My Lady Quicksilver (London Steampunk #3) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Determined to destroy the Echelon she despises, Rosalind Fairchild is on seemingly easy mission. Get in. Uncover the secrets of her brother’s disappearance. And get out.

In order to infiltrate the Nighthawks and find their leader, Blue Blooded Sir Jasper Lynch, Rosalind will pose as their secretary. A dangerous mission, but Rosalind is also the elusive Mercury, a leader in the humanist movement.

But she doesn’t count on Lynch being such a dangerously charismatic man, challenging her at every turn, forcing her to re-evaluate everything she knows about the enemy. He could be her most dangerous nemesis-or the ally she never dreamed existed.

Rating: A-

Somehow, I read Of Silk and Steam, the final book in Bec McMaster’s fabulous London Steampunk series first, then moved onto the Blue Blood Conspiracy series, so thanks to the TBR Challenge, I’ve been slowly catching up with the books I missed.  My Lady Quicksilver is book three and is every bit as good as those that preceded it, boasting a tightly-written story with plenty of intrigue and high-stakes action, a steamy antagonists-to-lovers romance, excellent world-building and a strongly drawn set of central and secondary characters.

While each book could be read as a standalone (the central storyline and romance are concluded in each book), there’s an overarching plotline that runs throughout the series, so I’d advise starting at the beginning with Kiss of Steel.  There will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

Sir Jasper Lynch, Master of the Nighthawks – London’s (sort of) police force, which is made up of rogue blue bloods (those not of the nobility who became accidentally infected with the craving virus) – has been given just three weeks to track down and arrest the mysterious Mercury, the leader of the humanist movement believed responsible for the recent bombing of the Ivory Tower, the seat of the Echelon’s power.  With two weeks left until the deadline – and knowing that the price of failure to deliver will be his life – Lynch has very little to go on, until he connects rumours of a smuggling operation with the humanist movement, and makes plans to intercept the next shipment.  On a dank, foggy night down by the river, he and his team await their moment to strike – but they’re spotted and all hell breaks loose.  During the fight, Lynch almost captures Mercury – who escapes into the enclaves beyond the city walls.  The enclaves are dangerous places – especially for a blue blood – but he follows anyway and quickly corners his quarry and makes a startling discovery.  Mercury is a woman.  A woman who attracts him and repels him in equal measure.  They circle each other metaphorically, testing each other’s mettle with the thrust and parry of their conversation until, after sharing a heated kiss, Mercury sticks Lynch with a hemlock dart and disappears.

Rosalind Fairchild took on the mantle of the humanist cause espoused by her late husband after his death some eight years previously and her secret identity is known only to a select few.  She was not, in fact, responsible for the bombing at the Ivory Tower;  a breakaway faction of mechs planned and executed it and Rosa tried to prevent it, to no avail.  Her main concern now, though, is her younger brother Jeremy, who was duped by Mordecai, the mechs’ leader, into delivering the bomb.  Rosa doesn’t know if Jeremy is dead or alive and is desperate to find out – and she decides the best way to get the information she needs is by taking a position as secretary to Sir Jasper Lynch at the HQ of the Nighthawks.  She presents herself at Lynch’s office as Mrs. Marberry and talks her way into the job – her no nonsense manner, her gumption and her ability to look him in the eye (not to mention her pretty face and soft curves) convincing him to give her the position on a trial basis.

Searching for Mercury isn’t Lynch’s only priority. The recent gruesome murders of two blueblood families – by a family member seemingly gone beserk – are mystifying and completely random, and Lynch has no real clues to go on.

The plot is engaging and well-executed as is the romance between Lynch and Rosa which is full of the sizzling sexual tension Bec McMaster writes so well.  Lynch is another of her swoonworthy heroes; handsome (of course!), honourable, intelligent and tightly controlled, he comes across as somewhat cold at first, but is gradually revealed to have a dry sense of humour and a vulnerability he keeps ruthlessly hidden.  Rosa’s backstory is heartbreaking; she and her brothers lived on the streets for a while after their mother (a thrall) died, until she was taken in and trained as an assassin and spy by her father, the evil Lord Balfour.  In the eight years since the death of her husband, Rosa has never looked at another man – she just hasn’t been interested – and her attraction to Lynch infuriates her.  She hates blue bloods and he, as the Master of the Nighthawks, answerable to the  even more hated Prince Consort, is the worst of the lot. But as she works alongside Lynch as Mrs Marberry, Rosa begins to see a different side to him and to see him as a man of compassion, with emotions he works hard to keep at bay.  She realises that she’s been wrong in tarring all blue bloods with the same brush and that some of them are actually capable and desirous of doing good.

The author sets up the conflict early on, and then drip-feeds information about the characters and their backstories, slowly revealing the truth about these two flawed and damaged characters, their loneliness, their guilt and their determination to do what they believe to be right.  The sparks fly between Lynch and Rosa right from the start; it’s an attraction neither of them wants or can afford, but it won’t go away, no matter how hard they try to ignore it.  The staid and principled Lynch is very much in lust with Mercury, but is also falling for Mrs Mayberry; he struggles with the fact he’s attracted to two women, while Rosa is unable to resist him, even though she knows she’s heading for trouble.

My Lady Quicksilver is another gripping read in what is one of the best series of paranormal romances of recent years. Lynch and Rosa are fully-formed, three-dimensional individuals with flaws and insecurities who, despite their difficult pasts, have grown into strong, determined individuals who will do whatever they must in pursuit of their goals.  The sexual chemistry between them burns up the pages, the banter is excellent and the romance is both tender and sexy as hell (chess, anyone?! Phew!)

If you haven’t read this series yet, then do yourself a favour and get started.  You can thank me later 😉

TBR Challenge: Zero at the Bone by Jane Seville

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After witnessing a mob hit, surgeon Jack Francisco is put into protective custody to keep him safe until he can testify.

A hitman known only as D is blackmailed into killing Jack, but when he tracks him down, his weary conscience won’t allow him to murder an innocent man.

Finding in each other an unlikely ally, Jack and D are soon on the run from shadowy enemies. Forced to work together to survive, the two men forge a bond that ripens into unexpected passion. Jack sees the wounded soul beneath D’s cold, detached exterior, and D finds in Jack the person who can help him reclaim the man he once was.

