Home Grown Talent (Creative Types #2) by Joanna Chambers & Sally Malcolm

home grown talent

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Are you for real?

From the outside, it looks like model and influencer Mason Nash has it all—beauty, fame, and fortune. With his star rapidly rising, and a big contract up for grabs, Mason’s on the verge of hitting the big time.

When an opportunity arises to co-host a gardening slot on daytime TV with his ex’s brother, Owen Hunter, Mason is definitely on-board. And he intends to use every trick in the book to make the show a hit—including agreeing to his ruthless producer’s demand to fake a ‘will-they/won’t-they’ romance with his co-host…

Owen Hunter is a gardener with a huge heart and both feet planted firmly on the well-tilled ground. He’s proud of the life he’s built and has absolutely no desire to be on TV—yet somehow he finds himself agreeing to do the show.

It’s definitely not because he’s interested in Mason Nash. The guy might be beautiful—and yeah, his spoiled brat routine presses all Owen’s buttons in the bedroom—but Owen has no interest in a short-term fling with a fame-hungry model.

As the two men get closer, though, Owen starts to believe there’s more to Mason than his beautiful appearance and carefully-curated online persona—that beneath the glitz and glamour is a sweet, sensitive man longing to be loved.

A man Owen might be falling for. A man who might even feel the same.

But in a world of media spin and half-truths, Owen is dangerously out of his depth. And when a ridiculous scandal explodes online, with Owen at its heart, it starts to look as though everything he thought was real is built on lies—including his budding romance with Mason…

Rating: A-

Joanna Chambers and Sally Malcolm earned a DIK from me for their first collaboration, Total Creative Control, a funny, sexy grumpy/sunshine romance set in the world of television production. Now they’re back with its sequel, Home Grown Talent, an opposites-attract romance between a cinnamon roll and a “lemon tart” (this NEEDS to be a new trope!) that takes a long hard look at the intrusiveness of social media and the behind-the-scenes toxicity found in certain types of broadcast media. The characters are loveable, complex and fully-rounded, their romance is beautifully written and although the story is perhaps a little more serious in tone than the previous one, it’s every bit as full of warmth, humour and feels.

Owen Hunter (older brother of Lewis from book one) is a private and very down-to-earth sort of guy with a big heart and a desire to smooth the way for those he cares for. He runs a successful landscaping and gardening business, and, okay, so maybe he isn’t loved up like Lewis and his boyfriend Aaron are – they’re just a bit sickening in their lovey-dovey-ness – but he’s happy for them and content with his life, even though he wouldn’t mind finding someone to share it with. He’s been attracted to the gorgeous Mason Nash – Lewis’ ex – for a while, but has resigned himself to the fact that beneath the beautiful exterior, Mason is probably shallow and a bit dull. Even if he wasn’t and Owen ever got up the courage to actually ask him out, no way would a guy like Mason look twice at a guy like him.

Mason makes a pretty good living as a model and is good at his job, but it’s not something he ever envisaged himself doing and can’t say he likes it all that much. The main thing is that it pays well and he needs to keep earning good money so he can support his mother and younger sisters, but he’s looking to move on from modelling. He’s working on building his Instagram numbers so he can attract more lucrative sponsorship deals and has just picked up a temporary presenting gig on the health, beauty and fitness segment of a magazine TV show called Weekend Wellness. If rumours are to be believed, one of the main presenters is leaving, and Mason hopes maybe something permanent will open up for him there.

Lewis invites Owen to an awards dinner, and even though it’s not really Owen’s scene, there’s no way he’s going to miss out on his little brother getting recognition for his work on his TV show, Leeches. He doesn’t know anyone else at their table – other than Mason, who is there as the guest of Leeches’ lead actor – and is surprised when Misty Watson-King, the producer of Weekend Wellness, takes an interest in him. Owen is astonished when she suggests that maybe he would consider taking part in the gardening segment she wants to add to the show, and although he insists he’s not the TV type, Misty won’t let it go, delighted with her idea that the slot should feature Owen teaching basic gardening techniques to a total newbie. Mason.

