Out of Character (True Colours #2) by Annabeth Albert

out of character

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Jasper Quigley is tired of being everyone’s favorite sidekick. He wants to become the hero of his own life, but that’s not going to happen if he agrees to help out his former best friend turned king of the jocks, Milo Lionetti. High school was miserable enough, thanks, and Jasper has no interest in dredging up painful memories of his old secret crush.

But Milo’s got nowhere else to go. His life is spiraling out of control and he’s looking to turn things back around. Step one? Replace the rare Odyssey cards he lost in an idiotic bet. Step two? Tell his ex-best-friend exactly how he feels—how he’s always felt.

Jasper may be reluctant to reopen old wounds, but he never could resist Milo. There’s a catch, though: if Milo wants his help, he’s going to have to pitch in to make the upcoming children’s hospital charity ball the best ever. But as the two don cosplay for the kids and hunt for rare cards, nostalgia for their lost friendship may turn into something even more lasting…

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert’s  Out of Character, the follow up to last year’s Conventionally Yours, features two guys who were firm friends until high-school, when expectations and peer pressure ended their friendship.  It’s a cute, (former) friends-to-lovers romance featuring two likeable characters who have a lot to learn – and re-learn – about each other as they reconnect through a quest to track down some rare Odyssey game cards.

We met Jasper Quigley in the previous book, in which he was due to accompany his friends and fellow gamers Alden and Conrad to Odyssey Con West, a massive fan convention in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, Jasper had to pull out at the last minute because his younger sister April – who suffers from a rare immune system disorder – became seriously ill and he had to return home.  Several months later finds Jasper, who is in his final year of college, still working at a local game shop, making regular appearances on the Gamer Grandpa vlog, and also spending time volunteering in the children’s ward at the local hospital, where he and a group of friends cosplay various Odyssey characters and play games with some of the kids there.   When the book opens though, he’s down a prince for the next visit – Prince Neptune to be specific – one of the most popular (if not the most popular) characters in the game and with the kids, and he’s running out of time to come up with a suitable replacement.

Fortunately, however, Jasper’s prince does, indeed, come.  Unfortunately, it’s in the form of someone he’d hoped never to have to have much to do with again, his former best friend, Milo Lionetti.  Milo’s Italianate good looks make him a perfect prince – on paper at least, because his long ago behaviour towards Jasper wasn’t at all princely.

Jasper and Milo grew up together and were practically inseparable, but that changed when they went to high school and Milo got picked for the soccer team.  Wanting a place at the cool kids’ table – and not wanting to be singled out for his choice of a nerdy gay boy as his best friend – Milo turned his back on Jasper and watched from the sidelines, saying nothing as the Jock crowd dished out insults to Jasper and anyone else who dared to be smart, nerdy or anything other than a vapid clone.  Jasper made new friends and moved on, although he hasn’t forgotten what Milo did, or forgiven him for it.  So Milo is the last person Jasper expects to be coming to him for help.

A few nights earlier, Milo had a bit too much to drink and ended up losing four of his older brother Bruno’s Odyssey cards, four cards which happen to be incredibly rare and worth thousands of dollars.  Bruno is in the military and is currently stationed overseas; Milo can’t bear to have to own up to yet another screw up – he’s already caused his mother and brother enough worry over the last few years – and wants to replace the cards before Bruno’s next leave, which is a matter of weeks away.   Jasper doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy for him and at first, he wonders if he’s being pranked, but he soon realises that Milo is serious, and that his distress is real.  So he offers Milo a deal.  In return for Jasper’s help in tracking down the cards, Milo has to be Prince Neptune on their next cosplay session at the hospital.  With absolutely no other option open to him, Milo agrees.

That’s the set up for what opens out into a charming and heart-warming story of two young men whose lives went in different directions finding their way back to each other.  After the cosplay session, Jasper starts looking for the cards Milo needs, and the two of them end up searching various sites and online markets, solving puzzles, doing a treasure hunt and going to an Odyssey tournament together.  To his surprise, Milo starts to enjoy the cosplaying and the visits to the hospital as well, and all the time he and Jasper spend together give them the opportunity to talk about what happened to their friendship and to get to know  each other as the people they are now.

