The Geek Who Saved Christmas by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Tim Paige

the geek who saved christmas

His grumpy neighbor needs some holiday sunshine….

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

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Annabeth Albert’s The Geek Who Saved Christmas is just the ticket if you’re looking for a sexy grumpy/sunshine romance with lots of festive spirit and Christmas cheer. I read it when it came out in November and enjoyed it – and when I saw Tim Paige was narrating the audiobook version, I decided to revisit the story and enjoy it all over again!

Gideon Holiday and Paul Frost have been next-door neighbours for a few years but have never really progressed beyond the ‘nodding acquaintances’ stage. Gideon certainly wouldn’t say no to getting to know the hot silver fox better, but Paul keeps himself to himself and Gideon is resigned to the fact that getting better acquainted isn’t likely to happen. Knowing Paul hasn’t put up so much as a single Christmas decoration in all the time he’s lived there means Gideon is surprised to see him in attendance at the neighbourhood community meeting about this year’s holiday decoration theme – Gideon loves co-ordinating their lights fundraiser every year, selecting the theme, organising the donations and planning various holiday-themed activities – and his presence means that Gideon will at last have the chance to suggest the plan that’s been forming in his mind for a while now, that Paul can contribute to the fundraising efforts by ‘loaning’ Gideon his house. He’ll set up lights on Paul’s house and put them all on timers, so Paul won’t have to do a thing.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Geek Who Saved Christmas by Annabeth Albert

the geek who saved christmas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Character (True Colors #2) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin and Kirt Graves

out of character

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Jasper Quigley is tired of being everyone’s favorite sidekick. He wants to become the hero of his own life, but that’s not going to happen if he agrees to help out Milo Lionetti, his former best friend turned king of the jocks. High school was miserable enough, thanks, and Jasper has no interest in dredging up painful memories of his old secret crush.

But Milo’s got nowhere else to go. His life is spiraling out of control, and he’s looking to turn things back around. Step one? Replace the rare Odyssey cards he lost in an idiotic bet. Step two? Tell his ex-best-friend exactly how he feels – how he’s always felt. Jasper may be reluctant to reopen old wounds, but he never could resist Milo.

There’s a catch though: If Milo wants his help, he’s going to have to pitch in to make the upcoming children’s hospital charity ball the best ever. But as the two don cosplay for the kids and hunt for rare cards, nostalgia for their lost friendship may turn into something even more lasting….

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – B

In this charming frenemies-to-lovers romance, Annabeth Albert revisits the group of gamer friends we met in last year’s Conventionally Yours. If you read or listened to that book, you may recall Jasper Quigley, who had originally planned to join Alden and Conrad on their road trip, but who had to return home due to a family emergency after the first day. Out of Character opens a few months after that and finds Jasper who, in his last year of college, is still working part-time at the local game store and participating in the Gamer Grandpa vlog, wondering how on earth he’s going to find a replacement Prince Neptune for his cosplay group. Jasper and a few other Odyssey players – including his younger sister April – regularly visit the children’s ward at the local hospital to chat and play a game or two with some of the older kids on the ward, and Prince Neptune is probably the most popular character. But with the group’s regular Neptune away on vacation, Jasper is a man down, and with only a couple of days to go before their next visit has so far not managed to find anyone to take his place.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sailor Proof (Shore Leave #1) by Annabeth Albert

sailor proof
This title may be purchased from Amazon

The sexy Navy chief and his best friend’s adorkable little brother…

It’s petty, but Naval Chief Derrick Fox wishes he could exact a little revenge on his ex by showing off a rebound fling. His submarine is due to return to its Bremerton, Washington, home base soon and Derrick knows all too well there won’t be anyone waiting with a big, showy welcome.

Enter one ill-advised plan…

Arthur Euler is the guy you go to in a pinch—he’s excellent at out-of-the-box solutions. It’s what the genius music-slash-computer nerd is known for. So when he finds out Derrick needs a favor, he’s happy to help. He can muster the sort of welcome a Naval Chief deserves, no problem at all.

Except it is a problem. A very big problem.

