Christmas Mountain by Garrett Leigh

christmas mountain

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The probation officer caring for his dead brother’s baby. The wounded gentle giant with the biggest softest heart.

Rami: Sweet Fen Hawthorne is my favourite thing about working in the prison. His broad shoulders and sunny grin. His twinkly flirtation. And he likes me as much as I like him. More seems inevitable until life happens.

One day I’m there, then I’m not, and second chances don’t really happen when your car breaks down halfway up a snowy mountain, do they?

Besides, I don’t remember flirting with a bearded lumbersexual, only dreaming about one.

Fen: Do dreams come true?

Christmas Mountain is my home. But it’s the one place on earth I never imagined seeing Rami Stone again, and now I’m snowed in with him. Trapped, with only a roaring fire for company, and it’s a fantasy come true. The air is thick with more than snow and the eighteen months we’ve been apart fades away.

As the snow clears, though, so does the haze. Rami says he comes with baggage.

But so do I, and I’m here for the heavy lifting.

I’m here for forever.

Rating: B

Christmas Mountain is a sweet, sexy and emotional opposites-attract/second-chance love story featuring two guys who sort of ‘just missed’ each other when both their lives took unexpected turns before they could get around to going on a date.  Their rekindled romance is a slow-burn with lots of longing and pining, the family dynamics – both biological and chosen – are well done, and the two central characters – one quiet and stoic, the other snarky and with a bit of a temper on him – are relatable and appealing.

Rami Stone and Fen Hawthorne know each other through their work – as a probation officer and corrections officer respectively – at HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Manchester. They’ve each other around on a fairly regular basis and like what they see; Fen is about to ask Rami out one day when he’s called to deal with an emergency – and when Rami gets home he’s called to an emergency of his own.  His messed-up younger brother has died from an overdose, leaving Rami – literally – holding the baby, his infant nephew, Charlie.

When Rami returns to work after an extended leave, he’s surprised and saddened to find that Fen no longer works there, learning a few months later that Fen left his job after he was stabbed by a prisoner and almost died.   When Christmas Mountain begins, it’s eighteen months after Rami’s brother died, and he’s been sharing – sort of – parenting duties with Charlie’s mum Leanne, who isn’t exactly a model parent.  But now, the day he’s been dreading has arrived, and Leanne has simply buggered off.  Rami has managed so far by working part time and having Charlie part time, but he’s not cut out to be a full-time parent and, exhausted, worried, furious and desperate, he panics.  He’ll take Charlie to his sister Safia’s place in the Lake District – his one thought is that Charlie will be safe there – so despite the worsening weather conditions, and without stopping to pack anything for himself, he straps Charlie into the back of his crappy old car and heads out of Manchester, towards Safia’s home on the colloquially named Christmas Mountain in Cumbria.

Alas for Rami, his car gives out in the midst of a snowstorm when he’s not far from Durdle Fell, but his phone is dead (not that the service around there is great anyway) and no way can he leave Charlie in the car while he goes for help.  He hadn’t told Safia to expect him, so nobody will be looking for him when he doesn’t arrive.  There’s nothing for it but to wait the storm out.

A few hours later – Rami is surprised he managed to fall asleep – comes a tap on the window and, filled with relief, Rami gets out of the car expecting it to be his brother-in-law, but it isn’t.

Incredibly, it’s Fen who, after the attack, left the Prison Service and returned to his roots in Cumbria, where he now runs the Christmas tree and timber farm that’s been in his family for generations.

Rami and Fen have been through a lot.  They’ve both been hurt – physically and emotionally – and seem to have reached a point where they don’t know how to move forward with their lives and are in danger of getting stuck in a rut of existing without really living.  Rami is dedicated and cares deeply about helping those he works with to get their lives back on track, but has been so worn down by grief and the extra responsibility he’s had to take on that he’s lost his way and doesn’t quite know what he wants for his future any more.  He can be a bit prickly and sometimes gets in his own way, but his confusion and the feeling of being pulled in so many different directions at once that he just can’t think straight any more are portrayed extremely well.  And while Fen seems content with the new direction his life is taking, he’s struggling with some residual trauma from the attack and finds it difficult to let people in.

It seems Fen and Rami have never been far from each other’s thoughts over the past eighteen months, and the attraction that sparked between them when they were working together doesn’t take long to spark again and for things to start warming up.  But despite their obvious physical attraction they don’t jump into bed straight away, and I appreciated that;  it gives their relationship a chance to breathe as they reconnect and start to re-assess where they are and what they want, and to process the ways in which their experiences have changed them.  Rami has never had a serious relationship and doesn’t feel he has the wherewithal to commit to one; Fen is demi-sexual and doesn’t do one-night stands, so they both have to give some serious thought to what – if anything – can happen between them and what it will mean for both of them.

This wouldn’t be a Garrett Leigh book without a bit of angst, and there’s just the right amount here;  some of the Christmassy stories I’ve read so far this year have been mostly pure fluff – and that’s fine – but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the extra bit of grit in this story.  That’s not to say that the angst is overwhelming or depressing – it isn’t – but the issues keeping Fen and Rami from acting on their attraction aren’t trivial ones and I liked the honesty and realism that this brings to their story. For me, the balance was just about right; Rami and Fen are wonderfully real and the chemistry between them sizzles, and there’s enough Christmas magic in the story to balance out its more serious aspects without it tipping over into cheesy schmaltz.

The few secondary characters are strongly characterised, the children feel like actual kids rather than plot moppets, and the setting is vivid; Safia’s home is full of genuine warmth and love and Christmas spirit, and Fen being the owner of a Christmas tree farm is a nice touch.

