2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.
So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.
Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)
The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on. Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!
Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.
As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:
If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉 I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.
Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance. I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time. Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.
When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up! I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.
So that was 2020 in books and audio. I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us; I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.
As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books! There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for. (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!). There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series. I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.
I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!
Proud heiress Arabella Larke has little respect for rules and no time for scruples, not when she faces marriage to a man she loathes and fears. Determined to save herself, Arabella comes up with a plan: a fake engagement with her childhood nemesis, Guy Roth, Marquess of Hardbury, recently returned home after years away. To Arabella’s surprise, Guy has become strong, honorable, and unexpectedly attractive…but he refuses to even hear her plan.
After leaving England to escape his corrupt, controlling father, Guy has vowed never to do anyone’s bidding again—certainly not Arabella’s. To Guy’s surprise, Arabella has become intriguing, quick-witted, and unexpectedly attractive, but he has enough drama trying to gain custody of his younger sisters, and he wants nothing to do with her dubious schemes.
Until Arabella shows up at his house one night, and Guy finds himself entangled to a dangerous degree…
Warm, witty, and moving, this historical romance tells the story of a proud, flawed lady, and the man brave enough to love her.
While A Dangerous Kind of Lady is the third published book in Mia Vincy’s Longhope Abbey series, it’s actually the second in the series chronologically . If you’ve read the author’s début, A Wicked Kind of Husband, (which is chronologically book three) you’ll already have met Arabella and Guy Roth, Marquess and Marchioness of Hardbury as a happily married – even besotted – couple. But knowing that’s how they end up is, as any dedicated romance reader will know, not the point; the fun is in the getting there, in the emotional journey the characters take to find love and happiness. A Dangerous Kind of Lady is their ‘origin’ story, and tells how the fiercely independent, sharp-tongued Arabella, betrothed to Guy Roth since childhood, becomes un-betrothed, re-betrothed, un-betrothed again (sort of) and then marries him anyway. All while falling in love along the way of course.
When the book opens, Guy has recently returned to England following an eight year absence and has assumed the title – Marquess of Hardbury – he inherited on the death of his father around a year earlier. It’s widely believed that Guy left England in a sulk after the woman he was in love with spurned him (not only did she sleep with someone else, she then went on to become a much sought-after courtesan), but the truth is more complicated. The old marquess was obsessed with controlling his son’s every move, and leaving the country was the only way Guy could assert his independence. Now Guy is at last free to live his own life, one of the first things he does on his return is end his engagement to Arabella Larke.
The end of the betrothal doesn’t actually bother Arabella all that much – in fact, she’d be celebrating if it wasn’t for the fact that her father is so bent on marrying her off that he doesn’t particularly care who the groom is. Lord Sculthorpe, a handsome war hero who gives Arabella the creeps every time she so much as thinks of him, is about to propose any minute, and as Mr. Larke has threatened to cut Arabella off if she doesn’t get married, she’s desperate to find a way to avoid Sculthorpe without losing everything. To buy herself some time, she asks Guy to pretend their betrothal is back on, just for a few weeks, but Guy refuses to hear her out, certain she’s trying to manipulate him into marriage. After all, she never made a secret of her desire to be a marchioness, and her insufferable pride must have been dented when he ended their engagement. Guy’s refusal to help leaves her with only one option; to accept Sculthorpe’s offer and then jilt him as soon as she can. But she’s reckoned without her father’s determination to get her off his hands; rather than the spring wedding Arabella had intended, he insists she and Sculthorpe will be married within the month. Utterly repelled by Sculthorpe and his fixation on her virginity, Arabella decides that while she may have to become his in law, she doesn’t have to become his in spirit or give him any more of herself than necessary. And there’s one thing she doesn’t have to give him if she doesn’t want to.
Which is why Guy opens the door to his rooms one evening to be confronted by Arabella practically demanding to be seduced. He’s completely suspicious of her motives, and knows only too well the sorts of games she’s capable of playing – yet he can’t resist the challenges she keeps throwing at him or the glimpses of the woman behind the prickly, proud façade he knows she doesn’t mean to let him see. Taking Arabella to bed is a recipe for disaster and they both know it. It’s also a revelation. And marriage – to each other anyway – is not an option.
