Syncopation (Twisted Wishes #1) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer – insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems – something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter. If Ray’s up for the challenge.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band – or his heart. And Zavier has always had big dreams; this gig was supposed to be temporary. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content: B+

Anna Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series centres around the four-person rock group of the same name which, in this first book, is poised to make the big-time. Book one, Syncopation, is a really enjoyable, very sexy story; the band members are all interesting and clearly drawn, and the author does a great job of describing the claustrophobic atmosphere of life on the road, the thrills and utter exhilaration of live performance (and the exhaustion that follows) and the dedication and hard work that have got Twisted Wishes to this point in its career.

When the book opens, however, the band has hit a rather large snag. Their drummer has just quit following a public row between him and front man Ray Van Zeller, and a video – together with screaming headlines like DRUNKEN VAN ZELLER ATTACKS SCHMIDT AS TWISTED WISHES IMPLODES – has just hit the media sites. The band’s manager, Carl (who it’s clear from the outset, has it in for Ray for some reason), wants Ray to take the fall and blame the fight on an alcohol problem he doesn’t have, but Kevin’s departure leaves the band with a far more pressing problem. Just weeks away from going on tour as a support act to a major band, they’re without a drummer – and need to find one asap.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Oz (Finding Home #1) by Lily Morton (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What happens when temporary becomes forever?

Oz Gallagher does not do relationships well. Bored and jobless after another disastrous hook up, he decides to leave London for a temporary job in the wilds of Cornwall. Surely managing a stately home on a country estate will be easier than navigating the detritus of his relationships at home. Six months there will alleviate a bit of his wanderlust and then he can come back to London as footloose and fancy free as the day he left it.

However, when he gets there, he finds a house in danger of crumbling to the ground and a man who is completely unlike anyone he’s ever met. An earl belonging to a family whose roots go back hundreds of years, Silas is the living embodiment of duty and sacrifice. Two things that Oz has never wanted. He’s also warm and funny and he draws Oz to him like a magnet.

Oz banks on the fact that they’re from two very different worlds to stop himself falling for Silas. But what will he do when he realizes that these differences are actually part of the pull to one another? Will falling in love be enough to make him stop moving at last and realize that he’s finally home?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B-

Oz, the first book in Lily Morton’s Coming Home series, is loosely linked to her previous Mixed Messages trilogy but works perfectly well as a standalone.  If you’re familiar with the author’s work, you’ll find exactly the sort of thing you’ve come to expect; characters who could snark for England, plenty of steam, a wonderful ‘family’ of secondary characters and a lovely HEA.  I have to be honest, though.  While I enjoyed Oz, it’s far from my favourite of Ms. Morton’s books, and even though it’s got all the ingredients that made the Mixed Messages books real winners, something about it fell a bit flat.  The humour isn’t as funny, the wit isn’t as biting, the conflict is very slight and there’s ultimately not much of a story here.

Oz Gallagher doesn’t exactly have a great track record – any track record, really – with relationships, but even so, finding his boyfriend balls-deep in another bloke in their bed is something he could have done without.  Over a drink in the local pub, Oz’s best mate Shaun shows him an ad for a House and Collections Manager at the Earl of Ashworth’s property in Cornwall and encourages Oz to apply – he’s got degrees in Fine Art, History of Art and nothing to lose, after all.  Oz is surprised, to say the least, to get an interview, and turns up at the swanky London hotel amid all the besuited posh types who are obviously after the job as well.  Feeling completely out of place and knowing he’s got no chance against all these chinless wonders, Oz thinks ‘fuck it’ and gives the worst interview ever:

“So, Oz, I see that you have a first class degree in Fine Art and History of Art… And can you say that you’ve used this in a productive manner?”

I shrug and smile earnestly. “It’s allowed me to work on Bernie’s Antique stall on Camden Market.”

And later:

 “The position you’re interviewing for is that of the house manager at Ashworth House. Can you tell me what you think that entails?”

I shrug and smile winsomely. “I imagine it’s like being a tour manager, but with less drugs and hookers.”

… and of course, he gets the job.

Silas, the Earl of Ashworth, was left with huge debts when his father died, but wants to see if he can turn things around before he thinks about offloading the place to the National Trust.  The house  – whose Cornish name is Chi an Mor – is his home, and even though his childhood wasn’t particularly happy (if you’ve read or listened to Risk Taker, you’ll already know what a complete and utter bastard his father was) –  the place is in Silas’ blood and he can’t envisage himself anywhere else.  His plan is to generate income by opening the house to visitors for part of the year, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get it ready to open on time. His thriving veterinary practice keeps him going financially on a personal level, but he can’t work there and oversee the renovations, and his former house manager – who had been sharing his bed – has recently quit.

