Review of But My Boyfriend Is (Florida series #4) by KA Mitchell

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Rating: 4.5 stars

Dylan was frantic as he raced to the hospital after getting a call saying his twin brother had been admitted.  Dylan and Darren has relocated to Central Texas primarily because of Darren’s attending college at UT and Dylan going to culinary school.  Now with Darren about to graduate and Dylan working as a chef, he had wondered about their future but never entertained the possibility of Dar being hurt.  And somehow he just knew it was all his fault.  Whenever something happened to Darren, it was because somehow, someway Dylan had screwed something up.  The person,  Mike Aurietta, who called him told Dylan that his brother had been attacked in Webber Park, a place notorious for gay hookups and Dylan felt sick inside.  Darren should never have been there.  It was Dylan who cruised there occasionally looking for some action but that didn’t make him gay.  Did it?   Because Dylan went out with girls, lots of them, it didn’t mean anything did it if the sex was more powerful with guys?  And now his brother lay in a hospital bed, the result of a gay bashing and Dylan just knew who the beating had been intended for.  It was meant for him and Darren got the whipping that should have been his.

Mike Aurietta had been taking an unplanned shortcut through Webber Park when he ran into the guys viciously attacking a man on the ground.  He did what he could to stop the attackers and called for help when they finally ran away.  Mike ended up going with the unconscious victim to the hospital and stayed to help any way he could.  Mike found the emergency numbers in the victim’s wallet, placed the calls he needed to and waited in the man’s  hospital room when they wheeled him into surgery.  What he was not prepared for  was to see the victim’s twin race into the room, demanding answers and the names of the people who attacked his brother.  Even in a rage, something about Dylan attracted Mike as no other man had done recently.  He explained what happened, his part in getting Darren to the hospital and before he realizes it, his good deed has turned into something quite complicated.

Dylan needs Mike’s help even though he hates to admit it.  And when his brother Aaron and his partner  Joey arrive to take Darren home to recuperate, then it’s not just Mike’s help he needs, but his friendship and the relationship  that is growing slowly between them.  But Mike is closeted because it is not possible to be gay and retain his job as a trainer for the college football team.  Being out is just not going to happen because he not only needs his job  but it is his only way to stay close to the sport and team he loves.  And Dylan?  Well, Dylan is just confused and angry that he is starting to feel something more than friendship for Mike because that might mean he really is gay.  And what would that do to his dreams of a family and kids?  As Dylan and Mike track down Darren’s attackers, the identity of one shakes Mike to the core.  It will wreck his carefully built closet and the new relationship with Dylan he has come to treasure, perhaps even more than his job.  And Dylan too must decide if he is ready to relinquish his childhood dream and admit that he is gay if he wants a possible future with Mike.

But My Boyfriend Is, KA Mitchell’s fourth story in the Florida series, follows two of my favorite books, one of which happens to be Collision Course, a must read for a majority of m/m romance fans. And those are some tough steps to follow but I believe Mitchell has certainly achieved her goal in giving us a great new addition to a series I treasure.  The central characters of But My Boyfriend Is are twins Dylan and Darren Williams, half brothers to  paramedic Aaron Chase and his partner Joey Miller (two of my favorite characters) who we met in Collision Course. All the brothers and their sisters came from a background of abuse, abandonment, and the foster care system that hurt more than helped.  Their father is still in prison for manslaughter.  And that has left a legacy on each member of the family in differing ways.  In Aaron and Dylan, it has made them quick to anger,  rage and pain hiding behind prickly, combative personalities that act as shields even from other members of their family.  While most people see Aaron and Dylan as jerks, Joey saw beneath the “asshole” personas they wore to the hurting, vulnerable people underneath.  But Dylan has always had his brother, his “mirror” image and they have shared everything, almost.

KA Mitchell’s characterizations are just wonderful, so good in fact that she has done too exemplary a job in establishing both Aaron’s and Dylan’s  jerk attitudes.  Because for some that is all that they see, Aaron and Dylan’s obnoxious behavior.  But she also clearly establishes the reason for their behavior and that the hurt and pains inflicted on them in childhood, first by their mother and then by the system, has continued to be the engine that drives their actions and mannerisms.  These are not cardboard characters but carefully crafted personas.  And that makes them not only believable but people we can empathize with.  I actually fell in love with the prickly Dylan, so like Aaron when we first met him, for obvious reasons.  He is so confused about everything going on in his life at the moment.  Darren is graduating and has not mentioned his plans to attend graduate school, obviously without his brother for the first time.  And that has traumatized Dylan.  He has never been without his brother close to him and feels lost at just the thought of Darren far away.  And his sexual attraction to men is growing however much Dylan doesn’t want to admit it.  The author gives us a terrific portrait of a young man heavy into denial when his world starts to shake apart.

