TBR Challenge: Block and Strike by Kelly Jensen

block and strikeThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Jacob Kendricks is three months out of prison, estranged from his daughter, and ready to get his life on track. Taking care of the bum curled up on his doorstep isn’t part of the plan. When he realizes the man has been assaulted, Jake takes him to the hospital, where he learns that Max is his downstairs neighbor… and that he could really use a friend. Keeping Max in the friend-zone would be easier if he wasn’t so damned cute.

Maxwell Wilson has been bullied for years, and the only person who ever cared lives too far away to come to his rescue. Now his upstairs neighbor is offering support. Max remains cautious, suspecting he is little more than a project for the handsome Jake. When he learns Jake has had boyfriends as well as girlfriends, Max has to reevaluate his priorities—and muster the courage to take a chance at love.

Just when a happy future is within their grasp, life knocks them back down. A devastating blow leaves Max lower than ever and Jake wrestling with regret. They both have to find the strength to stand on their own before they can stand together.

Rating: B

It’s the rare romance that features a character or characters without emotional baggage, so I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from when deciding on my book for this month’s TBR Challenge prompt. Kelly Jensen’s Block and Strike (2017) is a character driven hurt/comfort slow-burn romance that features two men who’ve been dealt crappy hands in life, and follows them as they tread a difficult and sometimes painful journey towards love and self-acceptance.

Jake Kendricks is three months out of prison and doing everything he can to get his life back on track. Coming home one night to find some bum passed out on his doorstep is more than inconvenient – he can’t exactly drag him along the alleyway onto the street without inviting questions that could land him back in trouble, so he settles for laying the guy in the recovery position and steps past him to open his front door. It’s only when the dim light of the hallway shows there’s blood on his sleeve and hand that Jake realises the guy outside must be injured rather than drunk or stoned – turning back, he can now see the guy looks like he’s been beaten to within an inch of his life. Starting to panic, Jake calls his sister Willa, who is a nurse, and asks her to come over, but when she arrives, she insists they have to go to the ER. Jake later finds out that the guy is his neighbour, Max Wilson, who moved into the crappy basement studio apartment of the building a month ago.

Around a year earlier, Max’s dad threw him out when he discovered him flirting with another guy, and Max moved to Philly intent on a fresh start and finally being himself, but somehow… he’s still hiding, still the small, runty kid who’s been bullied all his life and has learned it’s quicker and easier not to put up a fight. His dad only ever told him it would toughen him up, and Max is so used to being used as a punching bag that he doesn’t really think twice about being attacked on his doorstep; all he wants is to get out of the hospital and on with his small, insignificant life, but with a serious concussion, he won’t be allowed to leave unless he has someone to keep an eye on him. He’s frustrated and fretting about losing his job when the nurse – Willa something? – suggests that if he really wants to go home, she could ask her brother to come get him. Max is confused, until Willa explains that Jake is the one who found him and then drove him to the hospital. Max puts two and two together and works out that Jake is the gorgeous blond guy who lives upstairs, and protests even harder that he’s fine and can make his own way home. He doesn’t realise his protests have fallen on deaf ears until he’s discharged and makes his way outside on very shaky legs – to find Jake waiting for him.

Jake and Max have both been through a lot in their young lives (Jake is twenty-seven, Max twenty-two) and although it looks, at first, as though Jake has everything figured out and Max is a mess, as the story progresses, we discover that neither of those things is completely true. Or untrue. Behind Jake’s solid, dependable exterior lies a man who knows what it’s like to be broken; we don’t learn why he was in prison until later in the book so I’m not going to spoil it, but it’s clear that he’s still dealing with the issues that (in part) led to that happening and that he’s still got work to do. He’s kind, funny and protective; he’s never met anyone quite as stubborn as Max, yet he can’t help liking him and wanting to help him however he can – and that Max is really cute doesn’t hurt. Max hasn’t had anyone in his corner since his mother died, and seems to have accepted that his lot is just to take whatever crap life dishes out. He’s desperately lonely and can’t help wondering if he’s some kind of ‘project’ for Jake – who can’t, surely, be interested in a guy like him for any other reason – and it takes him a while to tamp down those insecurities and accept Jake’s overures of friendship as genuine.

The romance between Jake and Max is rooted in a strong friendship and is very much a slow-burn, which is absolutely right for who they are and what they’ve been through. Jake senses that the attraction he’s feeling towards Max may not be all one-sided, and the last thing he wants to do is to spook him, but Max is so up in his head with internalised homophobia and self-doubt that he gives off mixed signals. It takes a while for the two them to work things out, but it’s lovely when they do and there’s a real sense that they see each other for who they really are and that they’re exactly what the other needs – Max needs someone to help him learn to stand up for himself and Jake needs someone who doesn’t see him as the fuck up who let his temper screw up his life.

Kelly Jensen is one of those authors whose stories are often deceptively simple, the depth of the emotions and realism of the characters and situations almost taking the reader by surprise. She also manages to create characters who feel very authentic and nuanced, and Jake and Max are no exceptions. They’re beautifully developed – flawed and complicated with a genuine warmth and relatability – and their differences, Max’s prickliness and Jake’s kindness and compassion, really complement each other. I liked that Jake encourages Max to go with him to his martial arts group so he can learn some self-defence moves and maybe gain some self-confidence, and that he helps Max to see the core of inner strength and resliliance that enables him to keep getting up after the blows he’s been dealt.

For all the good things about the story – and there are a lot of them – there are a couple that have affected my final grade. One is that the people who attacked Max are never properly punished; the other is related to what landed Jake in prison, so I’m going to put it under a spoiler tag.

Click to read the spoiler

His ex-girlfriend Kate – the mother of his daughter – called him, crying, after her current boyfriend Dominick (who had always been possessive) hit her. Jake went over and beat him up, and was later convicted of assault. At the end of the book, we learn Kate has forgiven Dominick for what he did and that he’s vowed never to do it again – and part of Jake’s journey is accepting that. But I was uncomfortable with it – not only does it downplay the domestic abuse, it ignores the fact that Kate brought Jake into the situation, likely knowing what would happen as a result.

While that last thing didn’t affect my enjoyment of Jake and Max and their romance, I realise it might be problematic for some readers, which is why I’ve made mention of it here. In the end, though, Block and Strike is a charming, beautifully written romance, full of warmth, humour and genuine emotion, and well worth reading.

TBR Challenge: The Best Gift by Eli Easton

the best gift

This title may be purchased from Amazon

With help from a Christmas miracle, two bruised hearts find joy again.

Greg Cabot is the third generation to run Cabot’s Christmas Wonderland and tree farm in rural Vermont. But this year will be his last. Since the death of his son, Sam, in Afghanistan, Greg no longer has the heart to run a business based on holiday cheer. When he picks up a hitchhiking soldier on a snowy night, he finds the help he needs to get his farm through the holidays—and maybe much more.

Sergeant Robbie Sparks doesn’t have much to be thankful for this holiday season. Badly wounded in Afghanistan, he’s spent most of the past year in recovery and was discharged after ten years of service. When fate lands him at Cabot’s tree farm, he feels like he’s fallen into a snow globe reality. Friendly people, gorgeous trees, lots of Christmas kitsch… and Greg Cabot.