I do, however, have a few small niggles that keep this one from a higher grade. The final bit of drama, while certainly plausible given the location of this story, felt a bit tacked on, and the solution to Rami’s work situation is just a bit sudden and convenient – and that nobody thought of it earlier seemed a bit odd.

Overall, however, Christmas Mountain is a heartwarming story about two people finding each other again at exactly the right time in their lives and I’m happy to recommend it.  All the ingredients – hurt/comfort, Christmas spirit, humour, chemistry, angst and steam – are perfectly balanced to make for a touching and satisfying seasonal read.

Coddiwomple by S.E. Harmon (audiobook) – Narrated by Nick Hudson

coddiwomple

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a wildlife photographer, Journey “JJ” Sutton never stays in one place too long. The world is his classroom, and he’s living his dream. His only regret is that he had to sacrifice the love of his life to do it. But as the saying goes, you can never go home again. That’s until there’s a family emergency, and he has to…well, go home again. His easy breezy lifestyle gets complicated fast. It certainly doesn’t help that his ex-fiancé has bought the house next door.

After an unstable childhood, Cameron Foster loves small-town life. He has everything he needs in his vet practice, his friends, and his animals. Despite what numerous exes seem to think, he’s not still in love with Journey. And so what if they add “benefits” to their friendship? As long as he keeps his heart out of the equation, everything should be fine.

Too bad Journey’s not onboard with that plan. With summer ending, he has to convince Cameron that this is more than just a fling. This time around, he knows what he wants. He wants a second chance. He wants forever. Most of all, he wants Cameron’s heart.

Journey may have put away his passport, but things are just getting interesting.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – B-

I confess that I initially thought Coddiwomple was a made-up word, but it turns out it isn’t! It means “to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination”, and it’s the perfect title for this second chance romance in which a globetrotting photographer comes back to the home town – and the man – he left years before only to discover that life has a way of bringing you back to where you’re supposed to be.

For well over a decade, Journey Sutton – usually known as JJ – has travelled the world, making a name for himself (and a good living) as a wildlife photographer. It’s what he’d always dreamed of; living an unencumbered life away from the small Florida town of Coral Cove and the family responsibilities that had been dumped on him at a young age, following the death of his mother and his father’s descent into alcoholism – and he has no regrets. Well, maybe one. The man he left behind. The man he’d planned to marry.

Cameron Foster likes his life as a small-town veterinarian, although his love life hasn’t been quite as successful. After a childhood and adolescence spent moving from place to place as his father collected and discarded wives (!) Cameron was finally able to put down roots and gain some stability when he went to live with his stepmother Rosy. Falling in love and planning to make a life with the man he loved was just the icing on the cake – until it wasn’t, and JJ left town to follow his dream.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Wrangler and the Orphan (Farthingale Ranch #4) by Jackie North

the wrangler and the orphan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“Some scars run soul-deep. Some scars only love can heal.”
Brody is the wrangler at Farthingdale Ranch. He knows a lot about horses, but not a whole lot about people.

He is so broken, he cannot imagine anyone would want to love him. Then along comes Kit, a young man in need of shelter, searching for a forever home.

In Kit, Brody sees the scared young man he used to be. In caring for Kit, Brody is in over his head.

But as Brody makes room in his heart for Kit, both their lives begin to change.

Rating: C

The Wrangler and the Orphan is book four in Jackie North’s Farthingale Ranch series; I haven’t read any of the others, but although characters from the other books appear in it, this one stands alone.  It’s a hurt/comfort age-gap romance in which the two leads bond over just how far their lives mirror each other and how much they have in common, but although I generally like age-gap romances, they can be difficult to pull off successfully, and I’m afraid this one didn’t work for me.
Brody Calhoun, wrangler at Farthingdale Ranch, is preparing to head back to the ranch after running some errands in town, when he sees a young man crawling out of a basement window in the Rusty Nail bar.  Brody recognises the kid as one that his friend Clay had stopped being smacked around by the bar’s owner a while back, and it doesn’t take him long to work out that he must be running away.  Brody can’t help seeing a younger version of himself in the scared, bleeding youngster, and signals him to get in to the truck.  He’ll take him back to the ranch and… well, he doesn’t quite know what to do long-term, but for now, he’ll get him cleaned up and fed and figure it out from there.

Kit Foster is nineteen and has spent his life being neglected and abused by his dead-beat mother Katie and her endless string of boyfriends, so much so that it’s become the norm for him.  Her latest boyfriend was Eddie Piggot, owner of the Rusty Nail, but now she’s skipped town after stealing five thousand dollars from him, leaving Kit behind.   Needless to say, Eddie is furious, and takes out that fury on Kit, who, with no money and nowhere to go, has to stay put and take what’s dished out.  Until an especially vicious beating prompts him to finally get away and he squeezes out the basement window.

Thanks to spending his own child-and-young-adulthood with the abusive Daddy Frank, Brody immediately recognises the signs of similar trauma in Kit.  At seventeen, Brody was rescued by trail boss Quint McKay, who showed him care and kindness and taught him that there is good in the world; now Brody decides it’s time for him to pay it forward, and that he’ll do  whatever it takes to help Kit.

