Rank & File (Anchor Point #4) by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

rank and file

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Senior Chief Will Curtis is as straitlaced as they come. While his fellow Sailors have partied their way through their enlistments, he’s had his eye on the prize – making master chief and retiring after 30 years of service.

Lieutenant Brent Jameson is a Navy brat turned Annapolis grad. He’s lived and breathed the military his whole life, and he knows he’s destined for great things – once he’s done paying his dues at the bottom of the ladder.

When their paths cross, both men know better than to give in to temptation, but that doesn’t stop them. It also doesn’t keep them from coming back for more, even though being discovered would sink their careers. Something has to give – Will can retire, Brent can resign, or they’ll both face court-martial.

But there’s also the option neither wants to acknowledge: jump ship and walk away from each other instead of ending their careers over a fledgling relationship. And they should probably decide before they fall in love.

Except – too late.

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – B+

I really like that the stories in the Anchor Point series all take an in-depth look at the various problems that can face those in long-term military service and that (so far) no two stories have been the same.  In this one, we’ve got a forbidden romance between an older, career enlisted Master at Arms (a Senior Chief), and a younger Lieutenant – when officer/enlisted “fraternisation” is strictly against the rules.

The two leads first meet when Will Curtis and some of his MAs are called to a domestic dispute; he arrives to find a heated situation between a husband, wife and another man, and fortunately is able to de-escalate the situation before it becomes more serious.  Lt. Brent Jameson is the other man in the situation; he met the woman on a hook-up app and had no idea she was married – which he admits later was pretty dumb of him.  Will gets him home and that’s that – except that he can’t stop thinking about the younger man, even though he’s obviously straight.

Around a year earlier, Will got out of a long-term relationship with a guy who cheated on him, and he hasn’t been interested in anyone since; deciding to get out of his funk (and to try to divert his thoughts from Brent Jameson), he goes out to the nearest thing Anchor Point has to a gay bar looking to hook-up… and who should he see there but the object of more than a few of his recent night-time fantasies.

Brent (who is bi) hadn’t been able to get Will out of his head either and he’s just as surprised to see the supposedly straight MA at a gay bar as vice-versa.  They both know it’s incredibly stupid, but the intense attraction between them is undeniable and leads to an equally intense fuck in the bathroom.  They then head back to Brent’s place to do it all over again… and realising that sex like that doesn’t come along very often, they decide to risk seeing each other again.

L.A. Witt writes sex scenes incredibly well – and there are a lot of them here, which serve to show just how sexually compatible (and combustible!) Will and Brent are, and why they keep coming back for more despite the very real risk they’re running.  But she also does a great job showing the development of an actual relationship between them and their growing feelings for one another outside the bedroom.  Of course, they’re not going to be able to continue to sneak around for ever and are bound to get caught; they both know this and think they really should stop seeing each other before they get in too deep.  The trouble is they only see that line in the sand once it’s way back in the rear-view mirror.

The dilemmas that face Brent and Will are very real and the consequences they could incur if caught are potentially career-ending. Will is career military and having served nineteen years, plans to stay in until the thirty year mark; Brent on the other hand was brought up living and breathing the Navy – his father served and so does his older brother – and was never really allowed to explore any other options for his future.  Nine years in, he’s not feeling it and tells himself that’s due to the fact that he’s still at the bottom of the ladder, and that things will get better as he starts to climb through the ranks.  But the longer he’s involved with Will, the more he starts to question that belief; and only when he finally realises what it feels like to actually want something for himself is he finally able to distinguish between what he wants and what others want for him; and I loved the way he handled the situation in every respect.

I’ve been dipping in and out of this series – I’ve listened to books 1-5 so far and plan to finish it – but Rank and File is possibly my favourite of the series so far.  Nick J. Russo does a great job with the narration; he always provides clear, distinct voices for the main characters, and differentiates well between the secondary characters, providing believable female voices when needed.  He’s extremely good in the sex-scenes as well; he doesn’t hold back but neither does he go stupidly over the top, which is important in a book like this where there’s such a lot of it!

A solid 4/4.5 stars for the story, and 4.5/5 for the narration.

Aftermath (Vino and Veritas #5) by L.A. Witt

aftermath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Brent Weyland was the life of the party until an injury ended his hockey career. Now he’s retreated alone to a lakefront house, trying to make sense of a life and body that don’t feel like his anymore.

Jon Norquist was happily married right up until he wasn’t. Now a single father in his forties, he’s trying to figure out what comes next. In the meantime, he pours his heartache and regret into the lyrics he sings for the wine bar crowd a couple of nights a week.

