Story Rating: 3 stars
Audio Rating: 2.75 stars

Narrator: Tor Thom
Length: 9 hours, 45 minutes

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

Divorce attorney Jacob Snowden was betrayed and abandoned by every person he loved, starting with his mother and ending with his almost fiancé. To him, the only true things about love are that it ends and has it out for him. Jacob’s only goals are to be the best, most ruthless champion for his clients, and keep “extraneous” social needs tamped down with work, exercise, or occasional fuck sessions with his only friend, Patrick. When stress and his libido reach the boiling point, Jacob’s already short fuse is primed for an explosion…and finds a target in the office building’s new tenet across the hall.

Wylde Sterling is beyond excited about his relocation and opening Wylde Wedding Planning. Upbeat and friendly, Wylde treats all he meets with kindness and respect. So meeting his neighbor Jacob, while the man is yelling at Wylde’s office manager, is not an auspicious beginning. Still, Wylde wants to be on friendly terms with all the tenets, even the hot, cantankerous lawyer. Unexpectedly witnessing Jacob’s agony during a personal moment shows Wylde that beneath the mean exterior is a big, bruised heart—a heart Wylde is desperate to be trusted with, if only Jacob can drop his guard and give love one last chance.

For years, I have been a fan of A.E. Via’s work, finding her brand of humor, steam, and alpha/alphahole MCs silly, soapy fun. Unfortunately, the last few books I’ve tried have missed the mark for me, and The Secrets in My Scowl is no different. Overall, the book is fine—typical “enemies”-to-lovers, opposites-attract fare with not much new or engaging on offer. Jacob, the cynical alphahole with a secretly sensitive soul, finds himself suddenly, wildly attracted to the low-key, approachable guy who’s the only one that can see behind the scowl, both men being Via’s trademark alpha male. Unfortunately, the characters have a narrow definition of what makes a “real man” that I don’t care much for—manly heights, manly builds, manly voices, and manly testosterone-laden smells (with the few love interests missing those physical markers proving they’re badasses with giant balls by engaging in manly activities, typically involving violence and guns). While Secret’s characters are slightly less derogatory of men with stereotypically feminine traits than most others, the “pretty,” eyelash batting men still feel like lesser foils to the “real” men both MCs crave.

Additionally, Wylde and Jacob are quick to use stereotypes to categorize people and justify their behaviors—from Jacob being unable to label Wylde’s sexuality because he’s too manly/not flamboyant enough to be a wedding planner, to Wylde’s casual biphobia. The use of stereotypes would bother me less if it weren’t for the hypocrisy. For example, Wylde doesn’t like being labeled or looked down upon for his job; yet, he doesn’t like dating bisexual men because they’re going to wake up one day and either request a ménage with a woman or dump him for the vag-jayjay/ovary combo platter. Despite his attraction to Jacob, Wylde’s pegs Jacob as a surly jerk with a confrontational attitude just like everyone else and plans to avoid him…until he catches Jacob in a moment of supreme anguish and instantly bonds with him. Then Wylde spends the rest of the story getting angry with people for writing Jacob off and patting himself on the back for not doing so—conveniently ignoring that Jacob’s breakdown seems to be the only reason why he doesn’t. Jacob is even worse, quick to jump to conclusions (and actions) based on assumptions he makes about people, usually from nothing but a quick visual.

Moreover, their aggression and tempers are seen as positive attributes that get a pass, and the ways their behavior conflicts with their stated beliefs is overlooked. Jacob hates being disrespected and spends a lot of time bitching about people’s unprofessionalism/letting personal feelings interfere with doing their jobs, but does it quite often to others, especially subordinates. Both men respect women, but Jacob is often quite disrespectful, and it’s telling that the people Jacob knowingly and intentionally intimidates with his height, size, and voice are all women. From Via sidelining the only female detective and making her a receptionist for the ALPHA DICK-SWINGING SQUAD task force in her Nothing Special series, to the theme of mothers typically being the only worthwhile woman in her books, the casual misogyny laced throughout Via’s work is tiresome. Again, to be fair this is a problem in an uncomfortable amount of M/M romances and a trope/theme I can’t wait to see die.

Despite the narrative pinging several discordant notes with me, I think several of the enjoyable aspects, emotional beats etc. may have landed better had I read the print version versus the audio. Tor Thom’s style here is close to the literal definition of a narrator, i.e. someone who reads a book. There is not much performance; line reads where the jokes/appropriate inflections are obvious are instead delivered with the same, unruffled cadence as descriptions, exposition dumps, and sometimes dialogue, flattening the experience to almost new asphalt levels of smoothness. Some of the dialogue and highly-charged, intense emotional scenes have the minimum of necessary feeling. By the midpoint of Secrets, I was just bored; I feel like some voice actors with a naturally deep register rely a bit more heavily on the appeal of deeper voices to carry their performance, rather than working to connect with the text and convincingly bring it to life.

Thom’s voice-acting range also seems limited. Each female sounds the same and male voices fall into the deep and deeper categories with a couple accents thrown in to help differentiate, but the strain in his voice when diverting from his narrative baritone is obvious in some. The character voices tend to have that oddly resonate and recognizably artificial quality people use when trying to do character voices while reading out loud—unnatural and sometimes comical. Unfortunately, the only reaction Thom pulled from me was when his voice for a side character startled me out of my drowse because he sounded like a southern Smokey the Bear. Thom’s deep, level delivery style would be perfect for a meditation book, but doesn’t elevate (and in my case detracts from) Secrets’ inherent entertainment value.

I typically don’t give audiobooks without production issues as well such a low rating, but the fact that I had to constantly “ignore” the narration to objectively rate the story’s merits is a problem. While I can’t recommend the audiobook version of The Secrets in My Scowl, I know that what I need and enjoy in a narration is not necessarily the same as other listeners; as an audiobook proofer, I tend to judge more harshly and can see other people enjoying the narration more than I do. As a story, I can also see people loving the MC’s chemistry and wanting to wrap Jacob in hugs (especially after the WTF reason his mom left), but for me, the story is just ok.