Chrysalis (The Formicary #1) by S.E. Harmon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kai Rubio

chrysalis

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Waking up in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head is bad. Finding out I have amnesia is far worse. My memory is practically wiped. I don’t know why someone wants me dead. Hell, I don’t even know my name. They say my name is Christian Cross. Too bad that name means nothing to me.

I haven’t forgotten everything, though. Grayson Laurie has always been my kryptonite, and it would take more than a bullet to the brain to forget him. He assures me that I’m imagining the distance between us, but I know better. I just don’t know how to fix it. I console myself that at least I’ve reached rock bottom and things can’t get worse…until they do.

My life is a tangled mess of lies and deceit. The more I learn about myself, the less I want to know. I want nothing more than an honest future with Gray, but the past isn’t about to let me go without a fight.

Fortunately, I’m starting to realize that fighting is my specialty.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – C

I liked the sound of the storyline of Chrysalis, book one in The Formicary duo, so as I’ve enjoyed books by S.E. Harmon in the past and even though the narrator is new-to-me, I decided to give the audiobook version a go. Please be aware that Chrysalis ends inconclusively and that the story continues in the second book, Cross, which I believe will be released in audio in late August. (It’s available in print already.)

So, that premise. A man wakes in a hospital bed after almost dying from a gunshot wound to the head, and has absolutely no idea who he is, or who wants him dead. The one thing he can remember is the name of his boyfriend – Grayson Laurie, a doctor at the hospital. When Gray finally comes to see him, he tells the man that his name Christian Cross – but that doesn’t ring any bells or bring anything back. Gray continues to visit him, but Christian is confused by the coolness and distance between them, and he’s stunned when Gray finally, and not without some bitterness, tells him they broke up over four years earlier. Christian barely has time to grasp that when Gray also tells him that Chris is the one who left, and although he never said why, it’s clear Gray believes it’s because Chris was cheating and wanted to be with someone else. After this bombshell, Chris doesn’t expect to see Gray again, which is a bummer as, right now, he’s the only link Chris has with his past – but Gray does return, although it soon becomes clear that he has about as much idea of what Chris has been doing with his life as Chris himself does. Which is, obviously, not a lot. When a man Chris doesn’t recognise enters his hospital room and tells him they’re together – implying he’s the reason Chris left Gray – Chris is even more convinced that something is wrong and decides enough is enough. He’s been in the hospital two weeks and is no closer to finding out anything about what he’s been doing or why someone would try to kill him – it’s time to get out of there and start looking for answers.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dead Draw (Perfect Play #1) by Layla Reyne

dead draw

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a marriage of convenience is the only play left…

Special Agent Emmitt Marshall knows how to:
Wear a cowboy hat.
Hack anything.
Win at chess.
Fall in love with emotionally unavailable men.
He even knows the perfect play to catch the terrorists who killed his mentor.

Special Agent Levi Bishop doesn’t know how to:
Move on after his wife’s death.
Help his grieving son.
Pay off his mountain of debt.
Fix the mess some cowboy cyber agent made of his case.
The same cowboy who proposes a marriage of convenience to stop a common enemy.

Marsh is either the answer to Levi’s prayers—or a handsome nightmare in a Stetson.
Levi doesn’t know.
But both men do know their cases and lives are at a dead draw.
There’s only one play left…
I do.

Rating: B-

Layla Reyne begins a new romantic suspense series with Dead Draw, in which two FBI agents who turn out to be working the same case from different angles enter into a marriage of convenience so that they can continue to work it under the radar after an operation goes badly wrong. MoC is one of my favourite tropes in historicals, but it’s less easy to pull off in contemporaries (unless it’s in a Harlequin Presents novel!) – and quite honestly, I didn’t buy the reasons for it here. But I decided to go with it – I know I’m in for complicated, fast-paced and doesn’t-always-make-sense in a Layla Reyne book, but the characters sounded interesting and she’s always very readable so I parked my suspension-of-disbelief hat by the door and dove in.

Special Agent Levi Bishop is furious when the raid he’d organised to bring down a people trafficking organisation is screwed up. That’s eighteen months of gruelling work out the window, not to mention ten victims snatched out from under his nose, thanks to unwanted interference by Special Agent Emmitt Marsh. Marsh has been hunting down the terrorists who murdered his best friend and mentor some three years earlier, and had established their links to human trafficking and to Levi’s case; but in trying to get to someone higher up in the organisation, he inadvertently tipped them off.

Needing to find a way not only to atone for his screw-up, but also to continue to work the case and collaborate with Levi’s team, Marsh hatches a plan which will mean he can do just that. A day later, he tracks Levi down to a San Francisco restaurant and proposes they get married; it’s not against the rules and it means that Marsh will be able to keep tabs on the case unofficially. To say Levi is stunned is an understatement, but he also recognises something of a kindred spirit in the handsome cowboy, a man who, like him is tired of the dead ends and the near missses, tired of the relentless pace and the long hours. As a widower and single parent drowning in debt and worried he’s failing his teenaged son, Levi has a lot on his plate – and Marsh’s offer of money in exchange for Levi marrying him is most definitely tempting. As is Marsh himself. But… it’s a ridiculous idea. Isn’t it?

