I always struggle to whittle down my annual “Best of” list, although some years there are more clear winners than others. Fortunately for me (because I’m rubbish at choosing), that proved to be the case this year, so making my list this time around wasn’t too difficult; however, as has happened before, there are a few authors with multiple books on the list because it’s just impossible to single out one as being “better” than the others!
Here, in no particular order, are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2021.
Relative Justice and Custody Battles by Gregory Ashe
Surprise!! Gregory Ashe continues to dominate my DIK table and has earned another seven from me this year. It’s the rare author who can publish books at such a rate (over two per month on average) and maintain such high quality, but … he’s undoubtedly one of them. That consistency can make it difficult to pick a favourite however, and honestly, it’s impossible as ANY of the three books I’ve listed deserve a place on this list. (Once again, Dabney wouldn’t let me have a Best of list that just says “All The Books by Gregory Ashe”!)
Relative Justice and Custody Battles are books one and two in the latest series to feature Hazard and Somerset, newly navigating the vagaries of married life and their work as a private investigator and Chief of Police respectively when a grenade is thrown slap bang into the middle of their lives and upends where they thought they were going and what they thought they were doing. These books present Gregory Ashe at his very finest – a masterful interweaving of well thought-out, clever mysteries, complex, relatable characters and incredible relationship and character growth, amazing insight into what makes these people tick and meticulous attention to detail. I’ve been extolling the virtues of Mr. Ashe’s books here since 2019 when I reviewed Paternity Case (the third in the original Hazard and Somerset series), and just when I think he’s written his best book, he proves me wrong, clears the last bar he set himself and sets another even higher one.
Relative Justice: Buy it at Amazon or your local independent retailer
Custody Battles: Buy it at Amazon or your local independent retailer
The Same End by Gregory Ashe
The Same End is the final book in The Lamb and the Lion trilogy, which boasts another wonderful chalk-and-cheese pairing in the form of a fatalistic wildlife vet and a breezy con man who shouldn’t work as a couple – and yet do. Brilliantly. Again, these are complex characters with complex problems, but watching them slowly falling in love through it all (while also solving mysteries) is both tortuous (they screw up and hurt each other) and swoonworthy as it becomes clear just how perfect they are for each other. The romantic relationships in Mr. Ashe’s books are never easy, but they’re SO worth the journey.
Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer
King’s Man by Sally Malcolm
Not only is this one of the best books of 2021, it’s easily one of the best historical romances of the last decade. In my review, I called it:
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.
Everything about King’s Man works on every level; it’s perfectly paced, the setting is evoked brilliantly, the characterisation is superb and the romance is full of the delicious UST and longing that Sally Malcolm does so very well. If you haven’t read this one (and its short-but-sweet prequel, Rebel) yet, do yourself a favour and pick it up immediately. I promise you an absolutely captivating read.
Buy it at: Amazon
On Board by Jay Hogan
Jay Hogan earned three DIKs this year (the other two were Pinot and Pineapple Lumps and Unguarded), but On Board had that special ‘something’ that means it pipped both of the others to the post for inclusion in this list. In On Board, Jay Hogan has written a spectacular redemption story in which a character who was a bit of an arsehole in the previous book is slowly and skilfully transformed into one worthy of sympathy and understanding without being given a complete personality transplant. The central romance between the closeted Leroy and his unexpected housemate is a fantastic and emotional slow-burn and his character development is extremely well done, as he takes a long hard look at himself and his life and decides it’s time to make changes. It’s passionate and sexy and earthy and quite possibly Jay Hogan’s best book yet.
Buy it at Amazon
Charles by Con Riley
Con Riley also earned three DIKs from me this year (the other two were for His Compass and His Haven) but vibrant, cheeky, kind, funny, secretly-vulnerable Charles Heppel stole my heart completely in this gorgeously romantic, sexy and poignant story about two quite different men learning not just to love, but about themselves, who they truly are and what they truly want. Charles is an unforgettable character and watching him falling in love with the most unlikely man (and for them to be completely perfect for each other) made for one of the most beautiful love stories of the year.
