Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble (Winner Bakes All #2) by Alexis Hall

paris daillencourt is about to crumble

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rating: B

Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble is the second book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, which pays homage to and pokes affectionate fun at The Great British Bake-Off as some of the contestants on its fictional counterpart, Bake Expectations, fall in love throughout the weeks of the competition. The first thing anyone contemplating reading it should know is that despite the bright, cartoon cover, this book is NOT a romantic comedy.  Rather, it’s the story of a young man living with chronic, undiagnosed, and untreated anxiety who slowly falls apart and then starts to put the pieces back together, with a romantic subplot and a very tentative HFN.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to do something I don’t normally do in the body of a review, and quote from the book blurb to set the scene:

Paris Daillencourt is a recipe for disaster. Despite his passion for baking, his cat, and his classics degree, constant self-doubt and second-guessing have left him a curdled, directionless mess. So when his roommate enters him in Bake Expectations, the nation’s favourite baking show, Paris is sure he’ll be the first one sent home.

But not only does he win week one’s challenge—he meets fellow contestant Tariq Hassan. Sure, he’s the competition, but he’s also cute and kind, with more confidence than Paris could ever hope to have. Still, neither his growing romance with Tariq nor his own impressive bakes can keep Paris’s fear of failure from spoiling his happiness.

Paris is, for the most part, a sympathetic character, and it’s easy to see that he really wants to be a good person but that his fears and anxiety make him somewhat self-centred and cause him to hurt the people he cares about. His belief that he’s unloveable and ‘too much’ isn’t surprising, considering his parents seem to have dumped him at school when he was thirteen and just left him to get on with it, and he doesn’t seem to have any real grasp of why he feels and acts as he does, which results in his constantly making poor decisions and sabotaging himself. Now twenty-one, he’s studying for a degree in Classics at UCL (University College London) and doesn’t have any close family or friends he can turn to or who are in a position to really notice just how much he’s struggling with, well, everything.

Tariq Hassan is a sparkly, fabulous, unapologetically gay Muslim who knows who he is and what he wants. He’s sweet and kind and funny, with the kind of flair and self-confidence Paris utterly lacks; he’s also devout and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, which pretty much wrecks his and Paris’ first date when Paris bluntly says he doesn’t know why a guy would want to be with him (Paris, that is) if sex isn’t on the table. Naturally, Tariq doesn’t think much of that and the evening ends on a sour note, but Paris manages to apologise (eventually) and gets Tariq to give him a second chance.

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

Husband Material (London Calling #2) by Alexis Hall

husband material

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a hotly contested rainbow balloon arch to get these two from “I don’t know what I’m doing” to “I do”.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

Rating: B+

Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material was one of my Best Books of 2020 – a masterclass in how to do Romantic Comedy right, it’s a wonderfully, warm, funny and sharply observed opposites-attract romance that has become a long-term favourite. Needless to say, I was delighted to learn that the author was writing a couple more books set in Luc and Oliver’s world, and Husband Material is one of my most eagerly anticipated books of 2022. But I wasn’t as completely bowled over and charmed by it as I’d hoped. The author’s characteristic humour and insight are still very much present, and there’s a lot to like about it, but while I enjoyed it, I can’t say I loved it. Maybe that’s on me – my expectations for this one were, admittedly, pretty high – and I suppose that’s always going to be a danger when an author writes a sequel to an incredibly popular book; we readers want more of the same (what we loved about the first book) – but different, and that’s not easy to accomplish!

It’s no secret to say that in terms of structure at least, Husband Material is a riff on Four Weddings and a Funeral, so the story is told in five sections – three weddings, funeral, wedding – that take place over the period of a few months. When the book opens, Luc and Oliver have been together for two years, they’re still in love, they’re happy together and are still recognisably the same people; Luc is still the same slightly-neurotic hot-mess and Oliver is still stoic and more than a bit emotionally repressed.

The first wedding is Luc’s best friend Bridget’s, and of course, being Bridget the whole thing cannot possibly go off without lots of drama. Just days before the wedding, her fiancé Tom disappears, someone ‘helpfully’ sends Bridget a picture of him with another woman, and it’s up to Luc to talk her down while basically ditching Oliver and a long-awaited date night and then staying with her for several days (co-dependent, much?) while things are sorted out. And then it’s Oliver who is packed off back to London on a retrieval mission when it’s discovered that nobody has brought the wedding dress to the venue. He and Luc are hardly together on page throughout this section and I felt like Luc was taking him too much for granted.

