Variable Onset by Layla Reyne (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

variable onset

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When the serial killer known as Dr. Fear seemingly reemerges after a cooling-off period, Special Agent Lincoln Monroe wants on the case. He knows his research on the calculating criminal, who targets couples and uses their worst fears to kill them, could prove invaluable. But nothing can prepare Lincoln for the agent waiting for him in Apex, Virginia: a brash and cocky former student. Carter Warren is everything Lincoln is not, and somehow everything he wants. And they’ll be going undercover. As newlyweds.

For Carter, seeing Lincoln again—and flustered to boot—pokes his raging bear of a crush something fierce. He thinks posing as lovers will provide the perfect bait for Dr. Fear. But pretending to be married forces them to confront fears of their own…like giving in to the very real chemistry between them.

With evidence pointing to the possibility of a copycat killer, Lincoln and Carter will have to race to separate truth from fiction. But when another couple goes missing, finding the killer will test every ounce of their training, skills and the strength of their bond like never before.

Rating – Narration: C+; Content – B+

I have a somewhat hot/cold relationship with Layla Reyne’s books. They can be a bit hit and miss for me, but I keep coming back to them because despite their flaws, they’re pretty entertaining. The author can create intensely likeable and compelling characters, and she’s great at constructing fast-paced action sequences and interesting plotlines, but at times those plots have been overly complicated and a bit frenetic, so much so that they’ve overshadowed the romance and left little space for character and relationship development. I loved her début Agents Irish and Whiskey series, but was less convinced by its spin-off, Trouble Brewing (even though I really liked the central characters) – so I was pleased when her standalone romantic suspense novel Variable Onset marked a welcome return to form.

The plot revolves around the hunt for an elusive serial killer known as Dr. Fear, who has been killing for many years but has so far evaded capture. Dr. Fear targets couples, kidnapping them and then torturing them by confronting them with their deepest fears until they beg for death – and acts in cycles, killing several victims and then going to ground for years before starting up again. When Variable Onset begins, they’ve just become active again – and for the first time ever, the FBI might just have a plausible lead as to their whereabouts.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Silent Knight (Fog City #5) by Layla Reyne

silent knight
This title may be purchased from Amazon

I won’t let anything happen to you.

Fourteen years ago, Braxton Kane’s feelings were forbidden.
As an officer, he couldn’t fall for an enlisted… no matter how much he longed for Holt Madigan.
Now—as a police chief in love with a digital assassin—his promise to always protect Holt is becoming harder to keep.

I’ll protect you.

Holt doesn’t understand why his best friend has been pushing him away for months.
But when Brax’s life and career are threatened, Holt refuses to allow the distance any longer.
The Madigans protect their own, and Brax is family, whether he believes it or not.

I won’t let anything happen to you either.

Forced together, Holt realizes his feelings for his best friend have changed.
His desire to explore the promise their single night together held is undeniable.
His resolve to protect the man who has always protected him is unshakable.
But if Holt wants a future with Brax, he’ll have to search and destroy the person who attacked him—before Brax activates the kill switch and sacrifices himself.

Rating: C

NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous books in the series.

Layla Reyne’s Fog City series was originally a trilogy – or perhaps more accurately, one story in three parts – that featured the three Madigan siblings, the heirs to one of the most powerful organised crime families in the Bay Area of San Francisco. When the family patriarch and head of the business – their grandfather – dies after a long illness, Hawes Madigan – the eldest – steps into the role he’s been groomed for, but his decisions to turn away from some of the more illegal aspects of their work and towards more legitimate business interests aren’t popular, and the trilogy deals with uncovering and foiling the plot to bring him down. On the way, Hawes falls in love with Chris Perri (formerly an undercover ATF agent), and we’re introduced to a typically large secondary cast, which includes Hawes’ twin Holt, their sister Helena and various other operatives and villains. Among that cast is the character of Braxton Kane, Chief of SFPD, who was in the army with Holt over a decade earlier – and although Holt is married with a young daughter, it was very clear throughout the trilogy that there was something bubbling along between them that was considerably more than friendship. (And no, there’s no cheating involved.)

The relationship between Holt and Brax intrigued me (I do love me some yearning and UST) and I had hopes that maybe Ms. Reyne would write a story for them; and she did. Silent Knight is it.

It’s a book of two halves. The first, in Brax’s PoV, tells the story of how he and Holt met in the army and follows them in a series of vignettes (eight in total) over a period of some fourteen years, and then we get Holt’s PoV in the present day suspense storyline.

I was pleased to get their backstory, but OMG, it contains probably the worst case of Love at First Sight I’ve ever read, when Holt steps off the transport plane in Afghanistan and Brax – his captain – takes one look at the young, redheaded, fucking beautiful – and so off fucking limits – man and vows never to let anything happen to him:

He’d do whatever it took to make sure this soldier walked back up that ramp and made it home when his tour was over.

– before he’s so much as spoken to him. I mean – seriously? Holt could have been a complete dickhead for all he knew – or straight, or both. We do get to see some relationship development across the years (although not much, as each vignette is basically a snapshot of a single day) but I just couldn’t get past a thirty-six year-old career soldier thinking like a teenaged girl. (With apologies to teenaged girls everywhere.)

We follow the two men through Holt returning home after his tour, Brax completing his twenty years and going to take up a post with Boston PD, Holt falling in love (with a woman) and getting married, and Brax finally moving to SF a few years later to become assistant Chief of Police. It’s here that he finally learns the truth about Holt’s family – and even though he’s horribly torn, he still stands by his determination never to let anything bad happen to Holt if he can help it. (If you’ve read the Fog City series, you’ll know that Brax walks a fine line, but never falls on the wrong side of it.)

