To See the Sun by Kelly Jensen (audiobook) – Narrated by TJ Clark

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: B+

I’ve become a big fan of Kelly Jensen’s over the past few months and was delighted to be able to snap up a copy of To See the Sun for review. By one of those odd flukes, I read the book a few weeks ago, before I had any idea it was coming out in audio, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to enjoy it again.

The story takes place at some unspecified time in the future when the human race and civilisation has finally moved beyond Earth and has spread through distant galaxies. At the edge of one of those galaxies is the garden planet Zhemosen, a reputed paradise of blue skies, bright sunshine and lush greenery… if you can afford it. The rich enjoy life in the fresh, open air, while those less fortunate live in the undercity, a place where “water tastes like sweat”, the air is bitter, and the streets are dark and dangerous. It’s here that Gael Sonnen just about manages to eke out an existence, but when he fails to carry out an assassination ordered by the powerful family he works for (and is practically enslaved to) he has no alternative but to run – and run as far as possible. But with no money, it looks as though his only option will be to sign up for a long indenture which he’ll likely never get out of – until a friend suggests an alternative. There are plenty of people living in the outer colonies at the far-flung edges of the galaxy who are looking for companions, be it for friends or lovers, and there are companies who specialise in arranging companion contracts. If Gael were to sign up with one of them, his youth and good-looks will surely garner him plenty of replies, and as many of the contracts are initially for only a year, it will at least buy him some breathing space.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Purple Haze (Aliens in New York #2) by Kelly Jensen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Six months have passed since Dillon and Lang crashed into each other on a crowded street in New York City, changing the course of their lives. Now they’re living together as a couple, happy, in love, but not quite ready to say the words out loud.

Dillon is about to embark on a new adventure—opening a private art school housed in the brownstone left to him by his father. Lang… Lang is becoming ever more aware of the futility of his mission: being caretaker to his clan’s future when his clan might not survive the war with an opposing faction.

When a flashbulb outside a nightclub on New Year’s Eve temporarily blinds Dillon, the course of their lives is set to change again. Dillon’s perception of how the world works is going to be forever altered, and Lang will have to decide between his mission and the man who has come to mean more to him than he ever thought possible.

It will be up to both of them to chart a new direction, one that holds the balance between being human and alien. A course that might require sacrifices neither of them is willing to make.

Rating: B+

Purple Haze, book two in Kelly Jensen’s Aliens in New York series picks up around six months after the events of Uncommon Ground, and sees Dillon Lee and his billionaire (alien) lover happily living together though still working to accept the huge changes that have occurred in both their lives.  Because this is a direct sequel that refers to events and features recurring characters from the previous book – which it would be helpful to read first – there will be spoilers for Uncommon Ground in this review.

Six months ago, Dillon Lee would have laughed at the idea that aliens existed – despite the huge amount of ‘evidence’ amassed by his late grandfather, a conspiracy theorist of the first order.  He’d have laughed even harder – probably – had anyone told him he’d fall in love with an alien, and that not only was his grandfather an alien,  he wasn’t his grandfather at all, but his father – and that Dillon himself is half alien as a result.  But that was then – and this is now; and Dillon has come to accept the truth. His father was Wren – one of the five clans from the planet Jord – and Steilang Skovgaard, the man Dillon loves with all his heart, is from the same planet, sent to Earth twenty-five years earlier, along with several other scouts (who have since died) in order to help build a sanctuary for the members of his clan.

As we learned in the previous book, Lang hadn’t heard anything from his clan for over seven years, and towards the end of it, he had to face the fact that they may never be coming to Earth at all.  So many years of devotion and loneliness, and he realised that the mission he was literally bred for may have been a futile one, but with Dillon in his life now, he hasn’t found it as difficult to accept that and adapt to his changing circumstances as it might otherwise have been.  For Dillon, too, life has taken unexpected directions; in addition to finding out the truth of his heritage, he’s putting down roots – with Lang, yes, but also by setting up an art school in the city in the property left him by his father, and is looking forward to its opening in a few week’s time. 

Purple Haze opens on New Year’s Eve, with Dillon and Lang out dancing at a club.  It’s not really Lang’s thing – he’s never been comfortable in crowds – but it makes Dillon happy, he likes seeing Dillon happy… so he’s happy, too.  The trouble with being a reclusive billionaire who keeps himself very private however, is that when it becomes known he’s out on the town with someone, the paparazzi pounces. He and Dillon have trouble leaving the club and have to dive back inside to find another exit – but not before the camera flashes going off in their faces render Dillon temporarily unable to see.

Fortunately, this condition doesn’t last long, but in its wake, leaves Dillon with unpredictable, crashing headaches – and he gradually notices other changes, too, changes that are going to have serious repercussions on his life with Lang and may possibly part them forever.

