Off Balance (Painted Bay #1) by Jay Hogan

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When JUDAH MADDEN flees his tiny suffocating home town in New Zealand for the dream of international ballet stardom, he never intends coming back. Not to Painted Bay. Not to his family’s struggling mussel farm. Not to his jerk of a brother. Not with his entire life plan in shreds. And certainly not into the tempting arms of MORGAN WIPENE, the older, ruggedly handsome fisheries officer who seems determined to screw with Judah’s intention to wallow in peace.

But dreams are fickle things. Shatter them and it’s hard to pick up the pieces. Hard to believe. Hard to start again.

And the hardest thing of all? Finding the courage to trust in love and build a new dream where you least expected to find it.

Rating: A-

In Off Balance, the first book in her new series of contemporary romances, author Jay Hogan takes a big geographical leap from one end of New Zealand to the other, from the lakes and mountains of the Southland (the setting for her recent Southern Lights books) to the coastal region of subtropical Northland at the northern tip of the North Island, and the small town of Painted Bay. It’s an emotional, powerful story about two very different men who end up back in their home town following tragedy and heartbreak, and how they learn to come to terms with the past and move forward with their lives while also working out how – and if – they can manage to do that together.

Judah Madden got out of Painted Bay as soon as he possibly could, having spent sixteen years never fitting in because he was too flamboyant, too gay and too unwilling to be anything other than who and what he was.  His ticket out was his talent as a dancer; his parents supported him both morally and financially, and helped him to follow his dreams of making it as a ballet dancer, and when we meet him, he’s twenty-five and has already made himself a name as a world-class performer.  But his world comes tumbling down when – during a performance – he has a severe dizzy spell which causes him to fall and then pass out.  Shortly after this, he is diagnosed with Menière’s Disease – a chronic illness which affects the inner ear, causing (among other things) vertigo, tinnitus and potentially, hearing loss.  It’s a condition for which there is no cure.

With no alternative left open to him, Judah returns to Painted Bay to lick his wounds and try to work out what to do next.  The Menière’s means his future employment prospects are severely limited – he can’t drive, he can’t operate machinery – and in any case, the only thing he’s ever trained for, the only thing he’s ever been good at is ballet… which is no longer an option.

Around five years before this, another man whose life had been devastated by tragedy arrived in Painted Bay, needing to get away from the suffocating concern of his family while he worked through his grief.  Fisheries officer Morgan Wipene lost his wife Sally to a particularly aggressive form of cancer, and it hit him hard, but over the years, he’s learned to process his grief and accept her loss, and while he still feels her absence at times, it’s a gentle comfort rather than a searing pain.   After five years, he’s ready to move on; he’s always known he’s bisexual, but has mostly been with women, and had certainly reckoned without being knocked sideways by a gorgeous, smart-mouthed, but obviously deeply wounded (and much younger) man who is not coping well with whatever has brought him back to Painted Bay.

The sparks fly between Judah and Morgan from their very first meeting, and the pull between them only grows stronger as they find out more about each other.  Both men are at difficult places in their lives and know that trying to fit in a new relationship is almost certainly a recipe for disaster, yet the attraction between them is so strong, the chemistry so intense that they also both recognise that they’re not going to be able to keep their hands off each other for very long.  Their mutual attraction builds quickly, which happens often in this author’s novels, but she always takes the time to develop a strong emotional connection as well, so that what starts out looking a bit like insta-lust (and sometimes the mental lusting is just a tad overdone) grows organically into something deeper.

Both characters are well-rounded and skilfully drawn. With the life he’d envisaged for himself in tatters, Judah is struggling to work out who he wants to be and what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  He’s pissy, self-absorbed and narcissistic, full of hate, despair and cynicism, a complete contrast to the confident easy-going individual he used to be.  And he doesn’t know how to pull himself out of the downward spiral. He isn’t taking care of himself properly, he’s depressed and won’t accept help or let anyone in.  He hates being back in a place that so obviously hated him growing up, and worse, he’s come home broken rather than as a man at the top of his profession.  Morgan is able to relate – to an extent – to where Judah’s head is and to his desire to push everyone away, because he’s hit rock bottom, too, and knows what it takes to be able to climb out of the pit.  Yet although he’s put the past into perspective – and I really appreciated the way Sally’s presence in his life is handled in the story – there’s one niggle at the back of his mind that’s holding him back.  They’re at different places in their lives, but both men are dealing with a lot – Judah especially – and the way each is able to provide the support, comfort and understanding the other needs is truly uplifting and immensely satisfying to read.

