they’re still learning about each other and how to actually be IN a relationship, and those are only exacerbated by the stress of planning a wedding which will suit both of them.

The story includes thought-provoking threads about queerness and community and identity, about societal expectations for committed relationships and the heteronormative nature of traditional marriage, about how much, or even whether, one should be prepared to compromise or change for a romantic partner, and how stressful relationships can be, even when you love the people on the other end of it. It’s all very interesting and well put-together, but the episodic nature of the book’s structure means I sometimes felt as though I was revisiting the same arguments without any of them being properly resolved.

Contemporary romances traditionally end at the HEA, and to have a sequel about the same couple is fairly rare. Thankfully, there is no manufactured break-up here, just a lot of questions and adjustments and two people who adore one another trying to work out how far they can be themselves with each other, and what their future might look like. The conclusion Luc and Oliver arrive at is, perhaps, unexpected and unconventional, but it’s the right one for them, and I loved watching them talk things through and realise they’re both on the same page. The final moments had me happy-sighing, and the last line is perfection.

Husband Material really hits its stride in the ‘funeral’ section and Oliver’s speech is epic – but I can’t deny being a little frustrated in the earlier parts, for the reasons I’ve stated – not enough Luc and Oliver together and too many circular arguments and discussions. Still, Alexis Hall turns a phrase like nobody else and his ability to combine fun ridiculousness with serious soul-searching continues to impress. Husband Material definitely earns a recommendation, but in the end, it’s one of those books I wanted to love but which just missed the mark.

The Kite by N.R. Walker

the kite

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Ex-Australian Specialist Response Group leader, Tim “Harry” Harrigan, has been running covert ops for almost a decade. A lone wolf, he’s single-handedly taken down terrorists and national security threats, or so he thinks. He’s been in the game far too long, and when he sees a familiar threat, he knows his time is up.

Asher Garin is a dangerous man. A man without loyalty, a man without a nationality, without a country, without a home. He’s also a mercenary for hire to the highest bidder. His next job is a face he recognises, and after a tip-off, he learns he too is a marked man.

It’s a different game now, and Harry and Asher have a better chance at surviving if they stick together. But it’s not just the game or the rules that have changed. The stakes have too.

Because on their own, they had nothing to lose. Together, they do.

Rating: B+

N.R. Walker’s The Kite is a fast-paced action flick in book form in which the world’s two deadliest assassins find themselves forced to work together when they discover they’ve been marked for death themselves. I admit, I was expecting the romance in this one to be a tough sell – these are two lone wolves who don’t trust easily (if at all), have never been in a relationship or had anything resembling a ‘normal’ life, and I thought perhaps there might not be time in a single story to make a believable transition from walled-off tough guy to man-in-love. But while the progression from lust to love is perhaps a little fast, the chemistry is terrific and the strong emotional connection the author creates was enough to convince me that they were in it for the long haul by the end.

It’s been years since Tim Harrigan – known as Harry – has set foot on Australian soil; so long that he’s almost forgotten what home feels like. A highly trained operative for the Australian Specialist Response Group, Harry has been running covert ops for years, single-handedly eliminating terrorists and threats to national security on behalf of the Australian government, no questions asked. The whys and wherefores are none of his business. He’s in Madrid following his most recent mission when he realises he’s being followed – and if someone’s after him, it can only mean one thing. He’s the mark. Shit.

Trying to evade his pursuers, Harry enters a building at the end of an alley, runs up the stairs and along at roof level before jumping down onto a balcony – when he’s grabbed and pinned against a wall in a darkened hall, a hand covering his mouth. Instinctively, Harry puts his gun to his assailant’s head, even as he registers the cool metal pressed against his own temple. It’s only a few seconds before the “I’ve lost him” and sound of fading footsteps outside mean Harry can take a breath – which is when he realises just who got the drop on him. It’s Asher Garin – the only other man on the planet good enough to take Harry out. So… why didn’t he?

“You and me; double hit. They want us dead. You’re a kite, and your government just cut you loose.”

Asher shows Harry the assignment details on his phone screen; locations, dates, names, photographs, just like any of the thousands Harry has received over the years. Except the photos are of him and Asher. But who put out the hit and why? Who has Harry really been working for all these years? And will Harry and Asher be able trust each other enough to find out the truth – or will they kill each other first?

