TBR Challenge: The Mad Countess (Gothic Brides #1) by Erica Monroe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Lady Claire Deering’s mother enters an insane asylum, society is quick to scorn her, dubbing her the Mad Daughter. But Claire’s tattered reputation is the least of her worries, as those rumors hold a horrible, terrifying truth: the Deering women are victims of a dark witch’s curse. If Claire marries her true love, she’ll spend the rest of her life under the thrall of madness.To save herself, she remains isolated…until a will reading at a mysterious castle on All Hallows Eve places her in close confines with her dearest friend and secret love.

Bashful, scholarly Teddy Lockwood has never met a rule he didn’t rejoice in following. When he unexpectedly inherits the Ashbrooke earldom, he’s determined to turn over a new, more courageous leaf–starting with telling Claire that he’s loved her since they were children. The will reading presents the perfect opportunity to win her heart, even if he’s vastly out of his element at this enigmatic, shadowy Cornwall castle. Soon, the simmering passion between them becomes unstoppable. Now, to save the love of his life, Teddy will do whatever it takes to break the dark magic’s hold on Claire. Will Claire spend her life within the grips of strange delirium, or will love prove the strongest of all?

Rating: D

I had to dig around a bit for something to fit the “We Love Short Shorts!” prompt this time around; I know I don’t have to follow the prompts in the TBR Challenge to the letter, but I was short of time this month anyway, so a quick read was just about all I had time for.  As it was, I probably spent more time searching through the hundreds of books on my Kindle than I did actually reading!  In the end, I found a novella I’ve had sitting around for a while by an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past; The Mad Countess by Erica Monroe, which is billed as an edgy, atmospheric Gothic Regency Romance that’s not for the faint of heart.  Sadly, however, it was about as edgy as a bowl of cold rice pudding, and seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis.

The romance is a friends-to-lovers affair, the two protagonists being childhood friends who have long been in love with one another but are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their friendship.  And in the case of the heroine, Lady Claire Deering, there’s another, far darker reason for her reticence.  Her aunt and her mother both died mad as the result of being cursed, and she is terrified that she will end up being committed to an asylum as her mother was.  She loves Teddy – Theodore, Earl of Ashbrooke – far too much to want to saddle him with a potential madwoman for a wife and has therefore determined never to reveal the truth of her feelings for him.

Teddy had been training to be a barrister before his older brother died and left him the earldom.  He’s a sweet beta-hero who loves Claire desperately; he knows of her fears but is determined to prove to her that they are unfounded and is, at last, ready to tell her how he feels.

Claire has arrived at Castle Keyvnor in Cornwall in order to attend the reading of the will of her late uncle, and Teddy is in attendance with a group of friends (who I’m guessing are the heroes of the other novellas in this series).  In spite of her determination to keep her distance, Claire can’t help being delighted to see him, and they quickly fall back into their established pattern of friendship.  But that all changes the next day when they’re caught in a rainstorm and make it to the conveniently dry, comfortable folly/summer house and Claire decides she can allow herself an afternoon of passion (just the one, mind you).

But Teddy doesn’t just want one afternoon – how can he prove to Claire that the curse isn’t real and that they can make a life together?

Quite honestly, the pair of them were so bland I couldn’t become at all invested in the outcome and had I not been reading this for the TBR Challenge, I probably would have abandoned it.  The characterisation is one-dimensional, the atmosphere is flat as a pancake and the gothic elements are weak and terribly disappointing.  I read paranormal and fantasy novels fairly regularly, so having a supernatural element to the book didn’t put me off; the problem was the complete lack of world-building or preparation.  At one point, I thought the author was going to explain away the aunt and mother’s “madness” as a form of post-natal depression (there’s overt mention of the fact that both women didn’t go mad until after they’d had children), and that the curse wasn’t real, but she doesn’t do that, instead veering into a badly prepared episode in which Clare locates a trio of local witches and enlists their help in lifting the curse. This whole section is so different in tone to the rest of the book that it feels as though it’s been added as an afterthought.

