When I think of the top ten sexiest hobbies, stamp collecting doesn’t exactly make the list. In fact, it’s probably near the bottom, sharing space with butterfly collecting and obsessive devotion to YuGiOh cards. So I kind of got a kick of this book’s cover, which features a naked male torso, complete with a rare stamp tucked into the briefs for safe keeping. But even though stamps don’t scream “sexy!,” Kristin Hardy does manage to make a decent, intrigue packed plot about them.
Joss Chastain is a free spirit looking for her calling in life. As part of her soul-searching, she agrees to help out in her grandfather’s high-end stamp store while he’s on vacation. She ends up trusting the wrong person, and a fortune in stamps walks out the door. In the previous book (Certified Male) Joss’s sister Gwen managed to retrieve one of the most crucial stamps. But one is still missing, and Joss has a plan to go get it. She hires a private detective and sets off for Stockholm, the probably location of the stamp.
John “Bax” Baxter didn’t really intend to take the job. His PI business is finally getting off the ground, and he figures that he’s earned himself a great vacation. But when he sees Joss walk into his office, the instant lust he feels spurs him on. The fact that they plan to pose as boyfriend and girlfriend seals the deal. When Bax and Joss arrive in Stockholm, they quickly become “friends with benefits.” They can’t deny the attraction between them, and since this is a Blaze, they don’t bother trying. But getting the stamp back isn’t going to be easy. The man in possession of it is powerful and notorious and those who stand up to him have a way of quietly disappearing or suffering from an “accident.” Joss and Bax will have to plan carefully to best him. Meanwhile, their sexual relationship is threatening to become more than just a casual fling. Can two determined singles trust each other enough to form a lasting attachment?
We all know the answer to that question, but the deeper question is, “Can the author make us buy into the relationship?” In this case, I was happy to go along with it. Would people really form a close attachment in such circumstances? Perhaps, not, but it mostly works here. Bax is kind of an interesting guy. He’s a real polyglot with an all-over-the-place upbringing. His skills serve him well in Stockholm. Not being much of a drifter myself, I had more trouble relating to Joss. Still, by the end of the book she had some new ideas about where to go with her life, and she was taking steps to make her dreams happen.
My favorite thing about this book was undoubtedly the setting, which I found to be exotic and different. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book set in Sweden (somehow even Pippi Longstocking passed me by), and I love urban settings. Bax and Joss visit several tourist attractions as part of their cover, and the fun details of these excursions really add to the story. I can always appreciate a book with a good sense of place, and U.S. Male has that in spades.
But while I found the setting to be very realistic, I had trouble buying into the plot. The main problem is that the villain is a little too convincing as a baddie. I completely bought into his sinister persona – so much so that I doubted Bax and Joss’s ability to best him. When the inevitable climax of the book arrived, I found it hard to believe that the couple could really escape with their lives, much less anything else of value. Sometimes you can go along for the ride on this kind of stuff, and sometimes you just can’t quite suspend your disbelief. I found the latter to be something of a problem in this case.
That said, I don’t think it’s a bad book, especially for a series romance. As a quick night’s diversion, you could certainly do worse, and many may find it worth picking up for the location alone.