Buy it at: Amazon
Subtle Blood by KJ Charles
Another author with more than one book in contention (the other being The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting), KJ Charles regularly appears on my best of lists. Both these titles received DIKs and in the end I’ve chosen Subtle Blood because it was the long-awaited end of a superbly written and conceived trilogy and one of my most anticipated reads of the year. And what a magnificent finale it was, delivering everything I’d hoped for; a fast-paced, tightly-plotted mystery and a well-deserved HEA for Will and Kim – all wrapped up in her customary wit, razor-sharp insight and masterful storytelling.
Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer
Battle Royal by Lucy Parker
Lucy Parker is one of the very few authors of contemporary m/f romance whose books I pounce on immediately they’re available, and for good reason – her stories are stylish and engaging and wonderfully romantic, featuring three-dimensional protagonists with chemistry that leaps off the page, strongly developed relationships, well-depicted settings and the sort of clever wit and humour that I adore. Battle Royal is a beautifully written, sexy and poignant grumpy/sunshine, enemies-to-lovers romance between rival bakers, packed with the vibrancy, fun, witty repartee and sexual tension that characterises her work, alongside some more serious elements that lent a bittersweetness and complexity that elevates this one beyond the ‘rom com’ label. The chemistry between free-spirit Sophie and reserved Dominic is electric and the depth of the affection that develops between them is beautiful to read. I was captivated from start to finish.
Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent retailer
Cry Wolf by Charlie Adhara
Ms. Adhara’s Big Bag Wolf series has been consistently strong – of its five instalments, four were DIKs (and the other a B+) – and this final instalment is a real hum-dinger as Cooper panics over wedding arrangements while he and Park try to prove a friend innocent of murder. They quickly became one of my favourite pairings, a real odd-couple whose differences and imperfections somehow made them a perfect fit, and the character and relationship development exhibited across the series was absolutely stellar. Cry Wolf is possibly the best book of the set, a fantastic blend of mystery and romance, of humour, tenderness and passion – and I’m SO excited that the author is writing a new series set in this world.
Buy it at: Amazon or Audible
Madison Square Murders by C.S. Poe
Madison Square Murders kind of took me by surprise when I read it in September because it’s so different. It’s a mystery with romantic elements, and the PoV character of cold case detective Everett Larkin is, quite simply, one of the most unusual I’ve ever come across (he has a unique memory condition that is more of a curse than a blessing). He’s awkward and pedantic and doesn’t suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, yet there’s something incredibly endearing about him, especially as it’s clear he’s well aware of his weaknesses and that there’s very little he can do about them. In this story, he’s partnered with a laid-back and highly intuitive forensic artist to solve a twenty-two-year-old murder mystery, and this odd-couple partnership really is a thing of beauty. The central relationship is superbly developed and kind of permeates the story in a low key way, the mystery is clever and compelling and the two protagonists are wonderfully engaging.
Role Model by Rachel Reid
In another splendid entry in her Game Changers series, author Rachel Reid brings us a gorgeous opposites-attract romance that incorporates a fantastic redemption/coming-out story for Troy Barrett, a character we’ve so far loved to hate owing to his dickish behaviour and friendship with the team bully. When, owing to a very public bust-up on the ice, he’s traded to the team at the bottom of the league, he decides to keep his head down and just focus on the game, but as time wears on, he realises he’s got the opportunity to make changes and live a different life. Troy’s gradual transformation from the bigoted, stereotypically aggressive jock of the past to the Role Model of the title is completely believable, his romance with the sunny, completely adorable media manager Harris is sexy and sweet, and team captain Ilya Rozanov continues to steal the show whenever he appears. Role Model is one of the best books in the series, and I can’t wait for the final instalment, The Long Game, this spring,
Buy it at: Amazon or Audible
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Good choice, Caz ;)
I really loved On Board and Madison Square Murders. Not yet read Charles, but soon! About Gregory Ashe, I must say that, after having been a huge fan, I’m much less so now. I couldn’t even finish reading Custody Battles after the awful and gratuitous beating of Somerset in front of “his” son toward the end of the book. The way this otherwise very talented author seems to relish tortured (literally and figuratively) and traumatised characters makes me not only uncomfortable but nauseous in the long run. I’ve got the impression of reading the same (quite unhealthy) thing over and over through different stories. And I’m very sorry about that because, as I said above, Gregory is really talented and writes in a very beautiful style.
Last thing: I liked a lot Never Stay Gone by Tal Bauer. Also a talented author, with very varied stories ;)
Thank you, Caz, for your amazing job. I’m a great fan :) And my very best wishes for 2022 to all of you, romance fans!
