Sundays With Oliver (Hearts & Crafts #1) by Kelly Jensen

sundays with oliver

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Two empty-nesters. Two bruised hearts. One chance to make things right.

Oliver expected to miss his daughter when she left for college, but he’s surprised by the size of the hole she leaves. Or maybe he hadn’t expected to spend his days watching grass grow and making sad cookies. Or to lose his job. Meeting Nick—the uncle of his daughter’s roommate—is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy forecast. Nick is focused, talented, and as beautiful as the dollhouses he builds. Being near him might bring light and purpose to Oliver’s life.

Nick expected to miss his niece when she left for college, but he’s still figuring out how to cope with her absence, when his brother reappears after twelve years, complicating the emotional puzzle. Then there’s Oliver, the sweet, calm, and competent man who looks at Nick like no one ever has. Spending Sundays in Oliver’s company is the balm he needs, though Nick is waiting for Oliver to decide their relationship is too much work.

But just as Nick begins to get comfortable, Oliver’s need to provide for of the people he loves threatens to pull them apart. If their relationship is to survive, they will have to learn to let go. For Oliver, this means asking himself what he really wants, this time around. For Nick, it means letting himself grieve the people who can’t come back and love the people who always will.

Rating: B+

Kelly Jensen’s new Hearts & Craft series kicks off with Sundays With Oliver, a gently moving character-driven romance featuring two men in their forties (well, one is thirty-nine, but still…) who have to deal with significant life changes, prompted, in large part, by their becoming empty-nesters.

Oliver Jurić is a wholesome kind of guy; good-humoured, self-deprecating and one of life’s caretakers. When the story begins, it’s just days before Oliver is due to take his daughter Dani to her new home in NYC where she’s going to college. It’s a huge change in both their lives, and while Oliver is excited for Dani to be going out into the world to make a life of her own, he’s sad, too, knowing her absence will leave a hole in his life he’s not sure how he’s going to fill. But that’s not the only major change on the horizon; just before moving day, Oliver loses his job and, feeling slightly ashamed and not wanting to disappoint anyone, he doesn’t say anything and allows his family to believe nothing has changed, intending to get to work on applying for other jobs once Dani is settled in her new place.

Nick Zimmermann has a successful business making bespoke dollhouses – some original designs, some intricate miniature replicas of actual buildings – and every tiny item of furniture and décor inside. He’s intense and focused; he loves the work and is incredibly good at it, but he’s a very solitary person and he thrives on precision and routine. It’s clear from early on that Nick is neuroatypical, although his differences are never really labelled (ASD is mentioned once, but only in passing), and instead, the author shows us how his fascination with numbers and time, his need for rigid routine and his difficulty making eye contact contribute to his being – in his own words – “different” and “difficult to live with”. Like Oliver, Nick is facing the prospect of a lonely house once his niece Emma, his late sister’s daughter, has left for college in New York, but while Nick knows, rationally, that he’s going to miss her, he has yet to fully process the emotions that go along with missing someone.

Nick and Oliver meet for the first time on moving day when it turns out Dani and Emma are to be roommates. The first time Oliver sets eyes on Nick, his first thought is that the man seems to be trying to disappear into the background; the second is that he’s gorgeous. After the four of them have unpacked and put away as much as they can, they head out for an early dinner, and after the two girls leave, Oliver and Nick stay on for dessert, bonding over their feelings of loss and being at a loss. When Nick picks up the bill, Oliver suggests that next time is on him – although they don’t really expect that to happen. Yet neither can quite forget the other – or the spark of interest and attraction they’d felt for the first time in ages.

A few weeks later, Oliver makes a spontaneous visit to the city to see Dani and has stopped to look in a bakery window when a familiar voice breaks his concentration – and he turns to see Nick standing beside him. When, after going to the girls’ dorm, Oliver discovers Dani is out for the day, he and Nick decide to spend the day together, and quickly discover that they enjoy each other’s company, opening up a little about things they haven’t really spoken about to anyone else. Oliver confides in Nick about his job situation and how he’s having no luck whatsoever finding something else, and Nick talks about his work and about Emma – and surprises himself when he offers to show Oliver his current – unfinished – project. After this, Sundays become ‘their’ day.

