The Long Game (Game Changers #6) by Rachel Reid (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

the long game

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

To the world they are rivals, but to each other they are everything.

Ten years.

That’s how long Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been seeing each other. How long they’ve been keeping their relationship a secret. From friends, from family…from the league. If Shane wants to stay at the top of his game, what he and Ilya share has to remain secret. He loves Ilya, but what if going public ruins everything?

Ilya is sick of secrets. Shane has gotten so good at hiding his feelings, sometimes Ilya questions if they even exist. The closeness, the intimacy, even the risk that would come with being open about their relationship…Ilya wants it all.

It’s time for them to decide what’s most important—hockey or love.

It’s time to make a call.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

The Long Game, the sixth intstalment in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series of hockey romances is one of my most highly anticipated books of 2022 – and I’m delighted to say that not only did it meet all my expectations, it exceeded them. It’s the sequel to Heated Rivalry, the story that introduced us to top- flight players Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozunov who, despite their highly publicised reputation as intense rivals who hate each other’s guts, had in fact been carrying on a years-long affair in secret. By the end of that book, their relationship – which began as hook-ups when they were both in the same place at the same time – has evolved into a deep and abiding love, but they decide to continue to keep things under wraps for the foreseeable future – at least while they’re still playing hockey at the highest level. Coming out as queer is going to be difficult enough, but for two players whose professional rivalry is legendary to reveal that they’re in love with each other is going to need really careful handling when they decide to go public.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Everything for You (Bergman Brothers #5) by Chloe Liese

everything for you

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Gavin
We’ve been teammates for two years, but it feels like a lifetime that Oliver Bergman’s been on my last nerve. A demanding captain and veteran player, I’m feared and friendless, while he’s the beloved rising star, all sunshine smiles and upbeat team spirit. To make matters worse, he’s obscenely attractive. In short: he’s genetically designed to get under my skin.

Avoiding Oliver has been my survival tactic on and off the field. But when Coach drops the bomb that we’re now co-captains, avoiding him becomes impossible, and keeping the truth from him–let alone my distance–is harder than ever.

Oliver

Life was great until soccer legend Gavin Hayes joined the team and proved he’s nothing like the guy I grew up idolizing. Instead, he’s a giant–albeit gorgeous–grump who lives to rain on my parade. I’ve sworn off pranks since entering the public eye, so rather than settle our differences the Bergman way, I’ve had to settle for killing Gavin with kindness. There’s just one problem: killing him with kindness is killing me.

To make matters worse, Coach gives us an ultimatum: put an end to our enmity or say goodbye to being captains. I’m prepared to be miserable while we meet her demands and make nice, but the last thing I expect is to discover an explosive attraction we can’t help but act on, and worse yet, to realize the man hiding beneath Gavin’s gruff exterior is all I’ve ever wanted.

Rating: C

Everything for You – book five in Chloe Liese’s Bergman Brothers series – is the first entry in that series to feature a same sex couple and is also the author’s first m/m romance. As I haven’t read anything by Ms. Liese before, I decided to rectify that by picking it up for review.  It’s an antagonists-to-lovers romance set in the world of professional football – or soccer as it’s termed on The Other Side of The Pond – between a newly established star of the game and a veteran player facing the prospect of retirement, but while age-gap and grumpy/sunshine are among my favourite tropes – and I appreciated the way certain aspects of the storyline are handled, especially with respect to Gavin’s fears over his future – the book as a whole is too problematic for me to be able to offer a recommendation.

At twenty-four, Oliver Bergman is a new star on the soccer scene.   He was over the moon when he learned that his idol and teenage crush, Gavin Hayes, had signed with his team – the L.A. Galaxy – and looked forward to playing alongside him, but his hopes of friendship and  camaraderie were dashed when the guy proved to be a total dick.  Ever since they met, Gavin has been cold, dictatorial and downright unpleasant, but Ollie refuses to be cowed or daunted, meeting every scowl with a smile, every curt word with a friendly retort – just because he knows it winds Gavin up no end.

At thirty-four, Gavin is facing the end of an illustrious career, and the prospect of retirement is terrifying.  Living with chronic pain from various injuries sustained over the years, he is struggling to work out how to be – or even who he will be – without the sport that has defined and sustained him for so many years.  Although he knows he can’t continue to hide the truth of his situation from those around him – let alone that he’s still hiding it from himself – he’s in serious denial, and the last thing he needs is his hugely inconvenient attraction to Mr. Sweetness-and-Light himself, the guy who never gets flustered or riled-up, and who, in a massive knee-to-the-balls administered by fate, happens to live in the house right next door.

