Total Creative Control (Creative Types #1) by Joanna Chambers & Sally Malcolm (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Goldhill

total creative control

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When fanfic writer Aaron Page landed a temp job with the creator of hit TV show, Leeches, it was only meant to last a week. Three years later, Aaron’s still there….

It could be because he loves the creative challenge. It could be because he’s a huge Leeches fanboy. It’s definitely notbecause of Lewis Hunter, his extremely demanding, staggeringly rude…and breathtakingly gorgeous boss.

Is it?

Lewis Hunter grew up the hard way and fought for everything he’s got. His priority is the show, and personal relationships come a distant second. Besides, who needs romance when you have a steady stream of hot men hopping in and out of your bed?

His only meaningful relationship is with Aaron, his chief confidante and indispensable assistant. And no matter how appealing he finds Aaron’s cute boy-next-door charms, Lewis would never risk their professional partnership just to scratch an itch.

But when Lewis finds himself trapped at a hilariously awful corporate retreat, Aaron is his only friend and ally. As the professional lines between them begin to blur, their simmering attraction starts to sizzle

And they’re both about to get burned.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Individually, Joanna Chambers and Sally Malcolm are two of my favourite authors, so I was delighted when, back in 2021, they announced that they were collaborating on a series of contemporary m/m romances set in and around the world of TV production. Total Creative Control is the first book in the Creative Types series, one they’ve described as an “angsty rom-com”, in which a grumpy boss – showrunner of a popular TV show – and his sunshiny PA fall for each other… despite trying very hard not to.

Lewis Hunter is the creator and head writer of the TV series Leeches (an urban fantasy/vampire show), which has been running for three years when the story begins. Lewis is driven, hugely talented and charismatic – but he’s also demanding, brusque, unfiltered and very difficult to work for, so unsurprisingly, his PAs don’t last long. On this particular morning, his most recent one – the latest in a string of temps – has just quit and HR quickly rustles up a replacement in the form of one Aaron Page, who is to work for Lewis for the rest of the week. Aaron is quick on the uptake and not at all fazed by Lewis’ abrupt manner, and he’s also, to Lewis’ surprise and delight, a big fan of Leeches. Lewis has never had anyone working for him who actually knows much about the show, and he suggests that if things work out this week, he can arrange for Aaron to stay until September, when Aaron is due to start the teaching job he’s got lined up. Aaron is very much on board with that idea.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Block and Strike by Kelly Jensen

block and strikeThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Jacob Kendricks is three months out of prison, estranged from his daughter, and ready to get his life on track. Taking care of the bum curled up on his doorstep isn’t part of the plan. When he realizes the man has been assaulted, Jake takes him to the hospital, where he learns that Max is his downstairs neighbor… and that he could really use a friend. Keeping Max in the friend-zone would be easier if he wasn’t so damned cute.

Maxwell Wilson has been bullied for years, and the only person who ever cared lives too far away to come to his rescue. Now his upstairs neighbor is offering support. Max remains cautious, suspecting he is little more than a project for the handsome Jake. When he learns Jake has had boyfriends as well as girlfriends, Max has to reevaluate his priorities—and muster the courage to take a chance at love.

Just when a happy future is within their grasp, life knocks them back down. A devastating blow leaves Max lower than ever and Jake wrestling with regret. They both have to find the strength to stand on their own before they can stand together.

Rating: B

It’s the rare romance that features a character or characters without emotional baggage, so I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from when deciding on my book for this month’s TBR Challenge prompt. Kelly Jensen’s Block and Strike (2017) is a character driven hurt/comfort slow-burn romance that features two men who’ve been dealt crappy hands in life, and follows them as they tread a difficult and sometimes painful journey towards love and self-acceptance.

Jake Kendricks is three months out of prison and doing everything he can to get his life back on track. Coming home one night to find some bum passed out on his doorstep is more than inconvenient – he can’t exactly drag him along the alleyway onto the street without inviting questions that could land him back in trouble, so he settles for laying the guy in the recovery position and steps past him to open his front door. It’s only when the dim light of the hallway shows there’s blood on his sleeve and hand that Jake realises the guy outside must be injured rather than drunk or stoned – turning back, he can now see the guy looks like he’s been beaten to within an inch of his life. Starting to panic, Jake calls his sister Willa, who is a nurse, and asks her to come over, but when she arrives, she insists they have to go to the ER. Jake later finds out that the guy is his neighbour, Max Wilson, who moved into the crappy basement studio apartment of the building a month ago.

Around a year earlier, Max’s dad threw him out when he discovered him flirting with another guy, and Max moved to Philly intent on a fresh start and finally being himself, but somehow… he’s still hiding, still the small, runty kid who’s been bullied all his life and has learned it’s quicker and easier not to put up a fight. His dad only ever told him it would toughen him up, and Max is so used to being used as a punching bag that he doesn’t really think twice about being attacked on his doorstep; all he wants is to get out of the hospital and on with his small, insignificant life, but with a serious concussion, he won’t be allowed to leave unless he has someone to keep an eye on him. He’s frustrated and fretting about losing his job when the nurse – Willa something? – suggests that if he really wants to go home, she could ask her brother to come get him. Max is confused, until Willa explains that Jake is the one who found him and then drove him to the hospital. Max puts two and two together and works out that Jake is the gorgeous blond guy who lives upstairs, and protests even harder that he’s fine and can make his own way home. He doesn’t realise his protests have fallen on deaf ears until he’s discharged and makes his way outside on very shaky legs – to find Jake waiting for him.