When the narrative switches to Holt’s PoV, we’re in the present day, a few months after the plot to oust (and kill) Hawes was foiled, and for reasons Holt can’t fathom, Brax is trying to put some distance between them; reasons which become apparent when it emerges that someone is out to discredit Brax and strike at the family through him.  With IA called in to investigate the allegations, Brax wants to keep Holt as far away from him as possible, so as not to put him and his daughter in any danger.  Of course, Holt is having none of it – Brax is family, and the Madigans look after their own.  Helena and Hawes (and their partners) are on board, too – they all know how Brax feels about Holt and how Holt feels about Brax even if Holt hasn’t quite worked it out yet.

But readable though it is, Silent Knight is plagued by the same problems and inconsistencies that have beset a number of Ms. Reyne’s recent books, and indeed, the other books in this series.  I like the characters and the relationships between them; the Madigans are a close-knit family and there’s no question there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for one another.  Ms. Reyne is also very skilled at creating a slick, fast-paced, action-filled story that feels like an action movie in book format; they’re filled with super hawt, super clever characters who are incredibly good at what they do, and things move at a dizzying speed.  But there’s a serious over-reliance on technology – each of her series/books has one or more genius hacker characters who can do pretty much ANYTHING with just a few keystrokes – and that started feeling like a major cop-out a few books ago. (The exception to this is her recent standalone Variable Onset, which is one of her best books to date.)

When it comes to inconsistencies – apart from the Love at First Sight thing, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that Amelia – Holt’s ex-wife who is in prison for her part in the plot against the family  – is able to help out by doing a bit of complicated hacking FROM THE COMPUTERS IN THE PRISON.  I mean – what?!  Most of the hacking stuff goes right over my head and I kind of zone out until it’s finished, but that?  Made no sense to me.

The romance is… well, Brax has been in love with Holt for years, but it seems Holt hasn’t recognised his feelings for what they are (and have always been),  so really there’s not a great deal of romantic development as these two have been in love for ages.  And, as has also been the case in previous books, the dialogue in the sex scenes strays dangerously close to the line between hot and funny-for-the-wrong-reasons.  The author is going for intensity but some of the things these characters say to each other makes me want to cringe.  The prose might not quite be purple, but the overblown nature of the sentiment certainly is.

I keep thinking that maybe it’s time I called it quits and stopped reading Layla Reyne’s books – and then she comes out with something as good as Variable Onset and I’m sucked back in, hoping for something else of that calibre from her.

To sum up – if you enjoyed the other Fog City books, chances are you’ll enjoy this one, but if, like me you like a coherent plot that doesn’t rely too heavily on technological deus ex machina and a romance that doesn’t make you want to roll your eyes so hard they hurt, then maybe this won’t be the book for you.  Bonus points for cameos from characters from the Whiskeyverse aren’t really enough for me to be able to rate this one above the average.

Variable Onset by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When the serial killer known as Dr. Fear seemingly reemerges after a cooling-off period, Special Agent Lincoln Monroe wants on the case. He knows his research on the calculating criminal, who targets couples and uses their worst fears to kill them, could prove invaluable. But nothing can prepare Lincoln for the agent waiting for him in Apex, Virginia: a brash and cocky former student. Carter Warren is everything Lincoln is not, and somehow everything he wants. And they’ll be going undercover. As newlyweds.

For Carter, seeing Lincoln again—and flustered to boot—pokes his raging bear of a crush something fierce. He thinks posing as lovers will provide the perfect bait for Dr. Fear. But pretending to be married forces them to confront fears of their own…like giving in to the very real chemistry between them.

With evidence pointing to the possibility of a copycat killer, Lincoln and Carter will have to race to separate truth from fiction. But when another couple goes missing, finding the killer will test every ounce of their training, skills and the strength of their bond like never before.

Rating: B+

Layla Reyne is an author who can be a bit hit and miss for me, yet something about her writing keeps me coming back to her books.  I thoroughly enjoyed her début series, (Agents Irish and Whiskey) but was less enthusiastic about the follow up (Trouble Brewing), even though I liked the characters and most of the plotlines. In fact, there are a lot of things I like about her books – likeable characters, complex plots, snappy dialogue and steamy love scenes, plus Ms. Reyne’s ability to write movie-style action scenes is impressive.  All those ingredients were there in her last couple of series, but they didn’t seem to gel quite as well as before.

So I’m really pleased to report that her latest novel, Variable Onset, turned out to be a welcome return to form.  It’s a standalone, and is one of her best books to date, containing a well-executed, complex plot and two fully fleshed-out leads whose romance unfolds at a pace that allows the author to properly develop the chemistry between them and really build the UST.

The story revolves around the hunt for a serial killer who has managed to evade capture for decades.  The notorious Dr. Fear preys on couples, kidnapping and torturing them, preying on their deepest fears (fire, claustrophobia, drowning…) until the victim begs for death – and then repeats the torture with the second victim. The killer strikes in cycles and goes to ground after each one; now it seems that they may have just become active again and for the first time, the FBI may have a clue as to where this person might be.

Special Agent Lincoln Monroe has been with the FBI for fifteen years, the last ten of them at Quantico, where he teaches courses in forensic science.  He loves what he does, but his specialty in forensic genealogy has seen him being pulled into more and more active investigations recently.  Field work doesn’t really play to his strengths, but when he learns Dr. Fear appears to have embarked upon his next killing cycle, he immediately accedes to his boss’ request for help on the case.  Even more bad news awaits however; the latest couple to have been abducted are the daughter of Lincoln’s former mentor (who was the last agent to have tracked Dr. Fear) and her fiancé.  If the killer remains true to form, they have less than forty eight hours to find them alive.

It’s truly a race against time, and Lincoln makes his way to the small town of Apex, Virginia, to meet with the agent he’ll partner in their search for the couple and the killer.  In his rush to get underway, Lincoln wasn’t even told the agent’s name – and the last thing he expects is to arrive at his new ‘home’ to find a party in full swing.  Even more unexpected, the door is opened by Carter Warren, a former student – the trainee of his nightmares, and of the occasional fantasy  – who drags him inside, presses a wedding ring into his hand and immediately introduces him around as Professor Lincoln Polk, the new university librarian – and his new husband.