Neighbours they may be, but friends they most certainly are not, which is exactly how Gavin wants things to stay; the less he has to do with Oliver Bergman the better he can continue to pretend he’s fine and that Ollie is no more to him than an annoying pain in the arse.  Until a very large spanner is thrown into those works by their team coach, who has had enough of the obvious enmity between them and decides to solve the problem by making them joint captains, the implication being that either they bury the hatchet and learn to work together or one of them is canned.  It’s Ollie’s first captaincy and likely Gavin’s last; neither of them is going to risk rocking the boat.

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

The Reluctant Companion (13 Kingdoms #1) by H.L. Day

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sebastian might have the power to summon animals, but winning Jack over? Far more difficult.

As first encounters go, Jack and Sebastian’s isn’t ideal, leaving Jack nursing a grudge he’s not about to let go of in a hurry. Yet, if Jack is to find his missing sister, and Sebastian is to rescue his captured prince, they’ll need to set their differences aside and work as a team.

Jack is stubborn and somewhat volatile. Sebastian is vain and clearly in love with himself. But as the unlikely companions face all manner of dangers together, they grow closer. Rescuing the prince should be easy. Rescuing him from an impenetrable tower guarded by dragon-shifting knights? Okay, that part is harder.

But once the adventure is over, letting Sebastian go might be the hardest thing Jack has ever had to do.

Rating: B+

The first book in a new series by H.L. Day, The Reluctant Companion is a light-hearted fantasy adventure featuring an opposites-attract romance between a snarky farm boy and a handsome charmer who team up – reluctantly, as the title suggests – to undertake a quest, and fall for each other along the way. It’s a lot of fun with plenty of action and adventure, a nicely evoked faux-medieval setting and two engaging leads; it’s a great start to the series and I really enjoyed it.

Jack Straw is twenty-six and has lived pretty much his entire life in his small village on his family farm. But when we meet him, he’s sitting somewhat forlornly in a tavern miles from home wondering whether to continue the search for his missing sister, Annabelle, or if his dwindling resources mean he will have to return home without finding any news of her. His musings are interrupted when a small monkey drops onto the table and starts chittering angrily at him before jumping down and disappearing out the door. It’s only then that Jack notices his purse has also disappeared.

Dashing out into the street, Jack is in time to see the monkey making its way along the street at roof-level and follows, his eyes fixed on the animal until he bumps into a large, shirtless man whose good looks (and very tight trousers) are so utterly mesmerising that it’s a second or two before Jack notices the monkey sitting on his shoulder. Angry now, Jack demands the return of his money – only for the monkey to vanish in a shower of golden sparks. It figures. Not only is this guy gorgeous – and thoroughly aware of it – he’s been blessed with magic, too.

Sebastian – Bast to his friends – is rather delighted by the sharp-tongued and furious young man in front of him – being berated is such a refreshing change from being fawned over! He listens to Jack’s torrent of insults with good humour and then proposes a compromise. He needs the money to use as a stake in a gaming tournament the next day, and when he wins, he’ll be able to pay Jack way more money than was in the purse. Jack begrudgingly agrees, and the next day sees them heading off towards the town of Clearwater and the tournament – on what will turn out to be the first of many adventures.

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

Dipped in Sunshine (Surfing the Waves #2) by Fearne Hill

dipped in sunshine

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“You think you can do the jiggy with my baby brother, without wooing him for approximately three years first? Hah! I hope you weren’t too attached to your toenails.”

Fifty is a simple man. He doesn’t know much, but he knows this: to stay well clear of Otto Eggebraaten. The nineteen-year-old is cute, blond, and trouble. His overprotective big brother, Eggy, hounds Otto’s every move.

Outwardly, Fifty’s life is good. He surfs, teaches other folks to surf, drinks beer, and hangs with his friends. But with his thirtieth birthday on the horizon, he’s hoarding a secret he’s too ashamed to confide in anyone, even his best friend, Eggy. When Otto accidentally discovers it, Fifty finds his ordered, and lonely existence unravelling in a way he never expected.

