TBR Challenge: The Summer of Us by Lily Morton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s going to be a long hot summer…

John is an exceptionally good lawyer. He’s driven, arrogant and hides a warm heart underneath a façade of cool politeness. He’s used to people disliking him but for some reason when meeting Matt in London the other man’s open dislike of him bothers him. He’s therefore surprised to find himself offering Matt a place to stay in his villa in the South of France while he’s working nearby. He’s surprised because he’d actually planned to spend the summer working on his book and plotting to get his ex-wife back.

However, his perfect plans take a blow as the long hot summer progresses and the two men get closer, and John starts to nurse an unexpected attraction to his houseguest from hell.

Matt is John’s polar opposite. He’s warm, funny, sociable and scruffy. He loves people and they love him back. However, to his consternation he hates John more than he hates Marmite, and Marmite makes him vomit. He hates his arrogance, his public school voice and the air of superiority that he carries around. The idea of staying in his home with just him for company sounds torturous and not in a good way.
However, as the hot, lazy days slip by he’s forced to realise that maybe he’s not such a good judge of character after all, because underneath that arrogance is a warm, funny, vulnerable man who’s incredibly sexy. The only problem is that while Matt is gay John is completely straight and Matt now wants him more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life.

See what happens when two men who think that they have nothing in common apart from a past mutual hatred find out that they might actually be each other’s future.

Rating: B+

Unlike the historicals prompt, where I always have lots of books to choose from, the contemporaries one usually sees me scrabbling around to find something to read because I like to choose my TBR Challenge reads from books I already own – and contemps aren’t really my thing so I don’t buy many.  I did, however, find a handful on my Kindle and, having recently enjoyed Lily Morton’s Rule Breaker in audio, (seriously, it’s fantastic) I decided to read one of the author’s earlier books, The Summer of Us, which is a spin-off title from her Beggar’s Choice series about a world-famous rock band.

Matt Dalton has been friends with the members of Beggar’s Choice for years; the bassist, Bram, is like a brother to him, and even though Matt runs a highly successful and elite staffing agency he also works as Bram’s PA. He’s charming, funny, outgoing and the sort of guy who gets on with everybody.  Everybody that is, except John Harrington, the band’s lawyer.  Matt disliked John from their first meeting, and that opinion has never changed in spite of the fact that everyone else in the band likes him and regards him as ‘one of them’.  But as far as Matt’s concerned, John is bossy, abrasive, arrogant… and it doesn’t help that he’s been very inconveniently attracted to him from the moment he first laid eyes on him.

John is rich and successful, but doesn’t have much of a life outside of his work.  The face he presents to the world is cool and self-contained, but it’s a façade behind which lies a gentle dreamer with a soft heart and a longing – one even he hardly recognises – to make a real connection with someone he can share his life with.  John knows Matt doesn’t like him but isn’t sure why… or why it bothers him so much.  So it’s as much a surprise to him as to anyone when he finds himself offering to put Matt up at his villa in the South of France when Charlie, the band’s lead singer, tells John that Matt has agreed to oversee the renovations on a property he’s just purchased near the one John owns.

What starts out seeming as though it’s going to be an enemies-to-lovers story quickly morphs into something else when Matt arrives at the villa and immediately jumps head-first into an apology for making snap judgements and then suggests they start afresh:

“I didn’t really give you a chance, which was a shitty thing to do, so I’d like to give us a second chance to become friends.  After all, we’re going to be spending a lot of time together and it would be a lot easier if it’s not in conditions that would have made Stalin uncomfortable.”

John is only too pleased to agree, and it doesn’t take long for both men to realise that they like each other a great deal, and to discover that, while on the surface they’re chalk and cheese, they actually have a lot more in common than they could ever have imagined.  From this new start, comes a deep friendship, a sense of true kinship and, for John, the confusion that comes with the realisation that he’s strongly attracted to Matt despite never having been attracted to men before.  Matt, who has been struggling with the fact that he’s only grown more attracted to John the more he’s got to know him, believes John is straight – hell, Bram told him that John was trying to get back with his ex-wife – and he isn’t prepared to be anyone’s experiment.  He’s realised that in past relationships, he was always the one to make sacrifices and to give while the other person took and now he’s decided he’s never going to settle again. He wants someone who is going to put him – Matt – first, and John surely can’t be that guy.  Can he?

I really enjoyed the way the central relationship developed, with the two men moving from antagonism to friendship and eventually to lovers.  They’re three-dimensional characters with baggage that continues to inform their attitudes and relationships; John’s aristocratic parents never really gave a shit about him, so he’s grown up reluctant to form connections for fear he’s not good enough, while Matt’s religious parents threw him out at fifteen when he came out, and he’s still carrying a shedload of guilt about a past relationship that went very badly wrong.  Ms. Morton’s wonderfully snarky (and wonderfully British) humour is very much in evidence, and although the appearances of the dreadful ex-boyfriend and equally dreadful ex-wife are somewhat clichéd, they nonetheless help to move things along a little by highlighting the contrasts between the men’s  past and present relationships.  John’s lack of angsting over and acceptance of his sexuality and his feelings for Matt feel right for his character; he says early on in the story that he’s never been one for strong emotions, and it’s obvious that his desire to get back with his ex-wife was motivated more by hurt pride than anything else, so the idea that it was finding the right person that made the difference made sense.  I liked that he wasn’t freaked out or in denial about his attraction to Matt, or interested in labels –

“I don’t know whether I’ve just discovered that I’m gay so much or just that I’ve discovered you… You’re my person and I think that I was just waiting for you. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter to me. The only thing that matters is that you are mine and I am yours.”