Arabella and Guy are superbly drawn, complex characters who are not always particularly likeable and who don’t always make the best choices, but whom the reader will want to root for nonetheless. When we first meet her, Arabella comes across as something of an ice-maiden; proud, aloof and calculating, she seems to be untouchable and impervious to her reputation for sharp-tongued arrogance. But it’s quickly clear that this is all a self-defence mechanism. Since the death of her twin brother, Mr. Larke has dismissed Arabella as useless and worthless, and she longs to regain something of the relationship they had before. But all he does is push her away, so she’s constructed thick walls and buried her true self deep inside, locking away the hurt of her father’s rejection and presenting herself to the world as proud, intractable and absolutely unassailable, someone who attacks before she can be attacked. But as Guy comes to know her – as difficult as she makes it – he realises that regardless of what is said about her, she never refutes it or fights back, and he begins to see an amazing woman, a woman who loved and fought, who made mistakes and fell down, then got back up to love and fight another day. Guy’s life with a controlling father has given him his own load of emotional baggage to deal with; he’s spent almost his entire life being denied choices in even the simplest things such as which tailor to go to, or when or how he could have his hair cut, and for him, his betrothal and Arabella herself became symbols of his father’s desire to crush his spirit and dominate him. Guy’s desire to have nothing to do with her is his way of proving to himself that he’s free to live as he chooses.
The main secondary storyline deals with Guy’s determination to gain custody of his two sisters from their guardian, who, he suspects, is stealing money from their trusts; Arabella is the first to clue into the fact that he is scheming to marry his son to Guy’s nineteen-year-old sister and gain control of her fortune that way. Then there’s Sculthorpe, a singularly unpleasant individual I was delighted to see get his comeuppance, but I’ll warn now that there’s one scene during which he physically attacks Arabella that is distressing to read.
Ms. Vincy’s talent for sharp and insightful dialogue is very much in evidence, and she does a wonderful job of using Arabella and Guy’s frequent sparring matches to show how perfectly matched they really are. Their chemistry is incendiary right from the moment they meet on the page, and the big seduction scene I’ve mentioned above (not a spoiler because it happens early on) really is one of the most unusual I’ve read:
“You seriously think that we should take off all our clothes and pretend to like each other long enough for me to bed you, and then you’ll merrily go one your way?”
“That sounds right. Although we needn’t take off all our clothes. Or pretend to like each other.”
It’s funny and poignant and even sad, but insanely sexy all at the same time.
A Dangerous Kind of Lady pulled me in from the very first page and didn’t let me go until the very last. The emotional journey these two characters travel leads them not only to discover how badly they’ve misjudged each other, but also to learn a lot about themselves as well. Arabella and Guy are extremely well characterised, their motivations are clearly put forward and the romance is expertly crafted. But a couple of things about the book as a whole caused me to lower the final grade a bit. Firstly, some of the things Arabella says go way beyond antagonistic verbal sparring and are downright hurtful. Guy is no angel in that department either – I thoroughly disliked the way he completely dismisses Arabella in their opening scenes together – but Arabella really is her own worst enemy and while I know why she behaves as she does, she still sets out deliberately to wound. Secondly, watching the two of them continually find new ways to say the exact opposite of what they mean, only tell each other partial truths and misunderstand each other got rather exhausting after a while.
But even with those criticisms, A Dangerous Kind of Lady still earns a strong recommendation and Mia Vincy continues to live up to the promise she showed in her début.
Before I started writing this post, I took a look at the one I wrote for 2018 – My 2018 in Books & Audio – to see what I had to say about the books I read and listened to and about the things I was hoping for from 2019. Sadly, my biggest wish – for more winners in historical romance – not only didn’t come true, but didn’t come true in spectactular fashion; I read and listened to considerably fewer historical romances in 2019 (around 60) and of those, only 15 garnered a B+ (4.5 stars) or higher (actually, that was 11 historical romances plus 4 historical mysteries), and only two made the Best of 2019 list I wrote for All About Romance. Looking at the upcoming release lists for 2020, I can’t see that situation improving; very few of the book blurbs for upcoming HR make me want to read them.
So… what did I read and listen to instead? My Goodreads stats show that I read and listened to 299 books and audiobooks in 2019, (that figure includes maybe a dozen or so audio re-listens), which is over 40 books more than my total for last year.
Of that total, 66 were 5 star reads/listens, 184 were 4 star reads/listens – by far the biggest category – 35 were 3 star reads/listens, and there were 9 2 stars, 1 1 star and 1 unrated DNF.
