His Compass (His #2) by Con Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

his compass

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Tom has one rule: Don’t sleep with the crew. A second chance with a younger, gorgeous deckhand tempts him to break it.

After a busy season as a charter-hire skipper, Tom yearns for some downtime. His lonely heart also aches for adventure with someone special, but paying his bills has to come first. A surprise sailing contract and huge bonus offer his first glimpse of freedom for years. There’s only one catch: he must crew with Nick, a deckhand who jumped ship once already.

Nick’s as young and untested as the new yacht they’re contracted to sail, and he’s just as gorgeous. Forced to spend a month as Nick’s captain, Tom discovers depths he hadn’t noticed. He’s captivated, and happier sailing with Nick than he’s been in forever. However, their voyage is finite, and both men keep soul-deep secrets.

As the contract draws to an end, they must get honest about what’s in their hearts if they want to share a life at sea, and love, forever.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A-

Con Riley’s His trilogy continues with His Compass, a May/December, forced proximity romance between a forty-something charter-hire skipper and his younger crewmate. The characters are beautifully drawn and their romance is nuanced and emotional; I loved the book when I read it back in 2021 and was only too pleased to be able to experience it all over again in audio.

Tom Kershaw has spent most of his life at sea, and now works as a skipper on a luxury charter yacht. He appeared briefly in the previous book (His Horizon) when he made an unscheduled stop at Porthperrin in Cornwall in order to return his deckhand Jude home to deal with a family emergency. Tom thought highly of Jude and was fond of him, but sadly, Jude’s replacement was something of a disaster; lazy, messy and unreliable, Nick might have been sociable and great with the guests, but he never finished a task he was given and his claims of growing up around boats and crewing from a young age were clearly lies, as he couldn’t do any of the jobs Tom needed him to. Then one day, he just up and left without a word, leaving Tom in the lurch.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

When I First Saw Red (Soldiers & Mercenaries #2) by Kasia Bacon (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

when i first saw red

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Red: Lázhien’s human. A common Imperial soldier. And my soulmate. How could fate get it so wrong? The demon in me craves this bond with every shred of his being. He pushes me to accept it. This time I won’t yield to his demands.

Lázhien: Red’s a lust demon, a whore and a stuck-up snob. The most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Pain in the arse. And he hates my guts. I’d be an idiot to pursue him. Yet something about him compels me to make him mine.

When I First Saw Red is a complete and stand-alone short novel with an HEA ending, featuring a couple of reluctant fated soulmates – a demon and a human – trying and failing to defy destiny.

Rating:  Narration – B; Content – C+

Kasia Bacon’s When I First Saw Redis a sexy fantasy/fated-mates romance between a rough-and-ready soldier and a high-class courtesan, and although it’s the second book in her Soldiers and Mercenaries series, it stands alone and I had no trouble understanding the story without having read or listened to book one.

Lázhien, a big, gruff drill-master in the Imperial Forces, is not normally one to frequent brothels, but this particular Freeday night, he’s bored, lonely and just wants to get out of the barracks. With most of his garrison heading off to the Cocks and Hens’ shag-all-you-can bargain night, he decides he might as well go along, if only to kick back and have a few drinks. He doesn’t plan on doing any more than that, until he lays eyes on the most beautiful man he’s ever seen, lean and long-limbed with luminous skin and a cascade of the reddest hair Lázhien has ever seen. The bolt of attraction that hits him stops him in his tracks and he can’t stop staring – until the man shoots him a condescending look and pointedly turns away, slamming the door to his room behind him. Lust-drunk and angry at being so cursorily dismissed, Lázhien offers the brothel owner an exorbitant fee for one night with him.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Subtle Blood (Will Darling Adventures #3) by KJ Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

subtle blood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Will Darling is all right. His business is doing well, and so is his illicit relationship with Kim Secretan – disgraced aristocrat, ex-spy, amateur book-dealer. It’s starting to feel like he’s got his life under control.

And then a brutal murder in a gentleman’s club plunges them back into the shadow world of crime, deception, and the power of privilege. Worse, it brings them up against Kim’s noble, hostile family, and his upper-class life where Will can never belong.

With old and new enemies against them, and secrets on every side, Will and Kim have to fight for each other harder than ever – or be torn apart for good.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A

Note: Subtle Blood is the third instalment of a trilogy which has an overarching plotline; listeners are advised to listen to Slippery Creatures and The Sugared Game first. There are spoilers for those books in this review.

