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  • His Consort

  • By: Mary Calmes
  • Narrated by: Scott Smith
  • Length: 8 hrs and 36 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 188
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 182
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 181

A new life in New Orleans is all Jason Thorpe had hoped: His quaint little store attracts a devoted staff, and his warm, loving heart grants him a loyal circle of friends. He's perfectly content, having left behind the chill of a confusing and danger-filled night in Washington, until he discovers something unbelievable lurking in the steamy darkness of the shadowy streets of the Vieux Carré, something that turns out to be terrifying and utterly mesmerizing. 

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Wow!

  • By Robert Jackson on 12-23-18

Great narration, formulaic Calmes story

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-12-19

While working on a carpentry project in a remote home in Washington, Jason Thorpe suddenly finds himself witness to a grotesque and violent act against what looks to be a young boy. After rescuing him, Jason takes the events as a sign and moves to New Orleans. A year later, Jason is reminded of the strangeness of the events and people in Washington when he assists an injured man in front of his shop, and everything he thought he knew is turned on its head when he learns that vampires, or rather vampyrs, are real. Soon, Jason becomes entrenched in the vamypr politics of the Quarter, and when their prince, Varic, summons him to a meeting, Jason feels obliged to meet him. While Jason tries to understand the instant and overwhelming connection he feels for Varic, the two men must also deal with violent attacks and an unexpected threat to their lives.

Reviewing a Mary Calmes book can be very difficult, particularly her paranormals, and His Consort is no exception. For fans, Calmes’s trademark quirky and disjointed (sometimes nonsensical) dialogue, paired with an amazingly attractive, yet oblivious, MC with a huge heart, generous spirit, and a sassy/snarky female best friend (who believes yelling at people when they scare you is the best way to show love) really hit the mark. Additionally, Calmes world building is always unique and special. It is clear that Calmes enjoys taking common mythos and reinventing and adding to them in some way, but there does seem to be a formula for all of her books. A reader’s appreciation of Calmes’s particular writing style and way of storytelling and their familiarity with her work and how much in-depth world building may override any shortcomings will influence much of their overall enjoyment of the story on its own. However, Scott R. Smith’s narration brings this book to life enough that in audio form I found any shortcomings could be more easily overlooked.

I really enjoyed Calmes’s take on vampires. Their politics, social structure, and existence are interesting and not quite filled with the layers upon layers of draconian laws and rules as some of her other paranormals. How Jason fits into the world is intriguing too, and it all connects well to the motivations behind the expectedly over-the-top confrontation in the last act. That being said, the rest of the story is just a bit boring. The problem with having such a tried and true formula is that the creativity Calmes shows in her world building doesn’t always extend much to her characters. For example, Jason’s best friend is the usual gorgeous, interfering, and loud female who is there mainly for innuendo and yelling. Additionally, while I enjoyed Jason having a military background, for all the emphasis on Jason’s logical mind, abilities, training, etc, this is undercut by the fact that after he meets Varic, he becomes an emotional, irritating basket case that makes assumptions left, right, and sideways and can’t seem to catch a clue.

Usually, the formulaic nature of the characters and their interactions are offset by something charming or quirky in the story or having secondary characters that are fun and unique in some way. Unfortunately, for me, no one in the story was able to pull this off, so I was left in the odd position of finding the world and its politics much more engaging than the two MCs. To be fair, Varic and Jason are likeable, and there is enough backstory about Varic and his family given in the many info dumps that the reader is able to get a good sense of who he is other than, of course, beautiful, demanding, and arrogant. I just couldn’t find anything uniquely compelling about the two or their relationship for it to stand out.

To be honest, reading this would have been a bit of a trial for me if it weren’t for Scott R. Smith’s narration. As many of Calmes’ paranormals novels have both MCs knowledgeable about the world, this is the first time I’ve had to deal with characters having two very different conversations, and without Smith’s attention to detail and his believable, spot-on portrayal of Jason’s emotional state, I would have had a harder time. Additionally, Smith is able to imbue all of Jason’s wonder and curiosity into his performance so that the info dumps, impatient attitudes of the information givers, and sometimes tedious back and forth of the dialogue are more bearable. Smith does an excellent job with the material—he is engaging, his pacing is well done and matches the action of the narrative, and he gives the many characters distinctive voices. Listening to Varic give history lessons in his calm tone, which is colored by his obvious joy and affection for Jason and his curiosity, makes it all worth it.

Calmes always delivers on compelling, distinctive world building, and His Consort and its take on vampires is no exception. As for the romance, it’s Calmes’ standard paranormal instalove fare; however, Smith’s handling of the material is wonderful and makes the great parts of the book shine while smoothing the more ragged edges.

  • Love Me Tomorrow

  • By: Ethan Day
  • Narrated by: Jason Frazier
  • Length: 8 hrs and 5 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 19
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 19
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 18

Time for love or even the occasional one-night stand is one aspect of life Levi hasn't been able to master. Sparks of interest fly during a chance meeting with a paramedic called to the aid of his mother, and Levi finds himself on a movie date with the handsome paramedic, Jake. Worlds collide when Levi realizes his new love interest is actually Jake Freeman, estranged brother to his brand new client. Discovering the man of his dreams already has a boyfriend leaves Levi stunned, realizing any hopes he had for something more with Jake were never going to be more than wishful thinking.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Love Me Tomorrow

  • By <Stacy> @SoCalBookReviews on 06-21-18

An emotionally complicated and messy romance

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-28-19

Levi is an event planner who loves bringing happiness and joy to others, in his small way, and is great at what he does; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for his personal life. Not into casual sex, Levi wonders if he’ll ever find a lasting love when he is blindsided by his insane response to Jake, the paramedic who responded when Levi’s mother had a fall. After a movie date, Levi is convinced that Jake is the one he’s been waiting for, but is hurt and distressed when he finds out Jake is practically married. Although Levi initially turns down Jake’s overture of friendship, the two end up spending time together as Levi plans Jake’s sister’s anniversary party. As the two become close, their bond, camaraderie and acceptance of one another highlights what Levi has always wanted in a partner and what Jake hadn’t realized he was missing in his relationship.