Owen isn’t wild about the idea, but does eventually agree to do the show, and over the next few weeks spent preparing – working out what each week’s segment will include, what plants and techniques to use – Mason and Owen get to know each other better and find they really enjoy each other’s company. As the chemistry between them crackles and their attraction grows Owen realises he’s misjudged Mason and, far from being a spoiled air-head, he’s bright, quick and curious, able to talk to anyone about anything. In Owen, Mason discovers the kind of friendship and support he has never really known and opens up to him, explaining that before he became a model, he’d trained as a chef – cooking is obviously something he adores – but he gave it up because modelling was better paid. His dad left his mum and younger sisters (who are ten years younger than Mason) when the girls were little, and Mason is pretty much supporting them financially because his dad rarely makes his maintenance payments on time, and his mum is not good with money.

Despite their outward differences, Owen and Mason really are a great fit. Their chemistry is palpable and the authors create a very real and strong emotional connection between them. Even though Owen isn’t completely comfortable with what he sees as Mason’s obsession with social media and doesn’t really understand it, he does realise Mason is using it as a tool to build a career. He’s falling head-over-heels for the Mason he’s coming to know, the real Mason who is so much more than the fake one with the fake life plastered all over Instagram. But he worries about losing his Mason to the fake one somewhere along the way.

Mason is as deeply invested in the relationship as Owen, and loves how straightforward and true to himself he is – but he worries that maybe he’s too honest to be working in the world of spin that is reality television. Also worrying is the pressure Misty is putting on Mason to play up his and Owen’s obvious chemistry to whip up interest in the show by engaging in some flirty teasing on social media, and getting a whole ‘will they/won’t they’ thing going. And if things between them go a bit further than that in private, well, it’s all great publicity. Mason instantly draws the line at the idea of sleeping with Owen for ratings, but he also knows Owen won’t be up for using their relationship for the show’s benefit. But… if they’re really together – which they are – then all the flirting and couple-y photos won’t actually be a lie – will they?

Of course, we know this isn’t going to turn out well and sure enough, Mason is pushed into making an unwise decision which then spirals into a silly yet plausible scandal that quickly has serious consequences for Owen – who can’t help but wonder if what he had with Mason was ever real.

At the heart of Home Grown Talent are two charming, likeable but very different men, who have, in different ways, spent most of their lives looking out for other people and have forgotten to look after themselves. In continually bailing out his mother, Mason has basically enabled her to give up responsibility for looking after herself and her daughters; he’s assumed the parental role in the family, but needs to learn to put himself first and live his own life. Owen had a parental role thrust upon him in his teens (he brought Lewis up after their parents died), and he’s become so used to being a fixer, a “white knight” who rides in to sort out other people’s problems that he finds it difficult to be vulnerable and accept that sometimes he doesn’t have all the answers. Unfortunately, his reaction to that is usually to shut people out and try to bulldoze his way through problems rather than communicate his thoughts and feelings and work through them.

The intrusiveness of social media and the way it’s used to sell everything from actual products to lifestyles and relationships and people is a key part of the story and the authors do a good job of showing just how invasive and damaging it can be. Being an old fogey myself, social media is something about which I maintain a healthy scepticism, but you’ve only got to lurk around on it for a short while or look at the headlines to find, day after day, stories about how it so often brings out the worst in people.

Home Grown Talent is insightful, funny and touching, boasting two likeable leads, a lovely romance with some seriously sexy steamy moments and a well-realised secondary cast. It works perfectly well as a standalone, although Total Creative Control is excellent and well worth reading, too. More, please, ladies!

Total Creative Control (Creative Types #1) by Joanna Chambers & Sally Malcolm

total creative control

This title may be purchased at Amazon

Sunshine PA, meet Grumpy Boss…

When fanfic writer Aaron Page landed a temp job with the creator of hit TV show, Leeches, it was only meant to last a week. Three years later, Aaron’s still there…

It could be because he loves the creative challenge. It could be because he’s a huge Leeches fanboy. It’s definitely not because of Lewis Hunter, his extremely demanding, staggeringly rude…and breathtakingly gorgeous boss.

