Georgie, All Along by Kate Clayborn

georgie all along

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Longtime personal assistant Georgie Mulcahy has made a career out of putting others before herself. When an unexpected upheaval sends her away from her hectic job in L.A. and back to her hometown, Georgie must confront an uncomfortable truth: her own wants and needs have always been a disconcertingly blank page.

But then Georgie comes across a forgotten artifact—a “friendfic” diary she wrote as a teenager, filled with possibilities she once imagined. To an overwhelmed Georgie, the diary’s simple, small-scale ideas are a lifeline—a guidebook for getting started on a new path.

Georgie’s plans hit a snag when she comes face to face with an unexpected roommate—Levi Fanning, onetime town troublemaker and current town hermit. But this quiet, grouchy man is more than just his reputation, and he offers to help Georgie with her quest. As the two make their way through her wishlist, Georgie begins to realize that what she truly wants might not be in the pages of her diary after all, but right by her side—if only they can both find a way to let go of the pasts that hold them back.

Rating: B+

I don’t read much m/f romance these days, but I’m always up for one of Kate Clayborn’s because they’re so thoughtful and tender and honest. She writes complex, well-drawn characters who are dealing with relatable, real-life problems, and while not ‘flashy’ or full of drama, her books nonetheless pack a real emotional punch. Her newest release, Georgie, All Along seems to be a retread of the ‘protagonist returns to small home-town and finds love and a new direction in life’ trope – and, to an extent, it is – but in Ms. Clayborn’s capable hands the story transcends the trope and becomes something simultaneously deeper and refreshingly different.

Georgie Mulcahy always had a reputation for being a bit flaky and unreliable in her hometown of Darentville, Virginia. She didn’t amount to much at school and never had any real ambitions beyond it; but her ability to live completely in the ‘now’, to adapt and to think on her feet proved to be exactly suited to working as a PA to high-powered (and high-maintenance) intensely creative – and often intensely chaotic – people in the entertainment industry. For the past three years, she’s worked for Nadia, a well-known screenwriter and director, but when Nadia decides – spontaneously – to retire, Georgie is left at a loose end, coming face to face with the fact that she’s never really had a plan for what to do with her life. With Nadia’s suggestion that she can take the time to do “all the things you want to do”, Georgie decides to head back home for a little while, spend some time with her best friend and her family while she works out what she wants to do next.

Arrived in Darentville, Georgie stops at what she remembers as the general store but which she is surprised to find is now somewhat more upmarket than it used to be. In fact, the whole town seems to have undergone a transformation, the slightly shabby place she remembers giving way to new housing and shops and the signs of a flourishing tourism trade. It’s this ‘renewal’ that has drawn her best friend, Bel, back there, to a new life in a new home with her husband and their soon-to-be family (Bel is eight months pregnant). Georgie decides to buy them a couple of strawberry milkshakes – hopefully they’re as good as she remembers – only to be realise she’s left her purse in her car. Embarrassed – she’s only been back in town less than a hour and already she’s living up to people’s memories and expectations of her as a total flake – she’s checking her pockets just in case, when a guy wearing scruffy work clothes and an irritated expression, steps in to pay for the shakes so he can buy his own stuff and be on his way. The guy is pretty dismissive when she says she’ll pay him back; that, and the knowing looks on the face of the other customer – one of her former teachers – only bolsters Georgie’s determination that when she leaves town this time, she’s going to have figured herself out and worked out what she really wants.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Happy List (Better With You #1) by Briar Prescott (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves & Joel Leslie

the happy list

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Gray: There are some things I excel at: Exercising rigid control over every aspect of my life. Making sensible decisions at every turn. Being organized, predictable, and responsible.

In short, I’m boring as hell and in desperate need of a change. Luckily I have my best friend by my side and a newly written to-do list to guide my way through the murky waters of finding happiness. It’s all very promising at first, but as weeks pass, I start to realize that the best part of my day has always been Kai. And when I see him out on a date with some guy? Let’s just say I’m definitely not happy about it.

Kai: I’m back in Boston after ten years of traveling, and I’ve fulfilled all my goals: See the world. Figure out what to do with my life. Get over my impossible crush on Gray. Check, check, and check.