Greg believes he’s too heartbroken for romance, but those we love never truly leave us. A little nudge from heaven may help build a bridge for these two men trying to heal. If only they are willing to take that first step.

Rating: B+

Eli Easton is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for a while but hadn’t yet read – until this year when I read three of her books and was, on the whole, fairly impressed. That made my choice for this month’s festive prompt fairly easy after I found a copy of her 2021 Christmas novella, The Best Gift waiting for me on my Kindle!

The author packs some real emotional heft into the 150-odd pages of this heartwarming age-gap romance between bereaved father and a military veteran. It will bring a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat and will leave you sighing happily at the end.

It’s ten months since Greg Cabot’s nineteen-year-old son Sam was killed in Afghanistan, and Greg is still mired in grief. Bright, breezy, happy-go-lucky Sam was everything to Greg, and the plan was that he’d serve for two years and then come back to run the business with his dad, and eventually take it over and pass it to his own kids. Now, though, that future is gone and Greg is just going through the motions. Without Sam’s light, love and enthusiasm, he just doesn’t have the heart for selling comfort and joy any more, and has decided that this will be his final year of opening Cabot’s for business. He doesn’t know what to do with his life now Sam is gone, and plans to put the land up for sale in January.

Sergeant Robbie Sparks was badly injured in an explosion in Afghanistan and has spent the last ten months in hospital and rehab recovering and learning how to walk again. He’s worked hard to get as far as he has, but, frustratingly, there are pieces of his memory missing he’s never going to get back.

Greg is driving into town in heavy snow when he notices a man limping along the side of the road – a man in uniform with a military green duffel slung over his shoulder. Greg pulls over and offers the man – Robbie – a ride and a bed for the night; it’s what Sam would want, even though Greg would rather be on his own.

The next morning, Robbie gets up and gets his gear together preparing to head out. Greg has thoughtfully left him some breakfast, and as Robbie is clearing up, he watches Greg outside, hauling trees to the baler, arrying them to customer’s cars… it’s hard work, and there’s a big queue of people waiting, so Robbie goes outside and offers a hand, as recompense for Greg’s hospitality. When the rush has died down, Robbie sees the “help wanted” ad in the window of the store, and asks if he can stay on until Christmas. Greg is only too pleased to have him stay on.

The Best Gift is a quiet, but deeply emotional story about two wounded souls falling in love and helping each other to find the direction and meaning in life they’re both lacking. The slow burn romance between Greg and Robbie is superbly done; they both feel a definite spark of attraction at their first meeting, which is kind of a revelation for each of them because grief and trauma have meant that neither man has felt much of anything for quite some time, but the author doesn’t rush it, and takes time to create a genuine connection and understanding between them as they work alongside each other and share meals and spend time together at the end of the day. The setting of the Christmas tree farm adds a lovely festive feel to the story, and in the scenes where Greg shows Robbie around the fields and talks about all the trees and the planting and his grandfather’s vision, you can feel his deep love of the place and how much of a wrench it will be to let it go. But then he begins to see the place afresh through Robbie’s eyes, to re-open his eyes to just how special it is, and to find that all the memories wrapped up in it are no longer quite as painful as they once were. There’s a little twist near the end that eagle-eyed readers will already have guessed, and of course, Greg and Robbie get their own Christmas miracle as they realise they’ve found the best gift of all in each other.

Heartbreaking and uplifting, The Best Gift is a beautiful story about second chances and moving on, about family and traditions, and about hope and love and new beginnings featuring characters who are fully fleshed-out and feel very real. If you’re looking for an emotional story that eschews the sickly sweetness that is found in so many Christmas romances, I heartily recommend this one.

TBR Challenge: When Love is Blind (Warrender Saga #3) by Mary Burchell

when love is blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Dreams have been dashed…

Antoinette Burney, a more than promising music student, is disappointed and furious when the famous concert pianist Lewis Freemont fails her in an exam.

To make matters worse, he tells her forthrightly that she will never make the grade as a professional pianist

Her hopes and dreams of success and notoriety are all destroyed in a single blow.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to forgive him.

But it would seem that fate has other ideas and the tables are quickly turned, making Antoinette the innocent cause of the accident that, in destroying Lewis Freemont’s sight, destroys his career as well.

Subdued by his debilitating condition and the knowledge that he will never play the piano again, Lewis quickly becomes a shell of his former self.

Horrified and remorseful, when Antoinette gets a chance to make some sort of amends — by becoming Lewis’s secretary — she seizes it with both hands.

Just when she thought life couldn’t get any more complicated, Antoinette soon finds herself falling in love with the man that only a few weeks ago, she despised.

But what will Lewis do when, as inevitably he must, he discovers who she really is?

Full of hope and broken dreams, When Love is Blind is a heartfelt tale about never giving up.

Rating: B-

I’ve read a couple of the books in Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga for the TBR Challenge, and picked up another one – the third – for this month’s prompt – “Lies”. The thing that keeps me coming back to this series is the way the author writes about music, musicians and the world of the professional performer, but the romances are tame by today’s standards, and, as I’ve remarked before, the heroes can feel like secondary characters because the stories are all about the heroine’s journey and are written from her PoV. And even though some of the language and attitudes are outdated now, reading them is oddly comforting; they play out in my head like old black-and-white films from the 1940s or 1950s, with their stiff-upper-lips and portrayals of glamourous lifestyles (okay, so this book dates from 1967, but it could easily have been set a decade or two earlier; there’s no real sign it’s the “swinging sixties”!)

The heroine of When Love is Blind is twenty-year-old aspiring concert pianist Antoinette Burnley. Having shown a prodgious talent at a young age, she’s spent pretty much all her young life making music, but all her dreams come crashing down around her ears when her idol (and long-time crush), Lewis Fremont, fails her in an exam, saying her performance is akin to that of “a clever automaton without glimmer of the divine spark.”

Deep down, Antoinette knows he’s right – somewhere along the line, she lost her connection to the heart and soul of the music and focused entirely on developing an outstanding technique – but even so, she’s deeply hurt and can’t now conceive of making a musical career. She decides to make a drastic change, and enrolls on a secretarial course.

Several months later on a day out, Antoinette finds herself in Lewis Fremont’s neck of the woods; she’s crossing the road opposite his hose when a car comes racing around the bend towards her, swerves to avoid her and spins out of control. She’d already recognised the car as that belonging to Fremont – rushing over to see if she can help, finds him alive, but unable to see and then goes to get help. Feeling scared, guilty and completely overwhelmed, she watches from afar as Fremont is carried from the wreckage, but doesn’t return to the wreckage

A few days later, Antoinette’s is offered a job as Lewis Fremont’s secretary. Her immediate response is to refuse – but then she thinks that perhaps working for Fremont and helping him in whatever way she can will atone, in some small way, for the accident, which she regards as her fault.