Jake and Max have both been through a lot in their young lives (Jake is twenty-seven, Max twenty-two) and although it looks, at first, as though Jake has everything figured out and Max is a mess, as the story progresses, we discover that neither of those things is completely true. Or untrue. Behind Jake’s solid, dependable exterior lies a man who knows what it’s like to be broken; we don’t learn why he was in prison until later in the book so I’m not going to spoil it, but it’s clear that he’s still dealing with the issues that (in part) led to that happening and that he’s still got work to do. He’s kind, funny and protective; he’s never met anyone quite as stubborn as Max, yet he can’t help liking him and wanting to help him however he can – and that Max is really cute doesn’t hurt. Max hasn’t had anyone in his corner since his mother died, and seems to have accepted that his lot is just to take whatever crap life dishes out. He’s desperately lonely and can’t help wondering if he’s some kind of ‘project’ for Jake – who can’t, surely, be interested in a guy like him for any other reason – and it takes him a while to tamp down those insecurities and accept Jake’s overures of friendship as genuine.

The romance between Jake and Max is rooted in a strong friendship and is very much a slow-burn, which is absolutely right for who they are and what they’ve been through. Jake senses that the attraction he’s feeling towards Max may not be all one-sided, and the last thing he wants to do is to spook him, but Max is so up in his head with internalised homophobia and self-doubt that he gives off mixed signals. It takes a while for the two them to work things out, but it’s lovely when they do and there’s a real sense that they see each other for who they really are and that they’re exactly what the other needs – Max needs someone to help him learn to stand up for himself and Jake needs someone who doesn’t see him as the fuck up who let his temper screw up his life.

Kelly Jensen is one of those authors whose stories are often deceptively simple, the depth of the emotions and realism of the characters and situations almost taking the reader by surprise. She also manages to create characters who feel very authentic and nuanced, and Jake and Max are no exceptions. They’re beautifully developed – flawed and complicated with a genuine warmth and relatability – and their differences, Max’s prickliness and Jake’s kindness and compassion, really complement each other. I liked that Jake encourages Max to go with him to his martial arts group so he can learn some self-defence moves and maybe gain some self-confidence, and that he helps Max to see the core of inner strength and resliliance that enables him to keep getting up after the blows he’s been dealt.

For all the good things about the story – and there are a lot of them – there are a couple that have affected my final grade. One is that the people who attacked Max are never properly punished; the other is related to what landed Jake in prison, so I’m going to put it under a spoiler tag.

Click to read the spoiler

His ex-girlfriend Kate – the mother of his daughter – called him, crying, after her current boyfriend Dominick (who had always been possessive) hit her. Jake went over and beat him up, and was later convicted of assault. At the end of the book, we learn Kate has forgiven Dominick for what he did and that he’s vowed never to do it again – and part of Jake’s journey is accepting that. But I was uncomfortable with it – not only does it downplay the domestic abuse, it ignores the fact that Kate brought Jake into the situation, likely knowing what would happen as a result.

While that last thing didn’t affect my enjoyment of Jake and Max and their romance, I realise it might be problematic for some readers, which is why I’ve made mention of it here. In the end, though, Block and Strike is a charming, beautifully written romance, full of warmth, humour and genuine emotion, and well worth reading.

Something Wild and Wonderful by Anita Kelly

something wild and wonderful ukThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Alexei Lebedev’s journey on the Pacific Crest Trail begins with saving a hot stranger from a snake. Alexei was prepared for rattlesnakes, blisters, and months of solitude. What he wasn’t prepared for is outgoing and charistmatic Ben Caravalho, and yet they keep running into each other. It might be coincidence. Then again, maybe there’s a reason the trail keeps bringing them together . . .

Ben has made his fair share of bad decisions, and almost all of them involved beautiful men, but there’s something about the gorgeous and quietly nerdy Alexei that he can’t just walk away from.

There are worse things than falling in love during the biggest adventure of your life, but when their paths start to diverge, Ben and Alexei begin to wonder if it’s possible to hold on to something this wild and wonderful.

Rating: B+

Anita Kelly’s Something Wild and Wonderful is a charming character-driven romance that, while quiet and somewhat understated, nonetheless packs quite the emotional punch. It’s set mostly on the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the most unusual settings I’ve ever come across in a romance novel, and boasts two complex, likeable leads who each has his own reason for undertaking the punishing two-and-a-half-thousand-plus-mile hike.

Six months before the story begins, Alexei Lebedev came out as gay to his deeply religious parents, who very promptly and quietly disowned him for his “choice”. He’s still in contact with his sister, Alina, but feels the loss of his parents and ostracism from the community in which he grew up very keenly. He’s been planning his hike along the PCT for months, and he still feels a pinch in his chest when he remembers that he owes his love of nature, birding and hiking to his father – but he hopes that by the end of the trail, maybe he’ll have become used to that feeling, maybe so used to it that he won’t even notice it any more.

It was hard to imagine, truthfully. But he was hopeful anyway. Hope was why he was here.

He meets Ben Caravalho on his very first day, literally saving Ben’s life when he stops him walking into the path of a rattlesnake. Alexei can’t help noticing the deep brown of his eyes and the warmth of his smile, but when Ben invites Alexei to walk with him and his party, Alexei declines. He’s been looking forward to the solitude, wanting the chance to say goodbye to his old life and find a bit of peace before starting over.

