Sunday, March 18, 2018

STILL WATERS, cozy Swedish Scandicrime debut novel

(tr. Marlaine Delargy; Sandhamn Murders #1)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: On a hot July morning on Sweden’s idyllic vacation island of Sandhamn, a man takes his dog for a walk and makes a gruesome discovery: a body, tangled in a fishing net, has washed ashore.

Police detective Thomas Andreasson is the first to arrive on the scene. Before long, he has identified the deceased as Krister Berggren, a bachelor from the mainland who has been missing for months. All signs point to an accident—until another brutalized corpse is found at the local bed-and-breakfast. But this time it is Berggren’s cousin, whom Thomas interviewed in Stockholm just days before.

As the island’s residents reel from the news, Thomas turns to his childhood friend, local lawyer Nora Linde. Together, they attempt to unravel the riddles left behind by these two mysterious outsiders—while trying to make sense of the difficult twists their own lives have taken since the shared summer days of their youth.

My Review: I downloaded this onto my Kindle when it was a Kindle First offering about three years ago. It finally snagged my attention. I think it finally got me because, when I opened it, I read this:
The department’s coffeemaker produced a liquid that was positively toxic. How Margit could knock it back in such quantities was a mystery. Thomas had switched to drinking tea for the first time in his life because of it.
THOMAS!! RUN!! Run fast and run far, no good can ever come from a place where the coffee is so bad that *retch* tea *shudder* is a better beverage option!

*glowers Blightyward* Y'all got nothin' to say here, Brits, you gave the world chattel slavery, John Bull, and cricket, and kept National Health Service, Cornwall, and Prince Harry!

Thomas Andreasson is from Harö in the Stockholm archipelago's unfashionable bit, or at least it wasn't fashionable when he was a lad. His world has been upended in so many ways in recent months, his life as a husband and father is over without warning or any desire for it to be so, his best friend Nora is suddenly among murderers on their shared childhood home of Sandhamn, and he's got no clues to solve the suspicious death followed by sure and certain murder, followed by *very* suspicious death and bring the killer to justice.

So he plods along, doing responsible policework, following leads that don't lead, until he is weary of the routine as well as of the whole enterprise of staying alive. We switch PoV characters a good bit in this book, but Thomas is the policeman so he gets most of the tedious legwork in the story. His senior partner, Margit, is dying to spend the short, sweet Swedish summer with her husband and teenaged daughters somewhere south. This case is foiling her desire to get away. Interestingly, Thomas has no issue with Margit being the lead in the case; he's never once shown being resentful of her authority, but once feels a bit downhearted when she corrects an error he's made...because he made the error, not because a woman corrected him. This was refreshing.

One lead, found by Thomas' lovely young colleague (and clearly intended to be love interest) Carina, takes him and Margit to a self-made man's home on Sandhamn. Thomas' past on the island makes the appearance of the house grating to him, and Margit's social conscience shows up for a pleasant interlude:
Apart from the white eaves and steps, every last piece of timber was nauseatingly green. Without the eaves and steps you could easily have imagined you were standing in front of a giant marzipan cake. Only the rose was missing.

"I’ve never seen such a fine example of nouveau riche." (said Margit)
We see that a lot on the South Shore of Long Island. It's the arrivistes buying old cottages and slapping down out-of-proportion McMansions onto their zero-lot-line dreams of seaside living. Drearily familiar to anyone living by a water feature. Thomas doesn't like the house and really doesn't like the man in it...there is something *wrong* with a person who moves to a strong, distinctive community like Sandhamn and flouts every tradition and norm that makes the place itself!

But then there's Nora, whose roots on Sandhamn go way back before even Thomas' do. She doesn't like this new reality at all, and doesn't like the cultural shift it represents. She feels it as an affront to her core principles, as we're told directly:
It gave Nora the unpleasant feeling that everything was for sale. Everything could be bought or sold.
Sandhamn is more than a place to Nora, it's a life and a lifestyle she feels is hers down to her very core. These values agree with mine. I approve of them and wish there were more Noras in the world.

So what the hell drew her to the insensitive clod of a scion of the booboisie that she married?!
Henrik just didn’t get it. He was blind and deaf to any hint that his mother might not be the best mother-in-law in the world. Nora gave in.

Now she had been offered her dream job, and he didn’t even seem to want to discuss it. It wasn’t fair.