Life’s good until I accidentally find Gray’s happy list, which contains some very interesting things that friends never ever do with each other. And as weeks pass, it becomes clear those not-so-innocent parts are the ones Gray is determined to explore with me. I can’t resist him, and pretty soon I’m forced to admit that I’m not as done with my crush as I thought I was . . .

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B

Briar Prescott’s The Happy List is book one in her Better With You series that centres on a group of friends who live and work in Boston. I read it back in March 2022 and enjoyed it, so I was pleased to see it getting an audio version, especially with two such experienced narrators at the helm. It’s a warm and funny friends-to-lovers / opposites-attract romance between Grayson – Gray – Quinn, a meticulous planner and workaholic, and his life-long best friend Kai Morgan, who is more of a go-with-the-flow kinda guy.

When the book begins, Gray is reeling from the fact that his girlfriend of two years has just proposed to him in front of a dinner table-full of their friends and family. Astonished and more than slightly horrified, it’s a wake-up call for Gray, as he realises that while he does love Cee, he’s not IN love with her and that they clearly want different things from life. Forced to turn her down in public, Gray flees the table, and knowing he can’t possibly return to the restaurant to face everyone, decides to escape by crawling through the bathroom window. It’s a bit of a squeeze but he manages it, and as he walks through the back street to the main road, he bumps into Kai, who was about to go inside. Gray is overjoyed to see him – Kai has spent the last few years travelling with only sporadic visits home – and they immediately fall into their usual pattern of affectionate teasing and trash-talk. Gray can’t help comparing their easy camaraderie with his relationships with just about everyone else in his life; with Kai there’s no pressure or expectations, Gray can just be himself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Shelf Life (Hearts & Crafts #2) by Kelly Jensen

shelf life

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Good things come to those who bake.

Grayson used to love baking, but the recipe for running his parents’ café changes every day. His dad, overwhelmed by grief, is no help. They can’t even talk about Gray’s mom, let alone the failing business. Of less help is the crush Gray has on Sporty—a trainer from the local gym. Gray barely has time for his friends, let alone scratching the itch Sporty inspires.

Aaron suspects he’s not Gray’s type, meaning Gray probably isn’t into fitness, board games, or redheads. Still, that doesn’t stop Aaron visiting the café twice a week. The day Gray finally speaks to him personally could have been the start of something—if Gray hadn’t immediately suffered a heart attack.

The prescription for Gray’s recovery includes exercise, but when Aaron steps in to help, Gray is dubious. He’s never been fond of working out. The more he gets to know Aaron, though, the more they seem to have in common, especially when it comes to games. Aaron has been quietly designing his own, and when Gray shows interest, they embark on a quest to complete it together: a hero’s journey complicated by family, the demands of their careers, their fledgling relationship, and learning to be honest about what they want out of life.

Rating: B-

I really enjoyed Kelly Jensen’s Sundays With Oliver, book one in her Hearts and Crafts series. Like her This Time Forever series, Hearts and Crafts features older characters (well, in their forties) finding love, and she does it very well, creating characters and situations that feel very realistic, especially given she’s writing about people who have put down roots, who have commitments and the baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times. We met Grayson – Gray – Clery in Oliver’s book; he’s Oliver’s best friend, and he runs a small family bakery/coffee/sandwich shop that enabled him to help Oliver out when he was getting his own baking/consumables business going.

Gray moved back to Stroudsburg after the death of his mother two years earlier, to help his dad with the business, but his dad was – and is – so weighed down by his loss that he’s basically ’checked out’ and Gray has been doing everything. His real love is bread and baking, but having to deal with all the admin on top of the day-to-day business of preparing food and serving customers in a really busy shop has stretched him very thin and he has absolutely no time for himself. He’s stressed up to the eyeballs and hasn’t been feeling good for a while, but he’s ignored it, too busy to listen to what his body is telling him, until it forces him to, and he has a heart attack in the middle of the morning rush.

Aaron Asher is a personal trainer and fitness instructor at the local gym he co-owns with his sister and her wife. He’s a regular customer at Clery’s and has had a crush on Gray for quite a while, but Gray is always so busy, Aaron hasn’t managed to have an actual conversation beyond his sandwich order. He’s buying his lunch when he notices Gray doesn’t look so good; when Gray doubles over, Aaron manages to prevent him from crashing to the floor and then yells for someone to call 911.