Rating: B+

Fearne Hill’s Dipped in Sunshine is a fun, sexy/sweet age-gap romance with a lot of humour and an endearing grumpy/sunshine pairing.  It picks up right after the previous book – Brushed with Love – ended, and although it’s not essential to read that book before this, I’d recommend it because a) it’s a great read and b) it introduces the main players in this story and readers will benefit from knowing a bit about them in advance.

Ragnar Eggebraaten – Eggy – and his boyfriend Clem have relocated to the Spanish island of Fuerteventura where Eggy and his best friend Fifty have set up a surfing business.  Right at the end of Brushed With Love, Eggy meets his youngest brother, nineteen-year-old Otto, at the airport, believing him to have come for a short visit.  When Dipped in Sunshine begins Otto is quick to disabuse Eggy of that notion and tells him he’s not there for a holiday, he’s there for good and intends to fulfil his ambition of going to nursing school. Fifty and Clem look on somewhat dumbfounded as the six-foot-five, muscle-bound Eggy is pretty much put in his place by the slight, stroppy elf with the shock of blond hair – who clearly shares his brother’s stubbornness and self-confidence, if not his imposing physique.  Otto is determined that he’s going to take charge of his own life from now on and wants to fully embrace his identity as an out, gay man, something which just wasn’t possible in his small home-town – or something he could do living with the homophobic father who threw Eggy out when he was a teenager.  Owing to his health issues (he has epilepsy and also had heart surgery when he was a baby), his large – in both senses of the word  (the other Eggebraaten brothers are all six-foot plus Vikings) – and overprotective family have kept him wrapped up in cotton wool all his life and he’s had enough of that, too.  He’s aware of his limits and all the dos and don’ts relating to his condition and he wants to spread his wings and have some fun.

Fifty – so called because his real name is Christian Grey – and Eggy have been friends ever since he picked up a cold, hungry and homeless seventeen-year-old Norwegian boy at a motorway service station one night.  They’ve spent the intervening years surfing and doing seasonal work back in England, but opening the surf school in Fuerteventura has been their dream for years – and now, they’re living it. Well, mostly.  Fifty is over his very inconvenient crush on Eggy, and seeing his old friend so happy with Clem makes him long for something similar, someone to build a life with – or at least, someone to go on dates and have fun with.  But it’s just not happening for him; crippling anxiety relating to ‘performance’ issues and dating expectations have dogged him for a while now, so here he is, almost thirty, still single and likely to remain so.  He’s miserable and he’s lonely – in his own words, “Fifty Shades of fucked-up.”

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

The Long Game (Game Changers #6) by Rachel Reid

the long game

This title may be purchased from Amazon

To the world they are rivals, but to each other they are everything.

Ten years.

That’s how long Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been seeing each other. How long they’ve been keeping their relationship a secret. From friends, from family…from the league. If Shane wants to stay at the top of his game, what he and Ilya share  has;to remain secret. He loves Ilya, but what if going public ruins everything?

Ilya is sick of secrets. Shane has gotten so good at hiding his feelings, sometimes Ilya questions if they even exist. The closeness, the intimacy, even the risk that would come with being open about their relationship…Ilya wants it all.

It’s time for them to decide what’s most important—hockey or love.

It’s time to make a call.

Rating: A

Note: As this book is both a sequel and the finale to a long-running series, there will be spoilers for earlier books in this review.

Rachel Reid’s The Long Game is the final book in her Game Changers series of romances set in the world of professional hockey – and, most importantly, the long and eagerly awaited conclusion of the epic love story between Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov begun in the second book, Heated Rivalry.  If you, like me, are a fan, you’re going to need no encouragement from me to rush to buy this one as soon as it’s available, so I suppose what you really want to know is – does The Long Game deliver everything we’ve been waiting for?  I’m pleased to be able to give an unequivocal “yes” in answer; Rachel Reid has done herself, her readers and these two much loved characters proud with a story that brings Shane and Ilya’s romance to a wonderfully romantic and emotionally satisfying conclusion while not shying away from showing that their journey has been far from easy and their HEA is hard won.

