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The Best of 2021 – Em’s List

Friends, I wouldn’t say this was my best year of reading.  I read a lot of good books, but very few great ones.  Here are my favorites in no particular order.

Relative Justice and Custody Battles, Hazard and Somerset:  Arrows in the Hand by Gregory Ashe.

I want to tell you I love this newest Hazard and Somerset series, but that’s only half the story.  I also hate it.  Both books (so far) are chock full of relationship challenges, awful people who do terrible things to children, and not nearly enough happy, silly Emery and John-Henry moments.  But I still can’t wait for each new book, or put these books down once I start reading.  I want – need – to know my two favorite characters are still in love, still committed to their marriage, and still making me laugh and wince with their wonderful warts and all relationship shenanigans.  This small family (Hazard and Somerset, and Cora) expanded in Relative Justice, and I wasn’t sure Ashe could make the newest member fit into their wonderful, wacky, awkward world…but he did!  Ashe fires on all cylinders in this series – clever mysteries, compelling interpersonal dynamics, spot-on characterizations, perfectly timed cameos from familiar fan favorite characters, and attention to all the little details that keep this reader on her toes from the first page to the last.  I love/loathe Arrows in the Hand; I can’t wait for the next installment.

Relative Justice: Buy it at Amazon or your local independent retailer

Custody Battles: Buy it at Amazon or your local independent retailer

The Paris Apartment by Kelly Bowen

Another confession.  I didn’t read The Paris Apartment right away because I was secretly waging a one-women war with Bowen for leaving romance behind and writing women’s fiction.  I bought it and just left it to wither and die on my Kindle because I’m petty that way.  And then I needed a book for my book club.  And they didn’t want to read romance.  And the Bowen cover kept tempting me.  So I picked it for our book club.  And I inhaled it over a twenty-four hour period.  The setting, the time jumps, the female principal characters, the story – IT’S ALL FANTASTIC.  Friends, I cried at the end.  I LOVED IT SO HARD.  If you’ve dug your heels in like me and said NO MORE WOMEN’S FICTION FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, I beg you to make an exception and read The Paris Apartment.  It’s Bowen’s best book, and, frankly, I wish she left the romantic elements out of it.  The book doesn’t need a romance, and it’s the weakest part of this superb novel.

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent retailer

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Opposites attract in this fun and funny and sexy and smart debut from Hazelwood.  I read mixed reviews before I committed to buying it, and honestly, I’m not sure what the naysayers were reading because this book gave me all the best romance reader feels.  The author sets a ridiculous premise in place and then totally sells it.  The sexual tension between the principal characters is delicious, their evolving relationship is perfectly paced, there’s a super evil villain to root against, and the sex scenes are smoking hot.  I wasn’t crazy about a secondary gay relationship that seemingly springs out of nowhere, but that’s my only complaint.  I can’t wait for Hazelwood’s next book, and if you’re a fan of Kate Clayborn’s (me!), you’ll probably love this one, too.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible, or your local independent retailer

Role Model by Rachel Reid

I wasn’t an early fan of the Game Changers series, but then I read Heated Rivalry (Shane + Ilya = Forever).  I fell hard for Rachel Reid and her brand of hockey romance.  While none of Reid’s couples have replaced Ilya and Shane as my series favorites (yet), and Troy Barrett was squarely in my total dick character column, Role Model comes close to her best.  Troy gets his redemption and we get a wonderful friends to lovers romance that once again proves opposites attract in Reidville.  Friends, Troy is a treat but his eventual boyfriend, Harris Drover, is The Best.  He helps Troy become a better man, and learn to love himself.  Harris is totally adorkable.  Instead of manufacturing a bunch of drama in the final quarter and then squeezing in a few loved up scenes for PEOPLE LIKE ME WHO CRAVE THEM MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE ON EARTH, the entire second half of the book is a gift that keeps on giving. Swoony moments, genuinely good and kind primary and secondary characters, brilliant cameos (ILYA 4EVER), and a sweet and sexy romance…I’d like more please.

