The New Normal (Gold Coast Collage #1) by L.J. Hayward


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Brian Stagliano’s life should be pretty sweet right now. Two of his closest friends are getting married, and he’s taking a new, exciting step in his career as a doctor. Most amazing though, his best mate has been given the all clear from cancer. But Brian’s normal has just been tipped A over T and the friendship he’s relied on for years is in danger. All because of five little words.

Andrew Fitzroy should be on top of the world. The cancer that’s haunted him is gone. He can finally get on with his life—except he doesn’t know what that life is anymore. Is he brave enough to come out as bisexual? Should he pursue architecture or stay in construction? Either way, Andrew knows happiness won’t be his until he has what his engaged friends have—love, joy, passion. So, he says those five little words to Brian—I’m in love with you.

Friends since childhood, Brian and Andrew have always been closer than brothers. Best mates. Nothing could ever tear them apart. Except for those five little words. Now, Brian’s not sure about so many things—their friendship, his own desires—and the foundation Andrew’s built his world on feels like its crumbling. But if they manage not to destroy everything they have together, Andrew and Brian might just find a new normal with each other.

Rating: B

L.J. Hayward’s action-packed, sexy romantic suspense Death and the Devil series is one of my absolute favourites, and if you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t read it, then you’re missing out big time.  Having loved those books for many reasons, not least of which were the strong characterisation, dialogue and writing, I eagerly picked up the author’s newest release, The New Normal, which is her first foray into contemporary romance and book one in her Gold Coast Collage series, set in and around the Australian city of the same name. It’s an engaging, well-written story featuring a group of long-standing friends in their mid-twenties that asks the question – what happens to a friendship that’s lasted for two decades when one friend tells another – his best friend and housemate – that he’s in love with him?

Andrew Fitzroy and Brian Stagliano have been best friends for almost all their lives and, now in their mid-twenties, they share a house and a Russian Blue, called either Schrodinger (according to Brian) or Archimedes (according to Andrew).  Brian, a junior doctor, is about to start his Accident and Emergency rotation at the local hospital, and Andrew works for a construction company; they’ve got a great group of friends, two of whom have recently announced their engagement, and best of all, Andrew has just got the all-clear from cancer.  The last couple of years have been tough, but Brian was there for him through all of it, with him at every appointment, driving him to and from surgery and every chemo session, recognising the resulting depression and helping him through it.  Andrew has come out the other side and is doing really well.  Life is good.

But a night out takes a weird and unexpected turn when Andrew gets plastered and, on the way home, tells Brian he’s in love with him.  Brian tries to shrug it off, but Andrew is adamant.  He doesn’t just love Brian as a friend, he’s IN love with him.  Brian is completely blindsided and has no idea what to do with that – and the next few days pass awkwardly as he and Andrew either deliberately avoid seeing each other, or avoid talking when they can’t avoid each other.  But Andrew’s declaration sets Brian thinking.  He’s never questioned his sexuality;  he doesn’t really do casual sex, but he’s had a couple of girlfriends in the past, and while he may not have been in love with them,  they were good friends and he cared about them and enjoyed their company.  Andrew, however, is a different matter entirely.  The more Brian thinks about it, the more he realises that what he feels for Andrew is nothing like the way he felt about his girlfriends… or anyone, really.  Plus, when he looks at him – really looks at him – Brian starts to realise that while Andrew is, objectively, an attractive man, the attraction he’s feeling is far from objective.  He really is attracted to his best friend, and Andrew’s declaration of love is (kind of) the permission he’d needed to let himself go there.

Once Brian admits that he wants Andrew, things move fairly quickly, and they embark on a sexual relationship but agree to keep things under wraps for now.  Andrew has known he’s bisexual for a while; even though he’s only ever slept with women and hasn’t explored his attraction to men (over the last few years, he’s had other things to worry about), so he’s had a little longer to come to terms with his sexuality, while it’s all new to Brian, who is trying to sort things out in his head while also keeping his head above water on his incredibly stressful A&E rotation.  Things are really good between them; the sex is fantastic, Andrew loves him and Brian… well, he’s not exactly sure what he feels but it’s working for them and he doesn’t want it to end.  But Brian is the sort of person who worries himself into a panic and is forever second-guessing himself about the things that really matter to him, and this thing with Andrew is sending that impulse into overdrive. He’s struggling to find his sexual identity, and finds it difficult to accept that he’s lived twenty-six years and never suspected he was anything other than straight, and he wants – needs – to be sure of it before he can commit fully to Andrew.

Further complications are caused by their friendship group when one of them jumps to an unwelcome conclusion about Brian (which confuses him even more) and by an uncomfortable situation Andrew finds himself in at work when he’s singled out for attention by the architect who designed the homes he’s working on.  (As an aside, I never quite understood why Andrew, who had been training to be an architect before his diagnosis, opted not to return to the career he so obviously loved; the reasons given are vague and made no sense to me.) We also follow Brian at work as he finds his footing in A&E; he wants to make a career in emergency medicine, so a lot is riding on his making his rotation a success, and I appreciated being shown something of both their lives outside of their relationships with each other and their friends.

When it comes to the secondary characters, I really liked Michael, one of Brian’s more senior colleagues, who is encouraging and supportive, and Sean, the phlebotomist who becomes a friend and confidante, and helps Brian figure a few things out.  Andrew’s colleague, Terri, is a no-nonsense, kickboxing, part-Filipino woman (and one of a small group of female construction workers) who took him under her wing when he first joined the crew.

In fact, I liked Michael, Sean and Terri more than I liked Brian and Andrew’s long-time friends.  They play a large part in the story, and actually at times, I felt it was too large a part, as their drama takes the focus away from what’s going on with Brian and Andrew, and I confess I had to force myself to concentrate on the scenes featuring them which didn’t relate directly to the romance.