You’ll have to suspend your disbelief a bit – although probably no more than with Bond, Bourne or Ethan Hunt – as Harry and Asher race across countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East trying to work out who wants to get rid of them while staying one step ahead of them. The pacing is fast and the stakes are high, and fortunately, they’re not completely alone; while Harry has always worked for his government, Asher has been a gun for hire to whoever could afford it, working through a handler he refers to only as “Four” a reclusive genius who works behind the scenes to help them however he can.

Harry and Asher are a classic grumpy/sunshine pairing – although that doesn’t mean that the sunshine-y one is any less deadly! Asher is all smart-mouth and snarky flirtatiousness, he’s charming, talkative and knows just how to push Harry’s buttons and drive him round the bend. But behind all that is a very lonely man who has never known what it is to belong anywhere or with anyone, and his backstory is truly heartbreaiking. Like Harry, Asher has never believed he could ever have a ‘normal’ life, or that he would ever want such a thing, but lately, he’s been thinking about it more and more – what it might look like and how he might achieve it. Harry is Asher’s opposite in many ways – physically imposing and wearing a permanent scowl, he, too, is trying to find his way after his world is upended. For the past few years, Harry realises, he’s been working for the bad guys, helping them to make shady deals to line their own pockets and taking out the competition. It’s a lot to take in, but the more he learns the more there’s no denying that what Asher is telling him is true – and that his last three three targets were not who he’d been led to believe they were.

N.R. Walker is an author whose work I generally enjoy, but her last couple of contemporary romances haven’t really worked for me, so the change of direction in The Kite was a welcome and successful one. I liked Harry and Asher’s dynamic, Asher’s ability to see past Harry’s defences, the way Harry tries so hard not to like him but can’t help doing so, and the trust that develops between them. Their relationship starts out as an uneasy alliance born of expediency, and Harry is determined to ignore the attraction that sparks between them and to resist Asher’s flirting and obvious overtures – but of course, he can’t. The attraction is very much mutual and when the inveitable happens, the sex is pretty explosive – Asher likes it rough and views arguments as foreplay – and of course both men are convinced it’s nothing more than convenient stress relief. The way they progress from fuck-buddies to lovers is nicely done, with neither of them really noticing it until it’s too late and they’re all in.

I really enjoyed The Kite and could quite happily read more books about Harry and Asher, although there are a couple of things that caused me to lower my final grade a little. The first time the men have penetrative sex is a result of Asher goading Harry to such an extent that it feels as though Harry has been forced into giving Asher what he wants (plus, dry anal is not sexy!) Then there’s the mysterious Four, who is something of a deus ex machina character, an incredibly wealthy computer whizz who can do pretty much anything from his hideaway island in the Pacific. His presence in the story doesn’t take anything away from the tension or the dangers Harry and Asher face, but I can’t deny that sometimes, he’s just a bit too… convenient.

The Kite is one of those books you can just swtich off and kick back with, an action-packed, faintly ridiculous adventure about two hot assassins that’s funny and sexy with a great grumpy/sunshine dynamic, excellent banter, a well-executed adventure plot and a very satisfying HEA. I had a great time reading it and am happy to recommend it.

By the Book (Follow the Money #1) by G.B Gordon

by the book

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A junior accountant at a successful import/export company, Ben Coyne is just beginning his career. His life is nearly perfect—until he finds his boss murdered, unravels a million-dollar embezzling scheme, and becomes the target of a madman. An FBI agent is assigned to protect him, but with Ben looking like the primary suspect, trust is hard to come by.

Nick Marshall excels at his job, but despite a lengthy career as an FBI agent and Interpol liaison, he’s still known in social circles as the playboy with the extravagant trust fund. He stopped trying to prove himself years ago, but lately, it’s been getting under his skin. A protection detail is the last thing he needs, especially when his assignment is distractingly cute, blond and extremely off-limits.

When Ben becomes the target, Nick is determined to protect him. But when a new threat hints at a conspiracy that reaches further than they could have imagined, it’s not just Ben’s life at stake…

Rating: B-

In G.B. Gordon’s By the Book,  a young accountant becomes a target when he stumbles across a money laundering operation, and ends up in the protective custody of a gorgeous FBI agent.  Although I suspect some of the procedural elements are off, that’s not unusual for the genre;  many movies and TV shows condense or make stuff up in order to enhance the drama, and I suppose the degree to which you enjoy – or don’t – this story will depend on your knowledge of such things and how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief.  I found the premise a bit wobbly, but on the whole By the Book is a quick and entertaining read.