Heated Rivalry charted the progression of the relationship between rival hockey stars Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov, whose on-the-ice animosity translated into an explosive sexual attraction off of it.  Over the course of seven years, their relationship slowly morphed from one based on mutual lust and convenience, hooking up whenever they happened to be in the same place at the same time, to one based on deep affection, understanding and love.  At the end of the book, Shane and Ilya have decided to keep their relationship under wraps for the moment; coming out as queer is going to be difficult enough given the homophobia surrounding professional sports, but for two players whose intense rivalry has become legendary to own up to being in a relationship with each other… well, that’s going to need some really careful handling when they decide to go public.  As a way of trying to show that their animosity isn’t quite as strong as the media paints it, they start a mental health charity in memory of – and named after – Ilya’s mother, who suffered from depression and took her own life when Ilya was just twelve, and together, they run summer hockey camps for kids as one method of fundraising.  This at least means they get to spend a bit of time together each summer away from the media spotlight, even if they can’t be open about what they are to each other quite yet.  Also, Ilya decided to move from the top-flight team he was playing for in Boston to the Ottawa Centaurs, the least successful team in the NHL, to be nearer to Shane’s base in Montreal so they’d be able to spend a little time together during the gruelling hockey season.

By the time The Long Game opens, Shane and Ilya have been together for almost ten years (if you count the ‘hook-up’ years) – and Ilya is finding the hiding and secrecy and the loneliness of long periods apart increasingly hard to manage.  He and Shane are as deeply in love and committed to each other as ever, but with Shane at the top of his game and playing for the best team in the league, Ilya is beginning to fear that perhaps they’re going to have to wait another ten years before they can truly begin making a life together.  After all, they’re only twenty-nine, and realistically could be looking at another decade before retirement.  That’s not to say that Shane likes the situation either, and it’s absolutely clear that he loves Ilya with all his heart, but he’s in a very different place, both professionally and personally, and is able to face the prospect of ten more years of sneaking around more easily than Ilya is.  Except of course, they don’t really talk about it much because during the hockey season they get so little time together that neither of them wants to ‘spoil’ those stolen moments by bringing up the huge elephant in the room.

I think it’s fair to say that Ilya Rozanov has probably become the series’ stand-out, most-beloved character, and while Heated Rivalry felt like it was (mostly) ‘Shane’s book’, The Long Game definitely feels like Ilya’s.  He’s larger-than-life, always ready with a snarky comeback and doesn’t much care what others think of him – he’s got a reputation as a bit of an arsehole, although those closest to him know he’s a truly good person underneath it all, that behind the smart mouth and sardonic attitude lies a man with a heart of gold who feels things very deeply.  He’s still the Ilya we know and love, but in this book, we get to see a much softer, more vulnerable side of him that we’ve only briefly glimpsed before, and it tugs at the heartstrings to watch him face up to the fact that he’s not doing so well, realising just how much he’s put into keeping the relationship going and wondering just how much he has left to give. Shane, too, is trying to do his best to balance the personal and the professional, but his fear of losing everything he’s worked so hard for blinds him to the toll the secrets and lies are taking on the man he loves.  In the end, both men will have to face some hard truths and make some serious adjustments if they’re going to make it in the long run.

If you’ve been following the series, then you’ll already know that the timeline of The Long Game overlaps somewhat with that of Role Model, so we get to see Ilya’s reaction to Troy’s arrival and a little of their developing friendship from Ilya’s PoV (and yes, The Plane Incident, too).  I also liked the way Ms. Reid contrasts the two teams – the Montreal Voyagers may be the best team in the league, but when it comes to management styles and interpersonal skills, they’re crap – dictatorial and overbearing –  while at Ottowa, the opposite is true; their manager is a decent guy who treats his players like human beings and fosters a sense of team spirit and camaraderie that, while it may not bring the big wins, nonetheless makes for a much more positive environment.

I don’t want to say much more and risk spoiling the book, so I’ll end by saying that the author does a wonderful job here with relationship and character development while also making sure that Shane and Ilya remain very much ‘them’ – Ilya, cocky yet endearing, Shane adorably modest and just a bit of a stickler – and in presenting the challenges they’re facing in a realistic way.  The Long Game is full of genuine poignancy and emotion – from the deepest love and affection to heartache, and everything in between – charming moments of domesticity, scorching sex scenes, and the humour, good-natured competitiveness and snarky banter we’ve all come to love.  It delivers everything I wanted for Shane and Ilya and more, and is an early contender for my Best of 2022 list.  Thanks, Rachel, for giving these boys the fantastic send-off they so richly deserve.

