Dillon Lee’s grandfather was a conspiracy theorist. Every summer he’d take Dillon on a tour of New York City while entertaining him with tales of aliens. Fifteen years later, after a phone call from a lawyer, Dillon is carrying his grandfather’s ashes from landmark to landmark, paying a sort of tribute, and trying to figure out what to do with his unexpected legacy. When someone tries to steal the ashes, a guy Dillon has barely met leaps to the rescue, saving the urn and the day.
Steilang Skovgaard is a reclusive billionaire—and not human. He’s been living in Manhattan for over twenty years, working on a long-term plan to establish a safe haven for his people. For seven years, his reports have gone unanswered, however, and he is the only surviving member of his interstellar team. The connection he forms with Dillon soon after meeting him is something he’s missed, something he craves.
But after someone keeps trying to steal the ashes, it looks as though Dillon’s grandfather was involved in more than theories—and might not have been exactly who everyone thought he was. Steilang doesn’t know how close he can get to the truth without revealing himself, and Dillon is running out of people to trust. Can these two work out what’s going on before the thieves set their sights higher?
Kelly Jensen’s Uncommon Ground is book one in her Aliens in New York duology, a story that combines mystery, science fiction and a bit of action with a tender and poignant romance between two people who don’t really fit anywhere – until they find each other.
Dillon Lee has always felt like an outsider. He’s gay, he feels disconnected from his Korean heritage and his unusual looks have always marked him as a bit odd. He doesn’t let any of that get him down though, and embraces his “oddness”; he dyes his hair purple and has facial piercings, which always get him a few funny looks wherever he goes – but that’s who he is and stuff anyone who has a problem with it. He’s returned to New York City for the first time in fifteen years following the death of his conspiracy-theorist grandfather – with whom he used to spend his summers when he was a kid, but hasn’t seen since he was fifteen – to meet with lawyers about his grandfather’s will, but also to take his ashes on a sentimental journey around the city’s landmarks to say goodbye. Dillon has stopped in at a coffee shop after an unsuccessful attempt to visit the top of the Empire State Building, when he notices a very well-dressed, attractive man staring at him from the queue. At first Dillon thinks it’s the usual – someone eyeing him because he’s weird-looking – but then realises it’s not that at all when the guy takes a seat behind him and seems about to start a conversation. But before they can exchange more than a few words, someone moves between them, grabs Dillon’s backpack (containing the urn and ashes) and runs off with it – and Dillon immediately gives chase.
When Steilang Skovgaard – Lang – sees the guy with the purple hair sitting in the coffee shop he has to remind himself to stop staring. But he can’t help it. The lanky build, the large, wide-set eyes and distinctive facial features… he’s gorgeous and there’s something about the colour of his hair that reminds Lang unaccountably of home. When Dillon rushes off after his stolen backpack, Lang goes too and eventually manages to cut off the thief and retrieve the bag, injuring himself quite badly in the process. Given he’s not human (not a spoiler – it’s in the synopsis) Lang doesn’t want to go to a hospital, so despite the injuries he’s sustained – which should start healing soon courtesy of the repair cells in his body – he sneaks away from the scene, only for Dillon to catch up with him. He insists on taking Lang up to his apartment – the one his grandfather left him – to help him to clean up a bit before making his way home. In a lot of pain (his repair cells aren’t working as quickly as they should), Lang takes Dillon up on his offer. And gets another shock when he gets a good look at the urn he saved and sees it engraved with a symbol he recognises as belonging to the Wren, one of the three clans from his home planet of Jord. Clearly, Dillon’s eccentric grandfather wasn’t what or who Dillon believed him to be – but how can Lang find out the truth without revealing exactly who and what he is?
Survival is hard enough in the outer colonies — what chance does love have?
Life can be harsh and lonely in the outer colonies, but miner-turned-farmer Abraham Bauer is living his dream, cultivating crops that will one day turn the unforgiving world of Alkirak into paradise. He wants more, though. A companion — someone quiet like him. Someone to share his days, his bed, and his heart.
Gael Sonnen has never seen the sky, let alone the sun. He’s spent his whole life locked in the undercity beneath Zhemosen, running from one desperate situation to another. For a chance to get out, he’ll do just about anything — even travel to the far end of the galaxy as a mail-order husband. But no plan of Gael’s has ever gone smoothly, and his new start on Alkirak is no exception. Things go wrong from the moment he steps off the shuttle.