Carter had a huge crush on Lincoln back when he was at the academy, and thinks his geeky professor has grown even hotter with age.  He wanted Lincoln on the case because he’s the Bureau’s resident expert on Dr. Fear and created their cover as a couple in the belief that it might draw them out – but is also determined not to pass up the chance to broaden his working partnership with Lincoln into something more.

The suspense plot is clever, twisty and dark as Lincoln and Carter realise that not only is Dr. Fear killing again, but they’ve got a copycat to deal with as well – whom Dr. Fear seems to want them to catch.  Suspects and red herrings abound but clues don’t – and even when one does surface, it seems to offer more questions than answers, and I changed my mind about the identity of the villain several times. Layla Reyne’s research is always impeccable, and her forays into investigative detail are fascinating; plus she does a great job evoking the small college town atmosphere and of fleshing out the secondary characters.

The two leads are strongly characterised and three dimensional, and their slow-burn relationship is full of crackling sexual tension.  Lincoln is in his early forties and co-parents his teenaged daughter with his ex-wife (who he counts as one of his best friends). He’s meticulous, dedicated and a bit prickly, his daughter is the most important person in his life and he’s  cautious about relationships, having been burned in the past, but can’t deny the pull he feels towards Carter – has felt since the first time they met eight years earlier.  Back then, Carter was an aggravating smartarse – and one of Lincoln’s brightest students.  Too smart, too cocky, too flirtatious and too damn attractive for his own good, he was exactly the sort of trouble Lincoln didn’t need, and not much of that has changed in the last eight years.  Or that’s what Lincoln believes at first. Quickly he comes to see that while Carter is still gorgeous, talented and outgoing, he’s also kind, highly competent and clever, and that they’re a good fit, both professionally and personally.

Variable Onset is a terrific read – a fast-paced, suspenseful mystery combined with a sexy, slow-burn romance that is just right for this particular story.  I liked how the fake relationship adds to the romantic tension with both men wondering whether their growing feelings are due to their enforced proximity or something more; it’s not an uncommon trope, but I liked the way it was handled here. I would perhaps have liked to see a little more of Carter and Lincoln’s togetherness at the end of the book, but ultimately I’m happy with the way things played out between them.  I did, however have a couple of issues with the plot; one, I found the resolution of the main Dr. Fear plotline a little clumsy and two, I’d have liked a little more time spent on the personal quest that led to Carter’s being in Apex in the first place.

But none of those issues affected my enjoyment of the book one whit. I’m sure Ms. Reyne’s many fans will enjoy it, and if you haven’t read anything of hers before, this would be a great jumping-in point.  Carter and Lincoln are engaging, relatable characters, and I’ll be at the front of the queue if Ms. Reyne decides she’s got more of their stories to tell.

King Slayer (Fog City #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Never fall for a mark. Mission fail.

Christopher Perri—a.k.a. Dante Perry—infiltrated the Madigan organization with one goal: vengeance for his murdered partner. Falling for the assassin at the head of the table wasn’t part of the plan, but Hawes Madigan is not the cold, untouchable Prince of Killers Chris expected. Everything about the newly crowned king is hot, and every inch of him eminently touchable…and off-limits once Chris’s cover is blown.

Exposure couldn’t come at a worse time. Hawes’s throne is threatened, and Chris suspects the same person who killed his partner is behind the coup. Working with Hawes benefits them both, but Chris’s employer has other ideas. Dismantling criminal organizations is what Chris does best, and his boss expects the King Slayer to deliver.

But Hawes is taking the Madigans in a new direction, one Chris can get behind, and the two men form a shaky alliance strengthened by the irresistible attraction between them…until Chris learns who killed his partner. Once he knows the truth, the King Slayer is unleashed, and Chris will stop at nothing to destroy those who betrayed him, including the king who stole his heart.

Rating: C+

King Slayer is the second book in Layla Reyne’s current Fog City trilogy about the Madigans, a powerful family in the criminal underworld of San Francisco.  For the past three years, owing to a massive change of heart by Hawes Madigan, the family has been cleaning up its act and getting out of the shadier side of the business, and in this, he’s aided by his twin brother, Holt, and their sister, Helena.

In book one – told entirely from Hawes’ PoV – we met the Madigan siblings, their formidable grandmother and police chief, Braxton Kane – who served in the military with Holt – and learned that someone was out to take down the Madigans – principally Hawes – and that whoever it is could be someone from within the operation who is unhappy with the direction Hawes is taking the business.  Private investigator Dante Perry confronted Hawes with those suspicions and, in Prince of Killers, started working alongside the Madigans, trying to work out who was behind the attempts on Hawes’ life and at destabilising the company.  Over the course of about a week, lots of shit went down and Hawes and Dante quickly acted on the mutual attraction that sizzled between them right from their first meeting.  Hawes was surprised to find himself so quickly coming to rely on Dante in spite of his siblings’ urging him to caution, but something about Dante drew him like a moth to a flame – and ultimately to getting burned when it was revealed at the end of the novel that Dante, aka ATF agent Christopher Perri – was pursuing his own agenda; he’d infiltrated the business and got close to Hawes in order to find the truth about the death of his partner three years earlier.

This instalment of the story picks up immediately where book one finished and the PoV switches to Dante/Chris (I’m going to refer to him as Chris from now on).  At this point, readers know the reason behind Hawes’ decision to start pulling back from the less legitimate operations of MCS (the ones that involve killing people!) and who killed Chris’ partner, but Chris and Hawes still have secrets to reveal and uncover; and it becomes clear that someone is manipulating the Madigans, Chris and Kane, and that Chris and Hawes need to work together if they’re going to find out exactly who that is. But can Chris convince Hawes to trust him, even a little, after his betrayal?  And besides, with their mutual desire and need for one another showing no sign of abating – if anything it’s growing stronger – what sort of future can there possibly be for an (ex) assassin and a Fed?