The Wrangler and the Orphan is well written, with some lovely descriptive prose, a strong element of found-family, and well-realised moments of insight and emotion that tug at the heartstrings – but the romance is problematic.  The age-gap isn’t the issue; I don’t think Brody’s age is stated, but I got the impression he’s late twenties – the trouble is that Kit reads so much younger than nineteen and for over half the book, Brody treats him more like a child than an adult.  (He calls him “youngling” half the time, which Kit says he likes, but it made me uncomfortable.) As a result, their relationship is completely unbalanced; Kit is emotionally immature, he looks to Brody for just about everything and is still learning to think for himself by the time the novel ends.  His feelings for Brody read more like hero worship than love, and I honestly couldn’t believe that someone so vulnerable and so traumatised, who finds it very hard to trust, would fall in love in just a matter of weeks – or that he was capable of that sort of emotional commitment.  I had hoped the story would take place over a longer time-span, that maybe in the second half, we’d see Kit and Brody a few years on, with both of them having addressed their issues and ready to be in a healthy relationship, but that wasn’t the case. And Kit’s seeming so much younger, together with his vulnerability and naivéte meant that when things turned sexual in the second half, I was squicked out; his and Brody’s first sexual encounter takes place after hardly any build-up and in circumstances I found both bizarre and discomfiting.

Brody is nicely drawn; he’s quiet, thoughtful and insightful, and the patience borne of his lifelong experience with horses makes him perfectly poised to help Kit, who is often likened to a skittish, wounded animal.  Kit is less well-defined though; he’s young and has experienced little outside of Katie’s neglect and abuse, so he’s something of a blank space.  I did like watching him slowly learning to fit in and become part of the ranch community and his slowly growing confidence.

Brody’s past means he knows exactly what Kit has gone through and how he’s likely to react to certain things in the present, so he makes sure to avoid rocking the boat, and his behaviour and ability to remain on an even keel is admirable.  But it’s clear that he’s never really dealt with his own trauma (has nobody at the ranch heard of therapy?!), his coping mechanisms are pretty unhealthy and he seems unwilling to attempt to find better ones or actually work through his issues.  He helps Kit to deal with his trauma, but we’re never shown Brody telling Kit about what happened to him or making the attempt to deal with it, which is another thing that makes the novel feel unbalanced.  The fact that neither Eddie nor Katie gets any sort of comeuppance also left me feeling dissatisfied.

I get the impression from the handful of reviews I’ve read that the other books in the Farthingdale Ranch series have worked better as romances and The Wrangler and the Orphan is something of an outlier.  I’ve enjoyed other books by Jackie North, so while I can’t recommend this one, I’m chalking my disappointment up to experience and will try something else of hers in the not too distant future.

The Cuckoo’s Call by Lily Morton

the cuckoo's call

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Can a summer romance last forever?

Wren Roberts thought he’d found his fairy tale when he met Mateo Rossi on holiday in Majorca. The wealthy and successful older man swept him off his feet, and before he knew it, he’d thrown caution to the wind and was living in Mateo’s waterside apartment in Venice. It’s a far cry from his harsh upbringing and crummy flat in London.

But as the summer turns to autumn, cracks begin to show. Mateo’s family aren’t welcoming, and there doesn’t seem to be a place for Wren in Mateo’s world. He could have coped with all of that, but Mateo himself seems like a different person away from the sunshine island.

Should Wren have been more cautious in riding off into the sunset when he wasn’t sure what lay over the horizon?

Rating: B+

Lily Morton’s The Cuckoo’s Call is a charming and heartfelt age-gap, opposites-attract romance that looks at what happens to a holiday romance after the holiday is over.  You generally know what you’re getting with a Morton book – steamy sexytimes, witty banter, engaging characters and a good helping of feels – which is exactly what’s on offer here, and if you’ve read at least some of Lily Morton’s other romances, you’ll recognise the character-types – the snarky, free-spirited one and the more world-weary one who falls completely under his spell but fights it all the way.  But tropes are tropes are tropes; as always, it’s what the author does with them that matters, and if the formula happens to work for you (as it did for me here) then you’ll likely enjoy the book.

Wren Roberts was looking forward to taking a holiday on the island of Majorca with his long-time friend, Owen, but didn’t know that they would be joined there by a group of Owen’s rich, snobby friends.  After a week of putting up with their not-so-veiled jibes at his non-designer clothes and being dragged to private beaches and expensive bars, he’s more than a little pissed off when Owen announces the group’s intention to finish their holiday in Madrid – the fare an expense Wren can’t afford.

Wren is giving Owen a piece of his mind in the hotel lobby when he notices their exchange being watched by a striking, dark-haired man at the reception desk who is trying to suppress a smile.

Although disappointing, Owen’s departure at least means Wren will be able to explore the island and do the things he wants to do.  Not so good though is the treatment he’s afforded by the hotel staff; now he’s on his own and not with a rich crowd, they’re less than polite towards him, and one of the waiters is in the process of turning Wren away from the restaurant when the man Wren had seen earlier announces that Wren is his dinner guest – and the waiter’s attitude immediately turns from dismissive to obsequious.  Wren isn’t sure what’s going on, but when the man – who introduces himself as Mateo – invites him to join him, Wren allows himself to be persuaded to stay.

Wren and Mateo share a meal and an enjoyable evening, but it’s not until Wren has, with typical self-deprecating humour, spoken about the rudeness of the staff that he realises exactly whom he’d had dinner with.  Mateo Rossi.  The owner of the hotel.

Oops.

When Wren answers the knock on his door the following morning, Mateo is the last person he expects to see standing there.  Far from being annoyed, however, the man is smiling and chatty, then asks Wren to tell him about the pros and cons of his room, listening carefully to what he has to say.  He then explains that he’s on Majorca in order to purchase two more hotels, and would like Wren to view them with him:

You have a very keen eye, and I find I need that this week… I find myself suffering a little ennui.  Everything looks the same to me at the moment.  I need a pair of fresh eyes.

Wren thinks he should probably turn down such an out-of-the-blue request… but he wants to do it, to go with this intriguing man and have something exciting happen, something he can remember when he’s back at his boring job in gloomy London.  He says yes.