Also important in the story is the setting, which is described so vividly that I was able to picture it – the villa in the hills above Cannes with the amazing view of the sea – and imagine the heady scents of the flowers and herbs; the perfect backdrop to allow this intense, sexy romance to develop in that space out of time away from the constraints of everyday life. But there were a few things that kept this book from DIK status.  The aforementioned evil exes were a bit OTT, and sometimes, the dialogue between Matt and John is a bit too-good-to-be-true and overly sappy.  I also wasn’t wild about the continual use of “Matty” and “Johnny”, which felt a bit juvenile.  I know they were meant to be pet names, but I still found it a bit irritating.

Otherwise, though, The Summer of Us is a funny, charming, sexy and wonderfully romantic read and I enjoyed it a lot in spite of its flaws.

TBR Challenge: Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Victorian London, if you’re not a blue blood of the Echelon then you’re nothing at all. The Great Houses rule the city with an iron fist, imposing their strict ‘blood taxes’ on the nation, and the Queen is merely a puppet on a string…

Lena Todd makes the perfect spy. Nobody suspects the flirtatious debutante could be a sympathizer for the humanist movement haunting London’s vicious blue blood elite. Not even the ruthless Will Carver, the one man she can’t twist around her little finger, and the one man whose kiss she can’t forget…

Stricken with the loupe and considered little more than a slave-without-a-collar to the blue bloods, Will wants nothing to do with the Echelon or the dangerous beauty who drives him to the very edge of control. But when he finds a coded letter on Lena—a code that matches one he saw on a fire-bombing suspect—he realizes she’s in trouble. To protect her, he must seduce the truth from her.

With the humanists looking to start a war with the Echelon, Lena and Will must race against time—and an automaton army—to stop the humanist plot before it’s too late. But as they fight to save a city on the brink of revolution, the greatest danger might just be to their hearts…

Rating: B+

Bec McMaster has created a detailed and original world for her London Steampunk series, a steam-powered but recognisable version of Victorian London that is populated by humans, mechanoids and blue bloods and ruled over by the Echelon.  When I reviewed the first book, Kiss of Steel, I gave a brief outline of the London Steampunk world, so I won’t repeat that here; I’ll assume that if you’re reading this review you know what blue bloods, mechs and verwulfen are and what the Echelon is (and if you don’t, just click on the link above to find out. Or better still, read the books!)  Although each novel features a different central couple, there’s an overarching plot running throughout the series, which means it’s helpful to read them all in order – and there are likely to be spoilers in this review.

Heart of Iron is the second book the series, and it takes place about three years after the events of Kiss of Steel. In that book, we first met the Todd siblings – Honoria, Lena and Charlie – and Honoria, who had worked alongside their scientist father as he attempted to find a cure for the Craving Virus found her HEA with Blade, a rogue blue blood who has made an empire of his own among the rookeries of the East End.  Honoria’s sister Lena never felt at home in the Warren (as Blade’s home is known); not scientifically minded in the way that Honoria was, she was usually overlooked at home, and was brought up on lessons on etiquette and things young ladies should know, prepared for a life in blue blood society.  When the Todds moved to the Warren, seventeen-year-old Lena became fascinated by Will Carver, the big, handsome verwulfen who was Blade’s right hand man, but when, one night, she gathered her courage and kissed him, Will rebuffed her and “he told me he would tolerate my childish little games for Blade’s sake, but that he would prefer it if I didn’t throw myself at him.”  Hurt but determined not to show it, Lena left Whitechapel shortly afterwards with the intention of making her delayed début and returning to society.  Moving into her half-brother Leo’s London mansion as his ward (Leo Barrons is the heir to the Duke of Caine, and can never publicly acknowledge his relationship to the Todds), Lena plunges herself into the social whirl, a whirl which can be an extremely dangerous place for young women like her, who are seen as easy pickings for any blue blood lord until they sign a thrall contract with one, exchanging blood rights for his protection.

But while Lena moves in that dangerous world by night, she is also determined to gain a degree of independence, and to that end, continues to produce incredibly detailed, skilfully-wrought clockwork pieces for Mr. Mandeville, the man to whom she’d once been apprenticed.  Through him, Lena has become involved – albeit peripherally – with the growing humanist movement, who want to oust the Echelon and gain the rights and opportunities they are currently denied.  Lena principally acts as a messenger, carrying encrypted messages from the humanist leader known only as ‘Mercury’ (messages she receives via Mandeville) to the humanists’ contact within the Echelon, whose true identity is also unknown to her.