The writing is just average, and there are quite a few jarring word choices that  took me out of the story – such as when one character asks another “are you fine?”  In that context, “fine”, doesn’t mean the same as “okay” or “alright” (not in British English, anyway).

Novellas are generally hit and miss for me (more often they miss the mark), so this disappointment wasn’t unexpected.  Ms. Monroe has produced better books than this (I’ve reviewed some of them here) so forget about The Mad Countess and check out one of those instead.

TBR Challenge: The Christmas Deal by Keira Andrews

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Will fake boyfriends become the real deal this holiday?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—except ex-Marine Logan is jobless and getting evicted. Worse, he’s a new single dad with a stepson who hates him. A kid needs stability—not to mention presents under the tree—and Logan’s desperate.

Then he meets lonely Seth and makes a deal.

Can Logan temporarily pretend to be live-in boyfriends to increase Seth’s chances at a promotion? If it provides a roof over their heads for the holidays, hell yeah. Logan considers himself straight—he doesn’t count occasional hookups with guys—but he can fake it. Besides, with his shy little smile, Seth is surprisingly sexy.

Make that damn sexy.

Shocked that Seth has only been with one man, Logan can’t resist sweetening their deal to teach him the joys of casual sex. No strings attached. No feelings. No kissing.

No falling for each other.

Easy, right?

Rating: A-

Usually, when I’m choosing a book to read for the TBR Challenge, I pick one I already own that’s at least a year old.  I can’t remember if that’s a stipulation of the challenge or if it’s one I’ve imposed on myself – after all, the point is to read something from my ever-expanding TBR!  But when I looked through the Christmas-themed romances I have on my Kindle (and I don’t have many) none of them appealed to me, so I ended up reading a newly published title instead.  Keira Andrews is an author who’s been on my radar for a while, but I haven’t yet read anything of hers so I picked up The Christmas Deal, as the fake-relationship trope is one of my favourites.  It proved to be a good decision, as I devoured it in a couple of sittings on the same day, always a good sign!

Former marine Logan Derwood is at an all-time low.  After a work-related accident which left him badly injured, the company he worked for blamed him and hung him out to dry and as a result he’s finding it incredibly hard to find another job.  On top of this, the sudden death of his wife has left him sole guardian of her teenaged son, and Logan is struggling to parent the boy, who is permanently angry and for whom Logan can seem to do nothing right.  And to make things even worse, he’s about to be evicted from his ratty bungalow.

Seth Marston relocated to Albany on the promise of a promotion which hasn’t yet materialised.  His boyfriend moved with him but left him not long afterwards, and now, more than a year later, Seth is still single and still living in the mess of his partly remodelled house, not having either the time or the inclination to date or to finish the work.  But at least the promotion is back on the table; although news that the company’s new CEO is very family oriented and all her new hires/promotions have gone to people with families (to her credit, she’s not prejudiced against same sex couples), could put a spoke in that particular wheel.  When Angela Barker arrives at the office, Seth’s friend and colleague Jenna decides to help him along a bit and sneaks a framed photo of her brother Logan and his stepson onto Seth’s desk and, when Angela notices it, tells her it’s a photo of Seth’s fiancé and their son.  Seth is completely stunned and doesn’t really know what to do so just goes along with it – but things get complicated when Logan arrives at the office to see his sister, Angela recognises him from the photo, and promptly invites herself over for dinner.

Just as confused as Seth (whom he doesn’t really know), Logan plays along until Angela leaves and Jenna explains what she did and why she did it. Logan is too weighed down with other problems to really care very much, until Seth mentions the fact that Angela is expecting to come to ‘their’ home for dinner and that his kitchen is still in pieces.  Which gives Jenna another idea.  Logan needs a place to stay – temporarily – Seth needs his remodelling finished.  Couldn’t they help each other out?