Over the next few days, Mateo – who was born on Majorca and obviously adores the place – shows Wren more of the island, taking him to some of his favourite places in between their visits to the hotels he’s considering purchasing.  A genuine friendship springs up between this odd couple, and it’s the best week of Wren’s life, even though he knows he’s in danger of falling for the fascinating, older man.  Mateo isn’t looking for anything long-term – and even if he were, he’s way out of Wren’s league – but Wren decides the eventual heartbreak will be worth it for having had the chance to live life to the full for this one week and make lots of wonderful memories to take home with him.  And Wren’s captivating mix of honesty, warmth and humour make Mateo realise how weary and closed-off he’s been, and how long it is since he’s felt so unencumbered, so joyous and free.  On their final day together, Mateo suddenly realises he’s not ready to let Wren go – and asks him to go back to Venice with him (which is where his family and business are based) and stay for a month.

It’s not a spoiler (it’s in the blurb) to say that in Venice, things change.  Mateo’s mother and stepsister are hostile towards Wren, and even though Mateo wants to spend time with him, he is quickly sucked back in to the corporate world and consumed by his responsibilities.  Wren can’t deny he’s upset at not seeing much of Mateo, but he decides to make the most of his time in the city and enjoy it while he can.  But the longer he’s around the Rossi family, the more Wren is convinced there’s no place for him in Mateo’s world.

Wren is a complete and utter sweetheart.  An orphan brought up in foster care, he’s learned not to expect much and that the only person he can really depend on is himself, but despite his difficult upbringing, he’s also learned to make the most of what is available to him and has somehow managed to maintain an upbeat and optimistic outlook and to develop “a deep compassion that someone who grew up like him should surely not possess.”  His gentle humour has a softer edge than the rapier wit displayed by many of Lily Morton’s characters, but it fits Wren perfectly; he’s kind and generous, but he doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t let anyone push him around.  I loved his honesty and self-awareness;  he doesn’t lie to himself about what he feels for Mateo, going into their relationship with his eyes open and knowing it’s got an end date, determined not to put any pressure on Mateo for anything he’s not able or prepared to give.  Mateo is a bit more of a romance stereotype; the workaholic businessman weighed down by responsibility who’s lost sight of the important things in life.  I liked the way the story is structured; it’s easy to understand why Wren would fall for the more carefree Mateo we see in the first part of the book, and seeing that man first makes his reversion to the duty-bound man of the second part even more painful to witness.

The story is told from both PoVs, although at least three-quarters of it is told from Wren’s perspective with the odd chapter told from Mateo’s, and of the small secondary cast, Mateo’s grandfather is the standout.  I also noticed a couple of characters who seem to be crying out for a book of their own!  And bonus points for the references to the gothic romances of yore – I got a definite Rebecca-ish vibe early on (although there’s no Mrs. Danvers, fortunately!) – and Wren’s love of Mills & Boon.

Wren and Mateo’s romance is passionate and tender and full of affectionate, gentle humour – and though the angst level is fairly low, the author still manages to pack quite the emotional punch. With its wonderfully described Mediterranean/Venetian settings and charming central characters, The Cuckoo’s Call is a lovely, feel-good read that will bring a smile to your face, a lump to your throat and warmth and sunshine to the grey days of winter.

TBR Challenge: Tiny House, Big Love (Love Unscripted #2) by Olivia Dade

tiny house big love

This title may be purchsed from Amazon

On camera. Up close. In denial–but not for much longer…

After a relationship gone bad, Lucy Finch is leaving everything behind. Her old home, her old job, her old insecurities. Even Sebastián Castillo, her protective but intensely private friend of almost twenty years. Before she moves halfway across the country, though, she has one last request for Seb: She wants him to help her choose a tiny house on cable television. And maybe during the filming process, she can discover once and for all whether his feelings for her are more than platonic…

Sebastián would rather do anything than appear on HATV. But Lucy needs him, and he can’t say no. Not when she’s about to leave, taking his heart with her. Hiding how he feels with a television crew watching their every move will prove difficult, though–especially when that crew is doing their sneaky best to transform two longtime friends into a couple.

Tiny spaces. Hidden emotions. The heat generated by decades of desire and denial. A week spent on camera might just turn Lucy and Seb’s relationship from family-friendly to viewer discretion advised…

Rating: B+

Tiny House, Big Love is the second of Olivia Dade’s Love Unscripted books, both of which feature contestants taking part in different reality TV shows.  In this story, the show is Tiny House Trackers, in which the participants are looking to buy – you guessed it! – a Tiny House.  I have to stop here to confess that I had no idea a Tiny House was something other than “a very small house”, and had to look it up so I could understand what the heroine was actually looking for!  It’s a quick and entertaining read, the two leads are endearing and the mutual longing they feel for each other just leaps off the page, although the short page-count left me wanting to know about more of both their backstories.

Massage therapist Lucy Finch is about to take a promotion which will require her to move around the country a fair bit, and rather than finding temporary accommodation each time she moves, she’s decided to buy a Tiny Home that she can take with her wherever she goes.  Her friend, Allie, a real estate agent, encouraged her to apply to appear on the show and she’ll be the one finding Lucy three homes to view – with the expectation being that she’ll choose to buy one of them at the end of it.  Lucy asks her best friend of over twenty years, Sebastián Castillo, to be on the show, too, to help her make her choice.

It’s clear from the off that Sebastián and Lucy have long had feelings stronger than friendship for each other, but have never acknowledged the fact or acted on them.  They’ve been friends since high-school, when Sebastián, bullied because he was small for his age and because he was an immigrant, not only faced off his own bullies, but hers as well.  They kept in touch after Sebastián  moved away, exchanging loads of letters, postcards and emails; but now he’s back in Marysburg, Lucy is about to leave, and she’s wondering, somewhat wistfully, if they could ever have been more to each other than friends.