Is it?

Lewis Hunter grew up the hard way and fought for everything he’s got. His priority is the show, and personal relationships come a distant second. Besides, who needs romance when you have a steady stream of hot men hopping in and out of your bed?

His only meaningful relationship is with Aaron, his chief confidante and indispensable assistant. And no matter how appealing he finds Aaron’s cute boy-next-door charms, Lewis would never risk their professional partnership just to scratch an itch.

But when Lewis finds himself trapped at a hilariously awful corporate retreat, Aaron is his only friend and ally. As the professional lines between them begin to blur, their simmering attraction starts to sizzle

… And they’re both about to get burned.

Rating: A-

Two of my favourite authors teaming up to write a grumpy/sunshine “angsty rom-com” ? YES, PLEASE – sign me up! Total Creative Control is a captivating read and I blew through it two sittings. Featuring two complex, superbly characterised protagonists, and a small but equally well-written supporting cast, it’s full of humour, witty banter, delicious sexual tension and a multitude of feels – and I loved it.

The ”grumpy” part of the pairing is Lewis Hunter, creator and writer of the hit TV show, Leeches (an urban fantasy-type show with vampires!) which, when the book opens, has been on air for three years. He’s dynamic, hugely talented and very charismatic… but he’s also brusque, demanding, doesn’t seem to have a verbal filter, and is hell to work for. Which is why he goes through assistants like a knife through butter – until the morning his most recent one quits, and he’s assigned a temp named Aaron Page for the rest of the week. Aaron is a big fan of Leeches – which Lewis is both surprised and pleased at – and very quickly shows his aptitude for the job. He’s just finished teacher training and has a job lined up for September; Lewis has never had a PA who actually loved Leeches before, and is already thinking of ways to keep him on for longer. He suggests that if things go well that week, he’d like Aaron to stay until September. Aaron agrees.

The story then skips ahead three years – and finds Aaron still working for Lewis. In the intervening time, he’s made himself pretty much indispensable – not just because he knows Lewis likes brown sauce in his bacon rolls or how many sugars he takes in his tea, but because his knowledge of and love for the show is second only to Lewis’ and he’s provided a lot of valuable feedback and insight into the scripting process during that time. He’s far more than a PA now, and Lewis is a decent enough boss that he’s made sure Aaron is properly compensated for his expanded role. But, as one of Aaron’s colleagues points out, although Aaron well paid for what he does, shouldn’t he be looking to move into a job that would stretch him creatively and make greater use of his talents? But Aaron is happy where he is – and refuses to let himself dwell on the real reason for it. That moving on to a different job would mean leaving Lewis – because that way madness lies. Lewis made it clear on Aaron’s very first day that he doesn’t get involved with colleagues, EVER, and despite the stirrings of attraction they felt for each other when they met, they’ve kept things perfectly professional between them ever since. They’ve both worked hard to maintain that fine line between colleagues and friends, not allowing themselves to be too curious about each other’s personal lives, never attending work functions together, carefully steering their way around anything too intimate – and it’s worked, for the most part, enabling them to carry on with their working relationship as though that’s all that lies between them.

But when Lewis is persuaded to ask Aaron to accompany him on a working weekend at the country home of the television exec who is keen to develop Leeches for the US market  – a complete and utter wanker Lewis can’t stand – those lines between the personal and the professional start to blur.  Under pressure to make changes to the very fabric of Leeches to satisfy the demands of the US production company, then forced into a number of difficult and uncomfortable situations courtesy of his host, Lewis – already on edge – starts to unravel.  A group therapy session unexpectedly unlocks un-dealt-with trauma Lewis has done his best to ignore – but through it all, Aaron is there,  unequivocally on his side and keeping him grounded.  And this time together, just the two of them against the world, or so it seems, forces them both to confront some long-buried truths they’ve managed to keep locked away so far.  And for Aaron, it’s the wake-up call he needs to start putting himself and his career first for a change.