Well, yes, it sort of is – I never quite understood why they had to get married – but the chemistry between the pair is evident from the moment they meet and the slow-burn that follows is worth getting past that unlikely plot point.

As in most of the books I’ve read by this author, the mechanics of the case/suspense plot are quite complicated and it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of who is who and how everything relates to everything else. The main thing is that Levi’s traffickers are linked to Marsh’s terrorists and the two men are pursuing the same goals – preventing more women being trafficked, flushing out the terrorists and bringing the operation down altogether. There’s also a secondary case Marsh is assigned by the Special Agent in Charge (who might as well have a flashing neon sign over his head saying “dodgy bastard”) which turns out to be much more than a side issue, and I did like the way it’s worked in to the main plotline.

On the whole, Dead Draw balances the plot and the romance pretty well, although as this is book one of a trilogy, there’s no HEA – but the romance does end on a strong HFN with the promise of more. Levi and Marsh are likeable, complex and flawed characters, both with significant baggage, which is to be unexpected given their ages (Levi is thirty-eight, Marsh, forty-six). Prickly, sharp-tongued Levi lost his wife to cancer two years earlier and is still grieving while trying to cope with the demands placed on him by his job and with being a father to his fourteen-year-old son David. He’s a good dad, but he feels like he’s failing David, and also worries about how he will react when Levi is ready to move on and perhaps make a life with someone else. Marsh is flirty and charming and confident, but has a habit of falling for men who are emotionally unavailable, so Levi is his catnip and he knows he should steer well clear. But the more he gets to know Levi, to see the man who is so in need of someone to lean on sometimes, the more he wants to be that someone. Their arrangement was only ever meant to be temporary, but Marsh hadn’t counted on feeling so at home with Levi and David – on finding a home with them – and he can’t help himself from falling hard, even though he knows he’s setting himself up for a world of hurt.

The romance has the feel of a slow burn and the author builds the sexual tension really well, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches all contributing to the growing heat between the two men. When they do finally give in to their attraction I appreciated that Marsh makes it absolutely clear that he isn’t pushing Levi to move past his grief, or expecting (or wanting) to replace his wife, but rather, he’s offering to help lighten the load, just for a little while. I was also really pleased that one of the few people in on the truth about their marriage is David and that Levi and Marsh don’t lie to him; I also liked the way David and Marsh connect through their love of chess.

On the downside, I had a real problem with the way Marsh goes about suggesting to Levi that they get married. In fact, he doesn’t really suggest it – he turns up at the restaurant where Levi and his late wife “toasted their vows with friends and family” sixteen years earlier (so I infer it’s his anniversary) and tells Levi his hacking has got him all sorts of information about him, from his financial situation to his sexual preferences, and the way I read it, he all but blackmails him!

“You wouldn’t.” He was out as pansexual, but he’s rather not have the details of his sex life combed through by a stranger, or worse, leaked to the wrong person.

“I won’t if you marry me.”

If that’s supposed to be funny – it isn’t. Not cool, Marsh.

Then there’s Levi’s mother, who meddles far too much in his love life (setting him up when he clearly doesn’t want to be and pushing him to get back out there) and some sort of weird family competition between his mother and aunt, who it seem have made it their mission to one-up each other at family weddings, which felt ridiculous and completely unnecessary.

I had a few smaller niggles as well (again, there’s an over-reliance on the genius hacker who can save the world with a few keystrokes), but as I’ve said before, Layla Reyne spins a good yarn, her stories move along at a swift pace and there’s plenty of action and steam. They’re like TV shows in book form, and sometimes, reading about hot FBI agents and sexy cowboy hackers running around and putting down the bad guys is just what the doctor ordered. I enjoyed Dead Draw in spite of my reservations, and will be picking up book two, Bad Bishop, when it’s released later this year.

Final Orders (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #5) by Gregory Ashe

final orders

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An embattled author. Fanatical parents. A son who can’t stay out of trouble. It’s the last one that’ll probably kill him.

When Emery Hazard gets drawn into a brawl at a monthly school board meeting, he knows he’s in trouble; his husband, John-Henry Somerset, is chief of police, and they’re already under enough scrutiny as they try to finalize their foster son’s permanency plan.

Hazard’s actions, however, have an unexpected consequence: a woman shows up at his office the next day, and she wants to hire him to protect her mother. Loretta Ames is a famous—and famously troublesome—author, and a string of recent attempts on her life suggests that someone is determined to get rid of her. Under pressure from his assistant, Hazard takes the job, assuming that it will be two days of babysitting before Loretta returns to New York.