Sebastián would rather have teeth pulled without anaesthetic than appear on television, but he can’t refuse Lucy’s request for help, and agrees to appear with her on Tiny House Trackers.  He’s an intensely private person and years of bullying have left him scared to let himself be vulnerable and with a thick outer shell of implacability.  He keeps his emotions buried and under lock and key – but because he buries them doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel them deeply;  he’s determined not to give anything away in front of the cameras – or Lucy – as to the truth of his feelings for her, because he doesn’t want to influence her decision to move away – and because he doesn’t think he could handle rejection.  He’s the strong, silent type, but he shows his affection for Lucy in a hundred little ways and he’s a lovely hero – caring, protective and supportive with every bone in his body.

Lucy’s last boyfriend was a douchebag who knocked her confidence in her own judgement, and she’s still second-guessing herself more than she used to.  She’s strongly attracted to Sebastián, but his inscrutability gives her no clue as to whether he feels the same, and she doesn’t want to risk making a move and ruining the most important relationship in her life.  Sometimes she thinks he’s attracted to her, but then whatever she sees in his face is gone, leaving her wondering.

Lucy and Sebastián are likeable and endearing and make an adorable couple – although I admit I did sometimes want to shake some sense into Sebastián and tell him to wise up (but he more than makes up for his reticence in the end.)  They’re real people with real problems who struggle, but grow and learn how to make things work.  Their move from friends to lovers doesn’t feel rushed, and the aforementioned longing and UST is incredibly well done. The scenes they film for the show as they tour the houses on offer are a hoot –

The last thing she needed was either a deep-woods pot shack, a dick-festooned bus, or an Oregon Trail enthusiast’s fever dream.

– and I loved that we’re shown Lucy slowly re-learning to assert herself as she works through the selection process and reaches her decision.  I also liked the way the main story is framed with chapters from the PoVs of two of the production assistants (who really deserve their own story, because there are serious sparks there!)

Tiny House, Big Love is a delightful contemporary romance with lots of gentle humour and awesome friends-to-lovers pining.  It’s short, sweet, sexy and well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

All The Feels (Spoiler Alert #2) by Olivia Dade

all the feels uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Alexander Woodroe has it all. Charm. Wealth. A starring role on the biggest show on TV. But the showrunners have wrecked his character, he’s hounded by old demons and his future remains uncertain. When all that reckless emotion explodes into a bar fight, the tabloids and public agree: his star is falling.

Enter Lauren, the former therapist hired to keep him in line. Compared to her previous work, watching over a handsome but impulsive actor shouldn’t be especially difficult. But the more time she spends with Alex, the harder it is to hold on to her professionalism, and her heart . . .

When another scandal lands him in major hot water, and costs Lauren her job, Alex becomes determined to keep his impossibly stubborn and extremely endearing minder in his life any way he can. On a road trip up the California coast together, he intends to show her exactly what a falling star will do to catch the woman he loves . . .

Rating: A-

Olivia Dade’s All the Feels is a terrific follow-up to last year’s Spoiler Alert, a charming, thoroughly entertaining read that, for all its outward lightheartedness, tackles some knotty issues in a sensitive but down-to-earth way.  We met Alex Woodroe briefly in Spoiler Alert and he charmed me completely, so I’ve been eager to catch up with him in his own book ever since – and I’m happy to say that All the Feels is just as enjoyable and sharply observed as its predecessor.

Like his best friend Marcus, Alex has been playing a lead role in the hit TV show Gods of the Gates for the past seven years.  The similarities to Game of Thrones – in the sense that the showrunners have run out of books to adapt and are going it alone (and fucking it up) are obvious – and like Marcus, Alex has become very disenchanted with the writing and the storylines given to his character, Cupid, and for similar reasons.  But there are other reasons for his discomfort that nobody else knows about, reasons related to past trauma and overwhelming guilt that have begun to affect his – already erratic – behaviour.

When the book begins, Alex is in big trouble; he was involved in a bar fight the previous night and the showrunners have had enough.  He’s always been a bit of a loose cannon, but this is too much, so for the rest of the shoot, he’s assigned a minder, someone to go wherever he goes, to keep him in line and who will report back on his behaviour.  Needless to say, Alex is not at all happy about this; but worse is the fact that nobody has asked to hear his side of the story – everyone assumes it happened just because he’s Alex, and getting into trouble is what he does.

Lauren Clegg is a former ER therapist who desperately needed a break from her job and decided to go to Europe for a much-needed vacation.  The Gods of the Gates showrunner is her cousin (a total dickhead who was always awful to her when they were kids and whom she’s never liked) so while she’d never in a million years have gone anywhere near the GotG set in Spain if it had been up to her, family pressure finds her accepting the job of “babysitter” to the show’s bad-boy star.

They don’t get off to a great start.  Alex resents Lauren’s presence and thinks she’s judging him, and Lauren expects him to be a self-centred spoiled brat, but it doesn’t take long for her to realise that he’s nothing like that at all, that he’s kind, smart and funny, an unpretentious, generous man who is well-liked by cast and crew – all things that are completely at odds with the image that’s so often painted of him in the media.  Once the shoot has wrapped, Lauren accompanies Alex back to his LA home where she’s to live in his guesthouse for the next few months, and over the weeks and months a genuine friendship develops between them as they share meals and long walks – and Alex introduces Lauren to his love of fanfic and obsession with the Great British Bake Off.

Their romance is a lovely slow-burn, full of affection and humour and honesty.  The grumpy/sunshine trope here is turned on its head with happy-go-lucky Alex as the sunshine to Lauren’s more sober, level-headed personality, and it works really well.  Alex talks a mile a minute (seriously, he never stops!) and a lot of his chatter is peppered with good-natured jibes and banter – and I’ll say now that he is NEVER intentionally cruel (and if he’s accidentally so, he’s mortified) and that Lauren very quickly sees it for what it is and doesn’t take anything he says about her shrewishness or killjoy tendencies to heart.

