Seducing the Sorcerer by Lee Welch (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

seducing the sorcerer

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Homeless and jobless, Fenn Todd has nearly run out of hope. All he has left are his longing for horses and the strength of his own two hands. But when he’s cheated into accepting a very ugly sackcloth horse, he’s catapulted into a world of magic, politics, and desire.

Fenn’s invited to stay at the black tower, home of the most terrifying man in the realm: Morgrim, the court sorcerer. Morgrim has a reputation as a scheming villain, but he seems surprisingly charming—and sexy—and Fenn falls hard for him.

However, nothing is as it seems, and everyone at the tower is lying about something. Beset by evil hexes, violent political intrigue, and a horse that eats eiderdowns, Fenn must make the hardest choices of his life.

Can a plain man like Fenn ever find true love with a scheming sorcerer?

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B

Lee Welch’s Seducing the Sorcerer is a quirky, sweet and inventive fantasy that combines an opposites-attract, slow-burn romance between two men in their forties (yay for older protagonists!) with magic, mystery and political intrigue. I enjoyed the book when I read it last year and have been looking forward to experiencing it again in audio, especially with the always entertaining Joel Leslie at the microphone.

Forty-six-year-old Fenn Todd, a down on his luck itinerant labourer, finds a day’s work on a farm where he’s offered coin and a meal as payment. He’s about to get to work when a younger man – the farmer’s nephew – offers him a horse instead of the money, and even though Fenn suspects he’s being played, he can’t squash the hope he feels. A horse of his own, even if it’s one bound for the knacker’s yard, even if he only gets to take care of it for a short while… he agrees, in spite of his misgivings.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Hope on the Rocks (Rainbow Cove #4) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

hope on the rocks

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

One too many…

Doctor Quinn Strauss is beloved by his small-town patients. He almost never drinks, especially not alone on a weeknight. But he’s heartbroken over an unexpected reminder of exactly how much his bad breakup has cost him. And the sexy ginger bartender keeps making him special drinks that go down a little too easy.

Take a drunk doc home…

Bartender Adam Ringer can tell when someone’s hurting, and the heroic local doctor is practically radiating pain. Adam’s a natural caretaker and can’t help but spring to Quinn’s rescue. And when the drunk and rambling Quinn reveals a mutual sexy interest, Adam’s other instincts are intrigued. He can’t wait for Quinn to sober up.

All mixed up…

When Adam offers Quinn a chance to explore secret desires he’s long repressed, Quinn finds himself saying yes to a summer fling with the younger Daddy bear. Falling in love isn’t part of the plan, but amid all their steamy encounters and intimate exchanges, a deep, emotional bond is forged. Summer is nearly over. Real life pressures are mounting. Can they grow enough to find a way to forever?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

Hope on the Rocks is the final book in Annabeth Albert’s Rainbow Cove series about three friends who set up a queer-friendly restaurant in a small coastal town in Oregon. It’s a low-angst, very sexy and unexpectedly sweet character-driven romance between a pair of complex, likeable individuals, and although it’s the fourth in a series, it works perfectly well as a standalone.

Bartender Adam Ringer knows very well how to recognise the signs of someone who’s had a really bad day, and local doctor Quinn Strauss is giving off all those bad-day-vibes and then some. Being observant and a good listener go with the job, but Adam is also one of life’s natural caretakers, and he’s genuinely concerned and wants to help. But Quinn doesn’t seem to want to talk, so instead, Adam – who has noticed that Quinn doesn’t seem to like the rum and coke he ordered – offers to make him a drink he’ll actually like. He concocts a chocolate hazelnut martini that definitely does the job – but it’s only after the good doctor has downed two of them that Adam realises the man is much more of a lightweight than he’d thought. It’s nearly closing time, and Adam decides he’ll drive Quinn home rather than wait around for ages for a cab, but when Quinn passes out before he can give Adam his address, Adam has no alternative but to take him back to his place to sleep it off.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

something fabulous

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating:  Narration – A+; Content – B+

I read an ARC copy of Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulou a while back, but when I saw Nicholas Boulton would be narrating the audio version, there was no way I wasn’t going to listen to it as well! It’s a gloriously queer, charmingly nonsensical Regency romp that plays with familiar tropes in the most affectionate way while at the same time delivering a sexy romance and a tender story of self-discovery.

Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern is a serious-minded, rather stuffy young man, brought up to always consider his position and status, and to put duty first. There is, however, one particular duty he’s neglected for too long, and when the book begins, he’s proposing marriage to Miss Arabella Tarleton, the young woman intended for him since birth. Miss Tarleton, however, is not at all inclined to accept, and even though Valentine is more concerned with accomplishing his late father’s wish than he is with actually getting married, her pointedly barbed rejection still stings

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Season’s Change (Trade Season #1) by Cait Nary

season's change

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Olly Järvinen has a long way to go. He’s got a fresh start playing for a new team, but getting his hockey career back on track is going to take more than a change of scenery. He’s got to shut his past out and focus. On the game, not on his rookie roommate and his annoyingly sunny disposition—and annoyingly distracting good looks.

All Benji Bryzinski ever wanted was to play in the big leagues, and he’s not going to waste one single second of his rookie season. Yoga, kale smoothies and guided meditation help keep his head in the game. But his roommate keeps knocking him off track. Maybe it’s just that Olly is a grumpy bastard. Or maybe it’s something else, something Benji doesn’t have a name for yet.

Olly and Benji spend all their time together—on the ice, in the locker room, in their apartment—and ignoring their unspoken feelings isn’t making them go away. Acting on attraction is one thing, but turning a season’s fling into forever would mean facing the past—and redefining the future.

Rating: B-

Season’s Change is the début novel from Cait Nary, a sports romance set in the world of professional hockey that follows veteran (at twenty-four!) player Olly Järvinen and rookie Benji Bryzinski through a hockey season as they go from roommates to friends to lovers.  It gets off to an incredibly strong start and I was utterly captivated by the characters and their UST-laden and slightly angsty slow-burn romance, but around the two-thirds mark, things began to slow down and became repetitive. Had the book ended as strongly as it began, it would have been an easy DIK, but as it is, I had to knock the grade down for a number of unresolved issues and most of all, the way what had been such a promising romance limps along to a not-completely-satisfying HFN.

When we meet him at the beginning of the book, Olly is a mess.  He’s been playing professional hockey for three years, and is just starting out with the Washington Eagles, but weeks of not sleeping and not eating properly on top of extreme anxiety and stress following an incident at his previous team in Minnesota mean he’s not in a good place physically or mentally.  He’s determined to push through it though, to make a fresh start and leave the past behind, to – as his Dad has so often said – toughen up, and focus on getting his career back on track.

Benjy is twenty-one and all he’s ever wanted to do is to play hockey.  He might be “just a dumbass from Duncannon, Pennsylvania”, but he’s bright, he’s keen and he’s determined to make the most of every minute of his rookie season.  He hits it off with his teammates straight away, although his new roommate Olly Järvinen takes a bit longer to warm up to him.

Season’s Change is a friends-to-lovers story which, as I said at the beginning, starts extremely well.  Olly has some serious issues to deal with, which the author reveals gradually to have stemmed from a homophobic roommate and coach in Minnesota who bullied and assaulted him when they found out he was gay. By this point, he’s absolutely terrified of anyone else finding out about his sexuality, and he fervently believes he can’t be queer and be a hockey player, so he’s decided he’s got to put that part of himself on the back-burner until he retires.  It’s been fairly easy to do that; despite spending so much time around well-built attractive men, he’s never been tempted to hook up with any of them… until now.  Benjy is all sunshine to Olly’s gloom; he’s honest and good-natured and funny (and hot) and becomes a very good friend, someone Olly can turn to and lean on when he’s at his lowest.   But Benji is straight – and even if he wasn’t, he’s off limits.

The progression of Olly and Benji’s relationship in the first part of the book is very well done.  Their friendship is superbly written and their romance is a fantastic slow-burn with lots of longing and chemistry and sexual tension that leaps off the page.  I loved it.

