Top Secret by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy (audiobook) – Narrated by Christian Fox and Teddy Hamilton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

LobsterShorts, 21. Jock. Secretly a science geek. Hot AF.

LobsterShorts: So. Here goes. For her birthday, my girlfriend wants…a threesome.

SinnerThree: Then you’ve come to the right hookup app.

LobsterShorts: Have you done this sort of thing before? With another guy?

SinnerThree: All the time. I’m an equal opportunity player. You?

LobsterShorts: [crickets!]

SinnerThree, 21. Finance major. Secretly a male dancer. Hot AF.

SinnerThree: Well, I’m down if you are. My life is kind of a mess right now. School, work, family stress. Oh, and I live next door to the most annoying dude in the world. I need the distraction. Are you sure you want this?

LobsterShorts: I might want it a little more than I’m willing to admit.

SinnerThree: Hey, nothing wrong with pushing your boundaries….

LobsterShorts: Tell that to my control-freak father. Anyway. What if this threesome is awkward?

SinnerThree: Then it’s awkward. It’s not like we’ll ever have to see each other again. Right? Just promise you won’t fall in love with me.

LobsterShorts: Now wouldn’t that be life-changing….

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B

Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s Him is one of the most beloved novels in the m/m genre so when the authors announced their first collaboration in three years, expectations were naturally very high. Reactions to the book have been mixed, but once I saw that Teddy Hamilton was on board for the audio, and had been paired once again with Christian Fox (they were excellent in Ms. Bowen’s The Understatement of the Year), I knew that whatever the story’s faults, the narration was bound to be superb. And it was.

Top Secret starts out with a Shop Around the Corner vibe, as two people who dislike each other in real life start to fall for one another when they start chatting anonymously via a hook-up app. Keaton Hayworth III has it all – good looks, money and a hot girlfriend he’s been dating since high school. Life would be perfect if it wasn’t for the fact that his father, who runs a large pharmaceutical company, wants him to go into the family business after graduation, while Keaton – who is studying biology – wants to move into research and continue into post-graduate study, and is dreading the day when he’s going to have to tell his father the truth.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Summer of Us by Lily Morton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s going to be a long hot summer…

John is an exceptionally good lawyer. He’s driven, arrogant and hides a warm heart underneath a façade of cool politeness. He’s used to people disliking him but for some reason when meeting Matt in London the other man’s open dislike of him bothers him. He’s therefore surprised to find himself offering Matt a place to stay in his villa in the South of France while he’s working nearby. He’s surprised because he’d actually planned to spend the summer working on his book and plotting to get his ex-wife back.

However, his perfect plans take a blow as the long hot summer progresses and the two men get closer, and John starts to nurse an unexpected attraction to his houseguest from hell.

Matt is John’s polar opposite. He’s warm, funny, sociable and scruffy. He loves people and they love him back. However, to his consternation he hates John more than he hates Marmite, and Marmite makes him vomit. He hates his arrogance, his public school voice and the air of superiority that he carries around. The idea of staying in his home with just him for company sounds torturous and not in a good way.
However, as the hot, lazy days slip by he’s forced to realise that maybe he’s not such a good judge of character after all, because underneath that arrogance is a warm, funny, vulnerable man who’s incredibly sexy. The only problem is that while Matt is gay John is completely straight and Matt now wants him more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life.

See what happens when two men who think that they have nothing in common apart from a past mutual hatred find out that they might actually be each other’s future.

Rating: B+

Unlike the historicals prompt, where I always have lots of books to choose from, the contemporaries one usually sees me scrabbling around to find something to read because I like to choose my TBR Challenge reads from books I already own – and contemps aren’t really my thing so I don’t buy many.  I did, however, find a handful on my Kindle and, having recently enjoyed Lily Morton’s Rule Breaker in audio, (seriously, it’s fantastic) I decided to read one of the author’s earlier books, The Summer of Us, which is a spin-off title from her Beggar’s Choice series about a world-famous rock band.

