Review of Unconventional at Best Anthology

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Rating: 3.5 stars

Unconventional at Best is an anthology from six authors of stories featuring romance in and around conventions.  GayRomLit convention last  year provided the inspiration for this selection of stories by Carol Lynne, TA Chase, Amber Kell, Jambrea Jo Jones, Stephani Hecht, and Devon Rhodes. The stories run the gamut of lovers reunited, best friends to lovers, alien love, geek love, confectionary love and love among tops and it all occurs at a convention.

I found this anthology to be a fifty fifty proposition.  Out of 6 stories,only three kept me completely entertained, staying with me once I was done with the anthology.  The others remained just nice stories, forgotten as soon as I put them down.

Here are the ones that stayed with me. I think they are just wonderful stories.

‘Ninja Cupcakes’ by T.A. Chase

Ethan Gallagher is a baker of very special talents.  His cupcakes are not only delicious confections but when certain ingredients are added, downright magical.  When Ethan and his business partner agree to supply the desserts for his brother’s sci-fi convention, it presents the perfect opportunity for Ethan’s floury confections to work their particular magic on certain participants, including an astrophysicist Ethan has been corresponding with for four years. With just the right timing and the special ingredients, Ethan bakes cupcakes that insure that love is in the air or desserts.  Or perhaps we should say Ethan insures that  everyone gets their just desserts!

This is a delicious little story.  I have always found that cooking, or in this case baking, and magic were natural combinations. T.A. Chase does a terrific job of doing just that in Ninja Cupcakes.  From that great title to Chase’s wonderful characters, I just loved this story and wished to see them all again once I was done. This is fun, frothy and still is grounded in realistic characters that capture your hearts. Ethan and Callum were an especially endearing couple.  I wish I had their story, complete with how they first met, and what happening to each of them during their four year correspondence.T.A Chase, this would make a wonderful story.  Just saying.

‘Operation: Get Spencer’ by Jambrea Jo Jones:

“Even if superpowers were real, Benjamin still might not get his man.”  Good friends Benjamin and Spencer are spending the day at Comic-Con, something Spencer has always wanted to do.  Benjamin has a surprise for Spencer to go with their day at Comic-Con.  Benjamin intends to tell his friend that he is in love with him and decides the convention is the perfect time to reveal it.  The problem?  Spencer believes Benjamin is straight and with good reason as Benjamin has told everyone he is straight over and over again.  But Ben hopes that a convention where everything is possible is the perfect place to make Spencer believe in his love.

Friends to lovers and gay for you, both happen here in this story about sexuality, perceptions and fear of change.  Jones takes two completely recognizable characters and brings them together at Comic-Con for her story of friends and lovers.  Ben has been so busy denying that he is gay that everyone believes Ben is straight even if Ben no longer believes it himself.  His best friend Spencer is gay and they have always done everything together. But recently Ben has discovered that his feelings for Spencer go beyond friendship and into romantic love, but how to tell his best friend?

Jambrea Jo Jones makes us laugh and sympathize with Ben and Spencer throughout it all.  From Ben’s mishaps, missteps and outright screwing up his announcement, we are still on his side and hope he gets his man.  Spencer is authentically confused about Ben’s change of heart regarding his sexuality, we understand his point of view as well.  He doesn’t want to mess up his relationship with his best friend, his confidant, and we get that too. Somehow it all comes together in a satisfying end back where they started it all – Comic-con.

‘Fan-Tastic’ by Stephani Hecht

“Everybody knows the best lovers are geeks.” The setting this time is the annual Comic Book and Horror Convention.  Here Deke Masters, a well-known actor in a zombie TV show is ordered to appear on a panel for his show.  Also in attendance is Blake Tallision.  Blake is trying to sell his comic book Star Cats and other items that he has been working on so hard.  Blake also has a crush on Deke going back to their school days.  Even then Deke was a star and Blake the nerd hiding in the shadows of the stage.  To Blake’s amazement, Deke is a fan of Star Cats.  The convention turns out to be the perfect stage for a romance neither saw coming.

This was my favorite story of the anthology. In Deke Masters and Blake Tallision author Hecht gives us characters worth cheering for.  Blake is an especially memorable one.  In pursuit of his art, he has starved himself, living in the basement of his abusive mother’s home, almost despairing of making it.  Blake was so real I could see his skeletal frame and intense features. His vulnerability drew me in and kept me there. Deke also came across a fully realized human being, a guy who has worked to get where he is now but misses being wanted for just himself.  While Blake wants nothing more than to be noticed by Deke, when that happens, Blake is believably wary and insecure, not seeing himself as others do. Deke is perfect for him, the normal guy who just happens to be a tv star, he understands Blake’s struggle because he was once at that stage himself. Everything about this story from the dialog to the characters just cried out for a larger version, especially to delve further into the relationship between Blake and his mother who had a secret she was hiding from him.  Great job.

Review of Play It Again, Charlie by R. Cooper

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Rating: 4.75 stars

Pushing forty, Charlie Howard’s life is caught in a pattern of pain and routine.  After a disabling accident left Charlie’s body more broken than able, he retired from the force and became a professor at a community college teaching criminal justice and forensics.  The aftermath of the accident did  more than leave him with almost crippling pain, it deprived him of his boyfriend as well.  One who wouldn’t stick around for his surgeries and recovery.  Charlie’s days are filled with phone calls from his sisters, teaching and chats with his friend and co worker. Jeanine.