Oz arrives to find the situation worse than he’d expected.  The car park is still a field, the visitors centre is an empty shell and the workmen…  are down the pub.  With gusto, gumption and grit worthy of Mary Poppins, Oz deals with the lazy builders, sorts out Silas’ staffing problems, gets everything running like clockwork and even faces off against Silas’ shitty ex for an encore.  He’s just that good.

Lily Morton builds a lovely friendship between Oz and Silas to start with, Oz caring for Silas in simple but important ways (like sitting up late to make sure he eats when he’s been out on calls all day), the two of them talking and getting to know each other.  Silas is bisexual and freely admits to having had a lot of relationships, but none has lasted very long; he loves Cornwall and doesn’t want to leave, and his previous partners haven’t wanted to be there long term.  He’s down-to-earth and lovely and lonely, and I loved watching him demolish every one of Oz’s preconceptions of what a member of the aristocracy would be like. There’s a strong pull of attraction between them from the start, but with both men having had bad experiences of boss/employee relationships, they agree that acting on that attraction would be a very bad idea… until, of course, it becomes impossible not to. 😉

Silas and Oz are good for each other in the best of ways, each finding something in the other they’d never thought to have.  The only real conflict in the story comes from the fact that Oz is convinced he’s not good enough; an Irish boy from a Tottenham council estate and an Earl don’t make sense and he can never really fit into Silas’ upper-crust life (impressions only reinforced by Silas’ bitchy mother). But Silas is clever enough to know exactly what Oz is thinking and is prepared to wait for the penny to drop – that penny being that he’s as in love with Silas as Silas is with him and that they’re each other’s person – each other’s home.

Oz is funny and sexy, with great secondary characters and wonderfully descriptive prose, but the story loses momentum after Oz and Silas become a couple.  There’s no real drama (and I’m not talking about over-the-top melodrama, just… something to propel the story forward) and no real tension as a result – and that’s fine; low-angst stories can be great, but I just wanted a bit more from this one.  And Oz the character… well, he’s witty, gorgeous, warm, capable and caring; he’s a good cook, he’s a brilliant manager, he’s got an answer for everyone and a plan for everything – in short, he’s more than a bit too good to be true, and that got to be wearing after a while.

In Joel Leslie, Lily Morton has found the perfect narrator for her particular brand of sexy snark.  He’s an incredibly talented performer and it was obvious to me within the first five minutes of their very first collaboration, Rule Breaker, that I was listening to a narrator who completely ‘got’ his author and her characters. His comic timing is superb, he has a wide repertoire of character ‘voices’ and accents, and  isn’t afraid to go big in the more emotional moments – especially the sex scenes, which should probably come (!) with a bucket of ice.  All those things are true in Oz; timing, characterisation, differentiation and pacing, it’s all superb, but something about his performance here didn’t wow me as much the others he’s given so far in books by this author.  I’m not 100% sure why that was, but I suspect it’s because I wasn’t wild about the accent he adopts for Oz (To clarify, it’s not bad or inaccurate, I just… didn’t care for it). Mr. Leslie’s vocal characterisations are terrific and every character sounds different and is easy to identify; he set himself a huge challenge  in sustaining a completely different accent for the vast majority of the story, but towards the end, it starts to slip, especially when it ‘bleeds over’ into some of Silas’ dialogue, which makes him sound odd given he doesn’t have an accent earlier in the book.

BUT.  I suspect that for many (most?) listeners that won’t be an issue – it’s just that accents are ‘my thing’ and I tend to be pretty exacting about them.  Joel Leslie is one of my favourite narrators, and so my expectations are very high; and I suppose what I’m saying is that here, he’s merely very good as opposed to outstanding!

Oz it isn’t going to make my list of Lily Morton favourites, but it’s a sweet, hot, fun listen and Joel Leslie does a great job. If you’re in the market for minimal angst, hot sex and a dirty-talking earl, you need look no further!

Counterpoint (Twisted Wishes #2) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

counterpoint

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Twisted Wishes lead-guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves. A self-imposed exile makes it impossible to get close to anyone outside the band, so he’s forced to get his sexual fix through a few hot nights with a stranger.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder – the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Dominic is reluctant to trust Adrian with his true identity. But when the truth is revealed prematurely, Dominic is forced to reevaluate both his need for Adrian and everything he believes about himself.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Counterpoint, book two in Anna Zabo’s trilogy about rock group Twisted Wishes, focuses on the band’s lead guitarist, Domino Grinder, a mouthy, tatted-up, leather-clad Rock god who struts about the stage shirtless, oozing sex appeal and attitude.  Domino may be the most recognisable member of the group, but he’s also fiercely private, guarding his personal life to the extent that as far as the media can discern, he doesn’t have one.  He’s never seen with anyone outside his immediate professional circle and his name is never linked with anyone else’s romantically.  He’s an enigma, and that’s the way he likes it.