The first book I read by Jay Hogan, Digging Deep, also featured a character living with a chronic illness, and here, as in that book, the author does a spectacular job when it comes to painting a realistic picture of the way Judah’s condition affects him and the long road ahead of him in learning to adjust and live with it.

There’s an engaging cast of secondary characters (some more likeable than others) including Terry, one of Judah’s few friends from his schooldays and Terry’s nine-year-old daughter Hannah, who has juvenile arthritis, and Leroy, Judah’s brother, who has always resented him and who seems set on making his life even more of a misery.  There are some intriguing relationships being set up and characters I’m hoping to see more of later in the series.

Off Balance is a poignant, angsty and passionate story about love, loss and new beginnings, about finding the strength to overcome adversity, and the importance of knowing when and how to accept help. There’s family drama and a bit of suspense (as Morgan works to bring down a local poaching ring), and as in the author’s Southern Lights series, the locations and scenery are described in such a way as to be almost characters in the story themselves.  All in all, it’s a terrific start to this new series, and I’m really looking forward to my next visit to Painted Bay.

Common Goal (Game Changers #4) by Rachel Reid

This title may be purchased from Amazon

New York Admirals goalie Eric never thought his friends-with-benefits arrangement with much-younger Kyle would leave them both wanting more…

Veteran goaltender Eric Bennett has faced down some of the toughest shooters on the ice, but nothing prepared him for his latest challenge—life after hockey. It’s time to make some big changes, starting with finally dating men for the first time.

Graduate student Kyle Swift moved to New York nursing a broken heart. He’d sworn to find someone his own age to crush on (for once). Until he meets a gorgeous, distinguished silver fox hockey player. Despite their intense physical attraction, Kyle has no intention of getting emotionally involved. He’ll teach Eric a few tricks, have some mutually consensual fun, then walk away.

Eric is more than happy to learn anything Kyle brings to the table. And Kyle never expected their friends-with-benefits arrangement to leave him wanting more. Happily-ever-after might be staring them in the face, but it won’t happen if they’re too stubborn to come clean about their feelings.

Everything they both want is within reach… They just have to be brave enough to grab it.

Rating: A-

Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series of hockey romances continues with Common Goal, the fourth book in the set and easily one of the best.  It’s a gorgeous May/December romance between a silver-fox goalie close to retirement, and a bartender sixteen years his junior; it’s tender, funny, emotional and hot as hell – and don’t be surprised if it makes an appearance on my Best of 2020 list.  I loved it.

New York Admirals Goalkeeper Eric Bennett is approaching his forty-first birthday and has reached the decision that this season will be his last.  He’s in good shape and still playing well, but the career of a professional athlete is tough on the body and Eric wants to quit while he’s ahead and walk away while he can still walk!  The trouble is that he doesn’t have much of an idea as to where he wants to go from here, and in addition to that, he’s struggling with being newly single following his divorce a year earlier from his wife of sixteen years, and with his sexual identity.  He’s always known he’s attracted to men as well as women but had chosen to ignore that side of himself; he’d been happily married and had no reason to think about it.  But now, with high-profile players like team captain Scott Hunter (Game Changer) openly out and proud and about to marry his fiancé, and other athletes being open about their sexuality, Eric is re-examining his choices. Facing a huge life change in terms of his career – and a lonely retirement – maybe it’s time to make another change and finally start to live as his truest self.  But he’s been out of the dating game for such a long time, he isn’t sure how to go about dating anyone, let alone dating a man for the first time.

Grad student Kyle Swift is twenty-five and works as a bartender at The Kingfisher, a local gay bar that has grown in popularity since Scott Hunter started frequenting it.  Kyle came to New York following an experience with an older, married man that left him badly burned and continues to haunt him, even seven years later. After that, he vowed to steer clear of older men, but they do it for him in a way most younger men don’t – and although he’s noticed Eric the few times he’s been into the bar with Scott, Kyle reminds himself that while Eric is exactly his type, he’s also exactly the type of man he shouldn’t allow himself to fall for any more.

On the night of Scott and Kip’s engagement party, Kyle’s resolve is tested when Eric actually initiates a conversation with him.  The older man’s confidence is hard to resist, especially when it seems as though Eric might actually be flirting with him, and they chat for a while, discovering a mutual love of art and books and travel.  By the end of the evening, Kyle is cursing a universe that has thrown this gorgeous, perfect and completely off limits man into his path, and Eric is wondering just how much of a mid-life crisis stereotype he’s become by even contemplating dating a man so much younger than he is.