When a friend coaxes Brent out for a night of wine and music, he puts Brent and Jon on a collision course. Their chemistry is instantaneous. Jon gives Brent’s battered body a much-needed remedial lesson in pleasure. And Brent gives Jon a reason to smile again.

Multiple reasons, actually. Neither man wants anything serious, but love has a habit of showing up whether it’s welcome or not. No matter how hard they try, the two can’t help having feelings for each other, even as life continues to throw them curveballs.

But they’ve both got baggage to unpack and hurt to move past, and if they can’t leave their pasts in the past, they might just miss out on an amazing future.

Rating: B

L.A. Witt is someone who is prepared to tackle difficult issues in her novels but who always handles them with respect and sensitivity, and nowhere is that more evident than in Aftermath, her entry in the Vino and Veritas series.

Her two main characters are a twenty-nine-year-old former hockey player whose career was ended by a horrific car accident that almost cost him his life, and a forty-one-year-old divorcé with a ten-year-old son who. They meet by chance when Brent’s best friend encourages him to go for a drink at Vino and Veritas, where Jon is providing the life music that night. There’s an instant attraction there – for Brent, it’s the first time he’s felt anything remotely like it since the accident – but as he discovers, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is… not at all on board, and that night ends somewhat disastrously.

Fortunately, he finds the courage to text Jon the next day to apologise for running out on him and after that, they settle into what they both believe is a friends with benefits situation – even though it’s quickly clear to both of them that whatever is going on between them isn’t really a casual arrangement at all. They hang out together, sleep together – even though sex is rarely on the table – and eventually Jon brings Brent to meet his son… but what if they’re not really on the same page? Brent worries that eventually, his limitations will become too much for Jon to deal with; Jon worries that a hot, young former athlete will wake up one day and wonder what he’s doing with an over-the-hill single dad. While at first sight they would seem to have little in common, as the story progresses it becomes apparent they’re both going through stages of grief for the lives they thought they were going to have and a period of adjustment to their new ‘normal’.

The story includes a lot of things you won’t find in many romance novels; chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, depression, emotional abuse – but they’re presented in a very realistic way, especially when it comes to Brent and all the limitations his injuries have imposed on him and the toll his reduced mobility and the way his life has been completely upended have taken on him mentally. Kudos, too, for the way she presents the issue of Brent’s ED; in a genre in which male characters – regardless of sexual orientation – are often presented as well-hung studs who can go all night and then some – it’s… maybe not ‘nice’ exactly, but it’s good to see the issue represented in a very matter-of-fact but compassionate manner, and in this particular case how, with Jon’s unconditional support and encouragement, Brent is able to at least start to come to terms with the changes to his libido and sex life.

Jon is a really sweet guy, who is still reeling a bit from his divorce two years before (which completely blindsided him), and he, too is nursing insecurities he needs to put behind him. I liked him and Brent individually and together – they’re good for each other and for the most part they communicate well and the author does a good job of developing their relationship. On the downside, this is a fairly long book and was sometimes a bit wordy and repetitive – but I enjoyed it despite that. The love between Brent and Jon is so strong, their connection so well-developed that by the end, you know they’re absolutely solid and in it for the long haul, equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them, together.

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!

Until the World Stops by L.A. Witt

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Their plan was perfect…until the world stopped.

After the Navy boots him out, Tristan is screwed. Without an honorable discharge or a college degree, his job prospects are grim. If only he knew a service member who was willing to get married, make Tristan a dependent, and transfer his GI Bill. Such as, say, a former coworker who’s single, gay, and wants his family off his back about his refusal to settle down…and who maybe feels guilty for his role in Tristan losing his career.

Casey has never liked Tristan, but the plan is irresistible. In fact, it’s perfect. Now Tristan has health insurance and a place to live, and he’s going to school. Meanwhile, Casey’s conscience is assuaged, and he’s still sleeping his way through town while his family is none the wiser. The guys stay out of each other’s way, and it’s all good.

Right up until a pandemic locks everything down.

Suddenly it’s just Casey and Tristan…and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In a time when they’re both desperate for strength, support, and human contact, they find them in the most unexpected place: each other.

But when feelings come into play, is it something real? Or just two lonely men making the best of terrifying times? And how in the world do Casey and Tristan tell the difference?

Rating: B

I’ve read a number of discussions over the past few months about how to address COVID-19 in the romance genre.  Do authors ignore it and write as if it hadn’t happened – effectively setting their books in a contemporary AU? Or do they incorporate it somehow?  It’s a tricky question – for many readers, reference to the pandemic is the last thing they want to read in a genre they read in order to escape; others want more realism.  I tend towards the latter, but I can completely understand that there are those for whom a romance set during lockdown will have little or no appeal.

