Nothing But Good by Kess McKinley

nothing but good

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Special Agent Jefferson Haines puts the ‘order’ in law and order. Meal kits. Gray suits. Consistent reps at the gym. But all his routines are thrown into chaos when he’s called in to catch a serial killer whose M.O. is the stuff of urban legend: the Smiley Face Killer.

Dripping paint. Wicked slashes for eyes. The taunting curl of a smiling mouth. After years evading capture, the serial killer is back again. As Jefferson races to stop the next attack, the investigation leads to the one man he thought he’d never see again, Fred ‘Finny’ Ashley.

Finny has his own theories about the killer. And they’re pretty good. Maybe too good. Now, with his career on the line, Jefferson has to figure out if his one-time best friend is the culprit or the next victim.

Rating: B

Given its polished writing and confident authorial voice, I’d have been hard pressed to guess that Nothing But Good is Kess McKinley’s first published book.  It’s a very promising début; a strongly written, well-paced mystery/procedural with a touch of romance set in Boston that revolves around the search for a serial killer who has been operating – and eluding capture – for years.

Special Agent Jefferson Haines and his partner, Special Agent Caroline Pelley, are called in when the body of a young man is pulled out of the water in Boston Harbour.  In the normal way of things, the investigation into the homicide would be handled by the Boston Police Department, but this murder is marked as anything but normal by the presence of the signature painted on the wall behind the corpse; a crude black circle of paint several feet in diameter filled in with jagged yellow swaths of paint. Inside that, two thick black slashes for eyes and a single curled line for the mouth.  It’s a well-known calling-card and has been for the last ten years; the Smiley Face Killer is at work again.  Whoever this person is, they’ve become something of an urban legend, said to hunt down young men and lure them to their deaths in bodies of water.

Jefferson and Caroline begin their investigation by looking at the other murders now believed to be the work of the same killer and start to build a profile, realising that all the bodies have been discovered in and around the upper Charles River Basin and Boston Harbour and that the SFK must be very familiar with that part of the city.   After hours spent scrutinising security footage, Jefferson realises that the killer must be holding his victims somewhere before killing them – or after – and then transporting the bodies by boat, and if that is the case whoever it is must be a pretty experienced sailor.  For Jefferson, watching hours of video and pouring over maps is no substitute for actually walking the crime scenes to get a better understanding of where everything played out, so the next step is for him and Caroline to liaise with the various local government agencies including the DUP – Boston Department of Urban Planning – and the DPM, the Massachusetts Department of Parks Management – and arrange for ongoing cooperation with the investigation.

The first of these meetings is with the Commissioner of the DPM, but when Caroline and Jefferson arrive, she’s running late and instead her Chief of Staff comes to greet them – and Jefferson’s world tilts on its axis.  His former college roommate – and the man he now realises he’d been in love with – Finny (Fred) Ashley is standing in front of them, looking every bit as shocked as Jefferson feels.   He and Finny had been best friends throughout their college years until they had a massive row shortly before graduation and haven’t seen each other since.  Jefferson said some pretty nasty things at the time – and judging from Finny’s reaction, he’s still pissed.

The mystery in Nothing But Good is compelling, the author skilfully works in a number of possible suspects and the search for the killer will keep readers guessing right up until the reveal.  I particularly appreciated the way the procedural aspect is presented here; so often in print and on-screen stories of this type, the less glamorous aspect of the job (the boring grunt work!) is just ignored or glossed over, but that’s not the case here, and the author does a good job of incorporating those aspects of law enforcement work without getting bogged down in it, and combining them with the action and the romance.

The story is told entirely from Jefferson’s PoV, and he’s an engaging narrator.  He’s a highly competent, dedicated agent and is a bit buttoned up;  he hasn’t had many romantic partners  and isn’t a fan of one-nighters (it’s never explicitly stated, but as he talks about needing to have an emotional connection before feeling sexual attraction I’m guessing he’s demisexual) and his most important relationship is the one he has with Caroline.  They’ve worked together for a few years and even – coincidentally – live in the same building, so they spend quite a lot of time together outside work, and know each other pretty well.  I liked the way Jefferson’s character is established in the early part of the book – as reserved, a bit of a stickler for routine and utterly committed to his job – because it helps to make clear just how far his reunion with Finny unsettles him, a reaction that doesn’t go unnoticed by Caroline, who is the one to point out that just because Jefferson and Finny have history, it doesn’t mean Finny shouldn’t be on their list of suspects.