Of the 66 highest graded, around a dozen were actual A grades; I award an A- 4.5 stars but bump the star rating up to five. (And in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a B grade story will get bumped up because of A grade narration). The 4 star ratings cover books/audios I’ve given B-, B or B+ grades, which is quite a large spectrum as it ranges from those books which are given qualified recommendations (B- is 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars) to those which are almost-but-not-quite DIKs (Desert Isle Keepers), the 4.5 stars (B+) I don’t round up. I had around the same number of 3, 2 and 1 star ratings as last year, which is at least consistent!
The books that made my Best of 2019 list at AAR are these:
(although I cheated a bit and actually included the whole Not Dead Yet and Borealis Investivations series!)
I had a list of “also rans” that I would have included had I had more space:
Charlie Adhara’s Thrown to the Wolves was – I believe – originally to have been the final book in her Big Bad Wolf series, but she’s since announced there will be a fourth (yay!). In TttW, we finally get some backstory for the enigmatic werewolf Park when he takes Cooper home to meet the family, together with a clever mystery, complicated family dynamics and a well-deserved HEA that’s perfectly in character. Cordelia Kingsbridge’s A Chip and a Chair was one of my most anticipated books of the year and didn’t disappoint, bringing the rollercoaster ride that was the Seven of Spades series to a rolliking, satisfying close. KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage was (I think?) her first m/f romance; a sequel to Any Old Diamonds, it features tough-as-nails lady detective Susan Lazarus and the other half of the Lilywhite Boys in an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance. Sally Malcolm’s Twice Shy is a lovely feel-good romance between a young man struggling to bring up two young children left to his care following the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, and a school teacher still dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage and career. The romance is warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry and is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce happy sighs.
Historical Romance made another really poor showing in 2019; of the authors I’ve previously counted on to deliver really good stories full of interesting and appealing characters, only a few actually managed to do it. KJ Charles and Mia Vincy made my Best of 2019 list, but Lara Temple (The Rake’s Enticing Proposal), Virginia Heath (The Determined Lord Hadleigh), Janice Preston (Daring to Love the Duke’s Heir) and Marguerite Kaye (The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage) all put out excellent books this year, and I enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s début, Bringing Down the Duke and am keen to read whatever she comes up with next. I still haven’t got around to reading Julie Anne Long’s Angel in a Devil’s Arms, which has appeared on quite a few Best of lists, so I hope I’ll enjoy it when I get around to it!
I did a very quick count the other day, and think that, for the first year ever, I actually listened to more books than I read (by a very small margin). I counted around 150 audiobooks (and probably missed a few re-listens because I often forget to mark those at Goodreads) which is half my total of 299 reads/listens. And according to the spreadsheet I maintain of books and audios I’ve picked up for review, I had an equal number of books and audiobooks to review in 2019. I have definitely struggled, at times, to find books I want to review and have filled the gap with audiobooks. So many are released each month, and I especially love it when backlist titles are made available for authors whose work I enjoy but stand no chance of actually getting to in print!
I chose the following as my Top Five audiobooks of the year at AudioGals:
I also cheated here by including the whole Not Dead Yet series! – which is actually the only title (titles) written in 2019; all the other books were written before last year, but didn’t come out in audio until 2019. But that’s par for the course with audio; not all of them are released simultaneously with the print/digital versions. The “also rans” for my audio Best of 2019 list were:
All boast top-notch performances and got at least an A- for narration, and the stories got at least a B+ each; and quite honestly, I could have substituted any of them for the list I actually posted at AudioGals; my favourites tend to change depending on how I feel from one day to the next! Had I listened to Lily Morton’s Deal Maker before I complied my list, that would certainly have made the cut, too!
So that was 2019. What am I hoping for in 2020? I’d like historical romance to get back on track, but I don’t see that happening in a big way and expect to be reading even more selectively in the genre than I’ve done this year. I’m hoping for more from Mia Vincy and will be checking out more from Evie Dunmore. Right now, most of the good HR is coming from Harlequin Historical authors, so I’ll definitely be reading more from them. In contemporaries, I’m looking forward to two new series from Annabeth Albert (Hotshots and True Colors) as well as to catching up with her Perfect Harmony series in audio, and to making my way through Lily Morton’s backlist – I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the audio of Risk Taker (with Joel Leslie at the helm) and hope she’s planning more audio releases in 2020. I’ll be snapping up the finale of L.J Hayward’s Death and the Devil series as soon as it comes out, nabbing more Victor Bayne (and Gomez Pugh!) in the next book(s) in Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series, and inhaling more Hazard and Somerset from Gregory Ashe. KJ Charles promises some 1920s pulp mysteries, there’s another book to come in Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series, so I’m looking pretty nicely set for the first part of 2020 in terms of reading and listening!