Jasper is an absolute sweetheart; intelligent, up-beat and generous of spirit, he loves helping people and is always on hand to crack a joke or offer support.  But he chafes a bit at being the ‘sidekick’ – the dependable one who isn’t ‘the best’ at anything, and longs to be someone’s hero.  Milo has had a tough few years; he went off the rails a bit after his father died and now sees himself as a screw-up who can do nothing right and is going nowhere.  But although Jasper is initially suspicious of Milo’s motives, he quickly realises that Milo wants to change and do better, and I loved how his support and belief in Milo spur him on and help him to see that he’s capable of more than he’d believed.   Milo grows an awful lot throughout the novel, and his redemption as a character and as a friend is very well done.  I liked the neat bit of role-reversal here, too, with Jasper being the confident, outgoing one and Milo the quiet, artistic one who has, despite being a member of the ‘in-crowd’ been more alone than Jasper ever has.

The chemistry that hums between them is palpable, and their romance is sweet and full of genuine affection as Jasper helps Milo navigate his way through the newness of a relationship (with a lovely, subtle emphasis on consent) and there’s a real sense of give and take as they talk and listen and work through their issues together – and Jasper becomes Milo’s hero and Milo embraces his true self and learns to forgive himself.

As I said in my review of the previous book, I know nothing about gaming and it’s not something that has ever really interested me, but Annabeth Albert writes about it here with such affection and authority that she made me care about it because the characters care about it so much.

Milo and Jasper are well-rounded characters, and Milo, in particular, undergoes a tremendous amount of well-written and organic personal growth throughout the story.  Out of Character is a low-angst, feel-good romance about second chances, being brave and being true to yourself and others, and I’m happy to recommend it.

Beautifully Unexpected by Lily Morton

beautifully unexpected

This title may be purchased from Amazon0

Sometimes love comes when you least expect or want it.

Magnus Carlsen is determined to grow old disgracefully. At fifty-two, he doesn’t believe in keeping anything. Men, sofas, books—everything gets jettisoned, eventually. He’s divided his life into happy compartments. A successful trial lawyer, he spends his days lecturing jurors, exasperating judges, and striding arrogantly around courtrooms. He fills his nights with a parade of handsome young men who want to make him happy. Why date someone his own age to discuss back pain, retirement-planning, and corns, when he can date men who don’t care to discuss anything at all?

However, when one of these sunny young men shows an inclination for dramatic scenes, Magnus meets his new neighbour. And his whole world implodes.

Laurie Gentry is nearly the same age as Magnus, but that’s where the similarity ends. He’s messy and creative and nosy and mysterious. He’s everything that Magnus has spent a lifetime avoiding. So, why can’t he get Laurie out of his head?

Luckily, Laurie is only in London for the summer. Magnus can uncover Laurie’s mysteries and indulge their annoyingly hot attraction, and Laurie will be gone before complications arise. A few months isn’t long enough to lose his heart. Is it?

Rating: B+

Beautifully Unexpected is typical Lily Morton – and I mean that in a good way.  It’s well-written, warm, funny and sexy, boasting two intensely likeable leads with terrific chemistry, plenty of her trademark snark – and a real punch in the feels towards the end.

Magnus Carlsen QC is one of the most successful barristers in the country – and is well aware of that fact; modesty isn’t one of his defining qualities.  He’s the sort of man who commands attention whether he’s in a courtroom or a dining room; he’s attractive, intelligent and supremely confident, likes his life ‘just so’, his men young and the sex casual.

The book opens as Magnus is going through his morning routine – pleased to discover that last night’s bed partner has had the good manners to take himself off – and answers the door only to discover said bedmate clearly hadn’t got the message that the night before was a one off.  Worse, he’s standing naked on the doorstep insisting they’re in a relationship, wearing only a blue bow tied around his tackle.  As Magnus irritatedly attempts to put him straight, he notices a man getting out of the lift pulling a suitcase and watches as he stops outside the apartment opposite and seems to be looking for his keys.  Magnus doesn’t recognise the man, but he certainly seems to be quietly amused by the drama unfolding on Magnus’ doorstep.  The beribboned twink flounces off just as the other man manages to unlock his door and with a Parthian shot worthy of Magnus himself, goes inside.