When Arthur’s homecoming welcome is a little too convincing, when a video of their gangplank smooch goes enormously viral, they’re caught between a dock and a hard place. Neither of them ever expected a temporary fake relationship to look—or feel—so real. And Arthur certainly never considered he’d be fighting for a very much not-fake forever with a military man

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert kicks off her new Shore Leave series of military-themed contemporary romances with Sailor Proof, a cute, sexy, low-angst, veritable trope-fest of a love story.  We’ve got best friend’s little brother, only one bed, first times and a fake relationship, all thoroughly mixed and cooked to perfection to produce the equivalent of a soufflé in book form!

When a ship comes home to port, it’s tradition for the crew to vie for the privilege of being the first to disembark and greet their loved ones.  Naval Chief Derrick Fox has seen more than one marriage proposal come as a result of the First Kiss, and usually, he’s happy for whoever wins that honour. This time however, he’s more than a little bit pissed off that one of the junior officers has won the raffle and is taking great delight in taunting Derrick about the fact that he will be disembarking first and getting to plant one on his new squeeze – who happens to be Derrick’s cheating ex.  Derrick’s best friend Calder suggests that what Derrick needs is a hottie in the crowd he can make a beeline for and kiss the hell out of in full view of his ex – but unlike Calder, whose large, loving family is bound to be waiting for him, Derrick doesn’t have anyone.  He’s not opposed to the idea in principle, but being deployed on the sub for another two weeks isn’t exactly conducive to meeting said hottie and fixing a dockside smooching session.

But logistics expert Calder isn’t about to let a problem go unsolved.  His brother Arthur owes him a favour and he’d be up for being the kissee – but Derrick doesn’t see how kissing Calder’s red-haired, spindly, “too nerdy for band camp” little brother is going to make anyone jealous.

Arthur Euler is the only member of his family who isn’t involved with public service in some way.  He’s a super talented musician and award-winning composer who makes his living writing scores for video games, and has always felt somewhat out of step with everyone around him, who seem to think that music is just a phase and that he’ll settle to a real job one day soon. He loves his family dearly, but is tired of never quite being enough in their eyes, of feeling like he’s a disappointment, no matter his achievements.  Seeing the toll taken on his mother and their family by his father’s deployments, Arthur has a strict rule against dating anyone in the military – but he really does owe Calder and has no problem with his plan to help Derrick out. After all, Derrick is all but part of the family; he’s Calder’s best friend and they’ve all known each other for years, so it’s no biggie.

Except… when Derrick and Arthur – who haven’t seen each other for a good few years – finally meet up again, sparks fly.  Derrick realises Calder was right when he said his little brother wasn’t so little any more and Arthur, who even as a teen knew better than to develop a crush on a military man, can’t believe he’d forgotten how gorgeous Derrick is. Their kiss is electric, leaving them both slightly befuddled – but before either of them can bring the charade to an end, Arthur’s mother Jane arrives on the scene and, delighted to see Derrick and Arthur together, immediately invites Derrick to join them for a family dinner.  Reluctantly, Derrick accepts – Jane was like a mother to him when he was growing up and he doesn’t want to disappoint her – and is trying to come up with a way to make a quiet exit when she invites him to join them for their regular week-long family get-together; Arthur will be going so it makes sense for his boyfriend to come along, too, right?   Put on the spot, Arthur and Derrick find themselves agreeing to be fake-boyfriends for the duration, but the more time they spend together and get to know each other, they more they realise that they don’t want to be ‘fake’ boyfriends any more.  But Derrick knows Arthur’s stance on dating guys in the military – is there any way they can be together without his career coming between them?

Sailor Proof is an easy, light-hearted read featuring likeable characters, a strong secondary cast and a cute, sexy romance that is mostly drama-free.  If you’re in the mood for well-written fluff that isn’t going to put you into a sugar coma, then this is your book; the tropes are well integrated and the characters have enough depth that the low-level conflicts that do arise make sense in context. I loved the way Derrick and Arthur decide to make the best of an awkward situation, and do it with so much humour, affection and mutual respect.  I really liked their ease with one another and how they so quickly begin to look out for each other, how Arthur is comfortable enough to open up to Derrick about his family’s competitiveness and how it makes him feel, and how he begins to remind Derrick it’s not all about work and that he needs to get out and ‘people’ now and again.

These two balance each other out really well and Ms. Albert does a great job building a genuine emotional connection alongside the physical attraction that hums between them from the start.  Their romance does develop quickly, but she makes it work.

