Out of Character (True Colours #2) by Annabeth Albert

out of character

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Jasper Quigley is tired of being everyone’s favorite sidekick. He wants to become the hero of his own life, but that’s not going to happen if he agrees to help out his former best friend turned king of the jocks, Milo Lionetti. High school was miserable enough, thanks, and Jasper has no interest in dredging up painful memories of his old secret crush.

But Milo’s got nowhere else to go. His life is spiraling out of control and he’s looking to turn things back around. Step one? Replace the rare Odyssey cards he lost in an idiotic bet. Step two? Tell his ex-best-friend exactly how he feels—how he’s always felt.

Jasper may be reluctant to reopen old wounds, but he never could resist Milo. There’s a catch, though: if Milo wants his help, he’s going to have to pitch in to make the upcoming children’s hospital charity ball the best ever. But as the two don cosplay for the kids and hunt for rare cards, nostalgia for their lost friendship may turn into something even more lasting…

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert’s  Out of Character, the follow up to last year’s Conventionally Yours, features two guys who were firm friends until high-school, when expectations and peer pressure ended their friendship.  It’s a cute, (former) friends-to-lovers romance featuring two likeable characters who have a lot to learn – and re-learn – about each other as they reconnect through a quest to track down some rare Odyssey game cards.

We met Jasper Quigley in the previous book, in which he was due to accompany his friends and fellow gamers Alden and Conrad to Odyssey Con West, a massive fan convention in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, Jasper had to pull out at the last minute because his younger sister April – who suffers from a rare immune system disorder – became seriously ill and he had to return home.  Several months later finds Jasper, who is in his final year of college, still working at a local game shop, making regular appearances on the Gamer Grandpa vlog, and also spending time volunteering in the children’s ward at the local hospital, where he and a group of friends cosplay various Odyssey characters and play games with some of the kids there.   When the book opens though, he’s down a prince for the next visit – Prince Neptune to be specific – one of the most popular (if not the most popular) characters in the game and with the kids, and he’s running out of time to come up with a suitable replacement.

Fortunately, however, Jasper’s prince does, indeed, come.  Unfortunately, it’s in the form of someone he’d hoped never to have to have much to do with again, his former best friend, Milo Lionetti.  Milo’s Italianate good looks make him a perfect prince – on paper at least, because his long ago behaviour towards Jasper wasn’t at all princely.

Jasper and Milo grew up together and were practically inseparable, but that changed when they went to high school and Milo got picked for the soccer team.  Wanting a place at the cool kids’ table – and not wanting to be singled out for his choice of a nerdy gay boy as his best friend – Milo turned his back on Jasper and watched from the sidelines, saying nothing as the Jock crowd dished out insults to Jasper and anyone else who dared to be smart, nerdy or anything other than a vapid clone.  Jasper made new friends and moved on, although he hasn’t forgotten what Milo did, or forgiven him for it.  So Milo is the last person Jasper expects to be coming to him for help.

A few nights earlier, Milo had a bit too much to drink and ended up losing four of his older brother Bruno’s Odyssey cards, four cards which happen to be incredibly rare and worth thousands of dollars.  Bruno is in the military and is currently stationed overseas; Milo can’t bear to have to own up to yet another screw up – he’s already caused his mother and brother enough worry over the last few years – and wants to replace the cards before Bruno’s next leave, which is a matter of weeks away.   Jasper doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy for him and at first, he wonders if he’s being pranked, but he soon realises that Milo is serious, and that his distress is real.  So he offers Milo a deal.  In return for Jasper’s help in tracking down the cards, Milo has to be Prince Neptune on their next cosplay session at the hospital.  With absolutely no other option open to him, Milo agrees.

That’s the set up for what opens out into a charming and heart-warming story of two young men whose lives went in different directions finding their way back to each other.  After the cosplay session, Jasper starts looking for the cards Milo needs, and the two of them end up searching various sites and online markets, solving puzzles, doing a treasure hunt and going to an Odyssey tournament together.  To his surprise, Milo starts to enjoy the cosplaying and the visits to the hospital as well, and all the time he and Jasper spend together give them the opportunity to talk about what happened to their friendship and to get to know  each other as the people they are now.

Jasper is an absolute sweetheart; intelligent, up-beat and generous of spirit, he loves helping people and is always on hand to crack a joke or offer support.  But he chafes a bit at being the ‘sidekick’ – the dependable one who isn’t ‘the best’ at anything, and longs to be someone’s hero.  Milo has had a tough few years; he went off the rails a bit after his father died and now sees himself as a screw-up who can do nothing right and is going nowhere.  But although Jasper is initially suspicious of Milo’s motives, he quickly realises that Milo wants to change and do better, and I loved how his support and belief in Milo spur him on and help him to see that he’s capable of more than he’d believed.   Milo grows an awful lot throughout the novel, and his redemption as a character and as a friend is very well done.  I liked the neat bit of role-reversal here, too, with Jasper being the confident, outgoing one and Milo the quiet, artistic one who has, despite being a member of the ‘in-crowd’ been more alone than Jasper ever has.

The chemistry that hums between them is palpable, and their romance is sweet and full of genuine affection as Jasper helps Milo navigate his way through the newness of a relationship (with a lovely, subtle emphasis on consent) and there’s a real sense of give and take as they talk and listen and work through their issues together – and Jasper becomes Milo’s hero and Milo embraces his true self and learns to forgive himself.

As I said in my review of the previous book, I know nothing about gaming and it’s not something that has ever really interested me, but Annabeth Albert writes about it here with such affection and authority that she made me care about it because the characters care about it so much.

Milo and Jasper are well-rounded characters, and Milo, in particular, undergoes a tremendous amount of well-written and organic personal growth throughout the story.  Out of Character is a low-angst, feel-good romance about second chances, being brave and being true to yourself and others, and I’m happy to recommend it.

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.

