A tender and triumphant story of forbidden love in the aftermath of war
When Captain Ashleigh Arthur Dalton went to war in 1914, he never expected to fall in love. Yet over three long years at the front, his dashing batman, Private West, became his reason for fighting—and his reason for living.
But Ash’s war ends in catastrophe. Gravely wounded, he’s evacuated home to his family’s country house in Highcliffe. Bereft of West, angry and alone, Ash struggles to re-join the genteel world he no longer understands.
For Harry West, an ostler from London’s East End, it was love at first sight when he met kind and complex Captain Dalton. Harry doubts their friendship can survive in the class-bound world back home, but he knows he’ll never forget his captain.
When the guns finally fall silent, Harry finds himself adrift in London. Unemployed and desperate, he swallows his pride and travels to Highcliffe in search of work and the man he loves. Under the nose of Ash’s overbearing father, the men’s intense wartime friendship deepens into a passionate, forbidden love affair.
But breaching the barriers of class and sexuality is dangerous and enemies lurk in Highcliffe’s rose-scented shadows.
After giving their all for their country, Harry and Ash face a terrible choice—defy family, society and the law to love as their hearts demand, or say goodbye forever…
Sally Malcolm’s latest novel is something of a departure for anyone familiar with her excellent New Milton series. The Last Kiss is an historical romance set in England immediately after World War One, and it features two characters for whom the class divide is as insurmountable an obstacle to their love for each other as is their sexuality. Ms. Malcolm is one of my favourite writers; her ability to delve deep into the thoughts and emotions of her characters is something that always impresses me, and here, she combines that with a sharply observed, unvarnished look at the problems faced by the men who were lucky enough to return from a war that forever changed them – to a world in which they no longer fit.
Captain Ashleigh Dalton and his batman Private Harry West met in 1914, and became close friends in spite of their difference in rank and backgrounds. Ash is the son of a baronet and worked in a bank and Harry was an ostler in Bethnal Green, but war is a great leveller; they’ve lived side-by-side and have been through hell together, and as time has worn on, their friendship – and deep mutual affection – is just about the only thing that has made life bearable for both of them. The story begins in the early hours of a morning in October 1917 when Ash and his men are waiting for the final command to go over the top. Ms. Malcom brilliantly evokes the overall feelings of trepidation and despair felt in the trenches and also does a fantastic job of showing readers the strength of the bond that exists between Ash and Harry – not with words, because they can’t possibly say any of the things they feel, but rather through the actions that communicate their obvious care for one another. When Ash is severely wounded, Harry’s world almost comes to a stop, and fearing the man he loves is dead, his first thought is to invite a German bullet to end it all. But seeing the men look to him for guidance and reassurance, he can’t do it. Clinging to hope, Harry somehow finds the courage to carry on, and one month later, receives the news that Ash is alive, and is being sent home to England.
The fact that Ash lost part of one leg and is suffering from “nerve damage” (which we’d call PTSD today) are not the only things that have made it impossible for him to pick up the reins of his old life. He misses Harry desperately, and he’s full of anger and frustration at the way that those around him – most notably his parents and others of their generation – seem to want to brush the war under the carpet and go on as though nothing has changed, and he can’t bear it.
“What was it for, if everything goes on the same?”
Before I started writing this post, I took a look at the one I wrote for 2018 – My 2018 in Books & Audio – to see what I had to say about the books I read and listened to and about the things I was hoping for from 2019. Sadly, my biggest wish – for more winners in historical romance – not only didn’t come true, but didn’t come true in spectactular fashion; I read and listened to considerably fewer historical romances in 2019 (around 60) and of those, only 15 garnered a B+ (4.5 stars) or higher (actually, that was 11 historical romances plus 4 historical mysteries), and only two made the Best of 2019 list I wrote for All About Romance. Looking at the upcoming release lists for 2020, I can’t see that situation improving; very few of the book blurbs for upcoming HR make me want to read them.
So… what did I read and listen to instead? My Goodreads stats show that I read and listened to 299 books and audiobooks in 2019, (that figure includes maybe a dozen or so audio re-listens), which is over 40 books more than my total for last year.
Of that total, 66 were 5 star reads/listens, 184 were 4 star reads/listens – by far the biggest category – 35 were 3 star reads/listens, and there were 9 2 stars, 1 1 star and 1 unrated DNF.