Apart from that, however, I enjoyed The New Normal, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a new contemporary romance author to try. The central characters are well-drawn and easy to like, there’s plenty of humour and steam, and I appreciated that the relationship between Andrew and Brian didn’t change a great deal once they made the transition from friends to lovers; their feelings for one another have always been anchored in deep affection and understanding, and adding a sexual element to their already loving relationship only enhanced what was already there. For a first contemporary romance, it’s pretty good, and I’m keen to see what the author comes up with next.

Syncopation (Twisted Wishes #1) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer – insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems – something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter. If Ray’s up for the challenge.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band – or his heart. And Zavier has always had big dreams; this gig was supposed to be temporary. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content: B+

Anna Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series centres around the four-person rock group of the same name which, in this first book, is poised to make the big-time. Book one, Syncopation, is a really enjoyable, very sexy story; the band members are all interesting and clearly drawn, and the author does a great job of describing the claustrophobic atmosphere of life on the road, the thrills and utter exhilaration of live performance (and the exhaustion that follows) and the dedication and hard work that have got Twisted Wishes to this point in its career.

When the book opens, however, the band has hit a rather large snag. Their drummer has just quit following a public row between him and front man Ray Van Zeller, and a video – together with screaming headlines like DRUNKEN VAN ZELLER ATTACKS SCHMIDT AS TWISTED WISHES IMPLODES – has just hit the media sites. The band’s manager, Carl (who it’s clear from the outset, has it in for Ray for some reason), wants Ray to take the fall and blame the fight on an alcohol problem he doesn’t have, but Kevin’s departure leaves the band with a far more pressing problem. Just weeks away from going on tour as a support act to a major band, they’re without a drummer – and need to find one asap.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Risk Assessment (Cabrini Law #1) by Parker St. John (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

All they have left is their pride.

Elliot Smith was once a hotshot attorney, but those days are long gone. A midlife crisis of conscience has left him with shattered confidence, abandoned by his former friends and scraping by at a legal aid clinic. When a smoking hot bad boy rescues him from the side of the road, Elliot is sure he doesn’t stand a chance.

After a misspent youth boosting cars, Lucas Kelly runs his own garage and is finally getting his life back on track. He isn’t about to risk everything by daring to hope for something more, especially not with a man so far above his pay grade.

The heat between them is enough to have them questioning everything they thought they knew about themselves. But is explosive chemistry enough to keep them together when Elliot’s career threatens to drive them apart?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

Risk Assessment is book one in new-to-me author Parker St. John’s Cabrini Law series, featuring members of the team who work for a legal aid clinic somewhere in Oregon. It’s relatively short, coming in at just over five and a half hours, and the story is nothing I haven’t heard or read before, but it was an undemanding listen and Kirt Graves’ accomplished narration made the time pass pleasantly enough.

Elliot Smith was a highly successful corporate lawyer with a salary and lifestyle to match until, on his fortieth birthday he realised he’d had enough of representing sleazy real-estate defrauders and feeling like he didn’t recognise himself anymore. So he pulled a Jerry Maguire, left his job and old life behind and went to work for a non-profit legal aid firm. He’s been with the Cabrini Law Clinic for around a year, and while he works long hours for a lot less pay, the work itself is generally much more rewarding. On the downside, he’s the wrong side of forty and still single, having split up with his boyfriend of five years (who was cheating on him) and has no social life or friends beyond the office.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin

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When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains…

1925 New York

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination—and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throw the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: B

Allie Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series continues with book two, Starcrossed, which begins shortly after the climactic events of the previous book (Spellbound) and finds Rory and Arthur facing off against a powerful and terrifying enemy intent on forcing Rory to unlock the secrets of an incredibly dangerous relic.

Starcrossed is a direct sequel to Spellbound, and the author doesn’t spend much (if any) time recapping the events of the previous book, so it doesn’t stand alone. That’s not a complaint per se – long recaps of ‘previously on…’ can be tedious and I’m glad Ms. Therin doesn’t go there – but on the other hand, it’s been a year since I read Spellbound, and I think I might have been able to get into Starcrossed more easily than I did had I re-read it first.

After Rory single-handedly prevented the destruction of Manhattan by using the powerful relic to which he is now bound, a ring that can control the wind, Arthur took him out of the city to the Kenzie estate in upstate New York, ostensibly to let him rest but also in hopes of getting to spend a bit more time with him.  Unfortunately, this hasn’t really happened as Arthur’s family seems to have scheduled his every waking moment and his attention is almost always required elsewhere.  Rory is disappointed although not surprised.  He still finds it hard to believe that a man like Arthur – handsome, sophisticated and from a wealthy, well-connected family – could see anything in a scrawny, nameless nobody from Hell’s Kitchen, but he’s working on it.

A couple of days before they’re due to return to the city, Arthur receives news that a relic – a lodestone – is missing from the inventory of the possessions of the late Luther Mansfield (a business mogul who had traded in dangerous magical artefacts).  Arthur is eager to get back to Manhattan, but is obligated to attend his brother John’s fundraiser (John is an alderman looking to a Senate run) where he encounters Mansfield’s lawyer, who is nervous and cagey and speaks vaguely of seeing inexplicable things before clamming up and telling Arthur to forget it.  A day later, Arthur is disturbed when John tells him about a dream he’d had, of Arthur during the war in a situation Arthur has never revealed to anyone.  Someone is using magic on his brother and, as later becomes clear, on Arthur, too, when his dreams, ones he’s had since the war, take on a grotesque, nightmarish quality they’ve never had before.

Magic induced dreams, missing artefacts, a relic imbued with the worst, most vile kind of magic, and the reappearance of old enemies all combine to propel the story towards a tense, exciting climax as Rory and Arthur confront a terrifying figure from Arthur’s past – and receive help (of a sort) from a most unexpected quarter.

