Butterflies, all a-flutter

Cobweb ghosts are so inconvenient—especially grumpy ones with bad breath. Don’t they know silence is golden?

Johnny Strong is the expert; he hasn’t spoken in two years. Not one word to anyone except the ghost. The main purpose of life is to avoid people and being noticed. Friends? He doesn’t need them; and certainly nobody wants him despite what the ghost says.

Until a new boy appears—Finn Lyons, teenage wizard. He eats frogs, concocts potions, and is always hungry. Not only does Finn stand up for Johnny; he actively seeks his company and soon becomes part of life.

First love; family and words; a heady mix to go in the potion but how will it all turn out?

Hubble bubble; Johnny Strong’s in trouble! Silence is not always golden in this sweet, zany story of purest magic.

We received an ARC from the ever so generous authors. We also both purchased our own copies.

It is the season for heartwarming short stories and novellas and the latest offering from Al Stewart and Claire Davis is up with the best of them this year.
At times tender and melancholy this short book also manages to deliver the trademark hopefulness that we have come to associate with Stewart and Davis stories.

Fra: I have read the story three times: the first I was so lost in the lyrical language that I missed a couple of plot points and had to go back and pay attention to the actual story. The third time I just re read it for the sheer pleasure of it.

Set in a foster group home the book deals with hard themes without ever losing its lyrical qualities or its hopeful undercurrent.

Karen: Fra, I did the same, the first time I read this I was just overtaken by how bloody sad it seemed, and I really wasn’t sure that I liked it. I appreciated the writing (as always) and the sentiment and I so felt for Johnny – but Finn’s story made me cry. The second time reading I appreciated the positive much more !

Fra: The main character, Johnny Strong, is isolated from the rest of the children in the home, hasn’t spoken aloud in over two years to anyone but the ghosts he places in the cobwebs outside his window. Johnny is an endearing character, his narrative voice at once so young and so haunted and we see the story evolve exclusively from his point of view.

Counter balancing Johnny’s silence and meticulously planned approach to life  the authors introduce chaotic, uncout, spontaneous Finn Lyons. And here is one thing I loved about both characters: because Johnny is quiet (literally so) and methodical I initially regarded Finn’s imagination as stronger than Johnny’s but I was wrong. My successive reads showed me two hurt young kids who use the only power available to them as a coping mechanism in a world long grown callous to their needs. Johnny’s ghost is no less imaginative than Finn’s songs and potions and heartfelt declarations of being a wizard.

In fact the more I think about it the more the two seem to carry inverted roles: Johnny is an introvert, closed off and yet he is much more streetwise than raucous Finn who is most certainly an extrovert and yet so very naive of the world he has come to inhabit.

Karen: When this was being written, the authors mentioned that it had been sparked by Children in Need, and I found that the boys started to save each other really poignant, especially as they were both facing leaving the foster system. I don’t know how true to life this is, but for me it read true.

Fra: There are various levels to this short story which make me wish this had been a full length novel.

On one level the story is about kids in the foster system: not only the tragedies and horrors that land them there but also the inevitable distance of the jaded carers more focussed on paperwork and targets than the welfare of their charges. I felt for Greg and Anna I did but ultimately I was unconvinced about their turnaround and this was one of the reason I wished the book had been longer: to witness for myself that the change did in fact happen.

On a deeper level the way the two boys learn to communicate with each other and eventually the world around them was beautifully rendered and brought a much needed element of hope to the story. The way Johnny speaks aloud for the first time seems so natural in the context of Finn’s tornado like chattering that it isn’t until he questions himself if something momentous has occurred that we as readers take a step back and look again.

Karen : I think that the book is a balance between reality and optimism, there is an feeling that as Johnny and Finn start the next stage of their lives, their friendship will be a strength to them both, even if the potential for romance never fully develops. I think more than anything else in this book I appreciated that. Given the boys backgrounds the relationship level was spot on for me.

Fra: As the boys grown into friendship and the most tenderly delicate relationship their voices become more audible; they take stands for each other, they demand and obtain the respect they deserve and need to move their lives forward. They assert themselves and each other and they are heard.

Karen: I totally agree that this could have been longer for me, I wanted to know more about what had happened to Johnny, and as Fra said earlier I wanted to see how Greg and Anna developed as well. That being said the slight fairy tale quality to the story made it both more Christmasy, and as we said before – more hopeful.  

All in all this was yet another beautiful book from these authors and one of our favourite Christmas stories: tackling issues of mental health and the well being of children in care – and of the carers themselves, to a point- the novella delivers a message of magic and hope that Stewart and Davis do so well.

Highly recommended

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The Coven Returns – Witches Of London Abroad

Eagle's Shadow FIN1 (1)A year has passed since Tom Welsh and Sanders Templeton met. They’ve almost settled into their new home, a historic chateau at the foot of the Swiss Alps, and finally get to spend more time together in peace and quiet … or that was the idea.

Instead, something’s wrong. It’s not just recurring nightmares that haunt both men—other strange disturbances surround them, from their cat jumping at shadows in empty rooms, to unexplained sounds in the night.

Matters go from unsettling to scary, so they call on Lee, who helped them through a series of past life regressions. Lee has friends who might be able to assist; although bubbly and sweet Sue doesn’t fit the cliché of “witch”. What seemed a simple question of a haunted house soon dredges up even personal skeletons that Tom and Sanders thought were safely tucked away—and turns into much more than a ghost hunt.

The ever so generous authors provided an ARC for review.

Karen : Generally I am a fan of series, although sometimes they have a tendency to become repetitive, and this is always my greatest fear when starting one. I have really enjoyed those where there are common characters, but the major plot and main characters change – so there is a balance between familiarity and new.