Of the 66 highest graded, around a dozen were actual A grades; I award an A- 4.5 stars but bump the star rating up to five. (And in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a B grade story will get bumped up because of A grade narration). The 4 star ratings cover books/audios I’ve given B-, B or B+ grades, which is quite a large spectrum as it ranges from those books which are given qualified recommendations (B- is 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars) to those which are almost-but-not-quite DIKs (Desert Isle Keepers), the 4.5 stars (B+) I don’t round up. I had around the same number of 3, 2 and 1 star ratings as last year, which is at least consistent!
The books that made my Best of 2019 list at AAR are these:
(although I cheated a bit and actually included the whole Not Dead Yet and Borealis Investivations series!)
I had a list of “also rans” that I would have included had I had more space:
Charlie Adhara’s Thrown to the Wolves was – I believe – originally to have been the final book in her Big Bad Wolf series, but she’s since announced there will be a fourth (yay!). In TttW, we finally get some backstory for the enigmatic werewolf Park when he takes Cooper home to meet the family, together with a clever mystery, complicated family dynamics and a well-deserved HEA that’s perfectly in character. Cordelia Kingsbridge’s A Chip and a Chair was one of my most anticipated books of the year and didn’t disappoint, bringing the rollercoaster ride that was the Seven of Spades series to a rolliking, satisfying close. KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage was (I think?) her first m/f romance; a sequel to Any Old Diamonds, it features tough-as-nails lady detective Susan Lazarus and the other half of the Lilywhite Boys in an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance. Sally Malcolm’s Twice Shy is a lovely feel-good romance between a young man struggling to bring up two young children left to his care following the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, and a school teacher still dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage and career. The romance is warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry and is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce happy sighs.
Historical Romance made another really poor showing in 2019; of the authors I’ve previously counted on to deliver really good stories full of interesting and appealing characters, only a few actually managed to do it. KJ Charles and Mia Vincy made my Best of 2019 list, but Lara Temple (The Rake’s Enticing Proposal), Virginia Heath (The Determined Lord Hadleigh), Janice Preston (Daring to Love the Duke’s Heir) and Marguerite Kaye (The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage) all put out excellent books this year, and I enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s début, Bringing Down the Duke and am keen to read whatever she comes up with next. I still haven’t got around to reading Julie Anne Long’s Angel in a Devil’s Arms, which has appeared on quite a few Best of lists, so I hope I’ll enjoy it when I get around to it!
I did a very quick count the other day, and think that, for the first year ever, I actually listened to more books than I read (by a very small margin). I counted around 150 audiobooks (and probably missed a few re-listens because I often forget to mark those at Goodreads) which is half my total of 299 reads/listens. And according to the spreadsheet I maintain of books and audios I’ve picked up for review, I had an equal number of books and audiobooks to review in 2019. I have definitely struggled, at times, to find books I want to review and have filled the gap with audiobooks. So many are released each month, and I especially love it when backlist titles are made available for authors whose work I enjoy but stand no chance of actually getting to in print!
I chose the following as my Top Five audiobooks of the year at AudioGals:
I also cheated here by including the whole Not Dead Yet series! – which is actually the only title (titles) written in 2019; all the other books were written before last year, but didn’t come out in audio until 2019. But that’s par for the course with audio; not all of them are released simultaneously with the print/digital versions. The “also rans” for my audio Best of 2019 list were:
All boast top-notch performances and got at least an A- for narration, and the stories got at least a B+ each; and quite honestly, I could have substituted any of them for the list I actually posted at AudioGals; my favourites tend to change depending on how I feel from one day to the next! Had I listened to Lily Morton’s Deal Maker before I complied my list, that would certainly have made the cut, too!
So that was 2019. What am I hoping for in 2020? I’d like historical romance to get back on track, but I don’t see that happening in a big way and expect to be reading even more selectively in the genre than I’ve done this year. I’m hoping for more from Mia Vincy and will be checking out more from Evie Dunmore. Right now, most of the good HR is coming from Harlequin Historical authors, so I’ll definitely be reading more from them. In contemporaries, I’m looking forward to two new series from Annabeth Albert (Hotshots and True Colors) as well as to catching up with her Perfect Harmony series in audio, and to making my way through Lily Morton’s backlist – I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the audio of Risk Taker (with Joel Leslie at the helm) and hope she’s planning more audio releases in 2020. I’ll be snapping up the finale of L.J Hayward’s Death and the Devil series as soon as it comes out, nabbing more Victor Bayne (and Gomez Pugh!) in the next book(s) in Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series, and inhaling more Hazard and Somerset from Gregory Ashe. KJ Charles promises some 1920s pulp mysteries, there’s another book to come in Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series, so I’m looking pretty nicely set for the first part of 2020 in terms of reading and listening!