And the reason he’s been able to maintain that degree of anonymity is because the brash, outrageous Domino is actually a persona invented by shy, nerdy Dominic Bradley as a way of combating the debilitating stage-fright he suffered in Twisted Wishes’ early days.  Unable to face performing as himself and believing nobody would take diminutive, bookish, art-loving Dominic seriously as a rock musician, he’s hidden behind Domino for years, so successfully that the only people who know that Domino doesn’t really exist are his band-mates, Ray, Zavier and Mish. As for Dominic Bradley, well he’s just another geeky, bow-tie wearing, bespectacled twink who gets plenty of the sort of attention he wants, when he wants it, no strings, no commitment – which is perfectly fine with him.  Anything longer than a few hours with someone would risk the unmasking of Domino – and that’s something he’s desperate to avoid.

But from the moment Dominic meets the handsome, charming Adrian Doran at one of his favourite eateries, he senses he might be in trouble.  They talk, they flirt, they share dessert; the air between them crackles with electricity and heat, the intensity of the pull he feels towards the other man like nothing Dominic has ever experienced before.  Towards the end of the evening, Adrian tells Dominic he wants “more than a quick fuck and goodbye” and that he wants to explore the potential for more between them.  And even though he knows it’s a risk he shouldn’t be taking, Dominic agrees to meet him again the following week, to go on a date and see where things lead.

Anna Zabo develops the relationship between Dominic and Adrian really well. I’m not a fan of insta-relationships, but the chemistry between the couple is so potent, so palpable that it’s absolutely convincing, and I enjoyed being privy to their getting-to-know-you phase as they go on dates to museums and galleries and settle into a weekly routine of lazy weekends together. Dominic loves that he gets to be himself with Adrian, something he’s rarely able to do, as he maintains his Domino persona whenever he’s around the band – even when they’re in the recording studio – and Adrian is utterly captivated by this quiet, artistic, book-loving man whose willingness to cede control in bed truly touches him.  Dominic had never really considered a D/s relationship before, but being with Adrian helps him to understand and enjoy his kinks and shows him how freeing and empowering it can be to submit.  The sex scenes in the book are hot, but are also tender, loving, and full of trust and acceptance with an emphasis on consent, and are integral to the story and the development of the relationship.

The tension in the story comes from Dominic’s reluctance to tell Adrian about his ‘other life’ as Domino, his fear that Adrian may not be able to keep his secret and his guilt at keeping it when Adrian has shared so much of himself with him. But there’s more to it than not wanting to give up the anonymity Domino affords him; he’s equally worried that Adrian, who has no interest in or knowledge of rock music, will see him differently once he knows the truth, and that the world at large will laugh at the idea of geeky Dominic Bradley being a rock star.  Acute stage fright and Imposter Syndrome compound Dominic’s belief he can’t be both Domino and Dominic.

Adrian is pansexual, and almost ten years older than Dominic; he’s a good guy who has reached a point in his life when he’s looking for more from life than meaningless hook-ups. He’s a computer programmer for a large bank, a job that pays pretty well, but he isn’t happy there and is having to put up with a colleague constantly trying to undermine him. I appreciated that we get to see Adrian outside of his relationship with Dominic, as it helps cement him as a three-dimensional character with flaws and a life of his own. The care he shows Dominic both inside and outside the bedroom is simply wonderful; he’s a man who loves well and deeply, and I loved that although he realises Dominic is keeping something from him, he never pushes, sure that Dominic will tell him when he’s ready.

It will come as a surprise to exactly NO ONE who has ever listened to Greg Boudreaux when I say his narration is nigh on flawless and worthy of all the superlatives.  His pacing, characterisation and differentiation are excellent, and his character portrayals are consistent across the books in the series, so if you’ve listened to Syncopation, you’ll easily recognise the four members of Twisted Wishes by their voices alone. Mr. Boudreaux’s interpretations of Dominic and Adrian are both spot on, too – Adrian’s deep, rich tone a perfect contrast to Dominic’s slightly higher one, his deliberate delivery accurately reflecting the fact that he’s someone confident in his own skin who knows what he wants.  Mr. Boudreaux is a consummate vocal actor who never disappoints with his ability to get into the heads and hearts of the characters he portrays; he hits all the right emotional notes in the story and his performance really enhances and fully realises the depth of the connection between the two leads.