Her murder changes everything. To find the killer, Hazard and Somers will enter a murky world of concerned parents, entitled teenagers, internet trolls, and a whole lot of grassroots crazy. But nothing is straightforward about the investigation, and even Loretta’s daughter seems to have her own reasons to want her mother dead. And when the killer abducts Colt’s friend, Hazard and Somers realize they are running out of time, and they must race to save him before it’s too late.

Rating: A

Note: Reference is made to a possible school shooting, and the story features the threat of gun violence on school premises.

If you’re a long-time Gregory Ashe reader, then you’ll already know that when you open one of his books, you’re in for a clever plot, compelling characters and a rollercoaster ride of emotions likely to result in bitten-to-the-quick nails and several almost-fell-off-the-seat moments – and this final book in the Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand series is perhaps more true of that than most. Its ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines made me – a non-American – want to scream and throw things on several occasions, so I can’t begin to imagine how my friends across the Pond deal with the issues the author tackles in this book.

Final Orders opens at a school meeting where a group of right-wing bigots (I’m calling it how I see it) are trying to ban a seminal LGBTQ+ young adult novel from the school library. They’re also aiming to prevent a visit to the school by its author, Loretta Ames, and are out for Theo Stratford’s blood, too, as he’s included the book on his teaching syllabus. Chief of Police John-Henry Somerset is present in an official capacity, and his husband Emery Hazard and many of their friends – Cora, Nico, Noah and Rebeca – are all there to lend quiet support to Theo and to oppose the ban. Things are starting to get heated when a schoolmate of Colt’s attacks Theo and the meeting descends into chaos.

Next day, Hazard is approached by Ayelet Ames, Loretta Ames’ daughter, who tells him someone is trying to kill her mother, explaining that she regularly receives death threats and has only recently had a couple of narrow escapes at home in New York. Hazard is sceptical and not keen to get involved – he doesn’t provide personal security – but Nico (sort of) talks him into it.

Without giving away too much, Loretta Ames is found dead in an abandoned complex outside of Wahredua and our dynamic duo of course find themselves up to their necks in the investigation and in all sorts of trouble. And while they’re working their way through a complex mess of clues and misdirection, and wading through a political and ideological minefield, they’re dealing with a lot at home, too. Colt’s social worker is expressing concern about his placement with them, and certain aspects of the investigation bring back difficult memories for Somers, reminding him quite viscerally of the lengths he went to as a teen to hide his true self, and the pain he caused Hazard and lived with himself.

As always in a Gregory Ashe book, there are lots of moving parts, but all are skilfully enmeshed so that they work together to form an exciting and insightful whole. He’s incredibly good at writing about deeply unpleasant people in a way that is both hard-hitting and realistic without turning them into cartoon-ish moustache-twirlers – which makes them all the more chilling. The subjects he tackles in this story – book-banning, the rabid (and unfounded) fears of some parents that their children are being groomed or indoctrinated, the quiet but pervasive radicalisation of the ‘soccer-mom’ – are presented in an accessible and very readable way that takes absolutely nothing away from just how terrifying they are.

For me, the relationships between the characters and their personal growth are just as important to these stories as the mysteries; while I’m always on tenterhooks waiting to find out whodunnit, the characters and their interactions are what keep me coming back to these books. The relationship between Hazard and Somers is SO well written and so authentic – of course the cases they get involved with are always dramatic, but their domestic life is relatable in so many ways, whether it’s Hazard’s insistence on not using fabric conditioner or Somers just wanting to have some peace and quiet at the end of a tough day. This series has explored what it means and what it takes to parent teenagers, and Mr. Ashe has never shied away from the difficulties and adjustments involved. There’s been a focus in this series on young people and how badly they can be screwed up (I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse) and failed by those who are supposed to be their number one go-to for care and support, which has been hard to read at times – especially as someone with children who are not long out of their teens. The frequent battles between Hazard and Colt have been a huge learning curve for Hazard especially, and I felt bad for Somers, being stuck in the middle as he so often was while trying to walk another tightrope at work. The couple has gone through some incredible highs and some awful lows throughout these books, but there’s never any doubt about the depth of the love and affection they share; even when the going is at its toughest, we know they’ll come through for each other, and the author never fails to make me smile at their banter, or give me the warm fuzzies in moments of understanding and tenderness.