I’ll (hopefully) be back again this time next year to tell you now it all panned out!
The last thing Joel Morgan wants is to fall in love again. Scarred by his failed marriage, Joel’s determined to keep his life emotionally stable—which means taking a job teaching fourth grade, fixing up his house on weekends, and avoiding absolutely all romantic entanglements. And he’s doing great.
Until he meets sweet but struggling single dad, Ollie Snow.
Following the tragic death of his sister and her husband two years earlier, Ollie became the legal guardian of their two young sons—much to the horror of the boys’ conservative grandparents. They think Ollie’s too young and too unreliable to raise their grandsons. So to prove them wrong, Ollie’s determined to parent the boys without anyone’s help.
Until he meets reserved but caring teacher, Joel Morgan.
As the only two men in the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, Joel and Ollie are thrown together over a series of fundraising events, and somewhere between the Beach Fun Run and the Fall Festival they fall in love. But Ollie has another reason for moving to New Milton—a reason he’s keeping close to his chest—and Joel’s wounded heart won’t trust a man with secrets.
Dare they hope for a future together, or will their past pain keep them apart forever?
When I reviewed Perfect Day, the first in Sally Malcolm’s series of m/m contemporary romances set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton, I called it “the sort of book you finish with a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction and a dreamy smile”. Something about the author’s writing just clicks with me; her protagonists and secondary characters are always three-dimensional and attractively flawed, the dialogue flows naturally and her stories are imbued with genuine warmth and humour. Best of all, she writes the most gorgeously romantic romances; not sappy or tooth-rottingly sweet, but romances that evolve organically and contain what is – for me, anyway – the perfect amount of angst and conflict. She manages this all over again in her third full-length New Milton novel, Twice Shy, in which she introduces us to school teacher Joel Morgan, who retreated to New Milton after his marriage – and his life – imploded, and Ollie Snow, a young, single, gay man whose life was changed irrevocably a couple of years earlier when his sister and brother-in-law were killed in a car accident and he was given custody of their two young sons.
Ollie was just twenty-two and enjoying life at grad school – where he was studying to be an architect – when he received that life-changing news. He was surprised, to say the least, to be named guardian of baby Luis and four-year-old Rory, and immediately put his life on hold in order to fulfil his sister’s last wishes, despite the fact that her husband’s parents disapproved and did everything they could to try to gain custody of the boys themselves. It was tough on Ollie, whom they tried to paint as too young and flighty for such responsibility, but the will was iron-clad and after the case was settled, he moved to New Milton in hopes of making a fresh start. He dropped out of school and now works at a dead-end job in a call centre in order to support his small family. It’s not easy and money is tight, but he loves the boys dearly and even though he’s pretty much always exhausted, and often just downright lonely, he’s determined to do the best he can for them.
Joel Morgan had a seemingly perfect life as an investment banker in New York until his wife divorced him after he told her he was bisexual. It’s not that he deliberately hid it; he was in love with Helen and that was all that mattered to him, but after eight years of marriage, Joel realized he needed to tell her the truth. Not because he wanted anyone else, but because it felt wrong to keep it a secret and because he felt the need for her to see him as the person he truly was. But Helen’s reaction – one of utter disgust – floored him and sent him into a downward spiral of depression which took him a long time and a lot of therapy to crawl out of, and ever since, he’s taken great care to put himself and his mental health first, having cocooned himself in his safe, unentangled life. Once he got himself back together, Joel retrained as a teacher and now works at the Elementary School in New Milton. Being one of the few male members of staff, he frequently gets roped into helping with the various fundraising events run by the PTA (Parent Teacher Association), which is where he first meets handsome, charming and obviously out and proud single dad Ollie Snow, and feels, for the first time in years, a visceral pull of awareness… one he ruthlessly suppresses. He’s only too aware of his tendency to fall hard – and has therefore made up his mind it’s best not to fall at all.