Ben’s reasons for hiking the PCT are similar to Alexei’s in that he, too, is looking forward to starting afresh. After a string of bad decisions, messy relationships, dead-end jobs and missed obligations throughout his twenties, he’s finally got his act together. After qualifiying as a nurse, he’s ready to start his career –

and is taking a few months to excise his restlessness and prepare himself for his new, responsible life. One thing he’s determined to do is to break his habit of falling in love so easily – usually with the wrong guy – so he absolutely isn’t going to fall for the next gorgeous man he sees. Even if that man did save his life…

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Best Man’s Problem (The Navarros #2) by Sera Taíno

the best man's problem

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Is the best man

the best man for him?

His sister’s wedding isn’t the ideal place for Rafael to reunite with the man he kissed in a moment of passion. But it’s impossible to avoid best man Étienne! The gorgeous Haitian photographer hasn’t forgotten their kiss, even if Rafi is the most maddening person he’s ever met. Will the two prove that opposites not only attract—but can fall in love?

Rating: B

Sera Taíno’s The Best Man’s Problem is an enemies-to-lovers slow-burn romance between two guys who are to undertake best man duties at the wedding of their sister and best friend respectively – Val and Philip, protagonists of the first Navarros book, A Delicious Dilemma.  I haven’t read that one, but The Best Man’s Problem works perfectly well as a standalone, and I enjoyed it, in spite of a bit of a rocky start.

Rafael Navarro and Étienne Galois shared a passionate kiss the previous summer, but immediately after, Rafi decided it was a mistake and walked away, leaving Étienne stunned at the intensity of the connection he’d felt and disappointed at Rafi’s rejection. That was several months ago, and Rafi has ghosted Étienne ever since, determined to fall back on his preferred strategy when looking back on a rare poor decision – to pretend it never happened. When the book opens, it’s the evening of Val and Philip’s engagement party and Rafi is having to try really hard to employ his strategy and not think about the fact that Étienne will also be at the party. He’s still berating himself for instigating That Kiss – it’s the worst decision he’s made in a long time, and the last thing he needs is someone as chaotic as Étienne trampling all over his nicely organised life.

Étienne has thought of Rafi often since that night, unable to forget the feel of him under his hands, the taste of his skin – or his annoyance that someone who knows him so little should turn out to be so judgmental. He berates himself for wanting Rafi and for wanting him to like him, but those desires just won’t go away. As Philip’s best friend, Étienne was naturally his first choice for best man for his wedding to Rafi’s sister – but his job as a photographer means he’s often out of the country, so Val and Philip suggest that Rafi should work with him to plan the bachelor party and on the other best man duties. Both men think it’s a terrible idea… but they can’t say no.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Back in the Saddle by B.A. Tortuga

back in the saddle

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When David Garcia’s family suffers a loss, he comes back to New Mexico to help, leaving his life in Austin behind. He knows he has to make the best of it, so he uses his skills as a teacher to set up a daycare business on his parents’ ranch and start helping out local friends and family who need a babysitter now and then. It’s the perfect job for someone who also needs to run the small family ranch and make money to keep it afloat.

When rodeo cowboy Wiley Marquart decides to start a family, he sure doesn’t expect the barrel racer he made a deal with to up and leave him high and dry in New Mexico with both of his girls and nothing but a check once a month. He loves his kids, but starting a ranch from the ground up is tough, and he needs someone to watch the girls when he has to work the back forty or deliver a trained horse. So when he meets David, the relief if immediate. And it doesn’t hurt that after a false start or two, he likes the guy.

Between navigating family pitfalls, work disasters, and two ranches, David and Wiley start to forge a friendship, and then a lot more. But can they find a way to mesh their lives without dropping any of the balls they’re juggling, or are they destined for disaster?

Rating: C-

B.A. Tortuga is a prolific author of contemporary m/m romance, but I’ve never read anything of hers before, so when Back in the Saddle came up for review, I decided it was time to give her a try. I mean, hot cowboys, single dads… what’s not to love? Unfortunately, quite a bit.

The plot, such as it is, is a simple one. Teacher David Garcia leaves his life in Austin to go home to the family ranch in New Mexico after his brother Andy is killed in the line of duty and his father has a heart attack. He loves his job teaching at a school for kids on the autistic spectrum and his life there, but doesn’t think twice about heading home – temporarily, he thinks – to help out.

Former rodeo rider Wiley Marquart is left – almost literally – holding the baby when his ex-wife dumps their three-year-old twin girls on him without notice and heads off on the road with her country-singer girlfriend. He adores Liberty and Sierra, but being abruptly left with sole custody isn’t what he and Ash agreed; they were friends who acted as each other’s beards on the conservative rodeo circuit, and as they both wanted kids, Wiley wanted to settle down on a ranch, so they decided to get married and co-parent. But now Ash has upended his life – how is he supposed to do everything that needs doing around the ranch while being good father to two kids under five?

As luck would have it, Wiley’s nearest neighbour has started up a daycare facility from his parents’ ranch, and he comes highly recommended, so Wiley decides to give it a try the next time he needs to be kid-free to run some errands. The girls take to David right away and Wiley is not long behind; friendship and mutual attraction blossom, David is the bestest most dedicated childcarer to ever childcare (he’s practically perfect in every way!) Wiley and his girls are soon spending more time at the Garcia place than their own and… it’s a romance, you know where it’s going.

The story is pleasant enough but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Wiley and David are bland and barely two-dimensional, and everybody is so very earnest – every scene is described down to the last detail, whether it’s making breakfast or making the bed; the dialogue feels completely unnatural and everything is explained in great detail, and the repetition of phrases like “You rock!” whenever someone does something good and “Yum” whenever food is discussed stick out like sore thumbs. I don’t know anyone – let alone two grown men – who would say “Yum” about food unless they were taking the piss. And as for the “yummy” when one of them is looking at the cock he’s about to suck for the first time… I just about stopped myself from snorting tea out of my nose.