As the day of Jack’s testimony approaches, he and D find themselves not only fighting for their lives… but also fighting for their future. A future together.

Rating: B

Jane Seville’s Zero to the Bone (2009) combines a complex and intriguing plot that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie with an intense, angsty romance between a hitman and his would-be victim.  It’s a gripping read for around the first three-quarters of the book but after that it starts to meander a bit and while I enjoyed it, it’s a bit overlong and could probably have done with a bit of judicious editorial pruning to tighten up some areas of the plotting and writing.

Maxillofacial surgeon Jack Francisco’s life is turned upside down and inside out after he witnesses a mob hit and agrees to give evidence at trial.  He has to leave his Baltimore home and the job that’s been his life’s work behind when he’s taken into protective custody and relocated thousands of miles away in Nevada while he waits for the trial to begin.

The hitman known only as D is one of the best in the business, but is known to have some odd quirks when it comes to which tickets he picks up.  Rapists, child molesters and murderers are fair game, but he won’t touch cheating spouses, kids who want to dispose of elderly relatives to get their hands on their money – or witnesses.  His handler knows this and isn’t surprised when D passes on the contract from the Dominguez brothers to take out a witness – but they aren’t going to take no for an answer.  They blackmail D into picking up the ticket on Jack Francisco, which is why Jack enters the supposedly secure apartment where the Marshals have squirrelled him away, to find a man sitting calmly in an armchair with a gun in his lap.

D knows that if he can get to Jack, then so can anyone else, and although it’s one of the worst ideas he’s ever had, he decides to get Jack out of there and that he’ll protect the man himself until the trial.  He knows he’ll have a price on his head within seconds of the news getting out, but he’s the only one who can protect Jack from the scumbags who are after him… and he also suspects that there’s something more going on than someone being pissed at him for refusing a ticket.  After all, there are plenty of others out there who would have taken the job without a qualm, so why did the Dominguez brothers go to the trouble of blackmailing him?

The author does a great job of building the suspense as Jack and D go on the run, gradually peeling away the different layers of the plot as it becomes clear that D’s suspicions are correct and someone is targeting him through Jack – and that there is a lot more going on than it at first seemed.  The story is intricate and fast-paced, and there are a number of vivid, edge-of-the-seat action scenes and near misses that really ratchet up the tension and keep the reader on their toes.  As we move from one heart-pounding scene to another, Jack and D are starting to get a bit of handle on one another, well, insofar as Jack is able to find out anything from the very tight-lipped and closed-off D other than that he’s… well, tight-lipped, closed-off and deeply damaged.

A break in the action allows the author to develop the relationship between the two leads, who are as different as chalk and cheese.  Jack is the light to D’s dark; he’s a highly respected surgeon and thoroughly decent man with a generally optimistic disposition, while D is a man tormented by the tragic past that has driven him to become what he is.  Weighed down by grief and guilt, he’s spent so much time suppressing his emotions and natural reactions that when we first meet him, he’s starting to wonder if he’s actually a human being any more.  But something about Jack gradually starts to make its way under his skin, and D doesn’t at first know how to handle that.  He’s drawn to Jack and wants to trust him – but for a man who’s lived by his wits and trusted only one other person (the mysterious X, who is something of a guardian angel at times) for the past decade, trust isn’t given easily.  Jack is equally smitten and wants to know the man behind the emotional walls D has constructed, and slowly, the two men forge an incredibly strong bond that develops into a deep and passionate love that is absolutely unshakeable.  The relationship is very well done and contains some beautifully written moments of vulnerability and intimacy; and while the sex scenes are not all that explicit, their mutual attraction, longing and need for each other is visceral and really leaps off the page.

[Note: there’s no mention of prep or lube in the first sex scene (ouch!) and no mention – or use – of condoms at all.]

I got just over half way through the book confidently expecting to give it a fairly high rating – maybe even a DIK – but as I headed into the final quarter, it started to run out of steam and the excitement and tension that had made it such a compelling read were dissipating.  I’m not sure why that was;  there was plenty of plot still to go, but it felt overly dragged out and in the end, went on for too long.  Reading the epilogue, I got the feeling Zero at the Bone was supposed to have been the first in a series (checking the author’s website later, I found this to be the case), but no sequel has so far appeared 😦

Other weaknesses I noted were the lack of background and depth of characterisation of Jack.  We’re told early on that he was married to a woman, and later that he’s had a few relationships with men since; he’s very comfortable with his sexuality, but his marriage and divorce are not explained at all and I couldn’t help wondering why, if he knew he was gay, he married a woman in the first place.  (It’s never suggested he might be bisexual.)  There’s also a real lack of character description;  we don’t even know that Jack is dark-haired until really late in the book, for instance, and I found it very hard to picture him or D.

I really liked the author’s writing style, and she has a real talent for describing locations and action sequences so vividly that the reader is right there with the characters. However,  I wasn’t wild about her decision to write out D’s dialogue in a way to reflect some kind of accent – we’re never told where he comes from, but it’s “ya” for “you” and “fer” for “for” and “caint” for “can’t”.  It’s not as intrusive as some written-out dialects I’ve come across, but it was distracting nonetheless.  Also, some of the internal monologuing could have used a trim; there’s a tendency for a character to have a long-winded conversation with himself in the middle of an action scene or when he has to make a split-second decision, and it disrupts the flow.

Fortunately however, the balance between action, suspense and angsty romance is just about right, the good outweighs the not-so-good, and I enjoyed Zero to the Bone in spite of my reservations.

NOTE:  It has come to my attention that since I purchased this book, the rights have reverted to the author, who has revised and republished it.  One of the things she has changed is the way D’s accent is conveyed; I haven’t got the newer version so I can’t comment on how successful (or otherwise) it is; I just wanted to point out the change.

TBR Challenge: The Love Knot (Ramsey Saga #1) by Elisabeth Fairchild

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Enlisting the help of fastidious fop, Miles Fletcher, to teach her ballroom arts, tomboy Aurora Ramsay must marry wealthy Lord Walsh or lose everything. But Fletcher’s tangled intentions would turn the tricks of enticement to bind Miss Ramsay’s heart in a more worthy love knot.

