TBR Challenge: Loose Cannon (Woodbury Boys #1) by Sidney Bell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Released after five years in the system for assault, streetwise Edgar-Allen Church is ready to leave the past behind and finally look to his future. In need of a place to crash, he’s leaning on Miller Quinn. A patient, solidly masculine pillar of strength and support, Miller has always been there for him—except in the one way Church has wanted the most.

With his staunchly conservative upbringing, Miller has been playing it straight his whole life. Now with Church so close again, it’s getting harder to keep his denial intact. As they fumble their way back to friendship after so many years apart, Miller struggles to find the courage to accept who he really is. What he has with Church could be more than desire—it could be love. But it could also mean trouble.

Church’s criminal connections are closing in on the both of them, and more than their hearts are at risk. This time, their very lives are on the line.

Rating: B+

With “friends” as the prompt for this month’s TBR Challenge read, my brain immediately leapt to “friends-to-lovers” – which is among my favourite tropes – and after a bit of digging around, I came up with Loose Cannon, the first book in Sidney Bell’s Woodbury Boys trilogy.  It fits the prompt in another way, too, because of the strong friendship that binds together the three characters whose stories are told in the three books in the series.

The central relationship in Loose Cannon spans several years, but when we first meet Edgar-Allen Church – who prefers to go by Church – it’s to witness him committing an act of extreme violence.  He’s only sixteen or seventeen years old when he beats a man so badly that he actually worries he might have killed him – and then, in a fit of remorse, calls 911 and waits for the authorities to arrive.  We next meet him as he’s being transferred from juvie to Woodbury Residential Treatment Center, a place where at-risk youth are offered the tools to make themselves new lives while still being held accountable for their actions.  Here, we witness his meetings with the two boys who are to become his closest friends – the sunny-natured, obviously well-to-do Tobias and later, the beautiful, enigmatic – and deadly – Ghost.

Four years later, aged twenty-two, Church is eligible for parole, and one of the conditions he must fulfil is to live with someone who will be a “grounding influence”.  At the last minute, however the person who’d agreed to put him up lets him down, and Church doesn’t have anywhere else to go.  Unless…  There’s one person who is sure to help him, but after the way their friendship crashed and burned  – for which Church blames himself entirely – he’s reluctant to reach out.  But he’s caught between a rock and a hard place – and he makes the call.

That friendship began the night Miller Quinn found a scrawny, scruffy, fifteen-year-old kid trying to haul his antiquated TV set out the window.  Instead of calling the cops, Miller sees the kid is desperate and scared, and manages to persuade him to stick around for a meal and a conversation.  He disappears afterwards and Miller thinks that’s that – so he’s surprised a couple of weeks later when Church turns up during a storm, looking for somewhere to hole up until it passes.  This marks the start of an unlikely friendship during which Church turns up at Miller’s place two or three times a week and it lasts for a couple of years – until (as he thinks) Church screws it all up.

The author drip-feeds this backstory through the first part of the novel by means of a few well-executed flashbacks, and they, together with the characters’ thoughts and conversations, shed light on the events that led to Church being imprisoned.  After this, the story progresses in linear fashion as Miller and Church meet each other again for the first time in five years, and have to find a way to be around one another and rebuild their friendship.  But the elephant that caused the problems all those years ago is still in the room; Church is gay and is attracted to Miller – is even in love with him – and Miller is straight.

But Church – older and wiser now – knows that wanting what he can’t have is a futile exercise and it doesn’t take long for him and Miller to get their relationship back on an even keel and back to the sort of close, platonic friendship they had before, where they bantered back-and-forth constantly and shouted at hockey games on TV.  There’s still an undercurrent of something else, though, and no matter how hard he tries to tell himself it’s stupid to have fallen for the straight guy, Church is sufficiently honest with himself to own the truth of his feelings.  Miller, on the other hand, is a mass of total confusion.  Having Church back in his life is throwing up all sorts of complications he just wants to ignore; he’s always known Church is gay and made it clear he has absolutely no problem with it. But Miller is straight so why is he noticing Church’s lean, muscled body, how he’s grown into his features and become so striking, somehow poetic and tough all at once?

Both men are incredibly complex, well-rounded characters with a lot of baggage to unpack between them.  Miller is a kind, decent person, a man who genuinely wants to help others in any way he can, who deserves to live as he wants and love how he wants, but his highly conservative, Catholic upbringing – conditioning even – means he’s never considered questioning his sexuality (and if he has, he’s buried it deep and left it to rot). There’s absolutely no doubt that he’s in love with Church, but he refuses to admit it; that’s not who he’s supposed to be.  His struggle to find the courage to start questioning and then accept that what he’s believed for thirty years is wrong is brought to life in such an insightful, considered and realistic way – and my heart broke for him.

But the real star of the show is Church, who, despite a truly shitty childhood and time spent in prison still manages to be honest, insightful and incredibly generous, and one of the most compelling characters I’ve come across in fiction.  He did a terrible thing as a kid, but doesn’t allow it to define him and is determined to do better.  He’s no angel and is definitely a bit rough around the edges, but the inner strength he displays as he struggles to own and control his negative emotions is amazing, and I loved watching him learning about himself and transforming from that confused kid into someone who knows himself and how to make the right choices.

The slow-burn romance is wonderful, but I also loved the way the deep affection Church and Miller have for each other is so very clear in everything they say and do, even before their relationship takes a romantic turn.  They’re crazy about each other – even though it takes Miller ages to acknowledge the truth – but they’re good for each other, too, and we’re shown that over and over.

There’s an intriguing sub-plot which I think serves more as a set up for Ghost’s book (which is the third, Rough Trade), in which Church becomes unwittingly caught up with a group of Russian mobsters.  This introduces an element of peril and suspense to the novel, and it’s generally well done, although some parts of it dragged a bit.  I enjoyed the relationship between Church, Tobias and Ghost, and there’s a great supporting cast in Miller’s sister and niece as well.

Loose Cannon is clever, angsty, poignant and beautiful, a compelling read featuring a pair of engaging leads whose flaws make them seem that much more real and whose HEA is hard won and very well deserved.  It’s highly recommended and I’m definitely going to be picking up the other two books as soon as I can.

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.