As in the previous book, the setting of Prohibition Era New York is evoked really well, and I enjoyed meeting Jade and Zhang again, together with Sasha and Pavel – a powerful alchemist who has become trapped in his own magic – about whom I grow increasingly curious.  The author sets up her different story threads well and draws them skilfully together, although the pacing lags a bit in the middle with the focus on the sub-plot concerning Arthur’s wartime ex, an English viscount whom Arthur’s family want him to escort around the city and accompany to a society wedding.  Rory is jealous (of course) and (inadvertently) destroys things because he’s unable to control his growing magical powers, while  Arthur is obviously very torn between his familial obligations and his desire to live his own life. He’s forever having to rush off in the middle of important plot developments because he has to be somewhere else, and although his frustration at this is palpable, it cuts down on his page time with Rory to the extent that I sometimes felt they spent more time apart than together.

I like both characters, and am pleased that while Rory has left some of his brattishness behind, he’s still a quick-tempered adorable grump who will absolutely take down anyone who threatens Arthur’s safety.  I like his straightforwardness, his determination and his vulnerability, and that he’s slowly starting to believe that Arthur really does see him as someone worth loving.  I appreciated that Ms. Therin doesn’t sweep aside the issues affecting their relationship, which aren’t simply limited to the fact that homosexuality was illegal at this time.  The class difference between them is just as insurmountable a problem;  outside their small circle of friends, Rory and Arthur need reasons to spend time together in a way that, as Arthur’s ex quite rightly points out, Arthur doesn’t need in order to spend time with a man of his own social class.

But for all of their lovely, understated declarations and passionate kisses, I don’t really get a ‘lovers’ vibe from these two.  As in the first book, it’s kissing and innuendo and then fade-to-black – and while I absolutely support an author writing their story their way, I can’t help but feel there’s something missing in Arthur and Rory’s relationship as it’s written.  Love scenes can be valuable tools to show the development of trust that comes with being sexually intimate with someone, and sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.  I’m not saying there should be pages and pages of explicit sex scenes, and I certainly don’t think an author who isn’t comfortable writing sex should be forced to do so because it’s ‘expected’.  I’ve read books where I wish the author hadn’t gone there and have felt the story would have worked just as well without.  I just don’t think that’s the case here, and that the opportunity to create a deeper connection between the characters has been missed.

The plot is complex and carefully constructed, and the big set scene at the end is vividly depicted; the writing is generally good overall, although Ms. Therin has the habit of using awkward contractions, such as Arthur’d  said his parents had it built or Harry’d given paid work to him – which look odd and unnatural on the page.

Even with the reservations I’ve expressed, Starcrossed is an entertaining read featuring likeable characters, a strongly evoked period setting and an intriguing storyline.  If you enjoyed Spellbound, then you’ll probably enjoy this, too, and like me, will be looking forward to book three, Wonderstruck, next year.

Oz (Finding Home #1) by Lily Morton (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What happens when temporary becomes forever?

Oz Gallagher does not do relationships well. Bored and jobless after another disastrous hook up, he decides to leave London for a temporary job in the wilds of Cornwall. Surely managing a stately home on a country estate will be easier than navigating the detritus of his relationships at home. Six months there will alleviate a bit of his wanderlust and then he can come back to London as footloose and fancy free as the day he left it.

However, when he gets there, he finds a house in danger of crumbling to the ground and a man who is completely unlike anyone he’s ever met. An earl belonging to a family whose roots go back hundreds of years, Silas is the living embodiment of duty and sacrifice. Two things that Oz has never wanted. He’s also warm and funny and he draws Oz to him like a magnet.

Oz banks on the fact that they’re from two very different worlds to stop himself falling for Silas. But what will he do when he realizes that these differences are actually part of the pull to one another? Will falling in love be enough to make him stop moving at last and realize that he’s finally home?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B-

Oz, the first book in Lily Morton’s Coming Home series, is loosely linked to her previous Mixed Messages trilogy but works perfectly well as a standalone.  If you’re familiar with the author’s work, you’ll find exactly the sort of thing you’ve come to expect; characters who could snark for England, plenty of steam, a wonderful ‘family’ of secondary characters and a lovely HEA.  I have to be honest, though.  While I enjoyed Oz, it’s far from my favourite of Ms. Morton’s books, and even though it’s got all the ingredients that made the Mixed Messages books real winners, something about it fell a bit flat.  The humour isn’t as funny, the wit isn’t as biting, the conflict is very slight and there’s ultimately not much of a story here.

Oz Gallagher doesn’t exactly have a great track record – any track record, really – with relationships, but even so, finding his boyfriend balls-deep in another bloke in their bed is something he could have done without.  Over a drink in the local pub, Oz’s best mate Shaun shows him an ad for a House and Collections Manager at the Earl of Ashworth’s property in Cornwall and encourages Oz to apply – he’s got degrees in Fine Art, History of Art and nothing to lose, after all.  Oz is surprised, to say the least, to get an interview, and turns up at the swanky London hotel amid all the besuited posh types who are obviously after the job as well.  Feeling completely out of place and knowing he’s got no chance against all these chinless wonders, Oz thinks ‘fuck it’ and gives the worst interview ever:

“So, Oz, I see that you have a first class degree in Fine Art and History of Art… And can you say that you’ve used this in a productive manner?”

I shrug and smile earnestly. “It’s allowed me to work on Bernie’s Antique stall on Camden Market.”

And later:

 “The position you’re interviewing for is that of the house manager at Ashworth House. Can you tell me what you think that entails?”

I shrug and smile winsomely. “I imagine it’s like being a tour manager, but with less drugs and hookers.”

… and of course, he gets the job.