Following a morning in court – and having chalked up another win – Magnus is at lunch with a colleague when he sees his new neighbour at another table, and goes over to introduce himself properly.  He’s surprised when the man tells him he’s having dinner with Judge Bannister– the very Judge whose courtroom Magnus had been in that morning – and Magnus commiserates with him over having lunch with such a frightful bore.  And then falls – metaphorically – flat on his face when the man tells him the judge is his stepfather.  Oops.

Renowned artist Laurie Gentry is around the same age as Magnus (he’s forty-eight to Magnus’ fifty-two), but that’s about the only thing they seem to have in common.  Laurie is creative, messy, witty, irreverent, something of a free spirit and just a little bit mysterious – and he’s absolutely not Magnus’ type.

And yet.

Well, it’s a romance novel, so we know where it’s going, but the getting there is a lot of fun!  I enjoyed reading these two characters who believe themselves to be completely set in their ways circling each other, working out that maybe a no-strings fling is in order, and then falling hard for each other, no matter that that’s not what they intended at all.  I loved how Laurie is completely up to Mags’ (he insists on calling him Mags) weight and won’t let him get away with any crap; he knows how to burst his bubble when he’s being a bit too arrogant and he’s overflowing with the sort of warmth and laughter Mags’ somewhat sterile life and environment has long been missing.  Watching Mags open up and let him in was just lovely; but what really shines through is the way these two come to truly know, understand and care for one another, and how they take care of one another, working out what the other needs and providing it. Their romance unfolds at a perfect pace; it’s tender and funny and sexy, and the depth of their affection for each other is palpable. These two really do bring out the best in each other as they come to realise how much better life can be when you have someone to share it with.

The one incongruous note in the book is the dog.  Laurie decides Mags should get a dog (“You don’t have to have a good personality for a dog to love you. Just a pulse.”) and for some strange reason Mags, a man who values order and tidiness, lives in a beautiful apartment with, no doubt, expensive furniture and fittings, chooses a dog who will almost certainly chew all of it to bits.  For one thing, I was surprised that an exclusive apartment block would actually allow animals, and for another, his decision was so completely out of character that it threw me out of the story.  If it was supposed to show me that Mags was unbending due to Laurie’s influence – it didn’t.  It just felt off.

And my other niggle is the overuse of the phrase “Ack!” by Magnus.  Maybe a Danish thing (Magnus is Danish but has lived most of his life in the UK), but it appears a lot and I found it rather irritating.

The fact that Magnus and Laurie are in mid-life kind of permeates the book insofar as these are men who’ve been around the block a few times, have plenty of life experience under their belts and know who they are, and that confidence and knowledge is present on the page.  That’s not to say things are smooth sailing; there is clearly something worrying Laurie, while Magnus is struggling to reconcile his previously uncomplicated existence with his emerging feelings – and I really appreciated that by the time we reach the end, they’re essentially the same men they always were – they’re just better together than they were apart.

The deadpan humour is spot on, the steam factor is just right and the moments of poignancy are superbly judged – I don’t think I’ve ever teared up reading a Lily Morton book before, but this one had me sniffling.  Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed Beautifully Unexpected very much and definitely recommend it to fans of the author’s or anyone looking for a heartfelt, superbly developed romance between a mature couple.

The List (Second Chances #1) by Felice Stevens (audiobook) – Narrated by Denis Lambert

the list

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Oops. He did it again.
Elliot Hansen has a terrible habit of falling in love with every man he dates.
His friends have had enough and make a list of Elliot’s perfect man.
That V…
Those abs….
Shouldn’t a boyfriend be more than the sum of his parts?
But when sexy detective Winston Rogers bursts into his bedroom to arrest a burglar, Elliot knows he wouldn’t mind checking one or two things off that list with him.