I loved watching the connection between Nick and Oliver grow as they learn to navigate their lives without their girls around and deal with the various issues life throws at them. Nick worries that he’s ‘too much’ or ‘too quirky’ for Oliver to handle (thanks to comments by a previous partner), but Oliver simply accepts him as he is, making room for Nick’s ‘differences’ very subtly and naturally, respecting his need for routine and room to think. Nick tries hard to make room for Oliver in his life, and encourages him to think about outside the box when it comes to finding work. Oliver has always loved baking but never thought about doing it as a job – he’s always focused on being able to provide for his family and thus sacrificed something he loved in return for a regular salary. He has to learn that he can no longer be his family’s sole financial support – and that it’s okay not to be – that there are alternative options for financing Dani’s time at college and that he can’t continue to pay for all his parents’ daily needs or fund emergency repairs or new appliances. He’s one of those characters who has taken a lot upon himself to the point of being taken for granted – and he has to learn that it’s okay to put himself first.

Nick has never properly processed his sister’s death three years earlier – or his parents’ deaths more than a decade before that – and has become a bit lost, his world confined to his routines and to Emma as a way of self-preservation and avoiding processing his grief. But shortly before Emma leaves for college, that narrow world is shaken up by the unexpected appearance of his older brother Cameron, which disturbs Nick immensely. Cam has led a somewhat nomadic life since leaving the army twelve years before, and Nick doesn’t know – and doesn’t really want to know – what he’s been doing during the intervening years. He doesn’t want Cam at the house and tries to avoid him where possible, silently fuming as Cam starts fixing things around the place and working on the garden, tidying it up, planting and growing things and generally changing things Nick doesn’t want changed. I admit, I didn’t like Cam much to start with, didn’t like the way he just invades Nick’s space, but it soon becomes clear that he really cares about Nick and wants to help – but doesn’t quite know how.

Sundays With Oliver is what I’d call a ‘quiet book’, with the focus firmly on the central relationship and character growth as Nick and Oliver slowly come to terms with the changes in their lives and fall in love. That’s not to say there aren’t some rocky moments – there are – but it all feels very organic and realistic, and the romance is beautifully written, full of touching, tender moments and gentle humour that show just how much the couple care for each other. There’s a wonderfully rounded secondary cast which adds colour and depth to the story, and food-lovers will enjoy the descriptions of Oliver’s culinary endeavours! Sundays With Oliver is a charming romance and I’m happy to recommend it.

Let’s Go Out (Let’s Connect #2) by Kelly Jensen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Being dumped is oddly freeing.

It wasn’t as though Robin could have met Dan in the real world, anyway. To do that, Robin would have to leave his house. But uploading his picture to the dating app Let’s Connect, only to have Dan let him down, is still disappointing. Now Robin has run out of excuses not to look outward, and for the first time in three years, he’s seeing many of the things he’s been hiding from—including his next-door neighbor, Sean.

The very same obstacle remains, however. Sean lives in the real world too. And if Robin wants to get to know him better, to move beyond friendship to something more, he’s going to have to step outside his front door.

Robin will have to go *out*.

Rating: B-

Let’s Go Out is the sequel to Let’s Connect and, as with that story, was originally written in instalments that were sent out with the author’s newsletter.  In it we met sweet, quirky Robin and Dan – a just-turned-fifty divorcé having trouble moving on with his life – who met each other online via the Let’s Connect dating app.  The men chatted regularly and went on a few virtual dates; things were going well between them, and Robin hoped that maybe there was a chance of his having a real relationship again, but he also knew that his anxiety about going outside was going to be a big obstacle and that he just… wasn’t ready.  Let’s Go Out picks up Robin’s story shortly after Dan told him he was in love with someone else (his long-time crush and best friend) and they agreed to stay in touch as friends.

Robin works from home as an environment architect for video games. He’s online with his colleague and best friend Barrett frequently, as they work through and test the latest developments in their current projects, but otherwise, the only person Robin sees regularly is Kaleb, the teenaged son of his next-door neighbour Sean.  Kaleb runs errands for Robin and he and his dad have joined Robin for Thanksgiving for the last few years;  Robin likes Sean – maybe he even has a little bit of a crush on him – but like Dan, Sean exists in the outside world, and if Robin wants to get to know him and see if maybe there’s a chance for them to be more than friends, he’s going to have to walk through his front door.