Anyway.  When I saw that L.A. Witt had written a book featuring a couple who got together for the sake of expediency and ended up locked down together, I decided to pick it up.  I generally enjoy her books and this was no exception; she writes insightfully about the confusion experienced in the early part of the year when rumours about the virus were just surfacing and then about the growing sense of helplessness people began to feel as the it began to take hold in their communities. Panic buying, virus-deniers, conspiracy theorists, they all get a bit of page time.

Until the World Stops employs the marriage-of-convenience trope (which is a personal favourite) and you don’t get many contemporary romances that use it; it’s a tricky premise to pull off in the modern era, but reasons for this one seem fairly plausible.

After making a Facebook post that ticks off his superiors, Master-at-Arms (MA2) Tristan Holloway is booted out of the Navy with nothing – his pension, medical insurance and GI Bill are all stripped from him.  In two months he’ll be out on his ear and the lack of the word “honourable” in front of “discharge” means it will be incredibly difficult for him to find a job.  Even though MA1 Casey Parker doesn’t like Tristan very much – thinks he’s always been an insubordinate little shit – he feels partially responsible for Tristan’s situation; he’d tried to quietly to talk to him about the inadvisability of what he ‘d written, but he should have known they’d lose their tempers, and when the yelling got the attention of one of their superiors… it was all over.  Casey felt responsible for Tristan being disciplined, but discovering that he’s losing everything makes him feel even more guilty;  he’d  expected Tristan to be demoted, not thrown out  – which is why he responds to a drunken Tristan’s idea of finding himself a “Military Sugar Daddy”   with the suggestion that Tristan should marry him.  Casey can sign over his GI Bill so Tristan can get his degree, and as a military dependent Tristan will have health insurance and somewhere to live.   They can stick it out until Tristan finishes college, then divorce quietly afterwards, and in the interim, they’re just roommates and can continue with their lives as usual.  Besides, Casey being married will at long last get his mother off his back about finding a boyfriend and settling down.  They agree to think it over for a few weeks, and make a decision at the end of the month.

Skip forward fifteen months to March 2020 and the ‘roomies’ thing Tristan and Casey had envisaged isn’t going so well.  Casey finds every excuse he can not to go home each night, usually spending the night in an hotel room with a hook-up, and Tristan is always relieved when Casey isn’t home.  They avoid each other as much as they can – their one point of commonality a cat they’ve adopted – but the air of resentment lying between them is so thick it could be cut with a knife.  Casey believes that marrying Tristan is starting to hurt his career, and because Tristan’s work hours (he’s a bouncer at a club) have been getting cut lately, it means money is tighter than usual and Casey isn’t pleased about having to rein in his spending. Tristan hates becoming more dependent on Casey than he already is.  So things are already strained when the news of a deadly new virus starts to dominate the news cycle and things start to shut down.  Casey is still going into the office at the Navy base at Providence Point, but Tristan’s work dries up completely and he’s laid off, causing the rift between them to widen.

As the situation worsens, and options for getting out of the house dwindle to nothing, Tristan and Casey are stuck spending their free time at home, getting on each other’s nerves.  It’s only a matter of time before all the stress and uncertainty come to a head, and Casey blows up at Tristan  – but with no other option but to continue living under the same roof, he’s forced to take a good look at his attitude and admit he over-reacted, take a deep breath and apologise.  After this, their relationship starts to improve, and as they start relying on each other for social interaction, they find that they actually enjoy spending time together.   And from friendship, it’s a sort step to a friends-with-benefits arrangement  – and then to more.  The trouble is – how can either of them be sure that what they’re feeling is real and not just a result of their enforced proximity?

I enjoyed the book in spite of a few niggles.  The chemistry between the leads crackles from the start, even when they don’t like each other, the love scenes are steamy and well written, and there are some lovely moments of domesticity along the way.  Also well done is the depiction of the emotional impact of the lack of social interaction, the worry over family members, and frustration with those who don’t take the situation seriously.  I also appreciated that Ms. Witt addresses the power differential in the relationship – the large financial disparity and Tristan’s fear of being completely dependent on Casey – rather than just hand-waving it away.  On the downside, the characters aren’t quite as well fleshed-out as I’d have liked, and there is some overly-repetitive internal monologuing; both those things knocked my grade down a bit.

A snapshot of life at the beginning of the pandemic, Until the World Stops picks up on many of the attitudes that prevailed and continue to prevail during these really uncertain times.  The romantic HEA is of course somewhat bittersweet as we’re not out of the woods yet, but I enjoyed watching Tristan and Casey navigate their way through their backwards relationship and come to the realisation that they can face anything if they can face it together.