What if you had it all?
Five years after the death of his husband, Winston Rogers is single and determined to stay that way.
He throws himself into his job—the more dangerous the assignment, the better.
He can’t face another risk to his heart.
But then a routine arrest in his neighbor’s bedroom leaves Win searching for more than evidence as the man’s sweet smile and vulnerable eyes strike a chord inside him Win had thought gone forever.

Why not enjoy each other with no strings attached? Win and Elliot decide to make their own list.
Rule #1: Strictly friends with benefits.
Rule #2: No doing anything stupid like falling in love.
Rule #3….
See Elliot and Win ignore Rules #1 and #2.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

The List is the first book in Felice Stevens’ new series, Second Chances, featuring Elliot, Spencer, Wolf and Chess, four men who have been friends since college, and who, in the fifteen years since they met, have become more than best friends – they’re family. The List is Elliot’s story, and it’ll be followed by Chess’ book and then… well, I have my suspicions 😉

Elliot Hansen has an unfortunate habit of falling in love with pretty much every man he dates. After his most recent break-up – with a guy who’d moved in with him, conned money out of him to start a business (which went nowhere) and then dumped him – his friends once again urge him to be more careful (read: less gullible), to try to protect himself a little more and not to assume every guy he goes out with wants the same things he does. They suggest he should stop looking to fall in love, that he should play the field and have some fun – but that’s not really Elliot’s style. All he wants – all he’s ever wanted, really – is to love and be loved. But he decides to maybe give ‘having fun’ a try – which is when Spencer jokingly writes a list of the things that would make Elliot’s perfect man… only the things he comes up with (hung like a horse, perfect abs, great ass) aren’t the things Elliot is looking for at all. Later, and more than a little annoyed at his friends’ not-so-gentle teasing, he crosses out all Spencer’s suggestions and adds some of his own – picnics, walks on the beach, long drives and days out at the zoo and local wineries.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Featherbed (Vino and Veritas #1) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves and Alexander Cendese

featherbed

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When a bookworm on borrowed time meets a younger free-spirited chicken farmer, sparks and feathers fly….

Harrison Phillip Fletcher III isn’t supposed to be here. Not in Burlington, Vermont, not running Vino & Veritas, a quaint inclusive bookstore and wine bar, and definitely not still alive, at 42. Also not supposed to be here? An unexpected delivery of chickens.

Finn Barnes knows chickens. The burly organic farmer knows all about rare breed poultry, but dealing with a hot older bookseller is an entirely different matter. City-slicker types like Harrison never end up staying in Vermont for the long-term.

They should steer clear of each other. But the flare of attraction is mutual. And somehow amid book discussions and farm tours, they discover plenty in common. Now they’re stealing kisses in Finn’s barn, sneaking out like teens, and burning up the sheets.

What starts as a fling brings very real feelings for two lonely souls, but a future together seems as unlikely as chickens in a bookstore. Feathers may be flying, but learning to trust takes time neither may have. Can they take a leap of faith together before it’s too late?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

The Vino and Veritas series is one of four new series of contemporary romances set in the world created by Sarina Bowen in her True North books. Each of the series is multi-authored, and the books are all standalones; although some characters do cross over between books, the stories in each are self-contained, so you can dip in and out without missing anything important. The V&V books are all queer romances – mostly m/m, but there are some f/f ones, too – and there’s a fabulous line-up of authors, some of whom are personal favourites. One of them – Annabeth Albert – kicks things off with Featherbed, a sweet, sexy, low-angst romance that, for all its cuteness and strong characterisation, needed a bit more oomph.