Rating: B

Sometimes I look at a TBR Challenge prompt, and the perfect book comes to mind, sometimes I look at it and … it doesn’t.  “Dress for Success” was one of those times.  I was all set to give up and just read a random book from the TBR when I found I had Elisabeth Fairchild’s The Love Knot on my Kindle.  I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, and when I read the synopsis – an elegant gentleman agrees to help a gauche young woman learn to attract the object of her affections – I realised I’d found this month’s read.

It’s a fairly simple story that uses a familiar trope, but what bumps it up into the recommendation bracket is the way the central relationship is developed and the strong characterisation of the two leads.  It opens with a prologue set the night before the hero, Miles Fletcher, is due to leave London to stay with his friend Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall in Norfolk to observe the annual sheep shearing (Miles is an art dealer and knows little about farming; he’s interested and wants to learn for when he inherits his uncle’s property).  He’s settled for a quiet night at his club when he’s summoned to attend his uncle Lester who has just won a fortune at the gaming table.  Lester isn’t in good health and doesn’t expect to live for much longer, and before Miles leaves for Norfolk, Lester makes a cryptic request – to make sure a certain young lady doesn’t find that she’s been ‘fleeced’.

The subject of that request appears unexpectedly as Miles and his sister Grace approach Holkham in their carriage.  Stopping briefly to observe a group of ladies at archery practice, Miles is immediately struck by the skill and poise of a tall, red-haired young woman whose confidence calls to him as much as her looks do.  Aurora Ramsey is breathtaking, and Miles is smitten – he had not expected to find such beauty in fulfilling his promise to his uncle.

The Ramsey name is dogged by scandal, from the eldest brother’s gambling addiction to another’s drunkenness to another’s womanising, and Aurora- the only Ramsey female –  has been doing her best to run the family estate pretty much single-handedly.  But with the means to do so ever dwindling, it’s time for her to find a wealthy husband whose money will give her the chance to save the home and land she loves so much – and she’s settled on Lord Walsh, a young, handsome and wealthy peer who is also present at the house party.  The problem is that Aurora has absolutely no idea how to go about attracting a man, and no social graces to speak of.  She can ride and hunt and talk about sheep shearing and land management, but she can’t dance or play or paint or flirt… she has never learned any of the so-called accomplishments expected of society ladies.

This Pygmalion-esque story proceeds as one would expect; Miles offers to help Aurora to learn the sorts of things she’ll need to be able to catch a husband – what clothes to wear, how to flirt, how to converse appropriately and all the things society dictates a well-born young woman should know.  Naturally, during the course of these lessons Aurora finds it increasingly difficult to remember that she’s learning how to attract Lord Walsh.  Miles Fletcher may not be the handsomest man she’s ever seen, but he’s certainly the kindest, most honourable one – not to mention the best dressed!  – and for the first time in her life she understands what genuine attraction and desire feel like… if only she wasn’t feeling them for the wrong man!

Miles is a terrific beta hero.  He’s considerate and empathetic and just wants Aurora to be happy.  He does know something she doesn’t for most of the book – that her brother Jack lost the Ramsey estate to Miles’ uncle Lester and that Miles stands to inherit it when his uncle dies – but he doesn’t lie to her about it; or rather he doesn’t withhold the information because he deliberately sets out to deceive, he does it because he wants her to be able to make her own choices.  He’s smitten with Aurora from the first, and their subsequent interactions – in which their differences are plain to see, but in a way that shows how right they are for each other – only reinforce his initial impression that she’s the woman for him.  But if she decides she wants Lord Walsh, then Miles is determined to help her get what she wants, even if it breaks his heart in the process.

There were a couple of times I felt Aurora was being overly stubborn, but I liked her for the most part.  She’s in a really awkward situation; her brothers (with one exception) are wastrels and care for nothing except their own pleasure, so she’s been the one to manage their estate and through no fault of her own stands to lose the land she loves and the only home she’s ever known.  I mostly forgave her sometimes blinkered view of things because of that – upper class women of her time had so few options – and once her deep seated insecurities were revealed, I warmed to her.

I really enjoyed the setting of this story.  Sure, it’s at a Regency house-party, but instead of an emphasis on grand balls or musical evenings, there are outdoor scenes of the estate at work, which was a refreshing change of focus.

The chemistry between Miles and Aurora sparks from the outset, and even though the author doesn’t go beyond kisses on the page, the sexual tension is always present in the air between them, and in certain scenes (such as the one in the attic where they’re looking at a portrait) it’s so thick as to be almost palpable.  The dénouement is perhaps a little rushed, but overall, I enjoyed The Love Knot and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good Traditional Regency, or who simply wants to read an historical romance in which the characters aren’t twenty-first century people in period costume.

TBR Challenge: Delicious by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He has risen from the gutters to become a powerful man–London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand in the House of Commons. She is a woman who spends her days in the kitchen. A chance encounter changes both their lives, but she disappears at dawn, leaving behind no name, no address, and only a pair of muddy galoshes.

Ten years later, the last thing Stuart Somerset expects, as he arrives at his new country estate following the unexpected death of his elder brother Bertie, is to fall in love with the delicacies from the kitchen of Madame Verity Durant, Bertie’s mysterious and notorious cook. Little does he know, Madame Durant and his lost beloved are one and the same, and he stands to lose his hard-won respectability were he to follow the yearnings of his heart.

Rating: C

It’s no secret that I’m a massive Sherry Thomas fangirl. I’ve read almost every one of her books, and when it came to this month’s TBR prompt of Backlist, I decided to read one of the two (I think) historical romances of hers I haven’t yet read – Delicious, from 2008.  Billed as a kind of Cinderella story, it features a celebrated – even notorious – cook and a highly-respected MP who reunite after they spent a night together ten years earlier, but though I like second-chance romances and I love Sherry Thomas’ writing, the story didn’t work for me at all.  In fact, it was just plain… odd.