Silas, the Earl of Ashworth, was left with huge debts when his father died, but wants to see if he can turn things around before he thinks about offloading the place to the National Trust.  The house  – whose Cornish name is Chi an Mor – is his home, and even though his childhood wasn’t particularly happy (if you’ve read or listened to Risk Taker, you’ll already know what a complete and utter bastard his father was) –  the place is in Silas’ blood and he can’t envisage himself anywhere else.  His plan is to generate income by opening the house to visitors for part of the year, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get it ready to open on time. His thriving veterinary practice keeps him going financially on a personal level, but he can’t work there and oversee the renovations, and his former house manager – who had been sharing his bed – has recently quit.

Oz arrives to find the situation worse than he’d expected.  The car park is still a field, the visitors centre is an empty shell and the workmen…  are down the pub.  With gusto, gumption and grit worthy of Mary Poppins, Oz deals with the lazy builders, sorts out Silas’ staffing problems, gets everything running like clockwork and even faces off against Silas’ shitty ex for an encore.  He’s just that good.

Lily Morton builds a lovely friendship between Oz and Silas to start with, Oz caring for Silas in simple but important ways (like sitting up late to make sure he eats when he’s been out on calls all day), the two of them talking and getting to know each other.  Silas is bisexual and freely admits to having had a lot of relationships, but none has lasted very long; he loves Cornwall and doesn’t want to leave, and his previous partners haven’t wanted to be there long term.  He’s down-to-earth and lovely and lonely, and I loved watching him demolish every one of Oz’s preconceptions of what a member of the aristocracy would be like. There’s a strong pull of attraction between them from the start, but with both men having had bad experiences of boss/employee relationships, they agree that acting on that attraction would be a very bad idea… until, of course, it becomes impossible not to. 😉

Silas and Oz are good for each other in the best of ways, each finding something in the other they’d never thought to have.  The only real conflict in the story comes from the fact that Oz is convinced he’s not good enough; an Irish boy from a Tottenham council estate and an Earl don’t make sense and he can never really fit into Silas’ upper-crust life (impressions only reinforced by Silas’ bitchy mother). But Silas is clever enough to know exactly what Oz is thinking and is prepared to wait for the penny to drop – that penny being that he’s as in love with Silas as Silas is with him and that they’re each other’s person – each other’s home.

Oz is funny and sexy, with great secondary characters and wonderfully descriptive prose, but the story loses momentum after Oz and Silas become a couple.  There’s no real drama (and I’m not talking about over-the-top melodrama, just… something to propel the story forward) and no real tension as a result – and that’s fine; low-angst stories can be great, but I just wanted a bit more from this one.  And Oz the character… well, he’s witty, gorgeous, warm, capable and caring; he’s a good cook, he’s a brilliant manager, he’s got an answer for everyone and a plan for everything – in short, he’s more than a bit too good to be true, and that got to be wearing after a while.

In Joel Leslie, Lily Morton has found the perfect narrator for her particular brand of sexy snark.  He’s an incredibly talented performer and it was obvious to me within the first five minutes of their very first collaboration, Rule Breaker, that I was listening to a narrator who completely ‘got’ his author and her characters. His comic timing is superb, he has a wide repertoire of character ‘voices’ and accents, and  isn’t afraid to go big in the more emotional moments – especially the sex scenes, which should probably come (!) with a bucket of ice.  All those things are true in Oz; timing, characterisation, differentiation and pacing, it’s all superb, but something about his performance here didn’t wow me as much the others he’s given so far in books by this author.  I’m not 100% sure why that was, but I suspect it’s because I wasn’t wild about the accent he adopts for Oz (To clarify, it’s not bad or inaccurate, I just… didn’t care for it). Mr. Leslie’s vocal characterisations are terrific and every character sounds different and is easy to identify; he set himself a huge challenge  in sustaining a completely different accent for the vast majority of the story, but towards the end, it starts to slip, especially when it ‘bleeds over’ into some of Silas’ dialogue, which makes him sound odd given he doesn’t have an accent earlier in the book.

BUT.  I suspect that for many (most?) listeners that won’t be an issue – it’s just that accents are ‘my thing’ and I tend to be pretty exacting about them.  Joel Leslie is one of my favourite narrators, and so my expectations are very high; and I suppose what I’m saying is that here, he’s merely very good as opposed to outstanding!

Oz it isn’t going to make my list of Lily Morton favourites, but it’s a sweet, hot, fun listen and Joel Leslie does a great job. If you’re in the market for minimal angst, hot sex and a dirty-talking earl, you need look no further!

Tamarillo Tart (Southern Lights #2) by Jay Hogan

tamarillo tart

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cassidy Martin is a country boy through and through. He loves his horses, his Lord of
the Rings tourist business, and his isolated paradise at the foot of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Not that everyone appreciates the seclusion he craves. Take his ex-wife for example.

The sexy-as-hell guy on his latest tour might be whip-smart and push all of Cass’s buttons, but he’s about as country as a pair of Louboutins, and Cass has been there and done that. Broken heart with the T-shirt.

Stefan Hamilton doesn’t do ‘outdoorsy’, he’s a city boy, born and bred. The closest Stef gets to the country is ‘Cowboy Night’ at his favourite Auckland gay bar even if the music makes Stef want to rip his hair out by the roots.

But Stef is also a hardcore Lord of the Rings fanboy. So, when he gets the chance to go on a horse trek to the iconic film locations in the Southern Alps, he sucks up his fear of the gigantic animals and his allergy to camping for the chance to let his nerd flag fly. But when his mate pulls out at the last minute, Stef is left to negotiate the horses, the wrath of mother nature, and an inconvenient crush on the cowboy leading the tour.

City meets country and the sparks fly.

Rating: B+

Tamarillo Tart is book two in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series of contemporary romances set around Queenstown and the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island.  It’s a well-written opposites-attract romance in which two very different men find an intense mutual attraction developing into something much more, and one of them discovers an inner strength and determination he never knew he had when a short overnight trip turns into the journey from hell.