Wireless by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Skin to skin contact is illegal. Sex? A felony. Insulated suits and gloves keep people from even the most platonic touches. Citizens line up in droves at simhouses for their rationed, prescribed orgasms in virtual reality machines.

Keith Borden has worked in a simhouse for years, and he’s never been tempted to break the strict no-contact laws…until Aiden Maxwell comes along. The attractive and dangerously flirtatious patient invites him into the seedy underground where people engage in real, wireless sex. Though Keith stands to lose his career and his freedom, he’s curious and Aiden is irresistible.

From the moment he sets foot in the wireless lounge, Keith is in a world of flesh and fantasy. He’s hooked. On the sex, on the atmosphere, and most of all, on Aiden. Years of keeping everyone in his world at arm’s length have left Keith craving a human touch, and Aiden offers all the contact – scorching sex, gentle affection, and everything in between – Keith can handle.

That is, until an unexpected act of betrayal throws Keith’s world into chaos, and he finds himself more alone than he ever imagined possible…

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

L.A. Witt’s Wireless has a really interesting premise and terrific worldbuilding, although the romance didn’t quite work for me. The story takes place in a future in which skin-to-skin contact is not only forbidden but illegal, sex is a felony and orgasms are administered ‘by appointment’ at simhouses.

Keith Borden has worked as a simtech for years, and over the last couple has developed a crush on one of his regular ‘patients’, Aiden Maxwell. Keith has never been tempted to break the strict no-contact rules at one of the underground Wireless Lounges (where people gather to have sex or just experience skin-to-skin contact with another person) – until Aiden invites him to join him at one. Keith is nervous – if he’s caught it could cost him his career – but his attraction to Aiden and his curiosity about what it would be like to actually touch another person are so strong that he agrees to go.

Keith’s first experience of touch is mind-blowing and overwhelming – and he quickly realises that one visit won’t be enough. He starts to realise that it’s not just the amazing sex he and Keith are having that he craves, but just simple human contact, the touch, the feeling of being connected to another person – but going to the Lounges is so dangerous and he knows it’s just a matter of time until everything comes crashing down.

I really enjoyed the story, although I wish it had been a bit longer. (If it had been a movie we’d have watched the good guys break out of the restrictive society they lived in and maybe start a more open and free community somewhere else). The worldbuilding is excellent, and author describes Keith’s feelings very well, his cravings and his withdrawal when he tries to quit going, and she does a great job of amping up the tension in the later part of the story. The only thing that didn’t work all that well was the romance between Keith and Aiden, which wasn’t helped by the lack of depth to the characterisation – we know little about Keith outside of his job and as the whole story is told from his PoV, we know next to nothing about Aiden. There’s no question about the strength of their physical connection, but the emotional one was somewhat lacking.

Nick J. Russo is a very skilled narrator, and has become a firm favourite of mine. He delivers an expressive performance here, with clearly defined character voices for the two leads and a clearly differentiated secondary cast. His delivery is well-paced and nicely-nuanced and I really liked the way he conveys the emotional content of the text.

Wireless wasn’t an unqualified success, but I did enjoy the story and would recommend it – especially in audio – to anyone looking for something a bit different.

The Road Home by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux and Michael Ferraiuolo


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

David Coleman has made some mistakes, and he’ll be living with the consequences for the rest of his life. He’s made decisions that have left him estranged from his once tight-knit family. Even now, when David is clean and sober, working his way through medical school with a promising future ahead, his parents refuse to forgive or forget.

When he gets some grim news about his father, David realizes he’s running out of time to make amends. As he comes home for the holidays and his sister’s wedding, he knows it’s going to be tense, but he’s desperate to prove they’re wrong about him. And since they won’t take his word for it, he’s bringing reinforcements.

Hunter Scott will do anything for his childhood best friend, but he never thought that would include posing as his boyfriend. Except David’s family has always respected Hunter. Maybe if they see that David is good enough for Hunter to love, they’ll realize he’s good enough for them, too.

But as Hunter and David lean on each other through snowstorms, family drama, and visits from personal demons, maybe this relationship isn’t as much of a performance as it was meant to be.

Rating: Narration: A – Content: A-

Sometimes the ideal book pops into my head for TBR Challenge prompts, and sometimes… it doesn’t.  This was one of those times;  I had a few books on my list, but I wasn’t really feeling any of them.  Then, a few days after my last (unsuccessful) search for something suitable, I picked up a new audiobook without having let the title sink in or reading the synopsis  – I like the author’s work and the narrators are two of my all-time favourites – and realised it would fit!  This is the first time I’ve fulfilled a TBR prompt by listening to a book rather than reading it, but as I tend to read/listen 50:50 these days, I figured it would be allowed 😉

L.A. Witt’s The Road Home is a tender, poignant and sensual romance that combines a number of familiar tropes to produce a story that transcends all of them.  The author tackles some difficult issues – PTSD, addiction, living with chronic illness, the stigma of being HIV positive – incorporating them fully into the story and handling them in a respectful and sensitive manner, but never loses sight of the fact that this is, first and foremost, a romance.

