The Long Game (Game Changers #6) by Rachel Reid (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

the long game

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

To the world they are rivals, but to each other they are everything.

Ten years.

That’s how long Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been seeing each other. How long they’ve been keeping their relationship a secret. From friends, from family…from the league. If Shane wants to stay at the top of his game, what he and Ilya share has to remain secret. He loves Ilya, but what if going public ruins everything?

Ilya is sick of secrets. Shane has gotten so good at hiding his feelings, sometimes Ilya questions if they even exist. The closeness, the intimacy, even the risk that would come with being open about their relationship…Ilya wants it all.

It’s time for them to decide what’s most important—hockey or love.

It’s time to make a call.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

The Long Game, the sixth intstalment in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series of hockey romances is one of my most highly anticipated books of 2022 – and I’m delighted to say that not only did it meet all my expectations, it exceeded them. It’s the sequel to Heated Rivalry, the story that introduced us to top- flight players Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozunov who, despite their highly publicised reputation as intense rivals who hate each other’s guts, had in fact been carrying on a years-long affair in secret. By the end of that book, their relationship – which began as hook-ups when they were both in the same place at the same time – has evolved into a deep and abiding love, but they decide to continue to keep things under wraps for the foreseeable future – at least while they’re still playing hockey at the highest level. Coming out as queer is going to be difficult enough, but for two players whose professional rivalry is legendary to reveal that they’re in love with each other is going to need really careful handling when they decide to go public.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Long Game (Game Changers #6) by Rachel Reid

the long game

This title may be purchased from Amazon

To the world they are rivals, but to each other they are everything.

Ten years.

That’s how long Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been seeing each other. How long they’ve been keeping their relationship a secret. From friends, from family…from the league. If Shane wants to stay at the top of his game, what he and Ilya share  has;to remain secret. He loves Ilya, but what if going public ruins everything?

Ilya is sick of secrets. Shane has gotten so good at hiding his feelings, sometimes Ilya questions if they even exist. The closeness, the intimacy, even the risk that would come with being open about their relationship…Ilya wants it all.

It’s time for them to decide what’s most important—hockey or love.

It’s time to make a call.

Rating: A

Note: As this book is both a sequel and the finale to a long-running series, there will be spoilers for earlier books in this review.

Rachel Reid’s The Long Game is the final book in her Game Changers series of romances set in the world of professional hockey – and, most importantly, the long and eagerly awaited conclusion of the epic love story between Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov begun in the second book, Heated Rivalry.  If you, like me, are a fan, you’re going to need no encouragement from me to rush to buy this one as soon as it’s available, so I suppose what you really want to know is – does The Long Game deliver everything we’ve been waiting for?  I’m pleased to be able to give an unequivocal “yes” in answer; Rachel Reid has done herself, her readers and these two much loved characters proud with a story that brings Shane and Ilya’s romance to a wonderfully romantic and emotionally satisfying conclusion while not shying away from showing that their journey has been far from easy and their HEA is hard won.

Heated Rivalry charted the progression of the relationship between rival hockey stars Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov, whose on-the-ice animosity translated into an explosive sexual attraction off of it.  Over the course of seven years, their relationship slowly morphed from one based on mutual lust and convenience, hooking up whenever they happened to be in the same place at the same time, to one based on deep affection, understanding and love.  At the end of the book, Shane and Ilya have decided to keep their relationship under wraps for the moment; coming out as queer is going to be difficult enough given the homophobia surrounding professional sports, but for two players whose intense rivalry has become legendary to own up to being in a relationship with each other… well, that’s going to need some really careful handling when they decide to go public.  As a way of trying to show that their animosity isn’t quite as strong as the media paints it, they start a mental health charity in memory of – and named after – Ilya’s mother, who suffered from depression and took her own life when Ilya was just twelve, and together, they run summer hockey camps for kids as one method of fundraising.  This at least means they get to spend a bit of time together each summer away from the media spotlight, even if they can’t be open about what they are to each other quite yet.  Also, Ilya decided to move from the top-flight team he was playing for in Boston to the Ottawa Centaurs, the least successful team in the NHL, to be nearer to Shane’s base in Montreal so they’d be able to spend a little time together during the gruelling hockey season.