I liked Alex and Lauren immensely.  Alex has ADHD and has worked incredibly hard to manage it while also achieving professional success in a demanding, stressful career that often makes the condition that much more difficult to live with.  The portrayal of his ADHD is extremely well done, and while I know it’s a condition that affects people in many different ways, its portrayal here is effective and consistent.  Despite being one of the most famous actors on television Alex is refreshingly down to earth, and I loved seeing his joy in the simplest of things, his delight in his favourite fanfic tropes and his acceptance of and willingness to be a part of fan culture.  The scene where Alex geeks out at the fact that there is Only One Bed at the hotel he and Lauren are at is priceless – not only does this book use the trope, it has a character who is aware of it and adores it!

Lauren is plus sized and petite (fat and short, in her words) and is comfortable and content with that, even if the rest of the world isn’t.  I liked that she has decided not to allow others to define her, or to become upset by things she can’t control, but was saddened by the way she arrived at that position, simply because she learned that telling her parents about the cruelty of the insults levelled at her when she was a child upset them – so it was better not to say anything and remain as unobtrusive as possible.  And as an adult, that ‘lesson’ has turned into a kind of self-abnegation, Lauren putting her own needs and wants at the back of the queue and deciding that she’s not as important as everyone around her.

… she’d spent decades giving away pieces of herself, because she didn’t matter. Not as much as everyone else. She’d given herself away at work with every overtime shift she took, every holiday she worked in place of a colleague, every time she chose to ignore her increasing misery and work harder,  She’d given herself away to her parents, who’d leaned he would drop everything to help them at an time, no matter what they wanted… Eventually she’d given so much of herself away, there’d been almost nothing left by the time she boarded that flight to Spain.

Alex’s fury at Lauren’s obvious lack of care for herself and her statements that she’s unimportant finally start to wake her up to the fact that she’s let herself ‘disappear’ for a long time, so part of her emotional journey in this book is learning that she’s worthy, she’s allowed to put herself first, and that she’s important, too.  Alex’s story arc is a heart-breaking one in which he has to learn to let go of the guilt and responsibility he’s been carrying around for years about a situation over which he had no control.  I appreciated the novel’s emphasis on self-worth and learning to love oneself, and the way those things are emphasised in the journey taken by both characters.

As in Spoiler Alert, there are some entertaining vignettes between chapters in the form of snippets of Alex’s fix-it fanfics, and group chats and texts involving Alex and other cast members which are frequently hilarious.

All the Feels is absolutely delightful, a fun, sweet and sexy read overflowing with good humour and witty banter that doesn’t shy away from addressing some heavier undertones in its exploration of the issues that have shaped its two leads.  I enjoyed it very much and am more than happy to recommend it.

The Geek Who Saved Christmas by Annabeth Albert

the geek who saved christmas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Gideon Holiday is the perfect neighbor. Need a cup of sugar? Spare folding chair? Extra batteries? He’s always ready to help. And he’s waited years for his hot, grumpy, silver fox neighbor, Paul, to need him. For anything. But this December, Gideon would be happy if he could just get the Scrooge-like Paul on board with the neighborhood holiday lights fundraiser.

Paul Frost has no intention of decking his halls or blazing any Yule logs. Even if his spunky bowtie-clad neighbor does look perfect for unwrapping, Paul would prefer to hide away until December is done. But when his beloved younger brother announces an unexpected visit, Paul needs all the trimmings for a festive homecoming—and fast.

Luckily, Gideon is there with a color-coded plan to save Christmas. Soon Paul’s hanging lights, trimming trees, and rolling out cookies. And steaming up his new flannel sheets with Gideon. How did that happen?

It’ll take some winter magic to preserve their happiness and keep these rival neighbors together longer than one holiday season.

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert’s The Geek Who Saved Christmas is a charming confection of seasonal goodness featuring a sweet and steamy grumpy/sunshine romance and lots of warm and fuzzy Christmas feels.  It’s a light-hearted, undemanding read, but the low-angst nature of the story don’t mean it lacks depth or a bit of bite;  even when she dials down the drama, Ms. Albert creates engaging characters with relatable problems and insecurities that arise naturally from their circumstances, so conflict feels organic rather than manufactured.  And with both leads in their forties, there’s plenty of baggage to be unpacked and learned behaviours to be unlearned before this Christmas Elf and his Grinch can arrive at a well-deserved HEA.

Bright and chirpy, Gideon Holiday (yes, really!) is the sort of guy who’s always ready to lend a hand. He enjoys helping people and making them happy – and he’s especially in his element when the holidays come around.  Every year, he co-ordinates the neighbourhood holiday lights fundraiser, selecting the theme, organising the donations and planning various holiday-themed activities – he loves doing it and when the book begins, it’s the night of the big reveal of this year’s scheme.  On his way into the community centre, Gideon bumps into his next-door neighbour, Paul Frost (yes, really!) and is rather surprised to see him as Paul is a bit of a grouch and community meetings aren’t really his thing.  The man may be a seriously hot silver fox, but Gideon doesn’t think he’s ever seen him smile, attend a single neighbourhood party or put up a single Christmas decoration.  But, ever the optimist, Gideon hopes that maybe Paul’s attendance at the meeting is a sign that might be about to change.

