no filterRating: 3.5 stars
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Length: Novel

Indy is on the run, posing as a woman to hide from the mobsters who are after him. He keeps his distance from everyone because the more connections he has, the more risk to both him and those he meets. But one day Indy finds himself caught up in a convenience story robbery, and helping a veteran with PTSD lands Indy in the hospital for his injuries. There he meets physician’s assistant Noah, who is kind and gentle with all of Indy’s anxieties. It turns out the vet (Josh) and Noah are roommates, and when Indy has no place to go to recuperate from his head injury, the guys offer to let him stay with them.

Indy finds both men very attractive, but he is hesitant to trust in their kindness. Indy’s past has been too bleak to open himself up too easily. But as he spends more time with Josh and Noah, Indy begins to let his guard down. He learns that the pair are the best of friends, as well as friends with benefits. Josh needs the comfort and financial security that Noah can provide as he deals with his PTSD. And Noah needs the sexual release and calming presence Josh can give him. Indy finds himself particularly drawn to Noah, but doesn’t want to get in the way of Noah’s clear connection with Josh.

As the weeks pass and Indy becomes more comfortable, he begins to explore a sexual connection with both men, and a romantic one with Noah. He learns that Noah is struggling with his own issues, almost as much as Indy himself, and realizes that there could be something real between them. Now Indy just has to trust that he can have a positive future and take a chance on finding happiness with Noah.

No Filter is the first book in Nora Phoenix’s No Shame series and directly leads in to the second book, No Limits. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, and there is a definite HFN for Indy and Noah. But there is a lot open ended in terms of things with Josh and particularly with regard to the bad guys who are still after Indy. So while there is resolution here for the main couple, this book definitely connects with No Limits, which has already been released.

I found this story overall both interesting and frustrating. As the story opens, I was drawn in as Indy gets caught in the convenience story robbery. Phoenix had my attention right away as I tried to figure out why Indy is disguised as a woman, what is going on with Josh, and what their stories were. Between Josh, Noah, and Indy, there is a lot of backstory and a lot of history they need to work through, and I found myself definitely curious to learn more about what was going on with all of them. The details are revealed throughout the book, and at times I felt like it took a little too long to learn about Indy’s past, but I think Phoenix creates some interesting characters here (FWIW, we don’t learn many details about Josh’s background and I assume they come in the second book where his story is featured).

I also liked that this book has a somewhat different relationship style to most traditional romances in terms of the connection between Josh and Noah, and ultimately among all three men. We learn quickly that while Noah and Josh present outwardly as boyfriends to others, as well as sleep together regularly, they are really best friends with benefits. There is clearly love between them, but it is friendship love rather than romantic. While neither of them seems to have dated others since they moved in together after their military service ended, they do have an open relationship and both men sleep with Indy at various points in the story. So I did appreciate that Phoenix gives us a more nontraditional relationship here and it creates an interesting dynamic among the three men.

However, there were also a lot of places where I struggled here. Going back to the relationship, I was totally fine with the open nature, but I did find that at times things seemed all over the place. While we know Josh and Noah aren’t exclusive or in love, they are a solid couple. When Indy comes, he seems attracted to both of them and there is a lot of flirting and horniness among them all. But then at some point, suddenly Noah and Indy are kind of exclusively interested in each other and it just sort of happens with no real lead up and it left me a little confused about how they got there when their connection didn’t seem any stronger than that between Indy and Josh. And during this time, Indy still can’t stop talking about how wonderful Josh and Noah are together, what a strong bond they have, what a great couple they are, etc. Meanwhile, Josh and Noah are still sleeping together, sometimes with Indy watching. And then Josh and Indy sleep together again, which is fine, but Noah gets mad, even though he is still sleeping with Josh himself.

