This is a round up of the books I read on the 4rd quarter of this year that I’m too lazy to do a full review.
Aster Valley: Hot As Heller – Lucy Lennox
The man asked me to valet his damn car.
Look, I left LA for a reason. I’ve had my fill of big Hollywood stars and their even bigger egos. I want something genuine. Something real. And it doesn’t get any realer than being the new sheriff of Aster Valley, Colorado.
That is, until entitled Finn Heller appears on the scene, handing me the keys to his convertible like I’m his personal servant.
The former child star and wannabe action hero is the hottest thing I’ve ever seen. He’s also a snarky party animal with legions of adoring fans and attitude for days.
Or so I thought.
The longer the film crew stays in town, the more I begin to wonder if Finn is hiding his true self, one that’s as beautiful inside as out. He’s a star alright, but the kind that shines bright enough to light up the night sky… the kind I want to make a wish on.
A wish Finn will find a way to make things work with me, even if it means his next role is my very own leading man.
Aster Valley works its magic one more time in this delightful love story between a Shakespeare-quoting action star and the good sheriff of the town.
The sleepy mountain valley in Colorado is buzzing with movie stars. A film crew is in town shooting a big budget action flick starring infamous former child actor, Finn Heller. Sheriff Declan Stone has had enough of the crowds and the inflated egos and is counting the days when all these brouhaha is over. Unfortunately, fate keeps throwing trouble and a certain former child actor his way.
Finn has the disastrous reputation typical of child actors who grew up in front of the camera. But you got to hand it to our boy, he was trying really, really hard to rise above that. It was a huge uphill battle, with everyone, including his own mother, expecting him to be nothing more than a money-making machine. I was rooting hard for this sweet, passionate, hardworking man who just wants to be taken seriously.
I appreciated Dec being a steady, grounding presence for Finn. The good sheriff and the actor might have started off the wrong foot, even butted heads a few more times, but Dec always made sure the younger man was safe and protected.
I loved the way the author bought these two characters together. The more time they spent together, the more they realized there’s so much more to the other person. Their chemistry was just fabulous! And I adore the way Dec treats Finn like the treasure he is.
The most vivid moment for me was when Finn was at the park teaching some teenagers about Shakespeare. Dec saw him all glowing and happy under the trees and sunshine and he couldn’t resist coming over to talk. I could almost see that as a breathtaking scene in a rom-com movie, with the camera showing a dreamy Finn through Dec’s bedazzled eyes.
I enjoyed all the Aster Valley books, but I enjoyed Hot As Heller more because it was an easier read. Previously, I had complained that the antagonists were much too vile for me. So much so that they took me out of the story. Here, the author toned down the negativity, going for more tell rather than show. I really appreciated it because while we still have major conflicts and bad guys to keep us on our toes, they were deployed at a tolerable level.
All the couples from the previous books made their appearances. I always perk up whenever one of them pops up. This series has some of the most lovable supporting cast. They made me want to move to Aster Valley. The town itself is almost another character.
Hot As Heller is a heartwarming story about taking charge of one’s life and following your dreams. It continues the Aster Valley tradition of charming unwitting celebrities into finding love and staying for good. It is quite an enticing place. So I say, drop by any time. You’ll feel right at home too!
4 Stars – minor quibbles but I loved it to bits
Let Aster Valley charm you by reading the books in order. Check out my reviews below:
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Veiled Intentions: Black Moon – Elle Keaton
One corpse, two corpse, old corpse, new corpse.
Summer is crashing into fall, Mat and Niall have a wedding to overthink.
A body is discovered floating in the harbor and this time it’s the missing ex-Piedras Marine officer Duane Cooper.
Who, aside from Niall, wanted Duane dead? He’s been on the run for months, why would he turn up dead now?
Black Moon, third in the Veiled Intentions series, Black Moon is a dual POV following Sheriff Mat Dempsey and now Private Investigator Niall Hamarsson as they grope their way to a happily ever after.