Final Orders ties up the majority of the series’ storylines in a satisfying manner, as we see, by the end of the book, that Colt is coming to a greater understanding and appreciation of what Hazard (and Somers) are doing for him, and Hazard is learning that he needs not to jump to so many conclusions and when to take a step back. I doubt their relationship will ever be completely harmonious, but things are well on the way to settling down. I was pleased to see Nico working through some of his issues and how good a friend to Hazard he’s become; I like their working relationship very much – Nico knows Hazard well enough to take no crap, and he’s good at his job – and even though he might not admit it aloud, Hazard knows it. And all those moments of Theo and Auggie being cute and couple-y made my shippy little heart happy 🙂

But there are a few unresolved plot threads left hanging that I hope the author plans to address at a later date. Somers realises he’s got more than one rotten apple in the department, so that’s something he’s eventually going to have to deal with. We also haven’t got the full story as to what’s going on with Dulac; he’s been on a downward spiral for several books now, and something happens in this story that looks set to make it even worse – so hopefully, Final Orders isn’t also the Last Word on all things Hazard and Somerset.

On its own, Final Orders is everything I’ve come to expect from Gregory Ashe – a fascinating, tightly plotted mystery featuring two complex, flawed (and loveable) leads and a fully-developed secondary cast who are so much more than sidekicks or window dressing. It’s also a superb conclusion to what has been a gripping series, and while it’s not always been easy or comfortable to read, I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with the gang in Wahredua.

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

the last mile

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

Rating: C

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

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

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

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

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

because

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

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

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

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

The Bridge of Silver Wings & This Other Country (More Heat Than the Sun #3&4) by John Wiltshire (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

The Bridge of Silver Wings and This Other Country may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Bridge of Silver Wings

Nikolas and Ben discover that bonds aren’t forged with blood or scars, but in the hearts of men strong enough to love.
Siberia in winter isn’t a place for good men.
There is nothing Nikolas won’t do to keep Ben alive.
Nikolas has exorcised his demons, but when they end up stranded in Russia, the monster inside needs to be let loose. Ben discovers the truth of the adage, ‘be careful what you wish for’!

Nikolas then faces an enemy he can’t defeat: Ben Rider himself. Discovering a new family, Ben realizes he’s been living too long in the shadows cast by Nikolas’s all-consuming love. For the first time, life apart from Nikolas is possible.
Is Nikolas strong enough to let Ben go?

This Other Country

Nikolas is the sanest, straightest person Ben knows, so can anyone tell him why he is on a gay-therapy course?

Nikolas Mikkelsen could make a very long list of unpleasant things he’s endured in his life. Then order it from “nearly killed me” to “extremely horrific and don’t want to do again”. And what does it say about his 45 years, that being hit by a tsunami would be considerably way down on this list? But nothing – not torture, imprisonment, or starvation – has prepared him for what he now has to endure for Ben Rider’s sake – attendance on a residential gay-therapy course.

At least he has a new contender for the top spot on his “my awful life” list.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

The Bridge of Silver Wings and This Other Country are books three and four in John Wiltshire’s More Heat Than the Sun series of thriller/romantic suspense novels following the exploits of Ben Rider, a former SAS operative, and enigmatic (ex) diplomat Sir Nikolas Mikkelsen, two of the most stubborn Alpha Males who ever stubborned. The books are characterised by fast-paced, dramatic plots – there’s no such thing as ‘low-drama’ in Ben and Nik’s world – lots of humour, terrific dialogue and the continually evolving relationship between the two leads, a pair of complex, damaged and compelling individuals who aren’t always likeable but who always manage to be fascinating.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Temporary Partner (Valor & Doyle #1) by Nicky James

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Can two rivals work together to solve a case?

When an infant is taken from his carriage in broad daylight, missing persons detective, Quaid Valor, must race against the clock to find the child and bring him safely home to his family. Unfortunately, Quaid’s partner isn’t available, and his team is spread thin. Begrudgingly, Quaid must accept the help from his rival, homicide detective Aslan Doyle, if he wants to get the job done.

Aslan is Quaid’s opposite in every way. He’s bold, outspoken, arrogant, and the office playboy. And much to Quaid’s chagrin, Aslan seems to have set his sights on Quaid as his next conquest.

Quaid doesn’t have time to deal with Aslan’s flirty behavior when he’s trying to solve a case and juggle his cheating ex’s incessant interruptions.

It doesn’t matter how attractive Aslan is or the undeniable chemistry they seem to have. Getting involved with Aslan would be a huge mistake.

But as tension with the case builds, Quaid keeps forgetting he’s supposed to hate this new partner. Maybe Aslan is exactly the kind of distraction he needs.

Temporarily at least.

Right?

Rating: A-

Temporary Partner, the first book in a new series of romantic mysteries from Nicky James, features two rival detectives who team up to solve a missing persons case.  It’s a thoroughly entertaining read and I raced through it in a couple of sittings; it’s fast-paced, tightly-plotted and the sexual tension between the two leads is off-the-charts.

