My 2018 in Books & Audio

My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks.  I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever.  Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either  story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket.  I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.

4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.

The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else.  Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception.  The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them  at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver.  Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself).  Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Womanwhich I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment.  On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband which was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016.  Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Duke and An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic.  Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist.  Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out.  K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Print and Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites.   Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.

Romantic Suspense

I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop.  In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did.  There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.

The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years.  Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.

My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive.  I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again.  It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas.  Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension.  The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful;  they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it.  Their relationship goes through terrific  highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.

Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER,  one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines.  I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well.  She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top.  And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.

Audio

I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!)  My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.

I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes.  But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees.  Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.

I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others.  I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home – which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.

Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general.  Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well.  Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.


As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019?  First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please!  Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year.  I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous.  I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April.  There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book.  Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific.  I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.

Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!

Insight (The Comminity #1) by Santino Hassell (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

Growing up the outcast in an infamous family of psychics, Nate Black never learned how to control his empath abilities. Then after five years without contact, his estranged twin turns up dead in New York City. The claim of suicide doesn’t ring true, especially when a mysterious vision tells Nate it was murder. Now his long-hated gift is his only tool to investigate.

Hitching from his tiny Texas town, Nate is picked up by Trent, a gorgeous engineer who thrives on sarcasm and skepticism. The heat that sparks between them is instant and intense, and Nate ends up trusting Trent with his secrets—something he’s never done before. But once they arrive in the city, the secrets multiply when Nate discovers an underground supernatural community, more missing psychics, and frightening information about his own talent.

Nate is left questioning his connection with Trent. Are their feelings real, or are they being propelled by abilities Nate didn’t realize he had? His fear of his power grows, but Nate must overcome it to find his brother’s killer and trust himself with Trent’s heart.

I listened to this audiobook back in February 2018 and wrote this review – but before it could be posted at AudioGals, the author crashed and burned in a very spectacular way, and given the unethical nature of his actions and everything that ensued, we decided not to publish the review.

I’ve sat on it all year and have decided to post it  here, basically because this is home to ALL my reviews – plus I’m having a computer clear out, and keep tripping over this review and wondering what to do with it.

I kept well away from the row when all this blew up and didn’t get into the nitty gritty of it – I know basics and that’s all I want to know.  At the time it was all going on, someone said to me that if we had to throw out everything that had been created by people who were shit-bags, then we’d be throwing out work by people like Hemmingway, Wagner, Byron, Flaubert, Cellini, Hemmingway, Picasso… and a long list of famous artists who were sexist, mysoginist, antisemitic, fascist, murderers or just plain bonkers.

I’m not condoning or sympathetic to anything he did – people were hurt, and that’s not acceptable in any way.  But this is my blog, and I’m posting this review because when all’s said and done, I enjoyed the story and the excellent performance in this audiobook.  It’s no longer available for sale at the time I’m writing this (December 2018) and perhaps has disappeared forever.  But like I said, I’m posting this purely because this is my place for keeping track of what I read, listen to and write. I take time over writing reviews to get them right and to make sure I’m saying what I want to say so and I wasn’t going to just throw it out.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – A-

I’ve come to the books of Santino Hassell fairly recently, and positive reviews pointed me in the direction of his Community series of paranormal romances – although it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading my reviews over the last year or so that my decision to pick up Insight – the first book– was a no-brainer because it’s narrated by the fabulous Greg Boudreaux.

The series consists of three books which tell an overarching story through the PoVs of three romantic couples, so each contains a romance which reaches its HEA or HFN in that book.  As the first in the series, Insight has quite a lot of work to do in terms of the set-up, introducing listeners not only to the protagonists of the story, but also to secondary characters who will feature throughout, and to the concept of the Community itself, a cult-like, secret society whose aims – to protect psychics and help them to develop their talents in a sympathetic environment – while at first seemingly benign, is gradually revealed to have other, darker purposes.  The author strikes just about the right balance between romance and plot, and I raced through this audiobook in two sittings because I was so gripped by the whole thing that I couldn’t bear to put it down.

