Band Sinister by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumors about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister, Amanda, live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind – and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon, the rural rumor mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet – but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A

Another 2018 favourite lately come to audio, K.J. Charles’ Band Sinister is, quite simply, a total delight. The author made no secret of the fact that it’s an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, who practically invented the ‘modern’ Regency Romance single-handed, or that she employed a number of favourite tropes in terms of the characterisation and plot – and yet in spite of all that, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a K.J. Charles book, through and through. On the surface, it’s the story of the country innocent seduced by the wicked lord, but in reality, it’s so much more than that, conveying important ideas about the nature of love and friendship, social responsibility and the importance of being true to oneself and of living as one’s conscience dictates.

Guy and Amanda Frisby were born into the landed gentry but have come down in the world. When their mother ran off with her much younger lover, their father took to heavy gambling and heavy drinking and died leaving them with nothing but scandal to their name. When the story opens, Guy is reading – somewhat apprehensively – the gothic novel Amanda has written and sent to a publisher, and in which she has modelled her villains on their near-neighbour, Sir Philip Rookwood (whose older brother was the man with whom their mother ran away), and his close friend, the devilish Lord Corvin, a man with quite possibly the blackest reputation in England.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Chip and a Chair (Seven of Spades #5) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s time to lay all the cards on the table.

Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo are reunited and more committed to each other than ever, but they can’t truly move forward with their lives until the serial killer who’s been tormenting them is behind bars. When a secret burial site is discovered in the desert with the remains of the Seven of Spades’s earliest victims, that goal finally seems within reach.

But just as the net is tightening, the neo-Nazi militia Utopia launches their master plan with a devastating act of terror that changes the landscape of Las Vegas forever. As Levi and Dominic scramble to prevent the city’s destruction, they’re opposed by treacherous forces that propel them toward catastrophe. In the end, Levi’s fate may rest in the hands of the very killer he’s been hunting.

The race to save Sin City is on, and these players are going for broke. No matter how hopeless things seem, as long as they’re together and they’ve got a chip to play and a chair to sit in, they’re still in the game.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series earned a place on my Best of 2018 list, and the penultimate book, One-Eyed Royals, was actually my pick for best book of the year.  I’ve shouted from the rooftops about this series for the last six months and to say I’ve been eager to get my hands on this final instalment is one hell of an understatement!  A Chip and a Chair is, I’m delighted to say, a supremely fitting end to what has been an incredible series – a tightly-plotted, utterly gripping story full of high-stakes action, emotional highs and lows, and boasting a wonderfully developed, sexy romance between a couple of complex, well-defined and compelling characters.

As is always the case when reviewing suspense novels, I’m not going to say too much about the plot so as to avoid spoilers, but there are spoilers for the earlier books in the series in this review.

For the better part of a year, Las Vegas has been the ‘home base’ for a particularly devious serial killer dubbed the Seven of Spades, because each of their victims has had a seven of spades playing card left on their body.  Right from the start, the killer cultivated a relationship – of sorts – with homicide detective Levi Abrams; he’s the one they contact, the one they’ve sometimes fed information to and the one they’ve gone to great lengths to protect.  As the books have progressed, the SoS’s partiality for Levi has led to increased suspicion among his colleagues and a growing sense of isolation from them; a man with anger management issues who struggles to keep himself under a tight rein at the best of times, Levi has been slowly unravelling and getting closer and closer to the edge of his control.

The love and support of his partner, PI Dominic Russo, has kept Levi grounded for the most part, although the couple hit a rocky patch at the end of book three, Cash Plays, after Dominic, a compulsive gambler, relapsed, his lies and manipulation driving a wedge between them.  Their break-up left both of them struggling through some of the blackest times of their lives alone, but by the end of One-Eyed Royals, they were back together, filled with a new determination to work things out between them – and at the beginning of A Chip and a Chair, they’re moving into a new apartment.  It’s been a month since the game-changing events at the end of One-Eyed Royals, and the Seven of Spades has been quiet since then – but Levi knows it’s only a matter of time before they strike again.

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

The Understatement of the Year (Ivy Years #3) by Sarina Bowen (audiobook) – Narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Christian Fox

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What happened in high school stayed in high school. Until now.

Five years ago Michael Graham betrayed the only person who ever really knew him. Since then he’s made an art of hiding his sexual orientation from everyone. Including himself. So it’s a shock when his past strolls right into the Harkness College locker room, sporting a bag of hockey gear and the same slow smile that had always rendered Graham defenseless.