I had thought that Witches of London was going to feature different MC’s in each book, so I was surprised to see that Sanders and Tom had a sequel, mainly because, for me, Eagle’s Shadow ended perfectly. So I was intrigued to read what the authors had in mind for them.

We thought we’d ask each other questions, as we had some long discussions when reading.


Q K : My biggest concern when starting to read this was how the authors would balance that Sanders and Tom had got resolution from an issues, moved in and were settled with a new ‘adventure’ while  not reinventing the relationship.

I felt that while overall this was achieved, the pacing of the book, especially in the first almost 50% was a little off. Did you find that ?

A F: I did find the pacing slightly off as well. Overall the novel worked but I found the beginning to be slow in getting into the poignant part of the story and that, in a way, a lot of “setting the scene” time was spent rediscovering the mechanics of the relationship between Tom and Sanders.

That said I did love the domesticity of the relationship, the way the two main characters have settled into and around each other as a couple and found some very tender moments between the two. The romantic overall feeling I got from Eagles Nest was still very much an item in Shadows as well. I love to see established couples and how they get on after the initial burst of romance brings them together.

Q F: I find with the Witches series overall that the freedom from financial strive affords the characters freedom to grow as people. In Shadows Tom’s financial situation compared to Sanders is one of the couple issues. How did you find the disparity between the two worked in the novel?

A K:  I actually thought that it added a believable splash of tension, also again that they felt that they were talking things through, but actually didn’t communicate all that well felt very real. In the contemporary part of the book I found the normalcy of the relationship issues was a real plus.

Q K : Characters from the coven,  like Lars and Rhys, make an appearance into the story for no real narrative reason, other than to emphasise the continuity of this book with  the main series, and I didn’t feel that it was actually needed ?

A F: Actually I did ask myself about Rhys and Lars presence in the novel. I felt that, as opposed to Sue and Amanda, they had no real role in the story especially Rhys who stays firmly a shadow in the background. Although him being “starstruck” at both Sanders and Tom did offer some humorous scenes.

I felt though that introducing Sue as a fully fleshed out member of the coven was well done and offered the readers a new perspective in the dynamics of the “Witches of London”.

Q F: Sanders is jealous of Sue: did you think that he had reasons for his jealousy?

A K: Yes and No (sorry) I think what this illustrated really well was how both men thought they were expressing themselves well emotionally, but in fact weren’t, but it was also clear to us as readers that Tom was totally engaged in his relationship with Sanders.

Q K : When the reason for the haunting is discovered, the stories behind it are heartbreaking and very moving, I felt that more of the book could have been spent exploring this, and less time setting the scene, especially the initial getting to know Sanders and Tom again part,  what did you think ?

A F: Oh Gods Karen! The letters! The diaries! The sketches!

This is where this novel really worked for me. The accounts of the men days in the inn was poignant and, I found, heartbreaking. The letters Sanders deciphers gave an intimate insight on the plight of POWs and the hope, the love of these men filled the pages and knowing the inevitable end filled me with tears. But it was Easton’s diary and John’s diary and Parker’s sketches that really did me in.

The love story between John and Parker was intense, romantic, desperate but fulfilling in the isolation afforded by confinement. If I am completely honest I thought this was a story within the story and found myself wishing that it had in fact taken less time to get into it instead of going through the details of Tom and Sanders life together. However I do get the parallel being drawn here and I appreciate that a level of closure is afforded to John and Parker by Tom and Sanders working through their issues.

Q F: I found myself thinking this novel was actually two novels in one. Although it all worked in the end I do think there were continuity issues with the narrative; did you find the same?

A K:  Yes, I did feel that: almost that the historical , haunting part of the book could have been a story in it’s own right, and was stronger than the contemporary part. I think that when authors consistently produce good work we as readers have high expectations, and while this didn’t engage me as much as the first two Witches of London books it was still a good read.

All in all we enjoyed this novel and found that, despite some minor issues with pacing, it delivered yet another interesting angle to the Witches of London series. The story within the story was outstanding and made us feel deeply for the protagonists.

Buy the book



Love, all around

Tom, shy office clerk by day and drawer of foxes by night wakes up one Monday knowing the most extraordinary week of his life is about to begin.

In five days time a lifelong ‘secret’ will be made gloriously public—but will it mean losing the person he loves most?dear mona lisa

Getting married…

It seems like only yesterday Tom changed nappies and sang nursery rhymes to a laughing baby. He relishes the demands of being a daddy; especially teaching his little girl to draw and paint as she grows up.

But the years tick by and times change. Long-buried secrets must come to the surface which may test even the strongest ties.

Tom and Lawrence…


He writes a list of all the things he has to do before the weekend and sticks it in the middle of his wall. The names and goals hang like threads of a spider’s web, inevitably leading to the centre, and all to the same place.

Dear Mona Lisa…

How to explain?

Each morning he notes the colours of dawn, listens to the birds and waits for the perfect moment. In one hand rests the balance of life and a terrible responsibility, in the other a wedding ring. Difficult days and the past loom, but his friends rally round and one by one the words come to life.

Everyone waits as Tom finds the strength to open up and set free the secrets of his heart in a celebration of family, friendship and love.

A quirky story of modern life, set within the breathtaking landscape of Bradford.


A heartfelt thank you to both authors for the ARC of this book.

Karen: In an age where publishers send out ARCs of the books months in advance, passages – practically chapters are quoted in the press, on blogs and on SM I find the attitude of  Davies/ Stewart refreshing. In that these books don’t seem to need the fanfare of 100s of ARCs and advanced reviews from a never changing fan pool: Al Stewart and Claire Davis’ books speak for themselves.

However, they also deserve to be praised more and sold more widely:  romance lovers should pick up any one of their books, and revel in the excellent writing and rather refreshing  honesty of their narratives.