There’s a bit less action in this book, which focuses more on developing Chris’ character, introducing his family members, and showing why he’s so determined to find out who was responsible for the death of his partner, who was there for him at an incredibly difficult time in his life and kept him on an even keel when he was in danger of going off the rails. We see less of the Madigans in action – although I found seeing Hawes through Chris’ eyes gave him the edginess that was missing in the first book – but there are some exciting plot developments, and once again, we end on one helluva cliffhanger that certainly whets the appetite for the next instalment.

Layla Reyne certainly knows how to tell a good yarn, but I still find myself wishing for more depth in the characterisation, romance rather than insta-lust, and side-eyeing some of the more implausible parts of the story (techies/hackers in Ms. Reyne’s books seem able to do pretty much everything at the touch of a key and in ten seconds flat, for instance).  But there’s usually something about her books that intrigues me enough to make me want to keep reading them.  Which means she must be doing something right, I suppose – and I’ll be back for book three in the series.

Prince of Killers (Fog City #1) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No indiscriminate killing. No collateral damage. No unvetted targets.

These are the rules Hawes Madigan lives by. Rules that make being Fog City’s Prince of Killers bearable. Soon, he’ll be king–of an organization of assassins–and the crown has never felt heavier. Until the mysterious Dante Perry swaggers into his life.

Dante looks like a rock god and carries himself like one too, all loose-limbed and casually confident. He also carries a concealed weapon, a private investigator’s license, and a message for the prince. Someone inside Hawes’s organization is out to kill the future king.

In the chaos that follows the timely warning, Hawes comes to depend on Dante. On his skills as an investigator, on the steadiness he offers, and on their moments alone when Hawes lets Dante take control. As alliances are tested and traitors exposed, Hawes needs Dante at his back and in his bed. But if the PI ever learns Hawes’s darkest secret, Hawes is sure to get a knife to the heart – and a bullet to the brain – instead.

Rating: C+

Prince of Killers is the first in a new trilogy of romantic suspense novels from Layla Reyne. Set in and around San Francisco, and focuses on a family that made its name and fortune from organised crime but which, owing to a tragic incident a few years earlier, is changing direction and turning its hand towards legitimate business… and vigilante justice.

The novel is fairly short, clocking in at around 200 pages (according to Amazon) and it does a decent job of introducing the overarching plot that will run throughout the trilogy and the major players.  Hawes Madigan is the heir to the organised crime empire built and run by his terminally ill grandfather.  Together with his younger (by two minutes) twin brother Holt and their sister Helena, he has been running MCS (Madigan Cold Storage) for the past five years, and is now facing the prospect of fully stepping into his grandfather’s shoes, as the man doesn’t have long left to live.  A man in his position naturally has many enemies, which is why he’s sceptical when he receives information from enigmatic private investigator Dante Perry that someone is trying to kill him.  The difference is, however, that Dante believes it’s someone from within Hawes’ organisation.

Hawes quickly discovers that Dante’s information was accurate when two of his trusted lieutenants turn on him later that very day – and would quite possibly have succeeded in killing him had it not been for Dante turning up out of the shadows to save Hawes’ life.  From here on in, Hawes finds himself starting to… if not completely trust Dante, then coming to depend on him to have his back and provide the sort of stabilising influence Hawes so desperately needs at this point in his life.  Losing their parents fairly young, the Madigan siblings were brought up by their grandparents and, as the eldest, Hawes has been groomed to one day take over the ‘family firm’.  But something happened three years earlier that made him decide to get out of the business of indiscriminate killing and clearly there are those within the company who are not happy about this new direction.  So what with preparing to say goodbye to his grandfather, continuing with his plans to dismantle certain parts of the business, and his priority of protecting his family at all costs, Hawes carries a huge burden of responsibility, and the prospect of at last having someone who can help lift those burdens, even for a little while is an undeniably attractive one.

The big problem with the book, however, it that it’s really difficult to accept the ease with which Dante – a complete stranger – is accepted into Hawes’ inner circle. There’s no question the relationship between the two men is based on insta-lust, and that’s okay as we’ve got two more books to go to develop something deeper between them, but I just couldn’t buy that the Madigans, for whom caution and mistrust are pretty much default positions, just let Dante waltz in and start offering opinions and becoming part of the team almost without batting an eyelid. Hawes takes the guy home with him the day they meet (okay, so that night Dante sleeps on the sofa) and after that Dante’s all but moved in! – which just didn’t make sense for the sort of character Hawes is supposed to be. And as an extension of that, I really couldn’t buy him as having been this badass assassin who was feared by all – he just wasn’t edgy enough.

On the upside, the characters are likeable, the family dynamics are well done, and the continuing plotlines are promising. I want to know more about the Madigans’ relationship to the chief of police (I get the impression he may have served with Holt – and that there’s more to be said on that front), and the truth of what happened ‘that fateful night’ three years earlier. Unlike the novels in the Whiskeyverse, which are told from both protagonists’ points of view, Prince of Killers is narrated entirely by Hawes, which means that at this stage Dante is something of an enigma; we’ll get his PoV in book two. Oh, and I should warn you that this one ends on one helluva cliffhanger, so you might want to take that into consideration before you start.

I keep picking up Layla Reyne’s books hoping for a return to the form she showed in her début Agents Irish & Whiskey series, in which she managed to achieve a good balance between the plot and fast-paced action sequences while also developing her characters and the relationships between them. Her last series – Trouble Brewing – didn’t manage to achieve the same sort of balance, and this latest offering suffers from similar issues; the overarching plot of the Fog City series is very intriguing, but the characterisation is a bit on the superficial side, and the story is pretty rife with implausibilities. I’ve come to the conclusion that Ms. Reyne is great at constructing and delivering a TV show in book format – filled with good-looking, super-hot, wisecracking characters, lots of action, perilous situations and things going ‘boom!’, her books kinda race by and generally entertain, but I find myself having to ignore inconsistencies and wishing for more character development and character insight.