TBR Challenge: Served Hot (Portland Heat #1) by Annabeth Albert

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Portland, Oregon, the only thing hotter than the coffee shops, restaurants, and bakeries are the hard-working men who serve it up—hot, fresh, and ready to go—with no reservations… Robby is a self-employed barista with a busy coffee cart, a warm smile, and a major crush on one of his customers. David is a handsome finance director who works nearby, eats lunch by himself, and expects nothing but “the usual”—small vanilla latte—from the cute guy in the cart. But when David shows up for his first Portland Pride festival, Robby works up the nerve to take their slow-brewing relationship to the next level. David, however, is newly out and single, still grieving the loss of his longtime lover, and unsure if he’s ready to date again. Yet with every fresh latte, sweet exchange—and near hook-up—David and Robby go from simmering to steaming to piping hot. The question is: Will someone get burned?

Rating: B

I was a bit pushed for reading time this month (too many new releases to review!) and I was actively looking for a fairly short read to fulfil this month’s prompt, so I was pleased when I came across Served Hot on my Kindle. I’m a big fan of Annabeth Albert’s books, but I’m still playing catch-up with her backlist; Served Hot dates from 2015 and is the first book in her six-part  Portland Heat series of novella-length stories featuring guys who work in the restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and bars of the city.  It’s short, sweet and sexy and the author packs a decent amount of character and relationship development and a lot of heart into the limited page count.

Self-employed barista Robby Edwards enjoys working his busy coffee cart in the Old Emerson building in Portland, and the highlight of his day is the arrival of David Gregory, an attractive, well-dressed guy who always buys a vanilla latte and sits at one of the nearby tables to eat his (obviously home-made) lunch, alone.  They don’t do much more than exchange pleasantries or talk about the weather, and even though Robby doesn’t know if David is gay, he has a major crush – but no idea how to go about striking up an actual conversation and maybe even flirting a little bit.

When Robby decides to go for it and mentions he’s going to Portland Pride that weekend, he can’t help being a bit disappointed when David doesn’t react and seems to withdraw a little. He wonders if he’d have been better not to have said anything at all.  So he’s absolutely delighted when David shows up after all and makes it clear he’s there for Robby.  They spend a little time talking and share a sweet (but not quite chaste) kiss before they part having arranged to see each other again soon.

The next time we see David and Robby, they’ve been dating for about six weeks… and Robby is starting to get a little frustrated.  Not just sexually (although he’s that, too) but because he’s falling hard for David and isn’t sure where he stands with him.  He’s wary of pushing too hard and scaring him off – while David is clearly not quite sure how to be in an openly out relationship.  He’s not closeted – not any more – and when we learn his backstory, his inability to move forward is easy to understand, although that doesn’t excuse the fact that he doesn’t always treat Robby fairly.

Despite that however, David is a very sympathetic character and it’s easy to root for him to be able to get past his issues so that he can be with Robby, because there’s no question these two belong together.  Robby is smart and funny and a bit insecure, and I liked that he recognises his flaws and owns them.  He’s very well fleshed-out considering this is such a short book and I enjoyed spending time in his head.  And although we don’t get David’s perspective, Ms. Albert does a terrific job of bringing him to life through Robby’s eyes; he’s shy and endearing, and his backstory is heartbreakingly realistic.  And in fact, I loved how real this story was –  Robby and David aren’t stunningly handsome billionaries; they have normal jobs, and they talk about normal things like money and food and friends and family.

The story is told in four sections that take place over just under a year, so there are time jumps, but the format works. One criticism I often make of novellas is that the romance is rushed, but that’s not the case here as we get to see the different stages of Robby and David’s relationship as they both navigate unfamiliar waters and learn – together – what a healthy relationship looks like and how to deal with fears and problems just like every couple has to.

Served Hot is a charming read, a warm, feel-good story with just the right amount of angst (and steam!) featuring two likeable characters, and I’m looking forward to reading more in the Portland Heat series.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.

Audio

When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

Burn Zone (Hotshots #1) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Smokejumper Lincoln Reid is speechless to see Jacob Hartman among his squad’s new recruits. Linc had promised his late best friend he’d stay away from his little brother. And yet here Jacob is…and almost instantly, the same temptation Linc has always felt around him is causing way too many problems.

Jacob gets everyone’s concerns, but he’s waited years for his shot at joining the elite smokejumping team, hoping to honor his brother’s memory. He’s ready to tackle any challenge Linc throws his way, and senses the chemistry between them – chemistry Linc insists on ignoring – is still alive and kicking. This time, Jacob’s determined to get what he wants.

Close quarters and high stakes make it difficult for Linc to keep his resolve, nevermind do so while also making sure the rookie’s safe. But the closer they get, the more Linc’s plan to leave at the end of the season risks him breaking another promise: the one his heart wants to make to Jacob.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B+

Book one in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series about the members of the elite wildland firefighter crew based in central Oregon, Burn Zone is a sexy age-gap romance between two smoke jumpers (and I had to look up exactly what that job is!) – Lincoln Reid, who’s been on the job for a number of years, and rookie Jacob Hartman – who happens to be the younger brother of Linc’s best friend Wyatt.

When the book opens, we meet Linc and Wyatt as they’re finishing up with an end-of-season situation check. Wyatt is pissed because nineteen-year-old Jacob came out to the family at the Sunday dinner table, and although he doesn’t say it in so many words, he obviously thinks that Linc had something to do with it. Wyatt is one of the very few people in their small hometown – or at work – who knows Linc is gay, but even though his subtle and not-so-subtle homophobia has dented their lifelong friendship, the pair have remained friends, because Wyatt and the entire Hartman clan have been more Linc’s family than Linc’s own ever was. But Jacob hasn’t made much of a secret of his huge crush on Linc, and Wyatt angrily tells to Linc to keep his hands off – no matter that Linc has never planned to go there with Jacob, even though he’s cute and his youthful confidence and warm smile are very attractive.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Feel the Fire (Hotshots #3) by Annabeth Albert

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Fire behavior specialist Luis Riviera goes where his job takes him. But when he’s assigned to an arson investigation in Central Oregon—the place he left his broken heart twenty years ago—he’s afraid of being burned all over again.

Tucker Ryland had planned to join his first love, Luis, in LA after high school graduation, but life got in the way. Now a fire management expert and a divorced father of teen twins, Tucker’s thrown for a loop when he finds himself working side by side with his Luis, now all grown up and more intriguing than ever.

Though consumed by a grueling fire season and family responsibilities, the two men discover their bond has never truly broken. Tentative kisses turn to passionate nights. But smoking sheets aside, old hurts and new truths stand in the way of this time being the start of forever.