Fra: Oh Karen, I couldn’t agree more! At the moment by the time a book is out we have already been exposed to mostly of its content, the ravings of the “fans” (frankly I am not even sure about the word anymore – with many a writer in the genre it is more like cult than fandom – but that’s an argument for a different blog post).

I was delighted to receive an advance copy of Dear Mona Lisa, ever since reading Tork I have become rather enthralled by the writing skills of this writing duo. I also apologise for the late review: work travel prevented me from reviewing this most delightful of books by its publishing date. But I am back now and ready to wax lyrical about the novel.

Karen: Mona Lisa is simply a book about love: romantic, sexual, familial and between friends . It is about the sacrifices parents make that don’t feel like sacrifices and how love can find you when you least expect it. There are no wasted pages or prose in this book at all, every word counts.

Fra: I find that there is a delicacy to Stewart and Davies’ writing that allows them to tackle heavy duty subject matter without ever becoming cliched or relying on overused tropes.

In Mona Lisa I absolutely loved the way this novella manages to explore so many facets of love without losing track of the plot or the final denouement.

I loved Tom the main character and narrator and found that his internal monologue on his relationships with lover Loz, daughter Lisa Louise and all secondary characters to be relatable and engaging.

Like you say Karen in just 80 short pages the authors explore love in all its aspects. Tom and Lou relationship is fleshed out in strokes that remind me of paintings and drawings: economical in its lack of rhetoric it also presents a rather stunning picture of the beautiful connection of this father and daughter.

I appreciated how Tom and Loz are older men and how their relationship is stable and loving and deep set: and I found Tom’s reluctance to go through his “to do” list in the run up to the wedding to be very relatable indeed. As a parent myself I do find my life and choices heavily wrapped up around my child – at times even irrationally, that is my fears and concerns are not necessarily my child’s and yet they still drive me.

Tom and Loz’s relationship was amazingly rendered: it was romantic and strong and beautiful.

The writing carried such an emotional weight without ever becoming verbose, every word counts – so much so that there’s a poetic quality to it which made the story shine and sparkle.

Friendship, old and new, also takes a key role in the novel and once again it is all so very beautifully done: on the one hand the comfort of old friendships and on the other the surprising presence of new ones.

Karen: Mona Lisa also touches, briefly, on issues such as  religious hatred of homosexuality, the desire to conform to societal norms, alienation and self doubt. In many other books these would be massive angsty dramas, and while perhaps the book lacked depth here, it was good to read a novel where these issues didn’t  make the character ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ or where they did not become the end all to be cured with “magic sex”.

Fra: I actually thought that the depth of repercussion of the issues you mention above is conveyed by how much Tom’s self doubt is related to them but also, and I’ll say especially, in Tom’s and Lou’s relationship. It is almost as if the positive space, the love filled connection between father and daughter exists to illuminate the negative spaces left by Tom and his parents’. I think the depth of the issues is subtly rendered but carries weight in Tom’s faltering behavior in completing the most important of tasks on his list.

I also agree that in a sea of cliche’ driven angst-y romance novels, Dear Mona Lisa avoids the typical pitfall of turning into an angst fest for the titillating pleasure of the audience, and becomes, instead the foundation of Tom’s love and strength.

All in all Dear Mona Lisa is a poignant, romantic, realistic and beautifully written novel which we happily story recommend to all.


Buy it here:

In the UK and Ireland https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dear-Mona-Lisa-Claire-Davis-ebook/dp/B074CZ2BSH/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1503145972&sr=1-1&keywords=dear+mona+lisa

In the U.S.  https://www.amazon.com/Dear-Mona-Lisa-Claire-Davis-ebook/dp/B074CZ2BSH/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503145899&sr=1-1&keywords=Dear+Mona+Lisa…

Check the authors website here: http://astewartcdavisbook.wixsite.com/author




When Dashiel s body is found dumped on an East London wasteland, his best friend Danny sets out to find the killer. But Danny finds interaction difficult and must keep his world small in order to survive. By day he lives in an abandoned swimming pool and fixes electrical devices to trade for supplies, but by night, alone, he hunts sharks a reckless search for dangerous men who prey on the vulnerable.

A chance meeting with an American boy selling himself on the streets throws this lonely existence into disarray. Micky is troubled, fragile, and Danny feels a desperate need to protect him from what, he doesn’t know. As Danny discovers more about Micky, he realizes that what Micky needs saving from is the one thing Danny can’t help him fight against.

To save Micky, Danny must risk expanding his world and face something that scares him more than any shark ever could: trusting he will be accepted for who he is. If a freezing winter on the streets, a sadistic doctor, and three thousand miles don’t tear them apart first, that is.


Karen and I interview each other on the gorgeous that is Suki Fleet’s Foxes.

Karen: I’ve seen comments on Foxes that say there is a Beauty and the Beat feeling to it, do you agree with this ?

Fra:  I think in the Beauty and the Beast trope, the inner beauty of the presumed beast is a discovery made by others who have only looked at the surface. Although Danny acknowledges that his scarred face is an obstacle and he is so very conscious of it;  he also says that in the main he is over it. As readers, straight up – as the books is narrated by Danny and we have access to his thought process from the very beginning, we know that there is an amazing person behind the scars without having to be brought to this “realisation” by a plot device.

From a narrative perspective this is one flawless book: narrated entirely by Danny, the book delivers not only an interrupted view into Danny’s thought process but manages to also convey – by showing the other characters interactions with him – how Dashiel, Donna, Milo, Diana and eventually Micky see him.

Fra Q: Do you think there’s an element of that ?

Karen : I agree that, in the traditional way, there is only a superficial resemblance to Beauty and the Beast, but I’m not totally sure that at the beginning  Danny is over it. There is a lovely scene where he see’s himself in a mirror – and doesn’t recognise himself!

Fra: True and that is such a beautiful scene. Although I think there’s an element there which reinforces the dissonance between  the way  Danny perceives himself  and the actual way he looks and his perceived by others.

