Cheers, friends, Happy New Year’s Eve and welcome to our Best of 2018 reviewer picks!!! We’re continuing the countdown to the end of the year with Sammy’s fave reads, so enjoy and be sure to enter the Giveaway!
The Story of Us by Barbara Elsborg – I cannot begin to catalogue all the reasons this novel should be on your read list. This is a new adult novel and, as such, there is on-page sex, although that is really a sidebar to the incredible plot twists that continually unfold in this angsty drama. It is most definitely a romance, but one with all kinds of delayed gratification. It is also gut-wrenching, for what happens to these two young men is truly staggering. More than once I had to put this book down just to breathe and assure myself that there would be a happy ending for these guys. Because I have to tell you, that idea often seems so far away that it takes all your strength to push through. But, oh my, the payoff in the end is magnificent and worth every tissue you will undoubtedly use.
The strength both Caspian and Zed exhibit is herculean in its magnitude. You will find yourself weeping for them on more than one occasion and gnashing your teeth just to get a chance at their fathers, whom I wanted to see die some horribly painful deaths. The hell these two go through, the horrible situations they are placed in at such a young age, the distance and emotional wreckage they must overcome in order to stay together, is all just overwhelming at times. Time and circumstances will threaten their love more than once, and then self-doubt, guilt, and depression will be the nails in the coffin that nearly destroys them. But…but…despite all that—despite the pain, the loss, the danger and the darkness—there is always hope and trust and love, such incredible love.
Nightfall by John Inman – I’m not sure if John Inman has ever created two sweeter characters than Joe and Ned. In his newest novel, Nightfall, he takes two quiet men who have both borne their share of disappointment and brings them together right before the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
Ned not only bears the emotional scars of an incident that forever changed his life when he was only sixteen, but he carries a physical manifestation of that painful incident as well. To say that episode molded Ned into the shy, slightly reclusive man he is today, is an understatement. Working at a local deli by day, Ned lives for the night for that is when he can meet his friend on the footbridge by the zoo and spend time with the man he secretly desires—Joe.
Joe doesn’t really like people. It’s not that they have done anything specifically to make him avoid their company, it’s just that he has little time or patience for others, in general. Except his next door neighbor, Ned. Ned is a light in Joe’s drab, lackluster life. But Joe can’t seem to find the courage to tell Ned about his feelings. In fact, he is scared that Ned will not only rebuff him but will choose not to be his friend anymore, and that would simply kill Joe.
Right before the world turns upside down, these two gentle, sweet souls find the courage to admit their attraction to each other. It is a beautiful moment. And then the lights go out.
The Wanderer by Rowan McAllister – I cannot tell you how well this novel was laid out. The Wanderer may be just an introduction to another world and its unique inhabitants, but I must tell you that not once did I feel lost or confused despite all that was going on in this story. Author Rowan McAllister creates a fascinating world and gives us three characters who capture the imagination and the heart. The sarcastic repartee between Bryn, whose current form is a large black horse, and Lyuc is really delightful. McAllister uses their mental link and subsequent discussions to reveal much about both man and creature, and gives us a taste of the bond they have in each other.
When Yan is added to the mix, it is truly magical. He is innocent and yet older than his years, and the abuse he must reckon with is heartbreaking. But he is so resilient and determined to be someone, so it is truly beautiful when Lyuc sees him for what he is worth and treats him with the respect he has never before experienced from any named person.
Cinderella Boy by Kristina Meister – This story is gorgeous. While I do feel the author gave an emotional maturity to her characters that was a bit above their pay grade, so to speak, this book still resonated for me. The idea of being trapped in a gender that doesn’t really convey who you truly are is just heartbreaking, and you can feel Declan/Layla’s emotional turmoil over their situation. Don’t get confused here—Meister has not simply written a tale about a cross-dressing high school boy but a detailed and deeply emotional story about a person who feels both feminine and masculine at any given time. The inner conflict this produces for Declan is overwhelming and pushes them into the loneliest of places, feeling that no one could ever understand what they themselves continually grapple with as well.
