Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.25 stars

Narrator: Iggy Toma
Length: 7 hours, 41 minutes

Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links: Amazon | iBooks

Once upon a time, Phoenix Ryan believed in fairy tales—living in Nashville and baring his soul in his lyrics on the miniscule chance of making a living as a songwriter. When he’s called home to Georgia, tragedy and hardship soon follow. Now, after two years of being creatively fallow, a mountain of debt, no marketable skills, and only a high school diploma, the only fairy tales Phoenix believes in are the Grimm kind. Unable to pay the debt he inherited with the minimum wage jobs that will hire him, when a friend helps him get a job as a stripper, Phoenix can’t say no to the pay. Considering he sacrificed everything to come home (including his ability to create music), he refuses to lose any more of himself and institutes a strict no touch/no extras rule that he follows religiously—until the night he meets Archer West.

Archer loves his best friends, but he’s less than pleased when they take him to a strip club for his 21st birthday. He’d rather be at home stuffing his face with ice cream cake and working on his graphic novel. Although he knows he’s gay, Archer’s never really been attracted to anyone—until “Nix.” When their unexpected chemistry combusts during a lap dance, both men are left shaken, and after serendipity makes them neighbors, their chemistry and shared love of art sees them bond quickly. However, Phoenix’s job remains the one shadow in Archer’s sunny, new adventure, and when Archer’s trust issues and insecurities overwhelm him, neither man is certain if the love that draws them together is strong enough to keep them together.

Stripped Love, the first book in the Guys Next Door series, is enjoyable and sweet, with mature MCs for a New Adult work. Given the circumstances that bring Phoenix back home and their aftermath, as well as Archer’s less than stellar parental relationships and their impact on him, the story is surprisingly low angst. Although an unapologetic, virgin, geek with a pretty blush, Archer is not a dewy-eyed ingénue; he’s a pragmatist with a dry sense of humor and a surprisingly dark side. He also has a genuineness and strong sense of self that speaks to Phoenix’s buried creativity. Phoenix, too, is pretty genuine; while a master at seduction, he’s open about his feelings for Archer (though both do a bit of hanging wringing about how quickly they’ve invested in the relationship and if the other is on the same page).

The storyline is straightforward, insta-chemistry fare; the guys simply spend time together with a bit of coworker drama to add conflict. As I enjoy stories in which characters are passionate about and share their art, this worked for me. I found myself wishing the graphic novel Archer is struggling to finish was real, and though some of Phoenix’s “inspired” lyrics are a bit saccharine, they fit his emotions and the story they are in. The secondary characters are fun and supportive, and Crow does a particularly good job with Archer’s twin best friends; like Archer, I simultaneously loved them and found them annoying.

Narrator Iggy Toma conveys this fond exasperation and various other emotions well. Toma is a solid narrator, and he does not disappoint in Stripped Love. His voices fit the characters’ ages and personalities and add depth to Crow’s creations. The only hiccup for me is that Toma’s typically slow and deliberate narratorial style is slowed down to the crawl of maple sap drippings in cold weather, possibly in deference to the Georgia setting and to keep him from having to employ the maddening, industry standard Southern Drawl™, as he keeps the accent pretty light (though he does slip in and out of it throughout). I tend to listen to review audiobooks at normal speed for a full sense of the narrator’s cadence, inflections, voice distinctions, etc., but I had to admit defeat after the first chapter. So people who typically listen at 1.25X or higher should be prepared to crank it even higher to fully enjoy this one.

Other than that, Toma does a good job with the story elements; in fact, he does such a good job at times that he comes this close to smoothing over my biggest issue with the conflict resolution. Full disclosure: I hate how dismissively sex work is treated in most stories. The whole “stripping until something more acceptable better comes along” is a tried and true staple; I get it. But if you’ve rooted Phoenix’s entire situation in his (realistically) limited options, having two rich college dudes with athletic scholarships (who throw parties in their family mansion while their parents travel overseas for the summer) pull the “if he cares, he can find another job” card isn’t a great look. It also doesn’t help that Phoenix is constantly apologizing for things that wouldn’t be considered his fault if he had a “regular” job. Fir example, if Phoenix was an office worker whose boss had not only ignored his complaints about sexual harassment by a coworker, but also forced them to work together on a project, Archer and crew would commiserate with him about how much the situation sucks at the very least. But because Phoenix is “just a stripper,” he’s forced to grovel and wait for Archer to speak to him, while praying he doesn’t get dumped. Could Phoenix save money by getting a roommate and/or fewer tattoos if he stops stripping? Sure, but since most Americans have to work at least two minimum wage jobs just to get by, the amount of jobs/work hours Phoenix would need to pay the debt would still hamstring their relationship. More importantly, Phoenix shouldn’t have to apologize/be shamed for honest work. Here endth the rant.

I do have to give props to Crow for her less standard use of the BIG MISUNDERSTANDING to bring underlying issues to the forefront; it focuses less on lack of communication and more on the emotional upheaval that can persist even after understanding in gained. Between the relatively low angst, Archer and Phoenix’s sweet, yet steamy, courtship, and Toma’s adept narration, Stripped Love is a pleasant, entertaining listen.

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