The tension between Jefferson and Finny is nicely done and the author skilfully drip-feeds the details as to what happened between them over a few chapters, but doesn’t draw things out too much.  It’s clear that whatever it was, Jefferson screwed up and knows it, and that it still affects Finny quite deeply, but while they’re both appealing characters and I liked them together, the romance isn’t as well developed as I’d have liked.  We’re told a bit about their former friendship and how important it was to both of them, but once they’ve resolved their differences in the present day, they pick up pretty much where they left off, which seemed a bit unlikely given they haven’t spoken a word to each other for eight years.  There’s also a sex scene towards the end of the book which felt like it was shoe-horned in for the sake of it; it didn’t really add anything to the story or relationship.

But despite those criticisms, I enjoyed Nothing But Good, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who, like me, is always on the look-out for good romantic suspense novels.  It’s fairly short, but it’s tightly-plotted, the prose is sharp, the relationships are well-written and the characters are likeable and well fleshed-out.  I’m looking forward to reading more from this talented author.

A Lady’s Formula for Love (Secret Scientists of London #1) by Elizabeth Everett (audiobook) – Narrated by Elizabeth Jasicki

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What is a Victorian lady’s formula for love? Mix one brilliant noblewoman and her enigmatic protection officer. Add in a measure of danger and attraction. Heat over the warmth of humor and friendship, and the result is more than simple chemistry – it’s elemental.

Lady Violet is keeping secrets. First, she founded a clandestine sanctuary for England’s most brilliant female scientists. Second, she is using her genius on a confidential mission for the Crown. But the biggest secret of all? Her feelings for protection officer Arthur Kneland.

Solitary and reserved, Arthur learned the hard way to put duty first. But the more time he spends in the company of Violet and the eccentric club members, the more his best intentions go up in flames. Literally.

When a shadowy threat infiltrates Violet’s laboratories, endangering her life and her work, scientist and bodyguard will find all their theories put to the test – and learn that the most important discoveries are those of the heart.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – C

I’ve always loved historical romance, and although I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find historicals to enjoy (so much HR right now features twenty-first century people in costume) I still look out for new authors to try. Elizabeth Everett’s début romance, A Lady’s Formula for Love, was getting quite a bit of advance buzz, narrator Elizabeth Jasicki is experienced in the genre – although I don’t think I’ve listened to her before – so I decided to give this one a go, and… I really wish I could tell you it was great. But I can’t.

The widowed Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, is a brilliant chemist and the founder of Athena’s Retreat, ostensibly a social club for ladies, but really a place for them to indulge their passion for science and to undertake research, somewhere they can use their brains and display their intelligence freely without having their ideas belittled by men. But word has leaked out about the true purpose of the club, and Violet has received threats against her and the club that her stepson William, Viscount Greycliff (who is a government agent) suspects originate from a radical, anti-government group. Grey has to be away from London for a few weeks, so he engages Arthur Kneland, a former colleague and experienced protection officer, to act as bodyguard for Violet while he’s away.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Rogue to Remember (League of Scoundrels #1) by Emily Sullivan

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After enduring five interminable seasons, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of shallow London society, her boring little life, and her uncle Alfred’s meddling. When he demands she accept a proposal by the end of next season or else he will choose a husband for her, she devises a plan: create a scandal shocking enough to make her unmarriageable and spend her spinsterhood far enough away in the countryside where no one will ever recognize her.

Alec Gresham hasn’t seen Lottie since he left his childhood friend without a word five years ago. So he’s not surprised to find her furious when he appears on her doorstep. Especially bearing the news he brings: her uncle is dying, her blasted reputation is still intact, and Lottie must return home. As they make the journey back to her family estate, it becomes increasingly clear that the last five years hasn’t erased their history, nor their explosive chemistry. Can Lottie look past her old heartache and trust Alec, or will his secrets doom their relationship once again?

Rating; B-

This historical romance début from Emily Sullivan shows promise, but despite its good points (likeable characters with great chemistry and well-written love scenes) the book is ultimately derailed by a lack of focus and clear direction, uneven pacing, nonsensical plot points and some poor editing.  That the author’s ability to actually write shines through is what earns A Rogue to Remember book a (very) cautious recommendation – she’s worth checking out, because if those problems can be eliminated, then she could very well become an author to watch.