Will no longer lives at the Warren either, having left the day after Lena kissed him.  He’s still Blade’s muscle, the ‘Beast of Whitechapel’, and visits regularly – although he always times his visits so that he never meets Lena there.  His rejection of her was never because he didn’t want her; he did and still does, but there’s a reason verwulfen are forbidden from taking human mates and Will has no intention of putting Lena in danger.  He was infected with the loupe virus when he was just five years old and it almost killed him; he was then sold to a travelling showman who caged and beat him and exhibited him as a freak. He refuses to risk infecting Lena or to subject her to the horrors and indignities he suffered simply for being who and what he was.

There’s a really well-conceived sub-plot in the book concerning the political manouevering required to broker a treaty between the Echelon and the Scandinavian verwulfen clans against the growing threat posed by fanatical factions in France and Spain.  Barrons asks Will if he will act as a kind of liaison and help win over the more hard-line factions in the Scandinavian party; in exchange, the Echelon will revoke the law that outlaws verwulfen and create a new one that will give verwulfen the same rights as blue bloods. Will isn’t used to mixing in political circles and isn’t comfortable with the idea, but the promised rewards are too good to pass up. He agrees to the proposal – and then asks for Lena’s help to teach him how the ins and outs of blue blood society, not because he longs to spend time with her (hah – you tell yourself that, Will!) but because it will mean he can keep an eye on her and protect her from unscrupulous predators.   Lena decides to use the opportunity to get a bit of her own back on Will, to torture him a little with her nearness and a little flirtation – only to find it backfiring as she realises she’s as desperately attracted to him as she ever was.

Having read the spin off series – London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy – I was pleased to meet some of the characters who will play main roles in those stories, most notably Adele Hamilton, who notoriously entraps the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn (who also makes notable appearances here) into marriage.  There are also appearances by a number of the other secondary characters who move seamlessly in and out of the series; another of the things I so enjoy about this author’s work is the way she never shoe-horns in secondary characters just for the sake of it and they’re all integral to the story.

I liked both Will and Lena, although sometimes I found Lena a little too impetuous and apt to leap before she looked.  Will on the other hand… *sigh*…  is your classic big, brooding and tortured hero who will stop at nothing to keep his lady-love safe, even if it means denying himself the only thing he has ever truly wanted.  On the surface, they’re constantly at odds, but beneath, they’re a seething mass of warring emotions that neither knows how to deal with. I did wish Will had told Lena the real reason behind his rejection earlier than he does, but that’s really my only niggle.  Mostly, their romance is really well done; the sexual tension and chemistry between them burns bright and the eventual love scenes are sexy and romantic.

Bec McMaster again achieves a terrific balance between the various different elements of her story, combining a sensual romance with intriguing plotlines and memorable characters.  Heart of Iron is another terrific read and the London Steampunk series deserves a place on any romance fan’s bookshelf.

TBR Challenge: To See the Sun by Kelly Jensen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Survival is hard enough in the outer colonies — what chance does love have?

Life can be harsh and lonely in the outer colonies, but miner-turned-farmer Abraham Bauer is living his dream, cultivating crops that will one day turn the unforgiving world of Alkirak into paradise. He wants more, though. A companion — someone quiet like him. Someone to share his days, his bed, and his heart.

Gael Sonnen has never seen the sky, let alone the sun. He’s spent his whole life locked in the undercity beneath Zhemosen, running from one desperate situation to another. For a chance to get out, he’ll do just about anything — even travel to the far end of the galaxy as a mail-order husband. But no plan of Gael’s has ever gone smoothly, and his new start on Alkirak is no exception. Things go wrong from the moment he steps off the shuttle.

Although Gael arrives with unexpected complications, Abraham is prepared to make their relationship work—until Gael’s past catches up with them, threatening Abraham’s livelihood, the freedom Gael gave everything for, and the love neither man ever hoped to find.

Rating: B+

The last few times the “Something Different” prompt has come up in the TBR Challenge, I’ve found myself picking up a Science Fiction romance.  I don’t know why I don’t read many of them – I like the genre in TV and film – and I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve read, so this prompt is always a good opportunity to read another one!  I chose Kelly Jensen’s To See the Sun for a couple of reasons; firstly, I really enjoyed her recent This Time Forever series, a trilogy of novels in which a group of men in their late forties finally find their happy ever afters and was keen to read something else of hers, and secondly, my fellow reviewer Maria Rose put the book in her Best of 2018 list, so that was a strong recommendation. Plus, it’s a variation on the mail-order-bride trope, and I haven’t read many of those, so that also worked for this particular prompt.

To See the Sun is set on the remote colony of Alkirak, a terraformed planet on which humans carve out their homes from the rock in the crevasses which provide shelter from the largely inhospitable surface. Ex-miner Abraham Bauer is stretched pretty thin keeping everything going on his small farm, but least he’s working for something that’s his rather than risking his neck day in, day out in the mines.  It’s also a lonely life, and Bram longs to find someone to share his life and maybe even build a family with, but that seems almost impossible.  Finding someone to have sex with isn’t difficult, but Bram wants more than that, he wants connection and affection, maybe even love – and that’s much harder to come by.  When he hears about companies that arrange things called companion contracts, he doesn’t hold out much hope – after all, there are millions of people just like him out there, and who on earth would want to come and spend their life on a remote outpost with an unstable atmosphere for what little Bram has to offer? – but he signs up anyway… and on logging on to the site one evening is captivated by the video of a beautiful young man whose shy, considered manner and obvious sweetness strike a chord deep within Bram that is more than simple lust.  He dares to hope that he might just have found what he’s been searching for.