After saying all that, though, I expect I’ll be picking up the next book; I want to know more about Dante and to find out how that bloody cliffhanger resolves! Prince of Killers might work for you if you’re looking for a quick, fast-paced, sexy read with lots of action and aren’t too worried about the inconsistencies that show up along the way.

Noble Hops (Trouble Brewing #3) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Everything Dominic Price has worked hard to uphold is about to come crashing down on everything he holds dear.

So much for the quiet life. Just as assistant US attorney and brewery owner Dominic Price is settling into a comfy new chapter with his partner, FBI agent Cameron Byrne, the sudden death of Nic’s father puts their happily-ever-after in jeopardy. Nic immediately suspects foul play, his prime suspect a notorious gangster his father was indebted to—only now the loan shark is out for blood.

Cam has been longing for Nic to finally let him in on this very personal case. But when Nic’s belief that he’s the sole Price heir is upended, the line between personal and professional starts to blur, leaving Cam unsure of where he stands.

Nic is depending on Cam’s kidnap and rescue expertise to save his recently discovered family member before it’s too late. But with a dangerous threat closing in, the ghosts from Nic’s past cast long shadows. Any relationship could crack under the pressure, but for Nic, finding his family might mean losing the love of his life.

Rating: B-

Although I haven’t given as high grades to the books in Layla Reyne’s Trouble Brewing series as I did to some of those in her earlier Agents Irish and Whiskey one, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the novels in spite of their weaknesses. This is primarily because I like the two principals – FBI agent Cameron Byrne and Assistant US Attorney Nic Price – and the sense of family and connections the author has created between them and the recurring secondary characters, most of whom appeared in the earlier series. These are quick, easy reads that are rather like TV shows or action movies in book form; the heroes are impossibly handsome, the ex-SEAL-turned-Lawyer gets to kick ass physically as well as in the courtroom, and the computer experts can hack pretty much everything in the world without breaking a sweat, or turn up all sorts of information in the five minutes it takes most laptops to simply boot up!

So. Taking a degree of suspension of disbelief as read, Noble Hops brings to a close the overarching plotline of the series, in which Nic discovered that his father Curtis Price, a wealthy businessman, was heavily in debt to Duncan Vaughn, a dangerous criminal and slippery character with a finger in many, many pies, that nobody has – as yet – been able to pin anything on. Vaughn tried threatening Nic and his business – the small craft brewery he co-owns with a former SEAL buddy – as a way to force Curtis to pay off his loans, and then to force Nic to pay them – and the fear of putting those he loves in harm’s way led Nic to try to conceal what was happening from Cam and those he’s closest to. Fortunately, by the end of book one, Nic was brought to see that he didn’t have to deal with the situation alone, and now, he and Cam are openly living together and obviously in it for the long haul. That’s not to say Nic isn’t still carrying around a large crate of worry and guilt over events in his past, but he’s at last adjusting to the fact that he has a family now – maybe not a family by blood, but one forged of strong bonds of friendship and loyalty – people who love him and he can trust to have his back.

The book opens as Nic and Cam are attending a ceremony honouring a former colleague of Nic’s when a phone call comes in that changes everything.  Curtis Price is dead, and now it’s time to step up the investigation into Duncan Vaughn and start putting the squeeze on him.  Cam is worried at the stoic way Nic takes the news – he might have been estranged from Price but the man was his father – but he offers the emotional support Nic needs in order to focus on setting  the endgame into play.  Nic and the FBI team that includes Cam and his boss, Aidan Talley, have been gradually amassing evidence of Vaughn’s felonious activities and are finally in a position to make a move and bring him down.  They have also ascertained the identities of Vaughn’s moles on the inside, one of them a young FBI agent, the other a much more senior staff member whose complicity they’ve long suspected but have not, so far, been able to prove.  Everything is in place. Nic is to take his evidence to the Grand Jury in order to obtain the necessary indictments, while Cam and his team will bring Vaughn in – but the discovery of a long-buried family secret and the reappearance in his life of Nic’s first love threaten both the operation and Cam’s peace of mind.

As was the case with Barrel Proof (book three in the Irish and Whiskey series), the focus in Noble Hopsis more on the suspense element of the plot than on the romance, but I didn’t mind that.  Nic and Cam have been firmly established as a loving, committed couple; I liked that their personal connection makes them so compatible professionally, and the way that Cam keeps Nic grounded when things look like they might go to shit.   I did find Cam’s insecurity about his place in Nic’s life a little unnecessary, but Ms. Reyne doesn’t drag anything out, and watching them pull together in spite of the unfolding chaos around them was sufficient to convince me they have a successful future ahead of them.

But as with the other books in the series, I found some things about the writing that were a bit cheesy and kept taking me out of the story.  Ms. Reyne knows how to construct a fairly tight plot and create likeable characters, but some of her dialogue and sentiment is repetitive and a bit creaky.  In Craft Brew, Cam kept telling Nic to ‘just breathe’ when he got stressed, and here we get several reminders of how they each need to be ‘Nic/Cam the SEAL/FBI agent’ rather than ‘Nic/Cam the boyfriend’ or ‘Nic the federal prosecutor rather than Nic the brother’. There are several instances where Nic’s internal monologuing about his guilt over his perceived failure to protect his family years earlier crosses the line into the melodramatic, which just felt wrong for a forty-something ex-SEAL Captain and terror of the San Francisco courthouse.

Still, all ends well, Nic, Cam and the crew come out on top and there’s a hint at a possible couple and new direction for a future book or series.  Trouble Brewing hasn’t been as big a hit with me as I’d hoped, but Noble Hops rounds out the series nicely, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Layla Reyne’s next venture.

Craft Brew (Trouble Brewing #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Assistant US attorney Dominic Price is staring down the barrel of his father’s debts. The bull’s-eye on his back makes him a threat to everyone he cares about, so when his lover wants to go public with their relationship, he bolts. Not because he isn’t in love—he can’t stomach the thought of putting Cam in danger.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne is determined to figure out what trouble Nic is running from, but devastating news from home brings him back to Boston and to the cold case that has haunted his family for two decades. Shoving aside his pride, he calls Nic for help.