Nate Black comes from a family that would have been screwed up even its members hadn’t all been possessed of psychic abilities.  He and his twin brother, Theo, never really got on and haven’t seen or spoken to each other for several years, and their mother – a powerful psychic – ran away to New York when Nate and Theo were boys;  when she returned, it was as though she’d become a completely different woman and she committed suicide shortly after.  His overbearing aunt is paranoid that nobody outside the family should ever know what they can do, and her brother – to whom Nate used to be close – drinks to excess to keep his visions at bay. Nate has always been an outsider – bullied at school for being openly gay and for being just plain weird, he’s lonely and isolated, knowing he’s different because of his ‘gift’ – he’s an empath –  which means that even the most accidental of touches can give him strong impressions and visions.  Even without touching, he can still sense what the people around him are feeling if their emotions are strong enough.  With no knowledge of how to control his ability, Nate’s reactions to these impressions and visions can put him completely off balance and can make him physically ill… so he tends to keep to himself and sees nothing but an empty, loveless future ahead of him.

Nate’s life is hitting an all-time low; he’s lost his job and is about to be evicted from his apartment when he has a sudden vision of Theo or, more to the point, Theo’s death.  When the news arrives officially, the family is told that Theo – who had lived in NYC for the past few years – committed suicide by jumping into the Hudson, but Nate knows that isn’t true.  The vision he received was like nothing he’d ever experienced; it was as if HE was in Theo’s body at the time of his death, and Nate is convinced, beyond a doubt, that Theo was murdered and is determined to find out why and by whom.

Impulsively, he decides to hitch-hike to New York – his car was stolen and he doesn’t have the money to travel any other way – and is surprised when he’s offered a lift by the guy he’d met a couple of days earlier in the liquor store he used to work in.  He’s not forgotten the feelings of warmth and safety he’d picked up from their single, brief touch that day (or how attractive the man was) and, albeit a little nervously, Nate settles in for the long journey from Texas to NYC.

Trent Castille is an engineer, on his way from grad school in California to his home in New York.  The story is told entirely from Nate’s PoV, so we never get into Trent’s head, but it’s clear from the start that he’s a good guy.  He notices straight away that Nate is skittish and secretive, but he’s drawn to him and starts looking out for him in small and subtle ways.  During their long road-trip, their simmering attraction heats up but also, Nate comes to realise that Trent is someone he can trust; and when he eventually tells Trent the truth about his abilities and why he believes Theo was murdered, Trent knows Nate well enough to believe him, no matter that what Nate tells him is weird and fantastical.

The chemistry between Nate and Trent is electric, and Mr. Hassell builds their relationship slowly and believably.  Both men are in uncharted waters; Nate has given up on love and sex, while Trent hasn’t been with a guy before – although he’s definitely thought about it and doesn’t let his inexperience stop him from acting on the strong attraction he feels towards Nate.  Nate’s empathic abilities lead to some pretty steamy love scenes, too, as he’s able to feel both his own and Trent’s arousal and reactions.

In the later stages, the book becomes as much about the Community and the mystery surrounding Theo’s death as it is about the romance, and as I said at the beginning, this element of the plot is just as well-handled and compelling as the love story.  Nate tracks his brother’s former colleagues – Theo  was in a band – to the club they often performed at, Evolution, a place frequented predominantly  by queer psychics, which is where he meets Holden Payne the handsome, charismatic owner of the club and the son of the Community’s founder (Holden’s story is next up, in Oversight).  Here, for the first time in his life, Nate finds acceptance and a sense of belonging – but even those things – things  he’s longed for all his life – can’t blind him to the fact that the Community isn’t the altruistic, benevolent organisation it seems to be, a suspicion confirmed when he learns Theo isn’t the only psychic to have gone missing or died recently.