Gael Sonnen ekes out an existence on Zhemozen, a beautiful planet at the opposite end of the galaxy that’s a paradise – if you’ve got money.  But Gael and the millions like him who are poor, live hand-to-mouth in the crowded, squalid undercity, a place with “dark streets, bitter air, and water that tasted like sweat.”  When he falls foul of a powerful criminal family, Gael’s only option is to run – and the farther away the better.  With no money, it seems his only option will be life as an indentured servant, until a friend suggests another possibility.  Good-looking as he is, Gael will have no trouble getting a companion contract somewhere far away from Zhemosen;  and a year’s contract as companion – or more – to a lonely farmer at the other end of the galaxy seems as good a way to escape as any.

Bram and Gael are decent, likeable characters, ordinary men who just want to make a quiet life with  someone with the same wants, needs and outlook.  Bram is in his late forties and used to being alone, which has probably made him a bit set in his ways;  while Gael is younger (twenty-nine) and has had a tough life, didn’t know either of his parents, and struggled to bring up his younger brother, who was neuroatypical and for whose death Gael blames himself.  He’s a good man and is determined that Bram won’t regret his decision to make the contract – although an unexpected event may have scuppered Gael’s chances before he can even get settled.

But he wants very much to help Bram and not to take advantage of his generosity. Gael is a natural caretaker, and I loved the small ways he starts to make a place for himself in Bram’s life, whether it’s cooking a meal, helping on the farm or just sitting quietly, listening to Bram talk or watching a video with him at the end of the day.  Their relationship is incredibly touching and really well developed as they learn about each other, work alongside one another and start to fall in love.

There are a few dramatic events along the way to keep things moving, (although the last act ‘black moment’ kind of comes out of nowhere and is resolved very quickly), but ultimately, this is a character driven, sweet story about things we can all identify with; wanting to make a personal connection with someone, or escape a hopeless situation, or make a family and being prepared to fight hard to keep it.

Ms. Jensen’s worldbuilding is superb.  She incorporates details about Alkirak and Zhemosen seamlessly into the narrative in such a way as to enable the reader to build clear pictures in the mind’s eye – of the dark, underground city on Zhemosen and of the austere, hostile surface of Alkirak, the acid mists, violent storms, and most of all, the dangerous but beautiful sun that so fascinates Gael and makes the clouds glow and colours the sky and the horizon.  The dangers of daily life in such a place are brilliantly contrasted with everyday things like eating a meal or watching TV, and the slow-burn romance between Bram and Gael is beautifully done.

To See the Sun may be set on a distant planet at some unspecified time in the future, but at its heart, it’s a story about two lonely people finding something in each other they’ve been missing and yearning for.  It’s sweet and gorgeously romantic and I enjoyed every bit of it.

TBR Challenge: Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s a precarious charade with the highest stakes imaginable. Sarah Mildmay’s entire future rests on exposing the current lord of Mallow as the great pretender he is. Blane Mallow, presumed dead after years at sea, has suddenly returned to claim his title—and the magnificent English estate that rightfully belongs to Sarah’s fiancé, Blane’s cousin Ambrose.

Determined to unmask the imposter, Sarah talks her way into a position as governess to Blane’s son, Titus. At Mallow Hall, she meets Blane’s suspicious wife, Amalie, and the formidable Lady Malvina. But the deception Sarah suspects reveals itself to be far more malevolent and far-reaching than she imagined. As she fights her growing attraction to Blane, the arrival of a stranger sets in motion a series of events that will have deadly consequences. Desperate to protect Titus, Sarah moves closer to a shattering truth: The man she loves may be a cold-blooded murderer . . .

Rating: C+

That synopsis is really misleading, IMO.

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “favourite trope”, and I fancied a good, old-fashioned gothic with bit of a master/governess romance thrown in.  I chose one I bought a while back by an author I haven’t read before, Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden;  originally published in 1960, it’s recently been digitally reissued, as have several of the author’s other books.

London is abuzz with gossip about Lord Blane Mallow, who ran away from his Kentish home aged sixteen and hasn’t been seen or heard of in the twenty years since.  Following the death of his father, newspaper articles and pamphlets have been circulated requesting information about the missing heir – and when none was forthcoming, steps were taken to start the process by which he could be declared legally dead and the inheritance – including Mallow Hall – pass to the next heir.  But just when all hope of Blane being found had been given up, he arrived in England, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son, Titus, and his court case to prove his identity has become something of a cause célèbre.

Among those closely following the court’s progress is Sarah Mildmay, a gently-born but impoverished young lady who has lived with her aunt since the death of her father, an inveterate gambler.  She is secretly engaged to Ambrose, Blane’s cousin, who stands to inherit should the man be declared an imposter.

