The Christmas Leap (Festive Fakes #2) by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

the christmas leap

This title may be downloaded from Audile via Amazon

Fake romance shouldn’t feel this real….<
Will: I’ve never been with a man.

Sure, I’ve thought about it. Wondered. Daydreamed. Imagined. But I wasn’t ready to take the leap.

I have a reputation as a “ladies’ man”. No one has any idea how curious I am about men—not even my openly bi best friend. Make that former best friend. Michael ghosted me, and I have no idea why.

Michael: The man I love is straight.

It hurt like hell when I had to distance myself from Will. I’ve tried desperately to grow up and get over him, but my carefully constructed life just fell apart—and Will rushes to my rescue.

Now we’re pretending to be a couple to impress his boss at a holiday retreat. We’re holding hands and hugging.

We’re sharing a bed.

And Will just kissed me.

Is my best friend falling in love with me after all?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

I can take or leave Christmas-themed romances but I do pick up a few each year, especially if they’re by favourite authors. Keira Andrews’ The Christmas Deal from 2019 is a sweet, sexy fake-relationship story with engaging characters, lots of warm fuzzies and a well-deserved HEA; I enjoyed it very much and was quick to pick it up in audio the following year. I was really pleased when I learned the author would be returning to that world – now entitled Festive Fakes – for a follow-up story, also a romance that starts out with a fake relationship, although this time the leads are two long-time friends who have drifted apart.

At the beginning of The Christmas Leap, Michael Davis returns home with what he thinks is the perfect Christmas tree for the home he shares with his boyfriend Jared, only to overhear a phone conversation between Jared and his sister in which he says he’s been planning to break up with Michael for months – that he should never have let their relationship go on for as long as it has, in fact – but that he’s not going to do it until after Christmas because he knows how much Michael is looking forward to it. Deeply hurt, angry and confused, Michael walks; he gets into his car with nothing but the clothes on his back and drives without any destination in mind. All he knows is he has to get away. And as if life hasn’t thrown enough crap at him, his car breaks down on a snowy, deserted road and it’s going to be hours before the breakdown service can get there. Cold, lonely and miserable, there’s only one person Michael wants to call – his former best friend Will, the man he’s crushed on since college – and who, in a desperate attempt to get over him, Michael has ghosted for two years.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Christmas on Firefly Hill by Garrett Leigh

christmas on firefly hill

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Firefighter Logan Halliwell doesn’t have much time for romance. A relentless work-life-balance and an expensive divorce have sucked the festive cheer from his days. All he wants is to be a good dad. A fun dad. Especially at Christmas.

He doesn’t know how lonely he is until he meets Remy Collins, a gorgeous fire dancer at a sultry summer festival.

Their instant connection blows his mind, but their fleeting encounter is over before Logan can catch his breath. One kiss and they’re strangers again. That wicked brush of lips nothing but a dream.

Long months pass. Then fate brings them together again at the summit of Firefly Hill, and absence has only strengthened the current thrumming between them. The heat. The precious chance of true happiness they both so desperately need.

Only fear stands in their way.

And Logan’s dangerous job.

It takes a tough lesson and a dose of winter magic to learn that loving each other means Christmas all year round.

Rating: B-

Garrett Leigh’s Christmas on Firefly Hill is a fairly short, emotionally charged and low-angst read that, while not heavy on the turkey or the tinsel, still has enough festive cheer to warm the cockles. It’s a bit of a trope-fest, really: there’s an age-gap, a divorced dad struggling to parent young kids, and an insta-connection, with some hurt/comfort thrown in for good measure. I liked the two leads and the quirky feel to the location, and the kids in the story read like real kids with personalities of their own rather than plot-moppets. I enjoyed the story, but can’t say it knocked my socks off.

Firefighter Logan Halliwell is moonlighting as a fire marshall at a summer festival when he first sees Remy Collins, a lithe, vibrant poi/fire dancer who is, quite literally, the most beautiful man he’s ever seen. The intense connetion pulling them towards each other at the end of the dance is like nothing either of them has ever felt – it’s so strong it really leaps off the page – and they share a brief but passionate kiss. Before they can get as far as exchanging names (or numbers) though, Logan is called away. Neither of them expects to see the other again.

Not long after that meeting, Remy suffered a serious accident which broke some bones and left him unable to perform for the rest of the season. He’s unsettled and directionless, just about making ends meet while living out of the back of his clapped-out Transit van, and the cold weather isn’t doing the residual pain in his right hip and leg any favours. He’s pinned his hopes on renting a workshop for the winter where he can pursue his other business, making jewellery and other decorative items, and to this end, he’s just about got the old van up Firefly Hill to meet “Uncle Marr”, the eccentric old gent who owns the building – and to Remy’s surprise and relief, he agrees to rent the space to him on favourable terms and tells him “the boy” – his nephew – will be in to sort out the finances.