Rating: A-

Book three in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series is a second-chance romance between two men – best friends – who fell in love as teens, but were parted when one family moved away and their plans to be together didn’t work out. It’s a trope I generally enjoy, and I’m pleased to say that my expectations were met; Feel the Fire is a poignant, sexy and satisfying romance featuring likeable, complex characters whose intense emotional connection leaps off the page.

California-based fire behaviour specialist Luis Rivera isn’t too pleased at being asked to head up to central Oregon for a few weeks to help out at the Painter’s Ridge airbase, but the hotshot crew there is seriously shorthanded at a time they’re having to deal with a spate of fires they believe to be the result of arson.  This sort of thing isn’t unusual; ever tightening budgets and hiring freezes mean Luis has been ‘loaned out’ to other forest services before, but Painter’s Ridge holds painful memories and is somewhere he’d never planned to go back to.  Still, he can’t really refuse, especially as his particular area of expertise is likely to be useful in helping to capture the arsonist – and in any case, he’s unlikely to run into the guy who broke his heart twenty years before.  Most likely, Tucker is happily running the family ranch with his wife and passel of kids.

Tucker Ryland and Luis more or less grew up together and were each other’s first love.  When they were sixteen, Luis’ family moved to California, and the plan was for Tucker to move to be with him as soon as possible, but those plans had to be put on hold when Tucker’s dad had a heart attack and Tucker was needed on the family ranch.  Time dragged on with Tucker stuck in Oregon and Luis not-so-patiently waiting for Tucker to join him – but eventually, and with no idea of when Tucker would be able to get away, that patience ran out, and things between them didn’t end well. Twenty years later, Tucker gets one helluva shock when he realises that the arson specialist coming to Painter’s Ridge on temporary assignment from the Angeles National Forest is the same boy – well, man now – who’d left town with Tucker’s heart all those years ago.

Their first meeting is somewhat awkward to say the least, as they try to reconcile their memories with the reality of each other as they are now.  Neither is quite sure how to handle it; they were everything to each other once upon a time and now, they’re practically strangers.  Tucker can feel the anger coming off Luis in waves; he knows they’ll have to talk at some point, but he’s not looking forward to it.  And Luis… well, his anger is down to the fact that he doesn’t want to have to deal with the old hurts and memories seeing Tucker again has brought to the surface.  Yet it’s very quickly apparent that whatever the cause of the tension and frustration each can sense coming from the other, there’s something else there, too, some little, long buried spark that neither man is actually sure he wants but can’t fail to recognise.  Before long, that spark ignites (pun intended!) and the soul-deep connection the two men feel carries over into an intense physical relationship. But Luis’ presence in Oregon was always going to be temporary, and the supreme irony that they’re going end up exactly where they were twenty years earlier is not lost on either of them.  They’re no longer teens who think the world well lost for love, they’re grown men who have put down roots and made lives and careers for themselves. So the question now is – are they prepared to do what it takes in order to make a life together?

Feel the Fire is an expertly crafted, character-driven romance, and Annabeth Albert does a wonderful job of showing Luis and Tucker getting past that initial awkwardness, then gradually getting to know the men they are now and essentially falling in love all over again.  While the arson plotline is the main impetus for bringing the couple back together, it’s very much a secondary storyline because the main focus is firmly on the relationship, which develops organically and in a way that is refreshingly mature because of the way that Luis and Tucker are so honest with each other. They talk things through, admit their mistakes, and display a degree of acceptance and understanding (I loved that Luis was always so careful to check with Tucker – who is demisexual – about his limits) that not only feels absolutely right for a couple in their mid-thirties, but also provides an interesting and effective contrast with their rather idealistic romance when they were teens.  I’ve read some early reviews that criticised the book’s pacing for being on the slow side, but I’d have to disagree; the pacing is realistic given Luis and Tucker haven’t seen each other for twenty years and have to get to know each other again, and also, because they’re adults with adult responsibilities and a couple of decades of emotional baggage under their belts, they are naturally more cautious and often have other people and situations to consider before they act.

In Tucker’s case those responsibilities are his twin sons, Wade and Walker, who are seventeen and approaching big changes in their lives.  They’re as different as chalk and cheese; Wade is a real extrovert – outgoing, lively and says whatever comes into his head – and looking forward to leaving home for college, while Walker is quieter and more cautious, clearly struggling with something and not wanting to talk about it.  Wade’s enthusiastic matchmaking for his dad is funny and oddly sweet (I had to laugh when he gave Tucker a box of condoms and told him to have fun!). They’re well-rounded characters in their own right, and their relationships with each other and Tucker are very well written.  I appreciated that Tucker’s ex-wife isn’t demonised and that we’re shown them successfully co-parenting the twins and being supportive of each other.

As I’ve noted in the previous books, the author’s research into the work of the people involved in wildfire fighting is excellent and used to very good effect, and I love that this series features characters in very unusual professions.  Feel the Fire is my favourite Hotshots book so far – it’s a romantic, touching story about rediscovery and reconnection – and realising it’s never too late to follow your dreams.

High Heat (Hotshots #2) by Annabeth Albert


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Smoke jumping is Garrick Nelson’s life. Nothing, not severe injuries nor the brutal physical therapy that follows, is going to stop him from getting back with his crew. But when a lost dog shows up on his front porch, he can’t turn her away, and he can’t take care of her on his own. Thankfully, help comes in the form of his new sexy, dog-loving neighbor. As they work together, trying to re-home their little princess, Garrick can’t resist his growing attraction for the other man, even though he knows this guy isn’t the staying type.

Rain Fisher doesn’t take anything too seriously. He dances through life, one adventure at a time, never settling in one place for too long. When his hot, conveniently buff, neighbor shows up on his doorstep, dog in tow, Rain’s determined to not just save the adorable puppy, but her reluctant owner as well. He never expects their flirtation might tempt him into stay put once and for all…

Rating: B

High Heat, book two in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series, picks up the story of Garrick Nelson, one of the crew of Smoke Jumpers based near the fictional town of Painter’s Ridge in central Oregon. Garrick was badly injured during a jump at the end of book one, Burn Zone, breaking both his legs and incurring a spinal injury, but by the time High Heat opens some six months later, he’s out of hospital and back at home.  He’s still undergoing intense physical therapy and gets around on crutches or in a wheelchair, and he’s absolutely determined he’s going to get back to doing the job he loves – no matter how hard he has to work and train, smoke jumping is all he’s ever wanted to do and he’s completely focused on getting back on the team.