I’ll (hopefully) be back again this time next year to tell you now it all panned out!
It was the ideal marriage of convenience… until they met.
Cassandra DeWitt has seen her husband only once – on their wedding day two years earlier – and this arrangement suits her perfectly. She has no interest in the rude, badly behaved man she married only to secure her inheritance. She certainly has no interest in his ban on her going to London. Why, he’ll never even know she is there.
Until he shows up in London too, and Cassandra finds herself sharing a house with the most infuriating man in England.
Joshua DeWitt has his life exactly how he wants it. He has no need of a wife disrupting everything, especially a wife intent on reforming his behavior. He certainly has no need of a wife who is intolerably amiable, insufferably reasonable…and irresistibly kissable.
As the unlikely couple team up to battle a malicious lawsuit and launch Cassandra’s wayward sister, passion flares between them. Soon the day must come for them to part…but what if one of them wants their marriage to become real?
Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-
Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, came out in the middle of 2018, but I didn’t get around to reading it until December – and was so impressed by it that it was a last-minute entry into my Best Books of 2018 list. Historical romance has been in a bit of a slump for the past couple of years, so it was a huge relief to find this gem, a very well-written, funny, tender and poignant marriage of convenience story featuring complex, well-drawn characters and peppered with superb-one liners and humour that never feels forced. In fact, even as I was reading it, I just knew that if the book ever came out in audio format, Kate Reading would be the ideal narrator; that dry wit and banter was just crying out for her wonderful deadpan delivery – and what do you know? Sometimes wishes really do come true!
You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.
Thea Knight loves a spot of mischief. She especially loves her current mischief: masquerading as her sister, while finalizing her scheme to expose the dastardly knaves whose lies ruined her life.
Then big, bad-tempered Lord Luxborough upends her game by maneuvering her into marriage. But it’s her sister’s name on the license, so the marriage won’t be valid. Thea’s idea? Keep pretending to be her sister until she can run away.
A recluse haunted by his past…
Rafe Landcross, Earl of Luxborough, has no love for mischief. Or marriage. Or people, for that matter. The last thing he wants is a wife—but if he marries, he’ll receive a large sum of much-needed money.
Then he learns that Thea Knight is using a false name. Rafe’s idea? Pretend he doesn’t know her true identity, marry her, and send her packing once the money is his.
A compelling attraction that changes their lives
But as passion ignites and secrets emerge, the mutual deception turns tricky fast. Rafe and Thea face irresistible temptations, unsettling revelations, and a countdown to the day when Thea must leave…
When I read Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, near the end of last year, I was impressed and utterly captivated – it made my list of Best Books of 2018. With its likeable, complex characters, witty dialogue and wonderfully perceptive writing, it stood out like a a highly-polished gemstone amid the generally poor showing made by HR last year, and I, like many fans of the genre, have been eagerly awaiting the author’s next book, hoping for more of the same. So I’m delighted to report that with A Beastly Kind of Earl, Ms. Vincy is two-for-two; this story of a young woman determined to salvage her reputation after two so-called gentlemen maliciously ruin it, and a reclusive earl carrying a whole shedload of guilt is funny, charming and deceptively insightful, featuring two wonderfully rounded protagonists, an engaging secondary cast and a beautifully developed romance that just oozes sexual tension and chemistry.
About three years before the story opens, Thea Knight, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman, is disowned and sent away to live in quiet obscurity as companion to an elderly termagant after she is labelled a “sly, scheming seductress” and accused of attempting to trap a young gentleman into marriage. With her reputation in tatters, the only people not to turn their backs on her are her sister, Helen, and her friend, Lady Arabella Larke; even Thea’s own parents – a pair of social climbers – believe the lies told about her and are adamant that her blackened name must not be allowed to ruin her sister’s marital prospects. They wash their hands of her.
