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!

Reverb (Twisted Wishes #3) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The tougher they are, the harder they fall.

Twisted Wishes bass player Mish Sullivan is a rock goddess – gorgeous, sexy, and comfortable in the spotlight. With fame comes unwanted attention, though: A stalker is desperate to get close. Mish can fend for herself, just as she always has. But after an attack lands her in the hospital, the band reacts, sticking her with a bodyguard she doesn’t need or want.

David Altet has an instant connection with Mish. A certified badass, this ex-army martial-arts expert can take down a man twice his size. But nothing – not living as a trans man, not his intensive military training – prepared him for the challenge of Mish. Sex with her is a distraction neither of them can afford, yet the hot, kink-filled nights keep coming.

When Mish’s stalker ups his game, David must make a choice – lover or bodyguard. He’d rather have Mish alive than in his bed. But Mish wants David, and no one, especially not a stalker, will force her to give him up.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

I’ve been really enjoying Anna Zabo’s series about the members of the rock group Twisted Wishes. When we first met them in Syncopation, they were on the verge of making it big, and by the time of Counterpoint, their position as one of the most famous bands around had been cemented. Reverb finds the group about to go on tour once again, this time as a headlining act, and now it’s the turn of bassist Mish Sullivan to get her happy ever after.

Beautiful, confident and talented, Mish has always seemed like the glue that has – on occasion – held Twisted Wishes together. She’s not had an easy life, having lost the mother she loved dearly to cancer when she was in her teens, but she’s moved on and made a successful life for herself with the band, who are her family. But the sort of fame she’s now enjoying brings problems of its own; over the last few months, Mish has been receiving threatening emails from an obsessive fan who is clearly stalking her. She’s tried to play it down, but when she’s attacked by a (different) fan wielding a pair of scissors (wanting to cut off a lock of hair) Ray Van Zeller decides it’s time to step up their security and hires ex-military martial arts expert David Altet as protection for them all – but really, to act as a bodyguard for Mish.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Syncopation (Twisted Wishes #1) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer – insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems – something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter. If Ray’s up for the challenge.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band – or his heart. And Zavier has always had big dreams; this gig was supposed to be temporary. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content: B+

Anna Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series centres around the four-person rock group of the same name which, in this first book, is poised to make the big-time. Book one, Syncopation, is a really enjoyable, very sexy story; the band members are all interesting and clearly drawn, and the author does a great job of describing the claustrophobic atmosphere of life on the road, the thrills and utter exhilaration of live performance (and the exhaustion that follows) and the dedication and hard work that have got Twisted Wishes to this point in its career.

When the book opens, however, the band has hit a rather large snag. Their drummer has just quit following a public row between him and front man Ray Van Zeller, and a video – together with screaming headlines like DRUNKEN VAN ZELLER ATTACKS SCHMIDT AS TWISTED WISHES IMPLODES – has just hit the media sites. The band’s manager, Carl (who it’s clear from the outset, has it in for Ray for some reason), wants Ray to take the fall and blame the fight on an alcohol problem he doesn’t have, but Kevin’s departure leaves the band with a far more pressing problem. Just weeks away from going on tour as a support act to a major band, they’re without a drummer – and need to find one asap.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Counterpoint (Twisted Wishes #2) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

counterpoint

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Twisted Wishes lead-guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves. A self-imposed exile makes it impossible to get close to anyone outside the band, so he’s forced to get his sexual fix through a few hot nights with a stranger.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder – the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Dominic is reluctant to trust Adrian with his true identity. But when the truth is revealed prematurely, Dominic is forced to reevaluate both his need for Adrian and everything he believes about himself.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Counterpoint, book two in Anna Zabo’s trilogy about rock group Twisted Wishes, focuses on the band’s lead guitarist, Domino Grinder, a mouthy, tatted-up, leather-clad Rock god who struts about the stage shirtless, oozing sex appeal and attitude.  Domino may be the most recognisable member of the group, but he’s also fiercely private, guarding his personal life to the extent that as far as the media can discern, he doesn’t have one.  He’s never seen with anyone outside his immediate professional circle and his name is never linked with anyone else’s romantically.  He’s an enigma, and that’s the way he likes it.