Ollie and Joel find themselves teamed up to help out at various events throughout the school year – from Welcome Cookouts to Charity Car Washes and Fun Runs – and a friendship develops between them, Ollie finding the small amount of time he spends with Joel a welcome piece of adult interaction (anyone who has ever parented young children will immediately recognize Ollie’s relief at being able to have some adult conversation!) that serves to alleviate his loneliness a little. Ollie is attracted to Joel but assumes he’s straight at first – although he’s soon reassessing that opinion; no way would a man who is completely straight look at him with the sort of lingering intensity he sees in Joel’s eyes whenever he catches him watching him.
After a few months of PTA meetings, fundraisers and friendship, the two men eventually give in to the sizzling attraction that’s been building between them. But with Joel not keen on coming out publicly (given his profession, it’s easy to understand his reluctance to face the likely bigotry of some parents) and determined to hold himself back from stronger, deeper emotions, it starts to seem as though heartbreak – for both of them – is going to be the only inevitable outcome to whatever it is they’re starting to become to one another.
The romance that unfolds between Joel and Ollie is worthy of All the Swoons. It’s warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry at the same time as it’s very grounded in who they both are as people. They’ve both seen the lives they had planned for themselves thrown off course and are dealing with the fallout as best they can, and not always successfully. Unlike so many other characters in romances whose previous bad relationships have caused them to swear off love – and have to be taken with a pinch of salt – Joel’s fear of the possible effect of strong emotions on his mental health gives him a good reason for caution. But even so, he can’t help falling for caring, endearing Ollie, who so obviously adores his boys but who is so determined to show their grandparents that he can raise them alone that he refuses to ask for help when he’s struggling. Ollie’s doubts about his ability to parent Rory and Luis will be familiar to parents everywhere; we’ve all asked ourselves ‘am I doing this right?’ at one time or another, and wondered if we’ll ever be good enough, and Ollie’s insecurities have been magnified by the accusations levelled at him during the custody battle when the boys’ grandparents called him irresponsible and reckless, and also clearly didn’t like the fact that he was gay. And while I’m not the biggest fan of children in romances, Rory and Luis are very well-characterised as well as being completely integral to the story, and Ms. Malcolm has written them and their interactions with Ollie and Joel amazingly well.
There’s a secondary plotline in the novel surrounding Ollie’s desire to connect with a relative he didn’t know he had until recently; the who and why is revealed early in the book, but I won’t spoil it here. I will say that it does provide a bit of conflict that is perhaps a teeny bit contrived later in the story, but that is honestly the only criticism I have of the entire book, and it’s a minor one at that.
Twice Shy is a superbly written, beautifully romantic story that is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce many happy sighs and those dreamy smiles of contentment I mentioned earlier. It’s another winner from Sally Malcolm and another book of hers headed for my keeper shelf.
My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks. I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever. Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket. I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.
4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.
The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:
And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.
Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else. Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception. The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver. Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself). Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Woman – which I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment. On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husbandwhich was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016. Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Dukeand An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic. Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist. Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out. K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Printand Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites. Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.
I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop. In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did. There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.
The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years. Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.
My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive. I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again. It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas. Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension. The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful; they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it. Their relationship goes through terrific highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.
Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER, one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines. I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well. She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top. And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.
I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!) My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.
I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes. But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees. Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.
I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others. I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home– which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.
Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general. Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well. Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.
As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019? First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please! Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year. I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous. I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April. There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book. Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific. I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.
Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!
A handful of summer days may change their lives forever—if they’re brave enough to look between the lines.
Eyes might be windows to the soul, but for Theo Wishart they’re all shuttered. His dyspraxia makes it hard to read people. He doesn’t do relationships and he certainly doesn’t do the great outdoors. Two weeks spent “embracing beach life” while he tries to close the deal on a once great, now fading seaside hotel is a special kind of hell.
Until Luca. Gorgeous, unreachable Luca.
Luca Moretti travels light, avoiding all romantic entanglements. Estranged from his parents, he vows this will be his last trip home to New Milton. His family’s hotel is on the verge of ruin and there’s nothing Luca can do to save it. He’s given up on the Majestic, he’s given up on his family and he’s given up on his future.
Until Theo. Prickly, captivating Theo.