The set-up is a bit bonkers it’s true, but the author makes it work and turns this particular Christmas Deal into a sweet, sexy and charming fake-relationship romance, crafting a convincing emotional connection between two very different men who find, in each other, something they never thought they’d want or be able to have.  Logan has always identified as straight, even though he’s hooked up with guys in the past, but in his mind, that was just sex. Relationships, kissing, physical closeness, they’re all things that happen with women; with guys it’s about getting off and nothing else.  But he can’t ignore the fact that he’s starting to want something other than ‘just sex’ with another man, and it confuses the hell out of him.  His gradually-dawning awareness of his bisexuality is very well done; it’s not that he’s suddenly gay for Seth (this isn’t really a GFY story), it’s that for the first time, he’s experiencing romantic feelings for a man, a desire for intimacy he’d thought reserved for his relationships with women.

Seth comes from an ultra-conservative, highly-religious family who threw him out when he told them he was gay.  That was twelve years ago, but Seth is still grieving for their loss (even though they’re plainly a bunch of arseholes who don’t deserve him!), and this part of his backstory is truly heartbreaking (and made me want to break something!).  He’s a lovely guy with a lot to give, but deep down, can’t quite believe he deserves good things.  His ex was his first and only sexual partner, and even though Seth knows he should get out there and date (and maybe hook up) he dislikes the idea of casual sex, finding it hard to throw off the ideas drummed into him as part of his upbringing.

But things change one night when, after learning that Seth has only ever been with one partner, Logan realises that while he might not be able to offer much, he can at least offer Seth the chance to experience casual, no strings sex and maybe help him get past his hang ups about it. Seth is surprised, to say the least, but decides he needs to stop over-thinking everything and just go for it. The attraction between the pair that has sparked and crackled from their first meeting – and that they’ve tried to suppress – roars to life, and it quickly becomes very clear to each of them that whatever this thing is between them, it’s far from casual.  But owning to wanting something more crosses every boundary they’ve set, and both men are understandably wary of risking their hearts.

The Christmas Deal has quite a lot going on within its pages, but I never felt as though anything was glossed over or rushed.  The characterisation of the two leads is excellent, and there’s a really well-drawn secondary cast including Jenna and Logan’s dad; and even Angela, who could easily have been an unpleasant character, is written with a degree of charm and heart that makes it hard to dislike her.  And then there’s Connor, a grieving, angry thirteen-year-old who is confused and hurting and lashes out whenever and however he can.  Logan really wants to do the right thing for Connor, but he’s finding his way, too, and the two of them clash horribly almost all the time – and I loved that Logan was prepared to listen to advice – from Seth, and even from Angela – as to how he might build bridges with Connor and get things between them on more of an even keel.

I really enjoyed The Christmas Deal and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a heart-warming – but not cheesy or overly sweet – love story with depth and charm.  It’s an emotionally satisfying read laden with plenty of Christmassy goodness, warmth, humour and a swoon-worthy romance with enough heat to keep anyone warm in the depths of winter!

TBR Challenge: The Hidden Heart by Gayle Buck

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Unrequited love: The Earl of Walmesley does the unthinkable. He asks a dear friend to risk her reputation to save him from a matrimonial trap. Lady Caroline Eddingotn has always loved Miles Trilby. She would do anything for him. But – enter into a false betrothal? She is mad to agree. She risks more than her place in society. She risks her heart.

Rating: D+

I often find myself reaching for a Traditional Regency when it comes to the “Sweet or Spicy” prompt.  Most of the romances I read these days contain sex scenes, so I tend to interpret the “spicy” part of the prompt to mean something beyond that, like erotica or erotic romance, and I don’t have anything from either genre on my TBR – hence my gravitating to the “sweet” side of the prompt.