By the time The Long Game opens, Shane and Ilya have been together for almost ten years (if you count the ‘hook-up’ years) – and Ilya is finding the hiding and secrecy and the loneliness of long periods apart increasingly hard to manage.  He and Shane are as deeply in love and committed to each other as ever, but with Shane at the top of his game and playing for the best team in the league, Ilya is beginning to fear that perhaps they’re going to have to wait another ten years before they can truly begin making a life together.  After all, they’re only twenty-nine, and realistically could be looking at another decade before retirement.  That’s not to say that Shane likes the situation either, and it’s absolutely clear that he loves Ilya with all his heart, but he’s in a very different place, both professionally and personally, and is able to face the prospect of ten more years of sneaking around more easily than Ilya is.  Except of course, they don’t really talk about it much because during the hockey season they get so little time together that neither of them wants to ‘spoil’ those stolen moments by bringing up the huge elephant in the room.

I think it’s fair to say that Ilya Rozanov has probably become the series’ stand-out, most-beloved character, and while Heated Rivalry felt like it was (mostly) ‘Shane’s book’, The Long Game definitely feels like Ilya’s.  He’s larger-than-life, always ready with a snarky comeback and doesn’t much care what others think of him – he’s got a reputation as a bit of an arsehole, although those closest to him know he’s a truly good person underneath it all, that behind the smart mouth and sardonic attitude lies a man with a heart of gold who feels things very deeply.  He’s still the Ilya we know and love, but in this book, we get to see a much softer, more vulnerable side of him that we’ve only briefly glimpsed before, and it tugs at the heartstrings to watch him face up to the fact that he’s not doing so well, realising just how much he’s put into keeping the relationship going and wondering just how much he has left to give. Shane, too, is trying to do his best to balance the personal and the professional, but his fear of losing everything he’s worked so hard for blinds him to the toll the secrets and lies are taking on the man he loves.  In the end, both men will have to face some hard truths and make some serious adjustments if they’re going to make it in the long run.

If you’ve been following the series, then you’ll already know that the timeline of The Long Game overlaps somewhat with that of Role Model, so we get to see Ilya’s reaction to Troy’s arrival and a little of their developing friendship from Ilya’s PoV (and yes, The Plane Incident, too).  I also liked the way Ms. Reid contrasts the two teams – the Montreal Voyagers may be the best team in the league, but when it comes to management styles and interpersonal skills, they’re crap – dictatorial and overbearing –  while at Ottowa, the opposite is true; their manager is a decent guy who treats his players like human beings and fosters a sense of team spirit and camaraderie that, while it may not bring the big wins, nonetheless makes for a much more positive environment.

I don’t want to say much more and risk spoiling the book, so I’ll end by saying that the author does a wonderful job here with relationship and character development while also making sure that Shane and Ilya remain very much ‘them’ – Ilya, cocky yet endearing, Shane adorably modest and just a bit of a stickler – and in presenting the challenges they’re facing in a realistic way.  The Long Game is full of genuine poignancy and emotion – from the deepest love and affection to heartache, and everything in between – charming moments of domesticity, scorching sex scenes, and the humour, good-natured competitiveness and snarky banter we’ve all come to love.  It delivers everything I wanted for Shane and Ilya and more, and is an early contender for my Best of 2022 list.  Thanks, Rachel, for giving these boys the fantastic send-off they so richly deserve.

Role Model (Game Changers #5) by Rachel Reid (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

role model

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The hits just keep coming for Troy Barrett. Traded to the worst team in the league would be bad enough, but coming on the heels of a messy breakup and a recent scandal…Troy just wants to play hockey and be left alone. He doesn’t want to be in the news anymore, and he definitely doesn’t want to “work on his online presence” with the team’s peppy social media manager.

Harris Drover can tell standoffish Troy isn’t happy about the trade – anyone could tell, frankly, as he doesn’t exactly hide it well – but Harris doesn’t give up on people easily. Even when he’s developing a crush he’s sure is one-sided. And when he sees Troy’s smile finally crack through his grumpy exterior, well…that’s a man Harris couldn’t turn his back on if he wanted to.

Suddenly, Troy’s move to the new team feels like an opportunity – for Troy to embrace his true self, and for both men to surrender to their growing attraction. But indulging in each other behind closed doors is one thing, and for Troy, being in a public relationship with Harris will mean facing off with his fears, once and for all.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A

I loved Rachel Reid’s Role Model (book five in her Game Changers series) when I read it a few months back, and I loved it just as much in audio. It’s a lovely grumpy/sunshine romance combined with a wonderfully well-written redemption story that takes a really hard, unflattering look at the misogyny and homophobia that continue to exist in some professional sports – and potential listeners should be aware that the book includes a storyline surrounding sexual assault (none of it is on the page) in which victims are not believed and their experiences are trivialised.