On her first day, Antoinette is shaken to find Fremont so subdued, so miserable and helpless, although perhaps it’s not surprising considering his life has been completely turned upside-down. He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to play for an audience ever again, his pride stinging at the idea of having to be led to the piano, “fumbling” to find his place at the keyboard. Antoinette shocks herself by immediately tells him not to be so arrogant and self-pitying – and to her surprise, Fremont actually takes her rebuke in (mostly) good part. Later, Fremont’s manager Gordon Everleigh suggests to Antoinette that she should do whatever she can to encourage him to remain positive, to excite his interest and participation – they’re united in their aim to get him back on to the concert platform

The turning point comes when Antoinette finally agrees to play for Fremont. She’d turned him down the first time he asked, but this time, she sees a way that might provide exactly the encouragement Everleigh was talking about; she agrees to play the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata but then says he’ll have to play the third, because she isn’t up to it. And sure enough, playing for her brings everything back and sets Fremont on the path back to re-entering the musical world.

The book fits the prompt because, of course, Fremont has no idea that his “Toni” as she asks him to call her, is the same girl who inadvertently caused his accident. He recalls her vaguely – he’d seen her standing in the road – and recognised her then as the student he’d failed and who had subsequently appeared at the front of the audience at several of his concerts. He believes her to have been stalking him and planning some kind of revenge, and is absolulely determined to find her, so of course, and as all liars do, Antoinette finds herself having to propogate more falsehoods in order to keep her identity a secret.

I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said, the focus on music and the way the author writes about it work really well for me, so the main reason for the middling grade on this one is that the romance is very rushed. The growing friendship between Antoinette and Fremont has a solid foundation in their mutual love of music, and of his appreciation for her good sense and willingness to challenge him and stand her ground, but the declaration (his) comes out of the blue around half way through and was one of those ‘wait – what?’ moments where I had to backtrack and check I hadn’t missed a couple of chapters.

Speaking of the things that didn’t work for me, the ending is also rushed, and the writing during the ‘accident’ scene at the beginning is really clunky; I get that it’s exposition, but it was hard to take it seriously. The same is true of the scene near the end in which

(highlight to read) he regains his sight

and from then on it’s a mad rush to the end.

I did like the two leads, though. Antoinette is a believable twenty, with all the uncertainty, self-consciousness and self-absorption that come with being young, and I was really rooting for her as she re-discovers the inner musicality she’d lost sight of, the ability to play from the heart rather from the head, and how her finding her way back to it mirrors her growth as a character. Fremont is your musical genius in the Warrender mould, a true artist at the top of his profession with the arrogance and artistic temperment to go with it – and yet he’s a fair man (he could have phrased his comment in Antoinette’s exam better, but what he said was the truth) he’s fairly down-to-earth and while he can be a but snappish at times, he’s not intentionally cruel – and I liked that Antoinette doesn’t take any crap from him. She may have started out as Fremont’s secretary, but she slowly becomes his support and his beacon of hope as he works to get back to performing.

I can’t say When Love is Blind was a resounding success, but it was worth reading.

TBR Challenge: Safe Passage by Loreth Anne White

safe passageThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Wounded government agent Scott Armstrong hated his newest assignment–baby-sitting beautiful scientist Dr. Skye Van Rijn. He missed the excitement of working in the field, his only salvation from the tragedy that haunted his dreams. But the mission turned dangerous when he discovered an evil terrorist was also after the mysterious doctor.

Skye was a genius at developing biological antidotes to new diseases. Her tender touch and warm body soon began to heal Scott’s battered heart, but the deadly secrets she hid put them both at risk, forcing them to run for their lives. As their enemy closed in, Scott had to choose between his loyalties to his job and his passion for the woman who’d saved his soul.

Rating: B-

I’m a big fan of Loreth Anne White’s romantic suspense titles (although she now seems to have moved to writing just “suspense” without the romance part) – and as I’d decided to read a romantic suspense novel for the flirting with danger prompt this month, I went for one of her early Harlequin titles. Safe Passage, originally published in 2004, boasts a gripping, fast-moving plot that has clearly been very well researched, and two interesting protagonists, but the romance is rushed – something I’ve complained about in other category-length romantic suspense novels – and includes some really wince-inducing cheesy dialogue that kept taking me out of the story.

But first things first; the plot of Safe Passage is compelling, one of those ripped-from-the-headlines stories that is scarily plausible. A deadly disease has attacked the US cattle industry and shows signs of being transmissible to humans and now, a plague of whitefly is making its way towards the US border, an epidemic that could devastate the farming industry, lead to widespread food shortages and have a catastrophic effect on trade and the financial stability of the country. Dutch etymologist Dr. Skye Van Rijn is one of those working round-the-clock to find a way to counter the infestation, and at last, she thinks she’s found it. No-one knows where the whitefly has come from and so far, no-one has found a natural predator to counteract it, so Skye has engineered one, adapting a beetle from Asia and breeding it in her lab at Kepplar Biological Control Systems. The project is in the final testing stage, but Skye’s boss is trying to rush the process, desperate to gain the literal fortune that’s going to be paid to whoever can find the solution to the infestation.

Scott Armstrong is an operative for Bellona Channel, an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to fighting bio-crime and bio-terrorism. A serious injury sustained on his last mission means Scott can no longer operate in the field, so his boss has assigned him what Scott thinks of as a babysitting gig – to keep an eye on Skye Van Rijn, a brilliant scientist with possible links to a worldwide terrorist organisation. Scott – in the guise of author, Scott McIntyre – is moving into the house next door to Skye’s and is carrying some stuff inside when he’s startled by an unfamiliar voice behind him; reacting instinctively, he barely stops himself throwing the knife he always keeps in his boot and finds himself face to face with the most striking woman he’s ever seen, a woman whose movements and body language clearly show her to be as adept at wielding a weapon as he is. Scott conceals his surprise when she introduces herself as Skye Van Rijn, his neighbour, and refuses to identify the strange hollowness he feels in his gut when she tells him she’s getting married the day after next.

Both protagonists are carrying a lot of emotional baggage, Skye as the result of the past she’s been running from for a decade, Scott from the deaths of his wife and child in an accident nine years before. The two of them are understandably wary of each other even as their mutual attraction is pulling them together; Scott wants to believe Skye played no part in the dissemination of the cattle plague and that her work into countering the whitefly epidemic is genuine, but there’s too much evidence – albeit circumstantial evidence – against her for him to be able to believe in her completely. And Skye has learned the hard way that the only person she can really trust is herself; she doesn’t want to be attracted to Scott and she doesn’t want to need his help. When her fiancé leaves her at the altar and she hares off on her Harley, Scott is compelled to find her and comfort her (while telling himself it’s his job to find out whatever he can about her) and when she realises she’s being followed and fears it’s her past catching up with her it’s to Scott she turns for help while making sure to tell him as little of the truth as possible. Scott knows she’s being deliberately evasive, and insists she levels with him so he knows what he’s getting into while also knowing he can use her fear to find out what he needs to know.