The Hidden Heart was originally published by Signet in 1992, and is billed as a fake-relationship story wherein the hero, Miles, Earl of Walmesley (who is, for some reason also referred to throughout as Lord Trilby which confused me at first, as I thought the author was talking about two different characters!), needing to forestall his imposing great aunt’s plans to wed him to a young lady he has never met, asks his best friend, Lady Caroline Eddington, to pose as his betrothed for the duration of his aunt’s upcoming visit. Lady Caroline has – of course – been in love with Miles for years, but has abandoned any hope of anything more than friendship, while Miles is  – also of course – completely oblivious to her feelings.  Caroline is a great heroine, but overall, The Hidden Heart was a bit of a disappointment.  Caro and Miles spend very little time together on the page, and the romance is practically non-existent; in fact, it feels as though the author got to the end of the book and thought “Oh no! I forgot to get Caro and Miles together – I’ve got a couple of pages left, so I’ll do it now!”

When Miles initially asks Caro to act as his fiancée during his great aunt, the Grand-duchess of Schaffenzeits’ visit, she turns him down, fully cognizant of the detrimental effect such a thing could have on her reputation if it’s ever discovered.  Miles does realise he’s asking a lot (but he asks anyway) and isn’t completely surprised by his friend’s refusal – but when the duchess arrives early, he asks again – and this time Caro, in a moment of weakness engendered by the continual and highly unpleasant sniping of her aunt and the importuning of an unwanted and far too persistent suitor (who can’t understand that no means no) agrees to help Miles out.

The predictability of the story is countered somewhat by the character of Caro, who does not waste her time pining for Miles or allow herself to be bullied by her aunt.  She is cool and capable most of the time, able to squash her aunt’s pretentions and turn her barbed remarks back on her with poise and ease, even though it’s clear that she does find her presence difficult to deal with at times; in fact, watching Caro deal with her aunt was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book!  I also liked the fact that the author doesn’t turn Caro’s new sister-in-law into a complete bitch who wants Caro out of the house because she doesn’t want any competition.  The Grand-duchess is a wily grande dame, but Miles himself is poorly characterised and is actually hardly present in the story.  He failed to make much of an impression on me; all I really knew about him was that he had a reputation for being a bit irresponsible, and that he’s being pretty selfish when he asks Caro to pretend to be engaged to him.  When he and Caro do finally fall into each other’s arms at the end of the book, he spins her a yarn about how seeing a friend destroyed by love caused him to never want to experience it and then uses that to explain why he never showed any sign of feeling more for Caro than friendship, it was utterly ridiculous and came completely out of nowhere.  I suppose Caroline got what she wanted in the end, but no way was Miles good enough for her.

TL:DR. The Hidden Heart was a dud.  I liked the heroine, but pretty much everyone else –including the hero – was awful.  There are better Trads out there than this one.

TBR Challenge: Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin #1) by Jordan L. Hawk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reclusive scholar. A private detective. And a book of spells that could destroy the world.

Love is dangerous. Ever since the tragic death of the friend he adored, Percival Endicott Whyborne has ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man. Instead, he spends his days studying dead languages at the museum where he works. So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible.

Griffin left the Pinkertons after the death of his partner. Now in business for himself, he must investigate the murder of a wealthy young man. His only clue: an encrypted book that once belonged to the victim.

As the investigation draws them closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. But when they uncover evidence of a powerful cult determined to rule the world, Whyborne must choose: to remain safely alone, or to risk everything for the man he loves.

Rating: B

Like so many of the books I end up reading for the TBR Challenge each year, Jordan L. Hawk’s paranormal/romantic suspense Whyborne & Griffin series is one I’ve been meaning to read for AGES, so this prompt was just what I needed to galvanise me into reading book one, Widdershins.