Fra Q: Karen, London is the mightily sketched background against which Danny and Micky move. It’s a cold, unforgiving, shadow filled London and yet Danny can still marvel at the beauty of it. How do you feel the relationship between the characters and their environment worked in Foxes? And as a Londoner did you recognise it as the same city you work in?

Karen: Actually Danny’s London is very similar to where I work and live,  almost like more of an amalgam of both. I work in east London ( not the hipster part) and there are several cafe/ drop in centres nearby that remind me very much of Diana’s place.

But, I actually live on south east London, and while the book was set in South West London the landscape was totally familiar.                       

I think the rather desolate urban landscape does actually have its own beauty,  and that’s what Danny sees. I also felt that Suki Fleet managed to create an outstanding parallel between  the habitat and lifestyle of urban foxes and the habitat and lifestyle of humans moving at the margins of their environment – especially in Danny’s case.

When I started to read Foxes for the first time I wasn’t sure about the location of the swimming baths; the second time I did some research, and in my corner of London alone there have been 4 swimming baths that have lain empty for over a year before any work was carried out on them .

FraQ : Tell me more about the foxes’ habitat and Danny’s

Karen: Actually – it is in the way that the boys’ lifestyle mimics foxes behaviour when you think of it: they are mainly nocturnal, they are foragers, they nest (the nesting is a very  overt reference). They also have a family of sorts

Fra: They do what they can to stay alive. And the foxes take over Danny’s nest

Karen: Exactly and Danny is on the lookout for predators.                      

Fra: They are, beautifully and very aptly, a skulk of foxes

Karen Q: Danny has been on the streets for some time, yet he manages to retain an innocence

Why do you think that is ?

Fra: Danny has been isolated and alone for so long I think he has developed his own moral compass. Because of the way he lives he seems to have no other parameters to be beholden to besides the one he makes for himself. He lives on the outskirts of society, looking in – pretty much like you very well said, like an urban fox. His world, the other children, the streets he roams hunting for sharks also do not seem to hold the same “moral/morally wrong” lines that keep together the “normal society” they move parallel to.

“Normal” society with its rules and constructed morality is the reason why Danny and his skulk of foxes are on the streets: I think the world Danny inhabits is for sure stark and harsh and dark but the moral compass points to the true north of community and mutual protection. Stripped of the supposedly moral obligation of society these children see, and seek, in each other  the actual core that makes a person fundamentally good.                  

Danny is comfortable (even in the absolute cancelling manner of the very beginning of the book) in his solitude and both his mental status and his scars give him a protective shell very much akin to the shell he builds for himself in the abandoned pool.                        

Karen Q: Do you think that it is in some way also tied up with being told that he can’t cope

Fra: Perhaps and yet I found a fortitude in Danny that from the very beginning of the book confirms to me that he is more than capable to “cope”. He is conscious of his situation and does not see it as something to rage against or – until Micky plants that particular seed – he needs to overcome. Very rarely you hear him complain about his own cold, his own hunger, his own vulnerability to falling prey to the sharks that cruise the streets on South West London: his focus is  always about the other kids. It’s always they must be cold, hungry, they must  find shelter and help.                   

FraQ: Danny and Micky relationship is one of the sweetest and strongest I have read in a while, what did you like most about it?

Karen: The thing I particularly like about Danny and Micky is actually something that I often hate in other books, and is testament to how much I trust Suki Fleet as a writer: and it is  that they actually do complete each other.

I despise the use of broken / damaged to refer to people- so I would say that here we have two young men who have issues, some with mental health and self care  who make each other stronger and more self sufficient as opposed to co dependent

Fra: Very true about Danny and Micky making each other self sufficient and also self reliant as individuals rather than as magically “cured” couple.

Karen: Although I was totally invested on their relationship I was also invested in them as individuals they both showed such development, and yes some can be attributed to age, but mainly it was that they both wanted the best for each other.

There was time given to them becoming friends and there was no artificial relationship drama.

No ridiculous jealousy.                     

There is a scene where Danny gets flowers for Micky, and when he’s asked if Micky will welcome the gesture, he says “ I want to make him smile”.

And when Micky gets the bath for Danny: it’s all about doing something to make someone else happy.                       

There is an overused  trend in romance to make relationships sickly sweet or else pump drama into them from misunderstandings or mistrust therefore  one of the things I really enjoyed as well in Foxes was the lack of that.

Karen Q: Angst is a word I’ve read to describe foxes would you describe it as angsty ?

Fra: I think the subject matter and the characters’ circumstance are not easy topics.

Suki addresses homelessness, mental health, eating disorders and isolation in a delicate, respectful and ultimately uplifting manner which never takes away from the fact that these are in fact really serious issues.

There is undoubtedly a level of unresolved tension throughout the novel. Micky is, after all, on the streets – as are all the other children- because of conflict and rejection from his family. Dashiel’s death propels Danny into this shark hunting mode that is as obsessive as it is necessary to bring his own narrative to a different starting point. So yeah angst or better still apprehension which came from an incredibly empathetic account of the conditions the children are in.

But in Danny and Micky’s relationship? I found that no, there was no angst; which was incredibly refreshing knowing that so many similar stories – mostly of the usian variety – rely on the relationship drama to carry the narrative rather than the characters growth and agency.                       

I mean: they help each other help themselves; and not only Danny and Micky, Donna and Viv (Vicky I must check), Dietrick, and to an extent even Dieter.

There is no unnecessary I will leave him cause it’s best for him. There’s self doubt for sure: Danny knowing he is unable to give Micky what he needs. But it lasts a minute, really, before Danny himself realises that the obstacle here is that he hasn’t even considered that he could.                       