Deception is a commonly used trope in romantic suspense, and sometimes it’s used for very good reason, but I realise that for some it’s a no-no regardless of circumstance. It’s not usually a problem for me, but Scott does a couple of things that didn’t sit at all well, and I really didn’t care for Skye’s ‘how dare he lie to me’ attitude once she finds out who he really is. She’s been lying to him for just as long as he’s been lying to her and two wrongs don’t make a right. The level of deception they engage in is one of the reasons the romance didn’t work for me; another is that they go from complete strangers to ILYs in about three days, and there’s so much emphasis on how Scott/Skye ‘made him/her feel things he’d/she’d never felt before’ that my eyes hurt from the rolling.

While the romance is rushed, the plot is well done with real insight into the potential effects of eco-terrorism on the world’s agriculture and food supply. Skye’s background is fascinating and the more we learn about it and what she’s been through, the easier it is to understand her trust issues and her desire for a normal life.  I did, however, have to wonder why a supposedly brilliant and intelligent woman didn’t realise her fiancé was a dodgy bastard. Scott is more of a stereotype though; devastated by grief, he has eschewed emotional involvement – until Skye comes along and something about her starts to melt his frozen heart. *eyeroll*

With fascinating storylines, a badass heroine and movie-style climax, Safe Passageis a cut above the other category romantic suspense novels I’ve read, but the limited page count doesn’t allow the author to achieve a proper balance between the romance and the suspense plot.  Read it for the story and try not to groan too much at the cheesiness of the romance.

TBR Challenge – Pressure Head (Plumber’s Mate Mysteries #1) by J.L. Merrow

pressure head

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some things are better left hidden….

Tom Paretski’s not just a plumber with a dodgy hip courtesy of a schoolboy accident. He also has a sixth sense for finding hidden things. Called in by the police to help locate a body near Brock’s Hollow, he’s staggered to encounter Phil Morrison, his old school crush—and the closeted bully whose actions contributed to Tom’s accident.

Phil’s all grown up now, and Tom’s unwilling attraction to him is back with a vengeance. Phil’s now openly gay—and what’s more, he’s interested in Tom’s personal charms as well as his psychic talents. As a private investigator called in by the dead woman’s parents, Phil is sceptical about Tom’s unusual gift, but nevertheless quick to spot its potential to aid him in his work.

The further they go with the investigation, the less they can ignore their shared past, and the more the pressure and the heat build between them. But Tom isn’t certain he wants to know the secrets he’s helping to uncover, while there’s a murderer on the loose who won’t hesitate to kill again—and this uneasy couple is moving right into his sights.

Rating: B+

I was pretty stumped by this month’s prompt – Animals – not because I don’t like animals, but because I’m not especially drawn to books in which they feature heavily. So my choice this month is kind of ‘animal adjacent’ – the main character has two cats named Arthur and Merlin, which is about as close as I could get!

J.L. Merrow’s Plumber’s Mate Mysteries series consists of six books written between 2012 and 2021 (and I don’t know if book six was the final one) and the PoV character is indeed a plumber, Tom Paretsky, who lives and works in a village near St. Albans in Hertfordshire. But he’s a plumber with a difference; he has some sort of sixth sense that enables him to find things – hidden things, usually, all the guilt and shame and sneakiness involved in the hiding acting as a kind of beacon that often tells him what the hidden thing is likely to be.

He was only six when he found a dead body for the first time.

When Pressure Head begins, Tom receives a call from Dave Southgate, a plain clothes copper who has become a mate, of sorts, asking him for help locating a young woman by the name of Melanie Porter, who has been reported missing. An anonymous tip has led the police to search the woodland near Melanie’s home – but before Tom can get started, he and Southgate are approached by a tall, blond, good-looking man Tom eventually recognises – with a sinking heart – as Phil Morrison, who, when they were at school, was one of the gang of bullies who made his life a misery. Seeing Phil again brings a lot of unpleasant memories back for Tom – not least of which is being hit by a car while he was running from the gang and landing in hospital with a broken pelvis. Southgate is pissed off as well – because Morrison is an ex-copper-turned-private-investigator who has been hired by the Porters to find their daughter, and he doesn’t want him interfering in a police investigation. Tom and Phil waste no time in sniping at each other before Southgate breaks it up and hauls Tom off into the woods – where he finds Melanie’s body.

Tom doesn’t expect to see Phil again – so he’s surprised when he turns up on his doorstep the next morning to tell Tom that Melanie’s parents have asked to meet him. Tom isn’t sure what good he can do – and tells Phil that – but having learned the day before that an old schoolmate is in the frame for the murder, and wanting to do right by him, he agrees to go anyway and to continue to help Phil out with the investigation.

The mystery here is not overly complex, but it’s engaging and kept me guessing along with Tom and Phil as they work their way towards finding out the truth. In many ways, it’s your typical English-country-village cozy mystery (think Midsomer Murders!) – except that the protagonist is a slightly psychic gay plumber with a dodgy hip and a nice line in snark – combined with a burgeoning romance and more than a hint of comedy.

Tom is the sole narrator and I loved his voice. He’s endearingly self-deprecating and funny with a nice turn of descriptive phrase:

By six o’clock the butterflies in my stomach had mutated into flying elephants all flapping around like Dumbo drunk on champagne.

He’s a great character with a strong moral compass and an air of innocence about him despite a bit of a world-weary exterior. He’s angry at discovering that Phil – who had coined the nickname “Poofski at school and been one of his leading tormentors – is queer himself and that the intervening years haven’t done quite enough to enable Tom to forget the stupid crush he had on Phil back then, or prevent it from coming back. We don’t get into Phil’s head, which makes him harder to get to know, but the author does a great job of telling us what we need to know through what she shows us of him through Tom’s eyes, that he’s tightly wound and carrying a fair bit of baggage – and that he is equally smitten with Tom. They have great chemistry and their romance is very much a slow-burn, which makes perfect sense given they’ve got a lot to work through, and I appreciated that even when they start getting on better, the hurt and the bitterness and resentment don’t simply disappear. They’ll be getting along fine when something will trip them up and they lash out, which felt realistic under the circumstances. Healing is a slow process.

Tom and Phil are both complex, flawed individuals, and although Tom is the easier to like of the two, Phil’s character development is really well done. There’s a small but well-drawn secondary cast, too; I enjoyed Tom’s friendship with Southgate, and Tom’s best friend Gary – a campanologist – and his new boyfriend Julian, a dwarf ex-porn star with attitude for miles – are a hoot.

Pressure Head is a lot of fun, and ends with the mystery solved and a firm HFN for Tom and Phil. I definitely plan to continue with the series.

TBR Challenge – What Remains by Garrett Leigh

what remains

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Web designer Jodi Peters is a solitary creature. Lunch twice a week with his ex-girlfriend-turned-BFF and the occasional messy venture to a dodgy gay bar is all the company he needs, right?

Then one night he stumbles across newly divorced firefighter Rupert O’Neil. Rupert is lost and lonely, but just about the sweetest bloke Jodi has ever known. Add in the heady current between them, and Jodi can’t help falling hard in love. He offers Rupert a home within the walls of his cosy Tottenham flat—a sanctuary to nurture their own brand of family—and for four blissful years, life is never sweeter.