The military angle really only comes into play in a big way towards the end of the book, but the ups and downs, the waiting and the uncertainty experienced by so many military families is expertly captured, and it adds a subtle element of realism to the story.

I likened this book to a soufflé at the beginning of this review, and while that’s a delicious thing, it can also be a fairly insubstantial one – and that’s my main criticism of this story.  And it’s not really a criticism as such, it’s more of one of those things about which YMMV – this is well-written fluff of the highest order, but I generally prefer something with a bit more heft to it.

That isn’t going to stop me from recommending Sailor Proof however, because it’s a charming and extremely well-crafted character-driven story told with a great deal of warmth and humour, and I had a lot of fun reading it.

All Note Long (Perfect Harmony #3) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Brad King

all note long

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Giving true love a spin…

Michelin Moses is a country music star on the rise. With a hit single under his Texas-sized belt buckle and a sold-out concert tour underway, his childhood dreams of making it big are finally coming true. But there’s one thing missing – a promise to his dying mother that he’d find it – him – when the time was right. With a little luck, he won’t have to wait too long….

Lucky Ramirez is a hunky boy toy who dances at The Broom Closet, one of West Hollywood’s hottest gay bars. He loves what he does, and he’s good at it – almost as good as he is at playing dumb when he spots Michelin Moses at the bar. What happens next is off the charts – and keeps Michelin coming back for more. He’s just not sure it’s the right move for his career. But if Lucky gets his way, Michelin will get Lucky – and no matter how the media spins it, neither of them will be faking it….

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

Another deep dive into my Audible library to find titles I own but haven’t yet listened to turned up All Note Long, the third and final book in Annabeth Albert’s Perfect Harmony series, which is centred around characters involved with a TV singing/talent show. I reviewed book one, Treble Maker, when it came out in audio a couple of years back; I enjoyed it and picked up the other two books in the series, but unlike those – which feature characters who were contestants on the show – All Note Long focuses on country music star Michelin Moses, who was one of the judges and mentors.

Michelin (and right from that start, I had trouble with the name – I kept thinking of tyres!) was a pop star before he changed tack and moved into country music. Being gay in the country scene is a no-no, and he’s deeply in the closet, convinced coming out will mean the end of his career. When the story begins, he’s at a birthday celebration for one of his mentees, even though he knows his publicist and label would have kittens if they knew he’d met up with them at a gay bar. It’s a new experience for him, and he finds himself completely fascinated by one of the go-go dancers, a beautiful young Latinx guy who goes by Lucky. Michelin can’t help looking – even though he knows he shouldn’t – and decides to leave quietly soon afterwards, but he mistakes the way to the exit and ends up wandering the corridors backstage, where he bumps into Lucky, who notices he’s rather flustered and offers to get him some water.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Out of Character (True Colours #2) by Annabeth Albert

out of character

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Jasper Quigley is tired of being everyone’s favorite sidekick. He wants to become the hero of his own life, but that’s not going to happen if he agrees to help out his former best friend turned king of the jocks, Milo Lionetti. High school was miserable enough, thanks, and Jasper has no interest in dredging up painful memories of his old secret crush.

But Milo’s got nowhere else to go. His life is spiraling out of control and he’s looking to turn things back around. Step one? Replace the rare Odyssey cards he lost in an idiotic bet. Step two? Tell his ex-best-friend exactly how he feels—how he’s always felt.

Jasper may be reluctant to reopen old wounds, but he never could resist Milo. There’s a catch, though: if Milo wants his help, he’s going to have to pitch in to make the upcoming children’s hospital charity ball the best ever. But as the two don cosplay for the kids and hunt for rare cards, nostalgia for their lost friendship may turn into something even more lasting…

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert’s  Out of Character, the follow up to last year’s Conventionally Yours, features two guys who were firm friends until high-school, when expectations and peer pressure ended their friendship.  It’s a cute, (former) friends-to-lovers romance featuring two likeable characters who have a lot to learn – and re-learn – about each other as they reconnect through a quest to track down some rare Odyssey game cards.