It isn’t – Paul is at the meeting for another reason entirely, but he can’t deny Gideon is fun to look at, with his impish grin and sparkling eyes as he gushes about lighting schemes and donation collection duties.  Paul doesn’t do Christmas and doesn’t see anything inherently magical about December – it’s just another month on the calendar and not worth all the fuss.  But then Gideon approaches him after the meeting and suggests that Paul can still contribute to the fundraising effort, but won’t have to do a single thing; Gideon can set up all the lights on Paul’s house and put them on timers.  Paul’s instinct is ‘hell, no’ – and he knows he’ll have to convince Gideon to leave him to have his seasonal funk in peace.

But fate, of course, has other plans.  A few days later, Paul’s younger brother Brandon – a genius scientist who lives on the West Coast – calls to tell Paul that he’s going to propose to his fiancée Elaine, and that he wants to bring her home for Christmas and then pop the question in front of the tree on Christmas morning.  As he listens to Brandon enthusing about a “real Christmas” with snow on the ground and a big tree in the living room, Paul’s heart sinks.  His house isn’t exactly ready for the perfect Christmas proposal, but there’s no way he’s going to tell Brandon not to come.

Luckily for Paul, a helping hand isn’t very far away – just next door in fact.  He’s far from thrilled at the idea that he needs help, but Brandon’s plans have stunned him into inaction and he doesn’t know what to do; he doesn’t intend to dump all his worries on Gideon, but somehow, they just come pouring out.  Gideon is only too pleased to come to the rescue – and of course, he Has A Plan.

Over the next few weeks, Gideon – with the aid of his many lists and spreadsheets (!) – slowly helps Paul to transform his somewhat spartan house into a warm and welcoming home.  The time they spend together shopping and decorating gives rise to a number of heartfelt conversations and insightful observations as they come to know each other better and begin to fall deeply in love.  Paul sees what nobody else does, that Gideon is lonely and works hard to keep himself busy, especially during the holidays; that he doesn’t really have anyone to spend them with but longs for closeness and connection.  And Gideon learns why Paul dislikes the season so much and tries to hibernate through it – but he’s  determined to make this a memorable Christmas for Paul and his brother.

Gideon and Paul both have things in their pasts that have affected them profoundly and continue to inform their choices, choices which probably aren’t right for them but which at least mean they can get on with their lives as best they can.  I think we can all relate to that.  They’re both decent, kind men who’ve lost their way somewhat, and who need a bit of help to get back onto the right path.  Gideon’s sense of self-worth has become tied up in how much use he can be to others, and he has to learn that he deserves to be loved for himself and not what he can provide, while Paul needs to realise that it’s past time he reclaimed the life he put on hold in order to take care of Brandon.  They have terrific chemistry and their journey from wariness to affection to love is really well done, with some nicely steamy moments along the way, and I enjoyed watching them offer each other the sort of care and understanding they’re both so badly in need of.  The secondary characters – Brandon and Elaine – are really well-written, and I loved the way they so easily and warmly accept Gideon into their family unit.

Warm, funny, sexy and poignant, The Geek Who Saved Christmas is sweet without being cloying, a delightful, low-angst romance full of festive cheer and genuine emotion.  It should definitely be on your radar if you’re looking for a feel-good, Christmassy love story to curl up with on a cold winter’s evening.

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun (audiobook) – Narrated by Vikas Adam & Graham Halstead, with Cassandra Campbell

the charm offensive

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date 20 women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

Rating:  Narration – A; Content – A-

I defy anyone not to be completely charmed by Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive. It’s a warm, witty romance that offers an insightful story of self-discovery featuring a pair of captivating, superbly crafted lead characters and a lively, wonderfully diverse secondary cast. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, but it’s so much more than that; I generally think of rom-coms as light-hearted and fairly insubstantial, and this certainly isn’t the latter. It’s most definitely romantic, and it packs plenty of gentle humour, but it’s got a more serious ‘feel’ than the average rom-com, taking a sensitive and nuanced approach to neurodiversity and mental health issues as the two protagonists figure out who they are and what they really want – and of course, fall in love along the way.

Dev Deshpande is a life-long romantic who, for the past six years, has worked as a producer on the reality dating show Ever After, crafting the perfect happy ending for his contestants. Despite the recent break-up of his long-term relationship, Dev still believes in fairy tales and happy endings and still wants the hearts and the flowers and the whole shebang for himself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Merry Measure by Lily Morton (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

merry measure

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Arlo Wright’s introduction to his sexuality came when he saw his older brother’s best friend, Jack Cooper, in his sweaty football kit. Unfortunately, he didn’t have long to enjoy the revelation because he promptly knocked himself out on a table.

Relations between them have never really moved on from that auspicious beginning. Arlo is still clumsy, and Jack is still as handsome and unobtainable as ever. However, things look like they’re starting to change when Arlo finds himself sharing a room with Jack while on holiday in Amsterdam at Christmas.

Will the festive spirit finally move them towards each other, or is Arlo just banging his head against a wall this time?

Rating: Narration – A; Content- B+

A sweet, fluffy and charming romance between an accident-prone primary school teacher and his brother’s best friend, Merry Measure was one of my favourite Christmassy romances of last year, so I was delighted to see it make its way into audio just in time for the festive season this year. Fans of the author will know what I mean when I say it’s typical Lily Morton: funny, snarky and sexy with endearing leads, fun secondary characters and well-written familial relationships and friendships. Coming in at somewhere under six hours, it’s a relatively short listen, but it nonetheless manages to provide just the right amount of feel-good vibes and festive cheer – and with the supremely talented Joel Leslie at the microphone, you know you can just kick back and enjoy the show!