A former lawyer, Harrison Fletcher has left the bustle of New York and relocated to Burlington in Vermont where he’s about to open his new venture – a combined bookstore and wine bar he’s named Vino and Veritas. Part of his reason for moving is to because he wants to make mother happy; ever since she retired from her job as a librarian, she’s been at something of a loose end and he knows that owning a bookstore has long been a dream of hers. But he knows he needed a change, too, especially as he thinks he won’t have much more time to spend with her; both his father and his grandfather died before reaching the age of forty-three, and with his forty-second birthday approaching, Harrison can feel the ticking of the countdown clock. Still, even though it’s a move he wanted to make, it’s been something of a culture shock – something brought home even more strongly when one of the deliveries he’s expecting for the bookstore half of V and V turns out to be a box of chickens rather than a box of books.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge – Whiteout (Seasons of Love #1) by Elyse Springer

whiteout springer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Noah Landers wakes up one day with a headache and no memory of where — or who — he is. Jason, the man taking care of him, tries to fill in some of the blanks: they’re in a cabin in Colorado on vacation, and Noah slipped on ice and hit his head. But even with amnesia, Noah knows Jason is leaving out something important.

Jason O’Reilly is sexy as hell, treats Noah like he’s precious, and seems determined to make this the romantic getaway they’d apparently dreamed of together. But Noah’s more concerned that he’s trapped alone with Jason in the middle of a blizzard while his slowly returning memories bring hints of secrets and betrayal.

Noah’s not sure what’s the truth and what’s a lie. But as he learns who he is — and who Jason is to him — he’s forced to reevaluate everything he believes about himself, about loyalty . . . and about love.

Rating: B

My One Word Title read is very much a book of two halves, one of which I enjoyed considerably more than the other.  The first half of Whiteout revolves around an amnesia plot, and the second around the resulting fallout; the first half is tense and terrific, but the second loses momentum and the principals are separated for most of it.  I understand why, but having your leads apart for almost half a book isn’t a great idea in a romance.

When the book opens, Noah Landers is waking up with one helluva headache – and no idea of where –or who – he is.  There’s a man speaking to him – a man who clearly knows him and has been taking care of him – who explains that they’re a couple, they’re holidaying at a cabin in the Colorado mountains for Christmas, and that Noah slipped on the ice and hit his head. Noah doesn’t recognise the man – Jason O’Reilly – although he does recognise that Jason is uneasy and holding something back – and that although he doesn’t know who he is, the name Noah feels… wrong somehow.  Jason explains that because of the remoteness of the cabin and the bad weather conditions, it hasn’t been possible to get Noah to a hospital, but he’s speaking with a doctor regularly on the phone, and their advice about the amnesia has been not to tell Noah too much about himself and to let his memories return in their own time.

Over the next few days, Jason shows himself to be a kind and compassionate person; he’s clearly terribly upset at what happened to Noah and does everything he possibly can to ensure his comfort and aid his recovery.  He’s very affectionate and loving, too, wearing his feelings for Noah on his sleeve and taking every opportunity to touch him – a hand at his elbow or his back, a touch to his face – but as random memories start to trickle back, Noah starts to see small things about the other man’s behaviour that don’t quite make sense.  He begins to doubt what Jason is telling him about the doctor, and when Noah finds his cellphone buried under a pile of clothes in a drawer and listens to the messages that call him by a different name, he starts to think that something is very, very  wrong.

We only get Noah’s PoV in this book, and the author uses the limited perspective brilliantly, creating a strong sense of menace and uncertainty and conveying Noah’s palpable fear and growing paranoia in a way that cleverly plays with our expectations.   Unfortunately, however, the single PoV isn’t so effective in the second half – which it’s difficult to talk about without revealing too much, but here goes.

Jason and Noah leave Colorado separately, and the story follows Noah as he returns to his life and career in NYC.  But he can’t forget Jason or what happened between them, and this part of the story focuses on Noah’s desire to win Jason back as well as on his personal growth as he learns to properly examine his motivations for his actions and then works out what he wants and how to go for it.  For the most part, I continued to be fully invested in the story; Noah’s longing for Jason is palpable and permeates the pages, although I can’t deny that some of my raison d’être for reading so quickly was because I was eager to reach the reconciliation!  There are definitely some emotional moments here as Noah is knocked back and perseveres, but this part of the story would perhaps have worked better had it included Jason’s PoV.  He’s not all that well fleshed out even when he’s a presence on the page; we know he’s handsome, rich and successful and that his long-term partner died and he was devastated.  It’s clear that this relationship has a bearing on the one he forms with Noah, but it only gets some brief mentions and is never really addressed. And other than his professions of love for Noah, we know nothing further about his feelings.  I can’t help feeling that a different king of structure  – maybe interspersing the story of how Noah pursues Jason with flashbacks telling the story of how they got to that point – might have been a better way to maintain a consistent level of tension and interest.