Why challenge Henrik, instead of paying attention to the clear signals he had given her?
I found this infuriating. Which is it, Author Sten, Nora's a modern woman or a housewife? She started their marriage with compromises on where they'd live, what he'd be expected to do as a parent, and somehow thought he'd magically divine that she was seriously convinced he'd do the same for her?! Why?! How?! Begin as you mean to go on, Nora. Was it Mary Poppins who said that first, or just most famously? Anyway, there was absolutely no reason to think Henrik would ever be anything but his parents' son, since he never made a single solitary peep of dissatisfaction with them and the way they live(d) their lives. Oh! Oh! And then there's her best friend, Thomas, whose reaction to Henrik should've made Nora run screaming:
There was an underlying distance between the two men that never quite disappeared in spite of the fact that they had known each other for a long time. Henrik’s upper-middle-class background and deeply conservative values didn’t exactly improve matters.
There's no way in hell that didn't show in Thomas' responses to Henrik over the years. So lay off the shockhorror about the way the reactionary poltroon responds to your desire to do something for yourself, lady, he's never been different and expecting him to change will only make both of you and your kids angry and upset and end up in divorce. Skip the middle bit: Get the divorce, start the new life, and make sure the kids know *why* mommy left daddy without rancorous vituperative invective flowing from you. Him, you can't affect. As should be obvious to you by now.

The two sleuths are close friends and each has made a hash of their personal life. This isn't familiar at all, is it. But it's an evergreen for a reason, since it gives the author a great line of attack to keep series readers reading. Nora's marriage is doomed, Thomas' relationship with Carina is doomed, the whole island of Sandhamn...faithless to the crime statistics for Nordic countries...will soon be hip deep in dead bodies, much more will be made of Nora's diabetes (which figures in the action but not the resolution of this book), and if there is a just and merciful gawd Nora's mother-in-law will be savagely torn to bits by ravening wild dogs on live television.

Translator Delargy, based in the UK, uses some tricks to keep the prose feeling uniquely Sten's own. One is the use of a nonstandard form of the verb "to get hold (of)", viz. "ahold." In spoken words I'm not averse to this formulation of the verb, but it abounds in this book and I found it irksome after the sixth or seventh usage. It's purely a personal twitch, no knock on the skills Delargy brought to bear on the Englishing of the book. I am on record many places as despising the unnecessary and ungainly "u"ification of perfectly simple words like "valor" and "honor" so I needn't go into why that made me flinch every time I ran across it. Delargy does a creditable job making Sten's words readable in English, and that's no mean feat, so kudos to you Madam.

The world has lots and lots of gritty Scandicrime. You can hardly open your Kindle without being offered some more gritty Scandicrime. What the world doesn't have is cozy Scandicrime. Sten's involving debut novel is both pine-scented Scandi and cozy, sense-of-place crime. I like that about it and it's what will cause me to seek out the next book in the series.

So switch your mental gears to Swedish cozy. Step out of the Vauxhall and into the Volvo station wagon.

Friday, March 16, 2018

BIRD BOX, four years late to the party but reviewed at last...and highly praised


Ecco Press
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Something is out there, something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse of it, and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remains, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now that the boy and girl are four, it's time to go, but the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat--blindfolded--with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. Something is following them all the while, but is it man, animal, or monster?

Interweaving past and present, Bird Box is a snapshot of a world unraveled that will have you racing to the final page.

My Review: So I was packing this up to send to a longtime friend when I ran across a review of another Malerman, Unbury Carol, and got to thinking about whether I'd reviewed this book or not. Checking it out, turns out I never did! Well, I got it from Ecco in 2014, and that was the year I went crazy, so I guess I have an excuse.

Now that we're into 2018, we're in for a film of the book! Eric Heisserer wrote, Sandra Bullock stars, Netflix distributes the five-years-coming feature, which sold to Hollyweird before the book came out. Say what you will about Heisserer's Arrival as an adaptation of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", it was a well-written movie qua movie.

I was amazed at how proficient Malerman's prose was when I read the book. It's the artifact of a lot of rewrites and it's been guided by skilled hands. He did his mom proud. (He dedicated the book to her.) I was so happy with the way Malerman unfolded the story. He was careful to make that the sensation of reading the story...unfolding, like an origami crane being reverse engineered or a time-lapse film of a sunflower blossoming.

Malorie is one hard-luck chickie. She no sooner gets free of her hick-town upbringing than she gets caught. She no sooner tells her mama she's gonna be a grandmother than the whole world goes batshit crazy and starts killing themselves and each other. She no sooner gets to a safe haven than someone sabotages it...but this time she's got some luck! She manages to keep herself and her baby, oh and another woman's baby because why have trouble when you could have double trouble?, alive! Yay?