David Coleman and Hunter Scott have known each other for most of their lives, and were even high-school sweethearts at one point, but after a catastrophic break-up in college, ended up deciding they were better as friends.  That friendship has endured through Hunter’s deployments and the addiction that nearly took David’s life, and now, in their thirties, they both seem to have their lives on-track.  David has been clean for seven years and is in his second year of medical school, and Hunter is steadily climbing the ranks in the Navy.

David is practically estranged from his family, who lost all faith in him after he became addicted to meth.  His parents (begrudgingly) accept his sexuality, but his mother in particular rarely misses an opportunity to remind him of ‘everything he put them through’ when he was an addict, and David knows that his parents and brother are just waiting for him to relapse; the fact that he’s been through hell and emerged stronger, that he has the strength to remain sober, and that he got into one of the best medical schools in the country counts for nothing with them; all they see is a fuck-up who will never change.  And even worse, as far as his family is concerned, is the fact that David used to work in the porn industry –in front of the camera – and although he’s apologised profusely for disappointing them and scaring them over his addiction and the fact that he is HIV positive, the porn is something he refuses, point blank, to apologise for.  He’s not ashamed of it and sees no reason why he should be.  But when he receives the news that his father is terminally ill and that this Christmas may well be his last, David decides to have one last try at patching things up. His family doesn’t think much of him, but they do respect Hunter, so David asks Hunter if he’ll accompany him home for Christmas (and to his sister’s New Year wedding) – and pretend to be his boyfriend.  After all, if someone like Hunter thinks David is ‘good enough’, then surely his parents will… maybe not change their minds exactly, but ease off a bit and accept him back into the fold.

Hunter has been the best of friends to David, ready to help however he can and literally helping to save his life more than once.  Despite their breakup, he’s always been in love with David, but hasn’t pushed for anything more, believing it’s better to have David in his life as a friend than not to have him at all.  He knows how toxic David’s family is and privately thinks he’s probably better off without that kind of negativity in his life, but he also knows how important it is to David to at least try to end their estrangement, and he agrees to the plan.

For good reason, they decide to drive from Los Angeles to Washington, even though December is probably not the best time to be driving any distance in the Midwest.  Their plan to arrive the day before Christmas Eve is scuppered when the weather takes a turn for the worse and it becomes dangerous for them to proceed.  In true romance-novel fashion, There Is Only One Bed at the crappy motel they end up at, and one thing leads to another, which leads to … their agreeing it was a mistake that they should go back to how things were before. Which is, of course, impossible.

The Road Home is so much more than the sum of its tropes.  It’s a story about family being more than blood-ties and about learning when to hold on and when to let go.  David and Hunter are beautifully realised characters; they’re flawed and damaged, and their strength and willingness to fight every day to be who and what they want to be is admirable.  Their romance is sensual and passionate and is underpinned by an undeniable emotional connection and sizzling chemistry, a slow-burn which feels completely right for the tone of the story.

I definitely ran the gamut of emotions while listening to this.  The sheer awfulness of David’s family (apart from his sister) has to be read/listened to to be believed (seriously, they made me so angry!) but kudos to the author for making them into characters rather than caricatures.  This is a romance, so the story ends with an HEA for David and Hunter, but it’s also a bittersweet reminder that not everything in life is fixable and that sometimes, the thing you want isn’t always the thing you need.

Greg Boudreaux and Michael Ferraiuolo are, as I said earlier, two of my very favourite narrators, and are legends in the world of m/m romance narration, so having both of them working together again was a dream come true!  The story is narrated from both Hunter’s (Mr. Boudreaux) and David’s (Mr. Ferraiuolo) points of view in alternating chapters, so both narrators get to portray almost all the characters, and have achieved a remarkable consistency when it comes to the supporting cast. (A common complaint about dual narrations is that a character as performed by one narrator sounds too different to their portrayal by the other, but that isn’t the case here.) The same is true of the leads; in both performances, Hunter’s voice is pitched lower than David’s so the listener is never confused as to which character is speaking  regardless of who is narrating that particular portion of the story.  But the absolute best thing about these narrators is that not only are they both as technically accomplished as they come, they’re also incredibly good vocal actors – which, in a book like this, is vital. Their ability to perfectly judge every emotional nuance means that the listener is right there with the characters, experiencing their joy and sadness, passion and heartbreak alongside them.  Both performances are exceptionally good, elevating the author’s words to a new level and bringing the story and characters to full, vibrant life.