Black Moon is the third book in the Veiled Intentions (formerly Hamarsson & Dempsey) series. Hopefully not the last. It follows directly from the awkward and very Niall proposal from the second book, Long Shadow.
The series is set in a small island of Piedras, part of the real life San Juan Islands in Washington. Island natives Niall Hamarrson and Sheriff Mat Dempsey both grew up in the island, moved away as adults, only to come back to their hometown later on. Niall, as way to find himself perhaps and Mat, after his father died.
The two started off antagonistic but Mat is a do-gooder who slowly but surely chipped away at the walls Niall built around himself. Fast forward many months later, Niall and Matt were trying to squeeze in wedding planning amidst murder investigations, new jobs, bomb explosions and buildings collapsing. A man involved in the previous case and who was missing for months was fished out of the water, dead.
I’ve been following this series since the beginning and I loved watching the characters grow. Niall in particular. Look how far he had come! When I first met him in Book 1, Conspiracy Theory, he was a grumpy bastard who barely said a word to anyone. The longest sentence he uttered was when he was talking about his dog, Fenrir.
Now, well, I wouldn’t say he’s a completely different person but you can definitely see his warm, caring side. Especially when Mat and animals are involved. He’s not really talking more but at least he talks. He’s even getting along with his new co-workers at West Coast Forensics, a private investigation firm.
I also loved how even if the two men were settling into a nice, comfortable domestic routine, the romance is far from boring. There’s enough external conflict to keep them on their toes. With work as dangerous as theirs, it’s just right that they have something safe and normal to come home to. And even if they had huge blow ups, they don’t let the bad feelings fester. They always talk and work things out. They’re complete opposites but they just synced perfectly!
The case was a tough one. It had me guessing until the big reveal. Mat unearthed a decade old secret about his father’s death. Niall was doing his usual bullheaded best by ‘helping’ with Mat’s investigation whether his fiance wanted him to or not. The big guy was supposed to rest after a building collapsed on him. But obviously, not one for staying at home and twiddling his thumbs. Not one to concern himself with legalities either.
The mystery connects to the previous cases as well as the author’s other books. There were many characters from other series that made appearances. I enjoyed this part a lot. It introduces a bigger world and more stories to explore.
This series has great supporting characters. There’s Alyson, Mat’s mom, as well as his sister and niece, who welcomed a long-lost Viking and his new-found mutt to their home right from the very beginning. There’s Birdy, Mat’s deputy and, possibly, the only capable officer in their perpetually understaffed department. There’s Marshall Soper, the only doctor in the island who had to double as a coroner. There’s smooth-talking lawyer, Shay, Niall’s half-brother, who he now likes. I hope Shay gets his own book.
The pacing here was better compared to the second book. It was faster and more consistent, giving a sense of constant motion while still delivering tension. There was ample time for the plot to develop properly. The downtimes didn’t lag. All in all, the best written installment in the series.
It also felt like a finale. Aside from the wedding, it wrapped up a lot of loose threads. It gave the boys their hard-earned happy ending and returned Piedras Island back to its sleepy, peaceful state. If Black Moon is indeed the last book, it’s a fitting conclusion to this compelling story about a big taciturn man and his giant dog, a kind-hearted sheriff who wouldn’t quit and a tiny island that always feels like home.
Veiled Intentions should be read in order.
Find out how a grumpy Viking found his way back to the home he thought he would never see again and a sheriff who wouldn’t leave him alone in Book 1, Conspiracy Theory. Check out my review here.
Witness how glacial that Viking can get when it comes to making up his mind about the sheriff (a patient, patient man bless his heart) in Book 2, Long Shadow. Check out my review here.
4 Stars – minor quibbles but I loved it to bits
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Down Home: Down Low – Parker St. John
His broken bones could finally mend their broken bond…
Bull riding was the only thing that calmed the thrill-seeking, self-destructive beast inside of Calvin Craig. It allowed him to escape a small-minded town and the pain of his troubled youth, fleeing to bright lights and big city fame without looking back.