Twenty-five-year-old Bennett Coyne works for a successful import/export company as a junior accountant.  He’s been there for about six months and it’s his first real job, so he’s keen to prove himself; he’s scrupulous and hard-working, and when he comes across a serious accounting error, alarm bells start ringing. There is more money in the bank than there should be – a LOT more – and he immediately takes the problem to his boss, who doesn’t seem to be at all bothered by it and tells Ben to leave it with him.  Ben worries afterwards – it’s as likely Henderson will throw Ben under the bus as give him the credit for finding the discrepancy –  and he spends the rest of the week on tenterhooks, wondering if he’s going to be shown the door.  The call comes last thing on Friday afternoon – but instead of being invited in to the office for a discussion, Henderson gives Ben a list of files he wants from storage and tells him to bring them down to his car in the garage.  Perplexed, Ben does as asked – only to find his boss face down in a pool of blood next to his car.

Having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, FBI Special Agent Nick Marshall worked hard to prove himself and is damn good at his job, but despite all that, he’s been unable to shake the trust-fund-baby/playboy label… and has given up trying.  It’s not something that’s bothered him all that much until recently; it must be turning forty that’s given him a fit of the glooms. He’s relieved when his boss calls him away from the birthday party he most definitely did NOT want to tell him that he’s just received word of a homicide that took place the day before in which the bullet came from the same gun used in an execution-style murder from six years earlier that has never been solved.  Intrigued, Nick goes to interview the guy who found the body.

From here, the story proceeds along expected lines; it’s somewhat formulaic, but the formula works, and the pairing of an FBI agent with someone outside law enforcement is a refreshing change. The investigation held my interest and the author does a good job of building the tension and keeping things moving as Ben decides to do some digging of his own and then becomes a target of whoever is behind the murder and the money-laundering scheme he’s uncovered.  At times, he seems to be following moves from the Amateur Sleuth Handbook; I got a bit annoyed with him for holding back important information and being careless of his own safety, for instance –  but I liked his determination to get to the truth. Nick is a bit more developed as a character; he’s fifteen years older than Ben (I found it odd that the age difference isn’t mentioned once) and privileged, and would seem to have it all worked out, but really he’s a bit of a mess.  He’s snarky and flirtatious, but can also be standoffish and snippy, usually when he’s feeling vulnerable or like he’s on the back foot – which is how he feels around Ben a lot of the time.  The two of them are attracted to each other from the get go even though Nick doesn’t want to be, recognising that there’s something about Ben that could spell big trouble for him and his carefree lifestyle.  The  romance is secondary to the suspense plot and is a bit underdeveloped, but there’s enough chemistry and interaction between Nick and Ben to keep it bubbling along to a firm HFN.  I liked the author’s decision not to have the pair become imtimately involved until after the case is concluded; so often in stories of this type, the LEO and the witness begin a relationship during the investigation, which must surely be a conflict of interest or something that could ultimately be damaging to the case.#
#There are a couple of great secondary characters in the story. Duncan Reid, Nick’s partner, is a great foil for him, and George, his financial adviser, best friend and next-door neighbour is da bomb – she has his number and doesn’t let him get away with anything.

As I said at the outset, procedural dramas are often inaccurate when it comes to the actual procedure and I can mostly go with the flow on that, provided there’s nothing so obviously wrong that it takes me out of the story.  But there are other things that did bother me here, the main one being – how come Ben was the only one who discovered the accounting error?  When I mentioned this to the accountant in the family, she said that was plausible depending on circumstances – it’s the fact there’s such a large sum sitting unnoticed in the bank account that is the real issue!  Also problematic – the fact that Ben apparently takes his own laptop to the office and uses it for work.  I had to stop reading and go back to make sure I’d read that correctly; surely that’s a massive no-no? (It is here in the UK).  Ben is also given a backstory that feels slightly superfluous, and his characterisation is inconsistent; he feels like a different person at the end of the book to the one we first met. I didn’t like his propensity for nicknames; almost every time he thinks of Nick, it’s as “Agent something” – Agent Prince Charming.  Agent Know-it-All. Agent Suit Porn. Agent Dark-and-Handsome… The first few times it was amusing, then it just came off as contrived and gimmicky.

Then there’s the big question I was left with at the end – what happened to the connection between Henderson’s murder and the one six years earlier? That thread is forgotten never to be seen again – although this is the first in a series, so perhaps it will be picked up later? But it that’s the case, there’s no real groundwork for that here.

The thing is, this ended up being one of those times where a book worked for me in spite of its faults.  The story is well-paced, the writing is accomplished and very readable, and I liked the characters (in spite of Ben’s coming a bit close to TSTL once or twice).By the Book is the first in the Follow the Money series and I liked it enough to be interested in reading the next instalment when it comes out.