When the legalities are complete and the court is satisfied that Blane is who he says he is, it’s a huge blow to Sarah and Ambrose’s hopes, as without the Mallow inheritance, they cannot afford to marry.  Sarah is furious but Ambrose refuses to give up, suggesting an audacious plan.  The most recent newspaper article suggests that Blane’s son will need of a governess now the family is going to settle at Mallow Hall – and Ambrose suggests that Sarah should present herself as a potential candidate.  That way, she will be able to snoop about and find the proof of the impostor’s guilt in order to overturn the court’s verdict.

Adventurous of spirit and all too aware of possessing the same liking for taking risks as her late father, Sarah agrees with alacrity and duly presents herself at the Mallows’ London residence.  But she almost falls at the first hurdle when the sallow-faced, overdressed Lady Mallow, displeased with Sarah’s effrontery in just presenting herself without introduction, tells her to leave.  Sarah is on her way out, when a distressed little boy – obviously Titus – literally throws himself at her, clings to her skirts and refuses to let got.  She’s able to soothe the boy and calm him down – at which point the master of the house makes his appearance, and seeing Sarah’s effect on the boy, reverses his wife’s decision and offers her employment.

Blane is brooding, darkly handsome and enigmatic (of course!), his pronouncements are frequently dry and sarcastic, and it quickly becomes clear to Sarah that the Mallow’s marriage is not as it should be. She discovers that the connecting door between the master’s and mistress’ rooms is locked – from his side – and not only that, Lady Mallow’s desperation to gain her husband’s attention (and her temper when she doesn’t get it) are painfully obvious.  Titus is a nervous little boy who is the apple of his grandmother’s eye – and the spitting image of his father at the same age, as proven by one of the family portraits – Lady Malvina (Blane’s mother) is well-meaning, but indiscreet and appears to care more about the fact that having her son home means she is able to get back some of the jewellery that had to be sold and is able to accumulate more; as the story progresses, we begin to see that she has her doubts as to the truth of Blane’s identity, but that her focus was on securing her own position and in gaining access to her grandson.

The story follows a fairly predictable pattern.  There’s an unstable, jealous wife, a mysterious arrival who isn’t what they seem, a dead body in the lake, blackmail, kidnapping – and through it all a heroine whose adventurous spirit, sharp mind and wit is reluctantly drawn to similar qualities in the darkly sardonic hero. Like most of these older gothic romances, he’s pretty much a secondary figure in the story, and he doesn’t share all that many scenes with Sarah until near the end, so readers are given very little to go on as regards the evolution of his feelings for Sarah.  The signs are there, but they’re few and far between, so the end-of-book declaration comes very much out of the blue.  It’s true that he does have to be somewhat removed to keep Sarah – and the reader – guessing as to whether he really is or isn’t Blane Mallow, but still, it makes for an unsatisfying romance.  As we’re in Sarah’s head for most of the book, her feelings are easier to read, although most of the time, she appears to be angry at Blane’s blatant imposition and lies rather than attracted to him. There are hints of her discomfort around him, but otherwise there’s little to go on.

Lady of Mallow held my attention for the time it took me to read it, mostly because I wanted to find out the truth about Blane and I did enjoy the cat-and-mouse game he and Sarah were engaged in; it was obvious he was on to her from the beginning and she knew he was trying to trip her up.  The reveal was rather anticlimactic though, involving one character reciting the events to another and being overheard by Blane and Sarah, and the ending is really abrupt.

The blurb describes Lady of Mallow as a “classic of the genre”, but I’m inclined to disagree.  For a real classic gothic, you can’t beat Daphne du Maurier or Victoria Holt.

 

TBR Challenge: Paternity Case (Hazard and Somerset #3) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

It’s almost Christmas, and Emery Hazard finds himself face to face with his own personal nightmare: going on a double date with his partner—and boyhood crush—John-Henry Somerset. Hazard brings his boyfriend; Somers brings his estranged wife. Things aren’t going to end well.

When a strange call interrupts dinner, however, Hazard and his partner become witnesses to a shooting. The victims: Somers’s father, and the daughter of a high school friend. The crime is inexplicable. There is no apparent motive, no connection between the victims, and no explanation for how the shooter reached his targets.

Determined to get answers, Hazard and Somers move forward with their investigation in spite of mounting pressure to stop. Their search for the truth draws them into a dark web of conspiracy and into an even darker tangle of twisted love and illicit desire. And as the two men come face to face with the passions and madness behind the crime, they must confront their own feelings for each other—and the hard truths that neither man is ready to accept.

Rating: A

Paternity Case is the third in Gregory Ashe’s series of novels featuring two detectives based in the small Missouri town of Wahredua, Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset.  These are gritty, complex stories that are practically impossible to put down once started; the mysteries are twisty and really well-conceived but at the heart of each book – and the series – is the complicated, fucked-up relationship between the two principals, a pair of stubborn, emotionally constipated individuals with a dark and  painful shared history that stretches back twenty years.

While each of the six books in the series boasts a self-contained mystery, there is also an overarching storyline that runs throughout, so I’d strongly recommend starting at the beginning with book one, Pretty Pretty Boys.  There’s probably enough backstory in this book for a newcomer, but if you do jump in here, you’ll miss out on a lot of relationship development and exploration of Hazard and Somerset’s history – which is absolutely integral to the series as a whole.  Gregory Ashe knows how to create sexual tension so thick it can be cut with a knife; this is slow-burn romance at its finest – and possibly most frustrating! – so don’t go into this series expecting a quick HFN/HEA.