For Graham, there is only one possible reaction: total, debilitating panic. With one loose word, the team’s new left wing could destroy Graham’s life as he knows it.

John Rikker is stuck being the new guy. Again. And it’s worse than usual, because the media has latched on to the story of the only “out” player in Division One hockey. As the satellite trucks line the sidewalk outside the rink, his new teammates are not amused. And one player in particular looks sick every time he enters the room.

Rikker didn’t exactly expect a warm welcome from Graham. But the guy won’t even meet his eyes. From the looks of it, his former…best friend/boyfriend/whatever isn’t doing so well. He drinks too much and can’t focus during practice.

Either the two loneliest guys on the team will self-destruct from all the new pressures in their lives, or they can navigate the pain to find a way back to one another. To say that it won’t be easy is the understatement of the year.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – A-

The first sports romance I ever listened to was HIM, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy.  I’m not a fan of sports of any kind and I worried that perhaps the sporty stuff would both bore me and go completely over my head.  Well, that book proved me wrong in the sense that while the sporty stuff DID go over my head, it wasn’t prolonged enough to get boring, AND the narration by Teddy Hamilton and Jacob Morgan was so incredibly good that it enabled me to get through those parts without being tempted to fast-forward through them!

The premise of Sarina Bowen’s The Understatement of the Year bears more than a passing resemblance to HIM – one of her collaborations with Elle Kennedy – because it’s centred around ice-hockey, and the two leads – Michael Graham and John Rikker (voiced here by Christian Fox and Teddy Hamilton respectively) – are childhood friends whose friendship ends abruptly, for reasons one of them doesn’t understand.  But unlike Wes and Jamie in HIM, Rikker and Graham had already acknowledged their mutual attraction and begun to explore the physical side of it before things crashed and burned between them, and their friendship ended for very different reasons, which ultimately forced one of them so far back into the closet, it’s a wonder he didn’t end up in Narnia.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dukes Are Forever (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series #5) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A compromising situation forced him into marriage. But has his wife been working for the enemy all along?

In a steam-fuelled world where vampires once ruled the aristocracy, a dangerous conspiracy threatens to topple the queen, and the Duke of Malloryn knows his nemesis has finally returned to enact his plans of revenge.

Malloryn can trust no one, and when incriminating photographs surface—of an enemy agent stealing a kiss from his wife—he is forced to question just why his wife, Adele, trapped him into marriage.

Is she an innocent pawn caught up in a madman’s games, or is she a double agent working against him?

The only way to discover the truth is to seduce her himself…

Adele Hamilton may have agreed to a loveless marriage in order to protect herself, but that doesn’t stop her heart from yearning for more.

Her husband promised her a cold marriage bed. He swore he’d never touch her. But suddenly he’s engaged in a campaign of seduction—and the only way to keep her wits about her is to fight fire with fire.

The ruthless beauty has locked her heart away, but can she deny the passion that flares between them? And when the truth emerges, will she be the only thing that can save Malloryn’s life?

Or the weapon his enemy will wield against him?

Rating: A

This final instalment in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series proved to be everything I was hoping for.  They’ve been among the most consistently enjoyable and entertaining books I’ve read over the past couple of years, and they’ve only got better as the series has progressed, delivering fast-paced, action-packed and intricately constructed stories featuring strong, engaging characters and intense, steamy romances which deliver immensely satisfying HEAs readers can believe will last because of the strong emotional connections the author develops  between all her heroes and heroines.

Dukes Are Forever sees the final showdown between the Duke of Malloryn and his arch-enemy, Lord Balfour, a confrontation that’s been brewing throughout the whole series.  Readers have been there every step of the way as Malloryn and his hand-picked Company of Rogues have discovered the existence of a new, deadlier form of vampire, a virus engineered to kill blue-bloods, and a group of discontent former Echelon set on destroying London and on bringing down the Queen.  Ms. McMaster has woven the threads of her story together incredibly well, taking our heroes from a position of… not quite weakness, but of knowing that their faceless enemy was always one step ahead – to one of strength as they’ve gradually put together the pieces of the puzzle, united in their determination to protect the city and the Queen, and to end Balfour, no matter what the cost to themselves.

The sense of brotherhood the author has created between the CoR – a disparate group of blue bloods, verwulfen, humans and mecs, all with specialist skills (many of them deadly) – is one of the things that has really stood out for me throughout this series.  There’s never any doubt that this team has been forged in fire and that those bonds are unbreakable; they’d do anything for one another and genuinely care for each other, not that they’d ever say such a thing, showing instead how much they care and how well they know each other through their affectionate teasing and witty banter.  And unlike so many series, there’s never a doubt that the Rogues dodge in and out of all the books for any reason other than that they’re necessary to the plot; there are no “just for the sake of it” cameos here!