Troy Barrett has suddenly gone from playing for the best hockey team in the NHL – the Toronto Guardians – to the worst – the Ottawa Centaurs – after a trade following a very public argument on the ice with his former best friend, Dallas Kent. After being dumped by his equally closeted actor boyfriend, Troy’s day went from bad to worse when he learned Kent had been accused of raping a woman at a party, but that instead of suspending him pending investigation by the team and the league, they were instead closing ranks around Kent and dismissing the allegations as pure fabrication. Knowing Kent to be completely capable of sexual assault, Troy absolutely believes the accusations and is angry at himself for not doing something to stop him. (Although what he could actually have done is anybody’s guess.) Hurt, furious and disgusted, Troy loses it during practice and openly calls Kent a rapist; the fight was caught on camera and the video very quickly went viral.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Role Model (Game Changers #5) by Rachel Reid

role model

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The hits just keep coming for Troy Barrett. Traded to the worst team in the league would be bad enough, but coming on the heels of a messy breakup and a recent scandal… Troy just wants to play hockey and be left alone. He doesn’t want to be in the news anymore, and he definitely doesn’t want to “work on his online presence” with the team’s peppy social media manager.

Harris Drover can tell standoffish Troy isn’t happy about the trade—anyone could tell, frankly, as he doesn’t exactly hide it well—but Harris doesn’t give up on people easily. Even when he’s developing a crush he’s sure is one-sided. And when he sees Troy’s smile finally crack through his grumpy exterior, well… That’s a man Harris couldn’t turn his back on if he wanted to.

Suddenly, Troy’s move to the new team feels like an opportunity—for Troy to embrace his true self, and for both men to surrender to their growing attraction. But indulging in each other behind closed doors is one thing, and for Troy, being in a public relationship with Harris will mean facing off with his fears, once and for all.

Rating: A

This fifth book in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series is a fantastic read and has immediately gone onto both my keeper shelf and my list of series favourites (alongside Heated Rivalry and Common Goal).  At the heart of Role Model lies a gorgeous, sweet and sexy opposites-attract romance, but the story also incorporates some serious issues as well as a coming out story and a redemption arc for a character we’ve met in previous books in the series and have come to solidly dislike.

Readers will recall Troy Barrett of the Toronto Guardians as the dickish friend/wingman/teammate of loudly opinionated sexist, racist, homophobic arsehole Dallas Kent.  The pair of them were total shits to Scott Hunter (Game Changer) and then made it their mission to make Ryan Price (Tough Guy) miserable with their continual bullying, insults and all-round obnoxious bigotry.  But when Role Model opens, that double-act has been broken up, because Troy has been traded to the Ottowa Centaurs – the “worst hockey team in the NHL” – following a very public bust up with Kent on the ice.  At the time, Troy had just learned that a woman had accused Kent of raping her at a party – and that instead of taking the accusations seriously and investigating them, the league, team management and many of his teammates have closed ranks, determined to protect Kent and ridicule his accuser.  Sickened that he’d ever called the man a friend and hating himself for not doing something to stop him, Troy calls him out in the middle of a practice session, the video goes viral… and it’s the end of his top-flight hockey career with the Guardians.

Troy’s trade/punishment comes hot on the heels of a recent-breakup (his equally closeted actor boyfriend dumped him for someone else) so he’s not exactly Mr. Happy-Clappy when he arrives in Ottowa.  He’s thrown, too, by the completely different atmosphere there; the team members  actually get along and even seem to like each other and the coaching style is completely different to what he’s been used to at Toronto (rather than being yelled at, the players are treated like human beings and encouraged).  He doesn’t understand how his teammates can be so upbeat while losing games so often, and he really doesn’t know how to handle the positivity and camaraderie, so he keeps his distance – all he wants to do is play hockey and lick his wounds in private.  But fortunately for Troy – and us – his larger-than-life team captain Ilya Rozanov isn’t about to let him stew in misery, and the pull of the team’s garrulous, sunny-natured (and total sweetheart) social media manager Harris Drover proves just too hard to resist.