Percival Endicott Whyborne comes from a very wealthy family – his father is a railroad baron – but didn’t want to go into the business (as his older brother did) and is thus somewhat estranged from his family.  His mother has been unwell for years and he doesn’t get on with his father, who disapproves of his choice to dedicate himself to comparative philology (Whyborne is fluent in thirteen languages and can read more,) scholarship and a job in the Department of Antiquities at the Ladysmith Museum in Widdershins, Massachusetts.  He keeps himself very much to himself, never really having got the hang of social interaction, and ruthlessly suppresses his attraction to men,  still haunted by thoughts of the first boy he ever loved and blaming himself for his tragic death.  He has only one real friend, Dr. Christine Putnam, a fiercely intelligent, independently minded archaeologist who won’t let him hide himself away all the time, and who, it must be said, has some of the best lines in the book:

“I will not surrender my profession simply because men throughout history have been unduly enamored of their penises!“

(this said in response to a male colleague seeking to prevent her looking at a papyrus fragment depicting a fellow “… in rather an excited state.” )

The appearance of ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty at the museum upsets Whyborne’s carefully maintained equilibrium.  Flaherty been asked to investigate the death of Philip Rice, son of the museum’s director who, the day before he died, sent a small, leather-bound book to his father which Griffin has brought to the museum – specifically to Whyborne – to have translated in order to see if its contents have any bearing on Philip’s death.  Although Whyborne is supposed to be working on deciphering some ancient scrolls which are due to be displayed in an upcoming exhibition, he agrees, wanting nothing more than to get the translation done and get rid of the handsome, too-friendly detective who is far too tempting for his peace of mind.

Whyborne’s efforts quickly reveal the book to be an Arcanorum, a book of arcane spells and alchemical treatises which details many occult rituals, not least of which is one able to bring back the dead.  As strange things start happening – from grave robbing to the appearance of mysterious and terrifying beasts, to break-ins at the museum  and the discovery of a powerful and ancient cult – Whyborne and Griffin are drawn into an investigation that will test them both to the limit and force them both to confront some of their darkest fears.

I enjoyed the story, which is immensely readable and entertaining, and I really liked the two central characters, reclusive, gawky Whyborne, and the more outgoing Griffin, whose handsome, charming exterior hides insecurities and emotional damage of his own.  While the story is related entirely from Whyborne’s PoV, the author does a terrific job of showing us Griffin through his eyes, although of course, Whyborne fails to notice the other man’s interest in him because he’s become so used to believing himself to be dull, awkward and unattractive.  But Griffin is smitten from the start; he obviously finds Whyborne’s shyness endearing and is also able to see beyond the bumbling scholar to the courageous, brilliant man beneath, his feelings made clear by the way he treats Whyborne with the sort of courtesy and respect he has never received from anyone before.

Their relationship starts as a slow, smouldering burn, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches, but after that, it moves fairly quickly – perhaps just a little bit too quickly – from that initial frisson to emotional commitment.  As this is the first book in a long running series (the eleventh and final book has just been published), the author could have perhaps taken a little more time to get them to the the ILYs.  I liked them as a couple and liked the way they come to know each other and talk about their pasts; the romance is both sweet and sexy as Griffin gradually coaxes Whyborne from his shell and Whyborne starts to allow someone beyond the emotional walls he’s so carefully constructed.  I just would have liked there to have been a little more time spent building an emotional connection between that initial slow burn and the declarations.  Delayed gratification and all that 😉

The plot, with its Lovecraftian influences and overtones, is a mix of suspense and supernatural horror, full of scary monsters, spooky goings-on (and a fair few “eeew!” moments) and a charismatic though creepy AF villain. The story is well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed among the more intimate and introspective moments, and moves inexorably towards a high-stakes climax which, while perhaps a tad predictable is nonetheless exciting.

In spite of my reservations about the romance and some aspects of the plot, I enjoyed Widdershins and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

TBR Challenge: The Broken Wing (Warrender Saga #2) by Mary Burchell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Tessa Morley has spent her entire life in the shadow of her beautiful and bewitching twin sister Tania.

Unlike Tania, whose vivacious beauty and outgoing personality have ensured that she is forever in the limelight, Tessa lacks her sister’s confidence and has always been exceedingly shy. Although blessed with the voice of an angel, and musical talent that far surpasses that of her twin, Tessa has never been given the same kind of chances as her sister because she happened to be born lame.