I thoroughly enjoyed Insight and can’t wait to jump into the next book.  Nate and Trent are likeable characters and I loved Trent’s frequently sarcastic pronouncements – his confidence and pragmatism are the perfect foils to Nate’s introversion and uncertainty, and if I have a criticism of the book overall, it’s that I’d have liked to have spent more time with him.  Nate is a fabulously developed character; he’s young (early twenties) but life has been tough and frankly, he’s a bit of a mess.  But he’s loyal and loving, and no matter that Theo wasn’t a great brother to him, he was his brother and Nate is determined to get to the truth about what happened to him.

Greg Boudreaux’s narration is utter perfection.  Seriously.  I honestly can’t think of a single thing about his performance that doesn’t work, or that I can say was maybe a teensy bit ‘off’ – because it’s flawless.  Pacing, diction, characterisation, differentiation – it’s all spot on, and his portrayals of the two principles capture them both to a T.  Nate sounds appropriately youthful, his voice pitched at a higher level than Trent’s as well as being subtly and consistently (to my British ears!) accented, while Mr. Boudreaux’s interpretation of Trent brings out every facet of his sharply ironic, smart-mouthed personality.  The scorching chemistry between Nate and Trent that’s so evident in the book is brilliantly amplified in audio; the strength of the attraction and longing that pulls the pair together is palpable and Mr. Boudreaux gets right into the swing of things in the love scenes, making the most of that sizzling tension but without going over the top.  All the secondary characters are expertly realised using a variety of accent and timbre… and I’ll stop waffling and just say don’t walk, RUN to Audible or whichever is your preferred audiobook vendor and pick up Insight immediately. I don’t need to be psychic to know you won’t regret it.

In the Wreckage (Metahuman Files #1) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A Marine with honor.

After surviving a horrific chemical attack that turned him into a metahuman, Captain Jamie Callahan got a second lease on life. For three years he’s been working for the Metahuman Defense Force and leading Alpha Team – all against the wishes of his family. The job requires his full dedication, so it’s no surprise Jamie doesn’t have time for a relationship. An enticing one-night stand with a gorgeous stranger is all it takes to show Jamie exactly what he’s been missing. When a mission to take down a terrorist cell brings that same stranger back into his world, Jamie’s life gets complicated.

A soldier with secrets.

Staff Sergeant Kyle Brannigan was only looking to relieve some stress after a long mission. He didn’t know the hot guy he picked up at a bar was the leader of the MDF’s top field team. When Kyle and his partner get seconded to Alpha Team to help fight a terrorist threat, he has to balance his desire for Jamie against his duty to keep his secrets safe. That gets harder and harder to do amidst regulations both are tempted to break.

Two men trying to survive.

Giving into passion could cost both their careers. Abiding by the rules will only result in heartache. An attack on MDF headquarters brings with it a choice Jamie and Kyle can’t escape – duty, or love?

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B

I know what you’re thinking. “Huh? A military-themed, dystopian sci-fi novel about humans with superpowers set 250 years in the future? That’s not Caz’s normal cup of tea is it?” Well… no. And yes. I like sci-fi in movies and on TV, although I don’t read (or listen to) much of it; but I picked up In the Wreckage mostly because I’m on a narrator glom – and because I’m on a bit of a m/m military romance/romantic suspense kick, so this sounded like a good fit.

