10 Things That Never Happened

Grade : A-

Alexis Hall begins a new series – Material World – with 10 Things That Never Happened, an opposites-attract romance between two very lonely people who come together through some rather unlikely circumstances. All the things I enjoy about Mr. Hall’s books are here – the characters are flawed and very real, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s insightful, poignant and sometimes absurd while also being wonderfully down-to-earth. It’s perhaps a little more mellow in tone than some of his other recent titles, but it’s ultimately a touching story about family, love and loss, about coming to terms with the past and looking forward to the future.

Sam Becker is the manager of a bed and bathroom shop in Sheffield, one of four in the small Splashes & Snuggles chain owned by Jonathan Forest. Sam is a good boss to his small team, but isn’t great at actually managing the business side of things and the branch isn’t meeting the current sales and profits targets. It looks like the axe is going to fall when Sam is summoned to head office in Croydon by His Royal Dickishness, Jonathan Forest himself, to explain why the store is over budget and under target, and isn’t all that surprised when his hard-nosed, bottom-line-driven, arsehole of a boss tells him he needs to make some big changes if he’s to keep his job – changes which include letting the underperforming staff go, which Sam absolutely doesn’t want to do. Making the rounds of the showroom in the afternoon, Jonathan and Sam get into a bit of an altercation during which Jonathan fires Sam and his whole team, and which ends with Sam catching his foot on a display shower enclosure, which collapses on top of him.

Sam is taken to hospital to be checked out, and when the doctor mentions temporary memory loss as common effect of severe concussion, Sam doesn’t say his memory is fine. He’s still a little confused, but he remembers the argument and Jonathan firing everyone, and is already thinking that maybe this is a way he can save their jobs – he just needs a bit more time to come up with a proper plan. When the doctor assumes Jonathan is going to be the one looking after Sam while he recovers from the concussion – and as Sam doesn’t actually have anyone who can take care of him – Jonathan somewhat reluctantly does the decent thing and takes Sam home. Sam is sure that Jonathan is only doing it because he’s worried Sam will sue the pants off him – but maybe using amnesia as an excuse to spend a bit of time with Jonathan won’t be a bad thing (if they can manage not to kill each other). If Sam can get Jonathan to like him, then maybe Sam will be able to ensure he and his team keep their jobs.

Thanks to some forced proximity – and some completely unexpected generosity on Jonathan’s part when he spends a day driving Sam to his flat in Sheffield (and back) purely so Sam can pick up his cat – Sam starts to realise that while Jonathan might be a high-handed, super-controlling workaholic, there’s a good heart lurking underneath it all, and that his plan to get Jonathan to like him might just be working. He hadn’t, however, banked on the reverse happening, but the more Sam glimpses the Jonathan nobody else gets to see – his rare smiles, the vulnerability deep inside (and his affection for Sam’s slightly ugly cat) – the more he is unable to stop himself liking – and falling for – his grumpy boss. I loved watching these two slowly shedding their misconceptions about one another, and that their growing affection for each other is revealed through small, everyday signs of care and genuine regard such as Sam cooking dinner, making one another tea and sandwiches, watching old TV shows and falling asleep together on the sofa. Jonathan looking after Sam is cute – even when he’s a bit heavy-handed you can tell it comes from a good place – and Sam is secretly pleased to be looked after (although he’d never admit it.) But of course, the longer Sam stays, the bigger hole he’s digging for himself with his fake-amnesia plan, and the more he risks ruining this new and fragile something he and Jonathan are building together. He knows he’s going to have to come clean before he’s rumbled. But how? And will Jonathan ever forgive him?

It’s obvious early on that both men have issues they’re loathe to deal with, and the author shows us why Jonathan is the way he is, where he came from, and that while he undoubtedly can be a bit of a knob, that’s not all he is or who he really wants to be. I didn’t actually realise, until I was over halfway through, that, despite Sam being the PoV character, I knew very little about him because he conceals so much – partly because he’s pretending to have amnesia so has to be careful about what he tells Jonathan, and partly because he’s deliberately locked away some painful things he doesn’t want to think about. Mr. Hall does a great job of scattering little hints throughout the story so that it’s not difficult to guess what Sam is running from, but it still packs a punch when it’s revealed near the end, and we finally slot together the pieces to understand what Sam has been going through and why he is the way he is, especially with regards to his job and the people he works with.

There’s a fairly big secondary cast here, consisting of Sam’s colleagues and Jonathan’s large, loving and somewhat chaotic family, who pretty much adopt Sam from the get-go. Jonathan’s relationship with his family is a complicated one – he obviously loves them, but it’s tied up with a lot of guilt and frustration – and I really liked the thoughtful sub-plot that looks at his relationship with his dad and how it has informed his character. Sam’s colleagues are a colourful bunch who do rally round for him, although some them are pretty awful at their jobs, and I couldn’t entirely blame Jonathan for threatening to sack them!

I didn’t realise when I picked it up that the book is set in December in the run-up to Christmas, so I suppose it could (just about) be categorised as a ‘Christmas Book’. Part of the story revolves around Sam trying to persuade Jonathan to host the family for Christmas that year and part is Sam organising the firm’s Christmas party, but thankfully, it’s the least Christmassy Christmas book I’ve ever read – which is a big plus as far as I’m concerned.

The main problem I have overall is that the final section – from Jonathan finding out the truth to the reconciliation and HEA – happens over two-and-a-half chapters. I liked what we get and where Sam and Jonathan end up, but it feels rushed.

10 Things That Never Happened is one of those books that kinda crept up on me. I read it and enjoyed it – but it was only when I started to really think about it and go back through the highlights on my Kindle that I realised just how much the author has packed in to what seems, at first, to be a light-hearted story full of snarky banter, an ugly cat and a ridiculously oversized Christmas tree. Alongside the romance, there’s a story about connecting and re-connecting, about being true to who you are, and not being afraid to to show that you care. One of the many things Alexis Hall does so well is to have his characters experience personal growth while remaining essentially the same people, and that’s true of Sam and Jonathan here. Sam is still upbeat and prone to wearing his heart on his sleeve and Jonathan is still gruff and aloof and anxious, but they’ve found that special someone who complements them – who understands them, accepts them and loves them for who they are – and together, they’re better.

Yes, the fake-amnesia plot is a bit wobbly, and maybe the deception goes on too long, but neither of those things spoiled the book for me. 10 Things That Never Happened is a lovely mixture of the daft and the meaningful in a tender romance full of humour and feels, and I’m making space for it on my keeper shelf.

Caz Owens

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two gorgeous young women who are without doubt, my finest achievement :) I’ve gravitated away from my first love – historical romance – over the last few years and now read mostly m/m romances in a variety of sub-genres. I’ve found many fantastic new authors to enjoy courtesy of audiobooks - I probably listen to as many books as I read these days – mostly through glomming favourite narrators and following them into different genres. And when I find books I LOVE, I want to shout about them from the (metaphorical) rooftops to help other readers and listeners to discover them, too.
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