I love a good redemption story and this is an extremely good one.  There has been the odd glimpse before this that there might be a decent man behind the toxic, bullshit behaviour Troy indulged in, and his gradual transformation from the bigoted, stereotypically aggressive jock of the past to the Role Model of the title is completely believable and superbly done.  It’s clear from the start that his outward homophobia was a way of hiding his own sexuality and that his friendship with a man who, for all his popularity, embodied all the worst qualities of professional sport, was a way of satisfying a powerful need to belong that began in childhood thanks to an arsehole dad who came from the same mould.  I was completely won over by Troy’s determination to address the mistakes he’s made and become a better person, and by the journey he takes in order to get there.

Part of that journey towards self-improvement and self-acceptance is his romance with Harris, who is both his complete opposite and his true soulmate.  Harris comes from a loving family and has lived in Ottowa all his life; he’s out and proud, he’s determined to make the most of what life offers and he’s an eternal optimist who is happiest when those around him are happy.  To start with, Troy can’t wrap his head around the fact that his teammates have absolutely no problem with Harris being gay, and he’s completely baffled by this person who is always so cheerful – but somehow Troy finds himself craving the other man’s company, even if it’s just sitting quietly in his office while Harris gets on with whatever he’s working on.  Harris realises that Troy is lonely and could really use a friend, so he sets out to be that friend and make him feel welcome, helping to draw Troy into the friendship and support the guys offer to each other and slowly enabling Troy to start to come out of his shell and realise that he’s someone worth knowing and worth loving.  They have chemistry by the bucketload and their romance is sweet and sexy and swoonworthy.  Best of all, these are two people who are good for one another and bring out the best in each other.

There’s a terrific ensemble cast including Troy’s new teammates and coach, cameo appearances from Eric, Kyle, Ryan and Kip – and last but certainly not least, a fabulous showing by the snarky, perceptive Ilya Rozanov, who continues to steal pretty much every scene he’s in while offering up small gems of wisdom and quite a few of the book’s biggest laughs.  As fans of the series breathlessly await the conclusion of Ilya and Shane’s story next year, Ilya’s important secondary role here is a lovely and unexpected gift, and I loved the more mature, thoughtful side of him we get to see in this book.

I also loved the lack of manufactured drama in this story.  There’s no Big Mis or dumb third-act break-up; instead we get more of Troy’s journey of self-discovery as he truly comes into his own, more of Troy and Harris being perfect for each other and an incredible, tear-jerking moment of triumph and acceptance that is worth All The Sighs.

Rachel Reid’s depiction of the toxic culture that continues to be deeply engrained in certain professional sports is, sadly, all too believable, with sexual assault victims openly disbelieved and ridiculed on social media, and Troy bearing the brunt of the fans’ displeasure and risking censure by the NHL for using his celebrity status to give a voice to those who are being shouted down.  It’s heavy subject matter, and I applaud the author’s decision to include it, which she does very skilfully, integrating the plotline carefully into the story while not allowing it to overwhelm it.

Boasting two engaging leads, a lovely sunshine/grumpy romance, a superbly crafted redemption story, lots of warmth and humour (and a cute dog!)  Role Model is another fantastic entry in the Game Changers series, and I’m happy to recommend it.

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!

Common Goal (Game Changers #4) by Rachel Reid

This title may be purchased from Amazon

New York Admirals goalie Eric never thought his friends-with-benefits arrangement with much-younger Kyle would leave them both wanting more…

Veteran goaltender Eric Bennett has faced down some of the toughest shooters on the ice, but nothing prepared him for his latest challenge—life after hockey. It’s time to make some big changes, starting with finally dating men for the first time.

Graduate student Kyle Swift moved to New York nursing a broken heart. He’d sworn to find someone his own age to crush on (for once). Until he meets a gorgeous, distinguished silver fox hockey player. Despite their intense physical attraction, Kyle has no intention of getting emotionally involved. He’ll teach Eric a few tricks, have some mutually consensual fun, then walk away.

Eric is more than happy to learn anything Kyle brings to the table. And Kyle never expected their friends-with-benefits arrangement to leave him wanting more. Happily-ever-after might be staring them in the face, but it won’t happen if they’re too stubborn to come clean about their feelings.

Everything they both want is within reach… They just have to be brave enough to grab it.