But things start to fall apart in the last third of the book – which means it’s difficult to talk about specifics because we’re into spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best!  The biggest problem is that the romance, having been built up so beautifully in the first part of the story, stalls and doesn’t go anywhere until the very end.  There’s too much repetition and extraneous detail taking up word-count that should have been used to bring the romance to a satisfactory conclusion instead of the flimsy HFN it gets at pretty much the last minute.  In a book of almost 400 pages, there should have been plenty of time for the author to get the leads together and show us a happier Olly doing a better job of managing his mental health and realising he can have all the things he’s dreamed of having with Benjy.  We don’t get to see them navigating life as a couple and truly being themselves, and we don’t get the chance to relax and be happy for them before the book is over.  Given everything they go through, they don’t get the ending they deserve, and that’s a crying shame.

It bothered me that when Olly and Benji finally start a sexual relationship, Olly thinks it’s just a case of them ‘helping each other out’ and that Benji is straight and will eventually find a woman he wants to be with.  He never tells Benji he’s gay – in fact, they never talk about what they’re doing at all – and I found it hard to believe that Benjy never once wonders if Olly is queer.  And Benjy talks about having fooled around with guys before and having had threesomes with girls and guys, but it never occurs to him that he might be bisexual until the very end.

Highlight to read spoiler:

Speaking of threesomes… There’s one in the book, and it felt like a scene of dubious consent.  Benji brings home a woman and convinces a very sad, very drunk Olly to have a threesome (MFM – she blows Olly while Benjy fucks her.)  Olly has never been with a woman in his life and has never wanted to, and is so distressed  in the morning that he immediately throws up and spends days after avoiding Benji.  I didn’t see the point of it and it felt unnecessary cruel given everything Olly is going through.  It made me really uncomfortable.

Other smaller niggles. This is a sports romance, and I know that hockey fans will probably disagree with me, but there is too much hockey stuff in the last third of the book.  I freely admit I’m not into sports (and know next to nothing about ice hockey) BUT my issue isn’t so much with the inclusion of sports-related detail – I accept that a story built around hockey will have stuff about hockey in it! – it’s that it uses valuable word count that could instead have been spent building a proper HEA for Olly and Benjy.

Probably going along with the ‘hockey stuff’ is the ‘bro speak’; maybe it’s accurate, but I found it irritating (and sometimes incomprehensible!), and the same is true of Benjy’s tendency to, like, use the word “like” in every, like, sentence.

Assigning a final grade to Season’s Change was difficult.  The first two-thirds is DIK standard, the central characters are engaging and their romance – up until they start having sex – is gorgeous and frustrating and they have chemistry by the bucket-load . The author creates a wonderful team camaraderie, the writing is strong overall and Olly’s anxiety and fears are presented skilfully and sympathetically.  The complicated family dynamics are well done, too – Olly has one of those pushy ‘hockey dads’ who is always on at him to do more and do better, and Benjy’s sister is in a toxic relationship and can’t or won’t admit it. This plotline doesn’t reach a firm conclusion, but that feels realistic and I liked the way Ms. Nait handles this complex situation.

But while Season’s Change has a lot of really good things going for it, the final third and the ending drop down into C territory, so I’m going with a low-end B overall.  It’s worth checking out if you’re into hockey romances and looking for a new author to try, but I can’t recommend it without reservations.

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall

something fabulous

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating: B+

If you’re looking for an historical romance with a complex plot, serious characters and a bucket-load of angst, then move right along, because Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulous isn’t it.  If, however, you’re up for a frivolous romp through Regency England bubbling with wit and brilliant comic timing that, for all its ridiculous trope-y-ness, contains an achingly tender story of self-discovery, then dive right in.
The book opens with a delightfully – although somewhat more barbed – Heyer-esque proposal-gone-wrong in which Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern, has decided it’s time to honour his late father’s wishes and become formally betrothed to Miss Arabella Tarleton, who has been intended for him since birth.  Miss Tarleton, however, has no intention of accepting Valentine’s proposal and makes that clear in no uncertain terms:

“There is no fashion, Your Grace, in which you could propose that would render it anything other than profoundly repugnant to me.”