Thirst for You (Beyond the Cove #2) by Jaclyn Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

thirst for you

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Forty-year-old Zachariah Taylor owns a successful bar, Zach’s Bar and Grill, in the quiet town of Riverside Falls and loves the life he’s built for himself. But as his siblings move on and find their forever partners in life, he’s starting to feel less and less needed – not to mention old. Suddenly, he’s finding it even harder to ignore the younger man who has pursued him for years, but the 12 years separating them is something Zach can’t seem to overlook.

Twenty-eight-year-old Drew Belford has been in love with the stubborn Zach Taylor for seven years. Drew, however, is just as strong-minded and refuses to let Zach use their age difference as an excuse to disregard the attraction burning between them.

When Drew begins to get unsettling messages from an unknown person, Zach feels helpless in a way he’s never felt before. The thought of anyone hurting Drew unleashes years’ worth of pent-up desire Zach has had for the younger man. Is his thirst for Drew enough to protect him from the danger lurking in the shadows, or will the threat of the unknown be enough to douse the spark of love between them – and silence Drew forever?

Rating:  Narration – B+; Content – C+

Thirst for You is the second book in Jaclyn Quinn’s Beyond the Cove series, and my first book by this author; it’s an age-gap/best friend’s brother contemporary romance with a suspense sub-plot that is effectively threaded throughout the main storyline, and I didn’t feel I’d missed out on anything by not listening to the first book, so it works just fine as a standalone.

Forty-year-old Zach Taylor owns a successful bar in the quiet town of Riverside Falls where he’s built a life he loves amid family and friends. Over the past few years, however, he’s watched his siblings and his friends gradually coupling up, and can’t help thinking that maybe that part of life has passed him by. He’s had a few girlfriends and boyfriends over the years, but nothing has stuck; in fact, his previous girlfriend Lisa is now dating his best friend, Grant Belford, whose brother Drew works at the bar. Zach has known Drew for years, but now, he has to keep reminding himself not to notice that Drew has grown into a very attractive man – and that, as his best friend’s little brother, he’s firmly off limits.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Stroke of Brilliance (Arcane Hearts #2) by Nazri Noor (audiobook) – Narrated by Zachary Johnson

a stroke of brilliance

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The fragrance of chaos. The flavor of terror. The color of madness.

Jackson Pryde and Xander Wright are loving a life of hunting and harvesting rare reagents wherever the Black Market travels. But a routine trip to visit Japanese tree spirits turns up something sinister: Two crystal shards, embedded in the bodies of wild animals. They’re familiar, glimmering, violet…like splinters of amethyst.

But that’s not all. Two rival guilds are in strife, Jack and Xander caught in a crossfire of spells and slander. SEER and its hundred eyes are still watching their every move. And then there’s the matter of meeting Xander’s parents, perhaps Jackson’s deadliest challenge to date.

The Chrysanthemyst’s return is the least of their problems.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B+

Nazri Noor’s Arcane Hearts series of snarky, sexy, action-packed urban fantasy novels continues with A Stroke of Brilliance, which picks up shortly after A Touch of Fever ends. In that book, the author did a great job of setting up and introducing listeners to the fascinating and imaginative universe of the Black Market – a dimension that travels from place to place, enabling its inhabitants to go through portals into ‘our’ world – of creating a couple of complex, likeable leads and of setting up an intriguing overarching plotline for the series.

Note: There are spoilers for AToF in this review.

The series’ PoV character is Jackson Pryde, a smart-talking artificer whose parents were killed in an explosion that also destroyed the entirety of the Artificer’s Guild. Artificers are born without much magical ability but with the talent for creating devices that amplify the little magic they have, and Jackson, who still feels his loss keenly but mostly covers it up with layers of wise-assery, is now working on something he hopes will restore his fortunes as well as a more widespread respect for the craft. For years, Jackson has been at loggerheads with his former best friend, Xander Wright, a mage destined for incandescence (a state achieved only by the most powerful); but after teaming up to solve several murders, Jackson and Xander rediscovered their friendship and finally admitted and acted on the frustrated attraction which had been simmering between them for so long.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Flare (Style #1) by Jay Hogan

Flare

This title may be purchased from Amazon

My own fashion label. The shiny new sign above the door means everything. My dream. My life. Worth every gruelling hour I’ve spent making it happen. Nothing can stop me now. Not the fear. Not the nightmares. Not my sad excuse for a love life. And certainly not Beckett Northcott, the sexy English professor who wouldn’t know a fitted shirt if it slapped him in the face and who has flannel down to an art form.