No mushy feelings, no expectations, and no drama—that’s the deal. A simple summer fling. And it suits them both just fine. But as the summer wanes and their feelings deepen, it’s clear to everyone around them that Theo and Luca are falling in love. What will it take for them to admit it to themselves—and to each other?
Between the Lines is another emotionally satisfying and beautifully crafted romance from the pen of Sally Malcolm, and is a wonderful follow-up to both Perfect Day and Love Around the Corner, both of which are also set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton. This novel is set a few months after the events of Perfect Day (and I loved the glimpses we were afforded of Josh and Finn at their wedding), and is an enemies-to-lovers romance between two men from vastly different backgrounds who meet when one of them arrives in town to negotiate the purchase of The Majestic, a family-run hotel that has seen better days.
Theo Wishart has travelled to New Milton in order to seal the deal over the purchase, and set in motions his father’s plan to develop the hotel and its land into a luxury resort. He is anxious to prove himself by closing the deal, especially in the light of a particularly embarrassing incident which led to his being accused of sexual harassment by a colleague, and his father’s obvious belief that Theo doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the cut-throat world in which he operates. Theo’s dyspraxia means that he doesn’t read people well; he gets distracted easily and has had to devise a number of coping mechanisms (such as timing himself in the shower and reminding himself to make eye contact with people) to help him to fit into a world which often views his lack of co-ordination and discomfort in social situations as things that make him someone to deride or pity rather than just someone who is different.
Luca Moretti was born in New Milton but left home five years earlier, after his mother remarried and his step-father Don made it clear that he couldn’t accept Luca’s sexuality. Luca loves his mother and he loves his home, but he only returns for the summers now, to help out at the hotel and to take on some part-time work as a lifeguard and surf instructor. He’s furious about his mother’s plans to sell the Majestic, and believes that Don is pushing her to sell, his anger blinding him to the fact that Jude Moretti is not quite herself, and that, after a life of hard work, she deserves to have an easier time of it.
When Theo arrives for his meeting with Jude and Don, he’s dismayed to discover that the rude guy who collided with him outside the coffee shop earlier is her son – and with the hostility coming off him in waves, it’s clear he’s vehemently opposed to his mother’s plan to sell the hotel. Josh can also tell that he stands every chance of getting his mother to change her mind. Jude expresses her concern about Lux Properties’ plans to redevelop the site, suggesting that perhaps she and Luca (mostly Luca) would be more amenable to the sale if the redevelopment was something more in line with the community, and floats the idea that Theo should spend a couple of weeks in New Milton, getting a feel for the place. Perhaps then, he might come to see what’s so special about The Majestic and its place in the community – and will be able to persuade his father to rethink his development plans. Theo and Luca agree reluctantly to the idea, neither of them enthused at the prospect of spending two weeks in each other’s company, but each hoping to use the time to persuade the other to their point of view.
Sally Malcom does a great job of creating a strong connection between these two very different men; she has a real gift for imbuing her characters with a true depth of personality and for creating strong emotional connections between them. The frisson of attraction that sparks between Luca and Theo is almost instantaneous, although they both do their best to ignore it, dismissing the idea of acting on it as a terrible one given their situation. But eventually, they can’t deny it any more and they agree to have a summer fling for the two weeks Theo is there and then go their separate ways with no regrets (hah – good luck with that!). As they start spending time together, Luca comes to understand and appreciate Theo for the kind, loving person he is and Theo learns more about what makes Luca tick, how hurt he was by his mother’s remarriage and her silence when his step-father refused to accept him. As the two men fall for each other, Theo realises just why Luca is so attached to The Majestic, and starts to wonder if there might be an alternative to the plans his father has proposed, one that would preserve the spirit of the hotel while also allowing Jude and Don the freedom to enjoy their retirement. We’re treated to some lovely snapshots of Luca and Theo’s time together as their relationship develops, delighted as they take two steps forward and then frustrated as they take one step back, past insecurities and hurts seeming as though they’re destined to keep them apart. Even so, their relationship grows organically and doesn’t feel rushed or lacking in plausibility. The romance is full of humour, warmth and affection as well as some beautifully conceived sexual tension which culminates in some nicely steamy moments. But the elephant in the room is just waiting in the corner, keeping the reader on tenterhooks waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it does, the impact is visceral – Theo sees it coming yet can do nothing to stop it – and I certainly had a lump in my throat while reading.