Wedding number two is Luc’s ex Miles, the guy who sold him out to the tabloids and sent him into a downward spiral. After bumping into each other on the night of Bridget’s non-gender-specific bird-do, Miles very happily introduces Luc to the vision in glitter and rainbows at his side – who then announces they’re getting married and says Luc really must come to the wedding. Luc doesn’t know what to make of it, and it’s messing with his head; does he want to go so he can prove to Miles that he’s moved on and is happy with Oliver, or should he just let it go?

But this is the catalyst for Luc starting to panic. Everyone around him is getting married, he and Oliver have been together for two years, so… shouldn’t they be getting married, too? Isn’t that the logical next step for two people who want to spend their lives together? Luc decides it is and – in typical Luc fashion and without really thinking it through – blurts out a proposal, which Oliver, of course, accepts.

Luc and Oliver are a great couple, and they travel a rocky path in this book. I love Luc’s quirky, deadpan narrative voice, and was really pleased to see that while he’s still very much him, he’s more confident and conscious of getting caught up in his head and is able to get himself out of it. Oliver, on the other hand, is struggling a bit, still having to deal with his parents’ expectations and criticisms, questioning a lot of internalised assumptions and trying to work out if the discomfort he experiences over what he describes as “the trappings of mainstream LGBTQ culture” results from negativity inherited from his parents or is simply down to his own, natural reserve. He’s working through a lot in this story, and even though he finds it difficult to talk about emotions, he tries hard to be thoughtful and honest, and most of their conversations are far more emotionally literate than before.

I liked the way each of the events makes Luc and Oliver look at aspects of their own relationship they haven’t examined so far, and I enjoyed spending time with Luc’s friends and the CRAPP crowd, the daft conversations and silly jokes and all that – but by the time the third wedding came along, I’d begun to feel like the secondary characters were taking a lot of word count away from the storyline I was really invested in (Luc and Oliver) and they felt like a distraction until it was time for the real meat of the story to kick in at around the two-thirds mark. And something I realised after I finished reading was that Luc and Oliver seem to be at odds a lot in this book – I had trouble recalling many scenes where they seemed to be truly happy. The conflicts they’re dealing with are believable, especially for people who are past the first excitement of a new relationship but are still in those early stages where they’re still learning about each other and how to actually be IN a relationship, and those are only exacerbated by the stress of planning a wedding which will suit both of them.

The story includes thought-provoking threads about queerness and community and identity, about societal expectations for committed relationships and the heteronormative nature of traditional marriage, about how much, or even whether, one should be prepared to compromise or change for a romantic partner, and how stressful relationships can be, even when you love the people on the other end of it. It’s all very interesting and well put-together, but the episodic nature of the book’s structure means I sometimes felt as though I was revisiting the same arguments without any of them being properly resolved.

Contemporary romances traditionally end at the HEA, and to have a sequel about the same couple is fairly rare. Thankfully, there is no manufactured break-up here, just a lot of questions and adjustments and two people who adore one another trying to work out how far they can be themselves with each other, and what their future might look like. The conclusion Luc and Oliver arrive at is, perhaps, unexpected and unconventional, but it’s the right one for them, and I loved watching them talk things through and realise they’re both on the same page. The final moments had me happy-sighing, and the last line is perfection.

Husband Material really hits its stride in the ‘funeral’ section and Oliver’s speech is epic – but I can’t deny being a little frustrated in the earlier parts, for the reasons I’ve stated – not enough Luc and Oliver together and too many circular arguments and discussions. Still, Alexis Hall turns a phrase like nobody else and his ability to combine fun ridiculousness with serious soul-searching continues to impress. Husband Material definitely earns a recommendation, but in the end, it’s one of those books I wanted to love but which just missed the mark.

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

something fabulous

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating:  Narration – A+; Content – B+

I read an ARC copy of Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulou a while back, but when I saw Nicholas Boulton would be narrating the audio version, there was no way I wasn’t going to listen to it as well! It’s a gloriously queer, charmingly nonsensical Regency romp that plays with familiar tropes in the most affectionate way while at the same time delivering a sexy romance and a tender story of self-discovery.

Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern is a serious-minded, rather stuffy young man, brought up to always consider his position and status, and to put duty first. There is, however, one particular duty he’s neglected for too long, and when the book begins, he’s proposing marriage to Miss Arabella Tarleton, the young woman intended for him since birth. Miss Tarleton, however, is not at all inclined to accept, and even though Valentine is more concerned with accomplishing his late father’s wish than he is with actually getting married, her pointedly barbed rejection still stings

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall

something fabulous

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating: B+

If you’re looking for an historical romance with a complex plot, serious characters and a bucket-load of angst, then move right along, because Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulous isn’t it.  If, however, you’re up for a frivolous romp through Regency England bubbling with wit and brilliant comic timing that, for all its ridiculous trope-y-ness, contains an achingly tender story of self-discovery, then dive right in.
The book opens with a delightfully – although somewhat more barbed – Heyer-esque proposal-gone-wrong in which Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern, has decided it’s time to honour his late father’s wishes and become formally betrothed to Miss Arabella Tarleton, who has been intended for him since birth.  Miss Tarleton, however, has no intention of accepting Valentine’s proposal and makes that clear in no uncertain terms:

“There is no fashion, Your Grace, in which you could propose that would render it anything other than profoundly repugnant to me.”

Valentine is both astonished and affronted.  A refusal is something he had never remotely considered – after all, what impoverished young woman wouldn’t want to secure her future and that of her family by marrying a wealthy, young and handsome duke?

Later that night – or rather, in the early hours of the morning – Valentine (having made liberal use of the brandy bottle) is awoken by Arabella’s twin brother, Bonaventure – Bonny for short – who informs him that Arabella has run away and that they should go after her so Valentine can save her from ruin and propose again.  And that he’d better make a good job of it this time.  Valentine is not keen; it’s not that he doesn’t want to retrieve his wayward intended, he just doesn’t want to go without due thought or preparation. Or his valet.  Bonny, however, is something of a force of nature, and won’t take no for an answer, so before long, Valentine is being hurried along and into a curricle wearing a coat borrowed from the assistant gardener and a hastily tied – courtesy of Bonny – cravat.

That’s the set up for the fluffiest, silliest and most outrageously charming road-trip / grumpy-sunshine romance I’ve read in quite some time. (Or ever.) It doesn’t take itself seriously – even though it does have some serious points to make – and focuses entirely on the relationship between Valentine and Bonny, and on Valentine’s journey towards reaching a deeper self-awareness, understanding  how attraction works for him and that being seen and loved for who he is as a person is not impossible.

The writing is deft and insightful with plenty of clever nods to the genre, the dialogue sparkles and the two leads are superbly characterised.  Valentine, the repressed, dutiful duke has no idea of his own privilege but is somehow endearing in his cluelessness;  he’s deeply lonely but doesn’t realise it, and he has very little experience of sexual attraction until Bonny, and the sudden wealth of feelings that assail him when Bonny is around completely blindside him. Watching Valentine slowly learn that he is allowed to have feelings, that he can feel attraction and affection – and the way Bonny accepts him exactly as he is and without question – is simply lovely.  As for Bonny, well, he’s just adorable; free-spirited,  vibrant, charming and kind, he’s not ashamed of who he is and what he wants, and isn’t willing to settle for anything less than to be loved in the way he loves – with his whole heart and soul.

There’s a small, but well-drawn secondary cast. I particularly liked Peggy, Arabella’s best friend and some-time lover who is a welcome voice of reason in contrast to Arabella’s frequent and overblown histrionics, and Sir Horley, the rakish older gentleman with an eye on Bonny and a heart of gold.  As one would expect from an Alexis Hall book, the queer rep is varied and excellent;  Peggy is genderfluid, Sir Horley is gay,  I got the impression Arabella is aromantic, and there are two delightful ladies who are married in all but name.

Sadly, the book’s biggest flaw is Arabella.  I understood her frustration and where she was coming from – no legal rights, no right to an opinion, no rights over her own body, even – but rather than making the attempt to explain herself or just talk to Valentine, she screams and throws tantrums and melodramatic fits, she makes ridiculous and unfounded accusations and generally behaves like a spoilt brat.  If she’d been the heroine of a book, it would have hit the wall before the end of the first chapter!  It’s rare for me to have such a visceral reaction to a character in a book, but I honestly couldn’t stand her and felt sorry for Bonny having to put up with her all his life.  And this leads to my other issue with the story, which is that the catch-up-with-her/she’s-run-away-again is a bit repetitive – although I fully accept this may be because I so disliked Arabella that I just wanted her to run away and stay gone!