Set around 250 years in the future, In the Wreckage is the first book in the Metahuman Files, and plunges listeners straight in to the thick of things, introducing the central characters and the concept of metahumans in the course of an action-packed battle scene. In this version of the future, a deadly chemical agent called Splice – which kills 95% of the people it infects – has led to the creation of a small number of metahumans (the other 5%), changing their DNA and giving them enhanced powers. When recon marine captain Jamie Callahan was exposed to it three years earlier, almost his entire unit was wiped out, leaving him one of only five survivors; and now he leads the Alpha Team of the MDF (Metahuman Defense Force), the deadliest, most badass (and most efficient) team on the force. The powers exhibited by metahumans are diverse; telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, precognition and teleportation to name just a few, but they’re random and it’s impossible to tell what powers someone will have until after infection. Jamie – whose enhanced power is incredible physical strength and endurance – chose to continue to serve after he became a metahuman, in spite of the disapproval of his wealthy and influential family. His father is a powerful senator with presidential ambitions who wants Jamie to quit the MDF and be part of his campaign, but Jamie isn’t interested. He is dedicated to serving his country and his team is his family – and he’s not going to abandon them.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Tight Quarters (Out of Uniform #6) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Petty Officer Bacon, a Navy SEAL and ace sharpshooter, has been on the front lines of more than his fair share of dangerous ops. Yet when a minor injury relegates him to the beta team, he’s tasked with what may be his riskiest assignment yet: babysitting a silver fox journalist, who is the hottest, most charismatic man he’s ever encountered.

Award-winning journalist Spencer Bryant may have been named one of Pride magazine’s most eligible bachelors of the year, but he’s not looking to change his relationship status. He’s a consummate professional who won’t risk his ethics or impeccable reputation by getting involved with a source. Even a sexy-as-hell military man. But while Spencer can resist his physical attraction to Bacon, he has less control over his emotions – especially when the mission goes sideways and the two men are trapped alone.

Getting out of the jungle alive turns out to be easy compared to facing the truth about their feelings for one another back in the real world. And whether or not they can build a future is a different story altogether.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – A

Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series has been a consistently enjoyable one in both print and audio, despite the odd blip. Tight Quarters is the sixth instalment, and I was glued to it from start to finish, zipping through it in two or three sittings. Yeah, yeah, I know – I’d listen to Greg Boudreaux read his shopping list, but fortunately, Annabeth Albert has provided him with something MUCH sexier and emotionally satisfying (although I don’t know – maybe his shopping lists are sexy and emotionally satisfying?) to get stuck into, in this tale of a journalist who embeds with a team of Navy SEALs looking for a story and finds something he really hadn’t bargained for.

We met Petty Officer Bacon in the previous book in the series, Squared Away, and at the beginning of his one, he’s more than a little bit pissed off because the finger he dislocated on a training exercise has him sidelined and unable to take his regular place on Team Alpha. His annoyance is further compounded when he is directed to be the liaison officer for a reporter who is going to embed with Bacon’s unit during their next mission. The team’s recent shake up following the departure of its XO (executive officer) and explosives expert (Wes and Dustin from Wheels Up) coupled with the rumours that the pair are now an item and began their relationship while working together despite the strict non-fraternization policy, make Bacon – a friend of both men – very hostile to the idea of a journalist poking around for a story and he resents being demoted to the role of babysitter. Even worse – the reporter is Spencer Bryant, a heavyweight, multi-award-winning journalist and author who is openly gay… and is one seriously hot silver fox. Under any other circumstances, Bacon would have so gone there – but he’s got to keep Bryant at a distance and away from anything that could potentially embarrass his team or the Navy in general.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Squared Away (Out of Uniform #5) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the wake of tragedy, SEAL Mark Whitley rushed stateside to act as guardian to his sister’s three young children. But a conflicting will could give custody to someone else – someone Mark remembers as a too-young, too-hot, wild party boy. Even after six years, Mark can’t shake the memory of his close encounter with Isaiah James, or face up to what it says about his own sexuality.

Isaiah’s totally over the crush that made him proposition Mark all those years ago. In fact, he’s done with crushing on the wrong men altogether. For now, he’s throwing himself into proving he’s the best person to care for his cousin’s kids. But there’s no denying there’s something sexy about a big, tough military man with a baby in his arms.