I’ll admit to being a bit confused through the first few chapters, but one thing that is apparent early on is that gourmet chef/cook Verity Durant is not exactly what she seems.  Infamous throughout English society because of her (supposed) loose morals, she was the mistress of her employer Bertie Somerset for a time, although that relationship ended ten years before and she remained at Fairleigh Park as his cook.  Bertie dies at the beginning of the book, and his estate is inherited by his estranged half-brother Stuart, a hard-working lawyer and up-and-coming politician who is tipped as a future Prime Minister.  And the man with whom Verity shared one single night of passion ten years earlier.

Verity has mixed feelings upon learning that Stuart will be coming back into her life. She knows there is little reason for them to meet but is still in love with him even after all that time, and she wants to give him a gift, one she realises has been ten years in the making – happiness on a plate.

But unlike his half-brother, who was a real foodie, for Stuart, food is a necessity, something to fuel his body and to prevent hunger.  All he wants is to eat his first dinner as the owner of Fairleigh Park in peace and quiet while he reads his newspaper.  But from his very first mouthful of soup, he’s distracted:

The sip turned into an explosion of flavors on his tongue, rich, deep, pure, like eating the sunshine and verdure of a fine June afternoon.  Startled, he did something he almost never did – putting down his newspaper when he dined alone – and stared into the soup.

A mouthful later, he’s sent the soup away, seeing his enjoyment of it as an indulgence and a weakness.  But as the days pass, he finds himself unable to stop thinking about Madame Durant, fantasising about her even though at this point, (he thinks) he has never even met her.   Oh, and he’s just become engaged to a young woman with whom he’s been friends for a number of years and who he believes will make a good political wife.

But basically, that’s the story, Stuart fighting against seduction by proxy – the proxy being Verity’s amazing and incredibly culinary creations – while Verity simultaneously wants him to love her and actively avoids letting him see her and realise who she is.

The author makes good use of flashbacks to fill in the backstory, so we get to witness the first meeting between Verity and Stuart, the circumstances of their night together and what happened afterwards. But – and here is one of the book’s biggest problems – it was just ONE night, and the entire romance in the present is predicated on that single encounter.  It’s intensely passionate to be sure, but it’s basically insta-love, and when you add to that the fact that Verity and Stuart don’t really interact all that much in the present timeline (and when they do, they don’t see each other’s faces until right at the end), well, I found their romance really difficult to buy into.

Another problem is with the way the conflict in the romance is resolved.  Stuart’s fiancée is happily taken care of (there’s an excellent secondary romance which I liked more than the main one), but even then, Verity’s reputation will spell the end of Stuart’s political career, unless … well, a secondary character does a complete volte face and turns into a deus ex machina.

I didn’t connect with either Stuart or Verity.  Hints are dropped early on that Verity was born into an aristocratic family but was estranged from them at sixteen; she’s had a tough time of it and the fact she’s made something of herself in the face of such adversity really is admirable, but I just couldn’t become invested in her.  And I’m not sure how I feel about the fact she slept with brothers. (Okay, half-brothers, but still…) As for Stuart… two hours after finishing the book I’m trying to recall something about his personality, but other than his determination not to enjoy Verity’s cooking, and an obsession with her that springs out of nowhere, I can’t remember much.  And speaking of cooking, I really didn’t care for was the way in which the food was described as magical and life-altering and… so much hyperbole that I started skimming those parts.

I did like the secondary romance, which was funny and tender, and I think my favourite parts of the story were those when Stuart began to reappraise his relationship with Bertie, to whom he’d been really close when they were boys.  But it’s a bad sign when, in a romance novel, the love stories that are the most interesting don’t involve either of the two principal characters.

A C grade is the best I can do for Delicious – and I can’t remember the last time a Sherry Thomas book got anything lower than an A grade from me.  It’s always a sad day when I have to write a negative review of a favourite author,  but I’ll just have to chalk this one up to experience and move on.

TBR Challenge: Imagine by Jill Barnett

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After years imprisoned on Devil’s Island for a murder he never committed, escaped convict Hank Wyatt knows how to survive and believes his luck has finally changed. But when he stows away on board a ship destined to sink, his luck turns bad. He doesn’t know if he can last an hour when he is marooned on a deserted island with a beautiful, know-it-all blonde attorney and three orphaned children. Suddenly looking out for number one doesn’t seem to be enough.

San Francisco attorney Maggie Smith wants to have a good cry. Thoroughly modern, wealthy, and bright, her unwanted holiday turns bad when she is suddenly cast in the role of mother and forced to battle wits and hearts with the most arrogant, pig-headed man she’s ever met.

Fate has thrown this makeshift family Robinson together, and kismet tosses in a 2000 year-old floating bottle filled with magic. Is the chance for a love more powerful than they could ever imagine only a wish away? Father Goose meets Donovan’s Reef in this funny and tender historical romance about misfits who find that life might not be so bad after all…if they can do the impossible, and find a way to be family.

Rating: C+

Many romance series feature siblings, but for the Family Ties prompt, I decided to go for a ‘found family’ story, and Jill Barnett’s Imagine (originally published in 1995 and reissued in 2017) fit that bill perfectly.

It’s 1896, and in San Francisco, successful, hard-working attorney Margaret Huntington Smith has been urged by her father, a judge, to take a well-deserved vacation.  Knowing she won’t go unless given a push (in the best way) he’s brought her a first class ticket for a cruise to “French Oceania – Tahiti, the Cook Islands and more – A little taste of paradise for a daughter who works too hard.”

In the penal colony of Leper’s Gate on Dolphin Island, Hank Wyatt (imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit) has spent four years doing hard labour and enduring horrific cruelty, and when he sees a chance for escape he takes it. Disguised as a priest, he makes his way to Port Helene on the other side of the island where he stows away aboard a steamship.

But Hank’s luck has run out.  That night, there’s a terrible storm and the ship goes down; Hank and the woman and three young orphans he rescues are the only survivors.

So what we’ve got is what the book blurb describes as “a makeshift family Robinson” consisting of a rough-and-ready ex-convict, a very proper female attorney and three children (two girls and a boy) aged two, five and eleven.  (Oh, and an obstreperous goat they later name Rebuttal – because she keeps butting Hank in the butt.)