Buy it at: Amazon or Audible

The Road Trip written by Beth O’Leary, and narrated by Josh Dylan and Eleanor Tomlinson

I happened to be listening to The Road Trip, shortly after the book was reviewed here at All About Romance.  Our reviewer wasn’t crazy about the story, but I had an Audible credit to burn and I like this author.  To say that I liked this story better than she did is an understatement.  It’s terrific.  I loved the dual PoVs and principal characters, the back and forth timeline jumps, the oddball cast of secondary characters, the romance…the audio version takes all of those wonderful qualities and elevates them.  The narrators bring this sometimes difficult story to life, and I had a tough time turning the story off when my real world interrupted.  The Road Trip is a trip and I was totally transported into this world and this story and didn’t want it to end.  Beth O’Leary perfectly straddles the line between women’s fiction and contemporary romance.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible, or your local independent retailer

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Look, I think this is a very divisive book.  Either you love it (me) or you don’t, and if you can’t climb on board the crazy train, this probably isn’t the book for you. The premise is bonkers and the story only gets more and more ridiculous as it progresses, but this reader was here for it.  I was hooked from the start.  The novel rapidly flips from comedy to drama and back again, and in between we get laugh out loud ridiculousness, a tender romance, painfully awkward family and friend moments, a detour into creepyville, and then it ends on a high (absurd) note.  Sutanto never takes her foot off the gas and I was entertained the whole way through.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible, or your local independent retailer

Love at First by Kate Clayborn

Love at First is the kind of novel that sucks you in from the very first pages, frustrates and challenges you, and eventually makes you sigh in satisfied, swoony happiness. Will spots Nora standing on a balcony on one of the hardest days of his life.  Years pass and then they meet under less than ideal circumstances.  Initially adversaries, they fall deeply in love as they try and fail to resist their attraction to each other.  No minor detail is overlooked, and poetry – like the signs and letters of NYC in Love Lettering – provide a love language that helps bring Will and Nora together. Le sigh. Oh, it’s so well done.

Love at First is a gentle and powerful love story. It’s superb, and I highly recommend it.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible or your local independent retailer

Jem and Tean:  Guys Gone Wild by Gregory Ashe

Jem and Tean: Guys Gone Wild, features one of my most favorite opposites attract couples, Jem and Tean, but you should definitely read the series before you read this anthology (and because it’s super awesome).  While every story here is terrific, Cheap Seats is a laugh out loud hilarious highlight, as is the last story which showcases these two complicated men as committed, romantic partners. Finally.  Tean takes Jem on a camping trip that showcases how beautifully they compliment each other. It’s sexy and sweet and funny and swoony…and lovely.

Buy it at: Amazon or your local independent retailer

The Same End (The Lamb and the Lion) by Gregory Ashe

Look, if you love romance, then you should be reading Ashe. #hottip  I’ve run out of words and accolades for his books.  Nevertheless, if you still haven’t read one of his books, maybe give The Lamb and the Lion a try.  Jem and Tean seem to have nothing in common.  The former is a grifter who never met a person he couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) con, and the latter is a loveable loner who’s been hurt by every person he’s ever loved – including Jem.  As the series progressed, these two teamed up to investigate a series of mysteries and along the way they fell for each other.  But it’s one step forward and two steps back the whole way through.  This final book ends on a swoony high note after a long and painful winding road.  Wow.  I just might have to read this series all over again.  It’s so good.

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer

King’s Man (Outlawed) by Sally Malcolm

In Rebel, the King’s Man prequel, opposites attract after handsome and urbane Nathaniel Tanner graduates from Harvard and is sent by his father to Rosemont (in New England) to clerk for John Reed.  Nate’s father hoped the sojourn in sleepy Rosemont would curb his son’s free-thinking ways (and his attraction to men?), and Nate has low expectations for the position until he meets his coworker, Samuel Reed.  Samuel is instantly smitten by Nate, but tries to keep his distance.  He can’t.  After sharing a pre-Christmas drink, they become friends and confidants, and eventually more. King’s Man picks up four years after Rebel ended. Sam and Nate are deeply in love, but increasingly divided over the prospect of war.  The relationship ends in a harrowing scene of violence, and they don’t see each other until they fortuitously (for us!) meet again five years later in London.  Nate needs a lockpicker, and Sam – whose life has changed dramatically since the end of their relationship, is the bitter and angry man he hires for the job.

King’s Man is sexy, frustrating, lovely and just The Best. I loved every single bit of it. The pacing is perfect, will they or won’t they? tension fills every page, and the swoony ending that sees these two finally loved up and loving life is awesome. And did I mention the steamy chemistry between these two?? More please. Ms. Malcolm masterfully incorporates the historical time period into the evolution of this relationship, and King’s Man is equal parts history lesson and love story. This is a book you pick up and can’t put down – it’s terrific. (But read the prequel first!)

Buy it at: Amazon

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