And then there is the kids’ dialogue. This is a lesson in how not to write three-year-olds talking, from the “pweeeeease” to the “mitter(mister), using “her” instead of “she” (“her coming? “Her said…) to ridiculous phrasing like “You am happy”, “Mitter luffs you!” Ugh. They sound like no three-year-old I’ve ever encountered.

The one or two potentially interesting things about the plot are never developed. David’s grief over his brother’s death is not explored and nor is his sense that his parents would have preferred Andy over him, because Andy was the (straight) one with kids who was always intended to inherit the ranch and keep it in the family. David’s parents clearly love him and they’re close, but when they decide, pretty much on the spur of the moment, to buy an RV and go travelling because they want to escape the painful memories (about Andy) associated with the house, ON THE VERY DAY THAT DAVID HAS AN ACCIDENT AND BREAKS HIS ARM, I was appalled at their selfishness. They just bugger off, leaving him to run his daycare business and the ranch on his own when he’s injured and on pain medication! WTF?? What sort of caring person does that? Okay, so Wiley is on hand to help out, but he’s working his own place as well, and basically ends up doing the work of two, and I couldn’t believe they didn’t even consider delaying their departure, or at least offer to wait until David was feeling better. And then, towards the end, they declare they’re giving up the ranch for good and leaving it to David with the proviso that they can stay there when they need to, and not once do they ever ask David what he wants. Again – WTF? Lucky for them David has fallen for Wiley and they’ve decided they want to make a home and family there, but they didn’t know that was on the cards when they made their plans.

Back in the Saddle was disappointing to say the least. There’s no romantic chemistry between David and Wiley, all the characters are unmemorable, the kids are unbelievably twee and the whole thing is dull and overwritten. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read anything else by this author.

TBR Challenge: Honeymoon For One by Keira Andrews

honeymoon for one

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The wedding is off, but the love story is just beginning.

Betrayed the night before his wedding by the supposed boy of his dreams, Ethan Robinson escapes the devastating fallout by going on his honeymoon alone to the other side of the world. Hard of hearing and still struggling with the repercussions of being late-deafened, traveling by himself leaves him feeling painfully isolated with his raw, broken heart.

Clay Kelly never expected to be starting life over in his forties. He got hitched young, but now his wife has divorced him and remarried, his kids are grown, and he’s left his rural Outback town. In a new career driving a tour bus on Australia’s East Coast, Clay reckons he’s happy enough. He enjoys his cricket, a few beers, and a quiet life. If he’s a bit lonely, it’s not the end of the world.

Clay befriends Ethan, hoping he can cheer up the sad-eyed young man, and a crush on an unattainable straight guy is exactly the safe distraction Ethan needs. Yet as the days pass and their connection grows, long-repressed desires surface in Clay, and they are shocked to discover romance sparking. Clay is the sexy, rugged man of Ethan’s dreams, and as the clock counts down on their time together, neither wants this honeymoon to end.

Rating: B

This month’s prompt – getaway – gave me the chance to read a book that’s been recommended to me a few times by an author whose work I generally enjoy, so I cracked open Keira Andrews’ Honeymoon for One in the expectation of a solidly entertaining, well-told story – and that was exactly what I got. It’s a slow-burn, hurt/comfort, age-gap romance between Ethan Robinson, who ends up, as the title indicates, going on his honeymoon alone and Clay Kelly, the driver/guide of the tour Ethan had booked for the holiday of a lifetime in Australia.

So… Ethan comes home early on the afternoon before his wedding to Michael, his partner of several years, to find his fiancé in bed with his best friend, Todd. Ethan is, quite naturally, utterly devastated – not only has he lost the man he loved and the life he’d looked forward to building with him, but he’s lost his best friend, too. Despite protestations of love from both of them – and Michael’s poorly timed suggestion that they should become a throuple because he’s realised monogamy is not for him – Ethan can’t get out of the apartment fast enough.

Numb with shock – and from the cold out on the street – Ethan unexpectedly bumps into Clara, Michael’s sister, and although he hadn’t planned it, tells her what’s happened. She’s sympathetic and supportive – and furious with her brother – and it’s she who encourages Ethan to continue with his plan to go to Australia. At first he’s unsure – but then the idea of spending a couple of weeks on the other side of the world starts to seem like a good idea and he makes up his mind to go. It’s a big step for him – not only because the life he knows has suddenly imploded, but also because he’s late-deafened (he lost his hearing as an adult), and the idea of travelling so far on his own, with no-one to fill in the blanks (my words) if and when he can’t hear things he needs to hear, is daunting. It’s taken him several years to really come to terms with his condition and to begin to properly learn to live with it, and it’s not been an easy journey. Losing his hearing as an adult means Ethan hasn’t grown up learning to sign so he’s reliant on hearing aids – that aren’t a perfect solution because they pick up so much background noise – and lip-reading, which, of course, he can’t do when people don’t look directly at him, so day-to-day life in the city is a constant challenge, and socialising is exhausting. Sadly, his experience – having to apologise for not listening when people aren’t actually making it possible for him to do so, having people talk to him like he’s stupid or a child, having people be impatient with him when he asks them to repeat something – rings very true.