Micky is conscious of the damage his anorexia is wreaking on his body and mind but I think that in meeting Danny he also gets to a point that he wishes to do something about it not for Danny but for himself – for Dominic.                     

So difficult, harrowing situations? Yes. A lot of angst? No, not really.

Karen: I have to say I agree, for me often angst seems a manufactured thing, born of forced misunderstandings and poor communication So I think that that Micky and Danny have issues, yes, and they are intense. But they talk!                      

Fra: Yes! Right? Even when it is difficult for him to talk, Danny writes it down and shows it to Micky to make sure that what he is thinking is understood.

They have to overcome objective obstacles and they do so head on and no holds spared; but I didn’t think it was done with angst more like with a strong and unwavering determination learned the hard way.

And if I were completely honest – angst, of the unfocused variety that usually gets attached to the word “adolescent”, is very much the last thing in these characters minds and lives when their daily life is about survival – finding warmth, sustenance and a safe space to sleep.

Suki Fleet is an incredibly talented author: her work explores the hardness of contemporary life with  rare sensibility and heartbreaking delicacy without compromising on realistic portrayal and yet manages to inspire the reader as much as it succeeds in uplifting her characters lives.

Foxes is a fantastic novel, Danny and Micky and the diverse cast of characters around them are set against a vivid portrayal of a harsh London which feels incredibly real.

The characters voices are quiet and powerful and the narrative, while heartbreaking, inspires to reach out and do more to help and support the very many young people in dire need of help.

All in all Suki Fleet remains a strong favourite of ours and we not only highly recommend Foxes but hope that you will find reading all of her novels as rewarding an experience as we have.

Buy Links: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Dreamspinner
2016 Rainbow Award Winner – Best Gay Young Adult

Author Bio

Award Winning Author. Prolific Reader (though less prolific than she’d like). Lover of angst, romance and unexpected love stories.

Suki Fleet writes lyrical stories about memorable characters, and believes everyone should have a chance at a happy ending.

Her first novel This is Not a Love Story won Best Gay Debut in the 2014 Rainbow Awards, and was a finalist in the 2015 Lambda Awards.

Email: sukifleet@gmail.com


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If I Should Stumble


Love is sure and timeless and forever. It whispers over the morning coffee and the last thought before sleep. Love is beyond hope, and cruel as life.

Kaz has been in the UK for almost a year, but the days pass by in an endless round of alcohol and nothingness. He has a story but no words good or bad enough to tell it, until one day, he is assigned a new peer mentor who asks him to help train a sponsored running team. Something that was stretched as old parchment breaks inside, and memories begin to re-surface.

Zack is overjoyed when his friend Adam asks him to be part of the sponsored run team trying to make money for the local homeless shelter. All day he makes cakes to lighten people’s load, but something is missing from his life. Then he meets the boy with eyes like the desert, and with every step he runs, Zack’s light burns away the darkness in Kaz’s heart.

As the race heats gets nearer, Tork, Adam, Zack and Jo realise that under Kaz’s careful programme, they have a chance to qualify and set right some of the wrongs of this world.

This book features the characters Tork and Adam from The Invasion of Tork and The Invasion of Adam

We both bought copies of this book, and to note that all authors’ proceeds go to homeless charity

Karen: I read the Invasion of Tork and The Invasion of Adam last year, and loved them, and I was so excited when I realised that there was a 3rd book in the series. You really do need to read all 3 to get the flavour as well.

The series as a whole tackles issues such as homelessness and mental health in a completely accepting and non judgemental way, and doesn’t glamourise them or offer some magical cure that suddenly makes everything better  nor do they swamp you with angst and misery. These books celebrate hope and love.

Fra: Likewise Karen, I read the first two books at the very end of last year and was as excited that a third book was coming out: I found them all enchanting.   

The major issues of homelessness, mental health and, now, immigration, are all addressed respectfully and sympathetically. S They are strengthened by weaving friendship and young romantic love into the narrative,  while not sparing the characters major obstacles to overcome but managing to retain the story’s hopefulness and uplifting qualities.

In a genre which, generally speaking, actively pursues  the miraculous end and sorting out of the “Problem”, these books stay, thankfully and gracefully, cliche’ free.

Karen: Kaz is a refugee from an unnamed country, where being gay can get you imprisoned. He’s in the UK and everything is just fine, thank you very much. Except it isn’t at all. Kaz tries to navigate the weirdness of the British, missing his family and friends and dealing with the horrors that happened to him on his journey to the UK by drinking the cider, and collecting things.  I got such a feeling of isolation and sorrow from Kaz , and while the support system he had was well meaning, no one really ‘got’ him.

Fra: Karen! The account of Kaz’s migrant journey, its reasons and its  psychological effects broke my heart.

I think the authors managed to maintain a very delicate balance between social commentary on the effects of human trafficking and exploring how the migration journey affects Kaz as a person and the gradual breakdown of all of his coping mechanism.

Kaz’s journey of displacement and self discovery striked me like  the ugliest version of the classic hero journey; each step more drastic and tragic than the last and where the destination represents both the end  of one journey, the physical one, and the beginning of  another: a psychological one of self discovery, self acceptance and ultimately of self affirmation.

Pushed out by his parents for being gay and basically consigned in the hands of human traffickers, Kaz arrives in Britain with absolutely nothing.  The papers, the news, are full of harrowing accounts of how human traffickers exploit the migrants of this generation; by describing Kaz’s steady descent into a complete PTSD melt down I think the authors have managed to convey how very soul destroying the experience is.

Superficially cheerful in his interactions with his environment we get to see him steadily falling apart: it starts with the numbing cider and it escalates with the hoarding of items which directly relate to the tragic journey he has undertaken.

I thought that the character development  was particularly well executed.