While Grey is recovering from what he terms “All The FussTM, his friends rally round to help with the café and keep things going until Gray is well enough to return to it. He’s surpised to discover Aaron among their number; they don’t know each other at all really, although he can’t deny he’s noticed Aaron’s trim body, bright red hair and freckles whenever he’s come in for lunch, and likes what he sees. One afternoon just after closing, Gray finds Aaron still there clearing up, and surprises himself by inviting Aaron up to his apartment for a cup of coffee. Well, tea, as he’s supposed to be off the caffeine. As they chat, a little awkwardly at first, Gray starts to tell him about all the ‘rules’ he was given after leaving hospital, about the exercise he should be doing and about what he should and shouldn’t eat. This sort of thing is totally in Aaron’s wheelhouse, and he suggests that he could create an appropriate fitness program for Gray, one that will help him to build up his strength and stamina most efficiently while also being something to help him stay healthy in the long term. Gray is obviously a bit wary, but in the end agrees to give it a go.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Undone (Vino and Veritas #18) by Leslie McAdam (audiobook) – Narrated by Tim Paige & Iggy Toma

undione

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

My new roommate has the worst taste in men. I mean, Murph’s special. He’s funny and flamboyant and full of life.

While I’m straight, even I can tell these guys aren’t good enough for him. I had to yell at one date, toss another one out the door, and throw a beer in another’s face.

Kind of embarrassing, really. I don’t know what’s gotten into me.

I ask my sister what’s wrong with me and she says I’m jealous. Jealous? Please. Me? Come on.

Only thing is, I hate the thought of Murph kissing any guy. Ever.

Except, maybe . . . me?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C

Leslie McAdam is a new-to-me author, so as has been the case with many of the audiobooks in the Vino and Veritas series, it was the names of the narrators that caught my eye. Tim Paige and Iggy Toma are both accomplished performers with a strong track-record in m/m romance, so I decided to take a chance on Undone, a bi-awakening roomies-to-lovers romance between a self-declared fabulous, sparkly princess and the sweet, nerdy insurance salesman he moves in with. It’s based on a story originally posted on Reddit in which a guy was worried he was being homophobic towards his gay roommate only to realise he’d fallen in love with him!

Jason Falkner is a nice guy. He’s kind and sweet, but he’s tended to just coast through his life, going along with what other people want and letting others make decisions for him. He works for his dad’s insurance firm but doesn’t enjoy it – and doesn’t have an alternative he feels passionately enough about to be prepared to rock the boat with his dad. When we meet him, Jason is about to meet the new roommate his sister has found for him who turns out to be… not exactly what he’d expected. Not that he’d had any expectations really, but if he had, they didn’t include a cheeky, flamboyant and vivacious gay guy with fantastic hair, glossed-lips and a propensity to talk at a mile a minute. David Murphy – known to all simply as Murph – is a funny, flirty force of nature, his outgoing personality a complete contrast to Jason’s quieter, more thoughtful one, but they hit it off straight away, and start to bond over a love of cooking and old movies.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Masters in This Hall by K.J. Charles

masters in this hall

This title may be purchased from Amazon

John Garland was in love: now he’s in disgrace. He’s jobless, alone, and determined to avenge himself on the thief who ruined his life. All he wants for Christmas is Barnaby Littimer in gaol.

Barnaby has secured a job running the extravagant traditional Christmas at a rich man’s country house. John intends to thwart whatever he’s up to.

But amid the festivity, the halls are decked with unexpected dangers. And John will need to decide if he can trust Barnaby one more time…

Rating: B+

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

The Christmas festivities at Codlin Hall will culminate in the wedding of Abel’s daughter, Ivy (yes, she really is called Ivy Garland!) to the Earl of Dombey, so a large party is gathered there, many of whom look down on Abel because he made his millions in trade, and are only too pleased to accept his lavish hospitality while sneering about him behind his back. John’s unexpected arrival on Christmas Eve doesn’t go down too well with Ivy, who is worried about appearances and who John knows doesn’t want him –

“reminding everyone that the soon-to-be Countess of Dombey was not just the daughter of industry, but the cousin of incompetence and penury.”