So… while I would still recommend Whiteout, my final grade is a compromise.  The first half is DIK-worthy while the second is… not.  It isn’t horrible by any means, but I can’t deny it was something of an anti-climax coming after such a fantastic beginning.

Have Mercy by Christina Lee (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick J. Russo

have mercy

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Julian North

My whole world changed with one roadside bomb and an honorable discharge. Not even the city I used to love can ease the restlessness inside me. I don’t expect visiting my cousin Sienna’s farm to do the trick, either, but the change of scenery can’t hurt.

Wyoming isn’t what I expected – from the mischievous pig following me around, to the rescue horse I’ve become strangely fascinated with. And then, there’s Kerry, the handsome, brooding cowboy, who somehow calms the storm inside me – and just happens to be Sienna’s ex-husband.

Kerry Carmichael

I’ve had a rough go of it since I came out – disappointing my family, the divorce, and the blow of my daughter’s illness. Things are settling down now, my kiddo is healthy, and Sienna and I are finally on solid ground. Not everyone accepts me, but I’ve owned my truth, even if I spend my life solo. Only, now that Julian’s here, I’m not so lonesome, anymore. He’s a kindred spirit. First as someone to talk to, then as…more. The first time I hold him through one of his nightmares, I feel a rightness I never expected to find.

We know this’ll end with the summer, but with every stolen kiss against the stable walls, with every heated or tender moment, I fall deeper. The reality is, I can’t risk my family or the business by going public with him. I know this can never last and that Julian doesn’t belong here. So, why does it feel like he already does?

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B+

Christina Lee’s Have Mercy is a “quiet” book; a simple but heartfelt slow-burn romance between two men who are struggling to find their place in the world. It’s the first time I’ve listened to anything by this author, but I plan to seek out more of her work on the strength of it. Audible shows me that Iggy Toma and Kale Williams have both narrated for her, so I feel a glom coming on.

Military veteran Julian North completed two tours in Afghanistan before being injured in the roadside bomb attack that killed two of his comrades. Left with a dodgy knee and scars – both internal and external – he’s been back in New York for a year, but he’s struggling to find a new direction in life. His mother, a successful real estate agent, has been keeping him busy with a variety of jobs requested by some of her clients, but they both know he can’t just drift along like that indefinitely. Then she suggests that perhaps he might go to stay with his cousin Sienna at her dairy farm in Wyoming to help out with a construction project – a change of scenery and pace for a few weeks, plus a concrete task to work on could be just the thing he needs. Julian allows himself to be convinced, although he’s not too keen on re-encountering Sienna’s ex-husband Kerry, who hurt her badly when he came out as gay a few years into their marriage. But even though he dislikes Kerry for what he did to Sienna, Julian can’t help feeling just a little bit of admiration for the man, given how difficult it must have been to come out while living amid the very conservative ranching community.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

the queer principles of kit webb

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.

In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.

Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.

But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts overcome the impediments in their path?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian takes readers back to Georgian England with her latest novel, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.  It’s a lively tale laden with wit, sparkling dialogue and insightful social commentary; the two leads are superbly characterised and there’s a vibrant secondary cast, too.  In fact, when I was only a few chapters in, I thought I’d be awarding the book a DIK, but unfortunately, the plot gets rather convoluted in the second half in a way that didn’t seem all that well thought-out, and that knocked the final grade down a notch or two.  But it’s still an entertaining read.

After taking a bullet to the leg, highwayman Gladhand Jack ‘retired’ from the business of highway robbery and now runs a moderately successful coffee house in London.  It’s a comfortable – if unexciting – life, and a year after his retirement, Christopher – Kit – Webb is bored.  He doesn’t really want to go back to his old life of thievery and trying not to get killed, but he can’t deny that he misses the activity and excitement – or that he’s getting more restless and foul-tempered by the day.  Which is why, when something that looked like first-rate trouble – an exquisitely dressed young gentleman complete with powder, patches and an elaborately adorned wig – walks into the coffeehouse,  Kit is instantly intrigued.

