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The Best of 2019 – Em’s List

I’m not going to call my reading year a disappointment.  It wasn’t.  I liked a lot of books.  Unfortunately, many anticipated big releases were disappointing, and I returned to old favorites when I was underwhelmed by my TBR.  Some of those titles were just as good as I remembered; quite a few weren’t.  Anyway, after this brief diversion, I was inspired me to read a few new-to-me authors, and I’m happily recommending three of them to you.  Beth O’Leary,  Adriana Herrera and Gregory Ashe, wrote some of my favorite books in 2019, and all make appearances on my Best of 2019 list.

A Beastly Kind of Earl by Mia Vincy

Like almost everyone else in Romancelandia, I loved the Ms. Vincy’s debut, A Wicked Kind of Husband.  A marriage of convenience between opposites, it was funny and steamy and wonderful in all the best ways, but a year of disappointments in historical romance had me lowering my expectations for the second Longhope Abbey novel. Isn’t that sad? And in the case of A Beastly Kind of Earl, it was also completely unnecessary.  If anything, it’s BETTER than the first book. Once again the author introduces us to two opposites who absolutely belong together and just don’t know it.  He’s grumpy and anti-social and damaged; she’s lovely and sweet and mischievous… and ruined.  In a delightfully clever twist of fate, they find themselves in a fake marriage. She knows it’s fake; he knows it’s fake.  But he knows she doesn’t know he knows. Have I lost you? You better read it for yourself then! The principal characters are a lovely, likeable pair you can’t help but root for; the dialogue is charming and witty (and very funny, too); there’s lots of steamy sexual tension, and the storytelling – from start to finish – is clever and captivating.  I loved it. A lot.

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Lady Derring Takes a Lover by Julie Anne Long

In this smart, sexy romance, Julie Anne Long capably tackles difficult and tricky subject matter, while charming readers with a sublimely romantic love story.  After the death of her husband, Delilah, Countess of Derring, is left at the mercy of his numerous creditors.  When a visit to his solicitor’s office goes from bad to worse – they’re interrupted by her husband’s former mistress, Angelique Breedlove – Delilah vows to rise above her circumstances, anyway.  She finds herself in the same dockside pub as Ms. Breedlove later that day, and despite her initial animosity, the women agree to go into business together and open a boarding house in the building left to Delilah by her husband.  When Captain Tristan Hardy arrives at The Grand Palace on the Thames, Delilah assumes he’s looking for lodgings, but in reality, he’s on the hunt for a notorious smuggler, and if he has to seduce the beautiful widow of the Earl of Derring to get his man (or woman?)…he’s willing to do it. I enjoyed everything about this book.

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Dreamers series by Adriana Herrera

It’s hard to pick a favorite in the Dreamers series (they’re all terrific); the series as a whole makes my best of 2019.  Dreamers follows four Afro-Latinx best friends who grew up in the South Bronx:  food truck owner and chef, Ernesto Vasquez (Nesto), social worker Camilo Santiago Briggs (Milo), professor and activist Patrice Denis, and (still to come) physical therapist, Juan Pablo (Juan Pa) Campos.  Each novel features a sexy and romantic relationship – and the often rocky road to happily ever after.  But what unifies the series – and makes it better than almost everything else I’ve read this year – is Herrera’s thought provoking portrayal of the immigrant experience in America.  Nesto, Camilo and Patrice fight for their American Dream – and it’s a difficult, painful journey.  The author unflinchingly tackles racism, prejudice, privilege, poverty, abuse, wealth disparity… and that’s just with Nesto, Camilo, Patrice, and Juan Pa!  Their love interests bring a host of struggles to the relationships, too.  Sexy, funny, thought-provoking, challenging, romantic and uplifting, Dreamers is marvelous on many levels.  If I have to pick a favorite, I’d give a slight nod to American Love Story, but only because I think the series improved from book to book.

Buy the series: Amazon

Heated Rivalry  by Rachel Reid

Everyone who reads my reviews know I have a weak spot for hockey romances.  I read a lot of them!  But in March, when Heated Rivalry started popping up everywhere on my GoodReads feed, I resisted it.  I DNF’d the first book in the series, and was convinced the second book couldn’t be any better.  And then Caz gave it a B+ in her review.  So I read it.  Twice!  In this enemies to lovers story, NHL superstar  Shane Hollander falls hard for his sworn enemy, cocky and irreverent Ilya Rozanov.  Opposites and bitter rivals, Shane and Ilya can’t resist their attraction to each other.  After a teenage locker room kiss gives way to a clandestine affair, they spend nearly a decade pretending they’re merely fuck buddies who meet in secret whenever they’re in the same town.  We know better!  Heated Rivalry time jumps between passionate encounters as both men reluctantly come to realize they can’t live without each other.  Sexy, hot, funny and sweet, Heated Rivalry is a game changer in sexy sports romance.

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Hook Shot by Kennedy Ryan

From the first book to the last, I was hooked on Ms. Ryan’s Hoops series.  In Hook Shot, we revisit significant secondary characters introduced in Long Shot: Kenan Ross, a divorced single dad and teammate/friend of Augustus West, and Lotus DuPree, cousin and best friend of Iris (Augustus’s wife).  Kenan has wanted Lotus from the moment they first met, but he’s never been able to convince her to give him a chance.  When Lotus’s boss asks him to be the spokesperson for his new sportswear brand, Kenan is thrilled.  Lotus isn’t.   Kenan, to his credit, doesn’t push.  But he’s got game – on and off the court – and before long, Lotus is hooked on him, on them, and on love, and so is he.  Hook Shot doesn’t pander to its heavy subject matter – sexual assault, suicide, divorce – and this unflinching ode to the power of loving and being loved, is one of my favorite books of the year.

Buy it at: Amazon

The Flatshare, Beth O’Leary

In my October DIK review, I mentioned that The Flatshare wasn’t even on my radar when it came out in May, and that I was surprised the novel isn’t more popular (it gave me all the same feels The Hating Game did).  I loved its clever premise – strangers share a flat, but because of their work schedules they’re never in it at the same time – and fall in love over the notes they leave behind for each other.  Although the epistolary romance is a delight, once the two finally meet (after a prolonged slow burn), the book hits its stride.  The principal characters are lovely and relatable, and their romance is swoony and sexy; their notes and conversations are silly and funny and perfect, there are wonderful, fully developed standout secondary characters – and there’s a villain, too.  The Flatshare is a magical blend of delightful, charming, swoony and smart, and it’s absolutely one of those books you can’t wait to tell your friends about.  A brilliant début from a talented new contemporary author.

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Work for It byTalia Hibbert

Opposites attract in Talia Hibbert’s first foray into queer romance.  Olumide Olusegun-Keynes (Olu) is struggling,  and hides himself away in his London apartment.  Lonely, angry and sad, he plots his escape – picking a small elderflower farm in Fernley as a temporary hiding place.  Griffin Everett grew up in Fernley, ostracized for his size (he’s very big) and odd mother.  When Work for It begins, he’s the town hermit, hiding himself away when he isn’t managing the local elderflower farm, concocting delicious cordial recipes, and wishing things were different.  When Olu and Griffin meet, it’s lust at first sight… until a confused and scared Olu viciously pushes Griffin away.  Hibbert slowly – tenderly – forces them to face each other and their fears… and along the way, they fall in love.  Juxtaposing love and lust with depression and loneliness, Hibbert masterfully guides her couple to a hard earned happily ever after.  Olu and Griffin work hard for it, and we reap the rewards of their efforts in this poignant and moving love story.

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Hazard and Somerset:  Off Duty (Hazard and Somerset), Gregory Ashe

Friends, I fell in love with Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset in 2019.  After Caz kept recommending the series, I finally picked up the first book, Pretty, Pretty Boys, and I never looked back.  Or up – until I finished the series.  Hazard and Somerset first met as teenagers.  Somerset was Wahredua’s golden boy; Hazard its gay whipping boy.  When they’re reunited –  as partners for the Wahredua police department, Hazard is horrified, and Somerset… well, he’s optimistic?  His hopeful outlook doesn’t last long.  Over the course of six brilliant novels, the pair solve difficult cases linked to a bigger overarching plot, and slowly (torturously, really) fall for each other.  I loved them and this series.  Off Duty features three short stories that take place within the time frame of the original series, and a collection of six smile-inducing vignettes of a coupled up Hazard and Somerset post-Criminal Past.  It’s the cherry (cherries?) on top of this sublime series.  All the best aspects of Mr. Ashe’s writing are shown to great effect – the snark, the tension, the teasing, terrific storytelling – and I just wanted more, more, more.  Ashe is, hands down, my favorite author of 2019, and while I also loved his Borealis Investigations 2019 releases, Hazard and Somerset own my heart.

Buy it at: Amazon

Addendum:  I just finished the first book in the newest series featuring Hazard and Somerset, The Rational Faculty, and it’s tremendous.  My favorite pair are together as a couple, but no longer working together for the Wahredua PD.  Their relationship is intense, their challenges are significant, and people are still behaving badly – murderously – in their small town.  It will be hard for Mr. Ashe to top this brilliant kick-off to the new series, but I believe in him!  And them!

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Narrated by  Nicholas Boulton

I originally intended to review The Affair of the Mysterious Letter when it came out in June, but shortly before it was released, I took a three month sabbatical from reviewing and put the book aside.  I ended up listening to the audio version instead, and I’m so glad I did.  Nicholas Boulton’s performance is outstanding, and he brings the principal characters and this story to life.  Funny and weird, clever and charming, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a totally bonkers and completely wonderful homage to Sherlock Holmes with  Miss Shaharazad Haas – a pansexual, drug addicted sorceress with questionable morals – as Holmes.  Watson is Captain John Wyndham, a gay, transsexual man raised by repressed and religious parents, who’s recently returned after five years fighting a war in another universe.  These two pair up after John responds to an ad for a roommate and finds himself living with Shaharazad at 221b Martyrs Walk.  When Miss Haas agrees to help a former lover identify the person blackmailing her, Wyndham is drawn into the investigation, too.  If it sounds confusing, it is.  But it’s also marvelous, and Boulton’s narration is sublime.  His characterization of the prim, easily scandalized, darling Wyndham is an absolute revelation.  Wonderful and wacky, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a five star DIK.

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Gilded Cage by K.J. Charles

Gilded Cage picks up months after Any Old Diamonds; Jerry is deeply in love and committed to Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, and Templeton is frustrated, pissed-off, and resentful.  He decides to attempt a heist on his own – ignoring Jerry’s warning that the whole thing is a set-up.  By the end of the night, he finds himself on the run, wanted for a double murder.  Templeton turns for help to the only person he thinks might be able to find the true killer:  detective Susan Lazarus.  Susan and Templeton have a complicated history, but once Templeton seeks Susan’s help, it isn’t long before they discover their acrimonious relationship is the result of a Big Misunderstanding.  Once the truth is out, a second chance love affair quickly follows.  But both Susan and Templeton are struggling to find their place in the world – to break free from the gilded cage their lives have become – and the baggage they carry from their past is challenging to overcome.  Meanwhile, they’re trying to find a killer, too.  Everything about this story is clever, smart and highly entertaining, and just when you think K.J. Charles can’t get any better, the author proves you wrong.  Good stuff.

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

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