And the reason he’s been able to maintain that degree of anonymity is because the brash, outrageous Domino is actually a persona invented by shy, nerdy Dominic Bradley as a way of combating the debilitating stage-fright he suffered in Twisted Wishes’ early days.  Unable to face performing as himself and believing nobody would take diminutive, bookish, art-loving Dominic seriously as a rock musician, he’s hidden behind Domino for years, so successfully that the only people who know that Domino doesn’t really exist are his band-mates, Ray, Zavier and Mish. As for Dominic Bradley, well he’s just another geeky, bow-tie wearing, bespectacled twink who gets plenty of the sort of attention he wants, when he wants it, no strings, no commitment – which is perfectly fine with him.  Anything longer than a few hours with someone would risk the unmasking of Domino – and that’s something he’s desperate to avoid.

But from the moment Dominic meets the handsome, charming Adrian Doran at one of his favourite eateries, he senses he might be in trouble.  They talk, they flirt, they share dessert; the air between them crackles with electricity and heat, the intensity of the pull he feels towards the other man like nothing Dominic has ever experienced before.  Towards the end of the evening, Adrian tells Dominic he wants “more than a quick fuck and goodbye” and that he wants to explore the potential for more between them.  And even though he knows it’s a risk he shouldn’t be taking, Dominic agrees to meet him again the following week, to go on a date and see where things lead.

Anna Zabo develops the relationship between Dominic and Adrian really well. I’m not a fan of insta-relationships, but the chemistry between the couple is so potent, so palpable that it’s absolutely convincing, and I enjoyed being privy to their getting-to-know-you phase as they go on dates to museums and galleries and settle into a weekly routine of lazy weekends together. Dominic loves that he gets to be himself with Adrian, something he’s rarely able to do, as he maintains his Domino persona whenever he’s around the band – even when they’re in the recording studio – and Adrian is utterly captivated by this quiet, artistic, book-loving man whose willingness to cede control in bed truly touches him.  Dominic had never really considered a D/s relationship before, but being with Adrian helps him to understand and enjoy his kinks and shows him how freeing and empowering it can be to submit.  The sex scenes in the book are hot, but are also tender, loving, and full of trust and acceptance with an emphasis on consent, and are integral to the story and the development of the relationship.

The tension in the story comes from Dominic’s reluctance to tell Adrian about his ‘other life’ as Domino, his fear that Adrian may not be able to keep his secret and his guilt at keeping it when Adrian has shared so much of himself with him. But there’s more to it than not wanting to give up the anonymity Domino affords him; he’s equally worried that Adrian, who has no interest in or knowledge of rock music, will see him differently once he knows the truth, and that the world at large will laugh at the idea of geeky Dominic Bradley being a rock star.  Acute stage fright and Imposter Syndrome compound Dominic’s belief he can’t be both Domino and Dominic.

Adrian is pansexual, and almost ten years older than Dominic; he’s a good guy who has reached a point in his life when he’s looking for more from life than meaningless hook-ups. He’s a computer programmer for a large bank, a job that pays pretty well, but he isn’t happy there and is having to put up with a colleague constantly trying to undermine him. I appreciated that we get to see Adrian outside of his relationship with Dominic, as it helps cement him as a three-dimensional character with flaws and a life of his own. The care he shows Dominic both inside and outside the bedroom is simply wonderful; he’s a man who loves well and deeply, and I loved that although he realises Dominic is keeping something from him, he never pushes, sure that Dominic will tell him when he’s ready.

It will come as a surprise to exactly NO ONE who has ever listened to Greg Boudreaux when I say his narration is nigh on flawless and worthy of all the superlatives.  His pacing, characterisation and differentiation are excellent, and his character portrayals are consistent across the books in the series, so if you’ve listened to Syncopation, you’ll easily recognise the four members of Twisted Wishes by their voices alone. Mr. Boudreaux’s interpretations of Dominic and Adrian are both spot on, too – Adrian’s deep, rich tone a perfect contrast to Dominic’s slightly higher one, his deliberate delivery accurately reflecting the fact that he’s someone confident in his own skin who knows what he wants.  Mr. Boudreaux is a consummate vocal actor who never disappoints with his ability to get into the heads and hearts of the characters he portrays; he hits all the right emotional notes in the story and his performance really enhances and fully realises the depth of the connection between the two leads.