There’s a sort of African Queen Bogey/Hepburn vibe between Hank and Margaret (whom he nicknames Smitty) – although I don’t remember Bogart’s Charlie being quite so deliberately rude to Hepburn’s Rosie – and the pair are frequently at loggerheads, usually over Hank’s insistence that he knows best and Margaret should just worry about cooking meals and looking after the children.

Fortunately, and in spite of his attitude – in which, let’s face it, he’s very much a man of his time – the author succeeds in making Hank a likeable character.  Hidden deep inside behind the dismissiveness and crass behaviour is a caring man who has been battered about by life and learned early on that aspiration only leads to disappointment. But he proves himself to be kind, capable of laughing at himself, and also – to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s – to be good with the children. He needs some prodding to do the right thing at times, but he steps up when needed, teaching five-year-old Theodore to swim and to fish and becoming a father-figure to a boy who desperately wants a Dad.  Something Hank never had.

Margaret’s mother died when she was young, so she was brought up by her father, who taught her to believe in herself and that she could do anything she wanted if she worked hard enough.  She’s whip-smart and determined, likes to think things through and to find logical solutions to problems… although as she quickly discovers, none of those things really work all that well when confronted with an energetic toddler and a troubled eleven-year-old for whom she can’t seem to do anything right.

The author does a good job of pulling this unexpected family gradually together, in creating the chemistry between Hank and Margaret, and showing Margaret’s confusion at how she can possibly be attracted to a man she doesn’t particularly like.  Much of the comedy comes from Margaret’s ineptitude at those supposedly feminine tasks of looking after the children and cooking; she’s hopeless at the latter and burns everything – even after several weeks when I’d have thought a woman of her intelligence would have worked out how NOT to burn the fish Hank and Theodore caught.  Which begs the question – what did they actually eat?  Apart from bananas and coconuts, and later in the book, some oysters, there’s not much attention devoted to that.

Anyway.   I liked a lot about this story; the verbal sparring between Hank and Margaret is fun, the children are nicely developed as individuals rather than plot-moppets, and there are some really touching scenes as both Hank and Margaret start to bond with them.  The romance is nicely done, too; Margaret and Hank are like chalk and cheese, and what starts out as a physical attraction is given time to grow into a friendship and then more.  So why haven’t I given the book a higher grade?

Put simply – the genie.

Even though he appears in the prologue, I’d completely forgotten about him.  I became caught up in the story of Hank’s escape – which is quite a feat of ingenuity – and the drama of the shipwreck and rescue, their journey to the island and their first days trying to get used to their situation and each other, then – poof! – Muddy appears in a puff of purple smoke, and the whole thing went downhill.  Okay, so credit to the author for not having the first wish – or second – be ‘get us off this island’ – but it was obvious that he was going to end up playing Deus ex Machina at some point.   Apart from that function, I honestly couldn’t see the point of including him in the story.

Had it not been for that, I’d have given the book a higher grade, but it just didn’t work for me.  I read paranormal and fantasy romances, so the idea of magical beings isn’t the issue; it’s the dropping in of one into an otherwise non-magical setting for no apparent reason (other than to get them off the island when the author was ready).

Imagine was an entertaining read that had a lot going for it, but I can’t deny I was disappointed overall, especially as it had such a strong start.  But YMMV – there are plenty of 4 and 5 star reviews around for this one. so obviously it will work better for some readers than others.

The Road Home by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux and Michael Ferraiuolo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

David Coleman has made some mistakes, and he’ll be living with the consequences for the rest of his life. He’s made decisions that have left him estranged from his once tight-knit family. Even now, when David is clean and sober, working his way through medical school with a promising future ahead, his parents refuse to forgive or forget.

When he gets some grim news about his father, David realizes he’s running out of time to make amends. As he comes home for the holidays and his sister’s wedding, he knows it’s going to be tense, but he’s desperate to prove they’re wrong about him. And since they won’t take his word for it, he’s bringing reinforcements.

Hunter Scott will do anything for his childhood best friend, but he never thought that would include posing as his boyfriend. Except David’s family has always respected Hunter. Maybe if they see that David is good enough for Hunter to love, they’ll realize he’s good enough for them, too.

But as Hunter and David lean on each other through snowstorms, family drama, and visits from personal demons, maybe this relationship isn’t as much of a performance as it was meant to be.

Rating: Narration: A – Content: A-

Sometimes the ideal book pops into my head for TBR Challenge prompts, and sometimes… it doesn’t.  This was one of those times;  I had a few books on my list, but I wasn’t really feeling any of them.  Then, a few days after my last (unsuccessful) search for something suitable, I picked up a new audiobook without having let the title sink in or reading the synopsis  – I like the author’s work and the narrators are two of my all-time favourites – and realised it would fit!  This is the first time I’ve fulfilled a TBR prompt by listening to a book rather than reading it, but as I tend to read/listen 50:50 these days, I figured it would be allowed 😉

L.A. Witt’s The Road Home is a tender, poignant and sensual romance that combines a number of familiar tropes to produce a story that transcends all of them.  The author tackles some difficult issues – PTSD, addiction, living with chronic illness, the stigma of being HIV positive – incorporating them fully into the story and handling them in a respectful and sensitive manner, but never loses sight of the fact that this is, first and foremost, a romance.

David Coleman and Hunter Scott have known each other for most of their lives, and were even high-school sweethearts at one point, but after a catastrophic break-up in college, ended up deciding they were better as friends.  That friendship has endured through Hunter’s deployments and the addiction that nearly took David’s life, and now, in their thirties, they both seem to have their lives on-track.  David has been clean for seven years and is in his second year of medical school, and Hunter is steadily climbing the ranks in the Navy.