With the dream of a stage career out of reach, Tessa has taken work as a secretary for Quentin Otway, the arrogant and temperamental artistic director for the Northern Counties Festival who, along with famous conductor Oscar Warrender, is responsible for the gathering of significant musical talent for the festival.

Tania, determined to be cast in the festival’s production of Cosi fan tutte, convinces Tessa to ask Otway for an audition — and without warning Tessa finds herself having to deny her one great talent…her voice.

As upsetting as the situation is, Tessa is willing to bear the hurt for the sake of her sister, whom she loves dearly, but then it seems Tania will even rob Tessa of the man she loves. Her only consolation comes in the form of Oscar Warrender, whose keen ear identifies Tessa’s skill and who insists that for the first time in her life Tessa must take centre stage. Will Otway see Tessa for who she really is? Or is she doomed forever to be overshadowed by her sister?

NOTE: I don’t know why the cover depicts someone playing the violin when the heroine is a singer.

Rating: B-

For this month’s Kicking it Old School prompt, I went back to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen novels set in the world of classical music that were originally published by Mills & Boon in the 1960s and 70s.  I read the first book, A Song Begins for a TBR Challenge prompt last year and haven’t yet got around to reading any more, although I own several of them, so this seemed like a good opportunity to play catch up.  The events of book two, The Broken Wing (originally published in 1966), take place about six months after those of A Song Begins and are focused around a prestigious music festival.  The principal characters are the festival’s director, Quentin Otway (who is, of course, both brilliant and demanding), and his super-efficient assistant/secretary, Tessa Morley, who – it’s obvious straight away – is infatuated with Quentin, just as it’s obvious that he has no idea of it.

Tessa and her twin sister, Tania, are like chalk and cheese.  They’re not identical twins, in either looks or personality; Tania is a vibrant go-getter and their former actress mother’s favourite, while Tessa is quiet and shy, her reticence always making her an afterthought at home.  Tessa isn’t jealous of Tania though, although she does get annoyed by her frequent self-absorbtion; the relationship between the sisters is well written and presented as something that has many different shades.  Tania isn’t the evil twin and Tessa isn’t the put-upon doormat; there are elements of that in there, yes, but both are protective of each other in their own way and Tania does take pride in Tessa’s achievements, despite her tendency to steamroller her way through life.  Both are talented singers, too, although Tessa  – sure has no hope of a stage career on account of her being lame and walking with a limp – hides her light under a bushel while Tania is doing fairly well in the field of comic opera and operetta.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Tania ‘persuades’ Tessa to get her an audition for the part of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte which is being mounted at the Northern Counties Festival with Oscar Warrender conducting.  Tessa isn’t wild about the idea, especially when Tania insists that she – Tessa – must, under no circumstances, let on that she sings as well.  Tania knows Tessa has the better voice, but is also sure that her vivacity and stage presence will carry her through; and sure enough, Tessa gets her the audition and Tania gets the part.  It seems at this stage that Quentin is quite bowled over by her – although the more canny Oscar Warrender isn’t quite as impressed with Tania and already suspects that there is more to Tessa than meets the eye.

One of the things I always notice when I read much older books like this one is the way in which the hero is almost a secondary character; they’re very heroine-centric novels and we only get to see the object of her affections through her PoV.  And viewed with modern eyes, those heroes can sometimes be unappealing; at best overbearing, at worst, dictatorial, and there’s no question that Quentin doesn’t always behave well to Tessa in this book.  He says some hurtful things, usually without realising it (and I’m not sure if that doesn’t make it worse!), but at other times, he seems quite in tune with her, and he isn’t too proud to admit when he’s wrong and apologise for it.  And although the parallels between ‘damaged’ Tessa (the way her disability is portrayed and spoken of is distasteful) and the little figurine of the angel with the broken wing that Quentin keeps on his desk is howlingly obvious, there’s something about the way they bond over it that is rather sweet and which also indicates a degree of affection on Quentin’s side that Tessa is unaware of.  He can be thoughtless, but his ability to show vulnerability and to own up to his mistakes meant I liked him overall.