When an injured dog shows up at his front door, Garrick heads over to his neighbour’s house to ask for help – Shirley has dogs and hopefully will be able to lend him a leash and know which vet to call.  To his surprise, it’s not Shirley who opens the door but a gorgeous young man he quickly realises must be her grandson.  Also a surprise is the zing of attraction Garrick feels – something he hasn’t experienced much of since the accident.

Vivacious, quirky Rain Fisher has come to live with his grandmother for a few months while he figures out what he wants to do and where he wants to go next, and he’s definitely noticed her distractingly hot neighbour.  He helps Garrick get the injured dog – whom they name Cookie – to the vet and decides to encourage him to keep her, at least until a suitable ‘forever home’ can be found.  Back at Garrick’s house, Rain offers to help get Cookie settled, and then to come over to take her for walks; and when Garrick points out that Rain shouldn’t have to give up his time each day to do that, Rain has a ready answer.  He wants to get a job on a hotshot crew, and needs to make sure he’ll meet the fitness requirements.  Given his background, Garrick knows exactly what Rain will have to be able to do and how best to get into shape, so Rain suggests that in return for helping out with Cookie, Garrick becomes his (sort of) personal trainer and helps him work towards passing the fitness tests.

What starts out as Rain calling in to pick up Cookie for her twice-daily walks soon turns into shared meals, hanging out together and interesting conversation, and the attraction that had sparked between them at their first meeting turns flirtatious and then into more.  They agree to a fling; Rain has never been one for staying in one place too long, and Garrick has never been the relationship type, so a short-term thing will suit them both.  But this is the first time Garrick has contemplated having sex since the accident, and with his doctors and therapists focusing on the physical and neurological effects of his injuries, he hasn’t felt able to express his concerns about his sexual function, which has certainly changed since he was injured.  This aspect of the story is handled really well; Rain is completely unfazed by any of it and encourages Garrick to talk about his concerns and seek help.  He’s wonderfully accepting and supportive, always taking his cue from Garrick and making it very clear that he’s completely on board with whatever they are able to get up to 😉  Rain may be young, but he’s very mature in a lot of ways; his upbringing in a kind of commune where people shared and mucked in to help each other has stuck with him, but more than that, he genuinely likes making himself useful and doing things that make people happy.  He impressed me from the moment he asked Garrick “Can you tell me the best way to help you?”  when he was going to drive Garrick and Cookie to the vet’s, and I really liked the way he shows his care and affection for Garrick in lots of subtle (and some not so subtle!) ways.

Like Burn ZoneHigh Heat has a May/December thing going on, and it’s a trope I enjoy when handled well, as is the case here.  I don’t think Garrick’s exact age is mentioned, but I’m guessing mid-thirties, while Rain is twenty-three, so it’s a gap of a bit over a decade; and while Rain does sometimes tease Garrick about it, it’s never really an issue for them.  Rain is outgoing and affectionate and brimming with self-confidence, but he’s also dragged down by his family’s well-meaning teasing about how he’s too restless to settle, memories of how his natural exuberance was often too much for some people to take, and his mother’s exasperation over his being (as she described it) too needy when he was a kid.

Ms. Albert does a great job of showing that while in many ways Rain and Garrick are opposites, they’re just what the other needs.  They’re cute together and I enjoyed their romance, but this is also a story about the need to adapt and change, recognising that the future we map out for ourselves sometimes takes an unexpected turn and that the path we’ve chosen may no longer the one we should be following.  Garrick needs to accept that his life has changed irrevocably and learn how to move forward; Rain needs to consider that maybe he’s chasing the wrong dream and learn to trust in himself more.

The author points out in her notes at the end that she spent time researching and speaking to people with injuries similar to Garrick’s and that certainly shows, as she handles the subject of his physical and mental state with respect and sensitivity.  There are cameo appearances from other members of the crew, notably Linc and Jacob, and I wanted to single out Garrick’s dad for special mention, specifically the relationship between them, which is very nicely judged.

The biggest issue I had as regards the romance is that the conflict – which is fairly minimal – stems around one of those arguments where one character thinks they know what’s best for the other and is out to sacrifice their own happiness because of it; it’s one of my ‘least favourite things I want to read in a romance’.

Apart from that, I enjoyed Garrick and Rain’s story and while I perhaps didn’t connect with them as much as with Linc and Jacob in the previous book, High Heat is well worth a recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading book three, Feel the Heat, this autumn.

Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert


This title may be purchased from Amazon

When two “big name fans” go head-to-head at a convention, love isn’t the only thing at stake.

Charming, charismatic, and effortlessly popular, Conrad Stewart seems to have it all…but in reality, he’s scrambling to keep his life from tumbling out of control.

Brilliant, guarded, and endlessly driven, Alden Roth may as well be the poster boy for perfection…but even he can’t help but feel a little broken inside.

When these mortal enemies are stuck together on a cross-country road trip to the biggest fan convention of their lives, their infamous rivalry takes a backseat as an unexpected connection is forged. Yet each has a reason why they have to win the upcoming Odyssey gaming tournament and neither is willing to let emotion get in the way―even if it means giving up their one chance at something truly magical.

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert is one of the few authors whose books I’ll pick up without needing to know much about them, and I was keen to jump into Conventionally Yours, book one in her new True Colors series.  I enjoyed it and looked forward to picking it up again after I’d had to pause, but I can’t say that it completely worked for me.  I’m not sure if it’s a case of “it’s me, not you”; it reads more like a Young Adult (maybe New Adult?) book than anything else of Ms. Albert’s I’ve read, so maybe I’m not the target audience.  The fact that I know nothing about the world of gaming, didn’t put me off; I actually enjoyed the parts that dealt with the strategies and game-play, and I liked the central characters, but the pacing drags a bit in the middle, and the leads often felt younger than their stated ages twenty-one and twenty-three.