As the legal details get sorted out, their long-buried attraction resurfaces, leading to intimate evenings after the kids are tucked in. A forever future is within reach for all of them, if only Mark can find the courage he needs to trust Isaiah with his secrets – and his heart.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

I wasn’t wild about the previous book in this series (Wheels Up) and wasn’t sure I was going to continue to read or listen to any more, but then I saw the blurb for Squared Away AND that Greg Boudreaux was narrating it, so I decided to give it a try.  And I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be a beautifully told story of love – romantic and familial – trust, and acceptance, featuring an unusual (in my reading/listening experience, that is) slow-burn romance as two men come to terms with a devastating event that changes their lives irrevocably.

Six years earlier, eighteen-year-old Isaiah James decided it was time to lose his v-card and knew exactly who he wanted to give it to.  He’s had a crush on his cousin Cal’s best friend for a while and decides it’s time to make his move on Navy SEAL medic Mark Whitley (who is the bride’s brother) at Cal and Danielle’s wedding.  Sadly for Isaiah, his evening didn’t turn out as expected and Mark turned him down; in the intervening six years, they’ve hardly seen each other and Isaiah suspects Mark has actually gone out of his way to avoid him.  But that can’t continue when Cal and Danielle are killed in an accident, leaving behind three young children.  Mark is deployed at an undisclosed location when the tragedy occurs, so by the time he gets the news and returns to the States, it’s to find Isaiah installed in the family home with the kids, clearly knowing what he’s doing.  This version of Isaiah is more mature, more confident than the one Mark remembers and he’s not quite sure what to make of him at first.  He certainly doesn’t like the way Isaiah seems to have taken control of everything, and Isaiah’s calm confidence with the kids unsettles Mark, who hardly knows them, and knows little about children in general.

Mark assumes that the kids will have been left to his care, as he’s their closest relative, so it’s a surprise to discover that both Cal and Danielle made wills and that things aren’t so cut and dried.  In one, Mark is named, and in the other, Isaiah; so they agree to continue as they are for the time being until such time as a legal decision can be made.  Mark knows that his job is probably not all that conducive to being granted custody of young children, as it takes him away from home for long periods of time, but that’s a surmountable obstacle – once he has the children in his care, he can hire a good nanny.  What surprises him, however, is the ferocity with which Isaiah makes clear his desire to gain custody of baby Liam and his two pre-school age sisters.  As far as he’s concerned, the kids are family, and he’s not prepared to hand them off to someone else to bring up.

I loved this story, and the author has done a terrific job of showing what it’s like to be the parents of three very young children; they’re hard work and don’t conveniently disappear when the plot demands they do.  Isaiah is great with them and clearly adores them, while Mark doesn’t have the first clue of how to handle them.  In fact, he comes across as a bit of a dickhead in the first part of story, assuming he’ll get custody of the kids but leaving all the heavy lifting to Isaiah, and then being persuaded into a course of action that he knows isn’t right and will cause a major issue further down the line, but doing it anyway.

One of the joys of the story, though, is seeing Mark gradually unbend and adapt to his new situation.  He loves the kids, too, but hasn’t any experience of being around them, and he’s got a lot to learn.  But to his credit, once he realises that he’s not pulling his weight around the house, he mans up and starts to integrate into this small and rather special family unit.

The romance is sensual and beautifully developed, the fact that Mark is demisexual (or maybe grey ace) meaning that it focuses more on the emotional connection that develops between the two men, especially in the early stages, than a sexual one.  While Isaiah is the younger of the two, Mark is the least experienced; his sexual experiences so far have not been positive ones and he came away from them feeling guilty for disappointing his partner and not reacting in an expected way.  He’s given up hoping to find someone to ‘put up with him’, so he’s astonished at the ease with which Isaiah accepts his sexuality and is prepared to let Mark set the pace.  Ms. Albert does a superb job of conveying the complexity of Mark’s emotions and the way his feelings for Isaiah change and develop.