Kelly Jensen does a great job here of exploring Robin’s situation.  Anxiety has been a lifelong problem for him, but the death of a beloved pet around the same time as the break-up of a long-term relationship hit him really hard and almost without his realising it, three years have passed and he’s gone no further than his back yard.  And even that, not very often.  But sometimes, just occasionally, he’s discovers his need to be outside is greater than his fear of stuff – and on one particular evening, he ventures out there and hears sounds coming from the other side of the fence that tell him someone – probably Sean – is outside, too.  Through a knot-hole in the fence, he can see that Sean – an artist and sculptor – is working on something, and almost jumps out of his skin when Sean starts talking about it.  Robin wonders for a second if someone is there with Sean (he hadn’t realised Sean knew he was there) but no, Sean is talking to him, and Robin is torn between wanting to stay and chat, and wanting to rush back inside the house and pretend Sean had never spoken to him. But Robin stays, and is intrigued by piece Sean shows him through the hole in the fence, one of a series of mosaic tiles he’s working on for an upcoming show.  When Robin asks about the story behind them, Sean tells him: “Isolation. Separation. Loneliness.”   Robin is stunned and a little panicked and runs back inside.

“Sean had seen him.  Not the man lurking behind the fence, but the man waiting inside Robin’s skin.”

Robin longs to see the other tiles, to see the rest of the story.  But to do that… he’ll have to go out.

Let’s Go Out is short and sweet, but like its predecessor doesn’t lack depth or insight.  Robin is the PoV character here, he’s well-realised and his dryly humorous outlook and inner monologues are delightful.  Unfortunately however, Sean is less well-developed, and although Robin thinks about him and they have the occasional conversations through the fence and via text, physically, he’s on the periphery of the story for around three-quarters of it.  In fact, Robin spends more time interacting with Barrett in the first half of the book than he does with Sean!  Sean’s a great guy though; he’s intelligent, creative and very respectful of Robin’s situation and issues, plus he’s incredibly patient, waiting three years for Robin to be ready – ready for Sean, for taking those first steps out and to finally realise that he’s never been alone because Sean and Kaleb have been there for him.  But… I couldn’t help thinking he was just a little bit too perfect.

The found family aspect of the story is lovely, and Robin and Sean make a great couple, but the romance in this one takes a bit of a back seat to Robin’s journey.  His anxiety issues are handled sensitively and the way he progresses– or doesn’t – feels very realistic and appropriate; just because he wants to go out and has set himself some achievable goals, doesn’t mean it’s easy or that he’s always going to be successful.  But I was cheering him on from the sidelines, and delighted at every breakthrough.

Even with those reservations, Let’s Go Out is worth a recommendation.  It’s not absolutely essential to have to have read Let’s Connect first, but I’d suggest doing so; they’re short, satisfying stories  that will leave you with a smile on your face – and there’s always room for more of those!

Chasing Forever (This Time Forever #3) by Kelly Jensen (audiobook) – Narrated by Austin Jay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Old wounds, new directions, and a forever worth chasing.

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: Narration – B; Content – B+

Redeeming a bad boy – or at the very least, a previously unlikeable character – can be a tough sell, but in Chasing Forever, the final book in the This Time Forever trilogy, Kelly Jensen does it splendidly as she turns her focus to Brian Kenway, whom listeners may recall as the cheating ex of Simon Linley from book one, Building Forever. The story once again features a mature couple who have both been around the block a few times romantically, and it also sheds light on the painful backstory that has contributed to making Brian into the man he’s become, one so deeply buried under all the layers of self-protection and the smooth persona he’s built up over the years that even he has trouble finding his true self.