Stef Hamilton has agreed – on sufferance – to join his best friend Tanner and Tanner’s boyfriend Ethan (Powder and Pavlova) on a short horse-trek into the Southern Alps mostly, he tells Tanner, because he wanted Ethan not to think your best friend was a prissy dork.  Stef is absolutely not the outdoorsy type – he’s a snarky city boy with attitude to spare and a tongue that can wound at fifty paces, the closest he comes to a cowboy is Cowboy Night at his favourite gay bar, and he loves his designer clothes and mortgage-worthy hair products.  He’s also a huge Lord of the Rings fanboy, and Ethan specifically arranged the trip to take in of the locations used in the movies, assuring Stef that his friend, Cass – Cassidy – Martin will be the perfect guide for someone who hasn’t ridden before (well, not on horseback at least!) and is nervous around horses.  Stef isn’t best pleased when Tanner has to cancel at the last minute due to a work emergency, although Stef’s first sight of the six-foot-six, tousle-haired, sex-on-legs tour guide does go some way towards mitigating his annoyance.  Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, Stef wastes no time in getting his flirt on, despite Ethan’s assurance that Cass is straight.

Cass is amused rather than put off by Stef’s humour and matches him quip for quip, not batting an eyelid at his more outrageous pronouncements.  He’d never thought someone like Stef – sleek, styled and sassy – would be his type, but something about him absolutely pushes his buttons and then some.  Cass quickly senses that Stef’s devil-may-care snarky attitude is a tough outer shell, and that starts him wondering what it’s covering up – but he reminds himself just as quickly that it’s none of his business.  It’s a two-day trek and then Stef, and the temptation he presents, will be gone.

Once arrived at the stables with the other two members of their tour, Cass introduces Stef to his mount – Arwen –  and things go pretty well, in spite of the fact that one of the other guys in their small group of four is a homophobic arsehole.  After they set off, Stef is able to overcome his initial fear and nervousness and actually starts enjoying the ride – and the spectacular scenery and the equally spectacular cowboy eye-candy certainly don’t hurt.

The first part of the story focuses on the interactions between Stef and Cass, and on Stef gradually revealing the softer, more reflective side of himself he hides behind his outer fabulousness.  Both men are surprised at the strength of the connection they’re feeling after such a short time and know they’re completely mismatched – Cass can’t think of anyone less suitable for him to be interested in – and yet they each see something in the other that draws them together.  They find themselves talking about things they’ve rarely – if ever – shared with anyone else; a failed relationship a few years earlier that really put a dent in Stef’s self-confidence, the fact that he’s never really felt he fit in, not only in being gay, but also in not being the type most gay guys go for (“I’m what they mean when they say ‘no fems’ on Grindr”) – while Cass talks about his failed marriage, and why he hasn’t come out to his family since his divorce.  I liked Cass’ fierce defence of Stef in the face of Stef’s frequent self-deprecation; Stef is so used to being thought of as someone who is unable to cope with difficult shit that he’s bought into that view of himself, but Cass is able to see through to the real Stef, the one who’s tougher than he looks and thinks he is.  It’s going to take more than a few pep-talks to completely convince Stef of that, even though he does begin to realise that by doing what he’s doing – horse-riding, camping, and all that outdoorsy stuff – he’s already going some way to proving the truth of what Cass says.  When disaster strikes – with Cass injured, a terrible weather front coming in and no way back to base – it’s Stef who steps up and into the breach, taking over and directing the other tour members and coming up with a plan to get them out, terrified all the time that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but holding it together and doing what he can for Cass while they wait for rescue.

The chemistry between Stef and Cass is smoking and their attraction heats up quickly, but the author also shows that there’s more to whatever is growing between them through their conversations and the confidences they share.  Both men acknowledge the speed at which the connection grows between them and are surprised by it, but the thing I really liked about the way things eventually play out (after a bit of a late-book mis-step on Cass’ part) is that the main story ends on a solid HFN, with both Stef and Cassidy deciding that regardless of the fact they’ve not known each other very long, whatever is between them is something special and they both want to give it a chance.  The HEA is cemented in the epilogue, but I really liked that what could so easily have been insta-love was instead a mutual and mature decision to try to make a relationship work in the long term.

Once again, the author’s descriptions of the spectacular scenery are vivid and have me jonesing to get down there to see it all for myself, and the small secondary cast is well-written especially Cass’ friend (and his father’s girlfriend), Dee, who is clear-sighted and wonderfully supportive.

Snarky, sexy, poignant and sweet, Tamarillo Tart boasts a pair of engaging, three-dimensional leads, plenty of humour, warmth and insight, and a chemistry-laden romance without too much internalised drama and angst (the plot has enough drama to keep things interesting!)  It’s another thoroughly enjoyable read from Jay Hogan, and I’m happy to recommend it.

Slippery Creatures (Will Darling Adventures #1) by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic second-hand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else.

Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan—charming, cultured, oddly attractive—steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger.

And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again.

But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides—and Kim is the only man who can help.

Rating: A

K.J. Charles’ new series, The Will Darling Adventures, is a set of three rip-roaring adventure yarns in the style of 1920s pulp fiction, so readers can expect thrilling adventures, clever mysteries, dastardly deeds, and evil villains pitted against tough, tenacious and upstanding (well, mostly) heroes who triumph against all the odds.  Needless to say, when the author announced this was to be her next project, I was rubbing my hands with glee in eager anticipation!

Slippery Creatures is book one, and in it, we meet the charmingly named Will Darling (which always made me smile whenever I read it – it made mt think of Blackadder!) who went to the front at eighteen and returned to England to discover, as did the thousands of other men returning from France and Belgium in 1918-19, that the country had managed perfectly well without them, and that there was little to no work and no other way to keep body and soul together.   Will lost his father when he was young, and his mother to the Spanish Flu while he waited to be demobbed, and was barely eking out an existence doing odd jobs here and there. When things became desperate, he wrote to his uncle – his namesake – who welcomed him with open arms, took him in and gave him a job in his shop. But just a couple of months later, William Senior is dead and Will is alone and in possession of Darling’s Used and Antiquarian bookshop.