Rating: A-

Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series of hockey romances continues with Common Goal, the fourth book in the set and easily one of the best.  It’s a gorgeous May/December romance between a silver-fox goalie close to retirement, and a bartender sixteen years his junior; it’s tender, funny, emotional and hot as hell – and don’t be surprised if it makes an appearance on my Best of 2020 list.  I loved it.

New York Admirals Goalkeeper Eric Bennett is approaching his forty-first birthday and has reached the decision that this season will be his last.  He’s in good shape and still playing well, but the career of a professional athlete is tough on the body and Eric wants to quit while he’s ahead and walk away while he can still walk!  The trouble is that he doesn’t have much of an idea as to where he wants to go from here, and in addition to that, he’s struggling with being newly single following his divorce a year earlier from his wife of sixteen years, and with his sexual identity.  He’s always known he’s attracted to men as well as women but had chosen to ignore that side of himself; he’d been happily married and had no reason to think about it.  But now, with high-profile players like team captain Scott Hunter (Game Changer) openly out and proud and about to marry his fiancé, and other athletes being open about their sexuality, Eric is re-examining his choices. Facing a huge life change in terms of his career – and a lonely retirement – maybe it’s time to make another change and finally start to live as his truest self.  But he’s been out of the dating game for such a long time, he isn’t sure how to go about dating anyone, let alone dating a man for the first time.

Grad student Kyle Swift is twenty-five and works as a bartender at The Kingfisher, a local gay bar that has grown in popularity since Scott Hunter started frequenting it.  Kyle came to New York following an experience with an older, married man that left him badly burned and continues to haunt him, even seven years later. After that, he vowed to steer clear of older men, but they do it for him in a way most younger men don’t – and although he’s noticed Eric the few times he’s been into the bar with Scott, Kyle reminds himself that while Eric is exactly his type, he’s also exactly the type of man he shouldn’t allow himself to fall for any more.

On the night of Scott and Kip’s engagement party, Kyle’s resolve is tested when Eric actually initiates a conversation with him.  The older man’s confidence is hard to resist, especially when it seems as though Eric might actually be flirting with him, and they chat for a while, discovering a mutual love of art and books and travel.  By the end of the evening, Kyle is cursing a universe that has thrown this gorgeous, perfect and completely off limits man into his path, and Eric is wondering just how much of a mid-life crisis stereotype he’s become by even contemplating dating a man so much younger than he is.

What follows is a sexy, slow-burn romance (with an emphasis on the ‘burn’ because – phew! *fans self*) which starts out as Kyle offering to teach Eric a few things in a safe, non-judgmental way about the world of dating (and having “sexy times” with) men, but which ends up becoming so much more than ‘just’ a physical relationship. In fact, it’s clear to the reader very early on that there’s no ‘just’ about it when it comes to these two; they’re a perfect match on every level – intellectually and physically – but although they’re generally honest with each other, they’re both struggling with baggage and preconceptions that make it difficult for them to open up about how they really feel.

Both characters are genuine, good people who are extremely likeable and very well-drawn, and the chemistry between them is electric.  Eric is – it seems to me – a pretty atypical sportsman hero; he’s got a degree in English from Harvard, he’s a connoisseur of fine art, and he’s well-travelled; I liked that he was so keen to fully embrace his bisexuality and really appreciated his quietly introspective manner and self-awareness.  He knows that what he’s really looking for is companionship and someone to share his life with; not that the hot sex he’s having with Kyle isn’t all sorts of amazing, but Eric has never been one for casual sex.  He wants more than that, but is concerned that his being so much older than Kyle is somehow unfair to him, thinking that Kyle really should be with someone closer to his own age.  He’s also worried on his own account – a recent divorcé dating a pretty young thing is going to make him look like the worst kind of dirty old man.

The age-gap isn’t so much of an issue for Kyle; he has a history of falling for the wrong men, usually older men who only see him as a fun time, and part of him thinks he’s not good enough for a sophisticated, cultured man like Eric.  His outgoing nature is the perfect counterpoint to Eric’s more cautious one, and the author does a great job of developing their relationship out of the bedroom – where they clearly have a lot in common and enjoy each other’s company as equals –  as well as in it – where Kyle takes the lead and Eric is only too happy to let him. But Kyle’s doubts are as difficult to overcome as Eric’s, and unless one of them can find the courage to risk laying his heart on the line, they might end up missing out on the best thing ever to happen to either of them.