Valentine is both astonished and affronted.  A refusal is something he had never remotely considered – after all, what impoverished young woman wouldn’t want to secure her future and that of her family by marrying a wealthy, young and handsome duke?

Later that night – or rather, in the early hours of the morning – Valentine (having made liberal use of the brandy bottle) is awoken by Arabella’s twin brother, Bonaventure – Bonny for short – who informs him that Arabella has run away and that they should go after her so Valentine can save her from ruin and propose again.  And that he’d better make a good job of it this time.  Valentine is not keen; it’s not that he doesn’t want to retrieve his wayward intended, he just doesn’t want to go without due thought or preparation. Or his valet.  Bonny, however, is something of a force of nature, and won’t take no for an answer, so before long, Valentine is being hurried along and into a curricle wearing a coat borrowed from the assistant gardener and a hastily tied – courtesy of Bonny – cravat.

That’s the set up for the fluffiest, silliest and most outrageously charming road-trip / grumpy-sunshine romance I’ve read in quite some time. (Or ever.) It doesn’t take itself seriously – even though it does have some serious points to make – and focuses entirely on the relationship between Valentine and Bonny, and on Valentine’s journey towards reaching a deeper self-awareness, understanding  how attraction works for him and that being seen and loved for who he is as a person is not impossible.

The writing is deft and insightful with plenty of clever nods to the genre, the dialogue sparkles and the two leads are superbly characterised.  Valentine, the repressed, dutiful duke has no idea of his own privilege but is somehow endearing in his cluelessness;  he’s deeply lonely but doesn’t realise it, and he has very little experience of sexual attraction until Bonny, and the sudden wealth of feelings that assail him when Bonny is around completely blindside him. Watching Valentine slowly learn that he is allowed to have feelings, that he can feel attraction and affection – and the way Bonny accepts him exactly as he is and without question – is simply lovely.  As for Bonny, well, he’s just adorable; free-spirited,  vibrant, charming and kind, he’s not ashamed of who he is and what he wants, and isn’t willing to settle for anything less than to be loved in the way he loves – with his whole heart and soul.

There’s a small, but well-drawn secondary cast. I particularly liked Peggy, Arabella’s best friend and some-time lover who is a welcome voice of reason in contrast to Arabella’s frequent and overblown histrionics, and Sir Horley, the rakish older gentleman with an eye on Bonny and a heart of gold.  As one would expect from an Alexis Hall book, the queer rep is varied and excellent;  Peggy is genderfluid, Sir Horley is gay,  I got the impression Arabella is aromantic, and there are two delightful ladies who are married in all but name.

Sadly, the book’s biggest flaw is Arabella.  I understood her frustration and where she was coming from – no legal rights, no right to an opinion, no rights over her own body, even – but rather than making the attempt to explain herself or just talk to Valentine, she screams and throws tantrums and melodramatic fits, she makes ridiculous and unfounded accusations and generally behaves like a spoilt brat.  If she’d been the heroine of a book, it would have hit the wall before the end of the first chapter!  It’s rare for me to have such a visceral reaction to a character in a book, but I honestly couldn’t stand her and felt sorry for Bonny having to put up with her all his life.  And this leads to my other issue with the story, which is that the catch-up-with-her/she’s-run-away-again is a bit repetitive – although I fully accept this may be because I so disliked Arabella that I just wanted her to run away and stay gone!

Other than that, however, Something Fabulous certainly lives up to its name.  It’s funny, sexy, daft and just a bit over the top, but it’s all done with obvious love and affection and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Stuck With You by Jay Northcote (audiobook) – Narrated by Hamish Long

stuck with you

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Two clashing colleagues stuck together for Christmas — will opposites eventually attract?

Patrick has been single since he broke up with his cheating ex almost a year ago. With Christmas looming, he’s resigned to spending it alone with only memories of happier times for company. When a business trip with a coworker leaves them stranded in the Lake District due to heavy snow, it seems Patrick will have company for Christmas after all. It’s a shame his companion is Kyle, who’s undeniably attractive, but annoying as hell.