And that’s when the trouble starts.

Will is still trying to get to grips with the shop, which could best be described as barely organised chaos, when a man approaches him and demands he hands over the information.  Taken aback, Will quite honestly says he has no idea what he’s talking about; the man refuses to believe him and gets belligerent; Will becomes equally so and throws him out, thinking that’s an end of it.  Until the early hours of the next morning, when he is woken by the unmistakeable sounds of someone moving around in the shop.  Will manages to run off the intruders – two of them – and when he checks the shop he can find nothing missing.

Already annoyed, Will isn’t pleased to receive a visit the next afternoon from a couple of men in suits who reek of officialdom, one of whom introduces himself as Captain Ingoldsby of the War Office.  During their conversation Will realises he’s been confused with his uncle (not that that makes things any clearer) and takes exception to Ingoldsby’s high-handed demand that he co-operate with him and allow the shop to be searched.  Will’s at the end of his tether when he’s visited by yet another thug – in broad daylight – who fortunately runs away when another customer appears in the shop.  The man – tall, dark, good-looking, charming –  introduces himself as Kim Secretan and helps Will straighten the place up a bit, then takes him for a drink at the local pub.

Worn out, worn down, fed up with being lonely and belatedly in shock at having been attacked (again), Will isn’t going to turn down the prospect of a drink and some conversation with someone friendly and who is, it appears, knowledgeable about the book trade.  It’s been such a long time since he’s had anything but his own company and something about Kim invites confidence, so Will finds himself opening up about the strange man who demanded information, the burglary, the threatening visits from Ingoldsby – and is relieved when Kim takes him seriously and even offers to help him out.

Finding himself somehow caught in the middle of  a nefarious game being played out by fanatical Bolshevik terrorists and self-righteous War Office types, Will is only too glad to have found an ally in the enigmatic and dangerously attractive Kim… until he discovers that far from being a disinterested friend, Kim has ulterior motives.

K.J. Charles pens a superbly constructed, intricate mystery full of unexpected twists and murky motivations, featuring well-developed characters who are compelling even when you don’t like them very much!  Will is a much-decorated soldier, clear-sighted but disillusioned with the society to which he has returned.  He’s stubborn – often to his detriment – intelligent, tough, resourceful and unwilling to compromise his principles, while for Kim, doing the right thing is a much more flexible concept.  He’s every bit as clever and resourceful as Will, and is one of those morally ambiguous characters the author excels at writing, making him likeable even as I was hating the pain he caused Will, and wondering just how much of what came out of his mouth was the truth.  The relationship between them is really well done (this is a three book series, so don’t go into this one expecting an HEA); Will and Kim are strongly attracted to each other physically, and there’s a definite undercurrent of mutual ‘like’ (when Will isn’t cursing Kim for being a git, that is) but the author is setting up a slow-burn, and I’m really looking forward to watching it play out.

I always enjoy K.J. Charles’ wonderfully British sense of humour and her sly pokes at the classic stiff-upper-lip:

[Will] had no idea what civilians, or civilised people, would say in these circumstances.  Thanks for that, old chap, much obliged, perhaps? Ought he apologies for coming in his mouth? Would this be a good moment to restart the conversation about where Kim had learned to use a knife?

Thank God they were British. He took a deep breath. “Cup of tea?”

 

– together with the strong sense of time and place she brings to her novels and the always informative historical background.  I especially appreciated the fact that the bad guys weren’t all wrong and the good guys weren’t all right, and that the motivations of the Establishment were just as murky as those of the anarchists, which just added to the tension and raised the stakes for our heroes.

The supporting cast isn’t extensive, but there are a couple of delightful ladies I sincerely hope we’re going to see more of – Will’s friend Maisie and the flighty Phoebe, who seems to be the epitome of the Bright Young Thing, but is much kinder and more perceptive – both of them well-rounded and distinctive, with actual roles to play that are more than mere set-dressing.

K.J. Charles never fails to pull me completely into whichever book of hers I’m reading, and this one was no exception.  It’s a terrific, perfectly-paced read with action, adventure, dastardly villains, a high-stakes plot and a pair of captivating protagonists.  Slippery Creatures is fun, clever, sexy and utterly engrossing – and I can’t wait for more of the Will Darling Adventures.

”My name, since you raise the topic, is Arthur Aloysius Kimberley de Brabazon Secretan. What would you do in my place?”

“Leave the country,” Will said wholeheartedly. “You poor bastard, you never stood a chance.”

Counterpoint (Twisted Wishes #2) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

counterpoint

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Twisted Wishes lead-guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves. A self-imposed exile makes it impossible to get close to anyone outside the band, so he’s forced to get his sexual fix through a few hot nights with a stranger.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder – the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Dominic is reluctant to trust Adrian with his true identity. But when the truth is revealed prematurely, Dominic is forced to reevaluate both his need for Adrian and everything he believes about himself.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Counterpoint, book two in Anna Zabo’s trilogy about rock group Twisted Wishes, focuses on the band’s lead guitarist, Domino Grinder, a mouthy, tatted-up, leather-clad Rock god who struts about the stage shirtless, oozing sex appeal and attitude.  Domino may be the most recognisable member of the group, but he’s also fiercely private, guarding his personal life to the extent that as far as the media can discern, he doesn’t have one.  He’s never seen with anyone outside his immediate professional circle and his name is never linked with anyone else’s romantically.  He’s an enigma, and that’s the way he likes it.