I don’t date for a very good reason, and yet Beck makes me want to break every damn one of my rules. But with my debut at Fashion Week looming, my business in trouble, and Beckett Northcott peeling open my terrified heart to a future I’ve never imagined, the threads of my carefully woven life are unravelling at the seams.

I could walk away. Or I could take a chance that Beck and I might just have what it takes to fashion a new life, together. A fresh design from a new cloth.

Rating: A-

Jay Hogan marks the beginning of her new Style series with Flare, a story set in the world of high fashion  featuring talented up-and-coming designer Rhys Hellier and Beckett Northcott, an English professor who wouldn’t recognise haute couture if it asked him out for a drink and then got up and danced on the bar.  It’s an odd-couple pairing but it works brilliantly, the author’s trademark mixture of warmth, humour and heartfelt emotion combining to create an immensely satisfying romance between two people with a lot of baggage to unpack.

Rhys is thirty-four and has worked hard to make a name for himself on the New Zealand fashion scene.  After learning his craft working for a prestigious label, he’s going it alone with his own boutique – Flare – and label of the same name.  Running a business, designing, establishing himself and getting ready for the upcoming Fashion Week leaves little room in his life for anything else, but he loves what he does and is absolutely committed to making Flare a success.

One afternoon, Rhys returns from a coffee run to discover that his assistant Kip has caught a teenaged boy attempting to steal some jewellery from the shop.  The police officer called in tells Rhys the boy’s uncle – whom he lives with – is on the way, and also that she believes the lad – Jack – when he says he’s never done anything like this before.  While they wait for Jack’s uncle to arrive, Rhys suggests that, as this is a first offence, perhaps it would be better to have Jack make amends by working in the shop for a few hours a week after school than charge him with theft and put him into the system.  Rhys has just put the idea to Jack when his uncle arrives – and Rhys is rendered temporarily speechless.  Beckett Northcott is absolutely not the sort of guy Rhys usually goes for, but something about this big, broad-shouldered man with the scruffy beard, nondescript, ill-fitting clothes and the beautiful eyes  completely captivates him – and It’s been a long, long time since Rhys has felt such a strong pull of attraction to anyone.

Beck, an English professor at the local university, has recently become guardian to his sixteen-year-old nephew following his sister’s imprisonment for stealing thousands of pounds from her employer.   Jack is understandably a mess of emotions, full of anger and resentment towards his mother for caring so little about him that she’d do something so stupid, angry at himself for still loving her, and he’s acting out, the attempt at shoplifting just one way of trying to work through his feelings.  Beck sees all this and recognises it – he’s just as furious at his sister’s selfishness as Jack is – but is trying to do the best for Jack in difficult circumstances.  He agrees to the idea of Jack working at Flare after school, and can’t deny that the chance to see the store’s gorgeous owner again won’t exactly be a hardship.

Rhys and Beck are likeable, well-rounded characters who are complex, flawed and very real.  Rhys is a survivor of sexual assault (see note below), who has refused to let it hold him back; he’s tough, resilient and determined to succeed, but has never really processed what happened to him, instead locking it away and acquiring a variety of coping mechanisms that enable him to compartmentalise and control his life – but which can’t keep the bad memories at bay all the time.  One of those mechanisms has been a no-relationship rule; casual sex and one night stands are things he can control, and the one time he did try something more, it blew up in his face, his partner eventually becoming fed up with Rhys’ unpredictability and unwilling to give him the time and space he needed to feel comfortable with different ways of sexual interaction.

Rhys has vowed never to get involved with anyone again, but something about Beck tempts him to break all his self-imposed rules.  Beck’s quiet strength, his gentleness and understanding make Rhys feel safe in ways he’s never experienced before – but is letting him in worth the risk of heartache when Beck decides Rhys has too much baggage and just isn’t worth the trouble?  That Rhys and ‘normal’ aren’t words that belong in the same sentence?

In Flare, Jay Hogan has created a wonderful, sexy, slow-burn romance with chemistry so strong it leaps off the page, as, after a couple of false starts, Rhys acknowledges that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life letting his past trauma interfere with his chance to be loved, and decides to take a leap of faith and go for it with Beck.  It’s not plain sailing – and Rhys’ blow hot/blow cold attitude is somewhat frustrating – but Beck, the big marshmallow with a love of flannel and romantic poetry, is there for him all the way, ready to catch him if he falls and to provide a safe space for him to begin to face and deal with his issues.  As is always the case in books by this author, the romance is beautifully written and developed, full of humour, insight and poignancy, and it’s clear that she’s taken great care to treat Rhys’ situation with sensitivity and respect.