As in book one, the other band members play a large part in the story and are a wonderful support mechanism for each other, and I loved their scenes together.  I did, however, have a few fairly minor niggles about the story. When the shit hits the fan – as it was bound to – I was pleased that Mx. Zabo doesn’t drag things out unnecessarily, although some of the later drama felt a bit overdone. The pacing lags a little in the middle, and I sort of wished we’d been able to see Adrian’s shitty colleague get his comeuppance, but otherwise, I enjoyed the book very much – and I’m not someone who is normally drawn to romances featuring kink.

Counterpoint was a compelling listen and one I didn’t put down easily – in fact I listened to most of it in one day.  Strong storytelling, attractive leads and well-drawn secondary characters combine with a sexy and emotionally satisfying romance and a top-notch performance from one of the best narrators around to garner a strong recommendation.

 

Working Stiffs: An M/M vampire romance charity anthology

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Not all vampires are idly rich. Some of them have day jobs. Er, night jobs.

In a world struggling to come to grips with the existence of vampires, where reactions range from excitement to fear to determined disbelief, these vampires are just trying to make ends meet. Some of them do mundane work—like waiting tables or driving a cab. Others have more prestigious careers in medicine and crime prevention. But what all their jobs have in common is people. Unpredictable, interesting, frustrating, hostile, helpless, tasty people.

Whether they’re pouring drinks, answering phones, hacking into a computer system, or serving up the perfect food/wine pairing, these working stiffs are too busy to fall in love. Or are they?

This International Workers Day, celebrate by sinking your teeth into thirteen awesome stories about vampires at work. Because even the undead have to earn a living. Proceeds benefit the WHO’s Covid-19 Response Fund.

Rating: B

Working Stiffs : An m/m vampire charity romance anthology is a collection of thirteen short stories and novellas, and proceeds from sales will go to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.  I generally find anthologies to be a mixed bag and that’s true of Working Stiffs; given there are thirteen stories, I’m going to limit myself to talking in detail about the ones I liked best (or we’d be here all day!)

All the stories are based around a similar premise.  As the synopsis says:

In a world struggling to come to grips with the existence of vampires, where reactions range from excitement to fear to determined disbelief, these vampires are just trying to make ends meet. Some of them do mundane work—like waiting tables or driving a cab… Because even the undead have to earn a living.

The world-building – in terms of what these vampires can and can’t do and how they live (or not!) – is fairly consistent across the board, and the vampire characters range from being centuries old to the recently turned, and work in jobs from chef to cabbie, telemarketer to trauma specialist.

My favourite story is Lyra Evans’ Bad Blood, which features two ER doctors who have been at each other’s throats (figuratively!) since they met.  Dr. Alek Matsouka is dedicated, driven and highly skilled, but when he started his training, he never intended to end up in Emergency medicine. That all changed when he was turned just two months before he qualified, and being an ER doc is now the only way he can practice, seeing as any other branch of medicine would need him to work in the daytime.  He and the other resident, James Crawford, can’t stand each other; Crawford resents Alek for always interfering with his cases and telling him he’s wrong; Alek resents Crawford for having the choices no longer available to him and takes out his frustration by being snippy and condescending.  The ER setting is very well done (a warning here – there’s a scene involving a miscarriage that is quite detailed), and there’s another in which Alek is confronted by some serious bigotry that is, quite rightly, uncomfortable to read.  The two leads are fleshed out fairly well for a short story and their simmering chemistry is evident right from the first, which of course leads to an ending of their feud and a definite HFN.

Fangs for the Memories by Sadie Jay is a second chance romance between a vamp and the ex who staked him fifteen years earlier!  You’d think a stake through the heart might be a tough one to forgive, but the couple in this story manage to get past it.  Back when he was young, stupid and easily influenced, Rollie Brown was brainwashed into believing that vampires were an abomination, and that he should kill his lover.  So seeing him alive – or rather, undead – and well, and working as a bartender comes as something as a shock.  Not surprisingly, Aja isn’t all that pleased to see Rollie, but when he explains that he’s looking for an ex he thinks might have got mixed up in something nasty at a vampire bar, Aja agrees to help.  The author creates a believable connection between Rollie and Aja, the storyline is suspenseful and there’s plenty of humour, too.  My one niggle is that the set-up – Rollie’s reasons for the whole stake-through-the-heart thing  – were pretty unconvincing.