At twenty-four, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of London Seasons and the marriage mart.  After causing a scandal when she publicly rejected the suitor her uncle favoured (the heir to an almost bankrupt earldom who wanted her fortune), she decided enough was enough and set out to ruin her reputation so as to put herself beyond the pale.  Sent out of the country on a trip to Italy with a battleaxe of a chaperone – and also with a warning from her uncle that she’ll be married to a man of his choosing before the year is out – she gives the chaperone the slip and leaves behind a note saying (or strongly implying) that she’s run off with her Italian lover.  She hasn’t, of course; instead, she poses as a widow and heads for the cottage in the small Tuscan village where her late parents had spent their honeymoon.  She’s leased it for a year and intends to live a quiet but independent life there. (The fact she’s planned to live in Italy without being able to speak more than a few words of Italian bugged me right off the bat.)

Lottie has managed this quiet independent existence for a few months when, out of the blue, she receives a visit from someone she hasn’t seen in years – Alec Gresham, the boy she’d grown up with, and the young man who’d broken her heart when he left England without a word five years earlier.  Alec was her uncle’s ward, and was groomed by him for a career as a spy (Lottie’s uncle Sir Alfred appears to be a mild-mannered eccentric, but is actually a ruthless government spymaster) – even though Alec’s real interest was ancient history and he wanted to pursue an academic life.  Alec and Lottie were both orphans and they had something of an idyllic childhood, growing together as they grew up, and slowly falling in love.  But when Alec asked for permission to marry Lottie, Sir Alfred refused, telling Alec he’d ruin his life if he didn’t leave the country immediately and start working as one of his agents. Between the scandal of his birth and his complete lack of funds, Alec was convinced he could never give Lottie the life she deserved and scurried off with his tail between his legs.

Now, five years later, Alec has been sent to bring Lottie back to England because her uncle is seriously ill and probably dying.  Lottie isn’t happy to see him (even as she can’t deny that even after five years and serious heartbreak she’s still attracted to him) and is even less so to hear that the news of her flight with her imaginary lover has been hushed up and her reputation is still more or less intact. After many argumentative exchanges (all dripping with lust and longing), Lottie agrees to return on condition they stop off in Venice.

The next part of the story is the road-trip (and yes, there’s Only One Bed, accidental (post-bathing) ogling and lots of lusty imaginings – oh, and that one time Lottie can see “the sizeable bulge at the front of his trousers” even though Alec has his back to her. #editingfail.)  But in general, it’s nicely done with some good descriptive prose, and I appreciated the non-English setting.  When Lottie and Alec get to Venice, the author introduces one of Alec’s colleagues for no good reason (other than to signal ‘next hero’, I presume) together with a spy-plot in which Alec is ordered to cozy up to a French widow with connections to a German arms dealer.  There’s a fight to the death (well, almost) and a daring escape, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and while I suppose it’s intended to show us exactly why Alec is The Best Spy Evah (according to Sir Alfred, he has “the best instincts I’ve ever seen”) – it actually makes him seem rather inept.  And the final chapters, after Lottie returns to England, veer off into melodrama territory, with a dastardly plot to force Lottie into marriage and the introduction of a traitor who has been selling information to the enemy, a last-minute plotline that comes and goes so quickly it might as well have not been there at all.

Lottie and Alec are likeable individually and make a good couple, and the author writes their yearning for each other extremely well. The sexual tension between them is palpable, and the childhood friendship, while only glimpsed a handful of times comes across strongly.  I liked Lottie’s spirit and the way she challenges Alec without being one of those ‘look at how unconventional I am!’ heroines, and while Alec frustrated me at times, he’s a sexy, brooding hero (hello, hot history professor!), a decent man trying to do the right thing by the woman he loves.

I realise I’ve said quite a few negative things here, so you’re probably wondering why I’m giving this book a low-level recommendation.  Well… if you strip away the extraneous spy plot, there’s a decent romance here.  The pacing is uneven – the first half of the book is set-up and there’s too much introspection and not enough interaction – and the aforementioned nonsensical plot points and inconsistencies were annoying.  But it’s clear that Emily Sullivan can write and knows how to tell a story; what she needs to do now is work on honing that skill to sharpen her focus on the romance, incorporate fewer plotlines and weed out those inconsistencies I’ve mentioned.  A Rogue to Remember is a promising début despite its flaws, and I hope Ms. Sullivan is given the time and space to further develop her talent as a writer.