To say Logan is surprised to learn the identity of his uncle’s new tenant is an understatement. Not a day has gone by without his thinking about the gorgeous dancer and the single kiss they’d shared – and now, here he is, the man of Logan’s dreams standing right in front of him, a blinding grin on his face.

The connection that flared between them months earlier roars back to life, as strong now as it was then, bringing with it a chance for Logan and Remy to find out how – or if – they might make room for each other in their lives. Their mutual physical attraction is not in question, but they’re very different men with messy, complicated lives and baggage that will have to be dealt with if they’re going to make a go of it.

Logan is struggling to balance his job as a firefighter in the city with his family responsibilities. He and his ex-wife Bec share custody of their seven-year-old twin boys, Billy and Sam, and while Logan is a great dad and loves his kids to bits, mostly he’s knackered and feels like he’s an inadequate parent, not doing enough or not doing it right. Remy is outgoing and free-spirited, although his accident knocked his confidence a bit and he’s feeling more vulnerable than he would like. He’s prickly and fiercely independent and has learned the hard way – his dad died when he was twelve and his mum doesn’t give a shit – that the only person he can really depend on is himself. Nobody has ever got under his skin the way Logan has, but Remy doesn’t want or need to be rescued. He has to find a way to learn to accept help, and Logan has to work out how to temper his strong protective instinct and understand Remy’s need to look after himself.

The romance is bursting at the seams with heartfelt emotion, and the thing I liked best about it is the way these two look for ways to help and support each other in many different ways, from Remy fixing stuff around Logan’s place (a leaky tap or wonky gate) to Logan casually offering a hot meal and the warmth of home and family that Remy has never really had. I liked the fact that they’re not into playing games or manufacturing drama; Logan isn’t great at using his words, and that sometimes feeds into Remy’s insecurities, but their communication improves as they get to know and understand each other and to work out what they want from whatever is happening between them.

For a book with “Christmas” in the title, Christmas on Firefly Hill isn’t overtly Christmassy, but I didn’t mind that. The message that comes through in the story is that warmth and family and love are the important things and trees and decorations are just shiny extras that, while they might be nice, are not as important.

There’s not a lot of conflict here, and what there is is dealt with in a mature way; just two guys figuring out how to make a life together who sometimes mis-step but work it out eventually. The two boys are extremely well written with very different and believable personalities, and while Bec can come across as a bit cold and self-centred at times, she’s likeable at others and obviously loves her boys.

I do have some niggles though. I’m not a fan of insta-love/lust, and I sometimes found the language used to describe the emotions rather overblown. Plus, I really didn’t like Remy’s choice of nickname for Logan – “Papa”. It’s not daddy/boy kink, he uses the name in regular conversation and it made me cringe every time.

In the end, Christmas on Firefly Hill falls into that middle-ground category of ‘didn’t love it, didn’t hate it’ books, ones I enjoyed but will probably have forgotten about in a week or so. Still, if you’re in the market for something to bring the warm fuzzies on a cold winter’s afternoon, it might just fit the bill.

His Last Christmas in London by Con Riley

his last christmas in london

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling for his final client won’t make leaving London easy…

Ian ~ A talented, young photographer desperate to stay in London.

Guy ~ An older, fierce food critic, determined to keep him in his city.

Ian shouldn’t be attracted to a scathing food critic like Guy Parsons, not after the last time he fell for someone older, arrogant, and gorgeous. He knows better than to let dramatic good looks sway him since his last heartbreak. Besides, he’s accepted a new job at the far end of the country and won’t be staying in London.

Having one month left doesn’t seem enough now Ian’s fallen in love with the city. Working as Guy’s photographer for December might help him afford to stay for longer, even if he hates Guy’s brand of restaurant reviewing. When Guy turns out to be worlds away from the last man Ian fell for, shared meals soon result in shared secrets and feelings.

More than attraction sparks between them as Christmas approaches. Intimate moments lead to intense passion, but is being well matched in the bedroom enough to stop the clock counting down to Ian leaving London, and Guy, for good?

Rating: A-

Romance novellas are very often hit-and-miss for me. Truth be told, the majority of them ‘miss’, usually because the characters and relationship are underdeveloped, so I generally approach with caution. But every so often, a novella or ‘shorter novel’ comes along that defies my expectations – and I’m pleased to say that Con Riley’s His Last Christmas in London did exactly that. It’s a lovely, poignant and sensual age-gap romance that hit me right in the feels and left me sighing happily when I finished it.