The days merge together and Charlie watches the world pass by from his apartment in the building owned by his grandmother. Charlie is afraid to move forward with his life, hiding behind a wall of “I’m Fine” until he meets a haircolorist named William housesiting for Charlie’s third floor neighbor.  From the moment that Will drops a flower pot off the balcony that lands at Charlie’s feet, the fey, flamboyant man seems determined to invade Charlie’s life.  Glitter twinkling around the eyes, and hands always fluttering in motion, Will seems like the very embodiment of transience to Charlie.  But to Charlie’s consternation, everything about Will speaks to Charlie too.  He wants to protect him, make him safe, kiss him and so much more.  Lucky for Charlie, Will wants much the same from him.  Their quick bed room encounters start looking more like dates and their feelings for each other deepen even as they go unexpressed.  Both men must overcome their pasts before a new future can be written for them both.  Only time will tell if they are up to the challenge.

In a genre populated with stories of  instant love and relationships that just fall into place, Play It Again, Charlie is that gem of a novel where love is hard won, a relationship develops at a snail’s pace, and only after two totally different, difficult men learn to communicate. This novel is long, frustrating, irritating, illuminating, and so very satisfying at 370 pages.  Even more impressive, the story gets better with each subsequent read, as the reader is now familiar with the flow of the dialog and the reticence of it’s main character so that many qualities you might have missed the first time around now shine through even more brightly.  There are so many strengths to this book, it is hard to know where to start.

Cooper’s characters are the pillars upon which this story rests, and their shoulders are most definitely up to the task.  Each could have been a caricature but in Cooper’s hands, they thrive, breathe and grow into our hearts.  Charlie Howard is especially impressive.  There is so much depth to Charlie that clarity of character comes together only over a length of time.  The story is told from Charlie’s POV and when we meet him, Charlie is graying, his face lined from the ever present pain radiating out from his hip, his hair has gotten long due to lack of care, and the suits he wears to class present a formal ill-pressed exterior, complete with bad ties.  His injury forces him to leave the police force and his “cop social circle” behind and he retreats in isolation to his apartment.  Charlie take his responsibilities seriously and shoulders the weight of his family’s needs without complaint.  Repressed, honorable, and hurting.  Charlie is such a complex man that it is hard to get a feel for how he really looks to those around him, caught up in his own vision of himself. It’s Charlie’s self image that’s presented initially to the reader.  It’s not until William, “Will” as it were, comes into play, that we start to see Charlie as others do. Then a whole new portrait of the man is revealed, tall, handsome, firm, gentle, and partly Hispanic.  Charlie is that wonderful character that continues to reveal itself as the barriers he constructed peel away to give us an even more complex personality far more vulnerable that we had anticipated.

Will is that “twink persona” that is heartbreakingly beautiful in his insecurities, brash in his embrace of his sexuality, and charming in his endless enthusiasm for life.  Will is twenty nine when we meet him,although he comes across as much younger,  flitting from one temporary home to another, never really landing anywhere for long.  Even his business is run over the internet and is conducted at other peoples homes.  Kicked out of his house at the age of 16 by parents who refuse to accept his sexuality, Will has only his sister to fall back on.  Referred to more than once as “Holly Go Lightly”, that character is certainly applicable when it comes to Will. Will loves the old classic movies, preferably black and white with a cast that includes Humphrey Bogart.  Stylish and fragile, impetuous and flighty, he parties hard, works harder and has little time for permanence in relationships. He also comes with Daddy issues and a vast amount of insecurity regarding his lack of education and “smarts”.  But he watches Charlie from the balcony above as Charlie goes about his routine and something about Charlie calls to him, makes him want to push his way into “Sergeant Howard’s ” life in any way he can.  Will is immediately engaging, capturing our hearts along with our hopes for his happiness. Watching Will try to win over Charlie’s wary, grumpy cat speaks volumes about the character and we trust him with our affections.

Will is that perfect match for Charlie.  If Will is Holly Go Lightly, then Charlie is Linus Larrabee (that would be the Humphrey Bogart version, not the Harrison Ford one). Will has watched the movies.  Charlie has read the books they were based on.  Even their sexuality is yin to the other’s yang.  But what they really have in common is an inability to communicate their wants and hopes to each other.  Charlie is so reticent as to be non verbal at times, Will is his opposite, hiding his feelings and hopes behind constant chatter. Neither man is willing to risk the tentative stage they are at by talking to the other about what they really want to have in a relationship.  It is so frustratingly real, so irritatingly authentic that the reader is often left wanting to deliver a strong slap up the head to each by the end of a page or chapter. When you find yourself grinding your teeth as the characters prevaricate about their feelings, then you know the author has done an outstanding job.  R. Cooper does that outstanding job and then some.  I now feel the need for major dental work having finished the book twice.

There is some kink involved, but it is on the light side, and made wholly believable in the context.  Even the sexual side of their relationship lacks the communication they so badly need, as each starts assuming things about what the other wants and desires. Both men are as uncommunicative in bed as they are elsewhere, which makes complete sense given who they are. Insert another teeth grinding session.  Sometimes their dialog feels so intimate that reading it comes across almost voyeuristic in nature, so close do we feel to them both.  Everything about these men and their story will strike you as realistic, and uncompromisingly truthful.

Trust me when I say that this is a long, drawn out novel, but also trust me when I say it is wonderful, worthy of the time spent, and one you will remember and return to. This was the first book I have read by R. Cooper and now I will be searching out the rest.  Do not let this remarkable story pass you by.  Get it, curl up somewhere, and prepare to be transported into an unlikely love affair, worthy of Bogart and Bacall. or perhaps Audrey Hepburn.  Will never could make up his mind.

Cover is nice.  But Will’s hand needs a little polish, a little more sparkle.

Book available at Dreamspinner Press, Amazon and All Romance.