Other than that, however, Something Fabulous certainly lives up to its name.  It’s funny, sexy, daft and just a bit over the top, but it’s all done with obvious love and affection and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake (Winner Bakes All #1) by Alexis Hall

rosaline palmer takes the cake

This title may be purchased from Amazon

As an expert baker, Rosaline Palmer is a big believer in always following the recipe. She’s lived her life by that rule – well, except for when she dropped out of college to raise her daughter, Amelie. Now, with a paycheck as useful as greaseproof paper and a house crumbling faster than biscuits in tea, she’s teetering on the edge of financial disaster. But where there’s a whisk there’s a way . . . and Rosaline has just landed a spot on the nation’s most beloved baking show.

Winning the prize money would give her daughter the life she deserves, but more than collapsing trifles stand between Rosaline and sweet, sweet victory. Suave, well-educated, and parent-approved Alain Pope knows all the right moves to sweep her off her feet, but it’s shy electrician Harry Dobson who makes Rosaline question her long-held beliefs – about herself, her family, and her desires.

Rosaline fears falling for Harry is a recipe for disaster. Yet as the competition – and the ovens – heat up, Rosaline starts to realize the best quality bakes come from the heart . . .

Rating – B+

The first thing I’m going to say about this book – which I enjoyed very much – is that while it’s as clever, wonderfully observed and laugh-out-loud funny as Alexis Hall’s other books, and there is an HEA at the end, the focus is more on Rosaline and her journey towards acceptance and coming into her own than it is on the romance.

I reviewed this one with my good friend and fellow All About Romance reviewer Em Wittmann; we’re both big Alexis Hall fans and you can read our review here: Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake.

 

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.

Audio

When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

Pansies (Spires Universe #4) by Alexis Hall (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Alfie Bell is . . . fine. He’s got a six-figure salary, a penthouse in Canary Wharf, the car he swore he’d buy when he was 18, and a bunch of fancy London friends.

It’s rough, though, going back to South Shields now that they all know he’s a fully paid-up pansy. It’s the last place he’s expecting to pull. But Fen’s gorgeous, with his pink-tipped hair and hipster glasses, full of the sort of courage Alfie’s never had. It should be a one-night thing, but Alfie hasn’t met anyone like Fen before.

Except he has. At school, when Alfie was everything he was supposed to be, and Fen was the stubborn little gay boy who wouldn’t keep his head down. And now it’s a proper mess: Fen might have slept with Alfie, but he’ll probably never forgive him, and Fen’s got all this other stuff going on anyway, with his mam and her flower shop and the life he left down south.

Alfie just wants to make it right. But how can he, when all they’ve got in common is the nowhere town they both ran away from.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A

I finished listening to Alexis Hall’s Pansies with a happy sigh and the biggest, sappiest smile on my face. I know several people who cite this as their favourite of Mr. Hall’s books, and now I can see why; it’s a funny, awkward, sexy, poignant and gorgeously romantic story featuring two wounded, lovely and lonely people that had me smiling one minute and tearing up the next – and sometimes both at once.

Alfie Bell left his home town of South Shields in the North East of England for a plum job in London, and now has a six-figure salary, a swanky penthouse apartment and the car of his dreams. He’s returned home for his best mate’s wedding, where he accidentally outs himself in quite the spectacular fashion at the reception. Deciding to make himself scarce for a bit, he drives to a local pub where he meets Fen, all lithe grace, pink-tipped hair and attitude … and is mesmerised. It’s not until after they’ve hooked up that Fen angrily tells Alfie that they went to school together, and not only that, Alfie bullied him and made his life a misery for years.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My 2019 in Books & Audio

Before I started writing this post, I took a look at the one I wrote for 2018 – My 2018 in Books & Audio – to see what I had to say about the books I read and listened to and about the things I was hoping for from 2019.  Sadly, my biggest wish – for more winners in historical romance – not only didn’t come true, but didn’t come true in spectactular fashion; I read and listened to considerably fewer historical romances in 2019 (around 60) and of those, only 15 garnered a B+ (4.5 stars) or higher (actually, that was 11 historical romances plus 4 historical mysteries), and only two made the Best of 2019 list I wrote for All About Romance.  Looking at the upcoming release lists for 2020, I can’t see that situation improving; very few of the book blurbs for upcoming HR make me want to read them.