David is practically estranged from his family, who lost all faith in him after he became addicted to meth.  His parents (begrudgingly) accept his sexuality, but his mother in particular rarely misses an opportunity to remind him of ‘everything he put them through’ when he was an addict, and David knows that his parents and brother are just waiting for him to relapse; the fact that he’s been through hell and emerged stronger, that he has the strength to remain sober, and that he got into one of the best medical schools in the country counts for nothing with them; all they see is a fuck-up who will never change.  And even worse, as far as his family is concerned, is the fact that David used to work in the porn industry –in front of the camera – and although he’s apologised profusely for disappointing them and scaring them over his addiction and the fact that he is HIV positive, the porn is something he refuses, point blank, to apologise for.  He’s not ashamed of it and sees no reason why he should be.  But when he receives the news that his father is terminally ill and that this Christmas may well be his last, David decides to have one last try at patching things up. His family doesn’t think much of him, but they do respect Hunter, so David asks Hunter if he’ll accompany him home for Christmas (and to his sister’s New Year wedding) – and pretend to be his boyfriend.  After all, if someone like Hunter thinks David is ‘good enough’, then surely his parents will… maybe not change their minds exactly, but ease off a bit and accept him back into the fold.

Hunter has been the best of friends to David, ready to help however he can and literally helping to save his life more than once.  Despite their breakup, he’s always been in love with David, but hasn’t pushed for anything more, believing it’s better to have David in his life as a friend than not to have him at all.  He knows how toxic David’s family is and privately thinks he’s probably better off without that kind of negativity in his life, but he also knows how important it is to David to at least try to end their estrangement, and he agrees to the plan.

For good reason, they decide to drive from Los Angeles to Washington, even though December is probably not the best time to be driving any distance in the Midwest.  Their plan to arrive the day before Christmas Eve is scuppered when the weather takes a turn for the worse and it becomes dangerous for them to proceed.  In true romance-novel fashion, There Is Only One Bed at the crappy motel they end up at, and one thing leads to another, which leads to … their agreeing it was a mistake that they should go back to how things were before. Which is, of course, impossible.

The Road Home is so much more than the sum of its tropes.  It’s a story about family being more than blood-ties and about learning when to hold on and when to let go.  David and Hunter are beautifully realised characters; they’re flawed and damaged, and their strength and willingness to fight every day to be who and what they want to be is admirable.  Their romance is sensual and passionate and is underpinned by an undeniable emotional connection and sizzling chemistry, a slow-burn which feels completely right for the tone of the story.

I definitely ran the gamut of emotions while listening to this.  The sheer awfulness of David’s family (apart from his sister) has to be read/listened to to be believed (seriously, they made me so angry!) but kudos to the author for making them into characters rather than caricatures.  This is a romance, so the story ends with an HEA for David and Hunter, but it’s also a bittersweet reminder that not everything in life is fixable and that sometimes, the thing you want isn’t always the thing you need.

Greg Boudreaux and Michael Ferraiuolo are, as I said earlier, two of my very favourite narrators, and are legends in the world of m/m romance narration, so having both of them working together again was a dream come true!  The story is narrated from both Hunter’s (Mr. Boudreaux) and David’s (Mr. Ferraiuolo) points of view in alternating chapters, so both narrators get to portray almost all the characters, and have achieved a remarkable consistency when it comes to the supporting cast. (A common complaint about dual narrations is that a character as performed by one narrator sounds too different to their portrayal by the other, but that isn’t the case here.) The same is true of the leads; in both performances, Hunter’s voice is pitched lower than David’s so the listener is never confused as to which character is speaking  regardless of who is narrating that particular portion of the story.  But the absolute best thing about these narrators is that not only are they both as technically accomplished as they come, they’re also incredibly good vocal actors – which, in a book like this, is vital. Their ability to perfectly judge every emotional nuance means that the listener is right there with the characters, experiencing their joy and sadness, passion and heartbreak alongside them.  Both performances are exceptionally good, elevating the author’s words to a new level and bringing the story and characters to full, vibrant life.

The Road Home deals with some difficult issues and isn’t always an easy listen, but I enjoyed every minute of it.   Moving, intense, sad and passionate, it’s a wonderful story about true love and second chances – and the fantastic narration makes it a must for fans of romance audiobooks.

TBR Challenge: Feather Castles (Sanguinet Saga #2) by Patricia Veryan

Note: This title appears to be available in ebook formats in the US only.

In Feather Castles, Patricia Veryan gives us another sparkling Regency full of drama and romance as she unfolds the spellbinding adventures and apparently star-crossed love of the soon-to-be-married Miss Rachel Strand and a man whose name she does not even know.

It is dusk on the ruined battlefields of Waterloo. In a carriage slowly making its way across the desolation is Rachel Strand, fiancée to the rich and powerful Claude Sanguinet, who is accompanying her friend and teacher Sister Maria Evangeline in a desperate search for one man among the thousands who lie wounded. Before they can find that man, they come across a valiant young solider who, though badly wounded, saves them from plunderers–a man who cannot remember his name, or even his nationality.

So begins a riveting tale that takes us to both sides of the English Channel, from elegant drawing rooms and a magnificent sinister country estate to riotous taverns and hostelries…

Rating: B

Patricia Veryan wrote some thirty-five historical romances between 1978 and 2002, many of which were out of print for a long time but are now available digitally. (Only in the US it seems – in the UK they’re only available in used paperback 😦 ) Two of her best-known series are set in the eighteenth century and the other – which is also the longest one – in the nineteenth.  I reviewed Some Brief Folly, book one in the Sanguinet series for a TBR prompt last year, and decided to pick up the next book, Feather Castles, for this year’s “Old School” round.  It’s more of a romantic adventure yarn than pure romance, and is actually the first book in which the character who gives his name to the series – the villainous Claude Sanguinet – appears.  The story took a little while to get going, and flagged a bit in the middle, but I enjoyed it on the whole, and there’s a neat twist near the end that I hadn’t expected but which lays some groundwork for the rest of the series.

The book opens immediately following the Battle of Waterloo, and we find our heroine, Rachel Strand, accompanying her friend and mentor, Sister Maria Evangeline, to the battlefield to search for someone  among the dead and wounded.  When the ladies are accosted by a group of looters, they are saved by a wounded officer Rachel takes to be French (given that’s the language he speaks before collapsing) who comes to their aid just before Sister Maria Evangeline’s friend, Diccon, finds them and runs the ruffians off.  Diccon and Sister Maria Evangeline want to get away as quickly as possible, but Rachel refuses to just leave their rescuer to die, so they bundle him into their carriage and later aboard ship, bound for England.