Tessa could easily have been something of a doormat, but she isn’t.  Yes, she puts up with Quentin’s dickishness, but he’s paying her wages and she has a job she loves and she’s not quite ready to tell him where he can stick it.  And she’s not afraid to call him on it when he’s being inconsiderate or let him know when he’s pissed her off; she’s one of those quiet heroines who can only be pushed so far, and I liked that about her.  I didn’t, however, like the way she was so preoccupied with her ‘lameness’.  She walks with a slight limp (she doesn’t appear to need a stick) but in spite of her vocal talent – which, according to Warrender (an expert) is worth cultivating – has ruled out any sort of musical career for herself on account of it.  Um.  I worked in the classical music biz for several  years and met and worked with a number of opera singers, many of whom were hardly built to be rushing around a stage!  And as Warrender says, a limp wouldn’t preclude Tessa having a concert career.  I suppose there had to be some sort of reason for Tessa not to want to be a singer; it’s just that this one is, and pardon the pun, rather lame.

Compared to many of today’s romances, The Broken Wing is pretty sedate, but its richly realised setting – which is once again permeated by the author’s love for and knowledge of opera and classical music – and clear, precise prose, are definite points in favour. Even taking into account the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to continue with the series.

TBR Challenge: Strike Fast (DEA FAST #4) by Kaylea Cross

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A military widow reluctant to risk her heart again.

After losing her soldier husband in combat, DEA agent Tess Dubrovksi swore never to fall for another man in uniform. The last thing she anticipates is for a sexy FAST agent single father and his young daughter to steal their way into her heart. Now Tess can’t stay detached, even though he brings a ton of emotional baggage she’s not sure she’s ready for. But when an unthinkable tragedy strikes and his daughter’s life is at stake, Tess is already in too deep to walk away, and will lay everything on the line to help.

A single father who protects what’s his.

A divorce and custody battle left DEA FAST agent Reid Prentiss cynical about love. Then a sexy helo pilot walks into his life and changes everything. But his newfound happiness with Tess is too good to last. His team’s latest target is looking for an opportunity for revenge, and finds it in Reid’s daughter. When a vicious cartel lieutenant decides to make a statement by kidnapping her, Reid’s whole world implodes. Now it’s a race against time to save her, and hope is fading with each passing hour. Even with his teammates and Tess at his back, it will take everything Reid has to endure this hellish nightmare and find his daughter…before it’s too late. Because when everything you hold dear is at stake, you’ll do anything to protect it.

Rating: B

It took me a while to pick a book for this month’s prompt – Random Pick – which was entirely due to my having way too many un-read books to choose from!  Eventually, I narrowed it down to Strike Fast, one of the books in the DEA FAST series by Kaylea Cross.  I’ve read (and listened to) a couple of her other books and have enjoyed her tightly plotted stories, strong, independent heroines and heroes who respect them and their abilities.  Strike Fast, the story of a widowed Blackhawk pilot and a single father DEA FAST agent is no exception; these are down-to-earth, mature characters with messy lives and difficult jobs who communicate well and work through the issues surrounding their relationship in a sensible manner. This is the fourth book in the series, and although it features characters who appear throughout, it works fine as a standalone.

Blackhawk pilot Tess Dubrovski was widowed three years earlier after her husband was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.  She loved him very much and sincerely mourned him, but has decided that it’s time to move on with her life.  She hopes – eventually – to find love again, although perhaps not with another man with a dangerous career, so the fact that the one man to have caught her eye in quite some time is a tall, dark and handsome DEA FAST agent is inconvenient, to say the least.