Conrad Stewart and Alden Roth are part of a small group of gamers who’ve met regularly to play Odyssey for the last few years.  The online vlog they contribute to, Gamer Grandpa, is run by a former maths professor, and is one of the most popular Odyssey vlogs;  as well as analysing their in-person play,  Professor Tuttle comments on the online version of the game and offers general game theory for the masses.  Of the four players, Conrad, Payton and Jasper are friends, but Alden is still something of an outsider, even after three years of playing together, and the adversarial relationship between Conrad and Alden – especially Conrad’s particular brand of cocky trash-talk – is something of a draw for their audience.  The two of them really don’t get on all that well; Conrad thinks Alden is a superior and stand-offish control-freak, while Alden finds Conrad’s casual attitude irritating, seeing him as a party-loving college drop-out who doesn’t really care about anything.

When the book opens, the Professor announces that he’s got them all complimentary tickets for Massive Odyssey Con West, the huge fan convention taking place in Las Vegas the following month.  Gamer Grandpa has impressed someone at Odyssey HQ, and he’s been invited to sit on some panels, and they’ve all been invited to play in the tournament – a huge event with prize money and a seat on the pro tour up for grabs.  Success in the tournament could be life-changing for both Conrad and Alden, but both of them are reluctant to commit at first.  Conrad can’t afford the air-fare, and is surprised when Alden says that he doesn’t fly;  but the Professor has it all worked out.  They’ll make a road-trip of it; they’ll share the driving, make stops and personal appearances at game stores on the way, play a few hands of Odyssey with the locals, see the sights… it’ll be fun.

Of course even the best-laid plans go awry, and an accident and family emergency leave Conrad and Alden on their own, on what looks set to be an uncomfortable journey.  Except that their enforced proximity soon engenders a surprising friendship and affords them the perfect opportunity to start to lower their defences and realise that they’ve completely mis-read each other for three years.

Conrad and Alden are engaging characters who are easy to root for, and their antagonists-to-lovers plotline is fun to read.  Conrad is the sort of guy who uses sarcasm and bravado to hide his inner vulnerabilities, and his story is a heart-breaking one – all the more so perhaps, because it’s not an uncommon one when young people come out to unsympathetic, conservative parents.  He perceives Alden as incredibly lucky on that score; Alden lives with his two moms, and his queerness has never been an issue, but as Conrad learns more about him, he starts to see that just because Alden never had to hide his sexuality from his family, his life is far from perfect.  Alden’s high-achieving moms have pretty much mapped out his life and are trying to force him to make decisions he’s not ready for; he’s socially awkward and has anxiety issues, and reading the part where he talks about his neurodiversity and explains how desperately his moms have tried to find a label to fit him – whether it be Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Personality Disorder or any other disorder – and how he never feels like they see him, was really affecting.  Even more affecting is Conrad’s complete acceptance of him:

“Neurodiverse or not… You’re just you.  Just Alden.  It’s who you are.  Changing any of it isn’t necessary.”

The gradual realisation that they’re actually attracted to one another (and have been for a while) is awkward and sweet, Alden’s inability to refer to sex as anything other than “that” is cute, and I liked the honesty and trust they showed to each other. They talk about things that are difficult for them to talk about, sharing their fears, their hopes and their dreams with someone else for the first time, and I also liked the way Ms. Albert has them incorporating the experiences and lessons learned from the trip into their game strategy.

Conventionally Yours is an easy, absorbing read, and Annabeth Albert clearly knows her stuff when it comes to the gaming portions of the story.  The writing and characterisation are strong, both protagonists are attractive and complex and I enjoyed getting to know them – but even so, something about this book didn’t work quite as well for me as I’d hoped.  The slow pacing in the middle does allow for the relationship to develop and for us to get to know Conrad and Alden as they get to know each other, but on the other hand it is slow, and while the romance is front and centre, and there’s no doubt about their mutual attraction, it all seems a bit low-key.  For anyone wondering about the sensuality rating, the sex scenes are pretty much fade-to-black (which works for the tone of the book) which is one of the reasons I wondered if this is YA (it’s not categorised as such at Amazon).  So I’m on the fence.  There are a lot of good things going on – the representation (Alden is Jewish as well as gay and neurodivergent, Payton is non-binary) is well-done, the gaming sections are interesting and, towards the end, surprisingly exciting! – and the romance is really sweet.  There’s definitely an audience out there for this book and others like it, but I’m just not sure it’s me.  So I’m offering a qualified recommendation; I suspect it won’t meet the expectations of some of the author’s fans, while others will love the change of pace.  I’m somewhere in the middle.

Burn Zone (Hotshots #1) by Annabeth Albert

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Smoke jumper Lincoln Reid is speechless to see Jacob Hartman among his squad’s new recruits. Linc had promised his late best friend he’d stay away from his little brother. And yet here Jacob is…and almost instantly, the same temptation Linc has always felt around him is causing way too many problems.

Jacob gets everyone’s concerns, but he’s waited years for his shot at joining the elite smoke jumping team, hoping to honor his brother’s memory. He’s ready to tackle any challenge Linc throws his way, and senses the chemistry between them—chemistry Linc insists on ignoring—is still alive and kicking. This time, Jacob’s determined to get what he wants.

Close quarters and high stakes make it difficult for Linc to keep his resolve, never mind do so while also making sure the rookie’s safe. But the closer they get, the more Linc’s plan to leave at the end of the season risks him breaking another promise: the one his heart wants to make to Jacob.

Rating: B

I’m a big fan of Annabeth Albert’s and a new book from her is always a red letter day on my calendar! Burn Zone is book one in her new Hotshots series which features a group of guys who work as Smoke Jumpers in the fictional Painter’s Ridge in central Oregon – and I admit I had to look up Smoke Jumping as I’d never heard of it before! There are undoubtedly shades of the author’s excellent Out Of Uniform series here in terms of the camaraderie and close-knit relationships between team members, as well as the obvious fact that the characters from both series work in dangerous – potentially life-threatening – professions, but I enjoy the character types and sorts of through-thick-and-thin friendships Ms. Albert is skilled at creating, so those similarities worked for me.