In the short prequel, Department Rivals (available through the author’s newsletter), we were introduced to detectives Quaid Valor of the Missing Persons Unit and Aslan Doyle (yes, his mother was a Narnia fan!) from Homicide.  There’s a long-standing and not at all friendly rivalry between Homicide and the MPU at the Toronto Police Service, and in that story, the higher-ups arrange a team-building exercise in which a detective from one division partners with a detective from the other in order to solve a case-like puzzle.  Of course, the department playboy – Doyle – is partnered with the standoffish, anally-retentive Valor, and while neither is impressed with the other, they’re rather annoyed to find they work surprisingly well together.  It’s not absolutely necessary to read that first, but it’s a quick read and a fun introduction to the characters.

Temporary Partner opens a few months later when Quaid is called in after a five-month-old baby goes missing, snatched from the back-yard of his very well-to-do family home.  Time is of the essence in these cases and Quaid needs to get the ball rolling quickly, but his regular partner is currently on leave dealing with a family situation and all the other detectives in the MPU are on assignment so Quaid’s boss requests help from other departments – which is how come Aslan Doyle ends up working the case. Quaid isn’t best pleased – but it’s Doyle or no-one if he wants to find little Matthieu and return him to his parents safe and sound.

Nicky James has created a real edge-of-your-seat mystery here, with difficult family dynamics and an ever expanding web of secrets and lies that provides lots of twists, turns and red herrings as the investigation quickly moves into high-gear and Valor and Doyle move from merely tolerating each other to a reluctant respect and burgeoning trust. They’re complex, flawed individuals, who couldn’t be more different in both looks and temperament. Aslan, all darkly brooding sexiness, isn’t above bending the rules when it suits him and is a player of the first order with a revolving door of bed partners of both sexes, and yet beneath the swagger there’s a truly kind and intuitive man he rarely lets others see. By contrast, behind Quaid’s All-American good looks is a stickler; tightly wound and by-the-book, he’s dedicated to his job and is extremely good at it – but he never feels as though he’s quite good enough. Unlike Doyle, Quaid is looking for long-term commitment, but he’s stuck in an emotionally abusive cycle with a serial cheater he knows he should kick to the kerb – but somehow can’t.    The way their relationship develops both personally and professionally is extremely well-done, both men coming to appreciate (and perhaps even admire) the other’s skills as they strike sparks off each other while trying to ignore the intensity of their growing attraction.  Aslan makes no secret of the fact that he’d love to get into Quaid’s pants – if for no other reason than to provide a bit of a distraction from Quaid’s asshole ex – but Quaid has absolutely no interest in being just another notch on his bedpost.

The one issue I had with the story is with the unprofessional behaviour Aslan exhibits, especially in the first half, in his ‘pursuit’ of Quaid; on a number of occasions, while he and Quaid are interviewing suspects, he makes comments and/or suggestive remarks which are completely inappropriate in terms of the situation (flirting when you’re about to ask questions of a distraught mother is not a good look)  and workplace ethics.  He does back off when Quaid points out that his behaviour could be considered sexual harassment –  but his disregard of professional/personal boundaries early in the story is somewhat jarring.

That’s my only complaint though.  Otherwise, Temporary Partner is a real page-turner, a fantastic blend of clever mystery and budding romance that gets this new series off to a cracking start.

Not What It Seems by Nicky James (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

not what it seems

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

They say I killed them. They say I’m sick. They’re wrong. Nothing is as it seems.

Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Cyrus Irvine takes his job and his life very seriously. He is well-respected in his field and has worked hard to get where he is.

But he’s lonely.

When called in to evaluate a murder suspect, the last person he expects to find is the man he slept with a few months ago. The man who ghosted him and wounded his fragile heart.

Ethically, he should turn around and walk away, but he doesn’t. For as much as Cyrus understands the human brain, he can’t understand the pull he feels toward the patient.

One session with River Jenkins and Cyrus is sure of three things: River and everything about his preliminary diagnosis is a lie, his feelings toward River haven’t gone away, and despite his professional code, he isn’t going anywhere.

Someone needs to get to the bottom of this.

Cyrus’ world is turned upside down as he and River team up to find the truth.

During their quest for answers, Cyrus discovers the hardest part of his decision isn’t the risk to his career, but the risk to his heart.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

Not What It Seems is a standalone romantic suspense story from Nicky James with a premise that drew me in from the moment I read the synopsis. The two protagonists are River Jenkins, a man in his late twenties accused of the murder of three women and Dr. Cyrus Irvine, a renowned psychiatrist in his mid-forties who is called in to assess River’s mental state after his arrest. It’s a difficult book to review – not just because it’s a mystery and I don’t want to give too much away, but also because it took quite a while for me to warm to the characters or invest in their relationship – although many of the reasons for that make perfect sense in the context of who these people are and the situations they find themselves in. I’m sure it takes considerable skill on the part of an author to be able to write hard-to-like characters and make their flaws feel realistic and well-founded, and then to pull them back from being completely unlikeable without giving them a personality transplant. Nicky James manages it here, although it was a close-run thing for a time!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Life Lessons (Life Lessons #1) by Kaje Harper (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding

life lessons

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Tony Hart loves teaching, even though he’s not much older than his high school students. Between his profession, a few good friends, and plenty of books, he’s content with his quiet life. Then, the murdered body of another teacher falls into the elevator at his feet, and Tony’s life becomes all too exciting.