It’s been a few months since Will Darling and Kim Secretan uncovered the identity of the head of Zodiac, a dastardly, secret criminal organisation dedicated to destroying the structures of power – and Kim’s world fell apart. Effectively sacked from his job with the Private Bureau, he’s now helping out at Darling’s Used and Antiquarian, the bookshop Will inherited from his late uncle, but even though he’s turned out to be surprisingly suited to the work – organising the shop and acquiring some valuable collections – neither he nor Will is cut out for the quiet life, and both of them know it. But when Kim’s brother – and their father’s heir, Lord Chingford – is accused of murdering a fellow member of the Symposium Club, the peaceful life they’ve been building together is shattered. Could Chingford conceivably have done such a thing? Kim thinks so, yes. But did he? Chingford refuses point blank to offer any defence, believing that his station as the heir to a marquess means he’s untouchable and doesn’t have to explain his actions to anyone, even the police. Fighting against the current all the way, Kim and Will manage to find out that Chingford was heard having a blazing row with the victim earlier that day, and when Kim sees a small tattoo on the inside of the deceased’s wrist in the exact same place as those worn by the members of Zodiac, his blood runs cold. Could some of its members still be at large? And attempting to regroup?

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Sugared Game (Will Darling Adventures #2) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It’s been two months since Will Darling saw Kim Secretan, and he doesn’t expect to see him again. What do a rough and ready soldier-turned-bookseller and a disgraced, shady aristocrat have to do with each other anyway?

But when Will encounters a face from the past in a disreputable nightclub, Kim turns up, as shifty, unreliable, and irresistible as ever. And before Will knows it, he’s been dragged back into Kim’s shadowy world of secrets, criminal conspiracies, and underhand dealings.

This time, though, things are underhanded even by Kim standards. This time, the danger is too close to home. And if Will and Kim can’t find common ground against unseen enemies, they risk losing everything.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A

Note: The Sugared Game is a direct sequel to Slippery Creatures, which should be listened to first; there are overarching plotlines running through this series, and there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Book two in The Will Darling AdventuresThe Sugared Game picks up a few months after the events of Slippery Creatures, in which former soldier Will Darling and aristocratic spy Kim Secretan foiled a dastardly plot by a shady organisation known as Zodiac to gain information that could lead to the creation of a chemical weapon – and to also prevent its ending up in the hands of the War Office, antagonising both organisations along the way.

After things had died down, Will and Kim went to the pub a few times and spent another fantastic night together – and even though Will knows Kim is unreliable and untrustworthy, and that it’s the height of stupidity to hope, he’d started to think that maybe there was a chance that things between them might actually be going somewhere. Until Kim just disappeared without a word. Two months later, Will has not seen anything of Kim and he’s still angry; angry with Kim for being such a bastard, but angry at himself, too, for being so damn gullible as to think there could be anything between a man like him and a man like Kim other than a few drinks and a few fucks.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

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!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

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.

Audio

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!

The Vicar and the Rake (Society of Beasts #1) by Annabelle Green (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a young man, Sir Gabriel Winters left behind his status as a gentleman, turning his back on his secret desires and taking a self-imposed vow of celibacy. Now he’s a chaste, hardworking vicar, and his reputation is beyond reproach. But, try as he might, he’s never forgotten the man he once desired or the pain of being abandoned by his first love.

Edward Stanhope, the duke of Caddonfell, is a notorious rake, delighting in scandal no matter the consequence. With a price on his head, he flees to the countryside, forced to keep his presence a secret or risk assassination. When Edward finds Gabriel on his estate, burning with fever, he cannot leave him to die, but taking him in puts them both in jeopardy.

With the help of a notorious blackmailer, a society of rich and famous gentlemen who prefer gentlemen, and a kitten named Buttons, they might just manage to save Edward’s life – but the greatest threat may be to their hearts.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – D

I’m always on the lookout for new m/m historicals, and Carina Press, who published the print edition of début author Annabelle Greene’s The Vicar and the Rake, has a pretty good track record when it comes to LGBTQ+ romance. When I saw that Cornell Collins would be narrating this title, I decided to listen rather than read which, in one way was a good decision, because his polished, accomplished narration was absolutely the best thing about it. In another way? Not so much, as even his expertise couldn’t disguise what is essentially a weak story with poorly defined characters, no romantic tension or chemistry, plot points that made no sense and a completely ridiculous ending.

Okay, so a quick resumé of the plot, such as it is. Reverend Sir Gabriel Winters decided to give up a life of luxury for that of a country vicar when he was younger, and along with his holy orders, turned his back on his secret desires and took a self-imposed vow of celibacy – which basically amounts to “God, I know I’m gay but I vow never to act upon it.” Gabriel pretty much grew up with his best friend, Edward Stanhope, now the Duke of Caddonfell, a man so visibly, arrogantly, dangerously libertine that his nickname, whispered from one end of England to the other, was simply Scandal. And: The terror of every mother in the ton, not for their daughters, but for their sons. The most infamous sodomite in London.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Slippery Creatures (Will Darling Adventures #1) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic secondhand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else. Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan – charming, cultured, oddly attractive – steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger. And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again. But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides – and Kim is the only man who can help.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A

Note: This story contains mention of chemical weapons and deadly disease.