The story opens on Christmas Eve with history teacher Mal Montgomery having a drink at the local bar. He’s been on medical leave since he sustained some serious injuries when he was hit by a car, but after months of recovery – and although he’s still using crutches to get around – he’s been cleared to return to work. He’s looking forward to getting back to teaching after the holiday, although the fact that he may never be able to run again – hell, he may not even walk properly again, let alone run or hike – is weighing heavily on his mind and bringing him down. He’s trying hard not to let his eyes stray towards the handsome Brian Kenway; the man has a reputation as a player and an arrogant prick, and even though he’s starred in more than one of Mal’s fantasies, Mal knows he’s way out of his league. So no one is more surprised than he is when Kenway slides onto the stool next to him at the bar and starts flirting with him. Mal has never been good in situations like these and has no idea how to respond, so he deliberately ignores Brian’s subtle proposition and then watches, still slightly bewildered, as the other man leaves the bar to make his way home.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Let’s Connect by Kelly Jensen

A year after his divorce, Daniel Stroman has decided that he’s too young to die—or fuse permanently with his couch. But when he downloads the dating app “Let’s Connect” and starts dating, his success/fail ratio isn’t encouraging until he gets a connection request from Robin.

Everything about Robin’s profile is different, from the bright little bird he’s using as an avatar to the long and thoughtful answers he’s written for the standard questions. He’s witty, funny, and easy to talk to. Robin could be his perfect match. But Robin is holding something back.

Then again, so is Dan—beginning with the seven-year crush he’s carried for his best friend, Trevor. Sadly, except for one brief moment, they’ve never been single at the same time.

Or have they?

Rating: B+

Kelly Jensen’s Let’s Connect was originally written as a serial for the author’s newsletter subscribers, but now she’s collected the instalments together and published them as a novella.  It’s a charming, funny and poignant story about a fifty-year-old divorcé who alternates between wondering if life and love have passed him by and feeling as though he’s too young to give up on finding love and someone to share his life with.

Dan Stroman has been divorced for a year, and he’s obviously been struggling – with being single again, and with life in general. He’s neglected his business and spent more time than he should have clinging to his couch, but his best friend Trevor (on whom Dan has had a crush for years) has encouraged him to get back into the dating game, and pretty much stood over him while Dan downloaded the Let’s Connect app and created a profile.  Dan does indeed connect with a few guys, but the in-person dates range from disastrous to simply not-what-I’m-looking-for, and he’s almost ready to give up when he receives a message on the app from Robin, who responds to the question “what’s the most interesting thing about you?” with a short essay about odd socks that is “the most bizarre yet sweet collection of words Dan had ever read.”

Dan is immediately struck by the personality  – funny, self-deprecating and distinctly quirky – that comes through in Robin’s words.  After they’ve exchanged a few messages on the app, Robin suggests they try a virtual date – they’ll both cook the same meal, and watch a movie together – and it goes well.  Robin is easy to talk to and Dan feels comfortable with him – and over the weeks they spend chatting, he realises that his interactions with Robin have helped him to see that he IS ready to move forward and take the next step with someone.  But… who is the right someone?

Let’s Connect is short, but it’s a lovely read that possesses considerable depth and insight.  I really enjoyed Ms. Jensen’s recent This Time Forever series, in which most of the principal characters were in their forties and fifties, and here, she continues to highlight the very different issues that can arise when a more mature person is looking to find a new relationship, and does it in a very appealing and perceptive way.

Dan is the PoV character, although there’s a very satisfying epilogue which switches the perspective to the man in his life.  Let’s Connect is short, sweet, and absolutely delightful, and happily, I see that Ms. Jensen is planning on writing more in this world.

Building Forever (This Time Forever #1) by Kelly Jensen (audiobook) – Narrated by Austin Jay


This title may be downloded from Audible via Amazon

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 to reconcile, and Charlie’s life starts to feel like a video on repeat, everything comes apart. Charlie fears 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. 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.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B+

I really enjoyed reading Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series when the books were first published in 2018/19. The trilogy features characters ranging in age from late thirties to early fifties finding love and second chances they thought might have passed them by. It’s not all that unusual to find a romantic hero in his forties, but it’s less so to find couples in romances in that age bracket, and that premise is one of the things that originally drew me to these stories.

Book one, Building Forever finds successful architect Simon Linley moving to the town of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania following the end of his twelve-year relationship with the man who was also his business partner. Adding a growing dissatisfaction with the way his career was progressing to the relationship issues he’d been turning a blind-eye to for too long, Simon is determined to make a fresh start, and has taken up a partnership with a local architect that Simon hopes will enable him to work on the sorts of projects he really believes in, ones that want to preserve old traditions of workmanship and character rather than flattening them to make way for soulless new-builds.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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!