Although Gael arrives with unexpected complications, Abraham is prepared to make their relationship work—until Gael’s past catches up with them, threatening Abraham’s livelihood, the freedom Gael gave everything for, and the love neither man ever hoped to find.
The last few times the “Something Different” prompt has come up in the TBR Challenge, I’ve found myself picking up a Science Fiction romance. I don’t know why I don’t read many of them – I like the genre in TV and film – and I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve read, so this prompt is always a good opportunity to read another one! I chose Kelly Jensen’s To See the Sun for a couple of reasons; firstly, I really enjoyed her recent This Time Forever series, a trilogy of novels in which a group of men in their late forties finally find their happy ever afters and was keen to read something else of hers, and secondly, my fellow reviewer Maria Rose put the book in her Best of 2018 list, so that was a strong recommendation. Plus, it’s a variation on the mail-order-bride trope, and I haven’t read many of those, so that also worked for this particular prompt.
To See the Sun is set on the remote colony of Alkirak, a terraformed planet on which humans carve out their homes from the rock in the crevasses which provide shelter from the largely inhospitable surface. Ex-miner Abraham Bauer is stretched pretty thin keeping everything going on his small farm, but least he’s working for something that’s his rather than risking his neck day in, day out in the mines. It’s also a lonely life, and Bram longs to find someone to share his life and maybe even build a family with, but that seems almost impossible. Finding someone to have sex with isn’t difficult, but Bram wants more than that, he wants connection and affection, maybe even love – and that’s much harder to come by. When he hears about companies that arrange things called companion contracts, he doesn’t hold out much hope – after all, there are millions of people just like him out there, and who on earth would want to come and spend their life on a remote outpost with an unstable atmosphere for what little Bram has to offer? – but he signs up anyway… and on logging on to the site one evening is captivated by the video of a beautiful young man whose shy, considered manner and obvious sweetness strike a chord deep within Bram that is more than simple lust. He dares to hope that he might just have found what he’s been searching for.
Gael Sonnen ekes out an existence on Zhemozen, a beautiful planet at the opposite end of the galaxy that’s a paradise – if you’ve got money. But Gael and the millions like him who are poor, live hand-to-mouth in the crowded, squalid undercity, a place with “dark streets, bitter air, and water that tasted like sweat.” When he falls foul of a powerful criminal family, Gael’s only option is to run – and the farther away the better. With no money, it seems his only option will be life as an indentured servant, until a friend suggests another possibility. Good-looking as he is, Gael will have no trouble getting a companion contract somewhere far away from Zhemosen; and a year’s contract as companion – or more – to a lonely farmer at the other end of the galaxy seems as good a way to escape as any.
Bram and Gael are decent, likeable characters, ordinary men who just want to make a quiet life with someone with the same wants, needs and outlook. Bram is in his late forties and used to being alone, which has probably made him a bit set in his ways; while Gael is younger (twenty-nine) and has had a tough life, didn’t know either of his parents, and struggled to bring up his younger brother, who was neuroatypical and for whose death Gael blames himself. He’s a good man and is determined that Bram won’t regret his decision to make the contract – although an unexpected event may have scuppered Gael’s chances before he can even get settled.
But he wants very much to help Bram and not to take advantage of his generosity. Gael is a natural caretaker, and I loved the small ways he starts to make a place for himself in Bram’s life, whether it’s cooking a meal, helping on the farm or just sitting quietly, listening to Bram talk or watching a video with him at the end of the day. Their relationship is incredibly touching and really well developed as they learn about each other, work alongside one another and start to fall in love.
There are a few dramatic events along the way to keep things moving, (although the last act ‘black moment’ kind of comes out of nowhere and is resolved very quickly), but ultimately, this is a character driven, sweet story about things we can all identify with; wanting to make a personal connection with someone, or escape a hopeless situation, or make a family and being prepared to fight hard to keep it.
Ms. Jensen’s worldbuilding is superb. She incorporates details about Alkirak and Zhemosen seamlessly into the narrative in such a way as to enable the reader to build clear pictures in the mind’s eye – of the dark, underground city on Zhemosen and of the austere, hostile surface of Alkirak, the acid mists, violent storms, and most of all, the dangerous but beautiful sun that so fascinates Gael and makes the clouds glow and colours the sky and the horizon. The dangers of daily life in such a place are brilliantly contrasted with everyday things like eating a meal or watching TV, and the slow-burn romance between Bram and Gael is beautifully done.