Jared MacLean is a homicide detective, widowed father to a young daughter, and deeply in the closet. But, from the moment he meets Tony’s blue eyes in that high school hallway, Mac can’t help wanting this man in his life. Mac’s not out and can’t afford to be out, but Tony makes him want the impossible.

Mac isn’t the only one with his eyes on Tony, though. As the murderer tries to cover their tracks, Mac has to work fast or lose Tony, permanently.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

Kaje Harper’s Life Lessons (first published in print in 2011) is the first in a series of four books that follows high school English teacher Tony Hart and widower and deeply closeted homicide detective Jared Maclean from their very first meeting as part of a murder investigation, through the ups and downs of their relationship to their eventual HEA in book four. I enjoyed the story, the characters, the burgeoning romance and the narration very much indeed (it’s J.F. Harding – duh!) and am very much looking forward to listening to the other books in the series when they’re released.

It’s Friday night and Tony Hart is working late, pretty much the only teacher still in the building at Rooseman High. He’s on his way out when he realises he’s left something up in his third-floor classroom; tired and limping because of a sprained ankle, he decides to take the creaky elevator rather than the stairs. When the doors open at his floor, a man stumbles backward into the car, pushing Tony against the wall. Annoyed, Tony pushes back, wondering if the man – a fellow teacher – is drunk – but then he sees the knife sticking out of his chest. Momentarily paralysed with shock, Tony realises that the pounding he can hear isn’t just the beating of his heart – it’s the sound of someone running away. He hears the door at the end of the hallway swing shut, but by the time he sticks his head out the elevator door, whoever it was is gone.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Domestic Animals (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #3) by Gregory Ashe

domestic animals

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a man hires Emery Hazard to track down a teenager who, he claims, robbed him, Hazard isn’t convinced. The story has holes in it, and the client seems eager—too eager—to keep the authorities from getting involved. But Hazard is willing to play along; he suspects something much darker is going on, and he wants to know what it is.

Then his husband, John-Henry Somerset, connects the boy in question to an ongoing suspicious death investigation, and both men realize they’ve stumbled upon something much more complicated. There are too many loose threads: missing money, stolen jewelry, a husband back from the dead, and a string of violent assaults on men paying for sex. And there are too many people with their own agendas.

After Hazard’s client turns up dead, though, the pressure is on. The killer isn’t done yet, and the closer Hazard and Somers come to unearthing the connection between the victims, the greater the danger. They find themselves in a race to uncover the truth before another victim is claimed—and, if Somers is really lucky, in time for him to plan the perfect Valentine’s Day.

Rating: A

Gregory Ashe does love to put his characters – and his readers – through the emotional wringer in his books, and while Custody Battles, the previous instalment in the Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand series, really twisted the knife, this latest episode in the messy – and often dangerous – lives of our favourite crime-fighting husbands, is a close second when it comes to the “ouch” factor. In Domestic Animals, Hazard and Somers are struggling – both individually and as a couple. and professionally and personally.  Hazard’s PI business is doing quite well, but Somers is finding it hard to make the leap from being a friend and colleague, from being one of the guys to being the boss, and suddenly becoming parents to an at-risk teen has rocked the boat of their personal lives so that neither of them is really able to give as much attention to their relationship as they should – something I think ANY parent can identify with; kids are wonderful but they can be exhausting and demanding as hell, too.

The mystery plot kicks off when someone arrives at Hazard’s office wanting to employ him to find a teenager he says stole from him.  Hazard is immediately suspicious (when isn’t he?!); it’s pretty clear to him that he’s being fed a load of bull and his suspicions are confirmed by the man’s obvious reluctance to involve the authorities.  He’s sure there’s something  iffy going on and determines to get to the bottom of it, so he takes the case, prepared to bide his time and do a little more digging on the side.

Meanwhile, Somers becomes involved in the investigation into the suspicious death of a woman found at the bottom of the stairs in her house.  Dulac and his new partner Palomo caught the case, but something doesn’t feel right to Dulac, and he calls Somers for help. Even though Somers knows that, as Chief of Police, it’s not his job to take cases any more, he decides to swing by and see what the problem is.  It quickly becomes clear that Dulac had good reason for his suspicion; something doesn’t add up, but Somers isn’t sure what – and, missing the sort of hands-on investigating he used to do (part of the job he liked and was actually good at) – and as a method of avoidance, he decides to stick with the case.

As always, the mystery is satisfyingly complex with lots of twists and turns, red herrings and suspects, as the author skilfully pulls together the two seemingly disparate plot threads after Somers connects the teen Hazard’s client is looking for with the murdered woman – and they suddenly find Colt right in the middle of it all. I can almost never see exactly how he’s going to connect cases that start out seeming completely independent of each other or work out quite how things are going to go – reason #5648739 why I love Gregory Ashe books!

