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The Best of 2021 – Caz’s List

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: AmazonAudible, 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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