The Vicar and the Rake (Society of Beasts #1) by Annabelle Green (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a young man, Sir Gabriel Winters left behind his status as a gentleman, turning his back on his secret desires and taking a self-imposed vow of celibacy. Now he’s a chaste, hardworking vicar, and his reputation is beyond reproach. But, try as he might, he’s never forgotten the man he once desired or the pain of being abandoned by his first love.

Edward Stanhope, the duke of Caddonfell, is a notorious rake, delighting in scandal no matter the consequence. With a price on his head, he flees to the countryside, forced to keep his presence a secret or risk assassination. When Edward finds Gabriel on his estate, burning with fever, he cannot leave him to die, but taking him in puts them both in jeopardy.

With the help of a notorious blackmailer, a society of rich and famous gentlemen who prefer gentlemen, and a kitten named Buttons, they might just manage to save Edward’s life – but the greatest threat may be to their hearts.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – D

I’m always on the lookout for new m/m historicals, and Carina Press, who published the print edition of début author Annabelle Greene’s The Vicar and the Rake, has a pretty good track record when it comes to LGBTQ+ romance. When I saw that Cornell Collins would be narrating this title, I decided to listen rather than read which, in one way was a good decision, because his polished, accomplished narration was absolutely the best thing about it. In another way? Not so much, as even his expertise couldn’t disguise what is essentially a weak story with poorly defined characters, no romantic tension or chemistry, plot points that made no sense and a completely ridiculous ending.

Okay, so a quick resumé of the plot, such as it is. Reverend Sir Gabriel Winters decided to give up a life of luxury for that of a country vicar when he was younger, and along with his holy orders, turned his back on his secret desires and took a self-imposed vow of celibacy – which basically amounts to “God, I know I’m gay but I vow never to act upon it.” Gabriel pretty much grew up with his best friend, Edward Stanhope, now the Duke of Caddonfell, a man so visibly, arrogantly, dangerously libertine that his nickname, whispered from one end of England to the other, was simply Scandal. And: The terror of every mother in the ton, not for their daughters, but for their sons. The most infamous sodomite in London.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Holidays in Blue by Eve Morton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sometimes it takes a little ice to discover a whole lot of heat.

Cosmin Tessler is going home for Christmas. Eric Campbell is too.

Neither expected a homecoming quite like this.

When Cosmin Tessler’s radio show is canceled and Eric Campbell’s acting jobs dry up, they find themselves unexpectedly back in their old Toronto neighborhood…and back in each other’s lives years after they’d gone their separate ways. With a series of failed relationships and one ill-advised marriage behind them, both believe their chance for love has come and gone.

Luck, in the form of a massive ice storm, throws the former neighbors together again and they find themselves stranded, alone, for Christmas. Despite their difference in age, long-ago crushes and undeniable attraction prove too much to resist. But when the ice melts, only time will tell if their burgeoning romance will become just another missed chance—or a love story whose time has finally come.

Rating: C

Début author Eve Morton’s Holidays in Blue is billed by Carina Press as a “forced proximity Christmas romance” and the blurb goes on to say how the two principal characters find themselves stranded together for Christmas.  Some of my favourite seasonal romances use that particular trope, so I decided to pick up this book for review, expecting a lot of snow, a bit of awkwardness and flirting, plenty of sexual tension and a Christmassy atmosphere… and this book contains exactly NONE of those things.  Okay, so it’s an ice storm rather than snow that strands the guys together,  but when a book is billed as a “Christmas romance” I think it’s reasonable to expect it to have a) a Christmas feel to it and b) some romance in it – no?

Cosmin Tessler and Eric Campbell lived across the street from each other maybe twenty years before but never really knew each other that well, because Cosmin is around a decade older and moved away while Eric was still in school.  But the age gap didn’t stop Eric from developing a crush on Cosmin, and it was thanks to watching Cosmin and his boyfriend making out one night (in the front seat of the bf’s car) that kind of cemented his suspicions that he wasn’t completely straight.

Eric became an actor and for a while starred in a (not-very-good) TV show, but seems now to spend most of his time failing auditions and narrating audiobooks, while Cosmin went on to become a teacher, writer, and radio personality.