But Thea is not one to be so summarily squashed. Somehow, she has retained her sense of fun and her natural optimism, and is determined to make sure that society learns the truth about Percy Russell, the son of Lord Ventnor – and to expose his lies. To this end, she has been saving money in order to have a pamphlet telling her side of the story printed and circulated throughout society, and when the story begins, hopes to soon be able to make plans for its publication. But first thing first; she has to aid Helen in her scheme to elope with the young man she loves and has been forbidden to marry… who happens to be Beau Russell, Percy’s brother and Lord Ventnor’s eldest son. Helen and Thea meet at a small coaching inn in Warwickshire in order to switch places; Thea will join a small house-party at Lady Arabella’s home while Helen and her intended make for Gretna to be married.
Rafe Landcross had no thought of inheriting the title of Earl of Luxborough, and certainly didn’t want it at the cost of the lives of his father and two elder brothers. A large, dark and dour man, he bears the scars of a Jaguar attack sustained in the forests of New Spain (part of Mexico today) and, a keen botanist, much prefers the company of his plants to society. His reclusiveness and curt, abrasive manner have led to all sorts of rumours circulating about him – including one that he murdered his wife, Lord Ventnor’s daughter.
The subject of nasty rumours herself, Thea is sure this cannot be true, but even so, has no desire to meet Luxborough – which is unfortunate as he, too, is to be a guest at the small party at Arabella’s home. Even though he rarely – if ever – leaves his estate, the earl has been tempted to do so by the prospect of obtaining some rare plant specimens being conveyed there by Lord Ventnor. But Ventnor wants a favour in return, namely that Rafe should keep Beau away from that “social-climbing seductress Helen Knight”. Having an agenda of his own, Rafe agrees to this, telling Ventnor that he will marry Helen – but he is fully aware of Thea and Helen’s scheme and has no intention of preventing the match between Helen and Beau. Instead, he will go along with the deception and marry Thea (as Helen) and gain control of the ten thousand pounds left in trust by his mother. Because Thea will marry him under a false name, she will not actually be his wife, so Rafe gets what he wants – money to continue his botanical research – doesn’t get what he doesn’t want – a wife – and Ventnor will be apoplectic with rage into the bargain. Win win.
But he’s reckoned without Thea, her vitality, her enthusiasm and optimism, which are undimmed even in the face of the unkind and unjust treatment she’s been subjected to by those who should have been her staunchest supporters. He initially believes her to be the scheming jezebel gossip says she is, but he cannot reconcile that picture with the winsome and mischievous young woman who gives back every bit as good as she gets.
“We’ve barely met and you’re not very nice.”
“True, but I am an earl.”
“Are you saying you do not find me interesting?”
“Not nearly as interesting as you find yourself.”
And Thea can’t help but be fascinated by Rafe, who is as different from the gossip about him as she is from the gossip about her. He’s gruffly charming and adorably grumpy in a way that makes her yearn to know more about the man she glimpses only briefly, one who is kind, affectionate and funny – and to know why he locks that side of himself away. His backstory is one marked by tragedy; he blames himself for his first wife’s death and genuinely grieves the father and brothers whose deaths paved his way to the earldom. The heir who inherits unexpectedly is a frequently seen character in historical romance, but this is one of the few times I can recall that character being so eaten up with grief and guilt and convinced of his own unworthiness.
A Beastly Kind of Earl could be described as one of those buttoned-up-hero-loosened-up-by-free-spirited-heroine tales, but the author has once again managed to put her own spin on a familiar and well-used trope in such a way as to come up with something refreshingly different that transcends it. The writing is clever, insightful and delightfully nimble, the dialogue sparkles with wit and humour and the author’s shrewd observations about the social conventions that constrained female behaviour are accurate and conveyed with amazing subtlety. I laughed out loud at Thea’s reaction to mansplaining:
“Oh. You’re going to educate me. Very well.”
She folded her hands and waited politely.
“You don’t sound thrilled,” he remarked.
“On the contrary, my lord. I’m always thrilled when a man wants to tell me all the important things he knows… and if I’m very lucky, you’ll explain at length how you know more about it than anyone else.”
Then this had me laughing even harder; Rafe and Thea discuss the etymology of the word ‘orchid’ – which is apparently derived from the Greek word for testicles!