Again, the openness of it all didn’t bother me in the least. I just felt like if in the end we are going to get to a one true pairing with Noah and Indy, I needed to see that romantic connection growing and developing over the book. But honestly their relationship didn’t feel much different than the one any of these guys had with each other, especially hearing how strong Josh and Noah are as a couple. I just didn’t feel any chemistry between any of them. I also never felt like I really connected with Indy, who while not the only POV character, feels like the central point in the story. So none of these guys really did it for me and I had trouble feeling emotionally engaged in their relationship or understanding where the romantic growth is coming from between Indy and Noah.

There were also a lot of elements here that just made me uncomfortable. I am not sure I can fully convey exactly why without giving you a nitpicky list of things that didn’t work for me, but I’ll try to give you the gist of it. One issue is with Noah and his sexuality. Early on he notes that he is “gay for you” for Josh. Ok, so I’ll be honest, I hate this term. I don’t think anyone can turn gay from meeting the right person. They may realize they are gay/bisexual from meeting someone, but not become gay. But ignoring that, does anyone in the real world actually think of themselves using the term “gay for you?” It just seemed so awkward. Not to mention that why doesn’t Noah just think he is bisexual? How come that isn’t really a consideration, especially when he notes how a hot female nurse makes him horny? Over the course of the story, Noah kind of muddles through identifying himself and eventually seems to settle on gay. And I don’t need him to label himself. But I needed some more serious reflection here that didn’t feel like he was reciting a romance novel or often ignoring his potential bisexuality as an option.

I also felt like there was this undercurrent of “masculine” gay versus “feminine” gay that ran through the book. Noah is big and he is the top and the dominant one and he has the big dick. And Josh and Indy are smaller with small dicks and they bottom. And yes, the guys do switch things up at one point, but Noah acts like he is making this huge sacrifice, giving a gift to Josh by agreeing to bottom. Josh is described as “sweet, adorable, cute” while Noah is “raw, masculine.” Josh is also described as “clearly the weaker on in the relationship.” At one point Indy is crying and he thinks “He was a guy, a man. He wasn’t supposed to break down like this.” Later Indy thinks “What self-respecting man as big and strong as Noah would volunteer to bottom for a boy like him?” Again, I don’t want to overwhelm with examples, but there was just this constant undercurrent of “masculinity” and what it means, and the distinctions between the bottoms and tops that really bugged me.

Last thing I’ll touch on is the dynamic between Josh and Noah. Like I said, the open relationship, all cool with that. But there is a co-dependence here that didn’t sit well with me. Josh has PTSD and he lives with Noah who supports him and who sleeps in bed with him to help calm the nightmares. Noah has anger issues and pain from his amputated  leg. Apparently sex helps both of those things. So Josh is basically there to “provide release” for Noah (he even uses that expression). The idea is that since Josh is gay, he is happy to sleep with Noah any time, any way. At one point he says to Noah “I know you’re not gay, and I respect that, but I am, so don’t ever feel like you are using me. Anytime you need, ask me. I will never say no, because I love you, and I love doing this for you… and for me.” So yeah, Josh does like the sex, but I felt kind of bugged by this idea that Josh is gay and therefore he is all in for sex any time this “straight” guy asks for it. Not to mention that Noah clearly has some emotional issues with anger that are being treated by roughly fucking Josh, rather than with actual psychological help. In fact, all three of these guys could really use some emotional counseling that they are not getting.

Ok, really last thing is that we do learn about what happened to Indy and it is awful. Child sexual abuse that is horrific, and while not explicit, we do learn the basics of what happened to him, so be aware if this is a trigger.

Ok, so I am kind of all over the place here and that’s mostly because while I enjoyed a lot of the framework for this story, a lot of the details just didn’t sit right with me. I am not sure if I conveyed my issues clearly enough, but hopefully you got the gist of it. The next book focuses on Josh and his relationship, so in case it isn’t clear, this book doesn’t have his HEA. I think overall Phoenix has set up a really interesting story here, both with the relationship dynamics and the overall suspense end with Indy. But unfortunately some of the details of execution didn’t work for me here.

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