The Road Home deals with some difficult issues and isn’t always an easy listen, but I enjoyed every minute of it.   Moving, intense, sad and passionate, it’s a wonderful story about true love and second chances – and the fantastic narration makes it a must for fans of romance audiobooks.

Rebound (Pucks and Rainbows #1) by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael Ferraiuolo and Nick J. Russo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A 40-something single dad, a 20-something hockey star, and a whole lot of baggage. No, this couldn’t possibly blow up in their faces.

Officer Geoff Logan has his plate full. His cop’s salary and Marine retirement aren’t enough to make ends meet. He’s got war wounds and demons that are in it for the long haul. His teenagers are, well, teenagers, plus they’re pissed that he left the boyfriend they loved. Can’t a guy catch a break?

Seattle Snowhawks center Asher Crowe has it all. A seven-figure salary. A literal house on a hill. A stable, loving relationship with an amazing boyfriend. At least, that’s what the world sees. Behind closed doors, he’s been living in a private hell, and when he finally works up the courage to end things, his boyfriend refuses to go quietly.

One call to the cops, and suddenly Geoff and Asher’s paths cross. But is the connection between them simple chemistry? Kindred spirits? Or just a pair of lonely hearts looking for a hot distraction?

And even if it’s more than physical, is there really a future for two men from such vastly different worlds? Especially when the past comes knocking?

Rating: Narration; A – Content; B+

Rebound, book one in L.A. Witt’s Pucks & Rainbows series, pairs a twenty-something hockey star with a forty-something cop and ex-marine, both of whom have recently ended long-term relationships with abusive partners. Naturally, both men bring a lot of emotional baggage to the table, so maybe a no-strings rebound fling is what they both need, a simple distraction while they deal with all the other stuff going on in their lives and sort themselves out. It’s a well-written – if slightly predictable – story featuring two engaging leads that takes a realistic look at the issue of domestic abuse in gay relationships and the perceptions – personal and public – that come with it.

When Officer Geoff Logan and his partner Laura are called to a disturbance at a local restaurant, Geoff is surprised to recognise one of the parties involved as up-and-coming hockey star, Asher Crowe, centre for the Seattle Snowhawks. While Geoff and Laura wait for back-up, Geoff talks to Asher about the fight and learns Asher had just broken things off with Nathan – his long-term , physically abusive boyfriend – having deliberately chosen to do so in a public place in the hope that Nathan wouldn’t make a scene… which obviously didn’t turn out as Asher had hoped. Geoff, who has very recently ended a six-year relationship with a man who manipulated him emotionally for years, sees something of himself and his own situation in Asher, and after seeing him safely home, tells the younger man to call him if Nathan ignores the warnings he’s been given to stay away and offers to check up on him at the end of his shift – an offer Asher gratefully accepts.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Afraid to Fly (Anchor Point #2) by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Once a fearless fighter pilot, Commander Travis Wilson is now confined to a desk. It’s been eight years since the near-fatal crash that grounded him, and it still rules his life thanks to relentless back pain.

Lieutenant Commander Clint Fraser almost drowned in a bottle after a highly classified catastrophe while piloting a drone. His downward spiral cost him his marriage and kids, but he’s sober now and getting his life back on track. He’s traded drones for a desk, and he’s determined to reconcile with his kids and navigate the choppy waters of PTSD.

Clint has been on Travis’s radar ever since he transferred to Anchor Point. When Clint comes out to his colleagues, it’s a disaster, but there’s a silver lining: now that Travis knows Clint is into men, the chemistry between them explodes.

It’s all fun and games until emotions get involved. Clint’s never been in love with a man before. Travis has, and a decade later, that tragic ending still haunts him. Clint needs to coax him past his fear of crashing and burning again, or their love will be grounded before takeoff.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B

The second book in L.A. Witt’s Anchor Point series of military romances, Afraid to Fly features two protagonists in their forties who have so many issues to deal with between them that at times, I couldn’t help wondering if there were too many.  But the fact that both men are a bit older than the norm for romance novels, are long-term military and have both seen active service made it more plausible that they’d have as much baggage as they do.

We met former pilot Commander Travis Wilson in the first book, Just Drive, and learned that he lives with chronic pain due to a back injury sustained in a crash some eight years earlier.  He’s been divorced for well over a decade and has a daughter of twenty who lives with him; since his divorce, he’s mostly had casual and short-term relationships (with both men and women) – apart from one relationship (with a man) ten years earlier which ended badly and has left him extremely cautious about falling in love again.