To See the Sun may be set on a distant planet at some unspecified time in the future, but at its heart, it’s a story about two lonely people finding something in each other they’ve been missing and yearning for. It’s sweet and gorgeously romantic and I enjoyed every bit of it.
My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks. I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever. Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket. I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.
4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.
The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:
And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.
Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else. Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception. The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver. Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself). Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Woman – which I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment. On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husbandwhich was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016. Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Dukeand An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic. Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist. Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out. K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Printand Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites. Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.
I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop. In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did. There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.
The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years. Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.
My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive. I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again. It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas. Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension. The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful; they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it. Their relationship goes through terrific highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.
Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER, one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines. I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well. She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top. And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.
I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!) My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.
I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes. But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees. Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.
I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others. I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home– which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.
Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general. Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well. Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.
As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019? First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please! Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year. I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous. I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April. There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book. Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific. I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.
Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!
Malcolm Montgomery was a history teacher and track coach until an accident left him with two broken legs. He’ll recover, but life has knocked his feet out twice now. He’s not sure if he’s ready to try again, especially when it comes to love—and slick guys like Brian Kenway. Still, he needs help mentoring the school’s LGBTQ society, so he asks Brian to take some responsibility.
Brian has been hiding behind his reputation as a liar and a cheat for so long that he actually believes he’s that guy—until his nephew, Josh, turns up on his couch, tossed out for being gay. Brian has never considered being a father, but he knows all about being rejected by loved ones. Now Brian wants to be more: a partner for Mal and a role model for Josh.
But when Mal’s recovery is set back and the sad truth of Brian’s past is revealed, the forever they’ve been chasing seems even further from their grasps. It’ll take a rescue effort to revive their sense of worth and make Brian, Mal, and Josh into a family of their own.
Chasing Forever is the third and final book in Kelly Jensen’s loosely-linked This Time Forever trilogy of novels in which the protagonists are all older (late thirties – fifty) men who find true love and happy ever afters. As soon as I learned this book would feature Brian Kenway, whom I met and didn’t much like in book one, I knew I had to read it; I confess to having a soft spot for reformed bad-boys, and I was eager to see how Ms. Jensen would turn him into a leading man and a character I could root for. When he turned up in Building Forever, intent on re-kindling his relationship with his former long-term partner, Simon Lynley, Brian came across as a smug, arrogant git, and I’m sure that, like me, readers were relieved when Simon made it very clear he’d moved on. Brian’s brief appearances in book two showed him in a slightly better light, although he was still living up to his reputation as an arsehole – a term he often uses to describe himself. In Chasing Forever, though, we finally get to see the real Brian Kenway – a man even he has trouble finding, buried as he is under the layers of self-protection and the smooth, glossy persona he’s constructed in the thirty-odd years since his family disowned him for being gay.
Mal Montgomery, a history teacher at the college in Morristown, has been on medical leave ever since he was hit by a car while out running and seriously injured. After months of recovery, he’s getting around on crutches and has been cleared to return to work after the Christmas break. It’s been a long and hard road towards recovery, and the fact that he may never run again – hell, he may never walk properly let alone hike or run – is weighing heavily on him. He’s having a drink at his usual bar on Christmas Eve, trying not to let his eyes stray too often to the handsome Brian Kenway, a man he knows by rumour to be a player and a total dick – when Brian slides onto the seat next to him and starts flirting with him. Mal isn’t sure how to respond; Kenway may have provided the fuel for many of his fantasies, but this is reality and a guy like Brian is completely out of Mal’s league, and would be even if Mal didn’t have two broken legs… so he deliberately ignores Brian’s subtle proposition and watches as the other man exits the bar to head home alone.
Arrived at his condo, Brian immediately knows something is wrong. There’s a cold breeze coming from the kitchen, and he discovers a broken pane of glass in the back door – but a quick survey reveals nothing moved or stolen. He’s about to call the police anyway when he enters his living room to discover a figure curled up on his couch, huddled in blankets. He wakes the intruder, who turns out to be a boy in his early teens with lips almost as blue as his dyed hair, and is stunned when the boy introduces himself as Joshua Kenway – Brian’s nephew.