Lincoln Reid has always been something of a loner. After the death of his mother when he was young, he was either ignored or knocked around by his drunken, abusive father, the one good thing in his life his best friend Wyatt Hartman and Wyatt’s family, who pretty much adopted Linc as one of their own. Linc and Wyatt always intended to become Smoke Jumpers together, and years later, have achieved that ambition and are still friends, even though Wyatt’s obvious bigotry when he found out Linc was gay made some dents in their friendship, and his tendency to make unpleasant comments about it mean they’re not as close as they once were. When the book opens, Wyatt is pissed because his nineteen-year-old brother Jacob has just come out, and he warns Linc to stay away from him. Linc tells Wyatt there’s no need to worry and tells him to mind his own business… although he can’t deny that he does enjoy Jacob’s company and finds his youthful confidence, his outgoing nature and most of all, the warmth of his smile, very appealing. But Jacob is ten years his junior and his best friend’s little brother. Firmly off limits.

Six years later, and nine months after Wyatt’s death in an accident, Linc is surprised – and not in a good way – when Jacob turns out to be one of their squad’s newest recruits. It’s bad enough that the Hartmans lost one son to the job, and Jacob must surely be aware what signing up for this could mean for his family – but worse, all the feelings of attraction Linc has steadfastly buried over the past six years come rushing back… and he’s not sure how long he’ll be able to keep them at bay.

At nineteen, Jacob had a massive crush on Linc, but has come to accept that nothing is ever going to happen between them  – or had, until the day of Wyatt’s funeral when, devastated with grief and unable to hold back any more, Linc kissed him and all Jacob’s buried – but never abandoned – hopes and wants came roaring back.  He knows he’s the last person Linc expects to see at the start of training, but he’s worked hard for his shot and isn’t going to let Linc’s obvious disapproval or his mother’s fears get in the way of fulfilling his dream.  And now that he knows that there is more than one-sided attraction between them, he’s also determined to show Linc that they deserve a chance at pursuing something more than friendship.

Even though Linc and Jacob embark on a sexual relationship early in the book – and yes, Ms. Albert trots out the old ‘one time to get it out of our systems’ trope but she tempers the corniness of it by having both guys realise it’ll never work even before they jump into bed – their romance is (befittingly) a slow burn as they go from secret booty calls to overnight stays to simply hanging out and enjoying each other’s company out of bed as much as in it. The relationship is lovely – for the first time in a very long time Linc realises he’s happy, and so is Jacob, who at long last has the man he’s wanted for so long by his side, both personally and professionally.  But the conflict in the romance – supplied by Linc’s doubts, his secrecy, his attempts to keep Jacob at arm’s length and his blow-hot-blow-cold attitude – go on for a little too long, and I started to dislike the way Jacob kept making allowances and accepting the crumbs of affection that were all Linc was prepared to offer.  Jacob’s a wonderful guy and at times I almost began to agree with Linc’s assessment that he deserved better!   I admired the understanding and patience Jacob displayed, but I wish he’d called Linc on his crap earlier.

Linc has a lot of baggage to work through, and his loneliness and sadness, the longing he feels for Jacob are so superbly rendered that they leap off the page.  I’ve never been a big fan of the best-friend’s-sibling trope with its invariable ‘stay away’ order from the bestie, but Annabeth Albert makes it work here because of the way she’s characterised Linc as a man so bound up in his perception of honour, of himself and what he owes to others that he feels he’s not entitled to put his own wants and needs before anyone else’s.  He has to learn to choose himself before he can choose to be with Jacob.

Ms. Albert has obviously done her research as regards the work of the Smoke Jumpers and all the other work they do throughout the season to try to prevent fires as well as the work they do when fighting them, which is interesting and adds a sense of authenticity to the story. She also creates a strong sense of camaraderie between the crew members, men and women who do an incredibly dangerous, highly skilled job they obviously love, but who work for a living to provide for their families and sometimes struggle to make ends meet.  There’s an extraordinary ordinariness (if you will) about these guys and their family lives and relationships, and I really liked the way that those two things balanced each other throughout the story.

Linc and Jacob are engaging, three-dimensional principals, plus there’s a strong secondary cast I’m sure we’re going to see more of in future books. The well-established setting, well-written relationships and a sexy, slow-burn romance combine to make Burn Zone a solid start to the Hotshotsseries and an enjoyable read overall.

Quickie Reviews #5

I always mean to do these more regularly but… you know, life. Anyway, like many people right now, I’ve got a bit of extra time on my hands, so I’ve pulled together short reviews of a bunch of books and audiobooks I’ve read and listened to over the past few months but haven’t written full-length reviews for. If you’re looking for a read or listen to keep you company over the next few weeks, maybe you’ll find some inspiration here.


Two Man Station by Lisa Henry

Gio Valeri is a big-city police officer who’s been transferred to the small outback town of Richmond with his professional reputation in tatters. His transfer is a punishment, and Gio just wants to keep his head down and survive the next two years. No more mistakes. No more complications.

Except Gio isn’t counting on Jason Quinn.

Jason Quinn, officer in charge of Richmond Station, is a single dad struggling with balancing the demands of shift work with the challenges of raising his son. The last thing he needs is a new senior constable with a history of destroying other people’s careers. But, like it or not, Jason has to work with Gio.

In a remote two-man station hours away from the next town, Gio and Jason have to learn to trust and rely on each another. Close quarters and a growing attraction mean that the lines between professional and personal are blurring. And even in Richmond, being a copper can be dangerous enough without risking their hearts as well.

Rating: B

With two cops as leads, I’d thought this might be more of a mystery/suspense story, but it isn’t; rather it’s a fish-out-of-water tale as a disgraced big city cop relocates to a small rural community and discovers that policing there is very different to the sort of thing he’s used to. Lisa Henry evokes the small town/back of beyond atmosphere really well – although this town isn’t at all small really; Jason and Gio’s “beat” covers a massive area, but it doesn’t boast all that many inhabitants.

Amid the series of vignettes as to the various disputes the pair are called upon to work through is the relationship that gradually grows between them. They get off to a rocky start because of what Jason has heard about Gio’s reason for relocating (that he was an informant who got another officer dismissed from his job), but as they work together and get to know each other, Jason starts to wonder if that’s the whole story. (Of course, it isn’t).

Jason is a widower with a ten-year-old son, and is only just realising that he really needs to make proper childcare arrangements. Before, his two neighbours – a young couple with kids of their own – would always pick up the slack and were happy to help out when Jason had to answer a call at night or worked long shifts – but now they’ve moved away, he’s struggling to reconcile the demands of the job with his job as a father.