Arlo Wright just about makes it to the airport in time to catch his flight to Amsterdam, where he’s to join his brother Tom, Tom’s boyfriend, Bee, and a couple of other friends for a pre-Christmas jaunt to the city to celebrate Tom and Bee’s engagement. Although Tom has yet to propose; he’s hoping for the perfect moment while they’re on the trip. Arlo hates flying, so he was extremely relieved when Tom’s best friend Jack Cooper (on whom Arlo once had a massive crush) offered to travel with him.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Total Creative Control (Creative Types #1) by Joanna Chambers & Sally Malcolm

total creative control

This title may be purchased at Amazon

Sunshine PA, meet Grumpy Boss…

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 not because 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: A-

Two of my favourite authors teaming up to write a grumpy/sunshine “angsty rom-com” ? YES, PLEASE – sign me up! Total Creative Control is a captivating read and I blew through it two sittings. Featuring two complex, superbly characterised protagonists, and a small but equally well-written supporting cast, it’s full of humour, witty banter, delicious sexual tension and a multitude of feels – and I loved it.

The ”grumpy” part of the pairing is Lewis Hunter, creator and writer of the hit TV show, Leeches (an urban fantasy-type show with vampires!) which, when the book opens, has been on air for three years. He’s dynamic, hugely talented and very charismatic… but he’s also brusque, demanding, doesn’t seem to have a verbal filter, and is hell to work for. Which is why he goes through assistants like a knife through butter – until the morning his most recent one quits, and he’s assigned a temp named Aaron Page for the rest of the week. Aaron is a big fan of Leeches – which Lewis is both surprised and pleased at – and very quickly shows his aptitude for the job. He’s just finished teacher training and has a job lined up for September; Lewis has never had a PA who actually loved Leeches before, and is already thinking of ways to keep him on for longer. He suggests that if things go well that week, he’d like Aaron to stay until September. Aaron agrees.

The story then skips ahead three years – and finds Aaron still working for Lewis. In the intervening time, he’s made himself pretty much indispensable – not just because he knows Lewis likes brown sauce in his bacon rolls or how many sugars he takes in his tea, but because his knowledge of and love for the show is second only to Lewis’ and he’s provided a lot of valuable feedback and insight into the scripting process during that time. He’s far more than a PA now, and Lewis is a decent enough boss that he’s made sure Aaron is properly compensated for his expanded role. But, as one of Aaron’s colleagues points out, although Aaron well paid for what he does, shouldn’t he be looking to move into a job that would stretch him creatively and make greater use of his talents? But Aaron is happy where he is – and refuses to let himself dwell on the real reason for it. That moving on to a different job would mean leaving Lewis – because that way madness lies. Lewis made it clear on Aaron’s very first day that he doesn’t get involved with colleagues, EVER, and despite the stirrings of attraction they felt for each other when they met, they’ve kept things perfectly professional between them ever since. They’ve both worked hard to maintain that fine line between colleagues and friends, not allowing themselves to be too curious about each other’s personal lives, never attending work functions together, carefully steering their way around anything too intimate – and it’s worked, for the most part, enabling them to carry on with their working relationship as though that’s all that lies between them.

But when Lewis is persuaded to ask Aaron to accompany him on a working weekend at the country home of the television exec who is keen to develop Leeches for the US market  – a complete and utter wanker Lewis can’t stand – those lines between the personal and the professional start to blur.  Under pressure to make changes to the very fabric of Leeches to satisfy the demands of the US production company, then forced into a number of difficult and uncomfortable situations courtesy of his host, Lewis – already on edge – starts to unravel.  A group therapy session unexpectedly unlocks un-dealt-with trauma Lewis has done his best to ignore – but through it all, Aaron is there,  unequivocally on his side and keeping him grounded.  And this time together, just the two of them against the world, or so it seems, forces them both to confront some long-buried truths they’ve managed to keep locked away so far.  And for Aaron, it’s the wake-up call he needs to start putting himself and his career first for a change.

Aaron is adorable – the perfect sunshine to Lewis’ grump – and their chemistry is combustible.  He’s sweet and clever and insightful, and I really enjoyed the way his love of Leeches and his love of fanfiction are woven together, and into the story.  Fanfic is denigrated in some circles (and Lewis hates it!), but although some of it is undoubtedly crap, Aaron embodies the best endeavours; he’s someone who really gets to know the characters he writes about, and gets into their heads to produce stories that are true to character and as good as – sometimes better! – than the storylines on the actual show.  This part of his life does create friction between him and Lewis – who is dismissive and says some pretty hurtful things – until he comes to understand why Aaron – and many others – love it:

It’s about the joy of writing for your own pleasure. And about sharing your work with a community of like-minded people.  It’s about… creativity for creativity’s sake.

The only real criticism I can level at the book as a whole is to say that Lewis’ no-relationships-because-I’m-too-selfish/closed-off-and-everybody-leaves-me-thing is just a bit stereotypical;  but that said, it is at least well done here, with moments that will make your heart break for Lewis even as you’re screaming at him to get out of his own way.

Both authors are adept at writing stories that tug at the heartstrings, and there are some lovely, angsty moments in this one that will do just that as both men grapple with their feelings for each other, Lewis trying desperately to lock them away, Aaron owning them to himself honestly, but knowing he needs to move on.  There’s a real emotional depth to the connection between the pair, a sense of ‘rightness’ when they’re together that just lights up the page, which is incredibly satisfying  – and incredibly frustrating when Lewis is seemingly  bent on self-sabotage.

There’s also a terrific secondary cast – from Toni, Lewis’ supportive (and long-suffering) boss, to the absolutely ghastly TV exec Charlie Alexander, who I would happily have pushed under a bus (although I suspect Lewis would have beaten me to it!).

Total Creative Control is a delightful feel-good romance full of warmth and good humour that will make you smile and hit you in the feels in the best way.  On to the keeper shelf it goes – and to the hint in the notes at the end that there may be more to come in this world, all I can say is I’m Here For It.