Until a cruel twist of fate snatches it all away. A moment of distraction leaves Jodi fighting for a life he can’t remember and shatters Rupert’s heart. Jodi doesn’t know him—or want to. With little left of the man he adores, Rupert must cling to what remains of his shaky faith and pray that Jodi can learn to love him again.

Rating: B+

Garrett Leigh’s What Remains is a touching, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story about a couple who are forced to rebuild their lives and relationship after one of them is involved in a serious accident. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages so this month’s “Blue Collar” prompt gave me the excuse to push it to the top of the TBR because one of the leads is a fireman, although his job doesn’t feature heavily in the story.

Late at night one Boxing Day Jodi Peters stumbles, somewhat worse for wear, out of the dodgy gay bar just round the corner from his home in Tottenham (North London). He’s started walking (none too steadily) when he a fight breaks out in front of the pub up the road and he  watches as the pub’s bouncer – tall, blond and the hottest guy Jodi has ever seen – breaking it up. Sitting at the bus stop opposite (although he doesn’t need to catch a bus), Jodi watches calmly through his buzz until the police have arrived to pick up the troublemakers; he’s still there when the pub closes. The bouncer – whose name is Rupert – approaches Jodi and asks if he’s alright, and when Jodi says he lives just round the corner, offers to see him home. It’s well past midnight, but Jodi can’t quite bring himself to say goodnight and invites Rupert in for a coffee; they get talking and Rupert admits that he’s only recently come out – and that it hasn’t gone down well with his family. Jodi can sympathise. He’s bisexual but has only really become comfortable with the part of him that’s attracted to guys in the last couple of years. Rupert is gorgeous, he’s a bit awkward and a lot sweet, and Jodi is completely smitten. After sharing a passionate kiss – Rupert’s first with a bloke – they part, but not before Jodi tells Rupert to come by the next day and maybe they can pick up where they left off.

It’s a month before Rupert and Jodi meet again, and over pizza and a cuppa, they fill each other in on their jobs – Jodi’s a web-designer, Rupert’s a fireman – and talk about their lives in general – Rupert has a daughter with his ex (who is a bit of a cow, frankly), while Jodi’s most recent ex- girlfriend is now his best mate. The chemistry and attraction crackles between them and over the following weeks and months they get to know each other, and being with Jodi helps Rupert to start to feel better about himself and being himself. They’re head-over-heels for each other; they eventually move in together, Jodi gets on well with Rupert’s daughter and they’re very happy for the next four years – until Jodi sustains a TBI (traumatic brain injury) after being hit by a car.

I really liked the way the first part of the book is structured as we switch between timelines, seeing, in a series of vignettes, the progression of Jodi and Rupert’s relationship from their first meeting up until the point everything undergoes that devastating change, alternating with Rupert’s thoughts and feelings as he sits at Jodi’s bedside waiting and hoping for him to wake from his coma. I like flashbacks as a narrative device when they’re done as well as they are here, and the author does a great job of rounding out their past relationship before going on to contrast it so strongly with what happens next.

The second part of the story is told in linear fashion, and it starts from the moment Jodi wakes up calling for Sophie, his ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend. Jodi thinks he and Sophie are still a couple and he has no idea who Rupert is or that he’s bisexual – all he knows is frustration and annoyance that this bloke he doesn’t know – and doesn’t want to know – is hovering over him instead of Sophie. Jodi has lost the memories of the last five years of his life, and you can feel Rupert’s heart breaking every time Jodi rejects him – especially as he’s not at all kind or subtle about it. He’s a completely different person to the one who fell for Rupert and his personality changes are really well portrayed – before the accident, he’s funny, hard-working and almost obsessively neat; after it, he’s an aggressive slob who lashes out all the time and can’t be bothered with even the most basic cleanliness – personal and in his surroundings.

The weeks go by and there’s no sign that Jodi is regaining any of his memories of Rupert or the life they’d built together over the past four years. Rupert’s quiet devastation is palpable, but he does whatever he has to do in order to stay strong and not to fall apart, accepting his role-change from partner to carer without complaint. Maybe he’s a bit too good to be true, but in his PoV, we’re privy to his frustration and sorrow and anger, and to the mental toll the situation is taking on him – but he has to lock it down to be able to keep caring for Jodi, no matter how cold or uncaring Jodi is. Like anyone pushed to their limits, however, there does come a point when Rupert starts to wonder if things are ever going to change and if he’s going – somehow – to have to move on.

Without giving away too much, the eventual HEA in this story is really well done, and I liked, very much, that it’s not the HEA you might expect in that there’s no magical cure for Jodi’s memory loss. Instead, we get to watch Jodi and Rupert slowly finding their way back to each other as Jodi, through determination and hard work, accepts the things that have changed, begins to regain control of his life and, eventually, and with Rupert’s constant love and support, makes a new one.

What Remains is a compelling read and one I enjoyed a great deal. The two leads are, for the most part, likeable and sympathetic, and the insight into how such a life-changing injury affects not only the injured but also their loved ones, is articulated very well. There’s humour, warmth and hope sprinkled in among the darker, angstier moments so that the story is never mired in misery, and I always love reading dialogue that feels familiar in its rhythms and idioms – I feel I’m reading about people I could conceiveably have met or lived down the road from. If you’re in the mood for some hurt/comfort and a rocky path to happiness, I definitely recommend this one.

TBR Challenge: Lost & Found by Liv Rancourt

lost and found

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A dancer who cannot dance and a doctor who cannot heal find in each other the strength to love.

History books will call it The Great War, but for Benjamin Holm, that is a misnomer. The war is a disaster, a calamity, and it leaves Benjamin profoundly wounded, his mind and memory shattered. A year after Armistice, still struggling to regain his mental faculties, he returns to Paris in search of his closest friend, Elias.

Benjamin meets Louis Donadieu, a striking and mysterious dance master. Though Louis is a difficult man to know, he offers to help Benjamin. Together they search the cabarets, salons, and art exhibits in the newly revitalized city on the brink of les années folles (the Crazy Years). Almost despite himself, Benjamin breaches Louis’s defenses, and the two men discover an unexpected passion.

As his memory slowly returns, Benjamin will need every ounce of courage he possesses to recover Elias’s story. He and Louis will need even more than that to lay claim to the love – and the future – they deserve.

Rating: B

Set in Paris shortly after the end of World War One, Lost & Found is the story of a traumatised young American doctor who returns to Paris to search for his best friend, who has been missing since before war ended. It’s the compelling story of one man’s search for so much more than an absent friend and expertly intertwines that search with a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance. The setting of post-war Paris is so perfectly captured that the city feels like a character in its own right, and the pervasive sense of melancholy adds poignancy without being overwhelming.