Hazard and Somerset go through a lot – they always do – but somehow Mr. Ashe always finds a different angle each time so that we never feel as though we’re re-treading a path we’ve been down before.  He sets out certain themes and threads that will run throughout the series and then proceeds to follow and develop them in each book, but it never gets repetitive.  In Domestic Animals, he takes a look at burnout and how it can so easily creep up on someone like Somers, a man who, on the surface, has everything – good-looks, charm, a good (though stressful) job, and a husband and family he loves.  But he’s in a bad place right now, the pressures of his job – of having his father demanding special treatment for his mates, of some of his officers being openly disrespectful (and homophobic), the consequences of still not taking that final step from friend to boss, trying to get Hazard to step back from police investigations – and the pressures at home of trying to keep World War Three from breaking out between Hazard and Colt …  it’s all weighing him down and has become more than he can handle pretty much without his realising it. The quiet, aching misery Somers tries to bury while trying to pretend everything’s fine and just going through the motions is utterly excruciating to watch – it’s frighteningly easy to relate to and so well written – and I was on the edge of my seat as he comes dangerously close to resorting to his old coping mechanisms.  And because Hazard’s in a constant lather over Colt – and almost always on the verge of meltdown – he fails to see just how much his husband is struggling.  Or rather, he sees some of it, but doesn’t realise the full extent of it, and doesn’t usually react in a helpful way.  Mr. Ashe’s insight into what makes these two guys tick is, as ever, unfailing, and watching Somers slowly unravelling and unable to ask for help packed quite the emotional punch and was really hard to read.

Hazard is dealing with a lot, too; his relationship with Colt is a veritable rollercoaster at times, and he’s struggling not to view what’s going on with his foster son through the lens of his own adolescence and father/son relationship (or lack thereof), and they’re constantly at each others’ throats.  The storyline about the breakdown of Colt’s friendship with his bestie, Ash, adds an interesting extra  layer and deepens Colt’s characterisation as he’s dealing with the heartache of what might be first love and a first break-up.

Nico and Dulac are both having personal problems, although Nico seems a bit more on top of his than Dulac, who is spiralling downwards after a big fight with his boyfriend.  I thought Somers should have benched him sooner than he did, though – but then, that scenario is a perfect example of why it’s not possible to be both friend and boss.

But amid all the fights and all the stress and angst, there’s still room for  Mr. Ashe’s trademark humour and quickfire banter;  Hazard’s instructions to Theo and Auggie about coming round to help fit some carpet and description of them as “probationary friends” made me giggle (and makes me eager for the rest of the First Quarto books) – for some truly tender moments between Hazard and Somers, where the depth and strength of their love for each other leaps off the page, and for moments of quiet understanding and sympathy between Hazard and Colt, Somers and Colt and the three of them together.  The pay-offs for all the angst and anger and rows can be a long time coming, but they’re so very worth the wait,

Domestic Animals is a tough but enthralling read in which Gregory Ashe proves yet again that he’s writing some of the most compelling, multi-layered characters and stories in the genre.  Hazard and Somerset are their own worst enemies at times, but after fourteen books (and several shorts), I’m as captivated by them as ever and don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading about them.  Highly recommended.

Crash Site (Fiona Carver #2) by Rachel Grant

crash site

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Fiona Carver has landed a dream assignment: conducting an archaeological inventory of Ruby Island, a privately owned, pristine gem in the Caribbean. Two months in paradise exploring and mapping a lush rainforest, vast caves, and a seventeenth-century star fort and following up on legends of hidden Spanish gold. Add a simmering reunion with wildlife photographer Dean Slater and it’s enough to take Fiona’s breath away. But the sparkle fades when Dean’s arrival is met with sudden, terrifying danger.

Reunited and determined to see the project through, Fiona and Dean find themselves in a swirl of intrigue as they delve into the complex history of the unspoiled refuge, now a tropical haven for billionaires and their secrets. But the work isn’t easy, as someone appears determined to kill the project—by any means necessary.

As betrayal casts tropical storm clouds over Ruby Island and treasured friendships dissolve into distrust, one thing becomes clear: Fiona and Dean are trapped in a dangerous paradise.