And the reason he’s been able to maintain that degree of anonymity is because the brash, outrageous Domino is actually a persona invented by shy, nerdy Dominic Bradley as a way of combating the debilitating stage-fright he suffered in Twisted Wishes’ early days.  Unable to face performing as himself and believing nobody would take diminutive, bookish, art-loving Dominic seriously as a rock musician, he’s hidden behind Domino for years, so successfully that the only people who know that Domino doesn’t really exist are his band-mates, Ray, Zavier and Mish. As for Dominic Bradley, well he’s just another geeky, bow-tie wearing, bespectacled twink who gets plenty of the sort of attention he wants, when he wants it, no strings, no commitment – which is perfectly fine with him.  Anything longer than a few hours with someone would risk the unmasking of Domino – and that’s something he’s desperate to avoid.

But from the moment Dominic meets the handsome, charming Adrian Doran at one of his favourite eateries, he senses he might be in trouble.  They talk, they flirt, they share dessert; the air between them crackles with electricity and heat, the intensity of the pull he feels towards the other man like nothing Dominic has ever experienced before.  Towards the end of the evening, Adrian tells Dominic he wants “more than a quick fuck and goodbye” and that he wants to explore the potential for more between them.  And even though he knows it’s a risk he shouldn’t be taking, Dominic agrees to meet him again the following week, to go on a date and see where things lead.

Anna Zabo develops the relationship between Dominic and Adrian really well. I’m not a fan of insta-relationships, but the chemistry between the couple is so potent, so palpable that it’s absolutely convincing, and I enjoyed being privy to their getting-to-know-you phase as they go on dates to museums and galleries and settle into a weekly routine of lazy weekends together. Dominic loves that he gets to be himself with Adrian, something he’s rarely able to do, as he maintains his Domino persona whenever he’s around the band – even when they’re in the recording studio – and Adrian is utterly captivated by this quiet, artistic, book-loving man whose willingness to cede control in bed truly touches him.  Dominic had never really considered a D/s relationship before, but being with Adrian helps him to understand and enjoy his kinks and shows him how freeing and empowering it can be to submit.  The sex scenes in the book are hot, but are also tender, loving, and full of trust and acceptance with an emphasis on consent, and are integral to the story and the development of the relationship.

The tension in the story comes from Dominic’s reluctance to tell Adrian about his ‘other life’ as Domino, his fear that Adrian may not be able to keep his secret and his guilt at keeping it when Adrian has shared so much of himself with him. But there’s more to it than not wanting to give up the anonymity Domino affords him; he’s equally worried that Adrian, who has no interest in or knowledge of rock music, will see him differently once he knows the truth, and that the world at large will laugh at the idea of geeky Dominic Bradley being a rock star.  Acute stage fright and Imposter Syndrome compound Dominic’s belief he can’t be both Domino and Dominic.

Adrian is pansexual, and almost ten years older than Dominic; he’s a good guy who has reached a point in his life when he’s looking for more from life than meaningless hook-ups. He’s a computer programmer for a large bank, a job that pays pretty well, but he isn’t happy there and is having to put up with a colleague constantly trying to undermine him. I appreciated that we get to see Adrian outside of his relationship with Dominic, as it helps cement him as a three-dimensional character with flaws and a life of his own. The care he shows Dominic both inside and outside the bedroom is simply wonderful; he’s a man who loves well and deeply, and I loved that although he realises Dominic is keeping something from him, he never pushes, sure that Dominic will tell him when he’s ready.

It will come as a surprise to exactly NO ONE who has ever listened to Greg Boudreaux when I say his narration is nigh on flawless and worthy of all the superlatives.  His pacing, characterisation and differentiation are excellent, and his character portrayals are consistent across the books in the series, so if you’ve listened to Syncopation, you’ll easily recognise the four members of Twisted Wishes by their voices alone. Mr. Boudreaux’s interpretations of Dominic and Adrian are both spot on, too – Adrian’s deep, rich tone a perfect contrast to Dominic’s slightly higher one, his deliberate delivery accurately reflecting the fact that he’s someone confident in his own skin who knows what he wants.  Mr. Boudreaux is a consummate vocal actor who never disappoints with his ability to get into the heads and hearts of the characters he portrays; he hits all the right emotional notes in the story and his performance really enhances and fully realises the depth of the connection between the two leads.

As in book one, the other band members play a large part in the story and are a wonderful support mechanism for each other, and I loved their scenes together.  I did, however, have a few fairly minor niggles about the story. When the shit hits the fan – as it was bound to – I was pleased that Mx. Zabo doesn’t drag things out unnecessarily, although some of the later drama felt a bit overdone. The pacing lags a little in the middle, and I sort of wished we’d been able to see Adrian’s shitty colleague get his comeuppance, but otherwise, I enjoyed the book very much – and I’m not someone who is normally drawn to romances featuring kink.

Counterpoint was a compelling listen and one I didn’t put down easily – in fact I listened to most of it in one day.  Strong storytelling, attractive leads and well-drawn secondary characters combine with a sexy and emotionally satisfying romance and a top-notch performance from one of the best narrators around to garner a strong recommendation.

 

Quickie Reviews #6

Another batch of shorter-than-usual book and audio reviews 🙂


Will & Patrick Wake Up Married Series by Leta Blake and Alice Griffiths

Narrated by John Solo

After a drunken night of hot sex in Vegas, strangers Will Patterson and Dr. Patrick McCloud wake up married. A quickie divorce is the most obvious way out—unless you’re the heir of a staunchly Catholic mafia boss with a draconian position on the sanctity of marriage. Throw their simmering attraction into the mix and all bets are off!