So… what did I read and listen to instead?  My Goodreads stats show that I read and listened to 299 books and audiobooks in 2019, (that figure includes maybe a dozen or so audio re-listens), which is over 40 books more than my total for last year.

Of that total, 66 were 5 star reads/listens, 184 were 4 star reads/listens – by far the biggest category – 35 were 3 star reads/listens, and there were 9 2 stars, 1 1 star and 1 unrated DNF.

Of the 66 highest graded, around a dozen were actual A grades; I award an A- 4.5 stars but bump the star rating up to five.  (And in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a B grade story will get bumped up because of A grade narration). The 4 star ratings cover books/audios I’ve given B-, B or B+ grades, which is quite a large spectrum as it ranges from those books which are given qualified recommendations (B- is 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars) to those which are almost-but-not-quite DIKs (Desert Isle Keepers), the 4.5 stars (B+) I don’t round up.  I had around the same number of 3, 2 and 1 star ratings as last year, which is at least consistent!

The books that made my Best of 2019 list at AAR are these:

(although I cheated a bit and actually included the whole Not Dead Yet and Borealis Investivations series!)

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

I had a list of “also rans” that I would have included had I had more space:

Charlie Adhara’s Thrown to the Wolves was – I believe – originally to have been the final book in her Big Bad Wolf series, but she’s since announced there will be a fourth (yay!).  In TttW, we finally get some backstory for the enigmatic werewolf Park when he takes Cooper home to meet the family, together with a clever mystery, complicated family dynamics and a well-deserved HEA that’s perfectly in character. Cordelia Kingsbridge’s A Chip and a Chair was one of my most anticipated books of the year and didn’t disappoint, bringing the rollercoaster ride that was the Seven of Spades series to a rolliking, satisfying close.  KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage was (I think?) her first m/f romance; a sequel to Any Old Diamonds, it features tough-as-nails lady detective Susan Lazarus and the other half of the Lilywhite Boys in an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  Sally Malcolm’s Twice Shy is a lovely feel-good romance between a young man struggling to bring up two young children left to his care following the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, and a school teacher still dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage and career.  The romance is warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry and is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce happy sighs.

Historical Romance made another really poor showing in 2019; of the authors I’ve previously counted on to deliver really good stories full of interesting and appealing characters, only a few actually managed to do it.  KJ Charles and Mia Vincy made my Best of 2019 list, but Lara Temple (The Rake’s Enticing Proposal), Virginia Heath (The Determined Lord Hadleigh), Janice Preston (Daring to Love the Duke’s Heir) and Marguerite Kaye (The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage) all put out excellent books this year, and I enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s début, Bringing Down the Duke and am keen to read whatever she comes up with next.  I still haven’t got around to reading Julie Anne Long’s Angel in a Devil’s Arms, which has appeared on quite a few Best of lists, so I hope I’ll enjoy it when I get around to it!

I also enjoyed a few historical mysteries; Sherry Thomas (The Art of Theft), Andrea Penrose (Murder at Kensington Palace) and Anna Lee Huber (Penny for Your Secrets) released new instalments in their current series and Cat Sebastian (Hither, Page) began a new one set in an English village post WW2 that combined a cozy mystery with a simply lovely romance.

Audio

I did a very quick count the other day, and think that, for the first year ever, I actually listened to more books than I read (by a very small margin).  I counted around 150 audiobooks (and probably missed a few re-listens because I often forget to mark those at Goodreads) which is half my total of 299 reads/listens. And according to the spreadsheet I maintain of books and audios I’ve picked up for review, I had an equal number of books and audiobooks to review in 2019. I have definitely struggled, at times, to find books I want to review and have filled the gap with audiobooks.  So many are released each month, and I especially love it when backlist titles are made available for authors whose work I enjoy but stand no chance of actually getting to in print!

I chose the following as my Top Five audiobooks of the year at AudioGals:

I also cheated here by including the whole Not Dead Yet series! – which is actually the only title (titles) written in 2019; all the other books were written before last year, but didn’t come out in audio until 2019.  But that’s par for the course with audio; not all of them are released simultaneously with the print/digital versions.  The “also rans” for my audio Best of 2019 list were:

All boast top-notch performances and got at least an A- for narration, and the stories got at least a B+ each; and quite honestly, I could have substituted any of them for the list I actually posted at AudioGals; my favourites tend to change depending on how I feel from one day to the next!  Had I listened to Lily Morton’s Deal Maker before I complied my list, that would certainly have made the cut, too!