Reid Prentiss has joint custody (with his ex-wife) of his nine-year-old daughter, Autumn.  Because of his job, he sees her a lot less frequently than he would like, but tonight, he’s taking her to the movies and dinner… after he stops in at DEA HQ for an important meeting.  They’re both disappointed at having their together-time interrupted, and Reid arrives at the office intent on settling his daughter in the kitchen with some milk and cookies only to discover Tess Dubrovski sitting there reading the newspaper.  It’s been a few months since they’ve seen each other (the last time was on a mission in Afghanistan) and Reid wonders how on earth he hasn’t noticed her before.  Admittedly, the last the last time they’d met it had been too dark to see clearly, but now he can…? No question, Tess is a very attractive woman; tall with lush curves, green eyes and killer dimples – and Reid can hardly take his eyes off her.  Tess offers to sit with Autumn for the duration of the meeting (she’s stuck there anyway as she’s getting a ride home from one of the analysts), and Reid gratefully accepts.  When the meeting ends and he goes to collect Autumn for their movie date, Autumn asks if Tess can go with them; Tess doesn’t want to interrupt their father-daughter time, but Autumn is adamant about her joining them and to Tess’ surprise, Reid raises no objections.  And at the end of the evening, Reid realises he’s enjoyed the time spent in Tess’ company more than he ever expected – and that he wants see her again and get to know her better.

The romance between the pair develops at a sensible pace given these are two people with a bit of baggage – more than a bit in Reid’s case, because not only is he having to try hard to maintain an amicable relationship with his ex-wife (who doesn’t make it easy), he’s an alcoholic (nine years dry) who carries a huge burden of guilt over the death of his best friend almost a decade earlier.  And while Tess is sure that it’s time for her to start moving forward, she knows conviction isn’t going to make it any easier to do so.  I appreciated that they took baby steps in their relationship and didn’t rush into anything, so that when things do heat up between them, it felt like a natural progression from the emotional connection the author had already established between them.

There’s a plot thread running throughout the series concerning the FAST team’s hunt for El Escorpion, the leader of the Mexican Veneto cartel, and their mission to shut it down.  In this story, they’re searching for Carlos Ruiz, one El Escorpion’s trusted lieutenants and the man responsible for the kidnapping of a reporter.  Ruiz is a vicious, sadistic bastard, and readers get a few chapters in his PoV that flesh him out into more than a pantomime villain and provide a disturbing insight into his character.  He is capable of the most despicable casual violence, he displays an utter hatred of women (there are a few unpleasant scenes here featuring a young woman held captive – sexual assault is implied but not detailed or ‘on page’) – yet he rescues animals and cares for them with a compassion and respect he shows to no human.  It’s a strange, chilling juxtaposition that serves to show just how unbalanced an individual he is.

When Reid and his team receive intelligence that Ruiz is holed up at a remote location in New Orleans, he can’t know that simply doing his job is going to have far-reaching repercussions.  But after the raid, those are quick in coming when Autumn is kidnapped by one of Ruiz’s enforcers, and it becomes a race against time to find her before she becomes another victim of the cartel’s trafficking operation.

The author skilfully weaves the suspense plot throughout the story and builds the tension slowly until switching up a gear in the second half as the kidnap plot takes centre stage.  However, the trust and understanding Tess and Reid have been building together isn’t forgotten as Tess helps Reid stay grounded and focused while the DEA and other agencies work tirelessly to find Autumn.  There are some really tense, edge-of-the-seat moments during the final action set-piece – which is written vividly so it’s easy to visualise – and regular readers of Ms. Cross’ novels are sure to be pleased by the cameo appearances from some of the characters from her Hostage Rescue Team series.

I had a few small quibbles with the story, such as the placement of the sex scene and the fact that  ‘heroine-bonds-with-single-dad’s-kid’ is such an oft-used trope, but those didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story as a whole.

Strike Fast was a quick but engrossing read with a fast moving plot, interesting characters and a central romance between a couple that were easy to root for and who were clearly good for one another.  I’ve been dipping into Kaylea Cross’ backlist here and there whenever I’ve felt the need for a romantic suspense fix, and fortunately for me, her catalogue is fairly extensive, so I have no doubt I’ll be reading more of her work in future.

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.