One trip on the horns of the wrong bull changed everything.
Cal is forced to come crawling back home for the first time in ten years, his body broken and riding days behind him. But not everyone is happy for the return of their local celebrity.
Eli Jackson was once the tall, dark, and sinful preacher’s son who had Cal wrapped around his little finger. Now the steely-eyed sheriff of Sweetwater, Eli is hell bent on running him right back out of town. He’s never forgiven Cal for the spectacular implosion of their relationship. Even though the lingering tension soon has them burning up the sheets, he refuses to be tamed.
Cal is surprised to find himself rising to a new challenge: breaking the bull that is Eli Jackson.
He might have run out of luck, but he’s not out of miracles… yet.
Down Low was an emotional rollercoaster. I found myself enjoying the heck out of it. It was so good! This is an angsty, second chance, friends to enemies to lovers story of high school sweethearts Calvin Craig and Eli Jackson.
Cal and Eli were each other first loves. They had to keep their relationship a secret because Eli was the son of a hellfire and brimstone pastor. In their senior year, Cal wanted to come out but Eli was hesitant. He was heading to college and couldn’t jeopardize his future. They had an ugly fight. The next day, Cal disappeared.
Ten years after, we see Cal returning home (slunking more like). For the past decade, he was a bull-riding superstar and had the broken bones to show for it. He was still healing in several parts, too injured to ride again. The moment he arrived in Sweetwater, he was in for a lot of surprises. Also, Eli hated his guts.
Cal is a “pipsqueak who doesn’t know when to quit” according to Eli. He was bullied in high school. Bull-riding is all he knows. He is a self-destructive adrenaline junkie who would risk permanent injury to save those he cared about. Eli is the town sheriff. He is level-headed and dependable but has a dark streak hidden deep inside.
The book is solely from Cal’s POV. I wished we had Eli’s POV too. Sometimes, when we get a 1st person POV from a person who pines for somebody, it feels unbalanced. Like the other person has all the power. But this was soon put to rights as the story progressed. We witness Eli being drawn to Cal like a magnet and learn his side of the story.
The book perfectly depicted all the conflicting, heart-crushing emotions of seeing your first love after 10 years, the one who betrayed you but still loved after all this time. The longing, the USTs, the hate kisses, the flames gloriously coming back to life. My heart went out to Cal and Eli. They had to sort through a decade of hurts and misunderstandings. Mutual pining, anyone? ♡
I loved the parts where Eli couldn’t help himself. He just had to kiss Cal even if he wanted to punch him just as badly. Cal loves pushing his buttons and when Eli’s buttons are pushed, that’s when things get seriously explosive.
Peak Cal moment is him singing Son Of A Preacher Man offkey at the top of his voice just to annoy Eli, instead of enjoying the cozy morning after. Which ended their very brief “truce” and sent them back to square one a.k.a. Eli hating him again.
Each chapter is marked with a song and opens with a short flashback. I loved how the writing seamlessly take us back to the past and juxtaposed it with the present. We see how Cal’s teen self views the world, perhaps still in a limited, adults are enemies way most people his age do. He created a boogeyman in Eli’s father, who was a huge presence not only in their lives but the entire town as well.
His adult self was very much surprised with how much his small town has changed. And how it still the same podunk town he left behind. I enjoyed the parts where he realized things were different now, more accepting and open. Bullies are now friends and the pastor is only a human who loves his son.
The book also excelled in bringing bull-riding to life. This is a world I know nothing about, but here, it was portrayed, not so much in vivid detail, but with well-written glimpses that easily captured the rodeo world. It brought us the heat and adrenaline, the heart stopping triumphs and the sometimes fatal losses, and the indomitable spirits of men who risk life and limb for 8 precious seconds.