A former RAP (Remote Aircraft Pilot), Lieutenant Commander Clint Fraser transferred to Adams Naval Base fairly recently.  Three years before, he was involved in a mission that left him badly traumatised and ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage; he turned to drink and became violent (though not to his wife and kids) and unpredictable. His divorce was messy and his wife has custody of their three children, but he’s doing better and hopes that in the not too distant future he’ll be able to see his kids for more than the odd Skype chat and supervised visit.

Clint and Travis work in the same office (though in different departments) and both men have had a bit of a crush on each other for a while, even though neither has the faintest idea if the other is into men.  That changes on the night of the Navy Ball, when Clint arrives with his date – a guy – and when Travis, in casual conversation, mentions a somewhat disastrous date with an ex-Marine.

It’s clear early on that Travis and Clint have great chemistry, and not long after the ball, they start seeing each other.  The bulk of the story is thus taken up by their working out how to be together given their health and other issues as they grow closer emotionally and start to think in terms of a making a life together.  As I said before, they have a lot of problems to deal with, problems that are part of their everyday lives and have to be taken into account every step of the way. Travis’ chronic pain has caused the end of more than one relationship as his partners grew frustrated, bored or irritated (or all three) with the way his life had to revolve around his pain management and with the limitations imposed upon him by his condition when it came to sex.  Clint’s PTSD still gives him violent nightmares regularly, which makes him nervous of spending the night with anyone, and he’s also battling the guilt he feels every day for the hell he put his wife and kids through.  Bringing him down still further is that he feels almost as though he’s not ‘entitled’ to be traumatised seeing as he was sitting in an air-conditioned room, thousands of miles away from a war zone when the incident which ended his career as a RAP took place, but the real kicker is that the mission is still classified and he can’t talk about it to anyone, not even the chaplain or a therapist. (I have no idea if this actually happens – if it does, then it’s a disgrace.)  All these things make Travis and Clint cautious about revealing the true extent of their issues for fear of scaring each other off, but as they spend more time together, they start to open up and to realise that they may just have found the one person in the world who can understand what they are each going through and how they can support each other through it.

Nick J. Russo is rapidly becoming a favourite narrator – I can’t think why I haven’t listened to him before this year!  Once again, he delivers a strong performance all round, providing distinct vocal characterisations for the two principals and the handful of secondary characters in the story.  He’s very good at pinpointing the emotional heart of any given scene, and does an excellent job of communicating the ups and downs experienced by Travis and Clint as they each open up and start to merge their lives.

Afraid to Fly is an enjoyable story – which isn’t devoid of heat, even taking Travis’ difficulties into account – which addresses both men’s health conditions in a sympathetic way without sugar-coating them.  I have to say though, that there’s a false note struck fairly late on in the story which feels like an obvious contrivance just to throw in a bit of tension before the end.  Fortunately, that doesn’t disrupt things for too long, and although there are a few questions I’d have liked answered (such as – will Clint get to see his kids again?) I was left hopeful for the couple’s future.

Static by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael Ferraiuolo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After two years together, Alex has been dreading the inevitable moment when Damon learns the truth: Alex is a shifter, part of a small percentage of the population able to switch genders at will. Thanks to a forced implant, though, Alex is suddenly static – unable to shift – and male. Overnight, he’s out to a world that neither understands nor tolerates shifters…and to his heterosexual boyfriend.

Damon is stunned to discover his girlfriend is a shifter and scared to death of the dangers the implant poses to Alex’s health. He refuses to abandon Alex, but what about their relationship? Damon is straight, and with the implant both costly and dangerous to remove, Alex is stuck as a man.

Stripped of half his identity and facing serious physical and social ramifications, Alex needs Damon more than ever, but he doesn’t see how they can get through this.

Especially if he’s static forever.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: A-

I think it’s safe to say that the premise of L.A. Witt’s Static is one of the most original I’ve come across. It’s set in a world very like our own with one major difference – shifters are known to exist, but instead of being able to assume animal shapes, these shifters are able to change gender at will. Some are straight, some are not; some are happy to spend their lives as one gender, some gravitate towards one but do shift sometimes, and others – like Alex in this story – are non-binary which, in Alex’s case, means spending roughly half the time as male and half as female. But while the existence of shifters isn’t a secret, many of them choose to keep their ability under wraps due to the overwhelmingly negative perceptions of them by the “static” public, and the amount of prejudice they encounter.