Matt Dalton has been friends with the members of Beggar’s Choice for years; the bassist, Bram, is like a brother to him, and even though Matt runs a highly successful and elite staffing agency he also works as Bram’s PA. He’s charming, funny, outgoing and the sort of guy who gets on with everybody.  Everybody that is, except John Harrington, the band’s lawyer.  Matt disliked John from their first meeting, and that opinion has never changed in spite of the fact that everyone else in the band likes him and regards him as ‘one of them’.  But as far as Matt’s concerned, John is bossy, abrasive, arrogant… and it doesn’t help that he’s been very inconveniently attracted to him from the moment he first laid eyes on him.

John is rich and successful, but doesn’t have much of a life outside of his work.  The face he presents to the world is cool and self-contained, but it’s a façade behind which lies a gentle dreamer with a soft heart and a longing – one even he hardly recognises – to make a real connection with someone he can share his life with.  John knows Matt doesn’t like him but isn’t sure why… or why it bothers him so much.  So it’s as much a surprise to him as to anyone when he finds himself offering to put Matt up at his villa in the South of France when Charlie, the band’s lead singer, tells John that Matt has agreed to oversee the renovations on a property he’s just purchased near the one John owns.

What starts out seeming as though it’s going to be an enemies-to-lovers story quickly morphs into something else when Matt arrives at the villa and immediately jumps head-first into an apology for making snap judgements and then suggests they start afresh:

“I didn’t really give you a chance, which was a shitty thing to do, so I’d like to give us a second chance to become friends.  After all, we’re going to be spending a lot of time together and it would be a lot easier if it’s not in conditions that would have made Stalin uncomfortable.”

John is only too pleased to agree, and it doesn’t take long for both men to realise that they like each other a great deal, and to discover that, while on the surface they’re chalk and cheese, they actually have a lot more in common than they could ever have imagined.  From this new start, comes a deep friendship, a sense of true kinship and, for John, the confusion that comes with the realisation that he’s strongly attracted to Matt despite never having been attracted to men before.  Matt, who has been struggling with the fact that he’s only grown more attracted to John the more he’s got to know him, believes John is straight – hell, Bram told him that John was trying to get back with his ex-wife – and he isn’t prepared to be anyone’s experiment.  He’s realised that in past relationships, he was always the one to make sacrifices and to give while the other person took and now he’s decided he’s never going to settle again. He wants someone who is going to put him – Matt – first, and John surely can’t be that guy.  Can he?

I really enjoyed the way the central relationship developed, with the two men moving from antagonism to friendship and eventually to lovers.  They’re three-dimensional characters with baggage that continues to inform their attitudes and relationships; John’s aristocratic parents never really gave a shit about him, so he’s grown up reluctant to form connections for fear he’s not good enough, while Matt’s religious parents threw him out at fifteen when he came out, and he’s still carrying a shedload of guilt about a past relationship that went very badly wrong.  Ms. Morton’s wonderfully snarky (and wonderfully British) humour is very much in evidence, and although the appearances of the dreadful ex-boyfriend and equally dreadful ex-wife are somewhat clichéd, they nonetheless help to move things along a little by highlighting the contrasts between the men’s  past and present relationships.  John’s lack of angsting over and acceptance of his sexuality and his feelings for Matt feel right for his character; he says early on in the story that he’s never been one for strong emotions, and it’s obvious that his desire to get back with his ex-wife was motivated more by hurt pride than anything else, so the idea that it was finding the right person that made the difference made sense.  I liked that he wasn’t freaked out or in denial about his attraction to Matt, or interested in labels –

“I don’t know whether I’ve just discovered that I’m gay so much or just that I’ve discovered you… You’re my person and I think that I was just waiting for you. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter to me. The only thing that matters is that you are mine and I am yours.”

Also important in the story is the setting, which is described so vividly that I was able to picture it – the villa in the hills above Cannes with the amazing view of the sea – and imagine the heady scents of the flowers and herbs; the perfect backdrop to allow this intense, sexy romance to develop in that space out of time away from the constraints of everyday life. But there were a few things that kept this book from DIK status.  The aforementioned evil exes were a bit OTT, and sometimes, the dialogue between Matt and John is a bit too-good-to-be-true and overly sappy.  I also wasn’t wild about the continual use of “Matty” and “Johnny”, which felt a bit juvenile.  I know they were meant to be pet names, but I still found it a bit irritating.