If I have a complaint about Common Goal, it’s that perhaps the age-gap hand-wringing goes on a little too long, and the lack of communication that piled up was frustrating, but in the end, they were only minor irritants.  Reader favourites Ilya and Shane make cameo appearances – mostly Ilya who, of course, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, with his wicked sense of humour and arseholic-but-impossible-to-dislike personality – and we also get to see Scott and Kip finally tie the knot.  Rachel Reid’s writing is accomplished and direct, the dialogue is sharp, and the sex scenes, besides being superbly written, are integral to the character and relationship development rather than being there for the sake of it.  If you’re following the Game Changers series then you definitely won’t want to miss Common Goal; it’s warm and tender and charming (and, did I mention hella sexy?) and I finished it with a happy sigh and a fond smile on my face.  Definitely one for the keeper shelf.

Tough Guy (Game Changers #3) by Rachel Reid


This title may be purchased from Amazon

They have nothing in common—so why does Ryan feel most like himself whenever he’s with Fabian?

Pro hockey star Ryan Price may be an enforcer, but off the ice he struggles with anxiety. Recently traded to the Toronto Guardians, he’s determined to make a fresh start in the city’s dynamic LGBTQ Village. The last thing he expects to stumble upon in his new neighborhood is a blast from his past in the fabulous form of Fabian Salah.

Aspiring musician Fabian loathes hockey. But that doesn’t stop him from being attracted to a certain burly, ginger-bearded defenseman. He hasn’t forgotten the kiss they almost shared back in high school, and it’s clear the chemistry between them has only intensified.

Fabian is more than happy to be Ryan’s guide to the gay scene in Toronto. Between dance clubs and art exhibits—and the most amazing sex—Ryan’s starting to feel something he hasn’t experienced in a long time: joy. But playing the role of the heavy on the ice has taken its toll on his body and mind, and a future with Fabian may mean hanging up his skates for good.

Rating: B

Tough Guy is book three in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series, set in the world of professional hockey. While I wasn’t as utterly caught up in the romance here as I was in the previous book (Heated Rivalry – which made my Best of 2019 list), I nonetheless enjoyed the novel, and appreciated the way the author flips the stereotype of the confident, ripped jock so often found in sports romances (both m/f and m/m) and creates instead an endearing, gentle-giant-type character with severe self-esteem issues who struggles to reconcile the person he truly is with the one he’s expected to be on the ice.

At six-feet-seven inches, with a build like a bulldozer, Ryan Price knows how to intimidate.  On the ice, he’s an enforcer, someone other players actually aspire to fight with – especially rookies, for whom “paying the Price” is something of a rite of passage.  But it’s an image and a job that Ryan wrestles with, and which has been weighing down on him more and more as the years have passed, because that’s not who he is at all.  When the story begins, Ryan has just been traded – yet again – this time to the Toronto Guardians, and is being urged – ordered, really – by his coach to be more of a team player both on and off the ice, and unsubtly quizzed about his mental health.  Anxiety, self-esteem issues and finding social situations hard to deal with mean Ryan has always found it difficult to connect personally and professionally, and a well-publicised “freak out” the previous season (a panic attack) has made him even more self-conscious. This is the ninth team Ryan has played for in almost as many years; he’s never played anywhere long enough to put down roots or make any real friends, but this time he’s determined to change that, and finds himself an apartment in the vibrant, LGBTQ part of town.  Ryan is openly – albeit quietly – gay but that’s never been an issue, partly, he suspects, because he’s moved too often for anyone to really notice or care, and with a few other players – notably Scott Hunter (Game Changer) – coming out recently, it hasn’t seemed necessary to hide it. Sex hasn’t often been a positive experience for him; he  hasn’t had many partners, and those he has had haven’t really been interested in him as a person, or been able to see past his size or their own preconceptions of what he should like and want.  He’s lonely, the medication he’s on is screwing up his libido and… it sucks.

When Ryan enters  a local pharmacy in order to get a prescription filled, he’s surprised to see Fabian Salah working there.  When Ryan was seventeen, he’d been billeted with the Salahs, a Lebanese family who lived and breathed hockey and whose daughter was a rising hockey star, but whose son, a hugely talented musician, seemed hardly to merit their notice.  Even then, Ryan thought Fabian was beautiful and had a mad crush on him – which he suppressed, having quickly learned that Fabian despised everything to do with hockey.  Over the year Ryan lived with Salahs, Fabian’s attitude changed and they became friends, but they haven’t seen each other since Ryan made the NHL.