The vibrant supporting characters add depth and richness to the story; I suspect sassy Kip and Rhys’ long-time friend, photographer Hunter, will feature in their own stories later in the series, and I really hope we’ll see more of Jack and his friend Drew, a young trans man for whom Rhys provides the safe and non-judgmental space he doesn’t have at home.

There’s an interesting secondary plotline running through the story that begins when Rhys discovers that someone has stolen one of his most successful designs and is now producing cheap copies.  I liked the insight into the workings of the fashion industry this provides and it certainly amps up the tension and intrigue in the story – but there’s an event near the end that felt like overkill; Rhys and Beck have a lot to overcome (Beck has his demons, too) and their emotional journey provides plenty of tension and drama on its own, which made this particular event feel a little redundant.

That’s my only criticism however, and it didn’t in any way detract from my overall enjoyment.  Flare is another terrific story from the pen of this talented author; a compelling tale of love and healing featuring well-developed characters , a close-knit family of blood and of the heart, and plenty of sass, humour and feels.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series.

Note:  The prologue describes the lead up to a sexual assault, which, while not graphic, is distressing to read;  the assault is referred to throughout the novel. There are also instances of homophobic and transphobic language.

His Compass (His #2) by Con Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

his compass

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Tom has one rule: Don’t sleep with the crew. A second chance with a younger, gorgeous deckhand tempts him to break it.

After a busy season as a charter-hire skipper, Tom yearns for some downtime. His lonely heart also aches for adventure with someone special, but paying his bills has to come first. A surprise sailing contract and huge bonus offer his first glimpse of freedom for years. There’s only one catch: he must crew with Nick, a deckhand who jumped ship once already.

Nick’s as young and untested as the new yacht they’re contracted to sail, and he’s just as gorgeous. Forced to spend a month as Nick’s captain, Tom discovers depths he hadn’t noticed. He’s captivated, and happier sailing with Nick than he’s been in forever. However, their voyage is finite, and both men keep soul-deep secrets.

As the contract draws to an end, they must get honest about what’s in their hearts if they want to share a life at sea, and love, forever.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A-

Con Riley’s His trilogy continues with His Compass, a May/December, forced proximity romance between a forty-something charter-hire skipper and his younger crewmate. The characters are beautifully drawn and their romance is nuanced and emotional; I loved the book when I read it back in 2021 and was only too pleased to be able to experience it all over again in audio.

Tom Kershaw has spent most of his life at sea, and now works as a skipper on a luxury charter yacht. He appeared briefly in the previous book (His Horizon) when he made an unscheduled stop at Porthperrin in Cornwall in order to return his deckhand Jude home to deal with a family emergency. Tom thought highly of Jude and was fond of him, but sadly, Jude’s replacement was something of a disaster; lazy, messy and unreliable, Nick might have been sociable and great with the guests, but he never finished a task he was given and his claims of growing up around boats and crewing from a young age were clearly lies, as he couldn’t do any of the jobs Tom needed him to. Then one day, he just up and left without a word, leaving Tom in the lurch.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Galaxies and Oceans by N.R. Walker

galaxies and oceans

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Seizing his one chance to escape, Ethan Hosking leaves his violent ex-boyfriend, leaves his entire life, and walks into the path of a raging bushfire. Desperate to start over, a new man named Aubrey Hobbs walks out of the fire-ravaged forest, alive and alone. With no ID and no money, nothing but his grandfather’s telescope, he goes where the Southern Cross leads him.

Patrick Carney is the resident lighthouse keeper in Hadley Cove, a small town on the remote Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. After the tragic death of his lover four years ago, he lives a solitary life; just him, a tabby cat, the Indian and Southern Oceans, and a whole lot of loneliness. He’s content with his life until a stranger shows up in town and turns Patrick’s head.

Patrick never expected to be interested in anyone else. Aubrey never expected to be happy. Between Aubrey’s love of the stars and Patrick’s love of the ocean, these two fragile hearts must navigate new waters. If they can weather the storm of their pasts, they could very well have a love that eclipses everything.