Edward Percival Talbot – Percy to his friends – is the only son and heir to the Duke of Clare.  Or rather, he was, until information recently came to light revealing that his father’s marriage to his mother was bigamous.  After living for some years on the Continent, Percy returned to England after his mother’s death to discover that his obnoxious father had married his (Percy’s) childhood friend Marian (seemingly against her wishes), that he has a new baby sister – and that his father married his mother – and now Marian – while he had another wife still living. The first blackmail letter arrived a month earlier, setting out the facts and demanding money, and now Percy and Marian have two months to come up with a plan.  Neither of them wants to pay the blackmailer. Percy knows that paying up will mean spending a lifetime in fear of exposure and is inclined to make the truth known on their own terms; Marian thinks paying the blackmailer will let Clare off the hook for what he’s done and she wants revenge, to bring him as low as humanly possible.

Although Percy is facing social ruin, and his entire life has been based on a lie, he’s firstly concerned for Marian and little Eliza and wants to make sure they’re safe and well taken care of before he focuses too much on his own situation.  To this end, he plans to steal a book from his father – and then use it to force him to pay him and Marian enough money for them to be able to live comfortably. (At this stage, we don’t know what the book’s contents are).  It’s Marian who comes up with the idea of getting Gladhand Jack to do the job for them – but after his first visit to the coffeehouse, Percy isn’t so sure the former highwayman is the right man for the job.

And, as it turns out, neither is Kit, although he’s tempted.  Very tempted – and by more than just the idea of one last job.  But he knows his own limitations and that his bad leg won’t hold up sufficiently for him to be able to pull off the robbery himself.  So he offers to teach Percy how to do it instead.

The first section of the story details Percy’s attempts to persuade Kit to help him, using a mixture of financial incentive and flirtation that stops little short of outright seduction.  The chemistry between them is palpable, the dialogue is superb – witty and very sharply observed – and I enjoyed their spirited conversations and the steadily growing affection and tenderness between them.

Kit and Percy are likeable, complex characters, complete opposites who shouldn’t work as a couple – yet they do.  Kit is an adorable grouch who has no idea of the esteem in which he’s held by those around him, and Percy hides a deep vulnerability behind his ostentatious outfits and witty conversation.  He makes little attempt to hide his attraction to men, while Kit is less concerned with what’s between a partner’s legs and, as he puts it, seldom goes to bed with people because he seldom meets anyone he really wants to go to bed with.

Both men are carrying considerable emotional baggage – Kit has experienced great loss, and Percy hasn’t known much love or affection – and have come to believe that they don’t deserve to be happy or loved. But as they become closer and begin to fall in love with each other, that experience – and the mutual support they can now offer – gradually shows them the lie and they begin to understand that they’re more than the sum of their past experiences and that together, they can be better than they were before.  I was pleased with their honesty and that they behave and speak like adults, discussing their pasts in a realistic, sensible way, and that there are no overblown dramatics.

The big problem with the book though, is the plot, which gets progressively more complicated somewhere after the halfway mark.  We don’t find out what’s so important about the book Percy wants to steal until really late in the day, and the way plot point after plot point is suddenly stuffed in in the last quarter of the story not only had my head spinning but contributed to an overall feeling of ‘is that it?’ when the book ended.  I understand there’s going to be a sequel , but this novel wasn’t originally billed as part of a series (and still isn’t) and I came away from it feeling vaguely disappointed at the way so many things have been left hanging.

In the end, I liked, but didn’t love, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.  The romance is sweet, tender and sexy, and the setting of Georgian London is well-established;  I especially loved the descriptions of Percy’s sumptuous outfits.  The secondary characters – special mention goes to Betty, Kit’s employee, and Collins, Percy’s valet – are interesting and well-rounded, and the discussions as to the evils and abuses of great privilege are perceptive and, dare I say, timely.  Despite my criticisms, fans of queer historical romance will find plenty to enjoy here.