We met Jasper Quigley in the previous book, in which he was due to accompany his friends and fellow gamers Alden and Conrad to Odyssey Con West, a massive fan convention in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, Jasper had to pull out at the last minute because his younger sister April – who suffers from a rare immune system disorder – became seriously ill and he had to return home.  Several months later finds Jasper, who is in his final year of college, still working at a local game shop, making regular appearances on the Gamer Grandpa vlog, and also spending time volunteering in the children’s ward at the local hospital, where he and a group of friends cosplay various Odyssey characters and play games with some of the kids there.   When the book opens though, he’s down a prince for the next visit – Prince Neptune to be specific – one of the most popular (if not the most popular) characters in the game and with the kids, and he’s running out of time to come up with a suitable replacement.

Fortunately, however, Jasper’s prince does, indeed, come.  Unfortunately, it’s in the form of someone he’d hoped never to have to have much to do with again, his former best friend, Milo Lionetti.  Milo’s Italianate good looks make him a perfect prince – on paper at least, because his long ago behaviour towards Jasper wasn’t at all princely.

Jasper and Milo grew up together and were practically inseparable, but that changed when they went to high school and Milo got picked for the soccer team.  Wanting a place at the cool kids’ table – and not wanting to be singled out for his choice of a nerdy gay boy as his best friend – Milo turned his back on Jasper and watched from the sidelines, saying nothing as the Jock crowd dished out insults to Jasper and anyone else who dared to be smart, nerdy or anything other than a vapid clone.  Jasper made new friends and moved on, although he hasn’t forgotten what Milo did, or forgiven him for it.  So Milo is the last person Jasper expects to be coming to him for help.

A few nights earlier, Milo had a bit too much to drink and ended up losing four of his older brother Bruno’s Odyssey cards, four cards which happen to be incredibly rare and worth thousands of dollars.  Bruno is in the military and is currently stationed overseas; Milo can’t bear to have to own up to yet another screw up – he’s already caused his mother and brother enough worry over the last few years – and wants to replace the cards before Bruno’s next leave, which is a matter of weeks away.   Jasper doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy for him and at first, he wonders if he’s being pranked, but he soon realises that Milo is serious, and that his distress is real.  So he offers Milo a deal.  In return for Jasper’s help in tracking down the cards, Milo has to be Prince Neptune on their next cosplay session at the hospital.  With absolutely no other option open to him, Milo agrees.

That’s the set up for what opens out into a charming and heart-warming story of two young men whose lives went in different directions finding their way back to each other.  After the cosplay session, Jasper starts looking for the cards Milo needs, and the two of them end up searching various sites and online markets, solving puzzles, doing a treasure hunt and going to an Odyssey tournament together.  To his surprise, Milo starts to enjoy the cosplaying and the visits to the hospital as well, and all the time he and Jasper spend together give them the opportunity to talk about what happened to their friendship and to get to know  each other as the people they are now.

Jasper is an absolute sweetheart; intelligent, up-beat and generous of spirit, he loves helping people and is always on hand to crack a joke or offer support.  But he chafes a bit at being the ‘sidekick’ – the dependable one who isn’t ‘the best’ at anything, and longs to be someone’s hero.  Milo has had a tough few years; he went off the rails a bit after his father died and now sees himself as a screw-up who can do nothing right and is going nowhere.  But although Jasper is initially suspicious of Milo’s motives, he quickly realises that Milo wants to change and do better, and I loved how his support and belief in Milo spur him on and help him to see that he’s capable of more than he’d believed.   Milo grows an awful lot throughout the novel, and his redemption as a character and as a friend is very well done.  I liked the neat bit of role-reversal here, too, with Jasper being the confident, outgoing one and Milo the quiet, artistic one who has, despite being a member of the ‘in-crowd’ been more alone than Jasper ever has.

The chemistry that hums between them is palpable, and their romance is sweet and full of genuine affection as Jasper helps Milo navigate his way through the newness of a relationship (with a lovely, subtle emphasis on consent) and there’s a real sense of give and take as they talk and listen and work through their issues together – and Jasper becomes Milo’s hero and Milo embraces his true self and learns to forgive himself.

As I said in my review of the previous book, I know nothing about gaming and it’s not something that has ever really interested me, but Annabeth Albert writes about it here with such affection and authority that she made me care about it because the characters care about it so much.

Milo and Jasper are well-rounded characters, and Milo, in particular, undergoes a tremendous amount of well-written and organic personal growth throughout the story.  Out of Character is a low-angst, feel-good romance about second chances, being brave and being true to yourself and others, and I’m happy to recommend it.

Up in Smoke (Hotshots #4) by Annabeth Albert

up in smoke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Freewheeling smoke jumper Brandt Wilder thrives on adrenaline. He’s never met a parachute he can’t repair or a dangerous situation he couldn’t wrangle his way out of. He’s popular and fun-loving and not at all looking to settle down or form lasting relationships. It’s a lifestyle that’s served him well…right up until the day he finds a baby on his doorstep.

Shane Travis is used to putting his country music career—and his own happiness—on hold after his sister rolls through his life. Like last spring when she convinced him to try skydiving for his birthday—and she walked away with the hot parachute instructor.

Now he gets to deliver the piece of news that will upend Brandt’s carefree life: he very well might be a dad.

Shane’s niece is safe in Brandt’s strong, capable hands, but too many questions remain unanswered. Co-parenting while they sort it out leads to late-night talks, and soul-bearing confessions lead to a most inconvenient attraction. Still, Shane can’t leave this makeshift family behind—even if it means playing house with the one man he can’t resist.

Rating: B

Up in Smoke is the fourth book in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series about wildlife firefighters and smoke jumpers based in rural Oregon, but it’s got a slightly different tone (and a very different sort of cover) to the other books in the series.  Smoke jumping does feature in the story, but it’s more of a backdrop to the main storyline – about how the two leads learn to adapt to the unexpected circumstances in which they find themselves – and the slow-burn romance.

Smoke jumper Brandt Wilder occasionally helps out a friend who runs a sky-diving school.  The clients on this particular afternoon are a brother and sister – Shane and Shelby Travis;  it’s Shane’s birthday and the jump is his sister’s present to him.  Shane is quiet and clearly a bit nervous – and also obviously used to fading into the background around more ebullient sister – but something about him captures Brandt’s attention.  Shane supposes he should have known that Shelby’s sudden interest in jumping out of a plane was somehow related to her interest in a hot guy; Brandt really is gorgeous, but Shane deliberately tamps down the frisson of awareness he feels every time Brandt touches him as he readies them for the tandem jump.  Afterwards, with his feet back safely on the ground, Shane has to admit that the jump really had been exhilarating – and that the short time he’d flown with Brandt Wilder is something he’ll never forget.

Almost a year later, the last thing Brandt could ever have imagined is opening his front door to find Shane Travis on his doorstep – with a baby in tow.   He’s completely stunned when Shane tells him the baby is his, the result of the one-night stand he had with Shelby the night before Shane’s birthday.  He explains that Shelby turned up in Portland (where he was auditioning for a TV talent show) with the baby a few days earlier and was gone the next morning, most likely off to Canada with one of her friends. Brandt can’t believe it – but Shelby named him as baby Jewel’s dad in the note she left for Shane and had Brandt’s name put on the birth certificate.

Shane has spent most of his life clearing up Shelby’s messes, but nothing could have prepared him for being left literally holding the baby.  Unable to bear the idea of Jewel being put into care, Shane decides his only option is to take her to her dad, but it’s only once he’s arrived that he remembers that Brandt – who jumps out of planes to fight fires for a living – is as far from ideal fatherhood material as he is himself;  an itinerant musician trying to build a career isn’t going to be considered able to properly care for an infant either.  But he didn’t know what else to do; he’s worried and sleep deprived, he’s driven for hours to get to Painter’s Ridge and is too tired to be able to make any coherent decisions.  But one thing is clear.  No matter what sort of ‘dad material’ he may be, Brandt is the only person Shane can turn to for help.

Brandt is shell-shocked by the idea of being a dad, but having been a foster kid himself, he likes the idea of handing Jewel over to social services as little as Shane does.  When Shane’s rested and they’re all fed, they talk about the next steps, and when Shane offers to stick around for a while, Brandt offers him the spare room – “two sets of hands is better than one” after all.

Over the following days and weeks, Brandt and Shane go from unexpected roommates to friends, sharing baby duties and bonding over shared new experiences with her. They slowly fall into a routine of caring for Jewel – taking turns at feeding and night-time duty – and caring for each other, preparing meals, sharing chores and shopping trips and generally being a solid support for one another.  I loved watching them doing things together so seamlessly that they don’t quite realise they’re doing it. It’s a really well done getting-to-know-you phase, and alongside it, the attraction that sparked between them a year earlier is bubbling along beneath the surface.  Neither man has a great deal of sexual experience with guys;  Shane isn’t really out – he plays a lot of super rural communities where it’s just easier to keep himself and his sexuality to himself, and Brandt just… likes who he likes and has never felt the need to put a label on it.  He’s been with more women than men, but certainly isn’t averse to a little exploration and fun with Shane.  It doesn’t have to be anything permanent – neither of them is looking for that – but it can be more than a one-time thing (baby duties permitting) for as long as they both want it to be.

Up in Smoke is a quiet, but sexy character-driven romance about two lost souls finding love and purpose and partnership, and building the family neither of them ever had.  It’s a low-conflict, low-angst story; the biggest obstacle to the romance is the fact that both Shane and Brandt have been used to living a rather nomadic lifestyle – unencumbered and going where the work is – and both will finally have to deal with emotional baggage that has made them (understandably) cautious about allowing themselves to trust wholeheartedly in another person.  But ultimately, they’re two decent guys trying to do the best they can in difficult circumstances, and there’s never any doubt that baby Jewel is their priority. Ms. Albert’s descriptions of the challenges involved in parenting a very young baby are pretty spot on, too.

While Shane’s frustration with Shelby is palpable and well-written, neither he nor Brandt hate her for what she did, and I appreciated that she’s never demonised or made out to be the villain of the piece.  Dumping her baby with her brother is a crappy thing to do, and she definitely comes across as somewhat unstable, but she’s troubled, not evil, and needs help.

Shane and Brandt are engaging and easy to root for, their emotional connection comes through strongly and this was an easy book to get lost in. I really liked the descriptions of Shane’s musical talent and songwriting skills, the cameo appearances from Jacob and Linc (Burn Zone), and the way the author still manages to convey the dangerous nature of Brandt’s job even though there isn’t a major fire or incident in the story (a deliberate choice which Ms. Albert explains in her author’s note).  I have a couple of reservations, however; mainly that the guys embark on their fling a bit too quickly, and also that the late-book conflict is maybe a little drawn out for two people who have been communicating so well, but those things apart, Up in Smoke is a nice mixture of sweet and steamy, and I’m happy to recommend both it, and the entire Hotshots series.

TBR Challenge: Served Hot (Portland Heat #1) by Annabeth Albert

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Portland, Oregon, the only thing hotter than the coffee shops, restaurants, and bakeries are the hard-working men who serve it up—hot, fresh, and ready to go—with no reservations… Robby is a self-employed barista with a busy coffee cart, a warm smile, and a major crush on one of his customers. David is a handsome finance director who works nearby, eats lunch by himself, and expects nothing but “the usual”—small vanilla latte—from the cute guy in the cart. But when David shows up for his first Portland Pride festival, Robby works up the nerve to take their slow-brewing relationship to the next level. David, however, is newly out and single, still grieving the loss of his longtime lover, and unsure if he’s ready to date again. Yet with every fresh latte, sweet exchange—and near hook-up—David and Robby go from simmering to steaming to piping hot. The question is: Will someone get burned?

Rating: B

I was a bit pushed for reading time this month (too many new releases to review!) and I was actively looking for a fairly short read to fulfil this month’s prompt, so I was pleased when I came across Served Hot on my Kindle. I’m a big fan of Annabeth Albert’s books, but I’m still playing catch-up with her backlist; Served Hot dates from 2015 and is the first book in her six-part  Portland Heat series of novella-length stories featuring guys who work in the restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and bars of the city.  It’s short, sweet and sexy and the author packs a decent amount of character and relationship development and a lot of heart into the limited page count.

Self-employed barista Robby Edwards enjoys working his busy coffee cart in the Old Emerson building in Portland, and the highlight of his day is the arrival of David Gregory, an attractive, well-dressed guy who always buys a vanilla latte and sits at one of the nearby tables to eat his (obviously home-made) lunch, alone.  They don’t do much more than exchange pleasantries or talk about the weather, and even though Robby doesn’t know if David is gay, he has a major crush – but no idea how to go about striking up an actual conversation and maybe even flirting a little bit.