The pair meet again – very briefly – when Eric is tending bar at the radio station’s Christmas party.  Cosmin has just received the news that his contract is not being renewed so he goes to the bar for a drink.  He’s been thinking all night that Eric looked familiar but wasn’t able to place him;  Eric re-introduces himself, but Cosmin is quite rude to him and leaves.

They don’t see each other again until around a quarter of the way into the book, after Cosmin returns to his family home intending to sort through his recently deceased father’s possessions (and to look for the papers relating to his adoption) and Eric goes home for Christmas a few days early (his family is away visiting his sister, but will be back by Christmas Eve).  Hearing the news of a coming ice storm on the radio, Eric, who doesn’t realise George Tessler has died, decides to go over there to check the old man is okay, and is pleasantly surprised to be greeted by Cosmin instead. The ice storm sets in quickly after that, and strands them together for a couple of nights.

That’s the set up, but what follows is far more the story of one man coming to terms with his father’s death and the other working through his feelings over his failed marriage than it is a romance.  The author has some interesting things to say about grief and loss and moving on, but it’s very… cerebral (which does fit with Cosmin’s character), and while I did enjoy Cosmin’s journey as he comes to learn and understand his father more than he had done in life, it does give the story a more melancholy feel than I expected.

Cosmin’s story is the dominant one and we get a lot more insight into his situation than into Eric’s, but he has a journey to make, too. In his case, it’s learning to forgive himself for some of the things he did which led to the breakdown of his marriage, and to stop seeing himself in terms of failure.

Holidays in Blue does have some things going for it – the writing is generally good  and sometimes lyrical (although some of the sex scenes felt as though the author wasn’t comfortable writing them), but the pacing is off; sometimes things move really slowly, and at others, they go from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye.  An example – Cosmin and Eric don’t really interact until the twenty-three percent mark; at thirty-three, they’re making out and talking about fucking.  If I’d had a print book, I think I’d have been flipping through the pages looking for the missing chapters!

The biggest problem with it, however, is that the romance is a complete non-starter.   There’s no chemistry between Cosmin and Eric, no real connection and very little by way of romantic development.  At a rough estimate, they spend about half the book apart (possibly a bit more) and  I didn’t feel I got to know either of them outside of Cosmin’s grief and Eric’s self-recrimination – and I didn’t feel they got to know each other outside of that either.  Plus, they’re not “stranded, alone, for Christmas”.  They spend two days and nights together (before Christmas) and then go their separate ways until the reunite in the penultimate chapter.

Ultimately, the book tries to be too many things and loses sight of the one thing that should have been front and centre.  There’s a sub-plot concerning a friend of Cosmin’s whose daughter has an eating disorder and who has to be admitted to hospital, and another about Eric and an unexpected windfall (and the way he spends the money he inherited made no sense to me whatsoever).  The book addresses a lot of important issues – grief, adoption, infidelity (there’s no cheating in the story) unemployment, anorexia, to name a few, but it’s too much for a book of just over two hundred pages, and it’s the romance that suffers and is squeezed out.

When it comes down to it, this isn’t a romance novel; it’s a story of self-discovery and learning to move on after loss that happens to have a romantic sub-plot. (And not a very good one at that).  Needless to say, I can’t recommend it.

First Impressions (Auckland Med. #1) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Michael:

Two years ago, I made a mistake, a big one. Then I added a couple more just for good measure. I screwed up my life, but I survived. Now I have the opportunity for a fresh start. Two years in NZ. Away from the LA gossip, a chance to breathe, to rebuild my life. But I’m taking a new set of rules with me.

I don’t do relationships.

I don’t do commitment.

I don’t do white picket fences.

And I especially don’t do arrogant, holier-than-thou, smoking hot K9 officers who walk into my ER and rock my world.

Josh:

One thing for certain, Dr. Michael Oliver is an arrogant, untrustworthy player, and I barely survived the last one of those. He might be gorgeous, but my daughter takes number one priority. I won’t risk her being hurt, again. I’m a solo dad, a K9 cop and a son to pain-in-the-ass parents.

I don’t have time for games.

I don’t have time for taking chances.

I don’t have time for more complications in my life.

And I sure as hell don’t have time for the infuriating Dr. Michael Oliver, however damn sexy he is.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

New Zealand author Jay Hogan’s début, First Impressions – the first book in her Auckland Med series – is an enjoyable, sexy antagonists-to-lovers romance with a bit of crime drama thrown in. It’s the second book of hers I ever read back at the end of 2018, and I’ve since become a really big fan. I’ve read all her books (but one) so when the author told me she was going to be putting the series into audio I was really excited – and her choice of narrator was the cherry on top. Gary Furlong is a terrific performer and a personal favourite, so I was really keen to get started!