Kaz burden is heavy: on the one hand there is his being gay within the boundaries placed on him by his own culture. Particularly well written was, in my opinion, the oppressiveness of religion signified by the almost suffocating presence of the Church, the Mosque and  the Synagogue buildings around him.

On the other he is navigating a completely different country and culture after the most tragic of journeys; His coping mechanisms – the drinking and the hoarding coupled with the flashbacks makes for hard but necessary reading. It is an accursed attitude and state of mind to forget and ignore the human cost of forced migration be it because of war, economic reasons or – as in this case – human rights issues.

Kaz therefore deals with deeply seated personal issues: his sexuality, his loneliness, the modality of how to behave in a society and culture completely different from his own while at  the same time having to cope with the psychologically devastating effect of the how he got into the new society and culture in the first place.

Karen: I also felt that the religious aspect was very well done. There are numerous romance books where religion is the source of conflict within the characters various relationships,  but not so many where religion is seen as such a negative aspect in general.

I would also add that for a romance novel to tackle the subjects in this book was a brave thing to do, and while at no time did I feel like I was being lectured, there was also no doubt where the authors stood.

Fra: The human connections the characters make create a strong network for them to grow and rely on while they do so. The books – this one and his predecessors – convey a very strong message of ties chosen and cultivated at a very human level. Here, I think, is where the authors bring forward an incredibly uplifting message of hope which makes this series a veritable pleasure to read.

All in all If I Should Stumble is a gorgeous addition to this series and an important book for all to read. At a time in which the rise of unbridled conservatism will lead us to believe that the cause of all social evil is the current mass migration movement, it is books like If I Should Stumble which remind us that behind the word “migrant” there are people – human beings who in very many cases did not quite chose to leave their countries and their families and friends; people who have lost everything and now found themselves on death barges and  in containment camps, or direct provision accommodation; people who we should make feel welcome and safe instead of unsure and unwelcome.  A book that manages to balance serious and important subjects about the world we live in today, with a love story and the story of a man navigating a new life in a new country.

Highly recommended

buy it here



First and First, The Five Bouroughs Series by Santino Hassell


Caleb Stone was raised on the Upper East Side, where wealth and lineage reigns, and “alternative lifestyles” are hidden. It took him years to come out to his family, but he’s still stuck in the stranglehold of their expectations. Caleb knows he has to build his confidence and shake things up, but he doesn’t know how… until Oliver Buckley enters the picture. Oli is everything Caleb isn’t—risk-taking, provocative, and fiercely independent. Disowned by his family, Oli has made his own way in the world and is beholden to no one. After a chance encounter on New Year’s Eve, Caleb is smitten. As Caleb sheds the insecurities that have held him back for years, he makes bold steps toward changing his career and escaping years of sexual repression. But for Caleb to take full control of his life, he has to be brave enough to confront his feelings and trust Oli with his heart.

We received an early copy of First and First from the ever generous Santino Hassell who has also provided some of the beautiful pictures we have used in today’s blog to celebrate his latest release.

Spoilers ahead – read this great book first then come and have a chat about it with us.

FRA: First and First is the third installment in Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs series: a realistic account of the start of a relationship set against the scintillating set that is New York City.

I sound like a broken record: characterization and world building are the sharpest tools in Hassell’s writerly tool box. His characters’ arcs feel realistic and the NYC that shines through the pages of these books is in turns gritty and light filled, a comfort to his characters and at times an obstacle and manifestation of their turmoil.

Where Sutphin Boulevard explored the journey from friendship to love amidst some very serious issues and Sunset Park pitched two seemingly wildly different characters against each other in a flurry of young love, stereotyping and breaking of barriers; First and First conveys the start of a relationship between two men coming at even the concept of a relationship from two very different angles.

I particularly loved the characters’ growth and change as they get close, tear themselves apart from each other and come at each other again from a completely new angle.

I want to spend two minutes patting my back: remember in our Sunset Park review when I said “Now, I have a feeling that, as readers, we were supposed to dislike Caleb, there were hints of Caleb being manipulative: I don’t buy it.”  well, am I ever so grateful I called it, because I was so right: there’s nothing inherently wrong with Caleb. He is not manipulative but insecure – our perception of Caleb was completely coloured by David’s opinion and expectations.


MIKI: I second that. I didn’t like David´s character at all. Not in the first book or in the second one. So his small appearance was appreciated because it allowed Caleb´s character to shine and develop without the constraints of David’s POV.

FRA: Caleb was not manipulating David, Caleb was trying with all that he got to fit in the gilded box bread of the heavy expectations built by his family and environment. Out and proud David, provided a modicum of rebellion to a man forced into a shimmering closet but also the safety of a solid “relationship” based on all the points in a pre – determined checklist.

I felt really, deeply sad for Caleb – well, not for his super privileged upbringing in the 1% of which I can make no remarks because miiiiiles away from me and my experience – but because he is so trapped, so dreadfully unable to take even one step for himself without checking against the boundaries of his upbringing. He has built his life of expectations and seems intent in checking all of the boxes on the “list of life milestones according to the Stone family”.

The loss of his relationship with David and the loss of his job set Caleb on a course for radical change – change he doesn’t seem to even consider  he is undergoing until his whole world is shaken by Oli Buckley.

Oli (he who, you might recall, I shipped something fierce with Ray) is in many ways Caleb’s opposite – from the same 1% stock as Caleb, he broke the rules by unapologetically coming out in the most spectacular fashion, got disowned and thrown out for it and has taken all the steps not only to break free from his privileged, silver spoon upbringing but also to set his own course, to be his own man. I think his fierce sense of independence is at the core of his determination not to commit to a relationship, although with the way he pursues Caleb from the beginning at times his no commitment rule seems more like posturing than anything else.

I must say I loved the way these two interacted and ended up changing each other, I also think that under the layers of life’s different experiences these two men are both lonely and barely containing an energy, an innate desire to affect changes in spectacular ways.