"Love Me Tomorrow" is an interesting story about the complexity of love and human nature, and makes the reader ask, “What would you do if you felt an instant connection to ‘the one’, but discover they’re taken? What do you consider cheating? Is emotional cheating as bad as physical cheating? Is it cheating to fall in love with someone when you’ve convinced yourself you just want to be friends?” The answers to those questions and how you feel about emotionally complicated and messy romance stories will affect your enjoyment of this story.

What I liked most about this story is how messy the relationships are, and not just that Jake has a partner but for all the characters. For example, Levi’s mother lived a very free-styling life and encourages her son to basically be a homewrecker, because true love trumps all. Not your typical romance fair, neither is the fact that Levi is physically attracted to other people. The MCs aren’t put into a bubble in which they only have eyes and physical responses to one another. Moreover, Jake’s partner, Victor, isn’t made out to be some ogre who doesn’t appreciate how wonderful Jake is, nor is Jake an overly loyal martyr who stands by his jerk boyfriend no matter what. Victor and Jake just grew apart and want other things. They met when they were younger, different people and no longer fit, even though they still care about each other; it’s not overly dramatic, but it’s real and honest.

For better or worse, Jake is also very real in his handling of the situation. He goes on a date with Levi, knowing Levi is into him, and although he apologizes, he still presses to be Levi’s friend. Jake may not know the white picket fences and HEAs Levi was spinning in his mind from the moment they met, but he knows Levi is attracted to him and that he is attracted to Levi. Jake’s a good guy but is very human in his selfish desire to want Levi in his life without having to make any tough choices. Although the story sounds like it would be all high angst and drama, it is balanced out by the different personalities and relationships the MCs have with the secondary characters; there is plenty of snark, banter and an overly vulgar BF all portrayed wonderfully by Jason Frazier.

A large part of my enjoyment for the story came from Frazier’s voice work. Jake could have easily come across as “the nice guy in sheep’s clothing”—where the author wants to portray him as a good guy, but his behavior at times contradicts the accolades he gets from the characters. However, Frazier brings Jake’s indecision, denial and confusion to life, making his actions much more understandable. Additionally, there is a decent cast of male and female characters, and Frazier does an excellent job making them all distinct and unique. His pacing is very good and keeps some of the longer segments of historical/building expositional detail from feeling too boring, helps the more uneven parts of the story flow better, and makes the inevitable conclusion to the long, slow burn of their unintentional courtship seem less predictable and cheesy. I enjoyed "Love Me Tomorrow" for combining the fairy tale fantasy romance of recognizing “the one” at first sight with the reality of how complicated emotions and relationship can be. And though this is my first book narrated by Jason Frazier, it definitely won’t be my last.


Reviewed for The Novel Approach Reviews

  • The Bride's Brother

  • By: J.P. Oliver
  • Narrated by: Randi Johnson
  • Length: 5 hrs and 26 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 37
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 37
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 37

Is it wrong to be attracted to the groom in a wedding? Or, I thought he was the groom! No, this guy is open and single and...into me? Is he into me? He'd be the first for quite some time. I have to admit, seeing all these weddings come and go can be a bit much when you go home all by yourself. But is it ethical to date a client's brother?

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Fun and sexy read

  • By Drifter on 02-16-19

Ok story helped by good narration

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-19-19

Narration: 3.5 Stars

Upon meeting his new client, Julia, Toby is unexpectedly and unwillingly attracted to the stunning and charming Hunter, the man he believes to be her fiancée. As the weeks pass, Toby becomes increasing irate at Hunter’s flirtation and and ashamed by his own attraction until it comes to a head and he discovers Hunter is the bride’s brother. Although feeling better for not lusting after his client’s groom, Toby is still worried about the conflict of interest posed by dating his client’s brother, but, as the two men work to keep Julia’s bridezilla ways and atrociously bratty behavior in check, they cannot help but gravitate to one another. Unfortunately, being too afraid to come out to his parents is the least of Hunter’s issues, as he is incapable of standing up for himself or saying “no” to his baby sister, and as her behavior and her treatment of Toby and Hunter worsens, his unwillingness to rock the boat brings Toby’s fear that Hunter will never be there for him as a partner or have his back into reality.

For the most part, The Bride’s Brother is a cute, but ultimately interchangeable mistaken identity/bridezilla wedding story with a premise that stretches the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Toby is an up-and coming wedding planner, who although competent enough to have planned the highly stressful and detailed wedding of a celebrity, somehow manages to mistake his client’s brother for the groom for weeks. This snafu is explained seven chapters in with the dubious explanation of not reviewing the email inquiry form before the initial meeting and forgetting the groom’s name because apparently there are no contracts or paperwork filled out in the WEEKS of working with the bride—a contrivance that may not have irritated me so much if it hadn’t been drawn out and rehashed for so long. I almost DNFd it was that annoying; frankly had I been reading it instead of listening, I probably would have.

Fortunately, the misunderstanding (*cough* incompetence) ended as I reached my breaking point so the actual story could progress. After that, it was predictable, but still mostly enjoyable. After the requisite “you must think I’m an idiot” convo, Toby and Hunter go out for dinner and hook up afterwards. They agree to keep their “relationship” a secret because a) Hunter is only out to Julia and b) Julia is such a selfish brat that she would get jealous and feel like Toby’s sole focus wasn’t on her wedding if she knew he and Hunter were dating and keeping Julia happy and her demands reasonable is the driving force for the plot and conflict between Toby and Hunter.

