The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun (audiobook) – Narrated by Vikas Adam & Graham Halstead, with Cassandra Campbell

the charm offensive

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date 20 women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

Rating:  Narration – A; Content – A-

I defy anyone not to be completely charmed by Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive. It’s a warm, witty romance that offers an insightful story of self-discovery featuring a pair of captivating, superbly crafted lead characters and a lively, wonderfully diverse secondary cast. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, but it’s so much more than that; I generally think of rom-coms as light-hearted and fairly insubstantial, and this certainly isn’t the latter. It’s most definitely romantic, and it packs plenty of gentle humour, but it’s got a more serious ‘feel’ than the average rom-com, taking a sensitive and nuanced approach to neurodiversity and mental health issues as the two protagonists figure out who they are and what they really want – and of course, fall in love along the way.

Dev Deshpande is a life-long romantic who, for the past six years, has worked as a producer on the reality dating show Ever After, crafting the perfect happy ending for his contestants. Despite the recent break-up of his long-term relationship, Dev still believes in fairy tales and happy endings and still wants the hearts and the flowers and the whole shebang for himself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Unwritten Rules by KD Casey

unwritten rules

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Zach Glasser has put up with a lot for the sport he loves. Endless days on the road, playing half-decent baseball in front of half-full stadiums and endless nights alone, pretending this is the life he’s always wanted.

The thing is, it could have been everything he ever wanted—if only he’d had the guts to tell his family, tell the club, that he was in love with his teammate Eugenio Morales. Well, ex-teammate now. When Zach wouldn’t—couldn’t—come out, Eugenio made the devastating choice to move on, demanding a trade away from Oakland. Away from Zach.

Three years and countless regrets later, Zach still can’t get Eugenio out of his head. Or his heart. And when they both get selected to play in the league’s All-Star Classic, those feelings and that chemistry come roaring back.

Zach wants a second chance. Eugenio wants a relationship he doesn’t have to hide. Maybe it’s finally time they both get what they want.

Rating: C-

I’m not a sports fan, but I do like a good sports romance, and having read the synopsis of début author KD Casey’s Unwritten Rules, I had high hopes of finding one within its pages.  But while the book gets off to a good start, I’m afraid those hopes were dashed before I got to the halfway point.  It doesn’t tread any new ground in terms of the storyline (closeted pro player worried about the effect coming out could have on his career) – and that’s fine; tropes are tropes, and it’s ultimately all about what the author makes of them.  But while KD Casey can clearly write and really knows her stuff when it comes to baseball, the book has a number of fairly big flaws that make it impossible for me to offer a recommendation.

The story is told entirely from the perspective of Zach Glasser, a catcher with the Oakland Elephants.  He’s Jewish (although not particularly observant from what I could gather), he has hearing loss in one ear, and in the first part of the story, he’s been playing in the major leagues for four years. He’s also gay and deeply closeted, he’s never had a relationship and is so terrified of anyone guessing about his sexuality that he seems  to spend his life constantly assessing and regulating his behaviour to make sure he doesn’t give himself away.  He knows he can’t possibly have a career in professional sport as an openly gay man and has told himself he’ll be able to have a life after he retires.  But that’s quite a few years away yet.

Then Zach meets Eugenio Morales, a young up-and-coming catcher at spring training, and although they’re vying for the same place on the team, Zach is asked to take the other man under his wing.  Eugenio is a fast learner; he’s also handsome and outgoing and Zach, who has never really allowed himself to get close to anyone, finds it hard to resist his overtures of friendship.  It takes Zach quite a long time to see those overtures for what they really are, however; but once he clues in, he and Eugenio (who is bi) embark upon a very secret, very passionate affair.

It’s in the book blurb, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the relationship crashes and burns. Eugenio can no longer deal with the secrecy – and Zach’s near-paranoia – and Zach, despite promises he’s made, is no closer to coming out than when they first got together.

The story is told in two timelines – “three years earlier”, charting the development of Zach and Eugenio’s relationship from their first meeting, and then the “present day” sections which show them getting their second chance after a long separation.  I liked the structure, which means we get to see both first and second-chance romances unfold on the page and it generally works well, although the second-chance romance doesn’t feel as well fleshed-out as the first.  And that leads me to one of my major issues with the novel as a whole, which is that the romance is pretty lacklustre.  I never really connected with the characters or felt the connection between them because there just isn’t enough of who they are outside of baseball; we spend all of the book in Zach’s head, but I couldn’t tell you much about him, and Eugenio’s characterisation is even sketchier. As a result I never understood what attracted them to each other – other than a mutual interest in baseball.  Their chemistry is lukewarm at best, and practically all the time they spend together in the first timeline is spent with Zach terrified about someone finding out about then; his fear of discovery permeates the entire story and I found it exhausting at times.  I’m not belittling the very real prejudice still faced by gay athletes in professional sport, but in most sports romances, there’s room for some lightness and the joy of making that important connection, of really being seen – but this is just unrelenting fear and gloom and Zach getting in his own way.  (I didn’t blame Eugenio one bit for getting out.) And there’s no let-up in the second timeline, which revolves around Zach’s fears of what will happen when he comes out.  A lot of the time, Eugenio feels like an afterthought and I came away from the book feeling as though what I’d read wasn’t a romance so much as it was a story about one man’s journey to self-acceptance.  The ending is abrupt and something of an anti-climax, and I’m not sure I ever got used to the third person present tense narrative, which seemed like a really odd choice.

But the biggest problem I had with the book is that it’s very baseball-heavy – and I know nothing whatsoever about baseball.  Okay, it’s a sports romance, so there’s going to be some actual sport in it, but this isn’t like Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series or Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s Him books, where the hockey is present in such a way that even a sports-hater like me can enjoy the story without needing to know too much about hockey.  In Unwritten Rules, there is hardly a page without some reference to baseball on it, and while the author does a wonderful job of putting the reader there in the stadium dirt with the players, the rest of the time I was completely lost amid technical terminology and talk of triple-and-double-As, stats, opt-outs, trades and various playing techniques.  This meant I had no idea what was at stake for these characters and as a result, couldn’t understand their motivations and decisions.  At best it was incomprehensible and at worst it was boring, and I skimmed entire pages of baseball-talk because I had no hope of working out what it meant or why it was important/relevant.  I felt like I was reading the book from a distance through a sheet of thick glass. Of course, this is a highly personal thing – if you understand the sport, you may well get more out of the book than I did, although that doesn’t negate the other problems I’ve outlined.

What makes it all the more disappointing is that KD Casey is obviously a talented writer, but she gets so bogged down in the minutiae of baseball that the characterisation and romance are sorely neglected.  As a result, Unwritten Rules is a book that will probably only appeal to a very small, niche audience – and I’m afraid that audience doesn’t include me.

Nothing But Good by Kess McKinley (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

nothing but good

This title may be downloaded from Audible via 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 MO 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 onetime best friend is the culprit or the next victim.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Kess McKinley’s début novel Nothing but Good is a well-constructed and enjoyable mystery/procedural in which a tightly controlled, buttoned-up FBI agent investigating a number of serial murders encounters an unexpected complication in the form of the former best friend on whom he’d had a huge crush. I read this one when it came out back in May, and when I saw that Kirt Graves was narrating the audio version, I decided to revisit it.

Special Agent Jefferson Haynes 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, another victim of the “Smiley Face Killer”, so-called because he leaves a very distinct calling card which, in this case, is a huge painted smiley face on the wall just by where the body was found. The SFK has killed a number of young men – all of them found in bodies of water – over the last decade, but has so far eluded capture.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.