The slower pacing works and I enjoyed the book overall, although I would have liked a stronger romance. There’s a definite attraction between Jason (who is bi) and Gio, but a few pages before the end, Jason tells Gio he’s still in love with his dead wife (and he’s still wearing his wedding ring), which was unexpected and seemed a really odd move; and although they’re still together six months down the line (shown in the epilogue) it felt to me as though there was more to be said about their relationship. There are no ILYs – which is fine when I feel that the characters are committed to each other – and I don’t necessarily need the mushy stuff, but their emotional connection wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for by the end.

Even so, I’m giving this four stars because I really did like the story and the characters. I’m going to pick up the next book soon.


Leaning into the Fall by Lane Hayes

Narrated by Nick J. Russo

Nick Jorgensen is a quirky genius. He’s made a fortune in the competitive high-tech field with his quick mind and attention to detail. He believes in hard work and trusting his gut. And he believes in karma. It’s the only thing that makes sense. People are difficult, but numbers never lie. In the disastrous wake of a broken engagement to an investor’s daughter, Nick is more certain than ever he isn’t relationship material.

Wes Conrad owns a thriving winery in Napa Valley. The relaxed atmosphere is a welcome departure from his former career as a high-rolling businessman. Wes’s laid-back nature is laced with a fierceness that appeals to Nick. In spite of his best intention to steer clear of complications, Nick can’t fight his growing attraction to the sexy older man who seems to understand him. Even the broken parts he doesn’t get himself.

However, when Wes’s past collides with Nick’s present, both men will have to have to decide if they’re ready to lean into the ultimate fall.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

Nick is a tech genius who doesn’t do well in social situations and frequently comes across as an arsehole; Wes is more than a decade older and considerably more chilled than Nick, but seems to just ‘get’ him – even the parts of himself Nick doesn’t fully understand. I liked the way their relationship developed; laid-back Wes is a great foil for Nick, who is sometimes driven to the point of obsession and oblivious to everything around him. There’s plenty of hot sex, but there’s an emotional connection, too -Nick has never clicked with anyone the way he has with Wes, and realises that for the first time ever, he’s developing feelings for someone that go beyond work or friendship.

The conflict comes fairly late in the book and although it seems a little contrived, it does actually fit with Nick’s character – he gets worked up and anxious easily and does tend to blurt the first thing that comes into his head, and the ‘black moment’ works because of it.

Nick J. Russo narrates and does a great job!


Setting the Hook by Andrew Grey

Narrated by Greg Tremblay

William Westmoreland escapes his unfulfilling Rhode Island existence by traveling to Florida twice a year and chartering Mike Jansen’s fishing boat to take him out on the Gulf. The crystal-blue water and tropical scenery isn’t the only view William enjoys, but he’s never made his move. A vacation romance just isn’t on his horizon.

Mike started his Apalachicola charter fishing service as a way to care for his daughter and mother, putting their safety and security ahead of the needs of his own heart. Denying his attraction becomes harder with each of William’s visits.

William and Mike’s latest fishing excursion starts with a beautiful day, but a hurricane’s erratic course changes everything, stranding William. As the wind and rain rage outside, the passion the two men have been trying to resist for years crashes over them. In the storm’s wake, it leaves both men yearning to prolong what they have found. But real life pulls William back to his obligations. Can they find a way to reduce the distance between them and discover a place where their souls can meet? The journey will require rough sailing, but the bright future at the end might be worth the choppy seas.

Rating: Narration: A; Content B

Sweet character-driven romance between a workaholic businessman, groomed by his parents to take over the family engineering firm, and the owner of the boat he charters a couple of times a year to go fishing.

A bad storm following William’s latest fishing trip leaves him stranded in Florida for a few days; Mike invites him to stay with him (he lives with his mother and ten-year-old daughter) and the nacent attraction they’ve both been feeling for years now becomes impossible to ignore or resist.

They’re from very different worlds, but no matter how strong the emotions growing between them, Mike’s life is in Florida and William’s is in Rhode Island. Yet the months apart after William’s last visit only prove to both of them that there’s something between them worth exploring, and both men have to decide how much they’re prepared to sacrifice in order to be together.

It’s nto going to win any prizes for originality, but Setting the Hook is an enjoyable story featuring likeable characters, and of course, Greg Tremblay’s narration was flawless.


Red Dirt Heart by N.R. Walker

Charlie Sutton runs Sutton Station the only way he knows how; the way his father did before him. Determined to keep his head down and his heart in check, Charlie swears the red dirt that surrounds him – isolates him – runs through his veins.

American agronomy student Travis Craig arrives at Sutton Station to see how farmers make a living from one of the harshest environments on earth. But it’s not the barren, brutal and totally beautiful landscapes that capture him so completely.

It’s the man with the red dirt heart.

Rating: B

Lovely and just what I needed right now.

Charlie Sutton is just twenty-five but is now the owner of the 2.58 million acre Sutton Station in the Northern Territory, Australia. He loves what he does, even though he knows he’s likely to spend his life alone; he’s gay and closeted, his late father having insisted that “no fairy” was ever going to be able to run Sutton Station and that it needed a “real man”. Yes, his father was an arsehole, but those words struck so deep that Charlie – although he’s doing a terrific job – can’t seem to see beyond them.

Enter Travis Craig, an agronomy student from Texas who has come to Sutton to see how things are done as part of an exchange programme. Travis is handsome, confident and, as quickly becomes clear to Charlie and his staff, knows his way around horses and cattle; he settles in quickly, becoming part of the team and establishing friendships with the others, but Charlie tells himself he must keep his distance.

There’s not a lot of angst in this one (a bit of very plausible drama in the second half worked well to ramp up the tension) and it’s mostly the story of Charlie learning to let go of his father’s bigotry and be his own man, and finally allowing himself to believe it’s possible for him to live his life with a loving partner by his side.

There are some great secondary characters (I loved Ma, who rules the kitchen with a rod of iron… or spatula, whatever) and the author’s descriptions of the Outback setting, the “red dirt”, the night skies, the sunsets are fabulous.