Aware of Patrick’s reluctant admiration, Kyle basks in the attention, even though Patrick isn’t the type of man he normally goes for. Averse to relationships after being hurt in the past, Kyle enjoys the occasional hookup, but has given up on seeking anything more meaningful.

Stuck together, their antagonism escalates along with a heavy dose of sexual tension until it finally ignites. What starts as a Christmas fling soon feels like something special, but will their tentative connection melt away as the snow thaws? If they’re going to take a chance on finding happiness together, they’ll have to put their differences aside and learn to trust one another.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B

A snowed-in, forced proximity, enemies-to-lovers romance with snarky flirting, a small dollop of angst and Only One Bed? *rubs hands with glee* Count me in! Jay Northcote’s Stuck With You is a sexy, heart-warming tale about finding love and connection when – and with whom – you least expect it.

Patrick and Kyle work at the same medical supplies firm in the north of England, and Patrick, as a senior member of staff, has been Kyle’s mentor while he learns the ropes. The two men are polar opposites; Patrick is quiet and serious (Kyle thinks he’s boring) while Kyle is more outgoing and flamboyant (Patrick thinks he’s an immature party boy) , and they’ve rubbed each other the wrong way since day one. Both of them are thankful that Kyle’s time as Patrick’s mentee is coming to an end; in January, he’ll be flying solo.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Broken Falcon (Evidence #12) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay & Nicol Zanzarella

broken falcon

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Chase Johnston is leading a double life. After two years of psychological torment, the quiet, highly skilled Raptor operative now has a darker side, and he’s hellbent on bringing human-traffickers to justice – using any means necessary. The only relief he finds for his troubled mind is a woman he’ll never meet in person.

Eden O’Keeffe is also leading a double life. By day she’s a grad student and barista, but at night she sits in front of a camera and provides companionship for those seeking entertainment, titillation, or simple conversation. She enjoys the freedom of being a siren online, but her secret career comes with risks that force her to hide her true identity at all costs.

When Chase walks into a coffee shop and comes face to face with the one person who makes him feel again, it seems his long nightmare may be coming to an end. But in entering Eden’s world, he’s bringing that nightmare – and the danger that comes with it – to her doorstep.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

I’ve been eagerly looking forward to Broken Falcon – book twelve in Rachel Grant’s terrific Evidence series – for months. Ms. Grant is my favourite author of romantic suspense, and I’m always impressed by her ability to craft tense and exciting stories with clever plots and interesting, engaging characters. Also, this book’s hero, Chase Johnston, was an important secondary character in Incriminating Evidence, one of my series favourites – if you haven’t read or listened to it, I’d recommend doing so before this, as Chase’s backstory is incredibly important to this story (note – there are spoilers in this review) and given his role in that book, I was especially keen to find out what happened to him ‘after’ and for him to find love and get his own HEA.

When we catch up with Chase at the beginning of the book, we find out that he’s devoting much of his free time to preventing runaway teens from being sucked into a sex-trafficking ring. Together with Isabel Dawson, the wife of Senator – and Raptor boss – Alec Ravissant, Chase helps the teens to get to a shelter set up specially to help prevent them being sent back to abusive family situations. He’s fairly sure the trafficking ring is linked to a legitimate business, a cam-girl site called Cam Dames – although he hasn’t yet been able to find any evidence to tie the two together. On this particular evening, Chase has cut things a bit fine; it takes longer than he’d expected to persuade the girl he’s ‘intercepting’ to go into the next-door coffee shop to meet with Isabel, and she has only just gone inside when a couple of goons show up looking for their quarry. Chase is Raptor’s expert in unarmed combat (having learned martial arts from a very young age, he’s got Mad Ninja Skillz!) and it doesn’t take him long to run them off.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Up in Smoke (Hotshots #4) by Annabeth Albert

up in smoke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Freewheeling smoke jumper Brandt Wilder thrives on adrenaline. He’s never met a parachute he can’t repair or a dangerous situation he couldn’t wrangle his way out of. He’s popular and fun-loving and not at all looking to settle down or form lasting relationships. It’s a lifestyle that’s served him well…right up until the day he finds a baby on his doorstep.