Together they search for answers, navigating the minefield of Cam’s past. But when they get too close to the truth, Cam must use every skill in his arsenal to save the man he loves… before it’s too late.

Rating: B-

Although I wasn’t wild about Imperial Stout, the first book in Layla Reyne’s new Trouble Brewing series, I wanted to read book two, Craft Brew, because I was intrigued by what was clearly going to be the series’ overarching plotline, and hoped for progression. I got a little of what I wanted, but Ms. Reyne is clearly keeping her powder dry for the final book, Noble Hops, so Craft Brew focuses on a different story and shines a light on a past tragedy and a desperate search for closure.

In Imperial Stout, Assistant US Attorney and former Navy SEAL, Nic Price, discovered that his father – from whom he has been estranged ever since he came out more than twenty-five years earlier – was in hock to some pretty unsavoury characters. Knowing them to be ruthless gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want, Nic tried to keep this news to himself out of concern for those around him, especially for his lover, Special Agent Cameron Byrne. Of course, the truth will out, and Cam found out about the threats made against Nic and his father, but Nic fears for Cam’s safety should anyone discover they’re a couple, which is why he stubbornly avoids giving Cam an answer to the latter’s suggestion they move in together.

Nic has just returned from five weeks spent in San Diego covering for an absent colleague and he’s pretty much just set foot inside his front door then where’s a fire in his apartment block – in the apartment right above his – which is quickly proven to be arson. This convinces him more than ever that he can’t afford to move forward with Cam until he’s got to the bottom of things – and in the middle of all this comes really bad news for Cam. His mother has had a heart attack and is in a bad way, and he needs to go home to Boston at once. Cam is understandably cut up and preoccupied as he gets ready to head home, and Nic senses there’s something else lurking behind his concern for his mother, but it’s not the time to tackle it. Cam sets off for Boston accompanied by Jamieson ‘Whiskey’ Walker, his long-time best friend and husband of Cam’s FBI partner, Aidan Talley.

The Byrnes are a close-knit family, and Ms. Reyne sketches the familial relationships well.  Cam is closest to his brother Bobby, with whom he shares a bit of a chequered past, but is not on the best of terms with his youngest brother Keith,  who still blames Cam for the disappearance of their sister, Erin, some twenty years earlier when she was just twelve years old. Cam has been weighed down by guilt he has never been able to assuage over what happened that day, because he was supposed to have met Erin to take her home, but instead, went off with Bobby to “score some real cash.” (We’re not told what that involved.) Cam has tried several times to find out what happened to Erin, but the case is so cold it’s dead and buried, and he’s been unable to make any progress.  But now, his mother begs him to take it up again, and even though the rest of his family are against the idea, Cam can’t possibly turn down what might turn out to be Edye Byrne’s dying wish.  Unbeknownst to him, she’s embarked on an investigation of her own over the years, making notes in the backs of her beloved romance novels; Cam agrees to go through them and then see if he can tie them into something that will give them some more concrete leads.

Craft Brew is a more cohesive read than Imperial Stout, which was short on character and relationship development, with a frenetically paced, somewhat superficial plot that required way too many suspensions of disbelief.  By the time this book opens, Nic and Cam are in a relationship although still keeping it quiet, and we’re learning a little more about what makes each of them tick. The storyline concerning the mystery of Erin’s disappearance – which turns out to be linked to a number of other disappearances of young girls over the past twenty years – held my interest, although I can’t deny that there are still some very creaky plot elements (how was Cam’s mum able to come up with so much information while Cam, a highly trained FBI agent, wasn’t able to?) and unlikely coincidences along the way that stretched my credulity paper thin.

After reaching the section where Cam goes to Boston leaving Nic behind, I wondered whether they were going to spend the rest of the book apart, which is never a good recipe for a romantic novel.  Fortunately, one of those coincidences I mentioned means that Nic’s presence is required in Boston and naturally, there’s no way he’s not going to haul ass in order to be with and help the man he can now admit he’s in love with.  But that little niggle Nic had as Cam was leaving?  It turns out that Cam has never told his family he’s bisexual; and it’s obviously not the right time to come out to them now.  Nic is understanding and supportive, and puts no pressure of any kind on Cam, rightly saying that telling them is his decision… but he also makes it clear that while he’s prepared to wait for Cam to come out to them in his own time, he doesn’t want to wait forever.

I like Cam and Nic, I like the secondary cast of familiar characters from the Irish and Whiskey series and the close-knit relationships between them and I enjoyed meeting Cam’s family and finding out a bit more about his past, which was something missing in the previous book.  We also learned more about Nic and the secrets he’s keeping, although it’s clear there is more to come, and Cam has yet to learn some of the things the reader is now privy to – which I’m guessing will happen in the next book.

But the plot contrivances I mentioned above drag the book down as a whole, and I lost count of the number of times Nic told Cam to ‘just breathe’ at times of stress and worry. I also had to wonder at the way the author so often brings up Nic’s former rank as a SEAL captain as a way of impressing people or getting them to do things.  Would it really be that big of a deal given he’s been a civilian for well over a decade?  Small things maybe, but they took me out of the story each time I came across them.

I’m going to give Craft Brew a cautious recommendation with the caveat that if you haven’t read the previous book – or the Agents Irish and Whiskey series – you’re likely to be completely lost.  If you’re already invested in the Trouble Brewing series and characters, then this is an enjoyable, if flawed read that satisfied at least some of this reader’s need for more character growth and development in the central relationship.

Imperial Stout (Trouble Brewing #1) by Layla Reyne (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

You can download this title from Audible via Amazon

It’s a good thing assistant US attorney Dominic Price co-owns a brewery. He could use a cold one. Nic’s star witness has just been kidnapped, his joint operation with the FBI is in jeopardy, his father’s shady past is catching up with him, and the hot new special agent in San Francisco is the kind of distraction best handled with a stiff drink.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne has his own ideas about how to handle Nic, but his skills are currently needed elsewhere. The by-the-book FBI agent goes deep undercover as a member of an infamous heist crew in order to save Nic’s witness, break up the crew, and close the case before anyone else gets hurt. Nic in particular.