The way Malorie survives is astoundingly grim. I don't honestly know why she kept going. To do what, accomplish what? Blindfolds are the only protection from seeing whatever it is that makes normal people do violent and abnormal things. She and the two kids are almost always blindfolded it seems. But is this a way to live? Malorie asks herself this all the time, but appears to reach no answer and by default keeps herself and Boy and Girl alive. (That's what she calls them, not me being cute. After all who needs names in a group of three?)

So there it set-up par excellence. I was drawn in to Malorie's living arrangements and compromises and was rocked along by the pace of the story. I am really impressed by Ecco's production of the actual physical book. The cover is a lovely photo of the titular birds; the jacket has a cut-out to the bird image; the title page has a wonderfully creepy tree motif that the chapter titles echo. It's all of a well-thought-out piece. It gives the novel a very evocative and appropriate book to home itself in.

What a treat it was to read it. I can see that it's got terrific film potential. I'm not at all surprised that it's ended up at Netflix, it's a perfect fit for their catalogue. I hope you'll read the book, and expect that if you do, you'll want to see the film.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

UNNATURAL, fourth in the Enlightenment series of Joanna Chambers' Late-Regency novels

(Enlightenment #4)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Captain Iain Sinclair has looks, charm, military honours—even the favour of the king himself. He has everything—everything, that is, except the friendship of the one man whose good opinion he has ever cared for, scientist, James Hart.

James has loved Iain all his life, but after the last disastrous encounter between them, he vowed to accept no more crumbs from Iain’s table. If Iain cannot be the lover James wants, then James will have no more to do with him.

Disenchanted with his career, and miserable without James in his life, Iain decides to leave military service and embark upon a new career in India. Before he leaves England behind, though, he is determined to try one last time to reconcile with his dearest friend.

An invitation to a country house party from James’s sister provides the perfect opportunity to pin James down and force him to finally listen to Iain’s apology. But when Iain discovers that an apology is not enough—that James is not willing settle for less than a lover—he is forced to reconsider everything: his life, his future career, and most of all, his feelings for James.

My Review: A series that ends with a secondary character's starring role in a series novel is a very strong series indeed. This book takes a character from book 2 of the main series, Enlightenment, and gives him a star turn. Captain Iain Sinclair is King George IV's aide-de-camp, responsible to the newly enthroned Prinny for managing the flow of people seeking his attention all the while serving his army masters as a spy on His Pathetic Majesty's private life and thoughts.

Characteristically for the charismatic and unprincipled Iain, it's the tedium and not the moral questionability of his job that drives him to resign his commission in His Majesty's Army. Dealing with the Royal Twit's sulks, tantrums, and crotchets makes Iain crazy. He does it for three years because he's ashamed to let go of the army career that has enabled him to feel his father's mildest, most conditional affection every once in a way.

You see, Iain had the bad taste to be gay. He's a younger son, so there aren't dynastic consequences. But his father, already disappointed in his own life, puts extra weight on Iain and feels he was sorely let down by him on a horrible occasion back before discovering the lad's gayness. He speaks awful, hateful words to his son, and essentially does his dead-level best to be hateful and terrible to him as often as possible. This is made easier for "Father" Dear as his personal and familial disappointments are constantly laved in the (un-)balm of alcohol. Iain is only slightly redeemed by his Army commission and his tales of derring-do in battle.

But then the Napoleonic Wars end. Being an aide-de-camp to the King...well...not quite so exciting as battlefield stuff, though goddesses know that most fathers of that era would be kvelling over their son's closeness to the Royal Person. Not Iain's, no indeed. Where does Iain turn for his affections to be returned?

His best friend, the younger but more intelligent James Hart. Jamie has hero-worshipped his dashing, sophisticated older friend most of his life. Their mothers and older sisters are fast friends. Their proximity and their mutual admiration lead the usual places for young gay boys in the country with no other objects of desire. But only after the older Iain has some experience under his belt, having been away in the Army and all. And James gets a first-hand look at what Iain has learned! Mind=blown.

So what if Iain isn't the marrying kind and his country mouse is?