As MCs go, Toby is a likeable character; he is confident, friendly, understanding and charming. Outwardly, Hunter is confident and charming as well, inwardly he is incapable of standing up for himself and always chooses the path of least resistance when it comes to big and small life choices. He seems to be mostly enamored by Toby’s easy confidence and later the fact that Toby sticks up for him when no one in his life ever had before. While it makes sense that Hunter would appreciate this about Toby, instead of maybe thinking he should learn to stick up for himself, Hunter decides he needs a guy by his side who will fight his battles for him. . . all while in the closet of course. Eventually, Hunter’s spinelessness and inability to call out his sister’s obnoxious, ugly and entitled behavior causes him to stand by and say nothing when Julia takes out her unhappiness on Toby, who has his worst fears confirmed.

Although, there is dialogue about Toby’s inability to really commit and not giving their relationship a chance from the start, in the face of Hunter’s “I don’t know if I can ever come out-let’s keep this casual, while I tell you I love you but can’t support you” behavior, I can’t say I blame him and seems tacked on to make their ultimate blow out seem more even—highlighting the sometimes clunky nature of the writing. There are several instances where dialogue feels tacked on as if something related to it initially had been cut out or that some of the sequences were out of order because the dialogue didn’t match their behaviors. For example, after they had already had sexual interludes twice, Toby is suddenly worried about being too inexperienced or not what Hunter wants, and don’t get me started on the, “I can be professional” after almost getting caught having sex in his office with Julia stepping out for a few minutes or the “there won’t be any conflict of interest/letting our relationship distract me from my job” right after said conflict/distraction occurs.

As I mentioned before, it was the narration that kept me from quitting the book. Randi Johnson’s enthusiasm and jovial delivery was infectious. He has a solid narrative voice, great pacing and seemed to really engage with the material. My main problem is that he isn’t consistent with keeping Toby and Hunter’s voices distinct, and hasn’t quite mastered the ability to differentiate inner thoughts from dialogue. Additionally, he’s good at delivering upbeat emotions, sarcasm and anger, but has a bit more trouble with the passion/sexy time inflections. However, he is a strong narrator with a good voice and despite some hiccups, I would not have finished the story without him. While, I know it sounds like I hated the book, I didn’t. The story has plenty of promising gems in the writing that make me want to try more of J.P. Oliver’s work, and I’ll definitely look forward to Randi’s progression as a narrator. The Bride’s Brother is a decent story that could have been pretty good with stronger editing/attention to story structure and without the heavy reliance on an initial misunderstanding that strains credulity.

I voluntarily reviewed an audiobook copy of this book.

  • P.S. I Spook You

  • By: S.E. Harmon
  • Narrated by: Noah Michael Levine
  • Length: 8 hrs and 35 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 105
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 102
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 102

SSA Rain Christiansen used to be the agency's golden boy. It just takes one moment of weakness, one tiny paranormal sighting, and all of a sudden, he's the agency's embarrassment. His boss gives him one last chance to redeem himself - go down to Brickell Bay, play nice with the local police, and leave the ghost sightings behind. Rain is determined to do exactly that, even if it kills him. Cold-case Detective Daniel McKenna's latest investigation is going nowhere fast. Daniel is glad to finally have the FBI help his department requested, even if it does come in the form of his ex. 

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Loved, loved, loved! Please just give me more!

  • By Annika on 11-13-18

Good fun, just ignore the inconsistencies

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-14-19

3.75

As a special agent in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in D.C., Rain Christiansen has made a life for himself as different from his hippie upbringing and his family’s belief in auras and life energy as he can with his sterile, ordered life working for “the man.” So when he begins seeing ghosts, it’s the height of irony and definitely does not fit his plans, nor the cold, hard logic he lives by. Unfortunately, there was one ghost he couldn’t ignore and his failed attempt to give her parents closure almost costs him his job and lands him loaned out to help with cold cases. When Rain chooses the case of a missing girl named Amy, he’s forced to work with his ex, Daniel “Danny” McKenna. Between the ghost of their four-year relationship, the ghost of Ethan (a pierced, sullen teen who acts as Rain’s spirit guide), and the ghost of old feelings, resentments, and buried truth surrounding Amy’s disappearance, Rain has his hands full coming to terms with who he is, what he wants, and where his future lies.

"P.S. I Spook You" is an amusing, second-chance romance with complex MCs, characters, and motivations. As the book centers on Rain’s journey and emotional growth, it is told from his POV so the reader gets an unfiltered view of his character from beginning to end. Rain is closed-off, impatient, sarcastic, a bit judgmental and selfish, and at times hard to like. However, since he’s been convinced for the past few years that he’s going crazy and trying to medicate himself out of seeing ghosts, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him even as readers may roll their eyes at his contradictory behavior—from lamenting not taking his pills so he wouldn’t see ghosts, then consciously doing the same thing the next day, to within minutes of meeting Danny telling him that he wants to keep things professional and giving the impression he’s moved on, yet feeling hurt and slighted when Danny does the same.

Although the reader doesn’t get Danny’s POV, the story fleshes out his character via Rain’s growing awareness of his own shortcomings and conversations between Rain and Danny that glaringly illustrate the complexity of people and relationships, particularly how they can be together for years, even love one another, and still not be a couple. Though Rain and Danny were together for four years, neither man exhibited much trust in the other and shared very little of their personal selves. Rain sums up their relationship best when he says:

“Both of us so determined to go at life alone that neither of us could unbend enough to let the other in. Both so determined our relationship would fail that we were afraid to let it begin.”