Aaron is adorable – the perfect sunshine to Lewis’ grump – and their chemistry is combustible.  He’s sweet and clever and insightful, and I really enjoyed the way his love of Leeches and his love of fanfiction are woven together, and into the story.  Fanfic is denigrated in some circles (and Lewis hates it!), but although some of it is undoubtedly crap, Aaron embodies the best endeavours; he’s someone who really gets to know the characters he writes about, and gets into their heads to produce stories that are true to character and as good as – sometimes better! – than the storylines on the actual show.  This part of his life does create friction between him and Lewis – who is dismissive and says some pretty hurtful things – until he comes to understand why Aaron – and many others – love it:

It’s about the joy of writing for your own pleasure. And about sharing your work with a community of like-minded people.  It’s about… creativity for creativity’s sake.

The only real criticism I can level at the book as a whole is to say that Lewis’ no-relationships-because-I’m-too-selfish/closed-off-and-everybody-leaves-me-thing is just a bit stereotypical;  but that said, it is at least well done here, with moments that will make your heart break for Lewis even as you’re screaming at him to get out of his own way.

Both authors are adept at writing stories that tug at the heartstrings, and there are some lovely, angsty moments in this one that will do just that as both men grapple with their feelings for each other, Lewis trying desperately to lock them away, Aaron owning them to himself honestly, but knowing he needs to move on.  There’s a real emotional depth to the connection between the pair, a sense of ‘rightness’ when they’re together that just lights up the page, which is incredibly satisfying  – and incredibly frustrating when Lewis is seemingly  bent on self-sabotage.

There’s also a terrific secondary cast – from Toni, Lewis’ supportive (and long-suffering) boss, to the absolutely ghastly TV exec Charlie Alexander, who I would happily have pushed under a bus (although I suspect Lewis would have beaten me to it!).

Total Creative Control is a delightful feel-good romance full of warmth and good humour that will make you smile and hit you in the feels in the best way.  On to the keeper shelf it goes – and to the hint in the notes at the end that there may be more to come in this world, all I can say is I’m Here For It.

King’s Man (Outlawed #1) by Sally Malcolm


This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when the love of your life becomes your enemy?

Had there been no war, Sam Hutchinson and Nate Tanner would have lived their lives together as intimate friends, and secret lovers. But when the revolution convulsed America, it threw them down on opposite sides of the conflict…

Five years later, Sam is a Loyalist refugee in London, penniless, bitter, and scrambling to survive amid the city’s shadowy underworld. It’s a far cry from his respectable life as a Rhode Island lawyer, and the last person he wants to witness his ruin is Nate Tanner— the man he once loved, the man who betrayed him.

The man he can’t forgive.

Now an agent of the Continental Congress, Nate is in London on the trail of a traitor threatening America’s hard-won freedom. But the secret mission of his heart is quite different. Nate longs to find Sam Hutchinson—the man he still loves, the man he lost to the war.

The man he can’t forget.

When their lives unexpectedly collide, Sam and Nate are thrown together on a dangerous mission. And despite everything that still divides them, old passions begin to stir…

Can they seize this second chance at love, or is their tangled past too painful to forgive?

Rating: A

In King’s Man – the first full length book in her new Outlawed series – Sally Malcolm has pulled off a feat that, in these days of clichéd, been-there-read-that historical romance is little short of a minor miracle.  This book is that rare gem in an overcrowded genre and something that every fan of historicals has been waiting for, something refreshingly original in terms of story and setting that  combines a gorgeous, deeply emotional love story that will tug at the heartstrings with an exciting, high-stakes plot that will have you on the edge of your seat.