Josh’s arrival is a turning point for Brian, although he doesn’t quite realise it at the time. He sees his own painful history repeating itself – Josh (who is fourteen) came out to his mother, Brian’s sister, and she threw him out – and Brian determines that Josh isn’t going to go what he went through when he was younger. He’s not at all sure how to parent a teenager (something I think most parents of teenagers will identify with completely!) and Ms. Jensen does a superb job of building their relationship complete with flaws and missteps and misunderstandings; Josh is a believable teen who is clearly adrift, hurt and in need of comfort and guidance, things Brian thinks (at first) he’s not capable of providing. But he very clearly is capable, and I loved seeing him grow into that parental role as the story progressed and his relationship with Josh evolved into one of mutual trust and affection.
Mal is a less ‘showy’ character than handsome, charismatic, troubled Brian, but there’s something about him that draws the eye so to speak, a kind of quiet, dependable authority that is second nature to him and which is very attractive. He’s reached a point in his life where he’s almost given up on having a lasting relationship; his self-esteem doesn’t seem to have ever been particularly high, but his accident and his worries about his long-term mobility have knocked it back even further, and he finds it difficult to believe that someone as gorgeous as Brian would want him. Fortunately for Mal however, Brian is determined in his pursuit and I really liked that the author gives them the time to get to know each other as friends before they embark on a more intimate relationship. Mal is quickly able to work out that the Brian he is coming to know is a far cry from the liar and cheat he believes himself to be, and that rumour paints him as, and to see the genuinely decent, caring man beneath the polished façade.
Ms. Jensen redeems Brian in pretty spectacular fashion, but does it subtly, without fanfare and, most importantly, without giving him a complete personality transplant; at the end of the book, he’s still the man he always was, but a stronger, more honest and happier version of him. The relationships at the heart of the story – Mal and Brian, Josh and Brian – are beautifully written, full of insight and tenderness; and all the characters – even the minor ones – are strongly drawn and the relationships between them well-realised. Most of all, though, I appreciated – very much – the maturity of these characters, not just because of their ages (forty-eight and fifty), but because they act like men with a lot of life under their belts who are able to recognise when they screw up and do something to put things right.
The romance between Mal and Brian is a delicious slow-burn and Ms. Jensen does a great job of building the sexual tension while at the same time setting into motion the couple of sub-plots that provide the story’s vivid backdrop. Chasing Forever actually has quite a lot going on, but I never felt as though the book was over-busy; the author very skilfully interweaves the various storylines so that nothing feels superfluous to requirements and readers are presented with a story that feels rich and full. It’s a poignant, emotionally satisfying novel and a terrific end to this thoroughly enjoyable series.
Frankie and Tommy once dreamed of traveling the world together. But when seventeen-year-old Frank kissed Tom, their plans ended with a punch to the jaw and Frank leaving town without looking back. Thirty years later, Frank’s successful career as a journalist is interrupted by his uncle’s death and the question of his inheritance—the family resort where his childhood dreams were built. When he returns to the Pocono Mountains, however, he finds a dilapidated lodge and Tommy, the boy he never forgot.
Tom’s been keeping the resort together with spit and glue while caring for Frank’s uncle, Robert—a man he considered father, mentor, and friend—and his aged mother, who he refuses to leave behind. Now Robert is gone, taking Tom’s job with him. And Frank is on the doorstep, wanting to know why Tom is still there and why the old lodge is falling apart.
But before they can rebuild the resort, they’ll have to rebuild their friendship. Only then can they renew the forever they planned all those years ago.
Kelly Jensen continues her This Time Forever series about couples in their forties finding love and happiness with Renewing Forever, a beautifully written, reflective and somewhat wistful story about childhood friends whose lives went in very different directions, and who must work out if the forever they’d envisaged three decades earlier might now be possible.
We first met Franklin – Frank – Tarn in Building Forever, book one in the series, as the best friend of Simon Lynley, one of the principals in that story. Frank, a lifestyle journalist, came across as garrulous and flirtatious, a bit of a party animal who’s always up for a good time and is happy with his busy life and frequently itinerant lifestyle. In Renewing Forever, we see other sides to him as he starts to come to terms with the fact that he’s ready for his life to take a new direction and to finally put down some roots.
When Frank was a boy, he and his best friend, Tommy Benjamin (Benjamin and Franklin – heh) planned to travel the world together. Although they came from very different backgrounds – Frank’s family was well-off, and he grew up in a secure environment, with both parents, a doting uncle and siblings while Tommy’s mother was a single parent who struggled with addiction and often neglected him – the boys forged a strong bond of friendship which seems, as they approach manhood, to be turning into more. Tommy, however, can’t bear the idea of losing Frank as a friend, and tells him that’s what how he wants them to stay; no matter that there’s a definite attraction between them, neither of them is to do anything to change what they have. And that’s fine until one night, when they’re both seventeen, Frank kisses Tommy, and gets a punch in the face as a result. Frank leaves town after that, and doesn’t look back, returning as infrequently as possible.