Things heat up when Cam falls for Nic, and the witness falls for Cam. As the crew’s suspicions grow, Cam must decide how far he’s willing to go – and how far into his own dark past he’s willing to dive – to get everyone out alive.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – C

I’ve been looking forward to this latest book from Layla Reyne for months. I loved her Agents Irish and Whiskey series of fast-paced, steamy romantic suspense novels, and was over the moon when she announced that she’d be writing a spin-off series featuring two of the major secondary characters from those books – Special Agent Cameron Byrne, one of the FBI’s top K&R (kidnap and rescue) specialists and Assistant US Attorney Nic Price. Imperial Stout is book one in the Trouble Brewing series (as well as his day job as a legal eagle, Nic co-owns a craft brewery) and I was looking forward to more of the same; a fast-paced, tightly plotted and complex story and two fully rounded, engaging characters I could root for. Sadly, however, Imperial Stout doesn’t deliver on any of those things. There’s an attempt to follow a similar pattern as the I&W books, in that there’s one thread that looks set to run through the whole series, accompanied by a self-contained plot that is wrapped up by the end of each book; but while the long-running thread is certainly intriguing, the self-contained plot is pretty lacklustre, the villain is a caricature and the large suspensions of disbelief required on the part of the listener in order to make it work are just too much.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Imperial Stout (Trouble Brewing #1) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Layla Reyne spins off from her pulse-pounding Agents Irish and Whiskey books with Imperial Stout , the first installment in the Trouble Brewing series

It’s a good thing assistant US attorney Dominic Price co-owns a brewery. He could use a cold one. Nic’s star witness has just been kidnapped, his joint operation with the FBI is in jeopardy, his father’s shady past is catching up with him and the hot new special agent in San Francisco is the kind of distraction best handled with a stiff drink.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne has his own ideas about how to handle Nic, but his skills are currently needed elsewhere. The by-the-book FBI agent goes deep undercover as a member of an infamous heist crew in order to save Nic’s witness, break up the crew and close the case before anyone else gets hurt. Nic in particular.

Things heat up when Cam falls for Nic, and the witness falls for Cam. As the crew’s suspicions grow, Cam must decide how far he’s willing to go—and how far into his own dark past he’s willing to dive—to get everyone out alive.

Rating: C

I enjoyed Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey romantic suspense novels, and was delighted when the author announced she would be writing a spin-off series featuring two of the prominent secondary characters from those books, Assistant US Attorney (and former Navy SEAL) Dominic Price, and Special Agent Cameron Byrne, one of the FBI’s top kidnap and rescue specialists.  I’ve been looking forward to Imperial Stout (book one in the Trouble Brewing series) for some time, so I really wanted to love it… but sadly, I didn’t.  Many of the things that worked so well in the previous books are absent here; the principals and their backstories are underdeveloped, and while Nic and Cam have chemistry in spades, there’s no emotional connection or sense of a relationship developing between them.  Add to that the large suspensions of disbelief required by the sometimes frenetically paced plot, and I came away from the book feeling disappointed.

Imperial Stout opens in media res as we find Nic and Cam in the middle of an operation to apprehend a gang intending to steal a number of priceless Serbian artefacts from recently arrived dignitary Stefan Kristić and his wife.  But something goes wrong, Anica Kristić is killed, and most of the gang gets away – but not before someone starts shooting at the van containing Nic and the surveillance team.  Nic gets to show his badass ex-SEAL side by taking out the shooter, but it’s too late to save the operation, which has gone badly sideways.  When their informant is kidnapped and Nic’s boss – an all-round pompous git and complete idiot – manages to screw up their scheme to rescue her (I had to ask myself how the hell such a stupid man had managed to keep such a high-powered job), they are left with only one option. The exhibition featuring the Serbian artefacts is only days away from opening, and if Cam and Nic are to apprehend the gang, rescue their informant and bring Anica Kristić’s murderer to justice, they need to put someone on the inside; and Cam, whose murky past seems to have prepared him for such a role, is the best choice.  It’s not going to be easy, and Cam has reasons of his own for being apprehensive, but it’s him or no one and time is running out.

Running alongside this storyline is the one that looks set to run throughout the series, in which Nic discovers that his father, real estate magnate Curtis Price, is up to his eyeballs in debt to some not-very-nice people. Nic and his father haven’t spoken a word to each other in twenty-seven years – ever since Nic came out – but the man to whom Price owes a small fortune isn’t interested in that. If he can’t use Nic as leverage against his father, then he’ll force Nic to pay what his father owes.

Imperial Stout had a lot of potential, but very little (if any) of it is fulfilled, and it seems that character development has been sacrificed for the sake of the plot which, it has to be said, is rather superficial. While Nic and Cam featured in the previous series, they were secondary characters, so I’d hoped Ms. Reyne would be starting afresh as it were, re- introducing them to readers as leads and allowing us to get to know them at the same time as the suspense plot gradually unfolded and brought them together. Instead, we’re told they shared a passionate kiss a few weeks earlier (at Aidan and Jamie’s wedding), and from both their PoVs, we know they want more; but lots of mental lusting is no substitute for watching two people forge a strong emotional connection as they get to know and invest in one another.

I said earlier that a rather large suspension of disbelief is required when reading Imperial Stout, and I found myself frequently taken out of the story as I came across something that seemed completely implausible. For example – I confess I’m not all that up on how the American law-enforcement and justice systems work, but is it usual for an Assistant US Attorney to be present (and armed) during a take-down? And then for him to take an active role in the investigation? Isn’t his job to gather facts and evidence and build a case and present it in the courtroom after the operation is concluded? I know the lawyer-as-investigator is a common character in police procedurals, which contributed to the overall feeling I had that I was reading something akin to a TV cop show, with its almost break-neck pacing and action-fuelled set pieces. Cam infiltrates a supposedly dangerous criminal gang with ease in a matter of hours; he’s up on all the latest ways to crack safes, pick locks and hack electronic security, and his fear that he risks crossing a line he hasn’t crossed in twenty years seems melodramatic and highly unlikely.