I also love that there’s a common thread about families and their interactions in the whole series so far – one I hope continues to be explored in the next books. All parents’ sets in the books fail these men one way or the other: abandonment, mollycoddling, indifference, judgment (gods wasn’t Caleb’s mother the most judgey of judgey mothers ever? She was so judgey I almost called her mum) and yet siblings step up to the plate, friends become the family they chose for themselves. Even if, at the first look, some of the relationships seem very shallow, I do think that there’s a pull, a thread between all of the characters and it is this thread that gives the author the possibility to develop the story not based on major plot development but certainly on the major growth and development of his protagonists. The fact that we gleam glances of the previous couples – Michael and Nunzio, and more interestingly for this particular installment, Ray and David – keeps the thread present, if not prominent, enough for readers to feel connected both to the present story and the series at large. It is subtly done and I think it works very well from a narrative perspective.

MIKI: I thought that the characters were believable even if I personally don’t necessarily identify with them because we are on opposite sides in terms of cultural roots, families, money, social status. Etc. But the vulnerability they show in that context is super enjoyable and well delivered.

FRA: I agree Miki, at a visceral level I could relate with many of the innerworks of both Caleb and Oli: from the “work” speak about API and building new technology to the loneliness and the breaking of family ties before moving on to become their very own people. I got it, I empathised. And if – by genetics alone – I am unable to comment one way or the other on the intimate relationship between Oli and Caleb (aside from oh, ugh, is it getting hot in here or is it just moi?) I can 100% stand behind the mighty ritual dance of two grown people around the ever present fear of vs need for commitment in relationships for 30 somethings all over the world.



In this context, that is in the context of an adult relationship with all its complexity and rituals I did think that Oli’s  “I love you” was a bit sudden. I mean, I would have been happy with these two poised on the verge of a serious and committed relationship: the book narrative journey railed them in that direction, as readers we did our job and read between the lines of Oli’s stubborn unrest – there was no other course for these two men but convergence into a stable, shared reality -a happy ending without the need for utterance of the three words.

MIKI: I feel that the final declaration of love and the inevitable HEA were unnecessary. Especially taking into consideration their previous behaviors in the book and Oli’s reluctance to any commitment, so the sudden change of mind was a bit out of the blue. In all honesty I feel this book would have been perfect with a not so perfect ending.

I enjoyed First and First a lot more than Sunset Park, I feel it still didn’t carry the profound story and character development of Sutphin Boulevard and Hassell´s previous books. First and First held that essence when I started reading it, but the necessity for a HEA and for *closure* of every thread, put the book back in the pile of “those romance books which romance publishers approve of as much as the “target” audience does”.

FRA: I loved First and First, I found it romantic, realistic, well set into its contemporary background and incredibly well written. I totally see what you are saying Miki, although from a story perspective it didn’t bother me more than it felt like an unnecessary  stumble in an otherwise flawless narrative.

I think this book is way above the standard romance fare out there right now and I highly recommend it.

Santino Hassell is a talented author, one with  the potential, for sure, for changing the current Romance landscape one great book at the time.

First and First is book three in the Five Bourough Series, it is out today and you can find it at:

Amazon: https://t.co/v6e7ZLFtDO

Are: https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-firstandfirst-2003583-149.html

BN: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/first-and-first-santino-hassell/1123617999

DSP: http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=7639

kobo: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/first-and-first

GR: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28427134-first-and-first


Five Boroughs series:




Broken Blades – A Review


broken blades

They only had one night together—a stolen interlude at the 1936 Olympics. After Mark Driscoll challenged Armin Truchsess von Kardenberg to a good-natured fencing match, there was no resisting each other. Though from different worlds—an Iowa farm boy and a German aristocrat—they were immediately drawn together, and it was an encounter neither has ever forgotten.

Now it’s 1944, and a plane crash in hostile territory throws them back together, but on opposite sides of a seemingly endless war. Facing each other as opponents is one thing. As enemies, another thing entirely. And to make matters worse, Mark is a POW, held in a cold, remote castle in Germany… in a camp run by Armin.

They aren’t the young athletes they were back then. The war has taken wives, limbs, friends, leaving both men gray beyond their years, shell-shocked, and battered. The connection they had back then is still alive and well, though, and from the moment Mark arrives, they’re fencing again—advancing, retreating, testing defenses.

Have they been given a second chance? Or have time and a brutal war broken both men beyond repair?

Fra: Broken Blades was a quietly elegant book set in a very difficult period of European History which managed to deliver a highly romantic love story. And I loved this book –  I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it into my top ten read of 2016.

My absolute favourite part of this book is the historical period in which it is set and the angle from which it is told.

This book tilts the usual victor’s rhetoric point of view by focusing on  the human weight of war on people with the added complexity of, in my opinion, a very romantic love story.

Karen: While I agree with this now, I have to say that I was very reluctant to start reading this book, not because of the quality of the writing, which I knew would be excellent. But because of the basis of the book. For a lot of people their understanding of the personal cost of WWII is formed from familial memories. My grandfather and great uncle were in German and Japanese POW camps respectively, and both of them were irrevocably changed by the experience. My Great uncle in particular was badly affected. And I suppose that I worried that any book which wasn’t incredibly serious or, in fact non fiction, could possibly do justice, if in some way setting a romance in a POW camp, especially a queer romance was trivialising the subject matter. However when authors you trust write about potentially controversial subjects , you need to have an open mind.

Fra: While I didn’t agree with your reservations in reading the book, the period of history it’s set in made me think – I am Italian, one generation over from  WWII. Half of my family is comprised of staunch communists and very active members of the Resistance and the other half is made by people who joined the Fascist war, believed in it and paid the consequences for losing it. I heard stories about the War all my life; at the sunday dinner table between my paternal, communist and part of the Resistance, grandmother and my maternal, decorated navy soldier and joiner of the RSI, I was fed stories of terror, defiance, epic naval battles, crumbling of some ideals and the insurgence of others: both simple people, both rather passionate about their beliefs but also very, acutely aware that War is more than the propaganda which causes it and that in the end the people who fight it on behalf of the powers that be are just that: people.