In 1774, lawyer Samuel Hutchinson met Nathaniel Tanner when the latter was sent from his home in Boston to clerk for James Reed, a respected lawyer in the small Rhode Island town of Rosemont.  Over the ensuing months, the two men became friends and eventually fell in love, forming a soul-deep connection they expected to last for their lifetimes.  (This story is told in the prequel novella, Rebel; it’s not essential to have read it before starting King’s Man, but I’d strongly recommend it – it’s a gorgeous romance and cements Nate and Sam’s backstory).  But four years later, and with the effects of the revolution continuing to reverberate throughout America, the two men find themselves more often than not disagreeing over ideology, with Nate supporting the war against the British and Sam opposing it, hating the way it’s dividing American from American and allowing the rule of law to flounder in the face of those who would deny him and those like him their liberty and freedom of thought.  Neither man can see a way to bridge the gap between them, and even though it feels like they’re ripping away a part of themselves, they agree it’s best they don’t see each other any more;  and when, two months later, Sam is dragged, bound, from his home by an angry mob of (so-called) patriots and taken away to God-knows-where, a devastated Nate knows his life has changed forever.

Five years later, Sam is one of thousands of American refugees eking out an existence in London.  Bitter and angry, heartsick and homesick, he lives in a fencing ken in the stews of St. Giles, where he makes his living valuing stolen goods and as “a larcenist for hire”, the best lockpicker in London.  It’s in this capacity that he’s instructed to present himself the following evening to someone who has a job for him – a job which will send Sam north to the home of Lord Marlborough in order to steal sensitive documents.  But he won’t be travelling alone.

Nate is now an agent in the Department of Foreign Affairs and has been in London for three months, having accompanied Colonel BenjaminTalmach there on his mission to root out Tory (those who opposed the war) traitors.  In the guise of a lowly lawyer, Nate works for an American merchant named Paul Farris and is gathering the evidence needed to prove the man is involved in a plot to destabilise the Continental Congress (the Congress of the Confederation, which governed America from 1781 to 1789). When Nate attends a meeting between Farris and Lord Marlborough (a nasty piece of work if ever there was one) at which Marlborough boasts of having a list of names of allies in America who could stir up an armed revolt that would help “bring the Continental Congress to its knees”- Nate realises this is it; this is the information he’s been seeking in order to bring Farris down.  But Talmach – whose hatred of Tories is legendary, wants more than just Farris; he wants Marlborough’s entire list of traitors and is sending Nate to Marlborough Castle to keep an eye on the man Talmach has employed to steal it.

Nate’s decision to accompany Talmach to London wasn’t just for his job; his main reason for going was that he hoped he might be able to find Sam – but even so, Sam is the last person Nate expects to see when he arrives at Talmach’s lodgings to discuss the theft of Marborough’s list.  The sight of his former lover – so bitter and resentful, and in such reduced circumstances – is a real punch to the gut, and Nate can feel hostility emanating from the other man in waves.  But he refuses to be put off by Sam’s coldness and is unable to stop hoping that having found him again they might at least be able to rebuild their friendship even if they can never be what they once were to each other.

Days spent in close proximity during their journey lead to some agonising soul-searching and bitter recriminations as Sam and Nate finally confront the truths of their past. Seeing Nate again stirs up so many conflicting emotions for Sam; the gut-wrenching pain of the way things ended between them, self-loathing at the joy he feels at still wanting Nate in spite of what happened, a melancholic yearning for the way things were – the author vividly evokes all that and more as Sam slowly allows himself to remember why he’d fallen in love with Nate in the first place and then to reach a place where forgiveness is possible.  Nate is utterly heartbroken when he learns the full extent of what Sam’s convictions cost him – his freedom, his home and his identity as an American – and now bitterly regrets not standing beside him when it counted. As their journey progresses, he comes to a greater understanding of Sam’s position, but knowing they can never recapture the idyll of their early days together and believing there’s no future for them makes this reunion and rapprochement bittersweet.  Neither man can deny that the intensity of the attachment between them has never waned, and while their soul-deep bond may have been fractured and its strength greatly tested, it’s still there, and growing stronger by the hour.  The slow rekindling of Sam and Nate’s feelings for one another is beautifully done, full of raw but heartfelt emotion and likely to bring a lump to the throat on more than one occasion.