Though the mystery is interesting, at its core, "P.S. I Spook You" is focused on the romantic aspect of the story, sometimes to the detriment of the case; there are enough inconsistencies with the timeline and aspects of the investigation that I was pulled out of the story. The paranormal aspect gets more attention and is pretty cool, with the differences between ghosts and how they present themselves an engaging puzzle. However, as this seems to be a standalone, this variability, lack of explanation, and inconsistencies with how long and if/how Rain sees ghosts and is affected by them turns the paranormal element into little more than a vehicle to get Rain to open up and learn about himself that changes to fit the emotion or character development the author wants to convey.

Overall, Noah Michael Levine does a good job with the narration. Although he is a new-to-me narrator, it is clear he is an experienced voice actor, as his character voices and performances are mostly very good. . . with the exception of Rain. As the book is told from Rain’s POV, his is the narration voice as well, and for me, they weren’t always a good fit. There is nothing wrong with Levine’s voice, but for me, it just didn’t always fit well with Rain’s character, especially at the beginning. Rain is sarcastic and uses jokes as shield and sometimes Levine’s delivery was a bit stiff and detracted from the impact of the words, although to be fair, this is less the case as the book goes on. However, there are times when it is hard to tell when Levine is narrating text, conveying Rain’s inner thoughts, or speaking dialogue.

The disconnect between how well Levine can perform the other voices and make them sound natural, but loses the distinctness between Rain’s voice and text, was distracting (and made some of the sex scenes kinda funny). Additionally, at times, I felt his pacing was a bit slow and too deliberate, but since I review audio books at their initial speed and am a picky listener, it’s probably not as noticeable at higher speeds. All in all, if you’re looking for an enjoyable audio book with good narration, complex but relatively low angst relationship development, a bit of suspense, and hot sex with a flawed, impatient medium who is rude to ghosts and knowingly makes bad choices then "P.S. I Spook You" will provide a fun listen.

A Joyfully Jay review

  • Be Fairy Game

  • A Starfig Investigations Novel, Book 2
  • By: Meghan Maslow
  • Narrated by: Greg Boudreaux
  • Length: 10 hrs and 12 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars 110
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars 107
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars 107

When a simple "find and fetch" case throws Private Investigator Twig Starfig and newly minted wizard Quinn Broomsparkle into the middle of an EBI murder investigation, it’s just another day in the Elder Realm. If murder were Twig’s only problem, he’d be the luckiest half-dragon in the land. Murder he can handle. Fulfilling his promise to his scheming, power-hungry father to run for a seat on Lighthelm’s city council? Meh, he’d rather face a demon with a toothache.   

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Amazing

  • By Victoria on 12-14-18

The boys are back!

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-23-18

"Be Fairy Game" is an aptly named and excellent second journey into the whirlwind of trouble, shenanigans and complications that seem to follow Twig Starfig and Quinn Broomsparkle. The story takes place three months after the events of "By Fairy Means or Foul", as Twig and Quinn are hired to search for a fabled artifact of enormous power. Of course, retrieving the artifact turns into one dangerous complication after another, and soon Twig and Quinn are in the midst of a murder investigation, threats on their lives, and, even more troublesome, having to deal with the political machinations of Twig’s father.

One of the elements I enjoyed most about the story was Twig and Quinn’s continuing struggle with the power dynamics of their relationship and their pasts. As a former indentured servant, Quinn is still coming to terms with the emotional fallout from his years in slavery, while also trying to balance his joy of not only finally being in control of himself but being in control of so much power—power from his magic and power from his control over a dragon. While he loves Twig, and is very cognizant of not abusing his influence, he does exercise control over Twig’s actions via his dragon on more than one occasion, while also balking at mating with Twig because he worries that he will have to cede authority to Twig. Quinn doesn’t glory in his command over Twig, per se, but he does like the security and control that his position of power provides after the degradation and humiliation of slavery, and does not want to relinquish it.

Twig’s struggle with their dynamic is just as complicated because although they are working together, the actual meaning and practice of teamwork are still lost on Twig, and trusting Quinn as a capable partner, able to take care of himself and protect Twig, is just as hard to reconcile with as the fact that Quinn has control over his dragon. Given that Twig was a loner whose main goal in life before Quinn was never to be beholden to or under anyone’s rule, it is definitely a bit of a mind-f*ck to literally be under Quinn’s control. As much as he loves Quinn and no matter how content his dragon is with Quinn’s dominance over them, Twig has a hard time not being resentful of Quinn’s ability to command him, especially when Quinn exercises that power without his consent, even if it is for his own good. Moreover, while Twig’s dragon is completely content to let Quinn have his way, he is contrarily growing increasingly protective towards Quinn and their friend, the red fury demon, Bill. Especially now that Bill is dating a dark-elf that Twig and his dragon want to rip to pieces. So, although Quinn can protect himself and has dominion over the dragon, Twig’s dragon is increasingly pushing Twig to protect Quinn at all costs, making Quinn feel less like an equal in their partnership and more like an incapable damsel.

Besides Quinn and Twig dealing with their complicated relationship and their tumultuous family histories, the story also does an excellent job incorporating Bill into the Starfig Investigations family. Their family dynamic is fun and heartwarming, and the manner in which Meghan Maslow showcases this while also expanding their family is both hilarious and adorable. The artifact case, the murder investigation, and Twig’s run for city council are all interwoven seamlessly to not only help develop all the MCs characters’, but add additional depth to the Elder Realm itself and its inhabitants and expand the world even more. Everything about "Be Fairy Game" elevated the worldbuilding, characters and relationships introduced in the first book, and in the midst of all the magic, sarcasm, running jokes and politics, it manages to give the reader an engaging fantasy quest, a heartwarming tale of found family, coming to terms with the complicated bonds between parents and their children, and, in general, just a wonderful time. I’m already looking forward to the next installment.