Forty-four-year-old divorced father of two Clay Kelly left his home town in the Queensland outback after the divorce to live in Sydney with his adult daughter. He’s mostly content with his lot – he likes his job driving tour buses along Australia’s East Coast and loves watching cricket (preferably with a cold beer or two in hand) – and if he’s a bit lonely, well, life is better than it is for many and he can’t complain. On the first day of his next tour, he notices the quiet young man boarding the bus alone and overhears him explain to the tour guide that he’s hard of hearing and that he’s on the trip on his own, and, maybe subconsciously, decides to look out for him.

I really enjoyed this part of the story. The slow-burn attraction between Ethan and Clay is well done, and I liked watching them getting to know each other over the course of the tour. Ethan can sometimes get caught up in his head and preoccupied with his misery, but given the circumstances, he’s entitled – and the time he spends processing is important in that it allows him to begin to let go of his pain. I loved that Clay always does his best to make sure Ethan can hear him by speaking clearly and facing him when he speaks – and when he prints off the tour notes so Ethan can follow along more easily and goes out of his way to find some extra batteries for his hearing aids, it’s easy to understand why Ethan feels so seen and accepted – and why he can’t help but fall for Clay’s charm and genuine kindness (his rugged good looks don’t hurt either!). However, Clay takes longer to recognise his concern for Ethan for what it really is; he isn’t gay and isn’t attracted to men and this… whatever it is with Ethan is friendship and can’t possibly be anything else.

I admit, I enjoyed the first half of the book a bit more than the second, which is the kind of gay-awakening story I’ve read several times before. That said though, the author does pack quite a punch when she reveals the reason behind Clay’s life-long internalised homophobiaand his ruthless suppression of his true self as a form of self-preservation that he’s only now starting to come to terms with.

My only real criticism of the book is the… what I can only describe as ‘teaching moments’, of which there are several, and for which I felt like the author had stepped out from behind the words, as it were, to deliver a few short lessons about the terminology around deafness and the reclaiming of words like ‘queer’. I have no objection to learning new things when I read, and the author has, in this very book, taught me things I didn’t know and was pleased to learn about the deaf community, but those authorial inserts are incredibly jarring and made me feel like I was expected to sit up and take notes for a test later.

Keira Andrews has done an excellent job when it comes to her setting, because all the tour locations are so vividly described as to put the reader right in the middle of them, and while the Aussie slang is perhaps a bit overdone, she does get it right! Ethan and Clay are likeable, relatable individuals who, apart from a couple of small hiccups, communicate well and honestly, and while their romance does develop over a short period of time, they fit so well together and their emotional connection is so well realised that it’s easy to buy into and doesn’t feel rushed. Teaching moments aside, I enjoyed Honeymoon for One and would certainly recommend it.

To Mend a Broken Wing (Rossingley #4) by Fearne Hill

to mend a broken wing

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“I think,” Lucien began, “that we accept the love we believe we deserve. And unfortunately, Noah doesn’t believe he deserves any.”

For twenty-two-year-old Noah, the revelation that his biological father is an ex-professional footballer is like tearing the wrapper from a cheap chocolate bar and discovering he’s won the elusive golden ticket. Every homeless young man’s dream, right?

Wrong. Because his father has also served a lengthy prison sentence. For murder.

With nothing to lose and facing a winter sleeping rough, Noah travels to France to meet him. Despite an angry encounter, Noah reluctantly agrees to stay at the ancestral home of one of his newfound father’s friends until he finds his feet.

Twenty-five-year-old Toby loves his village of Rossingley so much he’s never left. Working as a manny caring for the children of the eccentric sixteenth earl is his dream job. Sure, he’d like to travel someday and maybe find a boyfriend, one who doesn’t treat him like a doormat. But with his deformity denting his confidence, Toby counts his blessings and takes what he can get. That is, until a sullen, handsome misfit comes to stay, flipping Toby’s ordered village life upside down.

Rating: B

I’ve become a big fan of Fearne Hill’s writing over the past year or so, to the point where I’ll read anything she writes. To Mend a Broken Wing is the fourth full-length book in her Rossingley series, which I’ve had mixed reactions to; I read the second book and wasn’t wild about it, I listened to the audiobook version of book one and really enjoyed it, and haven’t got around to the third, so I approached this one with a little bit of trepidation. I’m pleased to say that I liked it a lot, and that not having read the previous book wasn’t a problem, as any background information I might have missed is included here.

The fictional Rossingley estate is in the south of England, and is the family seat of the Duchamps-Avery family, Earls of Rossingley. The current earl, Lucien Avery, has made his home there, and lives with his husband Jay and their three children, twins Arthur and Eliza and toddler, Orlando (Lucien and Jay’s romance is book one, To Hold a Hidden Pearl).

Lucien might be an earl, but he’s a working one; he’s a consultant anaesthetist and Jay is also a doctor, so they employ a live-in ‘manny’, Toby, the nephew of the estate manager. Toby grew up in Rossingley village and has lived there all his life apart from a few years spent at university in Bristol; he’s cheerful, sweet and down-to-earth, wrangling three kids with seemingly effortless patience and good humour. Life hasn’t always been easy – he was born with a rare condition which resulted in his having one arm that ends below the elbow – but he loves his charges, his job and the comforting sounds, smells and rhythms of provincial life. The downside to it is that his love life is a bit… well, close to non-existent, but he wouldn’t really want to live anywhere else.