A little bit of background. Detective Emery Hazard moves back to his small home town of Wahredua after being fired from his job in St. Louis (for reasons we don’t yet know).  The town doesn’t hold many good memories for him; the only openly gay kid at school, he didn’t have many friends and was badly bullied by three boys who made his life a misery for years.  Of these, one is now dead, another is a broken down mess, and the third… Hazard doesn’t know what happened to him, the charming, popular, movie-star handsome John-Henry Somerset, son of one of the town’s wealthiest families – until he turns up at his new station and meets his new partner.

Yep.

The first book sees Hazard and Somerset – who now goes by Somers – starting to work though the issues that lie between them, although it’s going to take more than an apology and the new, grudging, respect Hazard slowly develops for his new partner’s ability as a detective, and Somers’ admiration for Hazard’s intellect and his ability to work his way through complicated puzzles and construct solutions, to fix things between them.  Somers is almost desperate to prove to Hazard that he’s changed – and he really has – since they were in college, but Hazard is cautious and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him that isn’t work-related.  Somers is garrulous and quick to tease the much more serious Hazard, and on the surface they’ve got a bit of an ‘odd couple’ thing going on; but underneath, it’s all much darker and more complicated as the feelings that sparked between them twenty years earlier come roaring back to life.

For two books, readers have watched them struggle to adjust to their working partnership and ignore the intense mutual attraction that neither wants to acknowledge.  They’ve had their heated moments, but are both in deep denial; Somers has been trying (unsuccessfully) to work things out with his estranged wife (with whom he has a two-year-old daughter), while Hazard has embarked on a relationship with a gorgeous (and much younger) grad-student, Nico Flores. Both men are involved with someone who just doesn’t ‘get’ them or understand their dedication to their job or loyalty to each other, especially Nico, who can’t understand how Hazard can bear to work with Somers considering their history.

Paternity Case opens as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to go out – on a double-date, of all things; Hazard and Nico, Somers and his almost-ex-wife, Cora.  The reader already knows this is one of the worst ideas in history and a train-wreck in waiting, but before things can get too uncomfortable, Somers receives a phone call from his father, who practically orders him to the family home during the Somerset’s annual pre-Christmas party.  It’s not a case, but Somers insists Hazard accompanies him anyway, and they arrive to find a very drunk – or stoned – old guy wearing nothing but a Santa hat in the middle of the Somerset’s living room.  As Somers and Hazard try to find out what on earth is going on, the lights go out and shots are fired, one killing a young woman and five of the others landing in Glenn Somerset’s chest but somehow not killing him.

Naked-Santa is deemed to be responsible and is taken into custody, but both Hazard and Somers are immediately seeing things that don’t add up. And when they arrive at the hospital to discover that the suspect has been shot and killed by another detective, it ratchets up suspicions they’ve held for a while now that one of their colleagues is on the take.  The hints of political corruption and intrigue that have appeared in the earlier books now become something more solid, and when Hazard and Somers are ordered to drop their investigation they smell more than just one rat.  Their boss insists there’s nothing to investigate, but neither man buys that; for Somers this is personal – he might not get along with Glenn Somerset, but the man is still his father – and Hazard isn’t about to sit idly by and watch his partner self-destruct or put himself in danger without someone to watch his back.

While both characters get equal billing in the series title, the previous two books have focused a little more on Hazard as the main protagonist. Here, that focus shifts to Somers, and as he starts to unravel, readers are shown more of what lies beneath that gorgeous, wise-cracking exterior – a man who doesn’t like himself much and who is weighed down by the guilt of a terrible betrayal he wrought years ago.  Mr. Ashe very deftly delineates Somers’ toxic family situation, and his insight into the power dynamics that existed when Hazard and Somerset were kids is completely on the nose.  We see a different side to the normally personable, laid-back detective as the author peels away the layers to reveal  the loneliness lying at his core as he is forced to face up to some painful and unwelcome truths about his long-buried feelings, and to reach some significant conclusions as a result.

Both men are guarded and not easy to understand. They talk a lot – well, Somers does – but rarely – if ever – say what they mean, and right from the start, their conversations have been as much about what they don’t say as what they do. They’re both excellent detectives; Hazard is precise and logical while Somers has the kind of emotional intelligence that makes him a really good ‘people person’ – and yet they’re both blind when it comes to each other.  While the investigation is the focus of the plot, the intensity of the underlying love story permeates the book; these two are stupid in love but certain the other doesn’t feel the same, and the emotional punch the author delivers at the end is simply masterful.

The secondary cast is strongly-drawn, the plot is cleverly constructed and Gregory Ashe’s writing ranges from the vividly descriptive  –

At this time of year, when darkness came early, Warhedua looked like the last place of light and warmth in a burned-out world. Ahead of them, the sodium lights dropped away until the only thing illuminating the asphalt was the Interceptor’s headlights, bluish-white, the color of fresh snow if it had somehow transformed into light.

to the lyrical…

Love isn’t a choice. Love is collision. Love is catastrophe. Somers had thought he’d understood. He thought he’d known how dangerous those words were, he thought he’d sensed how deeply Emery Hazard had upset his life.