Thanks so much! And I’m kinda jealous that you have so many fantastic KJ Charles books to read for the first time – I hope you enjoy them!
I have that Tal Bauer book sitting on my Kindle… I read and reviewed The Murder Between Us last year, and liked it a lot; he’s definitely someone I want to read more of.
Great list Caz!
Of the titles I’ve read (admission: I’ve taken a bit of break from Gregory Ashe this year – despite loving his characters, I’m not always up for some of the stuff he puts them through ;-), the Sally Malcolm is absolutely my favorite. The setting and point of view in The King’s Man is just so different and thought-provoking. Loved it. And the one on your list I haven’t read but absolutely want to, is the CS Poe. So many people have enjoyed it. Not sure why it hasn’t risen to the top of my TBR before now but it is up next.
Thank you! I hope you enjoy Madison Square Murders when you get to it; I also strongly recommend her Magic & Steam series (steampunk set in an AU 1880s NYC – I’ve reviewed both books here and am eagerly awaiting the release of book 3 in April).
I went and read _Rebel_ and then the summary for _The King’s Man_ and I’m all nervous to start now, even with a guaranteed HEA! :-)
I’m not an angst lover,but The King’s Man is so powerful and well done that it had me glued to the pages. Take a deep breath and jump in!:-)
King’s Man is absolutely, 100% worth it, I promise!
Haven’t read the Sally Malcolm yet nor the CS Poe, but as we overlap 100% on the rest, I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy them too. Thanks for another year of authoritative reviews!
You’re very welcome :) I’ll look out for your thoughts on GR!
I have the King’s Man prequel, Rebel, on my Kindle. Does it matter which order I read them in?
Lucy Parker is an autobuy for me. I wish she could write faster. LOL I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything she has written and Battle Royal was no exception.
KJ Charles is also an autobuy for me, thanks in a small part to you, Caz! I think I started with A Fashionable Indulgence and was hooked after that. I always enjoy her books. She has a way of really immersing you in the times and giving you a little history lesson without you even knowing it.
Thanks for sharing!
Yes, if you’re going to read Rebel, then you absolutely should read it before King’s Man :)
And I’m always so glad to hear that people are finding new books to enjoy through my ramblings about them – it means a lot to know that, so thank you!
All but three of these are also on my Best of 2021 list.
I haven’t read Cry Wolf because I’m not drawn towards shifter books and I read Battle Royal but didn’t enjoy it at all – I much preferred her earlier books.
The big surprise for me was that I didn’t love On Board, even though Off Balance was one of my favourites last year. I really struggled with how the narcissistic behaviour of the mother affected both her sons, causing one or other of them to act like jerks throughout much of the book. I am looking forward to In Step though, as I want to find out more about Kane and, as the other MC is a choreographer, there will be dancing :)
I’m not into shifter books either and don’t actively seek them out, but I really urge you to try the Adhara series – it’s not your run-of-the-mill shifter pack type thing; the PoV character is a socially awkward FBI agent who initially has no idea about the existence of werewolves until he’s teamed with one to investigate a series of murders. It’s clever and the characterisation and relationship development is fantastic. I think we have fairly similar tastes and I honestly think you’ll enjoy the series. Don’t do it in audio though – the narration is horrible.
I, too, had a real problem with the manipulative mother in On Board, but was able to get past it and enjoy the rest. Hopefully, we won’t see much of her in the next book!
The mom in the Hogan series infuriated me, but I could appreciate the way Hogan used her to move the character development along. I’m looking forward to her NOT being a major influence in In Step!
I second Caz’s recommendation of the Adhara books. It’s not that the werewolf-ness doesn’t play into the story, it does, in a big way, but not at all like the usual urban fantasy offerings (which I often like). I recently gave the first book to my husband to read and we discussed the fact that the werewolf society could have been swapped out for any political or familial power structure, like mafia families, and still have worked. They represent a powerful force and one that makes it difficult for members to buck the hierarchy and go there own way. Lots of family obligations, business, etc.
All to say they are not the typical UF fare. My husband loved the first book and downloaded the second right away.
Yes, that’s exactly it – werewolf society and politics is a big part of Adhara’s stories, but characters actually shifting isn’t. It’s very clever and, I think, unusual for the genre.