Yes, it could be argued that the way in which Carter and Declan intellectualize their attraction is a bit mature, and yet there are constant glimpses of the boys they are—young men on the cusp of adulthood and facing decisions that will influence the rest of their lives. This story was just gorgeous in its attempt to give a tiny window into the life that a non-binary/genderfluid person lives.
A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan – There were so many layers to this story, from Michael’s past, which was threatening to become his undoing, both emotionally and financially, to Wes’ crippling fears and guilt that drove him deeper and deeper into addiction. Their stories made my heart ache for them, and their love for each other was almost bittersweet. This story moved beyond the scope of historical romance and dove down into how our past both haunts and shapes us. In so many ways, the author reminded us again and again how strong her men were—how much they had truly overcome to even be cognizant members of society, no matter how much they both lived on the fringe of the same. But it was the stark moments of revelation about their pasts that really felled me and tapped my emotions. These memories were devastating to Wes and Michael as they pulled them relentlessly back into a time when they were young and helpless and had to endure horrific things at the hands of monsters. I wept for these men—for the innocence lost and the scars that remained. Yet, in the same breath, I rejoiced in the fact that they were surrounded by a few caring souls who would help them begin the long journey toward healing, and each other.
Heidi Cullinan is a gifted author who can create characters who live beyond the page and craft stories around them that have the reader hanging on every word. If you have never read A Private Gentleman, I recommend you grab this gem up today.
Living on Air by Susan Mac Nicol – While this story is brutal in its naked presentation of a life shattered by sexual and mental abuse, it is also very careful to limit those passages to precisely what is needed to make the reader understand the severity of the trauma that has affected Cary well into adulthood. This is his story of coping and surviving and although it seems he is barely doing either, you are time and again reminded of how resilient and strong this man truly is despite what he as been through. If you are looking for sunshine and roses and a perfect ending, then this novel is not for you. However, if you are willing to endure the long road Cary must travel and the idea that he will require continued help after there is definite closure to his past, then dive into this exquisite story of hope and healing.
Rhys is lovely and it will be frustrating as hell to watch Cary push this man away again and again. Despite that, Rhys is solid and never really turns his back on the fragile artist he is slowly falling in love with and is desperate to help. Both Rhys and Cary have demons that haunt their dreams—Rhys has successfully kept his from tearing him apart, but the same can’t be said for Cary. What makes these two work so well is how Rhys can both accept that Cary must confront his past by himself and still understands that, if given the chance, he can walk beside Cary as he begins the process of healing. Rhys is infinitely patient and loving, so beautiful, and it redeems this story from a bleak and disturbing path so many times.
King Daniel by Edmond Manning – If there were enough descriptive words or phrases to describe how incredible this last book is, I would no doubt continue to wax prosaic. However, given my lack of imagination when it comes to sharing how greatly this book, this whole series, impacted me, I will leave this scant review with this last thought or two. What Daniel experiences is as foreign to me as is humanly possible, and yet, through the deft and masterful hand of Edmond Manning, I am able to step into Daniel’s world, share his pain, weep for and with him and then, blessedly, experience the emotions he has when that burden gets lifted. What this author does is remind us that we all carry scars of one sort or another and, if we can take just a moment to tap into that shared experience, we will find the lost king or queen within ourselves and others. For just a second or two, we can understand what it is to walk the path of another person and appreciate how hard their journey is, and see how it sometimes connects to our own. And that? That is beautiful, redemptive, inspiring and majestic.
It goes without saying that I highly recommend King Daniel. If you have not read this series, please do yourself a favor and do so as soon as possible. This is a journey you will not want to miss.
A Love Song for the Sad Man in the White Coat by Roe Horvat – A Love Song for the Sad Man in the White Coat is perhaps one of the saddest yet most hopeful novels I have encountered in a long time. Depression is never an easy subject matter to tackle, so to have the major voice in a story be one that is undeniably affected by this pervasive and debilitating issue, and somehow write their narrative with a hope for a more stable future, is challenging. Luckily for us, author Roe Horvat not only takes on this task but does so with grace, poetic lyricism and compassion.