Into this loving, happy home comes twenty-two-year-old Noah Bennett, full of bitterness, anger and frustration after learning the truth about his parentage. He grew up without a dad and with a mother who never really cared about him, and now she’s remarried Noah just… doesn’t fit. At the beginning of the book, he’s just found out he’s the son of (former) footballer Guillaume Guilbaud (To Take a Quiet Breath) who knocked up his mum when she was just seventeen and they were drunk on a beach on Ibiza; and as if that’s not bad enough, his sperm donor” is also a convicted murderer who was only recently released after serving fifteen years in prison. Full of anger, resentment and lots of other feelings he doesn’t know what to do with, Noah spends the last of his money on a train ticket and heads off to France to find his errant father and tell him exactly what he thinks of him.

If Noah had an actual plan, what happens next wasn’t it. The white man who opens the door at the house he’s been directed to is clearly not his father, and when Guillaume arrives shortly afterwards, Noah is surprised at the gentle care he displays towards the other man who is, apparently, his husband, Marcel. Noah hadn’t expected to be received with open arms – in fact, he’s not sure what he’d expected – but Guillaume’s mixture of cold courtesy and simmering annoyance is enough to convince him this visit was a terrible idea. Having no money left, he asks Guillaume to help him get back to England.

Guillaume goes one better. He and Marcel accompany Noah back to the UK and take him to stay with Marcel’s best friend, Lucien Avery, at Rossingley, figuring it’s probably not a good idea for father and son to see too much of each other while their tempers are so frayed. A bit of distance is needed to give them both a chance to work out how – or if – they want to be a part of each other’s lives without punching each other’s lights out.

At first, Noah has no intentions of sticking around. Somewhere like Rossingley is certainly not for the likes of him and everyone in it is so happy, it’s just fucking weird. Lucien is the weirdest of the lot, but Noah quickly realises there’s steel beneath the eccentric and coolly aristocratic exterior when Lucien explains that while he’s very pleased to have him to stay, Noah is not going to just loaf around and is expected to make himself useful in some way. If working in the garden doesn’t appeal, he can pick up some shifts behind the bar at the local pub.

Noah is a ball of seething resentment when he arrives at Rossingley, and it’s easy to understand why. Life has dealt him a shitty hand, but he has to learn to let go of all the negativity that’s pulling him down and will keep pulling him down if he lets it; to leave the past behind if he’s going to forge ahead and determine his own path in life. Part of that process is learning that other people have had it tough, too – in different ways, maybe, but in ways that make their suffering no less valid – and how to deal with the things life throws at him in a more mature and rational way. Lucky for him, he’s got a lot of people around him who are only to willing to him on his way if he’ll let them.

Noah’s budding romance with Toby plays just as large a part in the story as his character growth. Toby is kind, funny, cute and endlessly cheerful, and if Noah hadn’t already known he was bi, the slow-growing attraction he feels for Toby would have confirmed it. They have great chemistry and their love story is sweet and warm and lovely; neither of them quite believes he’s deserving of love (Toby is very conscious of his arm even though he tries hard not to show it; Noah is just so bitter at the world) yet they find what they need in each other. One moment that’s stuck with me that shows just how right they are for one another – and just how far Noah has come – comes late in the book when they argue and Noah, instead of flying off the handle, takes the time to really think about what Toby said and then apologises. It’s proper, grown-up communication and I’m always here for that in a romance novel.

I like the found family aspect of this series and enjoyed catching up with characters from the previous instalments, especially larger-than-life Lucien, who is always a delight but is never allowed to overwhelm the story. The fraught reelationship between Noah and Guillaume is handled really well, too, and Noah’s reaction to finding out Toby’s mother is the local vicar is a hoot.

The only thing I didn’t like was the sudden switch to Lucien’s PoV in the epilogue. On the one hand, it does bring a sense of closure to the series (I’m guessing this is the final Rossingley book), but on the other, it was quite jarring after having the rest of the narrative divided between Noah and Toby.

All in all however, To Mend a Broken Wing is a charming, funny and heartfelt grumpy/sunshine romance and I’m happy to recommend it.

Bad Deal (A-List Security #3) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

This title may be purchased from Amazon

I’m a bodyguard and far from ideal boyfriend material, but agreeing to this fake dating scheme might be the best bad deal I’ve ever made….

I’m a fixer. As a SEAL chief, I succeeded in impossible no-win situations. Now I’m retired and determined to improve the lives of my former military teammates through our Hollywood security firm. Plus, I get to guard intriguing people like Ambrose Sterling, creator of one of my favorite TV shows.

Of course, I want to keep Ambrose safe. When he’s attacked, I leap into action to save him and his scrappy little therapy dog.

But my good deed results in a coastal road trip with me pretending to be Ambrose’s boyfriend to keep him out of more danger.

I don’t do relationships, and I’ve never thought about dating a man before, but here I am, sizzling with every touch and dreaming about more stolen kisses.

Each night of white-hot passion brings us closer to an unbreakable bond. But I’m blue-collar, and Ambrose is Hollywood elite. I want a happy ending more than anything. Can I turn this fake boyfriend gig into the real thing, or am I just a guest star?

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B-

Bad Deal is the third book in Annabeth Albert’s series of bodyguard romances featuring the guys of A-List Security, the elite private security firm run by long-time friends and former SEALs Duncan Lubov and Harley Burton. Like the other books in the series, it’s fairly low-angst and is entirely character-driven, which is this author’s real strength. There are quite a few tropes thrown in here – only one bed, adorable dog, fake-boyfriend, sexual-awakening – but she makes them work; Ms. Albert knows how to create engaging, relatable characters for readers and listeners to care about and root for.