I looked at giving the Adhara series a try after what you and Carrie G said, but found that all the books except for this last one cost £7.84 each. So I’ve put the first one on my Wish List and will reconsider buying it if the price drops!
Slightly o/t, but regarding power structures: one of my favorite “discoveries” in 2021 was Cate C. Wells. I read her mafia romance, RUN POSY RUN, back-to-back with her shifter romance, THE TYRANT ALPHA’S REJECTED MATE; and, while I found TYRANT far superior to POSY, I thought Wells did a great job in both books of showing the interpersonal politics of two vastly different, yet on some level very similar, universes. I suppose no matter how you define “family” (“pack,” “tribe,” etc.), the ways members interrelate are going to look somewhat alike.
I really want the next book in Wells’ shifter series in part because I think she (and Maria Vale) did that so well.
Great list Caz!
Caz, I never thought to read m/m romance until I came to AAR and began reading your reviews. I did not have anything against it, I just hadn’t thought about it at all. You have such enthusiasm for the genre and describe the books so well, that I decided to give it a try. I realized that love stories are love stories, and m/m can be just as moving or fun as any other. Thank you! King’s Man (and Rebel) as well as Subtle Blood, are all on my list of favorites of 2021. I’m currently having fun reading Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series and look forward to finding more good reads in 2022.
I’m so glad to hear that, Becky and that’s such a wonderful compliment – thank you!
I suppose I was a bit like that, too; I just hadn’t really thought about trying any m/m books until I decided to pick up Joanna Chambers’ Provoked and then started to read more. Some time after that, I listened to the audiobook of Rachel Grant’s Tinderbox, which was narrated by Greg Tremblay, and was so blown away by his narration that I started to look for other books he’d narrated, and found that a lot of the romances were m/m. I found so many more books and authors to try thanks to him, and then I got to know who the good authors and good narrators were and started following them, too.
I’m pleased you’ve found some great books to enjoy – there are some terrific authors writing in m/m right now, and I’m really glad to have helped you to find them ;)
I’ve been waiting a month for this list, haha.
I’ve already read On Board twice and can’t wait for In Step. Subtle Blood is an all-round masterpiece.
Thank you so much – I’m flattered :)
Some solid picks here!
I think so :)
I picked several of the same books, and you explained why so well!
King’s Man, On Board, Cry Wolf (I forgot this one in my earlier list on Agora), Madison Square Murders, and Role Play are all on my Best of 2021 list. I put The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting on there, too. (I added Seducing the Sorcerer by Lee Welch and Beautifully Unexpected by Lily Morton.)
I look forward to the next books in the series from Hogan, Reid, Malcolm and C.S.Poe. I’m also excited about the off-shoot series from Adhara.
Now that the trilogy is done, I plan to return to KJ Charles Will Darling books. I enjoyed the first one, but stopped the second because of Kim’s actions. Now that I can read straight through to the HEA, I’m going to try again. I love Charles’ writing.
I’m hesitant these days to try any m/f contemporaries because I tend not to like the characters, but I’ve heard good things about Lucy Parker so maybe I’ll bite the bullet and try her.
I’ve read two of Con Riley’s books and didn’t care for her writing. Her writing feels like she’s trying too hard. One time the crew was cooking mussels, and then for the next few pages we get several shellfish metaphors sprinkled in. She’s one of those authors that get such high marks for others that I’m scratching my head over what I’m missing.
As I mentioned in response to an earlier list, the Parker isn’t a straight contemporary. It is an altered history contemporary set in our world but with a British royal family with a bunch of different names. I tend to let the contemporary label slide with invented small countries, but changing the British royal family makes me add the altered history qualifier to the contemporary label.
I’m glad she did change it, I’d have been tearing my hair out if she hadn’t. I rolled my eyes so hard at a CR that was “royal-adjacent” (the hero was a duke) and talked about Her Maj popping round for tea!
I can’t say I noticed the seafood-overload; I’m guessing it was in His Horizon (as the MCs are chefs) which was by far the weakest book in that trilogy. I still haven’t had time to delve much into Con Riley’s backlist, but so far, her stuff generally works for me. I’d suggest maybe going back to Act Like It for Lucy Parker, which was her debut, and starting at the beginning! She’s just about the only author of m/f CR I read.
It was actually His Compass, when they visit Jude and Rob and have mussels.