Otherwise, though, The Summer of Us is a funny, charming, sexy and wonderfully romantic read and I enjoyed it a lot in spite of its flaws.

In the Shadows (Metahuman Files #3) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Take a chance.

Staff Sergeant Alexei Dvorkin doesn’t trust easily, and he most certainly doesn’t trust spies. He’ll work with them if ordered to, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. Except Agent Sean Delaney is proving to be the exception to the rule. There’s something about Sean that gets under Alexei’s skin and won’t let go. Alexei would be lying if he said he wasn’t interested in what lay beneath the agent’s mask. When they’re assigned together for a mission, Alexei vows to keep Sean safe all while trying to coax the hot agent into his bed.

Hold onto hope.

Agent Sean Delaney has spent his entire adult life living a lie for his country. When the MDF tasks him with finding evidence of criminal wrong-doing against the owner of a private military company, Sean knows exactly how to play the game to get what he wants. He just doesn’t know how to handle Alexei’s advances, nor his own attraction to the younger soldier. Being a spy is lonely work, and Sean knows he should keep his distance, but saying no to Alexei is impossible from the moment they first kiss.

In a world of lies, the truth can be deadly.

When the mission takes a turn for the worse, the only thing left to do is run. In the wake of betrayal, and in the path of danger, can their fragile trust survive the battle?

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: B+

In the Shadows is book three in Hailey Turner’s Metahuman Files series of military/sci-fi/suspense novels which features an elite, tight-knit unit of men and women who acquired very unique powers following their exposure to Splice, a deadly chemical that kills almost all who come into contact with it. Those not killed by the chemical are changed at DNA level and become metahumans, each possessed of some sort of superpower that ranges from telepathy to telekenisis, from super strength to shape-shifting. There’s an overarching plotline running throughout the series which means it’s advisable to listen to the books in order – and there are spoilers for books one and two in this review.

The first book, In the Wreckage, introduced listeners to Captain Jamie Callahan and Alpha Team of the Metahuman Defence Force and set in motion the series’ main plotline – the hunt for a terrorist group known as the Sons of Adam who is trying to create metahumans of its own by conducting experiments on human subjects. In book two, In the Ruins, the action moved to London, and Alpha Team was joined by MDF Intelligence Agent Sean Delaney – formerly of the CIA – in an operation between the MDF and the UMG (its UK equivalent) to gather evidence about the Russian government’s involvement – via the Russian Mafia – in those experiments as part of its plan to create an army of metahumans. During the course of these novels, Jamie and Alpha Team’s sniper, Kyle Brannigan, became lovers and are now in a long-term relationship that has to remain a secret because of the MDF’s strict non-fraternisation rule. Keeping their relationship a secret is hard on both of them, and Jamie also has to deal with the pressure being put on him by his wealthy family to quit the military and go into politics like his father, who is likely to earn the Republican nomination for the upcoming Presidential election. Jamie has no intention of leaving the MDF, but agrees to a compromise; he’ll accompany his father on the campaign trail when he can, and by the time In the Shadows opens, he’s doing just that. With Jamie’s absence (for part of the story anyway), the focus of this novel shifts slightly and moves away from Jamie and Kyle as the main romantic couple – but never fear, all the other things that work so well about this series are still very much in evidence; skilful worldbuilding, sexy love scenes, superbly written action scenes and the terrific camaraderie between the members of Alpha Team, who all have very specific parts to play and are never just “window dressing”.

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.

When Death Meets the Devil (Death and the Devil #1) by L.J. Hayward (audiobook) – Narrated by Rowan Scott

where death meets the devil

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Jack Reardon, former SAS soldier and current Australian Meta-State asset, has seen some messy battles. But “messy” takes on a whole new meaning when he finds himself tied to a chair in a torture shack, his cover blown wide open, all thanks to notorious killer-for-hire Ethan Blade.