But even though she tries to insist there’s no room at the inn (!), help comes from an unexpected quarter in the shape of Ivy’s nice-but-dim fiancé, who is only too happy to welcome John to join in the celebrations. In turn, John is only too happy at the thought of putting a spoke in Barnaby’s wheel – and at the look on Barbaby’s face when he first sees John amid the assembled guests. Angry and resentful – not least because he’s still very attracted to the man and can’t forget the happy hours they’d spent together – John refuses to listen to Barnaby’s explanations or to his warnings when he tells John he should leave. Maybe Barnaby looks scared and maybe John’s first instinct is to offer to help him, regardless of what he’s done – but John squashes those feelings under his determation not to be made a fool of again.

As always, K.J. Charles fills her story with lots of fascinating historical detail, sharp social observations and, as it’s Christmas, doesn’t stint on the Dickensian references or the puns. Abel Garland doesn’t go in for Victorian sentiimentality, far perferring to hark back to the medieval and pagan ritual that is the real backbone of so many of our Christmas traditions today, so there’s much to learn about wassail, mummers, carols and the Lord of Misrule as well as some sharp commentary about the social pecking order and the abuse of privilege.

The animosity between John and Barnaby isn’t allowed to go on for too long, fortunately, and after that, they join forces to expose a thief and some very shady dealings while also coming up with a way to keep themselves well out of it, with help from the devious brain of a mostly unnamed but very recognisable character – he of the beautiful baritone voice and the dangerously sardonic eyebrow – known to detectives across England simply as “That Bastard” (and to KJC afficionados as Jerry Crozier.) I always enjoy seeing favourite characrters from the points of view of those who don’t really know them, and the author certainly doesn’t disppoint here; John and Barbaby are suitably wary of this Lilywhite Boy and his reputation, and Jerry is wonderfully grumpy – and terrifying – at being forced out of retirement to deal with “Captain Algy”.

John and Barnaby themselves are very likeable characters, clever, witty and self-deprecating but quietly competent, and their past history is  laid out in some very brief flashbacks that set up their romance nicely. There’s a real sense of longing as they both think back wistfully on what could have been, and then a real blossoming of hope when they realise they might have a second chance. They’re sweet and lovely together and their HFN is just right.

Masters in This Hall is the perfect Christmas novella for those of us who prefer our seasonal tales to have a bit of zing and bite. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s devoid of religion and sentimentality, and it’s just the ticket for a cold winter’s afternoon. Enjoy

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

TBR Challenge: The Best Gift by Eli Easton

the best gift

This title may be purchased from Amazon

With help from a Christmas miracle, two bruised hearts find joy again.

Greg Cabot is the third generation to run Cabot’s Christmas Wonderland and tree farm in rural Vermont. But this year will be his last. Since the death of his son, Sam, in Afghanistan, Greg no longer has the heart to run a business based on holiday cheer. When he picks up a hitchhiking soldier on a snowy night, he finds the help he needs to get his farm through the holidays—and maybe much more.

Sergeant Robbie Sparks doesn’t have much to be thankful for this holiday season. Badly wounded in Afghanistan, he’s spent most of the past year in recovery and was discharged after ten years of service. When fate lands him at Cabot’s tree farm, he feels like he’s fallen into a snow globe reality. Friendly people, gorgeous trees, lots of Christmas kitsch… and Greg Cabot.

Greg believes he’s too heartbroken for romance, but those we love never truly leave us. A little nudge from heaven may help build a bridge for these two men trying to heal. If only they are willing to take that first step.

Rating: B+

Eli Easton is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for a while but hadn’t yet read – until this year when I read three of her books and was, on the whole, fairly impressed. That made my choice for this month’s festive prompt fairly easy after I found a copy of her 2021 Christmas novella, The Best Gift waiting for me on my Kindle!

The author packs some real emotional heft into the 150-odd pages of this heartwarming age-gap romance between bereaved father and a military veteran. It will bring a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat and will leave you sighing happily at the end.

It’s ten months since Greg Cabot’s nineteen-year-old son Sam was killed in Afghanistan, and Greg is still mired in grief. Bright, breezy, happy-go-lucky Sam was everything to Greg, and the plan was that he’d serve for two years and then come back to run the business with his dad, and eventually take it over and pass it to his own kids. Now, though, that future is gone and Greg is just going through the motions. Without Sam’s light, love and enthusiasm, he just doesn’t have the heart for selling comfort and joy any more, and has decided that this will be his final year of opening Cabot’s for business. He doesn’t know what to do with his life now Sam is gone, and plans to put the land up for sale in January.