When we meet Iain in the series universe it is as a fellow debauchee of starchy David Lauriston's rakehell true love, Lord Murdo Balfour. The King's Scottish tour was organized to keep the fat old fool busy while the *real* governing class gets on with drawing a plan to keep peace and foster stability in all of Europe. (It was remarkably successful.) The fool's progress through Scotland was Iain's worst nightmare and his resignation came shortly after it was over. Iain is still hurting from James' inability to be just friends with the man he loves and idolizes. After one truly gorgeous lovemaking session, a romantic and loving scene described by Author Chambers in her trademark spare and evocative style, Iain has severe collywobbles and runs away, comme d'habitude. James is...done, through, out of patience with his beloved's assholish behavior, both at that moment and later when James runs Iain to ground to have it out with him in fashionable London's bordello of choice for sodomites. (Doubly funny since the sin of the Sodomites was lack of hospitality to strangers, and what could *possibly* be more hospitable than a bordello?! That lack of the hospitable spirit's why ol' Yhwh rained fire and brimstone down on 'em. Look it up! It's right there in that Bible the homophobes beat us up with.)

This novel's structure shifts points of view between the men as well as time-shifts between past and present. That can feel a little seasick at times. There is one section of the men at a fight that I skimmed...I don't like it went on a bit long. But in the moments that make the series of novels work, the quiet and private moments of two young men flouting every tradition and every custom they've been raised to uphold and revere, Author Chambers delivers the goods and then some.

There is a love nest scene...the young men coming into a prepared love nest for the first time...that made me smile as wide as anything I've ever read. There was an al fresco scene that caused a mild attack of the vapours. There was a moment between two siblings that made me sadly aware that very few gay people in this country, and in this world, have real families. There were deeply affecting scenes in almost every chapter (every if you're more boxing tolerant than I am). This is an historical novel with gay main characters, though, and make no mistake. Romantic yes, romance no. It's closer to a romance than the main trilogy, which I'd call a long historical novel, is, but still not enough of the beats of a genre romance are there for that subset of readers.

I went into the read expecting that to be the case so I was not jolted by the lacks and absences. If you'll set aside romance novel ideation and think of the books as historical novels, I suspect you'll thoroughly enjoy the reads.

ENLIGHTENED, third Joanna Chambers historical novel in the Enlightenment series

(Enlightenment #3)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: David Lauriston has been recuperating at Lord Murdo Balfour’s Laverock estate for the last five months. At Laverock, he has regained his health and confidence and has found—with Murdo—more happiness and contentment than he has never known before.

David is all too aware that some day soon he will have to leave Laverock—and Murdo—and return to his legal practice in Edinburgh, just as Murdo will have to return to his life in London. But when David’s mentor, Patrick Chalmers, asks David to return to Edinburgh to visit him on his deathbed, it seems that day has come sooner than either David or Murdo would have wished.

Chalmers begs David to undertake one last piece of business for him: to secure the future of Chalmers’s daughter Elizabeth. But to carry out his old mentor’s wishes, David must travel to London, with Murdo.

No sooner have the two men arrived in the capital than they encounter Murdo’s ruthlessly manipulative father, who reveals a shocking secret that rocks David to his foundations. What’s more, when David discovers Elizabeth is facing far greater danger than even her father feared, he is determined to help her, no matter the cost to his own safety.

As the stakes rise, it is Murdo who must choose what he is prepared to sacrifice to keep David at his side, and ask whether there is any possibility of lasting happiness for men like them.

My Review: Yes indeed, this is the way to end a series/long book. A completely satisfying and inevitable ending that managed to come about in a logical and challenging way.

The lead-up to the ending ain't half bad, either, but it's this ending...won't spoiler it for y'all, the Antispoilerization Brigade gets downright violent...that explains why I connected with this series of just-post-Regency-set books.

How to explain without giving the show away...geez...this is as rough as explaining what the fuss about non-masturbatory orgasms is to one who has never had one...okay, lemme see here, you know how your intimate loved one has this set of things you know they do and do well? Your Lovely Other, as a Kiwi friend of mine refers to her partner, operates in this expected way and you're happy with that (or you're the Remodeler and should be excoriated and shunned, if you don't like the house don't buy it), even proud of the high end of the range of behaviors.

Then comes the day when there's a lot at stake, the high end of the range that you love in them isn't going to solve all the problems but hey, pobody's nerfect, and...


...they come ripping through good enough and fly up to jaw-dropping otherworldly excellence-cum-terrifying gut-wrenching omigawd-we're-gonna-die recklessness...


...and there you are arms outstretched to catch them when the inevitable fall comes, praying you're strong enough to keep them at least alive...