From the beginning – and from his appearances in the earlier London Steampunk series – I’ve been intrigued by Malloryn.  Handsome, coolly controlled and uber-confident (and sexy as hell!), he’s one of those heroes who keeps everything locked away and buried deep inside – not because he doesn’t feel, but because he feels deeply and is protecting himself from again experiencing the deep hurt he suffered in his youth.  He’s become my favourite hero of the series (I suspected he would be – I’ve got a thing for the volcanic-fire-beneath-layers-of-ice type),  and the relationship the author has built between him and the Rogues is just wonderful; they annoy him and tease the hell out of him and ground him and stop him getting too big for his boots (! – you’ll get that one once you’ve read the book!) and the moment he finally admits to himself that they’re at his side because they want to be there for him and not just because they’re duty bound is one of the real highlights of the story.

This wouldn’t be a Bec McMaster book without a steamy romance and wow, does she deliver on that score.  When I first learned that Malloryn had been trapped into offering marriage to a young woman he clearly had no interest in, I thought maybe she’d remain a peripheral character, or that perhaps something would happen to prevent the match.  Because we only see her through Malloryn’s eyes, we believe Adele Hamilton to be a cold, selfish schemer who was out to catch herself a powerful husband and succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.  But then the author starts to drop clever hints that perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye, and those hints are strengthened in a climactic (and seriously hot!) scene towards the end of You Only Love Twice, when Adele saves Malloryn’s life at considerable risk to her own and they show they’re not quite as indifferent to each other as they’d have others – and themselves – believe.  And then during the course of this book, we learn more about what prompted Adele to act as she did; she’s not proud of it and daily feels guilty at having forced a genuinely good man into something he clearly didn’t want, but her reasons, when they are revealed fully, are completely understandable and encompass more than just herself and her own safety.

As Dukes are Forever opens, we discover Adele is being pursued by a gentleman other than her husband, a man who has links to the Rising Sons, the organisation of former Echelon who want to restore the old hierarchy wherein blue bloods ruled the roost and all the other species are kept firmly in their – much lower – stations.  When presented with evidence of Adele’s association with this man, Malloryn realises he has to take steps to work out whether she’s actively working against him – not that she’s in a position to know anything about his work with the Rogues – or if she’s being duped and used as a way to get to him.  This leads to the waging of a merry war between them – only this one is a war of seduction, one in which Malloryn would seem to have the upper hand… until Adele shows she knows how to fight fire with fire, and proves as adept at taking apart her husband’s icy veneer as he is at getting past her defences.  The chemistry between them is hot enough to blister paint and their ultimate compatibility is reinforced by the way we’re shown how similar they are; both very guarded and self-possessed, having built up layers and layers of walls around their emotions for good reasons  – and I just loved watching them stripping away those layers and becoming vulnerable to each other.

I’ve said as much about the plot as I’m going to, but if you’ve been following the series, I think you’ll already have an idea of what’s in store, and if not, then go and get a copy of Kiss of Steel and make a start – you’ve got ten excellent novels to experience!  I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent in the London Steampunk world and while I’m going to miss it and these fabulous characters, I’m nonetheless incredibly grateful to have been on this wonderful journey.  Dukes are Forever is a wonderfully rousing and eminently fitting finish to the series, and I loved every minute of it.

My 2018 in Books & Audio

My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks.  I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever.  Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either  story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket.  I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.

4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.

The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else.  Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception.  The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them  at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver.  Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself).  Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Womanwhich I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment.  On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband which was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016.  Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Duke and An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic.  Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist.  Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out.  K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Print and Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites.   Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.

Romantic Suspense

I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop.  In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did.  There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.

The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years.  Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.

My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive.  I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again.  It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas.  Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension.  The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful;  they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it.  Their relationship goes through terrific  highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.

Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER,  one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines.  I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well.  She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top.  And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.

Audio

I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!)  My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.

I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes.  But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees.  Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.

I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others.  I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home – which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.

Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general.  Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well.  Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.


As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019?  First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please!  Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year.  I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous.  I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April.  There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book.  Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific.  I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.

Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!

Between the Lines (New Milton #2) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Theo Wishart has given up on finding love.

Luca Moretti doesn’t want to find it.