If you’re looking for a simple, well-written story that will transport you somewhere else for a few hours, this could be just what you’re after.


The Prince and his Bedeviled Bodyguard by Charlie Cochet

Prince Owin

Being a fierce predator – not at all adorable, despite my graceful stature – the last thing I needed was a bodyguard. Especially a wolf shifter, whose presence alone was an insult to my princely principles. 

As prince of the Ocelot Shifters, I prided myself on my infallible feline instincts, uncompromising dignity, and flawless fashion sense. If having a canine follow me around at all times wasn’t bad enough, I now faced the most important moment of my entire life. 

The time had come to prove I was worthy of my crown. If only I could find a way to get rid of the pesky bodyguard…

Grimmwolf

When the king of All Shifters asked me to guard Prince Owin, I admit I had no idea what to expect. Cat shifters tend to be a little intense, not to mention kinda cranky. Owin was no exception, though he seemed crankier than most. 

Being his bodyguard was proving to be one of the greatest challenges of my life, but not nearly as great as convincing him there was something special between us. 

When Owin was tasked with a perilous quest to prove his worth, I was determined to keep him safe, even if the same couldn’t be said of my heart.

Rating: Narration: A; Content B-

I wanted something short and sweet and this definitely fit the bill. The prince of the ocelot shifters has to team up with his bodyguard, a wolf shifter, to fulfil a quest set him by the king of all shifters… of course, they spar like cat and dog (!) and shenanigans ensure.

It’s not deep and the worldbuilding is minimal, but it’s a helluva lot of fun, especially in audio where Greg Boudreaux demonstrates once again that he’s a master of comic timing (and just about everything else when it comes to narration!)

Quick, fun and sexy – just what I was looking for, and I’ll probably pick up more audios in the series as they become available.


Sergeant Delicious by Annabeth Albert

Soon to be ex-marine Xavier has a bright future as a firefighter. But stationed far from home, he’s lonely and homesick for more than just his favorite foods. Thinking ahead to his homecoming, he responds to an ad seeking a date for a special gourmet dinner, but he doesn’t anticipate an immediate connection with the intriguing foodie who placed the ad.

Food writer Damien is looking for his big break, and reviewing an uber-exclusive secret restaurant may be exactly what he needs if he can score a date to go with him. He doesn’t expect to enjoy corresponding with Xavier quite so much, nor is he prepared for his powerful surge of lust for the hot marine.

However, Damien’s had more than his share of bad luck when it comes to romance, but Xavier is determined to win Damien over. Course-by-course, they fall deeper into like. When they finally give into their passion, sparks fly. But is it a flash in the pan or the recipe for lasting love?

Rating: B-

A sweet and sexy short story previously published in a charity anthology, Sergeant Delicious begins with soon-to-be demobbed Xavier answering an ad from “fun foodie guy” (a food writer) who wants someone to go with him to an upmarket dinner on Valentine’s day. The first part of this short story/novella shows the pair getting to know each other a bit via email, which makes the attraction they experience when they meet more believable. Both men are likeable and down-to-earth, and one of the things I really appreciate about novellas when they’re done well, is that the shorter page count doesn’t leave room for silly misunderstandings and other distracting plot points; and this is one of those that’s done well. The author doesn’t allow Damien’s hang-ups to get in the way (in fact, making good use of them! *wink*) and devotes all her page time to building the relationship between the leads.

A quick, fun (and did I mention sexy?) read.


Bitter Pill by Jordan Castillo Price

Narrated by Gomez Pugh

There’s a new drug on the streets called Kick. The side effects are so brutal, most folks only try it once…unless they’re psychic. Then they do it until it kills them.

Psychic medium Victor Bayne is well acquainted with pharmaceuticals, from the Auracel that blocks his ghosts to the Seconal that offers him a blissful nights’ sleep. But he’s managed to steer clear of street drugs…so far.

Jacob Marks has a medicine cabinet filled with every over-the-counter remedy known to man, but none of them are doing much for his mood—and his long, fruitless days of combing through records at The Clinic are taking a heavy toll.
But their lackluster investigation does have one silver lining: a front row seat at The Clinic when the first Kick overdose comes in. And as scary as the drug might be, if it truly does augment psychic ability, the appeal is not lost on Vic.

Because the very first hit never killed anyone.

Where did Kick come from? Why is it so addictive? And why is everyone at The Clinic acting so darn shady? That’s what Vic intends to find out. And if he’s lucky, he can also expose a shadowy figure from Camp Hell.

Unfortunately, the demons of his pill addiction might prove just as deadly as his long-buried history. He thought he’d managed to ditch that pernicious habit. But what if it was only lurking in the shadows, waiting for the best time to rear its ugly head?

Rating: Narration: A; Content A-

Gah, I love this series so much, and it seems to get better and better! So much going on here besides the actual plot, about the investigation into a deadly psyactive drug (Kick) that is killing psychics. I’m loving Vic’s character growth, especially over the last few books as he’s finally realising what it’s like to work with people who respect him and is really gaining in confidence as a result. He still can’t quite believe it, and is still as endearingly self-deprecatingly shambolic as ever, but we – and Jacob of course – see it and appreciate it. And I like that we get to see Jacob’s more vulnerable side; he’s one of those people who, by virtue of his good looks, imposing physique, intelligence and charisma has come up against little in his life that he hasn’t been able to deal with, but that’s changing, and although he’s still very much the Jacob we all know and love, that extra dimension to him is great to see.

Vic and Jacob’s relationship continues to grow and their love for each other to deepen; they get to work with Zig and Carolyn again, and we get some closure for one of the characters who’s been around since book one; Jackie, the ghost who spasmodically haunted Vic’s old appartment. Her story is a tragic one, and the author does an amazing job in the scenes where Vic and Jacob find out the truth of what happened to her and then help her to move on – they’re incredibly poignant and Gomez Pugh is simply brilliant in them and captures every single drop of emotion.

On the subject of Mr. Pugh – his portrayal of Vic is so absolutely perfect that it’s easy to forget sometimes just how good he is at the rest of it. He can produce an amazing variety of character voices for what is, after eleven books, a large secondary cast, many of whom have appeared in several books throughout the series, and his inventiveness (and consistency) is remarkable.

And – whoa, that ending! When’s the next book out?!