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!

Invitation to the Blues (Small Change #2) by Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Eight months ago Jude Lucen fled his partner, his career, and a hospital in Boston after a suicide attempt. Now back in Philadelphia, he feels like a complete failure. Piano has always been his passion and his only escape. Without it, he has nothing. Well, nothing except a pathetic crush on the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Faron Locklear came to Philly looking for a fresh start and has thrown himself into tattooing at Small Change. He’s only met Jude a few times, but something about the red-haired man with the haunted eyes calls to him. Faron is blown away by Jude’s talent. What he isn’t expecting is the electricity he feels the first time they kiss – and the way Jude’s needs in bed speak directly to his own deepest desires.

Jude and Faron fall fast and hard, but Jude has spent a lifetime learning that he can’t be what the people he loves need. So when the opportunity arises to renew his career in Boston, he thinks he has to choose: music, or Faron? Only by taking a huge risk – and finally believing he’s worthy of love just as he is – can he have the chance for both.

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: B+

I suppose it was a given that a book written by Roan Parrish and narrated by Greg Boudreaux was going to hit me squarely in the feels; the author’s beautiful, lyrical writing combined with the narrator’s ability to zero in on and convey every single bit of emotion in that writing is a match made in audiobook heaven. Invitation to the Blues is a gentle and moving love story featuring a musician living with depression and the artist whose love and understanding makes a huge difference in his life. It’s the second book in the author’s Small Change series, but although characters from the first book appear in this one, Invitation to the Blues works perfectly well as a standalone.

Following a suicide attempt, Jude Lucens simply up and left his manipulative boyfriend and his life as a successful musician in Boston to return to his home town in Philadelphia, feeling like a complete failure and unsure what happens next. He’s moved into his brother’s apartment (Chris has moved in with his girlfriend, Ginger – their story can be found in the previous book, Small Change) and has taken a job for which he’s extremely ill-suited at the coffee shop Chris owns. Knowing things aren’t going well, Jude needs to find other work, but the question is what? Music and playing the piano are his life and all he really knows how to do, so he decides to see if he can find work as a piano teacher.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Rend (Riven #2) by Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After a whirlwind romance, a man with a painful past learns to trust the musician who makes him believe in happy endings.

Matt Argento knows what it feels like to be alone. After a childhood of abandonment, he never imagined someone might love him – much less someone like Rhys Nyland, who has the voice of an angel, the looks of a god, and the worship of his fans.

Matt and Rhys come from different worlds, but when they meet, their chemistry is incendiary. Their romance is unexpected, intense, and forever – at least, that’s what their vows promise. Suddenly, Matt finds himself living a life he never thought possible: safe and secure in the arms of a man who feels like home. But when Rhys leaves to go on tour for his new album, Matt finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his past.

When Rhys returns, he finds Matt twisted by doubt. But Rhys loves Matt fiercely, and he’ll go to hell and back to triumph over Matt’s fears. After secrets are revealed and desires are confessed, Rhys and Matt must learn to trust each other if they’re going to make it. That means they have to fall in love all over again – and this time, it really will be forever.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Rend isn’t an easy book to read or listen to, but it’s one that well repays the time spent with it. It’s the tale of a marriage on the edge of collapse and a troubled young man who is dealing with some very real, very deep emotional issues – and I came away from it having experienced laughter and tears, moments of joy, moments of pain and everything in between. When an author can do that simply through the arrangement of words on a printed page… it’s powerful stuff. And when you then take those words and give them to a narrator of the calibre of Greg Boudreaux – who I knew would nail, absolutely and perfectly, every single emotion behind them – there was never a doubt that I was going to be reduced to a pile of emotional rubble by the end.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Riven (Riven #1) by Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma and Chris Chambers

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Theo Decker might be the lead singer of Riven, but he hates being a rock star. The paparazzi, the endless tours, being recognized everywhere he goes – it all makes him squirm. The only thing he doesn’t hate is the music. Feeling an audience’s energy as they lose themselves in Riven’s music is a rush unlike anything else…until he meets Caleb Blake Whitman. Caleb is rough and damaged, yet his fingers on his guitar are pure poetry. And his hands on Theo? They’re all he can think about. But Caleb’s no groupie – and one night with him won’t be enough.

Just when Caleb is accepting his new life as a loner, Theo Decker slinks into it and turns his world upside down. Theo’s sexy and brilliant and addictively vulnerable, and all Caleb wants is another hit. And another. That’s how he knows Theo’s trouble. Caleb can’t even handle performing these days. How the hell is he going to survive an affair with a tabloid superstar? But after Caleb sees the man behind the rock star, he begins to wonder if Theo might be his chance at a future he thought he’d lost forever.

Rating: Narration – B+/B- : Content – B

I picked up Riven mostly because I’d recently read and loved its follow up, Rend, but also because I’d so enjoyed Iggy Toma’s performance in Heart of the Steal, which Ms. Parrish co-authored with Avon Gale, and was keen to listen to more of his work. Riven is a poignant, beautifully written story about two men drawn together by their love of music; and the way the author writes about music and how it works and what it means to both characters is vividly descriptive. The prose is often lyrical – very appropriately so given the subject matter – and while on the surface this might seem like a fairly simple love story, the themes running through it are anything but, as one character battles addiction and the other must leave behind a past filled with indifference and rejection and learn to live for himself if he’s to find true happiness.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Heart of the Steal by Avon Gale and Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves and Iggy Toma

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Responsible, disciplined William Fox channeled his love for art and his faith in the rules into being an FBI Art Crimes agent. Right and wrong, justice and injustice – the differences are clear, and Will has spent his career drawing a line between them. Maybe his convictions have cost him relationships, but he’s not willing to compromise what he knows is right. Until the night he meets Amory Vaughn.

As the head of his family’s philanthropic foundation, Vaughn knows very well that being rich and powerful can get him almost anything he wants. And when he meets endearingly grumpy and slightly awkward William Fox, he wants him more than he’s wanted anything. Vaughn is used to being desired for his name and his money, but Will doesn’t care about either.

When Vaughn falls back on old habits and attempts to impress Will by stealing a painting Will admires, their nascent bond blows up in his face. But Vaughn isn’t willing to give up on the glimpse of passion he saw the night he took Will apart. Before Will knows it, he’s falling for the man he should have arrested, and Vaughn has to realize that some things can’t be bought or stolen. Love has to be given freely. But can a man who lives by the rules, and a man who thinks the rules don’t apply to him, ever see eye to eye?

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B

Heart of the Steal is the first (and so far, only) collaboration between popular m/m romance authors Avon Gale and Roan Parrish. I confess that I haven’t yet read or listened to anything by either author, but this sounded interesting, and when it popped up at Audible with the names of two experienced narrators attached, I decided to give it a whirl. The synopsis led me to think the story would be some sort of light-hearted cat-and-mouse caper featuring a billionaire philanthropist who succumbs to the occasional instance of light fingers, and a starchy FBI art crimes specialist. But while that dichotomy is the catalyst for the romance, the bulk of the novel consists basically of a well-put together love story between opposites, two men from very different worlds and social backgrounds who struggle to work out how – and even if – they can fit into each other’s lives. Maybe if I’d read the book I might have been a little disappointed, but Kirt Graves and Iggy Toma deliver such fabulously engaging performances that I was happy to just go with the flow and let them take me wherever they – and the story – wanted me to go!

Will Fox isn’t exactly overjoyed at being dragged to a party by his twin sister, Charlotte. It’s the end of a long week, he’s tired, and making small talk with the super-rich isn’t his idea of a fun evening, but Charlotte’s event planning company has catered the party so he goes along to support her. Part way through the evening, she points out new arrival Amory Vaughn, one of the wealthiest men in the country and head of the Vaughn Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that administers and contributes to a number of charities. Vaughn is gorgeous – striking, well-dressed, urbanely charming, with a southern drawl that was pure old money – and Will can’t take his eyes off him, embarrassed when he’s caught staring and completely unable to return the flirtatious wink Vaughn sends his way. When Vaughn starts making his way towards him, Will bolts; he’s terrible at flirting and has no wish to make an idiot of himself, so he heads downstairs to take in the host’s art collection – but isn’t alone for long. Vaughn makes clear his interest very quickly, and Will is helpless to resist the pull of the attraction that’s been zinging between them ever since they made eye-contact. It’s the hottest sexual encounter of his life – and likely to be the only one they’ll ever share.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Rend (Riven #2) by Roan Parrish

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Matt Argento knows what it feels like to be alone. After a childhood of abandonment, he never imagined someone might love him—much less someone like Rhys Nyland, who has the voice of an angel, the looks of a god, and the worship of his fans.

Matt and Rhys come from different worlds, but when they meet, their chemistry is incendiary. Their romance is unexpected, intense, and forever—at least, that’s what their vows promise. Suddenly, Matt finds himself living a life he never thought possible: safe and secure in the arms of a man who feels like home. But when Rhys leaves to go on tour for his new album, Matt finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his past.

When Rhys returns, he finds Matt twisted by doubt. But Rhys loves Matt fiercely, and he’ll go to hell and back to triumph over Matt’s fears. After secrets are revealed and desires are confessed, Rhys and Matt must learn to trust each other if they’re going to make it. That means they have to fall in love all over again—and this time, it really will be forever.