Benjamin Holm, a Harvard-educated doctor, and his childhood friend Elias Simmons joined up to fight before the US entered the war and travelled to the front together. But as far as Ben can recall, he returned home alone after the Armistice, and now, a year later, he’s back in Paris intent on finding Elias, whom he hasn’t seen since… he can’t quite recall. He’s easily confiused and his memory is impaired; he knows there are things he can’t remember and is frustrated by that, but the one thing he’s clear on is that he needs to find Elias. He has nothing to go on really, just a vague recollection that they’d agreed to meet up there after the war; knowing that Elias liked to paint, Ben decides to ask around the artistic community and to scour the city until he finds him. To that end, he wanders the streets, showing a battered photo of his friend to all and sundry in the hope someone will have seen him.

Ben is renting a small apartment in Montmartre from Madame Beatrice, a genial lady who takes more than a passing interest in her tenants and who suggests that another of them, Louis Donadieu – Ben’s downstairs neighbour – might be able to help in Ben’s search. Ben is surprised – whenever he’s encountered the handsome and enigmatic Donadieu he’s been prickly and rather abrupt – but sure enough, the next morning, he approaches Ben over breakfast and offers his help. Mme. Beatrice clearly has excellent powers of persuasion.

As the two men spend time together walking around the city, sharing meals and just talking. they begin to know and understand each other, learning about their losses and fears. Ben is glad to have Louis with him, to have the assistance of someone who knows the city so well, but there’s also something else there, an attraction that’s clear to the reader in the way Ben admires Louis’ grace and dark good looks, but which Ben ruthlessly squashes. It’s just as clear that the attraction is mutual, and that Louis is more than a little bit jealous of the loyaty and affection Ben feels for his missing friend. But Ben’s memories continue to prove elusive, and it emerges that some of those gaps are very specific; whenever he tries to recall the last time he saw Elias, how they parted, even how the war ended – nothing.  And the more he tries to remember about his relationship with Elias, the more it eludes him. It’s confusing and frustrating – and terrifying.

Ben’s amnesia and PTSD are extremely well conveyed, and there’s a very real sense that the single-mindedness of his search for Elias is his sub-conscious’ way of preventing himself from thinking about things he doesn’t want to dwell on.  Clearly,  there was something more between Ben and Elias than friendship, but that Ben has closed his mind to that possibility – which is perhaps not all that surprising given the time period – although the author shows, in subtle ways, that Ben is more aware of his sexual orientation than he admits even to himself. She does a terrific job when it comes to showing Ben’s sense of unease, the disconectedness he feels from his past and his uncertainty about his future. His frustration at not being able to remember, and later, his horror when bits of memory begin to bleed through, are palpable, and the truth of what actually happened is both terrible and heartbreaking.

Louis comes across as arrogant to start with and he’s very blunt in a way that’s actually good for Ben, because he doesn’t coddle him or hold back from making Ben think about things he doesn’t want to think about. He’s prickly but sweet and vulnerable, too, having suffered his share of loss, albeit in different ways. He had been a rising star in the ballet world until he contracted polio – which almost killed him and ended what could have been a glittering career. Even though we never get into his head – Ben’s is the sole PoV – we’re able to feel his grief and sadness at the loss, and can see that his aloofness and insistence that “men like us seldom take things seriously” are a form of self-protection, walls behind which to hide the true extent of his feelings to Ben.

Their slow-burn romance is nicely done; a tentative friendship underpinned with unacknowledged – on Ben’s part at least – attraction that evolves into more. The constant presence of Elias in the background doesn’t impinge on it or turn it into a love triangle (thankfully!); it serves as a catalyst – for Ben and Louis to spend time together and for Ben to start to rediscover his sexuality – and adds tension to the story in a way that feels natural and convincing.

While I had a few small niggles – I’m sorry, but I can never read the word “organ” without laughing (I even wrote a blog a few years back about awful euphemisms in romance novels) – I only had one major issue with the book, which is the sometimes stilted, overly formal manner Ben has of expressing himself. That sort of formaility is in keeping with the time period, it’s true, but Ben even thinks formally when he’s in his own head, and when that happened I found it difficult to feel a connection with him; he talks/thinks about himself in a way that feels as though he’s talking or thinking about someone else. This put him at something of a remove, which, for a first person protagonist we’re supposed to sympathise with, made for an odd choice.

That’s my only real reservation, however. Lost & Found is heartfelt and bittersweet, a lovely and ultimately uplifting story of love, healing and acceptance.

TBR Challenge: Mr. Warren’s Profession by Sebastian Nothwell

mr. warren's profession

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lindsey Althorp, the only son of a wealthy baronet, has never worked a day in his life. Aubrey Warren was born in a workhouse and hasn’t stopped working since.

When Lindsey wins a textile mill in a game of cards, he falls at first sight for the assistant clerk, Aubrey. Lindsey is certain that Aubrey is the Achilles to his Patroclus, the David to his Jonathan. Yet Aubrey, unaccustomed to affection, refuses to be a kept man-though he isn’t immune to Lindsey’s considerable charm.

Buoyed by Lindsey’s optimism and fuelled by Aubrey’s industry, the two men strive to overcome the class gulf between them. But a horrific accident reveals a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart forever.

Rating: B+

For the Tales of Old prompt, I went for the obvious and picked up an historical romance I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is set at the end of the nineteenth century and is as much about the difficulties of two people from very different ends of the social spectrum being together as it is about the problems inherent in a relationship between two men at that time.  It’s well written – despite a few Americanisms – and obviously well-researched, the wealth of background detail carefully integrated into the story in order to create a wonderfully strong sense of time and place.

Aubrey Warren works as a clerk at a textile mill in Manchester.  He’s very good at his job, extremely diligent and hard-working – and used to doing the work of two since the other office clerk is lazy and only has the job because of his family connections.  But Aubrey is at least content – and doesn’t expect happiness.  He’s come from nothing – he was brought up in the workhouse – to a responsible position that provides him with income enough to live decently, if not well, and has dreams of one day becoming an engineer. His quiet and unassuming life is suddenly blown apart by the appearance of Lindsey Althorp, the son of a baronet, who has won the mill in a card game, and who actually takes an interest in the place, much to Aubrey’s surprise.

Lindsey had no idea of becoming involved in the business of the mill, but that changes the moment he lays eyes on the beautiful, dark-eyed clerk sitting at a desk in the office and is immediately smitten.  It’s a defining moment for Lindsey;  for the first time in his life, he feels a true and strong desire for another person, and like a bolt from the blue, it crystallises the truth – that he is, and always has been, attracted to men.  He’s well aware that’s something that must be hidden, but in the first flush of infatuation, in his overwhelming desire to see and spend time with Aubrey, Lindsey behaves less than discreetly – requesting several tours of the factory and anything else he can think of that will put him into Aubrey’s company.

While Aubrey is every bit as attracted to Lindsey as Lindsey is to him, he tries hard to distance himself, and it’s easy to understand why. He knows full well that Lindsey’s marked attention to him could have serious repercussions and knows how easy it would be for him to lose even the little he has should anyone suspect where his interest lies.  The precariousness of his situation as someone of lower social standing, without family or other support system is well articulated and well-contrasted with Lindsey’s; a relationship with another man would be risky for both of them, but Lindsey has the ‘safety net’ of family, wealth and title that Aubrey does not.  But Lindsey’s warmth, enthusiasm and sheer joy in their connection are hard to resist; it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself to feel just about anything – and before long, Aubrey can’t find it in him to deny himself the happiness he longs for.