  • Before You Break

  • By: Parker Williams, K.C. Wells
  • Narrated by: Joel Leslie
  • Length: 13 hrs and 21 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 100
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars 93
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 93

Six years ago, Ellis walked into his first briefing as the newest member of London's specialist firearms unit. He was partnered with Wayne, and they became fast friends. When Wayne begins to notice changes - Ellis’s erratic temper, the effects of sleep deprivation - he knows he has to act before Ellis reaches his breaking point. He invites Ellis to the opening of the new BDSM club, Secrets, where Wayne has a membership. His purpose? He wants Ellis to glimpse the lifestyle before Wayne approaches him with a proposition.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Absolutely Beautiful Story

  • By Trio on 03-06-18

Excellent

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-04-18

4.5 stars
Narration: 5 stars

"Before You Break" caught my eye with its premise of Wayne, a dominant gay man deciding that the best way to help his best friend, Ellis, from his downward spiral is to “take him in hand” by contracting with Ellis in a BDSM relationship as his submissive, even though Ellis is not familiar with the lifestyle. Ellis willingly lets Wayne guide, protect and basically submits to Wayne’s judgement during their partnership in the Special Ops unit of the police force and as friends; thus, when after a year of increasingly erratic, temperamental and team-endangering behavior threatens Ellis’s career, Wayne decides that if Ellis refuses to take care of himself, then he should step in and help him before it’s too late.

Given that Ellis is completely unfamiliar with BDSM and sees submission as not being treated as a “real man”, Wayne’s offer is definitely not eagerly accepted, but as his world begins imploding and he learns more about what Wayne wants to do to help, Ellis very reluctantly agrees. Beyond Ellis’s initial views on BDSM, accepting Wayne as his Dom and letting Wayne help him is almost derailed at every attempt because the root of Ellis problems and deteriorating state lies in his abysmal family relationship that he tries to hide from Wayne. As Wayne’s control gives Ellis the space to breathe and reflect, he slowly comes to understand more about who he is, what his childhood cost him and what he wants, but as the dangers of their jobs impact their relationship, Ellis has to decide if he can place his full trust and heart in Wayne’s hands.

Ellis is a man who has been conditioned to believe he has to be the sole rock and provider; he cannot say no because he has a compulsive need to prove that he can be counted on to take care of others and shoulder their burdens. However, this comes at the cost of his mental state as constant late-night demands to babysit from his sister, always taking his coworkers’ extra shifts, and his demanding father and their tumultuous relationship have left him adrift and a rapidly depleting shell that is dangerously short-tempered and unfocused and one mistake away from jeopardizing his career or his life.

As a Dom, Wayne’s natural inclination to observe, support and lead has made him the guiding hand of their unit, and it makes him acutely aware of all the changes Ellis’s personality, behavior and temperament have undergone and how close he is to completely losing his best friend. Having also noticed how often Ellis has looked to him for guidance and how easily his presence calms him, Wayne decides the best way to help save Ellis and get him back on track is to bring that guidance and protection to all aspects of his life.

I was very curious as to how the premise would play out in the story, and was glad to see that the authors did not make the process from introducing Ellis to BDSM to getting him to the contracting stage with Wayne simple and straightforward. I liked how the authors incorporated Jarod and Eli from their Collars and Cuffs series to provide a safe space for Ellis to work out his confusion and questions; although, their incorporation is front-loaded and seems a little long and distracting, because the glimpses of Wayne and Ellis’s situation are intriguing and make the reader want to get to their story.

I also enjoyed the fact that the book was not filled with scenes that presented BDSM as a form of therapy or a way to avoid dealing with your inner demons. The BDSM relationship between Wayne and Ellis is all about taking care of Ellis, and is only possible through the bonds of trust and friendship they have cemented over the years, and his awareness to the fact that he has been relying on Wayne as a source of strength, protection and support throughout their friendship. The way their initial contract plays out, particularly with its focus on breaking down all the mental barriers Ellis has erected to survive in order to heal is done very well, as it makes this the primary focus of their contract and realistically and slowly builds the potential for a romantic relationship between the MCs later on.

There are a lot of emotional moments and angst that Joel Leslie’s narration really bring home. Ellis’s self-loathing and desperation, Wayne’s compassionate, unyielding support, as well as his moments of doubt and pain are all delivered with Leslie’s trademark skill and ability with accents. He does a great job covering the range of voices and, as a good audio performance should do, adds a bonus to quality source material. "Before You Break" is a great story and great listen.

Reviewed for The Novel Approach Reviews

  • The Haunting of Timber Manor

  • Memoirs of the Human Wraiths
  • By: F E Feeley Jr
  • Narrated by: Tony Stone
  • Length: 7 hrs and 27 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 20
  • Performance
    3.5 out of 5 stars 20
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 20

While recovering from the recent loss of his parents, Daniel Donnelly's estranged aunt turns over control of the family fortune and estate, Timber Manor. Daniel's need for family compels him to visit. Timber Manor has grown silent over the years. When Daniel arrives to begin repairs, strange things happen. Nightmares haunt his dreams. Memories not his own disturb his waking hours. Alive with the tragedies of the past, Timber Manor threatens to tear Daniel apart. Sheriff Hale Davis grew up working on the manor grounds and vows to protect the young man who captured his heart.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Delightful and Wonderful

  • By Jason Moses on 12-21-18

Good Story, Audio Needs Work

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-04-18

"The Haunting of Timber Manor" is an enjoyable paranormal story and romance. As Daniel is trying to wade through his grief and shock at the sudden death of his parents in a boating accident, he sees an offer from his estranged aunt to come visit the family estate, Timber Manor, as a lifeline. Not only is it a way to connect with the only family he has left, it’s an opportunity to learn more about who his father was. However, instead of a calm respite, Daniel is soon confronted with tales of “freaky things”, terrible nightmares and pieces of a dark puzzle of madness, despair and evil.