...and they land light as a feather next to you, take your hand, smile and say, "shall we go home now, dear?"

And that, my friends, is that. You will never, ever look at another human being without thinking, "you poor miserable sod, My Very Own Love doesn't know you're alive but can't wait to get home to *me*," with a smug, superior smirk on your nasty little unfairly-lucky-rotter face.

Fortunately we have fiction to take us there. It's not the most common IRL experience, is it. This series/fairly long novel gave me that experience. Read the three main novels and it's just possible it might give you the same one. I encourage you to try at least volume 1, Provoked.

*cue evil cackle and commence addictive reading in 3...2...1...*

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

BEGUILED, second Enlightenment novel by Joanna Chambers

(Enlightenment #2)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Two years after his last encounter with cynical nobleman Lord Murdo Balfour, David Lauriston accidentally meets him again in the heart of Edinburgh.

King George IV is about to make his first visit to Edinburgh and Murdo has been sent North by his politician father to represent his aristocratic family at the celebrations.

David and Murdo’s last parting was painful—and on Murdo’s part, bitter—but Murdo’s feelings seem to have mellowed in the intervening years. So much so, that he suggests to David that they enjoy each other’s company during Murdo’s stay in the capital.
Despite his initial reservations, David cannot put Murdo’s proposal from his mind, and soon find himself at Murdo’s door—and in his arms.

But other figures from David’s past are converging on the city, and as the pomp and ceremony of the King’s visit unfolds around them, David is drawn into a chain of events that will threaten everything: his career, his wellbeing, and the fragile bond that, despite David’s best intentions, is growing between him and Murdo.

My Review: One quote to rule the book:
A man will fight for hate for a long time, but he will fight for love to the death.

Every single moment of this entry into the series is about Murdo's hate for the way his world wants him to behave, and his love for David, which is (he very much fears) unreciprocated.

It is also about how deeply David detests his weakness of character that forbids him to turn his face to his true love and say, simply and directly, "I love you, Murdo."

These men fight like wounded Spartans at Thermopylae for the victory of love...for others, straight others at that...and end up with a situation neither could've planned, predicted, laid a course for, and that perfectly suits their almost desperate hunger for space and time to revel in the love they share but can't quite figure out how to make manifest.

And can't admit they share because Rules and Reasons. Well, as you'd expect in a romantic novel, the Rules go right out the door and the Reasons fly out the window behind them. The plot device for this to happen is quite bittersweet, involving loss and pain for starchy little prig David, whose quite fragile heart is at odds with his armor-clad and spike-encrusted Sense of Honour. Murdo is, as always, staunch in his defense of David's well-being even when it hurts him quite deeply to privilege the twerp's sense of ma'at over his own desperate needs. They are, after all, of different classes and from radically (!) different kinds of families. Dynastic and political pressures apply to Murdo that simply pass lower-class David's ken. But one thing we all know: In books, Love Conquers All.


The historical aspects of the series please me, the characters are limned economically if, at times, a bit more of Murdo's "fractional relaxation"s and Imma cut a bitch....and the timelessness of men's cowardliness in the face of vulnerability makes volume 3 a must-read. Goodreads reviewer Heather_k described the series as one long novel. I concur. Start at the beginning, read to the end; it's also got a short fiction entry, Seasons Pass, which is best read for free before reading this book. It explains in detail the way Murdo ends up in Edinburgh at the Royal Tour.

It also sets up the fourth book of the trilogy, much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy of five books, which I hope you'll get hooked enough to want to read.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

HOARFROST, sixth Whyborne & Griffin paranormal romp...set in Gold-Rush era ALASKA!

(Whyborne & Griffin #6)
Kindle edition
$4.99 available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sorcerer Percival Endicott Whyborne and his husband Griffin Flaherty have enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of peace and quiet. Unfortunately, the calm is shattered by the arrival of a package from Griffin’s brother Jack, who has uncovered a strange artifact while digging for gold in Alaska. The discovery of a previously unknown civilization could revive the career of their friend Dr. Christine Putnam—or it might kill them all, if the hints of dark sorcery surrounding the find are true.

With Christine and her fiancĂ© Iskander, Whyborne and Griffin must journey to the farthest reaches of the arctic to stop an ancient evil from claiming the life of Griffin’s brother. But in the rough mining camp of Hoarfrost, secrets fly as thickly as the snow, and Whyborne isn’t the only sorcerer drawn by the rumors of magic. Amidst a wilderness of ice and stone, Griffin must either face his greatest fear—or lose everyone he loves.