“Allow me to confirm that I have understood correctly,” she said, her puzzlement overriding her nerves. “Here is this gorgeous, magnificent flower, and some man – who for unknown reasons is put in charge of naming it – he looks at this gorgeous, magnificent flower and he says ‘By George, that looks like my bollocks’. And then he says, ‘You know what the world needs now? The world needs more things named after my bollocks.’ So he names this gorgeous, magnificent flower after his bollocks and all the other men look at it and say, ‘How excellent. It is named after our bollocks.’”
His expression was unreadable as he studied her. She would not be surprised if he stalked off in disgust at her unladylike speech.
“I must admit,” he finally said, “that us men are immensely fond of our bollocks.”
This is a funny book no question, but the humour never upstages the serious situations faced by the principals or the emotional connection between them. Thea’s helplessness in the face of the determination of the men who ruined her reputation is a horrible realisation, and Rafe’s backstory, revealed gradually, is truly heartbreaking. But watching these two wronged people find each other, fall in love and realise they belong together is pure joy; and the icing on the cake is the fact that the chemistry between them is simply scorching.
If you read Ms. VIncy’s début novel, then you’ll probably need no convincing to pick this one up. But if you’re a fan of historical romance and haven’t yet read her work, then you should get on it right away! Although this is listed as the second book in the Longhope Abbey series, it works perfectly well as a standalone, and the books can be read in any order. A Beastly Kind of Earl is, without doubt, one of the best books of 2019.
My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks. I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever. Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket. I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.
4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.
The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:
And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.
Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else. Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception. The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver. Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself). Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Woman – which I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment. On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husbandwhich was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016. Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Dukeand An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic. Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist. Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out. K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Printand Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites. Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.
I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop. In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did. There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.
The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years. Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.
My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive. I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again. It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas. Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension. The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful; they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it. Their relationship goes through terrific highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.
Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER, one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines. I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well. She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top. And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.
I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!) My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.
I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes. But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees. Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.
I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others. I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home– which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.
Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general. Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well. Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.
As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019? First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please! Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year. I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous. I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April. There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book. Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific. I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.
Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!
It was the ideal marriage of convenience… until they met
Cassandra DeWitt has seen her husband only once—on their wedding day two years earlier—and this arrangement suits her perfectly. She has no interest in the rude, badly behaved man she married only to secure her inheritance. She certainly has no interest in his ban on her going to London. Why, he’ll never even know she is there.
Until he shows up in London too, and Cassandra finds herself sharing a house with the most infuriating man in England.
Joshua DeWitt has his life exactly how he wants it. He has no need of a wife disrupting everything, especially a wife intent on reforming his behavior. He certainly has no need of a wife who is intolerably amiable, insufferably reasonable … and irresistibly kissable.
As the unlikely couple team up to battle a malicious lawsuit and launch Cassandra’s wayward sister, passion flares between them. Soon the day must come for them to part … but what if one of them wants their marriage to become real?
I love it when I pick up a book by a début or new-to-me author and find myself quickly engrossed by it – which is exactly what happened with Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband. I’m a sucker for a good marriage-of-convenience story, and this IS a good one; well defined, complex characters, strong writing and excellent dialogue, all combine to make this an entertaining and emotionally satisfying read, and one I’d urge fans of the genre to check out.
The second eldest of four sisters, Cassandra DeWitt has been the linchpin holding her family together since her father’s unexpected death a couple of years earlier. Her mother exists in her own, laudanum-fuelled world and her eldest sister is married and lives elsewhere with her husband, so it’s fallen to Cassandra to manage the household, estate and her two younger sisters… who have no concept of all that Cassandra does for them and certainly no appreciation for it. For some months, the behaviour of nineteen-year-old Lucy has been becoming increasingly outrageous; Cassandra realises that being cooped up away from society is the likely cause, and that it’s time to find her sister a husband. In order to do that, however, Lucy will need to make her society début, which means going to London… something Cassandra hasn’t done in the two years since her marriage to wealthy industrialist Joshua DeWitt – whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding night.