I also enjoyed Overexposed by K. Evan Coles and Mel Gough’s Fire and Ice Cold Skin, although both felt as though they were introductions to longer stories.  In Overexposed, a crime scene photographer with the NYPD becomes involved with the only witness to a murder, a human he’s felt drawn to since the moment he first saw him, and in Fire and Ice and Cold Skin a firefighter is moved to look after the young man whose home has just burned to the ground and who has nowhere else to go.  Even though the leads are together by the end of this one, it doesn’t feel quite like an HFN and there’s definitely more to be said. Both authors indicate that there may be more to come, and I’d certainly be up for reading that ‘more’ if they end up writing it!

H.L. Day’s Bad Decision is set in London and features a vampire cab driver who gets a lot more than he bargained for when he picks up a fare who wants to go to a vampire bar to act out his sexual fantasy of being bitten during sex.  The relationship evolves quickly, but the author creates a real atmosphere of peril in this story, showing the vampires as much more menacing than those in most of the other stories.

The biggest issue I have with romances in novella and short story form in general is that they almost ways feel rushed; and given that today, even the shortest of romances is expected to contain a sex scene, the plot, character and relationship development suffer as they’re squeezed into fewer pages to leave room for the shagging.  The stories I enjoyed most in Working Stiffs are probably the longest ones, and they have a bit more depth to the plot and characterisation than the others. While the sex scenes in every story happen fast, there is at least a build-up and a sense of connection between the characters.

My least favourite tales? Roberta Blablanski’s Dial-a-Vamp , about a vampire phone sex operator whose latest caller wants to act out his vampire sex fantasies, is basically all sex and little plot. That’s fine – the threesome is pretty hot – but I’d have liked a bit more substance to it.  And Call My Numberby Megs Pritchard has a great premise; two guys who talk on the phone everyday agree to meet up, but things aren’t quite what they seem.  I really liked the idea there, but it was let down by the execution and uninspired writing.  Edie Montreux’s Quality Assured – about a vampire who works at a call-centre and seems basically to be some sort of superhero – is simply weird(!), and again is tripped up by poor execution.

Working Stiffs is available in Kindle Unlimited or costs $3.99 to buy (I would imagine more money will go to the charity if the book is purchased outright), and given there are half-a-dozen decent stories in there, I’d say it’s worth the price if you’re looking for some quick, sexy reads and a collection you can dip in and out of.  My favourites were by authors I haven’t read before, so I’m definitely going to check out more of their work.

The individual stories are:

Bad Blood by Lyra Evans

Bad Decision by H.L Day

Call My Number by Megs Pritchard

Dial a Vamp by Roberta Blablanski

Fangs for the Memories by Sadie Jay

Fire and Ice Cold Skin by Mel Gough

How To Keep an Author (Alive) by AJ Sherwood

Graveyard Cops by Crystel Greene

Life Hacks by Eliott Griffen

Long Haul by Tanya Chris

Off the Menu by R.J. Sorrento

Overexposed by K. Evan Coles

Quality Assured by Edie Montreux

In the Requiem (Metahuman Files #5) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Never let go.

Weighed down by scandal, Captain Jamie Callahan must choose between saving his family’s reputation and his father’s political aspirations, or taking down the enemy once and for all. Choosing one over the other will have lasting repercussions he can’t escape. Whatever path Jamie ultimately picks, Staff Sergeant Kyle Brannigan will be right by his side to face the consequences. Kyle knows in a situation like this the only way out is through. Together they can make it to the other side, but surviving that journey will take everything they have.

One last chance.

Agent Sean Delaney is learning what it means to be part of Alpha Team through trial by fire. He wouldn’t change it for the world, nor would he give up the life he’s building with Staff Sergeant Alexei Dvorkin. But their time together is threatened by outside forces they can’t outrun. Having put the nightmare of Boston behind him, Alexei is focused on keeping his family safe, but he can’t have eyes on everyone. Alexei knows he can’t ignore the danger on the horizon, and when it strikes, he is unprepared for the tragedy it leaves in its wake.

Risking it all.

The odds are stacked ever higher against Alpha Team, and outmaneuvering a precog is a daunting, almost impossible task. Jamie knows something has to give, and when it does, it just might break him the way nothing else in his life ever could.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content A-

Oh. My. God. Hailey Turner pulls out all the stops in this, the final** instalment of her military/futuristic Metahumans Files series, bringing the overarching storyline to a thrilling, high-stakes close… but not without leaving a couple of unanswered questions that leave the door ajar for future stories. And it will come as no surprise when I say that Greg Boudreaux – who has done some truly incredible work throughout the series – makes it five for five with a barnstorming performance that had me smiling, sighing, blushing, fuming and sobbing into my dinner.