Damon and his girlfriend have been in a relationship for a couple of years now, and although it’s not been without its ups and downs (Alex can be very moody and sometimes drinks heavily) they love each other and Damon would like them to get married – although Alex keeps dodging the issue. When she doesn’t answer his calls one morning, Damon is immediately worried about her; she went to visit her parents the night before, and he knows she finds those visits incredibly difficult – so he heads over to her house to check on her, and is astonished when a young man opens the door.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Just Drive (Anchor Point #1) by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For Sean Wright, driving a cab in the tiny Navy town of Anchor Point isn’t an exciting job…until he picks up just-dumped Paul Richards. A drive turns into a walk on the pier, which turns into the hottest hookup Sean’s had in ages.

After a long overdue breakup, Paul can’t believe his luck. Of all the drivers, he’s picked up by the gorgeous, gay, and very willing Sean. Younger guys aren’t usually his thing, but Paul can’t resist.

One taste and neither man can get enough…right up until they realize that Paul is Sean’s father’s commanding officer and the last man Sean should be involved with.

With two careers on the line, their only option is to back off. It’s not easy, though; the sex and the emotional connection are exactly what both men have been craving for a long time. But Paul has devoted 24 years to his career and his dream of making admiral. If he’s caught with Sean, that’s all over. He has to choose – stay the course, or trade it all for the man who drove off with his heart.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B

This first book in L.A. Witt’s Anchor Point series is a fairly low angst May/December romance that begins when twenty-something cab driver Sean Wright  picks up a fare – an attractive, older guy – from a local hotel who, rather than offering a destination,  instructs him to “Just Drive”.  Paul Richards has just been dumped by his long-distance boyfriend, and his usual way of getting over a break up is to find someone else to fuck to take his mind off it.  After spending the best part of the evening together, he and Sean end up getting down ‘n’ dirty in the back seat of the car, and even though Paul tries to tell himself it was just a one off, he can’t forget Sean’s kindness and the way they just seemed to ‘click’ on more than just a sexual level.  Which is why Paul finds himself calling Sean again. And again. The pair continue to hook up on a regular basis after that (and it’s clear that whatever is between them is fast becoming more than just sex) – until both men suddenly realise that Paul is Sean’s father’s CO at Adams Naval Base and that any sort of relationship between them could have a disastrous effect on Paul’s and Sean’s father’s careers.

Paul has always known he’s gay, but had it drummed into him that anyone with ambitions to move up through the ranks could only get so far without the perfect wife and kids, so he married – twice – and did his damndest to be (or at least act) straight for the sake of his career.  Now in his early forties with two divorces behind him, he has a lot of regret for the way he treated both the women he married, but is openly out now and focused on his career goal of making Admiral.  The Navy has been just as much a part of Sean’s life as Paul’s but whereas Paul chose his path, Sean didn’t and now in his early twenties, resents the fact that the Navy is continuing to dictate the direction of his life.  Moving around so often meant he never formed long or lasting friendships or relationships, it caused the breakdown of his parents’ marriage – and falling for Paul and not being able to have him is yet one more reason for that resentment.

The story is perhaps a bit repetitive – Sean and Paul meet up and have lots of mind-blowing sex, then after the bombshell explodes, they tell themselves they should stay away from each other, fail miserably and have lots of mind-blowing sex… you get the picture.  But I liked both characters individually and as a couple, and even though there’s a twenty year age gap between them, it’s never an issue for them and it wasn’t for me because they just… fit.

There were some inconsistencies that had me scratching my head though. For instance, we’re never told how old Sean is and the details given in the book are a bit contradictory; and I thought it was a bit odd that Paul never asked what Sean is studying (and we’re not told either, although there’s one scene in which he’s having trouble concentrating on King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  Those things aren’t desperately important, but it seemed odd they were never mentioned. It’s also a bit of a stretch to believe that neither Paul nor Sean enquired much about the other’s situation; Sean knew Paul was military but didn’t enquire further (and later thinks that perhaps he deliberately avoided doing so) and he didn’t talk much about his dad, so I suppose it’s possible, if slightly implausible.

Nick J. Russo does such a fantastic job with the narration that I honestly didn’t care about the inconsistencies or repetitiveness in the story.  He gives Paul a deep, slightly gravelly voice, and he captures Sean’s sunny personality and flirtatiousness brilliantly.  There aren’t many secondary characters in the story, but they’re well differentiated and easy to tell apart from the main roles.  There are, as I’ve said, quite a few sex scenes in the book, and Mr. Russo takes them in his stride, performing them confidently and getting into the swing of things without going over the top.

I enjoyed Just Drive in spite of the story’s flaws, and Nick J. Russo’s narration was definitely good enough to enable me to get past them.  I’ll certainly be listening to more in this series.