Eight Weeks in Paris by S.R. Lane

eight weeks in paris

This title can be purchased from Amazon

BREAKING: Lost novel of Bell Epoque Paris, The Throne, comes to the silver screen with an A-list cast. But will on-set drama doom the filming of this gay love story before it starts?

Nicholas Madden is one of the best actors of his generation. His personal life is consistently a shambles, but he’ll always have his art—and The Throne is going to be his legacy.

Then his costar walks off the runway and into rehearsal. The role of a lifetime is about to be sunk by a total amateur.

Chris Lavalle is out, gorgeous and totally green. He has thousands of Instagram followers, a string of gorgeous exes and more ad campaigns to his name than one can count. But he’s more than just a pretty face, and The Throne is his chance to prove it.

If only Nicholas wasn’t a belligerent jerk with a chip on his shoulder and a face carved by the gods.

Eight weeks of filming, eight weeks of 24/7 togetherness bring Nicholas and Chris closer than the producers had dared to dream. Chemistry? So very much not a problem. But as The Throne gets set to wrap and real life comes calling, they’ll have to rewrite the ending of another love story: their own.

Rating: C

The publisher’s blurb for this début romance from S.R. Lane drew me in immediately. Eight Weeks in Paris revolves around filming the big-screen adaptation of The Throne, a classic queer novel set in Paris during the Belle Époque, and it promised an enemies-to-lovers romance between the two stars – one a Hollywood bad boy, the other a model and influencer with little acting experience. It’s a great premise and I really wanted to love it. But I didn’t, for a number of reasons.

The Throne, thought lost and only re-discovered in the early 1990s, captured the imagination of movie star Nicholas Madden the moment he read it, and he’s been waiting for years for a movie to be made of it – and to star in it. Finally, his dream is coming to pass; a fantastic director has been hired and filming is about to begin, when he learns that the man cast to play the complex and pivotal role of Angelo, his character’s love interest, is a virtual newbie. To say he’s not pleased is an understatement; this project is very close to his heart and he’s furious at the thought of it being torpedoed by a complete amateur.

When Christian Lavalle – beautiful, charming, openly out-and-proud – arrives on set, Nicholas dislikes him immediately, but is told that the two of them are going to have dinner together that evening so they can get to know each other a little. Nicholas agrees very reluctantly – not that he has much choice – and is very surprised to see a certain quality in Christian that may well mean he’s not such a bad casting choice after all. He’s still not convinced Christian has the acting chops necessary to carry off such a difficult role, but he realises theman is not the “brainless, vapid airhead” he’d expected him to be.

I liked those opening scenes, and I liked the characters and the way Christian keeps overturning Nicholas’ expectations. The author sets up the animosity between them well and there’s the hint of some decent chemistry there – but somehow, I reached the end of the book and found myself wondering what I’d just read. There’s an HEA, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how Chris and Nicholas get from their initial dislike to falling in love, or even why they fall in love. The writing style is vague and, dare I say it? rather pretentious, and while I was totally on board for the idea of the two love stories – the one in the book and the one between Nicholas and Chris – running concurrently and mirroring each other – neither romance is particularly convincing, and the real life one is severely underdeveloped.

The characterisation is similarly obscure. When I started reading, I found both protagonists intriguing and looked forward to getting to know them better, but that never happened. I felt as though I was reading the book through a fog, where everything I was looking for – story, character and relationship development – was behind some sort of opaque veil and always just out of reach. It was really frustrating!

Where the book does score is in its exploration of the disadvantages of fame – how hard it is to have a private life when you’re forever in the public eye in this age of social media – and the ins and outs of filming and all the industry entails; the power plays, the on-set drama, the PR, the media, the deceptions (Nicholas is not out and his agent wants it to remain that way) and all the work that goes into film-making.

But as a romance it falls flat. Eight Weeks in Paris should have been a terrific read – a slow-burn, opposites-attract romance between two actors filming a classic queer love story in the world’s most romantic city – but unforunately, it’s none of those things.

The Last Mile (Blood Ties #2) by Kat Martin

the last mile

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Abigail Holland awakes to the sound of a nighttime intruder in her rambling Denver Victorian, she knows exactly what the black shrouded figure is after—the map she recently inherited from her grandfather. Whoever he is, the man who grapples with her, then escapes, is willing to kill for the location of a treasure King Farrell hunted for more than ten years. The Devil’s Gold has claimed hundreds of lives, and it was her grandfather’s obsession.