Sergeant Robbie Sparks was badly injured in an explosion in Afghanistan and has spent the last ten months in hospital and rehab recovering and learning how to walk again. He’s worked hard to get as far as he has, but, frustratingly, there are pieces of his memory missing he’s never going to get back.

Greg is driving into town in heavy snow when he notices a man limping along the side of the road – a man in uniform with a military green duffel slung over his shoulder. Greg pulls over and offers the man – Robbie – a ride and a bed for the night; it’s what Sam would want, even though Greg would rather be on his own.

The next morning, Robbie gets up and gets his gear together preparing to head out. Greg has thoughtfully left him some breakfast, and as Robbie is clearing up, he watches Greg outside, hauling trees to the baler, arrying them to customer’s cars… it’s hard work, and there’s a big queue of people waiting, so Robbie goes outside and offers a hand, as recompense for Greg’s hospitality. When the rush has died down, Robbie sees the “help wanted” ad in the window of the store, and asks if he can stay on until Christmas. Greg is only too pleased to have him stay on.

The Best Gift is a quiet, but deeply emotional story about two wounded souls falling in love and helping each other to find the direction and meaning in life they’re both lacking. The slow burn romance between Greg and Robbie is superbly done; they both feel a definite spark of attraction at their first meeting, which is kind of a revelation for each of them because grief and trauma have meant that neither man has felt much of anything for quite some time, but the author doesn’t rush it, and takes time to create a genuine connection and understanding between them as they work alongside each other and share meals and spend time together at the end of the day. The setting of the Christmas tree farm adds a lovely festive feel to the story, and in the scenes where Greg shows Robbie around the fields and talks about all the trees and the planting and his grandfather’s vision, you can feel his deep love of the place and how much of a wrench it will be to let it go. But then he begins to see the place afresh through Robbie’s eyes, to re-open his eyes to just how special it is, and to find that all the memories wrapped up in it are no longer quite as painful as they once were. There’s a little twist near the end that eagle-eyed readers will already have guessed, and of course, Greg and Robbie get their own Christmas miracle as they realise they’ve found the best gift of all in each other.

Heartbreaking and uplifting, The Best Gift is a beautiful story about second chances and moving on, about family and traditions, and about hope and love and new beginnings featuring characters who are fully fleshed-out and feel very real. If you’re looking for an emotional story that eschews the sickly sweetness that is found in so many Christmas romances, I heartily recommend this one.

The Christmas Leap (Festive Fakes #2) by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

the christmas leap

This title may be downloaded from Audile via Amazon

Fake romance shouldn’t feel this real….<
Will: I’ve never been with a man.

Sure, I’ve thought about it. Wondered. Daydreamed. Imagined. But I wasn’t ready to take the leap.

I have a reputation as a “ladies’ man”. No one has any idea how curious I am about men—not even my openly bi best friend. Make that former best friend. Michael ghosted me, and I have no idea why.

Michael: The man I love is straight.

It hurt like hell when I had to distance myself from Will. I’ve tried desperately to grow up and get over him, but my carefully constructed life just fell apart—and Will rushes to my rescue.

Now we’re pretending to be a couple to impress his boss at a holiday retreat. We’re holding hands and hugging.

We’re sharing a bed.

And Will just kissed me.

Is my best friend falling in love with me after all?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

I can take or leave Christmas-themed romances but I do pick up a few each year, especially if they’re by favourite authors. Keira Andrews’ The Christmas Deal from 2019 is a sweet, sexy fake-relationship story with engaging characters, lots of warm fuzzies and a well-deserved HEA; I enjoyed it very much and was quick to pick it up in audio the following year. I was really pleased when I learned the author would be returning to that world – now entitled Festive Fakes – for a follow-up story, also a romance that starts out with a fake relationship, although this time the leads are two long-time friends who have drifted apart.

