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Earthquake Ethan
The Earth shook the morning actor Ethan Bradley arrived in Los Angeles looking for a second chance. He hoped his former producers Reese Matheson and Toby Griffiths meant it when they said to look them up if he were ever in LA because he had no other options. The pictures the paparazzi took at the wrap party for their London show made sure of that. What he wasn’t counting on was the reception he got from their manager, Arthur Frye. He was absolutely the kind of together guy Ethan wished would notice him, and for more than his pretty face and talent. Too bad Arthur only sees Ethan as a complication. Arthur Frye has his hands full with his best clients—and best friends. The last thing he needs is another diva to care for, especially one who has a reputation for causing trouble. He has a strict rule against getting involved with the talent, no matter how pretty they are. Only Ethan Bradley shines for real, and when Arthur realizes his nice-guy innocence is genuine, he’s ready to do anything to help Ethan get his career back on track and get him out of LA. He’s too much of a temptation, and Arthur can’t afford to lose focus…not even for a chance at happiness for himself. Especially not when his star clients are about to risk their professional and personal happiness with their newest creation; a musical about two boys falling in love in the 1960s featuring music written by Reese’s grandfather, whose health is in decline. Ethan Bradley shakes things up wherever he goes, and Arthur Frye is afraid he’ll be left in the wreckage if he gets too close. Can these two opposites find love on solid ground?
Despite its Hollywood setting, the upbeat and relatable third entry in Merrill’s performer-centered Forces of Nature series keeps the social drama mostly good-natured and its gay romance down to Earth. After a scandal leaves him a persona non grata in London, struggling actor Ethan Bradley lands on the doorsteps of Los Angeles-based friends and producers Reese Matheson and Toby Griffiths. Busy with mounting Reese’s grandfather’s musical about young gay love, Reese and Toby pass Ethan on to their prim manager, Arthur Frye, for a career reboot. Though Arthur is initially annoyed, he finds himself quickly both impressed by Ethan’s sincerity and talent, and attracted enough to him to reconsider his policy of never dating actors.

Merrill creates a delightfully intergenerational whirlwind of personalities, from Arthur’s dramatic parents still holding parties with the celebrities of Hollywood’s heyday, through the boys working through their on-stage awkwardness about touching. However, she is careful to have her characters explicitly aware and careful of ethical landmines; rather than leaning in to the power, wealth, and age gap, Arthur hands Ethan’s account to his junior colleague to avoid impropriety, and is outraged that Ethan has been asked for sexual favors by managers in the past, while Ethan suggests a professional intimacy coach as part of the way he coaches the boys on expressing desire through their performances.

The energy is overall positive, with everyone around them enthusiastic about Arthur and Ethan’s connection—even the drama coming from Ethan and Toby’s past resolved in good faith. The pivot from unsure flirting to deep commitment is a little abrupt, and it’s not always clear how the characters find the space for lazy exploratory days in the flow of intense career building action, tight performance deadlines, and parent wrangling. Still, readers will quickly find themselves emotionally invested in both Ethan’s career and relationship quickly. Merrill’s commitment to her characters not having to choose between love and performance, but having each aspect enhance the other, keeps the novel firmly on the side of queer joy rather than angst.

Takeaway: Optimistic Hollywood-set m/m romance with lovers with good hearts.

Comparable Titles: Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material, Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A