So that was 2019.  What am I hoping for in 2020?  I’d like historical romance to get back on track, but I don’t see that happening in a big way and expect to be reading even more selectively in the genre than I’ve done this year.  I’m hoping for more from Mia Vincy and will be checking out more from Evie Dunmore.  Right now, most of the good HR is coming from Harlequin Historical authors, so I’ll definitely be reading more from them. In contemporaries, I’m looking forward to two new series from Annabeth Albert (Hotshots and True Colors) as well as to catching up with her Perfect Harmony series in audio, and to making my way through Lily Morton’s backlist – I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the audio of Risk Taker (with Joel Leslie at the helm) and hope she’s planning more audio releases in 2020.  I’ll be snapping up the finale of L.J Hayward’s Death and the Devil series as soon as it comes out, nabbing more Victor Bayne (and Gomez Pugh!) in the next book(s) in Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series, and inhaling more Hazard and Somerset from Gregory Ashe. KJ Charles promises some 1920s pulp mysteries, there’s another book to come in Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series, so I’m looking pretty nicely set for the first part of 2020 in terms of reading and listening!

I’ll (hopefully) be back again this time next year to tell you now it all panned out!

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This audiobook may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Miss Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Miss Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Miss Haas’ stock-in-trade.

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: B+

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is one of those books that defies categorisation. Part sci-fi/fantasy, part paranormal, part mystery, it’s what might have resulted had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got drunk one night in company with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett – slightly bonkers, devastatingly witty and wholly entertaining – and I was utterly captivated by all ten-and-a-half hours of it. Alexis Hall is a supremely talented wordsmith, and if I were to give examples of all the turns of phrase that had me grinning like an idiot – hand-curated whelks, anyone? – laughing out loud or simply marvelling at the elegance of the prose or the precision of the well-aimed barbs, I’d be here all day. So to spare you that, I’ll do my best to encapsulate this wonderfully weird story in a thousand words or thereabouts.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

How to Bang a Billionaire (Arden St. Ives #1) by Alexis Hall (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Rules are made to be broken….

If England had yearbooks, I’d probably be “Arden St. Ives: Man Least Likely to Set the World on Fire.” So far, I haven’t. I’ve no idea what I’m doing at Oxford, no idea what I’m going to do next and, until a week ago, I had no idea who Caspian Hart was. Turns out, he’s brilliant, beautiful…oh yeah, and a billionaire.

It’s impossible not to be captivated by someone like that. But Caspian Hart makes his own rules. And he has a lot of them. About when I can be with him. What I can do with him. And when he’ll be through with me.

I’m good at doing what I’m told in the bedroom. The rest of the time, not so much. And now that Caspian’s shown me glimpses of the man behind the billionaire I know it’s him I want. Not his wealth, not his status. Him. Except that might be the one thing he doesn’t have the power to give me.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – A

I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone who reads or listens regularly to romances that the Arden St. Ives trilogy (of which How to Bang a Billionaire is book one) is similar in its premise to E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy. A young student/wannabe journalist meets a hotter-than-hell billionaire and, after negotiating a contract, kinky sex ensues. That’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of Fifty Shades as I’ve neither read nor listened to any of the books, but that at least means I can make an assessment of HTBAB based purely on my reaction to the story and overall enjoyment of both it and the narration. Which, I’ll say now, is outstanding.

Twenty-year-old Arden St. Ives is in his third year reading English at Oxford. He’s taken the place – at the end of a phone line – of a sick friend in a telethon to raise funds for (the fictional) St. Sebastian’s College, but isn’t having a lot of luck with the list of college alumni he’s been given to cold-call. Remembering advice he’d been given about putting a smile in his voice, he dials the next number and this time, manages to get out more than just his name before the person at the other end hangs up. In fact, he ends up having an actual conversation with Caspian Hart, whom Arden is somewhat shocked to realise (from looking at his cheat-sheet) is a billionaire. Several times over. Who also has a sexy voice, a gently flirtatious manner and who – unexpectedly – takes the time to have a proper conversation, at the end of which Arden remembers to invite him to the gala dinner being held in a few weeks’ time. He’s not surprised when Caspian doesn’t commit – billions don’t make themselves after all – which is why he’s knocked sideways when he’s getting ready for the dinner and is told that there’s a Mr. Hart waiting for him downstairs.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.