What follows is a sexy, slow-burn romance (with an emphasis on the ‘burn’ because – phew! *fans self*) which starts out as Kyle offering to teach Eric a few things in a safe, non-judgmental way about the world of dating (and having “sexy times” with) men, but which ends up becoming so much more than ‘just’ a physical relationship. In fact, it’s clear to the reader very early on that there’s no ‘just’ about it when it comes to these two; they’re a perfect match on every level – intellectually and physically – but although they’re generally honest with each other, they’re both struggling with baggage and preconceptions that make it difficult for them to open up about how they really feel.

Both characters are genuine, good people who are extremely likeable and very well-drawn, and the chemistry between them is electric.  Eric is – it seems to me – a pretty atypical sportsman hero; he’s got a degree in English from Harvard, he’s a connoisseur of fine art, and he’s well-travelled; I liked that he was so keen to fully embrace his bisexuality and really appreciated his quietly introspective manner and self-awareness.  He knows that what he’s really looking for is companionship and someone to share his life with; not that the hot sex he’s having with Kyle isn’t all sorts of amazing, but Eric has never been one for casual sex.  He wants more than that, but is concerned that his being so much older than Kyle is somehow unfair to him, thinking that Kyle really should be with someone closer to his own age.  He’s also worried on his own account – a recent divorcé dating a pretty young thing is going to make him look like the worst kind of dirty old man.

The age-gap isn’t so much of an issue for Kyle; he has a history of falling for the wrong men, usually older men who only see him as a fun time, and part of him thinks he’s not good enough for a sophisticated, cultured man like Eric.  His outgoing nature is the perfect counterpoint to Eric’s more cautious one, and the author does a great job of developing their relationship out of the bedroom – where they clearly have a lot in common and enjoy each other’s company as equals –  as well as in it – where Kyle takes the lead and Eric is only too happy to let him. But Kyle’s doubts are as difficult to overcome as Eric’s, and unless one of them can find the courage to risk laying his heart on the line, they might end up missing out on the best thing ever to happen to either of them.

If I have a complaint about Common Goal, it’s that perhaps the age-gap hand-wringing goes on a little too long, and the lack of communication that piled up was frustrating, but in the end, they were only minor irritants.  Reader favourites Ilya and Shane make cameo appearances – mostly Ilya who, of course, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, with his wicked sense of humour and arseholic-but-impossible-to-dislike personality – and we also get to see Scott and Kip finally tie the knot.  Rachel Reid’s writing is accomplished and direct, the dialogue is sharp, and the sex scenes, besides being superbly written, are integral to the character and relationship development rather than being there for the sake of it.  If you’re following the Game Changers series then you definitely won’t want to miss Common Goal; it’s warm and tender and charming (and, did I mention hella sexy?) and I finished it with a happy sigh and a fond smile on my face.  Definitely one for the keeper shelf.

In the Solace (Metahuman Files #6) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Built to carry you.

Jamie Callahan is looking forward to spending the rest of his life with Kyle Brannigan. They’ve overcome impossible odds, and the only thing left to do is walk down the aisle together. Despite the happiness they’ve earned, their enemies haven’t all disappeared.

Make it to the other side.

Colonel Liam Wessex is thrilled his best friend is getting married, but it’s just further proof that his own life is breaking apart. With his classified identity revealed to the public, Liam is struggling with the transition into civilian life. Becoming reacquainted with MI6 Agent Oliver Archer forces Liam to reconcile his past actions with a future that just might be the answer to all of his problems.

It’s not over, it’s just the start.

Oliver thought he’d done enough to cut Liam out of his life. When their professional lives collide, he’s forced to accept the fact that Liam is no longer the spoiled prince he once knew. When terrorists target London and the unthinkable happens, Oliver and Liam learn that second chances come with a price neither can afford to pay.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Note: The Metahuman Files is a series in which overarching plotlines mean all the books need to be listened to in order; there are spoilers for earlier books in this review.

When I listened to In the Requiem, book five in Hailey Turner’s gripping series of action-packed, sexy futuristic thrillers, it was billed as the last (full-length book) in the series. The main couples got their HEAs, the bad guys were defeated and the group of characters I’d come to know and love over five brilliant books all got to head off into the sunset and pastures new. Ms Turner did, however, leave one major plot-thread hanging and has kept that going through the couple of novellas she’s published since In the Requiem came out, and I – along with many fans – was expecting that one of those novellas would tie up that loose end and also bring us Jamie and Kyle’s wedding. Earlier this year, the author sprung a very well-kept surprise on us by announcing that there would be a sixth (and this time, definitely final) book in the series – and it not only ties up the plot, and shows us the wedding, it also gives us a story for Liam Wessex, a major secondary character in the series who quickly became a favourite with readers – who just as quickly started to ask when Ms. Turner would write a story for him.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Three Fantasies by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews

three fantasies

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Note: The three novellas in this collection – two co-authored by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews, the third by Leta Blake, solo – have been previously published.