Luca and Theo are wonderfully rounded characters who have more in common than they’d at first thought. Both have difficult familial relationships; Luca clearly resents Don’s place in his mother’s life while Theo is well aware that his father views him as a disappointment. They’re prickly and wary of letting anyone get close, and yet they find a way past each other’s defences to an extent neither had expected was likely or possible. The secondary characters are strongly drawn, too, and I found Jude and Don especially to be true-to-life in the sense that their dilemmas felt real and messy, and their flaws made them seem like real people. When we learn of Don’s prejudice it’s easy to then believe he’s pushing Jude to sell the hotel and to paint him as the villain of the piece – but the author shows us things aren’t that black and white. He’s misguided about Luca, for sure, but he loves his wife dearly, and, as we learn later, is motivated primarily by concern for her. Jude, too, is similarly multi-faceted; she has valid reasons for wanting to sell up but is torn up about it, wanting to preserve something for Luca but also needing to do the right thing for herself.
All these facets of the characters and their stories are seamlessly woven together, but the focus is firmly on Luca and Theo and their love story, which is beautifully written and gorgeously romantic; they make a terrific couple and I adored getting to know them, both individually and together. Between the Lines is highly recommended – it’s a superb read, and I was captivated from start to finish. Sally Malcolm is an incredibly talented writer, and I can’t wait to read whatever she comes up with next.
Real life enemies, online lovers. Two lonely men, destined for each other–if only they knew it.
Alfie Carter grew up in New Milton, caring for his sick father and keeping their auto repair shop on its feet. He’s touchy about his poor education and doesn’t take kindly to snide remarks from the town’s prickly bookstore owner—no matter how cute he looks in his skinny jeans. Leo Novak’s new life as owner of Bayside Books is floundering. And he could do without the town’s gorgeous, moody mechanic holding a grudge against him after an unfortunate—and totally not his fault— encounter last Christmas.
Left to run the family business alone, Alfie spends his lonely evenings indulging his secret passion for classic fiction and chatting online with witty, romantic ‘LLB’ as they fall in love over literature. Leo’s still reeling from a bad breakup and struggling to make friends in New Milton, so seeks comfort instead in his blossoming online romance with thoughtful, bookish ‘Camaro89’.
But as the holidays approach, ‘LLB’ and ‘Camaro89’ are planning to meet, and realities are about to collide…
The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favourite films. Set around Christmas time, it tells the story of two co-workers who don’t get on and bicker all the time in spite of the attraction that sparks between them – and which they ignore. He thinks she’s stuck-up, she thinks he’s crass and in any case, they’re both completely in love with their respective pen-pals… who are, of course, each other. (The film was remade in the 1990s as You’ve Got Mail, but it’s not a patch on the original, IMO.) Sally Malcolm gives the story another update in Love Around the Corner, set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton which was also the setting for her earlier novel, Perfect Day and which she will revisit in her upcoming release, Between the Lines.
In this version of the story, Alfie Carter – who owns the local garage – has been corresponding for around a year with someone he met online in a group dedicated to the works of Jane Austen. He and LLB hit it off right away and text each other several times a day, enjoying discussions about anything and everything, bonding over their love of books and of discussing them in depth. On the day we meet Alfie, he’s excited and nervous because that evening, he and LLB have arranged to meet face-to-face for the first time. He’s never had a long-term relationship before, but he’s ready for one; the connection he feels with LLB is like nothing he’s ever experienced with anyone, and Alfie is absolutely ready to take things to the next level.
Leo Novak moved to New Milton after the long-term relationship he’d been in crashed and burned, and owns a small bookstore there. He and Alfie met at the previous year’s Christmas party at the Callaghan’s and didn’t hit it off at all, their encounter resulting in an exchange of insults which saw Leo assume Alfie to be dumb and Alfie take Leo for an unmitigated snob. They’ve avoided each other ever since and nothing they’ve seen of one another in the interim has served to change either of those initial impressions. Leo is a bit of a loner; he knows he’s prickly – “but when you grew up too smart, too sensitive and too gay for the tastes of most people, you learned to defend yourself.” Like Alfie, he’s looking for love and companionship, and he thinks he may have found it with Camaro89, the guy he met online a year earlier and has been corresponding with ever since. He’s nervous about their first real-life meeting – what if Camaro89 is disappointed with what he sees? Or vice-versa? – but he knows that they have to meet if their relationship is to progress, which is something he wants very much indeed.
LLB and Camaro89 have arranged to meet at a pub in Manhattan, and as they haven’t exchanged photographs, have agreed that they’ll both carry a copy of Persuasion so they can identify each other. Alfie arrives first and secures a table by the window, laying his copy of the book down so it can be clearly seen and waits eagerly for LLB to arrive. And waits. And waits. Almost a half-hour later, filled with disappointment, Alfie has to accept that LLB isn’t coming, and is about to leave when he sees Leo Novak coming towards him. Immediately defensive, Alfie makes it clear Leo is unwelcome and they quickly end up sniping at each other and part on bad terms. Again.
When Leo arrived at the pub to meet with Camaro89, the last person he’d expected to see sitting there with a copy of Persuasion in front of him was Alfie Carter. How can the witty, well-read man he’s been corresponding with be someone who can’t even put an apostrophe in the right place? (His garage is called Alfie’s Auto’s). Worse, could Alfie actually have known who LLB is all this time, and be playing a joke on him? When he has recovered from the initial shock, Leo admits the latter is unlikely – but what does he do now? The man he loved is nothing but a figment of his imagination, but even so, he can’t bring himself to leave Camaro89 – his friend – sitting there waiting for someone who’s never going to show. Still not sure what to do, he makes his way over to Alfie’s table – but the other man’s obvious hostility leads to more insults and another acrimonious parting.
Heartbroken, both men make their way back to New Milton, and to an existence that’s so much less colourful and hopeful than it was before. But an offhand comment makes Alfie start to think that perhaps Leo is lonely, and he decides to reach out to him in a small way by inviting him to take part in the Christmas Market that is being organised by the townspeople. Surprised, but pleased, Leo accepts the invitation, and the pair is detailed to go shopping for decorations the next evening. The trip turns out to be a lot of fun; Alfie is surprised to find Leo’s sense of humour matches his own, and before long they’re chatting about books – and audiobooks, Alfie prefers them to print and promises to make Leo a list of recommendations – and other things, and end up having dinner together. From here, things only get better; Alfie realises he’s fallen hard and fast for Leo, while Leo is doing the same… but Leo still hasn’t told Alfie the truth, and he worries that if he does so now, he’ll lose him forever.
I make no secret that I’m not a big fan of novellas; I find so many of them lack depth and are rushed that I usually go into them with fairly low expectations, but Love Around the Corner confounded all of them – it’s wonderful. Romantic, sweet, sexy, tear-jerking and uplifting, it works superbly as an update on an old favourite or a completely new story if you’re not familiar with either of the movies. As in Perfect Day – which was an updated retelling of Persuasion – Sally Malcolm has taken the premise and character-types of the original story, breathed new life into them and made them her own. Their flaws, their hopes, their dreams and insecurities all combine to make Leo and Alfie into very real, relatable individuals, and Ms. Malcom creates such a strong emotional connection between them that it leaps off the page. She’s also incredibly good when it comes to delivering a palpable gut-punch in the angstier moments. I had a lump in my throat several times towards the end, and I have to say that Leo’s grand romantic gesture rivals Captain Wentworth’s in the swoonworthy stakes; I loved the literary treasure hunt and what it represented. Although the events of the novella take place over just a couple of weeks, the romance is easy to buy into, and when Leo and Alfie become physically intimate, it’s something that evolves naturally and doesn’t feel rushed or as though the author has shoe-horned in the sex scenes for the sake of it.
Gorgeously romantic and utterly charming, Love Around the Corner is the perfect way to while away a couple of hours on a winter afternoon and with it, Sally Malcolm is two-for-two on my keeper shelf.
Love doesn’t burn out just because the timing’s wrong. It grows. It never leaves.
When Joshua Newton, prodigal son of one of New Milton’s elite, fell in love with ambitious young actor Finn Callaghan, his world finally made sense. With every stolen moment, soft touch and breathless kiss, they fell deeper in love.
Finn was his future…until he wasn’t.
Love stays. Even when you don’t want it to, even when you try to deny it, it stays.
Eight years later, Finn has returned to the seaside town where it all began. He’s on the brink of stardom, a far cry from the poor mechanic who spent one gorgeous summer falling in love on the beach.