Twenty-four-year-old Ian Fisher has decided it’s time to give up on his dream of making a living as a freelance photographer in London and take a secure short-term job back home in Cornwall. It’s going to be a massive wrench; he loves the city and he loves his two flatmates, Seb and Patrick, but he’s making next to nothing thanks to his arsehole of a former boss – and former lover – who is holding out on giving him a reference after Ian realised the guy had been gaslighting him for ages and passing Ian’s work off as his own, and left both his employ and his bed. His confidence in his abilities has been severely shaken, and without the reference, it’s proving next to impossible for Ian to get any work, so he’s resorted to selling off some of his equipment just so he can afford his rent, even though Seb and Patrick have said they’ll spot him until he starts earning again. But Ian doesn’t want to be a drain on them, and decides it’s time to face facts, suck it up and take the six-month teaching contract he’s been offered while he works out what his next move should be.

Doing a favour for his ex is the last thing Ian wants to do, so when Lito Dixon – who is clearly partying – calls and asks Ian to “go and take some food shots” for a high-profile client, Ian’s first instinct is to say no. But realising Lito is desperate, Ian demands both his reference and three times his usual fee – it’ll keep him afloat for a little while longer – and when Lito begrudingly agrees, Ian takes the job.

Guy Parsons is a well-known restaurant critic whose reviews have often been labelled as “career-ending” and “business crushing”. Still smarting from just having to deal with one utter bastard, Ian is in little mood to deal with another, and arrives at the restaurant predisposed to dislike Parsons on sight. When he arrives, he can’t help noticing how very striking the man is – with his flow of dark hair and warm, dark eyes – and is even thrown by the hostess’ description of him as “lovely”, which Ian decides must be just a front he maintains before going in for the kill. He wastes no time in making his opinion of Guy perfectly clear when he arrives at the table, but the wind is taken out of his sails when Guy calmly (and somewhat mischievously) plays up to the hostess’ assumption that they’re a couple. Confused and surprised at the powerful attraction he’s feeling for the other man, Ian slowly lets go of his preconceptions as Guy proves himself to be funny, charming and insightful – anything but a bastard, in fact – insisting Ian joins him for dinner, giving helpful advice to the new proprietors of the restaurant, and showing genuine concern for Ian and a real appreciation for his talent.

The chemistry between Ian and Guy simply leaps off the page, the intense current of attraction running between them from the moment Ian sits down growing even stronger through the meal. It’s as though this… thing… between them has taken on a life of its own, neither of them quite believing they’re about to do what they’re about to do as they race back to Guy’s flat. For ‘dessert’.

Lito calls the next morning, angry that Guy has requested Ian for the remainder of his pre-Christmas photo shoots, but Guy is a prestigious client and Lito has to go along with it. This affords Ian a short reprieve before he has to leave London, and he determines to make the most of it – hopefully, with Guy. Ian told Guy he would be leaving London soon, so whatever is happening between them comes with an expiry date, but at least they both know where they stand. Over the assignments and the days and weeks that follow, Ian gets to know the real Guy, the Guy who knows his way around a kitchen and is free with his help and advice, the Guy who is an excellent listener, the Guy who is kind, funny, thoughtful, and possessed of a true generosity of spirit – the Guy who is just emerging from the stark grief of losing of his husband three years earlier. This Guy is a man Ian can’t help wanting to know more of, to spend more time with – a man he could even love… but that expiry date is looming.

This is a poignant and gorgeously romantic story about finding true love in the most unexpected of places, about second chances and about finding what, who and where you’re meant to be. I was so glad to know that Guy’s marriage was a very happy one (so often in romances the previous partner was a shit) and I loved the parallels the author draws between that relationship – Guy’s husband was a lot older than him when they first met – and Guy’s relationship with Ian, with Guy now the older man offering support and understanding, knowing that what Ian needs is someone to have his back, but not to fight his battles for him. The imbalances that come with a twenty year age gap (the established career and economic security are all on one side) are not ignored, but they truly don’t matter as much as what these two men have to offer each other or what they come to mean to one another, with Guy helping Ian to re-kindle his confidence and belief in his abilities and Ian reminding Guy what it’s like to feel truly valued and bringing love and light back into his life.

His Last Christmas in London bowled me over in much the same way Ian and Guy bowl each other over. Their romance is beautifully written and utterly swoonworthy, and the strong, passionate emotional connection that develops between them is superbly drawn. They’re likeable, engaging characters with plenty of depth snd real, rounded personalities, and the London setting is perfectly and vividly described through Ian’s photographer’s eye. The handful of secondary characters – especially Seb and Patrick – are strongly realised, and I loved the little ‘Easter Egg’ throwbacks to His Haven. Warm, touching, funny and sexy, it’ll make you smile, will bring a tear to the eye in the best of ways, and is the perfect book to cuddle up with on a grey winter’s afternoon.

Five Night Stand (Snowed Inn) by H.L Day

five night stand

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The advantage of a one-night stand is being able to walk away. Except, Nathan can’t.

Workaholic Nathan Nicholls hasn’t had the easiest time of late. Still reeling from his publisher’s rejection of his latest book, he seeks refuge in a remote hotel. When he’s propositioned by the sinfully sexy CJ, a man who knows exactly what he wants and isn’t afraid to go for it, why shouldn’t Nathan throw caution to the winds for once and have a bit of fun? After all, he’s leaving the next day.

When an avalanche puts paid to Nathan’s quick exit, he finds himself stuck there for Christmas. Stuck with CJ. What should be awkward, quickly becomes something else. The snow might be cold, but the time they spend together is far from it, and Nathan finds his heart warming. If only their passion and laughter didn’t have a shelf life, doomed to come to an end once the road is cleared.

Nathan Nicholls doesn’t do one-night-stands. But maybe, just maybe, if he makes a Christmas wish, this could be something more.

Rating: B

It’s that time of year when our TBR piles see an influx of Christmas-themed romances, and while I’m usually not ready to start getting festive until well into December, I do usually pick up a few of them for review each year, and I’m kicking off 2022’s batch with a short but sexy/sweet story from H.L. Day. Five Night Stand is part of the multi-author Snowed Inn series set at a holiday lodge in Colorado that is cut off when an avalanche closes the surrounding roads for a few days rendering its guests unable to leave. The books all feature different couples and can be read in any order, so you can dip in and out as the fancy takes you.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, author Nathan Nicholls is anxiously awaiting a meeting at his publisher’s. He’s written three pretty successful books and hopes the meeting is to offer him a new contract, or at the very least an offer to publish his latest one, but alas for him, it’s not. He’s told they’re going to pass on it – or at least, that they don’t want to publish the book in its present state because the characters are flat and and underdeveloped. If he makes some substantial changes, then maybe they can revisit it, but for now… it’s thanks but no thanks.

Frustrated and dispirited, Nathan decides to bite the bullet and make the necessary revisions. He sweated blood for eight months over that book, locking himself away and having no life while he made sure to meet his deadline, so he’s loath to chuck it out completely. He’s due to fly to Colorado to spend Christmas with his dad and stepmum and, hoping that maybe a change of scenery might help his creative juices start to flow, he decides to fly out a bit earlier and stay at a hotel for a few days before heading to his dad’s place.

Unfortunately, the different scenery, while beautiful, isn’t having the desired effect, and Nathan’s laptop screen has remained annoyingly blank. On his last day at The Retreat, he suddenly feels the need to be somewhere other than his cabin, somewhere there are other people, even if he doesn’t really feel like talking to anyone. Mooching around the hotel building, he peeks into the room where a speed dating event is going on and almost regrets not signing up for it – the guys look like they’re having fun, which is something Nathan hasn’t had a lot of recently. But he’s leaving the next day and flying home a few days later, so there wasn’t really any point… although when he locks eyes with the gorgeous guy with the generous smile and the camera slung around his neck, he thinks maybe he made the wrong decision.

Realising he’s just standing in the doorway like an idiot, Nathan quickly makes his way to the bar and is surprised when camera-guy shows up not long afterwards and brings him over another beer. He’s a fellow Brit and introduces himself as CJ – and he doesn’t waste any time in inviting Nathan back to his cabin. Nathan is startled. He’s never been one for casual sex and almost says so, but then thinks – why not? It’s not like they’ll ever see each other again, and maybe one night being something “other than a writer who had apparently forgotten how to write” is exactly what he needs.

The sex is fantastic and CJ is surprisingly intuitive, immediately sensing Nathan’s tendency to overthink and helping him to overcome his inhibitions with effortless ease. He asks Nathan not to leave without saying goodbye in the morning – but when it comes to it, all Nathan’s habitual awkwardness comes roaring back and he leaves quietly, returning to his own cabin – right next door – to shower and pack before heading to reception to check out.

But… he can’t. An avalanche hit late the previous night and the roads are impassable. It looks like he’ll be seeing CJ again after all.

Five Night Stand is a fun, steamy and surprisingly fresh take on a couple of well-worn tropes, and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a quick and very engaging read featuring two likeable, three dimensional characters with chemistry that leaps off the page, and although Nathan’s is the sole PoV, the author does such a wonderful job of presenting CJ through his eyes, I didn’t once feel I was missing anything by not having CJ’s take on things. They’re your classic grumpy/sunshine pairing; Nathan is a bit of an introvert who works hard and doesn’t play very much, while CJ is charming, fun and larger-than-life, open to opportunity and ready to grab the next one with both hands. Spending the days together – as well as the nights – enables them to go to know each other, talking about their jobs and their hopes and dreams, and the affection between them is palpable. Nathan tells CJ about the problems with his book and CJ shares his love of wildlife photography and his dream of one day having a shot accepted by National Geographic. CJ’s love of life, his positivity and his ebullience are infectious, and I loved the way he encourages Nathan to come out of his shell and start to live a little; watching Nathan doing just that, opening up and finding real happiness for the first time in a long while is really satisfying. It’s not all one-sided though. CJ has never really had anyone in his life who understands his love for what he does and supports him in it – his family sees his photography as a hobby, and past boyfriends have been annoyed because he travels a lot – but Nathan gets it. He knows what it’s like to feel passionately about something and is genuinely interested and impressed with CJ’s talent.

One of the things I often criticise shorter romance novels and novellas for is that the relationship development can feel rushed – but that isn’t the case here. Nathan and CJ form an entirely believable connection during their short time together, and I have to give the author kudos for the little nod back to Nathan’s assertion early on, that the characters in his book can’t be expected to change all that much in just five days – when he realises that he has, in fact, fallen in love in just that timeframe.

Five Night Stand is the perfect way to brighten up a grey, wintry afternoon; a tender, funny and spicy love story that’s nicely romantic without being sappy. Recommended.

You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince by Timothy Janovsky

you're a mean one matthew prince

This title may be purchased from Amazon

BRING A LITTLE JOY TO THE WORLD? NOT TODAY, SANTA.

Matthew Prince is young, rich, and thoroughly spoiled. So what if his parents barely remember he exists and the press is totally obsessed with him? He’s on top of the world. But one major PR misstep later, and Matthew is cut off and shipped away to spend the holidays in his grandparents’ charming small town hellscape. Population: who cares?

It’s bad enough he’s stuck in some festive winter wonderland—it’s even worse that he has to share space with Hector Martinez, an obnoxiously attractive local who’s unimpressed with anything and everything Matthew does.

Just when it looks like the holiday season is bringing nothing but heated squabbles, the charity gala loses its coordinator and Matthew steps in as a saintly act to get home early on good behavior…with Hector as his maddening plus-one. But even a Grinch can’t resist the unexpected joy of found family, and in the end, the forced proximity and infectious holiday cheer might be enough to make a lonely Prince’s heart grow three sizes this year.

Rating: B-

Timothy Janovsky’s You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince is one of those fish-out-of-water stories wherein a spoiled brat is sent away to some backwater they wouldn’t normally set one toe of their Louboutins in and finds meaning, purpose, and often, love as well. It’s a story we’re all read hundreds of times before (and as this one is set around the Christmas period, there are plenty of very obvious references to the most famous meanie-finds-humanity tale of all time), but while the story is decently executed and the characters are likeable, it doesn’t really have anything that sets it apart from the other gazillion stories that employ the same theme.

Twenty-one-year-old Matthew Prince has it all – good-looks, wealth and internet fame thanks to the regularity with which his antics end up on the gossip sites. His latest – the impulsive purchase of an island (yes, you read that right) following a recent break up has finally brought his parents to say enough is enough and put their collective foot down. To prevent a possible PR disaster, he’s sent to spend a month with his maternal grandparents at their cabin in Wind River in downright stifling, middle-of-nowhere western Massachusetts. And as if things aren’t bad enough, he learns he’s to be sharing a room – with bunk beds, no less – with Hector Martinez, a former student of his grandfather’s, to whom he offered temporary accommodation when it looked like Hector wasn’t going to be able to afford to finish college.

Matthew certainly appreciates the eye candy, but it becomes quickly apparent that the down-to-earth Hector is not the slightest bit impressed or awed by Matthew.

“For someone whose last name is Prince, you’re not very charming.”

He’s not used to being so easily dismissed, but then realises it doesn’t matter, because he’s already plotting ways to get back to NYC in time to throw his famous New Year’s Eve bash alongside his bestie, Bentley. But when his plan to sneak away is foiled – by Hector, no less – Matthew realises he’s stuck there until he does what his parents have sent him there to do – grow up and prove to them that he can behave like a responsible adult. The perfect opportunity to do just that presents itself when the organiser of the town’s annual charity gala is unable to undertake the job due to illness. When his grandmother suggests that perhaps Matthew should lend a hand, he just about manages to conceal his horror at the idea of becoming involved in what is undoubtedly the sort of thing he would never (normally) be seen dead at – until Hector subtly reminds him of something he’d rather his grandparents didn’t know about (his plan to go to spend his time in Wind River at the local hotel instead of staying with them.) Matthew decides he’ll pitch in and plan the gala – after all, planning parties is his ‘thing’ (he even copes with his anxiety attacks by planning events in his head) – but first, he’s got to switch gears and plan something that the people of the town will like, rather than something he thinks they should like.