Sally Malcolm creates longing and sexual tension so intense it leaps off the page, and the way she’s seamlessly woven together this emotionally powerful love story with a tense and exciting plot and a wonderfully (and obviously very well researched) rich historical background is nothing short of masterful.  Her writing is marvellous and she has imbued her story with a sense of time and place so strong that the reader feel s transported to the narrow, muddy streets of eighteenth century London, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city and able to hear the cries of the hawkers and breathe in the intrigue of the coffee houses.  In her author’s note, Ms. Malcolm explains her motivations for writing a story that explored the experience of American Loyalists, and I’m so pleased she did, because I had no prior knowledge of this particular part of history and found it absolutely fascinating.  I was also forcibly struck at how relevant so many of the issues confronting Sam and Nate still are; it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sam’s warnings against demagogues and mob rule, the deep divisions created between compatriots, and recent events on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps some of the highest praise I can offer is to say that if you enjoy the way KJ Charles so skilfully weaves together romance, history and politics, then chances are you’ll enjoy this book, too.

Heart-breaking, uplifting and utterly captivating, King’s Man is a compelling read and easily one of the finest historical romances I’ve read over the past few years. I’m happy to recommend it without reserve or hesitation.

Rebel: An Outlawed Story (Outlawed #0.5) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling in love is just the beginning…

Samuel Hutchinson has lived his whole life in Rosemont, Rhode Island. And as far as he’s concerned, his future is fixed: complete his legal training, marry a respectable woman, and settle down to raise a family.

But Sam never counted on meeting Nathaniel Tanner.

Clever, urbane, and dazzling, Nate has been banished to Rosemont by a father determined to remove him from the rising political tension in Boston. The last thing Nate expects to find in the sleepy Rhode Island town is a man who’s not only interested in Nate’s radical ideas, but who interests Nate in return.

In every conceivable way.

Over books and conversation, their friendship deepens. But when Nate dares to confess his true feelings, Sam faces a stark choice—reject his friend and continue to live a lie, or rebel against everything he’s been taught and embrace his heart’s desire…

Rating: B+

Sally Malcolm’s Rebel is a novella/short story that acts as a prequel to the full-length novel King’s Man, out later this month.   It’s short and sweet, but packs quite an emotional punch as it charts the development of the relationship between two young men from very different backgrounds whose lives will be forever changed by their association.

Handsome, charming and well-to-do Harvard graduate Nathaniel Tanner is sent to the sleepy Rhode Island town of Rosemont by his father, who disapproved of the people Nate chose to spend time with.  Nate is to clerk for lawyer John Reed, and it’s at Reed’s modest offices that fellow clerk Samuel Hutchinson sets eyes on his new colleague for the first time. Sam is instantly smitten – against his will, against his judgment – and tries hard to quell the inappropriate thoughts and feelings that arise whenever Sam looks at Nate, or the shocks that rush across his skin with every accidental touch.  For the first few weeks, Nate keeps himself to himself; he doesn’t talk about himself and doesn’t socialise, so Sam is surprised when he suggests they share a pre-Christmas drink.  During the course of the evening, Nate starts to tell Sam a little of his circumstances, and soon they’re conversing on a variety of subjects – novels, poetry, philosophy, politics – and over the following weeks and months, a genuine friendship develops between them. Sam has been alone since the death of his parents from typhus a couple of years earlier and the meals and discussions he shares with Nate quickly become the high point of every week.

Nate hadn’t expected to find someone like Sam in provincial Rhode Island, a man willing to listen to and endlessly debate Nate’s free-thinking ideas.  And he can’t help finding it somewhat ironic that his father banished him in part because of his bedroom preferences, only for Nate to end up sharing a small office with “an Adonis who spent his days shooting Nate confused and confusing looks.“  He’s fairly sure he’s reading Sam’s interest correctly, and also that Sam likely is struggling with his attraction to Nate.