The last thing he wants is a second chance with the man who broke his heart. Finn has spent a long time forgetting Joshua Newton—he certainly doesn’t plan to forgive him.
Love grows. It never leaves.
Sally Malcolm’s first published m/m romance is a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which regularly vies with Emma for first place in my ranking of Austen’s novels!) set in a sleepy New York seaside town. I admit I’m usually a bit wary of retellings of classic novels – especially when they’re great personal favourites – but I’ve known the author on and off for over a decade, I enjoy her writing and was confident that she’d treat the material with respect – and that confidence wasn’t misplaced. Perfect Day is a beautifully told second-chance-at-love story that tugs at the heartstrings and can be enjoyed regardless of whether you’re familiar with Persuasion or not. It stands on its own very well, although the fun for those of us who do know the original is in recognising the plot points and characters the author has chosen to ‘transplant’ and how she’s made them work in a contemporary setting.
During one halcyon summer eight years earlier, Joshua Newton and Finn Callaghan met when Finn was employed to work on Charles Newton’s classic car collection at his Hanworth Hall estate on Long Island. The Newtons were extremely wealthy; Joshua’s father and older brother Michael were tough-nosed businessmen who believed money was everything, but Josh was always a bit of an outsider, a talented musician and gentle soul whose ambitions lay in a different direction. He and Finn spent as much time together as they possibly could over the couple of months that followed, falling deeply and passionately in love and eventually deciding to move to Los Angeles together, where the stunningly handsome Finn would pursue an acting career while Josh would further his musical studies.
But their dreams came to an abrupt end when Josh allowed his aunt Ruth to persuade him not only that he should finish his MBA at Harvard, but that for Finn to arrive in LA with a boyfriend in tow would end his career before it had even begun. If Josh truly loved Finn, he should end their relationship and let him go.
Eight years later, and Josh never did leave New Milton and embark on a musical career. His father kicked him out of the family home when he came out around a year after he split up with Finn, and he now lives in a small cottage near the beach, works part time as a music teacher at the local school and works a few shifts at the coffee shop in town. He knows he’s living a small life, which isn’t at all what he’d intended, but he lacks the energy to break out of his regular patterns and prefers his music and his own company to interacting with people – which he finds exhausting.
When the present day story opens, Josh’s father has been imprisoned for tax fraud and the house and as many possessions as possible must be sold off in order to pay his creditors. Josh is completely unprepared to learn that Hanworth has been bought by hot-shot lawyer Sean Callaghan – Finn’s younger brother – who will be arriving, with his wife, to take possession in a matter of days.
Josh tries to tell himself that it’s unlikely Finn will ever visit, and that if he does, they’re unlikely to meet. Even when he learns that Finn is flying in to spend a few days with his brother, Josh hopes to avoid seeing him – hopes which are dashed when Finn accompanies Sean into the coffee shop one morning. Josh is stunned but manages to nod an acknowledgement – while Finn looks furious and leaves without saying a word.
At first, Finn’s ire is focused on Josh and the way he’d so carelessly broken Finn’s heart, but later it turns inward as he realises that even after eight years he still has feelings for Josh – and doesn’t want them. Being afforded the second PoV is probably the biggest difference between Perfect Day and Persuasion; in that novel, the story is told entirely through Anne Elliot’s eyes, whereas here, we’re given direct insight into Finn’s emotions and motivations, and I enjoyed that aspect of the storytelling, as it means that the author is able to present Finn as a more fully-rounded individual and explore his conflicted feelings for Josh, his desire to punish him for breaking his heart and the desire to grab onto him and never let him go.
Ms. Malcolm sticks fairly closely to the original story although she has removed or pared down some of the secondary plotlines; and Josh and Finn are very much characters in their own right and not just cyphers or pale representations of Anne and Wentworth. They’re richly drawn, with very distinctive personalities and voices, and flaws that make them seem that much more human. Josh has been living in a kind of limbo since he split up with Finn, and I loved watching him gradually find his way back to the person he’s supposed to be, and eventually, the strength to try to move on with his life.
The writing is lyrical and romantic, yet economical and precise, and while there’s plenty of angst in the story, it’s never overdone or overplayed. My one criticism is that the epilogue is perhaps a little long, but ultimately, Perfect Day is the sort of book you finish with a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction and a dreamy smile, and I’m more than happy to recommend it.