Shane Travis is used to putting his country music career—and his own happiness—on hold after his sister rolls through his life. Like last spring when she convinced him to try skydiving for his birthday—and she walked away with the hot parachute instructor.

Now he gets to deliver the piece of news that will upend Brandt’s carefree life: he very well might be a dad.

Shane’s niece is safe in Brandt’s strong, capable hands, but too many questions remain unanswered. Co-parenting while they sort it out leads to late-night talks, and soul-bearing confessions lead to a most inconvenient attraction. Still, Shane can’t leave this makeshift family behind—even if it means playing house with the one man he can’t resist.

Rating: B

Up in Smoke is the fourth book in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series about wildlife firefighters and smoke jumpers based in rural Oregon, but it’s got a slightly different tone (and a very different sort of cover) to the other books in the series.  Smoke jumping does feature in the story, but it’s more of a backdrop to the main storyline – about how the two leads learn to adapt to the unexpected circumstances in which they find themselves – and the slow-burn romance.

Smoke jumper Brandt Wilder occasionally helps out a friend who runs a sky-diving school.  The clients on this particular afternoon are a brother and sister – Shane and Shelby Travis;  it’s Shane’s birthday and the jump is his sister’s present to him.  Shane is quiet and clearly a bit nervous – and also obviously used to fading into the background around more ebullient sister – but something about him captures Brandt’s attention.  Shane supposes he should have known that Shelby’s sudden interest in jumping out of a plane was somehow related to her interest in a hot guy; Brandt really is gorgeous, but Shane deliberately tamps down the frisson of awareness he feels every time Brandt touches him as he readies them for the tandem jump.  Afterwards, with his feet back safely on the ground, Shane has to admit that the jump really had been exhilarating – and that the short time he’d flown with Brandt Wilder is something he’ll never forget.

Almost a year later, the last thing Brandt could ever have imagined is opening his front door to find Shane Travis on his doorstep – with a baby in tow.   He’s completely stunned when Shane tells him the baby is his, the result of the one-night stand he had with Shelby the night before Shane’s birthday.  He explains that Shelby turned up in Portland (where he was auditioning for a TV talent show) with the baby a few days earlier and was gone the next morning, most likely off to Canada with one of her friends. Brandt can’t believe it – but Shelby named him as baby Jewel’s dad in the note she left for Shane and had Brandt’s name put on the birth certificate.

Shane has spent most of his life clearing up Shelby’s messes, but nothing could have prepared him for being left literally holding the baby.  Unable to bear the idea of Jewel being put into care, Shane decides his only option is to take her to her dad, but it’s only once he’s arrived that he remembers that Brandt – who jumps out of planes to fight fires for a living – is as far from ideal fatherhood material as he is himself;  an itinerant musician trying to build a career isn’t going to be considered able to properly care for an infant either.  But he didn’t know what else to do; he’s worried and sleep deprived, he’s driven for hours to get to Painter’s Ridge and is too tired to be able to make any coherent decisions.  But one thing is clear.  No matter what sort of ‘dad material’ he may be, Brandt is the only person Shane can turn to for help.

Brandt is shell-shocked by the idea of being a dad, but having been a foster kid himself, he likes the idea of handing Jewel over to social services as little as Shane does.  When Shane’s rested and they’re all fed, they talk about the next steps, and when Shane offers to stick around for a while, Brandt offers him the spare room – “two sets of hands is better than one” after all.

Over the following days and weeks, Brandt and Shane go from unexpected roommates to friends, sharing baby duties and bonding over shared new experiences with her. They slowly fall into a routine of caring for Jewel – taking turns at feeding and night-time duty – and caring for each other, preparing meals, sharing chores and shopping trips and generally being a solid support for one another.  I loved watching them doing things together so seamlessly that they don’t quite realise they’re doing it. It’s a really well done getting-to-know-you phase, and alongside it, the attraction that sparked between them a year earlier is bubbling along beneath the surface.  Neither man has a great deal of sexual experience with guys;  Shane isn’t really out – he plays a lot of super rural communities where it’s just easier to keep himself and his sexuality to himself, and Brandt just… likes who he likes and has never felt the need to put a label on it.  He’s been with more women than men, but certainly isn’t averse to a little exploration and fun with Shane.  It doesn’t have to be anything permanent – neither of them is looking for that – but it can be more than a one-time thing (baby duties permitting) for as long as they both want it to be.