Upon arriving, Daniel quickly connects to his Aunt Carol and the handsome sheriff, Hale. As the weeks go by and Hale and Daniel spend as much time together as possible, they fall into an easy friendship with the promise of more from their mutual attraction. As the events in the house morph from bad dreams to footsteps in the dark and definitive paranormal activity, Hale and Daniel’s relationship grows into love—a love that becomes integral to Daniel’s ability to survive the darkness growing within the house.

There were many things to like about the story. . . and a few things to dislike. Story-wise, there were some inconsistencies in the memories/history of events or character portrayals that made the story a bit jagged in places. Moreover, the fact that even when the paranormal activity becomes visible and prevalent, Daniel and Hale make no mention to Carol, who is a believer, until a big emotional scene. It felt a bit contrived for the sake of the plot, but as a ghost/horror-type story, the reader is prepared to give it a pass for it.

However, I really liked the family history and background. I found the idea of the family being cursed not only by the inherent evil of a person but by their own bad choices, well done and engaging. Feeley does an excellent job creating a picture and ambience of the house and making it almost a sentient character in its own right. Moreover, he does a great job giving emotional weight to all the secondary characters and creating an increasingly tense and dread-filled atmosphere. Daniel and Hale were also very sweet as a couple, and I enjoyed how seriously Hale took forging an emotional connection to Daniel. Most of my issues came from the audio aspects of the book.

With audio, sometimes a narrator’s acting choices and delivery play a large role in enjoyment of the story. For the most part, Tony Stone does a good job. There are times when it is clear he hasn’t learned how to differentiate inner-monologue from dialogue, making it easy for a reader to get lost, and at the beginning, his voice for aunt Carol was more “Lady Macbeth playing for the rafters” rather than the genteel aristocrat he was going for, but he eventually managed.

Additionally, just like with a written book, with audio there will be a few errors to ignore, but there comes a point when the errors are so numerous or large that all you can think is, “This needed a good editor,” and unfortunately, this audiobook was in dire need of one. You had minor errors that occurred with a high enough frequency to have a cumulative effect—from mispronunciations and incorrect character voices to repeated takes and inconsistent sound levels. Then you had large errors such as the fact that chapters 41 and 43 are repeated late in the story, when the action is beginning to come to a head, as chapters 52 and 54, wrecking the flow of the action along with being confusing.

However, the reason I can say the audio of this book is not a total loss is that Stone’s voice work for Daniel and Hale is really good and the time and effort Stone took to fully maximize the eeriness inherent in Feeley’s words was exceptional. Scenes and dialogue that are creepy on their own are chillingly well acted and incorporated with sound effects for a realistic, immersive feel. So, depending on what you want from a story or how you like to consume books, this audio version may or may not work for you.

Reviewed for The Novel Approach Reviews

  • On Davis Row

  • By: N.R. Walker
  • Narrated by: Joel Leslie
  • Length: 11 hrs and 29 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 132
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 122
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 122

Nearing the end of a suspended jail sentence should unlock a brighter future for CJ Davis, only the chip on his shoulder is as hard to shift as his bad reputation. Born into a family of career criminals who live down Davis Road, an address the cops have dubbed Davis Row, his name alone is like a rap sheet that makes optimism impossible. Brand-new parole officer Noah Huxley is determined to see the good in men like CJ. After all, he knows firsthand that bad things can happen to good people.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • 4.5 Stars

  • By Belen on 08-26-18

wonderful story of optimism, courage and love

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-18-18

4.5

This is a wonderful story of optimism, courage and love, while also serving as an illustration of the unfortunate way in which people create "clear pictures" of a person based solely on inner perceptions clouded by stereotypes or their bad choices, and how people assume to know who someone is, only to be grossly and sometimes tragically inaccurate.

"How easy it [is] to . . . assume we [know] the outlines of [a person's] characters, the colors within, the brushstrokes that defined them."

CJ Davis has always been hemmed in by his circumstances—his family, his last name and where he lives. To the surrounding community, he is just another criminal "Davis" and will never be anything more. Because of the family CJ was born into, he was automatically written off by many of the people and institutions that should have protected him, including the school system, child protective services and the police. After a stupid mistake, CJ is simply trying to navigate the course of his life and its associated challenges the best way he knows how.

No matter that he lives a quiet life and does his best to be invisible, outside of his great-uncle, Pops, who raised him, and his boss, no one bothers to try to get to know him, even the people tasked with helping him, until Noah. With Noah’s encouragement and belief, CJ is finally able to feel that he deserves the life he always wanted—as just a simple, honest, hardworking man who gets to be seen as an individual, beyond the stigma and connotation of his last name. However, trying to make a better life for himself and Pops is made exponentially harder by the presence of CJ’s violent, belligerent and alcoholic father, Dwayne, and as CJ’s belief in himself grows, his unwillingness to be his father’s punching bag increases, culminating in a showdown that has the potential to threaten all CJ’s hard work.

As a newly minted parole officer (PO), Noah has personal experience with the concept that one bad choice can ruin a good person’s life and that people are often more than just their bad choices; thus, he is determined to see his parolees as individuals with families and histories beyond their case files. He doesn’t want to write them off or become jaded, and sees his job as an avenue to help people get the opportunities they need to make better choices. Upon meeting his first parolee, CJ, Noah learns that wanting to help and being able to will require much more dedication and stubbornness than he realized.