At the beginning of The Christmas Leap, Michael Davis returns home with what he thinks is the perfect Christmas tree for the home he shares with his boyfriend Jared, only to overhear a phone conversation between Jared and his sister in which he says he’s been planning to break up with Michael for months – that he should never have let their relationship go on for as long as it has, in fact – but that he’s not going to do it until after Christmas because he knows how much Michael is looking forward to it. Deeply hurt, angry and confused, Michael walks; he gets into his car with nothing but the clothes on his back and drives without any destination in mind. All he knows is he has to get away. And as if life hasn’t thrown enough crap at him, his car breaks down on a snowy, deserted road and it’s going to be hours before the breakdown service can get there. Cold, lonely and miserable, there’s only one person Michael wants to call – his former best friend Will, the man he’s crushed on since college – and who, in a desperate attempt to get over him, Michael has ghosted for two years.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Cloud Ten (Nailed It! #1) by Fearne Hill

cloud ten

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Frankie Carter lives and breathes PA work.
Becoming indispensable to a top exec is all he’s ever wanted, even if he is repeatedly overlooked in favour of other less well-qualified applicants.

The problem? 94% of executive PAs are women.

But resourcefulness comes with the territory. As does a pinstriped skirt, killer heels, and enough chutzpah to blag the interviews… conveniently passing as a woman instead of a gay man. Egged on by his friends, Frankie lands himself his dream job working for Lysander St. Cloud, a senior exec on the board of the family firm.

On the outside, his boss has it all. Or does he? Before long, Frankie discovers Lysander’s looks, money, and status mask a shyness and humiliating past he’d like to forget.

Lysander is straight, and he believes Frankie is a woman. A close bond develops between them. A bond increasingly in danger of slipping from professional into something else. Frankie needs to come clean before he hurts not only Lysander but himself. Will he choose his career, his friendship, or his heart? Or is he brave enough to fight for them all?

Rating: B+

Fearne Hill and I got off to a bit of a rocky start – the first book of hers I read didn’t work well for me – but her most recent output has proved that that one was the anomaly in the pack, because I’ve enjoyed everything of hers I’ve read since. Her latest novel, Cloud Ten – book one in her new Nailed It! series – Is funny, clever and sharply observed, and, despite a couple of niggles, also sits firmly on the positive side of the equation.

PA extraordinarire Frankie Carter is Good. With a capital G. But it’s proving more difficult than he’d anticipated to land himself the kind of job consummate with his impressive qualifications and extremely strong skill-set. When Frankie sees the ad for an experienced PA at Cloud Ten Construction, a well-established, family-owned business with a strong commitment to sustainability, diversity and equal opportunities, it sounds like his dream job. The idea of whipping a brand new exec into shape while focusing on developing and promoting the company’s new environmental plan is hugely appealing – but a brief glance at Cloud Ten’s website reveals that, yeah, all the executive PAs are women. So much for equal opportunities. Frankie’s brother Tristan quietly suggests that maybe Frankie should pretend to be a woman; he’s a knockout in drag and even slobs around the house wearing their sister Maddie’s stuff occasionally. They both reckon he could pull it off – and he won’t be lying about anything on the application if he ticks the “prefer not to say” box on the gender question, will he? Frankie isn’t too sure at first – but with his siblings and friends all telling him he should go for it… he applies.

And a few weeks later exec PA Ms. Frankie Carter reports for duty at the Canary Wharf offices of Cloud Ten Construction.

Lysander St. Cloud has recently returned to England after living in the US for the fifteen years, pretty much strong-armed into taking a seat on the board of the family firm that was founded by his grandfather. Cloud Ten’s CEO – his no-nonsense, straight-talking half-sister Daphne – wants Lysander to head up the company’s newly expanded green agenda – Lead the scene and keep it green – but Lysander is so far out of his comfort zone as to be on another planet. He has no business experience and finds much of the detail goes over his head – although he does agree with what Daphne is aiming to do. He just doesn’t think he’s the right person to “spearhead” it, especially as the thought of being in the media spotlight again makes him feel ill.

It takes Frankie no time at all to realise that his new boss is completely out of his depth – and to take him under his wing. It’s clear that Lysander has issues with anxiety and self-confidence – which is not surprising considering he’s been thrust into a role he has no experience for – and that he struggles to process information that is just thrown at him in massive chunks. Frankie quickly sets about finding ways to present it that are more manageable, provides an excellent sounding-board for ideas and, in short, very soon becomes indespensible.