As in book one, the other band members play a large part in the story and are a wonderful support mechanism for each other, and I loved their scenes together.  I did, however, have a few fairly minor niggles about the story. When the shit hits the fan – as it was bound to – I was pleased that Mx. Zabo doesn’t drag things out unnecessarily, although some of the later drama felt a bit overdone. The pacing lags a little in the middle, and I sort of wished we’d been able to see Adrian’s shitty colleague get his comeuppance, but otherwise, I enjoyed the book very much – and I’m not someone who is normally drawn to romances featuring kink.

Counterpoint was a compelling listen and one I didn’t put down easily – in fact I listened to most of it in one day.  Strong storytelling, attractive leads and well-drawn secondary characters combine with a sexy and emotionally satisfying romance and a top-notch performance from one of the best narrators around to garner a strong recommendation.

 

Daily Grind (Takeover #4) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Brian Keppler, owner of Ground N’At, the coffee shop beneath SR Anderson Consulting, doesn’t have time for a relationship. His most recent girlfriend broke up with him because he’d become married to his shop, which is falling apart without his favorite barista, Justin. As he struggles to stay afloat, the arrival of handsome British high-tech whiz Robert Ancroft becomes another complication. Rob quickly becomes a fixture at the shop with his sharp wit and easy charm, and Brian soon finds himself looking forward more and more to Rob’s visits – to the point where his heart skips a beat when he walks in. But will Brian be able to come to terms with his previously unexplored sexual identity and find happiness now that he has a chance?

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: A-

Daily Grind, the fourth book in Anna Zabo’s Takeover series, is perhaps one of the more unusual romances I’ve listened to recently in that it takes a hard look at how the pressures of work – ones we often inflict upon ourselves – can make us lose sight of what’s really important, and the way such factors can affect our quality of life and relationships.

Brian Keppler owns the popular coffee shop Grounds N’at and is dedicated to providing the best tasting and best prepared coffee in Pittsburgh. Brian has owned the shop for almost a decade and he’s always been a bit of a workaholic – as can be affirmed by his small number of ex-girlfriends, all of whom cited Brian’s insistence on working all hours and putting his business before anything else as the reasons for their break-ups. Lately, however, things have been getting even more difficult; rising costs and staffing problems mean Brian is spending more time working than ever, and although he keeps telling himself it won’t always be like this, there’s no sign of a let up and things are looking bleak.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Just Business (Takeover #2) by Anna Zabo (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma

just business

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Justin White may not look like an up-and-coming corporate superstar, but his new boss knows that he has the smarts, grit, and determination to succeed. Now he just has to convince his company’s CFO, Eli Ovadia. Unfortunately, Justin can’t seem to keep his cool around the domineering Eli, and soon he finds himself taking their heat from the boardroom into the bedroom.

Still haunted by a tragic accident that left him with a wounded leg and broken heart, Eli has a need to be in control. But his desire for Justin makes him want to lose that control and push them both far beyond their limits. Will his need to dominate Justin drive him away, or will Eli find a way to be the man he needs for both of them?

Rating: Narration – A: Content – B

Anna Zabo is a new-to-me author, and I picked up Just Business (book two in the Takeover series) because I’m on a narrator glom (and it was in the Audible Romance Package). It’s a steamy, BDSM-themed romance, and to be honest, isn’t something I’d likely have chosen to read or listen to had it not been for the fact that I’d happily listen to Iggy Toma announcing arrivals and departures at Waterloo station.

Justin White is a clever, ambitious young man studying for his MBA and working as a barista in order to make ends meet. One of his regular customers is Sam Anderson, the CEO of a small but dynamic consulting firm – and Justin has overheard him talking with his friend and colleague, Eli Ovadia, about the fact that he needs to hire a new assistant. Justin is barely keeping his head above water financially, between helping his family, his tuition and living expenses, and he really wants the job; he has the right education and experience and knows he could do a lot worse than learn how to run a business from Sam Anderson – so he gathers his courage and hands Sam the application he’s prepared. He’s invited for an interview and gets the job.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.