Rating: C+

Levity (previously published as Earthly Desires) and Flight (previously published as Love’s Nest) were originally part of a three part series of Gay Fairy Tales, and are, respectively, retellings and reworkings of The Light Princess, a Scottish fairy tale published in 1864, and the more well-known The Twelve Dancing Princesses, as published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.  The style of the storytelling in both works well to create the overall ‘feel’ of a fairy story, and there’s magic and true love and princes, princesses, fae and witches galore.  Oh, and lots more sex than is to be found in either of the originals!

Levity: A Gay Fairy Tale by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews (2012)

Cursed as an infant with a lack of physical and emotional gravity, Prince Efrosin can’t keep his feet on the ground or his head out of the clouds. Laughing his way through life, he’s never been weighed down by love and lust. When his tenuous tie to the earth is severed, he blows away on the wind. Rescued by Dmitri, an equally cursed woodsman, the two men are irresistibly drawn together. But Efrosin and Dmitri must fight free of their curses in order to find their fairy tale ending and live happily ever after.

Rating: C+

Prince Efrosin is cursed to a life devoid of physical or emotional gravity.  Always tethered, lest he float away and become lost forever, he floats – literally – through life without a care in the world, unable to experience any of the weighty emotions, or even to understand them, which often leads to his responding to such things in a completely inappropriate manner.  The only place he’s different is in the water, where his late mother’s magical gift prevents him from floating away and enables him to experience emotions more normally.

Carried away by the wind one day, he’s rescued from a tree by a handsome woodsman named Dmitri, who was cursed by a witch to be unable to ever leave the land in which he lives.  He’s bound to the earth and able only to imagine all the far off places he would love to see.  Thus Levity is the story of how the earth-bound woodsman and gravity-less prince find freedom and love.

It’s all quite silly – it’s a fairy tale! – but it’s entertaining and there’s plenty of hot sex if that’s what you’re here for (although the lubeless shagging on the riverbank… ouch?).  Like most fairy tales, there’s an evil witch putting a spanner in the works, a rescue to be performed and a sacrifice to be made before our heroes can reach their HEA, which – also like most fairy tales – is a sufficiently gruesome one (it put me in mind of Ashputtel’s sisters trying to get the slipper to fit!)  Levity is cute, sexy and imaginative, and, despite the title, not without some heavier themes.

Flight: A Gay Fairy Tale by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews (2013)

There’s no greater mystery in the kingdom than where Prince Mateo’s sisters disappear to each night. The king is determined to discover where they go and issues a challenge to all the nobles to help him learn their secret. Hoping to protect them, Mateo hides beneath a magic cloak and follows his sisters to an enchanted world of fairies and lusty delights.

Ópalo has waited years to finally meet his human lover. But while Mateo soon succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh, he refuses to surrender his heart so easily. As their worlds collide, Ópalo has to risk everything to win his man forever.

Rating: C

The longest of the three stories, Flight follows the storyline of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, although in this version, there are eleven princesses and one prince, who has not been included in the mysterious nightly excursions that ruin his sisters’ shoes!  When the King issues a decree that whoever can find out where his daughters are going at night can marry any of his children (including Mateo) Mateo is furious at the idea that he could be offered up as a reward and decides to find out what is going on himself.

Ópalo is the youngest of the twelve fae princes and princesses who await their human brides every night.  His bride has not so far arrived, but his patience is rewarded when, at last, Mateo appears.  For three days and nights (time works differently in fairy land!) Ópalo woos Mateo; unlike his brothers and sister, he warns Mateo not to eat anything while he’s there, as otherwise, he’ll be permanently bound to Ópalo.  Mateo is momentarily outraged at the thought that his sisters have been unwillingly enchanted, but Ópalo is quick to reassure him that they ate the fairy cakes they were offered completely of their own volition.  He knows Mateo is his fate, but wants him to want to be with him; and Mateo makes it clear early on that his heart and his love are his to give, and that he’s determined to make his own decision.

That was the most interesting aspect of the story, and it was kind of a double-edged sword.  I liked the emphasis that Mateo placed on making his own choices, but on the other, his refusal to admit that he and Ópalo are destined – and his insistence on not wanting to love anyone – caused Ópalo unnecessary hurt.  That didn’t stop them from having lots of energetic sex though 😉

There’s a dramatic denouement that sees Mateo forced to make a choice – but even then, he’s not all in with it – and the ending was something of an anticlimax; it just seemed to fizzle out and we never got to see Mateo actually commit.  Flight started well but got a bit repetitive around the middle and the ending was disappointing.