The job is absolutely everything Frankie had hoped it would be – he loves working with Lysander and is fully on-board with the company’s ethos and the changes they’re trying to make, but although he always intended to confess to his lie as soon as he’d proved himself to be an asset to the company, that idea has become complicated in a way he hadn’t forseen. He and Lysander have become close over the months they’ve been working together, and lately, it’s started to feel as though their friendship could be on the cusp of becoming something else – but Lysander is straight and thinks he’s attracted to a woman, and Frankie is miserable at the idea that he could actually hurt Lysander and destroy their friendship by owning up.

When I read the synopsis for Cloud Ten, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially in regards to the romance – that whole ‘straight man thinks he’s falling for a woman’ could go horribly wrong, and I admit, I had my doubts. But Fearne Hill is a talented author and I trusted her to make it work – and she does, avoiding the obvious pitfalls and making the most of the opportunity for some very pertinent and insightful observations about sexism in the workplace and the fluidity of gender and sexuality in a way that feels organic to the story and character development.

I realise that lying is a big no-no for some readers, but I really would urge you to set that aside if you can because it’s never treated as unimportant and Frankie is always very conscious of what he’s done. But we’re also very aware of why he’s done it, and I have to say that seeing the gender bias in the workplace working in the opposite direction is a refreshing take – and for balance, there’s a terrific moment in the second half where Daphne gives him a well-deserved bollocking and talks about what it’s like to face constant discrimination. Plus, the deception doesn’t go on for too long; as soon as Frankie realises that Lysander is attracted to him as a woman – and that he’s already in way too deep and headed for a broken heart himself – Frankie fesses up. Lysander’s shock and sense of betrayal are palpable and Frankie is devastated, but even though he offers to resign, Daphne – not pleased by the deception but nonetheless impressed by Frankie’s “chutzpah” – insists he stay on.

It’s awkward, to say the least, but things get easier as they both begin to understand that nothing has really changed about the way they interact or feel about each other. For all his hurt and confusion, Lysander is just as attracted to Frankie now as he was to Frankie before – and he’s not sure what that means. And while Lysander is trying to work that out, Frankie is also realising that perhaps his gender identity isn’t as binary as he’s always believed.

I loved all of this – I even enjoyed the parts about the construction business and how they could go about reducing their carbon footprint (Ms. Hill has really done her homework here!) – and the characterisation is terrific all-round. Frankie is a big-hearted force of nature, energetic, sassy and full of ideas, where Lysander is quiet and reserved; it’s clear early on that something must have happened to force him back to the UK and into the family business he’s so clearly not cut out for, and I liked that he’s not one of those boardroom alphas that populate so many contemporary romances. He blossoms with Frankie’s help and support, and I really liked that shift in the power dynamic.

Their slow-burn romance is lovely, their chemistry crackles and the deep and genuine understanding that develops between them is wonderful, but as soon as Lysander accepts his attraction to Frankie, it’s suddenly full speed ahead!, especially when it comes to the physical side of the relationship. I’d have expected a bit more sexual exploration, but their first time together is strangely cut short (it’s not fade to black but we only get half the story!) and then, what seems to be only a few days later, they’re fucking in the office – which is something of a pet peeve, especially as it’s during the day and they’re not exactly quiet! – and Lysander is suddenly completely confident and behaving like having sex with a man is something he’s been doing for ages.

The supporting cast is very well-written and rounded-out, too, and I’m especially intrigued by Frankie’s much quieter brother Tristan – who is hearing impaired and has mobility issues – and his sister Maddie’s boyfriend Darren, who, at first, seems to have no idea of acceptable boundaries, but then shows himself to be rather insightful and a lot more than the twenty-year-old Jack-the-Lad he seems to be. I hope we get to see more of them in future stories.

My qualms about some aspects of the romance aside, Cloud Ten is an excellent read and one I’m more than happy to recommend. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

My qualms about some aspects of the romance aside, Cloud Ten is an excellent read and one I’m more than happy to recommend. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

A Very Merry Bromance (Bromance Book Club #5) by Lyssa Kay Adams (audiobook) – Narrated by Andrew Eiden

a very merry bromance

This title may be downloaded from Audible 

Country music’s golden boy Colton Wheeler felt the most perfect harmony when he was with Gretchen Winthrop. But for her, it was a love-him-and-leave-him situation. A year later, Colton is struggling to push his music forward in a new direction. If it weren’t about to be the most magical time of year and the support of the Bromance Book Club, he’d be wallowing in self-pity.