Meanwhile, on another part of the battlefield, Captain Sir Simon Buchanan (brother of Mia, heroine of Some Brief Folly) is dismayed to learn of the death of his friend, Tristram Leith, from an exploding shell.  It’s with a heavy heart he carries the news of the death of Lord Leith’s only son and heir back to England.

Of course, the reader is able to put two and two together straight away, and work out that the courageous ‘French’ officer is Tristram Leith, but he is unaware of his identity for most of the book, his memory returning in fits and spurts, but not giving him a complete picture, or providing him with any clue as to his name or place of origin.  He does work out that he’s English rather than French, and discovers he was a high-ranking officer (a Colonel) but his memory is like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing.  The first part of the story focuses on his recovery from his injuries, and the burgeoning romance between him and the lovely Rachel, but she is betrothed to the suave and powerful Claude Sangiunet, and when Tristram is sufficiently recovered, they part, he to journey to London, to Horse Guards to find out what he can about himself, she to her fiancé and wedding preparations.

Feather Castles gets off to a bit of a slow start and it took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I was pulled into the world the author has created.  We’ve got an evil mastermind – who is scarily plausible and good at hiding in plain sight – plenty of adventure and long odds to be overcome, together with attractive leads and a group of secondary characters who are present as more than just sequel-bait; they have important parts to play within the story, and will, I suspect,  crop up throughout the series.  Tristram is a terrific hero, a military man whom the author actually shows being the sort of commanding, cool-under-fire presence his rank would suggest.  Even when he doesn’t know who he is, his sterling qualities are obvious; he’s clearly a leader of men and Ms. Veryan shows those skills over and over again.  We’re also introduced to the impulsive, brash Alan Devenish, a rather insubordinate young man who has obviously yet to come into his own, and whose impetuousness serves as a good contrast to Tristram’s calmer but no less determined approach.

Rachel is the sort of heroine who has perhaps gone out of fashion in recent years.  She’s fairly passive in the first part of the story and doesn’t really start to question her actions or try to seek a way out until fairly late on in the book.  Her family’s disgrace (her father had cheated at cards, which was a huge no-no at this time) means she and her siblings have been ostracised from society, and she saw an engagement to the wealthy, charming Claude as a way to make sure that her invalid sister Charity would be taken care of.  She accepted Claude out of gratitude, and even though Sister Maria Evangeline makes it clear she believes Rachel is doing the wrong thing by agreeing to the match, Rachel refuses to consider an alternative; her focus is on Charity and Rachel is, to start with at least, wilfully blind to the signs that Claude isn’t the kindly altruist she believes him to be.  But in this, she’s a woman of her time; so much of a woman’s ‘worth’ was bound up in family and reputation, and with no other way of keeping a roof over her head and paying for her sister’s treatment, Rachel took the only option open to her.  Her situation certainly evokes sympathy, and I liked that she gradually came to admit to her mistake and to want to do something about it.  On the downside however, the romance lacks a real spark; the absence of bedroom scenes isn’t an issue, but while I liked Tristram a lot, it wasn’t until near the very end that I started to believe Rachel was the woman for him.

Still, I think fans of traditional romances, or those looking for a Regency-era story full of intrigue, adventure and derring-do will enjoy Feather Castles.  Patricia Veryan deserves to be more widely read; she’s frequently likened to Georgette Heyer, although I’m never sure that’s a completely apt comparison given Veryan wrote mostly romantic adventures as opposed to comedies of manners, but chances are if you like Heyer, you’ll like Veryan – and even if you don’t like Heyer, I suspect you could read it and be pleasantly surprised.

TBR Challenge: Dangerous Ground (Dangerous Ground #1) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Special Agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt have been partners and best friends for three years, but everything changed the night Taylor admitted the truth about his feelings for Will.

Taylor agreed to a camping trip in the High Sierras — despite the fact that he hates camping — because Will wants a chance to save their partnership. But the trip is a disaster from the first, and things rapidly go from bad to worse when they find a crashed plane and a couple of million dollars in stolen money.

With a trio of murderous robbers trailing them, Will and Taylor are on dangerous ground, fighting for their partnership…and their lives.

Rating: B

I thought, when I saw April’s prompt – “freebie” – that it’d be easy to find a book to read for it, but when it came to it and I was searching my Kindle, I realised that my choices were limited by my memory; I couldn’t recall which books I’d picked up for free and which I’d paid for!  Fortunately, I remembered that I’d received a couple of free books when I signed up for Josh Lanyon’s mailing list a while back, so that solved my problem.

The Dangerous Ground series is a set of six novellas (the first was published in 2008, the last was published this year) featuring agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt.  They’re fast-moving stories – kind of like a TV episode in book form – and each instalment contains a complete mystery/investigation, but the relationship between the leads develops throughout. I knew this going in, so the abrupt ending of book one, Dangerous Ground wasn’t an issue as I knew there was more to come, and in fact, I enjoyed it so much I jumped straight into book two, Old Poison (and then bought the rest of the series.)

Taylor and Will have been partners and best friends for almost four years.  They’re very different in some ways – Will is the more settled and considered of the two, where Taylor is more impulsive – but they work well together and share a similar jaded worldview and sarcastic sense of humor.  But six weeks before Dangerous Ground opens, things between them went horribly wrong; Taylor was shot during an operation and Will is alternately furious – with Taylor for (as he thinks) carelessly looking for trouble – and beating himself up with guilt, believing it’s his fault Taylor was off his game.  The night before the shooting, Will and Taylor had gone out for a few drinks, which had ended with Taylor getting smashed and then telling Will how he felt about him. But Will turned him down.  It’s not that he’s blind to the fact that Taylor is gorgeous or that he isn’t attracted to him… but he doesn’t think the commitment-shy Taylor is a good bet for a relationship and doesn’t want to ruin what they already have.

The trouble is, that things are changing anyway and there’s nothing either of them can do about it.  Six weeks after Taylor was shot, and shortly before he’s due to return to work, Will suggests they go on a camping trip into the High Sierras… and although he hates camping, Taylor agrees.  There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for Will and he, too, thinks that perhaps they need some time to sort out where they stand with each other.