He wouldn’t be going back there now were it not for the fact that his uncle Robert has recently died and left his business – The Bossen Hill Family Resort – in the Pocono Mountains to him and his sister in his will. Frank doesn’t want or need it, but has agreed to meet Annabelle there to decide what they’re going to do with the place.
Frank arrives – after a crappy journey – to find that the lodge is terribly run down. The smell of dampness lingers in the air, the furnishings are worn, the grounds are a mess… once a thriving business, it’s dilapidated and unkempt – and Frank is appalled to see the place in such a state. In another surprise, Frank also finds his old friend and first love Tommy Benjamin there; he hadn’t known that Tom had been helping Robert manage the resort for years… and wasn’t prepared for all the old feelings that seeing Tom again churns up inside him.
It’s clear from the start that both men still care for each other a great deal, but they’re at such different places in their lives that it’s sometimes difficult to see how they will ever be able to work things out and find a way to be together on terms that work for both of them. The social gulf that existed between them when they were younger is even more pronounced now; Frank is successful and comfortably-off, while Tom has never left his home town and his financial situation is now more precarious than ever. He’s a loving, caring man whose life has never been easy and who is doing the best he can for his sick mother, in spite of the way she treated him when he was younger. But she’s his mother – what else can he do but look after her? And Tom is also – naturally and realistically – very prickly about his situation, not wanting Frank to feel obligated or to see just how dispirited and simply dragged down by life he has become, and goes to some lengths in the attempt to conceal the truth – which, of course, is a recipe for disaster, especially when it causes Frank to doubt Tom’s reasons for getting close to him again.
Ms. Jensen develops the friendship between young Frankie and Tommy extremely well through a series of short flashbacks to various points in their lives, culminating in the kiss that sent Frank running. Readers get a strong sense of what these two meant to each other back then, and she does an equally good job of showing them working through the things that divide them; of Frank’s growing self-awareness that he’s not been as wise to Tom’s difficulties as he should have been, and Tom’s realisation that it’s not weakness to accept help from the man he loves. Their renewed relationship is well-developed and easy to buy into although I wasn’t completely convinced by the reasons given for their parting or by the fact that their teenaged love lasted for thirty years. Still, those are niggles rather than full-blown flaws in the storytelling.
Renewing Forever is a quiet story which is pervaded by an almost palpable sense of melancholy. Frank’s dissatisfaction with the direction his career and life is taking him, Tom’s struggles financially and personally, his mother’s decline into old age and infirmity – all are paralleled by the disrepair into which the lodge has fallen, and the struggles faced by Frank and Tom both personally and in terms of how they can possibly turn things around – if they even want to – feel real and are incredibly well written. This is a sad book in many ways, but it’s not all doom and gloom; the author builds this story of renewal – of place, home, lives and love – beautifully, giving readers small glimpses of victory like shafts of sunlight in a dark room as Frank and Tommy gradually realise that their visions of the future coalesce and that they want to make it a reality together.
Charlie King is doing fine. Sure, he’s a widower raising a teenage daughter who just got her first boyfriend, his book series isn’t writing itself, and he has a crush on his new neighbor — the guy next door. But everything’s just fine.
Simon Lynley is doing better. He moved to Bethlehem to fall out of love and rebuild his career. An affair with his neighbor isn’t part of the plan, but the attraction between them is too hard to ignore.
But when Simon’s ex follows him to Pennsylvania seeking reconciliation, and Charlie’s life starts to feel like a video on repeat, everything comes apart. Charlie worries that he’s failing as a father, and Simon is a distraction he can’t afford. Meanwhile Simon doesn’t know if he could survive being left again, and he hasn’t come all this way to make the same mistakes. But despite their fears, it’s only together that they’ll find the strength to slay old foes and build the forever they’ve been waiting for.
I’ve come across Kelly Jensen before as an author of m/m Sci-Fi romance (I’m thinking of the Chaos Station series she co-wrote with Jenn Burke) but haven’t so far managed to read anything of hers. When I saw that her new contemporary romance series, This Time Forever would feature protagonists a bit older than the norm, I jumped on book one, Building Forever, in which a widower with a teenaged daughter and the handsome architect who moves in next door find themselves slowly falling in love.