Cassandra’s father arranged her marriage in order to enable her to continue to reside at of Sunne Park after his death, and she didn’t question it, because at the time, she was still reeling from the fact that the man she loved had eloped with someone else. She recalls very little about her bridegroom other than that he was rude and abrupt, and is content to have nothing whatsoever to do with him. For the past two years, it’s suited her to remain in Warwickshire – in accordance with Mr. DeWitt’s preference (read – insistence) that she stay there – but she can do so no longer; she determines to approach her grandmother, the Duchess of Sherbourne, to ask her to sponsor Lucy’s season, and in order to do that, Cassandra will have to go to London. As luck would have it, Mr. DeWitt is due to travel to Liverpool, so as long as Cassandra times her visit to take place whilst he is away, he won’t even know she’s in London. You know what they say about the best laid plans…
I’m sure there’s no need for me to elaborate more on the plot, but the journey on which Ms. Vincy takes her characters – and her readers – is an exceptionally entertaining and insightful one, as Mr. and Mrs. DeWitt match wits (!) cross (metaphorical) swords and slowly find that their arranged marriage has become far more than the mutually convenient union it was initially supposed to be.
Joshua DeWitt grew up as heir to the Earl of Treyford and was, until the age of fourteen, as pampered and privileged as any other scion of the peerage. But his life, and that of his siblings, changed drastically when the earl was discovered to have married their mother bigamously, and the former countess disappeared, along with her daughter, and Joshua and his two brothers were cast out and left to their own devices. Joshua went to work in Birmingham and thanks to the unlooked for kindness and aid from a stranger – Cassandra’s father – settled his brothers in their chosen professions, built himself a trading empire and now owns “four factories, three estates and a growing fleet”. He may no longer have the social standing he once did, but money talks:
“They recoil because he is an industrialist, but receive him because his investments make them rich… meanwhile he goes where he pleases, says what he pleases and no one dares get in his way.”
Joshua is blunt, devoid of tact, lacks patience, doesn’t suffer fools at ALL, let alone gladly, and full of energy and ideas. He likes his life as it is and is used to being obeyed without question by everyone around him, so the sudden appearance of the woman he married in order to repay his obligation to her father is unwelcome and irritating. He wants to pack her off back to Warwickshire; she has no intention of leaving until she has secured her grandmother’s agreement to sponsor Lucy.
But even as he is adamant that Cassandra must leave London, Joshua is reluctantly impressed by his wife’s determination and her ability to give as good as she gets:
“You’re meant to be in Warwickshire,” he said.
“You’re meant to be in Liverpool.”
“I did not give you permission to come to London.”
“I did not ask your permission.”
“You should… Let me explain, Mrs. DeWitt, how marriage works.”
“Oh, please do, Mr. DeWitt, I’m all agog.”
“I am the husband, so I make the rules to suit me.”
“And I am the wife, so I change the rules to suit me.”
And worse… she might even be likeable. Which would be disastrous.
“You seem puzzled,” said his disruptive wife, as they reached the gate. “Have I said something to puzzle you?”
“Most of what you say puzzles me. It’s almost as though you have a mind of your own.”
“Please don’t vex yourself. I’ll try not to use it too often.”
Cassandra is an admirable heroine, one who operates within the conventions of society but still manages to be anything but the meek, obedient spouse those conventions suggest she should be. She’s quick witted and easily able to hold her own against her irascible husband, but there’s a hidden vulnerability to her, too, a vulnerability that Joshua soon recognises lying behind her suddenly fixed smiles and diplomatic manner which speaks to his protective nature and makes him want to fix all her problems and encourage her to “stop giving up your space. Fight for what is yours.”
Both principals are compelling, likeable but flawed characters who leap off the page, and the secondary cast is also superbly drawn and rounded out. Neither Joshua nor Cassandra is your usual, stock-in-trade historical romance character, the chemistry between them is terrific, and their frequent verbal sparring is a complete delight.
“What happened to you last night?” she said. “It looks like someone punched you in the face.”
“Does that happen often?”
She took a knife and quartered her pear.
“Is that it?” he said
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“That’s all you have to say? ‘Oh.’” She looked at him blankly. “Where’s the love and sympathy, wife? You aren’t wondering what happened? You aren’t wondering if I’m in pain? You aren’t wondering if your dear husband will be all right?”
“Mainly I’m wondering why you don’t get punched in the face more often.”
The author has managed to put her own spin on a very well-worn plot device, bringing a degree of unpredictability to her story that enables it to transcend the trope. Her writing is intelligent and energetic, and the story is by turns funny, poignant, sexy, angsty and, most importantly, romantic.
With that said, the book does have a few flaws; Lucy’s antics are a bit over the top and there’s some anachronistic dialogue and behaviour in places, but otherwise, A Wicked Kind of Husband is one of the best historical romances I’ve read all year; a sparkling début that’s landed Mia Vincy very firmly on my list of authors to watch.