Thankfully, Hector is on hand to point Matthew in the right direction and soon Matthew finds himself starting to enjoy making connections with the townsfolk and, for the first time in many years, enjoying the Christmas season. He’d always loved that time of year as a kid, but by the time he was thirteen, the joy had been sucked out of it, replaced by false sentiment and illusions of family togetherness – and expensive gifts that were somehow supposed to make up for the loss. It’s been a long time since he’s let himself feel anything approaching his youthful love for the season, but working on the gala with Hector alongside him – having a silly Christmas cookie baking competition and debating the merits of the various Christmas movies (the Muppets win every time!) – helps Matthew begin to find the comfort and joy he thought he’d lost. Along the way, he gets to know himself, too, learning who Matthew Prince is and what he could become away from the city, the wealth, the labels and the fair-weather friends.

Matthew is likeable despite his initial snobbishness, because the author does a good job of balancing the bratty attitude and behaviour with a good sense of humour and hints that behind the glitz, glamour and designer clothes, he’s struggling. His GAD (general anxiety disorder) is sensitively and realistically portrayed and the author skilfully explores what it’s like to be someone in the public eye and media spotlight simply because your parents are famous – and to be the child of parents who have little time for you – so that it’s easy to feel sympathy for Matthew and root for him to find his way through all the crap in his life to find happiness.

The festive, small town setting is well done, and the secondary characters are all nicely rounded – even Matthew’s parents, who are never demonised, instead coming across as flawed people who have made poor choices. That said, Matthew’s mother does something inexcusable in the last part of the story – and even though it’s clearly born of fear, it’s tough to get past.

Matthew’s romance with Hector is cute, and I liked how supportive Hector is once they get past that initial antagonistic phase, but the romance does play second fiddle to Matthew’s journey. Hector is a great guy – he’s funny, compassionate, sexy and sweet – but the story is more about Matthew growing up, learning to take responsibility for himself and his life and breaking out of the patterns he’s fallen into. (The couple of sex scenes barely require the ‘warm’ rating, by the way.)

I had a bit of trouble grading this one, mostly because I suspect I’m not really the target audience for a book like this, and so, while it has a lot going for it, for me, it hits that ‘just above average, but seen it all before’ area. The writing is strong, Matthew’s internal dialogue is a great mixture of poignant and funny, and his character growth is easy to follow, but the middle of the book is a bit slow and the Crisis Moment in the last section feels contrived and obvious.

In the end, there’s nothing actually wrong with You’re a Mean One, Matthew Prince – it’s cute and fluffy and full of Christmas cheer (extra Brownie points for two characters bonding over a love of The Muppet Christmas Carol) but it didn’t wow me or have anything really new to offer. It’s a head/heart thing; I can see perfectly well that there’s a lot about the book that some people will absolutely love – but I wasn’t feeling it, which is why I’ve ended up giving it a B-. It might not be something I feel I can recommend to readers who have similar tastes to mine – but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will enjoy it more than I did.

Not So Silent Night by H.L. Day

not so silent night

This title may be purchased from Amazon

One grumpy patient. One unconventional nurse. Twenty-two reindeer later.

Things aren’t great for Xander Cole. It’s Christmas, he’s fractured his pelvis on a skiing trip he never wanted to go on, and his on/off boyfriend is most definitely off. No wonder he’s not exactly full of festive cheer.

Ferris Night isn’t having much luck either. His plan to take a break from work before starting a new job has been wrecked by a flooded flat. With nowhere to stay, he grabs the opportunity for a job as a live-in nurse with both hands. After all, how hard can it be?

Xander doesn’t need a nurse. Especially one who’s far too flirty, far too attractive, far too into Christmas, and far too good at getting his own way. But Ferris has never faced a challenge that couldn’t be overcome with a bit of charm and perseverance. It doesn’t matter how attractive Xander might be. He’s immune. Maybe.

As banter and sparring between the two men turn into more, a nurse might not be needed, but both men could be in for a fresh start to the new year.

Rating: B

Looking for a cute, frothy and fun Christmassy love story with a grumpy/sunshine pairing, lots of humour, a gazillion pink and purple reindeer and an Avengers/Star Wars Nativity set?  You are?  Good!  Look no further than H.L Day’s Not So Silent Night, a delightfully witty and charming  romance that is just the thing for whiling away a few hours on a dark, winter evening.

Model Xander Cole never wanted to go on a ski-ing trip to the Swiss Alps – he’d rather have been on a beach in Acapulco working on his tan and drinking cocktails – and only agreed to go because he couldn’t face the amount of sulking his on/off boyfriend Harvey would have subjected him to otherwise. It turns out Xander should have stuck to his guns; an accident on the slopes sees him land in hospital with a fractured pelvis.  His brother Miles escorts Xander back to England, and offers to spend Christmas with him; but Xander refuses, knowing how much Miles wants to see his kids, who live with their mother in Spain.  He hasn’t seen Harvey since he made a whirlwind visit to his hospital room on the way to his next booking, so Xander is looking forward to a pretty lonely Christmas.