Following a tragic event which sent him into a downward spiral of drink and depression, Los Angeles-based ER doctor Michael Oliver relocated to Auckland on a two-year exchange program, and is now a resident at Auckland Med. He’s been in New Zealand for six months and he’s having a great time – he loves his job, he’s made some really good friends and is more than happy with his regular array of hook-ups and the variety of bed partners on offer. He’d been in a relationship at the time his professional life in the US went pear-shaped, but after that went sour, too, he’s decided he’s not really a relationship kinda guy anyway.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Roommate by Rosie Danan (audiobook) – Narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Brittany Pressley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Clara Wheaton is the consummate good girl: over-achieving, well-mannered, utterly predictable. When her childhood crush invites her to move across the country, the offer is too good to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

Suddenly, Clara finds herself sharing a house with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive – not to mention handsome – for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the internet . . .

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realises living with him might destroy the reputation she’s spent years building. But while they may not agree on much, both Josh and Clara believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

InThe Roommate, début author Rosie Danan takes the classic uptight-meets-laid-back trope, mixes in a little of the close-proximity trope and adds a touch of insightful comment to produce a thoroughly enjoyable, cute and sexy rom-com.

Trust-fund baby and east coast socialite Clara Wheaton has had a crush on her best friend Everett Bloom since childhood. Their families move in the same social circles and seem to expect them to get together, but more than twenty years have gone by and Everett shows no sign of getting with that particular program. When he suggests to Clara that she should “follow her bliss” and move across the country to California and live with him (platonically) she decides to do it. All her life she’s been the quiet one, the responsible one, the one who did everything right while her other family members caused scandal after scandal, and she decides it’s time for her to get out from under her mother’s shadow and do something for herself for a change. Unfortunately for Clara, Everett is an oblivious dickhead; he collects her from the airport with the news that he’s off on tour with his (not hugely successful) rock group and that he’s sub-let his part of the house for the summer. So she’ll be living with a complete stranger. Great.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

When Harry Met Harry by Sydney Smyth (audiobook) – Narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Malcolm Young

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Ever since their chance encounter as seatmates on the plane ride from hell, Harry “Harrison” Fields and Harry “Henry” Lee have had a love-hate relationship. But every time their paths have crossed over the years, they’ve grown to like each other more and more, even developing an unlikely friendship.

Now, Harrison is a fun-loving music teacher who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Henry is a hard-driving business man who’s still striving to get out of his father’s shadow.

As they go through life’s inevitable heartaches and losses, their friendship only deepens. Sure, there’s always been a simmering attraction between them, but nothing worth threatening their friendship over…until one of them takes things too far. But when a valuable friendship hangs in the balance, is a chance at romance worth the price?

Rating: Narration – B+/D+ ; Content – C

Before I get into this review, I have to say this.

PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST STOP PUTTING SNIPPETS OF MUSIC BETWEEN CHAPTERS. IT’S NOT CUTE, IT’S NOT SOOTHING – IT’S ANNOYING AS HELL!

Right. So.

I stumbled across When Harry Met Harry a few weeks ago when I was looking through the Coming Soon titles at Audible, and the obvious reference in the title to what is probably my favourite Rom-Com ever immediately caught my eye. Plus – Teddy Hamilton.

Harrison Fields and Henry Lee meet for the first time at an airport in Singapore when aspiring actor Harrison is going back to the US after spending a few months travelling the world, and workaholic Henry is going to the US to pursue a business opportunity he hopes will enable him to break out from beneath his real estate magnate father’s shadow. A mix up with tickets means that Henry ends up sitting next to Harrison for the whole of the eighteen-hour flight and neither is particularly impressed with the other. Harrison thinks Henry is starchy and cynical; Henry thinks Harrison is overly optimistic and tends to overshare. At some point in the few conversations they have, Henry says he doesn’t believe in love, and also states his conviction that gay men can never be friends because the sex thing always gets in the way. After arriving, they say polite goodbyes and go their separate ways.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Risk Assessment (Cabrini Law #1) by Parker St. John (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

All they have left is their pride.