Charlie King married his childhood sweetheart, Merry, after Merry got pregnant when they were both around eighteen. He never regretted it and loved his wife dearly, but she died of cancer five years earlier, and he’s been caring for his daughter Olivia (who is now seventeen) on his own ever since. As every parent is, he’s continually beset by doubts about his parenting skills, worried about Liv’s health – and when he finds out she’s got a steady boyfriend, his anxiety levels go through the roof. (As the parent of teenage daughters myself, I could understand a lot of his concerns!) He’s a writer – technical manuals by day, Sci-Fi novels by night (as it were) – so he works from home, which is how come he’s in his kitchen stuffing his face with Cheez-Its and covered in crumbs when his gorgeous new neighbour comes in through the back door.
Simon Lynley has moved to Bethlehem from New Jersey intending to make a fresh start. He ended a twelve-year relationship with the man who was also his business partner a few months back, and still beats himself up about the fact that he let things between them go on for so long – like, a decade too long – when he knew Brian wasn’t faithful and that Simon wasn’t happy, either personally or professionally. He’s an architect, but had become disillusioned with the way his career was going, unhappy with projects that required no imagination, designing homes with no soul or character. The move offers him the opportunity to build something of his own and work in a town full of character, to immerse himself in a like-minded community, converse with people who, like him, wanted to preserve the old rather than flatten it to make way for the new – and to work on projects he believes in.
The character property next door is just the sort of thing Simon admires and so, it turns out, is its owner. He is immediately struck by Charlie’s handsome features, his ready smile and open-hearted garrulousness. Charlie doesn’t seem to have a brain-to-mouth filter, but Simon doesn’t mind; in fact he’s charmed by it, even as the alarm bells are ringing because Charlie is (as far as Simon knows) both straight and married.
Over the next few weeks and months, Simon and Charlie see each other occasionally; sometimes by design, such as when Charlie takes Simon to a local art festival, sometimes accidentally, like when Simon discovers Charlie furiously digging in the garden trying to repair a hole in the hedge. Each finds himself growing more and more attracted to the other, but isn’t sure what to do about it. Having married so young – and been a faithful husband – Charlie never had the chance to explore the bisexuality he’d acknowledged in his teens. He hasn’t had a serious relationship since his wife died, confining his sexual encounters to a few hook-ups at the Sci-Fi conventions he attends – but the strength of the pull he feels towards Simon is something he’s never felt towards anyone, male or female.
Building Forever is a funny, charming and sensual romance between two men who’ve been knocked about a bit by life and are recovering from past hurts. Both leads are extremely likeable and feel like real people, complete with individual quirks, emotional baggage and messy lives; they’re not perfect, but they’re perfect for each other, and the author creates a strong emotional connection between them at the same time as she develops their physical attraction. The chemistry between them fizzes delightfully, and Charlie is, quite simply, one of the sweetest, most adorkable heroes I’ve read in some time. He’s warm, funny and utterly captivating; I loved his self-awareness and honesty when it came to admitting to his feelings for Simon, and his unashamed enthusiasm for new sexual experiences is both cute and sexy. Charlie’s impulsiveness and compulsive chattiness are a nice contrast to Simon’s quieter, more cautious personality; Charlie brings some much needed lightness and sunshine into Simon’s life, and Simon brings a calming influence to Charlie’s.
Family and friendships are important to both men, and although the secondary cast isn’t large, the relationships between Charlie and his brother-in-law (and best friend) Phil and between Simon and his best friend, Frank, are nicely done and add a bit depth to the principals and the story. Olivia is a fully-realised individual (so often, children of protagonists in romances are little more than ciphers) and I loved that she’s so supportive of Charlie and Simon together; she’s obviously as devoted to her dad as he is to her. The one criticism I have of the novel overall is that there isn’t really anything much keeping Simon and Charlie apart, except their own insecurities and some pretty bad timing, but fortunately, Ms. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with the roadblocks or silly contrivances to create unnecessary drama.
Ultimately, Building Forever is a fun, feel-good read with a little bit of angst and a lot of warmth and humour that, for all its frequent light-heartedness, still packs an emotional punch. If you’re in need of a romantic pick-me-up on a grey day, I reckon this one is more than up to the task.