I don’t review a lot of romance on my blog, which is a shame as I do read a fair amount. Romance reading for me represents just as much escapism as the large chunks of science fiction and fantasy I digest regularly. I was inspired to review this box set for two reasons. One, I can’t elaborate on right now, but there is a reason I’m delving more deeply into the Carina Press new releases at the moment. Previously, I’ve read and reviewed a few of their fantasy offerings. I rated all books highly and will take a moment now to recommend The Adorned by John Tristan for any fans of fantasy and intrigue with a romantic flavour.
Two, this is a really great collection of stories, worthy of discussion and praise. If you’ve been thinking about checking out male/male romance, this collection is also a great place to start. The stories are short, but strong, and the authors are well known in the genre. I’d heard of them all before, and after reading a sample of each, I actually purchased another book for each author. That’s purchased—not just added to my wishlist.
On to the stories.
The first is Icecapade by Josh Lanyon. Icecapade is a perfect example of a great short story. After a prologue where both characters, Noel and Robert are introduced, we follow a “day in the life” where the two main characters are reunited and therefore presented with a chance to rekindle the spark of romance they toyed with ten years before. A former cat burglar, Noel is now a novelist, famous for his depiction of a cat and mouse game between… a burglar and the bungling detective on his tail. Robert is his inspiration for the detective. Over the years, Noel has come to realise that his fictional representation of Robert, while amusing, may not be all that flattering. A yearly phone call (never answered) to apologise hardly makes up for it. But Robert has obviously received the message, and read the final book wherein Noel tries to make amends. He shows up the day before Christmas, apparently intent on having Noel confess to past crimes. Instead, they make plans for the future.
Icecapade is my first Josh Lanyon. I really enjoyed the writing style and I loved the blend of mystery with romance. I got the feeling the story was as important as the love story, which is a mix I always appreciate—not that I’m averse to simple happy ever afters, but I love a chewy plot as well. I’ve since picked up Stranger on the Shore and look forward to reading it.
Next up was a re-release of the popular Gobsmacked by L.B. Gregg. Retitled: Mark and Tony (Men of Smithfield #1), this novella has one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever stumbled across. Dressed in scrubs and Croc sandals, Mark squeaks his way down the aisle of a church, during service, and whacks his boyfriend over the back of the head with a bible. Call me violent, but I just adored this introduction. In a few paragraphs, Gregg captures not only the high emotions of the story, but an important facet of Mark’s character. He’s very reactionary and while living in the moment, often forgets to think ahead. This is a very real flaw—humans can be such emotional creatures, and that is illustrated really well here. Basically, the dude with the bible print on the back of his head, Jamie, is the cheating-about-to-be-ex. As the story unfolds, we learn more about his brand of slime, but also about why Mark chose to be with such an ass. Fortunately, for Mark and the reader, while that relationship unravels, the staid and solid Tony is on hand to pick up the pieces.
Between the moments of high emotion, there is a lot of humour, which provides the story with a wonderful balance. Best of all, Mark and Tony are old friends. I’m a total sucker for friends to lovers stories. On my kindle for further adventures in Smithfield: Max and Finn (Men of Smithfield #2).
The third story in this collection was my favourite. Bending the Iron by Libby Drew tells the tale of a young man who let his dream go so slowly, he barely realised it was gone. Michael wanted to be an architect—not in the sense that he looked up and thought “I’d like to build that”. He studied, he applied, he got accepted into good schools. But the death of his parents and responsibility for an ailing grandfather put pressure on him to rearrange his life and his dreams. He took a job at the glass plant and, eight years later, he’s still there.
Enter the professorly Eric, new curator for the local museum, and more than dust is stirred. Michael doesn’t deny his sexuality, but he’s not “out” either. I formed the impression he had few, if any, close friends and had never been in an actual relationship. This is probably because he suspects his grandfather (who caught him with a boy in high school) doesn’t approve, but I also think it’s one of those dreams he’d let go without noticing. Michael has settled onto a rail (like a train!) and is just as difficult to dislodge. Eric sets about doing just that by challenging the status quo.
Aside from the developing romance and the character growth—on both sides—what I loved about Bending the Iron was the glimpse of small town Pennsylvania. I live in the area and I’ve been to museums like the one depicted in the story. Drew’s attention to detail, for the period and the location, regarding both the history of the railroad and the local architecture, made this story a delight to read.
I have added Paradox Lost to my kindle to continue my journey with Libby Drew.
Last but not least (definitely not!), the fourth story is a perfect ending to the collection. In First Time, Forever by K.C. Burn, Derrick and Trevor have just dropped their son off at college. At thirty-four and forty, they feel a little young to be “empty-nesters”. (Son is Trevor’s from a failed attempt at “going straight” and came to live with them upon the death of his mother.) Naturally, both men turn their attention to spicing up their sex life, which has been depressingly vanilla since making accommodations for a grown child and family home. In a bittersweet comedy of errors, their relationship actually devolves as each make plans that are foiled by the other. Derrick’s time is compromised by a difficult client and looming deadlines and Trevor is combating those lovely signs of impending middle age: high cholesterol, suspected arthritis and, oh my God, grey hair down there.
The two men bounce off one another hurting and hiding their hurt until finally Derrick makes a last (and very sexy) attempt to rekindle the romance. Fortunately, this move brings to light all the other plans each has tried to make and they finally reconnect.
What I loved most about this story was the fact the central couple could have been men, women or any pairing of the two. The issues of aging together, of long term relationships, parenting and working toward compromise aren’t exclusive to either straight or gay couples. It’s just two people growing together. And, at just past forty myself, I honestly felt Trevor’s pain. Literally felt his pain? Let’s say my knees ached alongside and those grey hairs can just stop appearing in my eyebrows. Like, now.
To continue my affair with K.C. Burn, I have Cop Out (Toronto Tales #1) downloaded and ready to read.
What I liked most about this box set from Carina was that all the stories were of consistent quality. I read a lot of anthologies—not usually of novella length—and there are always one or two stories that don’t capture my attention. Not this time. I devoured all four and enjoyed them so much that I was inspired to review and purchase, which is obviously the aim of any good collection. It’s a promotional tool, after all. Another great aspect of the box set is that all the stories are contemporary, so very accessible. They cover real life events that feel relevant to the reader. Most of us have gone through a breakup, though hopefully not from someone as awful as Jamie. More than a few of us have let go of a dream. We’re all getting older. As for the cat burglar/retired author—well, I’m halfway there. I write! And I’m sure that before my brows sprouted grey hairs, I could have scaled something and stole something and… Yeah, perhaps not. But the story of reconnection, ten years later, definitely resonated. There are some lovers you never forget.
For around $5 on Amazon, the Contemporary Male/Male Romance Box Set released by Carina Press represents great value as well. Go get it and tell me which story was your favourite.