Over the internet I heard rumblings of very short memoried people or people who have not been touched by this war who take issue with stories written during World War II and especially written in or about Germany in that period. And I am flabbergasted: the war happened, avoiding to set fiction in this context is not going to make it go away  (i’d highly recommend Curzio Malaparte’s books set in the aftermath of the North American landing in Italy). I do demand though that the subject must be treated respectfully and faithfully and never lightly- anything else would be an insult to both the people who lost their lives and the ones who survived (like my mother who spent the first 4 years of her life in and out of bomb shelters and is still mad afraid of thunder and small places but would shove books about it down your throat so that we don’t forget). But equally damaging is to either completely avoid the subject or only tell stories manufactured by those who won it.

Fra: The romance does add another challenging dimension to the story and the implications of any relationship developing between captured and jailer is problematic in terms of power balance and consent.

I did have concerns: my concerns were appeased by two authors who obviously know exactly what they are doing and made it absolutely clear where they both stand on the matter of consent and the power balance in their story and on the War itself.

Broken Blades alternates narrative point of views between  Armin Truchsess von Kardenberg  – fencer, Wehrmacht officer, mutilated veteran of the Eastern Front and now commander of a POW camp for enemy Officers and Mark Driscoll, also a fencer, a captured American pilot now a POW in the same camp.

The first encounter between Armin and Mark happens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

I loved the way the two authors were able to capture the two cultures in detail without overpowering each other and more importantly without resorting to stereotyping.

It was refreshing to see the American team’s wonder at the Olympic village, the positive energy, the innocence of the enthusiasm and at the same time to see how it was all set up to look exactly that way. Through Armin’s disillusioned point of view we know that all is not what it looks like.

Armin’s role as host – which he performs perfectly – is the result of a rather dangerous refusal to join the SS and remain in the Wehrmacht as per his family tradition; a choice that has lost him a place on the Olympic team but still leaves him with the knowledge not only that what the guest athletes are experiencing is heavily choreographed but also of the warmongering intentions of the Reich.

Mark and Armin’s first encounter is beautifully described: both young men, full of potential and possibilities – I loved the innocence in Mark and the mischievous side of Armin’s character.

Fast forward to 1944 and the worst war in human history has been raging for almost 5 years. Both men have married – one, Armin out of love, the other Mark out of wanting to repress the feelings stirred by the encounter with Armin. Both men have lost their wives, one killed in an Ally bombardment the other to divorce. Both men have been rather changed by the war; especially Armin who has lost an arm – his fencing arm – on the Eastern front.

When Mark crash lands his plane in enemy’s territory he and his crew are captured and transferred to the POW camps. The officers to Armin’s post.

Mark’s despair at the situation while being transported is heartbreaking – surrounded by his shell shocked men his thoughts turn dark. I appreciated that this was done in a very genuine way. There isn’t in the writing the typical language of the “North American We Are The Just and Will Win Everything” present in so much post War narrative: the author manages to convey elegantly and succinctly the desperation of a man caught in an objectively dreadful situation.

Karen: I agree Fra, the love story here is beautiful. The risks of being queer at that time, and very specifically in Germany , were huge , concentration camps weren’t just for Jews and the liberal hedonism of the 1920’s was long gone. There is a sense that as both their lives were so damaged by the war, they almost have nothing left to be afraid for. And that makes this sound like such a depressing book, whereas it’s not, while there is sadness and loss on both sides and for both men, the burgeoning relationship brings them both back to life.

And the good/ bad balance is marvelous – how easy would it have been to make all the Germans apart from Armin bad, and all the Allies wonderful, but it’s blurry. In fact the relationship between Armin and Schafer is so affirming and ‘normal’ .

Karen: Balancing historical accuracy against the need to have impetus in a story is a very delicate thing, and overall for me Broken Blades achieved this. I don’t think that setting this at any time other than the end of WWII would have worked. If I have one criticism it would be that the book develops slowly and beautifully and the end seems somewhat tagged on, in that it was sudden.

Fra: I totally agree with regards to the actual timing of the story.

War in general is soul destroying – WWII was the worst armed conflict in human history. Both protagonist arrive at Oflag Ahlenstieg as broken men and there is a sense of fatality surrounding their relationship that it is difficult to ignore.

To be completely honest I did not think that Armin was going to make it out alive. It isn’t unknown   for the Gestapo to have eliminated some of their own – especially if in the Wehrmacht –  during the retreat and it wasn’t improbable for the Russians to have swept in after the SS’s retreat. Neither options would have gone well for Armin and his men, which  had a lot to do with his decisions in the book, including distancing himself from Mark as to avoid any attention to him.

I also agree that they both behave as they have very little left to lose. No families to go home to, a crumbling world order and disgust at the act of war in itself seem to be the catalyst to a lot of the characters decisions and agency in the book.

I am actually very happy with the ending: consider that I thought Armin was either going to get killed by the Gestapo or put a bullet through his head – so I  was so relieved when the US Army came in instead of  the Russians. But I also think that the end gives credit to what I was saying before. Armin’s main focus at the end is to protect all of the people in his charge. Both his men and the POW.  I also like the fact that the Epilogue was set sometimes after the war thus giving Mark and Armin the possibility at a real start of a relationship unburdened by the horrors of war and unequal power.

All in all this was a quietly elegant novel. Uncompromising in its account of the effects of War on people but ultimately delivering a compelling message of hope through a well thought out and unexpectedly romantic relationship.

Highly recommended