Fabian is Ryan’s complete opposite in just about every way.  Femme, confident and extrovert, he’s amazingly talented, completely adorable and has zero fucks to give about what others think or say about him. Plus he has the most fabulous group of friends I’ve read about in quite some time.  Fabian had quite the crush on Ryan back in the day (but thought he was straight,) and seeing him again brings back a lot of that old fascination and attraction.  Fabian isn’t pushy, but he does need to nudge Ryan out of his comfort zone a little to start with, and before long, they’re seeing each other regularly and fast moving toward couple-dom, helped considerably by Fabian’s ability to understand Ryan’s fears and anxieties and treat them as part of him and not something to be ashamed of or weird.

Tough Guy is a very different book to its predecessor, and anyone coming to it expecting more of the same may need to adjust those expectations.  It’s what I’d call a ‘quiet’ book in general; the romance evolves naturally and realistically, and the drama is mostly supplied by Ryan’s growing conviction that he’s not happy in his chosen career and his struggles to deal with his self-esteem issues and see himself as someone worthy of someone as vibrant and sexy as Fabian.  Ms. Reid handles Ryan’s anxiety issues very sensitively and never over – or under – plays them, and I appreciated her decision to write a main character who is experiencing sexual difficulties and isn’t always raring to go at the drop of a hat, something not often explored in romance novels.

I loved Fabian’s confidence and easy charm, although I was less than impressed with his actions towards the end, which actually felt like a deliberately contrived way of injecting some last minute tension into the story.  Fortunately, things are resolved quickly, but that short section felt like an insert rather than an organically evolved part of the story, and I had to knock the final grade down a bit as a result.

Following a book as good – and well-loved – as Heated Rivalry was always going to be tricky, but the author’s decision to do something completely different was a good one.  Tough Guy is a sweet, sensual and charming romance, and if you like opposites attract, gentle ginger giants and/or second-chance romances, then I’d urge you to give it a try.

My 2019 in Books & Audio

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!)

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

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 also enjoyed a few historical mysteries; Sherry Thomas (The Art of Theft), Andrea Penrose (Murder at Kensington Palace) and Anna Lee Huber (Penny for Your Secrets) released new instalments in their current series and Cat Sebastian (Hither, Page) began a new one set in an English village post WW2 that combined a cozy mystery with a simply lovely romance.

Audio

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!

Heated Rivalry (Game Changers #2) by Rachel Reid

heated rivalry

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Nothing interferes with Shane Hollander’s game—definitely not the sexy rival he loves to hate.

Pro hockey star Shane Hollander isn’t just crazy talented, he’s got a spotless reputation. Hockey is his life. Now that he’s captain of the Montreal Voyageurs, he won’t let anything jeopardize that, especially the sexy Russian whose hard body keeps him awake at night.

Boston Bears captain Ilya Rozanov is everything Shane’s not. The self-proclaimed king of the ice, he’s as cocky as he is talented. No one can beat him—except Shane. They’ve made a career on their legendary rivalry, but when the skates come off, the heat between them is undeniable. When Ilya realizes he wants more than a few secret hookups, he knows he must walk away. The risk is too great.

As their attraction intensifies, they struggle to keep their relationship out of the public eye. If the truth comes out, it could ruin them both. But when their need for each other rivals their ambition on the ice, secrecy is no longer an option…

Rating: B+

Heated Rivalry is the second book in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series set in the world of professional hockey. I haven’t read book one (Game Changer), but although characters from that book are mentioned in this one, it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Heated Rivalry is a kind-of-but-not-quite enemies-to-lovers story that takes place across the span of almost a decade as we follow the development of the relationship between two players from opposing teams. There are a few things about the novel that require the reader to suspend their disbelief a bit, but on the whole, this is a steamy and sometimes poignant love story that boasts a pair of engaging protagonists and plenty of snark.