When Robby decides to go for it and mentions he’s going to Portland Pride that weekend, he can’t help being a bit disappointed when David doesn’t react and seems to withdraw a little. He wonders if he’d have been better not to have said anything at all.  So he’s absolutely delighted when David shows up after all and makes it clear he’s there for Robby.  They spend a little time talking and share a sweet (but not quite chaste) kiss before they part having arranged to see each other again soon.

The next time we see David and Robby, they’ve been dating for about six weeks… and Robby is starting to get a little frustrated.  Not just sexually (although he’s that, too) but because he’s falling hard for David and isn’t sure where he stands with him.  He’s wary of pushing too hard and scaring him off – while David is clearly not quite sure how to be in an openly out relationship.  He’s not closeted – not any more – and when we learn his backstory, his inability to move forward is easy to understand, although that doesn’t excuse the fact that he doesn’t always treat Robby fairly.

Despite that however, David is a very sympathetic character and it’s easy to root for him to be able to get past his issues so that he can be with Robby, because there’s no question these two belong together.  Robby is smart and funny and a bit insecure, and I liked that he recognises his flaws and owns them.  He’s very well fleshed-out considering this is such a short book and I enjoyed spending time in his head.  And although we don’t get David’s perspective, Ms. Albert does a terrific job of bringing him to life through Robby’s eyes; he’s shy and endearing, and his backstory is heartbreakingly realistic.  And in fact, I loved how real this story was –  Robby and David aren’t stunningly handsome billionaries; they have normal jobs, and they talk about normal things like money and food and friends and family.

The story is told in four sections that take place over just under a year, so there are time jumps, but the format works. One criticism I often make of novellas is that the romance is rushed, but that’s not the case here as we get to see the different stages of Robby and David’s relationship as they both navigate unfamiliar waters and learn – together – what a healthy relationship looks like and how to deal with fears and problems just like every couple has to.

Served Hot is a charming read, a warm, feel-good story with just the right amount of angst (and steam!) featuring two likeable characters, and I’m looking forward to reading more in the Portland Heat series.

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!

Burn Zone (Hotshots #1) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Smokejumper Lincoln Reid is speechless to see Jacob Hartman among his squad’s new recruits. Linc had promised his late best friend he’d stay away from his little brother. And yet here Jacob is…and almost instantly, the same temptation Linc has always felt around him is causing way too many problems.

Jacob gets everyone’s concerns, but he’s waited years for his shot at joining the elite smokejumping team, hoping to honor his brother’s memory. He’s ready to tackle any challenge Linc throws his way, and senses the chemistry between them – chemistry Linc insists on ignoring – is still alive and kicking. This time, Jacob’s determined to get what he wants.

Close quarters and high stakes make it difficult for Linc to keep his resolve, nevermind do so while also making sure the rookie’s safe. But the closer they get, the more Linc’s plan to leave at the end of the season risks him breaking another promise: the one his heart wants to make to Jacob.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B+

Book one in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series about the members of the elite wildland firefighter crew based in central Oregon, Burn Zone is a sexy age-gap romance between two smoke jumpers (and I had to look up exactly what that job is!) – Lincoln Reid, who’s been on the job for a number of years, and rookie Jacob Hartman – who happens to be the younger brother of Linc’s best friend Wyatt.

When the book opens, we meet Linc and Wyatt as they’re finishing up with an end-of-season situation check. Wyatt is pissed because nineteen-year-old Jacob came out to the family at the Sunday dinner table, and although he doesn’t say it in so many words, he obviously thinks that Linc had something to do with it. Wyatt is one of the very few people in their small hometown – or at work – who knows Linc is gay, but even though his subtle and not-so-subtle homophobia has dented their lifelong friendship, the pair have remained friends, because Wyatt and the entire Hartman clan have been more Linc’s family than Linc’s own ever was. But Jacob hasn’t made much of a secret of his huge crush on Linc, and Wyatt angrily tells to Linc to keep his hands off – no matter that Linc has never planned to go there with Jacob, even though he’s cute and his youthful confidence and warm smile are very attractive.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.