It’s hard for immigration attorney Gretchen not to feel a little Scrooge-ish about the excess of Christmas when her clients are scrambling to afford their rent. So when her estranged, wealthy family reaches out with an offer that will allow her to better serve the community, she’s unable to say no. She just needs to convince Colton to be the new face of her family’s whiskey brand. No big deal….

Colton agrees to consider Gretchen’s offer in exchange for three dates before Christmas. With the help of the Bromance Book Club, Colton throws himself into the task of proving to her there’s a spark between them. But Gretchen and Colton will both need to overcome the ghosts of Christmas past to build a future together.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

The guys of the Bromance Book Club take us into the festive season with A Very Merry Bromance, book five in the series, and the romance between country music star Colton Wheeler and prickly lawyer Gretchen Winthrop, a grumpy/sunshine pairing with a bit of Scrooge-y Bah! Humbug! thrown in for good measure.

Gretchen was born into one of Tennessee’s wealthiest families, but growing up in the lap of luxury was no substitute for having a family who loved and cared about her. Her father was always buried in work, her mother was more concerned with how things looked than being a good mother and her brother was… well, the less said about him, the better. She was expected to join the family business, but instead, set up her own immigration law practice – something her family still regards as a fad, even though she’s been running it for over a decade. Christmas was always a big disappointment – her mother hired people to decorate the house and install a tree and gifts were purchased by flunkeys – and after so many years of enduring something fake and cold, she decided not to bother with it. She’s estranged from her family, doesn’t have many friends and dislikes the over the top consumerism of the holiday period, preferring to keep working to help those who are far more disadvantaged than herself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Gilded Scarab (Lancaster’s Luck #1) by Anna Butler (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

the gilded scarab

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Captain Rafe Lancaster is invalided out of the Britannic Imperium’s Aero Corps after crashing his aerofighter during the Second Boer War, his eyesight is damaged permanently, and his career as a fighter pilot is over. Returning to London in late November 1899, he’s lost the skies he loved, has no place in a society ruled by an elite oligarchy of powerful Houses, and is hard up, homeless, and in desperate need of a new direction in life.

Everything changes when he buys a coffeehouse near the Britannic Imperium Museum in Bloomsbury, the haunt of Aegyptologists. For the first time in years, Rafe is free to be himself. In a city powered by luminiferous aether and phlogiston, and where powerful men use House assassins to target their rivals, Rafe must navigate dangerous politics, deal with a jealous and possessive ex-lover, learn to make the best coffee in Londinium, and fend off murder and kidnap attempts before he can find happiness with the man he loves.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Sad to say, but Anna Butler’s name wasn’t even on my radar when I saw The Gilded Scarab crop up at Audible, but Gary Furlong’s name on the cover together with a quick peek at the reviews on Goodreads convinced me to take a punt – and I’m glad I did. It’s the first book in a trilogy with a steampunk-y vibe set in an AU Victorian era and it’s full of excellent period detail (many of the historical events of the time are referenced), strong worldbuilding, and boasts a fully three-dimensional and thoroughly engaging lead character.

In this world, the Britannic Imperium is ruled, under the monarch, by eight Convocation Houses which hold all the political power. They divide government departments between them and staff them with members of their own Houses or of the Minor Houses allied to them. Captain Rafe Lancaster is a minor scion of one of those Minor Houses, who, instead of becoming an equally minor government official, decided to join the Aero Corps, much to the annoyance of his family. He’s become one of the Corps’ best – if not THE best – aeronauts; he’s well-liked and a bit of a dare-devil (sometimes a troublemaker) but when push comes to shove, he’s the man for whatever job the Corps wants to throw at him. When the book opens, he’s fighting in South Africa (in the equivalent of what we know as the Boer War) when the famous ‘Lancaster’s Luck’ finally runs out, and his aerofighter is shot down while on a mission. Rafe survives the crash with mostly cuts and bruises, but the head injury he sustains damages his optic nerve which means his vision is no longer fit for military service, and he is medically discharged.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.