Besides being the culmination of a plot arc, In the Requiem also features a large number of recurring secondary characters, and while the author does include some backstory and background information about both plot and characters, I don’t think this story will make a great deal of sense if you haven’t read or listened to the books that precede it. I’m assuming that anyone who has made it to this point knows the story so far…

**At time of writing this was the final book, but book six has just been announced.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Tough Guy (Game Changers #3) by Rachel Reid


This title may be purchased from Amazon

They have nothing in common—so why does Ryan feel most like himself whenever he’s with Fabian?

Pro hockey star Ryan Price may be an enforcer, but off the ice he struggles with anxiety. Recently traded to the Toronto Guardians, he’s determined to make a fresh start in the city’s dynamic LGBTQ Village. The last thing he expects to stumble upon in his new neighborhood is a blast from his past in the fabulous form of Fabian Salah.

Aspiring musician Fabian loathes hockey. But that doesn’t stop him from being attracted to a certain burly, ginger-bearded defenseman. He hasn’t forgotten the kiss they almost shared back in high school, and it’s clear the chemistry between them has only intensified.

Fabian is more than happy to be Ryan’s guide to the gay scene in Toronto. Between dance clubs and art exhibits—and the most amazing sex—Ryan’s starting to feel something he hasn’t experienced in a long time: joy. But playing the role of the heavy on the ice has taken its toll on his body and mind, and a future with Fabian may mean hanging up his skates for good.

Rating: B

Tough Guy is book three in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series, set in the world of professional hockey. While I wasn’t as utterly caught up in the romance here as I was in the previous book (Heated Rivalry – which made my Best of 2019 list), I nonetheless enjoyed the novel, and appreciated the way the author flips the stereotype of the confident, ripped jock so often found in sports romances (both m/f and m/m) and creates instead an endearing, gentle-giant-type character with severe self-esteem issues who struggles to reconcile the person he truly is with the one he’s expected to be on the ice.

At six-feet-seven inches, with a build like a bulldozer, Ryan Price knows how to intimidate.  On the ice, he’s an enforcer, someone other players actually aspire to fight with – especially rookies, for whom “paying the Price” is something of a rite of passage.  But it’s an image and a job that Ryan wrestles with, and which has been weighing down on him more and more as the years have passed, because that’s not who he is at all.  When the story begins, Ryan has just been traded – yet again – this time to the Toronto Guardians, and is being urged – ordered, really – by his coach to be more of a team player both on and off the ice, and unsubtly quizzed about his mental health.  Anxiety, self-esteem issues and finding social situations hard to deal with mean Ryan has always found it difficult to connect personally and professionally, and a well-publicised “freak out” the previous season (a panic attack) has made him even more self-conscious. This is the ninth team Ryan has played for in almost as many years; he’s never played anywhere long enough to put down roots or make any real friends, but this time he’s determined to change that, and finds himself an apartment in the vibrant, LGBTQ part of town.  Ryan is openly – albeit quietly – gay but that’s never been an issue, partly, he suspects, because he’s moved too often for anyone to really notice or care, and with a few other players – notably Scott Hunter (Game Changer) – coming out recently, it hasn’t seemed necessary to hide it. Sex hasn’t often been a positive experience for him; he  hasn’t had many partners, and those he has had haven’t really been interested in him as a person, or been able to see past his size or their own preconceptions of what he should like and want.  He’s lonely, the medication he’s on is screwing up his libido and… it sucks.

When Ryan enters  a local pharmacy in order to get a prescription filled, he’s surprised to see Fabian Salah working there.  When Ryan was seventeen, he’d been billeted with the Salahs, a Lebanese family who lived and breathed hockey and whose daughter was a rising hockey star, but whose son, a hugely talented musician, seemed hardly to merit their notice.  Even then, Ryan thought Fabian was beautiful and had a mad crush on him – which he suppressed, having quickly learned that Fabian despised everything to do with hockey.  Over the year Ryan lived with Salahs, Fabian’s attitude changed and they became friends, but they haven’t seen each other since Ryan made the NHL.

Fabian is Ryan’s complete opposite in just about every way.  Femme, confident and extrovert, he’s amazingly talented, completely adorable and has zero fucks to give about what others think or say about him. Plus he has the most fabulous group of friends I’ve read about in quite some time.  Fabian had quite the crush on Ryan back in the day (but thought he was straight,) and seeing him again brings back a lot of that old fascination and attraction.  Fabian isn’t pushy, but he does need to nudge Ryan out of his comfort zone a little to start with, and before long, they’re seeing each other regularly and fast moving toward couple-dom, helped considerably by Fabian’s ability to understand Ryan’s fears and anxieties and treat them as part of him and not something to be ashamed of or weird.