Ferris Night, a nurse at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, gets back to his flat after finishing his last ever shift at St. Thomas’  (he’s moving to a new job in January) to find the place flooded as the result of a leak upstairs.  His new place won’t be ready for him to move into for a few weeks, and he’s reluctant to stay with his mum, whose sleazy boyfriend has made it clear on numerous occasions that he wouldn’t mind shagging both mother AND son.  Ferris resigns himself to a few nights couch-surfing with friends, not a particularly enticing prospect so close to Christmas.  But then a phone call from a friend of a friend of a friend (etc.) offers a solution to his problem – this friend urgently needs a live-in nurse for his brother, who has fractured his pelvis.  Ferris is surprised when he meets Miles – he’d expected someone a lot older – and more surprised when he learns Xander is something of a celebrity.  Not that it bothers him.  It’s a job and, more importantly, a roof over his head.

That’s the set up for this thoroughly entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud romance – and while it’s certainly nothing I haven’t read before, the author has a wonderfully deft touch with the characters and the humour, and it was exactly what I needed at the end of a hectic day.  Ferris is almost relentlessly cheerful as he ‘bullies’ Xander into doing his physical therapy exercises, and quickly realises that winding him up is the best way to pull Xander out the funk of grumpiness he’s fallen into.  I loved watching him catching Xander off-guard and plotting ways to startle and cajole him into laughter or enjoyment; the author keeps him just the right side of irritating, because it’s so obvious that Xander really needs someone to remind him that he’s allowed to be himself, that he doesn’t have to be perfect all the time – and that ‘himself’ is worthy of being loved.

The scenes where Xander realises Ferris is decorating-by-stealth for Christmas are a hoot, and while the teasing and snarky banter between the couple is terrific, the quieter moment of tenderness, affection and insight are really well-done, too.  Even though the story takes place over just a couple of weeks, the fact that the two men spend pretty much every waking moment together throughout that time helps make their falling in love so quickly that much more believable.  There’s very little conflict – and what there is, is visible a mile off – but it doesn’t drag on too long and gives both characters the chance to realise just how strong their feelings for one another have become.

Not So Silent Night is cute, light-hearted and fun from start to finish, one of those books that will make you giggle and leave you with a smile on your face.  The characters are likeable, the dialogue is clever and genuinely funny, and there’s plenty of festive spirit to warm the cockles!  If you’re a fan of Lily Morton’s books, I think you’ll enjoy this – as will anyone looking for a sweet but sexy story full of Christmas cheer.

Note: This is an expanded/extended version of the novella of the same name that was originally published as part of the Winter Wonderland giveaway at the beginning of 2021.

Stuck With You by Jay Northcote (audiobook) – Narrated by Hamish Long

stuck with you

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Two clashing colleagues stuck together for Christmas — will opposites eventually attract?

Patrick has been single since he broke up with his cheating ex almost a year ago. With Christmas looming, he’s resigned to spending it alone with only memories of happier times for company. When a business trip with a coworker leaves them stranded in the Lake District due to heavy snow, it seems Patrick will have company for Christmas after all. It’s a shame his companion is Kyle, who’s undeniably attractive, but annoying as hell.

Aware of Patrick’s reluctant admiration, Kyle basks in the attention, even though Patrick isn’t the type of man he normally goes for. Averse to relationships after being hurt in the past, Kyle enjoys the occasional hookup, but has given up on seeking anything more meaningful.

Stuck together, their antagonism escalates along with a heavy dose of sexual tension until it finally ignites. What starts as a Christmas fling soon feels like something special, but will their tentative connection melt away as the snow thaws? If they’re going to take a chance on finding happiness together, they’ll have to put their differences aside and learn to trust one another.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B

A snowed-in, forced proximity, enemies-to-lovers romance with snarky flirting, a small dollop of angst and Only One Bed? *rubs hands with glee* Count me in! Jay Northcote’s Stuck With You is a sexy, heart-warming tale about finding love and connection when – and with whom – you least expect it.

Patrick and Kyle work at the same medical supplies firm in the north of England, and Patrick, as a senior member of staff, has been Kyle’s mentor while he learns the ropes. The two men are polar opposites; Patrick is quiet and serious (Kyle thinks he’s boring) while Kyle is more outgoing and flamboyant (Patrick thinks he’s an immature party boy) , and they’ve rubbed each other the wrong way since day one. Both of them are thankful that Kyle’s time as Patrick’s mentee is coming to an end; in January, he’ll be flying solo.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

TBR Challenge: The Winter Spirit by Indra Vaughn

the winter spirit

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Nathaniel O’Donnelly likes his life quiet, his guests happy, and his ghosts well-behaved.