Elliot Smith was once a hotshot attorney, but those days are long gone. A midlife crisis of conscience has left him with shattered confidence, abandoned by his former friends and scraping by at a legal aid clinic. When a smoking hot bad boy rescues him from the side of the road, Elliot is sure he doesn’t stand a chance.

After a misspent youth boosting cars, Lucas Kelly runs his own garage and is finally getting his life back on track. He isn’t about to risk everything by daring to hope for something more, especially not with a man so far above his pay grade.

The heat between them is enough to have them questioning everything they thought they knew about themselves. But is explosive chemistry enough to keep them together when Elliot’s career threatens to drive them apart?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

Risk Assessment is book one in new-to-me author Parker St. John’s Cabrini Law series, featuring members of the team who work for a legal aid clinic somewhere in Oregon. It’s relatively short, coming in at just over five and a half hours, and the story is nothing I haven’t heard or read before, but it was an undemanding listen and Kirt Graves’ accomplished narration made the time pass pleasantly enough.

Elliot Smith was a highly successful corporate lawyer with a salary and lifestyle to match until, on his fortieth birthday he realised he’d had enough of representing sleazy real-estate defrauders and feeling like he didn’t recognise himself anymore. So he pulled a Jerry Maguire, left his job and old life behind and went to work for a non-profit legal aid firm. He’s been with the Cabrini Law Clinic for around a year, and while he works long hours for a lot less pay, the work itself is generally much more rewarding. On the downside, he’s the wrong side of forty and still single, having split up with his boyfriend of five years (who was cheating on him) and has no social life or friends beyond the office.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Spare by Miranda Dubner

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“I’m publicly bisexual now, I’ll make all the musical theatre references I please. I’ll belt Cole Porter songs prancing on top of this bar if I want to.” —His Royal Highness Prince Edward Nicholas William Desmond, second son of Her Majesty Queen Victoria II of England and the Commonwealth.

The second son of the Queen of England has certain responsibilities. Dress well, smile at public events, uphold the family honor, be straight. At sixteen, Edward Kensington had been convinced that hiding his bisexuality was a small price to pay to protect his mother and siblings from yet another tabloid scandal in the wake of his parents’ high-profile divorce. But over ten years later, even a closet the size of Buckingham Palace feels small, and his secrets have only gotten harder to keep. Like being in love with his bodyguard—a man by the name of Isaac Cole.

Then he’s outed by the press.

The official schedule has no time for an identity crisis, even though every member of the royal family seems to be having one at once. Eddie’s estranged father shows up. His sister flirts with the reporter hired to write their grandmother’s biography. His older brother, harboring a secret of his own, is more reluctant than ever to take up public-facing duties, and Her Majesty is considering going out on a date. And now the Public Relations Office has set Eddie the task of finding himself a suitable fiancée.

But when Eddie learns that Isaac returns his decidedly inconvenient feelings, keeping calm and carrying on becomes impossible. Prince Charming never wished harder for a men’s size 12 glass slipper, but life in the spotlight isn’t a fairy tale, and there are some dragons not even a prince can fight alone. For any one of them to steal a happily ever after, the Kensingtons will have to pull together for the first time since the Second World War.

Hold on to your tiaras. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Rating: A-

I’m not a royal-watcher, and as a rule, I’m not a fan of royal romances.  Of those I’ve read (and that isn’t a large number) the only one that really worked for me was Lilah Pace’s His Royal Secret/His Royal Favorite duology, and a big part of that was because the author had taken care to set the story in an AU (alternate) but recognisable contemporary Britain in which all the important things (like the two world wars) still happened, but the royal line had taken a different direction. When I read the synopsis for Miranda Dubner’s début novel The Spare I was intrigued by the storyline and pleased to see that the book is also set in carefully constructed AU.  I decided to give it a try, and I’m very glad I did.