Books 1-4 in this series had four different narrators, so I was a bit surprised to see Greg Boudreaux’s name on the cover of this one… or maybe I wasn’t because, let’s face it, once Greg’s narrated one of your books, you’re ruined for anyone else 😉 (That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it! And even better, he’s narrating the next book, too!)  Of course he does a fantastic job with the narration, expertly characterising the principals (Isaiah’s soft tones contrasting nicely with Mark’s gruff, prickly ones) and skilfully realising Mark’s insecurity and uncertainty about his sexuality and his new role as a parent.  The various secondary characters (including those from previous books) are all clearly differentiated and easy to tell apart, his female voices are excellent and he does an especially good job with the two little girls, who sound age appropriate without being too high-pitched or squeaky.

Squared Away is a fairly angsty story, but is generally a ‘quiet’ book, focusing on the characters and their emotional journeys. In this case it’s about processing grief and learning to adapt in order to move forward, learning to trust, support and grow as a person and part of a couple and family.  I really enjoyed the story, and with Greg Boudreaux delivering another wonderfully insightful, nuanced performance, it’s an audiobook I can recommend without reservation.

Wheels Up (Out of Uniform #4) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux


This title may be downloaded from Audible by Amazon.

Their love is forbidden, but their hearts aren’t listening to rules and regulations….

Lieutenant Dustin Strauss is a reformed man. No longer a 20-something hell-raiser, he’s his SEAL team’s new XO – and a man with a secret. Or seven. He’s kept his bisexual identity under wraps for years, along with his kinky side and a fondness for the military-themed semi-anonymous hookup website Joe4Joe. His latest chat buddy is more than a sexy online distraction – they’re taking their very not-safe-for-work relationship into real time.

Petty Officer Wes Lowe has a smart mouth, a take-charge attitude, and an uncanny ability for making things go boom. The life of an enlisted man isn’t always enough to satisfy him, but one wild, no-questions-asked weekend with his online love comes close. When a transfer order comes in, Wes feels ready and centered. He’ll make a good impression on his new SEAL team and keep his growing feelings for Dustin on the down low.

But as they log more time online and some very real emotions surface, Dustin and Wes struggle to pretend they’re just a harmless fling. And when his commander introduces Dustin to his team’s newest member, they’re in for the shock of a lifetime…and a crushing disappointment: their difference in ranks means even a friendship without sexual contact could end their navy careers for good.

With their hearts on the line, Dustin and Wes may not survive their next mission, let alone find a way toward a future together.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – C+

I’ve heard good things about Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series of m/m romances featuring characters in different branches of the military. As usual, I’m coming late to the party, so audiobooks are my gateway into the series in which, unusually, each instalment uses a different narrator (the majority of series books tend to use the same one for each book). The fourth book, Wheels Up, caught my eye because it’s performed by my narrator-du-jour, Greg Boudreaux (aka Greg Tremblay), so it seemed a good place to jump in; it’s a standalone, although a couple of characters from the previous book (one of them the brother of one of the principals) make cameo appearances.

On a flight from San Diego to Washington, Lieutenant Dustin Strauss inadvertently lets slip his destination in a text message to the online chat/cyber-sex buddy he knows only as Saucer-Man. When Saucer-Man – whom Dustin suspects works in security – suggests they meet face-to-face, Dustin is nervous. He and Saucer-Man have been chatting regularly for the last six months or so and getting to know each other on Joe4Joe, a military-themed hook-up app, and Dustin is perfectly happy with the way things are. The relative anonymity of the app allows him the freedom to indulge his need to submit unreservedly with his sexual partner; he’s enjoyed months of no strings, slightly kinky cyber-sex and isn’t sure meeting up is a good idea for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he’s bisexual but still closeted when it comes to his attraction to men. In spite of the fact that his brother (from the previous book, At Attention) is gay, Dustin has never told his family of his sexual orientation, and lately, he has found it harder and harder to suppress that side of himself, and the strength of the connection he feels to Saucer-Man – which is not just about sex for him – is making him question his decision to quash that side of himself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.