While Aubrey and Lindsey get together somewhat quickly, there’s still plenty of relationship development going on and there’s no denying the strength of the love and affection they find in each other.  They’re from completely different worlds, but Lindsey is so wonderfully supportive of Aubrey and wants the world for him; and Aubrey, once he allows himself to love Lindsey, does so with his whole heart.  As I said at the beginning, the historical context here is well-done, with full acknowledgement of the risks of pursuing a homosexual relationship at this time, and the class difference between the two principals just makes things even more difficult. Men of equal status spending time together in public would not have been looked at askance, but a baronet’s son and a lowly clerk?  Very suspicious indeed.

So there are, of course, a lot of obstacles in the way of their HEA, from interfering and well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) friends, to a jealous and ill-intentioned colleague to a villainous blackmail plot.  There’s loss and heartbreak, but the author pulls everything together with great skill to reach a very satisfying conclusion in which Aubrey and Lindsey get their well-deserved HEA (and the villain gets his equally deserved comeuppance!)

There’s a strongly characterised secondary cast and lots of fascinating historical detail, ranging from the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Post Office boys, to advances in engineering, the work of the mill and incipient worker’s rights, in such a way that it never feels didactic or info-dump-y. However, there were a few things that stretched my credulity a bit –  for example, Lindsey’s father and sister realising he was an ‘invert’ before he did and his father’s plan to ‘protect’ him from that knowledge by not sending him off to Eton, and his sister’s habit of employing handsome, similarly inclined footmen so Lindsey could, er, sow his wild oats discreetly!  Then there’s the ease and frequency with which the characters travel between London and Manchester by train, seemingly just to spend the day there (Google tells me it takes between two and two-and-a-half hours now, but it must have been more than that back then?) and not only that, but surely Aubrey couldn’t have afforded to travel between Manchester and London and Wiltshire (where Lindsey owns a house) so often.

In the end, however, those are fairly minor concerns, more ‘things I noticed’ than ‘things that spoiled the book for me’.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is an enjoyable historical romance filled with interesting period detail, and Aubrey and Lindsey are a likeable couple who are easy to root for.  I really enjoyed their growth as characters and as a couple, together with the story’s focus on their deepening emotional connection and how they surmount the obstacles on their path to happiness.  If you’ve enjoyed books by KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, I’d definitely suggest giving this one a try.

TBR Challenge: Galaxies and Oceans by N.R. Walker

galaxies and oceans

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Seizing his one chance to escape, Ethan Hosking leaves his violent ex-boyfriend, leaves his entire life, and walks into the path of a raging bushfire. Desperate to start over, a new man named Aubrey Hobbs walks out of the fire-ravaged forest, alive and alone. With no ID and no money, nothing but his grandfather’s telescope, he goes where the Southern Cross leads him.

Patrick Carney is the resident lighthouse keeper in Hadley Cove, a small town on the remote Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. After the tragic death of his lover four years ago, he lives a solitary life; just him, a tabby cat, the Indian and Southern Oceans, and a whole lot of loneliness. He’s content with his life until a stranger shows up in town and turns Patrick’s head.

Patrick never expected to be interested in anyone else. Aubrey never expected to be happy. Between Aubrey’s love of the stars and Patrick’s love of the ocean, these two fragile hearts must navigate new waters. If they can weather the storm of their pasts, they could very well have a love that eclipses everything.

Rating: B+

N.R. Walker’s Galaxies and Oceans is a gently moving May/December romance between two damaged, lonely people who have good reason to be wary of falling in love.  It’s one of those books where, honestly, not very much happens apart from a couple of emotionally bruised people finding and falling for each other, but it’s so beautifully done, the chemistry between them so compelling that I was engrossed in the story from start to finish and blew through the book in just a couple of sittings.

I chose it for this month’s prompt because it’s set at the other end of the world – to me, anyway – on Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia, and actually, it fits the prompt twice over.  Not only is the story set in a remote and unusual location, one of the leads is a lighthouse keeper, and although he doesn’t live IN the lighthouse (his house is just next door), several key scenes take place there and it plays a significant role in the story.

Twenty-seven-year-old Ethan Hosking has been in a relationship with his boyfriend Anton – Canberra’s only openly gay politican – for four years.  For the last two of those, Ethan has been subjected to violence and abuse on a regular basis, but he has no family or friends to turn to, no way to escape Anton’s controlling behaviour.  When the book begins, they’ve just arrived at the remote cabin Anton takes Ethan to each time he’s beaten him up – so nobody will see the damage – and then Anton just leaves him there while he goes back to the city.  Two days later, however, a massive bush fire laying waste to the national parks west of Canberra provides Ethan with a stark choice – stay where he is and end his misery that way… or make a run for it, make Anton believe he died in the fire and make a new life for himself somewhere far, far away.

Hadley Cove is a small town – population sixty-three – on the southwest tip of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, and Patrick Carney has been the lighthouse keeper there for the past six years.  Since the death of his lover Scott four years before, he’s lived a solitary life with just his cat and the ocean for company, occasionally venturing out to watch the penguins or the seals.  Like everyone else in Hadley, he can’t fail to register the arrival of a stranger, a young man who is staying at the run-down caravan park and looking for work.  Noticing the lonely figure clad only in jeans and a hoodie (neither warm enough to withstand the wind and the cold) staring out to sea, Patrick approaches him and strikes up a conversation – and immediately recognises the deep pain in his eyes.  They part soon after – Patrick realising he doesn’t know the other man’s name – and later that day, he heads out to the caravan park to see if he can talk the owner into giving the newcomer some work.  But it appears that’s already been taken care of;  Patrick arrives to find him already hard at work and learns his name is Aubrey Hobbs.

The romance between Patrick and Aubrey (Ethan adopted his beloved grandfather’s name when he reinvented himself) is a gorgeous slow-burn as they take baby-steps towards healing and love.  Patrick never thought or wanted to find love again – and feels guilty at the prospect – but something about Aubrey draws him in; it’s very clear the younger man has had a tough time of it, but Patrick never pushes for information Aubrey isn’t ready or willing to give.  And even though he can’t tell Patrick the whole truth – he wants to, but worries about dragging Patrick into a legal minefield – Aubrey is as honest as possible and very real when he talks about his life, his fears and his passion for astronomy.  Their connection is made quickly, but trust and deeper feelings are allowed plenty of time to develop, through shared meals (Patrick is an excellent cook!), visits to the ocean to watch the penguins come ashore or see the seal colony, picnics and stargazing (the one thing Aubrey took with him when he walked away from his old life was his grandfather’s telescope) at the top of the lighthouse.