But he’d had no idea.

There are moments of observation and insight so sharp it’s almost painful, and the circumlocutory conversations that characterise Hazard and Somers’ interactions are both completely absorbing and a masterclass in how to say something without ever actually uttering the words.

I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll close by saying that if you’re a fan of m/m mysteries and romantic suspense, then you’re going to want to start on the Hazard and Somerset series right away.  I promise you’ll thank me later 😉

 

TBR Challenge: The Counterfeit Husband by Elizabeth Mansfield

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas. His cockiness and noble bearing make him perfect for the role, but Camilla is surprised to find herself wishing the deception would last forever.

Rating: C

The synopsis for this short novel (originally published by Signet in 1982)  says: In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas.  As a result, I thought I was in for a fake-relationship story, but that element of A Counterfeit Husband is, in fact, a very small part of it, and only comes into play well into the second half of the book.  The story is more about the widowed Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield, learning to trust her own judgement and developing the backbone necessary to stand up to her domineering sister in law, with some commentary about the dreadful practice operated by naval press gangs thrown in for good measure.

Thomas Collinson has just returned to England at the end of a three month voyage on the merchant ship of which he is mate.  He has just said goodbye to Daniel Hicks, his closest friend, when he hears a commotion and jumps into the fray to save Daniel from a press gang.  This practice is supposed to have been dispensed with, but the Navy is desperate for men – it’s a time of war after all – and will do whatever it takes to get them, especially men like Daniel and Thomas who are experienced sailors.  After an unequal fight, both men are taken aboard HMS Undaunted and into the presence of Captain Brock, a man whose reputation for cruelty is notorious among seamen.  Thomas is openly defiant, knowing that his contract to the merchant ship means that he cannot be impressed – but Brock simply destroys his papers.  Thomas is furious, seeing the life and career he had planned out for himself disappearing – so when a chance for escape presents itself, he and Daniel take it, fighting their way off the ship.

Meanwhile in Dorset, Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield is listening to yet another diatribe from her late husband’s sister, Ethelyn, a woman of strong convictions and religious observance who criticises everything Camilla does and generally makes her life a misery.  It’s clear that Camilla’s marriage –made when she was just out of the schoolroom – wasn’t a happy one, and also that one of the reasons she doesn’t stand up to Ethelyn is her reluctance to open a rift between her late husband’s family and her ten-year-old daughter, Philippa (Pippa).  It also seemed to me that Camilla was just so worn down – by her decade of marriage to a controlling, unfeeling man, and now by Ethelyn’s constant carping – that she is almost too exhausted to stand up for herself.  But following yet another argument about the behaviour of the butler, Hicks – whom Ethelyn detests (mostly because he’s loyal to Camilla) – Camilla finally takes a step on her path to self-reliance and decides to take a house in London, then sends Hicks there with instructions to find one and then staff it.

By this time, Thomas and Daniel have made their way to the Crown and Cloves Inn in Twyford, where Daniel’s pregnant wife, Betsy, works as a barmaid.  Worried that they could be recaptured, the men intend to go on the run, but then Betsy comes up with another idea.  Why not go to see Daniel’s uncle, who is in service in to the Countess of Wyckfield.  Surely he can find them places as domestics in that household or will be able to help them to find work elsewhere.  Nobody will be looking for Daniel and Thomas as domestic servants, and it’s surely got to be better than life on the run.

After a couple of small setbacks, Betsy, Daniel and Thomas are engaged by Hicks, and commence their lives as servants – Betsy as Upper Housemaid, the men as footmen – in the Countess of Wyckfield’s London house.  Thomas and Camilla’s first meeting does not go well – he mistakes her for a servant and flirts outrageously – and It’s immediately clear to Camilla that something is ‘off’ about Thomas; he’s not nearly deferential enough for a servant, and seems far too self-assured and accustomed to giving orders rather than taking them. The fact that she notices him more than she should, and is always conscious of his presence is… discomfiting, to say the least.

I liked both principals for the most part, although I frequently wanted to yell at Camilla to stand up to Ethelyn, who really has no hold or power over her – if anything it should be the other way around, seeing as the house belonged to the late Earl and he presumably left it to Camilla to live in for her lifetime. Camilla’s reasoning for continually giving in to her sister-in-law is weak – she even admits as much herself! – although fortunately, once she’s out of Ethelyn’s orbit, she does begin to assert herself more.  Thomas is kind, loyal and charming, although his inability to be properly servile lands him in hot water more than once, and I liked his affinity with Pippa who, it has to be said is an extremely precocious ten-year-old and wise beyond her years.

There are things to like about the story.  The writing is sprightly, and even though Ethelyn is terribly overbearing, she’s oddly entertaining; I found the information about the press gangs and naval procedure interesting and the book as a whole is very readable – but the big problem with The Counterfeit Husband is that it is rather short on romance. The interactions between Thomas and Camilla are very limited up until the point at which she asks him to pose as her husband – and even beyond it – and there’s no real sense of two people getting to know each other, let alone actually falling in love, which is why, ultimately, I can’t rate it more highly.