Harley’s current gig is co-ordinating the security on the set of a popular TV show called Traveling (which sounds a bit like a cross between Quantum Leap and Timeless). Showrunner Ambrose Stirling describes himself as “a neurotic TV show creator prone to overusing big words” – which is probably true, although that’s not all he is. He does suffer from anxiety disorder (the ’adorable dog’ I mentioned is Hercules, his therapy dog) but for all that he’s a big deal in the world of television, he’s a very down to earth, gentle man who takes care to treat his staff well and who cares passionately about what he does. His sister Cressida is his business partner, and although they obviously adore each other and get along really well, he does have a tendency to defer to her perhaps more than he should. However, he’s not too pleased with her for teasing him about his crush on their hot, ripped and undoubtedly straight head of security within the man’s hearing.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

My 2022 in Books and Audio

What was I listening to and reading in 2022?  My Goodreads stats show I managed 238 books overall (just over my Reading Challenge target of 225) which was split almost equally between print and audio – 52.2% ebook, 47.8% audio – and around two-thirds of my reading/listening last year was ARCs/ALCs.  (Returning to work as a teacher and continuing my freelance work as an audio proofer had a slight impact on my overall total, which is a little bit less than last year.)

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 123 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 30 3 star books, 2 2 star books and 1 DNF.

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, around 34-35 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total.

The books that made my Best of 2022 list at All About Romance:

Nicky James and C.S. Poe are at the top of their game right now; Rachel Reid gave Shane and Ilya the perfect send-off and I was really pleased to be able to include a début author (Jess Everlee) on the list, with her late-Victorian era queer romance. Jay Hogan has long been a must-read author, Charlie Adhara got her new Monster Hunt series off to a great start and of course no Best of the Year list of mine would be complete without at least one book by Gregory Ashe! (Although I really don’t like that cover…)

Some of favourite audiobooks of the year at AudioGals are the audio versions of some of the above titles:

The other titles I rated most highly are complete (or ongoing) series:

Another series I binged in 2022 was Cole McCade’s Criminal Intentions. Books 1-3 came out in audio (superbly narrated by Curt Bonnem- reviews of books 1& 2 HERE), and I was very quickly hooked to the fabulous combinations of dark, twisty mystery/procedurals and the super slow burn romance between the two leads. But with no sign of any more books being released in audio, I switched to print and steadily worked my way through the rest of Season One and am almost finished Season Two. I gather that the author decided to put the series on hiatus last year after some very ugly online bullying (honestly – have these people nothing better to do than to badger and berate an author because he’s not writing his books the way they want them written??) – but that he was planning to put out the remaining ten books this year. I don’t know for sure if that’s happening, but I really hope so; I love Mal and Seong-Jae and want to know how it all pans out for them.

From my didn’t-quite-make-it (the “also rans”) list:

In audio, these were the titles where I gave an A grade for narration and a B+ for the story:

I also had a lot of fun listening to Meghan Maslow’s Starfig Investigations series (narrated by the wonderful Greg Boudreaux) – a light-hearted adventure romp with a romance between a wizard and a dragon shifter, finishing up with Eden Winter’s excellent Diversion series and with the latest PsyCop story, Subtle Bodies in which Gomez Pugh continues to completely embody the character of Victor Bayne. Nazri Noor’s Fantasy/Urban Fantasy is a recent discovery – he has excellent narrators (I’ve listened to Greg Boudreaux and Zachary Johnson so far) and is very prolific, so I’ve got some catching up to do in 2023!

Other books I’m looking forward to – I’ve already read (and loved) KJ Charles’ The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (out in March) so I’m eager to read the second book in her Doomsday duology, which is out this autumn. With any luck, she’ll get stuck on whatever she’s writing next and will just write a different book while she gets unstuck! (Sorry, KJ – not that I’m wishing writer’s block on you!) There’s one more book (that I know of, maybe more) to come in Nicky James’ Valor and Doyle series plus C.S. Poe’s Broadway Butchery (May), which is absolutely one of my most anticipated books of the year. I’d love to get book four in the Magic & Steam series, too, but maybe I’m just being greedy…

Thanks for your company – here and at Goodreads (and AAR and AG) – over the past year, and for chatting about books and audiobooks with me! I’ll be back in this spot next year to see how 2023 went!

Georgie, All Along by Kate Clayborn

georgie all along

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Longtime personal assistant Georgie Mulcahy has made a career out of putting others before herself. When an unexpected upheaval sends her away from her hectic job in L.A. and back to her hometown, Georgie must confront an uncomfortable truth: her own wants and needs have always been a disconcertingly blank page.

But then Georgie comes across a forgotten artifact—a “friendfic” diary she wrote as a teenager, filled with possibilities she once imagined. To an overwhelmed Georgie, the diary’s simple, small-scale ideas are a lifeline—a guidebook for getting started on a new path.

Georgie’s plans hit a snag when she comes face to face with an unexpected roommate—Levi Fanning, onetime town troublemaker and current town hermit. But this quiet, grouchy man is more than just his reputation, and he offers to help Georgie with her quest. As the two make their way through her wishlist, Georgie begins to realize that what she truly wants might not be in the pages of her diary after all, but right by her side—if only they can both find a way to let go of the pasts that hold them back.

Rating: B+

I don’t read much m/f romance these days, but I’m always up for one of Kate Clayborn’s because they’re so thoughtful and tender and honest. She writes complex, well-drawn characters who are dealing with relatable, real-life problems, and while not ‘flashy’ or full of drama, her books nonetheless pack a real emotional punch. Her newest release, Georgie, All Along seems to be a retread of the ‘protagonist returns to small home-town and finds love and a new direction in life’ trope – and, to an extent, it is – but in Ms. Clayborn’s capable hands the story transcends the trope and becomes something simultaneously deeper and refreshingly different.