Rating: B+

N.R. Walker’s Galaxies and Oceans is a gently moving May/December romance between two damaged, lonely people who have good reason to be wary of falling in love.  It’s one of those books where, honestly, not very much happens apart from a couple of emotionally bruised people finding and falling for each other, but it’s so beautifully done, the chemistry between them so compelling that I was engrossed in the story from start to finish and blew through the book in just a couple of sittings.

I chose it for this month’s prompt because it’s set at the other end of the world – to me, anyway – on Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia, and actually, it fits the prompt twice over.  Not only is the story set in a remote and unusual location, one of the leads is a lighthouse keeper, and although he doesn’t live IN the lighthouse (his house is just next door), several key scenes take place there and it plays a significant role in the story.

Twenty-seven-year-old Ethan Hosking has been in a relationship with his boyfriend Anton – Canberra’s only openly gay politican – for four years.  For the last two of those, Ethan has been subjected to violence and abuse on a regular basis, but he has no family or friends to turn to, no way to escape Anton’s controlling behaviour.  When the book begins, they’ve just arrived at the remote cabin Anton takes Ethan to each time he’s beaten him up – so nobody will see the damage – and then Anton just leaves him there while he goes back to the city.  Two days later, however, a massive bush fire laying waste to the national parks west of Canberra provides Ethan with a stark choice – stay where he is and end his misery that way… or make a run for it, make Anton believe he died in the fire and make a new life for himself somewhere far, far away.

Hadley Cove is a small town – population sixty-three – on the southwest tip of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, and Patrick Carney has been the lighthouse keeper there for the past six years.  Since the death of his lover Scott four years before, he’s lived a solitary life with just his cat and the ocean for company, occasionally venturing out to watch the penguins or the seals.  Like everyone else in Hadley, he can’t fail to register the arrival of a stranger, a young man who is staying at the run-down caravan park and looking for work.  Noticing the lonely figure clad only in jeans and a hoodie (neither warm enough to withstand the wind and the cold) staring out to sea, Patrick approaches him and strikes up a conversation – and immediately recognises the deep pain in his eyes.  They part soon after – Patrick realising he doesn’t know the other man’s name – and later that day, he heads out to the caravan park to see if he can talk the owner into giving the newcomer some work.  But it appears that’s already been taken care of;  Patrick arrives to find him already hard at work and learns his name is Aubrey Hobbs.

The romance between Patrick and Aubrey (Ethan adopted his beloved grandfather’s name when he reinvented himself) is a gorgeous slow-burn as they take baby-steps towards healing and love.  Patrick never thought or wanted to find love again – and feels guilty at the prospect – but something about Aubrey draws him in; it’s very clear the younger man has had a tough time of it, but Patrick never pushes for information Aubrey isn’t ready or willing to give.  And even though he can’t tell Patrick the whole truth – he wants to, but worries about dragging Patrick into a legal minefield – Aubrey is as honest as possible and very real when he talks about his life, his fears and his passion for astronomy.  Their connection is made quickly, but trust and deeper feelings are allowed plenty of time to develop, through shared meals (Patrick is an excellent cook!), visits to the ocean to watch the penguins come ashore or see the seal colony, picnics and stargazing (the one thing Aubrey took with him when he walked away from his old life was his grandfather’s telescope) at the top of the lighthouse.

The small secondary cast adds depth to the story and the setting is brought so vividly to life – the stormy skies, the biting wind, the fierceness and unpredictability of the ocean – that you can feel and see it all.  The writing is smooth and assured and lyrical, and I particularly liked the way Scott is present in the story, as someone who will always be important to Patrick and would want him to be happy; Patrick’s imaginary conversations with him are funny and poignant, but he never overwhelms the story and encourages Patrick to live his life.  I loved that Patrick, the lighthouse keeper, becomes the beacon who guides Aubrey to safety, and the idea of Aubrey being led to Patrick by the stars is one of the most romantic things I’ve read recently;  lost in the bush after the fire, he remembers his grandfather’s words about the Southern Cross – “the tail points south, always”.

“The Southern Cross is what brought me here.  The constellation.  I followed it, here, to this island.  To you.”

My quibbles with the story are small ones. The ending feels a bit rushed, and maybe Patrick holds on to his guilt over moving on for a tad too long, but those are the only things that didn’t quite work for me.

Heartfelt, sensual , touching and uplifting, Galaxies and Oceans is a gloriously romantic character-driven story about overcoming adversity and finding home.