In the course of getting to know CJ in order to help him, Noah is enchanted by the inner strength, goodness and innocence that CJ protects with the chip on his shoulder and bad-boy rep, and while falling for CJ is easy, witnessing the challenges and unfairness in CJ’s daily existence is anything but. For CJ, having someone who encourages him, pushes him to do more and believes in him is a new and heady experience. At first cautious and wary of his motives, CJ soon begins to trust in Noah’s intentions and finds it hard to deny his attraction to the irrepressible do-gooder.

As the chemistry grows between them and their time as PO and parolee winds down, CJ and Noah count the days until they can have a more personal relationship, but all the hard work CJ is doing and the promise of a relationship is overshadowed by CJ’s fear of his father—the fear that Dwayne will find out he’s trying to improve his situation and the debilitating fear he will find out that CJ is gay. CJ and Pops keep banking on Dwayne returning to prison soon, but instead of going out drinking and brawling like he used to, he stays home drinking and menacing his family. As tensions in the home escalate and his father’s anger grows, CJ and Pops are put into a precarious situation with no good options; turning Dwayne in for assault guarantees an even worse home situation when he gets out again, but CJ’s growing confidence and happiness stokes his father’s already irascible temper. Moreover, Noah can only watch helplessly from the sidelines as CJ’s home life deteriorates at the same time his future is growing brighter.

I love a book with not just well fleshed out characters, but a fleshed-out sense of their environment and life. Instead of just dropping the MCs into their circumstances and lightly filling in pieces to get to the "good stuff", Walker takes her time, letting the reader explore Noah and CJ's lives, while they do so as well. Giving the characters more room to breathe helps build and develop their personalities and offers a better understanding of what drives the MCs and the inevitable ways in which the they will affect one another. While I may not have agreed with some of Noah and CJ's more consequential choices, and for all his Pollyanna ways, Noah is not immune to reducing CJ to his past mistakes instead of trusting in who CJ is, being given the opportunity to truly get to know the MCs kept me from detaching from the story, as sometimes happens when their actions seem done for drama or don’t have enough backstory to make sense.

Because CJ has been heartrendingly bereft of any human contact or comfort as simple as holding hands and the constraints of their professional relationship, his and Noah’s courtship is a lovely slow burn. Although the course of the book takes place only over four weeks, it feels much longer because of the sense of intimacy the narrative slowly builds, a sense of intimacy presented well by Joel Leslie’s narration. Hearing the hesitancy and awe conveyed by Leslie when CJ and Noah hold hands or hug and how those simple acts move them in different ways, is so heartwarming and beautiful. Moreover, with CJ being so unfamiliar with talking about his emotions, Leslie does a good job infusing CJ’s initial hesitancy and then his growing trust and wonder into the character’s voice and inner monologues. "On Davis Row" does an excellent job highlighting a common but little acknowledged fact that people who commit crimes are still people and should be judged as a whole, while telling a beautiful story of love, hope and the power of being seen for who you are.

Reviewed for The Novel Approach Reviews

  • Volley Balls

  • Balls to the Wall, Book 1
  • By: Tara Lain
  • Narrated by: Nick J. Russo
  • Length: 4 hrs and 1 min
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 42
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 41
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 40

A "pumped up" version of the Volley Balls story, twice as long as the original. A double dose of alpha male might be better than one. Despite just getting out of an abusive relationship with an asshole alpha, David Underwood’s wandering glance lands on two hot members of the Australian volleyball team on Laguna Beach and gets him harassed again. Still, when the delicious Gareth Marshall proves his interest by coming out to his team, David succumbs to his attraction. But Gareth’s volleyball partner, Edge, who’s equally hot, makes the lovers’ lives miserable.  

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Really entertaining!

  • By WMG on 04-20-18

Poorly Crafted Polyamory Story

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
1 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-03-18

For me, this is not one of Tara Lain's best stories. Sometimes her books can come across as hurried or seem to incorporate trendy/hot ideas without taking the time to craft the narrative more carefully, and 'Volley Balls' seems to suffer from this. In this tale of insta-love/insta-perfect polyamory, you meet David Underwood, a Laguna beach local with a weakness for alpha men beefcake, which hasn't diminished after being in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. After an unpleasant exchange with John 'Edge' Edgerton, that is handled by his volleyball partner Gareth Marshall, Gareth becomes intrigued by David and eventually asks him out. During a tournament event that he invites David to, Gareth comes out to Edge and his teammates, with Edge's reaction being as bad as Gareth feared. Eventually, Edge becomes a thorn in Gareth's heart and inspires some fear and misgivings in David, especially as Edge's behavior reminds him so much of his alpha-jock abusive ex.

All the elements for a good ménage or polyamorous story are present: Gareth and David are very likeable, their flirtation great, and Lain's strength in creating secondary characters that add life to the story is present. Even Edge, though obnoxious, isn't completely terrible or irredeemable. The problem comes with the structure of the story when it comes to the relationship between all three men, and Edge's development being minimal and seemingly tacked on. Lain spends more than 60% of the book building a budding romance/insta-love connection between David and Gareth, and having Edge skulk around before introducing him as a love interest and 'Australia's most closeted queer'.

Of course, doing it in a way that he can step in and play hero so that David (and the reader) can finally see all the good in him that Gareth swears is there but no one has seen. Edge's behavior, his obvious denial and stalking, is supposed to make us feel sympathetic towards him as the stereotypical self-hating closeted man whose animosity is directed outwards; unfortunately, he just came across to me as the closeted creeper. Personally, I also have a problem with books that endorse the idea that, to quote the book, '[people] can't help being prejudiced [assholes]' because 'they'd] been raised that way'.