A handful of summer days may change their lives forever—if they’re brave enough to look between the lines.

Eyes might be windows to the soul, but for Theo Wishart they’re all shuttered. His dyspraxia makes it hard to read people. He doesn’t do relationships and he certainly doesn’t do the great outdoors. Two weeks spent “embracing beach life” while he tries to close the deal on a once great, now fading seaside hotel is a special kind of hell.

Until Luca. Gorgeous, unreachable Luca.

Luca Moretti travels light, avoiding all romantic entanglements. Estranged from his parents, he vows this will be his last trip home to New Milton. His family’s hotel is on the verge of ruin and there’s nothing Luca can do to save it. He’s given up on the Majestic, he’s given up on his family and he’s given up on his future.

Until Theo. Prickly, captivating Theo.

No mushy feelings, no expectations, and no drama—that’s the deal. A simple summer fling. And it suits them both just fine. But as the summer wanes and their feelings deepen, it’s clear to everyone around them that Theo and Luca are falling in love. What will it take for them to admit it to themselves—and to each other?

Rating: A

Between the Lines is another emotionally satisfying and beautifully crafted romance from the pen of Sally Malcolm, and is a wonderful follow-up to both Perfect Day and Love Around the Corner, both of which are also set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton.  This novel is set a few months after the events of Perfect Day (and I loved the glimpses we were afforded of Josh and Finn at their wedding), and is an enemies-to-lovers romance between two men from vastly different backgrounds  who meet when one of them arrives in town to negotiate the purchase of The Majestic, a family-run hotel that has seen better days.

Theo Wishart has travelled to New Milton in order to seal the deal over the purchase, and set in motions his father’s plan to develop the hotel and its land into a luxury resort.   He is anxious to prove himself by closing the deal, especially in the light of a particularly embarrassing incident which led to his being accused of sexual harassment by a colleague, and his father’s obvious belief that Theo doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the cut-throat world in which he operates.  Theo’s dyspraxia means that he doesn’t read people well; he gets distracted easily and has had to devise a number of coping mechanisms (such as timing himself in the shower and reminding himself to make eye contact with people) to help him to fit into a world which often views his lack of co-ordination and discomfort in social situations as things that make him someone to deride or pity rather than just someone who is different.

Luca Moretti was born in New Milton but left home five years earlier, after his mother remarried and his step-father Don made it clear that he couldn’t accept Luca’s sexuality.  Luca loves his mother and he loves his home, but he only returns for the summers now, to help out at the hotel and to take on some part-time work as a lifeguard and surf instructor.  He’s furious about his mother’s plans to sell the Majestic, and believes that Don is pushing her to sell, his anger blinding him to the fact that Jude Moretti is not quite herself, and that, after a life of hard work, she deserves to have an easier time of it.

When Theo arrives for his meeting with Jude and Don, he’s dismayed to discover that the rude guy who collided with him outside the coffee shop earlier is her son – and with the hostility coming off him in waves, it’s clear he’s vehemently opposed to his mother’s plan to sell the hotel.  Josh can also tell that he stands every chance of getting his mother to change her mind.  Jude expresses her concern about Lux Properties’ plans to redevelop the site, suggesting that perhaps she and Luca (mostly Luca) would be more amenable to the sale if the redevelopment was something more in line with the community, and floats the idea that Theo should spend a couple of weeks in New Milton, getting a feel for the place.  Perhaps then, he might come to see what’s so special about The Majestic and its place in the community – and will be able to persuade his father to rethink his development plans.  Theo and Luca agree reluctantly to the idea, neither of them enthused at the prospect of spending two weeks in each other’s company, but each hoping to use the time to persuade the other to their point of view.

Sally Malcom does a great job of creating a strong connection between these two very different men; she has a real gift for imbuing her characters with a true depth of personality and for creating strong emotional connections between them.  The frisson of attraction that sparks between Luca and Theo is almost instantaneous, although they both do their best to ignore it, dismissing the idea of acting on it as a terrible one given their situation.  But eventually, they can’t deny it any more and they agree to have a summer fling for the two weeks Theo is there and then go their separate ways with no regrets (hah – good luck with that!). As they start spending time together, Luca comes to understand and appreciate Theo for the kind, loving person he is and Theo learns more about what makes Luca tick, how hurt he was by his mother’s remarriage and her silence when his step-father refused to accept him.  As the two men fall for each other, Theo realises just why Luca is so attached to The Majestic, and starts to wonder if there might be an alternative to the plans his father has proposed, one that would preserve the spirit of the hotel while also allowing Jude and Don the freedom to enjoy their retirement.  We’re treated to some lovely snapshots of Luca and Theo’s time together as their relationship develops, delighted as they take two steps forward and then frustrated as they take one step back, past insecurities and hurts seeming as though they’re destined to keep them apart.  Even so, their relationship grows organically and doesn’t feel rushed or lacking in plausibility.  The romance is full of humour, warmth and affection as well as some beautifully conceived sexual tension which culminates in some nicely steamy moments.  But the elephant in the room is just waiting in the corner, keeping the reader on tenterhooks waiting for the other shoe to drop.  When it does, the impact is visceral – Theo sees it coming yet can do nothing to stop it – and I certainly had a lump in my throat while reading.