TBR Challenge: Mistletoe Marriage by Jessica Hart

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It could happen to you!

A CHRISTMAS WISH…

For Sophie Beckwith, Christmas this year means having to face the ex who dumped her and then married her sister! Only one person can help—her best friend Bram.

A YULETIDE PROPOSAL…

Bram used to be engaged to Sophie’s sister. Now, determined to show “the lovebirds” that they’ve moved on, he’s come up with a plan: he’s proposed—to Sophie!

A MISTLETOE MARRIAGE!

It’s crazy, but it would be only pretend…wouldn’t it? Now their wedding day is here and Sophie’s feelings for Bram have drastically changed. Her deepest wish now is for Bram to say “I do”—for real!

Rating: B

Time constraints meant I needed a quick read for this month’s TBR Challenge, and Jessica Hart’s Mistletoe Marriage (from 2005) proved to be just the thing.  It’s a charming, well-written and absorbing friends-to-lovers story set in the weeks before Christmas featuring a couple of engaging principals and a bit – not too much  – angst. I lapped it up in a couple of sittings one afternoon and came away from it with a happy sigh.

Bram and Sophie have been friends forever and are still besties, even though Sophie now lives and works in London and Bram works his small farm on the North Yorkshire Moors.  Sophie’s parents own a neighbouring farm, and she’s visiting for the weekend – taking the chance to do so knowing her sister Melissa and her new husband, Nick, are away so she won’t run into them.  Sophie and Nick had been engaged before she introduced him to Melissa – and even though she doesn’t resent her sister – or Nick – for falling in love, Sophie hasn’t been able to forget the way she’d felt when she was with Nick or move on. She also finds it difficult to cope with the fact that her conversations with Melissa always end up revolving around her guilt for ‘stealing’ Nick, and usually leave Sophie exhausted from the effort of trying to make her sister feel better.

With Christmas approaching, Sophie’s mother is pressuring Sophie to come home for the festivities and to see Melissa and Nick, whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding.  Sophie never told her parents about Nick, so they have no idea of the truth of the situation, and with it being her father’s seventieth birthday a couple of days before Christmas her mother is really turning the emotional thumbscrews to get Sophie to agree to visit and stay with them. Feeling guilty, tired and miserable, Sophie heads up to Haw Gill Farm to see Bram to pour out her woes. He’s always been easy to talk to, and his steady, dependable presence has never failed to bring her comfort.

During the course of a conversation in which they commiserate about the state of their love-lives (and the lack thereof), Sophie jokingly says she wishes she could marry Bram – and to her shock, he says that it’s not a bad idea.  They know each other better than anyone else, Sophie understands the rhythms of life on a farm and Bram needs help; it might not be a grand passion but they’d have friendship, comfort and companionship and they’d both know where they stand.

Surprised, Sophie finds herself actually considering the idea – before rejecting it, telling Bram he deserves someone “who believes in you and loves you completely for yourself” and that he shouldn’t settle for second best.  Bram can’t disagree with her – but is somewhat taken aback to realise he’s actually disappointed at her refusal.

Not long after this, when Sophie is back in her poky flat in London, she’s on the phone to Melissa, suffering through yet another of her sister’s guilt trips when the conversation turns to Bram and the possibility that he might be seeing an old acquaintance who has recently been dumped by her fiancé – and it’s too much for Sophie.  What with having to try to tiptoe around her sister’s upset and her own strangely conflicting feelings about Bram, she snaps and tells Melissa that she and Bram are getting married.

Oops.

Okay, so this story isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but it’s a fine example of a fake relationship/friends-to-lovers tale.  The characters are swiftly and skilfully drawn, and the author makes it easy to believe in the long-standing friendship between Bram and Sophie; their affection for one another and deep mutual understanding just leaps off the page. The book does have flaws – Nick is such a prick that it’s difficult to understand exactly why Sophie was so much in love with him, and there’s just a teeny bit of the martyr about Sophie in her tendency to give way to Melissa and believe herself to be somehow second-best – but those are really minor concerns.  The big thing for me in any friends-to-lovers story, is the way the author handles the Key Moment –the one where the friends realise they’re seeing each other as if for the first time and that he/she is gorgeous – and Jessica Hart does a great job with that, showing readers several small moments of realisation and growing attraction, as Bram and Sophie start to realise they’re seeing each other in a new light.  It’s a quiet, character-driven story; there’s no drawn-out Big Mis or unnecessary angst – the tangled relationships between Sophie, Melissa, Nick and Bram (a decade earlier, Bram and Melissa had been briefly engaged and Sophie worries he might still be carrying a torch for her sister) create enough tension to propel the story – and thankfully, Bram and Sophie are sufficiently mature and attuned to each other to not allow their niggling doubts to go unaddressed for too long.

Mistletoe Marriage is a quick, but satisfying read, Bram and Sophie are very likeable principals and their romance is easy to invest in.  It proved to be an excellent way to while away a couple of hours on a cold winter’s afternoon.