Love Him Desperate (On the Market #5) by E.M. Lindsey (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick Hudson

love him desperate

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

“Don’t be ridiculous. There was nothing to steal. I was always yours.” 

Every important thing in Dmitri Williams’ life has come and gone along the narrow roads and tall mountain peaks of Cherry Creek.

Dmitri wants love, but he’s not quite sure he’ll ever find it. His sexuality is confusing on a good day, and the one person he wants is the one friend who can never know how he feels. Raphael Meyer is older, charming, and better looking than Dmitri will ever deserve – and somehow, he thinks Dmitri is worth his time.

Dmitri knows he will never be worthy, so he puts all of his efforts into making sure Raphael finds someone who will adore him as much as he deserves. Even if it destroys his heart in the process. And no matter what his friends keep saying, Dmitri isn’t sure he’ll ever believe that Raphael returns his feelings.

It’s the makings of star-crossed lovers, because Dmitri has never believed in happily-ever-afters. But, in the end, Raphael might just have enough desperate hope for the both of them.

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – B

Love Him Desperate, book five in E.M Lindsey’s On the Market series, is a slow-burn, friends-to-lovers romance between two complex, damaged individuals who have a lot of soul-searching to do before they can finally be together. It’s beautifully written and richly characterised, with two likeable leads and a strong secondary cast, and Nick Hudson’s excellent performance certainly makes the case for experiencing the story in audio.

Raphael Meyer lives with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and while life hasn’t been easy, he’s comfortable in his body and has always lived life as himself, as a proud disabled person. He was born and raised in Germany and lived there until his thirties, when his American lover asked him to accompany him when he returned to the US. Even though Raphael sensed that their relationship wasn’t really built to last, he was restless and ready for change, so he agreed, settling in Cherry Creek after that relationship ended. Now approaching (or in? I don’t recall if his exact age is given) his forties, Raphael is mostly settled and mostly content – although he continues to search for the love and connection he longs for and hasn’t yet managed to find. He knows that being with him can be difficult, and has come to think that romantic love – lasting romantic love – isn’t for him, as everyone he’s loved – and who has loved him – has left him eventually.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

rank and file

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

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

Except – too late.

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Uptight by Felice Stevens (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams

mr uptight

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Jude:

What do you do when you wake up with a hangover and find yourself in bed with your best friend’s younger brother?

Who happens to be your new brother-in-law?

The man who drives you crazy.

The man who always skated by on fast-talk, good looks, and a bright smile.

The one who makes you want to break all the rules.

You hire him as your assistant, of course.

And pray you can keep your sanity.

And your hands off him.

Mason:

How do you prove you’ve changed?

That you’re no longer the party boy who always needed rescuing from his own mistakes – and boy you’ve made some big ones.

But no one needs to know your secrets.

You take a job with the one man who doesn’t trust you.

Who’s waiting for you to screw up.

You try and forget that one explosive night together.

Except you can’t.

And to your shock…neither can he.

What do you do when the one man you can’t imagine living with is the one you can’t live without?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

Reading the synopsis for Mr. Uptight, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s one of those “oops, the guy I had wild monkey sex will all last night is my frenemy/best friend’s little brother/new boss” rom-coms – and to an extent, you’d be right. But while the story certainly does start out with one of those typically awkward morning-afters, it doesn’t take the cutesy, kooky path and instead opens out into a deeply emotional story about two men who don’t (think they) like each other very much learning to reassess their opinions of both each other and themselves.

Jude Staubman and his best friend’s brother Mason have never really got on. For years, Mason was the annoying little brother, and then he grew into the annoying little brother who continually needed extricating from his latest fuck-up – and even bailing out of jail on one occasion! He’s an irresponsible party-boy who gets by on his good looks, quick wit and charm; in short, he’s everything the sensible, serious-minded Jude isn’t… which makes the stupid crush Jude has had on him for years even more stupid. So waking up – naked – in bed with Mason the morning after his sister’s wedding is something Jude wants to pretend never happened. Along with whatever they got up to the night before.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals