June 2020 TBR Challenge – Getaway

This month’s TBR prompt of “getaway” was a tough one in that one can take it in almost too many directions. Do we want to read pure tropical vacation escape? A road romance? Running away from the bad guys? Getting away with something forbidden? So many options. In the end, Caz chose an emotional road romance, while Lynn went with a vacation fling.

The Road Home by L.A. Witt

Narrated by Michael Ferraiuolo and Greg Boudreaux

Sometimes the ideal book pops into my head for TBR Challenge prompts, and sometimes… it doesn’t.  This was one of those times;  I had a few books on my list, but I wasn’t really feeling any of them.  Then, a few days after my last (unsuccessful) search for something suitable, I picked up a new audiobook without having let the title sink in or reading the synopsis  – I like the author’s work and the narrators are two of my all-time favourites – and realised it would fit!  This is the first time I’ve fulfilled a TBR prompt by listening to a book rather than reading it, but as I tend to read/listen 50:50 these days, I figured it would be allowed ;)

L.A. Witt’s The Road Home is a tender, poignant and sensual romance that combines a number of familiar tropes to produce a story that transcends all of them.  The author tackles some difficult issues – PTSD, addiction, living with chronic illness, the stigma of being HIV positive – incorporating them fully into the story and handling them in a respectful and sensitive manner, but never loses sight of the fact that this is, first and foremost, a romance.

David Coleman and Hunter Scott have known each other for most of their lives, and were even high-school sweethearts at one point, but after a catastrophic break-up in college, ended up deciding they were better as friends.  That friendship has endured through Hunter’s deployments and the addiction that nearly took David’s life, and now, in their thirties, they both seem to have their lives on-track.  David has been clean for seven years and is in his second year of medical school, and Hunter is steadily climbing the ranks in the Navy.

David is practically estranged from his family, who lost all faith in him after he became addicted to meth.  His parents (begrudgingly) accept his sexuality, but his mother in particular rarely misses an opportunity to remind him of ‘everything he put them through’ when he was an addict, and David knows that his parents and brother are just waiting for him to relapse; the fact that he’s been through hell and emerged stronger, that he has the strength to remain sober, and that he got into one of the best medical schools in the country counts for nothing with them; all they see is a fuck-up who will never change.  And even worse, as far as his family is concerned, is the fact that David used to work in the porn industry –in front of the camera – and although he’s apologised profusely for disappointing them and scaring them over his addiction and the fact that he is HIV positive, the porn is something he refuses, point blank, to apologise for.  He’s not ashamed of it and sees no reason why he should be.  But when he receives the news that his father is terminally ill and that this Christmas may well be his last, David decides to have one last try at patching things up. His family doesn’t think much of him, but they do respect Hunter, so David asks Hunter if he’ll accompany him home for Christmas (and to his sister’s New Year wedding) – and pretend to be his boyfriend.  After all, if someone like Hunter thinks David is ‘good enough’, then surely his parents will… maybe not change their minds exactly, but ease off a bit and accept him back into the fold.

Hunter has been the best of friends to David, ready to help however he can and literally helping to save his life more than once.  Despite their breakup, he’s always been in love with David, but hasn’t pushed for anything more, believing it’s better to have David in his life as a friend than not to have him at all.  He knows how toxic David’s family is and privately thinks he’s probably better off without that kind of negativity in his life, but he also knows how important it is to David to at least try to end their estrangement, and he agrees to the plan.

For good reason, they decide to drive from Los Angeles to Washington, even though December is probably not the best time to be driving any distance in the Midwest.  Their plan to arrive the day before Christmas Eve is scuppered when the weather takes a turn for the worse and it becomes dangerous for them to proceed.  In true romance-novel fashion, There Is Only One Bed at the crappy motel they end up at, and one thing leads to another, which leads to … their agreeing it was a mistake that they should go back to how things were before. Which is, of course, impossible.

The Road Home is so much more than the sum of its tropes.  It’s a story about family being more than blood-ties and about learning when to hold on and when to let go.  David and Hunter are beautifully realised characters; they’re flawed and damaged, and their strength and willingness to fight every day to be who and what they want to be is admirable.  Their romance is sensual and passionate and is underpinned by an undeniable emotional connection and sizzling chemistry, a slow-burn which feels completely right for the tone of the story.

I definitely ran the gamut of emotions while listening to this.  The sheer awfulness of David’s family (apart from his sister) has to be read/listened to to be believed (seriously, they made me so angry!) but kudos to the author for making them into characters rather than caricatures.  This is a romance, so the story ends with an HEA for David and Hunter, but it’s also a bittersweet reminder that not everything in life is fixable and that sometimes, the thing you want isn’t always the thing you need.

Greg Boudreaux and Michael Ferraiuolo are, as I said earlier, two of my very favourite narrators, and are legends in the world of m/m romance narration, so having both of them working together again was a dream come true!  The story is narrated from both Hunter’s (Mr. Boudreaux) and David’s (Mr. Ferraiuolo) points of view in alternating chapters, so both narrators get to portray almost all the characters, and have achieved a remarkable consistency when it comes to the supporting cast. (A common complaint about dual narrations is that a character as performed by one narrator sounds too different to their portrayal by the other, but that isn’t the case here.) The same is true of the leads; in both performances, Hunter’s voice is pitched lower than David’s so the listener is never confused as to which character is speaking  regardless of who is narrating that particular portion of the story.  But the absolute best thing about these narrators is that not only are they both as technically accomplished as they come, they’re also incredibly good vocal actors – which, in a book like this, is vital. Their ability to perfectly judge every emotional nuance means that the listener is right there with the characters, experiencing their joy and sadness, passion and heartbreak alongside them.  Both performances are exceptionally good, elevating the author’s words to a new level and bringing the story and characters to full, vibrant life.

The Road Home deals with some difficult issues and isn’t always an easy listen, but I enjoyed every minute of it.   Moving, intense, sad and passionate, it’s a wonderful story about true love and second chances – and the fantastic narration makes it a must for fans of romance audiobooks.

Grade:  Narration: A / Story: A-          Sensuality:  Warm

Buy at Amazon / Audible 

One Night in Provence by Barbara Wallace

Considering all that has been 2020 to date, as soon as I saw “getaway” listed as a prompt, I knew that I wanted to recharge my batteries by spending a few hours with a travel romance.  I’ve become more conscious of just how colonialist and often racist some of the “love in exotic destinations” stories of old are, so I have very few international vacation romances in my TBR nowadays.  However, I had picked up a couple of the Destination Brides books last year, and One Night in Provence by Barbara Wallace pretty well hit the spot.

This book is part of a continuity series from Harlequin featuring heroines who all won luxury vacations as part of a charity raffle. The books stand alone, and in this installment, we get to tag along on Jenna Brown’s trip to Provence. Jenna works as a caregiver in a Nantucket nursing home, and this is her first overseas trip.  She is nervous to be travelling alone, but incredibly excited to explore a new place – and to be staying in a real French chateau.

When she arrives in the French countryside, Jenna, like many, is enchanted by the fields of lavender and sunflowers. She also finds herself quite taken by the flirtatious stranger, Philippe, whom she meets soon after arriving at her hotel. Though she does not know it initially, he is the heir of the D’Usay family which owns the hotel and many properties in the area. Philippe is quite the charming tour guide and though he is obviously very interested in Jenna, he leaves the ball in her court for her to initiate the affair, a move that made me look favorably on him despite his proclaimed lack of interest in long-term relationships.

The story starts off light and fun. Jenna and Philippe obviously have their issues. Due to family tragedy, Philippe is the last of the family line and is not interested in continuing it further. Jenna, for her part, has her own painful family history. However, while this gets touched on, the plot very easily sweeps readers into Jenna’s dream vacation and the weeklong, very happy romance with Philippe. The first part of the book often feels like a wishful fantasy, and it’s  some nice escape reading.

It’s clear that both Jenna and Philippe plan to go their separate ways even though they can’t stop thinking about one another. Jenna gets back into her normal routine at work, and discovers she is pregnant. Thankfully, this doesn’t morph into a secret baby plot. Jenna does what one would expect a mature adult to do – she tells Philippe.

The second portion of the book has a very different feeling than the first, but it still worked. The baby-to-be comes as a surprise to both Jenna and Philippe, and this portion of the story deals with how each works through their reactions to the news. Philippe comes off a bit heavy-handed at times, but he listens to Jenna when she calls him on it and they obviously care about each other. Parts of the story felt a little rushed but I definitely enjoyed the book, particularly the chapters centered on the dream vacation in France.

Buy it at: Amazon

Grade: B                 Sensuality: Subtle

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