While I agree that upbringing and environment plays a crucial role in shaping a person's belief systems and the behaviors they deem normal, it should not be used to excuse prejudiced/discriminatory actions. One of the main obstacles to overcoming heterosexism, racism, sexism, domestic violence, etc., is that people get a pass as long as they don't act like assholes all the time (or, you know, hurt animals). That wonderful old chestnut used to defend discrimination that I hear so often and find troubling in books about marginalized groups of 'well, they're really nice people, it's just this one (insert prejudice) thing where they spew hate, garbage, bigotry, etc., so we generally let it go' is troubling to me. All this does is support the system by maintaining the status quo; no one wants to be a 'bad person' by doing hateful things or even worse, be guilty by association because you accept what that person says without challenging them even when you know it's wrong.

This is what Gareth does, and continues to do, throughout the story, but we give it a pass and David can feel comfortable with him because Edge played the hero, David is closeted himself, and let's not forget (because it's mentioned SO often), Edge is SUPER hot. At 75% in, we are not only guiding Edge into his gayness but all the hot sex is creating the feeling of 'rightness' for our ménage HEA that occurs after two days of screwing. So, David falls in love with nice guy Gareth in about a week as well as with the guy whose behavior (intermittently) triggers what passes in this story for PTSD, in two days. I guess for all his shortcomings as a complete character, all Edge needs is his magic dick to win at life.

Had this just been a story about Gareth and David, it would have been fine. Had it been a story about Edge coming to terms with his sexuality and feelings because Gareth comes out and starts dating, it would have been fine. Had Edge come to terms with his feelings in a less creepy/stalkery way, and he and David had actually spent some time together to form some kind of bond, it would have been fine. If it was just hot, ménage fun with no real attempt at in-depth characters/story, it would have been fine. But as a good ménage romance, it was not fine. Just as some friends-to-lovers romances try to use the established friendship to skimp on relationship development as a couple, and making it seem ridiculous and unearned, authors also try this tactic as a quick way to create a ménage--the recipe of having an established friendship/unrequited love, stir in some insta-love for a third party, and presto! instant polyamorous relationship! just doesn't work well for me.

Despite my personal problems with the story's structure, it's simple, frothy fun with enjoyable, sassy characters, especially David’s best friend, Rodney. Moreover, Nick J. Russo's narration talent definitely increased my enjoyment by leaps and bounds. Russo nails the snarky, light-hearted fun present in most of the book, and while, at times, his accent for Gareth and Edge sounded a bit more Kiwi than Aussie, their voices were distinct, consistent and fit the characters well. If you're a fan of Nick J. Russo, like Tara Lain's Laguna beach characters/settings, and want a simple insta-love story featuring hot dudes, hot sex and topped with some hot ménage action, this one's for you.

Reviewed for The Novel Approach Reviews

  • The Foxling Soldati

  • Soldati Hearts, Book 2
  • By: Charlie Cochet
  • Narrated by: Manuel Pombo
  • Length: 4 hrs and 3 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 30
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 29
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 29

Foxling Toka has served the Soldati king for centuries, and now he attends to the kingdom’s cherished Soldati prince. It’s a position of honor, and as Toka helps the once-human prince adapt to their magical realm, he finds joy in their friendship. He also grows bolder in his encounters with Rayner, a Soldati warrior and the king’s second. But the laws are clear: servants and Soldati are not permitted to mate. It doesn’t matter that Toka lost his heart to the dashing cad long ago. Rayner never imagined he would fall in love with a servant.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Better than The Soldati Prince and can stand alone

  • By Jovan on 11-03-18

Better than The Soldati Prince and can stand alone

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-03-18

3.5

The Foxling Soldati, the second installment of the Soldati Hearts series, follows King Khalon's second-in-command, Rayner, and the Soldati Prince's servant, Toka. After centuries of flirtation and kisses, they finally succumb to their desires, knowing that the law forbids them from being mated. Even though Toka tries to keep from hoping for more and Rayner resents the laws that keep him from mating Toka, having been alive for centuries in a realm that has existed for millennia, they are faithful subjects to the laws of their kingdom. Rayner and Toka's inability to have the relationship they want is actually the least harmful of the laws of the realm to which they find themselves subjected.

During a visit by King Pavoni, from the neighboring realm, Orso, Rayner and Toka are faced with the consequences of laws in which the words of those in power are automatically worth more, no matter how corrupt and despised the person, while those of lesser station have no recourse for defense or protection. To avoid spoilers, the repercussions of King Pavon's despotism and perversion, combined with King Khalon's staunch adherence to tradition and, in his own words, his arrogance and cowardice, have a resounding impact on not only on Rayner and Toka but Riley, Khalon and the entire kingdom.

For me, Foxling is a step up in story and narration for several reasons. Having found Rayner to be a much more engaging character in The Soldati Prince than the MC, Khalon, and Toka to be sweet and charming, I was invested in their story from the beginning. Additionally, the central conflict of this story is much more complex and integral to all the characters as opposed to being driven solely by one MC's feelings, as in the first novella. Additionally, Manuel Pombo's narration technique is definitely better. His pacing and delivery have improved, there are notably fewer instances where sentences run together, and he takes more care with pauses. Moreover, Pombo is much better at maintaining character voices, so it was a lot easier to simply enjoy the beauty of his voice. His decision for character voices is one of the best aspects of his narration, as each voice fits the characters very well, particularly his voice work for King Pavoni, where he manages to infuse it with all the smug creepiness it needs.

The Foxling Soldati is sweet, but layered, and although The Soldati Prince explains more of the world, you can actually enjoy Foxling on its own, and in my opinion, it's a much better listen both in narrative and narration than the The Soldati Prince.

Reviewed for The Novel Approach Reviews