In the prologue, we meet Shane Hollander, captain of the Montreal Voyageurs, as he faces off against Ilya Rozanov, his opposite number for the Voyageurs’ arch-rivals, the Boston Bears.  The on-and-off-the-ice rivalry between the two men has been ruthlessly stoked and fed by the media since before their rookie seasons years earlier; pitting the good-looking, easy-going, boy-next-door Shane against the big, brooding, ill-mannered Russian was like manna from heaven to media and fans alike, but while there’s no doubt that Rozanov can play dirty and deserves his reputation as the most hated man in Montreal, there’s more to their rivalry that meets the eye.  A lot more.

After the game that night, Shane heads off to the condo he owns but doesn’t live in for one of the intense but infrequent – hook-ups he’s had over the years with … you guessed it, Ilya Rozanov.  The explosive chemistry that ignited between them when they first met has never abated, and even though Shane knows it’s stupid and what’s at stake for both of them if they get caught; even though he’s angry at himself for continuing to crave Rozanov’s body, and even though he tells himself every time that this is the last time – he can’t stop.

We then jump back seven years to witness Shane and Rozanov’s first meeting at the World Junior Hockey Championships, then follow them into their first season with the NHL when they’re signed up by two rival teams  who play each other regularly and often end up competing for championships.  Even before that, each of them recognises in the other a serious opponent, possibly the only other player who can match them completely on the ice – and each is determined to get the better of his rival.  But neither of them had bargained for the intensity of the desire that ignites unexpectedly between them or the almost addictive need they feel for one another.  Over the next few years, they continue to meet up to fuck each other’s brains out when their schedules allow, even as both of them continue to berate themselves for letting this… whatever it is, go on for so long.

The first part of the book tells the story leading up to the hook-up in the prologue, and the second  picks up after it.  Shane and Ilya have been captains of their respective teams for a while and are widely respected within the sport – even if, in Rozanov’s case, not popular.  They’ve been hooking-up all this time without getting caught (which was one of my problems with the book – seven years of sneaking off to bang in secret – sometimes at the same hotel as their teams! – and nobody ever suspected or caught them out?) and they’re still telling themselves they need to quit it and find themselves a real relationship.  But it’s becoming harder and harder to do that, or imagine never seeing each other – other than as casual acquaintances – ever again.  Things between them are shifting; they try to tell themselves that all they’ve been doing for the last seven years is fucking, but emotions have somehow become involved without either of them wanting or realising it – and now they’ve finally woken up to what’s happened, how can they possibly carry on as they have been knowing the other most likely doesn’t feel the same way?

I liked both leads, although Rozanov is a bit of a dick at times.  He’s outrageously cocky and confidently bisexual – although of course, given the widespread homophobia in the world of professional sports, nobody other than the rare guys he hooks up with has any idea he shags men as well as women.  There’s also the fact that being openly queer in Russia could land him in prison, so he’s used to having to keep that side of him suppressed. By contrast, Shane is quieter and not as experienced sexually, and when he and Rozanov first meet, is only just starting to question his sexuality.  He sleeps with women, but over the years he realises that they don’t really do it for him and never have – certainly not in the way he’s coming to recognise that guys do. The author shows Shane and Ilya’s feelings for each other changing and growing in a subtle way; they still push each other’s buttons but there’s more affection and teasing behind it, and the moment when they just hang out together watching TV for the first time is nicely understated given it’s such a huge step for them.  I really liked the way we’re shown these two each giving the other something they’ve never found elsewhere.  Ilya has always had to hide part of himself and has built emotional walls to protect himself from the hurt heaped on him by his family (his father criticises him constantly, his brother only ever wants his money), but Shane shows him it’s okay to be vulnerable and let someone in, while Ilya helps Shane to uncover a different side of himself and gives him a space where he can truly be the person he’s meant to be.

While the overall tone of the story is fairly light, there are darker elements, mostly to do with Ilya and his family, and ultimately, both men have to make some difficult decisions if they want to be together openly.  This is one of the other things I had a bit of a problem with; not only do Shane and Ilya have to worry about coming out, but they also have to contend with the fact that they’re supposed to hate each other, a story that’s largely a media construct.  I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t just announce that they were friends and take control of the narrative whenever they wanted to, rather than the plan they come up with which means they have to continue living apart and concealing their status as a couple.  Still, the book ends on a very firm HFN, and left me hopeful for their future (maybe we’ll see them again in a future book in the series).

Heated Rivalry is a fun, steamy read, and I had a great time with it. I liked the characters, the structure really worked for me, the banter is great, the sex is hot, and when the romance kicks into gear, it’s charming and lovely.