Down Low is simply wonderful. It is one man’s eye-opening homecoming, a reliving of unforgettable memories, a comfort for years of hurts, a fixing of mistakes, and a tumultuous reunion of childhood sweethearts. It takes us through a whole gamut of emotions, sad, happy, painful, sweet and more. Yeah, quite a ride this one!
4.5 Stars – perfection is only half a step away
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Hamarsson & Dempsey: Long Shadow – Elle Keaton
Niall’s known nothing but betrayal. All Mat wants is Niall’s heart; what will it take for him to coax Niall in from the cold?
Mat’s connection with Niall is tenuous. One step forward, two steps back. Since that night on the beach Niall’s been avoiding Mat like a bad case of the flu–which, ironically, most of his deputies have come down with. What will it take for Niall to believe Mat wants him for who he is?
Mat’s overworked, Niall’s unnerved, and then things really go sideways.
Will a killer destroy everything before Niall realizes they are stronger together than apart?
Long Shadow is a dual POV about a broody introvert and a somewhat patient Sheriff. Mat will have to prove to Niall he’s the man for him. The Hamarsson and Dempsey series follows the same couple as they find their way to their happily ever after.
I was very much looking forward to this sequel. The first book, Conspiracy Theory, left us with an open ending that badly needed a resolution and this second book certainly made up for it!
Long Shadow picked up from where we last saw Niall, living in a hotel when his cottage was burned to the ground. Another case of fire soon appeared and Mat suspected a serial arsonist.
I very much appreciated the fact that this is not another murder case. No one was burned. The only casualties were the building structures. Although Mat had a close call when somebody planted a bomb in his cruiser. I liked how this part allowed Niall to step up as the significant person in Mat’s life.
I also liked that Mat and Niall were not partners as is usually the case with police procedural. Mat is the sheriff and Niall is a retired cop wondering what to do with his life.
The Hamarsson & Dempsey stories have a cozy feel to them. This is probably due to the small town setting and the way the gruesome details of the crimes were toned down, in addition to warm, friendly secondary characters and as well as other ‘distinguished’ minor characters.
The author was able to build an interesting small town community and establish recurring characters that made me wish they had books of their own. One of them, Marshall Sopper (?), the doctor who loves taking in strays. The good doctor took in an army medic and his son and there’s a big story there waiting to be told.
Another character I’d love to read about is Shay Delacombe, a lawyer who had surprising connections to Niall. He had a take-charge personality and would probably annoy Niall just for the heck of it.
Admittedly, the first parts of the story meandered a bit the way Niall was meandering through town, suspecting unsuspecting RVs and taking his own sweet time deciding what to do with his relationship with Mat. ‘Glacial’ was how Mat described it.
Luckily, the sheriff had infinite patience. Shouldering on, the story picked up when things started exploding and from then on it went on a quicker pace. Niall finally pulled his head out of his ass and took action. Then the story hurtled to an HEA. It may have been fast, it was still done nicely and with a few laughs especially with Shay butting in their business.
Now I’m not sure if we will get another book. I hope we’ll get more. There’s something about this series that appeals to me. It does not go over the top with the action and suspense, the cases aren’t the type that would involved huge media coverage. Yet somehow, it’s very engaging.
The audiobook was narrated by Michael Dean. He’s one of the more enjoyable narrators out there. He delivered suspense with just the right amount of tension. He also created distinct voices for each characters, even the female ones. I especially liked how his Niall voice suited the character to a T.
The books are written in dual POVs and I liked Niall’s and Mat’s narrative voices.
Niall is the last of the Hamarssons. He tends to overthink and is afraid of trusting anybody due to a rather traumatic childhood where he was abandoned by his mother. He says little and loves his alone time very much. As tactiturn as he is with humans, he talks a lot to his dog, Fenrir. His arc wasn’t fully resolved but I guess that leaves it open for more books.
