This month’s TBR Challenge theme is simply “friends,” which is open-ended enough to take in various directions. One could read a friends-to-lovers book or, as Lynn did, read a book where the friends of a lead character play an important role in his/her life. Caz and Lynn took this challenge in slightly different directions, but both found winners this month.

Loose Cannon by Sidney Bell (Caz’s pick)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+          Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: Amazon

Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean (Lynn’s pick)

Note: This review contains spoilers for earlier books in this series.

What to do with the TBR prompt of “friends?” Friends to lovers is one of my very favorite tropes, so those books don’t tend to spend much time on my TBR. That meant I had to branch out. I started thinking of friend groups in romance that I’ve liked, and sure enough, I had one last Rules of Scoundrels book waiting for me. I find the dynamics of the friends who run the Fallen Angel intriguing, so I was more than happy to revisit that world. I’ve liked all the books in this series to some degree, but Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover has turned out to be my favorite of all.

Throughout the series, we have seen Bourne, Cross and Temple all running the Fallen Angel, a famous (or possibly notorious) gambling club in London. However, their fourth partner, Chase, has been somewhat more mysterious. Early on in this book, we learn Chase’s big secret, Chase is also Anna, the madam who often carries Chase’s messages. And both Chase and Anna are in fact none other than Georgiana Pearson, a disgraced aristocrat and sister to the Duke of Leighton.

As a young girl, Georgiana fell in love with a stablehand. He did not return her affection, but the two did have what we today would call a one night stand, resulting in a daughter. Due to the scandal, Georgiana was sent away to a home in Yorkshire. Eventually, she returned to London and started The Fallen Angel with her brother’s help.

Now that her daughter is nine years old, Georgiana is concerned for her future. While she has carved out a powerful place for herself, it is one that requires her true identity be kept hidden and she also occupies a place in society which guarantees her daughter will never be fully accepted. Wanting better for her, Georgiana is determined to procure an aristocratic husband. She sets her eye on a kindly man whom she knows needs a wife only for appearances. She figures that the two can be friends and his title will lend her daughter enough respectability to make a secure marriage when that time comes.

So, how does the hero play into this? Well, Duncan West runs a string of newspapers and with his popular gossip column, he can help rehabilitate Georgiana’s image in the press. Of course, he does not know the extent of her secrets, but he is quite taken with her bravery in re-entering Society. On the Fallen Angel side of things, he has for years exchanged information with the mysterious Chase, often via Anna, and through both her work at the club and as Georgiana, the heroine finds herself quite drawn to Mr. West.

There is plenty of tension in this romance, and it’s wonderfully plotted. Georgiana reveals her secrets gradually, and the pacing of this felt just right. Duncan is not entirely who he seems either, and seeing these two wounded yet strong people come together makes for a beautiful story. Sometimes when I read a romance, I feel like I’m seeing a couple who really are right for one another, and that is indeed what comes through here.

As a reader, I tend to enjoy finding distinct heroines in my story. Georgiana is a wonderful, multi-faceted character here. We see her interacting with her friends at the club, wielding power as Chase, and as a strong, loving mother to her daughter. She’s a complicated person, and I liked her a lot. The group running Fallen Angel all found themselves ostracized for various reasons, and in this book, the author does a great job of showing how double standards make it harder for a heroine to redeem herself in the eyes of Society than it was for heroes who arguably may have shown even greater lapses in judgment.

In fact, that is one thing that I enjoy about MacLean’s books. She tells a good story, but if you’re reading for it, one can often find some astute observations of challenging social norms or simply showing insight what makes people and relationships tick. For those who feel like digging beneath the surface a bit, one can find fascinating things in her books, and this one is no exception.

The crew at the Fallen Angel are a good and loyal group of friends, and I’m sorry to see the series end. Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover is a very worthy conclusion to an entertaining series.

Grade:    A          Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at Amazon/Indiebound