With a killer pursuing her and her own family not to be trusted, Abby decides to take up the search herself. But she’ll need help to do it, and there’s no one better than renowned explorer and treasure hunter Gage Logan. Despite the instant chemistry between them, Gage is reluctant. Innocent people have been hurt on his watch before. But when Abby shows him a genuine gold ingot she found with the map, his curiosity is piqued. Before long they’re heading into the flash floods and brutal winds of the Superstition Mountains, straight into a passionate entanglement—and the dark heart of danger.

Rating: C

I know that Kat Martin is a veteran author of dozens of romantic suspense novels, but I haven’t read any of them, so I decided I’d jump in with The Last Mile, a story that promised to combine the excitement and danger of a hunt for lost treasure with a romance between an Indiana Jones-type seeker of lost artefacts and a young woman who has been left a treasure map by her late grandfather, also a famous treasure hunter. Well, the story delivered on the excitement and danger part and the plot is well put-together, if somewhat predictable. The romance, though? A total non-starter. There’s as much chemistry between the leads as between a pair of dead fish, and some of the pronouncements by the alpha male hero reminded me why I so rarely read m/f romance any more. And don’t get me started on the amount of mental lusting – it starts in the first chapter and Just Does Not Let Up. Ugh.

Abigail Holland is being targeted by someone out to gain possession of the map left her by her late grandfather – renowned explorer and treasure hunter King Farrell – that supposedly shows the location of two hundred million dollars’ worth of gold – Devil’s Gold – that King had spent the last ten years searching for. As it appears someone is willing to kill her to get hold of the map, Abby is more certain than ever that the gold actually exists, and has made the decision to finance an expedition to carry on King’s work and find it. To that end, she approaches Gage Logan, one of the founders of Treasure Hunter’s Anonymous, and asks him if he’ll take the job on. Gage is sceptical – most in the treasure hunting community had grown impatient with King Farrell’s obsession – but eventually signs up. He’s not keen on Abby going along for the ride – he doesn’t take his clients on jobs – but Abby tells him she’s going anyway, and that if he won’t take her, she’ll find someone else who will. Gage reluctantly agrees that she can accompany him.

The storyline here falls into two parts, the first in which Abby, Gage and his team travel to Arizona following the map; the second takes them to greater danger in Mexico with its corrupt officials and drug cartels who all want a piece of the action (or all of it!). It feels like your standard Hollywood adventure movie with plenty of action and really creaky dialogue, but it’s entertaining enough. For some reason, Ms. Martin decides to include a third PoV (a cartel boss) late on, which is jarring and pointless, and the book as a whole is over-long, with a final section that really isn’t necessary where, completely our of the blue, the author turns a bland bit-character into a villain.

The Last Mile is an easy read, and I enjoyed the amount of detail the author provides as to the various locations Gage and Abby travel to, and to their thought-processes as they work through their ideas, the clues they’ve been given and the information they glean from various sources. It’s clear that this treasure-hunting lark is something that requires a lot of skill and attention. But oh, dear, the romance is dreadful and both leads have come straight out of central casting. Gage is your typical tall, dark and handsome commitmentphobe wracked by guilt over something that was in no way his fault and who therefore Will Not Love; Abby is a bit of a loner who has “never lusted for a man before”is determined to focus on finding the treasure and will Not Allow Herself To Be Distracted, so Gage – no matter his off-the-charts hotness – is off limits. Gage doesn’t sleep with clients and doesn’t get involved with anyone, ever. But Abby Is Not Like Other Women – and he decides that, okay, hands off while they’re out on the search, but once back in Denver, all bets are off:

“I’ve dreamed of having you naked and spread open beneath me, dreamed of being inside you. Now that I know that’s what you want too, I promise you it’s going to happen.”

because

“I’m what you need, and we both know it.”

Ugh. Surely I can’t be the only one rolling my eyes and banging my head on the desk reading that?

I’m sorry Ms. Martin, but ‘Me, Tarzan You, Jane’ pronouncements are no substitute for having actual chemistry between your principals and neither is being constantly bashed over the head with page after page filled with lustful thoughts. The physical attraction we’re constantly told exists between Gage and Abby is at the forefront of everything they say, think and do, but I finished the book having no idea why or how they fell in love.

In the end, The Last Mile is just about average. The predictablity of the plot together with two-dimensional characters and a boring romance that totally lacks sexual tension means I can’t recommend it.