I always enjoy it when an author sets out to deliberately write a pastiche or homage to a particular type of book. It’s something that goes beyond employing specific tropes; it’s as much to do with evoking the style of writing and the era in which the story is set as it is with whichever elements of storytelling are involved, and there are few authors who can do this sort of thing as well as K.J. Charles. Her Sins of the Cities series is a fantastic homage to the three-volume Victorian sensationalist novel, while The Henchmen of Zenda is an energetic (and marvellously tongue-in-cheek) retelling of a classic that not only conjures up the spirit of the original but adds several layers to the level of characterisation and plot. Her latest series – The Will Darling Adventures – is a trilogy set shortly after the First World War written in the style of 1920s pulp fiction, featuring rip-roaring adventure, dastardly plots and evil masterminds pitted against tough, heroic types who triumph against the odds.

One of our heroic types here is Will Darling, a former soldier who returns from war to find a world that has moved on without him. Unable to find work – as was the case for so many of those who survived the carnage of 1914-18 – Will is close to destitution when he is taken in by his uncle (his namesake) who is the owner of Darling’s Rare and Antiquarian bookshop in London. The plan is to train Will to eventually take over the business, but just a couple of months later, Darling senior is dead and has left Will in possession of the shop and flat above.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Pansies (Spires Universe #4) by Alexis Hall (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Alfie Bell is . . . fine. He’s got a six-figure salary, a penthouse in Canary Wharf, the car he swore he’d buy when he was 18, and a bunch of fancy London friends.

It’s rough, though, going back to South Shields now that they all know he’s a fully paid-up pansy. It’s the last place he’s expecting to pull. But Fen’s gorgeous, with his pink-tipped hair and hipster glasses, full of the sort of courage Alfie’s never had. It should be a one-night thing, but Alfie hasn’t met anyone like Fen before.

Except he has. At school, when Alfie was everything he was supposed to be, and Fen was the stubborn little gay boy who wouldn’t keep his head down. And now it’s a proper mess: Fen might have slept with Alfie, but he’ll probably never forgive him, and Fen’s got all this other stuff going on anyway, with his mam and her flower shop and the life he left down south.

Alfie just wants to make it right. But how can he, when all they’ve got in common is the nowhere town they both ran away from.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A

I finished listening to Alexis Hall’s Pansies with a happy sigh and the biggest, sappiest smile on my face. I know several people who cite this as their favourite of Mr. Hall’s books, and now I can see why; it’s a funny, awkward, sexy, poignant and gorgeously romantic story featuring two wounded, lovely and lonely people that had me smiling one minute and tearing up the next – and sometimes both at once.

Alfie Bell left his home town of South Shields in the North East of England for a plum job in London, and now has a six-figure salary, a swanky penthouse apartment and the car of his dreams. He’s returned home for his best mate’s wedding, where he accidentally outs himself in quite the spectacular fashion at the reception. Deciding to make himself scarce for a bit, he drives to a local pub where he meets Fen, all lithe grace, pink-tipped hair and attitude … and is mesmerised. It’s not until after they’ve hooked up that Fen angrily tells Alfie that they went to school together, and not only that, Alfie bullied him and made his life a misery for years.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Any Old Diamonds (Lilywhite Boys #1) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary – so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.

The Duke’s remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: He’ll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec’s new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman’s most secret desires, and soon he’s got Alec in his bed – and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what’s between them…all without getting caught.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Any Old Diamonds is the first of two novels set in late Victorian England featuring a pair of jewel thieves known as the Lilywhite Boys, and in it, K.J. Charles relates a thoroughly entertaining story of murder, betrayal, revenge, intrigue… and love found in the unlikeliest of places.

Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes, younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, has supported himself for the past eight years, working – as plain Alec Pine – as an illustrator for books and newspapers. As the son of one of the wealthiest men in the country it’s far from the life he was born to, but he and his older brother and two sisters were cut off by their father following a massive falling out that had been brewing for years. After their mother’s death, the duke married – with indecent haste – the woman with whom he’d been having an affair, and when Alec and his siblings refused to kowtow to the new duchess as their father demanded, he disowned them.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Band Sinister by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumors about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister, Amanda, live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind – and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon, the rural rumor mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet – but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A

Another 2018 favourite lately come to audio, K.J. Charles’ Band Sinister is, quite simply, a total delight. The author made no secret of the fact that it’s an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, who practically invented the ‘modern’ Regency Romance single-handed, or that she employed a number of favourite tropes in terms of the characterisation and plot – and yet in spite of all that, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a K.J. Charles book, through and through. On the surface, it’s the story of the country innocent seduced by the wicked lord, but in reality, it’s so much more than that, conveying important ideas about the nature of love and friendship, social responsibility and the importance of being true to oneself and of living as one’s conscience dictates.

Guy and Amanda Frisby were born into the landed gentry but have come down in the world. When their mother ran off with her much younger lover, their father took to heavy gambling and heavy drinking and died leaving them with nothing but scandal to their name. When the story opens, Guy is reading – somewhat apprehensively – the gothic novel Amanda has written and sent to a publisher, and in which she has modelled her villains on their near-neighbour, Sir Philip Rookwood (whose older brother was the man with whom their mother ran away), and his close friend, the devilish Lord Corvin, a man with quite possibly the blackest reputation in England.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.