The book starts a few days into the trip when Will and Taylor stumble across the wreckage of a small plane they realise was used in the infamous Black Wolf Casino heist a few months earlier.  The only body on board is that of the pilot – who was shot in the head – and there’s no sign of the other passengers.  What they do find, however, is the loot – over two million dollars, which they decide to stash in a bear box while they make their way down the mountain to alert the authorities.  But with that much money at stake, it’s not long before Will and Taylor find out they’re not the only ones on a trip into the mountains.  Only the armed men and woman who find them are clearly not there on vacation.

The author packs a surprising amount of plot into a relatively short page count, and keeps both the plot and romantic elements of the story moving smoothly in tandem.  I liked the way the backstory – the shooting, Taylor’s drunk declaration – was drip fed throughout the early chapters, the tension between them is palpable, and there’s no denying the pair have great chemistry.  There’s a really strong sense of place in the story, too, wonderfully evocative descriptions of the scenery, the warmth of the sun, the chill in the air and the sounds of nature.  On the downside, the characterisation is perhaps a little thin, as we don’t know a great deal about Will and Taylor, but as I said, this is the first of six, so there’s room for development on that front.

Dangerous Ground is fast-paced and entertaining, the leads are engaging and the author achieves a good balance between the suspense plot and the romance, with some high stakes action and steamy love scenes along the way.  It’s a quick read, but has enough depth to have made me care about the characters and want to know more about them.  I definitely intend to read the rest of the series.

TBR Challenge: Autumn Bride by Melinda Hammond

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Major Lagallan suggests to Miss Caroline Hetton that she should marry his young brother, she can hardly believe her good fortune, and at first sight Vivyan Lagallan seems to be the perfect bridegroom; young, charming and exceedingly handsome. Yet upon closer acquaintance, Caroline is disturbed by his wild, restless spirit and discovers that he has a taste for excitement that eventually endangers not only his life, but hers, too.

Rating: C+

I went the obvious route to fulfil March’s TBR Challenge prompt of “seasons” by choosing a book with one in the title!  Autumn Bride is a Traditional Regency originally published in 1983, and Melinda Hammond is a pseudonym used by Sarah Mallory, one of my favourite Harlequin Historical authors, so I picked it up in hopes of an enjoyable read.

The story is a simple one.  Miss Caroline Hetton had to become a governess after her father lost everything at the gaming tables, and is currently employed by the Seymour family. The children’s mother is critical of practically everything Caroline does, and Caroline (who is just twenty) is well aware that a life of drudgery and constant criticism lies ahead of her.

She is most surprised to receive a visit from Major Philip Lagallan, the son of a former neighbour, and even more surprised to learn the reason for his visit.  While he was away at war and his younger brother Vivyan was away at school, Caroline’s mother had formed a friendship with Mrs. Lagallan (the Major’s step-mother) who became an invalid following the death of her husband.  When the lady died, she willed money and property to Vivyan, but recognising his volatile, impetuous nature and high spirits, stipulated that he could not come into his inheritance until he is twenty-five OR married to a suitable bride.  Caroline is incredulous when the Major asks if she will marry his brother; in fact, his mother even went so far as to name Caroline in her will:

She proposed that Vivyan should not take early possession of his inheritance except in the event of his marriage to Miss Caroline Heston or another young lady, deemed suitable by both trustees.

Stunned she may be by this, Caroline is a sensible young woman not stupid enough to dismiss such an arrangement out of hand.  To be treated with kindness and respect and to be mistress of a comfortable home are considerable inducements compared to the prospect of spending her life at “the beck and call of others and at the end of it, to eke out an existence with whatever one has managed to save”, and she agrees to think about it.  The Major proposes that she should visit the Lagallan House for a month in order to become properly acquainted with Vivyan – to which Caroline agrees.

She is welcomed by all – including the housekeeper Mrs. Hollister (who is a cousin of the Major’s and clearly has a status above that of housekeeper as she dines with the family, but that’s how she’s referred to) and Vivyan, who quickly assures Caroline that he will do his best to be a good husband and make her happy – if she will marry him as soon as possible!  The house his mother left him is currently occupied by his uncle Jonas (his mother’s brother and other trustee) whom he dislikes intensely and wants to send packing.  When Jonas comes to visit, Caroline can see why Vivyan dislikes the man so much. He’s condescending and makes every attempt to insult and provoke his nephew’s quick temper… and worse, he seems intent on making sure Vivyan isn’t going to be able to claim his inheritance.

Autumn Bride is a quick and enjoyable read, although I can attribute that enjoyment to the writing – which is concise, clear and really engaging  – and the engaging, well-written characters, rather than to the romance, which is almost non-existent.  This has been something of an issue with many of the Trads. I’ve read over the years, especially older ones; they are almost always told from the heroine’s PoV and the hero is practically a secondary character; in this one, Caroline and the Major spend little  time together on the page, and although the author does try to indicate a growing connection between them when they do, the attempt is not particularly successful.  Their first kiss comes pretty much out of the blue, and Caroline’s confession of her reciprocal feelings comes similarly out of left field.

But while the book doesn’t work all that well as a romance, there was something about it that kept me reading.  I appreciated that Vivyan wasn’t some petulant, nasty brat who is clearly being pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to go.  He’s somewhat spoiled, yes, but he’s handsome, charming and outgoing, and perfectly on board with his brother’s plan to find a wife to steady him.  That said, it’s also clear that he isn’t prepared to put himself out for anybody, and that if Caroline were to end up married to him, her life would be pretty lonely while he went off and did his own thing.

Caroline is a likeable heroine; she’s young but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s sensible and keeps her wits about her in difficult situations, and rather than finding her mercenary for considering marriage to a man she doesn’t love, I found her clear-sighted practicality refreshing.  Vivyan is a charming rogue, but makes more of an impression than Philip which pushes the romance even more into the background, and it’s easy to see where the sub-plot about the local highwayman is going.

I enjoyed Autumn Bride in spite of my criticisms, but my grade reflects the fact that I tend to prefer more interaction and chemistry between the leads in the romances I read.  However, I suspect it’s a book that fans of the Traditional Regency will enjoy.

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.