Blade is everything Jack doesn’t believe in: remorseless, detached, lawless. Yet, Jack’s only chance to survive is to strike a bargain with the devil and join forces with Blade. As they trek across a hostile desert, Jack learns that Blade is much more than a dead-eyed killer – and harder to resist than he should be.

A year later, Jack is home and finally getting his life on track. Then Ethan Blade reappears and throws it all into chaos once more. It’s impossible to trust the assassin, especially when his presence casts doubts on Jack’s loyalty to his country, but Jack cannot ignore what Blade’s return means: the mess that brought them together is far from over, and Ethan might just bring back the piece of Jack’s soul he thought he’d lost forever.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: A

I’ve been looking for something to fill the Seven of Spades-shaped hole in my life, so I was delighted to discover L.J. Hayward’s Where Death Meets the Devil, book one in her Death and the Devil series. In it, a former SAS officer and a deadly assassin end up striking the devil’s own bargain when they’re forced to work together in order to survive a trek across the hostile Australian desert while evading a shit-ton of mercenaries in the pay of a dangerous mob boss.

Where Death Meets the Devil opens on probably the crappiest birthday ever for Jack Reardon, who, instead of partying, drinking of lots of beer and stuffing his face with cake, finds himself tied to a chair in a shack in the middle of the back of beyond. He’s an operative of the Office of Counterterrorism and Intelligence – known simply as The Office – run by the Meta-State, a top secret intelligence network stretching across Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries which share information and resources to combat national and international terrorism; and for the last fifteen months he’s been working undercover in the criminal organisation run by Samuel Valadian in an attempt to find proof of his association with terrorist groups around the world. But someone has alerted Valadian to the presence of a spy in their midst – hence Jack’s current predicament. He tries to brazen it out, but when Valadian calmly introduces his associate Ethan Blade – one of the world’s deadliest, most ruthless killers – Jack figures his luck has run out.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Whisper (Skins #2) by Garrett Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Shaun Grindell

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lonely physiotherapist Harry Foster has the world at his feet. A full client list, a six-figure Instagram following, and a publishing deal for a book he doesn’t have time to write until his agent offers him a break – a retreat to the wild southwest coast.

Cornish horseman Joe Carter is lonely too. Rescuing horses and managing Whisper Farm takes up most of his days, and by night he plays chicken with the farm’s perilous bank accounts.

At his sister’s unwelcome suggestion, he rents his only bedroom to a bloke from the city, and when Harry arrives, he’s everything Joe isn’t – calm, patient, and gorgeous enough to be exactly the kind of distraction Joe doesn’t need.

Harry doesn’t have time for distractions either – even shirtless farmers riding bareback past his bedroom window – but his moody host proves impossible to ignore.

On paper, they have nothing in common, but Joe is beautiful . . . glorious, and when an accident puts his life in Harry’s healing hands, the whisper of true love is inevitable. If the trouble that put the farm on its knees in the first place doesn’t get in the way.

Rating: Narration: C; Content: B-

Whisper is the second book in Garrett Leigh’s Skins series, and in it, we move away from London and into the West Country – specifically to the farm and horse sanctuary run by Joe Carter and his family. It’s a gentler, less-angsty story than Dream (the first book in the series), but although it’s certainly not without drama and the characters aren’t without their problems and hang-ups, I wasn’t as invested in the story or characters as I was in Dream – and I’m not sure if that was due to the issues I had with the narration or because of the story itself.

Harry Foster is the brother of Rhys (who continues to have the occasional hook-up with Dylan and Angelo from Dream), and is a highly successful and sought-after physiotherapist. His blog – on which he’s dubbed himself “Holistic Harry”- has a six-figure following, he has a full roster of clients and has recently signed a book deal, but the trouble is that not only is he tired, he’s lonely, his deadline is looming and he’s way behind with his writing. His agent suggests he goes on a writer’s retreat; that he holes up somewhere quiet for the next couple of months and concentrates on his writing – and although he’s not completely sold on the idea, Harry agrees. Which is how he ends up driving to a horse farm just outside Newquay in Cornwall where he’s planning to stay for the next ten weeks.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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.

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