Although a boyfriend wouldn’t go amiss. Someone to share his beautiful B&B with, even if it is in the middle of nowhere and he’s long past the wrong side of thirty. Problem is, Nathaniel’s living with a ghost who thinks he’s cupid, and whose arrows fly a little too straight.

Gabriel Wickfield had the unfortunate luck of dying before his time, and now he’s stuck trying to make romance happen to earn his right to move along. Not that he’s bored in the meantime—Nathaniel is just too easy to tease. And also a little bit scrumptious…

With the curse reaching its expiration date, Gabriel needs to make a final match this Christmas. Without it, nothing but darkness awaits.

Love can conquer all, but can it beat death?

Rating: B+

I’m not the Bah!Humbug! type, but I’m also not one to seek out Christmassy romances just because they’re set in and around the festive season, although  if I like the sound of a story and it happens to be set around Christmas then I might give it a go.  And if I do pick up a Christmas story, then I don’t want one that could be set at any time of the year, I want one that makes good use of the wintry setting and that maybe has just a little bit of Christmas magic – and Indra Vaughn’s The Winter Spirit does just that.  This little gem clocks in at under 100 pages, but it hit me right in the feels in the best possible way.

When Nathaniel O’Donnelly inherited his uncle’s worse-for-wear hotel in rural Michigan twelve years earlier, he also inherited its resident ghost, Gabriel Wickfield, who can only be seen in mirrors or highly polished surfaces, and who takes delight in needling Nate and causing mischief.  After making extensive renovations to the place, Nate re-opened it as a B&B which he now runs with the help of his long-time friend and employee Elisa Brown. With Christmas approaching, things are fairly quiet; there are only two guests staying currently, but Nate is expecting a third, who happens to be an old school friend – and Nate’s first crush – Owen Ashurst.  He and Nate haven’t kept in touch so Nate has no idea of how Owen’s life has turned out, but he can’t deny he’s just a little bit excited at the idea of seeing Owen again. He’s not looking to start something (well, not really) although he can’t deny he’s just a teeny bit interested in seeing if there might be the potential for something between them.

When Owen arrives, he’s as good-looking and charming he ever was, and he’s pleased to see Nate, too.  They talk, they share a meal and Owen makes clear his interest in Nate, but Nate isn’t feeling it – although he’s not best pleased later that night when Gabriel appears and tells him he doesn’t like Owen and doesn’t think he’s being completely honest.

The next night when Nate returns to his room, it’s to find Gabriel actually sitting in one of the rocking chairs by the window.  Gabriel has never manifested like this before – as a solid, living (and gorgeous) man – and he quietly explains to Nate that he’s able to appear outside the mirrors for short periods of time around this time of year – but doesn’t tell him any more.  Nate finds himself looking for Gabriel and wanting to spend time with him at every opportunity, and with only a couple of days left until Christmas and with what lies beyond it uncertain, Nate realises that, unlikely though it may be, he’s fallen in love with a ghost – and that he’s loved in return.  Will a once-a-year thing be enough for them, if it’s even possible?  Or is Gabriel running out of time?

The author packs quite an emotional punch into the short page-count – I freely admit to several sniffles when all seemed lost – and even though there were a few things I wish had been more detailed, I was completely captivated by the characters, the gentle humour and the intense longing that permeates the romance.  (I’m a sucker for well-done pining!)  Nate is a lovely guy who had a crappy childhood, but who has risen above that to make a good life and run a successful business. He’s a decent, kind, hard-working man possessed of an attractive quiet strength, but he’s lonely, and worries that perhaps he’s destined to remain that way.  He’s over thirty, a bit overweight (and self-conscious about it), and hasn’t had many – if any – opportunities for love and romance come his way.  He’s so very real and relatable, and it’s easy to root for him to find the love and happiness he richly deserves.  As Nate is the sole narrator we only see Gabriel through his eyes, but I enjoyed his humour and the author does a great job of showing us his obvious love for Nate.  His backstory is truly heart-breaking.

It’s hard to talk about the things I wanted more of without giving away spoilers, so instead, I’ll just say that there’s a fair bit of hand-waving at the end and no real explanation for how it works out – BUT I was so invested in the characters and their relationship that I was able to go with ‘eh, magic’ and ignore that little bit of frustration at not having all the pieces to put together.  I also didn’t quite see the need for the Owen plotline – it didn’t really serve to galvanise Nate or Gabriel into realising how they felt about each other, and I wish the page-count devoted to it had been spent developing the ending and epilogue a bit more.

But I loved the story despite its flaws – any author who can make me run the gamut of emotions in a matter of eighty-one pages deserves all the kudos.  The Winter Spirit is charming and tender and poignant and magical… and just lovely.

Christmas Mountain by Garrett Leigh

christmas mountain

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Fen: Do dreams come true?

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

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

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

I’m here for forever.

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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