HRH Edward Nicholas William Desmond Kensington, second son of Queen Victoria II – and the eponymous spare – arrives, somewhat apprehensively, at the Royal Opera House to attend a performance at which his mother, his sister Alexandra, and various other society luminaries will also be present. Handsome, suave, charming Edward is the real ‘people person’ of the next generation of royals; he’s always been the one to deflect unwanted attention with a quip or able to turn an awkward conversation with a well-placed question or anecdote, and going to a royal gala is nothing he hasn’t done a hundred times before.  But this time is different.  A couple of weeks earlier, he was forcibly outed when a tabloid printed a photograph of him, taken when he was at university, which clearly shows him in an embrace with another man.  This is his first public appearance since the story broke, and while he knows all too well he’s going to be the subject of hushed gossip and hurriedly-stopped conversations, he doesn’t know how bad it’s going to be.  He’s bisexual, and his family is aware of it; and while he wanted to come out, he knows there was never going to be a good time for him to do it and has been holding off for the sake of his family, which has suffered enough scandal in the past decade due to his parents’ divorce, the first ever involving a reigning monarch – but the rainbow cat is well and truly out of the bag now and the fallout has to be dealt with.

The Palace communications team is, of course, keen to mitigate the damage, and they suggest Eddie squashes the “ugly rumours” by being seen with a suitable (and carefully vetted) young woman he could believably form a “long connection” with. Even as he knew this was going to be the likely response, and that he has no alternative but to do what is being asked of him – just like he always has – internally, he’s railing against the frustration that he can do nothing about the invasion of privacy he’s suffered, the demand that he continue to deny who he really is – and that he still has to hide the fact that for the last eight years, he’s been in love with a former SAS officer by the name of Isaac Cole. Who happens to be his principal protection officer.  His bodyguard.

The first part of the novel offers readers a good insight into the relationship between Eddie and Isaac (although I can’t deny I’d have liked it to have been fleshed out a little more), and offers a bit of their backstory and an explanation for exactly how and why they have become so close.  Isaac is every bit as gone for Eddie as vice versa, but he’s never been anything but professional around him, has never overstepped any boundaries… until the night a bomb goes off at a high-profile London club – with Eddie in the middle of it.

I’m not going to give more specifics about the plot, because there’s a lot of it.  The synopsis for The Spare talks more about the romance between Eddie and Isaac than about anything else in the book, but after the bombing, the focus widens and it becomes more of a family drama. Eddie and Isaac are at the heart of the story; even when they’re separated for a chunk of the second half, the depth of their longing for one another is always there in the background – but there’s a lot more going on than just their romance.  One of the people Eddie has been trying so hard to protect from the media spotlight over the years is his older brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, who has recently been pretty much ordered to leave the job he loves with the RAF and come back to join the circus (the real royals refer to The Firm; here, it’s The Circus, which is a good alternative!) and who is quiet, reserved  and not as well-equipped as Eddie to deal with life in the goldfish bowl of media attention. There’s his sister Alexandra, whom the media has labelled self-absorbed and empty-headed, and his complicated, conflicting feelings about his father, whose addictions and infidelities eventually led to the end of his marriage, but whom Eddie can’t quite bring himself to hate.  All these other storylines are really well done and all the characters – from the principal players down to the smallest bit-parts – are superbly fleshed-out, making it easy to become invested in them and their stories.  I ended up loving the book, but I realise it may not work as well for others because of the wider focus than one normally expects in a romance.

The author has obviously done her homework (her author’s note is well worth reading), looking into the way the Royal Family works and various customs and protocols (and has adapted some of them in a way that makes them perfectly plausible), but unfortunately this makes the Americanisms – fall, fawcet, trash, diaper, ass – seriously, this sentence: “A bunch of politicians who think I’m an idiot are going to surreptitiously stare at my ass” will make any British person wonder why a bunch of politicians are going to stare at a donkey; using “school” to mean higher education and describing Isaac as a “upperclassman” –  stick out like sore thumbs.  It’s a shame, when Ms. Dubner has clearly worked very hard on giving the novel the ring of authenticity, to be let down by things like that, but I understand corrections will be made in future editions.

There are places where the book could have done with a stronger editorial hand, a few scenes that didn’t seem to accomplish anything or go anywhere, and perhaps a couple that could have been reserved for later books (the author implies in her author’s note that there could be more to come).

Ultimately however, I really enjoyed The Spare and raced through it in a couple of sittings.  It’s sharply observant, especially when it comes to the workings of today’s media and how vicious it can be;  it’s funny – the banter is fresh and witty – and there are some incredibly poignant moments, some of them coming from a quarter you’d least expect.  The plot does get a bit soapy towards the end, and there was one thing that I side-eyed hard, but in the end, I was enjoying the book so much, I decided to go with the flow.

Part romance, part family drama, The Spare may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it worked well for me in spite of its flaws.  I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more from Miranda Dubner.