The small secondary cast adds depth to the story and the setting is brought so vividly to life – the stormy skies, the biting wind, the fierceness and unpredictability of the ocean – that you can feel and see it all.  The writing is smooth and assured and lyrical, and I particularly liked the way Scott is present in the story, as someone who will always be important to Patrick and would want him to be happy; Patrick’s imaginary conversations with him are funny and poignant, but he never overwhelms the story and encourages Patrick to live his life.  I loved that Patrick, the lighthouse keeper, becomes the beacon who guides Aubrey to safety, and the idea of Aubrey being led to Patrick by the stars is one of the most romantic things I’ve read recently;  lost in the bush after the fire, he remembers his grandfather’s words about the Southern Cross – “the tail points south, always”.

“The Southern Cross is what brought me here.  The constellation.  I followed it, here, to this island.  To you.”

My quibbles with the story are small ones. The ending feels a bit rushed, and maybe Patrick holds on to his guilt over moving on for a tad too long, but those are the only things that didn’t quite work for me.

Heartfelt, sensual , touching and uplifting, Galaxies and Oceans is a gloriously romantic character-driven story about overcoming adversity and finding home.

TBR Challenge: The Dating Experiment (Better With You #2) by Briar Prescott

the dating experiiment

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Three years ago, I sold my soul to the devil.
Also known as my boss. Same thing.
Here’s the deal. Connor Quinn is arrogant, impossible to please, cold as ice, and prone to find flaws in everything.
Since that fatal day three years ago, many a murder plan have been made and many a weapon considered.
I accidentally get to know him better, which is unfortunate, since it turns out that underneath Connor’s icy exterior, there’s a man shaped by past hurts and difficult life lessons.
Which means I’m in a bit of a pickle since it also turns out I might kind of like the bastard…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve chased calm. I’m the exact opposite of an adrenaline junkie with my pursuit of peace and quiet.
My rules are simple. I don’t make terrible decisions. I don’t make mistakes. And I don’t do chaos.
Until Jamie.
He’s an anomaly. A glitch in the system. Unpredictable. Distracting. Confusing.
But now I’ve accidentally gotten to know him better, and it turns out he’s also warm. And funny. And interesting. And with him, the world gets just a tiny bit quieter.
And I fit just a tiny bit better.

Rating: B

After reading and enjoying Briar Prescott’s The Happy List, I jumped straight into book two in her Better With You series, The Dating Experiment.  It sounded like it would be right up my alley – a grumpy boss and his snarky assistant who start falling in love while chatting online without knowing who they’re chatting with.  I love epistolary novels (I suppose chatting on apps and texts is the modern-day equivalent!) and The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favourite films; I enjoyed the author’s writing style and the humour and banter in The Happy List, so I was anticipating a great read when I started The Dating Experiment.

Workaholic lawyer Connor Quinn is the older brother of Gray from The Happy List, and in that book, he came across as something of an arsehole.  He brought Gray up after their parents died, and was probably more father than brother (Gray was twelve, Connor was in his early twenties); he seemed demanding and intractable, although he began to thaw somewhat towards the end and there were glimpses of a better relationship for the two brothers on the horizon.

When I started The Dating Experiment, I thought I might be reading a carbon copy of my favourite Lily Morton book, Rule Breaker.  The premise and character-types are identical – cantankerous boss and cheeky assistant who secretly pine for each other and communicate through the sort of high-level uber-snark that bewilders everyone around them – but it’s an oft-used trope and the banter is genuinely funny, so I was able to get past the similarities.

At the beginning of the story, Con’s PA Jamie receives a package containing an old mobile phone and a letter from his recently deceased grandfather.  He used to play Words With Friends regularly, and in the note, asks Jamie to get in touch with his regular partner Seb to make it clear he didn’t concede their final game – “Tell him fate intervened.  Maybe play a game in my honor.”

Jamie does as asked, and finds himself enjoying what proves to be an unexpectedly entertaining conversation with Seb, whose directness and deadpan humour make him smile.  Seb and Jamie chat for a while, then Seb challenges Jamie to a game – and before long, chatting with Seb about everything and nothing and playing Words With Friends becomes Jamie’s favourite part of the day and something to be looked forward to.  After a few weeks, Jamie starts to realise that there’s something going on that’s more than just a couple of guys idly chatting or playing an online game.  Even though they’ve never met, he’s attracted to Seb and is pretty sure the attraction is mutual.

When Jamie suggests to Seb that they should meet, he’s disappointed when the other man turns him down – but Jamie really feels as though they could have something special and, a few days later, decides to go for it.  “I dare you to have lunch with me.”

Of course, Jamie is shocked to see his boss walk into the diner and sit in the booth at which he’s arranged to meet Seb.  How the hell can Connor Quinn, the most “aggressively normal” – nay boring – man on the planet possibly be the warm, funny guy he’s been getting to know over the last few weeks?

The set-up is my catnip, and I really liked reading Connor and Jamie’s text exchanges; I loved watching them getting to know each other as the people they really are rather than their office personas, and enjoyed the way the author reveals so much about them through these conversations, which are real and funny and warm – and I was totally Here For It.  After they discover the truth (Sebastian is Con’s middle name, btw), their relationship becomes somewhat strained, but mostly as the result of the sheer overload of the sexual tension thrumming between them.  As any romance reader will know, that amount of UST isn’t going to stay “U” for very long; an explosive sexual encounter puts paid to any thoughts they might have had of things going back to the way they were, and Jamie decides to head off the ‘it was a mistake and we can’t do this again’ speech from Con by suggesting the titular dating experiment.  They won’t date; instead they’ll be two guys who hang out and do date-like stuff, but they won’t call it anything ‘official’ and will just go with the flow.

Okay, so I couldn’t honestly see how that was all that much different to actually dating, but I was enjoying the book so much, I went with it.  But then author goes on to tell us how Con and Jamie spend the next few weeks hanging out, going on not-dates, having lots of hot sex and spending whole nights together; however we get to see very little of it – we’re told – and that was disappointing.

Still, Con and Jamie have terrific chemistry and I really liked them as a couple; Jamie makes Con feel truly seen for probably the first time in his life and makes him want to come out of his protective shell a little, and Con encourages Jamie to pursue his own dreams.  The only real conflict in the story comes near the end when an old flame of Con’s appears to cause a bit of mischief that needn’t have been mischief at all – I could have smacked Con at that point.  I also had problems with the ending;  I’m not a fan of the public Grand Gesture, and even though I know Con was trying to be more spontaneous/less boring, it still felt completely out of character.

A couple of other niggles.  Jamie’s two friends Max and Anders (who star in books three and four in the series) don’t have very distinctive voices; not only do they sound like each other, they sound like Jamie, which made the few scenes in which they all appear a bit… samey.  Also, I didn’t really understand the author’s decision to have practically the entire first half of the book in Jamie’s PoV.  Con’s voice IS distinctive, so much so that it’s obvious he’s also Seb from the minute he and Jamie start messaging, so having some chapters from Con earlier wouldn’t have spoiled anything.

In the end though, I’m putting The Dating Experiment in the ‘win’ column, because more about it worked for me than didn’t, and honestly, most of the issues I’ve mentioned didn’t really impact on my enjoyment while I was reading; they just struck me afterwards!  If you’re in the market for a sexy, funny low-angst read, you could do worse than check this one out.