Much as it pains me to say it, I can’t really recommend Imperial Stout to fans of m/m romantic suspense, although I’ll probably read the next book because I’m intrigued by Nic’s storyline and want to see how it plays out. I’ll cross my fingers and hope that Craft Brew – due out this October – marks a return to form for Ms. Reyne.

Tequila Sunrise (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3.5) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Former FBI agent Melissa “Mel” Cruz spent years skirting the line between life and death, knowing the next assignment might be her last. Back from overseas and eager to enjoy life outside the Bureau, she’s ready to give Danny Talley a Christmas Eve he’ll never forget.

A proven asset in high-stakes missions, Danny’s known for having the skill and brains to get the job done. When the Talley flagship is hijacked during the company holiday party, he’ll do anything to save his family, his love and everything they’ve all worked so hard to build. But their enemies have a secondary protocol—leave no survivors—and that plan is already in play.

Navigating through a tangled web of lies and betrayal, Mel and Danny race against the clock to retake the ship before their future goes up in flames. As the seconds tick down, they’re forced to face their greatest fear—losing each other.

Rating: B-

Tequila Sunrise is the final book in Layla Reyne’s fabulous Agents Irish and Whiskey series, and takes place a few months after the events of Barrel Proof. It’s also a neat bridge between this series and her next romantic suspense project which is going to feature Nic Price and Cam Byrne, who both appeared as important secondary characters in the earlier novels, and who both have key roles to play in this story. Tequila Sunrise is a quick, action-packed read in which Melissa Cruz, our favourite, kick-ass, ball-busting (ex)FBI agent, gets to shine in all her Ramboesque glory. Or maybe I should call her Jane McClane… *wink*

Not long after recovering from near fatal injuries inflicted by an explosion at the end of Barrel Proof, Special Agent in Charge Melissa Cruz of the San Francisco FBI decided to make a career change, and is now dividing her time between private investigative work (as a bounty-hunter of sorts) and head of security for Talley Enterprises, the shipping company run by her lover, Daniel Talley. Danny is the younger brother of Aidan (Irish) and has a reputation as a bit of a lothario; he and Mel began a relationship which ran in the background of the trilogy and by the end of the final book, they are well-and-truly an item.

The story opens on Christmas Eve as Mel is coming home from a job, wanting nothing more than to get back to Danny and for them to spend some time together. When she is held up the airport, and then finds out that Aidan, who is also on his way back to San Francisco, has been delayed, her instincts tell her something isn’t right.

The Talley family is hosting a massive holiday party that evening, to celebrate Christmas, John Talley’s upcoming retirement and the commissioning of Talley Enterprises’ newest ship, the Ellen, named after the Talley matriarch, Aidan and Danny’s mother. All the Talley ships are named for the Talley women and this, the final ship built by John Talley before he hands the company over to Danny, is the finest ship in their fleet and the envy of their competitors. With a large gathering of employees, family, investors and media on board, it’s an extremely high-profile event – and when Danny learns of the simultaneous delays that have affected both Mel and Aidan, he can’t help but be concerned.

Danny can’t wait to see Mel again; they’ve spent almost as much time apart as they have spent it together during the course of their relationship and both of them are eager to do something about that.  At Danny’s side and just as eager to be reunited with the love of his life is Aidan’s fiancé, former FBI agent Jameson Walker, who has been eagerly embraced by the large Talley clan and whom Danny already thinks of as a brother.

Mel and Aidan are finally able to make their separate ways to the party, but before they can get on board, the Ellen is hi-jacked by a team of mercenaries.  With the ship locked down and the family and guests held hostage, it’s up to Jamie and Danny to save the day, or at least buy everyone some time while a rescue can be effected.  Danny may be a civilian, but he knows how to think on his feet and he’s proved his mettle by helping Aidan and Jamie in the past. Mel is on the outside, but she sure as hell isn’t going to sit and wait while the man she loves is in danger; with an arsenal worthy of Rambo and a sense of irony to rival Bruce Willis in a dirty vest, Mel sneaks aboard to lend much more than a hand in taking down the bad guys.

It’s true that the plot owes more than a little to Die Hard, but I love that movie, so I didn’t care.  The action does, perhaps move a little too quickly at times, but Ms. Reyne also allows for slower moments of introspection, especially in the short flashbacks to Danny’s childhood with his brothers, Mel’s with Gabe and to various stages in Danny’s  relationship with Mel.  The little insights to his early family life are really poignant, and when it comes to Mel and Danny, I liked reading about these two people with demanding, high-powered jobs realising that they want more from life and deciding to do whatever it takes to make it work between them.  I also appreciated that Mel, at forty-five, is an older heroine with a great sense of self, and no qualms about the fact that the love of her life is thirteen years her junior. Go, Mel!

On the downside, however, there is a slightly frenetic feel to the whole thing, and while I did enjoy the flashbacks, I can’t deny that they give the novella a slightly disjointed feel overall.  And as happened in the novels, Jamie’s Mad Hacking Skillz are something of a deus ex machina at times; it’s likely I wouldn’t have understood what he was doing had Ms. Reyne elaborated, but even so, there’s a sense that they’re something of a get out of jail free card when there’s no other way out of a given situation.

I enjoyed meeting all the characters again, and seeing how things are working out for them a few months on.  There’s a schmaltzy family Christmas scene at the end that somehow made me want to go ‘aww’ rather than lapse into a sugar-induced coma, and the glimpses we’re given of Cam and Nic’s seemingly combative relationship has well and truly whetted my appetite for the stories to come.  Tequila Sunrise is a high-stakes, fast-paced and nicely steamy read that provides a great coda to the Agents Irish and Whiskey series.