Mike Aurietta is another complex closeted young man.  Definitely gay, he hides his sexuality because he understands the reality of being an out gay man in Texas would mean the end of his job and his association with UT football team, or any football team.  But his denial has cost him emotionally too, and we understand the consequences of his actions even as he does.  Aaron and Joey  are here as well, doing what they do so well.  Supporting each other even as Aaron’s fear manifests itself in yelling, and angry commands and Joey acts as the glue to hold him and the others together.  What is surprising is Darren and his attitude towards his brother.  Totally unexpected so I was unprepared for Darren and his behavior.  But as I said, their backstory has left heavy footprints over all of them and in Darren it  manifests itself in a far different manner than it does in Aaron or Dylan.  I thought KA Mitchell really gave the boys extra layers I was unprepared for here in this story.

But this is really Dylan and Mike’s story.  One of coming out and perhaps even growing up, letting go of old childhood dreams while establishing new ones for adulthood.  My only quibble is that I wanted  much more of Mike and Dylan and the rest of the family.  I want to know what happens to Darren as he recovers and goes to graduate school.  And of course, I always want more of Joey and Aaron, the heart of the Florida series.  I had a hard time with the rating for this book, swinging back and forth between 4.5 and 5 stars.  I am still not sure it doesn’t  deserve more.  I guess I will be rereading it again to figure it out.  If you have ever had a friend act like a jerk but continued to love them because you understood where they were coming from, this book is for you.  If you have the ability to look beyond the superficial actions and responses, to see the truth that lies underneath, this book is for you.  And if you love stories of people reaching their potential as human beings, coming out and going forward this book is for you.  But don’t take my word for it, read it for yourself.  I think you will be happy you did.

Here is the Florida series in the order they were written and should be read. Some are free stories that can be found at KA Mitchell’s website:

Diving In Deep (my least favorite but introduces Joey Miller)

Collision Course  #2 (all time favorite read) Aaron Chase and Joey Miller

Collision Course Christmas #2.1 free story

Collision Course Valentine #2.2 free story

No Souvenirs #3 Dr. Jae Sun Kim and Shane  McCormick (love them) deleted scene here

No News Is Good News #3.5 takes place right before But My Boyfriend Is – free story  This explains Aaron’s mood when he gets to the hospital. A must read to fully understand his mental state.

But My Boyfriend Is #4 Dylan Williams and Mike Aurietta

KA Mitchell’s website

Angela Waters is the cover artist.  Just beautiful. Book available from Samhain, Amazon, and All Romance.

Review: The Celestial by Barry Brennessel

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Rating: 5 stars

Life can be hard on a farm, especially if the only two full bodies people are yourself and your Ma.  Nineteen year old Todd Webster Morgan is acutely aware of this fact as he watches his Ma work from dawn to dusk just trying to make ends meet enough to support the two of them and her crippled younger brother returned from the war.  Uncle Ned fought for the losing side and came home with half his leg gone and his personality turned bitter and acrimonious. Todd Webster does what he can but there are no jobs to be found on the far outskirts of Sacramento where they live.  Then Uncle Ned mentions the money to be made mining for gold in the Sierra Nevadas and Todd Webster sneaks away in the dead of night determined to make enough money for them all.

But if Todd Webster Morgan thought life was tough before, he was unprepared for the realities of mining for gold high in the mountains.  Cold, dirty and hungry most of the time with little to show for it, Todd’s claim abuts that of a group of Irish miners with whom he has struck up a friendship with one of them.  One had to be wary of others all the time as claim jumpers and thieves were rampant as Todd knew all too well.  Then one night, tragedy struck the small encampment.  A celestial, as the Chinese are called, has been murdered on the mountain and Todd Webster’s friend accused of the killing.  In just one moment, everything goes wrong and soon Todd is running for his life. In the middle of all the confusion, another celestial comes to help Todd when he needs it the most and his name is Lao Jian. The two young men escape and start heading back towards Sacramento, running from anti Chinese sentiment, jumping box cars and escaping from robbers while finding love along the way.