Tough Guy is a very different book to its predecessor, and anyone coming to it expecting more of the same may need to adjust those expectations.  It’s what I’d call a ‘quiet’ book in general; the romance evolves naturally and realistically, and the drama is mostly supplied by Ryan’s growing conviction that he’s not happy in his chosen career and his struggles to deal with his self-esteem issues and see himself as someone worthy of someone as vibrant and sexy as Fabian.  Ms. Reid handles Ryan’s anxiety issues very sensitively and never over – or under – plays them, and I appreciated her decision to write a main character who is experiencing sexual difficulties and isn’t always raring to go at the drop of a hat, something not often explored in romance novels.

I loved Fabian’s confidence and easy charm, although I was less than impressed with his actions towards the end, which actually felt like a deliberately contrived way of injecting some last minute tension into the story.  Fortunately, things are resolved quickly, but that short section felt like an insert rather than an organically evolved part of the story, and I had to knock the final grade down a bit as a result.

Following a book as good – and well-loved – as Heated Rivalry was always going to be tricky, but the author’s decision to do something completely different was a good one.  Tough Guy is a sweet, sensual and charming romance, and if you like opposites attract, gentle ginger giants and/or second-chance romances, then I’d urge you to give it a try.

In the Blood (Metahuman Files #4) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Running out of time.

Captain Jamie Callahan is frustrated with his team constantly being at the mercy of the enemy in order to further the MDF’s goals. To make matters worse, his father’s political campaign is ramping up, and Jamie’s every move is being watched by the media. He is acutely aware of all the eyes trained on him, his team, and Staff Sergeant Kyle Brannigan in particular. Meanwhile, Kyle would give anything to stay in the shadows, but he refuses to leave Jamie’s side, no matter the scrutiny. Staying out of the spotlight becomes impossible when their families are threatened and vital choices about their future together can no longer be ignored.

Desperate measures.

Staff Sergeant Alexei Dvorkin and Agent Sean Delaney are enjoying their time together as a couple when Sean’s past catches up with him. As Alpha Team’s long-running mission gets derailed in the worst way possible, Alexei discovers the enemy is playing for keeps, and neither he nor Sean are in any position to beat the odds and win the game. As for Sean, he’s worried that even if they make it out alive, Alexei may never forgive him for giving into the enemy’s demands.

Stand your ground.

Manipulation is the name of the game, but Jamie is done playing by everybody else’s rules. So is the rest of Alpha Team, because if there’s one thing Jamie’s team knows? It’s that they’re a family – and you don’t mess with family unless you want to get hurt.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content- A

Hailey Turner’s futuristic Metahuman Files series has got better and better with each successive instalment as the overarching plotline moves inexorably towards what is sure to be an exciting, nail-biting finale in the fifth and final book, In the Requiem. In audio, we’ve reached book four, In the Blood, and in it – to use the vernacular – the shit hits the fan big time. The author does an absolutely fabulous job here of weaving the suspense plotline – concerning the search for a terrorist group intent on making metahumans of their own – with the storylines surrounding Alpha Team’s captain, Jamie Callaghan and his difficult and sensitive family situation, his secret romance with Kyle Brannigan (the team’s sniper), and those featuring the series’ other romantic couple, Kyle’s adoptive brother Alexei Dvorkin and his lover, former CIA agent Sean Delaney. The ante is well and truly upped here as Jamie’s father’s presidential campaign heats up and Jamie and his team find themselves backed into a corner by the man who has become their nemesis. I’ll just pause to say that while these books can probably be listened to as standalones, I wouldn’t recommend it; the author does give plenty of backstory in each book, but listeners will get far more out of the experience by going back to book one, In the Wreckage, and following the story from the beginning. Plus – Greg Boudreaux narrates all the books. It’s a no brainer, right?

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Rule Breaker (Mixed Messages #1) by Lily Morton (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Is it really wrong to want to murder your boss?

Dylan has worked for Gabe for two years. Two long years of sarcastic comments. Two long years of insults, and having to redo the coffee pot four times in the mornings to meet his exacting standards.

Not surprisingly he has devoted a lot of time to increasingly inventive ways to murder Gabe. From stabbing him with a cake fork, to garrotting him with his expensive tie, Dylan has thought of everything.

However, a chance encounter opens his eyes to the attraction that has always lain between them, concealed by the layers of antipathy. There are only two problems – Gabe is still a bastard, and he makes wedding planners look like hardened pessimists.

But what happens when Dylan starts to see the real Gabe? What happens when he starts to fall in love with the warm, wary man that he sees glimpses of as the days pass?