Luca and Theo are wonderfully rounded characters who have more in common than they’d at first thought.  Both have difficult familial relationships; Luca clearly resents Don’s place in his mother’s life while Theo is well aware that his father views him as a disappointment.  They’re prickly and wary of letting anyone get close, and yet they find a way past each other’s defences to an extent neither had expected was likely or possible. The secondary characters are strongly drawn, too, and I found Jude and Don especially to be true-to-life in the sense that their dilemmas felt real and messy, and their flaws made them seem like real people.  When we learn of Don’s prejudice it’s easy to then believe he’s pushing Jude to sell the hotel and to paint him as the villain of the piece – but the author shows us things aren’t that black and white.  He’s misguided about Luca, for sure, but he loves his wife dearly, and, as we learn later, is motivated primarily by concern for her.  Jude, too, is similarly multi-faceted; she has valid reasons for wanting to sell up but is torn up about it, wanting to preserve something for Luca but also needing to do the right thing for herself.

All these facets of the characters and their stories are seamlessly woven together, but the focus is firmly on Luca and Theo and their love story, which is beautifully written and gorgeously romantic; they make a terrific couple and I adored getting to know them, both individually and together.  Between the Lines is highly recommended – it’s a superb read, and I was captivated from start to finish. Sally Malcolm is an incredibly talented writer, and I can’t wait to read whatever she comes up with next.

Love Around the Corner (New Milton #1.5) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Real life enemies, online lovers. Two lonely men, destined for each other–if only they knew it.

Alfie Carter grew up in New Milton, caring for his sick father and keeping their auto repair shop on its feet. He’s touchy about his poor education and doesn’t take kindly to snide remarks from the town’s prickly bookstore owner—no matter how cute he looks in his skinny jeans. Leo Novak’s new life as owner of Bayside Books is floundering. And he could do without the town’s gorgeous, moody mechanic holding a grudge against him after an unfortunate—and totally not his fault— encounter last Christmas.

Left to run the family business alone, Alfie spends his lonely evenings indulging his secret passion for classic fiction and chatting online with witty, romantic ‘LLB’ as they fall in love over literature. Leo’s still reeling from a bad breakup and struggling to make friends in New Milton, so seeks comfort instead in his blossoming online romance with thoughtful, bookish ‘Camaro89’.

But as the holidays approach, ‘LLB’ and ‘Camaro89’ are planning to meet, and realities are about to collide…

Rating: A

The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favourite films.  Set around Christmas time, it tells the story of two co-workers who don’t get on and bicker all the time in spite of the attraction that sparks between them – and which they ignore. He thinks she’s stuck-up, she thinks he’s crass and in any case, they’re both completely in love with their respective pen-pals… who are, of course, each other.  (The film was remade in the 1990s as You’ve Got Mail, but it’s not a patch on the original, IMO.)  Sally Malcolm gives the story another update in Love Around the Corner, set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton which was also the setting for her earlier novel, Perfect Day and which she will revisit in her upcoming release, Between the Lines.

In this version of the story, Alfie Carter – who owns the local garage – has been corresponding for around a year with someone he met online in a group dedicated to the works of Jane Austen.  He and LLB hit it off right away and text each other several times a day, enjoying discussions about anything and everything, bonding over their love of books and of discussing them in depth.  On the day we meet Alfie, he’s excited and nervous because that evening, he and LLB have arranged to meet face-to-face for the first time.  He’s never had a long-term relationship before, but he’s ready for one; the connection he feels with LLB is like nothing he’s ever experienced with anyone, and Alfie is absolutely ready to take things to the next level.