Georgie Mulcahy always had a reputation for being a bit flaky and unreliable in her hometown of Darentville, Virginia. She didn’t amount to much at school and never had any real ambitions beyond it; but her ability to live completely in the ‘now’, to adapt and to think on her feet proved to be exactly suited to working as a PA to high-powered (and high-maintenance) intensely creative – and often intensely chaotic – people in the entertainment industry. For the past three years, she’s worked for Nadia, a well-known screenwriter and director, but when Nadia decides – spontaneously – to retire, Georgie is left at a loose end, coming face to face with the fact that she’s never really had a plan for what to do with her life. With Nadia’s suggestion that she can take the time to do “all the things you want to do”, Georgie decides to head back home for a little while, spend some time with her best friend and her family while she works out what she wants to do next.

Arrived in Darentville, Georgie stops at what she remembers as the general store but which she is surprised to find is now somewhat more upmarket than it used to be. In fact, the whole town seems to have undergone a transformation, the slightly shabby place she remembers giving way to new housing and shops and the signs of a flourishing tourism trade. It’s this ‘renewal’ that has drawn her best friend, Bel, back there, to a new life in a new home with her husband and their soon-to-be family (Bel is eight months pregnant). Georgie decides to buy them a couple of strawberry milkshakes – hopefully they’re as good as she remembers – only to be realise she’s left her purse in her car. Embarrassed – she’s only been back in town less than a hour and already she’s living up to people’s memories and expectations of her as a total flake – she’s checking her pockets just in case, when a guy wearing scruffy work clothes and an irritated expression, steps in to pay for the shakes so he can buy his own stuff and be on his way. The guy is pretty dismissive when she says she’ll pay him back; that, and the knowing looks on the face of the other customer – one of her former teachers – only bolsters Georgie’s determination that when she leaves town this time, she’s going to have figured herself out and worked out what she really wants.

One of the things Georgie had banked on was being able to help Bel out in some way – maybe with unpacking or getting the nursery ready – so she’s a bit disappointed to discover that Bel is on top of everything and doesn’t really need her help at all. She brightens a little when Bel takes her to a room full of boxes and bags that she realises contain a lot of stuff from when Bel was younger – and becomes excited when she finds the notebook containing their eighth grade ‘friendfic’, story after story about what they’d do once they got to high school, surprised to discover her teenaged brain teeming with ideas – albeit on a small scale – about her future. She decides to take it home with her – maybe she’ll be able to work out what happened to that girl (who had actual intentions) – and decides that if she can make some of her teenage dreams come true, she’ll be able to get closer to finding a new path for herself.

Georgie’s parents – who are retired – are away on one of their regular road-trips, so Georgie isn’t expecting company when she goes back home, but she’s in the middle of reading through the fic when she hears a key turning in the lock and the familiar creak of the door sticking before it opens to reveal the guy from the store. And his huge, lumbering dog Hank, who barrels right in.

Levi Fanning is the black sheep of his well-to-to family as well as being Darentville’s ‘bad boy’ – despite being in his thirties and the owner of a successful business. He’s also the older brother of Evan, on whom Georgie once had a massive crush, and is clearly as surprised to find Georgie in the house as she is to see him there. It turns out that her dad had offered him the use of the house for a few weeks because his own is having some badly needed repairs done – and had forgotten to tell Georgie about it. As a set up, I admit it feels a bit contrived, but once we meet Georgie’s lovingly chaotic, free-spirited parents, it becomes perfectly plausible.

Georgie and Levi embody certain romance novel stereotypes (she’s the ‘quirky’, ‘flighty’ heroine, who travels with belongings in trash bags in the back of her car and doesn’t have a Plan; he’s a grumpy, shy loner with a troubled past), and one of the things I really enjoyed about the story is the way the author shows that Georgie’s ‘flightiness’ is part of what made her so very good at her job, how her adaptability, intuitiveness and creativity are great strengths. Levi’s backstory emerges slowly, but his bad reputation is down to his going through a more than rebellious phase that continued into young adulthood which has led to his being estranged from his family. In the years since, he’s worked hard to make something of himself and to dispel that old image – but the locals have long memories and he keeps himself pretty much to himself now, keeping his head down, doing his job and kind of creeping around the edges of life, believing he doesn’t deserve anything more. By contrast, Georgie comes from a loving – if somewhat scatty – family, who always loved and supported her, giving her the space to make mistakes and be a mess – but it’s only now that she starts to see that what they were really encouraging her to be was herself.

These two are authentic and honest with one another and are prepared to give each other time and space when they need it. I loved that Levi is able to really see Georgie when others – even those closest to her – aren’t always able to, and that while Georgie always calls Levi on his bullshit she’s never aggressive or unkind. She doesn’t push him for more than he’s comfortable sharing but also makes it clear why she’s calling him out and that she wants to understand and help if she can. They both make mistakes – Levi, in particular, makes some choices I wasn’t happy about – but when they do, they take responsibility for them and do their best to fix them.

This is one of those books where nothing much ‘happens’ but where there’s a lot going on under the surface. The relationships – Georgie and Bel (the revelation as to the origins of the friendfic is just brilliant), Georgie and her parents and, of course, Georgie and Levi – are all beautifully written, and the romance is poignant and charming.

Georgie, All Along is a treat of a read, a wonderful story of love and self discovery to sink into and get lost in.