Because Gabe is still the same commitment shy, cold man that he’s always been, or is he? Has Dylan had the same effect on Gabe, and has his solid gold rule of no commitment finally been broken? With his heart taken Dylan desperately needs to know, but will he get hurt trying to find the answers?

Rating: Narration: A; Content: A

Sometimes, you listen to the first few minutes of an audiobook and know you’re going to love it – which is exactly what happened to me with Lily Morton’s Rule Breaker, the first book in her Mixed Messages series. It’s yet another of those books friends have been telling me for ages that I really must read, and once again, audio has proved the perfect way for me to catch up – and Joel Leslie’s fantastic performance only makes me even more thankful to have experienced the story in this format.

Rule Breaker charts the development of the opposites-attract romance between high-powered lawyer Gabe Foster and his assistant Dylan Mitchell; and as soon as I heard Dylan’s opening lines, I knew I was in for just the sort of fun-filled snark-fest that is right up my alley.

I want to kill my boss.

It has become an absolute truth that a small portion of my time every day, is now taken over with creating increasingly inventive ways to murder him slowly. Take today for instance. Today I’m debating whether to hang him out of the tenth-floor window tied to the conference table, or disembowel him with the cake knife from the tea trolley. This is all done while taking diligent notes at the meeting he’s forced me to sit on in. Never let it be said that men can’t multitask.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dream (Skins #1) by Garrett Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Shaun Grindell

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

When unrequited love leaves Dylan Hart sleepless and nursing his wounds, instinct draws him to the one place he’s found mindless respite in the past – Lovato’s. It’s a place for every fantasy, where a night of insane NSA sex brings relief.

It should be a perfect escape, and for one magical night it seems that way, but then worlds collide, and reality bites when Dylan’s hookup desperately needs a friend. Surely Dylan can’t trust his instincts when friendship has bruised his heart so badly before?

The deck is stacked against former ballet dancer Angelo Giordano ever finding real love. At least visiting Lovato’s offers respite from a life defined by illness; a glimmer of light in the dull gray of his so-called life without dance. But then he encounters Dylan, who makes his heart pound once more with purpose.

Angelo’s mind is blown by this man, but the disease that ended his career won’t let him bask in new love. He’s drowning, and Dylan can’t save him while insecurities swamp them both. The only way to make it means confronting their demons. If Dylan can turn his back on the past, and Angelo can face his uncertain future, maybe they can chase their dreams together.

Rating: Narration: B-; Content: B

Garrett Leigh is another of those authors I’ve not managed to get around to reading yet, and once again I’m really pleased to see her novels being released in audio format so I can play catch up! Dream, the first book in the Skins series, is an angsty but deeply romantic story featuring two young men who are struggling to adapt to big changes in their lives – and not always dealing with them well.

Dylan Hart has been in love with his best friend Sam for years, even though he knows Sam isn’t into him “that way” – and he’s been (sort of) content to make a regular third in Sam’s relationship with his girlfriend, Eddie (their story is told in What Matters, although it’s not necessary to be familiar with it in order to enjoy this novel). As Dream opens, Dylan has finally admitted to himself that it isn’t enough for him, and that he needs to cut the ties if he’s to stand any chance of finding the sort of love they have.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Daily Grind (Takeover #4) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Brian Keppler, owner of Ground N’At, the coffee shop beneath SR Anderson Consulting, doesn’t have time for a relationship. His most recent girlfriend broke up with him because he’d become married to his shop, which is falling apart without his favorite barista, Justin. As he struggles to stay afloat, the arrival of handsome British high-tech whiz Robert Ancroft becomes another complication. Rob quickly becomes a fixture at the shop with his sharp wit and easy charm, and Brian soon finds himself looking forward more and more to Rob’s visits – to the point where his heart skips a beat when he walks in. But will Brian be able to come to terms with his previously unexplored sexual identity and find happiness now that he has a chance?

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: A-

Daily Grind, the fourth book in Anna Zabo’s Takeover series, is perhaps one of the more unusual romances I’ve listened to recently in that it takes a hard look at how the pressures of work – ones we often inflict upon ourselves – can make us lose sight of what’s really important, and the way such factors can affect our quality of life and relationships.

Brian Keppler owns the popular coffee shop Grounds N’at and is dedicated to providing the best tasting and best prepared coffee in Pittsburgh. Brian has owned the shop for almost a decade and he’s always been a bit of a workaholic – as can be affirmed by his small number of ex-girlfriends, all of whom cited Brian’s insistence on working all hours and putting his business before anything else as the reasons for their break-ups. Lately, however, things have been getting even more difficult; rising costs and staffing problems mean Brian is spending more time working than ever, and although he keeps telling himself it won’t always be like this, there’s no sign of a let up and things are looking bleak.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.