Up in Smoke is a quiet, but sexy character-driven romance about two lost souls finding love and purpose and partnership, and building the family neither of them ever had.  It’s a low-conflict, low-angst story; the biggest obstacle to the romance is the fact that both Shane and Brandt have been used to living a rather nomadic lifestyle – unencumbered and going where the work is – and both will finally have to deal with emotional baggage that has made them (understandably) cautious about allowing themselves to trust wholeheartedly in another person.  But ultimately, they’re two decent guys trying to do the best they can in difficult circumstances, and there’s never any doubt that baby Jewel is their priority. Ms. Albert’s descriptions of the challenges involved in parenting a very young baby are pretty spot on, too.

While Shane’s frustration with Shelby is palpable and well-written, neither he nor Brandt hate her for what she did, and I appreciated that she’s never demonised or made out to be the villain of the piece.  Dumping her baby with her brother is a crappy thing to do, and she definitely comes across as somewhat unstable, but she’s troubled, not evil, and needs help.

Shane and Brandt are engaging and easy to root for, their emotional connection comes through strongly and this was an easy book to get lost in. I really liked the descriptions of Shane’s musical talent and songwriting skills, the cameo appearances from Jacob and Linc (Burn Zone), and the way the author still manages to convey the dangerous nature of Brandt’s job even though there isn’t a major fire or incident in the story (a deliberate choice which Ms. Albert explains in her author’s note).  I have a couple of reservations, however; mainly that the guys embark on their fling a bit too quickly, and also that the late-book conflict is maybe a little drawn out for two people who have been communicating so well, but those things apart, Up in Smoke is a nice mixture of sweet and steamy, and I’m happy to recommend both it, and the entire Hotshots series.

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.

All That Remains (Lancaster Falls #3) by R.J. Scott (audiobook) – Narrated by Sean Crisden


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Federal Agent Lucas Beaumont has an agenda – get himself assigned to the case of the apparent serial murders at Lancaster Falls, find out who the murderer is, and then lay the ghosts that haunt his grandfather to rest. In the midst of a horrific murder investigation, the only peace he gets is from simple moments in a warm kitchen, talking to hotel owner, Josh. Attraction to the easygoing man is something he didn’t expect; in doing so, he opens himself to hurt, but at the same time, he begins to fall in love.

Josh is struggling to keep the Falls Hotel, even with every cent he has invested in its upkeep. The one thing keeping him above water is the not entirely legal work he does on the side – a steady income that not even his son knows about. When the FBI takes over his hotel for the duration of the Hell’s Gate serial killer case, Josh is faced with the real possibility that Lucas will not only discover his secret but also steal his heart.

When tragedy hits Josh and his son, and when it seems all hope is lost, can Lucas rescue them both?

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – C-

All That Remains is the third and final book in RJ Scott’s series of romantic suspense novels set in the small Pennsylvania town of Lancaster Falls, and it neatly wraps up the overarching mystery storyline begun in What Lies Beneath and continued through Without a TraceEven though I was disappointed with both the story and narration in the latter book, I decided to listen to All That Remains in hopes that Without a Trace had been suffering from middle-book-itis, and that the series finale would be a stronger listen. Plus, I wanted to find out whodunit!

The series has an overarching plot, so if you still like the sound of it after reading my reviews (!) then this isn’t the place to start. There are spoilers for the previous books in this review.

The discovery of several sets of human remains in a sink hole in Lancaster Falls leads to speculation that one of the bodies is that of Casey McGuire, a young man who went missing a decade earlier, and whose disappearance is still felt keenly by all in the community. The previous book (Without a Trace) focused on the investigation as to whether or not Casey was one of the murder victims and who might have killed him; All That Remains picks up the story shortly after the events of that book, when an FBI team headed by Special Agent Lucas Beaumont arrives in the town to work the investigation into what looks like a string of serial murders of young women.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.