Rating: B

The second in Rachel Grant’s Fiona Carver series, Crash Site is the sequel to 2021’s Dangerous Ground, and it picks up around nine months after the events of the first book.  Although the mystery/suspense plot here is self-contained, the central relationship between the two leads was left unresolved at the end of Dangerous Ground, so I’d advise anyone interested in this one to read that first.  And that being the case, there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Naval Archaeologist Fiona Carver has landed herself a dream job on the gorgeous, privately owned (and fictional) Ruby Island in the Caribbean where, together with two other archaeologists, she has been employed to conduct an archaeological inventory of the island and its seventeenth century fort –which comes complete with legends of hidden Spanish gold.  Fiona has known its wealthy owner Jude Reynolds (the island has been owned by his family for generations) for over a decade, from when they met as fellow students at archaeological field school – although they’re not exactly friends; she went on a date with him back then but he behaved like a complete tosser and she hasn’t seen him since.  But the Ruby Island job was just too good to pass up – especially as Jude’s wealth means there will be no budget worries, and he genuinely cares about the work.  He also seems to be working hard to convince Fiona that he’s not the same selfish, entitled brat he was back then – but Fiona isn’t sure how to feel about that.  Sure, Jude is handsome and rich, he’s interested in her and understands her work… but she’s hung-up on someone else.

Wildlife photographer Dean Slater had been on the remote Alaskan island of Chiksook trying to find out what happened to his missing brother Dylan when he and Fiona found themselves stranded in a hostile environment and forced to rely on each other in order to survive (Dangerous Ground). The adrenaline-fuelled days they spent together engendered a real trust and closeness between them, and fed the flames of the mutual attraction that had sparked between them from their first meeting – although a basic incompatibility in their approach to sex and relationships seemed destined to separate them.  Dean is unwilling to risk experiencing the hurt and devastation he felt on the death of his beloved wife from a brain tumor a decade earlier and made it very clear that he doesn’t do relationships, while Fiona has never been one for NSA sex or short-lived flings. It’s clear by the end of the book that they’re head-over-heels for one another, but Dean is adamant that he’s not about to break his no relationships rule and they part, both of them obviously unhappy and not expecting to see each other again.

It’s clear that neither has been able to forget the other over the nine months they’ve been apart, and when Fiona learns – at the very last minute – that Dean is due to arrive on the island at any moment, she’s both furious and suspicious. She’s sure that Dean wouldn’t be coming to the island had he known of her presence, and is almost certain this is a set-up.  The media interest surrounding them after what happened on Chiksook was pretty intense, and she believes Jude is trying to use her and Dean to generate publicity for his new venture – a new streaming channel focusing on travel and adventure.  Before she can decide what to do – should she yell at Jude, up and leave or both – the helicopter carrying Dean and a couple of other personnel explodes and crashes into the sea.

Thanks to the quick-thinking and skilful flying of the pilot Dean and everyone on board is able to escape before the helicopter pitches into the sea.  He initially puts down the sight of Fiona running towards him down to disorientation – he must’ve hit his head after he jumped – but just seconds later, she’s soft and warm in his arms, crying tears of relief.

Once the initial shock of the crash – and nearly losing Dean – has worn off, Fiona begins to wonder about it – was it an accident or sabotage?  If the latter, then who was the intended target?   It seems, however that she’s not going to find out – the day after the crash, every single piece of wreckage has disappeared, leaving nothing for the not-yet-arrived crash investigators to go on.  But the crash is only the beginning of a series of disasters as Fiona and Dean are thrown from one life-threatening situation to another… clearly there’s something about Ruby Island that someone is prepared to go to great lengths to conceal – and who has decided Fiona and Dean are surplus to requirements.

As in Dangerous Ground, the locations are vividly imagined and Ms. Grant does a great job of setting the scene, introducing and fleshing out the characters and setting in motion the wheels of her intriguing, complex plot. I always enjoy the way the author incorporates her impeccable research, experience and obvious knowledge and love for archaeology into her novels, and although the story is perhaps a little slow in places in the first half, things pick up considerably in the second, and the final chapters are a thrilling rollercoaster ride that had me glued to the pages.

Fiona and Dean make a great team when they’re working together and I liked them as individuals.  Fiona is smart, compassionate and just a bit nerdy, and although Dean is still irritatingly stubborn about never wanting another relationship, he’s otherwise great hero material – protective, gorgeous and highly competent. They’re very intuitive as to the other’s thoughts and needs, and that part of their relationship works incredibly well, but their romance is less successful.  They’re obviously very much in love, but Dean refuses to acknowledge it or contemplate having a relationship with Fiona for almost the entire book, telling himself he isn’t capable of giving her what she deserves.  He’s completely honest about not wanting a relationship and the reasons for it, and those are clear and well-articulated, but Ms. Grant did such a good job of convincing me that Violet (his late wife) was the love of his life and that he really wasn’t ready to move on, that by the time he gets his head out of his arse as regards Fiona, I wasn’t completely convinced by his about-turn (and thought he should have grovelled a bit more!)  The fact that this happens on practically the last page doesn’t help with that – but if there are to be more books in this series, then perhaps we’ll get to see their relationship develop from the HFN we get here.

The suspense plot is tense, exciting and well put-together, and even though I’d have liked a little more certainty in the romance, I enjoyed Crash Site and would recommend it to fans of romantic suspense.