Two troubled men meet, one a student, the other his teacher. To interact beyond a professional level is taboo, and yet there is instant friction between Majet and Simon that explodes into a passion neither can deny. Simon has been rejected one too many times—first by his uber religious mother and silent father, by former lovers and some colleagues, and even by his own cruelly analytical mind that finds himself lacking in so many ways. He attempts to drive the demons away by taking punishing runs and keeping his life severely ordered to the point of compulsion. When he allows himself to give in to the hope that Majet will stay, that he will become more than a convenient bed partner, he dares to think that perhaps this almost painful relationship can morph into something sweeter, saner, permanent. When Majet suddenly disappears, leaving behind his younger sister and a father dead by apparent suicide, Simon does what he must—cares for the sister, Marta, and picks up the pieces of his broken heart.
All the World’s an Undead Stage by Angel Martinez – I cannot begin to explain to you why I love this series, but can only affirm that I do. The writing is always fresh—for the paranormal genre, it is a much-needed kick in the proverbial backside, in terms of originality. The characters are part neurotic, part genius, and part scatterbrained, but always incredibly humorous and so intelligently crafted. Each storyline has a unique approach and manages to be both a mystery and a romance all rolled into one. Author Angel Martinez let’s her imagination soar to new heights with every installment in this fabulous series, and we, her readers, reap the benefits. Are their flaws in this latest book? Oh yes, I am sure there are. Some will say that the mystery element was too easily discernible, and the fact that Carrington never saw it seemed rather far-fetched. Some might take offense at the tidy ending and wish for a bigger climactic end to the series overall. And, still others might feel that the way in which Erasmus and Carrington fell apart near the end, and almost gave fans a heart attack with their sudden inability to communicate their love to each other, was fixed just a bit too rapidly. Yes, there were a few bumps in the story here and there, but honestly, those were so quickly forgotten in light of how immensely entertaining this cast of crazy characters really were.
I am so hopeful that Angel Martinez will return to her precinct in the future and allow us to check in with these incredible officers once again. Until then, I will leave you with this thought: it is just these kinds of novels that lift the spirit, make us shake our heads in wonder, and allow us to forget the troubles of our world for just a little while.
In the Absence of Light by Adrienne Wilder – I had seen this book a while ago, and was captivated by the blurb. When In the Absence of Light came up for review, I eagerly snatched it up, knowing full well that my previous experience with this author was an incredibly moving and often harrowing time. Harrowing because the characters this author crafts are very complex, with some throat-clenching pasts that often come back to rear their ugly and violent heads, just when said character is starting to make a happier new life with someone they could love. The stories of Morgan and Grant are no different.
This novel—it is just breathtaking. It pulls you into a world where fragments of light far outweigh the dark. It does not apologize for the moments of pain and anguish both men must suffer, but surrounds them with equal portions of beauty and grace. Author Adrienne Wilder never shies away from delivering a story that bursts with action, pathos and delightful flashes of humor. In the Absence of Light is a carefully balanced story which exudes compassion and love, wrapped up in a compelling plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I can only end this review with the highest praise and recommendation. It is a story that solidifies the idea that Adrienne Wilder will be an auto-buy novelist for me from now on.
Robby Riverton: Mail Order Bride by Eli Easton (narrated by Matthew Shaw) – Normally I would divide this review between the story and the narration, but I find with this one I can’t really make that delineation. I wonder if author Eli Easton had an audible narration in mind as she wrote this novel, for I have to tell you never have I encountered a story that lent itself to narration like this one. First off, narrator Matthew Shaw is a vocal genius who uses every bit of the vocal prowess he has to bring this story to life. I cannot tell you how often this voice actor had me laughing just by the way in which he interpreted a character’s voice. From Papa’s high-pitched querulous tones to Trace’s incredibly sexy gravel-like inflection, I was mesmerized by this story come to life.
Mr. Shaw was simply spot on. His pacing, intonation, emphasis, pausing, and myriad voices made this novel sing. I loved the way he chose to have Robbie swing from the effeminate tone he used for Rowena to the bolder, more masculine tone he normally had when interacting with Trace. Don’t get me started on how perfect the voice was for Trace—that slow, low-pitched drawl that made you feel as if the character were standing right in front of you—so sexy and so realistic.