My Review: And here is where everything changes.

The first words of this book, Griffin's words which marks the first big change, are:
Pa was dead.
POW just like that you, the series' reader on through this sixth entry, are busted in the chops. The long history of Griffin and his adoptive father is now over. The possibility of a reconciliation is gone forever. Now Griffin has to find a way to forgive. Forgiveness is vital to an injured, abused child. It doesn't always mean restored relationships. But Griffin is now past the point where that can happen.

First words of the first page. THAT is bravery, Author Hawk.

Will it surprise you to learn that Griffin's revelation is but the first painful wrench in this journey? I thought not. Griffin's father's memorial service, as he was asked by his adoptive mother not to attend the funeral, brings comfort to Griffin from the depths of the sea that Widdershins abuts, and allows him to hope in his desolated heart that the letters his father returned to sender unopened will finally reach the hard, unforgiving heart of the old man via their smoke.

The events of the book begin on a beach in Widdershins and end on a dockside in Alaska, and there is not one moment of downtime anywhere along the way. We're treated to mushing across the frozen tundra, spelunking for relics of an ancient civilization, sibling and familial rivalries that can never fully be resolved, and meetings with old enemies that change the course of countless lives. Whyborne and Griffin are, through it all, steadfastly each others' rock and refuge. Their misunderstandings are all based in the intense desire of the lover to protect the beloved at all costs. Their ultimate challenge is always "how can I be sure my own true love is safe? how can I make him safe first, then whole, then happy?"

The answers are, for the first time, given in chapters told from alternating points of view. It's about time that Author Hawk gave Griffin some real, extended attention. I welcome this new format. Also welcome is Griffin's newfound brother Jack. He's got possibilities, and I hope we'll see him again. The memory he shared of giving his coat to Griffin as he was taken in by a different family, one that wasn't like Griffin's, was deeply moving.

If my previous warblings of pleasure haven't convinced you to give the series a try, this one won't either. But you are missing a treat.

PROVOKED, first in the Enlightenment series of historical novels featuring David Lauriston and Lord Murdo Balfour

(Enlightened #1)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, lawyer David Lauriston tries to maintain a celibate existence while he forges his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world.

But then, into his repressed and orderly life, bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. And as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway. Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But Murdo is not the only man distracting David from his work. Euan MacLennan, the brother of a convicted radical David once represented, approaches David to beg him for help. Euan is searching for the government agent who sent his brother to Australia on a convict ship, and other radicals to the gallows. Despite knowing it may damage his career, David cannot turn Euan away.

As their search progresses, it begins to look as though the trail may lead to none other than Lord Murdo Balfour, and David has to wonder whether it’s possible Murdo could be more than he seems. Is he really just a bored aristocrat, amusing himself at David’s expense, or could he be the agent provocateur responsible for the fate of Peter MacLennan and the other radicals?

My Review: I'd rate this lower if I hadn't been prepared for the modest sexual content. What there was the author did well and it wasn't gratuitous or inorganic. I was sure the story needed to be in that place at that moment; I was sure the characters were true to their established motivations; in the end, it wasn't about dissatisfaction that I've read from a few other reviewers. I suspect the issues arose from what I was inclined to see as "instaluuuv" between men of radically (!) different stations in Regency life.

That mattered a great deal more then than it does now. Not that it doesn't now, it definitely does, but then it was an issue front and center in every act of daily life. How Balfour comes on to David is completely believable. How David responds, and how he feels, is also completely believable.

That Murdo Balfour argues for the pragmatic accommodation of self to society is unremarkably in character; that David starchily stands for conformity to the harshest possible code of actions while suffering for it is also unremarkably in character for his Presbyterian upbringing. A sect that preached predestination...your soul's salvation was not earned or even earnable since God decided the identity of the 144,000 saved at the beginning of time....wasn't likely to produce anything but the most craven sorts of lickspittles.

What made the read pleasurable for me was the sense that the men were genuinely, if ineptly and obtusely, falling for the person wearing the pretty face that neither could quite unsee. David's red hair, Balfour's dark eyes, David's slightness and Balfour's height and heft...timelessly, opposites do indeed attract. But the characters, the bits that have to fit if a passion is to alter its bell curve towards love's more complex shapes, do match. The men are motivated by their respective and surprisingly similar sense of honor.

It's just a pity that David's sense of humor is so impaired at the expense of that sense of honor.

Not for the squeamishly heterosexual.