Angel Undone: An Urban Fantasy by Leta Blake (2016)

The Archangel Michael is tired. He fought wars and shoved his brother Lucifer out of heaven all before the Dark Ages rolled around. His role as protector of Israel now encompasses all of humanity, and while he performs his job perfectly, there’s little personal joy in it.

Until one night in a bar when he meets Asher.

Michael isn’t sure what it is about the vulnerable, self-deprecating Asher that calls to him, but something about his restrained depths, gentle smiles, and encyclopedic knowledge of flowers tugs at Michael in a way that can’t be denied. Too bad romance isn’t part of his mission.

Rating: B-

This story by Leta Blake isn’t a fairytale retelling; rather, it’s a modern fable – sort of.  The Archangel Michael is frequently sent to Earth to help or protect humans, and on the night this story opens, he’s been instructed to connect with Asher Rosenthal, a depressed, lonely forty-year-old man who has lost his job and been rejected by his family after coming out.  He’s drinking heavily on the verge of making a decision that could cost him his life; Michael steps in and engages him in conversation, and very soon and finds himself in the grip of an intense attraction, the like of which he hasn’t felt in centuries.  He’s done his job and saved Asher… but for Michael, one night isn’t enough and even though he knows he shouldn’t, he arranges to see Asher the next night. And the next.  Even though he fears his Father’s wrath and being cast out, Michael can’t give Asher up.

Most of this story deals with Michael’s conflicting thoughts and desires, and while Asher is sweet (and there’s plenty of angelic sexytimes!) he’s not especially well-developed.  I enjoyed the scenes between Michael and Lucifer, who Michael asks about what it’s like to truly fall (if this was a movie, he’d have all the best lines (!) and steal every scene he was in). Lucifer never passes up a chance to provoke Michael into rebellion against their Father, but even though he’s supposed to be the bad guy, he does listen to Michael and try to help him out.

Angel Undone ended up being my favourite of the three, and I would have given it a higher rating had it not been for the sudden time-jump near the end.  I’m not sure what the author was trying to achieve – a last minute bit of conflict, perhaps? But whatever it was, it felt off, and I knocked half a grade point off because of it.  I found the premise an interesting one and would have liked it to have been more thoroughly explored, together with more development in terms of the romance and the characterisation of Asher.

I’ve read and listened to several books by Leta Blake and Keira Andrews over the last year or so and they’re both firmly on my radar as authors whose work I enjoy and will always look for. But these novellas, while well-written and imaginative, didn’t quite hit the spot.  I enjoyed reading them, but they’re not stories I’m likely to revisit.

Reverb (Twisted Wishes #3) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The tougher they are, the harder they fall.

Twisted Wishes bass player Mish Sullivan is a rock goddess – gorgeous, sexy, and comfortable in the spotlight. With fame comes unwanted attention, though: A stalker is desperate to get close. Mish can fend for herself, just as she always has. But after an attack lands her in the hospital, the band reacts, sticking her with a bodyguard she doesn’t need or want.

David Altet has an instant connection with Mish. A certified badass, this ex-army martial-arts expert can take down a man twice his size. But nothing – not living as a trans man, not his intensive military training – prepared him for the challenge of Mish. Sex with her is a distraction neither of them can afford, yet the hot, kink-filled nights keep coming.

When Mish’s stalker ups his game, David must make a choice – lover or bodyguard. He’d rather have Mish alive than in his bed. But Mish wants David, and no one, especially not a stalker, will force her to give him up.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

I’ve been really enjoying Anna Zabo’s series about the members of the rock group Twisted Wishes. When we first met them in Syncopation, they were on the verge of making it big, and by the time of Counterpoint, their position as one of the most famous bands around had been cemented. Reverb finds the group about to go on tour once again, this time as a headlining act, and now it’s the turn of bassist Mish Sullivan to get her happy ever after.

Beautiful, confident and talented, Mish has always seemed like the glue that has – on occasion – held Twisted Wishes together. She’s not had an easy life, having lost the mother she loved dearly to cancer when she was in her teens, but she’s moved on and made a successful life for herself with the band, who are her family. But the sort of fame she’s now enjoying brings problems of its own; over the last few months, Mish has been receiving threatening emails from an obsessive fan who is clearly stalking her. She’s tried to play it down, but when she’s attacked by a (different) fan wielding a pair of scissors (wanting to cut off a lock of hair) Ray Van Zeller decides it’s time to step up their security and hires ex-military martial arts expert David Altet as protection for them all – but really, to act as a bodyguard for Mish.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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


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.