Rebel is a little gem of a story which, in just thirty-six pages presents readers with two well-characterised leads and a passionate love story developed through a series of vignettes.  Sally Malcolm is one of those writers who can create the most delicious, intense chemistry between characters with the merest look or touch, and the longing and soul-deep connection she forges between Sam and Nate simply leap off the page.

Rebel is completely absorbing and ends on a hopeful HFN.  My appetite for King’s Man is well and truly whetted!

Note: Rebel was previously made available free to subscribers to the author’s mailing list.

The Last Kiss by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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…

Rating: B+

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?”

To make things worse, his parents make it clear that they expect him to get married and settle down as soon as possible and have perfect girl in mind, Miss Olive Allen, the daughter of friends.  Ash likes Olive – she’s a straightforward, no-nonsense young woman who currently works as a VAD nurse and whose outlook is very much aligned with his – but his heart belongs to someone else and Ash has no intention of getting married to anyone.

Back in London after the Armistice, Harry, like all the other soldiers returning to England, finds himself out of step with the world he’s come home to – and also out of work.  He’s living with his widowed sister and two young nieces and is very conscious that Kitty’s meagre resources are stretched thin – so when she suggests he apply to his former captain for work, Harry forces himself to swallow his pride and travels to Highcliffe House in Hampshire to see if there might be any work for him in the stables.

Ash is astonished and overjoyed to see Harry again, so much so that he greets him as the friend he is, much to his father’s outrage.  There’s a social distance to be maintained between master and servant and Ash and Harry can never again be what they were to each other before.  Ash isn’t in a position to openly defy his father’s edict that he keep away from Harry, but he’s determined to spend time with him, and thanks to Olive’s idea that Ash should take up riding again, they do manage a few afternoons together. During those stolen hours, three years of longing and wondering and a knowledge, now, of the transience of life, propel both men towards admitting the truth of their feelings for one another – but it’s bittersweet, the knowledge that they love and are loved in return overshadowed by the knowledge that this is likely all they’re ever going to be able to have.

Sally Malcolm is a master of the angsty romance, conveying heightened emotion in a way that feels right for the mood of the story and is never overdone.   The feelings Ash and Harry have for each other are so strongly portrayed that they leap off the page; tenderness, longing, connection and most of all, their unspoken love, are palpable, all skilfully created within the first few pages of the novel and sustained throughout their forbidden love affair.  A real sense of foreboding seeps through the second half of the book as disaster inevitably looms closer; and when it strikes it’s a punch to the gut.

The historical setting is very well realised. The author clearly has considerable knowledge of the period and the story is very firmly grounded in the attitudes and prejudices of the time.  Those prejudices extend beyond sexuality and class, however, as illustrated through the character of Olive, a young woman who, Ash realises, was liberated by the war, freed from stifling social conventions in order to do something useful.  She wants to train to be a doctor, but her parents won’t hear of it, and now the war is over, she’s expected to forget her taste of freedom and return to her pre-war self, a situation experienced by countless young women at the time.

The Last Kiss is an absorbing read that will transport readers to the horrors of the battlefield and the beauty of the idyllic English countryside.  Those who like their historical romance to contain more than a nod towards actual history will enjoy the setting and appreciate the author’s keen eye for detail and social observation.  This is a ‘quiet’ book and the overall tone is perhaps a little sombre, but the central love affair is compelling and heartfelt, and the HEA is well-deserved.

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!

Twice Shy (New Milton #3) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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?

Rating: A-

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 2018 in Books & Audio

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:

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

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

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 Womanwhich 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 Husband which 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 Duke and 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 Print and 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.

Romantic Suspense

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.

Audio

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!

Between the Lines (New Milton #2) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Theo Wishart has given up on finding love.

Luca Moretti doesn’t want to find it.

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?

Rating: A

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.

Love Around the Corner (New Milton #1.5) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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…

Rating: A

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.