The Celestial is an impressive and remarkable  story of a young man finding his way during life in California in the 1870’s.  Barry Brennessel skillfully brings to life an explosive period of time in American history through the characters of Todd Webster Morgan, his family, and his lover, Lao Jian.  We first meet up with Todd Webster Morgan on the mountain side high in the Sierra Nevadas where he and others are mining for gold and not having very much luck.  Brennessel’s vivid descriptions of the setting and the activities on the mountain make us feel the cold and misery of the campsite, the bad food and dirty conditions. Mining for gold was hard, back breaking work.  People have rushed out there to try their luck thinking their fortunes are assured only to lose all their money and sometimes their lives in the effort.  Claims for the land had to be filed and the paperwork in order as a claim was in danger of  being “jumped” and confiscated all the time.  Those that didn’t mine, preyed on the miners in a number of ways, looking to take their money. Far the the glamorous rumors of gold floating in the waters, the author paints a gritty portrait of miners barely surviving under close to intolerable conditions.   Over and over, throughout the book, Brennessel brings the era to life right before our eyes.  From the Chinatowns to the boarding houses Todd Webster rents a room in, we feel as much a part of the times as the characters. The author has clearly done his homework, from the tools to the laws yet n0t once does it come across as a history lesson. Just an outstanding example of historical writing at its best.

Barry Brennessel made another wonderful choice when he decided to tell the story from Todd Webster’s POV.  At nineteen years of age, Todd is “a man” as he often reminds others.  But to the reader his young age is still so readily apparent.  Todd misses his mother and uncle, and repeats his mother’s sayings often, especially when Todd Webster is trying to do the right thing by others.  Todd can still marvel at new sights before him yet still shoulder the burden of responsibility of someone older due to the times.I loved “seeing” each new town, experiencing it as Todd Webster and Lao Jian live it. Todd Webster (both of his first and middle names are important to him) has been frugal with his funds as he doesn’t spend it on drink and “hors” like the others on the mountain are doing. And he is advised to be quiet about the amount of money he has by his friend thereby giving us a very accurate picture of life on the mountain and the lawlessness of the area during those times.  These are  wonderful characters that populate this story. Lao Jian is as alive as Todd Webster, although we only see him from Todd’s perspective. Lao Jian’s quiet yet proud manner is a strong complement to Todd Webster’s somewhat impulsive prickly youthful attitude. It is easy to see what attracts them to each other, an attraction that grows into love along their journey. Everything about the characters seems “right”. Their speech, clothes and actions are grounded in history yet all come across as totally believable in every way.

Lao Jian and the other celestials we meet have been brought to America to work on the railroad and end up in camps on the outskirts of  town when their labor is no longer necessary.  The same arguments heard today over illegal aliens taking away jobs from those who “rightfully belong here” have their foundations, in part, laid out during this time period. Discrimination against the Chinese makes its impact felt as Lao Jian is barred from certain establishments and expected to ride outside of the stagecoach and we are as angry as Todd Webster over these actions.  Anti-Chinese sentiment was far spread in that region, the author skillfully brings to life the racial intolerance of the period but shows us the whole measure of the human response from outright hostility to indifference to those to filled buckets and formed lines to help put out the fires in Chinatown.

Barry Brennessel handles his characters sexuality with the same deft touch he displays throughout the book.  Todd Webster is aware that he doesn’t look or yearn for women the same as others do and at nineteen he is a virgin as much emotionally as he is physically.  Away from home, he starts to look at certain men differently without acting upon it.  That is until he meets Lao Jian.  Lao Jian is only slightly more experienced than Todd Webster and their first sexual advances towards each other is tentative and earnest.  Don’t expect any hot sexual scenes here.  What does happen between the two is more of the kisses, fumbling nature and the rest is “offstage” and private which is in keeping with the nature of these two.  Also in keeping with historical accuracy, the forbidden nature of their “sexual congress” is mentioned as is Todd Webster’s initial confusion over his sexuality.  But he comes to grip with it as Todd does everything else in his life and the way in which the relationship is handled  makes sense in every way.

I loved the ending of the book which culminates in letters written between Todd Webster and his mother, and then his correspondence with his great grandson.  Through the  letters, we learn of the changing times and the life Todd Webster Morgan and Lao Jian managed to achieve together.  I will admit to reading those last chapters several times, mostly with tears in my eyes and joy in my heart.  If I have a quibble with this book, it is that it passes all too quickly in 180 pages. Barry Brennessel packs a lot of life as well as history into this superlative story.  Do not pass this book by.  If you are not a fan of historical writing, this might make you one.  If you are one already, this book will climb to the top of the pile. This book was a Finalist, 2012 Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Literary Contest.  It deserves that recognition and so much more.

Cover: This cover by Winterheart Designs will be one of the best of the year.  Just outstanding from the design to the sepia tones.  Loved it.