I’ll take your advice and try Act Like It! Thanks for the recommendation!
Oh, well, I was half right – Jude and Rob are chefs! I have absolutely no memory of that incident – but I plan to review the audio when it comes out this month, so maybe it’ll jump out at me then!
It’s ok if it doesn’t! But also look for the extended metaphor about the caramel sauce and time. That whole paragraph sort of lost it’s way. But honestly, when I go back and look at my notes I know I’m kind of nit-picking. I think her style just doesn’t quite work for me rather than she’s not a good writer.
I understand what you mean about Con Riley. Something about her writing style is hard for me to follow at times but I do appreciate the depth of emotion in her stories and did really love Charles.
I might have to try Charles.
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Thanks! I snagged them.
I think Jay Hogan’s On Board is one of her best books and it was one of my favorite romances of the year. I also loved King’s Man for its uncommonly used setting and beautiful second chance romance. Con Riley was new to me this year but I’m caught up now and just loved Charles. I haven’t read most of your others but several are either bought and in my TBR pile or part of series that I mean to start one day. Although I liked Role Model, I didn’t love it. I think Rachel Reid is a great author though and I’m really looking forward to The Long Game later this year.
I definitely think the Hogan is one of her best; I’m very much looking forward to In Step in Feb, which promises to be terrific. The two Con Riley books I’ve mentioned are also excellent and well worth reading.
I’m so afraid of The Long Game. I love Heated Rivalry so, so much that I’m incredibly worried The Long Game won’t live up as a sequel.
Heated Rivalry is my favorite of the series (and I think most readers agree with this). I understand and share your fear but we must have faith!
I agree. And I’m sure the author knows expectations are high (such pressure for her!) But I will be cracking open a copy as soon as I can get my hands on one :)
Rachel Reid wrote a post on the blog on her website just prior to the release of Role Model. I went back to read it and she says that a big chunk of The Long Game overlaps in time with Role Model such that we will see some events from Role Model from another point of view. I think I will have to re-read Role Model before The Long Game!
incident occurs in Role Model, and we see Ilya
, I’m guessing we’ll revisit that in The Long Game.
Yes, that’s my guess, too. Putting that together with what’s in the synopsis, this is going to be
I agree the spoiler incident you refer to will play a big role in THE LONG GAME; but I’m less convinced THE LONG GAME will be a “relationship in trouble” story. I’m expecting more of a “how are we going to handle our coming out?” story. I have absolutely no knowledge of what Reid plans, but I keep thinking it will somehow involve Scott & Kip’s wedding and perhaps Shane & Ilya being “caught” in flagrante and having to decide how they will get ahead of the story. Anyway, I’ll be reading it the day it’s released. Perhaps I’ll even take a planned personal day from work!
I’m thinking it will be a combination of relationship strain at keeping things under wraps,and the realization that they need to start living on their own terms. However it plays out,I’ll be reading it ASAP!
I think it’s going to cause an acceleration of the coming out. ‘Life’s too short’ and all that………….
It’s been so long since I read Role Model that I had forgotten that scene but I think you both are absolutely right. I seem to recall there was a fair bit of Ilya in Role Model, more so than the 2 previous books. The Long Game is not out until 4/26 so I will try to re-read Role Model the weekend before so everything is fresh in my memory!
One reason I’m optimistic is the glimpses we’ve gotten of Shane and Ilya over the past few books. Those glimpses have continued to show the charm of both characters, so I’m pretty confident Reid will keep them true to form in The Long Game.
I plan to review it, so if you can wait for that, then you’ll know it if’s safe to proceed!
Ah, but it’s so much fun to read the book as soon as possible then hash it all out in the comments section!
I figure I HAVE to read it the day it comes out or risk too many spoilers. Even if people don’t give actual spoilers, their impressions of the book could influence mine. So, yeah, I’m reading or listening to it the day it’s released!
Replying to all in this string: It makes my little heart sing to see so many people as invested in Ilya and Shane’s HEA as I am. I’m still trepidatious, but I can come and “Oh my gosh!!” here with you all when the book comes out.
I haven’t been this invested in the final book in a series since Kati Wilde’s LOSING IT ALL (the final book in her Hellfire Riders MC series). Shane & Ilya are such a “real” couple to me…I can’t wait to see how things are resolved for them.