Leo Novak moved to New Milton after the long-term relationship he’d been in crashed and burned, and owns a small bookstore there.  He and Alfie met at the previous year’s Christmas party at the Callaghan’s and didn’t hit it off at all, their encounter resulting in an exchange of insults which saw Leo assume Alfie to be dumb and Alfie take Leo for an unmitigated snob.  They’ve avoided each other ever since and nothing they’ve seen of one another in the interim has served to change either of those initial impressions.  Leo is a bit of a loner; he knows he’s prickly – “but when you grew up too smart, too sensitive and too gay for the tastes of most people, you learned to defend yourself.”  Like Alfie, he’s looking for love and companionship, and he thinks he may have found it with Camaro89, the guy he met online a year earlier and has been corresponding with ever since.  He’s nervous about their first real-life meeting – what if Camaro89 is disappointed with what he sees?  Or vice-versa? – but he knows that they have to meet if their relationship is to progress, which is something he wants very much indeed.

LLB and Camaro89 have arranged to meet at a pub in Manhattan, and as they haven’t exchanged photographs, have agreed that they’ll both carry a copy of Persuasion so they can identify each other.  Alfie arrives first and secures a table by the window, laying his copy of the book down so it can be clearly seen and waits eagerly for LLB to arrive.  And waits.  And waits.  Almost a half-hour later, filled with disappointment, Alfie has to accept that LLB isn’t coming, and is about to leave when he sees Leo Novak coming towards him.  Immediately defensive, Alfie makes it clear Leo is unwelcome and they quickly end up sniping at each other and part on bad terms. Again.

When Leo arrived at the pub to meet with Camaro89, the last person he’d expected to see sitting there with a copy of Persuasion in front of him was Alfie Carter.  How can the witty, well-read man he’s been corresponding with be someone who can’t even put an apostrophe in the right place? (His garage is called Alfie’s Auto’s).  Worse, could Alfie actually have known who LLB is all this time, and be playing a joke on him?  When he has recovered from the initial shock, Leo admits the latter is unlikely – but what does he do now?  The man he loved is nothing but a figment of his imagination, but even so, he can’t bring himself to leave Camaro89 – his friend – sitting there waiting for someone who’s never going to show.  Still not sure what to do, he makes his way over to Alfie’s table – but the other man’s obvious hostility leads to more insults and another acrimonious parting.

Heartbroken, both men make their way back to New Milton, and to an existence that’s so much less colourful and hopeful than it was before.  But an offhand comment makes Alfie start to think that perhaps Leo is lonely, and he decides to reach out to him in a small way by inviting him to take part in the Christmas Market that is being organised by the townspeople.  Surprised, but pleased, Leo accepts the invitation, and the pair is detailed to go shopping for decorations the next evening.  The trip turns out to be a lot of fun; Alfie is surprised to find Leo’s sense of humour matches his own, and before long they’re chatting about books – and audiobooks, Alfie prefers them to print and promises to make Leo a list of recommendations – and other things, and end up having dinner together.  From here, things only get better;  Alfie realises he’s fallen hard and fast for Leo, while Leo is doing the same… but Leo still hasn’t told Alfie the truth, and he worries that if he does so now, he’ll lose him forever.

I make no secret that I’m not a big fan of novellas; I find so many of them lack depth and are rushed that I usually go into them with fairly low expectations, but Love Around the Corner confounded all of them – it’s wonderful. Romantic, sweet, sexy, tear-jerking and uplifting, it works superbly as an update on an old favourite or a completely new story if you’re not familiar with either of the movies.  As in Perfect Day – which was an updated retelling of Persuasion – Sally Malcolm has taken the premise and character-types of the original story, breathed new life into them and made them her own.  Their flaws, their hopes, their dreams and insecurities all combine to make Leo and Alfie into very real, relatable individuals, and Ms. Malcom creates such a strong emotional connection between them that it leaps off the page.  She’s also incredibly good when it comes to delivering a palpable gut-punch in the angstier moments.  I had a lump in my throat several times towards the end, and I have to say that Leo’s grand romantic gesture rivals Captain Wentworth’s in the swoonworthy stakes; I loved the literary treasure hunt and what it represented.  Although the events of the novella take place over just a couple of weeks, the romance is easy to buy into, and when Leo and Alfie become physically intimate, it’s something that evolves naturally and doesn’t feel rushed or as though the author has shoe-horned in the sex scenes for the sake of it.

Gorgeously romantic and utterly charming, Love Around the Corner is the perfect way to while away a couple of hours on a winter afternoon and with it, Sally Malcolm is two-for-two on my keeper shelf.