Whereas the plot in Uncommon Ground focused mostly on building the relationship between Dillon and Lang, and on Dillon’s gradual discovery of the truth about his father’s origins, Purple Haze raises the stakes considerably for our heroes as it becomes clear that some latent ability in Dillon has been awakened – and it’s unusual enough for the Jord Elders to want to know more about it.

Kelly Jensen has once again achieved an excellent balance between the various elements – romance, suspense and sci-fi – of her story, and does a great job of defining the alien society of Jord and contrasting it with that on Earth through Lang’s gradual realisation that his thought processes have become more human than Jord. All his life, he’s been dedicated to serving his clan; subservient to the ruling Wren, never questioning the rightness of his mission, he’s been focused on fulfilling his obligations, but after twenty five years among humans, he can no longer accept that picture or his role as somehow ‘less’ than.  The intensity of his love for Dillon and his despair at the thought he might lose him forever spurs Lang to rebel against his inbred sense of duty and everything he has ever known about himself and his people in order to fight for the man he loves.

The connection Ms. Jensen has created between Dillon and Lang is practically palpable, and the way they just fit together in spite of their differences, is simply lovely.  Among the small supporting cast, Dillon’s mum and grandmother are nicely rounded characters who offer a little light relief, and his relationship with them is really well written. This is also true of the relationship between Lang and the other major secondary character, Upero – the Artificial Intelligence on his ship.  Like Lang, Upero has evolved somewhat during their time on earth and he’s become the sort of ‘starchy old-retainer’ type character who chides their charge while secretly being fond of them (if it’s possible for an AI to be fond) and even manages a side of snark from time to time.

The pacing is excellent, with a gradual sense of foreboding hovering in the background in the first half of the story as the tension and suspense gradually ramp up to provide a genuine element of doubt as to the final outcome, and there are some truly emotional moments, ones I admit brought a lump to my throat. But one of the things I enjoyed most was the message that came through loud and clear, about the power of human emotions and most importantly, that love and faith in those we love really can conquer all.

Purple Haze is a thoroughly entertaining read that combines an exciting plot with an emotionally satisfying romance, in which the author has once again packed a lot of plot and character development into a relatively small page-count.  I really hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Dillon and Lang or Aliens in New York.

Uncommon Ground (Aliens in New York #1) by Kelly Jensen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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?

Rating: A-

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?

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, which focuses strongly on the romance between Dillon and Lang while skilfully combining it with the mystery surrounding Dillon’s grandfather and the alien/sci-fi elements. These are fairly light, but are nonetheless expertly constructed, giving readers a feel for Lang’s home planet, details of his mission on Earth and about how his society works without large info-dumps or interrupting the flow of the story.  As I said about the author’s To See the Sun, which I read recently, we may be reading about an alien civilisation, but the things Lang’s people are facing all sound very familiar, from unfair hierarchical structures to interplanetary strife and environmental crises.

The instantaneous mutual attraction that sparks between Dillon and Lang progresses quickly, but when they tumble into bed at their next meeting, it’s very clear that they care for each other and they both know there’s something more going on than just sex.  I loved watching them get to know each other and realise they’ve found something special in one another.  Dillon is like a burst of light into Lang’s life – he’s good-humoured and cheerful and not afraid to be who he is, and while he may have always felt like an outsider, to Lang, he’s beautiful, utterly charming and completely irresistible;  Lang’s complete and unconditional acceptance of him is simply lovely.  Lang has spent twenty-five years on Earth in order to find a sanctuary for his clan, has amassed a fortune and built a hugely successful technology company, but he’s a shy, loveable dork with a fetish for kitchen gadgets (!) and The author subtly underpins the way Lang has adapted and begun to assimilate and adore so much about his adopted home.  When we meet one of his people, the contrast between them really highlights the fact that he’s come a long way from the duty-bound, singly-focussed individual typical of his clan he was when he first arrived.  Like Dillon, he’s lonely – the moment when he discovers just how truly alone he is is quite heart-breaking – but together they fit, their relationship growing stronger and deeper as the story develops.

The mystery surrounding Dillon’s grandfather is very well done, and there’s a suitably dramatic, high-stakes finale that really shows what Dillon and Lang have come to mean to one another.  Uncommon Ground is a little gem of a book; the author squeezes some large concepts – loneliness, love, loss, identity – into a small page-count, but does it so skilfully that nothing feels out of place.  The novel can be read as a standalone – it ends with a solid HFN – but the story is continued in the soon-to-be-released sequel, Purple Haze, and I’m really looking forward to spending some more time with Dillon, Lang and the world Ms. Jensen has created.

TBR Challenge: To See the Sun by Kelly Jensen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: B+

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 2018 in Books & Audio

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:

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

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

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 Womanwhich 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 Husband which 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 Duke and 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 Print and 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.

Romantic Suspense

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.

Audio

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!

Chasing Forever (This Time Forever #3) by Kelly Jensen

chasing forever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: B+

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.

Renewing Forever (This Time Forever #2) by Kelly Jensen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: B

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.