Meanwhile, Mat tends to be easy-going and open. He takes his numerous responsibilities seriously. He lives with his mother, sister and niece. I liked how he saw through Niall’s walls to the good person behind it. Then he proceeded to leap over those walls and love that person too.
These books are not standalones. There were many events from the past that were directly referred to with not much explanation. I highly recommend meeting Niall when he first landed in Piedras Island. He was so alone and grumpy.
Witness him as he slooowly open up to Mat and his endearing family. Niall had come a long way. He still has ways to go. At least now, he had friends, family and a loyal dog with him. That’s all he needs really.
Thank you to Gay Romance Reviews and Audible UK for giving me a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Review of book 1, Conspiracy Theory, here.
4 Stars – minor quibbles but I loved it to bits
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Hamarsson & Dempsey: Conspiracy Theory – Elle Keaton
Years of grueling police work have left Niall Hamarsson jaded and disillusioned with life…although it’s likely he’s been that way all along. The last straw lands when the DA refuses to try a case Niall worked for years to bring to justice. Within hours he finds himself heading to the only place he’s ever been able to call home—a place he knows he doesn’t belong.
Mat Dempsey returned to Piedras Island after his father’s death. These days he’s Island County’s sheriff. He’s happy enough, even if moving home from San Francisco effectively forced him back into the closet. Mat’s well-ordered universe collapses when a local’s body is discovered floating in the cold waters of Hidden Harbor’s marina. All hell breaks loose in the community, and accusations fly…all coinciding with Niall Hamarsson’s return.Niall and Mat have a history, and it’s not one Mat’s proud of. He owes Niall an apology, even if it means getting down on his knees. However, Mat’s first priority is investigating the murder before his community tears itself apart and he may have to ask the aloof Niall Hamarsson for help.
Push apart, pull together, yes or no… The chemistry crackles between them but will the two men be able to put aside their pasts and embrace a future?
Hamarsson & Dempsey is a promising police procedural by new to me author Elle Keaton. The series is set in Piedras Island where everybody had their noses in everybody else’s business. While it is reminiscent of many mystery series, the first book, Conspiracy Theory, held its own.
First, the mystery had me guessing until the end. I liked how the various threads and mini-mysteries relate to the main plot. The pacing was good but the resolution was just okay. It left some things open for the next books.
The book also had a strong cast of secondary characters. As with many small town mysteries, it had its fair share of interesting eccentric town fixtures that will either serve as future victims, future perps, comic relief or mere annoyance. Chief of these are the town’s prominent families who were notorious for their bitter feuds.
The two main characters couldn’t be more different from each other. Both were likable in their own way. The book is character-driven and the two leads were very compelling. Hamarsson in particular has a backstory that you make you feel for the guy.
Hamarsson is of Viking descent and is built like one. He is anti-social with a miserly way of speaking as though each word cost him money. He has a troubled childhood and is the first to admit he is a not a good person. But the man had a rarely seen caring side that appeared when he became Fenrir’s human. The total number of sentences he used to explain the dog’s presence equaled the total number of the rest of sentences he spoke in the entire book. That’s how much he liked the dog.
Dempsey is the town sheriff. He is a serial do-gooder who takes his responsibilities to the entire town very seriously. He’s a genial guy who loves his mom. He’s really easy to like. Early on, he knew there were hidden depths to Hamarsson that were worth taking the time to explore.
The two men had mutual crushes on each other back in high school. Now face to face as grown ups, the attraction is still there. I liked how the slow-burn romance was built-up. I liked how it worked with the police procedural aspect. I even liked the cliffy ending because it felt right for the kind of thing they had at that moment.
Overall, Conspiracy Theory is a great series opener. It has characters you can root for, a mystery that kept you turning the page and a tight plot that made you exciting for what’s coming next. Highly recommended for those into stories of big, taciturn men with giant hairy dogs and small island sheriffs who couldn’t stay away.
4 Stars – minor quibbles but I loved it to bits