Rating: B+

I haven’t (yet) read Riven, the book that preceded Rend, but I gather than Rhys Nyland was introduced there as a secondary character who was very much in love and happily married.  Rend turns the lens in the opposite direction, focusing on Rhys and his husband Matt, telling the story of how they met and giving readers a glimpse into their lives for the eighteen months since then up until the time when Rhys – a musician, singer and songwriter – goes on tour… and Matt slowly begins to fall apart.

The author pulled me in immediately with the prologue, in which Matt, who is clearly a troubled young man, has gone into a bar hoping to get picked up for the night – to avoid sleeping on the lumpy sofa in the crowded apartment he shares as much as for the sex.  When a large, blond and really handsome guy plonks down next to him, Matt is completely on board with the idea of going home with him – but that’s not what happens.  Instead, the man – who introduces himself as Rhys – takes Matt to a diner and orders a mountain of food which they tuck into while they talk.  At the end of the night, both men have established a surprisingly intense connection and they exchange a passionate kiss, but that’s it – and it’s how things go between them for the next few weeks. They date, they kiss, but nothing more – and Matt starts to worry that perhaps Rhys just isn’t into him that way.  Finally, he gathers up his courage and texts Rhys to ask him if he wants to have sex with him – needless to say, the answer sends Matt rushing back to Rhys’ arms and bed.  After a passionate night, Matt sneaks out – only to have Rhys text him afterwards with one of the most beautiful fictional love letters I’ve ever read. From then on, they’re inseparable.

Then we skip ahead eighteen months to find Matt and Rhys happily married and living in Sleepy Hollow, New York.  Matt is working for a charity that helps young people coming out of the foster system – in which he himself grew up – he’s been growing more and more confident in his role there and he’s deeply in love with his husband… even though he still can’t quite believe that his happiness can possibly last.  Life has taught him not to expect it to.  But right now, the only cloud on the horizon is the fact that Rhys is about to go on tour to promote his first solo album, and although Matt’s rational mind knows Rhys is coming back, his animal brain is telling him the opposite.  Everyone he’s ever loved has left him eventually, and he can’t shake the fear building in him that Rhys is going to do the same.

Matt tries desperately to keep those fears from Rhys, not wishing to spoil what should be a time filled with success and happiness, but the longer Rhys is away, the harder Matt finds it to cope. Plagued by nightmares and dark thoughts that persist in telling him Rhys deserves someone better, Matt can’t sleep, he can’t eat and finds himself returning over and over to the only home he’d ever known, the one he lived in when his mother left him and the last one he’d known before he was shunted into the foster system.  Terrified that Rhys will reject him if he knows the truth about his past, Matt’s reticence to talk and vagueness about how he is and what’s going on communicates itself to Rhys in their phone conversations, leading to the creation of an emotional distance between them that’s never been there before.  Matt is locked in a downward spiral of fear, guilt and desperation – when the tour finishes and Rhys comes home.  But has he come home in time to save their marriage?

Rend is a gut-wrenching read, no question, heart-breaking and deeply emotional but it’s also uplifting, and quite, quite beautiful.  As we witness Matt’s physical and emotional breakdown, we are also given some rather lovely insight into their relationship after that initial meeting in the prologue, which works well as a way to break up the scenes of Matt’s gradual descent into darkness.  Rhys and Matt are total opposites in many ways, both physically – Rhys is a blond Viking where Matt is small and dark – and personality-wise; Rhys is like a blast of sunlight, optimistic, open-hearted and completely and utterly in love with Matt, and I loved that he wouldn’t let Matt give in to his fears and was willing to make it clear over and over that Matt was his and that neither of them were going anywhere. And Matt… well, Matt is sweet, quiet and oh, so broken.  Always looking over his shoulder waiting for life to pull the rug out from under his feet, he learned early on never to ask for anything for himself, and wants only to make Rhys happy.

The author doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing how profoundly Matt’s past has affected him, and he goes to some dark places as his fears begin to overwhelm him; his struggles are portrayed so vividly that it’s easy to understand why he feels and acts as he does.  The characterisation of both leads is excellent – they’re brilliantly drawn and the intensity of their love and longing for one another really does leap off the page. The one niggle I had was that sometimes the relationship seemed a little… unhealthy, with Matt being so dependent on Rhys for his happiness and, well, pretty much everything.

Rend is that rare romance – one that shows what happens after the HEA and that even the most meant-to-be-together of couples has to work at making a go of it. It’s a superbly crafted portrait of a marriage in trouble that encompasses incredible highs and incredible lows, but there’s no question that Matt and Rhys thoroughly deserve their hard-won happy ending.