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

I read the Wake Up Married series last year and picked up the audios when they were whispersynced. Once you get past the daft premise, this is an entertaining, often very funny and sometimes moving story with two strongly characterised, appealing leads. Patrick – with his complete lack of filter – is a hoot, but I liked that he was just “this is me – take it or leave it”, while Will lacks confidence in just about everything apart from his ability to do his job, which is incredibly important to him. Both of them have emotional baggage to deal with – Patrick has become extremely successful despite an awful childhood; Will can’t see that the relationship he was in for several years was emotionally abusive and only added to his already deep-seated insecurities about his personal attractiveness and self-worth. His blindness about his ex is irritating, but it also works to show just how far he’s been manipulated and how his self-doubt has been fostered.

John Solo’s narration doesn’t always work for me; he’s good, but he has this weird way of suddenly going into what I term “movie-trailer-announcer-mode” when his speech loses natural rhythms and he emphasises words oddly – it usually happens in sex scenes or when the characters are thinking about sex, and other times of heightened tension or emotion. I don’t know whether he didn’t do that as much here, or if I just didn’t notice it as much once I got used to it, but he delivers a really good performance in this and his interpretations of Will and Patrick are especially good and fit their characters perfectly. Will is softly spoken, Patrick is more abrasive and his dialogue has a harsher edge. The secondary characters are well-differentiated and if it weren’t for that odd quirk I mentioned, he’d be on my list of all-time favourite narrators.


Valor on the Move by Keira Andrews

Narrated by Iggy Toma

Growing up gay in the White House hasn’t been easy for Rafael Castillo. Codenamed “Valor” by the Secret Service, Rafa feels anything but brave as he hides in the closet and tries to stay below the radar in his last year of college. His father’s presidency is almost over, and he just needs to stick to his carefully crafted plan. Once his family’s out of the spotlight, he can be honest with his conservative parents about his sexuality and his dream of being a chef. 

It’s definitely not part of Rafa’s plan to get a new Secret Service agent who’s a walking wet dream, but he’s made it this long keeping his desires to himself. Besides, it’s not like Shane Kendrick would even look at him twice if it wasn’t his job. 

Shane’s worked his way up through the Secret Service ranks, and while protecting the president’s shy, boring son isn’t his dream White House assignment, it’s an easy enough task since no one pays Rafa much attention. He discovers there’s a vibrant young man beneath the timid public shell, and while he knows Rafa has a crush on him, he assures himself it’s harmless. Shane’s never had room for romance in his life, and he’d certainly never cross that line with a protectee. Keeping Rafa safe at any cost is Shane’s mission. 

But as Rafa gets under his skin, will they both put their hearts on the line? 

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C

Nothing new to see here, but an easy quick listen with Iggy Toma doing the honours in the narrators’ chair, and I’d listen to him read the phone book, so…

I generally enjoy May/December romances but in the best ones (like Annabeth Albert’s At Attention or N.R Walker’s The Thomas Elkin Series), the younger protagonist is generally more mature than their years and has a bit of life experience behind them. The problem here is that Rafa, at twenty-one, feels much younger. He’s lived in the White House for seven years (since he was fourteen) and has been pretty sheltered; some of that is undoubtedly due to the fact that he’s closeted and hasn’t wanted to draw the media spotlight by going out with guys, but he comes across as naive. I did like that he was appreciative of the people whose job it was to keep him safe though – so many of these types of bodyguard stories have the protectee trying to give their details the slip all the time and getting into danger as a result, and at least Rafa doesn’t do that. The coming out scene was pretty intense and the emotion – both in the author’s words and the performance – when Rafa was talking about the marriage bill his father had passed really shone through.

So 3 stars for the story, 4.5 for the narration. I might listen to the sequel at some point.


Spring Strings by Lily Morton

Malachi Booth is a supermodel. He’s used to moving about the world, sleeping with whoever takes his fancy and watching the money roll in. The last place he expects to find himself is on a run-down farm in Cornwall, but a bad bout of bronchitis means that he’s stuck there. The only compensation for this dismal state of affairs is that the farmer is very good looking, even if he’s the grumpiest person that Malachi has ever met.

Cadan Landry’s farm has been in his family for hundreds of years but that doesn’t make it any easier to make ends meet. As a consequence, Cadan could be called grumpy. Most men would consider a supermodel collapsing at their feet while dressed in the skimpiest pair of briefs ever made to be a sign of good fortune. Cadan just resents the fact that the young man is taking up space in his cow field.

These two men are from different worlds, but can they ever meet in the middle?

Rating: A-

Utterly delightful.

It’s the rare novella that can offer all the things this one does – off-the-charts chemistry, a well-developed romance, interesting backstories and strong secondary characters – so to find all that here was a very welcome surprise. (Although at 162 pages, this is more of a short novel; there are books billed as novels that come in at a similar page count!)

Spring Strings is an opposites-attract romance between a Cornish farmer and a supermodel, a pairing that absolutely Should Not Work. When beautiful Malachi Booth meets hunky but grumpy Cadan Landry, it’s snark-at-first sight (this is Lily Morton, queen of snark after all!) and sparks fly. When Malachi ends up staying at Cadan’s farm to recuperate following an illness, the pair gradually start to re-assess their preconceptions about each other and a cautious friendship develops, albeit a sexually-charged one.

Malachi is brilliantly written; he’s cynical and closed off and comes across as a total diva to start with, but the thing is that he knows he’s demanding and difficult and looks on it as part of his job, which makes it easy to like him in spite of it. Ms. Morton makes a number of very pertinent and serious observations about the world he moves in beneath the banter, and also gives him a backstory that completely explains the choices he’s made. And Cadan is a genuinely good man but is struggling and pretty much working himself into the ground because of a poor choice he made in the past (although that doesn’t make the situation he’s in his fault).

Watching the pair of them gradually letting down their guards and allowing the other to know him was just lovely, and I especially loved that Malachi had, at long last found somewhere and someone with whom he could really be himself.

Short, sweet and snarky, but with plenty of depth to make it more than a simple piece of fluff, and just the ticket if you’re looking for a pick-me-up in book form.

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.